Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Alan Gould, The Lake Woman

About 10 Minervans plus the author found somewhere to sit in my living room last night to discuss this, to quote Les Murray, "strange and compelling book". Appropriately for Anzac day reading, the book begins with the moment that an Australian soldier in British service parachutes into the chaos of D-Day Normandy. It was good to have Alan confirm that the book was intentionally set in, but not actually about the war. Also, as it has a most arresting first few sentences, we weren't surprised to hear that for him, a novel begins with a sentence. Luckily his was a more fruitful beginning than that of a character in Camus's "The Plague" who, we remembered, endlessly rewrote the first sentence of his novel but got no further.
Alan, who started out as a poet, explained that for him, poetry is like music while fiction is like history, and that he can only work in one mode or the other and not both at once. We were struck by the beauty of his prose throughout the book though, written as only a poet could write. We felt that it helped create the sense of unreality and dislocation that overtakes Alec, the main character, as his purpose is shaken after his rescue by a strange and unforgettable woman, in a way shifting his mind to a timeless, legendary dimension. His subsequent lack of focus caused distress to his loyal, practical sister who hated to see him fail in his promise. Alan confirmed that he had used clocks and watches as symbols of Alec's removal from time, and the different languages, French, English, German, including music ("doodling") as different channels of communication to create a sense of confusion between two dimensions. Cannon fire, the chaos of war and and the surreal devastation of the formerly peaceful Norman countryside heightened the sense of unreality.
We were struck by the authentic, period feel of the spoken interaction between the characters, particularly the military and the Australian country people. It was interesting to hear how Alan absorbed and adapted the experiences and expertise of the friends and acquaintances credited in the Acknowledgements section, and no-one was surprised to hear of hours spent examining various maps of Normandy.
Alan was queried about the role of coincidence in the novel, for example the constantly reappearing Sergeant Ferris. He explained that Ferris is the death figure, appearing when others die, but himself unkillable, and that for Alan as a novellist "coincidence makes a story other than bland, both at the level of history and at a plane outside natural causality". In response to another query he explained why he took us through the whole of Alec's life - so that, through the response of the students at his retirement, he could see that his life had had some value after all. Some of us were very moved by the last couple of paragraphs, which clarified something that had remained ambiguous through the whole story.
We also heard about the highs and lows of life as a poet-novellist, the impact of changing literary fashions and the sad reality that the marketing manager now decides what gets published.
I've left out such a lot that was covered in a wide ranging conversation that I really enjoyed. I also really loved the book, which I think is Alan's best so far, but as an old friend of his I'm rather biased. Did anyone disagree though when someone said "We should have the author here every time"?

Monday, 25 April 2011

Lloyd Jones, Hand me down world

Courtesy Text Publishing
All 8 (or so) Minervans who attended our meeting at the end of March to discuss Lloyd Jones' latest novel, Hand me down world, liked it. Some loved it, some liked it, but no-one disliked it. That says something about the quality of this book, methinks.

This is a multiple point of view novel chronicling the story of a young African woman who leaves Africa, by boat as an illegal immigrant, to find her son (who had been illegally taken from her when he was a baby) in Berlin. The first chapters of the book are presented as witness accounts by those who saw or helped her on her way. The rest of the book is told in larger chunks with, near the end, Ines (as we come to know her, though this is not her "real" name) telling us her (version of) her story. All these stories, except the Inspector's near the beginning, are told first person.

What Ines does to achieve her end is not - shall we say - always ethical. For her, the ends justifies the means in her desperation to make contact with her child. There's a death, and there's quite a bit of thieving and lying. For some Minervans this made her an unappealing character with whom they could not relate. For all of us, though, it certainly challenged us to think about what we might do - how far we might go - in similar circumstances. Another criticism of the novel was that it got a little bogged down in the central Berlin section ... did we need the full Defoe section some thought?

We discussed at some length the meaning of the title. Some ideas (including from reviews/interviews) included that:
  • the world, our world, is a rather arbitrary one
  • the son was, in a sense, "handed down"
  • people inhabit different worlds
  • Ines wore, symbolically, a hand-me-down coat, rather reflecting her status in the world as a "used" person because, for all her faults, she sure was "used"
  • versions - of things, people - are a theme of the novel (just as, really, the world has different "versions" depending on who we are and where we live)
Jones, it appears from the two novels we've read of him, keenly interested in the marginalised and dispossessed. His views are perhaps most encompassed by Bernard (or Millennium Three), the French character who most supports Ines, no questions asked. He talks of his politicisation in Berlin:
...we abhorred the state-inspired delineations and definitions of difference. Borders. Citizenship. Rich. Poor. Entitlement.
Another witness, the Film Researcher, talks of "other":
Until then she was, black, African, other. But now I saw a young woman who looked about the same age as my sister Alison. I could have been looking at Ali, apart from the obvious differences. Now I knew what I must do.
How to meet and react to "Other" is a powerful challenge for us all ... and Jones, in this novel, tackles it head on ... it's a powerful tale.

And there I'll leave it. Our discussion was a month ago so I can't remember the finer detail. Minervans, if I've misrepresented us, here's your chance. Comment away!