Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Michelle de Kretser's The lost dog

Lost was a little bit how the seven Minervans who met to discuss The lost dog felt when approaching a discussion of this novel. All agreed that de Kretser is a wonderful writer but there were mixed feelings about how successful this particular book is. Some felt it was slow to start, a few felt the middle was a little tortuous, while others loved it from go to whoa. In other words, we paralleled the mixed reactions of the critics.

The lost dog is framed by the story of one man, academic Tom Loxley, and his search for the dog he loses while staying in the country to finish his book on the writer Henry James. The story is divided into ten "chapters" titled by the days of the week over which the search is conducted. However, within this simple chronological construct is a complex amalgam of several pasts and the present, as Tom, our point of view in the novel, contemplates where he has come from, where he is now and, perhaps, where he is going. As we read, we start to believe the truth of the Henry James epigram which opens the novel, "The whole of anything can never be told".

De Kretser, we all agreed, can, in a few words, capture the essence of a thing. Take, for example, the different ways the young and the old experience time: "She [Iris] sculptured the past, according to whim, as a child plays with the future; each having an abundance of material". Or, the more banal, "On Saturday nights there was only TV on TV". But this ability can sometimes be counter-productive for de Kretser keeps such comments and observations coming with a frequency that can be mind-blowing. It is hard sometimes to stop and see the forest for the trees, as beautiful as the trees are.

Besides the wonderful language, a major strength of the novel is the characterisation. We felt her characters were well drawn particularly Tom, Nelly, Iris and the dreadful though to a degree understandable Audrey. (We decided not to show "the limits of our understanding" by refusing to "imagine" her properly!) These, and other, characters kept us going when the writing and layering of meaning upon meaning started to bog us down.

But what then, is the novel about and where does Henry James fit in? We have a plot concerning a lost dog - and another one concerning the disappearance of Nelly's husband. We have wonderful characters who fascinate and engage us. We have rich writing full of "aha" moments. The book covers a multitude of topics: literature/narrative versus art/image, west versus east, known versus unknown, not to mention aging, modernity, and migration. Overlaying all this is an ongoing discussion of the past, of history, and how it relates to the present and, perhaps, may inform the future. It is not a simple notion of past and history though that de Kretser explores. Rather it is the sense that we never can fully know what happened and that it may not even be necessary to know. And this is partly where James comes in. He is described by Tom as a novelist who aimed to "break with melodrama and romance and establish himself as the master of the new psychological novel" but who was not quite able to keep the mysterious, the supernatural, that is the unknown, out. For de Kretser this is no bad thing. Tom considers at the end "that knowledge, which had sheltered him round for so long, had been allowed to shrink to a constraint" and concludes that "what he wished ... was that he might yet be graced with courage and loving conduct in the face of everything that can never be known".

And so too, do we Minervans. After a lively and engaging discussion, we agreed that we did not fully know what the book is about but, like Tom, we can learn to "stroll around to the back of knowledge and look at it from the other side". We never know what we might find.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Geraldine Brooks' People of the book

What I do is me. For that I came. I had to start the review with this because it is a favourite line of mine from a favourite Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "As kingfishers catch fire". However, even though it appears twice in the book, I haven't quite worked out whether it contributes anything significant to the book. Still, it gave me a little fillip of joy, so for that I am grateful.

Back to the book. It comprises two stories, both working in opposite directions. The forwards moving story is a first person one told by Hanna Heath, a book conservator who is brought in to conserve the Sarajevo Haggadah but who also has a rather fraught story of her own. The backwards moving story imagines, through a series of mostly third person tales, how the haggadah was created and made its way from Spain to Sarajevo. It's an interesting structure and makes sense I guess: when telling a person's life suspense and interest - where are we going, what will happen next - tends to increase the more we move forward into the murky future, while for an object, building, event etc the suspense and interest can increase the more we move backwards into the murkier and murkier past (a bit like an archaeological dig in which you move from the known to the less and less known). These two contrasting movements in the book nicely balance each other: the two stories move progressively, in opposite directions, away from the book's starting moment.

It's an enjoyable and readable book with, I think, some worthy goals, the most important of these being "that diverse cultures influence and enrich each other". (p. 400) As Brooks envisages it, the history of the book involves both conflict and co-operation between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Different traditions are involved in both the creation of the haggadah and its survival - and, while many of the people who cross its path suffer badly in its wake, there are others who are enriched by it. And then, Hanna herself, ends up with with a man of another culture and religious background. This point regarding cultures influencing and enriching each other is expanded to include the notion of promoting harmony between them when, near the end of the novel, the Sarajevan librarian who had saved the book says "It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox". (p. 451/2) These two quotes sound a little preachy but in fact this heavy-handedness occurs mainly towards the novel's close...and occasionally in Hanna's story.

The stories which imagine the haggadah's creation and survival are well-researched and told, and are linked to Hanna through the various "artefacts" she finds when conserving the book, artefacts such as a butterfly wing, a wine stain mixed with salt, and a white hair. These stories, each one pretty self-contained, start in Sarajevo in 1940, and move back to Seville in 1480. They make rivetting reading, so much so that we want to know what happens to the characters in them when their role in the haggadah ends. Maybe Brooks will come back to them sometime in the future? She does have a skill at evoking historical periods.

But, the book has a weakness, and that is in Hanna's story. Her voice feels forced and her story is rather melodramatic. Brooks packs too many "dramas" into Hanna's story - unsupportive mother, lost father, critically ill child, cross-cultural romance, theft, forgery and a bit of counter-skullduggery - making Hanna a rather cardboard character, which is disappointing as she frames the story and is meant to be its glue.

Despite its faults though, People of the book is an engaging read with a sincere heart. I'd certainly recommend it - there are worse books to read out there.

(Book cover: Thanks to Harper Collins Australia)