The Manger, the Mikdash and the Mosque by David McGill – 2020

The manger ...1975, Dan Delaney, now ‘damn near 60’, travels with his devout wife, Jas, and two daughters to ‘… this busy city on a hill in the middle of nowhere, the centre of everywhere’ – Jerusalem.  There he encounters kidnappings, bomb threats, old betês noires, and his own worst nightmares.

In some ways Dan has come a long way since we met him on Somes Island in 1935: he has been a POW in WW2, had one surprising outcome to a marriage, and has had many derring-do adventures and saved many lives, some of them of high-profile people.  But in other ways he is the same Dan, always slightly on the outside of things, always trying to do the right thing.  He is now married to Jas, a former police officer, and he and his son are vintners in Oratia.  His younger daughter Maria is a renegade and has reluctantly joined the family pilgrimage, having been in what her parents saw as a dangerous relationship with a teacher.  Dan’s other daughter, Ali, is devout and keen on biblical archaeology, and she and her mother are ‘in religious anticipation mode’, in fact Jas ends up succumbing to ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ and loses it a bit.

From the moment their plane lands, Dan and his family are in the thick of it – coming to the attention of Israeli soldiers, partly due to Maria calling one of them a Nazi when they object to her taking his picture.  They stay in a hotel run by a Muslim man, Omar and his son, Mohammed, a hotel which is oddly bereft of other clients, and they soon make the acquaintance of a Catholic priest who is a bit of a drunk.  Dan is surrounded by a cacophony of clashing religious and cultural views in this ‘religious shark tank of a city’, and he ends up suspicious of everyone.  It is the mid-1970s and the strongly-voiced views are shocking: Father Quinn of Muslims: “Scratch the surface and they are still ruddy camel jockeys”, Jas of Maria’s revolutionary views: “extreme left-wing nonsense about us being the colonial oppressors of Maori, Abos, Pacific Islanders …”

Although Dan is amazed at how much he remembers of his religious upbringing, he finds Jas and Ali’s religious fervour bewildering, he has more sympathy for Maria’s enthusiasms, joining her in making swiping remarks that annoy Jas.  But when bomb threats are thwarted, Maria disappears, then more of his family are kidnapped, and a plot to destabilise (literally) the region is uncovered, the family unites to protect each other and the city.  The confusion and energy of Jerusalem and the other holy places is well captured, the markets, the Abrahamic religions-resonating countryside and most of all the many many places of worship.  Even with the hostilities and history the city has seen, there is still freedom for each of the faiths to worship.  To worship and to contest and to lay claim.

The characters are all complex.  The soldiers perhaps having the clearest motive: protecting their land and people, and sometimes stretching the rules to do so.  The mercenary motives of the conspirators are also straight forward: they are for hire by any of the many factions.  But the Second World War and the various more recent Middle Eastern conflicts are still raw memories, and they have led to more complicated motives and allegiances.  Dan is still struggling with the trauma of being a POW in a concentration camp during the war, he is extremely sympathetic to the Jewish population, but also aware of the plight of the Palestinians.  Father Quinn in one of his more sympathetic moments talks of ‘Arabs reduced to being serfs in their own city.’  Quinn may be a drunk priest, but he is living with the burden of ‘one hundred percent casualties’ among the Australian airmen he ministered to during the war. Also, many characters are acting out of fear of their loved ones being hurt, it is no surprise that Dan notices he had yet to see an Israeli smile, but that the Arabs were always smiling, if sometimes a bit hollowly.

Much of the book is based on the author’s trip to Israel in the mid-1970s and his descriptions are personal ones, the reader even gets left-over memories in an Appendix. He uses Ali’s expertise to explain much of the history and intricacies of the religious building complexes, and most importantly how many of the places of worship are built over fragile tunnels – a terrorist’s dream and claustrophobic Dan’s nightmare.  The time, 1970s but with Israel still quaintly in the 1960s, is indicated by movie references (some more subtly inserted than others), dress styles, cigarette-smoke filled meetings, and a Kibbutz full of idealism from all corners of the globe.  Dan is constantly comparing Israel and New Zealand, at one point deciding ‘a kibbutz was like a holiday camp on Waiheke.’  And a parallel is drawn between Peter Fraser and the Labour Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, who makes a sympathetic appearance in the novel.

There is one odd glitch in the novel, where we hear of a murder before we have been introduced to the character and before he has been killed, but for the most part the helter-skelter pace keeps the reader reading, and guessing.  Dan progresses from a bit unsure, through traumatised, onto tearful and fearful and finally to a sort of awareness, realising at one point it was ‘… a monumental mistake coming here to this unholy land’ and that military officials and his enemies know more about him that his wife does.  But for poor Dan there is a satisfying resolution with some good news at the end, leaving him looking forward to getting back to his vines, but also looking forward to returning to ‘The revealed centre of the world for so many religions.’  An interesting and at times gripping read.

 

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In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare – 2020

the clearingYou never escape a cult. This chilling thriller is told from two points of view: Amy, a teenage member of a messianic cult, who is instrumental in the abduction of a young girl, and under the thrall of Adrienne, the cult mother.  And Freya, with the tragic background of having had one child taken from her due to her being suspected of hurting him, and now desperate to protect her second son, Billy.

In the Clearing is about the insidiousness of child abuse and how it can echo down through the generations.  The novel is set in a remote town in the Australian bush, where people keep to themselves and you never know what might be going on in your neighbourhood.  The atmosphere is tense and oppressive from the beginning, when we read in Amy’s diary of the abduction of the young girl who will be renamed Asha.  We then meet Freya, who is still traumatised by having had her first son, Aspen, taken from her.  She fakes her way through life: “I have to make myself cry to show them how upset I am”, she works as a yoga teacher, she visits a counsellor, and the only person she really trusts is Corazzo, an ex-cop who knows what she has been through.

When Freya hears a child has gone missing, that her ex is in town; when she comes across a young couple on her property, and a white van parked in her road, her anxiety levels go through the roof: “All problems out here in the country begin and end with dodgy vehicles parked in quiet streets.”  The story cleverly switches between the experiences of the children in the cult, and Freya’s increasing concerns that something will happen to Billy – her sections are titled with a countdown to an event, adding to the building tension.  Also building is the reader’s suspicions of who might be the guilty ones: Is Amy really telling the truth about the Clearing? Maybe Freya did hurt her first son, maybe she is still hurting Billy – she certainly has a temper.

Back at the cult, the control of the children is truly horrendous; toes cut off, hands crushed in doorframes.  And even more disturbing when you read it is based on descriptions of an actual cult. The reader wonders how some apparently respectable citizens have become such monsters.  “Now do you see how it feels to have that power over another creature?”, is that the key, is it the craving for power that has lead to the capture and abuse of the children, or a genuine devotion to the cult mother?: “Protect the Queen.”  The control of the children is complete, with warnings against “deviant thoughts.”  Can children ever really reclaim their lives after that level of abuse, ever learn to be honest after being frightened into lying for so long?

“Some snakes kill in this way, simply by squeezing; some snakes don’t bite at all,” In the Clearing is a roller coaster ride of trying to work out who is who and what is going on, and even when the reader gets an inkling, you are never really sure …  The writing is compelling and quite disturbing: “I take Asha’s hand and tenderly kiss the bruises and scratches from when she tried to hammer her way through the corrugated iron of the Shed.”  And the book is quite moving as well, despite the readers doubts about Freya, there are also her tangible concerns for Billy, and the book is backgrounded with the thoughts of the agony parents must go through when their children go missing.  An excellent thriller!

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The Snow Thief by C.J. Carver – 2020

the snow thiefThe snow thief is a murder mystery set in Tibet.  It is a book about reincarnation – of people across and throughout their lives, and of communities as they spread, come into conflict and change.

Shan Lia Bao, Police Supervisor Third Class, “knew her old life was over” when she lost most of her family and was sent to Tibet in disgrace, along with her grandmother-in-law, Fang Dongmei.  She is living in a blurry grey world of grief when she hears a young boy has been found dead with a broken neck.  As she begins to investigate, and links more and more similar deaths, she becomes convinced there is a serial killer at work.  A theory that makes her unpopular with her colleagues in the Ministry of Public Security, and even more so with the officials in the Public Security Bureau.

Shan knows “Not to trust anyone, least of all a fellow police officer”, and she finds the Tibetans a mystery, they eat oddly, drink oddly, live oddly, and observing a group of Buddhist pilgrims she finds it “hard to imagine a belief so strong you would suffer for it.”  In her previous life as a Police Supervisor First Class in Shenzhen, Shan accepted as routine police practices such as the torture of scapegoat prisoners, she and her husband Jian just longed for a future life in Australia, where “Sydney represented freedom.”  But she ended up in Tibet where, even though she knows it is impossible to tell who is corrupt and who might be on your side, she is just intent on keeping a balance and ensuring peace: “The last thing she wanted was the Tibetans to have an excuse to rampage through the city.”

As the story unfolds, Shan and the reader learn about the complexities of the Tibetan political situation and find that no one is really who or what they appear to be, on either side of the conflict.  Names change, even Shan finds she has a second name, allegiances change, everyone and everywhere is going through a series of incarnations.  The Tibetan buildings are falling apart, but so too are the hastily erected Chinese constructions.  As she becomes more aware of her crumbling surroundings, and gets drawn further into uncovering a conspiracy, Shan notices the anomaly of having a Tibetan quarter in Lhasa and finds “for the first time she could see why some Tibetans hated the Chinese so much.”

A compelling dimension of the story is the active role that absent characters play: Shan’s agonising memories of her dead husband Jian, the palpable presence of a dead Abbot for one of the young boys, Tashi, the Dalai Lama’s supreme influence on the Tibetans from his exile in India, the overwhelming influence of ‘Beijing’ on the Chinese officials.  This all adds to the complexities of the events happening in the ‘here and now.’  When Shan picks up clues about a long trek of a group of Lamas, and discovers their route matches the locations of the bodies of the murdered boys, she is nonplussed.

The extreme beauty and challenges of the Tibetan land is artfully portrayed, the “Thousand, millions, trillions” of stars, the agonising cold, the treacherous paths and deep, deep snow, the air “crisp and clear as crystal”.  Gradually Shan emerges from the pain of her experiences and finds something she is willing to suffer for.  And Shan’s is not the only transforming character; the head of the dreaded PBS, Tan Dao, is a monster who feeds stray dogs and saves stray children, and who discovers his own reason for transformation and self-sacrifice.

The snow thief reminded me of the lovely Inspector Shan Tao Yun series by Eliot Pattison, similarly set in Tibet and with a disgraced ex-Chinese policeman solving the cases, and similar regarding the complexities of the Chinese/Tibetan conflict.  The snow thief is less partisan, there are embedded monks, lineages from the time of the Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959, there are Chinese Guanxi networks that can work in your favour, or the opposite.  At one stage as Shan Lia flies over the Tibetan Plateau she looks for sign of the scores of Chinese mines that are supposed to be polluting the air; and finds nothing – wondering if the rumours are true.  And Tan strongly thinks the Western media is biased and unfair in its portrayal of the Chinese in Tibet: believing “Westerners had a Tibet complex.”

Shan is a sympathetic detective, not through ideological sympathy, but through having experienced unravelling grief.  She understands the motives behind activism, that “Tibetans, their culture, their beliefs and spiritualism, were about to be annihilated”, but this is not what motivates her, she just wants to find a way to prevent violence and bloodshed.  She does think about reincarnation one night, and wonders if you are reincarnated in order to get to see someone else’s point of view, she wonders about a young man whose life she ruined during her life in Shenzhen, but then decides she doesn’t understand it at all and turns on the TV.

There is plenty of action in The snow thief ; Shan falling of mountainsides, being attacked in monasteries, but it is the endless insecurity of who to trust, and not knowing what is going on, that keeps the tension high, that and the wonderfully complex characters.  The snow thief is a moving and compelling read, maybe Shan Lia will be back one day?

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The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman – 2020

The secrets of strangersPeople are caught up in a hostage situation in a London café.  At the heart of the crisis are five people, they hear each other’s stories, they form a little community in the centre of the chaos – and the reader gets drawn further and further into events.

A rough sleeper with a tiny windfall and a lawyer on her way to defend a client decide to start their day with a coffee from Tuckbox; a carer from a rest home coming off a night shift goes there to meet her daughter-in-law and grandson.  The café owner is attractive and friendly with all his customers, all are fond of him and sad for him, as he has recently lost his wife, Harriet, to cancer.  Harriet’s son, Sam, calls in to the café, and then leaves.  Everyone’s day is unfolding as usual – until Sam returns …

I won’t say anything more about the plot, as it unfolds cleverly through the book, and the reader is always on edge wondering what will happen next.  The plotting is great, but what is at the heart of this novel that keeps the reader engaged, are the characters, and their slowly revealed stories.  Neil is a rough sleeper, his dog, waiting for him outside the café, his only friend.  He was a teacher and an addiction has led to his life on the streets.  Abi, the lawyer, is motivated, a ‘problem-solver’, and trying to cope with a series of unsuccessful fertility treatments.  Mutesi, the carer, is the opposite of Abi, she is considered, gentle and caring, and her memories of the Rwandan genocide drive her empathy and her fear.

Outside in a room down the street is the police negotiation team, and Eliza is the police negotiator.  Eliza has her own problems, an increasingly intolerant husband, especially since the arrival of a second child, her socially awkward elder son …  But nothing would get her to change her job, her “chance to reach into the tragedy and change its course.”  Of course, negotiating is like “defusing a bomb: cut the wrong wire, use too much force, and it could be all over.”  And the tension and coffee consumption continue to mount up in the negotiation room.

In the café, the feelings that they are all there by pure chance and the anxiety to leave, slowly change with the cups of tea and plates of café food: “Now we’re travelling together for a while.”  Some of the characters start feeling they might be there for a purpose, that they are part of the problem, could be part of the solution.  Abi realises at once point: “She can’t possibly be bored.”  They begin to establish a community, and they hear each other’s and Sam and Robert’s stories.

Each person in the café finds their inner strengths, and their connections to each other.  For Neil: “It’s been a long time since another human being has looked him in the eye, called him by name and voluntarily touched him.”  For Mutesi she feels she might finally know why she had been spared, her chance to show that no matter how bad things seem, there is always something worse and always a chance for redemption.  The tension moves from her Rwandan experience of “Every moment laden with the threat of death” – to the lower level but deeper tension of helping a man struggling with his own actions, and how his frustration might not end up hurting those around him, but himself.

Sam is a complex character, haunted since losing his father, haunted by a two-faced puppet that scared him as a child, haunted by the memories of his own temper.  We feel his regrets and his uncertainty: “Three paces, swing around, three paces, swing around”, and his ‘wired-ness’ builds as he knocks back Ritalin pills.  And we are with him when he realises that “he likes all three of these people” and that he’s “really trashed the changing room this time.”  Robert’s back-story is one of the most chilling descriptions of passive aggressive behaviour and gaslighting that I have ever read.  We experience how people’s initial judgements of people and situations can be so inaccurate.  And the awful dullness of not knowing what will happen, Abi: “She’s watching the setting sun touch the face of a murderer.”

The atmosphere is great, the tension is compelling and there is humanity in dollops, and I urge you to read The secrets of strangers!

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Wife after Wife by Olivia Hayfield – 2020

Wife after wifeHarry Rose is a super-rich, super-privileged British businessman.  Having inherited his fast-track rise to his position as head of the Rose Corporation, he has encountered setbacks but has almost always had things his own way, and he has been living the life of royalty.  We first meet Harry in 2018 looking out his office window, his personal world about to crumble – but looking back over his life and deciding his conscious is clear.  But the windows are literally rose-tinted …

Wife after wife is a clever and engaging re-telling of the romantic career of Henry VIII, prefaced with an amusing cast of characters – a nice amuse-bouche before savouring the rich story.  In the mid-1980s Harry marries his pregnant girlfriend Katie Paragon, over 30 years later in 2018 he eventually must either face up to his failings or lose his 6th wife, Clare Barr.  In between we read of his serial dalliances and marriages, against a backdrop of personal tragedies, commercial triumphs and some dodgy dealings.

His empire is based on celebrity magazines and eventually TV channels and online media.  He is a mix of caution – not initially being convinced that “personal computers would ever take off” – and bold moves, employing people with an in on the zeitgeist. He steers the company through near recessions, the GFC, #metoo and Brexit.  And as his business weathers the ups and downs of the commercial world, he slides though his various relationships with the smugness and self-righteousness of white male privilege.

“He didn’t really do alone”, Harry needs people and needs them to prioritise him at the centre of their lives.  Cassandra, Katie’s friend advises Katie to pander to him: “I know from bitter experience what happens when men feel ignored.”  But when Katie’s depression becomes too much for Harry, he finds solace in Merry, a fling for him, the world to her.  And then he meets her sister, Ana Lyebon and “… Merry’s flame had gone out, and now she was just another girl fighting to be noticed.”

Ana is smart, beautiful and irresistibly not interested – “there really was nothing like the thrill of the chase.”  But one by one the relationships fail, due to Harry’s self-obsession and lack of empathy, and his ability to always make himself the victim, as Katie points out: “You always try to do the right thing. You twist things until you can justify your actions.”  Janette the secretary provides the attention he craves when Ana becomes too independent, an online relationship keeps him amused when he is lonely after Janette.  Caitlyn is younger, from a lower-class, irresistible – and hers is perhaps the most tragic story.  And finally, there is Clare Barr, who, when Merry and other spurned characters return for revenge, gives Harry the ultimatum to come to terms with his part in the demise of all his relationships or be alone.

“You know what they’re like. Idiot boys”, there is an acceptance of the bad behaviour in men that is absolutely not tolerated in women, there is the assumption that women’s success is either due to ‘casting couch’ behaviour or purely from the indulgence of men – these misogynist assumptions travel through the decades with Harry and his mates.  As does the North – South snobbery, and the droit du seigneur assumptions: “now he could start the serious business of wearing her down, until, like every woman he’d ever wanted, she’d be his.”

“He loved them all, Eliza. Unfortunately for them” Terri, one of Harry’s editors and often the voice of reason, tells Eliza.  Harry is well portrayed as a charismatic figure, not at all one-dimensional.  There are lots of allusions to the historical Henry: ongoing battles with weight, Harry’s corporate portrait depicting him in a ‘power stance’, injuring his leg in an accident etc., etc.  There is lots of fun with the Henry VIII themed presents, pubs and photo shoots – such as when Ana feels queasy when she stands next to the execution memorial in the Tower of London.

Wife after wife is a great idea well executed.  All the characters are cleverly re-imagined; Ana’s daughter Eliza being a brilliant redhead with a bright future, and Katie’s daughter Maria being a dour devout Catholic, the greasy lawyer Tom Cranwell, Janette’s love of needlework … The women are all interesting and active agents, and end up supportive of one another, “… when women need someone to rely on, it’s never a man.”  Oddly enough this romp is also a great history lesson – I kept looking up the historical figures to find the connections with their modern versions – Anne of Cleves (Anki from Cleveland) is particularly evocatively done.

Wife after wife is also a very moving read as you are faced with the frustrations and tragedies of the women and their children.  Olivia Hayfield is the pen name of children’s author Sue Copsey, and Wife after wife is her first adult novel.  Hopefully there will be many more, it is altogether a great read, so give it a go!

 

 

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Shakti by Rajorshi Chakraborti – 2020

ShaktiWhere do divisive thoughts come from?  Why do extreme nationalism and xenophobia take hold in a community?  Why is misogyny, homophobia and intolerance so rife?  Playing out in Bengal in recent times, Shakti asks us to consider the role the manipulative power of reality TV and social media plays in instilling ultraconservative views, and then asks what would happen if that manipulative force could extend into minds, manipulating us from the inside …

Shakti is full of people who are not what they seem; when we first meet the main protagonist, Jaya, she is a male ‘agony aunt’, Chandra Sir, hiding her identity to save her job as a teacher in a conservative girls’ school.  Of course, the woman who pretends to be a man is being written by a man, so the ‘masks’ are already multi-layered.  ‘Chandra Sir’ is approached by a young girl, Shivani, who is experiencing strange powers, and when Jaya misses some clues, things do not end well for Shivani.

Then Jaya’s friend and part-time housekeeper, Arati, has a religious encounter with a snake goddess, Manasa, who gives her a choice that could lead to her finding her long-lost child, Tunituni, and she asks Jaya for help – but how can you tell if your instructions are from a god or a demon?  The price Arati ends up paying is complex, political and very familiar.  And then Jaya joins Shivani and Arati when she discovers she has been given her own power – but is it a power or a curse?

Jaya is set on a whirlwind path to help Arati and atone for her part in Shivani’s fate, and it rapidly becomes apparent that “nobody doles out superpowers for free.”  As we follow Jaya, we experience a deeply misogynist society, where all men are predators: the father, the neighbour, the doorman, the grocer … And all women have experience of abuse, of themselves or those around them – and many carry the guilt of having ignored the abuse of others due to fear for themselves or their situation.  Poverty leads people to do horrendous acts and provides a layer of scapegoats for those better off.

In the past Jaya has ignored abuse around her in fear of losing privilege, even spending a period ingratiating herself with her abusive father.  In the past Jaya has also done unspeakable things to protect those around her.  But has Jaya been given a power now due to her ability to ignore evil, or due to her once being a perpetrator of it?  And what political role is she being asked to play?  Is it as part of a conspiracy to align Bengal to the right?  What will be her reward?

Shakti talks about Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia in India, and the efforts of Modi followers to infiltrate left-leaning Bengal, the “PM” even makes an appearance at one stage.  But, “Turn it into a hashtag and see what people say” – the messages of divisive politics and using ‘fake-news’ to polarise people applies to many countries, and misogyny and gender intolerance is universal.  The political machinations and methods feel familiar to the reader, what is novel is the idea that those methods might spill into mental manipulation that approaches, and makes use of, religious experience.

Jaya is a wonderfully complex character, she herself doesn’t know if she is genuine in her mission to use her superpower for good, or if she just likes being powerful for once – knowing that the haunted, the broken, the rapist, the torturer – “each can be lured further into hell by the promise of more power.”  She is not above using sex to get information from men, sometimes not that successfully: “I feel like a rubbish honey-trap. This is what happens when you try to bypass spy school.”

Jaya decides not to navel-gaze: “I was desperately seeking shelter in make-believe about other lives in order to avoid looking front-on at my own.” She gets addicted briefly to being able to relive her memories on demand, until she realises most are fabricated as there weren’t that many good ones, and gets back on track with her mission – but does she know what that is?  Even in wanting to do good is she being manipulated? After all she ends up on a fake reality TV show aimed as sowing sectarian unrest, and she struggles to see how she can turn the tables on the producers without harming any ‘innocents.’

Perhaps just helping people one by one as she goes along for as long as she can is the best she can do – but even her power is not under her control: like an Internet shutdown: “We’re large groups of ‘gifted’ women at the mercy of men who can switch off our powers whenever they like.”  Despite the gender flip of power – the book opens with a young man walking confidently through the dark at night, to fall prey to a woman – Jaya is still very much in a male world, not knowing “who are ‘we’ who are ‘they’?” and where people who, “by sheer coincidence, happen to be women – have to obey men like you.”

Shakti is a political thriller, and a deeply disturbing one, one where the reader struggles to ‘touch bottom’ as to who is controlling the conspiracy, whether there is any rational objective hope, how sense can possibly prevail when “the most lasting evil is that in which no one is innocent.”  And the real-world resonances are clear – as I write this review, there is breaking news of sectarian violence and multiple deaths over amended citizenship laws in India.

To make sense of our dystopian reality you almost have to believe in the sort of supernatural/invasive manipulation that is at the heart of Shakti – let’s hope that the other shakti mentioned in the book, the “Real Shakti, deeper than any magic” in comparison to which “everything else is just a means, or a shortcut or a trick” can prevail.  Shakti is gripping, meticulously written, thought-provoking and the cover of the NZ edition is luscious – I loved it, read it and see what you think …

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Moonlight Sonata by Eileen Merriman – 2019

Moonlight sonataMoonlight sonata starts like a typical slice of New Zealand life novel, with a family meeting up for the Christmas/New Year break in a seaside home, with the usual tensions and jealousies. But this book turns into a much more complex, and emotionally difficult story, a story of ongoing parental bullying and forbidden love.

The story is told from the point of view of some of the protagonists: Molly, frustrated with her work-obsessed husband, Richard, worried about her teenage son, Noah, and glad to be back with her twin brother, Joe.  Molly is right to be worried about Noah, their family has recently moved to Melbourne and Noah hates it there, is sick of hearing his parents fighting, and is enjoying the company of his many cousins, especially 15-year-old Lola.  Lola is an aspiring cricketer, is annoyed with her over-protective mother, Kiri, and struggling with her recently diagnosed diabetes.  Joe, who arrives back from the Middle East, is an exotic and exciting uncle, a critical brother-in-law and a beloved twin brother.

These are the characters from whose point of view we read the story, but there are lots more siblings, cousins, parents and children holidaying and struggling with each other.  Some of the characters are more rounded than others, but all are believable.  The story jumps back and forth from the present through incidents in Molly’s life, and the times and places are evoked with clothing (legwarmers!), trends (dying to see Footloose) and behaviours (changes in the drugs of choice), and you never feel lost.  And the New Zealand summer by the sea is captured perfectly: the sand between toes and in bedsheets, the sunburnt noses, the voracious appetites, the wet hair …

To tell the story would be to reveal the secrets of the family, the reader guesses pretty early on what they are, but the tension is still there.  What intrigues the reader are the anecdotes of shared history that give context to what has transpired, and to the decisions that have been made. The book highlights that experiences of childhood and youth influence adult outlook and behaviour.  The facts and consequences are there for the reader to ponder.  The story gets very tense, and a summer storm builds as does the danger to the characters.

Moonlight sonata is a read that is on the one hand very familiar and comfortable, and on the other completely original and tragic.  Merriman is well known for her YA writing, and Moonlight Sonata is a smooth transition into adult fiction – read it yourself and see what you think …

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Josephine’s Garden by Stephanie Parkyn – 2019

Josephine's gardenWhat does it mean to be a woman in a time of revolution, a time of colonial expansion?  Was Rose de Beauharnais an extraordinary woman or a woman in extraordinary times?  She hailed from exotic Martinique, narrowly survived the reign of terror, married an unpleasant young soldier for the security of her children, eventually rose to be the Empress of France – but who was she?  Josephine’s Garden is a wonderful depiction of a woman in a time of chaos.

Josephine’s Garden starts with Rose fearing the arrival of a messenger – will she have to leave her precious garden at Malmaison?  Will losing her husband mean losing her life? for “Who am I if not Bonaparte’s wife?”  The ambitious reclusive soldier she married has become an Emperor, Napoleon I; he funds her house, her garden, his influence provides her menagerie, gets rid of her previous obligations, even gives her her name: Josephine.

We look back over Rose’s life, from the dark days of the reign of terror, when the heroes of the revolution were sent to the guillotine, through the “joyful madness” of post-revolutionary Paris, and on through the unimaginable cruelties of French expansion under Napoleon – to a time when “There were no young men left in Paris.”  And the cruelties weren’t just the slaughter of sons, brothers, husbands, but the pillaging of art and science institutions.

We see the world from the points of view of three women – Rose; Marthe Desfriches, who marries the biologist Jacques Labillardière, and whose misery in his cold presence leads her to seek revenge for the death of a young man lost in the war: “What must it be like to be married to a man who could not conceive of your thoughts at all?”  And there is Anne Serreaux, wife to the gardener Felix Delahaye, who gardens alongside her husband, bears children, is the envy of both Rose and Marthe, but who longs to be leading a simple country life, and who bears a terrible breakdown all on her own.

And there is the other Rose: raised in a man’s house, imprisoned on his death, but visited by Labillardière bearing a bouquet and whispering “… simply because our society cannot accept difference.”  She ends up living in his offices until she is part of a political arrangement which sees her sent to Empress Josephine in Malmaison.  She is always dressed impeccably, has exquisite manners and notices everything: “Marthe watched transfixed as the ape turned her head to her and lowered her arm to point directly at Marthe’s heart. I see you” – Rose is an orangutan, alone of her kind, a shadowy reflection of the lives of women – owned, with no choices, left alone and treated well enough – as long as they look pretty and behave – before they just disappear from your mind.

There are moments of joy for both Rose de Beauharnais and Anne, especially in the pleasures and triumphs of creating the garden.  And Rose does end up falling in love with Napoleon, but his interest drifts elsewhere when she can’t bear him a son – if women can’t have children, they have no purpose, unlike men, whose childlessness is seen as dedication to their interests.  There is little joy for Marthe, except perhaps in wandering the streets of Paris, finding a distant connection to the homeless, injured and destitute, wondering “What terrors am I capable of?”

There are resonances in the history as well, once the horrors of the revolution have occurred, where are the boundaries of what people ‘should’ do?  Once there is a regime of terror, how does a state recapture civility? “He promised to make France great again.”  And the lawlessness and entitlement are not just on the national scale – Napoleon takes a hunting party to the lake at Malmaison to slaughter Rose’s swans, he is unfaithful to her in rooms where he knows she can overhear.  Rose herself ends up bargaining with her daughter’s happiness, trying to turn what Napoleon wants into an advantage for her and her children, for she realises quite early on: “What I want is of no importance to Bonaparte.”

Josephine, the public persona of Rose, treads a fine line to remain a good propaganda icon, and not fall into the trap of scandal.  When an artist is trying to work out how to portray Napoleon’s atrocities without giving offence, the solution is to have the image include Josephine submitting before him – the ideal of a beautiful woman submitting to a powerful man.  Napoleon himself appears to have an idealised view of her: “We are both driven to be the best and brightest stars.”

Josephine’s Garden is lavishly written and totally engrossing, and it gets very tense: there are assassination attempts, people being hidden in basements, unpredictable tyrants, lines being crossed – such as people being executed without trial for political expediency, and the external threats of illness and poverty.  And there are the commonalities of the women’s experiences which eventually draw them together in the garden, the miracle of a garden where trees, plants and animals flourish where they don’t belong: “No one else has a garden such as this.”

I just loved this book … read it and see what you think …

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Scented by Laurence Fearnley – 2019

ScentedSiân Rees is a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Auckland, supported by the head of her department, Archer Hall, and used to picking up the slack for her ambitious young colleague, Jerome Roy.  She lives alone, “I preferred living alone to compliance with another person”, her passions being getting lost in research and capturing the essences of people and places in perfumes.  But when the University’s humanities departments are restructured, Siân is labelled ‘redundant’ and her world and her confidence disintegrate.

Siân sets out to document her own ‘base notes’, ‘heart notes’ and ‘top notes’ in order to take stock and get a grip on who she is, now that her identity as a “smart, professional, financially independent middle-aged woman” has gone.  She intends to create a perfume that is her “signature scent”, a perfume to make her complete again.

The reader accompanies Siân on her journey, learns a lot about perfume making, about the cruelties of heartless restructuring processes and the brutality of an ageist and sexist labour market, and becomes totally immersed in Siân’s predicament – as Siân realises that not only is she professionally adrift, she has become – and maybe always has been – unmoored in her birth country.

Scented, as you would expect, is totally evocative as it wends its olfactory way through Siân’s story – the scents of her youth were the ones I grew up with –  Bronnley, Veet-O, Morny, Lenthéric Tweed … Fearnley’s descriptions of the elements of the scents – both pleasant (“a night garden following a storm”) and unpleasant (“dog shit on the sole of  shoe”) – are so textured, you start being amazed along with her, that scents are not more of an active part of human activities.  But, as Siân goes longer and longer without finding work, she falters, she becomes suspicious of all around her, and feels more and more isolated.

Siân’s loss of status erodes her self-confidence and her sense of belonging.  She finds out who she can trust and who not, but also that her judgments might be skewed by her experiences.  She becomes estranged from the ‘young’, no longer in relation to them as a lecturer – encountering a group of students protesting to support the humanities, she finds their silent protest reminds her of “passive-aggressive sulking teenagers.”  Not that she is unsympathetic to their cause, fearing “the only people left will be the ones who communicate in bullet points.”

A ghastly piece of online invasion leads to Siân reciting a litany of abuse at the hands of men, each awful but nothing unusual, yet quite devastating when all listed together.  But maybe more revealing is her realising: “I was born in New Zealand, had lived here all my life and valued notions of the unspoilt landscape, the bush and sea, and yet, when tested, my instincts and preferences sent me sniffing back to Britain.”

Scented is sad and haunting, and yet Siân’s experiences are cathartic – she has to get to the basic notes of her experiences to build up a perfume, so maybe after her life has fallen apart, she will find a solid base on which to build a more meaningful life.  I just loved this book – read it and see what you think.

 

 

 

 

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Auē by Becky Manawatu – 2019

AuēAuē! – a cry of distress – calling out throughout this extraordinary novel of fear and violence, of families torn apart and people trying to find connection and safety.

Taukiri leaves his brother Ārama with Aunty Kat on her farm in Kaikoura after a family tragedy. He heads to Wellington, trying to get by, trying to forget. Skip to the past: Jade is a young woman who had “only known life with a man” – who missed her chance to get away the first time, so doesn’t want to miss her second chance. Auē is told through the points of view of Taukiri, Ārama and Jade, but is populated with many other rich and vibrant characters, plus the linking voice of a spirit that blows like the wind, “I am drowned”, twisting around the characters, trying to break free but tied by the sorrow of her relatives.

Auē starts relatively paced, feeling like a familiar story: confused children, women trapped in abusive relationships, young men turning to drugs to dull their memories and their pain. But as you read, you empathise so much with the characters, that the mystery of what exactly has happened and how the people are related to each other is totally absorbing. And the tension of the last few chapters almost unbearable.

Taukiri is someone who loves the sea, he experiences his emotions and heightened experiences as waves that wash over him, but the sea is at the heart of his trauma, and drugs only help for so long: “There was a price for emptying your head. It emptied euphorically on the going out, sure, but all the junk flooded back eventually.” Ārama, eight years old, just wants Taukiri back, singing to him, calming his sleepless nights, teaching him to play the guitar, how to surf.

Ārama feels abandoned, even his Nanny doesn’t respond to any of the many many messages he leaves on her phone. Aunty Kat is nice, and the neighbours, Beth and her Dad Tom Aiken, are a refuge, but Kat’s husband Uncle Stu is one of the many abusive men in the novel, and Ārama never really feels safe. The little boy tries to comfort himself with sticking plasters; putting them over his heartbeat, over his eyes to keep the tears in.

For Taukiri, Ārama and Jade, there are periods when their lives don’t feel real, they feel they are ‘acting’ their lives rather than living them, feel their chance to enjoy existence has been stolen from them. They are all guarded in what they reveal of themselves, little Ārama: “I thought about how many terrible words there were, and how when they were let loose in the world, they sucked up all the air around them”, he and Beth escape into a fantasy world – based on Django unchained! Jade hears herself speaking and hears someone else after finally escaping from a gang house, and Taukiri drifts with his demons: “I painted her skin with so much blood”, living with the gnawing knowledge that Ārama is waiting for him, thinking that other boys had a bottom to their fall but that “The bottomlessness to my life was dizzying.”

The writing in Auē is immersive, the smattering of typos a jolt. It is a tale of heartbreak and violence, but there are lighter moments; the two children are charming and funny and keep themselves, and the reader, entertained. All the substantial characters in the book are illustrative of one of the book’s messages: “No one is just anything.” Reading Auē is a little like going to a tangi, as described by Ārama to Beth: you have to cry enough and laugh enough before being allowed to leave. A remarkable book.

 

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