Sunday 28 July 2019

Crudo, Olivia Laing

Written over seven weeks in 2017, Crudo is a chaotic account of a tumultuous summer. The protagonist, Kathy, is getting married but thoughts of her upcoming nuptials fill her mind far less than the reporting of both the serious and the trivial on Twitter. The opening, ‘Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married,’ immediately lets us know there’ll be an interplay between the lives of the author and Kathy and that this persona won’t be entirely reliable or trustworthy. We are told later that Kathy often lies and so we often approach the tale with wariness. Sadly, the politics which often seem absurd are all too real. ‘… they were like stupid boys at school except killing people and in government, it wasn’t a great moment in history, she still couldn’t quite grasp how it had all come about.’ We can relate to her disbelief at the apparent crumbling of the world as we know it.

Kathy is an interesting character for a number of reasons. Based partly on the life of Kathy Acker, the experimental author who died in 1997, and drawing on Laing’s own experiences, she is complex and compelling. The reader may be taken aback when in the same breath that she tells us she’s getting married we hear that she also has a boyfriend. As the novel progresses so does Kathy’s self-awareness on her attitude to relationships. She loves her husband but also requires solitude, realizing that she has previously chosen aloof and distant partners precisely because they afforded her the freedom she craves. Her feelings can sometimes come across as callous, ‘her husband’s sad eyes upset her but also infuriated her, she detested being responsible for anyone else’s happiness.’ yet at the same time it is refreshing to see such honesty in the difficult transition that requires more selflessness and compassion than she has previously been able to obtain. Perhaps these feelings are also rooted in a doubt in her own ability to provide what is needed by those made dependent on her in love.

Rarely is a book so completely rooted in time. The obsessive checking of social media to see the latest crisis unfold, the underlying desire to protect the environment with the sad lack of real action, and the general sense of unease and dread all ring true. Laing has spoken of her desire to record the chaos of the time that will be lost in historic narratives where a sense of logic and intelligibility will be imposed on a period that had none for those living through it. In many ways a painful read as events continue to hurtle toward as yet untold disasters. The juxtaposition of the wider concerns of the world with one woman’s own self-discovery makes this a captivating read.

Sunday 21 July 2019

We of the Never-Never, Jeannie Gunn

In 1902 Jeannie Gunn, a teacher from Melbourne, moved with her husband Aeneas to Elsey in the Northern Territory. We of the Never-Never is an account of her year there. Her friends at home tried to dissuade her from going and the locals were less than keen to have a woman there, but with time her expectations changed and she threw herself into bush life, making friends and earning the respect of the indigenous people that educated her on the ways of life in the bush.

The tale is not one of high adventure but everyday life in a harsh landscape. The postman visits eight times a year and Gunn is impressed by his endless good humour and punctuality despite the hardships of his job – his predecessor died on his route. The way in which humans are beholden to the land, becoming trapped by the Wet or Dry alternately, is made abundantly clear. The misunderstanding of life in the bush by those in the South is commented on. They wonder how bush-folk fill their time little understanding the challenges of survival and the beauty of life there. ‘Speed’s the thing,’ cries the world, and speeds on, gaining little but speed; and we bush-folk travel our sixty miles [in three days] and gain all that is worth gaining – except speed.’

Having been written at the start of the twentieth century some of the language used can be offensive to modern readers, but there is a glimmer of modernity in her comments on the hypocrisy of colonialists who criticize the violence of the indigenous people while taking their land by force, not to mention the way in which they treated the captives brought with them.

An enlightening read on a way of life so different to that of a city dweller. Gunn is honest in her tales, including moments where she is laughed at and being open about how unprepared she was. During her year in Elsey she comes to have great affection for the land and its people and although I can’t help wondering if the locals would really have agreed with her including herself in ‘us bush-folk’ having spent only one year there, it nonetheless aids in telling stories that would otherwise go untold.

Pick up a copy:

Sunday 14 July 2019

Circe, Madeline Miller

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

In Madeline Miller’s latest reimagining she takes Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, a character who fills only a few lines of Homer’s The Odyssey and puts her centre stage. An outcast among the gods for not being beautiful enough and the misfortune of having a mortal voice, she finds peace in her island of exile, Aiaia, but only when the gods allow it. Through her story we meet many famous characters – Scylla, Odysseus, Jason, and the minotaur birthed by her sister. Her story is in many ways a sad one but also one in which she proves her resilience and power.

Her separation from other divine beings gives her an appreciation of mortal values. She comments that they have to work hard to hone their skills but because gods are born with excellence they instead work on proving what they can destroy. They do not have empathy as mortals do, yet Circe does show some. Early on we witness the punishment of Prometheus, Circe alone takes pity on him. Penelope comments that Odysseus told her ‘that he had never met a god who enjoyed their divinity less.’ Her views on the division of mortals and gods is forged in her youth as she is rejected and abused by her kin, reinforced by her transformation of Glaucos from mortal to god and his simultaneous loss of love for her. At a number of points she seems to yearn for mortality. She envies the way mortal bodies have their history written on them, and that part of them doesn’t die but lives forever in the underworld, where she can never go. She shows us a different side to divinity and she is made to be more relatable to the reader.

The other main theme is that of the position of women. Even goddesses are seen as lesser beings. When nymphs are sent to Aiaia as punishment Circe reflects that having misbehaving daughters sent to her is preferable to sons, swiftly followed by the truth that it never would have been sons, as they are not punished. It is not merely moral expectation that is different but for females there is a very real risk of assault. Hermes jokes with her that nymphs always run screaming when he tries to take them to bed but that they are terrible at getting away. When sailors come to the island and realise she is alone, despite her power they try to rape her and hope to steal from her. This experience makes her more vengeful, turning dishonest men into pigs. In this way she takes back some control, although she acknowledges that she is always under the dominion of the gods.

Circe's story is told to us as a first person narrative and we experience the heartache and desire for control as her life goes through its many turmoils. At times it is hard to remember that the story unfurls over centuries, but unlike many of the other gods she seems develop emotionally over the years, making her a far more interesting protagonist. Not perhaps as gripping as I’d imagined it might be, nonetheless an interesting read that makes you think again about the mythology we’re taught in our youth.

Pick up a copy:

Sunday 7 July 2019

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

Mortimer takes the famous quote from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between ‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there’ quite literally as he leads the reader through the fourteenth century in the form of a travel guide. His argument for this style in the introduction is convincing but the execution leaves something to be desired. When he gets into his flow it is entertaining and informative but in large parts he slips into a more traditional form of historical narrative. Within this it can feel awkward and sometimes confusing as to which period he’s referring to when he suddenly jumps back to addressing the reader like a visitor. Nonetheless, if you’re after an overview of life in the 1300s you could do worse than picking up this book.

He discusses the strict hierarchical nature of society in England at the time with even the clothes worn being determined by social status. To be at the bottom of the class system meant being under the control of your lord your entire life. It was not just work and earnings they controlled but for villeins even who they married was decided by their lord with punishments being imposed if they did not gain permission or went against the lord’s wishes. Men’s status was decided by their work, for women it was their marital status, and even at the top they remained subservient to men. In an age far more violent than the one we inhabit women were in very real danger of assault and in the case of an abusive marriage they had no means of escape. It is clear throughout that the lot of women was hard but Mortimer does point out some advantages to their lower status. For example, in the case of a criminal couple the man would be hanged for his crimes whereas the woman could be excused by claiming she was merely acting under her husband’s will. It is also interesting to note that as the century progressed men’s clothing became more sexually revealing whereas women’s fashion remained with loose fitting garments.

Climate change being firmly on the modern agenda it was interesting to gain an insight into the disastrous consequences of it six hundred years ago. Temperatures dropped by one degree leading to crop failures, some of which never recovered, abandonment of villages as the land became unworkable, and eventually the Great Famine due to heavy rainfall.

Mortimer discusses the often scant sources available to medieval historians and gives the reader a glimpse into how historic knowledge is pieced together. He succeeds in showing how different life was but also makes the people living through it feel much more relatable and not all that different after all.