This book shared the 2019 Booker prize with Margaret Attwood’s The Testament and I bought it at the time and tried once or twice to read it but couldn’t get into it. I left it for some months and then read it within four days (which is fast for me!). It is a fairly long book and I can see now I have finished all 452 pages, why I struggled. The beginning was the part I liked least and those first characters the ones who appealed least to me.
The book is extraordinary in its breadth and depth, in its combination of prose and poetry and its portrayal of modern Britain through the eyes of twelve women of colour, aged from sixteen to ninety. It is structured in four parts, each containing the stories of three women. Sometimes they are connected and sometimes not. The final section, The After Party, has several of them coming together. Such a tight structure keeps each story on track, confined to 30-50 pages. The structure also keeps the prose/poetry narrative, which has random or sometimes no punctuation, in check. Otherwise, it could become unwieldly and hard to follow.
The characters share much in common but are distinctly different. They offer an insight into the lives of black British women both past and present; their experiences of patriarchy, racism, feminism, sexism, LGBTQIA+ issues, all kinds of abuse, the education system, – some who used it to succeed and those who failed. Evaristo has distilled down to these twelve characters thousands of experiences that belong to everyday people..
I loved the language; the economy of poetry, the private dialect of these women, their self-sufficiency. Every page is alive with examples. The back cover says it all. ‘It is fiction, it is history, it is future, it is past. It is a novel about who we are now. This is Britain as you’ve never read it.’
I saw this book advertised online while I was reading a related article. It was advertised as ‘a thumping good read’ and I ordered it immediately. On the back cover is this brilliant description ‘It is a rattling scientific mystery, but in the hands of Steven Johnson it becomes something much richer… a vast interconnected picture about urban and bacterial life… it is difficult to do justice to the exuberance of Johnson’s ideas.’
The book tells in very readable terms the devastation caused the cholera outbreak in Soho, London 1854-55, and the subsequent investigations by Dr John Snow (famous for his work introducing ether and chloroform to surgery) and a parish priest Henry Whitehead, who had an intimate knowledge of his parish. Dr Snow proposed the waterborne theory for the spread of the disease in the very early stages, but the miasmaists rejected his theory in favour of the prevailing airborne theory. Whitehead, originally a miasmaist, gradually saw Snow’s point of view and together they worked to prove that the source of the problem was the Broad Street pump which drew from a well polluted by the human waste which contained the cholera virus sourced from the Thames.
It is Johnson’s writing that brings this story to life and makes it a ‘thumping good read’. I noted these page numbers as I read
P43 ‘Normally an organism like Vibrio Cholera faces a difficult cost-benefit analysis: a particularly lethal strain can make untold billions of copies of itself in a matter of hours, but that reproductive success usually kills off the human body that made the reproduction possible. If those billions of copies don’t find their way into another intestinal tract quickly, then the whole process is for naught… In environments where the risk of transmission is low, the better strategy is to pursue a low-intensity attack on the human host: reproduce in smaller numbers, and keep the human alive longer, in the hope that over time some bacterial cells will find their way into another intestine, where the process can start all over again.’
P 95: ‘Brewed tea possesses several crucial antibacterial properties that help ward off waterborne diseases; the tannic acid released in the steeping process kills off those bacteria that hadn’t already perished during the boiling of the water. The explosion of tea drinking in the 17th Century was, from the bacteria’s point of view, a microbial holocaust.’
P162: ‘The removal of the pump handle at the Broad Street well was a historical turning point, and not just because it marked the end of London’s most explosive outbreak. History has its epic thresholds where the world is transformed in a matter of moments- a leader is assassinated, a volcano erupts, a constitution is ratified. But there are other, smaller turning points that are no less important. A hundred disparate historical trends converge on a single, modest act – some unknown person unscrews the handle of a pump on a side street in a bustling city – and in the years and decades that follow, a thousand changes ripple out from that simple act. It is not that the world is changed instantly; the change itself takes many years to become visible. But the change is no less momentous for its quiet evolution.
I could have copied the whole book, there were so many unusual images, comparisons, phrases and words that Johnson used to give life to this story. The story itself was interesting but it is that ‘giving life’ that makes a book stand out, makes an author remembered, makes the act of writing a craft.
I don’t know how I missed this book when it was published in the 1990’s – probably I was knee deep in children’s literature at the time – but what an interesting story it is. It concerns the production of the multi (twelve, I think) volumed publication of the first Oxford English Dictionary in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Oh! I hear you say, doesn’t sound that interesting! But wait until you hear the details. Dr Murray was in charge of the project and advertised for volunteers to contribute examples of words from an incredibly ambitious range of existing works- words in action, so to speak.
One of his contributors was exceptionally prolific and punctual and after (I think) seventeen years of contributions Dr Murray desired to meet the dedicated and productive Dr William Chester Minor. An invitation was issued and politely refused- he was not able to travel- which led Dr Murray to suggest that he himself could make the short (sixty mile by train) journey from Oxford to the village of Crowthorne, near Broadmoor, Berkshire.
What he found was that Dr Minor was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for the criminally insane, having been convicted of the murder of George Merrett, a random east end worker, whom he shot dead believing that he was trying to kill Minor.
Now the story gets interesting. Minor’s mental illness seems to stem from his days in the Union Army fighting during the American Civil War – well, not fighting, but as a doctor, cleaning up after the fighting. This quote describes the times as I have never heard it before.
‘The fact is that this war was fought with new and highly effective weapons for the mowing down of men, but at a time when an era of poor and primitive medicine was just coming to an end. It was fought with the mortar, the musket and the Minie ball, though not with anaesthesia and sulphonamides and penicillin. The common soldier was thus in a poorer position than at any time before or after; he could be monstrously mistreated by all the new weaponry and yet only moderately well treated with all the old medicine.’ (p44).
Added to this was the Army’s insistence that deserters be punished and it is thought that much of Minor’s insanity stems from being forced, as the medical attendant, to ‘brand’ the letter D (for deserter) on the cheeks of the (mainly Irish) soldiers who deserted. One of the hallmarks of his insanity was his belief that Irish people were trying to kill him. Little wonder, poor man.
So, back to the Dictionary. Minor was a man of education and finer tastes- he liked to read, painted very well with watercolours and enjoyed academic interactions. When he was incarcerated in Broadmoor, he proved himself a model inmate, and one of independent means- the American Army was paying him a generous pension. So, not only was he able to surround himself with the vast library he needed for his work on the Dictionary, he was able to put the funds to other uses.
He made contact with George Merrett’s widow, Eliza, mother of their seven children and supported the family financially. They (Dr Minor and Eliza) became friends and she visited Broadmoor regularly, often bringing his book orders from London.
The film ‘The Professor and the Madman’ starring Mel Gibson as Dr Murray and Sean Penn as Dr Minor, has the Eliza-Dr Minor relationship as a love affair, and Simon Winchester himself hints of this towards the end of the book when he describes the self- mutilation of Dr Minor as a regret for his sexual feeling or activity with Eliza. He also says that Eliza took to drink and that the relationship was short lived, though whether one caused the other is not stated.
So, instead of a dull account of the production of the first Oxford English Dictionary we have murder, insanity, sexual deviance, war and war crimes, incarceration, loneliness and romance, but all eclipsed by the intellectual relationship of two men with the common goal of the love of words and the search for the perfect definition.
I thought there were many places in the book where editing would have helped. It seemed there were many repetitions. Perhaps the overall structure could have been streamlined so that the same information was not repeated. But apart from that, it was a fabulous story, another example of fact being stranger than fiction.
Books That Saved my Life: Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure
By Michael McGirr, Published by Text, 2019, 320pps.
Reviewed by Moira McAlister, October 2020
I’ve read some books by Michael McGirr- Bypass, Things You Get for Free and always find his writing refreshing. He is a well-respected reviewer of books, counting over a thousand book reviews to his name. A former Jesuit of twenty years, seven of them as a priest, and now father of three, husband and teacher at St Kevin’s Jesuit school in Melbourne, McGirr is easy to read -deep, reflective, funny and perceptive. This book is McGirr at his best.
There are forty titles covered here and each one is given five-six pages – enough to reach some depth, but not enough to become dull or boring. This book could be considered a memoir, I guess; it is McGirr’s reflection, not only on the book, its contents, the beauty of its language, its authors life and personality, sometimes its prompts to writing, but also it is his reflection on his own life; where he was when he read the book, people whom he associates with the book, often the place or circumstance in which he bought or acquired the book. It is a book of friends; each one of the forty books has a place in his life with its own special memories. It is a very personal book, but at the same time McGirr invites the reader into this personal space. McGirr, always the teacher, brings these books alive and his tantalizing treatment of each book had me wanting to read or reread every one of the forty -from Middlemarch to Herodotus.
There were many memorable moments in this book; McGirr’s description of Herman Melville’s boring job as a custom’s clerk in New York (p196), Mary Gilmore watching Auburn St in Goulburn and Oxford St in Sydney from a first floor window, ‘slightly above the sod, but not in the clouds’, (p 138) or Leo Tolstoy ‘at no time in his life would it have been much fun to know him.’ (p182). Or some other observations; ‘Literature offers an experience of a broader world; one we can learn from but not control.’(p4), ‘(Tim Winton’s) concern about the vacant moral centre of the community he is part of’ (p30), and my favourite; Orwell says ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.’(p146)
The problem with this book is that each essay is engrossing and can be read again and again, so it is vital to have your own copy. If you love a book you can ‘dip into’ repeatedly then it’s certainly worth the investment.
Gerald Murnane is a name that I have come across occasionally in my reading of reviews and commentaries on Australian literature, but I have never actually read anything he has written, so this is a first.
Border Districts is Murnane’s latest work and some say, his final and perhaps, autobiographical. Born in Melbourne in 1939 and educated by the de la Salle Brothers, he studied for Priesthood in the late fifties, but left and began teaching in primary schools and in later life, universities. He married in 1966 and has three sons. His wife died in 2009 and Murnane retired to Goroke, west of Horsham, on the S.A. -Victorian border, hence the name Border Districts.
But this book is not about place. It seems that this book is typical of Murnane’s work- introspective stream of consciousness focusing on how the mind works, referring to his thoughts constantly. The phrase ‘while I was writing the preceding paragraph’ is invariably followed by ‘I thought, I was reminded of, I imagined’ and then continues to describe the new thought that had entered his head. This leads to a reading ride that is at once smooth and bumpy. Smooth in that if the reader lets go and allows Murnane to control the flow, going from one thought to another like a river, it can be a pleasant, jolt-less experience- seeing where the thought leads- the reader is definitely a passenger.
If, on the other hand, the reader is keen to interact with the text- to question, to make predictions and connections- then the bumpiness comes. Perhaps readers need a warning before they start. Then again, I learnt this in one reading, as obviously thousands of other readers did too, for he is very well regarded in the Australian (and increasingly International) literary scene. His style, I guess, is unique and so in picking up a Murnane to read, the reader puts aside any expectations of ‘fiction’ they hold and allows Murnane to lead.
And this is the real point of my review. It seems to me that this work defies generally held views on what makes good fiction. The story or plot is non-existent, the characters are flat, repressed, unnamed (the girl who was nearly a woman, the man who was once a boy), there is little in the way of setting in either time or place, no descriptions of any note, no use of language to admire. In fact, I’m sure it could be argued that this is not fiction at all, but rather an essay or monologue or dissertation. But obviously the publishers disagree for they have labelled it fiction.
Throughout Border Districts are recurring images, especially the image of coloured glass –from the beginning in the church windows to the final two lines from the poet, Shelley. Another is the ‘return veranda’ where he (the protagonist or perhaps the author) read with his youngest aunt, another is ‘guard my eyes’ which came from a holy card in his teacher’s Missal. Repressed, yes and maybe even, as the author of a New York Times review suggested ‘verging on creepy’.
Add to this mix the fact that Murnane has never left the state of Victoria. His eighty-one years have been lived within a 500km boundary and it was only ten years ago that he left Melbourne. Up until then, his entire life had been lived within that city.
This seems to me to add to the monastic style of his writing. Not that I dislike that – I think that there are enough people interacting in our world and we need to hear from people who volunteer to withdraw and live on the fringes of society, who don’t need the trappings of materialism and who are able to describe an ‘inner’ life.
But those hermits of ancient or modern times generally contribute something substantial to society. Usually their introspection has a spiritual, academic or mathematical basis and their insights can be valuable to the majority who are caught up in the hurly-burly.
I’m not sure that Murnane is in this group. He is not writing from any defined stand-point, he has no message to assist an ailing world. He simply records what he is thinking and what that thought reminded him of. Perhaps it could be called literary introspection, but I would ask, what’s the point? I would like to have a chat with a fan -someone who really appreciates him, so I would welcome responses from readers.
Bridge of Clay by Marcus Zusak. Comments by Moira McAlister August 2020
Much of Zusak’s writing is poetic with evocative images and some critics have slammed this book for overdoing it. Mostly I loved the writing; his use of short sentences, powerful and unusual combinations to achieve an image. The first half of the book seems more studied and careful than the second.
The book is long, 600 pages and often repetitive and confusing. Frequently I put it down wishing it had had a good edit. Much about horse racing could have been scrapped, especially in the second half. But his images kept drawing me back. Here are just some that I had noted.
p 18; this kitchen was a geography and climate all its own: overcast walls, parched floor, a coastline of dirty dishes stretching towards the sink.
p 86; a pair of mismatched salt and pepper shakers stood in the middle (of the table) like some comedy duo
This is set in the Sydney suburb of Haberfield where I was born, so I was always going to read this book, apart from the fact that Marchetta is a well-known and accomplished author, her Looking for Alibrandi considered a modern classic.
Dalhousie Street is a major road in Haberfield and the PLACE is very present with many references that locals will be familiar with; Lamonica’s IGA, Papa’s, Zenetti’s, Ramsey St., Algie Park eyc. The house itself, the main setting for the story, could be any one of a hundred or so that front Dalhousie Street.
The two main female characters are both strong and believable in their desire to maintain control of the property. As the blurb says ‘Four lives. One house. And not enough room for everyone’s baggage.’ I particularly like the character Jimmy – flawed and disadvantaged, but optimistic and focused, we know he is going to win through in the end. He is a great match for Rosie.
The writing was beautiful in parts and Marchetta’s use of dialogue is superb.
Based on the true story of Mary Bryant, Meg Keneally has done a great job with this novel- it is her first independent novel, though she has co-written four, with her father, Tom.
The story itself is full of action and adventure as the escaped convicts make their way to Coepang only to be recaptured, most of them (including Mary’s two children) dying of fever. She is finally pardoned and lived out her years in her native Cornwall.
I like the fact that Meg Keneally says, in the author’s note, that the fictitious Jenny gave her the freedom to fill in the gaps in Mary’s life. She has entwined the fictitious with the facts where possible and produced a fast paced, easy to read novel, with short chapters and characters which are believable and evoke empathy. Jenny herself is strong, and with Keneally’s telling, is multi-faceted; a soft and loving mother, fiercely independent, intelligent and brave.
Looking forward to reading her second novel The Wreck recently released.