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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

What’s that Freud guy doing in my book?

29 Aug

 

freudI’ve been asked quite a few times about the quotes from Sigmund Freud which start each chapter in ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ so finally, at the urging of the lovely Kate Belle I have decided to share.

 

‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ is all about sex, love and intimacy. For me, the process of writing it was not only one of telling a story, but of meditating on these themes and what they mean. I wanted to explain in psychological terms, but in a subtle and humorous way, why Edie acts the way she does. Why does she feel so heartbroken at the beginning? Why does she feel like a failure? Why does she fall so deeply in lust with Professor Brownlow? And why, when she eventually falls in love, is it so obviously right for her?

 

Giving Edie her best friend Sally who is a psychologist of sorts was a way for me to explore these themes in a fictional way. And when I researched (Googled) sex, love and intimacy all roads led to Freud. Although he was sometimes a bit of a crackpot, the impact of his radical theories on childhood, sexuality and relationships are still with us today.

 

Initially I put my research into the story in the form of university essays on Freud from Sally. Sadly, in the editing process it became obvious that this wasn’t working. So, in order to keep this theme going I introduced the little Freud quotes.

 

It soon became apparent that Freud and I were on a similar wavelength. For every chapter in the book, he had something totally appropriate to say. I never had to try too hard to find a relevant quotation. Take ‘One is very crazy when in love’ (chapter 2); Love and work…work and love, that’s all there is (chapter 4) and ‘Everywhere I go; I find a poet has been there before me’ (chapter 11). Absolutely perfect!

 

I’m sure many readers just skim over the quotes and that’s totally fine, but for me they are the frame for the story and an extra little layer to ponder. For those who are so inclined.  You can check out ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ in this preview.

 

 

The Books for Snowy River – what happens when your book goes out of stock just before a writers festival

24 Mar

 

sex lies snowy river

This week I had the simultaneously delightful and alarming news that ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ is temporarily out of stock. Delightful, because yay, I’ve sold out! Alarming because I am booked to do a session called ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ at the Snowy Mountains Writers Festival next weekend. And a session like that with no books is a little like a pub with no beer.

 

I have been moved to capture the ensuing events in verse…

 

 The Books for Snowy River

(with apologies to Banjo Patterson)

 

There was dismay

 at HarperCollins for the word had passed around

That Sex, Lies and Bonsai had run out.

And an urgent order had come in – 50 books must soon be found

So all the sales team gathered at the shout.

 

All the tried and trusted sales reps from the stations near and far

Had mustered at the office, after a bite

For the team there love a challenge

And as all in publishing know, a re-print cannot happen overnight.

 

There was Anna who had bought the book and brought it to the land

No finer editor ever held a pen

For ne’er a text could throw her or a manuscript at hand

As a publisher she knows the art of zen.

 

Lisa’s off to Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side

And the readers there are twice as keen and twice as tough

And an author’s books don’t linger in the bookshops overnight

No, a tale that holds its own is good enough.

The Snowy Mountains Festival is on one week today

And Sex, Lies and Bonsai’s on the bill

We must find some unsold copies or else perish in the chase

Because our writer’s heading for the hills.

 

So they went – they got one copy from the old Big W clump

Then they raced away across the city crush

And Anna gave her orders, ‘team, go at em from the jump’

No use to try for fancy buying – rush!

 

And they found them, some in clusters and some they were alone

They chased them down like bloodhounds on their tracks

But there were only 49 when they turned their heads for home

And in boxes and in handbags brought them back.

 

But one was there, a stripling, with sore and blistered feet

She wouldn’t rest until she found the final prize

She was hard and tough and wiry, just the sort who won’t say die

There was courage in her quick impatient eye

And her bright gaze saw one loitering in a darkened bookshop aisle

And she snatched it up and held it to the sky

And she shouted to the heavens with the book above her head

We have not failed the festival, this book will now be read

 

So down by Kosciusko where the pine-clad ridges raise

Their torn and rugged battlements on high

Where the air is clear as crystal and the white stars fairly blaze

At midnight in the cold and frosty sky

In  the Thredbo Alpine Schuss Bar where the readers come to stay

Those yellow stripes are shining with the best

And the HarperCollins sales team are a household word today

And the author tells the story of their quest

 

You can catch me and the captured books at the Snowy Mountains Writers Festival over the Easter weekend.  Top of nine degrees in Thredbo today so bring the woolies!

Romantic comedy with a twist – my review of ‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion

14 Mar

‘The Rosie Project’ is Graeme Simsion’s first novel and it has taken off with a bang, already selling into thirty countries. Simsion has previously written two non-fiction books as well as short stories, plays and screenplays. ‘The Rosie Project’, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2012, was originally a screenplay, written as part of Simsion’s studies at RMIT.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics. He has some unusual habits – his life is timed to the last minute, he eats exactly the same meals at the same time every week, he is a master of Aikido but has trouble with social situations. While the author never says as much, the reader deduces that Don may have Asperger’s syndrome. Don himself doesn’t recognise this, however. When he gives a lecture on Asperger’s, a friend asks him if the symptoms remind him of anyone he knows and they do – one of the other professors.

When Don decides that he needs a wife, he approaches this task as he does the rest of his life, with efficiency. A questthe-rosie-projectionnaire is what he needs, he decides, ‘to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers…’ Don’s questionnaire for ‘The Wife Project’ is both extensive and discriminating. But then along comes Rosie – a smoker, a barmaid, a vegetarian. She is totally unsuitable, but yet Don can’t seem to stop himself from spending time with her.

Don is a wonderful character, who maintains his consistently original persona throughout. There are many delightful one-liners and a couple of laugh out loud moments due to the gap between Don’s view of the world and that of others. When a woman who is clearly interested in him asks him out for a chat he quizzes her on how he should prepare, ‘What specific topics are you interested in?’ When Rosie says, ‘You want to share a taxi?’ Don reflects that it seemed a sensible use of fossil fuel. And when asked if he has ever had sex, Don confirms that he has, on his doctor’s orders, but then ponders that it might become more complicated when there are two people involved.

Simsion acknowledges the inspiration he has gained from classic romantic comedy movies. ‘Cary Grant would have made a perfect Don,’ he says. This book is funny, witty and intelligent – I finished it with a smile on my face.

 

Boomerang Books are currently giving away copies of ‘The Rosie Project’ and ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’, enter here

If you happen to be in the vicinity of the Snowy Mountains over Easter, and it is a lovely time in the mountains, do come along and see me talking about romantic comedy and landscapes at the Snowy Mountains Writers Festival. 

And, don’t forget that if your book group would like to do ‘Liar Bird’, I have a special offer for book groups

 

 

 

You know what they say about sex – what’s in a name?

9 Jan

I have terrible trouble with book titles. My first novel, ‘Liar Bird’, started off being called (ahem) ‘Toading – a tale of lies, lust and feral pests.’ Yes, it’s quite embarrassing, but I feel better for having shared. Clearly it was never going to make it to a bookshop near you with a title like that. My good friend Jane Camens came up with the title ‘Liar Bird’ and I never looked back.

So, you are now asking no doubt – what title did I used to have for ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’Sex Lies title before alighting on this one? Well, it used to be called, ‘The Greatest Child Failure in History.’ The protagonist, Edie, believes she is a terrible failure because she doesn’t surf, unlike her surf-champ dad. The trouble was that as the story grew; this particular theme didn’t feel quite as central as it was in the start. Some folks also gently suggested that it was not a very good title. In fact it was a bit of a downer.

So, I had a powwow with my publisher and she suggested ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’.  Just off the top of her head in a coffee shop. Just like that. It totally fits with the story. It looks great on the cover of the book. It’s easy to say. And of course it has that magic word – sex.

But is sex a double-edged sword? It has been suggested that the key to a good cover is that people should not feel embarrassed reading it on the train in the morning.  Hence those dreary grey covers that have proliferated in bookshops this year. Anyway, there’s no mistaking my cover for one of those. It’s bright, it’s beautiful and I couldn’t love it more.

I now suspect that the duller the cover, the more suspicious your fellow commuters will be as to what lies within. What do you think?

Our town is like the twelve days of Christmas…

22 Dec

Edie in my book ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ has just fled Sydney and moved back to her home town, a small village on the north coast of New South Wales. As she re-discovers, no one is anonymous in a small town…

Here’s a short extract.surfing_santa

“The nice part about living in Darling Head, as opposed to Sydney, is that you do know who you are dealing with. I sometimes think our town is like the twelve days of Christmas. On the twelfth day of Christmas, Darling Head sent to me:

Twelve trained baristas

Eleven school teachers

Ten sporty nurses

Nine well-dressed lawyers

Eight pretty hair dressers

Seven fashion retailers

Six surfing doctors

Five real estate agents

Four surfboard shapers

Three drug dealers

Two millionaire developers

And a milkman in a white van

To be honest, you don’t normally see that many lawyers and I think there might be more than three drug dealers, but you get the picture. In our town, no-one is anonymous.”

How about your town?

You can win a copy of ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ at Book’d Out (Australian residents only) or Goodreads (Aust, NZ, Canada, US, GB)

Happy Christmas and best wishes for the season.

A few off-cuts of deer sausages – stuff I found on the cutting room floor

17 Dec

It is quite instructive looking back at old computer files from a novel in progress. It’s a bit like baby photos – oh, I never imagined it would grow up like that! Today, I went back into a file from 2008, which is when – apparently – I first started writing the book that is now ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’. Only four years… nothing in the scheme of things.

In the finished version the protagonist, Edie, recites a short poem titled ‘Three deer and a sheep’. This poem started life as a short story, which became shorter and shorter then morphed into verse. It was inspired by a deer hunter I met in New Zealand who shared his recipe for deer sausages with me – add one sheep for every three deer.

I thought I’d share a little of the story here, and if you’d like to see the finished version, you can read the book preview here. The story is written from two points of view – a single mother and a deer hunter.

 

Three deer and a sheep

 

It rains a lot in Glenorchy. The clouds descend over the mountains bringing with them a damp chill. But today – today, the fog lifts. I step onto the veranda and the mountain tops are covered in a dusting of snow. The sun shines through gaps in the clouds and for the first time since I got off the bus, I have a feeling that things might work out.

But then I see the deer.

It is lying on my veranda with its neck twisted at an unnatural angle. I step closer, not breathing. Blood seeps from a wound in its chest. I look around quickly, but there is no-one there. Then I see the tire tracks leading down my driveway, disappearing into the morning mist.

Someone came early this morning and dumped this dead deer on my veranda. But why? Is it a threat?

 

I’d had a good night’s hunting. Almost got swept away in the river though. Had to open the doors as I drove through to let it run through the car or it would have taken me with it.

I felt sorry for her, a woman on her own. Thought she could use a bit of meat. She looked pale. The kids did too. There’s a lot of iron in venison. If the kids don’t like venison she can make it into sausages.  It’s a bit lean though, deer. For the best sausages, you really need to add a sheep. That’s the go. Three deer and a sheep…

 

And there is so much more where this came from…

 

The ebook version of ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ goes on sale tomorrow at Amazon and iTunes. Print version available in a number of locations January 1stsausage

The Shy Erotic Writer (how do you explain to your mother that it might be best to skip a page?)

23 Nov

Monday was a very exciting day. A box of my new book ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ arrived on my doorstep. So excited, so very, very excited. I felt like a kid on Christmas Day. And – this is probably going to sound a little pathetic – I took myself off to bed to read it. Yes, I have read it before… But not in a book!

 

So, there I was in bed, happily reading away until I got to page 34. And then I encountered a word that stopped me in my tracks. Here is the strange thing, the whole time I was writing the book, and even editing it, I somehow managed to convince myself that no-one else was ever going to read it. It’s funny the games your mind plays.

 

Because if I’d been thinking of all the people who might potentially read this book, I never would have left the ‘c’ word in. Yes that word. Only once. On page 34. And there is a context – it’s not gratuitous. But still.

 

And now, of course, I am thinking about my mother. And my mother-in-law. And all my mother-in-law’s friends who are going to get a very poor impression of me because I used that word. Not to mention the neighbours. And my kids’ teachers…

 

I’ve had a few people tell me that my last book ‘Liar Bird’ was a bit raunchy. That worries me because if ‘Liar Bird’ was raunchy, that would make ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ the new ‘50 Shades of Grey’. Which it totally isn’t  Really, there’s just the odd bit of sex here and there and it all advances the plot. As much as I might like to get on the erotic fiction bandwagon I think it’s taken off without me.

 

I’m open to suggestions from anyone as to how to tackle this delicate issue with regard to my mother and my mother-in-law. I could:

 

a.. pretend that the book never got printed due to tough economic times.

b. get out the whiteout, or

c. add a note with an apology from my editor, explaining that she made me do it…

or perhaps

d. flee the country never to return.

 

What do you think?

Sex, Lies and a Book Trailer

2 Nov

Opinion is divided about book trailers. Some think they work, some think they don’t. Some, like Jonathan Franzen, are fundamentally opposed to them, but do one anyway. See Franzen’s grouchy take on a book trailer for ‘Freedom’ here.

Me, I have no idea, but I’ve done one anyway. Why? Just because it’s fun. And maybe they work… Who knows?

I don’t have any high profile friends, like Gary Shteyngart, who called on James Franco, Jeffrey Eugenides and others to act in his video for ‘Super Sad True Love Story.’ But what I do have is… a talented teenage son. Lucky me.

So here’s my trailer for ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai.’ It’s thirty seconds long. It’s set in Lennox Head (as is the book). It’s got SEX. It’s got LIES and there’s even a BONSAI. Featuring me on the computer keyboard, me on vocals, with all cinematography by Tim. (here’s his YouTube site)

What do you think about book trailers? Do you reckon they work?