Review: Remembering Babylon, by David Malouf

Set in mid-19th century colonial Australia, Remembering Babylon explores issues of race and class through a young man named Gemmy Fairley.  Gemmy turns up in a Queensland village, seemingly out of nowhere.  He is white, but “appears” black and speaks the language of native people.  He is most comfortable communicating with the three children who first discovered him, members of the McIvor family.  Through various means of communication, Gemmy shares his background as a ragamuffin boy tossed from a ship, who lived with aboriginal people for 16 years.  The McIvor family take him in, providing for his basic needs and giving him work to do around their property.  Gemmy baffles the community:

He had started out white. No question. When he fell in with the blacks — at thirteen, was it? — he had been like any other child, one of their own for instance. (That was hard to swallow.) But had he remained white?

They looked at their children, even the smallest of them chattering away, entirely at home in their tongue, then heard the mere half-dozen words of English this fellow could cough up, and even those so mismanaged and distorted you could barely guess what he was on about, and you had to put to yourself the harder question. Could you lose it? Not just language, but it.  It.

For the fact was, when you looked at him sometimes he was not white. His skin might be but not his features. The whole cast of his face gave him the look of one of Them. How was that, then?  (p.40)

But Remembering Babylon isn’t so much Gemmy’s story as everyone else’s.  Janet, Meg, and Lachlan are forever changed after finding Gemmy.  Several settlers actively work to oust Gemmy, showing their true selves and straining Jock and Ellen McIvor’s relations with them.  And just beyond the hubbub lives Mrs. Hutchence, an eccentric woman who offers love and kindness to everyone she meets. Malouf introduced every type of character imaginable: angry, bigoted settlers, a young schoolmaster, a preacher nearing the end of his career, etc.  Most were not as well-developed as the McIvor family, and after a while I found the frequent new faces a distraction.  The ending was also strange, jumping ahead in time while leaving a number of loose ends back in the 19th century.  Still, this was a worthwhile read, an interesting study of human nature, set in a historic period I enjoy reading about.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Second Movement, by Anthony Powell

The “second movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time is a collection of three novellas:  At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones.  Set in England during the years just before World War II, this dance includes many characters familiar to readers of the first movement.  The protagonist, Nick Jenkins, is now an established writer working for a film company.  In At Lady Molly’s, Anthony Powell sets the stage by introducing readers to several new characters who will figure prominently in Nick’s life.   They include the Tolland family (several brothers & sisters, and their stepmother), and Chips Lovell, a professional colleague whose literary role is to introduce Nick to other people and situations.  Social themes are introduced as well,  particularly political developments in Germany, and society’s preoccupation with psychoanalysis during this time period.

While the first novella has a seemingly endless cast, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant focuses on Nick, his new wife, and their close friends the Morelands.  But the dance continues, with familiar characters moving in and out of their lives, including Nick’s school friends Widmerpool, Templer, and Stringham.  Finally in The Kindly Ones, Powell begins in Nick’s childhood, providing a complete “back story” on certain characters and lending new context to their role in the dance.

There is very little “action” in these novels.  Instead, there are a myriad of social situations where the dialogue moves the action along.  For example, one character will tell a story about another, and in this way we learn of marriages, affairs, deaths, and so on.  One of the intriguing aspects of this series is the way Powell conveys the passing of time.  It’s such a critical element, and yet is only expressed indirectly. Months and years are never mentioned, and rarely do we know someone’s age.  We get a sense of elapsed time primarily through historical or cultural cues (i.e.; the Abdication), and only occasionally by specific mention (i.e.; “several years passed …”).

I also love Powell’s turns of phrase, like this bit:

She was immaculately free from any of the traditional blemishes of a mother-in-law; agreeable always; entertaining; even, in her own way, affectionate; but always a little alarming: an elegant, deeply experienced bird — perhaps a bird of prey — ready to sweep down and attack from the frozen mountain peaks upon which she preferred herself to live apart.

And, at the close of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, this powerful paragraph:

I thought of his recent remark about the Ghost Railway.  He loved these almost as much as he loved mechanical pianos. Once, at least, we had been on a Ghost Railway together at some fun fair or on a seaside pier; slowly climbing sheer gradients, sweeping with frenzied speed into inky depths, turning blind corners from which black, gibbering bogeys leapt to attack, rushing headlong towards iron-studded doors, threatened by imminent collision, fingered by spectral hands, moving at last with dreadful, ever increasing momentum towards a shape that lay across the line.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a unique work, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

Previous Reviews:

Review: An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s 1948, and retired Japanese artist Masuji Ono is watching his country rebuild — physically, emotionally, and politically — after the damage wrought by the second World War.  He lost loved ones and his home was damaged, as were some of his regular haunts.  Now his life revolves around his two adult daughters Setsuko and Noriko, and his young grandson Ichiro.  Setsuko and Ichiro live far away, but Noriko lives with her father.  A marriage deal is in the works, but the sisters are nervous because a previous negotiation fell through.  Ono is oblivious to the risk, and even more importantly fails to grasp that his own pre-war activities could be damaging Noriko’s prospects.

Ono provides the narrative, and while there’s plenty of dialogue, a great deal is inside his head.  Details drip out like water from a leaky faucet.  He goes off on tangents, and sometimes references important events or conversations, but doesn’t fill in the details until later.  He often ends a long story by saying it may not have happened exactly as he remembered it.  Kazuo Ishiguro uses Noriko and Setsuko to fill in the blanks through conversations with their father.  And his portrayal of the Japanese father-daughter relationship is brilliant.  When Ono’s daughters challenge him, they do so in a very indirect way.  They make suggestions instead of overt requests, even when the matter is of the utmost importance.  As Noriko’s marriage negotiations begin, Setsuko is clearly worried about something from their past, and wants Ono to clear things up with certain associates:

“I wonder how Mr Kuroda is these days. I can remember how he used to come here, and you would talk together for hours in the reception room.”

“I’ve no idea about Kuroda these days.”

“Forgive me, but I wonder if it may not be wise if Father were to visit Mr Kuroda soon.”

“Visit him?”

“Mr. Kuroda.  And perhaps certain other such acquaintances from the past.”

“I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying, Setsuko.”

“Forgive me, I simply meant to suggest that Father may wish to speak to certain acquaintances from his past.  That is to say, before the Saitos’ detective does. After all, we do not wish any unnecessary misunderstandings to arise.”

“No, I suppose we don’t,” I said, returning to my paper.

I believe we did not discuss the matter further after that. Neither did Setsuko raise it again for the remainder of her stay last month.  (p. 85)

As Ono reminisces on his pre-war artistic career the reader comes to understand his daughters’ concerns.  But Ono is more savvy and self-aware than he lets on, and takes a personal risk at what he judges to be a critical point in the marriage negotiations.

This is one of Ishiguro’s early novels, and its style is much like The Remains of the Day, which is one of my all-time favorite books.  An Artist of the Floating World is nearly as great, and highly recommended.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement, by Anthony Powell

A Dance to the Music of Time follows a group of British men as they move from school to university to adulthood.  The story begins in the 1920s when the narrator, Nick Jenkins, is at boarding school with his friends Stringham and Templer.  Their school days are coming to an end; will they go up to university or go directly to work?  As they contemplate their next phase of life, they also spend countless hours mocking other students — especially a boy named Widmerpool — and playing pranks on their  house master.

The “first movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time consists of three novellas spanning just over a decade: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World.  Jenkins and his friends come of age, finding their adult footing and struggling with love and loss.  Several other characters move in and out of their lives, like partners in a dance.  A woman appears initially as one man’s girlfriend, later as the wife of a second man, and still later as a third man’s lover.  Other characters have recurring roles in the dance, taking the floor every so often and then fading into the background.   As Jenkins muses in the second book:

I certainly did not expect that scattered elements of Mrs. Andriadis’s party would recur so comparatively soon in my life … their commitment was sufficient to draw attention once again to that extraordinary process that causes certain figures to appear and reappear in the performance of one or another sequence of what I have already compared with a ritual dance.

The dance metaphor works very well in this book.  The sequence and pacing reminded me of a ballroom filled with people gracefully stepping through a minuet.  And while it is obvious that time is passing, precise measures of time are rarely mentioned, giving the book a languid, leisurely feel.  Yet every so often Powell sums things up with powerful prose, like this paragraph towards the end of A Question of Upbringing:

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period.  This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. … A new epoch was opening: in a sense this night was the final remnant of life at school.

A Dance to the Music of Time is very British, and very evocative of the period between the wars.  Every time I sat down to read, I was instantly transported into that world, while simultaneously reflecting on the “dance” representing my life.  While this “first movement” was more than 700 pages long, I never tired of it and was sad to say good-bye to characters who have inhabited my imagination for over a week.  I will most definitely be reading the rest of this series.

Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady is a story of Americans abroad, and a story of love and loss.  Isabel Archer arrives in England with her aunt, Lydia Touchett, who is intent on broadening her horizons.  Lydia is the mother of Isabel’s cousin Ralph, who lives with his father on their English estate, Gardencourt.  Within a few weeks of her arrival at Gardencourt, Isabel turns down two marriage proposals, insisting on maintaining her independence.  She inherits a considerable sum of money, and it appears she will be able to achieve her goal.  Unfortunately, her “friends” have other ideas, and when Isabel travels to the continent, she soon finds herself falling for Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy.  Sadly, their marriage is not a happy one and Isabel is stuck making the best of a bad situation.

The story evolves quite slowly, but there’s much more to this rich novel than can be described in a simple plot summary.  Henry James’ writing is complex, but not as difficult to read as I’d feared.  James was himself an American living abroad, and he clearly loved his adopted country.  Speaking through Ralph Touchett’s father, James offers a delightful point of view of an American living in England:

I’ve been watching these people for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don’t hesitate to say that I’ve acquired considerable information. It’s a very fine country on the whole–finer perhaps than we give it credit for on the other side. There are several improvements I should like to see introduced; but the necessity of them doesn’t seem to be generally felt as yet.

And the characterizations are superb.  Ralph cares deeply for Isabel, but never acts on his feelings.  Lydia is self-centered, but in an amusing way.  Madame Merle, a good friend of Lydia, is quite eccentric and takes Isabel under her wing; however, there is a mysterious side to her as well.  Isabel’s friend Henrietta is assertive and brash, perhaps representing the “typical American” in Europe.  Gilbert Osmond is completely unlikeable, and his sister Amy, the Countess Gemini, is vapid and self-centered, but pulls off a major feat near the end that shows there’s much more to her than meets the eye.

Throughout this novel Isabel is caught between a desire for independence, and societal pressures and expectations.  James’ understated prose delivers surprising emotional intensity, through a collection of memorable characters.  Highly recommended.

Review: Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This is my second time reading Pride and Prejudice, so it was a bit like going to visit an old friend.  I knew I’d enjoy it, and I also hoped I’d discover something new.  I was not disappointed!

The story opens with the famous line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Charles Bingley is the aforementioned single man, and when he arrives in the neighborhood Mrs. Bennet is determined to marry off one of her five daughters. Jane, the eldest, catches Bingley’s eye.  At the same time Jane’s younger and feistier sister Elizabeth verbally spars with Bingley’s more reserved friend Mr. Darcy.  Misinterpretation and poor communication keep Lizzie and Darcy apart for far too long.  During that time Lizzie works to bring Jane and Bingley together, and rejects an offer of marriage from Mr. Collins, a distant relative who is set to inherit her father’s estate.  And there’s so much more: balls, elopements, kind relatives, nasty relatives … and of course true love conquers all.

I most enjoyed rediscovering Jane Austen’s marvelous wit.  Characters like Mr. Collins, and Lizzie’s mother Mrs. Bennet, were so ridiculous I just had to laugh.  And even though Pride and Prejudice was written two hundred years ago, the book and its characters seem just as realistic and relevant today.

This really isn’t much of a review, just a few impressions of a book I know I will re-read many more times.

Review: Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

In 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were brutally murdered at their home in Kingston, Ontario.  Two servants, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were tried and convicted.  McDermott was sentenced to death, but Grace’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.  In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood uses scant historical evidence, and the character of young Dr. Simon Jordan, to tell Grace’s story.

Dr. Jordan is somewhat of a specialist in mental illness, and in 1859 is granted permission to conduct a series of interviews with Grace at the penitentiary.  He hopes to learn her side of the story, not just what her attorney told her to say at trial.  But Grace has blocked all memories associated with the murders, and uncovering the truth is a long process requiring much patience.  Jordan visits Grace nearly every day, and she recounts her life story from early childhood in Ireland all the way up to the murders.

Very early on, I fell into reading Alias Grace as I would any murder mystery.  I forgot it was historical fiction, and began reading between the lines, searching for red herrings and expecting surprise plot twists.  But the fascinating aspects of this tale are actually due to its basis in historical fact.  In the 1840s, the field of mental illness was going through tremendous change, with many new theories and treatment methods.  Many psychological conditions were simply not well understood.  And Grace herself was a victim of society’s prevailing attitudes toward women.  Because she was attractive, some thought she must be the mastermind behind the murders.  Others claimed her youth made her an unwilling victim.  Margaret Atwood brings out another side of Grace, that of a strong independent woman whose psychological reaction to trauma fundamentally changed the course of her life.

Review: The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead

This is a most unusual family drama, simultaneously frightening, funny, and intense.  Sam and Henny Pollit have six children.  Eldest daughter Louisa was a product of Sam’s first marriage; Henny has been nothing more than Sam’s brood mare, spawning an assortment of children that offer endless amusement to Sam and endless stress and torment to Henny. Sam is self-centered and without a care in the world; he prides himself on being the “fun” parent, organizing all manner of escapades with his children.  He speaks in a language all his own, full of cutesy nicknames and odd turns of phrase.  Henny grew up in a wealthy family, and cannot accept the reduced circumstances of her life with Sam.  She lives beyond their means, both materially and socially.

Sam and Henny neglect many of the practicalities associated with raising a family.  At 13, Louisa is far too young to shoulder these responsibilities and yet there she is, fixing breakfast every day, and making sure the household runs smoothly.  Henny has never accepted Louisa into the family, and verbally abuses her.  Sam showers her with pet names like Looloo, but also smothers her with his prying and controlling behaviors.  Louisa longs for summer holidays, when she stays with her mother’s family:

For nine months of the year were trivial miseries, self-doubts, indecisions, and all those disgusts of preadolescence, when the body is dirty, the world a misfit, the moral sense qualmish, and the mind a sump of doubt: but three months of the year she lived in trust, confidence, and love. (p. 163)

Sam and Henny have such a poor relationship that all communication occurs through their children.  Even Sam’s impending posting to Malaya is communicated to Henny via her eldest son.  And when they argue, all hell breaks loose:

When a quarrel started (Henny and Sam did speak at the height of their most violent quarrels) and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull would fall over the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chipping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar sedately dipping past the beach, or even the ferry’s hoot. Exquisite were these moments. Then the tornado would break loose again. What a strange life it was for them, those quiet children, in this shaded house, in a bower of trees, with the sunny orchard shining, the calm sky and silky creek, with sunshine outside and shrieks of madness inside.  (p. 326)

Louisa often finds herself caught in the middle of this marital drama, trying to break up the fights and protect the younger children.  While Sam is away in Malaya, life settles into some semblance of order, and on his return it seems as if normalcy will continue.  But a series of events dramatically change the family’s place in the community.   Sam and Henny are unable to work through this together, and when Sam takes charge you just know it won’t end well.  Louisa continues to serve as a stabilizing force, but increasingly resents Sam’s intrusion and control.

By now the “frightening” and “intense” elements of this novel should be clear.  It’s strange and uncomfortable to admit that in the midst of all this, there are funny elements as well.  Sam is larger than life.  He’s a complete prat and yet amusing and likable.  He and Henny share equally in their family’s dysfunction, and as much as she’s a victim of Sam’s ridiculous notions, I couldn’t help liking Sam more.  But Sam does some really awful things to his children, things that (if they were real people) would scar them for life.  As a reader, I felt really conflicted, which I think is by design.  Christina Stead is able to make the reader feel like one of Sam and Henny’s many children — fond of both parents, hurt and abused, and completely caught in the middle.

This is not an easy book to read, but not for the reasons you might think.  Yes, the subject matter is difficult, and it’s a bit like watching an impending train wreck.  But the prose also makes its demands on the reader, particularly Sam’s invented language.  However, those willing to invest the time and effort in this book will be rewarded in the end.

More reviews of The Man Who Loved Children:

Review: A Dry White Season, by André Brink

Ben DuToit is a white teacher in South Africa, whose peaceful existence is shaken by the arrest of his black friend, Gordon.  When Gordon dies in prison, Ben challenges the police report ruling his death a suicide.  He begins his own investigation, and as he gathers facts a picture of lies and corruption emerges.  Even when the court upholds the police ruling, Ben is undaunted.  His family can’t understand his passion for justice.  Here’s Ben discussing the inquest with his wife, Susan:

“They killed Gordon,” he said.  “First they killed Jonathan, then him.  How can they get away with it?”

“If they’d been guilty the court would have said so.  I was just as shocked as you were when we heard about Gordon’s death, Ben.  But it’s no use dwelling on it.”  She pressed his hand more urgently.  “It’s all over and done with now.  You’re home again. Now you can settle down like before.” (p. 137)

But Ben can’t settle down, and his search for truth has far-reaching consequences.  He is shunned by his family, friends, and colleagues.   The experience causes him to question long-held beliefs about race, dating back to his time growing up in the South African veld:

The boys who tended sheep with me, and stole apricots with me, and scared the people at the huts with pumpkin ghosts, and who were punished with me, and yet were different. We lived in a house, they in mud huts with rocks on the roof. They took over our discarded clothes. They had to knock on the kitchen door. They laid our table, brought up our children, emptied our chamber pots, called us Baas and Miesies.  … It was a good and comfortable division; it was right that people shouldn’t mix, that everyone should be allotted his own portion of land where he could act and live among his own. If it hadn’t been ordained explicitly in the Scriptures, then certainly it was implied by the variegated creation of an omniscient Father, and it didn’t behove us to intefere with his handiwork or try and improve on His ways by bringing forth impossible hybrids. That was the way it had always been.  (p. 162)

André Brink has written a powerful portrayal of an ordinary man, caught up in a situation beyond his control, but intensely motivated by his beliefs.  But Ben is only human, and unable to turn the tide of apartheid on his own.  In working for justice Ben is transformed, but pays a huge price.

Review: The Bell, by Iris Murdoch

The Bell explores themes of sexuality and power, like most of Iris Murdoch’s novels, and this time it is set against a religious backdrop.  When Dora Greenfield leaves her domineering husband Paul, he escapes to Imber, a lay religious community in the countryside.  As a guest he receives food and lodging, and a place to focus on his academic research.  Dora later decides to attempt reconciliation, and joins Paul at Imber.  On her way she meets Toby, who plans to spend the summer at Imber before leaving for university.

The Imber community is small, mostly male, and adjoins a Benedictine abbey whose nuns are cloistered for life..  Imber’s leader is Michael Meade, whose family originally owned the estate.  The other members are mostly misfits who have withdrawn from mainstream society.  Together they tend the estate and the market garden, and organize daily worship activities.  The community as a whole is looking forward to two significant events:  the ceremonial installation of a new bell at the Abbey, and one Imber member’s planned installation as a cloistered nun.  Dora and Toby both assimilate into the community to varying degrees.  Dora, by association with Paul, is always a bit of an outsider and finds the group’s customs a bit awkward.  Toby is young and impressionable, finding spiritual fulfillment in Imber’s natural beauty.

I first thought The Bell would be about Dora and Paul’s relationship, but it is much more about Michael and his inner struggles with sexuality and faith.  It turns out Michael is gay, and suffered early in his career when his orientation became known to others.  He also knows that a faith community will not be sympathetic.  Murdoch, on the other hand, is sympathetic, which likely went against the grain of British society when this novel was published in 1958.  Michael tries desperately to keep his desires at bay even in the face of temptation, and conceal his true self from the rest of the Imber community.  Sometimes this is almost comic, but at the novel’s climax it becomes gut-wrenching, such that what happens to Dora and Paul is almost ancillary.

This novel was full of symbolism and imagery around the bell itself, and I felt as if Dora was meant to be the heroine, but for me Michael’s story was more central and had greater impact.