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Being Mortal (2014) is a blend of memoir, research and comment, with a number of case studies which Gawande uses to make his point. The book’s subtitle, Illness, Medicine and What Happens in the End is a useful summary of the contents of the book but doesn’t give any clue to the emotional weight it carries, dealing as it does with death – which in this context is inevitably a reminder of one’s own death.

Gawande bases the book partly on his own experience as a surgeon. He says he learned little about aging or death in his medical course; learning how to deal with the problems of old age and dying had to be learnt first by experience and then by personal research. Thus he also draws on his experience as a son, and son-in-law. His parents, both medical doctors, migrated to America from India, so he never knew his grandparents. The first old person he really came to know was his wife’s grandmother, Alice. Over the course of the book, both Alice and his father get sick and die. This lived experience on his part adds considerable emotional depth to what otherwise might have been a colder, technical discussion.

Gawande is concerned with two related issues: the institutionalisation of the aged, and the medicalisation of death. He understands why families are no longer willing or able to look after their aging relatives, and indeed why aging relatives often seek independence from their children. But he abhors the regimentation many institutions impose on old people, supposedly for their own safety but often for institutional convenience; it saps purpose and hope from old people’s lives. Through several case studies, including that of Alice, he looks at some of the attempts to humanise institutions or find alternatives to institutional care, such as assisted living facilities. This latter was an attempt to meet the needs of old people for independence, rather than subjecting them to regimentation, even if it kept them safe. Though initially successful, he admits that with the proliferation of assisted living facilities, the concept has been weakened, and regimentation, being cheaper, has crept back in.

But no matter how independent old people are able to be, there comes a time when illness, or failing health due to old age, shunt us into the medical system. Where once people died at home, without much medical intervention, they now (at least in the Western world) mostly die in hospital after sometimes lengthy medical intervention has run its course. At what point is hospital necessary? And more importantly, how should doctors treat people who are near death but not yet terminal? This is perhaps even more of a problem for younger people with terminal diseases than for older people, as one of Gawande’s case studies shows. He argues that doctors are trained to solve medical problems, so favour treatment options which may prolong life, even if they reduce quality of life. He considers that medical professionals are very good at offering options for treatment, but very bad at explaining to patients and their families the options for not treating. He acknowledges it can be very difficult to decide when treatment does not offer reasonable hope. Even when patients have specified they don’t want to be resuscitated, the decision to withdraw treatment can be difficult and relatives often press doctors for further procedures against the patient’s wishes, such is the faith in medical science.

While he does not suggest there are easy solutions to such dilemmas, Gawande, from his own experience and research, advocates home hospice care for people who are terminally ill. Hospice care – called palliative care in Australia –  involves provision of pain relief or other medication to ease suffering, but not usually other forms of treatment. But the first step is to find out what the patient really wants, which in turn involves talking about their death. What is important to them? Is being with family and friends more important than living a little longer in hospital? Gawande touches briefly on euthanasia, which is legal in three American states, concluding that while people are comforted by knowing it is available, few use it. He clearly prefers the home hospice alternative, and studies have shown that people may in fact live longer using it than they would have in hospital. His case studies, however, including that of his father, show that no option works smoothly, without pain to the patient or their relatives and friends.

I noted that all the case studies Gawande uses are of people with loving families or concerned friends. Spouses are willing to help their terminally ill partners with daily routines and to make accommodations to all their needs. But what of those without such support of whom there must be many? Furthermore, few people can afford to pay for the personal home care old and frail people require. Institutional care may be their only option. It is not clear in the book how care or treatment is paid for. Most of the forms of care Gawande describes are private, though some appear to be state-subsidised. Indeed, how Gawande has dealt with funding is the only issue on which his book disappointed me. He does acknowledge that being well off means being able to afford better care both in terms of accommodation and medical treatment. But the vast discrepancy in health care between the rich and the poor in America is not discussed, and nor is the growing disparity between the life expectancy of rich and poor Americans.

Gawande’s plea that we think about our own deaths, and discuss our wishes with family and friends is relevant to everyone. But it is particularly relevant to older people like me. I found Gawande’s perfectly correct insistence that old people get ill and die a bit depressing, though challenging. Would what seems like common sense – that quality of life and imminent death are preferable to longer life but extended suffering – look the same when the choice has to be made? But there is also hope in the book that we can retain our right to choose the best death possible.

You can read more about Gawande’s writing, surgery and research here on his web-site.

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The full title of Don Watson’s The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia (2014) is truly revealing of all the questions he asks in this book. First there is the matter of ‘the bush’ itself, which Watson shows can mean anything from not-the-city, through landscapes such as scrub, grassland, mallee, rainforest or any specific remnant of the pre-European countryside. The nature of Watson’s ‘bush’ is in the eye of the beholder; it is a cultural creation. Then there is the sub-title, which is both literally and metaphorically accurate. Watson travels throughout Australia – inland, into its heart – visiting people and places and telling their stories. But the book is also a journey in the sense of an exploration of people’s different cultural understandings – both past and present – of the bush, of the values that it encapsulates and their place – for better or worse – at the heart of Australian society today.

This is not a ‘start at the beginning and go on to the end’ book. As Watson says, ‘Readers will soon find this story straying all over the place, as the bush does, as I did’. It does start with Watson’s childhood on a dairy farm in East Gippsland, and ends with him living at Mt Macedon, an hour out of Melbourne. But in between, each chapter is to a degree random – swagmen here, pesticides there, and Major Mitchell thrown in for good measure. But there are themes running throughout which give shape and form to Watson’s meditation. These, addressed in no particular order, include the Aboriginal relationship with the bush before European invasion, Aboriginal dispossession – there seems to be reference to a massacre in nearly every chapter- European attitudes to the bush, the struggles of settlers, the degradation of the land by farming and pastoralism and the hold the bush has over Australians’ idea of themselves.

Watson is remarkably fair in his discussion of these themes. Perhaps because of his own rural background, he understands the pride settlers took in ‘civilising’ the bush and making it productive in European terms. ‘Good human lives were lived where the forest had been, enterprise was rewarded, the fellowship of men and women flourished, history was recorded. The bush we know would not exist if we had not cut it down.’ On the other hand, he is fully aware of the costs this enterprise had for Aboriginal people, for the plants, birds and animals, both native and introduced, that were destroyed along the way and the ultimate environmental damage white settlement has caused. He recognises all the good and socially useful values fostered by life in the country, but is equally aware of the narrow, anti-intellectual cast of mind it also produced. He talks about some of the attempts to reverse the degradation of the land, as well as the foolish rejection of expert advice about the effects of a warming climate. And he is fully aware, as anyone reading this book must be, that the civilised benefits we now enjoy were made possible by the destruction of Aboriginal society and the natural environment. ‘In the plainest terms,’ he writes, Australians would not be who they are – and would not know themselves – if they had not fought the war with nature. The same is true of the war fought with Aborigines’. All the while reading the book I felt the truth of this; my own ancestors were among those clearing – or destroying – the bush, the creatures, and quite possibly the people – who had lived there.

The sense of melancholy versus the sense of optimism which the book engenders feeds into the dispute between the left and right of politics about what are Australia’s central values. This dispute, commonly known as the ‘history wars’, involves an argument over whether Australia’s history post colonisation offers a bleak vision of destruction of people and environment, as opposed to a triumphalist one of successful white settlement. Watson addresses the central issue in this war; that of national identity. He looks at the ‘Australian Legend’, the idea that the virtues of mateship, solidarity, egalitarianism and disdain for authority were born in the bush and became part of the Australian national character. While the legend was initially part of a radical vision, it has more recently been appropriated by conservatives who have elevated the bush ethos into the ‘national interest’, and gloss over the racism, narrow mindedness and anti-intellectualism that are the other side of the coin. Russel Ward, who described – or -possibly conjured up – this legend, concedes that ‘It is not so much the bushman’s actual nature that matters, as the nature attributed to him by so many men of the day.’ Watson would agree; the bushmen he describes were honest, hardworking, lazy, drunken, idealist, mad and foolish in the same proportion as anyone anywhere else in Australia. ‘It is possible that for every couple of bushmen who chose to be mates’ he writes,’ half a dozen others had mateship thrust upon them.’ His judgement, finally, is even-handed; he gives both to the bleak and triumphal. ‘Along with steady, sometimes near miraculous progress, the record includes not only follies, but repeat offences and incalculable lost opportunities. The mistakes were so many and so devastating in their consequence we have to remind ourselves sometimes that the story overall is one of triumph: over formidable, indifferent, inscrutable nature; over all kinds of hardship, including the self-inflicted kind; over ignorance, fashion and dogma.’

Of the bush, Watson says ‘we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again’. At his home at Mount Macedon, he does not try to recreate the ‘original’ bush, which would indeed be impossible because the bush was never static. Instead, his motto seems to be ‘whatever works’, in his case a mixture of local plants, plants from elsewhere in Australia and introduced plants, chosen with an eye for their fire-retardant properties.’ This balance of local and imported vegetation can stand as a metaphor for the subtle complex of meanings Watson has woven in this book. Dip into it.

You can read more about Don Watson here. Or you might like his book There It Is Again: Collected Writings(2018).

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I admire J.K. Rowling. I love the way she uses her fame to support social justice causes and to call out sexism and racism; see for example her tweets lambasting Donald Trump. After a tentative start with the first couple of Harry Potter books, I enjoyed the series. (Everyone loves the Harry Potter books, but I think they improved as they went along.) I am also very much enjoying Rowling’s crime series written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith; here’s my review of the first one. But The Casual Vacancy? Not so much.

This book (2012), the first she wrote after the Potter books, belongs in the category of adult social comedy, though like many books so categorised, it is certainly not funny unless you like you humour very black. It is set in Pagford, a small, post-card-perfect town in the West Country. The town is run by an elected Parish Council (a local government term, nothing to do with the church). The Council is also responsible for the maintenance of a rather squalid housing estate, known as The Fields, just outside the town; it is largely inhabited by welfare recipients. The Council is divided between those who believe that the residents of The Fields benefit from their association with Pagford, and those who want to be rid of any responsibility for them. The casual vacancy on the Council arises when one of the elected representatives, Barry Fairbrother, a keen supporter of The Fields, dies suddenly, leading to a bitter campaign between the two factions to fill the vacancy.

There is a large cast of characters; Wikipedia lists twenty main ones, rather too many in my view, making it hard, at least initially, to remember who is who. While the main plot centres on the battle over the vacancy, all the characters have their own stories, for most part concerning relationships between husbands, wives, partners and friends, and parents, their children and their friends. And there is not a really happy person amongst them.

I have no idea what her intentions were, but to me this book reads as if Rowling, having written only children’s books up to this time (albeit wildly successful children’s books), decided to show she could write about people in ways other than the black and white characterisations we find in the Harry Potter stories. With this in mind, she makes sure that almost every character has both good and characteristics, motivations or actions. This of course reflects reality. The problem I have is that she pretty much emphasises the various ways in which the characters are unpleasant to each other, to the point I found it hard to much like anyone in the book. This undermined my enthusiasm for reading on, and after the account of a particularly miserable dinner party about half way through, I started skipping to find out what happened, rather than seeking to understand the situation of all the characters. A member of my book group thought Rowling was perhaps challenging the reader to go beyond initial dislike and look more deeply at the human condition, but if so, I failed the test.

Some characters have no redeeming features at all, like the Chair of the Council, Howard Mollison, and his wife Shirley. Theirs is not a Voldemort take-over-the world-style evil; it is petty malice, snobbery and racism expressed through gossip and inuendo – a distinction I expect Rowling was consciously making. Others, like their daughter-in-law Samantha have some redeeming features, whereas others again, like Kay Bawden, are basically good, though with insecurities and terrible judgement that get in the way of happiness. Of the five teenagers who play a significant role, four – Krystal, Andrew, Sukhvinder and Gaia – are kids trying to find their way in varyingly difficult circumstances. But Stuart, aka Fats, with his possibly realistic but nevertheless nasty lack of empathy, his calculating selfishness and his self-justifying glorification of a warped existentialism, seems to me to have little going for him. Only Barry Fairbrother, dead by page 4, seems to have been a genuinely nice person, and even then his wife resented the time he spent helping other people. (His grief-stricken wife and children seem more or less ok too.)

As you would expect from Rowling’s juxtaposition of Pagford and The Fields, the book touches on a number of social issues including racism, addiction, theft, domestic violence, rape and child neglect. And the writer being who she is, it is not surprising that while residents of Pagford might like to think that these are issues only in The Fields, they are also issues in middle class Pagford, though manifested in somewhat different ways. Class is also an issue; I was a little surprised that Rowling emphasised the class difference between the Pagford and The Fields residents so starkly in the language they use – standard English versus lumpen argot – but maybe this is an accurate representation of reality. And if the poor characters come off worse, then that’s a reflection of reality too. Given the complexity of these issues, and the minefield of personal relationships between the characters, it’s not really surprising that there isn’t a happy ending for any of them; for some there is tragedy, deserved or undeserved, while for others there is the merest vestige of hope.

It’s a long book. I think it might have benefitted from some judicious editing. I preferred some of the Harry Potter films to the books because the films were rather more condensed, and the same may well be true here. Fans of the book – and there are many – can point out that every character has important interactions with other characters, so none could be left out. And I do agree that underneath the verbiage Rowling weaves a very good plot. This is her great strength; she engaged me so that I certainly wanted to know what was going to happen, even if I finished up not reading every word. But books I really like I know I’ll read again, and this won’t be one of them.

You can read more about the book – its characters and plot, and its critical reception – here. You can read more about J.K. Rowling here. The Casual Vacancy was made into a three-part TV series in 2015.

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Lynne Kelly is a science communicator and teacher. This book (2016) is essentially her PhD thesis, but also an account of her journey to understand the scope and importance of the insights she has gained into the uses of memory in non-literate cultures. Beginning from an interest in the stories told by Indigenous Australians about animals, Kelly developed a theory of memory use by non-literate cultures across the globe.

Kelly starts by explaining the breadth and depth of knowledge that existed in non-literate cultures. Societies that were to any degree nomadic required knowledge of where to find water and edible plants. They needed knowledge of the habits of animals and how to hunt them. They needed to know the forms of the land, the weather, and the seasons. They needed to know their ancestors and their founding myths, who they were, and where they came from, who they could marry and who they could not. They needed to know the terms and conditions of trade. They needed to know secular and ceremonial songs and dances. As hunting and gathering gave way to settled farming, some of the same information was still crucial, but there was further information needed about tools were made and much, much more. How on earth did they remember all this?

She then expands on her theory that people in non-literate cultures used systematic memory aids. Those in nomadic cultures, like Australian Aborigines, who moved about in the landscape, developed what are known in Australian ethnography as song lines, physical and mental maps of the landscape where specific features acted as aids to memory, not just for direction, but for layers of meaning about time and place, seasons, the stars, ancestors, kinship, hunting and so on. Aboriginal people also carried portable memory aids, small objects often marked with abstract patterns, which were understood by those initiated into certain levels of understanding. Kelly establishes that memory spaces equivalent to song lines and portable memory devices existed across a range in quasi nomadic cultures.

A major change in the form of memory aids came about, Kelly argues, when quasi nomadic groups began to settle into farming communities. As they no longer routinely travelled long distances, the ‘song line’ model no longer suited their needs. Instead, they began to build memory spaces near their settling communities. She argues that while some archaeologists claim agriculture freed up time for people to build monuments, she believes the reverse is true: that ‘people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle’. These monuments usually took the form of standing stones or wooden pillars, arranged in precise patterns; there were also mounds, passage cairns and long barrows. Each stone or pillar represented a body of knowledge. Some also encoded the seasonal calendar. Kelly argues further that access to knowledge was restricted to initiated groups, with a hierarchy of knowledge held by a hierarchy of elders, on a continuum from public knowledge to highly restricted knowledge. In line with this, memory sites had both public and restricted areas; the public areas were for performance of songs and dances, and the restricted areas were for restricted performance and higher-level initiation into knowledge. Kelly argues that  societies creating such monuments were relatively egalitarian; the labour to build the memory spaces, which involved huge numbers of man hours, appears to have been freely given, and any elite burials found at such sites ,ie where grave goods have been have been part of the burial, appear chronologically later in the history of the site, and often not at all. This suggests, she says, that knowledge, rather than wealth or military power, animated the societies that built the memory spaces. Wealth and might came later, superseding knowledge, and the memory spaces gradually fell into disuse.

Kelly then goes on to look in detail at a number of memory spaces which she believes fit this pattern. The best known (to me, anyway) are Stonehenge and the standing stones and earthworks around Avebury. Similar monuments also exist in Brittany. But comparable memory spaces, can, she says, also be found in Orkney, and in Ireland. Then, perhaps more surprisingly, she uses examples from the Americas, suggesting that the creation of these memory spaces is a natural human reaction, rather than a learnt one, as these cultures can not have had any contact with the European ones. I found these sections of the book particularly interesting as I was completely ignorant of these cultures.

So it she right? She certainly assembles a convincing array of archaeological evidence, as well as the little remaining oral evidence from descendants of those who used the memory spaces. Earlier archaeologists tended to see the sites she describes in religious terms, and to label any portable items as ritualistic. Kelly suggests the emphasis on religion is a reflection of modern concerns for which there is not much archaeological evidence. She writes, for example, that attempts ‘to marry the actions of non-literate cultures to behaviours in contemporary Western religions acted as a barrier to understanding these complex sites’. She agrees that the chanting and dance that she believes were characteristic of the memory spaces did have a spiritual or aesthetic side, but sees much of it as the promulgation of practical information – though she would argue that knowledge was holistic, containing layers of complexity that could combine all these elements. I certainly find her argument convincing.

As a book, I did find it a bit repetitious in places; she perhaps overdoes the need to hammer home her argument in the simplest of terms. I would also have liked a coherent argument about the earlier misinterpretation of the sites she describes. I also question her use of the term egalitarian for the societies she is describing; they were clearly hierarchical to a considerable degree, though not necessarily rigidly so. I think it likely that there were ordained roles, some granted more respect than others. She is not able to talk much about whether there were gendered roles, though there probably were; one example she gives is from Pueblo culture where men used a coded language that ‘women would not be able to understand’. For me, the saddest thing is that we can’t know: the content of most of the knowledge is gone beyond recall. It is particularly sad that this is true for much of the culture of Indigenous Australians, despite their tenacious efforts to hold onto what they can.

Kelly says she has tried using memory spaces herself, with considerable success. I thought also of historian Tony Judt’s memoir, Memory Chalet, which is based on the same technique.  I don’t think I can manage it though.

You can read more about Lynne Kelly here.

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Unreliable Memoirs was first published in 1980 and I read it around that time. It was reissued in 2015, which is perhaps how my book club came across it. Back in the 1980s, it was memorable if for no other reason than that my husband could not read it aloud without almost crying with laughter. So I was very interested to see what I thought after all this time.

The book covers James’s life in Australia from his birth in 1939 to his arrival in England in 1962, that is, his early childhood, school and university years. Brought up mostly in the Sydney working class suburb of Kogarah, he chronicles a list of the sort of small doings, disasters, passions and friendships that make up a young person’s life.  In his introduction to the 2015 reissue of the book, P.J. O’Rourke claims that James ‘by a wild act of exaggeration’ makes his experience universal. ‘He takes the yeast of his memory and plants it in the bread dough of ours’. Yes, James does capture the insecurities of childhood, the friends won and lost, the battle to become independent. But it doesn’t feel at all relevant to my childhood experience – even less so than it did when I read it thirty years ago. And I’m afraid I no longer find much of it funny.

What James aims to do is to lift his experience out of the ordinary and into the realms of legend through humour. His two main techniques are exaggeration and bathos. He does warn us about the exaggeration, making an overstated joke about the whole idea of memoir: ‘Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel’. At the end, he writes: ‘Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.’ You can find examples of exaggeration like this on just about every page. Testing showed he had a high IQ, so he was sent to a school with an advanced curriculum, where ‘One boy with bifocals would be turning an old washing machine into a particle accelerator’. Instead of turning a forward summersault over him, a large girl drove him into the floor ‘like a tack’. The best swimmer in his school ‘trained about a hundred miles a day’. He is also keen on bathos. When his grandfather dies, James ponders whether he ‘died in a redemptive ecstasy after being vouchsafed a revelation of the ineffable’, but concludes ‘he just croaked’. This descent from the sublime to the ridiculous is carried throughout by James’s comparisons with people and places in Kogarah with writers or characters from high culture as in ‘I suppose if I had been John Stuart Mill’. He compared his liking for The Saturday Evening Post with ‘the way Turgenev felt about the emblem book he wrote of to Bakunin’. The juxtapositions are clever, but seem designed to let his audience know that he isn’t really as ignorant as he presents himself as being. Does the humour work? Not really. I still find the exaggeration and bathos funny sometimes, but more often the humour he draws out of the incidents he describes is that of cruelty and humiliation. Why is it funny to smash up a neighbour’s prized garden? Or disrupt a ballet performance? Or take part in what sounds remarkably like gang rape?

James was brought up by his mother, his father having been killed in a plane crash when being repatriated from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. I can’t help feeling sorry for his long-suffering mother. We do not get a clear picture of her; James doesn’t even tell us she worked in a factory to support them. It’s all about him. Even allowing for the exaggeration, he must have been a difficult child, anxious and needing constant reassurance and a terrible show off. He presents himself as the leader in many of the incidents he describes, but always seems to be courting popularity. As he notes towards the end of the book, ‘excessive conceit and defective self-esteem are often aspects of each other’. It’s true his older self shows some self-awareness; he is ‘too spoilt to profit from disappointment’; he has ‘cocksure ignorance’; and he ‘rather liked the idea of being thought of as a shit – a common conceit among those who don’t realise just how shitty they really are’. He must have had considerable charisma – how else at university did he break so easily into not only the North shore cool set but student intelligentsia as well? But knowing that he played the clown out of insecurity does little to make the self he describes more likeable; his self-assurance seems to have been accompanied by an absence of empathy.

One of the questions I had in re-reading the book is how well James had dealt with sexism. The answer is badly. Of course, growing up in the 1950s, the young James couldn’t be expected to do anything other than accept the norms of his time, where girls were almost without exception seen as sex objects by boys. As well as the gang rape of the ‘town bike’, we get a whole chapter on James’s love affair with his ‘prong’, and the way he transferred his interest from the boy down the road to girls. But might the older James write about this in a way that suggests he thinks differently? No. Take for example ‘the Libertarians freely helped themselves to each other’s girlfriends’. At one level this is a joke about Libertarians and free love. But at another, it reveals James’s sexism; clearly girls couldn’t be Libertarians, merely their appendages. He’s not writing as someone immersed in childhood; his bathetic juxtapositions show that. Writing in the 1980s, he should have known better.

I should also admit that any youthful affection I felt for James has been tarnished by his rejection of climate science in favour of a smart-ass scepticism. According to his Wikipedia page, he identifies as a liberal social democrat, but many of his views are now conservative. It’s hard to know whether he just enjoys swimming against the tide – though which tide is unclear – or whether he has come to share the views of his rich and famous friends. He has made a very successful career by being a very clever clown. However I note that he also has real literary and scholarly achievements to his credit.  It’s worth having a look at his website – http://www.clivejames.com/ – which is his attempt to put ‘a lifetime’s experience as a cultural critic to a new use, and so offer a critical guide, through the next medium, to works of thought and art by other people, and sometimes in other eras. The only criterion for inclusion would be intensity of expression, with the aim of creating, in this latterday Babelic flux we call the web, an island of quality where every word is meant, and every image meaningful.’ Now that he’s dying of chronic lymphoid leukemia, I don’t think he’s trying to be funny anymore.

Here’s a rather different view of James.

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Published in 2008, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. And deservedly so in my opinion. I recently reviewed the 2014 winner – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – and this one is, if not a better book, then without some of the flaws that made Tartt’s book so frustrating at times.

I also recently wrote that I preferred books with a strong narrative thread. It is obviously foolish to generalise in this way, because this book does not have a strong narrative thread, and the structure still works well. It is essentially thirteen interconnected short stories, a form that allows both sustained development of character and setting, and the quick insight of short stories. Olive Kitteridge, her husband Henry and to a lesser extent their son Christopher are the main characters in seven of the stories; Olive’s role in the other six varies from significant to just a mention. The two in which she has only a mention are perhaps the weakest links of the thirteen, lacking the connection the Kitteridge family gives to the whole . With one exception, when Olive goes to New York to visit her son, they all take place in the small town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine; the book presents a slice of small town American life, as well as a portrait of Olive from mother of a young child to a 74 year old widow. No dates are specifically mentioned, but the sequence begins when Christopher is quite young, in perhaps the 1970s, and ends during the presidency of George W Bush. We know this because Olive is concerned about ‘another’ terrorist attack and is horrified to find that someone she is getting know and like voted Republican.

The stories all deal with events of everyday life in families and the community. People go to work, plant tulips, have breakfast at the marina, walk their dog. They are faithful or unfaithful to their partners, good friends or sometimes not. They gossip. They have people over for tea. Underlying these ordinary activities are the themes of public and private grief, loneliness, aging and death – though not all who die are old. In several of the stories there is some sort of betrayal. This makes the book sound depressing, but it isn’t. I think this is because of Strout’s humanity; she shows deep empathy with all her characters and their situations, even the unpleasant ones – and that includes Olive at times. Ultimately Strout seems to be suggesting that people do what they can to cope with life. Olive knows that things aren’t fair: ‘Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right’. But she ‘had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life had increasingly become’. And Olive does ultimately does find some comfort. The prevailing tone is bitter-sweet.

The book begins with Henry, a good and kind man, looking back at the joys and sorrows of his life as the town pharmacist and husband of Olive, who teaches maths at the local junior high school. After this, the Kitteridge family chapters are dominated by Olive’s point of view. She is anything but good and kind; she is often combative and angry, her judgements harsh. She is as one critic says, both fierce and thwarted’ .People are morons, simpletons, snot-wats. As she later acknowledges, she never says sorry. But we also see a different side of her; her humour, her love of people, her acute self-awareness and her a concern for others. In several of the other stories she is a source of comfort.

Strout’s empathy is amplified by the form of her writing. She uses ‘free indirect speech’, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. At her son’s wedding, for example, Olive ‘drops her gaze so as to avoid getting stuck in one more yakkety conversation’. The use of ‘yakkety’ is very much Olive’s word, as is the word ‘ridiculous’ in ‘The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor’, though both are narrative statements. We are seeing the world from in this case Olive’s perspective. This means Strout never takes an authorial overview which can make use of a wry or sardonic perspective to deprecate a character or point of view*. There is no satire in the writing but what the characters impart; mostly there is an honest realism about people’s feelings and relationships, even when they are deluding themselves, or hiding their feelings behind polite nothings. This, coupled with the small town environment, might make it sound like the writing is folksy, but it isn’t. There is the bitter as well as the sweet.

In 2014 a mini-series of four episodes based on the book were shown on American TV to universal acclaim. I hope they didn’t glamourise Olive too much. In the book she is large and not particularly attractive; it is part of what makes her a compelling character. The Wikipedia entry on the min-series describes Olive as ‘misanthropic’ so I guess it doesn’t. Her part is played by Frances McDormand, who won various prizes for her acting and also co-produced the series, so hopefully it was well done. It was shown in Australia (but not free-too-air) in 2015. You can read more about the mini-series here, and about Elizabeth Strout and her work here.

 

*I don’t mean it is a bad thing to have a satirical authorial voice – some of my favourite books and all that – it’s just that the free indirect speech give a different result.

 

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Questions of Travel (2012) won the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 2013, and has been highly praised by many reviewers – see for example this long review in the Sydney Review of Books, or this one from Frank Moorhouse in the Guardian. I read it for my book club, and though there are things to like in it, overall I found reading it a chore. Why don’t I respond to it like the judges and reviewers?

I can’t write about this book without disclosing important aspects of the story, so it’s a case of spoiler alert, though the book isn’t plot driven and other reviewers seem to have no qualms in revealing much of what happens. You’d probably call its form picaresque, a term I recall from English 101 many years ago, in the sense that it’s a series of loosely connected episodes. De Krester describes this form of writing as ‘like walking down a corridor and you find a niche in the wall or a door might be open and you can go into a room or peer in, and sometimes the door is closed but you know there is a space in there’. The book follows the lives of Laura Fraser and Ravi Mendis over about forty years, in more or less alternating chapters. In the first half, Laura leaves Australia to travel, living in Naples and London; Ravi lives in Shri Lanka. In the second half, Laura returns to Sydney and gets a job with a company that publishes travel guides. Ravi comes to Australia on a tourist visa and seeks asylum after the politically motivated murder of his wife and child in Shri Lanka.  He works for a time at the same company as Laura, though the pair scarcely know each other.  Along the way are many people and places, some social satire – which I don’t find very funny – and some tragedy, which is truly tragic.

The judges and reviewers are right that the book reflects on major aspects of Australian life. The experience of living in Sydney runs throughout the second half of the book for both characters, though of course they experience it in different ways. The harbour, the bridge, Waverley Cemetery, Sydney’s weather are all lovingly evoked. Laura’s life seems dominated by a series of unsatisfactory sexual relationships, which aren’t distinctively Australian, but Ravi’s experience as a refuge in Australia does throw light on important issues. De Krester says she didn’t want to make Ravi, as the refugee, all good, and Australians all racist; his situation is indeed much more nuanced. He does experience racism, both visceral and casual – how can he claim to be a refugee if he wasn’t in detention? – but he also experiences kindness and support. This is a subject well worth exploring.

But more than the book’s specific Australian content, its theme – as you might expect from the title – is travel, away from and towards Australia and Shri Lanka; ‘travel of all kinds: colonial expansion and its postcolonial manifestations, migration, exile, tourism’, as one reviewer notes. The book is dotted with clever little aperçu about tourists and travel: ‘Time after time Laura would learn that she had missed the moment; to be a tourist was always to arrive too late’. Tourists from the former Easter bloc countries were ‘serious, appreciative and archaic: travellers for whom the link between travel and holiness still held’. ‘The twentieth century was best represented by an unwilling traveller … people who don’t belong where they end up and long for places where they did.’ ‘There’s no past in tourism. It’s one thing after another.’ ‘Tourists see invisible things.’ When tourism promoters try to give customers an ‘authentic’ experience it is written off as ‘spectacle and show’. And producing travel guides removes all romance. At the end of the book, Ravi returns to Shri Lanka because he doesn’t want to be ‘a tourist in his own country’, even though he has been granted asylum in Australia and faces possible death in Shri Lanka. And Laura travels to Shri Lanka to get away from her life in Sydney; both arrive on the day of the 2004 tsunami and an unknown fate. I guess de Krester wants us to see both sides of travel. Here is how she sums it up:

Travel connects us to the world and brings us closer to other cultures … But it’s possible to spend a very pleasant three weeks in another country and come away with no idea of what life is really like for people who live there. The native lives in history and there is no suspension of knowledge, but as a tourist you do have access to wonder.

Reviewers have commented at some length on de Krester’s prose, which is sometimes unashamedly lyrical, full of what one reviewer calls ‘baroque flourishes’. Her Atlantic Ocean is ‘slow as a slattern that smears its grey rags along the shore’. Australians ‘succumb to chicken parmigiana and to sex’. ‘Surfers with eyes like blue fish.’ Sydney ‘squinted over its brown back at Africa, at India.’ In Melbourne, ‘the balloon-like faces of people dressed in black float down laneways’. I agree that the water imagery – beginning on page 1 with Laura almost being drowned by her brothers and ending in the last with her probably being drowned by a tsunami, give structure to the story it otherwise lacks. This is fine if you like this sort of thing – which can only be appreciated in retrospect- but for me there are just too many words. In other places her tone is satirical, but I seem to detect a note of superiority in the unkind humour. The thought she gives to Laura about Australian literature – that ‘She approached Sydney gingerly in fiction. Was it really up to literature, even the Australian kind? … What if the performance came over as provincial and amateurish, or blustering and self-important?’ – is simply smart-ass. And having Laura vote informal at an election without apparent interest in or knowledge of politics? Too cool for school.

It’s always difficult when I fail to enjoy a book that judges and reviewers have found extremely rewarding. Am I failing to appreciate fine writing? Making facile judgements? Or is it a matter of taste? I think I found the book difficult to read for two reasons. First, I don’t really like the picaresque form. I prefer a clear narrative thread. I can’t keep track of all the characters; on the odd occasion that someone turns up from the past, I’m scrabbling to remember who they are. Characters fall out of the story. The incidents, more particularly in Laura’s case, don’t add up to anything, and are fundamentally unmemorable. Perhaps life is like that. But it doesn’t make for pleasurable reading.

The second reason is that I can’t engage with either of the main characters. I know you don’t have to like characters to find them compelling. And as I noted above, de Krester wants her characters to be realistically flawed. But above all they do have to be interesting, and as far as I’m concerned, Laura isn’t. Despite the occasional flashes of self-knowledge she is allowed, she is self-centred and entitled, her travel is drift, her relationships are superficial, her lack of desire to do anything with her life is pathetic. No doubt there are people like this, but I don’t want to read about them. Up to the point where he loses his wife and child I felt much the same about Ravi. The numbness with which he is inflicted afterwards is no doubt realistic; it presumably explains his often perverse behaviour, though his thought processes remain obscure to me. By the end, I didn’t much care what happened to him, though in his case, I’m probably more frustrated than bored with him.

But probably the overall reason I didn’t like the book was that it didn’t offer me any hope. De Krester seems happier mocking than affirming. There were people that she presented as good and kind, but they were outweighed by those she chose to present as selfish and shallow. The message the main characters portrayed was one of misery and emptiness. Her vision may be true to what I read in the daily press, but I look for something a bit more inspiring in literature.

You can read the very little there is on Wikipedia about Michelle de Krester here. Most of the quotes from her above come from this interview. I note that she has a new book, The Life to Come being released this October. I read that it eschews ‘conventional narrative structure’ and is ‘beautifully elliptic’, so it’s probably not for me, even though it is reported to be ‘ultimately hopeful’.

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