Book review: ‘Goodwood’ by Holly Throsby (2016)

“Goodwood was a peaceful town before the tragedies,” the teenage narrator, Jean, reflects on her town in 1992. Those tragedies involve twin disappearances. First, Rosie vanishes, a girl who is a year older than Jean and cool and inscrutable in the way only sad girls are. Soon after, beloved butcher and councillor Bart McDonald goes out fishing and doesn’t come back.

Jean thinks she has some stumbled on a pivotal clue when she finds a stash of money in a local hiding hole. The plot thickens when the cash is enigmatically replaced by a small plastic horse. She records these events in her notebook, along with theories and impressions of the increasingly mournful community.

It emerges that one of Bart’s cars also disappeared shortly before Rosie was last seen, a development that Bart was alarmingly unconcerned by. Gossip around the small town soon turns to the possibility that their disappearances were linked.

As darker mutterings begin to swirl, there are a couple too many scenes of the townsfolk recounting what they know, which at this stage is very little. But just as the narrative appears to be drifting, it kicks into gear brilliantly. Before too long, it has developed into the kind of big-hearted, emotionally bruising story that reminds you why you love fiction.

More and more of the townsfolk become caught up in the events: Carl White, a violent, pokie-addicted burnout; Kevin, a widowed dairy farmer, and Davo, Rosie’s rebellious boyfriend. Yet others hover on the periphery, touched by the fallout and the creeping paranoia: Edna, forever ready to report an “outrage”, various gossipy women, bogan men and runty kids and most memorably, the tragicomic busybody Fitzy, a woman convinced the Bureau of Meteorology is shafting the town.

This motley cast is watched over by a sensitive, complex and eminently huggable narrator in Jean, who begins the story as a mostly passive presence, observing the goings-on with her sardonic, tomboyish friend George and faithful dog Backflip before becoming a slightly bolder figure involved in the ailing town’s collective anguish. She even experiences Goodwood’s version of feverish courtship, when the lanky Ethan invites her to “go see the cows” with him.

There may be more promising dalliances afoot; she notices Evie, a beautiful new girl at the school and gradually their paths cross in one of the most minimally sketched but memorable romances in recent memory. It’s an almost wordless seduction, two comets of lust and excitement on a collision path on the fringes of the town.

Fashioned with gentle humour, sharply observed detail and deep reservoirs of well-directed rage, the story has so many moving parts you could easily miss something as subtle and brilliant as the elegant symmetries that cast a new light on Jean’s narration. Where other books have clunky revelations, this has grace notes.

There is some of Tim Winton in Goodwood’s DNA, that wry affection for a peculiarly Australian dagginess and the rhythms and rituals of small-town life. Everything is observed with equal parts poetry and realism: the social life that revolves around the CWA and the town’s twin pubs, the unintentional kitsch of a fishing parade, the banter over the counter at Bart’s butcher shop and the reverence towards his geniality and decency.

The debut novel of Holly Throsby, also a noted singer-songwriter, Goodwood is many things: a satisfying and conscientiously constructed mystery, an affectionate but clear-eyed portrait of a time and place, and a darkly lovely coming of age story. But most of all, it’s a complete revelation, the conjuring up of a sad, beautiful, indelible little world of its own.

Book review: ‘I am Brian Wilson’ by Brian Wilson and ‘Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy’ by Mike Love (2016)

When Mike Love described Brian Wilson’s masterwork Pet Sounds as “Brian’s ego music”, he set himself up as one of pop culture’s ultimate heals, the philistine who lucked into a golden age and complained about how yellow everything looked. While his bandmate (and cousin) has long been cast as the tragic hero, Love has occupied the role of the moustache-twirling villain, the crass opportunist to Wilson’s wounded artistic genius.

Love writes about a pronounced split in the Beach Boys fanbase between those who prefer Brian’s innovation and sophistication and “the masses” attracted to the more straightforward nostalgia of his version of the group, which continues today with Love as the only remaining original member.

This schism dates back to Pet Sounds, the greatest pop album ever. The shadow that work cast hangs over both these memoirs; I Am Brian Wilson even utilises its familiar Cooper Black font. For Wilson, it set a benchmark he could never live up to and coincided with his withdrawal from touring life. In Love’s version of events, the record’s relative commercial failure and Brian’s increasing drug use signalled an end of the wholesome early version of the band.

As suggested by the oddly declarative title, I Am Brian Wilson foregrounds Wilson’s take on events which are already much-publicised and analysed. He has worked with a ghostwriter, but anyone who has seen his spectacular solo shows or seen him interviewed will recognise the voice immediately: vulnerable, faltering, pained, unexpectedly funny.  He describes the narrative as “a music story and a family story and a love story, but (it’s) a story of mental illness, too”.

There’s a lot of pain here, from the abuse he suffered at the hands of a cruel father to the pressure he put on himself to his years as the virtual captive of a quack psychotherapist, Dr. Landy, who he remembers as “a tyrant who controlled one person”. Yet there is a candour and even a childlike openness to how he describes the battling voices in his head and the self-doubt and self-imposed pressure which led to him abandoning the ambitious, visionary Smile project, which was originally conceived in 1966 and eventually revisited and completed in 2004.

While Love usually only features in Wilson’s book in connection with some legal action or other he is launching, Brian is a constant feature in Good Vibrations, with Love trying numerous angles to dislodge him from his position as a figure of pathos and empathy, the wayward genius fighting a losing battle with his demons.

Other times, Love too closely resembles the drunk uncle at a wedding whose speech has rambled on too long and worked a little too blue. He revisits his infamous, ranting speech at the group’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and blames his sourness on that occasion at not having meditated that day.

Elsewhere, he is content to throw shade at Wilson’s achievements, with the glorious ‘God Only Knows’ (named by Paul McCartney as his favourite ever song) perfunctorily described as “one of the album’s most celebrated numbers” and the haunting ‘Til I Die’ is only mentioned as evidence of “Brian’s gloom”. His co-written kitsch monster ‘Kokomo’, however, is poured over like it was the Zapruder film.

Love’s moments of finger-wagging anger and self-serving revisionism do sit alongside some fascinating details, like his account of writing the lyrics for ‘California Girls’ and recording the song’s heavenly harmonies and counter-harmonies. He had to sue the rest of the band for his contributions to that song (and others) to be recognised, a point he makes with some insistence.

Ridiculous as it often is, Love’s outsider perspective is undeniably fascinating and sometimes his rage is well justified. In contrast, Wilson’s memoir has a weepily beautiful mellowness and a real poignancy that shines through the acrimony and wasted years.

One cannot help but be moved as he describes the redemptive, celebratory mood of his latter-day return to the live sphere and his view of creativity as something hallowed and elusive. Most memorably, he likens song writing to catching goldfish in your hands: “They dart one way and you see a little flash of orange, but you don’t really know whether they’re coming or going”.

 

Book review: ‘The Pier Falls’ by Mark Haddon (2016)

“I wish this story had a happier ending” one of the narrators in this new short story collection sighs. Having shot to literary fame on the back of the ultimate optimism of his hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, it seems Mark Haddon is all out of happy endings. The millions enthralled by that fiendishly clever modern fable may be surprised by the unremittingly morbid nature of this skilfully assembled and tonally consistent anthology of death and desolation.

The award-winning titular story is a vividly evoked account of a tragedy at a beachside town in the 1970s which eventually claims dozens of lives. Marked with a restrained tone and sustained mood of eerie calm, it is classically beautiful even in its depiction of smashed bones protruding from skin and drowned bodies disappearing beneath the raging water.

Another standout, ‘Wodwo’, hits similar aesthetic heights, etching out the various arrivals of family members at a picturesque English Christmas, where fallen snow “blots and softens the top of every object like icing on a plum pudding”. Internecine rivalries and long-held acrimonies bubble beneath the surface in a finely detailed portrait of a somewhat tense but generally unremarkable family gathering.

The story then pivots seamlessly into something far darker as the revelry is interrupted by a stranger with a gun, who issues a challenge to restless alpha male Gavin a la the Green knight to Sir Gawain. The surreal incident throws his life into chaos over the ensuing year as he throws away his career and relationship and descends into isolation, codeine addiction and homelessness.

Here, Haddon achieves something that is not quite magic realism, but an inspired,
disquieting blend of dirty realism around a mythical catalyst event, with convincing psychological detail used to render an extraordinary story palpably real.

Other stories depart from the here and now, only to find more emotional desolation; one tale sees an Athenian princess abandoned on an island, elsewhere a failed mission to Mars turns into a mass suicide.

Throughout, Haddon proves a heady stylist alive to moments of beauty even in the midst of despair. When a depressed man comes across a woman attempting suicide on a morning walk with his dogs, he records her jump from the edge of a weir with grimly poetic panache: “It is both more and less real than anything he has ever seen…Her blonde hair rises like a candle flame”.

‘Bunny’ is similarly dark, focusing on a massively overweight man who has dropped out of society, filling his days with trash TV and video games. He meets Leah. Like many of the characters here, she is so deep in a rut she has forgotten what sunlight looks like. She seems to have missed her chance to escape a dead-end town and abusive relationships, feeling “there was comfort in being hurt in the old, familiar ways”. She starts to act as a carer for Bunny; they bond over their cruel mothers and disappointing lives. But the equilibrium of their relationship proves tragically fragile.

As with ‘Wodwo’, both ‘The Island’ and ‘The Gun’ show an abiding interest in the mechanics and physicality of violence, how shooting a gun blows someone back, the particular spatter of blood. The former sees two boys making a formative trip out into the woods with a weapon while the latter recounts the princess’ grisly meeting with Islanders with stomach-churning exactitude.

Equally queasy-making is ‘Breathe’ where Carol returns home from America to find her elderly mother living in a derelict state after her husband died. The daughter’s sudden return and involvement in cleaning up her mother’s filthy house angers Robyn, the sister that remained local when Carol moved overseas, presumed never to be seen again.

Far too many contemporary short stories are bound by ennui and lack urgency. The Pier Falls presents an action-packed, unpredictable antidote to this malaise. Every story here has the power to give the reader a jolt, with Haddon’s pristine and stately prose only heightening the power of each violent upheaval.

Whether in a council estate, adrift in deep space or stalked by demons ripped from ancient mythology, these people are all hopelessly alone, hunted by the inevitability and randomness of death.

Book review: ‘Cambodia Noir’ by Nick Seeley

A hard-bitten photographer, once idealistic and feted for his work, Will Keller now finds himself adrift in Phnom Penh. Notionally working for a local newspaper, he stumbles from one grisly photographic assignment to the next in a numbing haze of sex, drugs and alcohol. His main interest, he explains, is taking photos of corpses; the dead pay better.

In the midst of another punishing bout of self-medication, he is approached by a Japanese American woman calling herself Kara. She wants to pay him to track down her missing sister, June. The latter had been working as a junior journalist at the same paper as Will and rented out his room while he was in Laos. He discovers her diaries, a tortured but vague account of her attempts to break free of her past. Preliminary investigations reveal little, but Will suspects her journalistic investigations into the region’s smuggling and drug trade may have got her in trouble with the wrong people.

Coincidentally or not, the unexpected assignment comes hot on the heels of an unprecedented incident where the police turn on the all-powerful army. A four-star general is shot in the raid and the police uncover a large stash of heroin. Soon after, Will’s friend Bunny, a well-connected political operative, is gunned down. Will’s life becomes a waking nightmare, visions of these deaths and haunting memories of the human carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan becoming indistinguishable from his hellish reality.

In classic noir style, the story which unfolds is not one of light and shade, but shadows within shadows. Another noir staple is the potentially redemptive nature of the mission, which soon leads Will back to the enigmatic Kara. He is a skilful liar, but Kara is better. It soon becomes clear there are very good reasons this femme fatale is employing the services of Will rather than reporting her sister’s disappearance to the authorities.

He may not have any experience as a PI, but he knows where the bodies are buried; which hotels facilitate drug and paedophile rings, who can get a lock picked, a body exhumed or tap into police intelligence to run a background check on someone.

Soon, he needs all these resources and a healthy dose of rat cunning just to stay afloat. The case sees him dig into a darkness even this seasoned war photographer couldn’t have imagined and the mystery of June’s disappearance comes to completely consume him. It leaves him a broken figure: “I am blank, a film cell” he reflects. “I am the thing that records”.

Will emerges as an inspired, gruffly compelling narrator, like some Raymond Chandler hero hopped up on dexies and complaining about backpackers. He has a nicely acrid wit and is prone to moments of bruised philosophy, musing at one point that Tom Waits could have been Cambodian as he has the exact right timbre of pain in his voice.

Keller inhabits a Cambodia that is less a developing tourist trap and more the last gas stop before hell; everyone here is on the run and discovering the hard way that all the drugs in the world can’t kill their demons. It’s a fever dream of a backdrop, and the closest comparison is probably Nicholas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent and divisive Only God Forgives. Its prevailing mood of narcotic paranoia may well prove similarly hard to shake.

The debut work of Nick Seeley, a journalist with experience in both the Middle East and South East Asia, Cambodia Noir draws loosely on some of the political manoeuvring in the titular country. What is foregrounded, however, is a feverishly drawn but convincingly harrowing netherworld of exiles, a city where “every backpacker and junkie and psycho on the planet comes to die”.

Sentences are blunt, truncated, with pronouns and adjectives shorn off until they are left as nasty and lean as a sawn off shotgun. It’s a style capable of both ugly propulsion and surprising lyricism. Some of the influences are familiar: Ellroy’s staccato rhythms and unrelenting cynicism, Hubert Selby Jr’s piercing blasts of lyrical anguish, but assembled in a way that feels both novel and queasily effective.

Not absolutely everything works: there are a couple of contrivances that detract from an otherwise sturdy narrative arc. Similarly, there is an occasional tendency to tonal inconsistency, with the normally indurate Will suddenly spitting action movie dialogue a la McBain. But these seem minor quibbles in the face of Seeley’s vision, a fresh, vicious thing bound to haunt your dreams.

Book review: ‘The High Mountains of Portugal’ by Yann Martel

After the runaway critical and popular success of Life of Pi, Yann ­Martel’s long-awaited next novel was Beatrice and Virgil, a cluttered meta-fiction that, in part, followed a Martel-like novelist and his efforts to follow a blockbuster hit. It proved an unfortunate case of life imitating art, its sputtering story of a novelist producing an unsatisfying work being itself unsatisfying.

The High Mountains of Portugal splits the difference between the rapturous proselytising of Life of Pi and the structural trickery of its successor, returning to his best-loved novel’s theme of loneliness, loss and animal companionship, as well as worshipping the primal power of story­telling and parables.

Split into three (somewhat) linked novellas titled “Homeless”, “Homeward” and “Home”, a kind of playful literary triptych, the first section sees grieving museum worker Tomas venturing across Portugal in mad, ­single-minded pursuit of an ancient crucifix. Gradually losing heart and his sense of purpose, he draws inspiration from the journals of Father Ulisses, whose mournful remembrances of his missionary work in Africa turn into an inco­herent obsession with the idea of home.

Tomas is given as a gift one of the nation’s first automobiles, a strange and wondrous ­machine that he struggles to tame. Initially viewed as a cheerful curiosity by those he ­encounters, his voyage comes to take on a tragicomic tone as he is beset with various physical and automotive ailments. At one point, he emerges from his vehicle hunched and dirty, wildly scratching his unbathed body, a simian figure made a pariah by his unflinching quest for religious grace and solitude.

The story skips forward to the late 1930s, when a pathologist and his wife free associate about Agatha Christie novels and enter into an extended exchange of theories on the enduring appeal of her mystery stories. They ponder that only Christie and Jesus Christ, a figure constructed almost entirely from second-hand accounts, are chiefly concerned with the question of “What are we to do with death”. A woman comes to visit his offices, asking for an autopsy of her husband (who she is carrying in a suitcase), and he makes a macabre discovery, sending this thread of the tale spinning off into fantastical territory.

Finally, ageing Canadian politician Peter is jolted out of his ennui when he has a moment of connection with Odo, an intelligent and social ape, at a research facility. With his wife dead and his family having become a scattered and embittered mess, he makes the impulsive decision to buy the animal, abandon his plateauing career and head to the wild beauty of the country he moved from as an infant, Portugal.

 

Read the full review at The Australian: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/life-of-pi-author-yann-martel-heads-to-mountains-of-portugal/news-story/26baa10e32a72110b9c09d0e4d640d72

 

Book review: Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

In his notes about the movie What a Whopper!, reclusive, obsessive Roger notes the film is a “sort of sequel” and tags it with ‘Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique”. That also sums up this book’s relationship to Coe’s peerless satire of Thatcher era Britain, What a Carve Up! In that postmodern classic, obscure writer Michael Owen was hired to write the biography of the villainous Winshaw family, who had managed to infiltrate numerous arms of British life: politics, the media, high finance, art collecting, arms dealing. They ended up meeting a grisly end, but like some hydra they’re back in Number 11, dominating Blair’s Britain and beyond.

A savagely, sourly funny writer who structures his novels like Escher paintings, this time round Coe takes aim at the dismantling of the welfare state, the poisonousness of social media and the ultimately facile nature of political satire, all within a panoramic framework where plot paths diverge and re-join in unexpected ways and seemingly irrelevant details become major turning points.

The gothic prelude sees childhood friends Rachel and Alison have a creepy encounter in the woods and find a tarot card showing a grotesque spider woman. In that same formative summer, Rachel becomes haunted by the suspicious death of biological warfare expert David Kelly, a kind of generational loss of innocence moment.

The two girls go their separate ways, divided by a social media snafu. While Rachel ends up in Oxford, Alison makes her way in the art world, painting homeless people dressed as royalty. Meanwhile, Alison’s mother Val, a one-hit wonder pop star, tries to revive her fading fame on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, but finds only humiliation, the format being a poisonous reinstatement of the class system and public abasement.

The Winshaws make a more successful gambit for renewed fame in the art world with a prize in their name. Its first incarnation was to honour an artwork in any format, though that increasingly abstract idea was abandoned after one year it went to ‘That smell at your grandma’s house when you open a biscuit tin that hasn’t been opened in years’. Instead, they decide to pit the various existing prizes against each other and the result turns into a delicious satire of the prestige industry.

They’re also returning to prominence in the media with Josephine convincing her father to give her a newspaper column, though she needs some advice from her callous parent on the nuances of writing rage bait. When she tries to finger a “black, one-legged lesbian” as the straw man in one piece, he advises her that nobody would believe such a person exists. Simply casting the villain as Muslim, he suggests, will have the desired effect in provoking an outraged response.

Josephine’s right-wing ranting becomes a favourite topic for stand-up comedians the nation over, who promptly start disappearing. Enter the earnest PC Nathan Pilbeam, a bookish detective digging deep into Freudian psychology to uncover clues about the crimes. It’s a fine comic sequence in a career studded with them.

Coe has never been as darkly paranoid as he is here and he seems energised to produce some of his most brilliantly caustic satire. Eventually though, he seems as defeated as Alison watching her mother slide back into an abusive relationship: “Inside she was letting out a long, deep sigh of resignation. It was going to happen all over again”. In this waking nightmare, Britain is drunk-dialling its ex, and Coe is the friend slumped beside them at the bar, watching helplessly.

Book review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (2015)

After winning the title of Miss Blackpool in 1964, Barbara feels little but dissatisfaction. Resolving to emulate her heroine, Lucille Ball, she moves to Swinging London, soon landing a job at an upmarket department store known for employing pretty girls.

The shopgirl post provides an opening to a new world of glamour and affairs and brushes with celebrities in posh venues. Barbara is naive, but she learns fast and soon makes contact with an agent who urges her to change her name (to Sophie) and connects her with a pair of writers and a producer working for the BBC. The trio immediately see her star potential and flair for comedy and recognise a chance to revive their own flagging careers.

Read the full review: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/review-nick-hornbys-funny-girl-drips-with-nostalgia-for-smallscreen-stars-20150109-12kyu0.html#ixzz3RPGs4AQl