Over the Wide and Trackless Sea - Megan Hutching (3.4)
New Zealand’s European women are the focus of this book, and it seems they shared many hardships, including long journeys, hard work, death of children and natural disasters. Their stories personalise the experience and there are many similarities in their accounts, told through diaries, letters and memoirs. It is also interesting to see that feelings of homesickness and displacement are the same ones that affect immigrants today. Megan Hutching writes in a straightforward style without any elegant interpretation or embellishments which makes incidents seem even starker.
It is very hard to know what women thought. Their tales are usually told through men; they were at the mercy of their husband or father, and they were hardly mentioned by other people. They seldom wrote about their feelings or personal information although they do provide domestic information about household routines.The eleven women in the book have varied lives and Hutchings describes details that colour each of their lives; sheep farming; whaling; gum-digging; genteel life in politics and suffrage; missionary work; fossicking for gold along West Coast beaches; and housekeeping.
The book has large print and is easy to race through, suggesting it might be aimed at old ladies or amateur historians. It is a good starting point for anyone wanting to write a play or short story about any of these women and there is an extensive bibliography for further information.
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (4.3)
This novel is based upon a great concept and it is a thrill to read; a sort of dystopia in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale with an emphasis on the possibility of cloning people so that they will be able to donate organs and offer people the chance to have children with enhanced characteristics. It is set in an alternate contemporary Britain where things are eerily similar but different.
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are pupils at Halisham, an idyllic establishment situated deep in the English countryside. They are told that they are special and it is important for them to keep themselves well and ‘healthy inside’. They know nothing of the outside world and they form intense friendships and harbour little secrets, for which they feel guilty. This is believable because their world is so convincing and claustrophobic – evoking memories of schooldays best forgotten.
Kathy, now aged thirty-one, narrates the story with hindsight. She wonders throughout whether they could have guessed what was coming, dropping oblique hints and enigmatic asides. Information is drip-fed to the reader, which means the conclusion isn’t the shattering solution of a mystery, as this has already been revealed. Consequently, the novel is not exactly a thriller and it feels slightly unsatisfactory at the end. It is a sort of science fiction but very human. The relationship between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth is well depicted as they grow from puzzled children to confused young adults. The reader grows with them, making discoveries about their life at the same time as they do.
It starts to drag towards the end, however, and the conclusion is unsatisfactory Many questions remain unanswered which is a little frustrating, but the lasting impression is bleak. The overwhelming feeling is one of regret and it challenges the reader to do something vital; to prove that you are not simply a clone, programmed for a destiny beyond your control. And therein lies its power.
This biography of a city has historical and geographical information thrown in. It is not chronological (although there is a timeline at the end) but the seemingly random thoughts and observations are expertly corralled. Jan Morris writes with affection and obviously enjoyed living there, investing the city with a character of her own – Morris refers to Venice as ‘she’ throughout. Venice was the place where East meets West; a continental cosmopolitan trading port on the water with a unique place in history – both real and imagined.
He/she (the book was originally written by James Morris, but reprinted when she was Jan with a new foreword) writes of the people; the islands; the canals; the bridges; the boats; the buildings. The one thing he doesn’t write about is the food – “It’s not a gourmet city” – and it is refreshing to read a book about Italy that isn’t full of gastro porn. In fact there are no pictures at all, and although an illustrated guide might be nice, the words are enough.He explains the fascination and the appeal of Venice through the sights and the sounds and the incomparable light. From the opening paragraphs, Morris writes with warmth, reverence and affection. To read his words is to fall in the love with the city as he has done. For the first-time traveller or the repeat visitor, this is an excellent introduction or memento of a unique city, and a wonderful piece of writing in its own right.
The Food Taster - Peter Elbling (3.7)
This faux memoir of Ugo diFonte, who becomes the food taster for a powerful Renaissance Duke, is part fairytale, part history and totally immersed in the art of storytelling. He is a simple man whose unpretentious attitude makes the book an amusing read; although light on historical detail, it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t.
Unable to prevent his mother from hanging herself, Ugo is the unfavoured son, driven from home by the cruelty of his father and brother, Vittore. He finally finds fortune in the home of Duke Frederico, where he raises his daughter, Miranda. She is the apple of his eye but, just like Prospero (in one of many Shakespearean similarities), he attempts to protect her by preventing true love.
Ugo is earthy, artistic and passionate with a love of cooking. The Renaissance food is rich and sumptuous, including spit-roasted quails, capons in lemon sauce, and calves’ brains, with lots of recipes at the back. At times his rants on food verge on gastro-porn.
He is a fabulously unreliable narrator, partly due to his increasing drug dependency, and also because he listens to gossip and tells tales, embellishing the truth to make it more interesting. He admits to being tantalised by the power of a good narrative, and learns the power of oratory, noting that the substance of the story is not as important as the artifice.
Fear of magic and witches form a backdrop to the novel, as do suspicion, deception, the Inquisition and various forms of torture. Ugo leaps from one escapade to the next and extricates himself from many a life-threatening situation while preserving his daughter’s dignity. There is always room for sardonic humour, however, and just as a pompously written menu can conceal an inedible dish, Peter Elbling demonstrates that the simplest story can be enveloped in the richest prose.
What Happen Then, Mr Bones? - Charlotte Randall (4)
This novel about the Montague family has a backwards-in-time storyline. This can be a bit disconcerting, but it is the point of difference of the novel and is mentioned at the very start, so you can’t say you weren’t warned. There is a list of characters at the beginning – in order of appearance – and their relationship to each other which helps us to keep track. The family is traced from modern Petone to 1650 Oxford, incorporating recurring themes of medicine, ageing, death, love and infidelity. After waking up on a dissecting table, Anne Green changes her name to Valentine and writes her memoirs which are handed down through the family; some of whom are interested while others are not.
In her distinctive style, the author directly addresses the reader. We have the benefit of hindsight and modern knowledge, plus we know what happens later in the story. This is deliberate artifice but encourages the reader to experience the characters’ experiences with a measure of dramatic irony. It breaks all literary conventions and draws the reader in with confidences and confessions. It is all written in present tense as if the same observer was present at all events.
Life and our expectations of such are continually changing. It changes when we grow up and when children arrive on the scene. It changes again when we grow old. Ngaio Halifax, Susan’s mother-in-law begins a scrapbook of her memories, but she doesn’t really know why. The history of countries change and New Zealand certainly altered with immigration and colonialism. History is served with a generous side portion of cynicism, humour and wit as the voice of the people mingles with the history of mishap. It is told in asides, as it affects but is not central to the main protagonists’ lives.
What Happen Then, Mr Bones? is an interesting novel, not afraid to tackle big themes (art; religion; history; fear of birth and death; magic; medicine; natural remedies and prayer; the eternal contest between faith and science) from a quirky irreverent angle and without pretension. This is refreshing in any writer, let alone one from New Zealand, and I will definitely look out for her other novels in future.