Melbourne is in the depths of winter. It’s a little different to Glasgow winters – where I would look desperately at the day’s forecast and plead that the top temperature rise above 0 degrees – but it can be quite chilly. Sometimes I have to wear gloves, as well as a scarf and coat. To escape this dreariness, me and my little family recently headed north to Queensland, like the humpback whales, for 12 days of excessive frolicking, lounging, eating and of course, reading.
On this holiday I read 4 totally different books: Phone, Our Women Our Ways Our World, The Essex Serpent and The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. Here’s a short review of each (and some gratuitous beach photos).
1. The first book I finished was Phone by Will Self, which takes the prize for the most unusual novel I’ve read in ages. I received a review copy from Viking and at first, I thought I had an uncorrected proof, as the initial pages of the book look like this:
However, after a stealthy peak at a book shop copy, it turns out that this is how it’s been published; which should give you a strong sense of how unconventional Phone is. The whole book is essentially one paragraph, there aren’t any chapters and the narrative jumps from one character’s story to another mid-sentence. It’s disjointed and I confess that, more than once, I wasn’t totally sure what was going on. It’s also enormous, coming in at over 600 pages. Notwithstanding all of this, once I gave myself over to the style and went with it, I enjoyed Phone.
The story alternates between Jonathan De’Ath a MI6 spy, who’s also known as the ‘Butcher’ and who talks to his penis, Squilly (who in turn talks back with a lisp) and Dr. Busner. Befuddled by Alzheimer’s, we meet Dr Busner wandering mostly naked around a swanky hotel’s breakfast buffet. The best parts of the novel are those that explore Jonathan’s long-term but covert gay relationship with tank commander Colonial Gawain Thomas and Thomas’ posting to Iraq. I’ve not read any fictional accounts of the Iraq war, nor about the coalition forces’ conduct there. Self’s black humour (‘she wouldn’t give him a blow-job before he went overseas, which was surely the whole point of going to war’) doesn’t distract from the detail around the coalition’s war crimes: ‘Anyway, the important thing is to keep ’em confused – disorientated: cuff ’em, hood ’em, crank up the mega mega white noise, don’t let ’em sleep’.
Will Self’s language is extraordinary. Every page contained a word I didn’t know (echolia, barque, bloviate, susurrus, casuistry and gravid, to highlight a very small selection) and his observations are brilliantly astute (‘Autism Spectrum Disorder is – be believes – a canary in the coalmine of the human condition’). As you’d expect from Self, the pages are littered with moments of black humour: ‘Haram, the Butcher says, and Fitzhugh says, Bless you, and the Butcher says, No, it’s haram – it means forbidden’.
Categorically, Phone will not be everyone’s cup of tea – but for adventurous souls it’s worth seeking out.
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2. Next up, was Our Women, Our Ways, Our World edited by Pat Dudgeon and others. I reviewed this here for NAIDOC week and ANZ Litlover’s Indigenous Literature Week. The women’s stories about the impact of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families, as well as the observations on racism/sexism are still echoing around my head.
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The book is set in 1893 in an Essex village called Aldwinter (‘though its village green was occasionally considered the longest, if not the largest, in Essex, there was very little to recommend it even to its own inhabitants’). Aldwinter residents increasingly become terrified by their own myth-making around a creature living in the River Blackwater – ‘some kind of leviathan with wings of leather and a toothy grin’ – which is blamed for all the bad fortune visited on the village.
At the centre of the novel is the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a wealthy, unconventional widow from London and Reverend Ransome, Rector of Aldwinter Parish. Through these characters, and the supporting cast, the book explores the nineteenth century feud between science and religion. There’s also an examination of the emergence of credible medicine, female emancipation and socialist commentary on housing conditions for London’s poor, as well as the tensions inherent in unbidden love.
Sarah Perry’s prose is extraordinary and she’s created a wonderful ensemble of characters, each with their own flaws and quirks (I loved Charles Ambrose, a Liberal party elder who thinks more of his belly than any constituent) that shows off her remarkable writing. The combination of her writing style and the characters gives the book a lightness and humour that historical novels can’t often deliver. I had high expectations for this book, and they met them; I’m pretty sure The Essex Serpent will feature high up in my top ten books this year.
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4. Finally, I turned to The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang. I quite comfortably read this whole novella on the 2.5 hour flight home to Melbourne, and I even had a nap mid-way through! It’s a lovely little story about a tenacious chicken called Sprout.
She’s fed up laying eggs which she never gets to hatch and so makes a bid for freedom (Sprout’s ‘heart pounded at the thought that she would finally live in the yard’).
But the yard is not what she thought it would be; the other animals refuse to let her stay in the barn and the weasel is always on the prowl. I’m sure there is a larger allegory lurking within these pages, but I read it as a simple story about a hen who dreams big and works hard to realise these dreams. The illustrations by Nomoco made the experience even more delightful.
So to sum up: 12 days of winter warmth, 4 completely different books and an uninhabited beach. A perfect winter’s break.
Got some holiday reading successes? Do share!