Australian Literature

Book Review of The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo

the-bridge_fca.jpgEnza Gandolfo’s The Bridge was a difficult one to read for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s subject matter is heavy going. There are few moments of clarity and joy – and for good reason. They would be totally inappropriate in this story. Secondly, the local setting makes it feel strangely familiar, sitting disconcertingly between historical and modern literature.

This is the story of two tragedies that occur on the West Gate Bridge, one of Melbourne’s most controversial constructions. The tragic collapse of the West Gate Bridge during its construction in the 1970s killed 35 workers, many of whom were migrants. As a 22-year-old, Italian immigrant Antonello’s life is utterly changed that day, and over the next 40 years he is unable to block the voices of his dead co-workers that haunt him. He became a man closed off to close relationships. It was a tragedy avoidable if the engineers and bosses of the construction team had a greater focus on safety. Some say the bridge is still unsafe, and that another tragedy is inevitable.

There is much unexplored about this narrative as we jump ahead 40 years to the time when Antonello’s granddaughter Ashleigh is killed in a car accident on the same bridge.

Much of this novel actually focusses on Jo, who was driving the car that night. She was over the limit, and angry that her close friendship with Ashleigh seemed to be changing in ways that she could not control. Her lack of judgement and emotional shakiness have terrifying consequences. Jo and two other girls emerge physically unscathed, but Jo has to try to live with the knowledge that she killed her best friend, and in doing so, she has altered many lives irrevocably.

Ashleigh’s family – one she spent as much time with as her own– will never accept and forgive her for what happened. Her own mother struggles to finher daughter’s actions and the choices she made that contributed to it. And beyond all the paralysing grief and shame, Jo faces the very real possibility of a jail sentence.

Jo’s grief knows no boundaries. She isolates herself, considers suicide and runs away for a time, trying to escape the perceived stares and blame of her local community. It’s gut-wrenching subject matter and while it doesn’t make for pleasant reading, it is dealt with reasonably adeptly by Gandolfo. She doesn’t shy away from the real and unpleasant emotions of her characters. I can’t say I enjoyed this, but I can say I believed it.

The connection of the bridge isn’t as strong as the title might suggest, but it does connect the two events and the two sets of characters together neatly. In the end, it is Antonello who plays the crucial role in assisting those involved to let go of their grief by finally examining and trying to let go of his own. He uses his flaws to encourage others to forgive and channel their emotions positively. There can be no happy endings in a story like this – but there is a sense that many of the characters begin to find a way through the darkness.

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Book Review of Big Little Lies

BLLI avoided reading this incredibly popular book for quite some time, assuming it might be pretty average chick lit written only for mass appeal.  But I have to admit, I listened to this on audio and was completely spellbound.  I listened to it every moment I could and towards the end actually found myself sitting and doing nothing just so I could listen.

There are probably two reasons for Liane Moriarty’s success with this novel.  The first is with clever storytelling.  The blurb will tell you the book focusses around a death at a school trivia night, and this is true – but there is plenty  of drama in the lead up to this, and Moriarty cleverly capitalises on this by revealing just a little bit of detail at a time. the story of the months before the trivia night is interspersed with the interviews and investigations after the fact.  Every little tidbit gets your brain going – who died and how?

Secondly, there are actually some incredibly serious issues at play here – the foremost of which is violence against women.  You’ve probably heard about this already.  And also the difficulties of class, family and divorce.   So no, not as light as I thought it was.  And more importantly, Moriarty seems to actually have something to say about all of these issues.  All are dealt with in complex ways, and believable ones.  The characters in this novel could have been incredibly two-dimensional, but they’re not.  There is a kernel of emotional truth in all the choices that they make.

I’m glad I finally got to Big Little Lies.  If you haven’t yet, I would definitely recommend it.

Book Review of Two Steps Forward

twostepsThe Camino is a point of fascination for me.  Like many (so many in fact that it is even mentioned in this book), I saw the film The Way and become fascinated with the concept of this pilgrimage and the capacity of this particular walk to change the lives and perspective of so many.  I’m not religious at all, but sometimes things like these act as opportunities to challenge ourselves and take stock of our lives.  Maybe I will do it one day.

Authors Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist (his wife) have walked The Camino several times and it is these experiences that inspired the writing of Two Steps Forward, the story of two people who at a crossroads in their lives, are drawn to The Camino.  Zoe and Martin, the narrators, each tell their story in alternate chapters, giving their background and beginning their Camino and their relationship with it and each other.  Initially – as in all good stories – they don’t like each other.  But the love story as such is not the focus of this novel, and neither character finds themselves capable of a relationship until they focus on the reason they came to the Camino in the first place.

Martin has designed a cart for walkers that he wants to patent and sell – but it needs a trial.  The longer he walks though, the less this inspires his continued journey.  For Zoe, it is a complete impulse after visiting a friend in France after the death of her husband.  She needs to consider how to frame her life without his steadying hand – even if it was not much of a love match.

It’s endearing to see real human stories and affairs of the heart that surround people who aren’t in the early stages of their lives.  I enjoyed this as a gentle read towards the end of the year.  Worth a look.

Excited Book Review of The Choke

the-chokeSofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep won the 2015 Miles Franklin – and is one of my favourite reads of recent years.  So when I was offered a review copy of her latest, The Choke, I could not say yes fast enough.

The Choke is destined to win awards too.

Laguna excels at writing complex child narrators, and placing them in dangerous worlds.  But thats where the similarities between these two books end.

Justine is a girl abandoned by both father and mother and living with her ailing grandfather in a remote place known as the choke – where the bush meets the river.  She’s not neglected, but certainly lives a simple lifestyle in a man’s world.  It’s a violent world too – and Laguna makes this apparent even in describing children’s play in the opening chapter.

School is no refuge either – at least, not until she befriends a young disabled not who is also an outsider.  But not even this can save her from the violence in her world.  Before she is 14 she has witnessed and experienced abuse.  And your heart will break.  I doubt anyone could read this story and not be moved by what Justine experiences – and perhaps more powerfully, how she turns something just awful into something potentially beautiful.  There were tears in my eyes as I closed the final pages.  This is not to be missed.

Book Review of Goodwood

goodwoodThere has been a lot of buzz about Holly Throsby’s Goodwood (especially as Throsby herself is better known for singing words than writing them).

And the buzz is well worthwhile – Goodwood is a finely crafted read that reflects real and engaging characters living that small-town life. You know the sort – where the local fish and chip shop is the centre of society, and fishing is one of the more popular pastimes.

But this quietness is disturbed when two residents go missing within a week of each other.  One, a young woman, has vanished without a trace, but with plenty of mystery and discussion.  The second, an older man who is well-respected within the town followed after just a week.

Are the two cases connected?  Or is life just not as simple as it appears in Goodwood?

This was a really solid read that made me happy to pick up the book each night.  Definitely worth a look.  Throsby’s move into the literary world is a good one – and I daresay more novels will follow this.

Book Review of The Best of Adam Sharp

unknown-1Urged on by the light-hearted humour of The Rosie Project and it’s sequel, I picked up Graeme Simsion’s The Best of Adam Sharp as a bit of light holiday reading.

Light reading it achieves. Tick. It starts off as a fairly generalised story of a man in his 50s who is contacted by the love of his youth – an actress he met whilst holidaying in Australia. Her contact instigates an examination of his current life: his work situation, his nights playing trivia at the pub and his relationship which of late has been lacklustre.

Plenty of good novels explore these themes, although this one takes a bit of a strange turn as Sharp takes a holiday with his youthful paramour and her current husband and becomes part of a complex process of them testing their marriage. I found much of this a bit strange and overly complicated, as if Simsion was trying to be more edgy. But ultimately as satisfying a result could have been brought about without some of the awkward sexual antics.

Don’t expect much and you might enjoy this. It doesn’t have the originality of the characters in The Rosie Project and tries a bit hard. But some elements of Sharp will no doubt resonate for many, and the overall message is a pretty good one.

Gushing Review of The Good People

1472712750201Like many, I was spellbound by the love of writing that was apparent in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites – a detailed and meticulously researched portrayal of the last woman sentenced to death for murder in Iceland.   Burial Rites was a novel destined to take the international stage – one that blended physical and emotional realities masterfully and explored a complex character and the reactions of those around her with sophistication and deftness.

The Good People, Kent’s follow-up, holds all the same magic.

Set in a remote village near the Flesk River in Killarney, The Good People explores the superstitions of simple folk – and the many ways in which they can lead to tragedy. Kent came across the real event in her research for Burial Rites – the story of an aged woman whose defence for murder was based upon her belief that the murdered boy was but a changeling and thus she should not be held accountable. While it is easy to believe this is madness or an excuse for cold-blooded murder, once again Kent creates real human warmth and invites readers to feel sympathy or at least acknowledge the complexity of such cases.

Beautiful prose, complex but real characters and thought-provoking ideas about being a woman in a backwards time make The Good People another likely best-seller. I challenge anyone who loved Burial Rites to not see this as yet another demonstration of Kent as one of the greatest writers of our time.

Yes, I know I’m gushing. But this is worth getting excited about. Comes out in October.