Breathing Under Water (2016)

There is something special about how Australian’s approach surfing. Partly,almost by accident,  a lifestyle choice and then as a real choice of a career, a professionalism that has seen surfing as a part of who we are. Many nations surf, but none approach it with a balance of aggression and respect. The early chapters evoke something rare: a novel that does capture the harsh beauty of the Australian surfing culture. With echoes of Winton’s Lockie Leonard and Breath, and even Malcom Knox’s This Life, Sophie Hardcastle has written a new chapter in young adult literature in Australia. 

The twins, Grace and Ben, live and breath the ocean. Their parents both love and respect the power and grace of the ocean. The portrait of their small coastal town is idealic; the school, the home, the shops, the beach all elegantly drawn from the perspective of Grace. 

The final year of school is often a catalyst for change. Decisions about the future, decisions that we were all told will shape the next fifty years. The novel made me yearn for those simple days of my school days, my memory vividly recalling a selfish desire, a time of no responsibility, with risk taking, road trips and house parties getting out of hand. Sophie might as well have had lived on the coast with me. 

The idealic life is perfectly juxtaposed with the under current of the town. Is everyone simply preparing to exit? To the city, to life beyond the simple. Even Ben, seemingly with professional surfing laying before him as a serious career choice, is touched by the drug and alcohol culture that seems intertwined with the coast lifestyle. In this sense, the novel is both a novel for now and one for an Australia that has left us. An Australia that was less consumed with the dollar, a place immune from the corporate, where one lives or where you went to school didn’t matter.

The tragic events and their aftermath will hurt- I’ve seen this, I’ve lived this. I could pick out friends and their character’s. Nearly all had a little piece of me in them. It is more than a story of someone taken too soon and  

 someone left behind. Hardcastle captures the fall and rise with beautiful prose and deeply intelligent characterisation. How one moves on after falling apart has never been perfected with words. But this comes close. 

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. 

All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

“Things are just things. Stories are just stories.”

Beginning with a transfixing scene of the ancient city of Saint-Malo being destroyed by an aerial bombardment, we soon meet a young girl who since the age of six has been blind. Now, she is alone in the city, the world, and like her world, the whole world is turning black with smoke. The novel then turns back, to Paris and Berlin. To two young people who will be scared by the war.

Doerr’s 5 th novel has become an instant success; revered in literary circles and reaching the dizzy heights of the New York Times best seller list. The meandering plot takes us through a myriad of minor characters and side plots. 

The pre-war years, with Werner in Berlin are detailed and heartfelt. The orphan’s connection to his sister is beautifully crafted. His talent for all things mechanical have only one conclusion in an era of war. He finds himself in a unit travelling behind the advancing German lines. As they head deeper into Russia he is able to pinpoint partisans radio transition. With cool calculation they destroy the partisans using Werner’s technical skill to track radio traffic. All the while, Werner maintains his humanity.

Doerr moves the novel between Werner and Marie-Laure. When Werner’s group is transferred to France they cross paths with an officer who has one purpose, to locate art and other cultural treasures in the name of the Reich. There’s an inevitability that Marie-Laure and Werner will cross paths. The undercurrent of a long lost mythical Sea Of Flames diamond is a mere distraction. Does a story of World War Two require a superficial super natural elements? The Sea of Flames is said to curse the holder; as a revered diamond expert travels across occupied Europe searching for the diamond the same dail way systems were being used in a mass organised execution of any enemy of the Nazis. 

The novel draws together the survivors, tracing their lives after the war; despite the horror people survive, growing and thriving in the chaos of the Cold War. The novel wraps together the remaining pieces in a hasty conclusion. There’s a sense of loss even in this conclusion. A loss of youth, loss of an entire generation of the brightest and best from across the world. All the light of all the young wasted. 

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.

A letter to my daughter’s first teacher

Our daughter’s teacher has been teaching as long as we have been alive.

There’s a natural anxiety when the first child begins kindergarten. Suddenly, your baby is going to be spending more time with another adult beyond her immediate family. With every fibre there’s worry.

Will the teacher care? Will the teacher be patient with her? Will the teacher inspire her with her passion and knowledge? Will our girl make friends?

Everyone has their trepidations. Us more so. 

Everyone wants the best for their child. Everyone believes their child is unique. Every child comes with their interests and loves, if they are like ours, their dislikes.

Not everyone knows the education system like us. For some reason the more you know the more worry; will she will be just another kid? 

Yet, every single thing has been provided. Time, support, endless endless support. Warm, caring, strong, consistent, tirelessly helpful. Our daughter loves her first teacher. 

And here we are; 2 terms into the first year of school. 

We had a daughter who was shy; uniquely introverted. A person with a vivid imagination, but of few words. But there’s something in her eyes. Warmth, dreams.

We now have a daughter who speaks of her friends. A daughter who draws pictures for her friends, who tells us hilarious stories of her classmates. A daughter who tells stories. A girl who walks around with a pen and a writing pad, rewriting books. A girl who calls her school ‘mine’. A girl who loves her school.

There is no greater compliment.

The difference? One lady.

Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett

Hartnett is a supreme story teller. Economical, precise and powerful, the immediate effect is that you trust her to give characters of depth, touches of class in how the plot positions the characters. Golden Boys, published this year, is a time capsule. I see Hartnett as one of most brilliant writers of the suburbs. She makes the bland, sterile suburbs full of intricate battles.

‘The only reason I’m not punching your head in right now, you shit, is because I’ve got more important things to think about, get it? I don’t care about toys. I’m not a baby.

The Jensens, with their father, Rex, the dentist move into a working class suburb. Their family has a pool; the shiny BMX; the boys the latest skateboards; family cooked meals. He is suddenly a tall poppy. There are many ready to cut him down.

Then there are the Kileys. A sprawling poorer family. They are not jealous, so much as caught in a cycle of low expectations. Their father goes to work each morning. He may come home drunk. Each kid is already scared. They react to the physical and unstated violence in different ways. This is a suburb of rich and poor, educated and uneducated. This is 1970’s/1980’s Australia. A simpler time? There’s no mobile phones, Facebook statuses or being unfriended is nothing when you may go a day or two without a meal.

There must be more to that wilderness than just the noxious pipe. There will be tracks among the weeds, caves in the banks, collapsed tree trunks bridging the water.

The kids, despite their differences, join forces. A mini-force roaming the suburb, on the edges of a wilderness, like so many suburbs, built touching the unknown, on the edge of cities. Hartnett captures life brilliantly. The shade of the water and mush at the bottom of the storm water drain, the silence of the night as another drunk man takes it out on his wife’s car or even the kids.

The parents carried their flaws. Rumours about Rex and the evidence of Jo’s neglect, are perfectly balanced in the wider survival of the fittest. For so many of our media and political leaders looking back, this is a timely reminder. The past was all good. It was violent, oppressive. Hartnett leaves you wondering what scars are left on the children in the suburbs.

Year of the Flood

Margaret is a god.

When a surreal, often chaotic, piece of art is first experienced (and anything Atwood writes is an experience) the surreal is often the most real. So too this piece of art.

I am not afraid to say I openly love how Atwood controls tension. As someone who struggles to write with plot and character development, I admire how effortlessly Atwood creates a seamless, evocative back story for her characters. The plot of the Year of the Flood doesn’t meander, it is forceful but elegant. Some novelists would tussle with too many big issues- environmentalism, materialism, the role of corporations, medical research, genetics, social inequality, urban scape of poverty, to know only a few- at once; reading Atwood makes you feel like she isn’t even trying.

Running concurrently with the events and characters from Oryx and Crake, the Year of the Flood isn’t a sequel or prequel. It is of the same place and time, a North America torn between materialism and environmentalism, the haves (the rich, the educated, the Corps, residents of the Compounds) and the have nots (those of the Pleeblands, living on a diet of tightly controlled information of Corporation sanctioned news and the transfixed by the ‘mystery’ that is the meat content of SecretBurgers). Bitterly divided, the illusion of society is in balance.

There are three central facets if the narrative line: Toby, Ren and Adam One.

Toby is the most compelling and refreshing voice. At times the perspective of Toby is restrained, but always so honest. She is, to her knowledge, the only person left from the fundamentalist environment group led by Adam One. The God’s Gardeners are drawn with intricate detail; their quasi-religious sermons intersect the plot. The cult like vision of this group is played against the group’s ability to survive the world they have rejected.

Toby’s life is one of escape, reinvention, escape and hiding. When the waterless Flood hits- a pandemic plague of unknown origin- her resourcefulness, her training under Adam One and Zeb make her one of the only survivors.

 ‘…The Gardeners might be fanatical and amusingly bizarre, but it meant they were ethical.’

The city scape of the God Gardeners is not so far removed from the megacities of the 21st century. Atwood relies on extremes from overpopulation and overdevelopment; for an animal so advanced, why is society consuming itself? There is an orchestrated chaos to the city. Adam One preaches order and restraint, non-violence and suitability, all contrasting with the mass media and consumerism of every street and building. The Corporations rule; they own the media, they regulate themselves, there is no governmental structures, the free market offers up the solutions to societal problems, the Corporation own the distribution of education and wealth, the justice is owned and run by the Corporations. The brutal Painballers make The Hunger Games look like kids netball. The Corporations are the visionary privatised autocratic government of the future.

The most thought provoking moments are from Toby’s reflection on how she came to survive the death of her parents, the rescue by the God’s Gardeners and then the plague. Her descriptions of the flora and fauna, not all natural of course, taking over the cityscape is pure Atwood: an absolute innovator with the layers of realism and satire building from the simple prose.

‘According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.’