I’m just back from Melbourne, my favourite city, where I went for two weeks for some January sunshine. A heatwave arrived in town just after I did — it was around 44°F for five days in a row — so I got my wish. (Fortunately, I’m of that rare subspecies, the Scot who tans more than burns.)
As well as braving the sun, drinking a phenomenal quantity of phenomenal coffee (from, among others, Two Birds One Stone, Duke’s, Market Lane and Arcadia) and going into restaurants to sit at the bar and order more to eat than one solo diner really ought, I read a bunch of new paperbacks I’d saved up for a long trip (and the even longer flights).
I rattled through Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (Virago), whose plot possesses certain similarities to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal of a few years ago, but whose central character is entirely her own beast: a teacher and would-be artist, utterly lacking in self-awareness, Nora Eldridge is filled with anger and frustration that she cannot seem to make use of. She falls for the family of one of the children she teaches, becoming fascinated to the point of obsession with the child, his mother, and his father; as the book goes on, we discover that these people have in some way betrayed her, giving rise to the anger that possesses her. It’s a compelling but weird book, not because Nora is largely unsympathetic (which is quite an endearing trait in a character) but because the reader is able to see her failings and her constant errors of judgement throughout, making her final furious outburst seem less the springing-off point for her to reshape and better her life and more the petulant tantrum of a child.
A few years back, I read and loved Michelle de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog. The follow-up, Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin), is a strange, meandering, largely unsuccessful doorstop of a thing, following two characters, frumpy Sydneysider Laura, who longs to travel the world, and Sri Lankan Ravi, who is forced to leave his country after his family become victims of one of the most gruesome crimes I can remember reading about in a novel. The book spans several decades, telling us about this pair’s (unrelated) lives in set-pieces and episodes, which may have something to do with why I found the book curiously uninvolving. Eventually, their stories do touch, but it’s three quarters of the way through this long novel by the time de Kretser permits this rather fundamental structural thing to happen. The prose is gorgeous, but the book as a whole — despite setting these two lives against backdrops of historically vast events, notably in its final chapter — feels curiously inconsequential.
I’ve long admired Helen Garner, who seems not very well-known in the UK (though her last novel, The Spare Room, received great reviews), and it felt rather bittersweet to buy up the last couple of her books I’d yet to read (as it always does when you’ve come to the end of exploring a favourite writer’s back catalogue). A collection of essays, The Feel of Steel (Picador), is insightful, candid and thought-provoking, though does suffer slightly from any such anthology’s rag-tag nature; The First Stone (Picador) is the now classic account of Garner’s investigation of sorts into a high-profile case in the 1990s in which the Master of a well-regarded Melbourne university college was dismissed after allegations of sexual misconduct. The story piques Garner’s interest, though less for the facts of the case (she isn’t ever able to get the accusers’ side of the story) and more for what it says about contemporary feminism and power balances. It’s a slightly messy book, appealingly so: Garner seems always to have the confidence to write with uncertainty, rather than to pick an unwavering rhetorical position and write towards it, and here, as her opinions modulate and alter, so too the book is allowed to embrace ambivalence. I do tend to prefer her fiction to her non-fiction, but I also can’t think of anyone who can rival her brutal frankness and her somehow ego-free examinations of her own beliefs, prejudices and viewpoints.
Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire (Fourth Estate) follows the lives of five characters living, whether or not they much want to be, in contemporary Shanghai. There’s a pop star who disgraces himself in public, a woman who steals another’s identity to boost her way up the employment ladder, a successful businesswoman, a property developer, and a self-help guru. These lives intersect at various points in this voluminous novel — sometimes glancingly, at other times involving characters teaming up. The arc that holds the book together seems a little thin or muddled to me, and there’s a certain smoothness to the way the whole thing is put together that made me yearn for some rougher edges or less puzzle-solution plotting, but it’s a very readable novel, highly enjoyable, that brings ‘news from elsewhere’: the 21st century megalopolis of Shanghai, where success can go as unrecorded or unremarked-on as failure.
Finally, Marjorie Celona’s debut novel Y (Faber) is the hair-raising tale of Shannon, abandoned as a baby on the steps of a YMCA on Vancouver Island, then brought up in a series of foster homes where, as one might expect, lurk some of the more unscrupulous characters in this book. It’s a novel in which one terrible thing follows another — both in Shannon’s life and in that of her teenage mother, Yula, whose (back)story is told in parallel with Shannon’s — but Celona’s touch is light enough that, without diminishing these unpleasantnesses, they aren’t the fictional equivalent of misery memoir fodder.By the time Shannon is herself a teenager, the book is on perhaps more formulaic ground: she’s an oddball, runs away compulsively, and has that familiar sarky, self-effacing Teenage Fiction first-person voice. But when Yula and Shannon are inevitably reunited, Celona has the confidence and good sense to push the book on past the point where another author might have abandoned these two to an ambiguous, uncertain future. A convincing reconciliation is harder to write than a suspended ending, leaving it to the reader to guess what might happen next; Celona does it very well indeed.