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Like many of Ian McEwan’s books, Sweet Tooth (2012) is a story with a twist. For better or worse, before reading it I saw a review which unconscionably gave away that twist. This means I didn’t read the book in the way the writer intended; I already had knowledge that put a different slant on things. I’m not going to reveal the twist, but it may be that my reading is a bit perverse because of knowing it. I did wonder if the reviewer gave away the twist because it made the book more interesting to write about. If so, I can see there may be some excuse for this; the twist means there are a whole series of double meanings which give a sardonic humour to the story. Yet you can’t pick up on the double meanings unless you know the twist, read the book twice, or have far better recall than I do. But even though these double meanings are clever, knowing what’s to come meant I didn’t find the story compelling.

Sweet Tooth is billed as a spy story, but even trying to think about it without foreknowledge of the twist, it lacked for me the interest, let alone the high tension of good spy novels like Le Carré’s. In the late 1960s, beautiful young Serena Frome goes to Cambridge to study mathematics because her mother wants her to. She spends most of her time reading fiction and doesn’t get a good degree, but enjoys various affairs, the most important being with a History tutor, who is much older than she is. He gets her an interview with MI5, who take her on. Most of the work she (and other female graduates with much better degrees) gets to do is purely clerical. But because of her knowledge of fiction, she is given the task of vetting an author who MI5 think might fit into an operation they have named Sweet Tooth. Believing that much of the literature and commentary of the time is left-leaning, they want to subsidise, through a compliant Foundation, authors that might be critical of communism and the Eastern bloc – rather similar to the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. She is sent as a representative of the Foundation to interview the writer, a university lecturer named Tom Haley. He is pleased to accept the stipend offered because he wants to write without having to spend most of his time teaching. But Serena and Tom find they are mutually attracted. Furthermore, one of her colleagues is also jealously attracted to her. What could possible go wrong? The story is helped along by a minor twist concerning her Cambridge lover, with the major twist coming at the end.

Of course even without the twist – though the novel is inconceivable without it – there is much more to the book than a genre-style spy story. (I was amused to note that McEwan has adopted some of Le Carré’s spy jargon, with ‘the watchers’, a ‘honey trap’ and the ‘fifth floor’. I’m sure he’s being deliberately referential.) There is the usual clever if somewhat facile characterisation, achieved with minimum fuss; you can for example perfectly visualise Serena’s parents, though is there a resort to stereotypes involved? I found Serena rather shallow. And then there is the interesting setting of London in the bleak years of the early 70’s, the coal strike, the three day week and the Irish troubles; people wore dressing gowns at work over coats to try and keep warm in unheated buildings. Even if the suspense isn’t as developed as in a Le Carré’ spy story, there is some tension as Serena is increasingly embroiled in lies which threaten both her personal and professional life. There are also some dead-ish ends which feel a bit like padding.

Because Serena reads lots of fiction, and because she is involved personally and professionally with a writer, McEwan has lots of opportunity to comment on literature. Serena tells us – the story is presented in the first person – that she doesn’t like post- modern writers who were ‘determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions … I believed writers were paid to pretend … So no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in books I liked for the double agent.’ She believes in ‘mutual trust’ between reader and writer, and dislikes the ‘fictional trick’. Haley, on the other hand, admires post-modern novelists – though he isn’t really given much scope to explain why. And of course McEwan’s work is the height of ‘tricksy’, the novel depends on a fictional trick. And what would a spy story be without a double agent? In terms of her relationship with Tom, Serena is her own double agent. The point of all this cleverness is only made clear at the end.

Some reviewers have suggested that there is a large measure of autobiography in McEwan’s presentation of Haley. Serena reads and summarises – at boring and surely unnecessary length – several of Haley’s short stories and his short dystopian novel; the stories in particular apparently sound very like some of McEwan’s early short stories, given their bleak or ‘noir’ character. (The short novel actually sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only worse.) Haley’s agent and publisher are, or were, actually McEwan’s. Haley teaches at the University of Sussex, where McEwan did his undergraduate degree; he is clearly satirising Selena’s snobbish approach to the place. And Haley reflects McEwan’s literary tastes, as you can see from the final twist.

The novel has generally been favourably reviewed, for example here, and here, so my rather lukewarm response may indeed arise from knowing the twist. But I don’t think so; indeed its cleverness, which lies in its ‘tricksy’ nature, is not evident on a first read (though maybe the reviewers knew the twist …)  McEwan is generally considered to be an excellent story teller, but I just can’t get excited about this one. It’s too clever by half. You can see from my reviews that I didn’t much like Solar (2010), reviewed here, or even his Booker Prize winning Amsterdam (1998) reviewed here. So best read the book. Twice.  If you can be bothered.

You can find out more about Ian McEwan and his work here.

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Foreign Correspondence (1997) is an early autobiographical work, coming before Brooks had published any of her prize-winning fiction. You can read my review of one of her well-regarded novels, People of the Book (2008) here. This one is not really an autobiography as such; rather it’s a view of her life through a particular lens which focuses on the themes of staying and leaving.

The book has a sub-title – which doesn’t for some reason appear on the edition I read – which pretty much tells you what it is about: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over. As a child being brought up in what she suggests was one of the more boring suburbs of Sydney, Brooks finds ‘the opening I’d looked for to the wider world’ by writing to pen friends, first in Sydney, then America, Israel, Palestine and France. Much later in life, she decides to follow up her pen friends and find out what has happened to them. Thus in Part I the book follows her life growing up in the suburbs and her departure from Australia to become a foreign correspondent – hence the full double meaning of the title. Then in Part II comes the later intertwining of her life with those of her pen friends and the wider world. ‘The geography of this childhood correspondence,’ she writes, ‘has become the road map of the adult life.’

Although she is quite self-deprecating about it, Brooks is clearly exceptionally clever. Is there something in her childhood circumstances that contributed to this? Is it nature or nurture, or possibly, a bit of both? She was effectively an only child; her only sister was eight years older. Her father was an American jazz singer who put all that behind him soon after settling in Australia, to become a sub-editor on the Sydney Morning Herald; he has clearly influenced her life choices. Through his interest in journalism, she came to see that ‘Australians had lives that were worth writing about’. He was not an easy man; ‘I learned that if I wanted to talk to him it was easier to follow his adult interests’. From this she comes to see that there is a world outside Australia, and sets out to find out about it though reading, and her search for pen pals. However in this account, Brooks’s mother is perhaps the greater influence. As a child Brooks was often ill and unable to go to school; it was her mother who helped and encouraged her, and played games that inspired and informed her creative imagination. It was her mother who could ‘enter a child’s world with ease and spend comfortable hours there’, giving Brooks comfort and security in what might otherwise have been a lonely childhood. School – a Catholic girls’ college – is passed over with little comment; clearly she does not see it as an important formative influence.

Brooks grew up passionate about whatever it was that caught her interest, be it Star Trek, kibbutz in Israel, or the Paris student uprising in 1968. All of these coincided with or contributed to her search for pen friends. Sometimes she doesn’t get quite what she expects, either from her pen friends, or her unfulfilled teenage rebelliousness. She is, nevertheless, able to conclude from the victory of Whitlam’s ALP in the 1972 Australian election that ‘It is a great thing, at seventeen, to learn that it’s possible to change the world’. But it is inevitable that she will, like many others, leave Australia to pursue the fulfilment she seeks overseas.

I’m not going to outline the stories of each of Brooks’s pen friends. They all raise interesting and sometimes disturbing questions about life choices, perceptions of the world, and its realities. Each of them opens up a conversation that Brooks confronts with honesty and humanity, and sometimes humour. She writes with an easy fluency, honed perhaps by her experience as a journalist, and coming to full fruition in her later fiction. The use of her penfriends as a way into her life and experiences works exceptionally well as a structure for the book.

As an Australian brought up in an even more boring suburb than Brooks, I can’t help comparing our experiences. She’s younger than I am – though her schooling was apparently a bit less empowering – and that makes it a bit easier for me to accept her complete superiority in everything she’s done. I can only admire her courage and determination, as well, of course, as her intellectual prowess. Why didn’t I keep writing to my pen friend?

You can read more about Geraldine Brooks here. And this site contains a list of her works of fiction, which include the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, a major achievement since the prize is for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. Brooks became an American citizen in 2002. But she still calls Australia ‘home’, sort of; you may be interested in her Boyer Lectures 2011: The Idea of Home (or “At Home in the World”).

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In the interests of fair disclosure, I have to say up front that I’m not a fan of Peter Carey. I didn’t even enjoy his (second) Booker Prize winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), reviewed here. The Chemistry of Tears (2012) shares one of the same devices used in the earlier book: a story imagined around a real event or object. In this case it is an automaton, a swan that moves as if real. The story is partly about its creation, and partly about its restoration. Carey says that happening to see it being refurbished in a museum was the impetus behind the book.

Catherine Gerhig is a horologist who works at the Swinburne Museum (the V&A?) in London. One day her secret, married lover, who also works there, dies suddenly, leaving her bereft. Her boss, who may be in love with her too, gives her a new project to distract her: the reconstruction of a mechanical swan. The other half of the story, told in sections that alternate with Catherine’s, concerns Henry Brandling, a rich Victorian whose beloved son is ill with consumption. Henry hopes that the gift of a mechanical toy will improve his health, or even cure him. He initially thinks he has commissioned a mechanical duck, but the German watchmaker/inventor instead constructs the swan. Catherine reads Brandling’s story in the journal he kept of while the automaton was being constructed.

There are clearly meant to be parallels between the stories: whether ‘the huge peace of mechanical things’ can overcome grief is central to both of them. Both Catherine and Henry experience misery, rage almost amounting to madness, frustration and betrayal. It is a matter of opinion whether the two stories are fitted together like a well-oiled machine, or are mechanical in the pejorative sense. Catherine’s story has oddities enough, but Henry’s journal is positively opaque, and I got quite lost trying to work out what was going on. Much of it relates the story of the German watchmaker, Sumper, who has more or less kidnapped Henry; he tells Henry about the time he spent in London working with Sir Albert Cruickshank on something that sounds a bit like a computer, whose aim was to bring order out of chaos. Again there is a clear parallel with the reconstruction of the swan, but so what?

It doesn’t help that I found it hard to empathise with Catherine. She seems to have been made needlessly unpleasant, responding to grief with alcohol, drugs and rudeness. Nor could I understand her relationship with her assistant, who is apparently some sort of spy – but who for and why bother – with the Dickensian name of Amanda Snyde. She seems to have some kind of weird religious interest in the mechanism that makes the swan work, but again, I couldn’t see the point of it. I understand that not everything in a novel has to have some point, but in a novel about fitting together parts so they will move, you’d think her role would one of those moving parts. Perhaps it was and I failed to see it. But if so, I’m surprised that no one else in my book group could figure it out either.

Of course it’s not Catherine’s fault I couldn’t relate to her, or Amanda’s that she seems crazy; it’s Carey’s. I just don’t think he writes well about women. I didn’t find either of them convincing. It’s true I’ve been prejudiced against him ever since he wrote dismissively of his former wife – who had been his editor and muse – in his 2006 book Theft: a Love Story (though he shrugs this accusation off. You can read about it here). But the rest of the book club, who don’t share my prejudice, agreed neither character was realistic.

A review in the Guardian by the eminent writer and critic Andrew Motion didn’t suggest he had any of these problems with the book; rather the opposite. For him Carey exhibits ‘an easy-seeming mastery’ and is ‘too subtle a writer to spell out precise meanings …’ You can read his glowing assessment – ‘an impressive achievement’ –  here.

I have to admit that the swan itself is interesting, though I find it a bit bizarre. It was actually made in the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth as in this story. It is housed in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Teesdale, County Durham, England. You can read about it here, and watch a YouTube of it in action here.

You can read more about Peter Carey’s life and work on his website.

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Graham Swift is not a prolific writer; he publishes a new book every four or five years. Having loved two of his earlier ones, Waterland (1983) and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders (1996) (reviewed here), I always have high expectations of a new one. Wish You Were Here (2011) (not to be confused with Taylor Swift’s song of the same name) is the second to last of his books. It covers some similar ground to Last Orders, but somehow it doesn’t quite come up to the standard of the earlier book.

The story uses the same techniques as much of Swift’s writing in that it jumps backwards in time from present to past. Like Last Orders, it tells of a journey that ends in a funeral. Jack Luxton, the last of a long line of dairy farmers in Devon, has sold his land and with his wife Ellie has become the owner/manager of a caravan park on the Isle of Wight. The story begins with Jack standing with a shotgun in his Isle of Wight cottage after a fight with his wife. Is he going to shoot himself, or her, or both of them? The pressure of not knowing builds throughout the story. The fight seems to be over something relatively trivial: Ellie’s refusal to accompany Jack to the funeral of his brother, a soldier killed in Iraq. But it has called into question everything in Jack’s past: the effects of the mad cow disease cull of their farm animals, his brother Tom’s decision to run away and join the Army, the death of their father, his marriage to Ellie, daughter of a neighbouring farmer, the sale of the farm land, and of the old farm house to London yuppies as a country retreat.

Unlike Last Orders, where a range of people had a voice in the story, this story is told largely from Jack’s perspective, though Ellie and Tom do get brief turns. This allows Ellie to be presented in a largely unfavourable light. It is she who has taken the initiative in selling the farm and moving to the Isle of Wight, she who resents the hold the memory of Tom has over his brother Jack. Has she trashed the things that were important to Jack? Her contributions to the story do something to balance this negative view of her, and after all, Jack went along with all this. Perhaps it is his sense of self-betrayal that Swift is getting at – the giving up of his heritage. ‘The smell of cow dung mingling with earth, the cheapest, lowliest of smells, but the best. Who wouldn’t wish for that as their birthright and their last living breath?’

One of the issues with Jack is that although the story is mostly in his hands, he is essentially inarticulate. He has trouble putting his feelings into words. The title of the book comes from the wording of a postcard he sent as a boy to Ellie while away on a rare beach holiday in a caravan with his mother and brother. The holiday is one of the best times of his life. Yet he misses Ellie. How can he convey this complex message of ‘honesty and guilt’? The other side of the inarticulate coin is that a single word, like ‘holiday’ or ‘caravan’ conjures up a whole complex of emotions. When his brother leaves, he gives him a card and says goodbye at the same time. But he can’t think of anything better or more intimate to say than: “‘Good luck, Tom. I’ll be thinking of you.’ Which was a foolish thing perhaps to have said, because it was exactly what he’d written on the card.” While I’m sure that Swift is making the point that inarticulate people have strong feelings, it forces him at times into third party narrator expedients like ‘he might have said but didn’t’ which aren’t really convincing. Which is not to say that Swift doesn’t write well; he does, really well.

Even though both are about a death, Wish You Were Here is a much grimmer book than Last Orders. It seems that Swift’s world view has darkened. The decline of the dairy industry, hit first by BSE and then by foot and mouth disease (after Jack has sold up, but he still feels somehow involved), the war in Iraq, the shadowy war on terror, economic and social inequality, all have more or less direct impacts on Jack. One of Swift’s great talents is to draw connections either directly or through metaphor; Jack’s shotgun, for example, is both a real object and a symbol of other deaths, both in the story and beyond, so a story that is limited in time and space acquires much wider ramifications.

I note that the Guardian review sees the story as a meditation on Englishness. Certainly Jack thinks of the farm as a ‘little bit of England’. It is an elegy for a lost world, and perhaps loss is a particularly English sentiment at the moment. I’m not sure of Swift’s intention. It may be so, but he is at least as interested in the impact of writers from outside Britain in the magic realist tradition as in internal soul searching. There isn’t any magic realism as such in the story, but there is a slightly surreal quality to some of the writing. For example Jack finds he can’t be sure of what’s real and what’s merely in his head. And to bear out my point about the interrelatedness of Swift’s themes, there is the madness everywhere – arising from BSE, reflected in of culling healthy animals, the madness of the war in Iraq, the madness, it seems, of modern life … Such madness is hardly confined to England.

You can read the review I referred to here. Swift doesn’t seem to have a website – which isn’t really surprising, he seems a very private person – but you can read a bit more about him here. His most recent book, Mothering Sunday (2016), has received much praise, so is a must read for me.

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This book is set primarily in the 1930s at the time of the Japanese invasion of China, with all the horror and suffering that involved. And Mo Yan does not shrink from graphic accounts of cruelty and death. I went on reading this distressing book for three reasons. First, it is my book club novel, which I therefore feel I have an obligation to read. Second, events like this happened, and continue to happen; it is little enough to ask that I accept the challenge of reading about them and facing the awfulness on the page that some people face in reality every day. And third, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012; this book, published in 1987 (translated 1993), is an important part of the work for which the prize was awarded, and as such deserves huge respect. But it was still a struggle to get through it.

The story is written as if it were a family chronicle by a son looking back at the lives of his father and mother and grandpa and grandma, though the son hardly ever comes into the story himself. It is in fact quasi-biographical. It is not chronological, moving mostly seamlessly between the experiences of his grandma as a young woman, and the Japanese invasion of China a few years later. The story begins with his father taking part in a guerrilla attack on the invading Japanese near the village of Northeast Gaomi but then moves back in time to when his grandma as a young woman is sent to be married into a rich peasant family in that village – they make wine from sorghum – though things do not go as planned. Incidents may recur, though with slightly different details and emphasis. One example is the accounts of why the family’s wine is so good. Another is the death of Uncle Arhat, who by one version was a resistance martyr and by another a foolish man carried away by rage, though it is presumably Yan’s point that both may be true.

Duality is at the heart of the story. In the landscape there is ‘the Yang of White Horse Mountain’, and ‘the Yin of the Black Water River’. The narrator both loves and hates the village: ‘I had learned to love Northeast Gaomi Township with all my heart and to hate it with unbridled fury,’ he says. The township is ‘easily the most beautiful and most repulsive, the most unusual and most common, the most sacred and most corrupt … place in the world.’ The ubiquitous sorghum turns red when the grain is ripe; it looks like a ‘sea of blood’, and that is what it becomes with the arrival of the Japanese. The narrator’s grandfather Yu is both brave and cruel, a man for whom murder is simply a means to an end. Yet is there a difference between murder and killing wounded enemy soldiers? And I couldn’t help wondering about the duality of the whole project of resistance to the invaders; certainly it was heroic, but equally it was doomed, and brought frightful retribution.

Yan has no qualms about being graphic about the violence which both sides inflict on each other, though the Japanese have greater fire power and therefore more occasions to display their brutality. But life in rural China even before the invasion was no picnic. In a way the book is partly a love story, but there is no room for sentimentality; life for the peasants was, to use Hobbes’s phrase, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Yan views life with a slightly wry air; for example the spade Uncle Arhat has attacked a mule with sticks out of its side ‘at a jaunty angle’. The reader already knows just what is going to happen to Arhat because of his actions, making the use of the word ‘jaunty’ highly ironic. This no doubt intentionally makes the story even more difficult to read. I have to confess that I did skip over some bits of the violence.

In line with this duality, there is much lyrical writing, especially about the landscape, and the ever present sorghum fields. The red sorghum represents life and regeneration; there is again a conscious irony that when the narrator returns to the village at the end of the story, the red sorghum has been replaced by a hybrid green variety. It is only through pursuit of red sorghum that he can redeem himself.

Mo Yan’s life seems to reflect the duality that inhabits his writing. Mo Yan is a pseudonym which means ‘don’t speak’, and he rarely gives interviews. He says that ‘for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated’. Some of his writing is critical of the Chinese Communist Party, but he has been a member of the Party for many years, he had a career in the army and is – or has been – the deputy chairman of the party-aligned China Writer’s Association. As the first mainland Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature he received praise from the Party, but Chinese expatriate writers are critical of him for not being more critical of the repression of free speech by the regime. He has, however, had his share of criticism by the government for his sometimes unsympathetic portrayal of Communist Party members. As one reviewer noted, his readers ‘have long been puzzled by the disconnect between his unequivocal criticism of the state in his work and the conformity of his appearances’. Here is the text of a rare interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel – though it didn’t really clear up much of the confusion. On the other hand, if resistance to the regime is as suicidal as resistance to the Japanese, which of us would undertake it?

You can read more about him here, including details of the controversy that surrounded the awarding of the Nobel Prize to him. A highly acclaimed film of Red Sorghum was made by a Chinese studio in 1987-8, released in the West in 1989; here’s a review. I don’t think I want to see it.

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I really believe that some crime fiction is as rewarding to read as some literary fiction, and both of the books discussed here fit into the rewarding category, though for different reasons. And just for a change, I’m including TV crime series that is based on crime fiction which, though offering other pleasures, for me falls short of the written word.

Even the Dead (2015) is I think the eighth of the Quirke mysteries by, as the cover tells us, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. It’s a story that picks up some of the threads left hanging in the first of Banville’s crime stories, Christine Falls, reviewed here. Quirke, a pathologist in Dublin in the 1950s, has been on a sort of indefinite sick leave, but at the urging of his second in command, returns to work to consider anomalies in the autopsy of a young man apparently killed in a car crash. He teams up again with Inspector Hackett to find out what really happened, and it is soon clear they are treading on the toes of the rich and powerful. ‘This is Ireland ..,’ Quirke says. ‘There’s nothing the Church can’t get away with.’ But as Hackett retorts, they are ‘fierce inquisitive men, disinclined to be put off’. Quirke is also driven by his past, or rather lack of it (he was adopted); he needs to find ‘other lost creature(s)’. As in earlier books, his daughter Phoebe plays an important part in the story. With her involvement I think that Black the crime writer allows for coincidence to play rather too great a role. Perhaps Banville is rebuking Black when he has Quirke repudiate coincidences: ’they seemed to him flaws in the fabric of the world’. Black contrives a satisfactory ending where justice is seen to be done, but it is nevertheless for Banville that I read this series. His writing is a true pleasure, and I only had to reach for the thesaurus once.  (See my review of The Sea to decode that.)

Silent Kill (2014) by Peter Corris is his umpteenth Cliff Hardy story. It is in no sense ‘literature’ in the way that Banville/Black books are because of the fine writing they contain. The pleasure of Corris’s crime fiction is the characterisation of Hardy – a sort of Australian Philip Marlowe.  He doesn’t exactly walk the mean streets of Sydney, but he has his own code of honour, and dead-pan wisecracking repartee.  Here he is employed as a body guard to Rory O’Hara, a self-styled ‘self-funded righter of society’s wrongs’ who is about to undertake a speaking tour in which he promises to spill the beans on political corruption. He has already been victim of a hit and run accident. But the tour is disrupted when it has only just begun; there is treachery within O’Hara’s ranks, and a murder. Hardy does the basic detecting; ‘asking the right questions to find someone was my bread and butter, and I set about it.’ The story gets quite complicated, with shadowy intelligence services involved, which I find a bit of a cop out as it involves access to information and resources that are beyond the ordinary private detective.  It’s exciting in the same way TV crime shows can be: more action than explanation. But it’s still a satisfying story.

Speaking of more action than explanation, this is also my problem with the recent six-part Jack Irish TV series. It is the fourth Jack Irish production, the three previous ones, Bad Debts, Black Tide and Dead Point being telemovies based on Peter Temple’s books of the same titles. This one uses many of the Temple’s characters, but has a plot written specially for the series (with Temple’s consent). To my eyes, this has resulted in a less carefully crafted plot. The action is exciting enough – and of course you can see it – but I was often left thinking afterwards ‘how did that happen’? Being a six part series also meant that every episode had to end with a cliff-hanger situation, which gives a different shape to the story from that of a novel, which can build more slowly and establish firmer causation.  There is, too, a huge coincidence built into the story. Jack is hired to find a missing person, but finds himself framed for his murder. (One of the things that was never clear to me was why bother to frame him, when all the baddies needed to do was to use him to find their quarry. Or simply kill him.) He sets out to discover who did frame him, and finds himself enmeshed in a shadowy conspiracy doing something nasty, and murdering anyone in their way, though it takes a while to find out exactly what they are up to. Coincidentally, Jack’s on-again off-again girl-friend Linda Hillier has taken a job in Manilla that just happens to involve her in the same conspiracy. Hmmm. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. Guy Pearce makes a wonderful Jack, his horse-racing buddies are working on yet another racing scam and his old mates are still mourning the demise of the Fitzroy Football Club from the same seats in the pub. The Philippines connection makes for exciting viewing. In fact visually it was all pretty good. I think my problem is that I’m more attuned to reading than watching, whereas I should simply see these as two activities that aren’t really comparable. Then I might enjoy each for what it is. I doubt it though.

You can read more about John Banville here. Benjamin Black has a separate web page here; there’s also a 2013 three-part TV series based on the first three Quirke books. You can find more about Peter Corris here. And here is a review of the Jack Irish series which has recently finished on the ABC, so you might be able to catch it on iView, or DVD. You might also like Peter Temple’s two other crime stories, The Broken Shore and Truth – both of which fit into my ‘literature’ category; see my reviews here and here.

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The sub-title of this book, published in 2010, is A Redneck Memoir. Having read Bageant’s earlier book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War (2007) (reviewed here) I thought this one might offer some pointers to current state of American conservative politics and the rise of Donald Trump. I was right, though the memoir also challenges the assumptions of many liberals like me concerning the people he writes about.

Bageant was born into a family that had for many generations worked their own small farm in West Virginia, essentially as a subsistence unit with strong community links. But his grandfather and grandmother were the last generation to be able to do so, as the post-World War II cash economy and large scale agri-business, hand in hand with rampant consumerism, reduced them, and others like them, to being part of a white underclass with no choice but to sell their labour where they could for poverty-level wages.  The subsistence farming community was marked by hard work, thrift and independence; there was no place for government, big business or unions. And even when the tie to the land was broken by economic necessity, the value of independence remained. Bageant traces the swelling of the ranks of a white underclass through the decline of his own extended family, noting that despite continuing hard work, they were caught in a downward spiral. The one thing that might have saved them, a decent education, was for the most part denied them by niggardly local elites who controlled their schools, and who encouraged early leaving for dead-end jobs or military service in America’s overseas wars.

As in his previous book, Bageant explains how gun culture and fundamentalist religion are integral to the values of the white underclass. Hunting has always been a feature of life in West Virginia; guns were an integral part of the subsistence economy. They are no less valued because that economy no longer operates. Any suggestion of gun control is anathema, the more so as these people are traditionally suspicious of almost any government activity. Fundamentalist religion offers a sense of community previously provided by being part of a genuinely close knit, land-based, economy. He isn’t blind to the black/white world view of Christian fundamentalism, nor to the ignorance and superstition often involved, but he tries to explain why this world view has such a hold on people like his family. Central to his analysis is the refusal to accept the reality of class in America: ‘Illiterate? In poor health? Underpaid, disposable, superstitious, and exploited? Big deal. That would describe much of the planet. The difference is American class denial’.

Bageant clearly respects the old ways of independent subsistence farming. I think he may be sentimentalising these old ways, which were almost by definition narrow and restrictive of the individual, especially women. He sees the processes that destroyed that way of life almost as a conspiracy between government – Republican and Democrat alike – and big business. Agri-business didn’t happen, he argues, by chance; it was rather the product of regulation, subsidy, financial instruments and government sponsored propaganda, supplementing the economic power of a few big corporations. I’m not entirely comfortable with his view, but neither can I really fault it. It’s an uncomfortable sort of book.

Equally clearly Bageant hates the circumstances in which the white underclass now finds itself – both from what has been done to it by way of poor health, education and wages, and by what it accepts for itself, particularly the ‘collective amnesia’ which inhibits people’s ability to question their situation. Bageant uses his mother’s diary to inform his account of his parents’ life, so he has primary evidence of the poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that prevailed. However when he askes her about those days, she looks back on them with nostalgia. ‘For all the anxiety, grief and hardship, she … was remembering those times as the days of rainbow pie.’ Hence the ironic title. However this denial, he argues, is not just the blindness of the underclass; it is promoted by the rich and shared by the liberal intelligentsia who do not make the effort to understand this underclass and who may even, indeed, deny its existence. Hence the sub-title, taking to himself and his family the label ‘redneck’.

Bageant did not live to see the emergence of Donald Trump as the leading aspirant for the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election. But much in this memoir foreshadows the acceptance of just such a candidate. On the issue of the white underclass’s hostility to healthcare reform, for example, he writes that the ‘sad truth is that the pent up anger has little to do with feelings about healthcare, but a hellluva lot to do with all the shitty breaks, insults, and degradations that come with being an underclass citizen of the Empire.’ This anger has been successfully exploited by people who benefit from America’s class war. The calls for exclusion of Mexicans, and increased protection for American manufacturing – however unrealistic – resonate with the overwhelmingly white male supporters of Donald Trump many of whom are themselves excluded from the prosperity and comfort of what they routinely see on TV as the American dream.  Bageant might well be saying ‘I warned you’ from his grave.

Bageant doesn’t say in this memoir how he escaped his background to become a journalist, but you can find out more about him in this quite detailed account of his life. You can also read his Wikipedia entry here. If, like me, you don’t know what rainbow pie is, here is a recipe.

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