Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Michelle de Kretser's Questions of travel

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
With most Minervans being in town this month we had a good turn up for our discussion of this year's Miles Franklin Award winner, Questions of travel by Michelle de Kretser.

While some hadn't finished the book, all enjoyed (or were enjoying) it - so the conversation started with members sharing some favourite "bits". One member, though, admitted that at the beginning she was a little irritated by the clever one-liners but said that, as she continued reading, she became fully engrossed in the characters.

The novel spans the life of its two main characters - the Australian Laura and the Sri Lankan Ravi - over four decades, from the 1960s to 2004. And, as the title suggests, it encompasses many continents, though the last half of the book is pretty much set in Sydney.

Members shared aspects of the book that intrigued them the most. One for example loved how the novel describes the evolution of the Internet (remembering Yahoo, Frames, etc) and other digital technologies such as the first camera phones and the move from Discmans to iPods; while others were particularly amused by de Kretser's descriptions of corporate culture. Given that Laura and Ravi were born in the mid-1960s, we could relate pretty closely to the world they experience ... well, to some of it. Ravi's horrendous experience in Sri Lanka, which results in his arrival in Australia as an asylum-seeker, is something quite beyond our personal experiences.

Our currently-travelling member sent in a brief comment via Facebook:
I found Michelle's book wonderful, and great reflections on the meaning of travel ... our heroine, someone who followed the random path of meeting people on her journey was a great study, sometimes sad, often inspirational.
We all liked de Kretser's writing, and agreed with Kerryn Goldsworthy's praise (for The lost dog but included in our paperback versions):
Her writing is very witty, but it also goes deep, informed at every point by a benign and far-reaching intelligence ... so engaging and thought-provoking and its subject matter so substantial that the reader notices only in passing how funny it is.
Because it is funny - often excruciatingly, embarrassingly, so. One scene a member mentioned occurs when Laura goes to India and asks a taxi driver to take her to a particular hotel:
'Oh yes, madam. Number eleven.'
Thinking he had misunderstood, Laura repeated the name.
'Yes, madam,' he said over his shoulder. 'Number eleven. Lonely Planet'
Checking, Laura finds that her hotel is indeed no. 11 on the Lonely Planet map key for the city!

De Kretser captures, with few words, the little details that characterise certain people, places and times - with a reference to Doc Martens here, or the challenge of opening aerogrammes there, with a mention of pinot grigio (was it really popular way back in 2003 one member wondered?) or of corporate-sponsored gym memberships. And she often makes us squirm in the process. Other times she surprises us with something beautiful. Ravi's wife, Malini, for example, describes the night as rising rather than the sun as setting.

We talked, of course, about travel - about travelling to see something new (which is what Laura thinks it's about) or travelling to escape (which is what Ravi does). De Kretser suggests that Geography, rather than History, is destiny - though one member took some offence at this, believing that History Is The Thing! However, we left that discussion for another day!

A member reminded us of the lovely little story when Laura goes to Berkshire and notices an interesting old brick being used as a doorstop. The home-owners are surprised at her query but do some research. They discover that it could date back to the seventeenth-century, but then they simply put it back. It makes Laura think about people's connection to place. This neglected, old brick confirms the family's long connection to the place. By comparison, she sees her own people as
a vigorous, shallow-rooted plant still adapting itself to alien soil.
We gave some thought to the main characters, feeling rather sorry for Laura who is repeatedly referred to as "the runt" by her father. No wonder, we felt, she wanted to travel. We wondered about the anonymous phone calls she receives regularly throughout the novel. Were they from her father? We wondered about Ravi's ungrateful treatment of those who try to help him, but felt that it was partly due to a dislike of being obligated to others. We laughed about some of the other characters, such as Laura's truly awful friend Tracy Lacey and the hypocritical, ignorant work colleague Crystal Bowles. Their names tell us, we thought, what de Kretser thinks of them!

We briefly discussed how the book reminded us of other authors. One member suggested Patrick White, seeing some of his intensity in Laura, while another saw Dickens in the grand satirical sweep of the novel.

Our booktrade member shared some ideas from the publisher. We particularly liked the idea that the book is about a "search for home - not just where it might be, but what it is". None of us had quite seen it from that angle, but it made sense.

Life, de Kretser seems to be telling us, is a journey, one we all need to make in our own way. Near the end, Laura still believes
The magic land existed. It had to - hadn't Laura always known it? She would find it yet: in the depths of a wardrobe, at the top of a faraway tree.
But, as not all members had finished the book, we decided not to discuss what really did happen to Laura! We agreed, however, that this book merits multiple reading. Next plane flight perhaps?

Monday, 22 July 2013

Canberra Poetry

Click this link for three poems - the winner and two shortlisted - from this year's ACT Poetry Awards ... in preparation for our poetry meeting later this year.

(This must be the shortest post ever!)

Monday, 1 July 2013

Bring up the bones by Hilary Mantel

A small group of us gathered to extol the virtues of 'Bring up the bones' -- we all loved it.

Courtesy: HarperCollins
It is beautifully structured according to time -- a mere 9 months (September 1535 to May/June 1536) in 2 parts -- the building of the case against the Queen (Anne Boleyn) and then the denouement ending with her beheading in the Tower of London.  (Just following the facts, see: BBC History relating to Anne Boleyn -- a very good precis which also talks about how King Henry and the ambitious family of the Howards/Boleyns became acquainted.)

Mantel has written a construction of royal life in the 1530s. This is not historical fiction as we commonly know it, but it is more literary and probably that is why it won the Man Booker.

The events take place through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell as in Wolf Hall (see our post on this book) but this time he exhibits some characteristics and actions that are less loveable and more dastardly --  retribution for the action of others to his beloved Cardinal Wolsey but he is also a good 'servant ' of the King.

The language is wonderful. This is true not only with the chapter names, such as 'falcons', 'crows' and 'angels' which inspire great images but all through it : eg:
Stock-still in the great hall, a pale presence in the milky light, Jane Seymour is dressed in her stiff finery. '  (page 29 in my edition)
This is prescient as she remains 'pale' all through the novel. The novel is also 'breath taking ' in the way the case is built up gradually -- men and facts being manipulated. 'Cardinal Wolsey is crucial for the tale -- Cromwell's resentment and grief drives this story' we decided. (He also has a debate with himself about his relationship with his cruel and physical father, see page 160).

We were fascinated by the lack of equity for the 5 men accused of being the Queen's lovers. Why was Wyatt let off when he may have been the guilty one? He wrote a poem about the queen and he was definitely attracted to her, so a case could have been written against him but he was saved by Cromwell and indirectly, the King.

The 'animal' allusion fascinated us -- a taste of that is seen on page 159 -- in a paragraph about Truth:
Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.  
Later there is talk of the prisoners being 'a paw' of this 'animal'. All these prisoners are hated by Cromwell for their past deeds and he is revengeful although that word is never used by Mantel.  Instead she uses 'grudge' and this shows that Thomas is vulnerable -- a sign of things to come in the third and final novel in this series?

Thomas Cromwell is a good subject -- he is an enigma of a character -- how did he manage to escape going down with the Boleyns? He is an ambitious man -- a modern/new man. For instance, was he behind the social reforms -- we were not sure.

It was also interesting to realise that due to fear of the King and his loyal supporters, no exact record was ever made of the death of the Queen, Anne Boleyn. So Mantel's story is only a version of the truth but seems a very believable one. Truth and lies -- a theme all through this novel. It is also deeply ironic and cynical -- Cromwell changes and is becoming a 'man for all seasons'!

The ending of this novel is pure indulgence for Cromwell. He is getting his own revenge but he is developing a lot of antagonism against himself especially with people like Stephen Gardiner. Another way Mantel is building the plot for the third and final story in this trilogy.