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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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Before we start, I have to declare an interest. The Jack de Crow of the title (2009) is a Mirror dinghy. I also own a Mirror dinghy, long disused in the back shed, but nevertheless familiar in all its quirks and pleasures. I’ve even rowed a Mirror dinghy and know just how hard it is; even loaded it sits high in the water. Mackinnon’s unlikely voyage is simply amazing.

This is an account of a nearly 5000 kilometre voyage sailing single-handed in an eleven foot dinghy from North Shropshire to Sulina in Romania on the Black Sea. Mackinnon didn’t set out to sail further than a few kilometres, but after reaching each destination it seemed a good idea to go just a bit further. Quite a lot of the journey was on canals, where he mostly had to row (a skill which he learnt on the job), but he sailed across the English Channel and where ever else the waterway – river or canal – was broad enough. It took over a year, as he couldn’t sail in the depths of winter. And along the way he had many adventures.

Of course he’s only picked out the most interesting events and encounters to write about. ‘The next five days were utterly wonderful,’ he says at one point, ‘and so make poor telling, alas.’ This of course dramatizes the journey, which must at some points have been relatively mundane – that is if sailing every day into unknown waters in Eastern Europe could ever be called mundane. ‘I Exaggerate For Effect – my friends tell me I was born for that motto,’ he writes, and perhaps he does overstate some incidents. But even if understated there is more than enough interest to keep the reader eagerly turning the pages to find what scrape Mackinnon will get into next. There is also a certain amount of foreshadowing – as in ‘I set off in a jaunty frame of mind for what was to be, without a doubt, the worst day of my life.’ Really? Read on!

Mackinnon has certain attributes which made the trip possible; he is a skilled sailor since childhood in Australia, he is strong and brave and cool (mostly) in a crisis. On the other hand these are flimsy enough advantages to set against the weather, the waves and perils of his mode of travel, particularly as he was doing it on a shoestring budget. He acknowledges the considerable support he received from family and friends; who of us could rock up to the gates of Eton, drop the name of a housemaster and be taken in and made comfortable for the night? But one of the aspects of his story that makes the book really pleasing to read is the kindness he received from strangers all along his route. Of course he met a few churlish characters as well, but overwhelmingly he found people willing and eager to give him a meal and a bed for the night, and even more important, help him repair his boat after each of the numerous mishaps that befell her. Perhaps the somewhat eccentric figure that he cut – for most of the journey wearing a pith helmet until it was stolen – or the audacity of the venture itself caught people’s attention. But their genuine and unsolicited kindness and care revive even the most wilted belief in people’s innate humanity.

Mackinnon also writes amusingly. His style is self-deprecating and somewhat confessional, which makes him seem like a friend to the reader. He’s happy to share his mistakes and misjudgements. He imagines, for example, that the crew of a Romanian barge big enough to ‘sit squarely in the middle of two football pitches end to end and not leave a lot of room for the players’ will likely ‘live on vodka, deep-fried pig’s blood sausages and any dinghy sailors they can run down and gut.’ In fact they saved the dinghy from certain destruction, and treated Mackinnon with every kindness – if that’s what you call plying him with schnapps.

There isn’t much about Mackinnon on the internet; here is a very brief biography. Since writing this book he has published The Well at the World’s End (2010), which is about a journey from New Zealand to the Scottish island of Iona. A longer review of Jack de Crow is here. And if you want to find out more about Mirror dinghies, try here. Ours has one refinement over Jack de Crow – an automatic bailer, but it only works at speed – and almost certainly not if you’re rowing …

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Eucalyptus (1998) has won praise and prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It has been described as ‘a masterpiece’, ‘highly original’ and ‘a pleasure’. This just goes to show that different books appeal to different people, as for all its strengths, this isn’t one that particularly appeals to me.

Holland (no first name), an unlikely settler on an outback NSW property, has become obsessed with eucalyptus trees, and has acquired and planted at least one of each of the over five hundred species and sub species on his land. When Ellen, his beautiful only child, grows up, he decides that she will be given in marriage to the man who can correctly name all of the trees on the property. Many try and fail. Eventually a suitor arrives who looks as if he might win the prize. But what if Ellen has given her heart elsewhere?

None of this is meant to be realistic – except for the very specific identification and naming of the eucalypts. The story seems to draw on fairy tales, or to use Bail’s own word, fables, which he says, are ‘stories that take root’, and ‘pass through many hands without wearing out or falling to pieces.’ They reproduce ‘ever-changing appearances of themselves; the geology of fable’. There is, obviously, the archetypal tale of the king who sets difficult tasks, the prize for success in which is his beautiful daughter and his kingdom. Scattered throughout are stories about people, often left incomplete, a device that seems to hark back to A Thousand and One Nights. The princess at one point pricks her finger on a needle and later has to be woken from lethargy by the rightful prince. So there is an intentional disjunction between botanical facts and narrative fantasy. This is echoed in the two strands of the story dealing with the suitor who has technical knowledge, and the lover who tells stories; one deals in classifying and naming, the other in stories about people – empirical knowledge versus imagination. Not that the trees themselves represent prosaic reality; far from it. There are lovely, lyrical descriptions of the trees and the landscape they create. Bail is also good at descriptions of people; after years on the land, Holland’s face had ‘become a reddish terrain of boulders, flood plains and spinifex’. I’m less convinced by Ellen’s ‘speckled’ loveliness – the idea of moles and beauty spots enhancing beauty doesn’t work for me. All this is told with a sort of whimsical lightness that befits the essence of the story, which is romance.

So what is there not to like? While some of Bail’s writing is beautiful, I find some of it annoying. He has a tendency to utter gnomic statements such as ‘The father is always waiting for the daughter’. Really? What does this even mean? Or ‘Art is imperfect, unlike nature which is casually ‘perfect’. To try to repeat or even convey by hand some corner of nature is forever doomed.’ I understand that there can be levels of meaning within the story; for example Holland’s planting of eucalypts not native to the area could be seen as imperfect ‘art’ rather than ‘nature’, but this sort of speculation, which some people may well find satisfying, I find distracting. And then there are the stories. Holland tells his daughter to ‘beware of any man who deliberately tells you a story’, though of course she doesn’t heed his warning. Stories are what win her. But what do the stories add up to? Some of them are about women trapped by circumstance, but I can’t hold enough of them in my head at once to discern a pattern in them – if indeed there is one. I assume Bail hasn’t just written whatever comes into his head, so I wish he’d clarify the meaning of the stories for me.

Then there is the whole question of fairy-tales. It isn’t reasonable of me to object to the fact that most fairy tales come from a time in the past that was patriarchal in the extreme; they are what they are. But I can’t help feeling very uneasy with the translation to modern times of the ‘woman as chattel’ to be given away by the figure of male authority. That the story doesn’t go quite to this script doesn’t alter the fact that Ellen is essentially passive. Bail is certainly not setting out to subvert the traditional fairy-tale; male competition for a female prize is at the heart of the story. This makes Ellen a weak character for me. I know that fairy-tale characters are stereotypes, but I find her essentially uninteresting, which doesn’t make for a satisfying read. Bail is said to wish ‘to challenge reader expectations and complacency’, so maybe I’m just not responding to that challenge. Other readers have obviously found this ‘experimental fiction’ much more enjoyable.

There isn’t much about Murray Bail’s life on the internet, though you can read an outline of his career here. (Nowhere does it say he was married for a time to the novelist Helen Garner. You have to go to her Wikipedia entry for that.) Here is a favourable review of the book from the New York Times. And here is rather nice piece of writing by him.

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Somehow these very hot summer days – of which we in Adelaide are having far too many of late – seem to preclude serious reading, so here’s three crime stories that that I’ve been wallowing in, sitting in front of the air conditioner.

The first is The Reversal (2010) by the great American crime writer Michael Connelly. I’ve read nearly all of his series featuring Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department (see for example my review of The Black Box (2012) here), but this is the first one for me of the related series about his half-brother, defence lawyer Mickey Haller. The title has at least two meanings: the most obvious is that Haller appears for the prosecution, a reversal of his usual role. The second is that he is prosecuting in the re-trial of a man who has had his original conviction if not reversed, then at least granted a re-trial because new information has become available. Haller chooses his half-brother Harry Bosch as the detective who helps him to look at the evidence from the first trial, and to find new evidence. I don’t usually read court-room dramas, but I found the unfolding of the case quite compelling, with the added interest of information that Bosch discovers which could or could not be a red herring. The story is told mostly in the first person from Hallers’s perspective, with Bosch’s sections in the third person. This still allows for a certain amount of tension between the two men over their different perspectives and roles. Bosch is upset when he thinks the justice system is being ‘manipulated by smart lawyers’, whereas Haller prefers cases to be ‘confined to the courtroom’.  There is a nice legal twist at the end.

Give the Devil His Due (2015) by Sulari Gentill is another in her series featuring Rowland Sinclair and his friends, set in Sydney in the 1930s. You can read my review of the previous one, A Murder Unmentioned (2014) here. As in the rest of the series, there is much reference to current events and places. The central story – so far as there is one – concerns a charity car race which Rowland has agreed to drive in, to be held at the Maroubra Speedway, commonly known as the ‘Killer’ track. There is murder and attempted murder and a series of spin-off sub-plots, concerning the New Guard, with whom Sinclair has had run-ins in the past, Sydney gambling identities, Italian migrants and witchcraft. As with the other books in the series, Gentill uses a number of real people in the story, including the Australian racing car driver Joan Richmond, the actor Errol Flynn, pavement artist  Arthur Stace, the occultist Rosaleen Norton, the poet and editor Kenneth Slessor and the New Guard’s Eric Campbell. I find this quite amusing, especially as there are some sly jokes involved, but I have an interest in history, where others may not. Gentill seems to be a believer in the ‘having something exciting happen every three pages’ school of writing, so the story moves along at a good pace, but some of the action seems there for the sake of having action. And as one character says of an incident, ‘it seems a bit of a coincidence’ … He’s right, and not just about that one.

In Mozart’s Last Aria (2011) Matt Rees sets out to explore the still unclear circumstances of Mozart’s death in Vienna in 1791. His protagonist is Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna, known as Nannerl, herself a talented musician who gave up a career as a pianist to look after her father, later marrying an uninspiring Austrian bureaucrat. Was Mozart poisoned? Nannerl travels to Vienna to find out. Was it the jealous husband of one of his pupils? Or was it to do with the shadowy Masonic Brotherhood, celebrated in Mozart’s last great opera The Magic Flute? Was he part of a conspiracy against the Austrian Emperor? This was after all the height of the French Revolution. Or was he simply a great composer and artist caught up in events beyond his control? Rees, a journalist who had been reporting the conflict in Palestine, wrote the book in a break from the dangers of life in the middle-east. He is the author of, among other things, The Palestine Quartet, a series of novels about Omar Yussef, a Palestinian who gets caught up in crime; you can read my review of one of the quartet, The Saladin Murders (2008), here. In this book he has consciously shaped the structure of the story around the three movements of Mozart’s Sonata K 310, which he wrote in great distress after the death of his mother. This is an ambitious project which I’m not sure succeeds unless you know the music really well. There’s lots of references to works of Mozart in the text, and of course no way immediately after his death of identifying them other than by key signature, so I was pleased to find a listing of the mentioned works at the end giving the Kochel numbers. Listening to the music added to my enjoyment of the book, which I’m sure would please Mr Rees.

There’s a fairly recent film about Nannerl, if you’re interested – Mozart’s Sister. You can read more about Matt Rees here, Sulari Gentill here, and Michael Connelly here. Enjoy your summer reading.

 

 

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Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers. The Lieutenant (2008) is the second of her books dealing with the first contact between the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia and the new arrivals from Britain, and is set before her best known work Secret River (2006), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Daniel Rooke is a clever young mathematician with an interest in languages, but his humble background and lack of connections makes it hard for him to advance in England in the 1770s. He joins the Royal Marines as a second lieutenant – being unable to afford a commission in the Navy – and excels at navigation. He finds social relationships difficult, but manages to get along well enough with his fellow junior officers. Nevertheless, he always feels an outsider. Wounded in the American War of Independence, he returns to England with no prospects, and is pleased to accept a place on the Sirius, flagship of the motley first fleet of ships assembled to transport convicts to the almost completely unknown continent of Australia. Once there, he adjusts quite quickly to the strange plants and animals, and begins to learn the language of the local Cadigal (or Gadigal) people. But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of white settlement in Australia will easily guess that this is not going to end well, and Grenville gives plenty of clues to this along the way.

In Rooke, Grenville has created a most appealing character through whose eyes we begin to see that an environment that seems harsh and unwelcoming to most white inhabitants of Sydney Cove, convicts and their gaolers alike, is full of interest and even pleasure. Rooke, the outsider, can ‘enter the strangeness and lose himself in it.’ He is a scientist; he thinks rationally about his environment. His greatest interest is in the Cadigal language, which he sees as the key to unlocking an understanding of the Aboriginal people. He knows that language is ‘more than a list of words’, it is a machine; ‘to make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts’. And he realises that he can do this, and that ‘everything in his life had been leading here’. His main helper in this project is a young girl, Tagaran. With her, he realises that even understanding language as a mirror of culture is but a step on a path to deeper understanding which goes beyond science: ‘It was the heart of talking, not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.’ In this context, he was no longer an outsider. ‘Tagaran was teaching him a word, and by it was showing him a world.’

This is, of course, a work which imaginatively re-creates history, rather than one of pure invention. There was indeed such a Lieutenant of Marines as Daniel Rooke; his name was William Dawes, and he did learn a lot of the Cadigal language and fill notebooks with it as Daniel does in the story. The fateful moral decision Rooke makes is very similar to that made by Dawes, and Rooke’s subsequent history, as told in the final section, is the same as that of Dawes. You can read Dawes’s biography here, and see his notebooks here. (The word with which Tagaran shows Daniel ‘the world’ is in notebook B21, though her name doesn’t appear.) Using Dawes’s story with different names allows there to be a certain timeless quality about it: a lonely man finding himself through contact with indigenous peoples could happen at any time in any place of first contact. So equally can his story of loss of innocence.

For all that, there is real history involved, and while Grenville is not trying to tell that history, I think she is a bit light on historical detail. Rooke seems to have been left alone to an unlikely degree, and to have remarkably little to do. The real Lieutenant Dawes played a much more active role in the colony, in addition to his work with the Cadigal language. Here, Grenville may be emphasising Rooke’s isolation for reasons of the story. The very early years of the colony were even harsher than Grenville suggests. She doesn’t really explain just how dire the food situation was and doesn’t really explore the paradox of a starving white community existing alongside a well-fed Aboriginal one. Her portrait of Governor Phillip (Gilbert in the story) seems overly harsh to me, though perhaps she knows more about him than I do, or perhaps this is another device to heighten Rooke’s position as an outsider. You can read about Phillip here. I always thought he did as well as it was possible to do as governor of a harsh penal colony, and that he genuinely didn’t wish to harm the Aboriginal population – not merely for strategic reasons, but also for humane ones.  But harmed they were, and more deeply and quickly, I would have thought, than Grenville suggests. Before there was any official policy of reprisal against them, Aboriginal people were dying of the cholera and influenza brought by the first fleet, and according to Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, by 1789, ‘black corpses were a common sight’. Could Rooke and Tagaran’s friendship have flourished in such conditions? Or did Dawes, unlike Rooke, get no further than listing the mechanics of the Cadigal language? One thing is certain: Dawes’s recording of the Cadigal language has been vital to its survival today.

You can read more about Kate Grenville and her work here. And here is an interesting review of this book.  A more recent book, Sarah Thornhill (2011) forms a sort of trilogy with it and The Secret River. You can find the spot where Rooke sets up his hut, now Dawes Point, close to the southern end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

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