When a debut novel comes as lauded as Burial Rites – including a recommendation from Geraldine Brooks as cover garnish – it’s hard to resist the temptation to see what all the fuss is about. For those who’ve been preserved in an Icelandic glacier for the last three months the novel is set in early 19th century Iceland and is based on Agnes Magnúsdóttir – the last women to be executed there. To say Agnes was beheaded in 1830 for her part in the brutal murder of two men is not giving the story away, for they are the bare facts Kent launched her epic research project with – but more on that in a moment.
My initial interest in the novel was sparked by a piece Kent wrote about her research and writing process for Kill Your Darlings, of which she is deputy editor. Burial Rites was the result of her PhD in creative writing, and for anyone engaged in a PhD or DCA with the aim of producing a publishable novel (e.g. myself), then success stories such as Kent’s are a subject of great envy interest. Given then the marketing hype (including an episode of Australian Story) and the snippets of praise from famous authors gracing its evocative cover – ‘Burial Rites is an accomplished gem, its prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting’ – my expectations were mountain-top high. To say I didn’t make the summit of those expectations is probably the best way of framing my view of Burial Rites, but the journey was still worthwhile and there are plenty of good things to say about it.
But let’s start from the ground up and the promise of ‘prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting’. The overuse of adverbs is of issue here (more so in the third person narrative sections). Quickly, slowly, quietly, nervously, casually – they’re used often and often unnecessarily. A ‘less is more’ approach to adverbs is the stuff of creative writing 101 advice (choose a stronger verb!). Yes, I’m being nitpickety, but for a novel that passed through a PhD supervisor and an editor, you have to wonder how “whispered quietly” got through to the keeper. Having said that, Kent knows how to ‘evoke’ (even strongly evoke) and her establishment of time and place is impeccable. Resonances of Kári Gíslasson’s memoir The Promise of Iceland in Kent’s depictions of the relentless Icelandic setting, which is to say its contrasting harshness and sleek cold beauty, is all-sensory and ever present. Kent conjures both exteriors and interior landscapes with dexterity, lending gravitas and a sense of authenticity to the setting, both historically and geographically.
Historical authenticity is the crux of this novel and Kent’s research is nothing short of thorough in the way a dog licks it bowl. Kent describes the book as ‘speculative biography’ and in this regard she follows a marked trend for filling in – that is, fictionalising – fragmentary stories of historical figures, in particular notorious women. This appropriation and resurrection of women’s voices from history (filtered through the inescapable lens of a present, post second-wave feminist perspective) is not unproblematic – and is worthy of further discussion beyond this book – and Kent’s (re)writing of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s story does not escape these issues.
Namely, while a sympathetic betrayal of Agnes is to be expected, Kent’s narrative interpolation between the known facts of the actual murder didn’t ring true for me. Kent takes care to make Agnes an enigmatic, but likable, character and a reliable narrator. She does this quite artfully by alternating between first person and third person narration, so that Agnes’ exoneration in the denouement of her story (to her final confidant, Margret) is not only expected, but wanted. But is it accurate? It seems very unlikely. At least in the way Kent decided it happened. In terms of Burial Rites being ‘speculative biography’, the inclusion of real letters and historical documents (not to mention descriptions of everyday activities) certainly lends authenticity to the biographical element of Agnes’ story, but the emphasis should definitely be on ‘speculative’, perhaps even fanciful, when it comes to Agnes’ recount of her former lover’s murder. I can’t help thinking that just because a woman was convicted (and executed) for murder we assume history must have got it wrong. This ‘setting the record straight’ is also condescending – not only for the aforementioned reason, but because it affirms women of history to be victims without allowing them the possibility of being ‘wicked’ either.
This thorniness of blurring of fact and fiction in this context is perhaps something for academics to ponder at length in obscure journals, rather than a point of merit to be discussed in a book review, so I will say no more about it – it is a novel to be read for enjoyment, after all. And on that level, Kent has pitched her book bang in the middle of the Tim Winton zone – that sweet spot between popular and literary fiction (that will also get you a $300,000 advance). Not so high brow as to put off the less cultured reader, but literary enough to attract those who consider themselves discerning (Fifty Shades of Grey ne’er would sully their eyes). Plenty of reviews have noted the ‘lyricism’ and ‘poeticism’, and the ‘measured’ quality of Kent’s prose, but as one reviewer on Goodreads points out “there is something altogether too safe about it. it’s (sic) the kind of writing that knows it will get a good reception, because it’s the kind of writing that plays by all the rules”. I couldn’t agree more and this is why, stylistically, I found the writing a tad laboured (adverbs!), even derivative in someways.
What I did find effective, however, was the switching of narrative voices. This structuring device created engagement with the primary characters and set up an almost episodic rhythm to the book, as well providing the confessional template for Agnes to retrospectively tell her life story. The first person narration in Agnes’ voice was the strongest aspect of the book, and indeed, where Kent’s prose did ‘sparkle’. I was stuck by the emotional truth of her characters and for one so young (in novelist years, at least) – Kent is only 26 – there is a maturity to her writing and her ability to understand her characters that is quite remarkable. My hope is that, as she matures as a novelist, her writing style becomes more robust, a bit riskier and more distinct, because she is clearly a talent to watch and knows how to weave the components of a compelling tale together.
When I had surgery last year to remove uterine fibroids I developed a new appreciation for nurses. The nurses that took care of me during my four day stay at the RBWH were just the bomb as far as I was concerned – caring, meticulous, friendly and utterly professional. I was so grateful, in fact, that I promised myself I’d buy a card to express my gratitude and send it to the nurses on Ward 6A just as soon as I could walk without feeling like someone was shoving knitting needles into my womb. Regrettably, I never did send that card. I said thank you a lot though, so hopefully they knew I was appreciative of their care and attention. I remember remarking, unoriginally, to one young nurse as she checked my sanitary pad, which was wedged where sanitary pads are supposed to be wedged, that ‘I could never be a nurse’. She smiled and said something to the effect that checking the markings on a sanitary pad was pretty mild on the scale of things nurses are asked to do. I didn’t ask her to elaborate, but I could well imagine.
Well, that’s wasn’t true. I couldn’t well imagine, but thanks to Kristy Chambers’ discomfiting, frank and blackly funny memoir Get Well Soon, I need no longer imagine. Chambers lays bare all the horrors of nursing in squeamish, unrelenting detail – the tampon incident should really come with a reader caution (I dry retched) – but it’s her flat out honesty about her own failings and humanness that make this memoir such an addictive and enjoyable read.
Chambers is the nurse who ‘could never be a nurse’. She doesn’t pretend to be immune to the fluids, solids, and all the other detritus in between, the human body is capable of excreting. She finds it just as gross and stomach churning as the rest of us, but boy, the stories she could tell you… And she does tell. Yes, you may come away with some images in your mind you probably wish you could scorch with a blowtorch, but any connoisseur of poo stories will tell you this is top notch material. Plus the rest – imagine an inanimate object, any inanimate object, is it smaller than a chair? Well, Chambers has probably got an Emergency Room story about that object – vase, carrot, Russian nesting dolls – being stuck up someone’s arse.
But Get Well Soon is not just a litany of the gross and profane. It’s a book about characters – most of the chapter titles are named after patients – or real people, rather, who have left an impression on Chambers for better or for worse. There are the cancer patients who died while Chambers was working in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit – just try sparing your tears when 16-year-old Sarah dies of leukaemia – the addicts and personalities who populate the Detox ward, and then there’s the fucked up, heart breaking sadness of the mentally ill who turn up regularly in Emergency. This is humanity at its most wretched, disgusting and sorrowful, but its Chamber’s own humanity and compassion that comes through in the telling, even if she doesn’t spell it out. She doesn’t waste words on sentimentality and her humour is justifiably wry. In essence she’s hugely likeable and if you’re not prudish or too squeamish you’ll love Chambers and her guided tour into nursing land. Every page, however, was a reminder of why I wouldn’t be a nurse for quids. Chambers will tell you though, in her blessedly honest way, that money – a decent income, that is, that comes with a respectable job – was the reason she became a nurse. It wasn’t a calling, she’s not a modern Florence Nightingale, she’s just a regular girl who took up nursing and this what she saw.
Get Well Soon (UQP 2012)
* I’m delighted that Kristy has agreed to be a guest author at Reality Bites Literary Festival (July 25-28) this year. So if you’re in the vicinity of the Sunshine Coast in July and you’ve love to hear more about Kristy’s nursing adventures, as well as her experience of turning them into a memoir, please do come along!
It’s official. I’ve joined the Australian Womens Writing Challenge. I’ve signed on for the Franklin Challenge (as in Stella Miles Franklin) which means reading at least ten books by an Australian female author and reviewing at least six of those. Below is the list of books I hope to both read and review (but it’s likely only the first of those lofty goals will be achieved). I’ve included a few memoirs as I’ll be reading them in preparation for the Reality Bites Nonfiction Literary Festival (July 25-28, 2013).
1. Like a House on Fire (Scribe 2012) by Cate Kennedy. I read this on a flight to Bali recently and am more than just a bit taken with Kennedy’s ability to craft a memorable short story.
2. Get Well Soon (UQP 2012) by Kristy Chambers. I’ve asked Kristy to be a guest author at Reality Bites Literary Festival this year. UQP recently sent me Chamber’s memoir which I picked up from the post office yesterday. I read a third of it last night and am loving it to pieces.
3. The Engagement (Penguin 2012) by Chloe Hooper. Better known for her investigative nonfiction with The Tall Man, I was intrigued to listen to Hooper talk at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year about her experience of writing fiction — specifically, a modern gothic novel set in rural Victoria.
4. Crim Wife (Black Inc. 2012) by Tanya Levin. Crim Wife is Levin’s second memoir. Her first, People in Glass Houses, was an account of her time as a member of Hillsong (the clappiest of the happy clapper mega churches). Crim Wife is a world away Hillsong and is about Levin’s experience of being involved with a convicted armed robber who she met while he was still in prison, and she was working as a drug and alcohol counsellor at Parramatta Jail. Tanya will be a guest author at Reality Bites this year.
5. Boy, Lost (UQP 2013) by Kris Olsson. Boy, Lost is a family memoir centred around Olsson’s brother who was kidnapped from his mother’s arms as she bordered a train. It’s due for release in April and, like Kristy and Tanya, Kris has also kindly agreed to be a guest author at Reality Bites this year.
6. Nine Days (Text 2012) by Toni Jordan. The composite novel structure Jordan uses for Nine Days is effective. That is, nine first person short stories detailing a significant day in each character’s life, all of whom are related across three generations spanning from the 1939 to the present. I found some of the characters more engaging and than others, and although there’s something quite satisfying in the way the stories expand and inform on the each other, there were times when it felt a little too pat and a little too contrived. It’s still a thoroughly enjoyable read though.
Long before Disney cashed in on her notoriety, the sinister archetype of the murdering stepmother has held the collective psyche in thrall like no other villain. In an intriguing interlacing of fact and fiction, Anna Haebich takes this morbid fascination as her premise to investigate the trial and execution of Martha Rendell — a Perth woman convicted of poisoning to death three of her stepchildren in the early 1900s and the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia. Rather than a straight forward fictionalised biography, Haebich has chosen to narrate the story through a succession of characters either lifted directly, or composited from, the historical record. These multiple points of view give a Haebich a nuanced means of conveying the prevailing attitudes (particularly towards women), bigotry and religious dogma of the time, whilst entertaining variously informed opinions on Rendell’s guilt or otherwise. Rich in detail, it is a narrative devise calculated to show what a woman in Rendell’s position was up against and how she was unlikely to have ever received a fair trial. The detail comes as a product of Haibich’s meticulous research which she uses to close the gap between the known facts of the case and what could have just as likely have happened. Haebich articulates possible theories, alternative scenarios and the forensic and psychological thinking of the day through the speculative musings of her narrators. It is a display of knowledge that makes for interesting reading, but it does stretch the bounds of credible characterisation at times. Haebich’s formal prose is in keeping with the era, without being unnecessarily flowery. After four male voices, with their necessary, era-specific sexism, however, there is a strong desire for the author to speak for herself and lay bare her own conclusions on Rendell’s trial and execution. Haebich satisfies this need by writing as the fifth and final narrator —’The Researcher’ and only woman to offer her opinion. Ultimately, what Haebich achieves — through her own voice and the cumulative effect of her male narrators — is a persuasive argument against trials by media, public hysteria (witch hunts) and the malignant employment of stereotypes to condemn a person, all of which resonates as being just as applicable to the modern age as it was 100 years ago. It is also the closest thing to a fair trial stepmother and convicted murderer, Martha Rendell, will ever receive.
I adored every syllable of this book. Pure reading pleasure loaded with lots of clever word-play on a satisfying acidic base.
Writing a review of Jincy Willet’s The Writing Class is something of a self-conscious exercise, given the book is structured around the students of a creative writing class critiquing the work of their fellow classmates. Through the advice Willet dispenses via her main character Amy Gallup – a lonely, widowed and long past her peak author who takes this Adult Education Creative Writing 101 class – it is patently clear that Willet ‘knows her way around a sentence’ as one character intones in the book. She’s also a master at lessons 1-9, which form the chapter headings of the book: Making Stuff Up; Showing and Telling; The Will Doing the Work of the Imagination, etc. Willet, a creative writing teacher herself, practices what Amy teaches and to extend using ‘the inexorable logic of metaphor’, she wields her creative writing talents like a practised psychopathic killer who doesn’t want to get caught. As testament to her own craft, Willet recreates a plethora of good and bad writing samples to represent the range of her character’s abilities, styles and personal agendas, which she then offers up for meta-analysis by Amy and her students. It’s clever stuff and somewhere amongst the creative writing jargon, cliché traps and bad prose there is an unpublished author whose big sum of rejection letters has unleashed a wacky and very nasty streak which eventually leads them to commit murder.
This is a ‘who-dunnit?’ with a twist on the usual cast of stock characters, because while Willet plays on the notion of ‘types’ – as the cover artfully conveys – her ‘types’ are as real and diverse as any members of an adult education class you could hope to find (or perhaps avoid) and if you’ve ever participated in such a class you’ll know where Willet plucked the inspiration for her characters. As to the clues, they’re all there – in retrospect – but not where you think they are and you’ll be hoping, like Amy − who’s only just behind you as detective − that none of the suspects are the killer because you like them all too much and you’ll probably be as surprised as she is when the murderer is revealed.
What makes The Writing Class such a reader’s delight is Willet’s deliciously caustic and book-smarts wit, which, for the lion’s share becomes Amy’s acerbic, ‘been there, done that’ wit. Having asked the class to nominate their favourite writers, Amy then translates this information into amusing, short-cut personality descriptions which becomes a useful a reference guide for keeping track of the thirteen students/suspects taking her creative writing class. Amy also keeps a blog, the contents of which are all for your reading pleasure and if ‘hybrid book titles’ and their one sentence plot summations – Gone with the Windows for Dummies: Starting the Civil War;
Customising Your Decimated Plantation; That Scary General Sherman, for example − don’t tickle your cerebral funny, then you’re probably not a book lover or children falling off swings while the camera is rolling is your idea of a laugh.
The Writing Class doesn’t fit easily into any one category of popular fiction. It’s comparable to The Jane Austen Book Club in that it brings together a disparate group of people that share a common interest: the ambition to be a published author vis-à-vis a love of Jane Austen. Parallels also reside in the thoroughly modern day California setting, the shameless appropriation of references to well-known authors and the use of emails and other internet interfaces throughout the text, but the comparisons end there. The Writing Club bears no resemblance to a romantic comedy destined for a Hollywood screenplay and, if anything, takes its plotting and suspense cues from an Agatha Christie, without so much as a boy meets girl subplot to spark off a red herring.
Brilliantly original, The Writing Class gives creative writing – and popular fiction − a good name with its galloping rhythm, pointy humour, embarrassing all-too-human characters and unexpected plot twists that don’t stretch the bounds of the credibility – including The Epiphany – as lesson 9 instructs. For anyone harbouring that clichéd ambition of ‘writing a novel one day’, The Writing Class will be two parts inspirational, two parts instructional, three parts reality check and four parts pure reading pleasure. Enjoy and then hope Willet − unlike her memorable creation, Amy Gallop − knows how to keep those creative writing juices flowing well into the future.
For the formulaic and prolific genre that chic-lit has become in ‘the naughties’, the better examples of it are not served well by twee covers that use hot pink curly font, love hearts and pale blue flowers to sell what’s between the pages. The cover of Stick or Twist (not to mention the title) does it a huge disservice because Moran’s debut novel is not just another Bridget Jones bland-off that takes us down into the dirty, desperate world of man-trapping when a woman is over the age of 30. Certainly, as plot device, single women on the prowl past their supposed prime, shows no signs of fading – they just turn 40 and turn a television series into much hyped film – and Stick or Twist is not defying the rules, but Moran has brought the genre up to date. Her references to the ‘self-help witches’ playing their mantras in the heroine’s head need no explanation for those likely to read her book and they’re also very funny, in a contextual way.
Determined to do as the adage says and not judge a book by its cover, I flicked to the first chapter to discern whether I could spend a weekend in bed – and give up sleep into the wee hours – for Stick or Twist. The opening gambit −Saturday mornings are the most menacing time. Teeth brushed and genitals soaped, this is the moment when ‘monogamous man’ stalks his prey. – convinced me to buy a bottle of red to go with. Tick box one for engaging chic-lit – lots of pithy one-liners, wry observations and self-conscious clichés worked over with an original twist. Box two is a heroine ‘just like us’ (or close enough to relate) – Anna Christie has a job she’s unsatisfied with, but she’s still within a professional cooee of the glam and vacuous and she has a small circle of flawed and interesting, but loyal girlfriends. It sounds like a write-by-numbers book about a single and 30 something girl finding love in London and it is, but Moran starts the book off on a more original premise than most and she imbues Anna with so much emotional integrity that to say this book is a ‘good’ example of its genre is to woefully undersell its charms, much like the cover does.
Unlike Bridget and her moan clones, Anna has a great guy (an Aiden if you need a SATC point of reference) – a boyfriend of 10 years that’s just proposed to her – only trouble is she’s bored as flying marsupial droppings with him and the thought of marrying ‘the one’ is looking more like marital penury that happily ever after. She’s not the dumped – a refreshing change in itself – but the dumpee and all the wretchedness that stems from leaving a long term partner for greener and steamier pastures is weighted with its due and true sentiments here, as Anna enters the inevitable dating fray for the first time in 10 years. The strength of Moran’s writing is her ability to convey the mental and emotional anguish Anna is experiencing − picking up on those little things that anyone who’s been there only knows too well – post break-up, without diffusing it too much with over-clever humour or sarcastic asides. Marian Keyes has virtually created a monopoly out of the style, but Moran does it just as well. She also gives Anna – the cocaine snorting scene being a good example − those shifts of perspectives and a burgeoning maturity that happens once someone is over the age of 30, without patronising those in their twenties, at the same time. Writing in the first person like Keyes often does, Moran is similarly able to give Anna perceptive insights into her own behaviour and self-absorption, making her an all too relatable mix of goody too-fabulous-shoes (shoe worship being mandatory in this genre) doing battle with her inner selfish minx.
The other characters are just as believable and well drawn, even the ones who are observed as humorous foils – Horst, the flatmate from Stuttgart is particularly endearing. Refreshing, also, is the nice guys outnumbering the bad boys – or at least matching them numerically − and it’s no give away to say Anna has a fling with the later and ends up with the former. Other threads of the story are invariably as predictable but there are still enough twists to make you want to stick to the end to see it conclude happily before the weekend is out. This is a book you’ll devour and then pass onto a girlfriend with a ‘I think you’ll really like this one.’
I had the pleasure of listening to Andrea Goldsmith speak about this book at the Sydney Writers Festival in May 2009 and was very pleased to find it in a secondhand book shop, after failing to find it a regular book store, some months after.
Four friends – Ava, Jack, Helen and Connie, their bonds formed in their early, idealistic years at university – are reunited after 20 years. Ava is a bestselling novelist, Helen a world renowned molecular biologist, Conrad – ‘Connie’ – is a philosopher with a popular following in the mould of Alain de Botton and Jack is an expert – albeit an underachieving one – in comparative religions and, a now in demand, authority on Islam. Their careers and intellectual pursuits have taken them to institutions the globe over but with an opportunity to become part of a new all-Australian think tank, NOGA − headed by Ava’s barely tolerated husband, Harry – they have all been brought back together in Melbourne, hoping the proximity will be enough for them pick up where they left off.
The reunion itself is merely Goldsmith’s starting point for burrowing into each character’s life as they are now, what they were 20 years ago and how they might possibly end up tomorrow. The connective tissue of the story is each character’s contemplation of their present circumstances in relation to their shared pasts and uncertain futures. Their plaster-cast middle aged temperaments, insecurities and foibles feed into the dynamics of the relationships between them – particularly Jack’s resilient love for the married Ava − and is what drives the narrative tension. Personable and flawed, you come to accept and understand these characters as you do your own best friends without their social veneers, but you also know when they’re likely to falter on a misplaced hope or an act of self-delusion.
Each character’s point of view and their back stories are entered into seamlessly, but there is not enough differentiation in style to lend each of them a completely unique voice. They are all flawlessly educated, knowledgeable and articulate − their thoughts crafted by a very competent novelist, but not a novelist who is willing to compromise the finesse of her writing technique to effect more than subtle change between characters or risk a messy, repetitive paragraph to a stream-of-consciousness of a character on the edge.
Universities provide a natural backdrop for novels that want to grapple with ideas and higher order thinking within learned domains and Reunion is perfectly at home in this setting. Linked to that, older men in academia justifying sexual liaisons with much younger women under their tutelage is almost a staple of well regarded, thinking person’s fiction. J.M. Coetzee has used it, as too, Zadie Smith. Goldsmith follows a different tact by allowing just such a relationship to be dissected without the immediacy or intensity of the present tense, or even the recent past. Through selective disclosures from Ava’s memory, her relationship with a much older man while she was a teenage undergraduate is filtered through a circumspective, mature-age female lens and avoids being occluded by moral absolutism. The relationship gradually takes more primacy as the novel unfolds and its heartbreaking intimacy lingers long after the last paragraph. To cover her bases, as if perhaps the retrospective romance of Ava’s relationship might condone the union and its power imbalance, Goldsmith burdens the character of Connie with a short attention span when it comes to relationships with women and a penchant for much younger ones. Unless you are a man with a similar predilection, then sympathy is too strong a word for what Conrad elicits from the reader as a character, but certainly Goldsmith allows him to be understood and pitied, and not too reviled, particularly as he is eventually met with some due comeuppance.
Reunion is equally a love story and a treatise on love − both the kind that is fossilised in long term friendships and the passionate, consuming kind. Through its characters exploratory, analytic ruminations – who are given to examining the lives of each other as much as their own − it artfully avoids being waylaid into easy sentimental traps, but neither is it dismissive of high passion and emotional extremes − just circumspect and very, very thoughtful. The book fairly teems with ideas to be mulled over and the benefit of writing about smart, high achievers with differing fields of interest is that these ideas − on friendship, memory, nostalgia, romantic love, marriage and fidelity, religion, philosophy, humanity, science, professional ethics and integrity – can be weighed up, drawn out, examined, turned over and evaluated, without steering the narrative off course. It is the discussion and play with personal, moral and ethical dilemmas that paves the way to the book’s climax and as a reader you are primed to go there with both your heart and your mind well and truly switched on.