Auē by Becky Manawatu

I read this with a feeling of mild apprehension throughout, which grew by the end and had me staying up late to finish it, to move beyond that feeling that something bad was going to happen. Now I can say, yes, it’s okay, step outside the comfort zone and read it. It’s brilliant.

Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2020

Aue Becky Manawatu Makaro Press Literary Fiction ReviewAuē has just won the annual NZ Book Award for fiction. I read last year’s winner Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy, inspired by the true story of a young Northern Irish man who travelled to NZ in the 1950’s seeking employment opportunities and a future only to meet a tragic, unjust end.

I saw that Becky Manawatu had written a personal essay about her sister, so I read The novelist whose sister married into the Mongrel Mob.

It made me think of that dark television series I didn’t like, created by Jane Campion Top of the Lake; Auē too is set in the South Island, a land of extreme beauty and few humans – I thought, do I really want to read this?

Despite the current of fear created by the essay and that TV series, something about it felt unique and standalone, the heartfelt reviews on Goodreads ultimately convinced me, like this line from Kayla Polamalu:and her publisher, who described her as ‘a writer to her bones — such a talent, such a heart.’

“This book has created an ache in my chest that I’ll carry with me for a long time. It is awful in such a way that it is brilliant, sentences so visceral my breath would stop.
It is triumphant too – the spades of sorrow matched by spades of hope.”

Having read and enjoyed Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen with it’s Irish vernacular, I was interested to read something with a connection to Māori, a language and culture I learned and adored from the age of 5 until 12, I hoped it wasn’t going to be too visceral.

Review of Auē

Auē – to cry, howl, groan, wail, bawl

The story is told from three narrative perspectives, with chapters highlighting either Ārama (an 8 year old boy Ari), Taukiri (his older brother) and Jade & Toko (a couple).

South Island Aue Becky Manawatu Literary fiction

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

It begins with Ari being dropped off at his Aunty Kat’s home by his brother Taukiri, who then departs and drives north, severing contact with everyone as he crosses the channel on the ferry to the North Island jetting his ringing telephone into the tide.

Sitting on his own on a beach on Christmas day, eating Marmite sandwiches Taukiri thinks about his little brother. It’s the first time he’s been close to the sea since Bones Bay. A place whose story has yet to be revealed.

One year Ari got a box of chocolates, and when the box was empty, he cut out photos of me and him, pictures of waves and surfboards and a guitar and glued them to the box to give to me for my birthday. That empty chocolate box was the best present I’d ever been given.

It becomes clear that the narratives of the two boys are set in the present and that of the couple in the past. The novel moves forward fleshing out its main characters who we grow more and more attached to, building tension and slowly revealing the connection between them all.

Despite Taukiri’s desperation to remove the past, it continues to haunt him, memories mix with things he sees and hears, a kaleidoscope of confused images assault him.

I guessed it would be this way for me and Ari. We would look for pieces of everyone we’d lost, in mirrors and crowds.
That’s how Ari would come to feel about me – that he’d lost me and had to search for me in places where I wasn’t.
He’d get over that though. It’d get easier.

Occasionally there is an italicized voice of someone not present, a lyrical incantation of the wind, or the presence of a spirit, observing – familiar and yet just outside of reach, pushing the reader on towards clarification.

Django Aue Becky Manawatu Makaro PressAri befriends the neighbours daughter Beth, she lives with her Dad and Ari prefers the atmosphere over there, even though some of the things Beth likes scare him. Beth is brilliant, a little kid with a whole lot of attitude, the confidence of being reassuring well-loved, if dangerously naive due to a little parental inattentiveness. And those drop-dead, three words she utters that steal or perhaps save the narrative.

‘Let’s go to my place and watch Django.’
‘Why do you like that movie so much?’
‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world and we gotta stay ahead of the game.’
‘That’s not how the world really is.’
‘Isn’t it? Like I said that rabbit was probably an orphan, like you are. Like I sort of am.’

Jade is the child who grew up in a House like the one from Top of the Lake. A scary place. Her parents are no longer there, but she was reclaimed by the new inhabitants. Reading her chapters is unsettling, she seems not to possess a mind of her own and every time she almost breaks free, trauma arrives unbidden. Used to it, she blames herself for existing, the inherited trauma of past generations.

his soft hand as he spoke of the violence that ended her father’s life reminded her of something. The only type of love she knew. Fury then remorse and forgiveness.

It’s a compelling, riveting story that feels likes riding the waves, moments of joy at the heights, the threat of doom as they crash.  And the poetry of the in-between, the goodness inherent within the young and those who have been loved, the healing that can happen when families reconnect, the ceaseless drama of life. The characterisation is so well done, unsentimental but deeply empathetic, the vulnerability of some sits in deep contrast to the brutal nature of others, the tension almost unbearable.

A 5 star read – extraordinary literary fiction.

Three Words – Read this Book

Mākaro Press is named after a nearby island, Mākaro was the niece of the legendary great Maori explorer Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa (New Zealand) around the 10th century and named two islands after his nieces Mākaro and Matiu. Like their uncle they are considered imaginative, curious and courageous, like this indie press. Publishing literary fiction and run by Mary McCallum and her son Paul Stewart, I leave you with the publisher’s words on this extraordinary book:

Makaro Press Aue Becky Manawatu

I published Auē because it is a deeply powerful, very real and beautifully written book about New Zealanders living hard-scrabble lives. Māori who carry generations of trauma in their bones that spills out here in one family in a small town.

The characters are compelling and the story holds the reader tightly as it winds through the interconnected lives of Ārama and Beth, Taukiri, Toko and Jade, and another who watches and weeps.

There is darkness, yes, but there is elation too in the beauty of the writing, and in the telling of the story at the micro level with the two children, and in the incredible moment when the tide turns … I’ve read the climax of the book so many times because it is so damned good. Mary McCallum, Mākaro Press

If you’re interested in reading this book and having trouble finding a copy, it’s currently available as an ebook direct from the indie publisher Mākaro Press.

Further Reading

Read the First Chapter – the beautiful, shocking first chapter of Auē

Personal Essay – A Day’s Grace by Becky Manawatu

Article by Mary McCallum, The Spinoff – The rise and triumphant rise of Makaro Press

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Northern Irish Vernacular

I liked the idea of reading a Northern Irish novel that used more of the phonetic vernacular as encountered in  Milkman by Anna Burns. Years ago on my first visit there, I bought a slim volume on some of the words used in the North but out of the context of a story or novel they made little sense and in the course of travels there wasn’t enough exposure to it to immerse in. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I got so into it, I started writing to a friend about weans and oul wans an shite. She thought I was typing too fast and not using spellcheck.  And from the comments I’ve read on twitter by those who would know, it’s been deemed an authentic rendition.

The vernacular dialogue in this is absolutely perfect. Captures the patter, the understatement, the colour, the wry knowingness of the exchanges. Rónán Hession

Big Girl, Small Town takes place during a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed 27-year-old Majella who from the opening page we learn has a list of stuff in her head she isn’t keen on, a top ten that hasn’t changed in seven years. Things like gossip, physical contact, noise, bright lights, scented stuff, sweating, jokes and make-up.

Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.

The list of things she does see the point in is shorter and includes eating, Dallas (except for the 1985-86 season), her da, her granny, Smithwicks (the most consumed Irish ale in Ireland), painkillers, cleaning and sex.

She lives with her alcoholic mother in a fictional border town, her father disappeared years before, presumed not to be living, though no one knows that for sure. They have just heard news of the death of her 85-year-old Granny, suspected as murder.

A Unique Narrative Structure

Each chapter begins with a time of day and an item from the list, such as:

Monday
4.04 p.m.
Item 12.2 Conversation: Rhetorical questions

and the story is narrated through her regular, unchangeable routine and manifestations of these items as she encounters them, like here where she shares one of her pet dislikes, her mother’s rhetorical questions.

Majella? D’ye not have work tae go til this evening?
Majella had work to go to, just as she had done every Monday for the past nine years. And Majella knew that her Ma knew that, because her work schedule and weekly Mass were the only routines their lives revolved around.

Donegal McCleans Malin

Outside a pub & grocery store in Malin, Donegal

Majella works in a local fish and chip shop with her colleague Marty and each evening we meet local characters and encounter more items; 3.3 Noise: Shutters in work and item 3.4: Noise: Shite singing, item 1: Small talk, bullshit and gossip, item 8.4: Jokes: Repeated jokes.

There’s routine and repetition and although it might seem uninteresting to follow along day after in this quotidian recital, even the chip counter conversations and order placements I enjoy, triggering as they do a recent (Oct 2019) humorous encounter of our own in a chipper (chip shop) in Northern Ireland.

Digression – A Personal Experience of Linguistic Nuance

I now understand better having finished the book, why the man at the chipper in Newcastle looked aghast at my son when in response to his question ‘Do you wan sauce onit?’ he replied ‘Yes please, Moutarde, I mean Mustard’. This was after my son had looked at me and said, ‘I can’t understand what he’s saying’, when the man asked him following his request for a chicken burger, ‘Wud ya likit S’thrn fried or Batter’d?’. I said ‘I’m not going to explain what battered is, so just take Southern Fried’. Who’d have thought a takeaway shop could provide such an entertaining, cross-cultural experience.

In Majella’s chipper, no one ever asks for mustard. Some of them ask for things that go beyond the everyday boundaries of pleasantries, the banter of some replays itself each visit, like an old record on repeat. Majella is clearly intelligent but hasn’t been in an environment that has encouraged to pursue that elsewhere, so instead she has found a role that suits her character (in a town with the highest unemployment rate in the country) and despite everything, it is clear that she is unlikely to become trapped by the same vices that capture most who’ve given up on their dreams.

It’s entertaining, it’s kind of sad, it’s funny and also confrontational. You read it and feel like you’re really in the skin of this character and though we might want more for her, it’s clear she’s ok and if watching Dallas reruns sounds a bit odd, it provides a bit of a cliffhanger of an ending as she reflects on the lessons of that Machiavellian character J.R. Ewing.  While most probably only saw what she was on the outside, beneath it all she was totally in charge of herself and about to become even more empowered than she had ever been.

The Author Michelle Gallen

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town

Her debut novel,  Big Girl, Small Town has been nominated for the CWIP Prize (Comedy Women in Print) 2020, the UK and Ireland’s first comedy literary prize. In the podcast below she discusses why it has taken so long for this type of women’s writing to appear, suggesting that in the North there has been a sea-change, a cultural change that has finally enabled different voices to come in that allows women to write bawdy, irreverent, darkly humourous content that addresses sex in a very frank way.

Michelle Gallen – who grew up in the most bombed small town in Europe post World War II and went to school in an area with the highest unemployment rate in the industrially developed world – when interviewed, said of her motivation:

“I wrote Big Girl Small Town to shine a spotlight on the consequences of the British-Irish border on a family in a deeply divided community over decades of peace and ruthless violence. It tells the story from the dark heart of the community, revealing the human growth and resilience of a proudly ungovernable community on the very edge of Britain.”

She admits that Majella might be happier if she’d watched less Dallas and read more books. Asked how she thought Majella would have coped with corona virus, she said:

“I think that while Majella would welcome the social distancing aspect of managing Covid-19, she would – like most people – be intensely worried for the virus’s effect on those who are vulnerable: the sick, the infirm and the elderly.”

And on what she might find comfort in reading:

“She would find a kindred soul in the narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. She’d have a real laugh reading Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. And I can see her finding comfort in the lovely Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession.” Michelle Gallen

Comedy Women in Print Literary Prize 2020

Further Reading & Listening

Irish Times Article – Post troubles tale of a damaged woman 

Irish News Interview – Tyrone author’s debut novel delves into our troubled past with a helping of chips and Dallas on repeat

Irish Times The Woman’s Podcast, Episode 396 starts at 27.50 : Listen to three of Ireland’s newest authors Michelle Gallen, Niamh Campbell and Rachel Donohue join Róisín Ingle to speak about their debut novels and the inspiration behind them.

Audio Extract: Listen to 2 minutes from the beginning of the novel, read by Nicola Coughlin

Three Ways to Disappear by Katy Yocom

Sarah has recently left journalism due to her frustration at not being able to do more than just tell a story. The forced abandonment her profession demands, the development of a journalists detachment that enables them to walk away and move on to the next story isn’t in her. She resigns.

In her confusion about what to do next Sarah decides to return to the country where she spent her early childhood, where mysteries about their time there still remain. India.

Protecting Bengal Tigers in India

She joins a tiger protection organisation in Ranthambore National Park and helps raise awareness of the issues of a community, where humans, their animals and wildlife compete for scarce resources, land and water. There is tension between those trying to protect the tigers and those trying to keep their animals alive, where water is scarce and the lake is a forbidden zone to them.

Sarah’s twin bother Marcus died of cholera when they were children, her mother fled with Sarah and her sister Quinn, leaving her husband and returned to America. All three of them have different perspectives on what happened that day, and Sarah’s move back begins to unravel the shadow that has remained with them all.

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

Sarah provokes controversy after taking a photo of a poacher that becomes evidence and lands him in jail, leaving his wife and children in difficulty and when she rescues a cub that has fallen into the river. Her actions raise her profile in the wider community, in some ways helpful to the organisation but in other ways endangering her.

Her involvement with one of her colleagues creates further complications, highlighting cultural taboos she is determined to overcome. The scheme she comes up with to resolve those issues is well-intended, requiring a stretch of the imagination to accept.

It’s a thought provoking novel that looks at how our environment has changed as species are hunted into extinction, how overpopulation and the need to survive means that humans compete with wildlife for scarce resources and how cross cultural alliances can be sabotaged by those whose worldview favours domination, or nurtured by those seeking partnership.

How We Disappear

Three Ways Humans Disappear – sickness, accident, violence
Three Ways Animals Disappear – hunted, starvation, genetic extinction

I’m still thinking about the meaning of the title as it can be interpreted in a number of ways that aren’t made clear in the text, but it made me think about how humans disappear and how animal species disappear. It seems it remains a mystery to the author as well.

“The title is a bit of a mystery even to me! I originally chose “Three” because the family in the story has three children, and “disappear” because of the threat of extinction to the tiger. But there are so many ways to disappear: for instance, through death, or by withdrawing from relationships. And as time goes by, the meaning of the title shifts a bit. Currently I think one interpretation of three ways to disappear would be physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” Yocom explained.

It took me a while to get into the book and there was some discomfort for me around the white saviour trope and although the main protagonist had spent some of her childhood in India, she didn’t feel natural to the environment, nor was her presence really appreciated, she was seen as another threat, as her first published photograph proved. Equally the love story. Overall it was an enjoyable read despite its flaws.

Environmental Literature

It reminded me of The Tusk That Did the Damage, a novel set in South India that explores the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker and an elephant.

The tigress in this story Machli is based on a real tiger with the same name who lived in the lakes region of Ranthambore and was observed and photographed by the author in 2006.

This book won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature and is published by Ashland Creek Press, who publish “books that foster an appreciation for worlds outside our own, for nature and the animal kingdom, for the creative process, and for the ways in which we connect.”

It also won a First Horizon Award, a prize for debut authors bestowed by the Eric Hoffer Book Award. The EHBA honors books from small, academic, and independent presses.

Further Reading

EcoLit Books: An Interview and Q & A with Katy Yocom

N.B. This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Retelling Greek Myths From an Awakened Perspective

Greek Myth of Circe Odyssey UlyssesOriginally published in 2018, Circe is a reimagined version of one of the ancient Greek myths, which have been variously retold through the ages, but possibly never quite in a voice like Madeline Miller’s that brings a feminine perspective and knowing, to fill in the gaps and flesh out a story that reconsiders some of the motivations the exiled  protagonist Circe might have operated under.

I enjoy well handled myths and fables and the classical Greek myths are among the longest-lived continuing to inspire much creative output. I love the voyage of discovery a retelling takes the reader on, igniting our curiosity to seek out and understand a set of characters more, finding their origins, the connections.

Last year I read Icelandic author Sjón’s The Whispering Muse, introducing me to Medea, Jason and The Argonautica, an epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC). I read and reviewed Miller’s award winning The Song of Achilles, but I wasn’t nearly as animated by it as Circe.

Review

I absolutely loved the book and the evolution of the character Circe from a somewhat insular, jealous nymph, not really knowing her place in life, though her gesture towards the punished Prometheus was a clue; to her fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that is revealed when she lives in isolation on the island Aiaia.

I decided to read the book straight through before looking up Circe in Myths of Greece and Rome by H.A. Gueber, because I knew Miller was going to tell us her story from Circe’s perspective and I wanted to absorb that without any  pre-conceived influence.

It starts off slowly as Circe is living in the Halls of the Gods, she is the daughter of Helios the Sun God, who rides his chariot cross the skies each day, ensuring the sun rises and sets on time the world over and her mother Perse, a naiad (a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains and bodies of fresh water).

Her family don’t pay her much attention and in her lonesome wanderings she encounters a mortal, the fisherman Glaucus, whom she begins to meet secretly and worrying about his future, she creates a bed of flowers wishing he might transform into a God, so he can become immortal like her.

However, once he enters the Halls he is distracted by all the other beauties, no longer seeking Circe out, upset she seeks revenge against one of the nymphs Scylla, creating a spell to turn her into what Circe believes is her nature within, and Scylla becomes a multi-headed sea-monster.

Beautiful Scylla, dainty-doe Scylla, Scylla with her viper heart.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Circe is punished by her father and exiled to the island of Aiaia, which doesn’t sound too bad, despite being alone, there is a well equipped home with self-cleaning capabilities, plenty of plant, animal and bird life and rather than a dog, she befriends a lioness, who sleeps at her hearth.

I learned to recognise the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral.  I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac,  and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the safe harbour for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud…I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s hall had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea.

From the moment she is exiled, something changes, Circe comes into her own and without the distraction, drama and judgement of the halls she has left behind, she begins to listen to her intuition and develop her knowledge of plants and remedies, experimenting with tinctures and seeds and leaves. Developing a skill that was not divine, not magic, something ‘made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung.’

For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease.  I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little  did not care to stay.

Dragonfly Nature Circe

Photo by Marian Florinel Condruz on Pexels.com

She discovers her inner power and outer skill through practice. But as we know, solitude becomes less of a novelty over time and when visitors arrive she is happy to see them; Hermes checks in on her, bringing a prophecy, punished daughters are sent to do time and it is said that Odysseus himself will come, a turning point in her story.

In the origins of the story, she is perceived as evil, as if when she cast her spells upon these men who arrive by ship, she has no reason. They who feast at her table, drink her wine and then discover she is a woman alone without a husband – before able to act on their dishonourable intentions – are turned into four legged swine.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to read between the lines, however things change when Odysseus sends his men ahead of him and arrives later alone, no surprise that he who acts with respect toward the hospitality offered meets a different fate.

There was always a leader, he was not the largest, and he need not be the captain, but he was the one they looked to for instruction in their cruelty.  He had a cold eye and a coiling tension. Like a snake, the poets might say, but I knew snakes better by then. Give me the honest asp, who strikes me if I trouble him and not before.

There is so much more to the story, but it is one that has to be read and experienced. Brilliantly written, inspired by the epic tales but told in a compelling way appropriate to the 21st century when the woman’s story is given voice, being listened to and shared, rising to bring balance to a skewed narrative of the past.

Madeline Miller Answers Questions on her Inspiration

What classics did she rely on to write Circe?

The Odyssey Emily Wilson TranslationAlong with the Iliad and the Odyssey, I also drew on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Vergil’s Aeneid, the Argonautica, the Telegony, Euripides‘ Medea, Sophocles‘ Philoctetes’, Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and lots of small pieces from all kinds of other scattered places.

I like to throw open the doors, and read everything I can about all the different figures, not just the protagonist. I never know where I might find the key detail that animates the character in my imagination, so I try to look everywhere.

In most tellings Circe is depicted as an evil sorceress, you chose to show her humanity and make her likable, why?

Circe has been portrayed as a two-dimensional villain in most post-Homeric works. In the Odyssey itself, however, she’s actually a much more balanced and complex character. Yes, she’s frightening, and yes, she turns men to pigs, but after she and Odysseus become lovers she offers to help him and his men, giving them shelter and helping them heal from their griefs for an entire year. Her house is the only place in the Odyssey that Odysseus doesn’t agitate to leave; his men have to come and remind him that it’s time to go.

Then, when he tells her he’s leaving, Circe doesn’t try to keep him, nor even complain about his going. She instead offers him vital help and advice on the difficult road ahead. She ends up, in fact, being one of the most helpful people he encounters!

So I think it’s very interesting that she’s been made into such a villain. It has much more to say about our fear of powerful women than it does about Homer’s poetry. Even the detail of Circe’s connection to humanity comes from Homer–he calls her “the dread goddess who speaks like a human.” I wanted to return to that complexity, and expand it further.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is an author whose books I never hesitate to pick up, she is such an engaging storyteller. The last novel I read by her was The Colour, set in New Zealand during the gold rush, an excellent alternative to the lengthier The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

Review

Set in Switzerland, The Gustav Sonata opens in 1947 in the village of Matzlingen when Gustav is five years old, and like a sonata is structured in three parts.

Gustav lives in a small apartment with his mother Emilie who works at the local Emmental cheese factory, her circumstances diminished since the death of her husband. Frustrated by motherhood and resentful, Emilie finds little solace in the presence of her son, she  barely extends basic care towards him. Each morning they walk to kindergarten.

He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. The world was alive with wrongdoing, she said, but Gustav had to emulate his father who, when wronged, had behaved like an honourable  man; he had mastered himself. In this way Gustav would be prepared for the uncertainties to come. Because even in Switzerland where the war hadn’t trespassed, nobody yet knew how the future would unfold.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Gustav befriends an anxious little boy named Anton and inspires confidence in him. Emilie invites him to play, but then seems disturbed by his name, doesn’t want him around. Gustav visits Anton and discovers his new friend is a gifted piano player.

‘I’m going to play for Gustav’ said Anton. ‘I’m going to play The Linden Tree.’

‘If you listen carefully and close your eyes,’ said Anton, ‘you can hear the leaves of the tree rustling in the notes.’

In Part Two the story moves back to 1937 and we meet Emilie again as a young girl, attending a festival with a friend, oblivious to the troubled undercurrent gripping the continent.

Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe. But in the villages of Mittelland, the calendar of feast days and festivals unrolls through a fine and untroubled summer.

In the excitement of the day, the girls meet off-duty Assistant Police Chief Erich Perle, just as he is crowned Schwinger Champion at the festival, they’re both smitten, he tells them his work isn’t onerous, having no idea yet of the trouble that is headed his way.

‘What’s “onerous”,’ asks Sofie?

‘Burdensome or difficult. The reason police work isn’t very onerous is because the Swiss enjoy obeying the law. On the whole, unless a law is felt to be unjust, they prefer to obey it. When I joined the force, I was told in one of the lectures that Switzerland is a country where people have mastery over themselves.’

Photo by brenoanp on Pexels.com

The story unfolds and by Part Three Gustav is a mature adult and hotel owner. Not much has changed in the cool, indifference shown to him by his mother, but he develops an interest in uncovering the mystery surrounding his father, of which we are now aware more of than he. Thoughts of childhood continue to invoke an inexplicable sadness.

The sadness gathered like a grey twilight around the idea of his own invisibility: the way the boy Gustav had kept on trying to push himself into the light so that his Mutti would see him better. But she had never seen him better. She’d remained half blind to who he was.

It’s a beautifully written simple story unraveling the circumstances that brought these people together and the reverberating impact of decisions they made that changed the course of their lives. It is the story of a friendship that is little understood until it fragments and is temporarily severed, separation allowing the space to reflect on the importance a shared history brings. It’s about making amends.

Rose Tremain’s Islands of Mercy – coming Sept 2020

1865, in the city of Bath, a young woman renowned for her nursing skills is convinced another destiny will one day present itself. When she finds herself torn between a dangerous affair and the promise of a conventional marriage to an apparently respectable doctor, her desires lead her towards a future she never imagined.

On the island of Borneo, an eccentric British ‘rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage, overflowing with philanthropy but compromised by his passions, sees his schemes undermined by his own fragility, by man’s innate greed and the invasive power of the forest.

Jane’s quest for an altered life and Sir Ralph’s endeavours entwine as the story journeys from the confines of an English tearoom to the rainforests of a tropical island via the slums of Dublin and the transgressive fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.

Islands of Mercy is a novel that ignites the senses, a bold exploration of the human urge to seek places of sanctuary in a pitiless world.

******

Do you have a favourite Rose Tremain novel?

Good Behavior by Molly Keane

Thoughts On A Novel

I read this book with great discomfort all the way through. I have a sense of having being conned. It was mentioned more than once in an Irish Times article Laugh in the time of Corona: Favourite funny books. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, Hilary Mantel calls it an ‘overlooked classic’.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, was also mentioned and I agree, there were many laugh out moments for me there and great compassion too, some recompense for the underlying sadness of a woman spending the end of her days in a hotel with strangers who become almost friends and the unexpected gift of a complicit friendship with a young man who makes up for an absent grandson.

In Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, not only were there no laugh out loud moments, I may have grimaced all the way through. So utterly did I dislike the story and the characters, I questioned my understanding of the word behaviour, there wasn’t any good behaviour, even when the characters denied their true thoughts and said things to cover them, the behaviour remained appalling. The only exception being the maid Rose who kept the household going, working and caring her way through the narrative, shifting her alliances towards whichever household member required her attention.

The Anglo-Irish & Big Houses

Although Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright, it felt like I was reading an old English novel and I saw many refer to her as Anglo-Irish, so I had to fill myself in on what that influence I could feel in the text was about. So for those like me who didn’t grow up in either of those countries, a quick explanation on what it meant to be Anglo-Irish.

Coolbawn House, County Wexford burned in 1923 By Mike Searle, CC BY-SA

The Anglo-Irish social class made up most of the professional and landed class from the 17th century up to Irish Independence around 1920, they were until that time the ruling aristocracy. They identified as Irish but retained English habits in business, politics, culture and society. They participated in English sports, they loved horse sports, racing, fox hunting, would send their children to boarding schools in England if possible and often intermarried with the ruling classes in Great Britain.

Many constructed large country houses in the first half of the 18th century, ranging from palatial mansions to more modest ‘large’ houses known as Big Houses, a symbol of their class dominance in Irish society. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 is one of the original Big House novels. Elizabeth Bowen chronicled the decline of the Big House in The Last September.

275 were destroyed, deliberately burned by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during the Irish revolutionary period (1919-1921) including Molly Keane’s family’s own estate, her father ignoring warnings to leave and take his family to England, refusing to leave the place even when he saw them coming to burn it down.

Book Review

The protagonist of Good Behaviour is Iris Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, who grows up with her brother Hubert in ‘Temple Alice’ one of the ‘Big Houses’, built by an ancestor as his temporary residence until inheriting his titles and estates.

Now the title extinct and estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house (a house intended as the residence of a widow), came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property.

While the novel opens with a chapter when she is fifty-seven-years old at her mother’s death-bed, the remainder of the novel focuses on their life under the tutelage of a governess Mrs Brock up until her sudden departure through to her twenties when she is an unhappy, overweight, unmarried daughter without prospect, living a life of gross deception and delusion. Seeds of her discontent are sown early on, with a mother lacking in maternal feeling.

She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either, and she had no enjoyment of food, for she ate almost nothing.

Animals, food and her brother are her consolation, her mother rarely responds even when Aroon reports that she thinks her baby brother is dead, she enquires where the staff are. Her father responds and inspires hope. She seeks out his company, a kind word, favour, he seeks comfort elsewhere.

We adored Papa, and his hopeless disapproval paralysed any scrap of confidence or pleasure we had ever had in ourselves or our ponies.

When Mrs Brock intervenes and with kindness and encouragement succeeds in endowing them with the necessary confidence, he turns away shaking his head.

In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice, even in young children. The tough were the ones who mattered;  their courage was fitting and credible. A cowardly child was a hidden sore, and a child driven to admit hatred of his pony was something of a leper in our society. It appeared to Papa that Mrs Brock has rescued our honour and his credit.

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An awkward teen she revels in her brother’s company and his friend Richard. The time the three spend together is the height of her happiness, little realising they too are indulging in ‘good behaviour’ masking an ulterior motive, using her as an alibi. Her self-deception knows no bounds.

Here, to my delight , Hubert and Richard danced with me in turn. I almost preferred dancing with Hubert because I loved showing off to Richard…I was fulfilled by them. I felt complete. There was no more to ask.

Aroon is constantly striving for connection and endlessly blind to reality, and when connection is possible, where genuine friendship might have a chance to flourish, she is locked into the conventions of her class that forbid it. She lacks empathy and is unaware of her own bitterness, so we have little sympathy for her predicament.

The family live in denial of their escalating debt, living beyond their means and incapable of doing anything for themselves. When her father returns from war injured, Aroon tries to get close to him and is thwarted once again. Without prospect of marriage, her mother closing her out, her father’s attentions elsewhere, she seems doomed.

And then a final twist.

And yet. The thirty years in-between the beginning and the end leave a lot more unsaid.

Selina Guiness in the Irish Times says Keane writes the most spectacularly “nasty” black comedies in Irish Big House fiction and Keane herself request her daughter to make the biography she wrote about her more like a novel adding, “I’m afraid you won’t be nasty enough.”

Perhaps it is this that so disturbs, I like a book in which a character can in some way redeem themself, can change or transform, ‘nasty, black comedies’ and characters that take pleasure in using their wounds as weapons against another isn’t entertaining for me, I am unable to wear a mask and pretend otherwise.

I know I’m in the minority as this is a popular English novel, but I’m wondering if anyone else read this with a similar feeling of discomfort?

On Molly Keane

She was full of uncertainties, anxieties, even fears, capable of striking out in anger and of little streaks of prejudice and snobbery, but in spite of all of this, Molly’s essence was in the generosity, kindness and wisdom which won her so many instant friends. It was almost as though there were two of her, one shaped by class and family circumstances, against which she often rebelled but from which she would never quite escape, and the other which stirred into life whenever she worked her way through to writing level, and this Molly became able to see through her first self with calm amusement.  Diana Athill

Further Reading

An excellent review by a reader who loved (5 star) the book – I do know how to behave – believe me, because I know. I have always known. Dear Molly, by Juliana Brina

Diana Athill on editing and befriending Molly Keane 

Molly Keane’s Anglo-Irish life: ‘Courage, glamour and fantasy’

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A New York Times Bestseller, Pachinko is a work of historical fiction set in Korea and Japan that follows the lives of one family and how their circumstances and choices continue to reverberate through the generations.

It demonstrates how discrimination towards ‘perceived outsiders’ and their descendants becomes so deeply ingrained within a culture it distorts the way people live, even when from the outside there is no visible difference.

I won this book from the publisher after answering the question, “What do you think Min Jin Lee wanted to express with her first line of the book?” I hadn’t read the book then, but I liked how thought-provoking the first line (below) was. I’ll share my response at the end of the review.

History has failed us, but no matter.

Review

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When we meet the family it is 1910, an ageing fisherman and his wife live in Yeongdo, a coastal village near Busan in Korea. They decide to take in lodgers for extra money. They’ve had three sons, but only Hoonie, (27) the eldest and weakest survived.

Hoonie was born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot; he was however, endowed with hefty shoulders, a squat build, and a golden complexion. Even as a young man, he retained the mild, thoughtful temperament he’d had as a child.

1910 was the year Japan annexed Korea. After years of war, intimidation and political upheaval; the country would be considered a part of Japan until 1945.

Hoonie went to school long enough to learn to read and write Korean and Japanese well enough to manage the boarding house ledger and do sums so he wouldn’t be cheated in the market. They raised him to be clever and capable ensuring he’d manage when they weren’t around. One day a matchmaker paid them a visit.

We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.

Marriage in that era was like a business transaction, a person’s chances were attributable partly due to physical attributes and mostly by their family’s potential for a dowry and gifts. Hoonie was fortunate, he married Yangjin who after losing her first three, gave birth to Sunja, her fourth child and only girl. When she was 13 her father died of tuberculosis.

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Sunja and her mother work hard running the boarding house; her life is turned around when at 16, she is cornered by a group of boys on her way home from the market. Husan, a man twice her age, intervenes and forms a friendship with her, eventually seducing her; she believing he will marry her.

When she learns of his wife and family in Osaka, she severs contact and accepts an offer of marriage from a Isak, a gentle, young man recovering from illness in their boarding house, soon to depart for Osaka to be with his brother and take up a role as assistant minister in the church.

Isak noticed that when Sunja worried,  she furrowed her brow like she was trying to see better. He liked being with her;  she was capable and level-headed.  She was not helpless, and that was appealing because, although he wasn’t helpless himself, Isak knew that he was not always sensible. Her competence would be good for what his father had once termed Isak’s “impractical nature”.

The couple move to Osaka and live with Yoseb and his wife and discover life is more difficult than Isak realised. Survival is already a challenge, but being outside their native country they encounter for the first time that they are foreigners, perceived differently.

Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.

After giving birth to her son Noa, they have a son together and the boys are raised as if Isak is father to them both. Sunja’s affinity for hard work and her ability to negotiate and stand up to situations, leads her and her sister-in-law into working to support the family despite resistance from her brother-in-law.

Isak knew how to talk with people, to ask questions, and to hear the concerns in a person’s voice; she seemed to understand how to survive, and this was something he did not always know to do. He needed her; a man needed a wife.

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The women in this lengthy saga are stalwarts, it is their story, their trials and tribulations that carry the narrative and make it unique. This could easily have been a story about the underworld inhabited by men who survive and thrive on the other side of the law; instead the author ventures into the lives of women, showing how they support and strengthen families.

It is a story of their endurance and survival and how perceptions change as one generation segues into the next and yet shame and stigma continue to exert their undermining influence.

I loved the book and the immersive experience it offered due to the combination of carefully drawn characters, the attention to the detail of their lives and the expectations under which they lived.

It is clearly a work of great dedication and love, the author originally wrote a version called ‘Motherland‘ which was completely rewritten after living in Tokyo for five years, meeting and interviewing many Korean-Japanese people, discovering how much more complex their lives, identities and connections to both countries were. It necessitated a complete rewrite, taking the story back to 1910, resulting in this extraordinary, all-encompassing, immersion into a rich cultural and familial history.

The Title

It is not until page 142 that we come across ‘pachinko’, the Japanese name for pinball, a huge industry in Japan at the entry into the workforce of Sunja’s son Mozasu.

We discover the difficulty Korean-Japanese citizens have in the workforce, unable to work in ordinary professions, pushed out to the margins of society where they become street traders or involved in ‘less than ideal’ industries such as pachinko parlours. Many  Korean-Japanese person she met had a historical or social connection to pachinko.

It is a metaphor for the predicament of Koreans in Japan, caught in the aftermath of historical conflicts as they win, lose, struggle to survive, sometimes thrive and sustain their gains.

I did not know until I lived in Japan that it was a business dominated by the Korean Japanese. It’s also seen as very second class and kind of vulgar and dirty and dangerous business,” said Lee, adding that these sorts of words and attitudes are still commonly associated with Korean Japanese, even those who have lived in Japan for decades.

My Response to That Question

On the opening line of the novel: History has failed us, but no matter.

History refers to the past and it seems that there are situations or circumstances that have been lived through before, whose lessons have not filtered through to future generations. Tragedy, destruction, suffering and corruption continue. Certain people of every generation encounter inequality and discrimination, no matter what they do to blend in.

However, we should not lose hope, as somewhere in our subconscious we carry the will to survive and thrive no matter what the circumstance. The future belongs to all of us, as yet unknown, to be ventured forth into without preconception.

Further Reading

YouTube – What is Pachinko? Japan’s Strangest Obsession

Business Insider Article – Japan’s pinball gambling industry rakes in 30 times more cash than Las Vegas casinos

Buy a copy of Pachinko via Book Depository