The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

days of abandonment

The circle of an empty day is brutal, and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.

Olga’s husband, without notice, leaves her and the children. Olga then descends into what becomes clearly an emotional breakdown, one of which Ferrante describes in uncomfortable detail.

I wanted to shake this woman (it didn’t help that this character is exactly my age) and wake her up from her delusion. She seemed pathetic to me. There were signs of a mother stripped of her identity through marriage and children. Thinking back on the early years of marriage, Olga recalls “the ambitions of youth losing their grain like a worn-out fabric”. There is a constant feeling of isolation now that she is ‘abandoned’, she notices the mothers when she takes the dog for a walk:

At that hour the mothers – compact groups of chatting mothers – stayed in the shade of the trees, enclosed in the circle of carriages like settlers in a Western.

I felt the disconnection Olga was experiencing; at times, it seemed like this character was so disconnected that she could watch her own horrid and irrational behaviour. Thinking it would be funny, Olga’s children hide from her in a public place. Olga is hysterical and when she finally discovers them, yells at them for being so thoughtless:

The child stared at me in disbelief. With the same disbelief I looked at myself. I saw a woman standing beside a flower garden…At that moment I didn’t recognize her. I was frightened because she had taken my heart, which was now beating in her chest.

It took me quite a while to think this apparent mad woman would be an unreliable narrator. But it wasn’t as straightforward as saying ‘Don’t trust this mad woman’. My thoughts turned to the elusive estranged husband; I figured who could blame this man for running for the hills but I’m not so sure. Small hints from guest appearances scattered throughout the novel, maybe the guy is a horrible excuse for a human being and he’s poisoned the family he walked out on.

The first person narrative is effective, an intimate account of a woman who faces her own identity, or what is left of it. Ferrante is very clever in setting most scenes in a very claustrophobic apartment. This was uncomfortable to read from beginning to end but one I couldn’t put down.

Life Form by Amelie Nothomb

life formThis was a particularly unusual story to read. I have been recently favouring translated fiction and so far it has been a bit of a hit and miss experience.

The blurb was not appealing at all but I was still very intrigued. It is not often I’m faced with such a unique storyline. This novella is a narrative by one Amelie Nothomb (yes, the same name as the author) with mostly exchanges of letters between her and a soldier stationed in Iraq. We subsequently discover that this soldier, Melvin Mapple, has become obese in his time overseas, in what seems to be a rebellious protest against the war. In an attempt to deal with the disgust he feels towards himself and the situation he finds himself in, Melvin has created a woman of his fat and has called her Scheherazade. With the violence around him, he closes his eyes at night and cradles ‘her’. Amelie is shocked by this revelation but she veils her shock with a sense of concern and even enthusiasm for his protesting ways. Yes, Amelie (the narrator) is ridiculing him but Melvin takes it as encouragement to further his fattening protests.

This story flirts between plausible and ridiculous. Melvin puts forward his case, how different is it when someone protests with famine? We are certainly more familiar with famine protest (Gandhi, for instance) than with an eating protest. Society is uncomfortable with obesity, as writer Lionel Shriver states, it’s so obvious and it’s a choice but is it, really? Shriver’s upcoming novel Big Brother also deals with the issue of obesity (it was heartbreaking to hear Shriver’s own story of her brother that died four years earlier of obesity). The solider in this novella often tries to explain his compulsive eating but cannot. Melvin says “Obesity is not a communicable experience.” There is the obvious theme of the psychological wounds that soldiers battle when faced with extremes of violence during war but I felt that this wasn’t the author’s focus.

I was intrigued by the narrator’s thoughts on letter writing, her preference is to write a letter to someone rather than talk to that person face-to-face. She is then told she doesn’t like people because of this preference. Nothomb replies:

I object: why should someone be more real just because you have him or her across from you? Why shouldn’t their truth stand out better, or simply different, in a letter?

It makes me think of a few people I know who are not so truthful…

The story ends with a surprising twist. This twist can only have happened because the story is mostly written in letters. Sometimes I find that different forms of writing are thrown into novels just to do something different – a poem here, song lyrics there. These elements don’t add any meaning to the story except as embellishment. In this novella, the twist only works with the letters. It’s because of the letters that events unfold, revealing truths and untruths.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

the big sleepThis was my first Chandler and I enjoyed it very much, even without the thoughts of Humphrey Bogart and Laurent Bacall in my head as I was reading.

I’m not attracted to heavily-plotted novels such as this but really, I found so little to fault (not that I go out of my way to find faults).

Let me introduce you to Phillip Marlowe with his own words:

I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.

Not so much the happy fellow but he’s a realist. Marlowe sees it how it is and calls it how it is. I love how he says he doesn’t “do divorce business”. He’s a man who knows the kind of trouble he should stay away from.

Marlowe has been asked by a dying, very rich man, General Sternwood, to get to the bottom of some blackmailing business. Marlowe’s investigation takes him into some rather shady places, meeting some rather suspicious characters along the way. What he wasn’t prepared for was the fact that he has to ‘deal’ with the general’s two rebellious daughters who are accustomed to being indulged.

I was taken by the beginning of one particular chapter. Marlowe walks into a shady gambling venue and he sees the band playing. I felt I was in the room with him:

It was about ten-thirty when the little yellow-sashed Mexican orchestra got tired of playing a low-voiced prettied-up rhumba that nobody was dancing to. The gourd player rubbed his finger tips together as if they were sore and got a cigarette into his mouth almost with the same movement. The other four, with a timed simultaneous stoop, reached under their chairs for glasses from which they sipped, smacking their lips and flashing their eyes. Tequila, their manner said. It was probably mineral water. The pretence was as wasted as the music. Nobody was looking at them.

Chandler makes it look all to easy. His writing is laden with atmospheric prose and the characters are complex, as humans are.

The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter

the monkey's maskI’ve read a little poetry. I’m trying to learn more by reading more poetry. I lot of it alludes me still. So a lesbian thriller written entirely in prose? Well, I’m walking into strange territory…

Libraries are just as enjoyable as bookshops. I wander through the aisles seeing what catches my eye. There are a list of books I hope to get through this year as part of challenges but whim-reading is also good for the soul.

The Monkey’s Mask caught my eye. I read 50 pages while I was at the library and took it home to read the remainder of this incredible book. I’ve written about Dorothy Porter’s final collection The Bee Hut and loved her deceptively simple poetry. Mythology is still difficult for me to read but there is beauty in her poems that I think everyone can appreciate.

This story follows Jill Fitzpatrick, a private investigator who is looking for a missing girl named Mickey. P.I. Jill has a slippery relationship with the cops and the missing teenager’s parents don’t seem to trust the police to get the job done. As she delves into Mickey’s life, meeting and interviewing a number of people, Jill finds herself having an affair with Mickey’s teacher, Dr Diana Maitland.

Now, let’s be clear. It’s erotic. There are occasions where some woman is between some other woman’s legs. Correction – on many occasions.

But there is also incredible wit and humour. At one point, Jill goes to a poetry reading and she is almost writhing in her seat with pain. I see the irony – Porter, a poet, writes prose about a P.I. sitting through a poetry reading who is hating every moment of it:

I’ve tried listening.

Bill calls light ‘dusky’
in every bloody poem

and he’s got a thing
about his grandfather’s hat

the lucky bastard
must be dead.

Come on, Bill,
that’s it, mate,
last fucking poem

I’ll be dead and burnt to ashes
before Bill’s dusky light
on his grandad’s hat.

The missing girl is a budding poet and after reading some of her amateur poems, Jill reflects on how a poem starts. This is powerful prose from Porter:

Is this how poems start?

when every riff on the radio
hooks in your throat

is this how poems start?

when the vein under her skin
hooks in your throat

is this how poems start?

when insomnia pounds
like spooked black horses

when the day breaks
like car crash glass

tell me, Mickey,
you knew

tell me

does a poem start
with a hook in the throat?

As a lesbian thriller, it’s only fitting to write of the relationships of LGBT and societal pressures which is so simply and beautifully put when Jill talks with her mother:

Mum sniffs
‘Jill, you can look really nice
when you want to

it won’t kill you
to wear a dress
now and then.’

Mum touches my hair
‘It used to be so pretty.’

and after three gin and tonics

‘You don’t have to be
so conspicuous
we all know what you are.’

do you, Mum?
I’m curious. Fill me in.

What am I?

I enjoyed this book so much. I don’t really know if I have a certain ‘taste’ anymore. I’ve tried so many kinds of books and have been surprised many times. Sometimes I disliked a book I was ‘supposed to’ like and enjoyed others that were as far from my typical reading habits as this one. You just never know.

Like A House On Fire by Cate Kennedy

like a house on fireI enjoy reading short story collections. I also liked Kennedy’s previous collection, Dark Roots and her debut novel The World Beneath (you know where this is going, don’t you?) but I found Like A House On Fire very inconsistent. It was difficult to write about this collection because what do I know? I’m just another reader (I’m not a writer) saying that a well-respected Australian author who is renowned for her great short stories, telling you that this particular collection is so-so.

Subsequent to writing the above, Like A House On Fire has been long-listed for The Stella Prize, its first-ever list. I huffed and puffed over this being included. Kennedy is better than Like A House On Fire. It was the wrong book for the wrong prize. I cannot comment on the remainder of the list. Something pulling at my sleeve tells me I should read some of the others on the long list to truly understand why they have been included. But that’s for another time.

All of the stories, except three, were previously published in literary magazines or anthologies. The cover of this collection gives us a hint on what to expect within the pages. There are scatterings of socks, vases, cups of coffees, a broken plate and a glass of wine. So yes, you will get a dose of reality in these stories. And there’s the rub. I think realism in stories is difficult to do well, to be interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention. Kennedy does realism well, in other stories, but only sometimes in this collection.

Many stories reveal the unfortunate lives of many characters, but several stories end with a sliver of hope, a crack in the drawn curtains, where the light comes in. In ‘Flexion’, a woman married to a son-of-a-bitch, who sees all the nastiness of her husband even after he experiences an nearly-fatal tractor accident on their farm. But there is a moment before the story ends where she sees him for the vulnerable human that he is.

‘Tender’ sees Chris, a mother of two, the day before she has a lumpectomy. The mundane of life is successfully portrayed in this story, as Chris witnesses the stereotypical behaviour of her children without her encouragement. I have often witnessed it in my own house:

One hour of sanctioned TV a night, and still Jamie sprawls on the floor relishing battle scenes, while Hannah flounces and squeals like some miniature Paris Hilton demanding to wear nail polish to kinder. Where have they absorbed all this from, this nasty flotsam leaking in like battery acid?

‘Cake’ tells of a mother’s first day back at work after having her first child and ’5 dollar family’, about a mother’s first days of breastfeeding, are two (of many) that fell short for me. We read about these issues over and over and I didn’t feel that Kennedy gave us enough in these pieces on well-worn discussions.

‘Whirlpool’ was a ripper. A simple premise – a family is getting their photograph professionally taken to send to their mother’s friends. Right from the first paragraph, we are aware this is a facade, showing stiff smiles and getting physically too close to each other for the sake of the photo. This was delicious to read. ’72 derwents’ was also another favourite of mine and the longest story in this collection. Written from a young child’s point of view (which can be very difficult to get right) Kennedy shows us the best of her writing kit in this piece. Young Tyler is in a terrible situation at home and faces her mother’s boyfriend on several uncomfortable occasions:

I was watching him smiling and nodding at me and even though his voice was friendly his hand was in his mouth and I could see his teeth biting the bleeding cuticle down the side of his thumbnail all the time he was talking. The stone in my stomach was squeezing and pressing, sending a taste up into my mouth. Not a taste. Like when you have an Easter egg and the foil gets bitten onto one of your fillings.

This is a hit-and-miss collection. Kennedy’s skillful writing comes through in some stories but several pieces fall well short of her usual precise story-telling ability.

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

the spare room

I have a hardcover edition of The Spare Room. I think it’s important to have the hardcover. Like Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending, The Spare Room is less than  200 pages. I would feel that the novel in paperback would diminish the story somehow; that it was a slight of a book – and it is not.

Helen hosts a friend, Nicola, for three weeks at her place. Nicola is in Melbourne for cancer treatment. Helen is her friend’s nurse for that time but she begins to question the treatment Nicola insists on receiving. And that’s only the beginning. It seems that Nicola is in denial and it leaves a trail of destruction, with friends and family that care for her, entangled in the mess:

She’s cast us as the carriers of all the bad stuff – and somehow we’ve let her. She sails about with that ghastly smile on her face, telling everyone she’s going to be better by the middle of next week, and meanwhile we’re trawling along the bottom picking up all the anguish and rage that she’s thrown overboard.

The book is deceptive. Garner makes it look very easy, this writing business. I admit, early on, maybe in the first 30 pages, I felt a little disconnected from the story. I questioned whether  I thought this story was worth knowing about. But at some point, I was transported. It is so intimate, so claustrophobic. I felt I was in the house with Helen and Nicola, in the spare room. Garner’s humour is dry and sharp; the perfect kind of humour for this story.

There are scatterings of quiet moments, of awkwardness, of sadness, of resignation. It’s the stuff that happens in this silence where the novel comes alive. I think that is why The Spare Room is not very long. Garner can say a great deal in the white space, between the words.

The Getting Of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

the getting of wisdomLaura is sent to a private girls’ school in Melbourne for her education. Her mother is adamant that this will happen even though they struggle financially. She believes it is the best way:

To a State school, I’ve always said it, my children shall never go – not if I have to beg the money to send them elsewhere.

The Getting of Wisdom was published in 1910 and we still have this kind of conversation about private versus public education today.

Laura is thrown in with the lions immediately, her Cousin Grace not at all tactful when they arrive at the school:

Oh my eye Betty Martin! Aren’t I glad it isn’t me that’s going to school! It looks just like a prison.

Laura appears flighty and thoughtless, acting before thinking. But she is observant, especially of the oddities of human relationships. Watching her Godmother’s daughter and her boyfriend at a meeting, Laura is curious of the boy’s compulsion to ‘save’ his lady even when the lady in question was not at all in distress. To me, This kind of observation makes her a unique girl of her time, unfortunately this is not an asset. Laura finds herself a misfit in her own home and at school. Partly for her behaviour, viewed as careless, and partly the expectations of her in both domains.

School was a daily torture for me. I do not look back fondly on any of it. I wonder if this has any relevance to my attraction to coming-of-age novels (not that I wish to analyse myself). For many of us, school days bring back a lot of memories, good and bad; Laura creates quite a few bad memories:

…anxiety turned her into a porcupine, ready to erect her quills at a touch.

Anyone remember that feeling?

I often tell my friends that I spent my school days trying to fit in and spend the rest of my days trying to stand out. So when I read this sentence, I felt a concrete connection to the story:

The lesson went home; Laura began to model herself more and more on those around her; to grasp that the unpardonable sin is to vary from the common mould.

I tell you about my relationship with novels: With contemporary fiction I feel I’m in a boat that’s leaking and the water is at a point where at any moment it will spill over and I will sink. I don’t move, I don’t breathe, in the hope that I get to the end of the story without getting that sinking feeling. With the classics and fiction such as The Getting Of Wisdom, I feel like I’m on a sturdy boat, basking in the sun, relaxed, arms stretched out, and enjoying the ride.

This was a nice ride.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

the handmaid's tale

I sit in my room, at the window, waiting. In my lap is a handful of crumpled stars.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a construction of a dystopian world. The protagonist is the Handmaid named Offred; this is not her real name. It is now illegal to use her real name which she now considers as an “amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginable past“. It is also illegal for her to be outside on her own, to use a pen, to read a magazine, to read anything. Offred is seen purely as a body, no longer a being. She has been reduced to a function: to breed. Dressed in red, with ‘wings’ that sound more like blinkers, Handmaids are passed from household to household, offered to a Commander and his Wife, to be impregnated, to populate a world in a breeding crisis. They are ‘trained’ to be good Handmaids, to be convinced that this is a better world:

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.

Offred has known a different world, a world where she had a mother, a family, a life of wasteful pleasures, trivial conversations and careless acts. The fact that Offred had this life taken from her adds a film of melancholy to the story, a desperate yearn for what was:

You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the world shatter. I want to be with someone.

I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986 and soon became a bestseller. This novel is viewed by some as a social commentary of the time. The ‘social revolution’ of the 1960s and 70s made way for a conservative backlash in the 1980s. Some consider this novel a ‘response’ to that backlash, a ‘what if’ scenario played out in a totalitarian society; a society where women have been stripped of their right to feel and think and love, where sexuality has been reduced to its rawest function.

I found this wonderfully entertaining. I am not so much drawn to where this novel sits in the world of politics, sexual and otherwise. I viewed this book like I view all my reads: on its own merits. Atwood is a beautiful writer. She spends a lot of time describing this dystopian world, sometimes to the detriment of the novel’s pace but the structure works well, dipping into flashbacks along the way. It speaks to me about love, love lost and human connection that we often take for granted. Until it’s taken away.

Truth by Peter Temple

truthI don’t often read thrillers or crime fiction but Truth is how I would like them all to be.

It did take a little getting used to – the many characters, the short (sometimes half-) sentences, the cop discourse. I always enjoy reading fiction that is set where I live – and that’s a rare thing. I most often read of London, Paris and many, many small towns in the vast U.S. of A. But Melbourne? Very rarely and I got a kick out of it.

The protagonist, Inspector Stephen Villani, is the Head of Homicide and working cases that shows the dark side of suburban life. Villani is a complex character with personal issues that affect his work and has a family that is affected by his work. He is plagued by the ‘cop oath’ that questions every move he makes. He is ‘connected’ to other cops whether he likes it or not. Villani tells it how it is which can either get him promoted or get him fired. It can go either way. The novel sits is a mirky fog:

Villani woke, fully dressed, unrefreshed, as if from a brief fainting spell, the new day was grey in the east window, the city was making its discordant birth cries.

For me, Temple is the textbook definition of ‘show don’t tell’ writing. Villani, strangely, continues a friendly relationship with Rose, the mother of a criminal who was shot dead by Villani’s squad. The banter between the two is delightful:

After a while, Rose said, ‘Kids. You don’t want to blame yourself, do you? God knows, you done your best.’
‘What if you haven’t done your best?’
‘No, me.’
‘Well, you’re not a mum.’
‘No,’ said Villani. ‘That lets me off then.’

The character of Villani came through very clearly – the cynicism, the helplessness, the obsessiveness toward his job. The ‘show don’t tell’ writing style swam through the entire book. Villani meets Max Hendry, a high-profile entrepreneur at a party:

They shook hands. They were the same height. Hendry had light eyes, disconcerting, the colour of shallow water over clean sand.

Truth was a page-turner. Another tick from me for contemporary fiction. I am now keen to read Temple’s Jack Irish series.

The Apricot Colonel by Marian Halligan

the apricot colonelI read Marian Halligan’s latest collection of short stories Shooting The Fox and I was eager to read her other works. I couldn’t imagine her writing anything I didn’t like (no pressure, Marian).

The Apricot Colonel‘s narrator is Cassandra, a young woman, single, an editor who lives in O’Connor, Canberra, lover of sauvignon blanc and dictionaries. The story is set in 2003 and very much a sign of the times as it begins with the Canberra bush fires.

Cassandra meets the ever-mysterious Colonel Al Marriott, the ‘Apricot Colonel’ for business reasons. He wants her to look over his memoir of his experience in the Gulf. During this time, Canberra has a killer among them and the connections to Cassandra leaves her feeling unsafe and paranoid. The relationship between her and the colonel is murky from the start and you sense an instant chemistry.

Giving Cassandra the occupation of editor gave Halligan freedom to write some delicious insight:

I know the literary fascisti tell us that’s where post-modern truth lies, in the memoir. Ho ho. If you want true confessions, give me a novel any day…a novelist can’t hide the way a memoirist can.

Cassandra tells us of her other editing jobs, one being a GAN – the Great Australian Novel:

“I reckon this brilliant but flawed work is its creator’s swansong…In the Middle Ages they believed that there was nothing perfect beneath the moon, and so do I. We live in a sublunary and mutable world which breaks our hearts and yet still provides the only occasions of bliss we will ever know.”

Halligan’s writing is a subtle touch, exactly the reason I enjoyed Shooting The Fox.   There is a undercurrent of feminine sexuality; Cassandra is indecisiveness on which gender she prefers her partners to be. A friend introduces her to Dermot, handsome, lawyer, ticks all the boxes. He initially seems very keen on her but Cassandra is not always convinced, being too savvy a woman:

…Dermot excused himself and went out, coming back with a street directory of Canberra. Just checking I know the way to Cleo’s, he said.
Haven’t you been there before?
Oh, yes, but you can’t be too careful. You know the old Canberra torturous streets.
I refrained from saying, You mean tortuous. I do know how smart girls should behave.

The relationship between Cassandra and her mother was especially enjoyable to read. When her mother meets the colonel for the first time, she is instantly flirtatious, Cassandra noting “I feel my status rising in my mother’s eyes, at the same time as my spirits fall.” Cassandra asks after her new beau:

So, George’s nice, I said, knowing she wouldn’t say otherwise.
Of course darling. Quite gorgeous. Would I if he weren’t?
There’s a silence after this, as if even she has heard what she said, and remembered that her men are always gorgeous at the beginning and monsters at the finish.

As I was enjoying this book, I was thinking of the quote from Ramona Koval beneath the blurb stating this book “is Halligan at her light-hearted best.” I thought it strange to call it light-hearted – until I hit three-quarters of the way through.

A dream sequence followed by descriptions of paintings (I prefer the visual to the text) and then it ends with a very Murder, She Wrote sequence – much like Jessica Fletcher summarising how she identified the murderer.

The Apricot Colonel is a light-hearted tale, with a shot of murder and mystery. Halligan’s writing is exceptional despite the fact that I was a little disappointed with its ending. Halligan’s exploration of character was delightful and something that I believe any writer can learn from.


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