Monday, October 31, 2011

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry

The first novel I read by Irish author Sebastian Barry was The Secret Scripture which turned out to be one of my top two favourite reads of last year.  Barry is simply a beautiful writer.  Not in that overdone, overly clever way that I sometimes find with contemporary literature, just original, flowing prose, from the first page to the last.

This is an odd title for a book, no?  Well it actually fits perfectly, because Eneas McNulty spends his whole life hiding from his countrymen, as a wanderer. 

Eneas McNulty is born at the turn of the twentieth century in Sligo in western Ireland.  A series of choices in Eneas young life, from going away to fight in the first world war on the side of England (because he is fascinated by France apparently) to taking a job with the Royal Irish Constabulary, finds Eneas an outcast from his much loved home.  He is at odds with his childhood friends who become Irish freedom fighters and declare that if he sets foot in Ireland again, they will kill him. 

I loved the history lesson in this novel and I equally loved that Barry manages to compress a life into 300 pages.  Not a word or page is wasted.  Barry does not take sides in his narrative about the Irish history, but focuses on the effect of the conflicts on individuals on both sides.  The symbol of clothes is used to great effect in the novel, (note the old blue suit depicted on the cover) in a time when much is left unsaid, the changing clothes of the various characters come to symbolise how they see themselves or at least want to see themselves.

The tone of the novel is quiet and lonely.  Indeed I have not read a better evocation of loneliness, as Eneas goes from continent to continent, and makes two surreptitious trips back to Ireland, trying to eke out an existence for himself.  Barry gives us a portrait of a guileless, honest man, caught up in events he did not foresee.  It is also a scary portrait into the passing of time in all of our lives, at least it connected with me in that way.  The jumping of the years and decades is completely seamless, and there is something very confronting I think, when a character ages swiftly and convincinly, before the reader's very eyes, so to speak.

There are similarities between the The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Secret Scripture, indeed the lives of Eneas McNulty, and Roseanne (the main character in The Secret Scripture) intersect in both novels.
They are lonely, marginalised people, but for different reasons.  Reading about the same characters in two different books is quite fascinating as the points of view are explored so differently.

Of the two, The Secret Scripture for me is the stronger of the novels, mostly I think because it is a more dramatic story, and the character of Roseanne is more involving than Eneas, but that speaks to who they are as well.  Roseanne is passionate and a real fighter, who is locked away from the world, whereas Eneas is a  lost soul, adrift in the world.  He is more remote.  But from first to last he stays true to his own goodness, and demonstrates he is not at all stupid, just a moral man, barred from his home.

I admire The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty because it is truly haunting, and the ending, which is very dramatic by the way, is consistent and satisfying.  In both cases the joy of the novels is Barry's writing.  When I read his prose it comes to mind that not just anyone can write well, it is a craft and his craft is honed to heavenly perfection. I am not kidding, read him and see.  I would highly recommend Sebastian Barry to anyone.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears Readalong Part Four

The Foal's Bread Readalong is hosted by Danielle at The Book Nerd Club.  We have reached the end of the novel and so today's Readalong focuses on the final chapters, coda, and last thoughts.

Well, what a dramatic and moving finale!  And yes, spoilers follow. The whole narrative comes together in the final chapters.  From first to last, this has been Noah's story.  From giving birth as a child herself, in the lonely turbulent waters of Flaggy Creek, the story ends with Noah plummeting to her death, on her beloved horse, in those same waters.  The coda, which is written from Noah's daughter, Lainey's perspective, reassures the reader that Noah's courage and sacrifice enabled her daughter to lead a full life, outside of the shadow that she was forced to endure.

I think I have made it clear throughout, that I was moved by these characters, especially Noah.  The final chapters made me think of my own mother (now deceased) and while my mother did not face all of the same challenges as Noah, thank goodness, she did grow up in a simple country setting and faced some of the same obstacles, especially reduced opportunities.  Gillian Mears convincingly conveys what life must have been like before and after WWII for men,woman and children in rural Australia.  It could be a sparse and lonely existence, and the possibility that individuals could abuse their power over children, was often not even considered.

The hardest aspect of the novel for me was the "grooming" of Noah and her daughter Lainey, by their respective uncles.  This is very hard to read.  It was all too horrible to consider.  And to be honest I found myself, pushing aside the clues, in the later chapters that Lainey was singled out for abuse by her uncle.  My deliberately pushing aside, what I didn't want to see, in relation to characters I had become close to, I believe, accurately mirrors what can happen where individuals fail to acknowledge what they don't want to see, and like me, just hope for the best.  Good writing, like good art I think, can invite us to examine our reactions to something.  This worked for me here.

The words brave and courageous, are often used glibly, in my view,  to describe what an author chooses to tackle.  In this case, I feel that Gillian Mears was very courageous to unflinchingly incorporate these difficult aspects as part of Noah, and her family's story.  I would like to think that the environment we live in now is different, and there are more "checks and balances" so to speak, and that children have more of a voice, but we know that is not always the case, even today.

So yes, I shed a tear at the end, and I think it was mostly because Noah's story was so moving.  She had so few resources to call upon in terms of power and communication, but she was resolute and fierce when it came to protecting her daughter.

Overall, I think this is a remarkable book, I love the Australian context, the symmetry in the narrative, and the tone and style of the writing. Thank you, very much, to Allen & Unwin for the book, and a big thank you to Danielle for bringing the Readalong to my attention.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears Readalong Part Three

The Foal's Bread Readalong is hosted by Danielle at The Book Nerd Club, and this week sees us reading chapters 14 through to the end of chapter 19.  Again part of the fun is discussing aspects of the plot so henceforth there are spoilers.

I found this section of the book the most compelling so far; it sees our female protagonist Noah completely stripped bare.  From the final deterioration and death of her beloved husband Roley, her descent into alcoholism and the ultimate blow upon the bruise comes when her daughter Lainey outshines her own achievements on the high jumping circuit.

The full tragedy of Noah's life is played out in these chapters.  Mears portrays the misery that is alcoholism to perfection.  She is unflinching in the narrative, and at times, I found myself needing to pause in the reading because it is just so sad for Noah.  The self loathing, the self medication and the self sabotage are all convincingly depicted as part of Noah's story.

This is the section where abuse in Noah's past returns to, not only destroy her, but is reaching its malignant tentacles into the next generation, and threatens to shape Lainey, as the young girl struggles to understand and survive her mother's behaviour, remoteness and hostility towards her.  I love how Mears has depicted the relationship between mother and daughter.  It is heart-breaking.  We experience, through simple actions and what goes unsaid, Noah's inability to overcome her own demons and be there for her daughter, and Lainey's utter confusion and need to secure her mother's love.  For Noah this is nothing new, as she struggled in the same way to express her feelings to her husband right up until his death.  The scene where Noah and Lainey are trying to force feed Roley at the end of his life is confronting and moving beyond words.

I still have the final chapters of the book to read, but for me Mears has not put a foot wrong.  I love the writing style that keeps the reader slightly off balance.  In my view the writing style amplifies the emotional impact of the novel.  Again for me (I know the writing style has been a source of discussion in the readalong) the choice of writing style is a stroke of genius, as it has created in this reader at least, a definite sense of cascading or flowing, and at times, bumping along with the story, much like a butter box, set adrift in the fast flowing currents of a mountain creek, on a moonlit night.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Does a Dickens novel need an introduction?  Well I will say that I am pleased with myself for having read this 1841 classic as it is the first proper classic that I have read all year.

The novel begins with little Nell and her grandfather as they lose the Old Curiosity Shop, due to the grandfather's gambling debts and are forced to flee onto the roads of England.  The story follows their progress, and the progress of the "saints and sinners" who either love and have aided little Nell and her grandfather, or have contributed to their downfall.

Many years ago, I read A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens and found myself completely mesmerized by that novel.  I enjoyed The Old Curiosity Shop very much, but am finding it difficult to think of ways to describe it.  There are also aspects to the novel the I found quite irritating. 

One of aspects of the novel that I found fascinating is that it reads like something that was serialized, which of course it was, as it was published in weekly instalments in one of Dickens's serial publications.  I found it quite nostalgic (in a good way) to be reading chapter after chapter and imagining English folk, back in 1840, eagerly anticipating the next part of the story.

I also enjoyed Dickens's description of the places Nell and her grandfather pass through.  He is the absolute master of capturing the poverty and struggle of the working classes of the time.  As they pass through one of the northern industrialised cities, the reader experiences all of the darkness, noise, filth and scurrying humanity of those streets.  A painting could not say as much.  Poverty is explored in many different contexts in the novel.  The archetypal "baddies" that Dickens does to perfection, while not materially poor, are certainly morally bankrupt, and often quite funny I found.  I think what could be exasperating to the modern reading palette is that most of the characters don't have any sort of moral ambiguity; they are either pure, wholesome and without fault, or they are sinister and forever plotting evil deeds.  I say it could be exasperating, because I actually found this quite fun; a bit like a fairy tale for adults. 

There is also something quite fresh and completely recognisable about many of the interactions and dialogue between the characters.  The cast of characters is epic.  I am not sure, but suspect that The Old Curiosity Shop of the title refers to the ensemble collection of people in the novel, as much as the bricks and mortar shop at the beginning.  The characters are all certainly memorable, often because of their extreme nature, unusual, occupation or physical characteristics, but as a complete volume, I am not sure that it all ties together as well as some of his other work.  And perhaps it is unfair to compare it to his other novels, as it was not originally published as a novel.  While I risk stating the bleeding obvious, I think my enjoyment of the novel suffered a bit from differences between our eras.  Some of the scenes that were emotionally loaded seemed a bit overblown to me.

One of the themes that Dickens explores throughout is the neglect and mistreatment  of children in the Victorian era.  I found one of the most evocative and poignant examples of the cheapness of childrens' lives at the time, is a young female servant character who has no name at all.

My major peeve with the novel is the character of Nell's grandfather.  I wanted to shake him, right up until the end in fact.  I guess this could be a tribute to Dickens's wonderful characterisation, but I just found him completely annoying and pathetic.   In fairness, I am sure the grandfather was meant to be broken and pathetic, and I have not read a better account of a gambling addiction, ever.  It amazed me, that Dickens's portrayal of the itch and compulsion associated with gambling, resonates just as strongly in the western society of today.  

Overall, the suspense of the novel builds very nicely, and true to form, Dickens had me cheering for the oppressed and eagerly awaiting the downfall of the conniving oppressors. While not my favourite by this literary giant, it is great story telling, and I am very pleased I took the time to read it.  I would love to know what others think of this novel and Dickens's work generally.  Which are your favourites?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears Readalong Part Two

This is the second instalment for the Foal's Bread Readalong, which is hosted by Danielle at The Book Nerd Club.  We are now halfway through the novel, with this instalment covering chapters 7 through to the end of chapter 13. 

Spoiler Alert: discussion of the content follows

These chapters more or less seem to cover the duration of WWII, and follow the inhabitants of One Tree through those years.  The persistent melancholic mood of the drama is underscored by Roley's legs becoming more and more useless.  The consequences of Roley's disability are far reaching: he is rejected from signing up for the army, he is less able to do even basic work on the property, and perhaps most sadly, he becomes more and more remote from Noah.

A harsher edge appears in Noah, as she becomes isolated in her work at One Tree; milking the cows, looking after the horses and her two children.  Noah finds temporary solace away from One Tree, drinking with her aunts in the town.

The incredibly sad family situation is beautifully balanced by Noah and Roley's emotional investment in their children and the horses.  The long barren Gurlie is finally with foal and gives birth, bringing joy and hope to the family.  The section ends with all of the family back in the saddle, practicing jumps on the property.  After an exhilarating afternoon on the horses, the section ends on a sour note, as a large rupture appears in Noah and Roley's relationship. Roley is left to reflect in despair.

I continue to really enjoy this story.  It is an Australia I recognise.  I will explain.  While my upbringing was about as urban as can be, my mother's family is from the country, and as children, we spent a number of holidays,  with my country cousins, feeding chooks, milking cows and riding horses.  Country people, even to this day, have elements of the Gillian Mears's characters.  They are often not big on talking, and are more likely to come out with an astute and pithy one liner, than endlessly discuss the merits of this or that, as I enjoy doing. 

I can see the house at One Tree in my mind's eye.  So for me Mears accurately and magically recreates an authentic rural family setting.  Those WWII times are not that long ago, and even less time seems to have past in a lot of rural areas.  The corrugated iron, the stock rails, and the endless cycle of animal care;  I love how she has captured all of these elements.   She also captures the common sense and make-do attitude of the people that go with these settings.  For me, the tensions that exist within, and between the characters, ring completely true.

I do feel involved with the characters and really look forward to learn where their lives lead next.  The high-jumping circuit no doubt beckons for Noah and her daughter Lainey, but it will be interesting to see how Roley will endure his secondary role.  I wonder how Lainey and her brother George, who have led quite an isolated life thus far at One Tree during the war, will cope with the show circuit, especially given their mother's pent up emotions seem likely to burst through at any moment, and their father retreats more and more into himself.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

The Redbreast (2006 English translation) is by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, and it is a cracker.  This is the third in the Harry Hole series.  I have not read the first two in the series and it did not seem to matter in terms of my enjoyment or understanding.

The novel opens in 2000 with police officer Harry being assigned to security duty when the US president is visiting Oslo.  At first I thought okay, this is pretty typical thriller fare.  Events take a very dramatic turn when Harry accidentally shoots a Secret Service agent, mistaking him for an assassin.  The political fallout has the unexpected consequence of Harry being promoted to Inspector but he is forced to leave his old unit, and given an out-of-way post.  Harry finds himself tracking down an unusual rifle, that he suspects of being imported into the country to kill a high ranking target.  The investigation has Harry trying to piece together a mystery that involves modern day Neo-Nazis, but originated in WWII and the Nazi occupation of Norway.

The action switches between Harry and a group of Norwegian soldiers fighting on the German side in WWII.  We learn of the relationships between these men and a mysterious death that divides them.  One of the highlights of the novel, and a fantastic counterbalance for all of the action, is a romance between one of the Norwegian solders and a nurse he meets while recuperating from a shrapnel wound.  This might sound cheesy but it is completely convincing,  and very poignant.  The echoes of this doomed love story reverberate strongly in the modern day investigation.

There is a lot of interesting information about Norway during WWII, all of which was new to me, and I love fiction with a WWII theme.   The plot is very intricate, in the war years, and in 2000 with Harry, with characters intersecting all over the place.  I think the reason Nesbo is able to make this work, is by playing up the human factor as well.  There is subtlety in the characters responses and interactions, and the action and mystery have a solid emotional foundation, which for me, made the convoluted plot seem worthwhile.  I found myself really involved with these characters.  And I think that is the point where a thriller, or crime novel, is elevated to something else entirely.  Nesbo had me eating out of the palm of his hand.

Readers of this blog may be aware that I am a bit partial to the Scandinavian crime writers.  And for me, at least for now, Nesbo is king.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears Readalong Part One

The Foal's Bread Readalong is hosted by Danielle over at The Book Nerd Club.  Gillian Mears is an Australian novelist whose work I was unfamiliar with, but I do love a good tale with an Australian setting so was keen to give Foal's Bread a go. 

Information about the novel by publishers Allen & Unwin:

The long-awaited new novel from the award-winning author of The Grass Sister tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family and the high-jumping horse circuit prior to the Second World War. A love story of impossible beauty and sadness, it is also a chronicle of dreams 'turned inside out', and miracles that never last, framed against a world both tender and unspeakably hard.

I am completely swept up in this story and these characters.  When I started reading Foal's Bread I was immediately  reminded of Australian novels that I read when I was a teenager, thanks to my mother's love of Australian fiction, by authors such as Ruth Park and E.V. Timms.  More recently, I have enjoyed this type of Australian setting and characters in novels by Tim Winton, Peter Carey and ChrisWomersley.  Foal's Bread is a brilliant example of this type of book: excellent writing, engaging plotting and characters that I know I will be weeping over before too long.

Spoiler Alert:  Discussion of Preamble to Chapter 6 so be warned.

I was shocked and compelled by the opening of the novel where the reader is introduced to fourteen year old Noah as she gives birth, with only pigs for company, in a cold mountain stream, all on her own.  I am certainly eager to see if the baby survived and reappears later in the novel. Or are we meant to assume that the baby drowned?  Either way it is powerful stuff, and not only gives the reader a clear idea of what young Noah's life has been like, but also a strong impression of her character and spirit.

There is a preamble before the story opens and while it is beautifully written, having a poetic and wistful feel to it, I am not sure that it really added anything for me.  This probably comes down to personal preference, but in my view, the Chapter 1 opening is really strong, and I don't know that the preamble actually achieves that rearview, or looking back perspective, that the author is possibly shooting for.  It made sense that way when I re-read it now, but I have only done that because I am writing about it.  Normally I don't think a reader would bother.

Foal's bread is a love story in the most wonderful, fleeting-joy-and-lots-of- tragedy, sense. And by the end of Chapter 6, the arc is well and truly descending into tough times for Roley and Noah.

I am loving it all.  It is dramatic and moving, without being too sentimental. 

I also find the characters in Roley's extended family delightful and really well drawn.  Can't you just imagine the sister who likes to bake and is especially kind to the children?

I also like the perspective of pre WWII Australia, and what the coming of the war, so close on the end of WWI,  meant for these regional areas.  Min's grief and protectiveness of her family make a lot of sense to me, as annoyingly frustrating as she is.

My final thought is that while there is lots of drama in the narrative, the characters continue to reveal more of themselves and develop in complexity, which is satisfying.  And, this really is the final thought, the relationship between Noah and Roley is wonderful and nuanced and oh so sad. I grew up with Jacaranda trees everywhere you see, and I daresay I will not look at their beautiful purple October carpet again without thinking of Noah and Roley.   I will stop before it becomes painful!  Two thumbs up from me so far.