Saturday, 22 October 2016

Book Review: The Historian's Daughter by Rashida Murphy

The Historian's Daughter
Rashida Murphy
UWA Publishing 2016 

I first met Rashida Murphy when we were both featured on Amanda Curtin's blog as WA Writers to watch. Not long after this, Rashida's book, which she had been working on as part of her PhD, was accepted for publication by UWA Publishing.  The Historian's Daughter came out in September of this year, and I was so excited to read it.

I was not disappointed.

The Historian's Daughter is the story of Hannah, a young girl growing up in India with a colonialist father whom she calls the Historian, and a Persian mother whom she adores, and calls the Magician.  She idolises her older sister Gloria, loves to read about 'the conquistadors', Englishmen who travelled to the Indian colony, and collects words.  Hannah's family life is crowded and not always satisfying to her, with numerous Aunties living under their roof such as Meher Aunty who is a greedy and selfish presence in Hannah's life, and the mysterious Aunt Rani, her father's only sister, who is locked in an attic room due to her unsound mental state.  She has a difficult relationship with her father, who is secretive and cold towards his children, and as she grows older, her relationship with her mother is strained by the Magician's increasing distance.  When Sohrab, the son of a Persian friend of the family, comes to live with them, the Magician spends increasing amounts of time with Sohrab, speaking to him in Farsi.  Then, one day, the Magician disappears.  Not long after that, Gloria too leaves home.

The Historian moves the family to Australia, where Hannah must navigate a new way of being in the world at the same time as she is growing into a young woman, all the while, missing her mother and sister.

It is hard to do justice to this beautiful novel, as the story is like a rich tapestry, with many different elements weaving together over time.  Hannah, the narrator, has an authentic, trustworthy voice, and seeing the world through her eyes felt comfortable, while at the same time, unfamiliar.  I felt her deep love for her older sister, as well as the rivalry between the two girls, as this is a novel which is just as much about family ties as it is about Hannah navigating her own identity.  The book is told in scenes which sometimes jump around through different points in the timeline, but Murphy's writing is so assured that I never once felt lost; I always had faith that the narrative would begin to make sense if I kept reading.  I was particularly taken with the descriptions of local scenery, such as King's Park, for their gentle clarity of description which never felt heavy-handed.

In the best possible way, I felt like this novel was harking back to stories which had come before it, like it was a literary tribute to the books which had shaped the author's and perhaps even the character's point of view.  While I think that to say a book is like a pure amalgamation of other books isn't strictly accurate, I would say that at different points in time, the book reminded me of Jane Eyre, the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The People Smuggler.  Yet at the same time, The Historian's Daughter is an entirely new and original work which is filled with a sense of its author's love for language and story, and this spoke to me.

Rashida Murphy represents a new voice on the Australian literary scene, and a very skilled one at that.  I look forward to seeing what she will write for us next.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People
Hannah Kent
Picador, 2016 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

When I read Hannah Kent's 2013 debut, I was supposed to be vacuuming my room.  But I was reading instead, and I was reading about dark, cold, Iceland, and by the time I had finished the book, I had climbed into my bed and pulled the covers up because my whole body felt frozen.  That was the power of that book.  Hannah Kent's writing had taken me to a place I had never even been.

Since reading it, and since it became a global phenomenon, I have seen Hannah Kent speak at the Perth Writers' Festival, and seen her give interviews on television.  There is no doubting that she is a thoughtful, intelligent writer who takes her subject matter seriously.  It should not be a surprise to anyone who has read Burial Rites that her new book, The Good People, is just as moving.

The novel tells the story of three women who set about trying to banish a fairy changeling which they believe has been left in the place of one of the women's grandson.  Nora Leahy has had a time of great misfortune, with her only daughter dying and then her husband, who was in good health, dropping dead at the sign of a crossroad.  To add to her woe, her daughter's boy Micheal has come to live with her, and rather than being the happy, thriving boy that he was two years ago when she saw him last, he is now a silent, wailing, cripple of four years old.  She keeps him hidden, to stop the wagging tongues of the village.

But after the death of her husband, taking care of the boy becomes too much for Nora and so she goes to an employment fair to seek live-in help.  There she finds Mary, a young girl who has seen a number of hard employers before and is determined to help her own family by working.  She believes that she is going to help Nora with looking after a child and with the churning of butter on her farm, but when she sees Micheal, and sees how malformed he is, she is shocked.  Yet, curiously, despite being kept awake by him all night, and having him wet the bed they both sleep in on the hearth, she comes to love Micheal in her own way.

Nance Roche, the village handy woman, practices herbal lore and when she sees the child she says that it is not Micheal at all, but a fairy left in his place. The three women bond together to try and have the fairy child exchanged for the real Micheal through a range of superstitious means.  Meanwhile, the village is being stirred up against Nance by the new priest, Father Healy, who denounces Nance as a kind of witch.

I read in another review of this book that Ireland at the time this book was set, 1825, was a tapestry, and that it was hard to say where religious beliefs and superstitions melded together.  Superstition is part of the culture and the setting of this book, and governs many of the lives of the characters.  There are rules about everything, about whether a woman who may be barren can enter the room where another woman is giving birth, about charms to curse people, about places where you should not go, lest you be 'swept' by the fairies.  Hannah Kent creates this emotional landscape very well, and it's part of the way she sets the scene.  This is a book which shows how Kent is growing more confident as a writer-- her creation of the landscape is far more subtle this time, and the language is musical and strong rather than poetic.

It was not until Mary came on the scene, however, that the book really took off for me, because it was through Mary's eyes that we began to see the doubt in what was going on.  While Mary too believed that Micheal had been swept, she felt a duty of care for the little boy she had been hired to mind, and as the outsider, she views the rising tension in the town and particularly among the women with a great degree of trepidation.

I enjoyed this book, and while I can see that it is a truly excellent book, I don't think it had the same effect on me as Burial Rites did-- but perhaps that is my own fault.  Perhaps this time, I knew to expect great things from Hannah Kent's storytelling.  I look forward to her next book.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Book Review: Katherine of Aragon- The True Queen

Katherine of Aragon- The True Queen (Six Tudor Queens Book 1)
Alison Weir
Headline Publishing, 2016  (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

Ever since I read Philippa Gregory's novel The Constant Princess, Katherine of Aragon has been one of my most admired historical figures.  We all know some parts of the story of Henry the Eighth and his ill-fated six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.  But what we also know is that there are a lot of rumours about the time period which make for really interesting but really inaccurate dramas.  If anyone has ever seen The Tudors, that would be my case in point.

Tudor England was not just a haven of licentiousness and intrigue.  It was a highly political time, and also a time when religious belief was much more fervent than it is today.  Katherine of Aragon was sent to England to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, who was the oldest son of the first Tudor King, Henry the VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, who was niece to the king he defeated to gain his crown-- Shakespeare's villain King Richard the third.  But not long after Katherine was wed to Arthur, he died of a sickness.  Katherine's family then planned to marry her to the second son, Henry, but political tides meant that she faced a long and uncomfortable wait before she could marry this boisterous and passionate prince who would one day be one of the most infamous kings in history.  She did eventually marry Henry but their union was not blessed with the sons which were of vital importance to securing the Tudor line.  Katherine and Henry had only one living child, a daughter who would become Queen Mary of England-- or Bloody Mary.  Henry, thanks to those at the court who would try to influence him, came to believe that the reason his marriage was not to be blessed with sons, was because his marriage to Katherine was offensive to God, citing a line from Leviticus which states that a man who marries his brother's wife will be cursed to have no living heirs.  He used this argument as the basis of his campaign to have Katherine put aside so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, and thanks to this process, he founded the Church of England with himself at the head, forcing England into a time of great religious persecution.

The history of this period is not little known, but it has been told in a myriad of ways and in varying degrees of truth, if such a thing can ever be uncovered.  It was therefore exciting to finally be hearing a version of the story told by historian, Alison Weir, who has written many factual accounts of English history, the Tudor period and the Wars of the Roses that came before it.

I enjoyed reading this massive volume immensely, but at times I did feel like the style of the storytelling, particularly in moments of exposition was a little closer to non fiction than to fiction.  This was particularly the case at the beginning of the book.  By the second part of the story I was racing along, caught up in what I was reading-- it was like revisiting an old friend.  Particularly considering so many of the more recent Philippa Gregory novels have not provided me with the excitement those early novels did, it was lovely to discover a new voice to add to this area of history I find so fascinating.  This is a long novel, but it needs to be so that you as the reader can get a real sense of how long and how hard Katherine fought to keep her conscience clear.  Though she was put aside by Henry the Eighth and ended her days in Kimbolton Castle, virtually in exile, I once read that she continued to make his shirts and to be a loyal wife to him even though he would not acknowledge her as such.  Weir makes the comment in her author's note that perhaps Katherine of Aragon is not the kind of feminist figure that we might look up to today, but for her time, she was quite remarkable.  As a woman, she had very limited influence over what happened to her, and she did what she could.  She looked up to her mother, Isabella of Castile, who was a formidable queen in her own right, and when Henry was in France waging war, it was Katherine who bolstered the forces at home to ward off invading Scots.  She was resourceful, loyal and virtuous, and if I were to be having a dinner party with any historical figures alive or dead, she would definitely get an invitation.

Katherine of Aragon is the subject of Phillipa Gregory's newest novel too, so I am reinvigorated to get my hands on a copy soon and spend more time in the Tudor period.  That should tide me over until March next year, when Goodreads tells me the next book in this series will come out, called Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession.  

What have you been reading lately?

Monday, 5 September 2016

What Elimy Read in August

I don't know what it was about August, but almost everyone I spoke to was busy, busy, busy.  August saw me spending one entire weekend escaping into book after book to get away from all the stress of uni and work and everything in between.  Without any further ado, here is what I read in August.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany and JK Rowling

A lot has been said about the new 'Harry Potter' book, which isn't a book at all but a rehearsal edition of the script for the new play currently on in the UK.  There are a few problems with the play, but this came into my life at exactly the right time.  A lot of things were changing and I felt unstable-- it was just the ticket to be able to escape back into the familiar world of Harry Potter, even if some things were just a little bit off.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

I loved The Miniaturist, which came out a few years ago and told the story of an enchanted doll's house in Amsterdam in the 17th Century.  I was really looking forward to reading this follow up from Jessie Burton, who is a very talented author.  It's been a while since I read this one, but I remember enjoying it at the same time as being a little fed up with the long lost painting discovered in an old house plotline-- it's everywhere at the moment!!!  (And shows no signs of slowing down, because there's a new book by Bernard Schlink due out in November which has this plotline too!)  The two voices in this book complemented each other nicely, and I enjoyed following the story along.

The Lost Swimmer by Ann Turner

I borrowed this book from the library on a whim after seeing Ann Turner speak at the 2016 Perth Writers Festival.  Unfortunately, while I raced through this mystery, it just really didn't do anything for me.

The Windy Season by Sam Carmody

You can read my review of this book here.

Three Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

The early reviews for this book said that it would do for publishing in the 1950s what Mad Men did for advertising.  I don't know about that, but I really liked reading about the journeys of the three characters in this book.  Miles, Eden and Cliff are all trying to make it in the publishing industry in New York, but it's a tough world and one mistake can end in endless tangles.  I loved The Other Typist when it came out a few years ago, and while this one was slower going, I would recommend it to anyone who loves reading about New York.

Carousel by Brendan Ritchie

What happens when four kids are shut inside Carousel shopping centre for 18 months, while outside the rest of Perth seems to have disappeared?  This debut YA novel by Perth writer/ filmmaker Brendan Ritchie explores a dystopian timeline for a quartet of young artists who must use their wits to find a way out of Perth's biggest shopping centre.

You can see me interviewing Kate McCaffrey and Brendan Ritchie this Wednesday (7th September) at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne.

Saving Jazz by Kate McCaffrey

An interesting counterpoint to McCaffrey's debut novel about cyber-bullying, Destroying Avalon, Saving Jazz explores what happens when you make a mistake and it goes viral on the internet.  Jasmine Lovely and her peers let their actions get a little out of hand at a party one night, and the aftershocks will disrupt Jazz's life in more ways than one.  Told in the form of a series of blog posts, this book explores the terrible night when it all went wrong, as well as the process of putting things back together.  I enjoyed this book, and it brought back fond memories of Destroying Avalon.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

This was my book club book for the month, and actually a re-read (hooray!  I haven't been able to re-read anything for ages!)  This is the first Jackson Brodie mystery, but it's much more than a crime novel.  Kate Atkinson's prose demonstrates exactly why she is winning awards all over the place.  I loved this multi-faceted novel and it's wide-reaching cast of characters.

Bodies of Water by V H Leslie

I first heard about this novella through Jen Campbell's Youtube channel and I was excited when my local library ordered a copy in.  While the story had all the makings of an epic ghost story, unfortunately the execution just didn't match up.  This one wasn't for me.

That's all for this month! What have you been reading?  Leave me some recommendations in the comments below.

Until next month-- happy reading!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Book review: The Windy Season by Sam Carmody

The Windy Season
Sam Carmody
Allen and Unwin, 2016 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

When Elliot Darling goes missing from a small West Coast fishing town named Stark, his family face a long and uncertain wait to find out what happened to him.  Only his brother, Paul, seems to go on searching for Elliot, and this search sees Paul move to Stark.  There, he takes on work as a deckhand on his cousin's fishing boat, alongside a philosophical German named Michael.  The town itself is in decline, with families who have depended on fishing to make their livelihoods for generations now facing smaller and smaller hauls each time they go out.  At the pub each night, Paul is faced with surly, sometimes frightening men, hardened by the life in Stark.  This is a world where methamphetamine, bar fights and biker gangs are not out of the question...  Paul's coming of age against this backdrop is a plot worthy of early Tim Winton, but is written with a hopeful tone which makes The Windy Season a joy to read.

Paul is a fully-developed and original character.  It is through his interactions with people, particularly through his childhood memories of Elliot, that we begin to see a picture of his world, from his home and childhood in Cottesloe, to his conflicted feelings about his parents and particularly his father, right to the filthy and roiling deck of his cousin's boat, where Paul struggles to hold onto his stomach.  His relationship with backpacker, Kasia, reveals much about Paul's lack of experience in matters of the heart, and the lost way in which he wanders about the world without his brother to guide him.  Over the course of the book, Paul is forced to find out what kind of man he will be, if Elliot's brother is not to be the only way he will define himself.  It is not an easy journey for him to take.

The story is told through Paul's eyes, interspersed with short segments in first person, which show a gang of bikies slowly closing in on our main characters.  While I found the change of point of view from third to first person a little jarring, these segments did give some perspective on the novel and its events.  Without giving away any spoilers, I enjoyed what these interludes revealed, but I also think the novel could have worked perfectly fine if these sections were taken out.

All this aside, I devoured this book in a single sitting, hardly moving for the entire day after cracking its spine.  The writing was sharp and fresh, and it was easy to see why Carmody was shortlisted for this piece in the Australian/ Vogel award the year that the prize was won by Christine Piper for After Darkness.  If the two books are anything to judge the future of Australian writing by, we are in for exciting things indeed.