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: Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Returning to the “full life” format of his critical and popular hit Any Human Heart, William Boyd’s latest tells the story of Amory Clay, complete with found photographs she apparently took throughout her eventful career. Beginning in 1908, it spans her life chronologically, though occasionally interspersed with vignettes from her louche twilight years in the late 1970s.
The daughter of a short story writer haunted and almost psychologically destroyed by his war experiences, she struggles with feelings of inertia and listlessness as a teenager before discovering photography when her dandyish uncle Greville gives her a camera. She finds her niche as something between an artist and documentarian, becoming enraptured by the burgeoning medium’s ability to “stop time’s relentless motion and hold that scene, that split second”.

Told in a matter-of-fact voice and sometimes falling into languorous rhythms at odds with her intrepid demeanour and complex personality, the narrative follows her to the sex clubs of Berlin, where she covertly takes documentary photographs that ultimately score her the scandal and notoriety she craves.
Advertisement

The fallout of that scandal sees her whisked off to America, where she gets in over her head in a messy affair. Later, she ventures to the war zones in France and Vietnam, where her skill and fearlessness as a reporter get her into more precarious tangles.

The globetrotting narrative is alternately a strength and a weakness, enabling Boyd to expand on the largely untold story of the role women photojournalists played in the growth of the medium, but also giving the book an unavoidably episodic feel.

An unusual mixture of traditionalist and formal innovator, Boyd has developed a winning knack of pulling the carpet out from under the reader and Sweet Caress continues his penchant for blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, straight historical novel and experimentation.

As with his Any Human Heart, where real literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh convincingly mingled with Boyd’s creations, there are many characters here who you’ll have to look up to determine whether they’re a fascinating photojournalist whose story Boyd has unearthed or a convincing fictional person.

The lasting impression, however, is of Amory’s almost bullish desire for an eventful life, always a boon for a protagonist. If the most important thing you can do is “feel life’s sweet caress”, as the novel’s (fake) epigraph would have it, Amory felt it more than most.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/sweet-caress-review-adventure-behind-the-lens-20151201-glcews.html#ixzz40wz3fPPZ
Follow us: @smh on Twitter | sydneymorningherald on Facebook

Gig review: Matthew E. White @ Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent (Sydney Festival), 15 January

Dressed immaculately in a tailored suit and rarely seen without a boyish grin, Matthew E. White is nothing if not happy to be here, even if heavy jetlag and the novelty of the travelling Spiegeltent means he’s not quite sure where here is. “We played this Spiegeltent once before, but in Bergen, Norway” he says. “I got in here today and I was like ‘I’ve been here before’ it’s freaking me out”.

He gets his bearings soon enough with ‘Tranquility’, where whispered, almost spoken word vocals about the transient nature of life build until the song seems set to collapse in on itself, before a second guitar belatedly chimes in, giving the song a second wind. Written as a reflection on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s a tender if atypical start.

But White’s music is hardly all doom and death and things immediately take a turn for warmer, more joyful territory with ‘Love is Deep’. ‘Vision’ shows his considerable versatility as a singer, swinging seamlessly from breathy vocals to a soaring, upbeat, soulful style which has seen him regularly earn Curtis Mayfield comparisons.

Last time they were out here, White recalls, they were so jetlagged that they abrupt fell asleep mid-meal in a Domino’s outlet. Thankfully, there’s no such lethargy tonight, though slow jam ‘Fruit Trees’, moves like treacle in the best possible way.

There’s a lush, lush cover of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Wait and See’ and a sunny snapshot of religious devotion in the blissed out ‘Circle ’Round the Sun’, White crooning the line “wrap your arms around me, Jesus” with such conviction that even non-believers can’t help but be swayed.

The setlist switches gears in the second half to his more bluesy, groove-heavy side with the likes of the harmony-laden ‘Steady Pace’ and ‘Feeling Good is Good Enough’ raising the energy. ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’ is a floor-shaking rave-up where brushed drums are exchanged for John Bonhamesque pounding. It wraps up with a group hug and a gentleman’s bow to a now energised crowd.

At one point, White mused on his ambitions of moving to Australia and buying himself a “real fresh” ute to go exploring in. Based on tonight’s showing, this hugely likable and talented performer is more than welcome to set up shop here.

Gig review: Mercury Rev @ Oxford Art Factory, 7 December

A critical phenomenon in their early 2000s pomp, Mercury Rev may be a much less hyped act these days, but their decreasing profile has had little effect on their status as a spectacular and singular live band. They throw themselves into their cosmic rock with glee and a rare abandon. Frontman Jonathan Donahue is a particularly animated presence, conducting his bandmates like some mad scientist and gesticulating and vamping his way through the high drama of the songs.

There are whole worlds of psychedelic lushness here, from the woozy lullaby of ‘Endlessly’ to the guitar meltdown that ends an otherwise mellow ‘Frittering’, which dates back to their weirder, noisier 1991 debut Yerself Is Steam. There’s a welcome focus on the classic Deserter’s Songs, with the swooping dynamics and Disney fantasia of ‘The Funny Bird’ and the shimmering ’Holes’ and the mini-epic ‘Goddess On A Hiway’.

These are songs at once wildly ambitious and completely inclusive, and they’re playing with a shape-shifting zeal. ‘Opus 40’ builds from something delicate into cathartic release before morphing again into white noise. Their latter-day work has tended towards muted prettiness, but live they’re loud and expansive, with new songs like ‘Central Park East’ and ‘Autumn’s In The Air’ both expressions of childlike wonder, full of symphonic grandeur.

Later, there’s a trio of songs from All Is Dream, including ‘Tides Of The Moon’, a cosmic, soaring ‘You’re My Queen’ and finally ‘The Dark Is Rising’, an atypically plaintive moment in an often euphoric set. It’s a stunning finish to an alarmingly good performance, a semi-forgotten band serving notice that they’re still special.

Gig review: Luluc @ Newtown Social Club, 27 November

An alt-country/folk singer with a warm, honeyed voice, Caitlin Harnett’s music sits somewhere between the haunted folk of Karen Dalton and Neil Young in mellow, pastoral mode. On songs like ‘Honey Are You Alright’ she strikes a delicate balance between downbeat and defeated. Fans of emotive Americana, come on in.

Ex-Deloris frontman Marcus Teague, AKA Single Twin, takes the middle slot and it’s a set as notable for his surreal, dryly hilarious song introductions as the wordy, finely detailed music itself. The languorous ‘My Silken Tooth’ is introduced as being “about the most unfortunate pizza delivery ever made” and it only gets more bizarre from there, with riffs on becoming completely flat and forming your garbage into the shape of an ex. The music is uniformly first-rate meanwhile, with the sparse, intimate ‘Goodnight’ featuring some ghostly whistling.

Continuing the theme of talented musicians whose serious music belies their jovial demeanour, Australian expats Luluc are a laid-back, jokey presence from their first song ‘Reverie On Norfolk Street’. They quickly endear themselves to a small but appreciative crowd who mainly remain seated in front of the stage.

Their set features most of last year’s excellent, slow-burning Passerby,full of close harmonies, gentle melodies and an overall sense of warmth and comfort. ‘Without A Face’ is a good example of their quiet but lush approach, with restrained beats sitting underneath cozy harmonies. ‘Star’ sees them summoning the ghostly melancholy of Nick Drake, while ‘Tangled Heart’ adds a bit of reverb to a tale of a lost love and lingering thoughts of loss.

Zoe Randell’s voice is a thing of wonder, never forceful but mightily expressive. Even songs as filled with yearning and sadness as ‘Passerby’ and ‘Gold On The Leaves’ become almost overwhelmingly pretty and tranquil. They finish with an encore of ‘Little Suitcase’ and ‘I Found You’, further softly strummed reminders that passion need not be measured in volume.

Gig review – Death Cab for Cutie, Say Hi, Sydney Opera House, 1 August

Doing a nice line in laptop pop, Say Hi plays in solo mode tonight, and though the introspection and small scale of his music seems made more for bedrooms than concert halls, it’s a winning and all-too-short set. By the last song, the infectious, fizzing ‘Take Ya’ Dancin’’, he’s won the crowd over and left them wanting more.

Death Cab For Cutie admit to feeling a bit like students doing a piano recital given the grandeur of the room, but they attack their work with an energy that is anything but stiff and formal. Whether by design or not, the setlist seems set out to showcase the different sides of a band sometimes unfairly pigeonholed as purveyors of heartbroken indie rock.

From the pent-up energy of ‘The New Year’ to the subtlety of the reflective ‘Grapevine Fires’, there’s something from every stage of their career – even ‘No Sunlight’ described as “the closest we come to surf rock” and played in honour of the local audience.

Although their lyrics have tended to the abstract in more recent work, ‘You’ve Haunted Me All My Life’, one of the highlights of this year’s Kintsugi,is all the more powerful for its directness. It ushers in the most downbeat stretch of the show, preceding the funereal ‘What Sarah Said’ and the hymn-like ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’, still their most affecting song.

While Ben Gibbard has to politely tell the crowd that clapping along with the latter song “isn’t going to work, sorry”, there’s no shortage of audience involvement in the arousing ‘Soul Meets Body’, which ends feels both intimate and genuinely huge.

The set proper ends with their most startling the creative left turn, the hypnotic, menacing ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, before everyone is on their feet for an encore that returns to their wordy, poignant best with ‘Marching Bands Of Manhattan’ and finally ‘Transatlanticism’. A truly epic set.