100 Essential Books – The Golden Age- Joan London (Europa 2016)

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London’s third novel has already won several  prestigious awards in her native Australia and it’s very easy to see why.  It is a tale which begins with short chapters and beautifully drawn characterisation which draws the reader in right from the start.  The title is the name of (an actual) convalescent hospital for children with polio, giving them the chance to relearn how to walk.  It is set in the early 50’s in an Australia fascinated by their new Queen.

Main character, 13 year old Frank Gold, the oldest child at the hospital, is struck down with polio after emigrating from a difficult war as a Hungarian Jew.  Both parents are with him but their attempts at a new life are interrupted by this sudden and cruel illness.  It is a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.  Frank has aspirations to become a poet and in Elsa, another patient, he has found his muse.  The care for the children, their struggles and triumphs and the effects this stigmatizing disease has on their families is superbly handled.  At times it reminded me of the critically acclaimed TB hospital set “Dark Circle” by Linda Grant but here I found myself caring more making “The Golden Age” an even more satisfactory novel.

Written with a real flair for language it picks up on the perceptiveness of adolescents unable to move on with their own lives but absorbing everything around them.  This is a real treat- a poetic, warm, involving, even elegant novel based upon a hideous disease.

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An Australian multi-award winning novel

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The Golden Age was published in 2016 by Europa.  Many thanks to the publishers and Nudge-books for the review copy.

 

 

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Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador 2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A little while back I read Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel “The Good People”,  a dark sombre tale set in nineteenth century Ireland with superstition and folklore battling against religion and common sense.  A friend, who read and loved it recommended I seek out Kent’s debut and I am very glad I have.

This writer can certainly do atmosphere.  The claustrophobic smoke-filled peat huts of village Ireland are here replaced by the darkness, freezing conditions and damp wool of nineteenth century Iceland.  Like “The Good People” Kent has used a real-life case for this historical crime novel.  Here it is the plight of Agnes Magnusdottir whose claim for infamy is that she was the last person to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1834.

Following a spell in prison after the death of two men Agnes is sent out to lodge with a local official’s family to await her beheading and to get access to a local minister who would attempt to set her back on the right path.  Agnes had previously spent some time in the area where she had met a young Reverend who she nominates as the man to meet with her. With an Icelandic winter approaching escape from her situation is unlikely and she becomes involved with the work of the family in their preparation for winter.

Her tale is largely told in the one room of the farm with the family and workers, understandably wary of the murderess in their midst, listening in.

This is some debut with Kent totally abandoning the “write what you know” advice to recreate nineteenth century Iceland.  She had spent some time in the country as an exchange student.  This was when the location of the real-life Agnes’ execution was pointed out to here but this novel obviously required a vast amount of research and immersion into the environment to give its intense atmosphere and make it totally convincing.  Her absorption of Icelandic sagas is incorporated into the narrative style of the novel.  This is backed up with good use of documents and reports, which I’m loving in crime novels at the moment and which was the real strength of “His Bloody Project” another nineteenth century tale of murder in a small, isolated community.

The fate of Agnes and the truth about her incarceration is central to the novel and the theme of the woman outside the norm being seen as somehow wicked is a fairly universal one for the time when it was set.  Agnes could have indeed worked as a character in Victorian England but what Kent would have not been able to achieve is this intensity, the claustrophobia, the darkness and dampness nor the vivid impression of the life of these Icelandic folk.

If asked to choose between the two I might give “The Good People” a slight edge because I really enjoyed the way it incorporated Irish folklore into the story.  These two novels show Kent as a writer with so much potential.  I  was also fascinated by the author’s account of the writing of this novel in the back of the paperback edition I read.

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Burial Rites was published by Picador in 2013.

The Good People- Hannah Kent (Picador 2017)

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Having only very recently read another Picador publication “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue it is easy to see parallels between that and this book,  Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel.

Both are set in nineteenth century Irish villages and feature the highly questionable treatment of a child as central.  In both novels belief overshadows rational thought.  In “The Wonder” it is religious fervour which proclaims a child not eating as a sign of the miraculous, in “The Good People” religion is itself at odds with the lore of fairies and the superstition of deeply entrenched folklore.  The local priest can only speak out about this, his influence upon it is limited.  In many ways this makes for a book that is darker than Donoghue’s but both are equally effective.

When the son of Nora Leahy’s recently deceased daughter fails to develop in the way he should the locals believe that he is a changeling and that the real Michael has been swept away by the fairies (the “good people” of the title). It is when Nora seeks the help of the isolated local wise woman Nance (described by some as the “herb-hag”) that Nora begins to believe they can get the real Michael back.

The evocation of life in this Irish valley a day’s walk form Killarney, Co. Kerry, is very strong.  Is there currently some masterclass about recreating the hardships of nineteenth century rural life dominated by peat, mud and potatoes that both Kent and Donoghue attended as they both manage to get this over very convincingly.  It is a tough existence where the survival of the community is so much to the fore that superstition provides a strong grounding for luck or lack of it.  Kent has used a real incident as her starting point and has developed believable characters and highly plausible situations. At times this can make for difficult reading as misery is heaped on the unfortunate child “to put the fairy out of it.”

Anyone expecting tweeness so close to the realm of the fairies would be wrong.  What you get from this book is the real sense of how important folklore was to this village’s everyday existence.  This suggests seamless research as the book is saturated with the feel of the times.  It is dark, has a strong sense of foreboding, with inevitable tragedies and is a very involving read.

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The Good People is published in the UK hardback by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan  on the 9th February.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for an advance review copy.

The Wonder Lover – Malcolm Knox (Allen and Unwin 2016)

 

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Critically acclaimed Australian author and journalist Malcolm Knox’s fifteenth book is a tall tale of a serial bigamist.  John Wonder has three wives located in different countries and three sets of children all called Adam and Evie.  His life has become a balancing act for him to be the husband and father he is expected to be.  Narrated collectively, in a fashion, by the children this is the story (and it feels very much a story throughout) of how this came to be.

John Wonder has what I would have, as a child, considered a dream job.  Devoted to World records and Norris Mcwhirter’s work with Guinness in particular he is an Authenticator of record-breaking bids and his travels in this capacity have led to his philandering.  For a man so obsessed with order and facts his personal life hovers on the edge of  free-fall and things get worse for him when he falls in love with a woman associated with the world’s oldest person.  Wonder is a purposely bland individual, not wanting to stand out from the crowd.  We all know it is the quiet ones that need watching out for!

I very much enjoyed the first half of the book but did feel distanced by the narrative style.  Plot-wise I was looking to it to move on more.  Knox sets up well the complexity of the situation through the view point of the children but there was not the anticipated build.    I was looking forward to his duplicity being revealed and consequences being faced but the revelations were not as explosive as I was hoping.  I’m not sure where our sympathies are supposed to lie as readers, because the factual nature of the narrative presents us more with an understanding of the reasons for the events rather than empathy.

I would imagine that female-dominated reading groups would have a great time taking John Wonder to task but ultimately his tale is not as rich as I had hoped.

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The Wonder Lover was published by Allen and Unwin in April 2016