Books I read in April.
- Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill ♥
How to describe this ‘novel’? It is brilliantly funny satire, ostensibly sixteen biographical vignettes of fictitious literary notables in the Australian writing scene. The characters dip into each others’ stories, building up a picture of shady characters, imposters, and unsettling mysteries.
2. Possession. A Romance by A.S. Byatt ♥
I almost didn’t read this fabulous interwoven story of two biographers uncovering a literary mystery, after reading The Children’s Book which I found dense and plodding. But this book has redeemed A.S. Byatt for me. I loved the drive to find out what had happened between two Victorian poets, as the main characters Roland and Maud piece together unearthed letters and read clues into the poems. And I sobbed at the end. About obsession, copyright and ownership, and claims to other people’s hearts.
3. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell ♥
Iris Lockhart runs a vintage clothing shop, is in a relationship with a married man, and has a confusing relationship with her step-brother. Then she discovers she is the sole family contact for a great aunt, Esme Lennox who needs to be discharged from a psychiatric institution after 60 years. Except she has never heard of her before, and Esme’s sister, Kitty, has Alzheimer’s. I was utterly absorbed by this story of poor, unfortunate Esme who was ‘vanished’ from her family because she was ‘different’, and unable to maintain the family’s expectations for respectability–for who would marry Esme if she behaved like that? And worse–ruin her sister Kitty’s chances, too.
4. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
I love love Sarah Waters’ books, but this one is very different territory. It is ostensibly a gothic ghost story, centred around the crumbling ‘pile’ of the upper classes. The Ayres family call a doctor for their remaining servant, and Dr Faraday attends, out of interest for the house he fondly recalled from his impoverished youth. In 1947, he has become upwardly mobile, while Mrs Ayres, her daughter Caroline, and son Roderick’s way of life collapses, obsessed with maintaining the family mansion. There is a supernatural theme, and I was quite scared out of my wits at points–but then I have always hated horror. It was more a meditation on class society and post-WWII changes for me.
5. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I am truly baffled by this book, not because of the content but because of the rave reviews I’ve heard of it. It is supposed to be fin-de-siècle but the characters, despite being circus-folk seem far too contemporary, and there is no real sense of the outside world being Victorian. The premise of the story is that two master-magicians who disagree on the nature of magic pit their apprentices (one a magician’s daughter) against each other in a ‘game’. After a childhood of training, the game is conducted in the night circus. However, nobody knows the rules and objectives of the game, and neither did I. Nor did I care.
6. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue ♥
Eleven-year-old Anna is a ‘fasting girl’, subsisting on manna from heaven, when Lib Wright is sent to Ireland for two weeks’ observation. A village committee has been set up to validate Anna’s ‘saintliness’, proving that she hasn’t been sneaking food over the 4 months of fasting. Lib is a Nightingale: a new breed of nurse who won’t put up with superstition, nor the strictures of Catholic belief, which to me felt more bizarre than the ‘good people’. There were a few instances where I felt Donoghue was heavy-handed and didactic, also where some of Lib’s assumptions of various relationships in the house felt contrived. However, overall, and in light of the perfect ending, this was an immersive and thrilling story.
7. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt #aww2017
A reimagining of the Lizzie Borden axe-murders in Fall River, 1892. A much-hyped book, Schmidt masterfully evokes all the senses, taste and smell predominantly, to portray a family that has turned on itself. Rather than focusing on the murder and investigation or trial, this book looks at the ordinary lives of the house on the day of the murder, including the victims Abby and Andrew Borden, Lizzie and her sister Emma, as well as Bridget the maid, their uncle John and his accomplice Benjamin. Told from the points of view of Bridget, Emma, Lizzie and fictional Benjamin, each voice is distinctive. Lizzie for me was always an unreliable narrator and I drew my conclusions about her guilt early in the book.
8. Her Mother’s Secret by Natasha Lester #aww2017 ♥
The story begins in Sutton Veny in 1918. The war finishes and Leonora suffers a tragic loss, allowing her to follow her dream of making cosmetics in New York. Dreams are a recurring motif throughout this novel, and Leo even has her ‘I have a dream’ speech to rally her employees later in the book. However, before she creates her cosmetics empire she has to battle societal attitudes against women in business, the scandal of women wearing make-up, and women’s limited career choices. There are only two kinds of women: those who conform, and prostitutes. And it is so very easy to fall from one to the other. And men are not the only foe. In New York, Leo faces intense rivalry from other women who want what she has–the love of two men. I don’t normally read books twice as I just have too many books and too little time, but I read this one twice and got more out of it the second time.
9. To Become a Whale by Ben Hobson
Set in Noosa and Moreton Island in 1961, this debut novel by Ben Hobson captures the rite of passage of 13-year-old Sam as his father takes him to Tangalooma whaling station to learn the trade. Sam is bereft, having lost his mother, and through flashbacks we see touching vignettes of his mother’s love for him. Though his mother is only present in these few flashbacks, she is central to the story, central to holding them together as a family. Sam’s dad Walter does not know how to father, let alone be both mother and father to Sam, shut off emotionally from his wife and child, and from the men he works with. No man is an island. At first, Sam seeks companionship in his dog Albert, and later Walter’s only friend, Phil. However, what he really seeks is his father’s care and love. The climax features an epic journey to force his father to grow up and be the man he should be. In the process, Sam grows up himself.
10. Night Street by Kristel Thornell #aww2017
An imagined life of Melbourne artist Clarice Beckett. The prose creates a misty, soft focus on the artist’s life, reflecting the moody landscapes she painted. It’s a quiet life with moments of frisson, well-lived, but ultimately as expendable as her artwork. Sad, moving, and engaging,