Tenderness, suspense and dementia – my review of ‘The Night Guest’, Fiona McFarlane

20 Mar

the night guestThe Night Guest is the debut novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane. This surprising and assured story has just been short-listed for this year’s Stella Prize for Australian Women Writers.

The protagonist of the novel, Ruth, is an elderly woman living on her own in a house by the sea, somewhere on the New South Wales coast. One night she wakes up, thinking she hears a tiger in the house. But she is just imagining it, she tells herself.

Next morning, a woman called Frida arrives at her door. She has been sent by the government, she says, to care for Ruth. Frida appears to Ruth to be Fijian, a characteristic which evokes her trust. Her childhood memories of Fiji press in on her more and more as she ages. But the longer Frida stays, the more reality and fantasy become confused in both Ruth’s and the reader’s mind.

Frida is a character who bursts from the page. Sometimes tender, sometimes fierce, she kept me entranced wondering what she was going to do next. A chameleon, Frida changes her hair daily and shrinks and grows almost magically, in Ruth’s eyes. Suspense grows as she gradually chips away at Ruth’s independence.

Ruth’s wandering lucidity makes her the perfect unreliable narrator. While the reader can fill in some gaps it is hard to know exactly what is going on. A scene where Frida fights the tiger filled me with dread, while doubting its reality at the same time. This element of the story adds a touch of magical realism which is left to the reader to interpret as they will.

The Night Guest was a standout read for me. Something of a psychological thriller, it also covers a wide emotional territory. Ruth’s memories of her first love Richard and her life with her husband interweave with her increasingly bizarre daily life. The story raises themes about aging, trust and dependence

McFarlane tells this story in simple but evocative prose. Inspired, she says, by both her grandmothers having dementia, it is a finely wrought picture of a mind coming undone.

This is a hard book to review without spoilers so I’m going to have to leave it there. Eerie, suspenseful and thought-provoking, I suspect that The Night Guest will be one of my top reads for this year.

My own story about dementia, which coincidentally also features a tiger and Fiji, featured in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on March 14. Read it here

This is my second post for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Friendship at Forty – my review of ‘Tiddas’ by Anita Heiss

3 Mar

tiddas coverI jumped at the chance to read Tiddas, because while I have read Anita’s memoir, Am I Black Enough for You? I had not yet read any of her women’s fiction. Anita, a proud Wiradjuri woman, has created a whole new genre in fiction — Koori chick-lit. Her novels are about smart, urban, Aboriginal women who like to shop, but are also socially aware and deeply rooted in their culture.

With Tiddas, she departs from her four previous novels about footloose singles by introducing us to a group of women on the cusp of forty. The title of the book means ‘friends’ and the story revolves around five tiddas who grew up together in Mudgee, but have found their way to Brisbane.

The action in the story takes place over about a year and uses the device of a monthly book group meeting as a marker for the changing seasons and lives of the five. The nature and value of female friendship is the thematic backdrop to the way each tidda deals with the central issues in her life.

There were so many things I enjoyed about this book. Having grown up in Brisbane, I loved the setting — the river, the joggers at Kangaroo Point and the gorgeous jacarandas that feature on the cover. The tiddas, Izzy, Veronica, Xanthe, Nadine and Ellen are well-rounded and despite, or maybe because of, their faults they are all likeable and fun to be around. On one level this is a study of issues relevant to all woman of this age — sex, fertility, career and relationships. But the book also gives an insight, through the tiddas, into Aboriginal culture and politics. Izzy, for example, aspires to be Australia’s Oprah, while Xanthe is a cultural awareness trainer and Ellen a funeral celebrant. I found the tiddas’ journeys realistic — their friendship waxes, wanes and sometimes falters. As in life, not everyone gets tied up with a ‘happily ever after’.

Tiddas is a warm-hearted book, which delves gently into both personal and social issues in a way that feels intrinsic to the story. I became involved in the lives of the tiddas and read the book quickly, finishing it with a sense of having been enriched by some lively and intelligent company.

Those of you who live near Byron Bay are lucky because Anita Heiss will be in our town soon… 

I will be discussing Tiddas with Anita at the Byron Bay Library on March 14 5.30pm for 6.00 (Phone 6685 8540 to book) and she is also running a workshop on writing women’s fiction on March 15 (see www.nrwc.org.au).

You can find out more about Anita and the Byron Bay event here. 

This is my first post for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

High Anxiety – my so-called writing process

24 Feb

stressed-woman-cartoon-266x300I was tagged in this fascinating blog chain about how writers write by Kate Belle. Kate and I met at the Elizabeth Jolley Conference, which was the prelude to the Romance Writers of Australia Conference, in Fremantle. As I recall we managed to walk out of one session and — unknowingly — in by another door. Strangely the session we’d just walked into was identical to the one we’d walked out of. It was baffling.

Since meeting Kate, I have gone on to read her novel, The Yearning, which is a beautifully written and very sexy story of a girl’s ongoing obsession with her much-older lover. Kate’s second novel is out in a few months and it sounds like a ‘can’t miss’. Find out more about Kate’s writing here:

Web/Blog: http://ecstasyfiles.com/

Facebook: http://facebook.com/KateBelle.x

Twitter:     @ecstasyfiles

Email:       ecstasyfiles@gmail.com  yearning

So, let me tell you about my so-called writing process…

What am I working on?

I’m finalising my next book which is due for publication in early 2015. It is a story about a trendspotter who has lost her ability to predict the next big thing. So in an effort to find her mojo, she sets off on a pilgrimage with a difference – a big difference.

I am also in the very early stages of something rather different (for me) — a young adult novel. I’m a bit out of my comfort zone, but so far, I’m loving it.

And, I’m just about to submit my thesis for a Masters in Creative Writing – so fingers crossed for smooth sailing there.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, my first two books ‘Liar Bird’ and ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ fall into the genre of chick-lit or romantic comedy. They feature quirky protagonists and are both set on the NSW far north coast, which is where I live. My next novel is a bit of a departure from that as it features an older protagonist and it isn’t as much of a classical rom com, in fact she has some fairly serious issues to deal with. But there’s still plenty of humour and romance and for those who like quirky, I’m pretty sure it ticks that box too.

My writing probably differs from others in its genre in its particular sense of humour. Humour is such an individual thing and all I can do is follow my mind where it takes me and hope others find it funny too.

Why do I write what I do?

Good question. I’d like to pretend it’s a deliberate choice, but in fact this seems to be the only sort of story I can write. I’ve played around with a lot of different styles of writing, but I keep coming back to stories with a humorous bent, written from the point of view of a female protagonist. This goes for my current young adult project too. When you’re on a good thing…

How does my writing process work?

I would love, love, love to be a plotter, but the only time I seriously tried to do this I failed dismally. As soon as I had a plot outline, I completely lost interest in the story. The only thing that keeps me writing is a desire to see how the story is going to turn out. I start with a character I love with a problem she needs to resolve and hit ‘go’. And yes, I do end up in cul-de-sacs and dead ends — it’s inevitable and it’s infuriating, but that’s what first drafts are for. I rely on my writing group to tell me to keep going when I’m convinced — as I often am — that I’m writing the stupidest story ever.

I would now like to introduce you to two writers who will be revealing all about their process this time next week.

losing februaryFirst up, Susanna Freymark. Susanna and I first met at a writing retreat near Byron Bay, many, many years ago and we have also spent a week at Varuna together. As I recall Susanna’s writing process involves loud music and frequent trips to cafes. Her debut novel, ‘Losing February – a story of love, lust and longing,’ was released last year and was described in The Hoopla as ‘un-put-downable’. I can vouch for the fact that it is.

You can find Susanna’s website here .

sweet seductionJennifer St George is a Byron Bay based writer and we first met at my book launch for ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’. Late last year, I attended Jen’s launch for the print release of ‘Sweet Seduction’, which is a compilation of her two novels, ‘Seducing the Secret Heiress’ and ‘The Convenient Bride’. Jen’s books get rave reviews for their characters and blazing hot passion. I did notice that plenty of people were fanning their faces during the reading at her Byron Bay launch.

You can find Jennifer here:

Susanna and Jennifer will be posting about their writing process next week so head on over to their blogs to find out more about this mysterious and individual thing — the writing process.

Winner – Australia Day Blog Hop Giveaway

29 Jan

Thank you to everyone who hopped along and commented on my blog. I loved hearing from you all about your superstitions (or lack of). It was absolutely fascinating. In fact I’m beginning to think I should write a book about it….

I drew a winner randomly and the lucky reader is Erin, who blogs here.  I’ll be getting that book off to you quick smart, Erin.

Very superstitious? (Australia Day Blog Hop)

24 Jan

???????????????????????????????     I don’t think of myself as a superstitious person, but I do have a tendency to see meaning in things that may be meaningless to others. Often the world seems deeply mysterious to me. Perhaps that comes with being a writer. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Byron Bay.

I have recently returned from a month in Japan. It was my fourth trip there, so clearly I like it. One of the things I particularly enjoy is seeing the Shinto shrines dotted all over the country. Everywhere you go there is a Tori gate that welcomes you to the spirit world. The Shinto religion has many gods and even objects like trees or rocks are revered for their kami or spirit.

On one of my previous trips to Japan I discovered the Seven Lucky Shinto Gods. Soon I started seeing them everywhere. They seemed to be calling me, so I bought a little model of the gods and took them home. My Seven Lucky Gods look a little like the seven dwarfs. They are all plump and smiling. Each one is about the size of a thimble and dressed in brightly coloured robes.

I am a bit of a collector of objects of significance. When I start a new writing project, I am often scanning for a touchstone that will symbolise the story. The object sits next to my computer while I write and it seems to give me courage. I suppose that’s superstitious, but writing is a leap of faith and you take help where you can.

I am currently working on my next novel, which is to be published by Random House in early 2015. The protagonist is a trendspotter who has always been able to predict the next big thing. Until one day she finds she can’t. She needs some help and this is where the Seven Lucky Gods come in.

It wasn’t until I had those gods sitting on my desk that this story really started to take shape for me. It’s been the same for my previous two novels. While I’m a pretty rational person usually, when it comes to writing I need my lucky object.

Do you have a superstitious habit or ‘lucky’ object that you rely on?

Comment on this blog to go into the draw to win a signed print copy of my current novel ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ (or if you’ve already read that one I can send you ‘Liar Bird’).

Happy Australia Day and a big thank you to Shellyrae from Book’d out for organising this Australia Day Blog Hop! australiadaybloghop2014

A Story within a Story: The Storyteller and his Three Daughters by Lian Hearn

14 Dec

the storytellerLian Hearn is the author of the best-selling Tales of the Otori series, which sold over four million copies worldwide. Her latest book, The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, is also set in Japan. The date is 1884 and the storyteller of the title is Sei, a master of the art.

While Sei is renowned for his storytelling, he is starting to feel that times are changing and his old way of telling stories is no longer enough. People in these modern times are craving more excitement, more drama, and more passion. Can he reinvent himself? Sei wonders.

Luckily, or unluckily for Sei, he has three daughters who bring plenty of problems into his life. Two of his daughters leave their husbands. One wants to become an author while the other thinks her husband is in love with his young male assistant.  His third daughter is married to a Kabuki theatre manager who is struggling to keep his show running in the face of rivalries and romance between his players.

The history of the time also provides an added layer of interest. Tensions between Japan and Korea escalate as Japan comes out of its period of isolation and embraces European ways. An English storyteller, Jack Green, gathers a wide audience while Sei ponders how painful those trouser things must be. Hearn’s own passion for Japan is evident as she immerses us in this fascinating culture.

The Storyteller and his Three Daughters is told as a story within a story. It is a reflection on the process of finding stories and telling them and how truth turns into fiction. Lian Hearn has talked about how she found this story. She had a number of the characters in her head – a former samurai, a female medical student, a Korean boy and a Japanese man who loves France – but it was only when Sei, the storyteller started to speak to her that she saw how they could all fit together.

This is a light hearted and in some ways whimsical book with many humorous moments. Lian Hearn is so clearly in charge of her own storytelling that she can take liberties that perhaps a lesser writer could not. Witty, romantic, suspenseful and thought provoking – what more could you ask for from a story?

This is my tenth (and probably final ) review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013.

Happy Christmas and I hope Santa brings you lots of books. I’m planning on tackling ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton, which should keep me going for a while.

A traumatic coming of age story – Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’

2 Dec

Donna Tartt sprang to notice in 1992 with the bestselling ‘The Secret History’.  Her second book, ‘The Little Friend’ came out in 2002 and now, her eagerly awaited third novel, ‘The Goldfinch’ is here. That’s a long time between drinks, but it’s a novel worth waiting for.

‘The Goldfinch’ is the story of Theo, a boy whose life is ripped apart at the age of thirteen when his mother dies in an art museum bombing. Theo escapes from the building clutching his mother’s favourite painting. The Goldfinch — which is a real 17th century painting — is a priceless wthe goldfinchork of art. He also has a ring, given to him by a dying man with instructions on where to deliver it.

Despite his best intentions, Theo never quite manages to confess his theft. As time goes on — though still wracked with guilt — he becomes more and more attached to the painting. While he is initially taken in by the wealthy family of a friend, the painting goes with him to Las Vegas when his missing father arrives to claim him. His father – a professional gambler – lives in a sprawl of abandoned mansions on the edge of the desert.

In Vegas, Theo becomes close friends with Boris, a Russian immigrant, and the two neglected boys learn to fend for themselves. The habits of drugs and theft that the boys fall into are hard to escape.  Wherever Theo goes in his life, The Goldfinch casts a shadow, drawing him into the dark underbelly of the art world. This and his unrequited love for Pippa, a girl who also survived the museum bombing, creates a sadness and tension that he is unable to assuage.

‘The Goldfinch’ is a big book at almost 800 pages, but it never flags.   Tartt is a gifted author who provides that rare combination — an elegant turn of phrase and a cracking plot. Theo, Boris, Pippa and other secondary characters such as Theo’s father and his fiancée, Kitsey are all compelling and believable individuals. Tartt has cited Charles Dickens as a literary influence and her story has the same rollicking quality and deeply flawed characters.

‘The Goldfinch’ is a coming of age story, a reflection on the effects of early trauma and a wild ride. I found it deeply satisfying and hard to put down.

Pool to Pond – how I learnt to stop fighting nature

10 Nov

About ten months ago I read an article about turning pools into ponds. It had a picture of someone plunging into lily-bedecked water. ‘We should do that!’ I said.

We weren’t good at pool maintenance — ours was never a sparkling blue expanse. Each summer it was a battle to keep the pool looking reasonable — running the pump, hauling chlorine up our 100 steps, scooping the leaves that fell from the overhanging branches. And it didn’t even get all that much use. The beach is only five minutes’ walk away.

I’m not the domestic type – I’ve never had much interest in house or garden, but the ‘pool to pond’ became my pet project. It made perfect sense. The amount of effort, chemicals and power required to keep our pool functioning showed that nature had other plans.

I am obviously a pagan at heart.

So we stopped running the pump and putting chlorine in. It turned green and smelly. At this stage we had doubts. But one month later I spotted a swimming insect in the pool. This was, I had heard, a signal that the pond was safe for life.

My son and I went out and bought a goldfish and released it into the murky water. Anti-climactically, it vanished instantly and remained out of sight for many days. We named it Scott, after Scott of the Antarctic, because it bravely went where no fish had been before.

Next, we bought some water plants – reeds which rested on the top step and lilies for the lower step. The water was still murky, but with the addition of plants at least it looked like it was intended that way.

A week or so later, we discovered Scott, lurking in the pool filter area. He was still alive, so we bought ten more fish. As we put them in Scott came out of hiding and joined the gang as they patrolled their new home. He’d just been waiting for some company.

Ten months down the track, the water is so clear we can see to the bottom and the fish have doubled in size. They must be happy in their home as tiny baby goldfish now swim with the pack. They are all practically oblivious when we put on goggles and swim gently through the lilies, lingering close enough to touch.

Several times a day I wander out and gaze at the calming sight of fish darting through the lilies. And I don’t know why we didn’t do this years ago.

For the full pond immersion experience click below or here.

Vivid and sensual – The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie

1 Nov

the pagoda treeThe Pagoda Tree is the first novel by journalist Claire Scobie, whose previous book was a travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa. Here, Scobie turns her gaze from Tibet to India.

The novel is set in 1765 and is the story of Maya, who is destined from birth to become an Indian temple dancer or devadasi. Scobie’s inspiration to write the book came from a visit to a temple in Southern India. Here she saw the names of 400 dancing girls engraved upon the 11th century walls. From this starting point grew Maya’s story.

Highly trained in dancing, music and love-making, the temple dancers were married to the God Shiva and often became courtesans of powerful men. Devadasis had a level of control over their lives not given to other Indian women and were the only women taught to read and write at the time.

Mentored by Palani, a powerful devadasi, Maya becomes a dancer of rare beauty and skill. But while she is destined to be given to the prince, the turbulent times cast her adrift. Set during the British colonial era, the book shows the effect of the occupation on Indian traditions.

Maya’s dancing captivates the Europeans as well as the Indians. In Madras she forms a risky liaison with a young British trader. This clash of cultures drives the story. Her lover, Thomas, is torn between his desire for Maya and his ‘true life’ waiting for him back in England. His choice is complicated by the birth of their daughter, a girl with no status in either culture.

This carefully researched novel provides an insight into Indian culture. The title of the story refers not only to a temple but also to a common expression among the British of the time. ‘Shaking the pagoda tree’ was a term for making quick, easy money. The cruelty of some of the British colonial practices forms a backdrop to Maya’s story.

Scobie says that researching the story was hard due to the lack of historical records about the dancing girls. In writing The Pagoda Tree she sought to bring their untold story to life. This is a vividly told and sensual novel which will be especially enjoyed by those with an interest in India.

For those in the Byron area, Claire Scobie is conducting a workshop on travel writing in Byron Bay on the 7th of December. See www.nrwc.org.au

My blog seems to have become strangely popular in Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago of late. So if you’re reading this from there – a big hello to you! I’m glad to be getting to some exotic locations, if only in spirit. 

Schoolyard politics – my review of ‘The Hive’ by Gill Hornby

3 Oct

The Hive is the debut novel by Gill Hornby who, incidentally, is the sister of best selling British novelist Nick Hornby. It comes much-hyped as the subject of a fierce bidding war between publishers. The novel’s name is a reference to a bee hive and the story is driven by the doings of the mothers of St Ambrose Primary School who are ruled by their aptly named queen, Bea.

The action is divided up into school terms and centers around the fundraising activities for a new school library. Bitchiness, infighting and power plays abound, heightened by the arrival of a potential new contender for queen bee. The daily gatherings at the school gate are an opportunity to discover who’s in and who’s out of Bea’s favour. Didn’t get a text inviting you to morning Pilates? Well, sorry dear, you’re out. If it sounds like Mean Girls for adults, that’s because it is. Hornby based the book on the same advice manual, Queen Bees and Wannabes, which inspired that movie.

the hiveWhile The Hive was amusing, there were so many characters that none of them really developed much depth. Rachel has been unceremoniously dumped as Bea’s best friend. Heather is working hard to access the inner circle. Bubba is on a career break from a big job in the city, and on it goes. While Rachel was the main point of view character, I didn’t find her especially likable or interesting, so that detracted somewhat from the book’s appeal.

Nonetheless, a car boot sale, a disastrous ball, a quiz night and a series of fundraising lunches offer entertaining vignettes of the women in action. I especially enjoyed the minutes of the fundraising committee meetings. They were enough to scare anyone off joining a P and C. Darker notes are struck when suicide and cancer enter the story but due to lack of engagement with the characters they fall a little flat. A spunky new school principal sets the cat among the pigeons and provides a romantic interest.

Overall, The Hive seems somehow less than the sum of its parts. It was a lightweight and enjoyable social comedy that had a lot of potential, but for me didn’t quite hit the mark. Still, those with an interest in schoolyard politics will certainly find something to enjoy.

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