ElCicco #CBR5 Review #51: The Night Guest: A Novel by Fiona McFarlane

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The Night Guest is one of those mysterious, sly novels that throws you off balance and causes you to second guess the author all the way through. You know from the first pages that our main character Ruth is someone out of the ordinary. As we learn more about her, it becomes less clear what is real and what is fantasy.

Ruth is a 75-year-old widow, mother of two grown sons, living alone at a beachside house in Australia. When we first meet her, she has been awakened by a sound in the house which she is certain is a tiger. The next morning, a government carer named Frida Young unexpectedly arrives on Ruth’s doorstep to help her for a few hours each day. While Ruth is willing to accept Frida’s help, and her sons are pleased that someone is looking after mum since they are too far away and too busy to check in on her, there is something a bit off, perhaps even sinister about Frida. Ruth experiences occasional qualms over her presence, but what we learn throughout the novel is that Ruth is experiencing the onset of dementia. How much of her concern is genuine and how much is a figment of her imagination? And what about that tiger? It seems easy enough to write that off as a bad dream or a sign of dementia, but what if it’s something real?

The Night Guest is, on one hand, a story about growing old, losing your faculties and independence, and needing to rely on strangers for help. It was especially poignant for me because we, like many, are dealing with this in our family right now.  Ruth’s dementia becomes an opportunity for her to revert to her past, to remember her youth and first love in Fiji. Ruth’s parents were medical professionals and missionaries there and Ruth did not move to Australia until she was 19 or so. McFarlane reveals Ruth’s dementia through her recollections and telling of stories about her time on Fiji, stories whose details change and become muddled as the disease progresses.

But it’s that tiger that really fascinates me. The tiger appears at the very beginning of the story and again towards the end. Ruth’s reaction to the thought of a tiger in her home is not what you might expect. Rather than fear, she experiences something more like exuberance. “… there was another sensation, a new one, to which she attended with greater care: a sense of extravagant consequence. Something important, Ruth felt, was happening to her, and she couldn’t be sure what it was: the tiger, or the feeling of importance…. She felt something coming to meet her — something large, and not a real thing, of course, she wasn’t that far gone — but a shape, or anyway a temperature.”  She goes on to think, “For some time now she had hoped that her end might be as extraordinary as her beginning.” I can tell you that the end of the novel is rather extraordinary and would be a topic of some discussion in a book group.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. This progress of the dementia plus our concerns about Frida make for a suspenseful and tense tale. And that cover art is pretty cool, too.

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #45: The Daughters of Mars: A Novel by Thomas Keneally

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The Daughters of Mars, by Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, is a World War I novel told from the perspective of two Australian sisters who serve as nurses both at Gallipoli and later in France. This is not just the story of the war, however; it is also the story of the two sisters and their uneasy relationships with their family, their comrades and each other, and the effect that war has on them. Historical lit fans, particularly those who are familiar with WWI lit, will see that Keneally really did his homework for this novel. His attention to historical fact and detail is impressive. Overall, however, I felt the tale being told lacked oomph. The main characters were somewhat flat, I didn’t feel a bond to them, and the final resolution left me dissatisfied.

Naomi and Sally Durance are the narrators of this novel. Older sister Naomi left home in the Australian boondocks to work in a city hospital as soon as she was able. Sally also became a nurse but chose to live at home and work at the local hospital, helping her father care for their mother, who is dying quite painfully of cancer. We learn from the first pages of the story that when their mother died, both girls were there and that Sally intended to give her mother an overdose of morphine as a mercy killing but it appears that Naomi took the initiative and did it for her. The two sisters never discuss what happened and Sally has conflicted feelings — guilt over planning to kill her mother, gratitude that Naomi did it, and resentment that Naomi seems so calm, cool and collected about it. When the opportunity to volunteer as nurses at war arises, both sisters independently decide to go and wind up traveling to Gallipoli together with the other nurse volunteers.

Once the story moves to Gallipoli, it’s like Keneally pulls out his list of Every Horrible Thing that Happened in the War and goes to town. (If you aren’t familiar with the battle of Gallipoli, in which Australian troops were massacred by the Turks, do yourself a favor and watch Peter Weir’s superb film Gallipoli. It is gut-wrenching and beautiful and you will be utterly devastated at the end.) Sally and Naomi are stationed on a hospital ship off the shore of the battle. They can hear and see the shelling, and when the waves of wounded come aboard, the doctors and nurses are overwhelmed by the number and extent of the injuries and by their lack of preparation for it all. Later the ship is torpedoed and sinks, and Keneally gets to describe the horrors of watching people and war horses die horrible deaths at sea. When the survivors are placed on an island to work at the hospital there, Keneally shows us the stupidity of high command and sexism in the hospital environment. He also makes sure to cover the psychological effects of war on the wounded when Naomi travels back to Australia on a ship of men both physically and psychologically maimed by battle. And then it’s on to the Western Front with trench warfare, gas attacks, the treatment of conscientious objectors, the Spanish flu and strong women who try to run their own voluntary hospital while butting heads with British command.

I don’t object to the historical detail. I actually find it very interesting and accurate. The problem is that over this historical picture, we are supposed to be drawn in to the unfolding relationship between Sally and Naomi, who are trying to become friends and, well, sisterly to each other. And each sister has a love interest, even though they are known for being standoffish girls. One falls for a Quaker and the other for an artist/soldier. I was mildly interested in these plot lines but I simply never felt a powerful connection to either sister. I think part of the problem is the lack of character development. We are told that the sisters aren’t close but there’s nothing about their childhood to show how that came about. And their feelings for each other and for their love interests seems tepid even when we are being told that they are becoming closer or falling in love or whatever. 

If the reader is at all familiar with World War I literature, he/she will know that an unhappy ending looms ahead. It’s simply unavoidable (read All Quiet on the Western Front or the war poets, or go watch the above-mentioned Gallipoli). I think Keneally could have produced a very powerful ending to his tale but he equivocates. He provides two endings, and each made me think “Oh, that’s too bad” instead of “Oh, God, WHY???” In my opinion, a WWI novel should end with you feeling the “Oh, God, WHY” way. While Keneally is quite thorough in including just about every kind of tragedy that could have happened in the course of the war, and there is abundant suffering and senseless death, in the end the story lacked the sort of punch that the subject matter deserves.

 

  

Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #16 of “The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman

Apparently, this is M.L. Stedman’s first novel, which I would not have guessed.  It is an incredibly complex story filled with complex characters, histories, geography, and emotions.  As I began reading it, I immediately sensed that this was a story about good people with good intentions, while also realizing it was not going to end well.  Ultimately, it does end “well” in the way a Hollywood movie has to end “well” and that, for me, was it’s only flaw, but an understandable one, because the author apparently needed to relieve the reader of the intense sadness that builds up throughout the final third of the book. There isn’t a “bad” person in this book but everyone is affected by what turns out to be a bad situation.

The story begins by introducing a WWI veteran, Tom Sherbourne, who returned from the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Somme unscathed physically but tormented with survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and having shut down and compartmentalized his feelings to protect himself.  This latter approach to life had begun in response to a harsh childhood and was exacerbated by his war experiences, so by the time he arrives in the town of Port Partogeuse, Western Australia, he has become someone who will never love and will always be alone, and at this point, is perfectly satisfied with this understanding.  He sees himself as flawed and incapable of being a person who could be loved and appreciated. Nevertheless, we see an inkling of the person he’d rather be when he rescues a woman who is on the same boat as he when he is traveling from Sydney to Port Partageuse; she is accosted by an arrogant, abusive man and he runs interference for her, and she in turn is surprised by the quiet way and self-deprecating manner he in which he presents himself.

As part of this persona, he has accepted a position to maintain the lighthouse on Janus Rock, a small island off the coast of Western Australia, feeling it is suitable employment for someone like himself, who should be alone. He understands there will be only seasonal contact with the supply boat, approximately every third month, and no shore leave for very long lengths of time.  Just before leaving Port Partageuse, however, he meets an unusual young woman, Isabel, 10 years his junior, who sparks a joy within him he hasn’t experienced before; while posted at the lighthouse, he receives intermittent correspondence from her and they reunite as friends the next time he returns to shore, and they hastily marry with her agreeing to go to Janus with him, understanding the social deprivations there.  They are so in love with each other and each is in awe of the other so that little else matters.  He in particular is so enamored of her willingness to love and accept him as he is, even when she’s unable to penetrate his reluctance to share past details about his life, that he will do anything for her, and this becomes the source of his horrible moral dilemma.

While on the island for the first two years, Isabel suffers two miscarriages and a stillbirth, and she becomes angry, sad, guilty-ridden and despairing.  Tom doesn’t know how to comfort her or make her return to him emotionally.  Their isolation only exacerbates the situation.  And then a rowboat washes onto Janus Rock and in it is a dead man and a live baby.  Tom immediately wants to report this to the authorities but after much pleading from his wife, he relents to her need to keep the baby, who is only about 3 months old, and they’ll pretend it’s theirs.  They bury the dead man, who has no identification.  Tom feels torn between what he has done and what he should have done, i.e., reported the baby’s survival so that if there was a mother waiting for her, she could be returned.  Nonetheless, they name the baby Lucy, and Isabel becomes the mother she believes God meant her to be by sending this child, arguing with Tom that the mother undoubtedly drowned, as evidenced by a woman’s sweater that had been in the boat.

Over time, they become an ideal family and Tom is as much enamored of the child and fatherhood as Isabel is of the child and motherhood, and they are wonderful parents. During one trip to shore, however, the seeds of doubt begin to emerge for Tom when he hears of a woman named Hannah who lost her husband and child at sea.  He begins to feel a rift between himself and Isabel as they struggle with the possibilities that Lucy belongs to this woman and they, Tom in particular, realize their decisions have caused horrible pain to another human being.  Tom begins to relate the guilt he feels with their initial decision to the guilt he feels about surviving the war, and over time he begins to feel more and more guilty. He also realizes that no matter what choices he makes now, there will be trauma for many involved, himself included, and we see him struggle in a no-man’s land of conscience.

I won’t go into details about the decisions and results, but will say that I was in tears in several parts of the book, including the end that I previously described as a bit too “Hollywood.”  I felt somewhat manipulated at the end. Throughout the rest of the book, however, I truly felt these characters were totally realistic, well-developed, and each and every one of them deserved better than they got! Yet I also felt there were impossible decisions these characters had to make, and as each did so, could understand and feel the heart-wrenching agony for each of them.  There were some unexpected decisions but even these made sense from the point of view of the character, and none of the final decisions or choices left me thinking they weren’t true to character or to the story.

This was a book full of exploring isolation, courage, loss, grief, desperation, trauma, guilt, and morality, with a clear understanding that often right and wrong are indistinguishable, and what is considered right or wrong can be colored by one’s past, even when the past is long buried – it has its way of surfacing. Once I had finished reading this book and sat with my feelings and tears, I knew it was also a book that would stay with me for a very long time, and even while reading it, I could easily find myself asking, “What would I do?” I vacillate between giving this three stars or four, but decided it may not be great, but it’s very, very good, and a favorite, thereby earning five stars. I do warn readers, however, to be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride and to have plenty of tissues on hand toward the end.

 

 

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #29: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

A highly ambitious book which is almost like three books in one, Oscar and Lucinda nonetheless did not ring any bells for me, despite the high praise it has received from all and sundry. It follows the somewhat twisted love story of Oscar—odd-ball son of a fundamentalist Christian father in mid-nineteenth century England—and Lucinda, orphaned daughter of an early feminist who leaves her teenaged daughter alone in Australia, with nothing but an independent streak and a large fortune to try to survive in a man’s world. The two are destined to meet, but it takes more than half the book to get there, and even then, it’s not clear why they have come together.

Carey’s prose is lush and fit for a Victorian-era setting (even funny, at times), but I came to find it overbearing after a while. The overarching conceit of the novel—using an obsession with gambling as a metaphor for religious faith (Pascal’s Wager?)—was both fascinating and confusing, and I couldn’t tell by the end whether Carey was poking fun at religious fundamentalism, or giving it a gravitas it doesn’t deserve.

The first large chunk of the novel is the best part, I found, detailing Oscar’s strange maturation under the rigid hand of his widowed father, a naturalist who can only express his inner emotions when it comes to describing the bits of life he collects along the Devon shore, but whose deep love for his motherless son is beyond expressing. Just as his father studies patterns in starfish, Oscar studies patterns in everything. When he thinks he has caught his father in a theological lie, all it takes is a pebble landing several times in a distinct pattern for the 16-year-old Oscar to perceive an “act of God” and decide he must abandon his father for a different religious denomination. He flees in the night to the home of the local Anglican vicar and his wife, who attempt to prepare the awkward boy for the priesthood. The impoverished young man ends up at Oxford where he learns to survive, again accidentally, by devising a system of patterns that enable him to bet obsessively—albeit successfully–on the horses. Another “act of God,” presumably. Oscar’s travails are lovingly portrayed, and one comes to feel for this strange and gawky man-child whose sheltered innocence ill-prepares him for the world he is about to enter.

We next find him being carried aboard a ship—he is pathetically phobic about water–headed to New South Wales to take up a vicarage in a (unknown to him) politically-contested arena. On the ship, he crosses paths for the first time with gambling compulsive Lucinda, the lonely single passenger in first class who is lusting over the sounds of card games she overhears among the crew. She is returning from London where her search for a husband proved fruitless, and her seduction of the hapless Oscar into a card game in her cabin is a high point in the story. However, they go their separate paths upon disembarking in Sydney—she to spend her fortune on a glass-works factory that has caught her fancy, and he to attempt to lead a congregation suspicious and, ultimately, hostile to his strangeness.

But they come together for another fateful card game at the vicarage where, caught by two congregation members, Oscar is defrocked and expelled, penniless, into Sydney, where he is unable to fend for himself and is well on his way to dying of starvation when he is ultimately taken in by the eccentric and wealthy Lucinda. Love grows slowly, and in fits and starts, and in this middle section of the book we are exposed to a host of minor characters who help to forge a strange atmosphere of tension but who otherwise I found largely unappealing and somewhat extraneous.  I never found myself liking Lucinda, unfortunately, as she is simultaneously stiff-backed and impetuous, manipulative and yet a total victim of her own uncontrolled emotions. An unhappy combination which leaves Oscar mostly fumbling in the dark.

The last quarter of the book is a curious cross between Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union—dark and tragic, and yet almost slapstick comical. I found it a disconcerting combination in Carey’s hands. Oscar undertakes the transport of Lucinda’s fanciful disaster of a glass church upriver on a bet intended to prove his love to her, but which instead leads to torture, drug addiction, murder, and doom, as well as the loss of Lucinda’s fortune. The speed with which Carey wraps up his story, and dispenses with his hero and heroine left me feeling deflated. Carey throws into his novel the obligatory pc discussion of horrific colonial slaughter of the Australian aborigines (“blacks”), but it is almost incidental to the story even as it is alleged to be a motivating force behind Oscar’s dedication to faith. Again, just not convincing.

Given the fact that this novel won the Booker Award and paeans of praise from critics–not to mention movie rights—I could well be missing something, and so I’d love to hear what other people have to say of this book.

Trudi’s #CBR5 review #5: “Truth” by Peter Temple

Publisher: Quercus
Page count: 406 pages

Truth is the latest novel by the acclaimed Australian crime writer Peter Temple. It follows Inspector Stephen Villani, head of the Victoria homicide squad, a minor character introduced in The broken shore through a spate of murders in the gruelling heat of the Australian summer. A prostitute is found in a brand new luxury condominium with her neck broken; yet rather than cooperate with the investigations, the building’s owners use their connections with the high and mighty to close the case early lest the sale of the new appartments be affected. Elsewhere in Victoria, the bodies of three drug dealers are found mutilated in an apparent gang-related attack turned ugly. Again Villani finds himself under pressure to close the case to preserve the image of a secure city ahead of the autumn’s elections.

Villani himself is the sheer definition of an anti-hero: his marriage is a shambles following his multiple indiscretions; his youngest daughter is drugging herself, living on the street and accusing Villani of incest; and his domineering father leaves Villani feeling a continuously inadequate and weak son. Consequently, work is the only arena left for Villani to excel in; yet, here too, he is portrayed as deeply flawed as Villani some years back helped a colleague disguise the shooting of an unarmed suspect as an act of self-defence.

Truth is a great book: fast paced, compulsively readable, written with a lot of style and flair, I breezed through it in less than a day, which is unusually fast for me. Having read The broken shore a few months ago, I really enjoyed how Temple expanded the universe of characters of that book in this latest volume, adding even more nuances and enhancing the reader’s insight into the background of the cast of both books. Combined with Temple’s superb language and dark storyline, the result is a novel of far higher literary quality than is common for crime writers. Well worth the read!

Owlcat’s #CBR5 Review # 4: The Broken Shore by Peter Temple

This novel had all the elements I like in a book, interesting characters, interesting locations (Australia), a crime theme, conflict among characters and conflict within the locale, history, etc., so I anticipated enjoying the book more than I did.  I’m not entirely sure if it was the book or me, since other reviews have implied it is very well written and has won awards.

The primary character is Joe Cashin, a Melbourne police detective who has been temporarily reassigned to a small town while he recovers emotionally and physically from prior devastating injuries inflicted by a madman.  What originally happened to him is slowly revealed in glimpses and flashbacks throughout the novel, but in the present, we see someone who is very conflicted with his own role in what happened, his current role within the jurisdiction of his new assignment, and within himself in terms of dealing with his almost constant pain.  In many respects, I saw him as both the “good cop/bad cop” in the story.

He is attempting to soothe and rebuild his life both through the quiet aspects of the small town and the idea of rebuilding his father’s station (ranch), without having a good idea of what either entails.  He befriends a swagger (Australian man of all trades who goes from area to area, rather like a hobo), though both are reticent to admit to their friendly relationship and the fact that each is helping the other. One theme within the novel and is that nobody is whom they appear to be, so the reader does a lot of wondering.

In the meantime, the quiet town is rocked by a horrific murder of a wealthy and respected man, and Cashin becomes central to the investigation, though not of his own accord. When he and other officers attempt to pull over three Aboriginal suspects in a car and there is a shoot-out, everyone assumes the “Abos” are the perpetrators, case solved.  He begins to think otherwise, however, and follows other leads, which eventually leads him to historic crimes in the region involving various “upright citizens” whom no one would suspect of such gruesome crimes then and in the present.  As in any crime novel, his thinking thus puts his own life in danger as he unravels what really happened both past and present.

All of the characters within the book, including Cashin, are interesting and realistic, with both flaws and issues that are admirable and/or acceptable and understandable.  Even Australia itself, becomes one of the characters within the novel, with its violence and prejudices against the Aboriginal people, with the quick assumptions that “they” are the perpetrators, and the distrust the Aboriginal people have toward government and police authorities.  The broken shore, a local shoreline abyss that has taken lives and tempted lives, becomes a character within as well. At times, I felt all of the characters were a bit of stretch, as if the author were trying to connect things that hadn’t begun as connected, and which led to some confusion.

I found the plot and subplots somewhat confusing at times but they all came together relatively well at the end of the novel.  However, I was also dissatisfied with the end, a somewhat anti-climatic ending.  The writing itself was somewhat poetic at times and it was easy to get sidetracked by it.  I’d have preferred more interactions with the locals and more dialogue, maybe even more flashbacks to get a better understanding of Cashin.

Because I enjoy crime novels and because I enjoy settings in other countries, I anticipated enjoying this book more than I did. I felt at times I was pushing through it to find out what happened but in the end, I realized I didn’t much care, so was disappointed in that respect. I also was reading this while coming down with a tenacious illness and maybe my mindset was just not there, but I’ve let some time lapse before writing this review, thinking maybe I would see it differently, but unfortunately I didn’t, and I don’t really anticipate reading any more of Peter Temple’s novels.

Valyruh’s CBR5 Review #1: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

A beautifully written and haunting story of choices and consequences by first-time Australian novelist Stedman, The Light Between Oceans tells the tale of Tom Sherbourne, a young soldier who survives the horrors of the trenches in WWI, and returns home to ponder why he lived when so many around him died. Unable to justify his survival to himself, he finds himself unable to resume life among the living. Instead, he takes a lonely job as lighthouse keeper on a remote island a half-day from the mainland, where shore leave comes once every two years and where he spends his time meticulously maintaining the lighthouse, the light, and the logs while allowing the simple routine to define his existence. A young woman from the mainland crosses his path, however, and love ensues. Tom begins to live again when Isabel marries him and joins him on the island to turn his self-exile into a loving home.

Three miscarriages/stillbirths later, Isabel is suffering the isolation and depression. And that’s when a rowboat washes up on the shore of their rocky island, bearing the corpse of a man and a very much alive infant girl whom Isabel takes into her heart. Tom wants to immediately report the incident and turn the child over to authorities, but Isabel forces him to delay and, ultimately, to bury the man unreported and take the baby as their own. As Lucy grows into a remarkably happy and imaginative child, Isabel is ecstatic and only Tom suffers the pangs of conscience while simultaneously adoring his wife and daughter. When they learn six years later of a half-mad mother still awaiting the return of her husband and baby, their world begins to shockingly unravel.

As many reviewers have commented, this is a sad tale. But it is a riveting one, forcing us to reflect on the morally ambiguous choices good people–like ourselves–make every day without thought of the consequences. Stedman’s writing is compelling, her settings gorgeously described, and her characters have histories and embody all the strengths and weaknesses, beauty and ugliness of everyman. The Light Between Oceans is a love story, a tragedy, and a morality play wrapped into one beautiful debut novel.