Lovesong- Alex Miller

Courtesy of Allen and Unwin.

I started reading Lovesong by Alex Miller because I had tickets to see him speak at The Wheeler Centre. I must confess that prior to the event I had never heard of him. But, I am always keen to find new authors whose work I will love so I jumped at the opportunity. It turns out that Alex Miller is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. It could be argued that to win the prize once is a fluke, but to win it twice suggests some that can write. While not being one of the book that won that prestigious accolade, Lovesong has not been entirely missed by the various literary awards about the place. It was the winner of several prestigious awards including The Age 2010 Book of the Year and the 2011 NSW Premiers Literary Awards- People’s Choice Award.  Clearly this is a ‘great’ book.

Ken is a ‘retired’ writer living in Carlton with his grown up daughter. He has just returned from Venice when he discovers that one of the old shops in the local shopping strip has been turned into a pastry shop run by an Australian man and his exotic North African wife, and their five-year old daughter. His story teller’s antennae is up releasing that these people must have a great story to tell. He befriends John and begins to draw out their incredible story, and so we get the story of Sabiha, and John, and their life in the industrial arrondissement of Paris.

Miller’s is a talented and skillful writer. The tone of the story changes between the slow, almost dreamlike pace of the Paris story and the plain-spoken story of life in Carlton. The story of John and Sabiha is one about love, hopes, dreams and the pain that is caused by dreams going unfulfilled. In this case, Sabiha’s dream is to be a mother of a daughter. When, after sixteen years of marriage she is still without her child, she takes drastic action to remedy the situation, with consequences for all concerned.

This is a beautiful book. Miller has drawn all his characters, including the minor characters, with empathy. There were times when I didn’t like or approve of Sabiha or her actions. But, I remained committed to following her story to the end, and I was well rewarded when I got there. This book is excellent, admittedly not ‘high action’, just a good story about two people trying to make a life together.

 

The Sense of an Ending- Julian Barnes

I read the other day that the Man Booker Prize  for 2011 had been awarded to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It occurred to me that I had the book in ‘My Tower of Shame’, I decided it was time to see what the fuss was about. The only thing that stopped me reading this in one sitting was that I had to go to sleep to get up for work the next morning. Unlike some books that win various prizes, that when read leave you wondering what the judges were thinking, this book is excellent.

It is in a sense a memoir, but not. It is about history, the personal kind, and the fallibility of memory for the reliable retelling of our stories. It is the story of Tony Webster, now in his sixties. He is remembering the key moments in his youth. His friendship with boys he met at school, and most notably that of Adrian, the boy who came to the group late, and whose high opinion the other sought. He remembers the first woman he loved, and the lasting effect that his own interpretation of the memories of that time have had on him. It is also about suicide, and divorce and being a father, and of life continuing on and on to its inevitable conclusion. He talks about how when we are young, we are ‘still waiting for life to start, not realising that it has in fact already begun’. Then in our middle age we realise that the opportunities to effect any real change in our lives has gone, and that this is probably ‘it’.

I just finished reading this morning, and I confess that a lot of it has probably gone over my head, and I won’t get it until after, when I’ve had a chance to ruminate and mull over it. But, that in itself is a measure of how superb this book is. So many books are fine, and a good way to pass the time and escape from reality for a while. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact it can be a pleasure in and of itself. But, great literature is the kind that stays with you for months, if not years later, while you try to figure out the enigma of it.

A great book and a worthy winner, and at no more than 150 pages a quick and satisfying read. Well worth picking up.

Cloud Atlas- David Mitchell

Cover of "Cloud Atlas"

Cover of Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell was published in 2004, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  It is a series of six short stories, spread across time beginning in the 1800’s and finishing in a post- apocalyptic future.

In addition to being six stories, it is also divided into two halves. In the first half we move through each story, in chronological order, moving forwards through time. Each story comes to an abrupt end, leaving the reader anxious to know what comes next, only to continue on into the next. The experience is not unlike watching television. We move from historical fiction, through to 1970’s political thriller, to a futurist sci-fi drama, with no more than the turning of a page.  A testament to how good this guy is as a writer, despite the shock of being dragged away from a story that we have become emotionally involved in, we are quickly sucked into the new world within no more than a few paragraphs.

Something else that is noteworthy is that with each change of story, as well as changing between eras and genres, each story has a new voice, they are all written from a different point-of-view.

As I said the book is in two halves. The first half is mainly concerned with the narrative of each individual story. The reader is vaguely aware of a ‘link’ between them, but we are absorbed in the ‘here-and-now’ of each new story. But, something happens about mid-way through the sixth story (incidentally the only one of the six that is told without any break). The book shifts from being merely a description of the events unfolding, and begins to explore some far bigger, and weightier issues. It starts to ask some big questions about freedom, about the role and nature of history, about the difference between civilisation and barbarism (and who gets to decide which is which). Following the conclusion of the sixth story, we start moving back through the other five stories (from where we left off) in reverse chronological order.

This book is brilliant. There were times when I was reading where I felt compelled to write down quotes from it, to remember later. Other times I simply had to sit and ponder the questions that this book asks of it reader. I had to leave a full day before I could even think about starting another book, because I had been so deeply affected, and didn’t want that feeling to go away.

Apparently, this book has been made into a film, set for release sometime in 2011. I’m not sure whether this will translate on to the screen effectively. But, I understand the impulse of those behind the project to want to share this with as many people as possible.

The Tiger’s Wife- Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht is the story of Natalia, a young doctor in the former Yugoslavia, who upon learning the news that her beloved grandfather has died, remembers the stories he had told her throughout her life. The main stories she returns to are the story of the ‘deathless man’ and the story of the ‘tiger’s wife’.

This is a wonderful book, so full of life and whimsy, but always in the background is the tragedy of loss and hardship that comes from a land that has been if not at war, then at least preparing for war, for most of the last hundred years or more. I found this book by accident, and when I realised that it had as its backdrop the Balkan Wars that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, I was hesitant, expecting it to be depressing. I am so glad that I ignored my hesitation.

While the various wars that have beset the area are a near constant feature of the landscape, it is never allowed to intrude on the telling of the stories. If anything, the book is about how life continues despite the horror of war, and that human beings always find ways to cope.

It is a country where superstition rules. To begin with we share the frustration of Natalia (and her grandfather) with the prevailing superstition that seems to grip the people, refusing to make way for reason. In many ways this superstition exacerbates that tensions between the different religions and creeds that make up the Balkan people. However, we eventually come to understand that superstition can serve a useful function in providing the survivors of horror, the means to go on.

This is Obreht’s first novel, and at the age of 26, she has already set the literary world on fire. She has won several awards about the place for her short stories, and The Tiger’s Wife was the Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. It is with great anticipation that I look forward to seeing what she produces next.