Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

There is such breath and humanity to any of Safran Foer’s works. 

There’s a deep sorrow that lingers throughout Here I Am.

There’s deep hope that never faulted throughhout Here I Am.

The Jewish American family slowing falling apart. Sam’s hand injury haunts them. An ageing patriarch, an ever loyal and loved dog dying and the land of the Jews under attack- by nature and by its neighbours. 

There’s so much going on in this novel. The relationship between Julia and Jacob, 16 years of marriage, is seemingly coming to an end. There’s such warmth and authenticity to the dialogue. The discovery of a second phone and explict text messages, Julia’s frank assessment: it would be easier if Jacob actually acted upon his words. She knows he can’t, that he doesn’t, and hasn’t. 

Jacob is a writer. Words mean everything to him. His TV show is watched by millions, but he is pouring his heart into a show about his family. The set pieces of dialogue around the kitchen table, in the car, visiting his grandfather are tight, funny, heartbreaking and endlessly compelling. There’s no one who can write like this. 

The intricatities of being Jewish is something I found to be so important to the novel. How a people after 5000 years of persecution remain so resolutely loyal and spiritually connected to their faith is something I will never fully understand. With each character this history lives. With each intersection in the novel, this past and the potential for the future to be different lives. There is such burden and such hope. 

The novel is a sprawling family saga. The divorce is just one part of the experience. The natural disaster that strikes Israel and the consequent war against the Jews could be straight from next week’s news. There’s no grandstanding. The withholding of medical supplies and food from the West Bank raises the moral dilemmas of the two state solution. But it’s Jacob’s answering of the call to return to Israel and to fight, and his subsequent choice to instead return home to his soon to be ex-wife and his children that is most profound. We do have choices, sometimes not making a choice is harder than making the right choice. 

This is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It will be in my top ten favourite novels. 


The 5th Wave, Rick Yancey

There’s something about dystopian fiction; the raw selflessness, the isolation and the primitive desire to survive. And why not add in some mind controlling aliens who have been watching the planet for at least 5000 years. War of the Worlds cross with The Road. 

We meet Cassie after the 4th wave. She quickly recounts the first 4 waves; her voice innocent, yet confident. The world has changed and so has she. Her schoolgirl anxieties about crushes and homework are gone. Instead, she must make choices, life or death, trust or paranoia. Yancey handles the flashbacks beautifully. Heartfelt and painful. Cassie and her idealic suburban family are in the perfect place to survive, yet they don’t. The melodramatic moments are balance of the dark elements.

Of course, the whole alien element is farcical. But that doesn’t matter. It is fun, meandering novel that relies more on character than plot (thought there’s plenty of blow ’em action). The relationship between Cassie and Evan is most intriguing. So many questions remain left unanswered. Like a beautiful painting, it is what is left out that is as appealing as what is seen. 

Comfort Zone, Lindsay Tanner

Jack is an Everyman. He drives a cab; lives by himself, from meal to meal, from tv show to tv show, cigarette to cigarette. He’s a man who has been left behind by his world. Melbourne, the most European place in Australia. A place of cultures from around the world. Constant change has a remarkable effect on people- whether that is the weather, or cultures- it can create disenfranchisement, a sense of rejection. 

That’s Jack. On the edge of society, rejecting this new world of people and cultures. A world where everyone isn’t like him. It isn’t that Jack is a bad person; his views of multiculturalism are shard by thousands, it is just that soon the world will come crashing down and Jack will either adapt or get lost.

Lindsay Tanner is one of the more talented politicians of the last twenty years. A member of the left faction, upon the election of the Rudd government in 2007 saw him in a senior role in the first Labor federal government since 1996. He was instrumental in the early period of Rudd’s prime ministership. However, upon Julia Gillard’s ascent to the prime ministership, Tanner elected to return to the backbench. 

Certainly, he can write. His vistas of Melbourne are quirky and heartfelt, a world constantly changing. The astute depictions of Melbourne are measured against some clever positioning of characters. Jack the cab driver, fearful of this new world, is thrown into helping a young Somali woman and her children. Suddenly, after his simple life, he has complications. 

Tanner’s prose is simplistic and cliche in places, something that took away the lovable evolution of Jack into someone more than the Everyman. The message is straight forward: we might hold prejudices, but if we actually spent time with those different to us, we would learn to love the world of many cultures. This is a warm novel, a comfortable novel that never gets the reader out of their comfort zone. 

A Guide To Berlin, Gail Jones

I have found Gail Jones to be a precise and heartfelt writer. Her last novel, the uniquely Sydney novel, Five Bells, was a joyous celebration of the city and its people. A Guide To Berlin is another unique exploration of one of the most mysterious and spellbinding cities of the world. 

Cass is an Australian in Berlin. By chance, when capturing one of celebrated writer Nabokov’s residences in Berlin, she meets Marco. He invites her along to meet like minded people. The group, from Japan, Italy and America float across empty apartments and spend time sharing their darkest and lightest memories.

Conversation turned to politics. It was a refined to consider social meanings, to acknowledge real urgencies and those not their own. Gino was still upset, he said, by the mass drowning of African refugees, a few months back, off the island of Lampedusa. Cass knew the figure: 366 lives lost and not one child under twelve who’d survived.

The speak-memories provide a deeply passionate look into the backgrounds of each person. As the Berlin winter turns everything white, then grey and finally black, each has been drawn to Berlin for different reasons. The visions of Berlin from each show the city for all its layers of death, creation and humanity. As a City, Berlin begins to embody each of them. More than any city there has been more inhumanity born in Berlin than any other. Yet, as seen with the groups love of Nabokov, there has been much created here that reflects the greatest of humanity. 

‘We are all shits, my friends. We are all literary snobs in this vicarious little room of our own, dilettantish, smug, hidden from the fucked-up world. We are enslaved to the folly and the whirlpool of our own obsessions.’

Class is a most interesting figure. In her mid 20s, she has escaped from Australia, found herself in London and now Berlin. A passionate, observational figure who notices things in the group, in the city  and in herself that no one else sees. Her observation of the others and the city are painful and heartfelt. The city is alive, the layers of war, creation, often connected to the train system and the markers of history.

Berlin in winter is an unforgiving place. It has been a place of known violence and of the greatest of humanity. In the group we see the same. As they separate, with the echoes of violence in their ears, having had their memories scarred, Cass turns her head away from city.

Purity, Jonathan Franzen

I first met Franzen at the time of The Corrections. I can vividly recall reading his first fiction release Twenty- Seventh City in the south of France. Freedom was a pure joy to read; by then Franzen was an iconic figure in American literature. While all his works are uniquely American, the sparse range of characters and Franzen’s flowing narrative, have a universal appeal. With Purity, Franzen is now in that position of being very much a part of popular culture and the literary establishment. 

Purity is Pip Tyler, an only child to a single mother with a variety of personality disorders. They have grown up together, at times in poverty and with a healthy disillusionment with the American Dream. There’s a beautiful simplicity to their relationship. As a college educated female, Pip sees the world starting to engulf her. With her college fees being a constant reminder that capitalism contains every fibre of America and the world. 

The rambling share house brings Pip in contact with the lonely, the ill, the 99%. Pip is in love with an unattainable man. This isn’t the first unrequited love strand of the novel. Despite her external confidence and her wit and humour, Pip needs to know who her father is. An increasing perspective is that this confident young woman needs to know this man. For the entire novel, Pip is continually played at needing to fill this void in her life with a man.

As with all his work, there’s an underlining realism with the prose. Coming with a history in writing non-fiction, Franzen’s meandering realism is easy and complex. You will be convinced you are in a story that has happened. That’s been the beauty of Franzen’s other works; brutal, painful depictions of the real America. Something akin to American Beauty; yet as much as I loved Pip, this grand story of family has more in common with the Bold and The Beautiful. 

The novel is brilliant. I doubt that there will be a better novel released this year. The time Franzen takes to draw the reader into dark past of Pip’s family is a stunning example of his skill. The intricate portraits of people from across the social spectrum, retracing their steps from Europe is vivid, compelling reading. There’s light and dark in every cause, in every family. 

The vast array of characters and cultural connections are mere side shows to Franzen’s ability to build character. The underworld of hackers (some darkly comic elements featuring Assange and Franzen’s creation, Andras) trying to save the world is just a bridge to Pip locating who she is and where she comes from. 

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

There’s a poetry in how Kent, an Australian writer of immense quality and talent, is able to touch the tragic story of Anges and the farming families of Iceland. I have nothing but an intense jealously of Kent. Of a similar age, yet she has done so much. I am going to follow her career and already it feels as if I have learnt something of our world. 

Set in northern Iceland, there is nowhere more isolated and inhospitable to humanity. The same sparse gaps that exist in the environment are there in the characters. The charming vignettes of the landscape are matched by the intricate research by Kent. This sense of isolation, of being disconnected from civilisation is not foreign to Australians. Yet the same myths and misconceptions of Australia can be seen in how many in the south of Iceland and in the colonial capital way off in Denmark see the inhabitants as brutal, uncivilised and in need of religious and moral guidance. 

The hard working model farming family are suddenly made aware that they will host a convict. A lady convicted of the murder of a mysterious and infamous healer. The family is such a well constructed unit. The father, vague, focused, and the mother obtuse and confident, the two daughters fearful but intrigued by the house guest. Soon they begin to learn that they don’t have to fear the ‘devil’ living with them.  

The juxtaposition of Anges and her role in the murder are constant. Her relationship, a natural connection to the trainee priest Toti is brilliantly used to underpin how society can punish those at the edges of tragedy just as society wants to punish the alleged criminal act. The constantancy of death in the novel is a part of the world. This is on the edge of the beginnings of the modern world, but the valley is a time capsule. The death is the breaking of the innocence of a place that was never innocent. The battles of survival, against the environment and with disease are just a part of life. 

An elegant and inspiring story. It is a mature examination of humanity from a young writer who has the world at her feet. I can’t wait to read her next novel.

After Darkness, Christine Piper

World War II is often the resting place of so much of Australian literature. As a third and fourth generation looks back upon this time, new art is made in the name of understanding the great human tragedy. As a migrant society we have second generation of writers hearing the stories from survivors of Hitler’s Germany or Stalinist Russia; many writers with no connection retreat to the period for stories of human endeavour. Far too often the war in Asia and the Pacific, raged by a Japan, a war that spread to Australian shores and spread a imagined fear of invasion has a secondary place. Shirley Hazard, Richard Flanagan and others have recently explored this side of the war. It is closer to home, it is as brutal as the war in Europe. It has as many stories that need to be shared. However, is fiction the place for such stories? As with the question of if the Holocaust is fit for fiction, so to we ask is the experiences at the hands of the Japanese lessened if the work (even if based on research and primary sources) is fiction?

Christine Piper was born in South Korea. This was the scene of many Japanese acts of aggression and years of colonial rule. Like Australia now, Japan is an important economic and political ally forSouth Korea. Piper’s father is Australian and her mother Japanese. Now living in New York, Piper is one of the many Australians who are as much Australian as citizens of the world. This book, separated into three elements across three periods and places, is a beautiful, elegant and honest novel.

The central figure is a Japanese doctor. The novel begins as the doctor, having been in Australia at the time of the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbour and subsequent entry of the United States into the war, is being moved to an ‘alien’ camp. Here he meets Japanese from every part of Asia and many who had been in Australia for many years. These figures, never having been to Japan, with little cultural links to others, are the most tragic figures. Interred by their own government as ‘aliens’ they are also rejected by the camp members. The doctor is soon seen as a leader. The friendships he creates, the humanity he brings to the camp is constantly haunted by something in his past. He is a mysterious, quiet, yet respected figure. 

The novel moves between the Loveday camp, Toyko and Broome. Piper’s style is unique. Passionate, but restrained. Elegant and vibrant without flamboyant flashes. It is a beautifully paced novel. The mysteries holding a shadow over the doctor are slowly explored without hyperbole and cliche. We find that the doctor was employed in a secret military research group that focused on biological weapons. He handles the job with professional and what would be considered as Japanese efficiency. But soon he finds the bodies in his dreams. He has to spend hours after work washing his work from his skin. Soon his wife is isolated, he is a shadow of his former self. 

Piper captures the environs of Broome with style and grace. The town, a multicultural melting pot for many years, has a strong Japanese community. After controversy in Tokyo, our doctor escapes to Broome. Here he finds his place at the Japanese hospital. He forms a bond with a Catholic nun who acts as his nurse. He explores the town, its layers of prejudice and wave after wave of new arrivals. The wet and dry seasons are powerfully portrayed in the changing emotions of the inhabitants. Then, far away, an attack on the Americans and our doctor, like thousands of other Japanese, Italians and Germans, is arrested. The arrest scene is a poignant moment. The officer in charge, respectful of the doctor, escorts him as an equal. His offsider wants to cuffed and restrained as a criminal.

I found the pace of the novel so assured and confident. It is clear Piper has extreme talent, but reading that she was mentored by Debra Adelaide and Delia Falconer didn’t surprise me.  While I see those writers here, I see Piper. Some of the prose in the novel reminded me of early Coetzee. There’s no sentimentally or gloss to this novel. There can be no greater compliment. 

There’s a quote from The Australian on the cover of this book. It says that this novel demands a place alongside Flanagan’s Booker Prize winner. No. It has its own place as an important piece of literature for Australia. It is an Australian novel in its confidence and scope. It is a novel for Australia in the Asian region. Written by a worldly woman, it is a novel that has global reach. It is a mature piece of art that has its own important place in the history of Australian literature. I wish I had have written this novel.