Hannah Kent was a legacy at our university. She took the same creative writing degree as I undertook a few years after her, and our lecturers were always talking about her, and how she moved to Melbourne and started her very own lit journal, Kill Your Darlings. Now, the uni has even more reason to be proud of their PhD candidate, as Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites won the Australian Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and subsequently a bidding war began over the publication rights to her manuscript. The hype leading up to the release of the book, particularly in South Australia, was enormous. And it hardly seems fair that a debut should have such high expectations before the public has even read a page.
I couldn’t wait to read this story about the last woman, Agnus Magnusdottoir, to be executed in Iceland. Burial Rites is Kent’s fictional account of the circumstances surrounding her protagonist’s execution, and the last months of the woman’s life before the execution. I enjoyed reading the book, but for me it wasn’t more than simply interesting. That is not to criticise the writing itself; which is sharp, considered and paints a beautiful picture of the Icelandic countryside. But for me, knowing from the outset the fate of Agnus Magnusdottoir robbed the novel of the intrigue and suspense which otherwise would have made the book one which I couldn’t put down.
Before I read the book, I read an article Kent wrote for Kill Your Darlings, about the process of researching, writing and getting Burial Rites published. It is one of the most honest, passionate and frank articles I have ever read about writing and getting published, and captures the stress, self-doubt and persistence which is required to not only actually complete a novel, but to find a publisher and re-edit a manuscript for publication.
While Burial Rites is not one of my favourite books, it is a book which definitely deserves the hype surrounding it, and is well worth reading. After all, to not know that Agnus Magnusdottoir was a real person or her fate before reading is an injustice to her legacy. Kent skilfully explores another side of the story, suggesting that nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.
Published Picador, 2013
Due to my travels until the end of September, the next book club book won’t be posted until October, and my posts will be more infrequent than usual while I’m away. I am, however, reading, and will have lots to post about when I return if I don’t manage in the meantime!
There are books I re-read which I loved as a child, and I love to re-read them because of the nostalgia attached. I get to relive my memories of the book. I also sometimes read books by authors I loved as a child, books which I didn’t read as a child, seeking to rekindle my love for that author in a new book. But more often than not, I find the book not nearly as exciting as I would have found it as a child. It takes a special author who is able to capture the imagination of children and adults alike, and Morris Gleitzman is an author who achieves this feat seamlessly.
Boy Overboard is the story of eleven-year old Jamal and his nine-year old sister, Bibi. They both love soccer and want to be famous soccer players to make their country, Afghanistan, proud. But they are forced to flee when the government discovers the secret school their mother has been running. Together with their parents, Jamal and Bibi escape the country and end up on a boat to Australia.
Gleitzman has the most amazing knack for seeing the world through the eyes of a child, and showing the reader the world through his young protagonists’ eyes. A child reading this book will perceive and trust and accept Jamal’s opinions about the world; an adult reading the book will recognise the gaps and misunderstandings in this boy’s perceptions. On the one hand, an adult reading Jamal’s story will be touched and heartbroken at his extravagant plan that becoming a soccer superstar will make everything okay again, and on the other will find solace in the fact that, for the moment at least, he is sheltered from some of the realities of his situation. That this young child is able to see past hopelessness and hold onto some sort of hope.
Boy Overboard is a moving story about the sacrifice and hardships asylum seekers who attempt to make it to Australia by boat go through, told through the eyes of a child. But at its core, the book is about so much more than that. This is a story of two kids with big dreams and big hearts who, apart from living in and having to escape from a war torn country, are no different to kids anywhere else in the world.
Morris Gleitzman was one of my favourite authors as a child, but I love his writing more and more the older I get.
Puffin Books, Penguin Australia, 2001
June’s book club book is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Really looking forward to this one! Happy reading!
I wish I’d read this book when I was a teenager, although at the same time I’m glad I haven’t encountered this book until now. I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of the book when I was a teenager as I did reading it now. Walk in My Shoes is told through the eyes of 14-year old Gulnessa, who escapes Afghanistan with her family and arrives illegally in Australia on a boat. They are subsequently put in a detention centre for processing, which they can’t understand- why is this country locking them up when the criminals are the ones terrorising their country, not the ones who try to escape? Why do the Australians think they would risk their lives to get here unless they had no other choice?
This is a book which so desperately needed to be written, and, while it was published back in 2004, I feel it is especially relevant now. News reports and politicians refuse to put a face to asylum seekers and “boat people” and to detention centres, making it difficult to understand and think about what these people go through on their journey to be accepted into Australia. Walk in My Shoes puts faces to this collective group, and it is heart-wrenching. I was so close to crying on so many occasions while reading this book, for all of the challenges these asylum seekers endure: the painful decision to flee their country for the sake of their lives, the difficult journey out of their country, the hope keeping them afloat on the treacherous boat ride to Australia and how their hope keeps getting dashed the longer they are kept in the detention centre, locked-up in overcrowded conditions behind barbed wire.
Evans’ writing is so vivid and so detailed, that it is hard to remember that this particular family is fictional, although their experiences are based on the experiences of actual asylum seekers. The majority of Australians have no idea how much we have to be thankful for; that we live in a country where we don’t wake up every morning fearing for our lives. Walk in My Shoes is a book which everyone should read. It will, at the very least, remind you that asylum seekers are real people, simply looking for a safe place to live, something which should be, but isn’t, a basic right for everyone.
Walk in My Shoes, published by Penguin, 2004
This month, we’ll be reading ‘Boy Overboard’ by Morris Gleitzman.
Is it wrong to be part of a book club (or, in my case, to run one) and not finish the book you’ve been set/ have set yourself? Unfortunately, I can now add The Glass Canoe to the list of books I’ve started but haven’t finished. Yet. Or is it better to have started to have read a book, than never to have started at all?
The thing is, I was really enjoying The Glass Canoe. Ireland’s writing is vivid and raw, and each short chapter builds on the previous to expand the world to the reader, despite the fact that these chapters are often separate anecdotes (at least for as far as I read. I’m only fifty pages in). I didn’t want to stop reading The Glass Canoe, but I did what all avid readers do and bought some new books in the middle of March. And I started reading two of them, first alongside Ireland’s novel, and then one of the books surged ahead of the other two and that became the book which I had to read.
For me, March wasn’t the month to be reading The Glass Canoe. But I know this is a book I’ll finish, because even now as I’m writing this post, I’m wishing I didn’t succumb to the other books and neglect Ireland’s novel. I want to know where the story goes, and what happens, and immerse myself back in that world.
So, if you’re part of a book club, yes, the whole point of a book club is to read books and discuss them. But I would suggest that if you’re not fussy about plot spoilers and you’re not engaged in the book, leave it. It’s not worth your time. And you can still discuss why you couldn’t finish it (bookish reasons, I mean. I don’t think the “I was too busy” excuse washes over as well as the “I was too busy reading other books” excuse). And even then, it’s a thin line. I’ve walked it this month, but I’ll do my best not to walk that line again. And I will, of course, give an update when I finally work my way through The Glass Canoe.
This month, we’ll be reading Walk in my Shoes by Alwyn Evans, published by Penguin Books, 2004
When I read a book, I usually find something likeable about the main character, even if it takes a few pages or the whole book to find out what that thing is. But Maureen McCarthy’s 19-year old protagonist Rose, in Rose by any other Name, is not likeable as a person. She was on track to follow in her father’s footsteps as a lawyer before things outside of her control sent her spiralling down a different path. The Rose we meet in the first few pages of the book is a Rose who has made mistakes and is still punishing herself, and her family, for the events of the past year and a half. When Rose’s mother decides to tag along with her on a road trip down the coast, to visit Rose’s dying grandmother, Rose is less than impressed. And as much as she tries, she can’t hide it.
Rose is a character stuck at an awkward age. The extravagant dreams of her teenage years and belief and hope in the world and in herself are over, and, given her recent questionable choices, she seems to be at a point where she thinks she can’t ever move on and find redemption. She happily tells the world what she thinks, even when what she thinks is hard to take. I like McCarthy’s characterisation of Rose, but Rose herself, well, she has a few more hard lessons she needs to learn.
While I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m finally past young adult fiction. This is a genre I’ve always loved and yet, reading this book, I became extremely frustrated by Rose’s superficial angst and her inability to get over herself. Thinking back to other YA novels I’ve loved, I can’t remember feeling this way about any other characters before, so maybe it is just that Rose is over the top. But that is not a fault of McCarthy’s writing, which is sharp, strong, and her characterisation is some of the best I’ve ever read. I especially loved reading the contrasting personality traits between Rose and her three sisters, and the scenes in the book where all four siblings are in the same room are the most vivid and heart-warming sections of the book.
For everything I don’t like about Rose’s character, I admire McCarthy’s resolve in creating this strong protagonist, and rode the waves with Rose right in to the shore, as she comes to terms with her life’s turmoil. Even the worst mistakes of your life don’t have to mean the end.
What did you think?
I couldn’t help but think it was rather good timing choosing Peter Carey’s novel for January’s book, considering the furore surrounding Lance Armstrong’s confession, another life which also, unfortunately, turned out to be something of a fake. But this isn’t a post about Lance Armstrong.
It is a post about Carey’s novel, and, while the book is a work of fiction, Carey draws parallels from a similar incident which happened in Australia in the 1940s. His novel is narrated by Miss Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a struggling poetry journal The Modern Review, who recounts the course of her life since accompanying an old acquaintance to Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s. There, while trying to get her beloved journal into the hands of Kuala Lumpur’s literary-minded, she meets one Christopher Chubb, who insists on telling her his history. Sarah is tantalised by a poem Christopher has fleetingly shown her and, in order to read more of the material, which she believes is her chance to discover and publish a poetic genius, she endures his story, and hears about his life as a fake.
Chubb begins his life as a fake in Australia in the 1940s. After his own poetry is routinely rejected from literary journals, Chubb invents a poet, Bob McCorkle, and sends work to the journals under this new identity. The work is accepted, and Chubb can’t predict how this innocent hoax will change the course of his life.
This novel really fascinated me, although I found it hard to read at first. The narrative trips over itself, as Sarah is telling the reader her experiences of being told this story. So it is confusing, at the beginning at least, of who is narrating to who; Sarah to the reader or Chubb to Sarah. But the further I read, the less confusing it became, and I became engrossed in the twisted world of the novel, as Chubb’s fictitious poet springs to life and sets out to torment his creator.
The one part of this novel I couldn’t quite fathom was the controversy of the actual hoax itself. Several writers write under pen names, and Chubb simply took this a little further and created a whole identity for his poet, including a birth certificate. This, to me, isn’t so different from a writer writing under a different name, apart from the fact that when a pen name is used, it is only the reader, and not also the editor, who is being deceived.
My Life as a Fake questions how far the divide is between our imaginings and our realities, and how easily the two can become blurred. It challenges how far a person is willing to go to get what they want in the world, and how much they are willing to sacrifice. In this book, Carey has created a world which is so vivid and captivating, set predominately in Kuala Lumpur, that I constantly had to remind myself that the book I was reading was a work of fiction, despite being inspired by real events. Now I can say I’ve read a Peter Carey, and a wonderful one at that.
What did you think? Do you agree, or disagree? Tell me what you thought! I look forward to your comments.
Published Random House, 2003
And this month, we’ll be reading Maureen McCarthy’s Rose by any other Name, so happy reading, and look out for that post on March 1st!
Published Allen & Unwin, 2006
Happy New Year!
It’s a scorching 45 degrees Celsius (113F) where I am in Oz today, the cricket and tennis are on TV and I’m about to head to the beach to spend the evening there. It doesn’t get much more Australian than this.
I have therefore decided to announce the first book in the Little Swag Book Club I’ll be running on my blog this year. At the beginning of each month, I’ll announce that month’s book, and post about the previous month’s book. So please read along with me, and add your thoughts about the book to my posts. Any suggestions for books are also very welcome, so long as they’re written by Australian writers.
The book I have chosen for January is Peter Carey’s 2003 novel My Life as a Fake. Peter Carey is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers and I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of his books. So what better way to ring in the New Year than by immersing myself in the work of a great Aussie writer?
If you’re reading along, I plan to have my post about the book up in the first couple of days in February.