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12 days, 4 books and a beach

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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3. For a complete change, I read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which has won a plethora of prizes and plaudits, as well as coming highly recommended by Jan Hicks.

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.

Can you spot the moon?

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!

 

 

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

11 Comments

  1. sound interesting! I am just compiling what my holiday list will be for our Europe travels. Especially now I have a new kindle! I have begun The Dry and knowing how much time I get to read, will probably still be halfway through when we leave. The other I’ve loaded up is the ‘Rules of Civility’ by Amor Towles. Might just add one more in case!

  2. Phone! 600 pages!
    Why am I tempted?
    It sounds like the kind of crazy challenge I like.
    (But I’d better finish Finnegans Wake first, one crazy book at a time is best IMO).
    BTW Thanks again for joining in Indigenous Lit Week, I’ve added the links to your review on the 2017 ILW summary page and the master list so I hope you get lots of visits to your blog from people wanting to read it too:)

  3. I haven’t read any Will Self have yet to open the cover of my husband’s copy of Great Apes. I’m fascinated by him. I love his newspaper articles because he uses unfamiliar words in those, too, meaning I always learn something new. I love seeing/hearing him interviewed as well. Something about his approach to novel writing scares me, though. What if I don’t get it?

    I’m so glad you liked The Essex Serpent. I mean to read her first novel, eventually. I got distracted from this reply when I Googled to remind myself of that novel’s title and found this article https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/28/did-writing-a-book-make-me-ill-graves-disease-sarah-perry

    The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a book I pick up every time I go into a bookshop, because its appearance draws my eye. I’ve yet to buy a copy. I’m not entirely sure why.

    • What a wonderful article, thanks so much for sending it on. Seems she can write about anything. And her honesty around this makes me like her even more.

      I have read Will Self in the New Statesman – lovely, manageable, bit sized chunks. 600 pages of Will Self is quite different and most definitely a challenge! But overall, I think worth it.

  4. Lovely post (and I was shivering in Melbourne while you were soaking up the sun!).

    Phone sounds interesting…not sure if I’d be up for 600 pages of interesting but I do like books that are slightly unconventional like that AND I really love books that have me reaching for the dictionary.

    • This might be your book then; it certainly ticks those boxes. I’d love to know what someone else makes of it.

  5. Wonderful photos! I’ve got The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly next to my bed, it sounds charming, hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

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