Review: “The Idea of Perfection” by Kate Grenville – Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

14.04.23 Idea of Perfection coverWinner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001 (now the Baileys Women’s Prize), The Idea of Perfection is in fact a novel about human (and architectural) imperfection in its many guises. The book’s two central characters are about as removed from the idea of perfection as you could imagine. Douglas Cheeseman is a jug-eared, socially inept bridge engineer who suffers from debilitating vertigo, while Harley Savage is a “big rawboned” museum textiles consultant recovering from a heart attack and three failed marriages. As such, they make for improbable romantic leads, and yet the novel centres around the burgeoning romance between this unlikely pair.

Harley and Douglas have come to the tiny backwater town of Karakarook in NSW for very different reasons – Harley to help establish the Karakarook Pioneer Heritage Museum, and Douglas to pull down the old, warped Bent Bridge and erect a modern replacement. The novel is a study of awkwardness so extreme it at times makes for hilarious reading. Early on in the book, Harley rescues Douglas from a herd of inquisitive cows after Douglas’s tactic of being “as boring as possible” fails to make the bovines lose interest in him. Further on, their first date – to the “oily” tea-room at a scenic look-out point – is toe-curling in the extreme.

The people of Karakarook (population 1,374) are themselves as hotch potch a bunch as you could imagine. There is the old shopkeeper who refuses to sell a bucket from the window display, in case a future customer mistakenly believes the shop does not stock that colour. Felicity the bank manager’s wife rations her facial expressions, for fear that smiling too much may give her wrinkles. And Coralie Henderson works in the Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe, which sells padded satin coat hangers and crocheted glasses cases, and little else. The attention to detail which Grenville exhibits in creating the little world of Karakarook is second to none, and helps to make the setting and its inhabitants believable. We’ve all driven through a Karakarook at one point or another in our lives, perhaps stopping to fill up on fuel and a meat pie, and wondering idly what it might be like to live in such a place.

However, Grenville treads a careful line between making her characters unwittingly comical, and allowing them to descend into caricature. As with the best comedy, in amongst the humour lies a seam of tragedy, and it is the suffering the characters have endured in their previous lives which helps to make them well-rounded and plausible. Both Harley’s and Douglas’s past misfortunes are revealed to us through candid inner monologues, which help the characters avoid becoming merely objects of our ridicule.

The Idea of Perfection is an engaging, poignant, and funny novel, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. I may only recently have discovered Kate Grenville‘s work, but I will be keen to read more of her.

Review: “Zac & Mia” by A. J. Betts – Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

A. J. Betts’ third Young Adult novel introduces us to gentle, mild-mannered Zac and feisty, irrepressible Mia, teenagers who come from different worlds but are thrown together in hospital as they both undergo treatment for cancer. An adjoining wall separates their rooms, and at first the teenagers can not see each other, only knocking on the wall to communicate. The early days of their friendship are fraught with moments of toe-curling awkwardness, told with an unshrinking honesty which will resonate with any reader who is, or remembers being, a teenager. We follow the characters as they leave hospital and try to assimilate back into their everyday lives, and it is here that the evidence of how fragmented their lives have become – how removed from the banal concerns of their schoolmates – is displayed with heartbreaking clarity.

Betts never shies away from presenting to us the grim realities of life with cancer, nor does she sentimentalise the plight of its sufferers. Instead, we are treated to an insight into the minds of modern day teenagers. The story is told from each teenager’s point of view in turn, and the characters leap from the page through their sharp and witty inner monologues. Zac is the calm one, trying to remain philosophical – almost stoical – about his condition. He comments wryly early on in the novel that “Cancer is a Facebook friend magnet. According to my home page, I’m more popular than ever. In the old days, people would have prayed for each other, now they Like and Comment as if they’re going for a world record.” In contrast, Mia is passionate, angry, full of hate against the world around her for the misfortune which has befallen her. “No more trying my luck with bus drivers or girlfriends or ex-boyfriends or mothers or doctors or random strangers who once stayed in adjoining hospital rooms and fed me bullshit lies. Everyone lies. … Fuck ’em all”, she rants.

Although marketed at young adults, Zac & Mia is so much more than just a novel for (or about) teenagers. The novel captures perfectly the frustration, awkwardness and vulnerability with which teenage lives are fraught during the uneasy transition to adulthood – and then throws into the mix a deadly disease, the effects of which the characters must come to terms with as they try to recapture some normality in their lives. The characters are true to life and easily recognisable to anybody who has ever been searching to find their place in the world. I absolutely took the characters of Zac and Mia into my heart, and didn’t want to let them go when the story ended.

Elegantly written and well paced, this is a book about wanting to fitting in, wanting to break out, finding your place in the world, and learning to trust others when you are at your most vulnerable. Winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing and currently longlisted for the 2014 Gold Inky Awards, Zac & Mia is currently receiving a lot of attention and praise, both of which are richly deserved.

I loved this book, and I defy any reader not to do the same!

Review: “Elemental” by Amanda Curtin – Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

14.03.18 Elemental Book CoverAmanda Curtin’s second novel tells the story of Meggie Tulloch, born in the late nineteenth century in a remote corner of Scotland which, after centuries of unchanging tradition, now finds itself in a state of flux. Meggie’s family are fishing people, however the work is becoming scarce for the menfolk of the village of Roanhaven, a situation which turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Meggie and her older sister Kitta, who escape the suffocating patriarchy of home by finding work gutting fish, first in the Shetland Isles and then further afield in England. As Meggie puts it, “I am breathing it into me, this wondrous something new… I have felt freedom in my lungs.” From this first taste of freedom, Meggie eventually ends up traveling halfway around the world, to start a new life in Fremantle, Western Australia. Along the way, she suffers physical and mental pain, heartache and loss, but she never abandons the one thing nobody can take from her – hope.

The novel is written as a sequence of memoirs from an old, ailing Meggie to her granddaughter. Although this model is not new, it never feels laboured or trite here, and Meggie’s voice, rich with the dialect of her native Scotland, is distinctive and believable. Curtin shows a deft skill for the English language, using it to perfectly capture the raw, vivid details of scenery and character. From the bitterly cold winds of Scotland to the overwhelming stench of tonnes of fish guts, Curtin describes Meggie’s world with a lightness of touch and a humour which belie the vast amount of research which must have gone into a historical novel such as this.

Meggie is a lovable, fallible, character, and it is perhaps unfortunate that we bid farewell to her about two-thirds of the way through the novel, when the narrative turns to focus on her granddaughter Laura and Laura’s daughter-in-law. These two women are dealing with their own issues centring around Laura’s son, who is in a coma in hospital, however their characters, taking centre stage so late in the book, appeared somewhat flat to me, obvious literary constructs rather than living, breathing people in my imagination. This is in contrast to the vibrant, three-dimensional Meggie, and I found it hard to warm to them or their struggles, which seemed a bit of an irrelevancy. By the time we get back to tying up the loose ends of Meggie’s tale towards the end of the novel, her story seems to have cast adrift, and the novel’s denouement comes as something of an anti-climax, which it shouldn’t, considering the immensity of what Meggie reveals.

All in all, Elemental is a finely written novel by an author who clearly knows her craft very well. I did, however, struggle at times to lose myself within its pages, instead finding myself studying the elements of the writing as though it were a fine oil painting whose brushstrokes I was admiring. Whether this is a reflection of the book itself or my own state of mind during my reading of it, I cannot say.

2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

awwbadge_2014I have joined the party later than most (I like to think of it as being fashionably late) and signed up to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I was inspired to sign up and make the pledge to read and review books by Australian female authors while attending the 2014 Perth Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago. I heard a number of authors speak during the day, and the ones who inspired me the most (and by that I mean, the ones whose books I bought on the day) were almost entirely Australian women authors – local authors, at that.

While at the festival, I also sat in on a talk about the Stella Prize – a literary award, now in its second year, which celebrates Australian women’s writing – and heard Stella Board Chairwoman Aviva Duffield speak of the discrepancy between the genders in book reviewing in the Australian media. The exact figures, in percentages, can be found here but the gist of the argument is that the vast majority of books reviewed in our major newspapers in 2011 and 2012 were written by men – in some cases as many as 80% of a newspaper’s total books reviewed, although across the board the figure tends to be closer to 60%. That’s nearly two thirds of all books reviewed in Australia written by men.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge attempts to redress this imbalance, and I am proud to be adding my voice to let it be known that there are excellent books being written by women here in this great country – and not just in the dreaded “women’s fiction” genre, either (have you ever heard of “men’s fiction”? No, me either). On a personal level, I get to discover some wonderful books I might not have read otherwise. And if I am reviewing them, it counts as work, so it’s win-win all around!

My first review will be out soon and I will add it to this blog as well as the AWWC website. In the meantime, I’m signing off so I can get back to reading more wonderful books by Aussie women. If you want to get on board, you can sign up here.

Happy reading!