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Boy Swallows Universe

April 24, 2019

Boy Swallows UniverseTrent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe, 2018 

Boy Swallows Universe begins with 12-year-old Eli Bell being taught to drive by Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday, convicted killer and expert prison escapee. Slim looks after Eli and his brother August while their parents are delivering heroin throughout the suburbs of Brisbane. August doesn’t talk but writes words in the air.

This novel grabbed me on the first page and didn’t let me go until it ended on page 474 when Eli is aged 19.

Dalton creates characters we care about, then puts them in harm’s way, producing set pieces of almost unbearable tension. He also sets them impossible challenges, like Eli’s plan to break into Boggo Road Gaol to see his mother on Christmas Day. But it is more than a thriller. Dalton recreates 1980s Brisbane and the ubiquitous police corruption of the time. He brings to life the Courier Mail newsroom, ruled over by an editor who demands three-word headlines (hence the titles of the book and chapters).

We also follow Eli’s investigation of what makes a good person. He tells the Guidance Counsellor that he wants to write about crime. “I’m not interested in crime as much as the people who commit crimes – interested in how they got to the point they got to. I’m interested in that moment when they decided to be bad instead of good.” He speculates: “Maybe all men are bad sometimes and all men are good sometimes. It’s just a matter of timing.”

Dalton is a master of characterisation. The novel is full of characters, each one memorable. From just a few words of speech, we know something of what the person is like. One minor character is Dr Caroline Brennan, who treats Eli when he loses his forefinger. She takes up five pages of the novel, but she made a lasting impression on me.

‘Now hold out your tall man,’ she says, twiddling her middle finger.
I hold out my tall man.
‘Now shove him up your nostril,’ she says.
She sticks her own middle finger in her nostril, raising her eyebrows.
… I follow suit, shove that tall man up my nose.
‘See,’ Dr Brennan says. ‘There ain’t nothing that forefinger could do that tall man can’t, you hear me, young Eli? The tall man can just go deeper.”

Dalton writes dialogue that feels real, and through dialogue, action and humour we learn a lot about the criminal underworld, the illicit drug industry, and life in public housing suburbs. While the novel is laced with violence it is also full of deep love – especially between Eli and his mother, but also between Eli and his brother, stepfather, Slim and, eventually, his real father.

This is a story about a boy swallowing the universe. It is a celebration of accepting the whole of life – the painful and the sublime. A big story beautifully told. Highly recommended.


No Friend But the Mountains

April 14, 2019

Boochani bookBehrouz Boochani, No Friend But the Mountains, 2018, Translated by Omid Tofighian.

Behrouz Boochani came with so much to offer Australia and, instead of accepting this gift, we imprisoned and tortured him.

Boochani fled persecution in Iran and sought refuge in Australia. After nearly drowning, he arrived at Christmas Island in 2013, four days after Prime Minister Keven Rudd banned boat-borne refugees from ever settling in Australia. Boochani was sent to Manus Prison in Papua New Guinea.

Boochani and 400 other asylum-seekers were confined in one section of the prison that was so small it eliminated all personal space. They were not allowed possessions or activities. There was no chance of getting a notebook and pen.

“[T]here is nothing to occupy our time. … It is even prohibited to play cards. In Corridor L, a few people were able to get hold of a permanent marker and draw a backgammon board onto a white plastic table. They began to play, using the lids from water bottles as counters. Almost instantly, a group of officers and plain-clothed guards entered … and crossed out the game. They wrote over if in bold letters, ‘Games Prohibited’.”

One prisoner desperately wanted to call his father, who was dying. The guards forced him to follow the rules and wait three days. By the time he was allowed to call, his father had died. He reacted with grief and anger, and the Australian guards beat him up and threw him into solitary confinement.

Winner of two Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Non-Fiction

No Friend But the Mountains is a big book, but it was created on a smuggled mobile phone, one text message at a time sent to the translator. Boochani is a superb storyteller. On his first attempt to reach Australia, the rotting Indonesian boat sinks:

“With the weight of a boulder, the boat bashes us onto the surface of the ocean. I penetrate the water, into the darkness of the ocean accompanied by the boat, accompanied by its slashed carcass.
Down … /
I sink further down /
I sink further down /
The boat is pursuing me
Trying to catch me /
Catch me and pull me within it /”

Reading about the cruelty of the prison is harrowing, but the quality of the prose, and the poetry that is mixed into it, kept me reading. I felt a mixture of revulsion at what we are doing to him and delight in the beauty of his art.

Writing about the prison, he is not only describing, but also analysing. He says that Australia’s oppressive regime aims to turn prisoners against each other, and create a situation so harsh it will force the refugees to return to their country of origin, where they are likely to be tortured and murdered.

Boochani calls this system a “kyriarchy”, borrowing the term from the feminist scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who used it to describe interlocking systems aimed at domination, oppression and submission. In the Translator’s note, Tofighian says that this “connects the prison with Australian colonial history and fundamental factors plaguing contemporary Australian society, culture and politics.”

In his foreword to the book, Richard Flanagan writes: “Australia imprisoned his body, but his soul remained that of a free man. … I hope one day to welcome Behrouz Boochani to Australia as what I believe he has shown himself to be in these pages. A great Australian writer.”

A Superior Spectre

January 5, 2019

/Angela Meyer, A Superior Spectre, 2018

a-superior-spectre-coverAs I read A Superior Spectre, I became so attached to Leonora, one of the two protagonists, that I woke during the night, worrying about what would happen to her, angry at the people who caused her harm.

Leonora’s world is her father’s farm in the Scottish Highlands during the 1860s. She loves her cairn terrier, Duff, and all the farm animals. She has learnt from a neighbour how to shift and deliver a calf. She loves the woods, the wildlife, the burns, and the deep soil of the farm. Whenever she can, she reads – Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Byron.

She is happy, living the life that she wants, but her father insists on sending her to live with her aunt in Edinburgh, in the hope that she will find a husband. On the farm she can be herself, but away from the farm she struggles with society’s restraints, the requirements of properness.

Leonora’s story comes to us through Jeff, the other protagonist. In 2024, suffering a serious illness, he leaves Melbourne and travels to Scotland to confront himself and the terrible things he has done, and then to die. He has decided not to have treatment that would prolong his life.

Jeff has brought with him a newly-developed drug, which allows the user to enter the consciousness of someone else, a “host” from the past. When Jeff uses the drug, he enters the mind of Leonora. He feels what she feels, sees what she sees, touches what she touches. He experiences her menstruation and her orgasm when she masturbates.

Jeff was warned not to visit the same host more than three times, but he ignores this advice and returns again and again to Leonora. He becomes addicted, not to the drug but to being someone who isn’t him.

Leonora feels his intrusion, and twenty-first century images completely outside her nineteenth century experience enter her mind. She feels haunted – is she going mad?

The narrative alternates between Leonora and Jeff. Leonora always kept me engrossed, but sometimes I was impatient with Jeff, with his self-absorption and carelessness, and I looked forward to getting back to Leonora. Both characters feel completely real, but Meyer’s creation of Leonora is a triumph.

Meyer’s other outstanding achievement is her recreation of 1860s Scotland, both the Highlands and Edinburgh, and the first stirrings of changes in the roles of women, exemplified by female medical students, and in the treatment of mental illness, which was becoming slightly less inhumane.

The novel raises questions about voyeurism. Jeff is the ultimate voyeur, with no remorse for his invasion until he realises the harm he is doing to his host. Technology has provided many tools for voyeurs. What happens if telepathy becomes possible in the future? How would we manage such a development?

A Superior Spectre is beautifully written, and was an excellent choice to begin the 2019 reading year. Leonora and her story will stay with me.

To the End of the Land

December 17, 2017

David Grossman, To the End of the Land. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, 2010.

Ora is full of love. Her love sustains her family for twenty good years. So how does it happen that her oldest son breaks with Ora, saying, “You’re an unnatural mother”?

To the End of the Land is David Grossman’s exploration of how the daily reality of the Israel-Palestinian conflict affects the people living in it, and how it can poison the most intimate parts of their lives.

As teenagers, Ora, Avram and Ilan form an intense friendship. During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Avram is captured and tortured by Egyptian forces. Afterwards, he feels that everything has died in him, and he withdraws from his previous life.

Ora marries Ilan and has two sons, Adam and Ofer. After the devastation with Avram, she feels she has paid her price, and cuts herself off from the Israel-Palestine “situation”. She creates a haven of love for her family. Once a week or so she wakes up and says quietly into Ilan’s ear, “Look at us. Aren’t we like a little underground cell in the heart of the ‘situation’?”

David Grossman (Penguin Random House)

But by the year 2000, her family is broken. Ora and Ilan have separated, and Adam has rejected her. She still has a relationship with Ofer, but only just. She and Ofer plan a hike in the Galilee when his military service ends. But on his discharge day the Second Intifada begins and he re-enlists. Devastated, Ora decides she will still do the hike – if she is not at home to receive the “notifiers”, Ofer will be safe.

She forces Avram, who is actually Ofer’s father, to come with her. In the past, Avram has never wanted to know about his son. Now Ora intends to keep Ofer safe by telling Avram all about him. In the process, she tells the story of her family. The relationship between Adam and Ofer, the way in which they support each other, is especially engaging. As Ora talks to Avram, she feels she is “reciting a eulogy for the family that once was, that will never be again.”

The family rupture occurs because Ora wants Ofer to promise he will never hurt anyone intentionally. As a soldier, he refuses to make this promise. He is involved in one incident where a Palestinian is put in harm’s way, and Ora cannot let this go. She is desperately trying to save her child from “the barbarian standing opposite her”.

Ora can no longer isolate herself from the “situation.”

“On the street she notices that people are “walking quickly, without looking one another in the eye. … she saw in almost every person a note that hinted at some latent possibility – the possibility of being a murderer or a victim, or both.”

The depth and complexity of characterisation in this novel made the characters real for me. I felt for them. I cannot remember loving any other fictional character as much as I now love Ora. This attachment intensifies the narrative tension in the multiple connected stories woven into the overarching plot line of the Galilee walk. We ache to know what happens next in each of these sub-stories, and sooner or later we are rewarded.

To the End of the Land is a beautifully constructed novel about a grim subject. Highly recommended.

A Land Without Borders

September 30, 2017

Land Without Borders (418x640)Nir Baram, A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, 2015. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.

A Jewish settler in the West Bank tells Nir Baram there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. “Their distinctness in the Arab world does not justify another state … If you need a territorial solution, then there’s Jordan.”

A Palestinian school director tells Baram, “There is no solution except for Jews to go back to the countries they came from, and for everyone to fulfil their rights in their own countries.”

During 2014-15, Baram, an Israeli novelist, travelled throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, speaking with hundreds of people, “Jewish and Arab, from all classes and political affiliations.” Listening to people helped him push past the stereotypes and reach a more complex understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Those who say that the only solution is for the other side to go somewhere else are at one end of a very wide spectrum of views. There are settlers who pursue the Zionist dream of the entire Jewish people on the entire land of Israel, but would still like to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian people. Another settler calls for Jews to let go of the concept of ownership: “It is God’s land. The people of Israel belong to the Land of Israel, and the Palestinians belong to the Land of Israel, to Palestine.” After all, Isaac and Ishmael were brothers.

Nir-Baram-web (525x640)

Nir Baram (Text Publishing Website)

Other settlers don’t even notice the Palestinians: “Where are the Arabs here, anyway?” This comment prompts Baram to visit a nearby Palestinian village that had been there since before the Ottomans. Settlers had taken over lands the villagers cultivated or grazed, killing their sheep, cutting down their olive trees. Fences they weren’t allowed to cross separated them from lands the settlers had not yet appropriated.

There seems little prospect of implementing either of the usual solutions. Israel is unlikely to agree to one state with equal rights for all because of the demographic danger. And is it even possible to divide the land into two states? How can Jews and Arabs on the West Bank be separated?

Baram is a member of a group of Israelis and Palestinians advocating a peace initiative called “Two States One Homeland”, which is halfway between the two standard solutions: a shared homeland between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, consisting of two independent sovereign states with an open border between them, with freedom of movement and residence throughout the homeland.

Yet Baram concludes that the problem is not one of state design, but of values. He asks Israelis whether Israel should pay reparations to Palestinians for the loss of their assets – villages, houses, lands – and is met with contempt, fury and mockery. Yet Germany is still paying reparations to victims of the Holocaust.  “Each side is trapped within its own ’48 narrative, without recognising the other story at all.”

West Bank Barrier

Separation Wall (CC, Wikimedia Commons)

It is time to admit, he says, that “the occupation is the image of our society, institutions, army, citizens. An overwhelming majority of institutions in Israel are dedicated to the preferential treatment of Jews over non-Jews and the elaboration of the occupation.”

Whatever the solution, he concludes, “two states, a confederation, a single state – the Jew and the non-Jew must be equal in every sense.”

This is a book about ongoing tragedy, yet it is a joy to read. It connects the reader to the lives of Palestinians and Jewish settlers and makes us feel the forces at work in this conflict. Baram doesn’t just listen, he also challenges people, and asks them difficult questions, such as, “How do you see the future?”

Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand more about one of the key conflicts of our time.

The Museum of Modern Love

August 10, 2017


Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love, 2016, Winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.

You’re a successful artist, happily married to a woman you love. You don’t have the same need for people as your wife does, and she organises a life around both of you. Then she suffers brain damage from a blood disorder, and is moved to a nursing home, incapacitated physically and mentally. And you discover that she has taken out a court order that, in the event of such incapacity, forbids you from seeing her. You descend into a sort of hell.


This is the fate of Arky Levin, film score composer, the main fictional character in Heather Rose’s novel, The Museum of Modern Love. The main real character is performance artist Marina Abramović. The novel circles around these two people as it progresses. Will Levin sit with her? And if he does, what will happen?

In 2010, Abramović performed The Artist is Present, sitting for 75 days in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while visitors queued to sit opposite her and silently gaze into her eyes. Some visitors sat for two minutes, others for two hours – or all day. If the visitor cried, so did Abramović. Other visitors watched from behind a square around the performance marked by tape.

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present

Photo: Andrew Russeth, Flickr CC Licence

Visiting MoMA, Levin is drawn to Abramović’s performance, and starts coming most days to watch it. Watching with him is a rich cast: fictional characters such as art teacher Jane, grieving for her husband, and Brittika, who is driven to know more than other people and is writing her PhD thesis on Abramović. Also at the performance are real characters such as Abramović’s photographer, the ghost of her mother, and the novelist Colm Toibin, who wrote of his experience:

‘It was like being brought into a room in Enniscorthy when I was a child on the day after a neighbour had died and being allowed to look at the corpse’s face. … This was serious, too serious maybe, too intimate, too searching. It was either, I felt, what I should do all the time, or what I should never do.’

Many of these characters, fictional and real, are changed by sitting with Abramović or watching the performance. How does such art change people?

Much of Abramović’s previous art is dramatic and dangerous and makes ideological statements as well as artistic ones. It is art to “wake you up.” But for The Artist is Present she refines her art, simplifies it, until “all that’s left is energy”. When sitters lock eyes with Abramović, does that energy cause people to see themselves as they really are? Or look at their life in a different way? Or feel something that was previously invisible to them?

Throughout the novel the power of art interweaves with the power of love. Talking to Levin about his wife, a close friend of them both gives him a little poem:

Even after all this time, the sun never says, “You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole world.

Heather Rose

Heather Rose (Photo: Allen & Unwin website, downloadable)

Are there times when one must choose between art and love? Or are they, at their deepest level, the same?

This is a beautiful novel. Heather Rose writes like an angel, and in fact an angel (or good spirit/muse) narrates much of the story – a risky device, but it is the exact omniscient voice this tale requires. The Museum of Modern Love is one of the most affecting books I have read. The final few paragraphs are profoundly moving, and they constitute a perfect ending to the novel.

Two Psychological Thrillers by a Master

February 5, 2017

John Harper’s hut sits above the Ayung River in Bali (Photo: Bryce Alcock)

Louise Doughty, Black Water, 2016
Louise Doughty, Apple Tree Yard, 2013

John Harper, the protagonist of Black Water, is an operative in a private intelligence agency. In 1965 he is sent to Indonesia, his country of birth, and is there when the military use the September 30 coup as a pretext to launch the massacres of people accused of being communist.

blackwaterHarper’s assignments involve him in these crimes – for example, he passes on a CIA hit list to the military – and as a result he becomes mentally ill. Eventually he is able to take on a desk job for the agency.

In 1998 he is sent back to Jakarta prior to the riots that led to the end of the Suharto regime. There he stuffs up badly, and the agency sends him to Bali to “rest”. The book opens with Harper lying awake in a hut near Ubud, terrified that the agency is arranging his murder.

What leads a man to join such a company and to commit crimes in carrying out his duties? How did he become the man who, when his baby daughter dies shortly after her birth, thinks, “at least you have been spared life.” He is defined by his past, and Doughty tells his story, beginning with his chaotic childhood.

This backstory alternates with what is happening in the present, in Bali, where he meets Rita, a teacher recovering from her own tragedy. He tells her some of what he had done, but not his most terrible acts. Can these two damaged people find peace together?

The narrative tension that impelled me to keep reading Black Water came firstly from the complexity and reality of Harper’s character, and secondly from Doughty’s technique of revealing plot points piecemeal, so that you don’t know the full story until the end. Doughty has spoken about her style:



Louise Doughty (Author’s website)

“I love flashbacks and revelations and foreshadowing – but you have to hold two versions of the novel in your head at the same time: what you know about the book and what your reader knows at any given point are often quite different. It can be fiendishly complicated but it’s essential that it reads naturally on the page.”

Black Water is more than a thriller. It explores difficult questions about personal responsibility and how we may become part of the machinery of oppression and exploitation. It examines how we use simplistic reasoning to avoid difficult decisions: “If I don’t do this job, someone else will. If my company doesn’t invest in this mad and murderous regime, another will.”

appletreeyard-418x640Doughty’s previous novel, Apple Tree Yard, tells a very different story – a courtroom drama set in London – but it shares many similarities with Black Water. It is also a psychological thriller in which the main character is drawn into a destructive course of action. Yvonne is a respected scientist and respectable wife and mother who embarks on a torrid affair that eventually leads to her trial for murder. The structure of the two books is similar. Both use time shifts, flashbacks and foreshadowing. Black Water begins in the present, and Apple Tree Yard starts at a late and critical point of the trial. Both have a killer revelation near the end. Both novels reveal a writer at the top of her game.

A TV mini-series based on Apple Tree Yard has just screened in the UK, gaining rave reviews, condemnations and controversy. While capturing the complexity of Black Water on film would be more difficult, if done well it would be a disturbing but riveting movie.