Friday, 29 July 2016

Charlotte Wood's The natural way of things

When our group met this month to discuss Charlotte Wood's Stella Prize winning novel The natural way of things, it was a case of the realists facing off against the willing suspenders of disbelief, with a couple of fence-sitters in between - and ne'er the twain did meet. It all made, however, for a lively, but always respectful, discussion!

The realists couldn't work out why the ten women hadn't ganged up to overpower their two guards, why they didn't work out they could dig their way out under the electric fence. The women were twits, one said. They should have fought back. She also felt the rabbit trapping was far more successful than you'd expect and that the book had the longest mushroom season ever! It just wasn't plausible. The willing suspenders, on the other hand, talked more about about the book in terms of metaphor, allegory and parable, though they didn't all agree on which of these the book represents, if any! Some also felt that Wood, in the opening scenes, showed the disempowering of the women, explaining why they didn't fight back.

One issue we grappled with was some vagueness in the plot. It's the story of 10 women plucked ("foolishly lured and tricked") from their normal lives and transported to a nightmarish place in the outback where they are imprisoned behind an electric fence and controlled, labour-camp style, by two boorish men, bruiser Boncer and the preening Teddy. We are not given the full background but it's clear that the women are being scapegoated for their sexuality. Some had been raped or assaulted while for others the sex had been consensual (think affair with a politician or the flight attendant in a “mile-high” situation). In all cases, though, the women are being punished to protect the man/men. As time passes, and as circumstances at the facility change, the women move from disbelief and anger, through resignation, to a sort of acceptance and an attempt to make the best of their situation.

Some members struggled with the story, with its darkness and/or with the lack of full disclosure about parts of the plot. How did the women let themselves be taken there? Who had taken them? Who were Boncer and Teddy waiting for? One member particularly hates women being presented as victims, which resulted in her disliking the book. She was frustrated by their impotence. Most of those who liked the novel, agreed that they initially felt a little uncertain, for various reasons, but on reflection found the journey worthwhile, seeing it as a provocative, absorbing story about women and power, sexuality, femininity and femaleness.


Is The natural way of things a dystopian novel, like, say, Margaret Atwood's The handmaid's tale? Not all were comfortable with this idea, feeling it was too near, too real, "not that much removed from our reality", to be a true dystopia. Others felt dystopia simply means a world characterised by all that is bad or negative, and that this book satisfies that.

But what are Wood's targets? In some dystopian novels, they are clear - climate change, totalitarian regimes, for example - but it's more nebulous here. The novel was inspired by the idea that women are still being abused and scapegoated, but Wood's focus is not the trauma they experience, but in the way "femaleness" and "womanhood" is (mis)constructed in our society.  Complicating our pinpointing of targets is that partway through we realise that guards/gaolers Boncer and Teddy are also victims: this is not a simple gender dichotomy story. It's more complex, about current social system/mores that allow powerful people (more often men) to control and manipulate the less powerful (more often women).

And what about that ending? Did it offer any hope? Some of us thought Yolanda's action at the end showing her rejection of society's power plays, and Verla's finally relinquishing her long-held beliefs and attitudes about her feminine powers, contained hope.

And two words force their way through everything in Verla, pushing through all these months, through failure and fear and degradation, fighting through this last defeat. They thrust up through Verla's centre, bursting into flower in her mouth. Two words: I refuse.

But others just hated that designer handbag scene, and the way the other women leapt unthinkingly into what they wanted to see/believe.


The book has a lot characters, and we don't get to properly know them all. However, we liked getting to know the two 19-year-olds, Yolanda (rabbiter) and Verla (mushroom gatherer), and were able to feel sympathy for them. In becoming the hunter, Yolanda took back some power for herself, a member suggested, making this book a metaphorical story of power, rather than a psychologically-focused story.

We did think, though, that, psychologically, Hetty represents abused person's behaviour. We wondered about the grotesque doll the women make for her. What does its grotesqueness mean? That what she was doing represented a perverted sort of nurturing?

Landscape and nature 

Landscape description and nature imagery feature throughout in the novel. One member shared a 2010 interview with Wood in which she commented on her frequent reference to birds, saying they represent flight, escape, freedom - as they do here too:

Outside the cockatoos are starting up for the evening. Boncer sits, staring at Yolanda, running there leash slowly through his hands.

However, in this novel there are also hawks and crows, suggesting "prey" and "death", which is also relevant here.

Verla keeps seeing a white horse, which is her personal escape image, perhaps referencing the idea of a "knight on a white charger" as she believed her "cabinet minister" would save her.

Another member suggested that Yolanda's gradual reliance on and ultimate "return" to nature might be Wood suggesting that human survival is closely tied to a positive relationship with landscape and nature.

So, what is the "natural" way of things? There's irony in the title's suggestion that women "somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves", that they lured abandonment, abduction, mistreatment. Natural? No way!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

William Thackeray's The memoirs of Barry Lyndon

Prepared by Sue B.

Our classic novel this year was The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. A select group of four of us gathered on a winter’s night to discuss it. Our responses to it varied considerably. A couple found it a tedious read, particularly the period in Europe with his uncle, but they were glad they'd read it,  One noting that it showed how literature has moved on. Another enjoyed it as a rollicking romp and yet another enjoyed the recreation of the period and sense of an era conveyed. 

Historical details mentioned included the hair treatments such as pomander. The book was set at the time of the Seven Years War in Europe in the 1760s, but Thackeray actually wrote it about 80 years later in 1844, so it was an historical novel. One member suggested that the novel also describes the transition from the times when the aristocracy was in control to the rise of the bourgeoisie.

It was originally written as a serial so we discussed the effect this had on the style and structure of the finished book and thought this might account for some of the repetition, and thus the tediousness.

The book’s “hero” Barry Lyndon himself is the narrator and we noticed that Thackeray left us in no doubt that he was a very unreliable narrator, reminding us of this at least 3 times in footnotes. Despite his strong sense of his own "honourability", Barry is a real anti-hero, a scoundrel - even a sociopath. We compared him with the hero of the ABC TV series Rake who we thought was a much more lovable rogue, and with another Thackeray anti-hero, Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. We wondered to what extent our opinion of him was coloured by changing social mores. For example the blurb on a 1970s edition of the book listed his offences. Missing was any mention of the blatant wife and child abuse which is so much more on our radar and so much less forgivable these days. 

We thought that Thackeray was satirising the romantic novels so popular at the time and even the clichéd idea of a gentleman exemplified by the novels of Sir Walter Scott for example. Barry Lyndon says of his wife: “Novel reading and vanity had turned her brain” and in a long footnote towards the end of the book Thackeray says

Do not as many rogues succeed in life as honest men? more fools than men of talent? And is it not just that the lives of this class should be described by the student of human nature as well as the actions of those fairy-tale princes, those perfect impossible heroes whom our writers love to describe? 

One of us noted that the character of Barry Lyndon was inspired by real people, including Andrew Robertson Stoney-Bowes who married the Countess of Strathmore. Another found the first line memorable: “Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it” – which of course says more about our hero than any of the women in his story! Barry Lyndon was, as one member said, a great self-justifier. We wondered to what extent Barry Lyndon was actually in control of his own future, and whether he was addicted to gambling – which was effectively his profession.

Finally, we couldn’t help talking about the 1970s movie starring Ryan O’Neal. We remembered it mainly just as being gorgeously filmed and with a beautiful soundtrack of contemporary music.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

This month everyone enjoyed the designated book, Sonya Hartnett's Golden boys. We all felt it was a good read and cleverly written. We also really liked the way the author revealed little bits of the story, giving clues but not being explicit.  It is plotted carefully and evokes a 12 year old sensibility extremely well.     

The story centres on a group of children during an Australian summer and their relationships with adults. Its starting point is the arrival of a well-to-do family, with two young sons, in a working class suburb.

The location is left up to the reader’s imagination. We thought it could be Perth or Adelaide or even North Melbourne. But it is definitely sunny and warm in this poor ‘outer’ suburb in the late 1970s or early 1980s. There are no mobile phones mentioned in the life of the boys and they are allowed to roam freely all day, just so long as they are home for tea at night. Money is an issue for many of the children and the author highlights the comparison of the two families – the middle class dentist and all the toys versus the poorer, working class family of six.

We talked about Rex Jenson, the ‘predatory’ dentist who recently moved to the neighbourhood with his 2 children and wife Tabby. He has an ability to groom young boys but he has obviously blotted his copybook as the story begins with the family moving from their richer suburb to this poorer district, where he would not be known. Rex is intimidating but the boys think they can manage his behaviour.  His son Colt is ashamed of him and can barely suffer him. Whereas Freya likes Rex because he is quite caring in his behaviour towards her and she believes he can assist her family.  This lead to a discussion of the 2 wives and their traditional roles. Tabby, the richer wife is ashamed of her husband Rex but totally under his control and in financial dependence. Tabby doesn’t discuss the situation with her 2 boys and Colt the elder boy doesn’t have confidence to talk to her.  Elizabeth, mother of 6 is a woman who is subject to physical violence from her husband Joe. She is seen through her daughter, Freya’s eyes and is perceived as not loving her husband. Joe, is so frustrated with his life, he doesn’t know how to control himself or fix the situation. The children translate this domestic violence to being the family secret. So both families have secrets which are terrible and worth discussing in literature.

Sonya Hartnett is known as a writer of young adult books so we posed the question whether this book is for adults or teenagers. Why do people write with a child’s voice?  Time of adolescence is a period when children are just beginning to understand the world around them but there is the disconnect with their daily activities and they can’t fully understand things. They often take so much personally at this time rather than seeing the big picture. 

Hartnett sets up the comparison of the older children who are quite street wise  and sophisticated in their thinking versus the younger ones who are considered naïve. One of our members thought the thinking was more sophisticated than she remembers it in her youth. It has touches of humour too when for instance we hear that Syd thinks about being a gangster when he grows up. He and Bastian in particular are still wanting stuff and delight in playing with all the toys and enjoying the swimming pool.  Hartnett is very clever at using this range of voices to tell the story.

The scene of domestic violence against Elizabeth and Joe’s dissipated actions with his family are difficult. The scene is written from the children’s viewpoint otherwise it would have been much more explicit. 

This is a current topic many children are experiencing and Freya and her brothers have to keep this knowledge to themselves. Freya and Declan wonder what choices their mother has and what would they do. All the children have to work out how to navigate life with their secrets intact, not just the dysfunctional families of these two dads. Many of the other children have secrets too. The local bully has one – his childish adoration of Colt and there is the street urchin, Avery, who lives a very hard life and is the first child manhandled by Rex. However Rex cares for Avery’s leg but there is a fine line drawn there between caring and more explicit sexual overtones. The tension is superbly written.

The two older boys feel they have to atone for sins committed by others, so Colt takes the hit for his dad and is seriously hurt by Garrick and Declan suffers in order to save Avery from more trouble from Garrick.  Declan feels particularly responsible for the younger boy as he does for his brother Syd. No adult seems to care for Avery and the older boys realise this. They also realise that their parents and other adults can be idiots and are flawed or have feet of clay. It made us readers feel that children can handle more and understand more than we often recognise.

The large drain near their homes is often a tension point too but does not cause the problems it could or we may have envisioned.

The scene of Joe and Rex going head to head is the climatic scene in the novel. Some of us felt that Joe seemed more real than Rex. It is the middle class versus the working class.

One of the morals of the story seems to be to empower children and don’t make them afraid or walking scared through life. 

Victoria Flanagan in the Sydney Review of Books (10/10/14) sums it up well by saying that Hartnett’s 

novels are preoccupied with adolescence and offer her readers (children and adults) an insightful portrayal of how the process of coming of age has both personal and cultural significance.

Posted By Sylvia to  Minerva Reads on 6/07/2016 09:24:00 am

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

For the third year in a row, we decided to schedule one book from ABC Radio National's monthly bookclub. In 2014, we discussed Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a dutiful daughter from their European Classics bookclub, and last year it was Hanif Kureishi's The buddha of suburbia from their Subcontinent Classics selection. This year, their theme is African Classics and we chose Chinua Achebe's 1958 Things fall apart. Some had read it before, some had been wanting to read it for a long time, and others had never heard of it, but for all eight present it was a universally popular choice.

Achebe and the book

We talked a little about Achebe's origins, that he was an Igbo who grew up in a cultural "crossroads": his father had joined the missionaries and accepted their education, while his great uncle rejected the missionaries. Growing up, Achebe moved between the two groups, but ultimately he was educated and became one of the modern, progressive young men of his time.

He wrote Things fall apart, partly at least, to present African life and experience from an African rather than a European perspective (such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness). Achebe has said that he saw writing his novel as a "revolution" which could help his society recover from its sense of "denigration". He wrote the book in English, which was a controversial choice, and we briefly discussed the pros and cons. By writing in English, we thought, he appealed to a wider readership and perhaps to those he most wanted to reach, but not writing it in his own language could be seen to contribute to the debasement of his own culture.

We commented that while we hadn't read many African books, we had read Ben Okri's The famished road, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a yellow sun. Adichie, like Achebe, is from the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, while Ben Okri is Urhobo (though his mother was half-Igbo).

Our discussion

We all agreed that Achebe presents an interesting story of people's lives in an African (southeast Nigerian) village - a fascinating window into a world that's gone - but that it was clear that something else was going on underneath. We loved the small details about life in the village, such as the protagonist Okonkwo's compound and his three wives, each in their huts telling their stories to their children.

First edition, Heinemann
The plot is a fairly simple one: it tells the story of Okonkwo. Born to an "ill-fated" man, a "lazy and improvident" man, he had decided that he would not be like his father. He becomes a powerful and respected "warrior" in his community, one known to be hardworking but who could also be cruel to his family or to anyone who showed weakness. He is determined to be a "man", to never show a "female" side. Male-female dichotomies are an underlying thread in the novel. When things start to go wrong for him, his response is always an aggressive one: if you aren't stepping forward, you are a "woman". This inflexibility, his unwillingness to waver from his tough-minded course, results in his downfall. He could be seen, we thought, as a classic tragic hero, as the man who could have been great but for a tragic flaw. His tragedy could be seen to mirror the wider tragedy for African society/culture.

We discussed village life and customs, their gods, their food, and their cultural practices, some of which seemed cruel to our eyes (such as the abandonment of twins, the killing of an innocent person - here, Ikemefuna - as retribution for the sins of others). We noted that not all Igbo villages had the same practices, and that those in the village in which the novel is set, Umuofia, know this. However, it is each village's conventions, beliefs and practices that provide the glue that keeps them together and successful as a community.

We liked the rounded or realistic picture Achebe paints. Okonkwo is presented as the true "conservative", the person who accepts his people's traditions and is not prepared to think about or question them. He regularly ignores the advice of others, is described as “not a man of thought but of action”. However, his good friend Obeirika is more thoughtful. He generally accepts the traditions, but not without some thought and willingness to question them. He is not afraid to show a softer side. Achebe writes after one calamity befalls Okonkwo:

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? 

This brought us to the issue of the missionaries. How wrong were they we considered? Wasn't it reasonable to disapprove practices like abandoning twins or killing in retribution, was it wrong that they welcomed the clan's outcasts? We noted that, just as in Umuofian society where we see the contrasting behaviours and attitudes of Okonkwo and Obierika, there are different behaviours and attitudes among the missionaries and other white people. Mr Brown, for example, had an open, co-operative approach while his successor, Mr Smith, took a hard approach. Achebe writes:

Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.  

So, Achebe, in this book, is not uncritical of either side of the colonial equation, but we agreed that his final point in the novel makes clear his attitude to the colonial mindset. The title of the District Commissioner's planned book "The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger" euphemistically describes the colonials' mostly violent/aggressive subjugation of African people as "pacification", and demonstrates an arrogant assumption that a society not like their own is "primitive”.

We discussed the language a little too. We enjoyed the proverbs, the imagery, and the folk tales such as the one about the selfish tortoise.


A member shared some questions from the reading group guide at the back of her e-book. One asked about fate versus personal agency. We didn't discuss this at depth but felt that while Okonkwo started by believing he was in control of his life, that he could make himself a great man unlike his father, by the end he was feeling dogged by bad "chi". He ended up without a proper burial, just like his father.

Another question related to the novel's circularity. Most of us hadn't seen it that way, though we agreed that Okonkwo ending up without a proper burial just like his father could be seen as circular. We also discussed the linear aspect to the narrative, the building of calamities and events, and the use of parallels, such as rigid, conservative Okonkwo versus the thoughtful Obierika parallelling the black and white Reverend Smith versus the conciliatory Mr Brown.

Monday, 4 April 2016

In certain circles by Elizabeth Harrower

This month a small group discussed Elizabeth Harrower's In certain circles set in the 1960s/early 70s.  We all enjoyed it although there were one or two issues, especially with the ending that some of us found baffling.

It is an interesting story of how a book written in the 1950s/60s was not published until 2014.  This is the last novel written by Elizabeth Harrower.  You can read more about it in this Guardian review.

In the beginning a few members talked about Harrower’s better known novel called The watch tower.  It has a ‘harrowing’ intensity and members thought there was a similar feeling in In certain circles. The tone also has similarities with Anita Brookner's work possibly.   

One member read the novel as a three-part movement  -- like music -- introduction/story/climax.  The main character is set up for a fall in the first movement. Zoe is a confident young ‘princess’ when the novel begins but through the story, which tells her life from her teenage years through to about 40, she changes in many ways. Her experiences and knowledge of others and her husband’s personality see to it.  There is a highlighting of this knowledge that is to come to Zoe on page 44:

suffering, endurance, were things Zoe herself knew nothing about, except through art …

There were many strong and well written aspects of this book   the author’s style, strong characters and her understanding of human nature. We liked the way Harrower describes the relationships between the two sets of siblings – Russell and Zoe, and Anna and Stephen, as young people. Then their relationships when older when they are husband and wife (Zoe and Stephen) and friends, Russell and Anna. 

The character of Stephen was discussed at length. He is a difficult person but he doesn’t realise how much until the ending. We know a lot about Stephen as he is the subject of both Zoe’s and Anna’s thinking.  Zoe and Anna are very human and vulnerable in this stylized version of Sydney in the period. Russell is defined by Zoe and by his wife Lily. He is a man who wants to see social justice for the less well off. We all appreciated Zoe and Russell’s mother – she is good role model for her daughter especially believing that women can do anything. She is emancipated in work but we didn’t think she was socially or domestically – still waiting on the boys in the family even when she knew she wasn’t well.

The ending was the major flaw in the novel most of us thought. A letter written by Anna and later accidentally posted causes havoc unnecessarily and resolves a few issues just a little too easily. When the letter is received by Zoe, immediate angst is felt by the other characters (page 212). We felt it was ‘Hardyesque’ in this twist to the story.  Is this novel really about internal angst? Is it tragic? We didn’t have any answers to these questions.

It is interesting the way each major character has a separate focus – Zoe on Stephen (or herself when young), Anna on Stephen and later her art, Russell on humankind and Lily on her family. Stephen’s focus is on making enough money to support Zoe in the manner to which she was accustomed. (I think he was so damaged by his early life that he can’t think outside that box.)

A major theme is ‘waste’ – as in life or opportunities -- it is often mentioned and bothers the main characters. We are told this when the young Russell and Zoe are spending time with each other – ‘maybe one day people won’t be wasted; talents won’t be wasted’ (page 26).  This is particularly true of Zoe’s wasted life in Stephen’s opinion but in her own opinion as well – her film career was not regarded highly by her husband and he is either jealous of her life in Paris or dismisses it.  By the conclusion, Zoe loses confidence in herself to the extent that she can’t even read Stephen’s moods at times. This tone seems quite dated in today’s society’s mores.

Waste can also be a subject of life in general – ‘the morning hadn’t been wasted, she reflected’  (page 33).

Their occupations take up considerable space in this novel although they all happen ‘offstage’ so there is Anna’s pottery, Lily’s science career, Zoe’s photography and film making which we only hear about indirectly.  Also there is Russell and Stephen’s publishing company (apparently complementing each other nicely in talents for separate parts of the role). As a young man Stephen was a salesman and Anna worked in an office. Zoe couldn’t understand either of these roles for her friends. 

Pity is strong emotion often mentioned in this book. There is pity by the rich kids for Anna and Stephen especially in the beginning of the story but it is also felt by Russell and Zoe’s parents for the orphans. Russell feels pity for people: ‘What have you got against it ?’ he says to Anna, who can’t stand being pitied (p. 132). Russell has never had to be a receiver of pity apparently so can’t understand her reservations.  Their relationship and Russell’s relationship with his wife Lily complicates the intrigue. The final resolution of Russell going off with Anna after a life with Lily certainly surprised most readers. It was a chance of happiness for these two.

The cover of the Text publishing volume quotes from a New York review saying witty, desolate, truth seeking’ – we don’t think it was very witty but we can see some ‘desolation’ in the setting.  When this novel was written Australia was still an isolated place in the world so the story revolves around the interior space of the characters rather than the exterior. However Harrower does portray Sydney Harbour well – and the two houses on the beautiful beach. It is significant that Zoe goes overseas when young as most rich young Australians did in those days to acquire experience. She obtained this opportunity through friends. (See page 59). 

Many of us decided that this author was well worth reading – and we would like to read her short stories and The watch tower.  Elizabeth Harrower is still alive at 88.

(References to the Text publication 2014). 

Sunday, 6 March 2016

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Most Minervans enjoyed some of this most unusual book.  It is the third book by Helen Macdonald, a Cambridge academic, not fiction but not a usual non-fiction book either. It is part memoir, part biography of TH White and part nature study.  As the preface says it is: ‘a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.’ These are all aspects which we discussed. 

Many of us felt we would not have read it if it hadn’t been ‘compulsory’ for Book club. The beginning was popular among members. It was well written, evocative, engaging and left of field.  One member pointed out that Australia has a goshawk but it is different from the one in the book – see hereEnglish goshawks are ‘grey with a black and white barred front, yellow eyes and  long tail’ and bigger than the Australian birds.

The biographical details of TH White (1906-64) who was the writer of 28 books including many fantasy novels about King Arthur (such as The sword in the stone) are woven into this book in a seamless and effortless way. She often compares her life with that of White’s rather tormented and sad life as derived from his Goshawk memoir published in 1951.

Another part of the text, is the period of Helen’s grieving for her father, a London photographer, Alisdair Macdonald, 1940-2007.  He died suddenly and she was profoundly shocked by her lack of connection with him. You can read about him online. 

The acquiring and training of the goshawk (Mabel) is a way for her to cope with her grief. Her grief leads to a type of madness where she begins to feel she is part bird. In addition she is extremely depressed in a clinical sense and the bird helps her (together with medical assistance) deal with those pressures too.

Macdonald compares her skills of bird training with White’s lack of success. Her repetition of this fact together with the telling of the exercise of taking Mabel out to the Cambridge countryside to hunt annoyed a few readers, although we all enjoyed her beautiful descriptions of the countryside and the cold and sounds of England. One comment was that the book evokes the resonance of history. This is a lovely way of saying that Macdonald as a historian was able to recreate the life of White so intimately. She is a very good writer and this has been recognised in Great Britain by the award of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in 2014 and the Costa Book of the year prize.  

Many members became tired of her self absorption, even though we also acknowledged that she was very honest in her writing about her problems and her depression/madness. Because of this inner contemplation we felt that she couldn’t properly register her mother’s predicament and feelings. Helen really cut her family off during this time in her life. Helen’s friends also tried to assist her, especially her friend Christina. She too was dismissed and it was only her falconry friends she was willing to spend time with.
One member thought of the book as a journey in Macdonald’s life which we the reader had to travel with her.

We all appreciated learning a little about the complexities of training a wild bird but also the moral problems associated with such an activity.  (A few of us have seen demonstrations of falconry. Personally, I was impressed at the time, but now I am not so sure. I think none of us like the idea of caging wild creatures.) Hunting is a moral problem for Helen and her descriptions of successfully killing the creatures, rabbits and pheasants Mabel targeted was not pleasant reading for us. It is truly a blood sport. Her friends found it morally questionable too.

The question of freedom is integral to this book – both for the bird but also for Helen as she copes with her life falling apart – lack of focus which really leads to her lack of a job, grief and even lack of practical things like having somewhere to live.

The comparison was made with the memoir and film, Wild based on the true life story of an American woman, Cheryl Strayed, who in 1995, walked 1100 miles, trying to cope with grief and difficulties. It was similar in that both women had an overreaction to grief and ‘used nature’ to heal themselves. A comparison was also made with Joan Didion who wrote Year of magical thinking. This book is about Didion’s response to her husband’s death and the illness of her daughter.  It deals with the not uncommon feeling of derangement after the death of a close relative.

In conclusion we thought she was kind to TH White. They were both running away from difficult situations. The author does fare much better than White however. There was some discussion of falconry as a traditional part of English life which was something to be proud of as well as something that should be re-invented for more modern times possibly.

The meeting with the elderly couple who admire her goshawk and the tradition of hunting contrasted strongly with their racist comments and this was one odd note in the book most of us felt. She was angry with them as they were ‘too thick’ to see all the good things around them which have come from elsewhere. Helen Macdonald felt she was an outsider too – especially when she trespassed onto private property. Nature knows no bounds and falconry used to be the sport of the rich landed gentry and aristocracy with abundant lands contrasting with the suburban house and garden of modern falconers. 

In chapter 18 there is a very memorable passage:
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes the day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes… and you realise that you have to grow around and between the gaps … you can put your hand out to …where the memories are.     

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Steve Toltz's Quicksand

What we read over summer

We started the meeting by sharing the books we'd read (and enjoyed) over summer:
  • Emma Ayres' Cadence (memoir, via audiobook)
  • Charles Dickens' Dombey and son (a classic)
  • Anthony Doerr's All the light we cannot see (Pulitzer Prize winner)
  • Robert Drewe's The book of the beach (short stories with beach themes)
  • Audrey Hawkridge's Jane and her gentlemen (the men in Jane Austen's life and books)
  • Gail Jones' Guide to Berlin (particularly excellent if you know Berlin a little)
  • Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal summer (environmentalists and farmers in the Appalachians)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed earth (short stories about Bangladeshis in the USA)
  • Stephen Orr 's The hands (Australian multigenerational farm story)
  • Magda Szubanski's Reckoning (memoir)
  • Jenny Uglow's A gambling man: Charles II and the Restoration (biography)


Steve Toltz's second novel Quicksand is one of those books that divided Minervans. Indeed, a few members gave up on the book, deciding life was too short to devote to it. Others really enjoyed it, though most agreed its extensive use of lists (which we believe is a literary technique called asyndeton), in particular, did try us at times. At around 440 pages it is significantly shorter than Toltz's 700+ page debut novel, A fraction of the whole, which we read back in 2009.

Quicksand is the story of anti-hero, Aldo Benjamin, told partly by his schoolfriend, Liam Wilder, and partly by himself. Meeting at high school, Aldo and Liam remain friends from then until the book closes when they are in their early to mid 40s. The novel focuses on the ups and downs - mostly downs - of Aldo's life as he tries to make his way against what he sees as the tide of fate or bad luck. The novel starts when they are in their early 40s and Aldo, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, has just been released from prison. We don't know how long he's been in a wheelchair or how it came to be, and we don't know why he was in prison. These come out in the course of the novel which flashes back to their schooldays and then moves between the past and present to tell the story. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Liam is trying to restart his  writing career, with Aldo as his subject, much to Aldo's resigned disgust: "I'm nobody's muse", he says. Ironically, though, not only is he Liam's muse but he also becomes one for his musician wife, Stella. 

Aldo gets into all sorts of strife in the novel, but is regularly bailed out by friends (including Liam, Dr Castles, his old school teacher, and so on) and lovers (including Stella and Mimi). One member asked why people keep rescuing him. Is there something in it for them?

What is it about?

Overall, we (including those who abandoned it) agreed that it is an original, witty, dark novel about the human condition or "why are we here". Steve Toltz, one member told us, describes it this way"A Fraction of the Whole was a book, for me, about the fear of death ... As soon as I finished, I wanted the next book to be about the fear of life." She'd also read that while he was writing A fraction of the whole Toltz had experienced a spinal haemorrhage which had left him paralysed for some time. This enabled him to write knowledgeably about Aldo's wheelchair life as a paraplegic, though Toltz says that the book is not autobiographical. We hoped not, because it is rather brutal in places!

In addition to Toltz's self-proclaimed overall theme being "the fear of life", several other themes and motifs run through the book. The biggest one is the idea of suicide, which ties in exactly with "fear of life". Aldo attempts suicide multiple times in the novel, but somehow, despite the travails of his life, finds himself attracted to the idea of immortality. Other themes and ideas we found include friendship (particularly male friendship); fate or bad luck; the nature of "art" (in its broad meaning, including writing and music), artists and making art; entrepreneurialism; religion and the nature of God.

We talked a little about religion in the novel - Aldo's agnosticism, the new religion he creates (ironically, his only successful venture) with a personalised God, the idea that his months of living on a rock at Magic Beach in the sea suggests Christ's time in the wilderness - and concluded that the book is in part about finding meaning in life, about how we bumble along in the dark, inventing meaning for ourselves.

And then there's the writing ...

The biggest challenge some found with the book was its denseness. We discussed our changed 21st century attention spans and how we are less attuned to the big rambling novels of the 19th century. But even those who found its length and detail off-putting did find aspects to enjoy. We all enjoyed the humour. Some may have found more humour than others, but we all found some! Everyone enjoyed, for example, Aldo's (failed) business ideas - like the device that was supposed to detect the presence of peanuts in food, or clothing for obese toddlers, or maternity clothes for goths ("a demographic with an 85% abortion rate")! You get the drift? It is a satirical novel, poking fun at, skewering in fact, our 21st century pretensions, concerns, and tribulations.

One member enjoyed the made-up words like "businesssapiens". And those of us who got to it laughed at the "Fussy corpse" picture book for children. The comedy is dark, but it's there.

However, there are gruelling and brutal scenes too, such as (without giving away spoilers) the still-birth of a child, and a prison rape scene.

Toltz mixes up the style. Most of the novel is told first person by Liam, but there are first person sections by Aldo, such as his long statement in court at his trial. There are also sections of play-like dialogue (such as between Aldo and the Voice), and of poetry. One member decided that Toltz is a little hyperactive.

We also discussed the characters, and whether any were sympathetic. Some felt all the main characters were, in the sense that they are ordinary, flawed people trying to make the best of their lives, but we also considered that, being the satire it is, engaging with characters is not necessarily the main expectation.

And, for those of us who made it to the last line, we loved its optimism after all the cynicism and "clinical frustration" that preceded it. It made everyone smile - even those who first heard it on the night!