Do Not Say We Have Nothing is, like an appreciation for classical music, an acquired taste for the sophisticated amongst us. Not everyone will love the conplex construction, care for the critical acclaim (long-listed for the Man Booker in 2016) or know the referential motifs.
All that aside, even those without an ear for it, will appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that has gone into Madeleine Thien’s story is about a family of classical musicians and intellectuals. Politics and music is not a natural combination in my mind, but the novel comingles and counterpoints the two through the rise of Communism, the Cultural Revolution to the events of Tiananmen Square and present-day Canada.
The core of the narrative (at least for me) are the triumvirate of visionary composer Sparrow, his young violinist cousin Zhuli and dashing young revolutionary Jiang Kai. The interplay between these three characters is charged with feeling and soulfulness.
The inconclusiveness and lack of resolution is frustrating after so many chapters. There aren’t happy endings, people disappear out of others’ lives and narratives are elliptical. But that is real life. Even if you don’t actively enjoy it, Thien’s symphony certainly makes you listen to narratives in a new way.
Read: For a thought-provoking take on a multi-generational saga
Selkies are a Scottish myth- seals who shed their skins to take the form of beautiful women at a full moon. Sealskin is Su Bristow’s retelling of Celtic folklore.
Outside his small village, social oddity Donald is entranced by a group of women dancing on the shore. One of them is the ethereal Mairhi. Donald effectively violates and kidnaps her, hiding her skins so she can’t transform back. The terrible deed certainly doesn’t endear him as a protagonist. But as time goes on, they settle down in their West Coast fishing community and create a touching truce to share a life-of-sorts together.
Bristow’s narrative brings out out the weirdness inherent in Scottish folklore, or indeed many fairytales: gentle and whimsical at times and incredibly dark and harsh at others. Through very simple prose, it is a classic fisherman’s tale brought to life for a modern reader with themes of social isolation, identity, and free will explored.
The crux of the novel explores will in love and life choices, what it means to ‘set someone free’ as they say in cheesy American films, with sad consequences. Lovely and beautifully formed as this book is, it’s probably not one for children.
Read: If you want to read an adult bedtime story
Fates and the Furies has a wonderful structure to it, which makes sense for a novel about plays. Told in two parts, ‘Fates’ is about a marriage. Talented, rich and charismatic, Lotto escapes a troubled adolescence to college, where he meets and falls for Mathilde. She is a strikingly beautiful, smiling Sphinx. They live in domestic bliss as Mathilde supports Lotto’s path to world-renowned playwright, which is conveniently meta.
The inscrutable Mathilde and her mysterious backstory, ‘Furies’, is the revealed in the second half of the novel. Her dysfunctional upbringing and inner thoughts shine a different light on the first half of the novel.
My challenge with Groff’s book is that I just don’t like the art form of plays that much. This is a blasphemous confession from someone who adores literature but there you go. There is something about seeing the construction of acts and directed speech which disappoints me. I was tempted to skim large tracts of it that look like a script and I have no thespian joy in theatrical conceits.
However, I can appreciate a lot of it- this is a beautifully constructed classical revenge tragedy, climaxing in Oedipal revelations. Striking, rich and unusual, I liked the high drama, the stylistic devices (lots of brackets to convey inner thoughts) and the Greek mythological references (you need some knowledge for more enjoyment).
(Beautiful cover too)
Read: It you didn’t get tickets to the latest play you wanted to see.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is darker than I imagined. I thought it was about an unorthodox but inspiring female teacher, carefully nurturing young women into maturity. Something along the lines of a female Dead Poets Society.
Which is fairly accurate but it’s actually more complex with uncomfortable undercurrents. Miss Brodie is an independent teacher living in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She eschews a traditional curriculum for worldly topics to broaden the mind of her glamorous girls, with classes outdoors and trips to the ballet. In battle with the school determined to get rid of her and caught in a love triangle, this is supposedly her prime.
Miss Brodie is also a weird and pernicious influence on her charges- constantly scapegoating one, tactically taking others into confidence, encouraging them in inappropriate love affairs. She’s a complicated woman whose internal workings we can only glimpse.
It is stylistically interesting without sacrificing readability- there are oft-repeated maxims like you’d recite in a classroom. The novel plays with time as it is told in a series of flashbacks and forwards. It’s all deeply knowing and nostalgic, layered with the tricks that memory plays on us.
As much as I loved the book, I’m glad I didn’t have a teacher like Jean.
Read: When remembering your school days.
Discovered in a dusty box in 2000 and published twenty years after his death, Summer Crossing is the first novel Truman Capote wrote and the novel he never meant anyone to read.
I can sort of see why. Now, I don’t claim that it should have remained unread- sounds almost sacrilegious about an American Literary Great. But I can see Capote’s reluctance. Let me explain.
Grady McNeil is a young ethereal socialite. Rich, beautiful and bored, she is left alone in Manhattan one hot summer. Rebelling against her family, she has an affair with deeply unsuitable parking attendant Clyde. The song Uptown Girl may well have been written for her.
There is brilliance in Capote’s atmosphere of New York and especially some of his his characters- his description of Clyde’s matriarch driving family currents, Grady’s mother’s train of thought on dresses and debuts. Small actions are laden with significance, each tiny glimpse into a backstory conveing worlds.
When you’ve written something as stark and clean with as much gravitas as In Cold Blood, you probably don’t want people to see your working out. The whimsical metaphors, the poetic-ness detract from the good bits to make the novel feel light and silly in places, like a Truman Jnr. college essay
But lucky for us, we can see the bigger picture of Capote’s trajectory and enjoy the novel for what it is- a collection of interesting sequences, ideas and characters. Occasionally annoying, occasionally brilliant.
Read: If you feel restless in the heat of the summer.
I’ve read three Liane Moriarty books in quick succession and they all have a similar feel to them so I’ll just review the best one. Which actually is Big Little Lies, so it’s probably no coincidence they’ve turned it into a fancy HBO production.
Set in Australian suburbia, beautiful Celeste, effervescent Madeline and withdrawn Jane meet at their children’s primary school. We see their daily lives in the run up to a tragic event.
Effectively, this book is about the secret that hides just under the surface. The normal people we meet day to day- your neighbours, the hired help, the mum at the school gates- all have intricate hidden inner lives. It is a cunning blend of the mundane and the important, trivial daily activity and life-changing events.
It’s funny, perhaps I’m very Euro centric, but it’s really unusual for me to read novels set in the Australian present. Thankfully, good fiction is universal so I’m not at a loss for my previous remission.
Which brings me to a usual bug-bear of mine: if you’re put out by how popular and ubiquitous copies with Nicole Kidman’s face is on the front, Moriarty has managed to crack both accessible and well written here, so don’t be a book snob.
Read: While you people watch in a café and wonder what their lives are like.
‘The course of love never did run smooth’-Alain de Botton’s philosophical treatise on the changing, multi-faceted nature of love confirms Shakespeare was right.
Yuk, I hear you say. But hold on.
This is an unusual book. De Botton uses a fictional couple Rabih and Kirsten to explain. They tentatively meet, fall passionately in love, and mature together in married life. An ordinary modern couple- they are based in Edinburgh, have two kids, are paying off a mortgage, and juggling childcare and work.
Their story is punctured with interludes of philosophical treatise. My biggest problem with reading philosophy is how abstract it often is. So by having a specific set of complex, realistic characters to follow, we can apply the ideas to ‘real life’. Rabih and Kirsten become a parable- their trials and tribulations forming universal lessons we can all learn from or at least relate to.
The hypothesis he poses are deeply insightful- a sulk as a significant sign of closeness because ‘you should really understand why I’m angry without me having to tell you’. The way one punishes a significant other for not meeting incredibly high standards reserved for no one else. The way petty arguments are lightening rods for larger issues and patterns of behaviour.
De Botton (almost incidentally) creates some of the most believable, elegantly written fiction I’ve read this year. This is modern philosophy at its best- when you have been taught a lesson, almost without realising because you’ve enjoyed it so much.
Read: When you’re having a fight with your partner.
Step into the drawing room of society matron Mrs Charles Strickland. Her middle-aged accountant husband has just abandoned her genteel world of literary salons to be a penniless artist in Paris. Our narrator, an unnamed writer, is sent to retrieve him. He becomes unofficial biographer to Strickland, recounting his experiences, attempting to chart his life through glimpses of this artists’ world.
Loosley based on the life of Gaugin, the irascible and graceless Strickland has multiple awkward and brusque encounters. He skewers all pretensions to respectability and social expectation, causing chaos and destruction in his wake- discarded lovers, abandoned families,betrayed friends.
He’s not quite Gaugin though. More brutal, more extreme, this is a romanticised retelling of his life. It leans heavily on the trope of tortured, unrecognised genius for dramatic effect. I actually think this is a much better novel than Maugham’s more famous Of Human Bondage. It has all the existentialism and angsty comment on human condition, but seems more passionate and powerfully conveyed through the pursuit of a higher order of art.
The best chapters are those set in the steamy, colourful Tahitian jungle. They are tragic and poignant, a perfect meeting point of art and life. But perhaps I like this novel so much because it conjures up the same feeling that Gaugin’s paintings do when you see them- a mingling of otherworldly sublime beauty with earthly appetites.
Read: After seeing a painting that moves you.
Anna O’Donnell is a little girl who survives without eating- a miracle of Catholics faith. Emma Donoghue’s historical novel The Wonder is inspired by the strange phenomenon of the Fasting Girls, recurrent cases of women claiming to live with no nourishment in the 16th to 20th centuries.
Lib Wright, a serious and brisk nurse, is sent to rural Ireland to supervise Anna at the request of a local committee. Deeply superstitious and staunchly religious, the community is deeply vested in the truth of Anna’s state. Having been blighted by the Irish potato famine, Anna is a beacon of hope amongst a hard, hungry subsistence.
Trained by the famous Florence Nightingale at the Crimea war, Lib’s starched, reasoned mind provides a straightforward narrative that pleasingly contrasts with the oddness and unreality of the events and landscape around her. Suspicion and doubt creep into to Lib’s certainties as she encounters Anna’s spirituality and struggles to get to the bottom on the matter. Is she really sustained by god? Is she secretly eating? And if so, who is feeding her?
I was drawn into this tale of a mystical, isolated community where fairies lead you astray into peat bogs or doctrinal interpretation determines life and death. The Wonder is tragic, terrifyingly strange, and damning of religion, yet I am left oddly charmed by Donoghue’s weird historical wormhole.
Read: When you’re feeling hungry.
If Dark Places and Gone Girl were sisters, the latter would be glossy haired head cheerleader, hiding complexity beneath an artful facade. Dark Places would be her angry rebel twin with grubby clothes and grungy shoes, all attitude and abrasiveness. Not that I should be comparing but it’s hard not to when Dark Places is Flynn’s forerunner.
Libby Day is a broke, damaged 30-something, living off the notoriety of being the only survivor of her family’s massacre. Accepted logic is that her brother Ben was the perpetrator, currently behind bars. When she is approached by members of a true crime fan club, she is forced (by unpaid bills) to delve deeper into her past to satisfy their curiosity- and hers.
For me, this is not a novel about murder or culpability- the thing that jumps out at me most is the sheer grind of poverty. Lack of money motivates virtually all of the characters. This depressing poverty creates a malaise in their rural community, a breeding ground for dispossessed lives and dark corners like it’s seedy dive bars, streetwalker zones, and homeless drug dens.
You can see the inception of Gone Girl here: women with a hidden life, knife-edge conversations, a dark social underbelly. It’s flimsier than Gone Girl- less tightly written, not as solidly constructed, going for the easy shocks. Almost because of this, it’s loose, raw quality makes for gripping reading as you can feel the sordidness creeping off the page.
Read: Before you have a bath to scrub the dirt from your skin