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Monday, Sep 21, 2009

I was reading a secondhand library-sale copy of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novel Lovesong when it came to me, somewhere around page 90, that this book was reminding me of a movie, something oblique, something impressionistic, a film that didn’t reveal itself but was somehow, underneath it all, full of buried … David Lynch, yes, that was it, David Lynch. Which Lynch? Inland Empire, I thought, and then: no: Blue Velvet


Lovesong was Jolley’s third-last novel before her death in 2007. “Although she did not publish a novel until she was 57, Elizabeth Jolley, who has died aged 83, quickly established herself as a laureate of the dotty,” reported the Guardian.  So she must have been 73 around the publication of Lovesong. The atmosphere of the story is a haze, its gaze is a glance; we see most of it through the brain of Dalton Foster, a man who has recently been released from prison after committing a paedophilic crime. Exactly what he did we do not know, because, as said, we are seeing this through him, and so his paedophilia is presented in the form of oblique romantic scenes: here is a beautiful soprano boy in a beam of light, here is a ragged girl who strangely compels him to follow her. He wants to give her apples. The apples are symbolic, but symbolic of what is a question without easy answers, although the key seems to be Yeats and his “Song of the Wandering Aengus”, which ends with “The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.”


Prison rehabilitation hasn’t reformed him.


During the years of the journey through conflict and repetitions of treatment, he came to the conclusion that the child had observed and sensed the magic and the beauty of desire and attraction, and already understood that there was a special perception of this, which he possessed …


A love of European high culture, used by thinkers like Montaigne to elevate their minds, only fuels his avoidance. Meeting a probation officer he likened him, in silence, to the old poet, Horace, whose shape had, at one time, been compared, by a friend, to that of a thick little book.


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Thursday, Aug 27, 2009

We went by the butcher and greengrocer and at the charity shop near the station I abandoned a copy of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Knox Brothers so that I could buy a scuffed hardback called Bible Readings for the Home Circle, a gilt embossed dove on the front cover flying over a picture of an open book with HOLY BIBLE written across the pages and a banner between them reading THE ENTRANCE OF THY WORDS GIVETH LIGHT.


The pages smelt lightly mouldy, a date on the frontispiece said 1896, and when I checked the title on abebooks I discovered that it was a reprint of a book that had been published for the first time in 1888. Age has not conferred worth. I could buy it again online for a couple of dollars. “London,” reads the lines above the date on the frontispiece. “International Tract Society, Limited. 59, Paternoster Row.”


Most of the chapters are full of questions and answers, and these are arranged around themes, so that a chapter about “Gossiping” starts by wondering, “What does the ninth commandment forbid?” then answers itself, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Ex. 20:16.) It continues with, “How is such a man regarded?” and answers, “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body.” (James 3: 2.)  Through more questions and answers it advises the reader not to yield her tongue as an instrument of unrighteousness (Rom. 6:13) and explains that the words of a tale-bearer are as wounds (Prov. 26:22.) What is the effect of gossip? “[H]e that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” (Prov 17: 9.)


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Tuesday, Jul 14, 2009

Messing around in a secondhand bookshop some time ago I came across a series of thin paperbacks with orange and black covers. Opening one of them I saw this heading:


African Writers Series


Below that:


Founding Editor: Chinua Achebe


The heading was followed by a list of writers in alphabetical order, starting with a book called Mine Boy by someone named Peter Abrams and ending with Robben Island  by D. M. Zwelonke. D.M. Zwelonke was followed by anthologies of play scripts, poetry, and short stories: Onitsha Market Literature, Igbo Traditional Verse, Short East African Plays, and so on.


The books were numbered from one to 210, with 210 being Elechi Amad’s The Slave, and number one being Achebe’s own Things Fall Apart. I recognised some of the authors. Here was Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North at number 69, here was Wole Soyinka with The Interpreters at 78, here was The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing at 131. Others were strangers. I’d never heard of Okot p’Bitek, author of Hare and Hornbill, or Nkem Nkwanko, who had written something called My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours. Social commentary, I thought, probably satirical. I guessed that J.L. Vieira, whoever he was, must have come from one of the Portuguese colonies, just looking at his name, and that Tom Mboya must have lived in an area that had been colonised by the British. When I looked up Mboya later he turned out to be a politician from Kenya who was shot dead in 1969, possibly at the request of a political rival. “Why don’t you go after the big man?” asked the gunman when they caught him, refusing to tell anyone who the big man was. Mboya’s fellow Kenyans assumed it was the president, Jomo Kenyatta, who set off a riot when he decided to attend the funeral.


Book number 81 is an anthology of the dead man’s speeches. Vieira, who appears to be still alive, was raised in Angola and spent years in prison after pushing for the cause of Angolan independence.


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Friday, May 22, 2009
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill Houseby Kate SummerscaleBloomsbury, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,
or the Murder at Road Hill House

by Kate Summerscale
Bloomsbury, 2008


I blogged a few months back about this book’s taking out of the Samuel Johnson Prize and have been desperate to read it since. The handful of bookstores in my region either didn’t have it or wanted to charge me $30 for it in times of financial drought. The other day, however, on a giant book-buying road trip for which I saved mucho dollars, I found it, stuffed haphazardly in the true crime section at Bendigo’s old fire station-turned-secondhand bookstore.


I believe I may have squealed.


Kate Summerscale’s book is exactly what you might call “my thing”. It’s crime in the Capote style, a rich, true account written in the form of a novel, with revelations plotted throughout to create storytelling over basic retelling. Not only that, as the detective investigating the crime at hand was the inspiration for characters in the works of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and others, it’s also a history of English literature. True crime and a lesson in literary history—what could be more perfect?


And it was just as I suspected—educational and utterly thrilling. I knew very little about the murder at Road Hill House going in, so the twists and turns gripped me exactly as they should have. I read compulsively, especially the second half as the mystery began to unravel.


It begins, in 1860, with the murder of Saville Kent, the four-year-old son of Samuel and Mary Kent in their home at Road, Wiltshire. As Kent is a private man with an unpopular profession, his home and family, including maids, nurses, and the children of his former marriage, are securely locked up at night in their large home. The security assumes the murderer resides within. Celebrated detective Jack Whicher is brought in to find the culprit. Yet with so many suspects and a range of plausible motives and means, Whicher’s job is difficult. The call he eventually makes as to the perpetrator of the crime is unpopular and costs him his reputation (in the US, the book is subtitled, A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective).


But Jack Whicher has a reputation for a reason, and he stands by his suspicions as the crime goes unsolved for a number of years. When the answers finally come, most everyone is surprised. I was, too. My keen eye and marked understanding of the personalities involved proved entirely, wholeheartedly wrong. (But I was so sure!)


Summerscale is just a dream to read. She sticks to the fact, digressing into detail only at key moments. Her insight into the players and the era is convincing. And her conclusions are shocking—Summerscale admits that in her verve to tell her story, she lost sight of its centre: a dead child. Funny, too, that in my race to read the book and the joy I received while doing so, deep in the shadows of Victorian England, peeping through the keyholes into the lives of this private family, I, too, lost sight of little Saville and the horrors that occurred to create this entertaining, spellbinding read.


I don’t really know how to reconcile that thought, actually. Might delve into that another time.


Still, it’s a marvellous, historical tale with great insights into the origins of detection and detective novels. It’s also the story of upheaval in the lives of the Kent family, and just how they deal with the everlong aftermath of one horrible event.


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Tuesday, Apr 28, 2009

When Macon Leary of Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist wants to protect himself from the friendliness of other passengers on aeroplanes, he takes out a novel.


The name of his book was Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, and it was 1,198 pages long … It had the advantage of being plotless, as far as he could tell, but invariably interesting, so he could dip into it at random.


I spent a long time searching for Miss MacIntosh in secondhand book stores, never seriously expecting to find it. Had it been released in Australia? Not everything is, as I found when I tried to track down Greer Gilman’s Moonwise. The illustration at Dalkey Archive Press, the agent of Miss MacIntosh‘s latest republishing, showed an orange-brown cover with a knobbled texture: not an interesting thing to look at, but inside it was supposed to be either brilliant or horrible depending on the reader. Marguerite Young took 18 years to finish her book, and when it came out in 1965 one critic called it his most hated publication of the year.


“Anyone who has not heard of Miss Young, nor read her magnum opus, “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,” need not feel ashamed,” stated the obituary in the New York Times when Young died in 1995 at the age of 87. “[E]ven Miss Young’s most ardent admirers … concede that the book, variously described as “a mammoth epic,” “a massive fable” and “a work of stunning magnitude and beauty” … is rather much to take in a single season. Too rich for a repast, it is better savored, they say, like a bedside dish of candy, one bite-sized bonbon at a time.”


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