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Where do I begin? The Goldfinch, which runs to around 770 pages, was published in 2013 and won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which recognizes distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.The judges called it ‘a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart’. Sometimes I just wanted to put it down and leave it, other times I could have gone on reading it all night.

The story is a bildungsroman, a story of growing up. Theo Decker is thirteen when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He survives, but his life changes dramatically; almost all subsequent events flow from here. In the aftermath of the explosion a dying old man presses on him a painting that has been blown from its frame; it is The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. Theo takes it with him as he escapes the crumbling building. He also carries a mental image of Pippa, the girl who was with the old man; she becomes his unattainable ‘missing kingdom’. (The book is sometimes described as ‘Dickensian’, and I thought often of Estelle in Great Expectations, though of course she is unattainable for different reasons.) He lives briefly with family friends, but his father, who had deserted him and his mother, takes him to live in Las Vegas. He returns to New York and eventually becomes an antiques dealer. He carries with him a sense of irreparable loss and of self-blame. I can’t tell you any more without giving away the plot.

Some of the fifteen or so years the story covers are dealt with in great detail; others are left almost blank. Reading the book I found this a bit frustrating. Why, for example, did we have to hear in such detail about Theo’s drunken and drug fuelled-life with his friend Boris in Las Vegas? But by the end, I could see by the balance of the story why Tartt had chosen to write at such length about it. There are other set pieces that are quite long, but all serve a purpose. Maybe Tartt could just overall write with more economy; there is an awful lot of detail – some might say padding – in the book, though maybe this is just a question of taste. But best of all in terms of the plot, there was for me a real ‘wow I didn’t see that coming’ moment, a moment that both pulls together and undercuts the action. There are not many books that have done this so powerfully for me; Tartt is a great story teller.

But much as I ultimately came to see the strength of the plot, it is Theo’s thoughts and actions that dominate the book. Although he was already testing the limits – he and his mother had only dropped in at the museum on their way to a meeting to discuss Theo’s suspension from school – the death of his mother and his own narrow escape dictate his future choices. He has survivor guilt – ‘the why did I and if only that had wrecked my … life’. His wild behaviour arises from his narrow escape from the exposion; sometimes he is manic, ‘with a self-propelling recklessness … that I associated with having narrowly missed death’. But at other times he feels he has ‘suffered a chemical change of the spirit … [that] leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair’. His possession of the painting sometimes makes him feel ‘tainted and worthless and wrong’, but at other makes him feel special and different, not bound by the same rules as other people. ‘How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret …?’ he muses. ‘Yet I had.’ I guess this is a thoughtful even brilliant picture of a boy placed in just such a situation. But at the same time I found some of his terrible choices over- the- top stupid; it was then the bond between reader and character weakened and I stopped wanting to read on. But there’s a good chance that this reflects more about the reader than the book.

And then there are the big ideas in the novel, about the enduring qualities of great art, the search for meaning in life and death, fate and choice. If Tartt comes to any conclusions about these, I’m not sure what they are. Perhaps a second reading would make them clearer.

Unsurprisingly for a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, it has received many rave reviews. I find it interesting, though, that a few of the most highbrow literary critics have pushed strongly back against this tide of approval. Here are some quotes taken from an article in Vanity Fair discussing the literary controversy. From James Wood, in the New Yorker: ‘Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature’; he considers it  ‘a book stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness’. In The New York Review of Books, novelist and critic Francine Prose wrote that, ‘for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language … and [it contained] passages that were bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase’. Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, writes that ‘A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them … It coats everything in a cozy patina of “literary gentility.” ’

This kind of criticism is hard to deal with because it makes you feel that if you like the book, your judgement is immature. Well perhaps mine is. I can agree with a few of these criticisms, but not most of them. I didn’t find the plotting far-fetched; I thought the connections Tartt establishes were a major strength of the book. I did find Theo’s behaviour over the top at times, but am not convinced that someone in his position would not in fact act as he does. As for clichés in the language, the book is written from a young person’s perspective, and this is how they think and speak. I do agree that the language is over-lush in places. I don’t really understand Theo’s justification at the end of the story, and find it – in so far as I do understand it – remarkably self-regarding. But I’m not sure what the highbrow critics want, if not this. It seems to be an argument about what constitutes not only good writing, but serious literature, a question that can often only be answered by the passage of time. For me, it’s probably a question of whether I want to re-read the book, and in this case, despite my reservations, I certainly do.

Donna Tartt is a very private person and there is little about her on the internet. Here, however, is a quite revealing interview she gave to the Sydney Morning Herald after the publication of The Goldfinch.

 

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Published in 2015, The Brain’s Way of Healing is a sequel to The Brain that Changes Itself (2007). Subtitled ‘remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity’, it continues the popularisation of the concept of the brain’s neuroplasticity described in the earlier book. Doidge, a doctor himself, is a skilled medical science communicator. I found what he had to say in the earlier book about how the brain can compensate and redirect was fascinating and exciting, as the concept that the brain is not a hardwired machine was new to me. This book looks at understanding and using healing techniques that make use of this neuroplasticity, the reality of which is now, Doidge considers, taken as a given by neurological research. I found it mostly interesting, but sometimes a bit preachy.

Each chapter is devoted to a particular condition that Doidge argues is amenable to a treatment that makes use of the brain’s inherent ability to repair itself. As in the earlier book, he uses a particular case study to illustrate how a specific treatment can ameliorate or even cure the patient’s symptoms and/or underlying problem. These problems include chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, learning difficulties and stroke. Doidge identifies four stages in the healing process: neurostimulation, which helps revive dormant circuits in a damaged brain; neuromodulation, which helps build new circuits and overcomes learned non-use in existing circuits; neurorelaxation, where the brain stores energy needed for regeneration; and neurodifferentiation and learning, where the brain’s circuits begin to regulate themselves and allow for normal functioning. The treatments all rely on this ‘rewiring’ of the brain by methods including visualisation, lasers, sound/music therapy, electrical stimulation and exercise both physical and mental, though he is essentially claiming there is no difference between the physical and the mental. (He approvingly quotes Moshe Feldenkrais, who wrote that ‘the unity of the mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an indispensable whole while functioning.’) He notes in an appendix that while he has linked one possible treatment to one problem, in practice some combination or sequence of treatments would usually be tried. He doesn’t claim that all – or indeed any – of the treatments will work for all people with these conditions, but argues that any or all are worth trying, as they have no adverse side effects, and often at least improve the situation where conventional treatments including surgery and medication do not.

The treatments – at least as practiced in the West – all seem to be the brainchild of a particular individual or small group of researchers, though some have roots in Eastern practice. No doubt Doidge is correct that neuroplasticity is now accepted science, but the practitioners he discusses all seem to be working on the margins of recognized practice. Some, indeed, such as Moshe Feldenkrais, worked on their treatments well before there was any understanding of the brain’s plasticity, an understanding which Doidge says now explains why their tratments work. I seem to remember that the early leaders in neuroplasticity were loners on the scientific frontiers, and presumably that’s how scientific breakthroughs are made. Doidge only includes examples that he has personal knowledge of, the researchers and practitioners that test the science often belong to well-regarded institutions, and there is a whole section of notes and references at the end of the book to which the sceptical can refer. He notes in the acknowledgements that his editor suffered a stroke part way through the publication process, and was told he wouldn’t recover much of his lost functioning, yet recovered sufficiently using techniques from the book to finish editing it (though I wish he’d put the picture of the brain at the front, not the back of the book). Some of the cures are, nevertheless, hard to believe.

And the response to the book has been mixed. One critical review, for example, concludes that ‘[t]hese cures and their emphasis on the patient’s willpower and moral fibre are, at best, bizarre’. Certainly some of the cases Doidge outlines involve highly motivated people who would not have succeeded without that motivation. As one of the patients says ‘you have to want it really badly’. The problem here is that someone else trying the technique, who for whatever reason lacks that will power, will feel themselves to blame if the treatment doesn’t produce results. And yes there can be a moral element to the judgement that they just didn’t try hard enough – victim blaming in other words. On the other hand, some of the treatments, for example those targeting learning difficulties, are designed to help children, and at least initially only require a passive response. It’s true that a number of the examples are cases of last resort but this is presumably because the techniques are new and not yet adopted by most mainstream doctors, who continue to offer treatment within the existing paradigm. A further concern is that such cures offer false hope to patients and their families. Doidge never says they are suitable for all people with the conditions he discusses, and emphasises that they are mostly not do-it-yourself remedies – they require skilled assessment and monitoring, which are resources in very short supply in most parts of the world. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for the techniques would give hope to those with the conditions – but a hope probably unable to be fulfilled.

I was telling a friend about this book, and she asked why, if the techniques Doidge champions are so successful, are they so little used? Are they the sort of crazy stuff you might find on medical self-help sites on the internet? Have they been rigorously assessed and found wanting? Or will they, like the concept of neuroplasticity itself, become in time the new paradigm for the treatment of conditions affecting the brain? Time will tell.

You can read more about Dr Doidge and his work here. Here’s a rather less hostile review. And here’s one totally hostile one from a medical writer and parent of an autistic child (and yes Doidge does come close – dangerously in my view – to linking autism and vaccination). And here’s another totally hostile one from an evolutionary biologist who pulls no punches. Ah well, science thrives on controversy.

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The Seven Sisters (2002) is the fifteenth of Margaret Drabble’s nineteen novels. I’ve only read one other of her books, The Red Queen (2004), which I quite enjoyed (here is my somewhat underwhelmed review) so I can’t say how far The Seven Sisters compares to her other work. But she is clearly a major and revered figure in the English literary landscape, so maybe she’s allowed a few minor efforts like this one.

Candida Walton has found herself in late middle age divorced and alone. She has moved from Suffolk to London and bought a flat in Ladbroke Grove in north-west London; she describes the area as run down (though it must have had a renaissance since 2002). She determines to write a diary, and this makes up the first, and the much longest section of the book. In it she chronicles the small events of her life such as her visits to a health club, shopping, her prison visiting, her dental appointment or entertaining a friend. There is information about her previous life and her hopes and fears about the situation she finds herself in. The second section, which is told in the third person, describes a visit to North Africa and Italy she makes with some friends and a tour guide – the Seven Sisters of the title. Several of the friends are from an evening class she attended on Virgil’s Aeneid; this fires her enthusiasm to trace Aeneas’s legendary route from Carthage to Naples. The third section is from the point of view of Candida’s daughter Ellen, and the final section is told by Candida back in London.

When I first started reading, I was very attracted to Candida’s self-awareness – and her tendency to play too much solitaire, a weakness I suffer from myself. The reflections of a middle aged and middle class woman are bound to be of interest to a similar (if somewhat older) sort of reader. At times it seems that Drabble must have had direct access to my thoughts and feelings. ’Self-pity is a seductive emotion … It deludes as well as seduces.’ Well yes. And if at the beginning of a novel you find the words ‘Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again’, you experience the wry enjoyment of recognising an unreliable narrator, because of course something is going to happen – there’s a whole book ahead. A reader might expect it to be about Candida reinventing herself, and this is the main theme. However as a character she is undoubtedly passive; unfortunately it makes her rather boring. She doesn’t have the gumption to go out and get a job; the thing that shakes her out of her passivity is an unexpected financial windfall. By the end of the diary section I was beginning to wonder if I really liked Candida, or whether in her own words, she is ‘mean, self-righteous, self-pitying’. As one critic says, ‘Drabble has managed to capture this sensation of insignificant life, but without forging it into significant fiction.’

The story is actually a bit frustrating too. I don’t really mind that nothing much happens; it’s more that there are so many lose ends, events that seem about to lead somewhere but end up petering out. This may be true to life, but it’s hard to turn it into ‘significant fiction’. One example is the audio tapes that Candida is given, but can only hear noise on, when the friend that gave them to her obviously thought they would be meaningful. And what is the mystery surrounding what Anaïs is purchasing? Other linkages seem artificial, like the man Candida visits in gaol for murdering a woman by drowning her; he is presumably only in the story to contribute in some vague way to the theme of water and drowning that runs through it. (Though if we are following the Aeneid, Dido self-immolated, she didn’t drown.) I’m don’t know the classical references well enough to really comment, but it’s not clear to me that they add much to the story.

It’s true that the story line isn’t completely linear, and that there is a bit of postmodern fictional playfulness, though I’m not going to spoil the twist by saying what it is (more than I’ve already done). Drabble is playing with the idea of ‘voice’ – in more ways than one. She is probing the limits of the fictional voice when she attributes to Candida doubt about her ability to render the speech of others: ‘yet again’, Candida says, ‘I seem, relentlessly, inescapably, to have given the other person my own syntax and vocabulary’, and ‘I probably shouldn’t attempt dialogue’. Yet this is precisely what Drabble the author does all the time. The narrative twist is quite clever, but for me it fell a bit flat. Maybe I was already disengaged by the time I got to it.

Friends have pointed out to me the psychological depth of the story; Candida must be reborn to transform herself, and get outside herself to do this. Their insights did add gravitas to the book, though I could ask if we all need to be psychologists to appreciate it? But I guess getting different perspectives is the whole point of having a discussion.

I have one other quite unfair but inescapable reaction to the story. Published in 2002, it is of course set well before the Arab Spring made travel such as Candida and her friends undertake difficult and dangerous. Tunis, the site of Carthage (more or less) has escaped most of the worst of the violence, though a lone gunman killed a number of tourists at a nearby resort in 2015. And the passage across the Mediterranean is now a life and death affair for thousands of refugees, with Naples an uncertain refuge. I know this has nothing to do with Drabble’s book, but I can’t help but see today’s reality in contrast to the well-meaning, well-to-do English tourists of the story.

Margaret Drabble doesn’t seem to have a web-site, but you can read a bit about her here or here. And you can read her version of her famous feud with her sister A.S. Byatt here.

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Published in 2000, my book club’s most recent choice has achieved a wide audience – well, a wider audience – through its recreation as a film of the same name (2015). It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, and the cast and film won five awards at the 2015 AACTAs: Best Lead Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Costumes (Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson) and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. But the book began life as a project for a creative writing class, and it shows. You can just imagine them workshopping the blurb: ‘an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. It’s true, though, that I saw the film before I read the book; this inevitably changed the way I read it.

Tilly Dunnage arrives back in her small home town of Dungatar with a suitcase and a sewing machine, and incredible skills as a dressmaker (and yes, I think I mean incredible, but that’s maybe because I don’t have any skills at all in the area myself). She has returned to care for her mother who lives in squalid seclusion in a house at the top of the only hill in town. We learn that Tilly was banished from Dungatar after being involved, in some initially unspecified way, in the death of another child; she has in the meantime learnt dressmaking in the leading European design houses. The residents of the town are initially almost uniformly hostile. The two main exceptions are the town’s only policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who himself loves making outrageous outfits to wear in the privacy of his house, and Teddy McSwiney, who comes from a family of outcasts himself, but has won popularity as the local football team’s star full forward. He finds Tilly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Gradually the women of the town warm to Tilly when they find she can make clothes that make them look attractive and stylish, and gradually Tilly warms to Teddy. But then tragedy strikes. Can anything be saved from the ruins? Quick answer: no.

I bet that when they were workshopping that blurb, they thought about including ‘revenge’ and ‘magic realism’ in the list. And I’m not sure why ‘gothic’ made the cut, because it’s not a horror story, though of course horrible things happen. But it is a tale of revenge, initially satisfying, but then rather over the top. I’m not sure if revenge was always what Tilly intended; I didn’t get that impression, though others have suggested it. And perhaps the magic realism is rather more cinematic than inherent in the story, though Sergeant Farrat certainly defies ordinary credibility. The town’s entry into the eisteddfod is pretty surreal too.

Tilly’s story is the main one, but there are a number of sub plots involving the town residents. This is one of the areas that sounds to me a bit like a creative writing class exercise. Have lots of characters and tell us something interesting about them all. There were so many I had to keep going back to work out which was which, whose story belonged to whom. Most of these sub plots show people in a poor light that is sometimes funny, but often just rather nasty and rather two dimensional. One of the sub plots is actually part of Tilly’s story; it’s just a bit hard to pick it out from amongst all the others – though maybe this is intentional to add an element of mystery. The way the relationship between Tilly and her mother Molly develops doesn’t ring true to me either; I thought it was handled better in the film. (The overall plot was sharpened up a bit in the film. The beginning of the book drags a bit.)

So what of the other tag words in the blurb? Australian the book certainly is; the landscape is beautifully evoked, and the dialogue has an Aussie ring to it. The small town pettiness could probably be found anywhere, but seems to take on a particularly Australian character. And the haute couture is interesting for those with an interest in such things – whether, for example, Tilly used ‘Paris stitch for the lace trim … when she knew she should have used whip stitch.’ I’m assured by those who are interested that the haute couture is the highlight of the book. But is it enough to hang the story on? It’s perfectly legitimate to have an exotic or highly specialised craft that is central to the story, but too often it is clearly a device that doesn’t sit quite comfortably – think The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, reviewed here, or A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones, reviewed here. There is only one point at which the author poses the question of the human value of Tilly’s dressmaking. Teddy asks Tilly why she makes clothes for the nasty women of the town; she replied it’s what she does. ‘They’ve grown airs, they think they’re classy,’ says her mother. ‘You’re not doing them any good.’ But Molly is painted as contrary by nature (or illness and neglect), and so this can’t really be taken as the author’s view. Indeed Tilly replies ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ I was left completely unsure whether Tilly is from the beginning using her dressmaking skills to build the women up only to tear them down, whether she uses them to get the town to accept her, or whether at least initially she just likes dressmaking. Certainly her revenge is ultimately complete.  But is the haute couture part of it? Or does it lead the town to destroy itself?

You can read more about Rosalie Ham here, and more about the film version here. It’s described as ‘a revenge comedy-drama’. Unusually, most of my book group preferred it to the book.

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Published in 1988, this is Kingsolver’s first novel. Having read several of her later ones and enjoyed them very much – Prodigal Summer (2000)  is reviewed here, The Lacuna (2009) is reviewed here, and Flight Behaviour (2012) here – I was interested to see where all this started. The Bean Trees is a short book, in contrast to the much longer ones she later wrote, but she introduces some of the same themes she later develops about families and friendships, and you can see in her writing something of what she later achieves much more fully.

Marietta – Missy Greer – she later changes the Marietta to Taylor – is born and brought up by her single mother in poor, rural Kentucky. But she clings to the idea that she doesn’t have to do what most of the local girls do – get pregnant, get married and stay there for the rest of their lives; as her mother says, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen isn’t her style. Her life is changed when a new teacher arrives at the high school, not in the usual way in stories of opening her mind to education, but by the fact that his wife, a nurse at the local hospital, needs someone to work there part-time, and he gives Missy the job. She saves enough that, after graduating from high school – an achievement in itself – she can change her name to Taylor, buy an old car and head west in search of adventure. But in Oklahoma her car breaks down. She stops at a garage and restaurant near a Cherokee Indian reservation, and is literally left holding a baby when a Native American woman thrusts it into her hands and drives away.  What should she do?

The plot is relatively slight; as I said, it’s a short book. It also seems to me a little unrealistic. However It turns on the fact that the child Taylor is given is Native American, and maybe what happens is possible in such a scenario. The story also has some interesting present-day relevance, one strand being about illegal immigration into the United States. But plot isn’t everything. Kingsolver also delights in set piece descriptions which add warmth and colour, but aren’t really about advancing the action. Examples are scattered through the book; they include the results Missy sees of an accident when working at the hospital, the fast food restaurant she works at, a dinner, and a picnic. These all give her the opportunity to draw a cast of sympathetic characters; there is no one with any significant part in the plot who is cruel or unpleasant, though cruelty and misery lurk on its borders.

I find it interesting to compare this book with Flight Behaviour, which is also about a woman, Dellarobia, from a poor white community, this time in Tennessee. Both Taylor and Dellarobia are struggling to take control of their lives. Like Missy, Dellarobia dreams of flight, though unlike her, she did get pregnant, married, and stayed in her community. Like Taylor, her life is changed by a stranger (though he is a product of strange events, not chance). Like Taylor, her main concerns are her children, and family relationships. But in the later book, these issues are treated with much greater sophistication and maturity. Though The Bean Trees is told primarily in the first person, and Flight Behaviour in the third person, Dellarobia comes alive much more vividly for me than Missy/Talyor. And the great social and environmental issue addressed in Flight Behaviour, the impact of climate change, is much more fully developed, and more integral to the story than the illegal immigration strand in The Bean Trees. I say this not as a criticism of the earlier book, but to note how brilliantly Kingsolver’s work has matured.

One of the attractions for me of Kingsolver’s work is the deep commitment to social justice that runs through all of her books that I have read. In 2000, she established the Bellwether Prize, a literary prize is intended to support writers whose unpublished works support positive social change and human justice. Given her support for feminism, environmentalism and human rights, it not perhaps surprising in today’s America that she has her critics. Writing in the New Republic, (not, to be fair, a conservative publication) one commentator responded to The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by calling her a master of “Calamity Writing” and wrote that she offers “the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art”. He also characterized her as an “easy, humorous, competent, syrupy writer [who] has been elevated to the ranks of the greatest political novelists of our time”. I certainly don’t agree; I think she is a great political novelist. For example, I find it interesting that Kingsolver gives us a detailed and sympathetic, yet acute picture of the poor white communities to whom Donald Trump, now the President elect, appeals, and who are often demonized by liberal Americans. And I find her writing masterful. You can, however, read her opinion of Donald Trump here. I can scarcely imagine what she must be feeling about the outcome of the election.

You can read more about Barbara Kingsolver here. Pigs in Heaven (1993) is a sequel to The Bean Trees.

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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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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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