Books I read in July.
- The Traitor’s Girl by Christine Wells #aww2017 ♥
From the outset, this novel reminded me so much of one of my all-time favourites — Restless by William Boyd — that I could not help but love it, turning the pages late into the night. Australian Annabel receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be her dead grandmother, Carrie. And she is in danger. So Annabel drops everything to cross the world and meet this long lost relative, finding her mysteriously vanished, and uncovering secrets of why she’d grown up believing a lie. Other secrets are revealed as the narrative weaves the past with the present, with storylines telling of Carrie’s exploits as a spy in WW2 and her friend, Eve’s. In the present day, Carrie’s secrets are protected by Simon, a journalist, who helps Annabel investigate the mystery surrounding Carrie’s disappearance. A tale of betrayal and double-crossing, love and loyalty.
2. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
The narratology in this book is fascinating. Ostensibly the story of Daniel Sullivan, an American living in Donegal, Ireland as he struggles to keep his marriage, family, and life together; however, there are multiple points of view here, and told in the first, second, third person, in footnotes, via a catalogue, as well as straight prose. The structure is equally as disjointed as the relationships in Daniel’s life, skipping back and forth in time. In the present, Daniel is about to go home to New York for his father’s birthday party, taking in a side trip to LA where the children from his first marriage live, and whom he hasn’t seen for 10 years, when he chances upon a radio interview of a woman he knew well in the 1980s. On a whim, he extends his trip by a day to find out more. However, this sets off the unravelling of his second wife Claudette, who is not averse to doing a runner from marriages herself. She thinks Daniel is off with another woman. I could not help but love this book; however, unlike Daniel I could not love Claudette and found her needy and selfish, when Daniel was the one experiencing so much trauma. No wonder he turned to drink.
3. Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth #aww2017 ♥
I’ve been waiting for this book for a very long time. For 26 years, in fact, ever since I received a framed print of Rossetti’s Proserpina for my 15th birthday. I’m pretty much a Pre-Raph Tragic, so when Kate Forsyth announced she was writing a book on the PR Sisterhood about 2 years ago, I was beside myself. And then I got it into my hands a few days ago and devoured it. Told from multiple points of view — Lizzie Siddal, Jane Morris, Georgiana Burne-Jones and Margot Burne-Jones, the wives and a daughter of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ned Burne-Jones and William Morris, the story weaves a richly sad tale of 19th Century morality, with the thorns of sin that bound women behind high walls at the time, and the pain that was inflicted on them and their loved ones if they should try to pursue their true loves. It is from this suffering of social stigmatisation that I feel the good fairy saved Margot Burne-Jones, as the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale. This is a true romance, in terms of evoking heartbreak and passion, the slough of despondency and obsessive love, when those you love don’t love you, and you cannot love those who do.
4. The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey #aww2017
Australian crime novels are having ‘a moment’, and this is another good one for the canon. Gemma Woodstock and her police partner Felix take on the crime investigation when local teacher Rosalind Ryan is found dead in a lake. Gemma is an interesting, multifaceted character with one of the better opening scenes introducing a character that I have seen for a while. The reality of what has just happened to her and her lack of emotional response are so wonderfully telling. Gemma’s relationships are complicated. She is a mother of a small boy, but struggles with feelings of motherhood, especially when her dedication to her job is so strong. But there is more than just a professional attachment. She is an emotional person, becoming attached to what is probably not good for her; in a way, stuck at a point of emotional development in her life as a teenager when her highschool boyfriend killed himself. This event in her path colours more than her emotional relationships with the key people in her life, as that event reaches into the future, becoming significant in her latest case. I found that The Dark Lake didn’t work as a crime novel for me, as the moment the murderer was introduced, I was able to guess what their motivation for murder was, and every appearance confirmed rather than deflected their guilt. However, this novel did work well as a mystery, as the secrets surrounding Gemma’s relationship with Rosalind Ryan are revealed.
5. Wimmera by Mark Brandi
The comparison to Mystic River is particularly apt, though it did create certain expectations of narrative structure for me, that at first disappointed when they weren’t met. But this is a quintessentially Australian and unique story, and once I settled into the stride, I was immersed, partly because of the nostalgia trip via TV shows, though the insight into a male teenage mind is unsettling. The first part is told from the perspective of Ben as a boy in 1989, where his best friend is Fab, bullied probably because of appearing ‘different’ because of his Italian heritage. In Ben’s street, a girl commits suicide, her family moves away, and a stranger moves in. Soon, Ben is mowing his lawn and being given porno mags. The weight of what is occurring is all the more suffocating for me as a reader, knowing what is happening, but Ben is unaware, still awakening to his own (healthy) sexuality. Cut to the present in part 2, and Fab is still stuck in town, trying his luck with an eBay junk business, in love with a married barmaid, with whom he seems to have a genuine connection. Then a body is found in a rubbish bin in the river. The final part is devastating in revealing the depths of human depravity and a boy’s friendship.
6. The Dream Walker by Victoria Carless #aww2017 ♥
Lucy is in her last year of high school, living in a small township in FNQ where the only thing that grows is ‘resentment’. She lives with her uncommunicative father, going out on his boat to check the fish traps day-in and day-out, but the fish aren’t biting. And the town is losing its lifeblood. Somebody has to be the scapegoat, and towns of this size don’t take too kindly to strangers. And ‘strangeness’. Since a car accident with her best friend Tom, Lucy has been having odd dreams, which she feels aren’t her own, and slowly she finds out what others in town secretly long for, except that which she longs for — the reason why her mother committed suicide. I absolutely loved this YA novel, where everyone dreams of getting out, but the town has a way of throwing its net around you and dragging you in — or under. There are nets of other kinds, ghostnets, those drifting bits of fishing net that wash up on shore, now being turned into beautiful works of art by Indigenous and Islander communities. The language and humour in this novel are stunning, and magic is weaved through like a spell.
7. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier
This book by any other author would have earned it a ♥ for the clever manipulation of the reader’s sympathies, and the atmospheric build up of tension and setting. But it is hard not to compare this with Du Maurier’s other novels, which I enjoyed far more. I think the issue is that I did not find the narrator, Phillip Ashley particularly likeable. He was 24 years old and about to come into a vast inheritance, had a lovely girl Louise pinning her hopes on marrying him, and yet he throws it all away because he is smitten by his uncle’s widow Rachel. I think I was irritated by the depiction of women as being of ‘two types’ as well, though this could be a masterstroke of characterisation and point-of-view narration, as Phillip was raised in a house with no women and taught by his uncle that women were no good. There just didn’t seem to be any reason why Phillip would have thrown everything away for Rachel apart from the fact that she was ‘scantily’ dressed, adventurous, older, and in his home. Maybe I’m being naive. Maybe this is totally what a 24-year-old repressed male would do!
8. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
I had thought to write a Golden Age mystery next — set in Egypt — so this was the obvious starting point. I soon realised I have to stick to my genre! Half of the novel is setting up the various characters, potential motivations for murder, and planting clues, then the (first) murder occurs on board a steamer transferring travellers down the Nile, seemingly out-of-the-blue, prompting Hercule Poirot to put his investigating spats on. I was dizzy at keeping track of who’s who, and remembering the back stories and relationships, the point of several red herrings, but in the end all these fell away as the murderer was revealed. And as I usually feel disappointed at guessing whodunnit early in crime novels, the ending was satisfying. But I did decide not to write Golden Age, as the characterisation was flat and I’m not a plotter!
9. A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay #aww2017 ♥
Another wonderful novel from Ashley Hay, and timely as I have begun to despair of literary fiction lately and thought I couldn’t stomach another. But this was glorious. Beautiful opening imagery of elderly Elsie fallen onto the carpet, through to the merging and criss-crossing of characters’ lives as they live, learn and love in the house at the centre of this story. When Elsie goes to an old-age home suffering dementia, Lucy and Ben move in with their toddler. Lucy struggles with the loneliness and the loss of her pre-motherhood self when she discovers a cache of photographs and starts to obsess about the previous inhabitants. This is interwoven with Elsie’s life as a young mother in the early 1960s, when she is doesn’t expect to be anything else. Yet she is unfulfilled in this, when she cannot connect with her daughter Elaine. She is offered a window into another way of life, sitting as an artist’s model, but this she keeps secret from her family. This is a really Brisbane novel — from the smells of the wet season, the 2011 floods, the rotting vegetation, and the Jacarandas, to the palimpsest of people’s lives layered over place and washing away of traces of what has come before.