Australian Literature

Book Review – The Light between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

The Light between Oceans contained the best overall story I’ve ever read in a debut novel. M. L. Stedman also introduced readers to very well-crafted characters. The book contained the most creative multi-layered conflict I’ve ever read. In addition to these achievements, Ms. Stedman wrote in lyrical language to tell this extraordinary tale.

The main action in the story occurred on the remote Australian island of Janus during the 1920s. After witnessing the carnage of the First World War, Tom accepted the job managing the lighthouse there. The carefree and naïve Isabel became his wife and joined him. The strain of isolation combined with three stillbirths placed an immense emotional strain on the marriage. Just weeks following Isabel’s last miscarriage a boat washed ashore. It contained a dead man and a living infant. Then the real drama commenced.

This author displayed exceptional skill in developing the characters. I admired the way she did so through conflict. As the lighthouse keeper, Tom emphasized his duty to report the incident to the authorities. Isabel argued otherwise. She surmised the man in the boat probably the child’s father. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume the mother dead under these circumstances? Wouldn’t the child get sent to an orphanage? Wasn’t it true that only they knew about the miscarriage a few weeks before? The opposing views and justifications behind them provided fantastic insight into the characters.

I won’t give away spoilers, but I will comment that the dynamic between the couple changed throughout the book. As the story progressed so did my perception of them. At times the author managed to transform them into villains. My astonishment and curiosity kept me reading to see how the novel would end. Along the journey, Ms. Stedman included a few superb plot twists and a red herring. They made the book a much more exciting read.

The author included many clever uses of language. I liked the alliteration in the expression, “seemed so solid she.” (Page 3) I enjoyed the simile, “the light stood guard, slicing the darkness like a sword.” (Page 34) The author even added a line that would’ve made Louis Zamperini proud: “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day.” (Page 323)

My favorite lyrical passage described Tom’s thoughts on the island’s lighthouse:

But Janus light was the last sign of Australia he had seen as his troopship steamed for Egypt in 1915. The smell of the eucalypts had wafted for miles offshore from Albany, and when the scent faded away he was suddenly sick at the loss of something he didn’t know he could miss. Then, hours later, true and steady, the light, with its five second flash, came into view—his homeland’s furthest reach—and its memory stayed with him through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss. (Page 11)

I found one area where the novel could be improved. The author front-loaded The Light between Oceans with a lot of back-story. Since it occurred in the opening chapters, I had trouble understanding what the main story concept would be. Granted, the majority of the book took place on an isolated island inhabited by either two or three characters. It would’ve been challenging to describe both Tom’s and Isabelle’s backgrounds in that setting without it coming across as contrived.

Also, I thought some of the resolutions towards the end too abrupt; at least when compared to the pace the author established at the beginning. I thought the narrative could’ve been more balanced in that respect.

I would also like to credit the author for the creative title. It possessed both literal and symbolic meanings. It’s very challenging to condense a book’s content in a few words. It’s even harder to do so with a phrase containing multiple connotations. The Light between Oceans summarized the book brilliantly.

I have to give Ms. Stedman immense credit for a stellar debut. She crafted characters and managed the conflict between them like an expert storyteller. So far only one Australian has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is it premature to suspect another could be so honored in the future?

Book Review – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

What John Dillinger was to the American outlaws of the 1930’s Ned Kelly was to the ‘bushrangers’ of 1870’s Australia. Folk hero to some, vicious killer to others, his legacy is hotly debated to this day. In this creative tome of historical fiction, Peter Carey presented his take on this controversial figure.

Carey’s presentation reminded me of Mario Vargas-Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt. The author immerged himself in Kelly’s frame of mind. The narrative consisted of various ‘parcels’ written from Ned Kelly’s perspective. The entries included bad grammar, poor subject-verb agreement and downright awful writing. While difficult to understand and at times very tedious to get through, it gave the tale an element of authenticity. I felt like I read words written by Ned Kelly, himself. This made the choice of title an excellent one.

In real life Kelly faced execution before having the opportunity to meet his daughter. The protagonist recorded the memoirs so she could get to know him. For this reason, the author excised the bad language in the text. The word adjectival appeared numerous times. (As most reading this post are adults, I don’t feel the need to point out what four letter word it represented.) Once again, this made the writing even more realistic.

The book’s main strength also served as its major weakness. I found the text very difficult to get through. Keep in mind that I’m a guy. I like ‘bang-bang shoot ‘em up’ action stories. True History of the Kelly Gang didn’t lack any of that. The writing made it very hard for me to follow. I thought the transitions too abrupt. Various scenes ran together. I had to go back and see if I missed something. Most of the time, I hadn’t.

With the use of a first person semi-illiterate narrator, there weren’t many lyrical flourishes in the test. Carey did manage to include a few.

The memory of the policeman’s words lay inside me like the egg of a liver fluke and while I went about my growing up this slander wormed deeper and deeper in my heart and there grew fat. (Page 12)

These things are like the dark marks made in the rings of great trees locked forever in my daily self. (Page 19)

In the heat of the furnace metals change their nature in olden days they could make gold from lead. Wait to see what more there is to hear my daughter for in the end we poor uneducated people will all be made noble in the fire. (Page 265)

At one point the bushranger even added some alliteration to the narrative. He described the morning as a “damp, dripping, dawn.” (Page 231)

The other major criticism I had of this book concerned its one-sidedness. Most of it came entirely from Kelly’s perspective. The author did include a few newspaper clippings, but the story portrayed the protagonist as a victim and a martyr. I would suspect Carey had a political agenda in presenting the story this way. Most writers do (John Steinbeck comes first to mind) so I don’t fault him. I do think he would’ve developed more sympathy for Kelly if he’d presented the other side’s position. If the British provisional government persecuted people for no other reason than their Irish descent, Carey could’ve explained that easily by showing their point-of-view.

I would also add that the author included a colorful cast of characters in this story. I found Ned Kelly’s mother to be the most interesting. How can I put this delicately? She didn’t make the best choices when it came to men. In fact, they were so bad that I wondered if some of the original ‘your mamma’ jokes began in reference to her. But still: one has to respect a woman raising young children while incarcerated.

Peter Carey demonstrated an authentic use of voice in True History of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately, he made it a very poor writer with little grasp of syntax. Because of this, an interesting story with unending action became a challenging slog. I’m hoping someone will publish a ‘normal English’ translation of this book in the near future.

Book Review – The Hanging Garden by Patrick White

Following in the tradition of great artists like Jimi Hendrix, Patrick White didn’t allow his passing to cramp his productive output. To the joy of his fans, his final work-in-progress, The Hanging Garden is now in print. While unfinished it allows readers the opportunity to explore the creative mind of one of the Twentieth Century’s most original authors.

As White never finished the book the publisher included a blurb at the beginning that read:

The Hanging Garden has been transcribed from Patrick White’s handwritten manuscript and, in the absence of a living author to consult, not edited.

With that noted, I found the writing much more polished than expected. It did include White’s trademark unusual point of view switches. His novels always challenge and keep me alert. This one was no different. The only time I had a sense of reading a draft version of a novel occurred when an author’s note appeared in the text.

The classroom is rocking by now with the swell of the sea. Hidden in the mangroves blacks are waiting to spear the landing parties of explorers. [Find out about these mangroves.] (Page 96)

I’ve read a number of White’s other books. Going into The Hanging Garden, expected to read some clever usage of language. It didn’t disappoint.

She would rather not be faced with things, even those she knows about. (Page 112)

Mrs. Bulpit was a pale woman except where the mouth had been painted over. Her forearms, hands, and face could have been molded from natural marzipan. (Page 3)

In any case, he was not emotional, unless in those secret compartments where he never allowed anyone to enter. (Page 13)

And my personal favorite:

I shall not write this poem. Memory is safer than invisible ink, that all the school knows about, playing at spies, exchanging coded messages. (Page 115)

In terms of the story, it did leave me wanting more. Part of that stemmed from White only completing a third of the novel. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the premise. The narrative centered on the lives of two children uprooted due to the Second World War. It definitely stimulated by interest to discover how their lives progressed into adulthood.

I always enjoy reading incomplete works by writers I admire. It makes me feel less ashamed of all the stories and novels I still haven’t finished. With that understood, since The Hanging Garden only represented a portion of the final work, the overall story is incomplete. As always with this author, the writing can be very difficult to comprehend. For that reason I can only recommend to hard-core Patrick White fans.

Book Review – Happy Valley by Patrick White

Reading Patrick White reminded me of the old Foster’s marketing campaign on “How to Speak Australian”. In one add a rugby player put a band aid on his head. He ran out to the field as an Australian voice over said, “Helmet.” The next screen showed a can of Foster’s getting slammed on a table. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Beer. Foster’s: It’s Australian for beer.” Reading his works makes me feel like the name “Patrick White” is Australian for “Novelist.”

Mr. White held the distinction of being the Land Down Under’s sole Nobel Laureate in Literature; receiving the award in 1973. His novels presented a unique approach to writing that made his works extremely challenging (to be charitable) and perplexing (to be realistic). While still trying to wrap my mind around complex works such as The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm, I discovered his first novel still extant. Wanting to see if some of White’s unusual approach to writing germinated in that effort, I checked it out. To my both my delight and consternation, many of the elements of his later work appeared in his 1937 debut, Happy Valley.

I struggled with this book. As I wrote above, White’s work has a reputation for difficulty. The overall premise challenged me. Nine characters, most of them major, appeared in his narrative. He depicted two unhappy marriages with the other persons playing supporting roles. After battling through Happy Valley, I have a better understanding as to why we refer to players in a novel as “characters.”

In addition, White pioneered an original approach to point of view. He wrote in third person POV. He’d center on one character and then would transition into the second person point of view. For readers scratching their heads, here’s an example.

Going home, Alys Browne felt calm and detached. She trod on a frozen puddle and heard it crack. I wanted to escape, she said, this, after all, is California, its true significance. Understanding, you felt no pain in your body, that ice did not touch, in your mind that was a fortress against pain, and Happy Valley, and because of this you lived. (Location 4862)

This section presented a unique challenge. It had the White POV transition combined with a character speaking about herself in the first person. This writing style made Ulysses seem like a light read. I didn’t commit a typo when I left out the quotation marks, either. The author chose not to include any in the text. Passages such as this provide a good example why many readers experience difficulty with this author’s work.

While understanding Happy Valley vexed me, I did find it a worthwhile read. White presented a number of exceptional lyrical flourishes that justified the effort. I liked the following poetic expression: “Words beat on the border of her mind, but did not penetrate.” (Location 1321)

In another line that I enjoyed the author exhibited outstanding imagery: “You could see the surf whiten the shore through the darkness.” (Location 1342)

I found the following one of the best chapter endings I’ve ever read.

So on, so on, with the diversity of detail and the pathetically compulsory unity of purpose that informs a town asleep. Smoke mounts faintly skywards from the chimney-pots. Dream is broken, turns, sighs. She said, she said, the wind. The cat walking on the water-butt touches with her cold pad a star, claiming it as her own, like Happy Valley extinguished by the darkness, achieving a momentary significance. (Location 1639)

After reading the above paragraph I could mentally see a book being slammed down. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Novel.”

I appreciated reading Happy Valley even though the complexity of the plot and writing style confused me. At times my head felt like I’d just thrown back a few pints of Foster’s. With all that out of the way, I do plan on reading this book again. Now that I understand what I’m in for and have a background, I’d like to go through it once again. This time I’ll focus on mining it for the story. The way I see it, if I get flustered and the attempt drives me to drink, I’ll know just what to pick-up.