After Dark, Haruki Murakami

After Dark

Translated by Jay Rubin

Haruki Murakami (1949 – ) is Japan’s “best-known novelist abroad”. I came to him late, borrowing an audio book version of 1Q84 from my local library one or two years ago. The opportunity to read this one came up when I saw our house in the Rue de la Tombe Issoire had a shelf of English language Murakami’s, selected this one as the shortest, and knocked it off in one night (that is, I read it, I didn’t take it with me). But I’ll have to make room in my posting schedule to fit it in.

After Dark (2004) is both short – 200pp – and unlike 1Q84, relatively straightforward, but still with elements that occupy the space between SF and magic realism. A young woman is sitting in a cafe, a Dennys, late at night, reading.

She is probably college freshman age, though an air of high school still clings to her. Hair black, short, and straight. Little make-up, no jewellery. Small, slender face. Black-rimmed glasses. Every now and then, an earnest wrinkle forms between her brows.

She’s pretty, but we learn that she doesn’t think so herself. A lanky, young man with long, tangled hair comes in and, after a minute, joins her at her table. It appears that he has met her before,  on a sort of date with her spectacularly good looking older sister. The name of the young woman is Mari, and her sister is Eri. It is only later that we discover the young man’s name, Takahashi.

Takahashi leaves. He’s a trombonist in a band having an all-night practice session in a near-by warehouse. Later, a big, athletic woman, Kaoru, comes in, a former wrestler now managing a love hotel. A Chinese prostitute has been beaten and abandoned. Takahashi who sometimes helps out at the love hotel, has told Kaoru that Mari speaks Chinese. Mari goes off with Kaoru.

Murakami’s voice alternates between narration and observation.

The room is dark, but our eyes gradually adjust to the darkness. A woman lies in bed asleep. A young, beautiful woman: Mari’s sister, Eri. Eri Asai. We know this without having been told so by anyone… We allow ourselves to become a single point of view, and we observe her for a time.

There is a television in the bedroom. The screen shows a seated man staring out into the room. Sometimes the screen flickers. Later in the book Eri’s bed is empty, the bedding undisturbed, but through the screen we see that, somewhere, she sleeps on. When she eventually wakes she seems unable to make her way back.

With Mari translating, Kaoru and her workmates patch up the Chinese woman. Mari feels they might have been friends if circumstances weren’t dragging them in radically different directions. The Chinese woman is picked up by her minder on a motorbike. Throughout the night the bike cruises past Mari and Takahashi. They don’t notice.

Mari talks to the women at the love hotel, to Takahashi who has cut short his rehearsal. Mari’s parents have concentrated all their attention on Eri and her modelling career, Mari is the ‘plain’, sporty one. She can’t go home, something is wrong with her sister, she, Eri won’t wake up. Takahashi has decided to give up music and concentrate on his studies to become a lawyer. We find that Eri has confided in Takahashi, who was in her year at school, but not in her circle. The night passes.

Allowing ourselves to become pure point of view, we hang in midair over the city. What we see now is a gigantic metropolis waking up. Commuter trains of many colours move in all directions, transporting people from place to place. Each of those under transport is a human being with a different face and mind, and at the same time each is a nameless part of the collective entity.

Mari finds a way to begin bridging the gap to Eri.  After Dark is a good read, and  just sufficiently weird to keep you intrigued.

In the rue de la Tombe Issoire we are sitting up late, watching new episodes of Big Bang Theory on British TV. Geology daughter says “if it’s written by a man, with that cover” then she doesn’t want to read it. She’s right, Murakami is telling us women’s stories, of being in the beauty industry, of being a sister, so now I am unsure. You will have to decide for yourself.

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Staircase and skylight

Haruki Murakami, After Dark, first pub. 2004, this ed. translated by Jay Rubin, Harvill Secker, London, 2007

see also this comprehensive guide to reading Murakami in the blog Book Oblivion (here)

 

From the Wreck, Jane Rawson

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SS Admella was an Australian passenger steamship  shipwrecked on a submerged reef off the coast of Carpenter Rocks, south west of Mount Gambier South Australia, in the early hours of Saturday 6 August 1859. Survivors clung to the wreck for over a week and many people took days to die as they glimpsed the land from the sea and watched as one rescue attempt after another failed. With the loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure… the Admella disaster remains the greatest loss of life in the history of European settlement in South Australia. Of the 113 on board 24 survived, including only one woman, Bridget Ledwith. Wikipedia (here)

Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but there was another survivor, an interstellar, shape-shifting alien, and Jane Rawson’s latest fantastic novel, From the Wreck (2017) is its story.

I’ve found it always difficult to review Rawson, her stories have surprises on every page, and to reveal even one is to lessen the impact. So what can I say? The action revolves around a steward on the Admella, George Hills. George is saving to marry his sweetheart, Eliza, though he wouldn’t mind some fun in the meanwhile and Bridget Ledwith, who may or may not be the woman he saw talking to the racehorses in the ship’s hold, has a nice arse.

He gets his wish, although not quite in the way he might have hoped, spends eight days locked in the arms of the woman who may have been Ledwith after the ship breaks up on the reef and the survivors huddle on deck awaiting rescue. In my recent review of Tasma’s A Sydney Sovereign I quote Tasma’s use of the word ‘anthropophagi’, it’s a word that might usefully be reprised here.

George, and of course Ledwith, are among the 24. She disappears, he is persuaded to marry Eliza. They settle in Port Adelaide, in a home for seamen, and go on to have three children, boys Henry, Georgie and Wills. The shape-shifting alien has its own point of view about what may or may not have happened over the course of the wreck and subsequently, in its own way, and only on the edge of George’s awareness, it too takes its place in George’s household.

George senses the alien’s influence, both during the shipwreck and in his new home, as a malevolent presence associated with or arising from Bridget Ledwith; advertises for Bridget Ledwith to reveal herself, but only false Bridgets reply. In the stables behind the home for seamen lives an old woman, of course a witch, with the care of her teenage daughter’s abandoned son; George applies to her to lift the curse; she cannot. Henry knows the alien best, but he is just a boy growing up, and he keeps what he knows to himself. This is the alien’s story:

On a planet, all ocean, there was a small, happy person living small and happy and quiet in her own small niche, her own small place, her own quiet space. Born, grew, lived, loved, ate. The sun, that star, shining on her one happy face.

One day they came out of the sky and her world filled up with dirt and everyone she knew died. She fought and killed and everyone else she didn’t know died and everyone who was left fled. She, they, all of them tumbled into another time, space, dimension and she fell into a new ocean in a place called earth.

Henry reveals a little of what he has learned to Mrs Gallwey, the witch-woman, and maybe back in Sydney she knew a sailor from California who had experienced some of what Henry is experiencing. The alien, lonely with just the company of a school-age boy, is excited and forms the intention of making her way to California, with or without Henry. Without, as it turns out, but her quest is interrupted mid voyage and she spends some time at the bottom of the ocean, comfortable and well-fed, but lonely, and must perforce make her way back to Port Adelaide, to Henry just getting used to being ordinary, and to George, who for a while, felt as though a spell had been lifted.

There’s a tragedy. The shape-shifting alien is not to blame, nor Henry for that matter. George drinks a lot. Bridget Ledwith makes an appearance. Much is resolved. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, as fantastical as, but less gritty than Rawson’s debut novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists; nineteenth century Port Adelaide, and George and Eva’s extended family play a much bigger part than I have given any idea of here. I advise you all to buy it, and hope Jane is already working on her next. She is a remarkable talent.

 

Jane Rawson, From the Wreck, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2017


The official launch is on 21 March 2017 at 7.00pm at the Sun bookshop in Yarraville (more here)

I think Jane has already nominated the perfect review, Linda Godfrey at Newtown Review of Books. I’m not game to read it, for fear of discovering my mistakes, but you may. It, and a couple of others including Lisa at ANZLL’s, are linked to Jane’s post Welcome to the World, From the Wreck.

My reviews of Jane Rawson’s previous works (of fiction) –
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) here
Formaldehyde (2015) here

Women’s SF, Nnedi Okorafor, Liz Williams

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I’ve made the generalization before that mainstream (guy’s) SF is ideas and action driven and that women’s SF is more character driven. Nevertheless, the three books I review here contain a lot of action. In my younger days I read extensively in the SF field before Fantasy started to take over and still do to some extent. Lots of SF circulates around my family, it’s still my son’s main field of reading and long-suffering x-Mrs Legend copped a Cixin Liu for her recent birthday, mostly so as I’d eventually get to read it.

Apart from the great Ursula Le Guin, non-fantasy women’s SF has been hard to come by. Ann McCaffery is ok in small doses, and I have some good books from The Women’s Press Science Fiction series. They “hope that the series will encourage more women both to read and to write science fiction, and give the traditional science fiction readership a new and stimulating perspective.” I think they did, but that was 30 years ago.

As it happens, I’ve read/listened to some excellent  women’s SF over the past month, and although my original intention was just escapism, I thought I would knock up a review. Interestingly, some recent Australian women’s writing, even apart from Sue Parritt (here) who writes straight SF, has had an SF feel to it too. In the last year I’ve reviewed Jane Rawson’s  A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (here), Georgia Blain’s Special (here), Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (here) and Ellen van Neerven’s story Water (here).

Nnedi Okorafor (1974-) is US born of Nigerian parents, did a lot of her growing up in Nigeria, and going by the many prizes she has been awarded, is readily accepted as both an American and an African writer. I listened to Who Fears Death (2010) while I was working and then, when I couldn’t find a paper copy for this review, borrowed The Book of Phoenix (2015) which is billed as a prequel.

It seems, on my limited reading, that Nigerian Lit. contains a great deal of spiritualism (not magic realism!) and particularly in SF, this flows along quite naturally. The story of Who Fears Death is an allegory for the war in the Sudan, between the Muslim/Arabic north and the sub-Saharan African (‘Igbo’) south. It is set in a post-apocalyptic desert where the light-skinned and more technologically advanced Nuru from the north are encroaching on the lands of the darker Okeke. Najeeba, an Okeke woman is raped by a Nuru man who turns out to be the sorcerer Daib, and bears a mixed race daughter, Onyesonwu, who will be the victim of prejudice from both the Nuru and the Okeke. After 6 years living in the desert Najeeba and Onyesonwu settle in an Okeke town where Onyesonwu is educated, initiated (by genital mutilation) with 3 other girls who become her friends, becomes accepted, despite being female, as an apprentice sorcerer with considerable powers, and then takes her friends and her boyfriend on a quest across the desert to defeat Daib. This is a powerful and well written story and I highly recommend it.

Despite having listened to Who Fears Death both before and after reading The Book of Phoenix, I was unable to see any but the most tenuous connection. Nevertheless, it is a powerful work of SF in its own right. Okorafor blogged (here):

These two novels are sisters. Close sisters. But not twins…  Similar, but different. How do the stories connect? Who is Phoenix to Onyesownu and Onyesonwu to Phoenix? You’ll have to read them to find out. Don’t bother going in with expectations; you’ll probably be wrong. ;-).

The setting is a near future, in the USA, where the genetic engineering of humans has been commercialized and militarized. Phoenix Okore is a two-year old but mature “accelerated woman” living in Tower 7, LifeGen’s laboratory complex in New York. At first content just to consume data, Phoenix begins to interact with her fellow ‘speciMen’, aquires a lover, then, when he is killed, breaks out, destroying Tower 7 in the process. Becoming ever more powerful, she rampages across the USA and Africa, bringing the Apocalypse:

Not just New York. I scorch the earth, Yes, I can do that. I am that. Phoenix Okore blew across the earth. She burned the cities. Turned the oceans to steam. She was the reaper come to reap what was sown…. Let them die. Let everything die.

It is true that some of the ‘science’ verges on magic, as well as calling on the African god, Ani, but really, the only weak part of the book is the framing narrative, of an African nomad, discovering a trove of ancient, but somehow still working, computers in a cave. He fires one up and listens to Phoenix’s story.

Another blogger (here) writes, “Phoenix’s voice is so powerful in narrating her own tale that not only the anger but the dignity and determination of an entire oppressed people comes through.”

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Liz Williams (1965-) is a British SF writer with a PhD in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge. Bloodmind (2007) apparently follows on from Darkland (2006) but is easily read on its own. Despite the fact that SF publishers love a series, I couldn’t find any mention that Williams had gone on to #3 (though she has written other series).

Bloodmind is set in a distant future where humans have colonized many planets and have engaged in genetic engineering to facilitate this. The story switches between the points of view of three women, each on separate planets, until they eventually come together. Vali is a young woman, a soldier whose people are on the losing side of a war on the planet Muspell. Hunan is an older woman, leading a colony of women who have escaped from a city where they had been genetically engineered to be subservient to their husbands. And Sedra, also an older woman, is a hunter at the end of her useful life who is leaving her community to return to the wilds where she will die.

Each woman is well drawn and we care what happens to them. Vali is recruited to go to Sedra’s planet to capture a powerful renegade who turns out to be the daughter of Sedra’s long-lost sister. Although there is inter-planetary travel and some fancy weaponry, most of the science turns on men genetically engineering women for their own benefit (or protection!). As with the Okorafor novels, there are some guys, but they definitely take second place. All three books provide an interesting take on the Independent Woman as super-hero.

 

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death, Brilliance Audio (15 hours), 2010. Read by Anne Flosnik

Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix, Daw Books, New York, 2015

Liz Williams, Bloodmind, Tor, London, 2007

Re super heroes, Helen Razer is at her scathing best in this article on the appointment of Wonder Woman as UN Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.

Special, Georgia Blain

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Special (2016), YA science fiction, is Australian author Georgia Blain’s 7th novel and her second ‘Young Adult’. 2016 has also seen the release of Blain’s eighth, Between a Wolf and a Dog, and also the unhappy news that she has brain cancer (SMH story). I’m not sure how I came into possession of Special, I just noticed it one day sideways in a bookshelf, which is what I do with books I’m waiting to read, one of a stack handed to me by an ex-wife or daughter I guess. I have, and vaguely remember reading, Blain’s first two, so I decided to give it a go.

I’ve read some YA but not much. When I was growing up I went straight from Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton (all right, I still read William books) to adult fiction, as I’m sure most of you did too (not counting one blogger with Sweet Valley High addiction!), maybe some Ivan Southall and ES Ellis and, when they came out, Harry Potter. Special is a good story but suffers in my mind, not from being didactic exactly, but from too obviously putting up issues for kids to discuss.

The setting is a near-ish future, in an unnamed location, after ‘the Breakdown’, and is well imagined. Nation-states are gone, corporations are in control, privileged employees live in company towns with manicured surrounds and clean air. Ordinary workers live in little flats with shared facilities in grimy towers and the underclass in shanties around the base of the towers, queuing for casual work or begging from the marginally less underprivileged. Data is currency and the air is full of mediastreams, moving images that cannot be avoided without data.

Fern, the protagonist, is one of four girls who by virtue of their worker parents winning Lotto, have been genetically enhanced and admitted to Halston, a school run by the BioPerfect corporation for the genetically enhanced daughters of rich parents.

“I’m a Lotto girl. They use us. Sometimes it’s just to fill a gap in the market, sometimes they want to try out a new model. They might want to test the success of a teacher with more imagination. They finetune and shape and sculpt and then they have us – a prototype for a possible next version. They encourage our parents or bribe them. Mine were told I would be beautiful as well if they selected the menu option BioPerfect wanted.”

There they are house mothered by Margaret, herself crafted by BioPerfect to be an infertile carer. Fern is proud of her attributes in the field of communications – creating mediastreams – and is happy to lose touch with her parents and her brother. The other three are less so and two of them are deemed failures in terms of BioPerfect’s ambitions for them.

We learn much of this as Fern, aged 17 or 18, regains consciousness and memory after apparently being datawiped and dumped in a worker compound with, according to the data on her mobie, a new identity. She survives as a ReCorp trash sifter and grudgingly accepts the assistance of Chimo, a young man who befriends her. She has a memory that her removal, and that of the other Lotto girls, from Halston was engineered by Margaret for their protection, but as time passes she cannot contact them and no one comes to rescue her.

Eventually, she falls for Chimo and reveals to him her previous life as a Halston girl and her belief that she is in hiding from BioPerfect. Chimo helps Fern to make contact with her long-lost brother and through him, with the resistance organisation to which Margaret seemingly belongs. Blain’s descriptions of data as layered and tactile, of Fern diving into the data and leaving clues in order to be contacted while avoiding surveillance, is reminiscent of the much grittier and more detailed descriptions in William Gibson cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer (1984).

Without giving away too much, Fern ends up once more with BioPerfect and seemingly in control of her own destiny. The dilemma she has to resolve is that throughout the course of the story, neither side sees her as a person. Both the corporation and the resistance seem to be using her as evidence in an argument over genetic design vs targeted education. I’m a black and white kind of guy and although Blain does suggest a resolution I’d have been happier if she/Fern more obviously took sides.

 

Georgia Blain, Special, Random House, Sydney, 2016

For a review of Blain’s earlier work see Lisa at ANZLL here and also a guest review by Karenlee Thompson of Blain’s short story collection The Secret Lives of Men here.

Pia and the Skyman, Sue Parritt

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Sue Parritt’s Pia and the Skyman is the sequel to Sannah and the Pilgrim (2014) and the second in a planned science fiction trilogy set in an Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) four centuries into the future. The third, The Skylines Alliance, is apparently underway.

It is a truism of SciFi that wherever/whenever the novel is set, the narrative deals with problems which are contemporary to the author. So early SciFi of the 1950s-1970s, the Golden Age as far as I am concerned, dealt with the Cold War and the aftermath of seemingly inevitable nuclear war, later SciFi (CyberPunk) dealt with computers and the growing underclass in Western societies, and today’s SciFi (or CliFi) deals with global warming and population movements.

Parritt writes on her website

I was inspired by the continuing inhumane treatment of refugees seeking asylum in Australia and the government’s failure to adequately address climate change.

I want readers to grasp what is happening not only in contemporary Australia, but throughout the world with regard to refugees and the ongoing environmental degradation that poses increasing problems for humanity…

In ‘Pia and the Skyman,’ I focus on a tiny population forced to flee their home and the ramifications when a significant percentage are refused asylum due to unacceptable difference. By writing fiction that I believe could easily become fact, I hope to inspire more ‘ordinary’ people to take a stand and work for a more equitable and sustainable world.

The Australia and Aotearoa of Pia and the Skyman are ravished by drought, and coastal plains have been inundated by rising sea levels. An apartheid-like system is in place in Australia, with the Whites who of course retain power, although they are greatly impoverished compared with today, living on what remains of the arable southern and eastern coastal fringe; Browns, refugee populations from largely drowned Pacific Islands, are confined to the central desert; and Asians are in factory and farming villages in the north. The Indigenous population has apparently been wiped out by disease. The people of Aotearoa live mostly on the south island, and the northern part of the north island is a haven for Brown refugees from Australia.

Pia, a young woman, is the daughter of the eponymous Sannah of the previous title. She has been rescued from a desert prison by the ‘skyman’ and brought to Aotearoa where she is active in the Women’s Line, a Resistance/Underground Railroad-type organisation. Kaire, the skyman of the title, is a visitor from Skyz59, a remote space platform, settled some two centuries earlier. He uses his ‘inter-galactic’, 10 seater space vessel for trips between Australia and Aotearoa, neither of which have planes of their own.

I should say at this point that I haven’t read Sannah and the Pilgrim. I attempted to buy it after reading Lisa of ANZLL’s review (here) but my local bookshop could only source it from the US. Lisa was good enough to put me in touch with the author who sold me the copies I wanted and also kindly provided me with a review copy of Pia. However, I am pretty sure you can buy both books at Dymocks or from the publisher, Odyssey.

Pia and Kaire, become lovers early on (it is not regarded as remarkable that previously Kaire was Sannah’s, ie. Pia’s mother’s, lover), so their romance is a given rather than contributing to narrative tension. They undertake a series of adventures in Kaire’s spaceship, rescuing 5 women from an underground prison in the Australian desert; and on another occasion, leaving the ship hidden in scrub while they infiltrate the Asian zone, acting as White education officials, escaping from flash floods and arrest.

When Kaire receives a message recalling him to Skyz59, which is approaching the end of its working life, Pia determines to accompany him, in defiance of his instructions. The Aotearoans are willing to accept the hundreds of residents of the space station as refugees, and all Sky-ship pilots have been recalled from their various explorations to undertake their transport. But there is a problem, many of the people on Skyz59 have been created by cloning, rather than in the old-fashioned way, and clones are unacceptable on Earth. Kaire himself is a clone and Pia expects that once he has transported his consignment of refugees to Earth he will return to pick her up and they will spend what remains of their lives exploring the galaxies.

The Skyz59 people resolve the clone problem in their own way and Pia and Kaire, once more on Earth, have yet another adventure in northern Australia tracking down an informer in the Women’s Line network.

This is science fiction in the old way, with lots of action and only minimal characterisation. The science itself is a bit dodgy, with instantaneous communications over very large distances (although the great Le Guin ‘invented’ the ansible to deal with just this problem), and a space ship capable of inter-galactic flight being used for personal, sub-space transport*.  But overall, I found Pia and the Skyman to be a fun read and the geo-political problems it addresses totally realistic. I do however suggest you read Sannah and the Pilgrim first.

 

Sue Parritt, Pia and the Skyman, Odyssey Books, Melbourne, 2016

Book 3, The Sky Lines Alliance, is due out in October 2016.

*Inter-galactic distances are measured in millions of light years and even the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is 30,000 light years away. While Mars for instance is, on average, 12.5 light minutes from Earth, making for 25 minute gaps between speakers even over this relatively short distance.

Sue Parrit’s blog here

 

The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood

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My starting point for this post is a review of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things by Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) a couple of weeks ago where three things caught my attention. Firstly, as she writes, there have been a lot of nice things said about this book over the past few months – and of course it has now been short-listed for the 2016 Stella. I had it in the to-buy list on my desk jotter for a while and without going back to look, I think it must have appeared in a number of bloggers’ must-reads at the end of 2015.

Then, Lisa describes TNWoT as dystopic. I’ve been reading SF all my adult life, my family bonds around SF, and post-apocalyptic and then dystopian have been mainstream sub-genres since the 60s. But the point which really caught my attention was when Lisa described this book as a novel about male violence against women. As an ex-husband and father who often gets his own way, that is something to which I pay a lot of attention.

In the way of these things, TNWoT had by the time of Lisa’s review moved from the to-buy list to on the shelf for the waiting-to-be-reads – there’s a few of those! All I had to do was finish the post I was working on and start reading. And enjoying.

So, this is a fine book, deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it, and I’m only sorry it has such a pretty cover. Dystopian fiction is the natural home of young men and TNWoT is a book which young men should be reading, and if only it had a cover with blood and barbed wire and so forth on it, they might be. In the Comments after Lisa’s review, TNWoT is disparaged as ‘didactic’. This might be true for educated feminists for whom the message is old, but it wasn’t for me, and would be even less so for young men.

One last Lisa-ism, TNWoT is one of those books which to discuss is to give away its secrets. I agree, but I am proposing to ‘discuss’, though without, I hope, giving away the ending, so this is your last chance to slip away and read it first.

As we start, the prose is wooden, we try to get into it, worse, we feel the author trying to get into it, to get it flowing. But then, a certain flatness is appropriate to dystopian fiction. And, do you notice too, with any good book, you start, you feel yourself reading, and then an hour, or a week, later you open your eyes again, take in the world, realise that you have been ‘in’ the book, the book has been read, and you have been completely unconscious of the text. And so it was, for me, with TNWoT.

This is the story of women, two women in particular, Verla and Yolanda, through whose eyes the action is described, who find themselves arrested/kidnapped, imprisoned and transported to a remote and derelict station whose boundary is an impenetrable electric fence. Their gaolers, two young men, the violent Bonce and the drop-out Teddy, and their ineffectual nurse/sidekick, Nancy.

It gradually becomes clear to the women that the ‘crime’ for which they have been detained, their heads shorn, their clothes replaced with ill-fitting canvas tunics, their crime has been to be attractive to men, and to complain.

Verla – lover of her boss, a married politician

Yolanda – pack raped by her boyfriend’s football team mates

Hetty – petted on the knee of an archbishop

Lydia – drugged and raped on a cruise liner

and so on …

… they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

The women are marched linked together like convicts. We think of Kosovo, of the women there raped, imprisoned, murdered by Serbian troops. We think of the women our own government detains behind electrified barb wire for being brown, poor and muslim. And as the conditions of their detainment deteriorate, as it becomes obvious the gaolers too have been abandoned, we think, maybe, of Lord of the Flies. Yet, strangely, Verla, still, manages to think of ‘love’, of the volume of Walt Whitman with which Andrew, her boss, her lover wooed her –

You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me. She trudges over the grass, feels the working bones of her own narrow feet in the cold leather boots. And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart. The currawongs dropping their silvery notes. Verla feels the old slow heat rising in her with the recitation. That ‘stript’.

These might be, for Verla, the last remnants of normalcy. Yolanda is already just an animal, hunting animals for food. But that is as much of the plot as I can give you. Read this marvellous book for yourselves, or better still, buy it for your sons and boyfriends.

Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2015

Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven

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Heat and Light is a collection of stories. The main protagonists, and I guess van Neerven herself, are mostly young, female, Aboriginal, lesbian, all things that I’m not, but how else am I going to learn, and in any case there’s not all that much fiction about old, white guys and what there is I don’t find interesting.

The strongest stories are set in coastal Queensland and Northern NSW, van Neerven’s home country, and the descriptions of place are detailed, familiar. The weaker stories have a male protagonist – perhaps to give a view of the strong female from the ‘outside’ – or have a setting with which the author appears to be less at home. Of these, one, S & J, is set in Exmouth, WA, a remote fishing/government town, facing into Exmouth Gulf, 200 km from the nearest highway but van Neerven treats it as a generic east coast surf town plonked into the desert. The other WA story The Wheel is set in a community 400 km east of Broome (Nookanbah country maybe), but the location doesn’t matter in the way that it does in many of her stories, the desert setting, the abandoned ferris wheel, invoking the end of days in a JG Ballard sort of way which works quite well.

A third desert story, Currency, is placeless, in that a small family is on a road trip across an unnamed desert to ‘Boom’ where work is plentiful and wages are high. They overnight at a town with redgums and a sawmill – the only town that fits, on the edge of a desert, that I can think of, is Denniliquin, NSW – where their car is attacked, as they sleep inside, by camels or maybe by locals. The point is van Neerven uses this story directly, and many of the other stories, indirectly, to interrogate the myths of the Australian bush – mateship, independence, fair go – not as I attempt to do, and as van Neerven does elsewhere, through the Independent Woman, but by seeing through the eyes of the original inhabitants, the invisible other. In all the stories, even those in which the protagonist is middle class, a masters student, we feel the difference, of being looked at, of being not-white.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Heat, we get glimpses of one family, from various viewpoints over a number of generations. I liked particularly the first story, Pearl, swapping backwards and forwards without warning between two voices, a granddaughter learning about her grandmother from her grandmother’s friend.

The second section, Water, is one story, an SF-ish novella. It was years ago that I first encountered a sexually aware artefact in an SF story, Robert Sheckley’s Can You Feel it when I do that? where a housewife is seduced by an intelligent vacuum cleaner. It becomes clear that the ‘sandplants’ in Water, which the government is attempting to eradicate as it ‘develops’ their island habitat, are not artefacts, indeed what they actually are is the point of the story, but the seduction when it first occurs is if not shocking, at least a surprise.

Light, the third section, is a miscellany, but themed I guess around what it is to be Aboriginal and lesbian in this country. The final story Sound is a corker. A young women attempts to keep tabs on her mentally unsound brother as he falls apart. The ending will give you nightmares.

I have been attempting to say, over a series of posts, why I think white writers should avoid writing ‘black’ stories. One of the reasons is that often racial discrimination is made up of lots of little, maybe even unconscious, acts which a writer like van Neerven is able to make apparent precisely by not foregrounding them.

Another is that the undercurrents of the writing are different. I guess an Anglo writer could mimic “the blackfella fashion here is contagious. Kitty wears a flanno over a blackfella T-shirt with long floral red skirt and Dunlop volleys. I ain’t looking too flash like them mob here, even the little fellas with their basketball caps and mismatched sneakers.” (opening lines of Strike Another Match), but even when she is using ‘proper’ English, and she mostly does, van Neerven’s writing makes it clear these are stories by and about people of Aboriginal heritage: “[The baby] wasn’t painted up proper way, and there was no ceremony, the clapsticks had disappeared from the house, but Marie knew he’d grow up Kresinger; she knew how to do it right.” (ending of Skin)

This is a terrific book and I’m sorry I took so long to get round to reading it.

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, UQP, Brisbane, 2014

See also reviews by The Resident Judge of Port Phillip, Whispering Gums