Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey’s latest book is one that I have some mixed feelings about.

Felix Moore is a discredited left-wing journalist. Brought down by the Establishment and successfully sued for defamation he is shunned, bankrupted and unemployed.

As the doors of the mainstream media closed to anyone unworldly enough to write the truth, I still published ‘Lo-Tech Blog’, a newsletter printed on acid paper which was read by the entire Canberra Press Gallery and all of parliament besides. Don’t ask how we paid our electricity bill.

He friend Woody Wodonga Townes comes to his rescue employing him to write the biography of ‘ Angel’ ,a  hacker who has released a worm into the computer systems of the Australian and US prison systems ,unlocking the doors and freeing the inmates.

Felix sees the Tolstoyan possibilities of this when he discovers that Angel is none other than Gaby Ballieux, daughter of Celine Ballieux and Sando Quinn, classmates of his in University in Melbourne.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Is there a more famous line in all of literature? Is there a greater writer than Tolstoy? Only in some lost corner of the earth, in a shack above the Hawkesbury for instance, might you find a winecaked fool thinking to himself – hang on Tolstoy, not so slick: it may not be a case of either/or.

Felix has long been addressed by what he calls The Great Amnesia – Australia’s complicated relationship with the US which, in his view, produced a CIA plot to bring down the Whitlam government in 1975 when the continued use of the Pine Gap listening facility was under threat.

We were naive of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese . We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.

So we are taken on a romp through recent Australian political history, starting with the Brissy Riots during WW2, when American servicemen were attacked by an enraged local mob, and ending with a Wikileaks inspired plot to expose all that is wrong with global corporate control.

This is a novel that Carey clearly cares deeply about and there is much to enjoy here.Felix rails against the hypocrisy of the current Australian government,

In Lo-Tech Blog, I revealed the Australian press’s cowardly reporting of the government lies about the refugees aboard the ill-fated Oolong.

‘I can’t comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard’ said our Prime Minister.

Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelseque immensity. The fourth estate made the whole country believe the refugees were animal and swine. Many think so still.

Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.

Felix is a classic Carey creation and his acerbic commentary on modern Australian life and self-deprecating humour are the joys of the book.

I did not however find this a particularly easy book to read, in fact at times I struggled to continue.

Firstly, the many cultural references were entirely lost on me. The book is largely set in Melbourne with frequent references to particular suburbs the significance of which are not explained.I suspect that several of the characters are representations of Australian public figures, again I floundered.

Felix’s voice is strong and engaging but the book , in part, is effectively narrated by Celine and then Gaby, as he is given access to tape recordings of their version of events. The frequent changes in voice together with leaps to and fro in time made following the events extremely difficult.

Finally, one of Carey’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to entirely inhabit the worlds he creates whether that is Dickensian London in Jack Maggs; the 19th Century outback in Oscar and Lucinda ; or the web of international art fraud in Fake. Here he convincingly creates the world of the early computer gamers turned hackers. Computer geeks, however, do not make engaging narrators . They are introverted and spend long periods of time closeted with other like-minded obsessives speaking a language that most of us find hard to understand.

I desperately wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did. Carey is one of only three writers to have won the Booker Prize twice but I fear Amnesia does not quite measure up to his earlier works.

My thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for the review copy.

 

Man Booker Prize 2014 : The Shortlist

The closing event of the London Literary Festival at the Royal Festival Hall was also the final reading event before the announcement of the Man Booker Prize 2014 on 14th October.

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All six shortlisters attended to read from their novel and the evening was compered by Kirsty Wark who will also be interviewing the eventual winner on Newsnight on Wednesday evening.

First up was Joshua Ferris reading from To Rise Again At A Decent Hour.I have also heard hi reading from this at The Hay Festival. He has a beautiful reading voice and had chosen a very witty piece in which his protagonist ruminates on the sort of passengers he sees on public transport intently reading from heavily highlighted copies of the Bible.

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Ferris explained that he feel a sense of community is very important. What his character lacks is the ability to commune with people and the novel describes his attempts to build himself a community. Ferris had felt a great sense of community with all the shortlisted authors and for him the time spent with them will be more important than who actually wins the prize.

Kirsty then asked him whether his book was a warning about the dangers of online life. Ferris feels a deep ambivalence towards the internet. It can certainly give us a lot of information but can it provide real knowledge and wisdom? He thinks that iPads and iPhones etc are in direct competition with books.

Next came Richard Flanagan who introduced his novel The Narrow Road To The Deep North as a story about the human spirit and the nature of love.He feels that writing is a journey into humility. There is a very good argument for any of the six books to win.He just wanted to say that when he loses he will feel much happiness in drinking deeply and well with the winner.

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan

He then read a very emotional and moving extract describing an ex-serviceman’s struggle with what we now know to be PTSD. Written in the 3rd Person it captured his inability to express his love for his children although he could feel love. He was also tormented by the guilt of the survivor.

After the reading Flanagan explained that his father was a survivor of the death railway in Burma. In many ways he feels he grew up a child of the death railway as those who come back from such experiences continue to suffer from the wounds they bring home.

He realised that he needed to write the story when he happened to be walking across Sydney Harbour bridge in 2001. He was suddenly reminded of a story his parents had told him about a Latvian survivor of the camps in World War 2. After the war he had returned to his village to find it raised to the ground and no trace of his wife and childen. Eventually he emigrated to Australia and settled there. One day in 1957 he was crossing Sydney bridge when coming towards him he recognised he wife holding 2 chidden by the hand. Flanagan immediately felt inspired, rushed into a bar and wrote a chapter on the back of beer mats.

Karen Joy Fowler then read to us from her audacious novel We Are All Completey Beside Ourselves.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

She wanted to say that she actually feels very competitive, she is quite sure that she likes everyone more than anyone else in the group.

She then read an extract fro her novel that is narrated in the acerbic voice of the younger daughter of a family.Now an adult ,she is reflecting on a traumatic event that occurred in the family unleashing a chain of events.

Fowler had wanted to explore a family where things had gone horribly wrong but not for the lack of love. In her novel the whole family has to bear the consequences of one decision.

Wark asked her if she shared the animal rights sympathies of her characters Rosemary and Lowell. She confirmed she did. Her father had worked as a psychologist experimenting on animals and the memory of the part of the lab she was not allowed to enter had haunted her.

Howard Jacobson was next with a reading from J , a love story where a ‘quiet catastrophe’ has already happened.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Before beginning to read he just wanted to say, ironically, that he loves all these guys and he is quite sure that he loves Karen more than she loves him.

Wark asked him if he was describing something he felt could happen. This is not a prophetic book but you would have to be a fool, in his view, to believe such things don’t occur. We appear to live in the midst of catastrophe all the time.

Does he believe that people are relatively quiescent in these catastrophes ? This is the conclusion that one has to draw when one reads about these terrible occurrences. J is not a retelling of the Holocaust in Germany. He is more interested in what we are left with when these things have happened – the survivors and those who let it occur.

Neel Mukherjee then read from his book The Lives Of Others . This is a family saga spanning several generations of the Ghosh family in Bengal.

Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee

Wark asked him whether the sort of family he describes in the book is now lost to Indian culture. He explained that the extended family is still very much the main model for the family in India. In some of the more urban areas perhaps it has been eroded but India as a country is so vast that the very numbers of people work against new ideas taking root.

Wark observed that he wrote about the Ghosh family with such affection, she wondered whether he misses living in an extended family. He replied vehemently that he did not…..for reasons which are apparent if you read the novel!

Finally came Ali Smith to read to us from How To Be Both. Her novel exists in 2 versions and so which story you get first depends entirely on which copy of the book you pick up.

Ali Smith

Ali Smith

Smith read an extract from each of the two possible openings of the novel.Both extracts were written in an energetic, stream of consciousness style.

Wark wanted to know what had captured Smith’s imagination and inspired het to write this story. She had wanted to write a book that does the same thing as a fresco. As a restorer works on a fresco and starts to remove the upper layer, they find another painting underneath. The basis of every narrative is an understory. In great books, the story is the thing you realise after you have read it.

The other strand in the book captures the feisty relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter. Smith explained that she has great hopes for the 15 year olds of today. They are able to multi task admirably…looking at two screens, whilst texting and reading a book! Such versatility will surely lead to great things.

The evening then ended with a few questions from the audience.Smith was asked about the duality and multiple versions of things in her novel. Were they in fact many drafts of an idea?

In fact, she replied, the novel had been edited very tightly. She had had to take a lot out. She had to split up lines to make a visual spiral in one part. An opening to a book is very important and causes great stress, she wanted to ask her fellow panellists about that.

Ferris remarked that the opening of his book had been buried half way through. He hadn’t realised that was the opening until someone else had pointed that out so had been spared the angst!

Flanagan’s rule is that one should rip out the first three pages of what you have written, in his experience the story generally starts there. Jacobson and Mukherjee both agreed that openings are best found when you have come to the end of writing a novel. Fowler said that she always dislikes her first draft. She tends to rewrite, then rewrite and then discover that what she has written does not belong in that novel at all.

Jacobson was asked whether characters can act as role models for life. Books certainly shape us. He has said before that no-one has ever been mugged by someone carrying a copy of Middlemarch. In literature we are taken outside ourselves and that can only be good for us.

Finally, Flanagan was asked what had happened to the Latvian man he had talked about. Did he go up to his wife or just keep on walking? He replied, mysteriously, that we would have to read the book to find out.

This was a wonderful evening. I had been feeling much less enthusiastic about the Booker than in previous years but hearing the authors read from and talk about their novels has sparked my interest anew. I can’t wait for the result and to read all the shortlisted novels.

I guess a prediction is now expected from me. I have only read Karen Joy Fowlers book from the shortlist. I really enjoyed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but on the basis of what I heard last night ,I would say that Ali Smith must be the winner, although Richard Flanagan must be running a close second. No doubt the judges will have a completely different idea!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just A Little Baileys…….

photoThe Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was formerly called The Orange Prize and the winner will be announced tomorrow. This evening I went to a ‘preview’ event at The Southbank Centre in London where each of the six shortlisters was to read an extract from their novel and answer a few questions about the work.

Unfortunately, just a few days before the event it was announced that Donna Tartt, described by The Guardian as the frontrunner, was unable to make it. Instead her place was taken by Charles Dance, the actor, who joked that he had never felt so conspicuous in his life and then by her literary agent in the UK to answer questions.

First up was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Americanah, my personal favourite.She previously won the Orange Prize for Half Of A Yellow Sun. At the risk of sounding trivial, if there were a prize for best dressed author she would win hands down! I saw  her at the Hay Festival on Sunday and on both occasions she was dressed to kill. The lady has got STYLE!!

She was asked about the two very different experiences her main characters have when they leave Nigeria….Ifemelu in the USA and Obinze in the UK. She explained that all of their experiences were based on true life experiences although not necessarily her own.

She also explained that she had wanted to describe a sense of longing and homesickness for Nigeria which she had felt as a young student in the USA. She had also wanted to recreate the sense of betrayal she had felt too when she returned to Nigeria some years later and found it had not stood still waiting for her.

Next came Hannah Kent. Burial Rites is a debut novel from the Australian writer which I enjoyed but didn’t love.The novel traces the story of Agnus Magnusdottir, the last woman to be publically executed in Iceland in 1830.During the questions, Kent explained how she had come across the story first whilst she was a young exchange student in Iceland. She stressed that fact and fiction were very closely linked in the book and that she had to rein in her imagination and not speculate if there was no evidence for a particular aspect of the story. She was asked by a member of the audience whether she had ‘inhabited’ Agnus’ character. She replied that she had been drawn to Agnus as a young and lonely exchange student and felt she had carried Agnus with her throughout working on the book. She had a sense of grieving for her character when the work was finished.

Jhumpa Lahiri was for me the most disappointing of all the readers. The Lowland is a rich and enriching novel which deals with love , loss and the impossibility of forgetting. The extract chosen was not particularly illuminating nor representative of the beautiful prose in the book.I suppose it is difficult to choose a passage that in some way reflects the book without giving too much away of the plot however the reading was rather plodding and didn’t do the work justice at all.

Next was Audrey Magee reading from her book ,The Undertaking. I must be completely honest here, this is the one book on the shortlist I haven’t read.I feel a little resistant to it given its subject matter and perhaps the fairest thing I can say here is that although the passage chosen was beautifully read, I did not change my mind.

Moving swiftly on , the next was Eimear McBride reading from A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing. This is not an easy work either in voice or subject matter but it was beautifully read by the author. When introducing her, the chair had explained that writing the book had taken McBride six months but then she had faced a ten-year struggle to find a publisher. McBride then wryly remarked that she was indeed very glad to be invited to a Bailey’s Prize event.

She was asked by the audience if she intended to change her voice for her next work. She replied that she is interested in language and what it can be made to do ‘ against its will almost’. Her next work will have an equally innovative voice as well.

Finally, Charles Dance read an extract from The Goldfinch which had, apparently, been chosen by the author,  Donna Tartt. The passage chosen comes from the end of the book when the hero, Theo, is contemplating Fabritius’ painting which has haunted his childhood. It is one of my favourite parts of the novel . The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize recently and the sheer quality of the writing shone through in Dance’s reading. During questions it was confirmed that Ms Tartt is indeed a big fan of Charles Dickens……….although J K Rowling was not mentioned.

Of course the winner will be revealed tomorrow evening…..my personal pick is Americanah, followed very closely by The Lowland. On the strength of tonight though, I suspect a ‘double whammy’ for Donna Tartt cannot be ruled out.

A great evening

 

 

 

 

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

photo‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show’

So reads the first line of David Copperfield which resonates with Danny Kelly when he reads it ,as it is also the question he is grappling with in Chris Tsiolkas’ latest novel, Barracuda.

Tsiolkas is the Australian author of worldwide best-seller The Slap, subsequently made into a TV series. A book that controversially de-constructed Australian middle class life and, be warned, Barracuda is no less confrontational.

Danny Kelly’s dream is to be a swimming star, specifically to compete in the Sydney Olympics  and win gold for Australia. Swimming and success obsess him.

The novel is split into two parts : Breathing In as Danny goes into his stroke; and Breathing Out as he is propelled by it’s consequences  – but swimming is just a metaphor for what Danny must deal with to reach the finishing line.

On his journey Danny must confront the complexities and contradictions of Australian life. As Clyde, Danny’s Scottish boyfriend, puts it :

‘You all think you’re so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve met.You call yourselves laid back but you’re angry and resentful all the time.You say there is no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you are anti-authoritarian but all there is here are rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don’t climb there , don’t go here, don’t smoke and don’t drink here and don’t play there and don’t drink and drive and don’t go over the speed limit and don’t do anything fucken human.’

Tsiolkas also deals with an institution I have long found bewildering. Danny wins a scholarship to the so called ‘ Cunts College’ a private school which in every way imitates all that is divisive and negative about the British public school system. Such schools exist all over the ‘ ex-colonies’ and are, I think, increasingly hard to explain or understand. There Danny meets his Steerforth….but, be careful, Danny is not always a reliable narrator.

Tsiolkas writes with a blistering honesty that some may, perhaps, find offensive. I never felt anything was gratuitous or unnecessary. He describes love, loss, longing and the depths to which we can all sink given extenuating circumstances with a simplicity and humanity that will bring a lump to your throat.

Make no mistake, this is an author at the height of his powers. Dickens, Tolstoy and Graham Greene, amongst others, are frequently referenced in the book. Like Dickens and Tolstoy, Tsiolkas examines hypocrisy in society, and Danny searches to explain the reason for his existence just as Greene’s heroes do. Like Dickens and Tolstoy, Tsiolkas is also a master storyteller. I was gripped from the start of this 500pp plus book and read it inside of two days, despite the demands of ‘real’ life.

And, is Danny the hero of his own life? Well, you will just have to read Barracuda to find out.