Friday, 19 June 2015

Marion Halligan - Lovers' Knots

I have just finished reading Marion Halligan's The Age Book of the Year novel, Lovers' Knots. That's the 1992 Age Book of the Year and no, I'm not just catching up; I've read it twice before this.
It documents one family over almost one hundred years but there's little that's sequential or predictable in this patchy but oh-so-engaging collage of who's who amongst the progeny of Ada and Albert Gray.
Ada with her ample bosom, her tiny feet and bursting bunions, volunteers at the Mission of Seaman at Newcastle Port. It is 1911. At home she shares endless pots of tea with her son George while husband Albert, seduced out of respectability by the devil drink, lurks in the background, the object of Ada's disappointment and disapproval. Daughter Lily ditches George's decent friend Vic in favour of the vaguely sleazy Joe who supplants George in Ada's affections and in the household.

It is not until page 170 in this book of 377 pages that we are given a family tree so we can see how George's and Lily's respective families develop. And yet this doesn't seem to matter.
We are given chapters with headings and dates and then snapshots of who's doing what with whom. And there's no equity in who Halligan chooses to reveal.
One of George's daughters, Veronica, gets lots of pages, focusing mainly on her long relationship with the photographer Mikelis with whom she makes love on the balding red velvet couch in the studio where he works for Neville of Newcastle.
"She's unclasped the marriage pearls (a gift from the boring Martin) from around her neck, and her mind dances in tarty black dresses while the long legs of love flash like scissors through the daily silk of life." 
(I wonder how a vivid sentence like this would stand up today in the climate of 'sparse prose' advocated by so many writing workshops.)
I'm not sure why I love this book so much. It skips from Newcastle to Canberra and back with an occasional detour to my old hometown, Murwillumbah. It skips around in time and certainly in style. And yet being temporarily lost doesn't matter, so engaging are the characters and what the author chooses to tell us about them.
Halligan takes some amazing liberties with her authorial voice and gets clean away with it every time. In a short chapter called 'Webs' she zips through five generations and a smattering of random events to conclude:
"So there you are, up to the fifth generation, or counting Ada the sixth. You could write a thousand page novel to get to this point; a block-busting, best-selling, negotiating the mini-series in however many digits, retiring to the tax haven of your choice .... Instead of a neat little chapter of what, seven pages? Six?"
Cheeky thing! But I love her for it all. And the brief, final chapter is exquisite.
There are a few books I've read more than once and I know this is true for many people. Cloudstreet, The Transit of Venus, Cat's EyeDinner at the Homesick Restaurant just off the top of my head. There was a period of my life where I read Wuthering Heights anew every year, maybe in the vain hope that this time Catherine would see sense and marry Heathcliff instead of the pale and soppy Edgar Linton. I suppose I stopped when I accepted that this wasn't going to happen.

Having closed the last pages of Lovers' Knots, again with such satisfaction, I'm about to embark on A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. At 615 pages it's not going to be quick so for now I'll just aim for reading it the once.

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Friday, 12 June 2015

Puppy Love

"Not every person knows how to love a dog but every dog knows how to love a person."

Yes, well - that's the least soppy of all those doggy quotes I've just been reading, and mainly true I would think.....

I suspected when I named this blog that there was a risk it would be heavily weighted towards dog stories. On the contrary, they’ve barely had a mention. However a few recent instances in our doggy household I think give me licence to write about them again at last.

Our dear Archie, love-on-legs spaniel who would probably be on Ritalin if he were a child, hurt himself on the beach last weekend and frightened the daylights out of us with his whimpering and his obvious pain.

The vet diagnosed only ‘soft tissue damage’ to the hip, prescribing Rimadyl and ............ rest!


Archie is 8 and still doesn’t know about rest as something you might have to do on a long term basis. He was 'surrendered' in Bairnsdale at 11 months of age for 'persistent puppy-like behaviour' and that's how he's continued to live his life. (They don't know what they've missed out on, those surrenderers).

So how to walk the other two and ‘rest’ Archie is a problem we’ve not solved as yet.

Meanwhile our Stella, part whippet, part 'brown dog', feels the cold quite severely. Lucky for her there are no such things as kennels on this property – well, not to sleep in anyway – but even inside with her hand-made puffy sleeping bag she still wakes me up several times a night to cover her up. So far a search for coats has not been very successful but a huge warehouse of doggy necessities caught my attention on the way up High St. Northcote yesterday and lo – an appropriate piece of sleepware was found for our Stella.

(Does she look as if she loves it yet? No?)

Many garments showed serious design flaws but this one is free of nasty lumpy seams and hard pieces of Velcro, so fingers crossed for us all sleeping the night through tonight. (This girl came via the RSPCA after being picked up as a puppy on the roadside in Ballarat so how she turned into a Princess-and-the-Pea-type gal is anyone’s guess.)

Our latest and oldest waif, Barney, (left) is unfazed by either of his housemates’ issues and still just wants to play. Every night. Dignity doesn't come into it. He was eight when we were given him by a neglectful but well-intentioned owner so Barney is on a determined mission to make up for lost time. He's thirteen now and shows no signs of flagging just yet.

Like many of our friends we suffer from the foolish belief that if we are excessively kind to our own animals it might somehow seep across to all those others who aren’t so lucky.

So if the words ‘kennel’, ‘chain’ or ‘no walk today’ are part of your household vocabulary – we need to talk.

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Friday, 5 June 2015

Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

I’m a bit hard to please with books. It takes a certain combination of factors to make me sigh with satisfaction when I close a book on the final page before I reach for the next one. (I can’t sleep after finishing a book and as I read in bed every night, I have to have another one lined up to start straight away. Hence the pile beside the bed, within easy reach.)

Many books promise great things, maybe have wonderful language, characters you don’t want to part with, a landscape you just know you’ve been to in another life. But also, many fail to deliver at the end. After eagerly turning pages for whatever reason, I’m very often left with a feeling of anti-climax. Is that it? But what about......? and how did....?

So Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing made me want to instantly thrust it on a friend, an acquaintance, anybody - urging them to read it at once.

Andrea Gillies, in The Guardian, called it “brilliant and unconvincing”. She was unhappy with what she perceived as an inconsistent voice as Maud, the 84 year old dementing protagonist, dithers and forgets, repeats things and makes a nuisance of herself while her internal voice is lucid and at all times engaging.

But how else could it have been done? If we have an adult fiction story told from the point of view of a child it won’t be written in the language of a 7 year old or a 12 year old. (Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend springs to mind.)

There are parallel stories here -  Maud’s current anxious search for her old friend Elizabeth, whom she believes is missing, and her struggle to make sense of the disappearance of her sister Sukey seventy years ago. The fragments segue repeatedly into each other as Maud’s memory does its ragged dance between now and then, Elizabeth and Sukey, certainty and confusion.

What I found so impressive was that this really seemed to be a documentation of dementia from the inside (not that I’d know, yet.) But the author takes us convincingly into the mind of Maud so that we live her frightening frustrations and her confusions, then instantly become weak with sympathy for Maud’s stoic daughter Helen who just can’t keep up with the twists and turns inside Maud’s mind that lead her to do the things she does.

Okay, the resolution may be just a little bit easy, but well worth it to see Maud vindicated in at least one aspect of her quest. I could not bring myself to quibble about this as an ending. It satisfied me.

The thing is, it would have been so easy for Emma Healey to write her first novel about a beautiful 20-something woman living in London - which she is; plenty of scope there. But how much more admirable to have nurtured the seed of an idea, undertaken the research and the interviews, collected the stories and then fed all this into her imagination so successfully to invent Maud.

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