Friday 29 April 2022

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

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We meet Piranesi in the depths of a mythical feeling world, the House, in which his only companions are birds, statues, and the Other, a man he meets a couple of times a week but who doesn’t seem to know the surrounds as thoroughly as Piranesi. Indeed, he is the one who named him Piranesi, who knows it is not his real name but can’t remember what is. The Other also seems to have access to a lot more resources than Piranesi - using something that appears to be a smartphone or tablet, wearing quality clothes, and seemingly having provided a sleeping bag and fish fingers for one of the thirteen dead. Prianesi, on the other hand, satisfies himself with using seaweed to mend things and fishing for sustenance. Despite his meagre, solitary existence, Piranesi is largely quite content. He keeps a thorough journal and records data for the Other. He even creates a sort of religion for himself, looking after the remains of the dead and bringing them offerings. 

The opening fifty pages or so are quite baffling, with Piranesi’s way of keeping track of time and naming the halls being long and unwieldy (e.g. the eighteenth day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls). Piranesi’s own obliviousness to the reality of his existence leaves the reader similarly unaware, but curious and constantly coming up with theories. As the story unfolds and things begin to become clearer both the reader and Piranesi start to uncover the truth. It is dark and unpleasant, but Piranesi manages to maintain an optimistic, caring outlook.

The Other seems intent on unsettling him, claiming that there is one more living in the House but that they wish them both harm, that if Piranesi so much as talks to them he will descend into madness. As much as the reader doesn’t know who the Other is or what his intentions are, you feel that he is not really looking out for Piranesi. He appears largely indifferent to him except when it comes to this person, nicknamed 16. Piranesi’s innocent trust in him can be difficult to read as he naively follows his instructions and makes it harder for himself to discover the truth.

The characters are interesting, and the drip feeding of information is tantalising. It puts you on an even footing with Piranesi - you are not given any information that doesn’t come to you through him, yet it is likely you’ll approach the events with a greater degree of suspicion. Piranesi is kind to a fault, continuing to try and protect those who have harmed him, although that might have more to do with Stockholm syndrome. His story examines the ways people cope with trauma and hardship, and his attachment to the House feels realistically drawn.

A book with an unreliable yet endearing narrator. Reading this will enter the reader into a strange and mind-bending world in which you will find yourself constantly questioning. Somewhat difficult to get in to, once it hooks you you won’t want to put it down.

Friday 22 April 2022

A Man of Understanding, Diana Janney

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Cogito Publishing for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

When Rufus Ellerton’s parents are killed in a car accident he is sent to live in Mallorca with a grandfather (Granga) that he’s never met. One of the first things he does is rename Rufus Blue, and thus begins a relationship in which he constantly feels one step behind. Granga is philosophical and not used to opening up or being around children, and Blue feels the need to try and impress him. They soon fall in to a comfortable co-existence with secret hurts shared but not dwelt upon. When a new revelation shocks Blue to the core and he’s offered an alternative route, will the lessons they’ve learnt be enough to withstand the storm?

Blue is a thoughtful child who lacks confidence in himself but is keen to learn. He takes the complete upheaval of his life in his stride, but as he begins to feel more comfortable in himself and more aware of the ways sad events can change the course of a life he begins to connect more with his emotions. Contrary to what you might expect from a book on this topic, Blue’s loss and grief don’t feel like the heart of the novel, but rather a vehicle for the rest of the action.

Granga is a somewhat guarded character, keeping slightly distant and acting the role of teacher and guide. Him and Blue find a way to connect through poetry, although he continues to struggle to be open. Blue in his innocence often misunderstands situations and finds it hard to speak up for what he wants. Granga, on the other hand, has become disillusioned over time and lost the faith he once held. His emotions get stuck behind his sociable fa├žade and it takes a lot for him to feel able to express himself.

Blue’s friend John Thompson helps to bridge the gap with his straightforward attitude and blunt honesty. Blue often finds himself wishing that he was able to speak as freely, to say the right thing to impress Granga as John seems to do so naturally. They all have their own cross to bear however. Their friendship is strong, built in the harsh environs of a school in which John was frequently bullied. In each other all three have the opportunity to learn something about themselves.

A gentle, slow paced read that considers love, loss, and what it means to be a family.

Monday 18 April 2022

Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Bruce Pascoe

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Pascoe’s divisive re-assessment of pre-contact Aboriginal lifestyles looks at the ways in which they worked the land, and the horrifying deterioration of once prosperous land after the European colonists arrived. His source material largely derives from journals and reports by the colonists. These naturally contain a lot of bias, but Pascoe believes if we look beyond the colonial gaze we can see evidence of sophisticated agricultural systems. 

He writes of the evidence of harvesting practice and the storing of excess food. The colonists commented on the apparent presence of land that had been ploughed and rolled, with evidence of the tools that were used for the task. The farming of kangaroos is touched upon, alongside discussion of the sustainable way the land and animals were farmed. Pascoe speaks about the many examples of tools and other crafted items, such as clothes, rarely being displayed in museums, and the incorrect labels that are attached to them when they are. It seems that the prejudices of the past have filtered down to today, blinding us to the achievements of the Aboriginal people before the first colonists arrived.

His narrative is a painful reminder of the horrendous acts of those who went to Australia and claimed the land as their own, killing and destroying with seemingly no thought as to the lives they were taking and displacing. Indeed, Pascoe claims that one of the reasons there’s so little evidence of the villages and agricultural systems is that the destruction was so swift and complete that by the time the settlers arrived there was nothing left to suggest to them that a prosperous society existed before their arrival. 

Pascoe discusses the farming practices the Europeans brought to Australia which damaged the soil and made it far less productive. They did not try to learn from the Aboriginal people but instead attempted to replicate the type of farming they were used to. Pascoe believes this to have lasting implications for the Australian economy and its food production. Many native plants all but went extinct under the strain of these foreign farming techniques. Settlers were also reluctant to burn land as part of its management, which Pascoe argues has contributed to the prevalence of damaging wild bush fires today.

It is a convincing argument, and one that makes the reader re-consider the snippets of information we are taught about the Aboriginal people. However, it has received a lot of pushback, most notably in Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate in which they argue that being a hunter-gatherer is not something to be looked down upon. Hunter-gatherers do not wander the landscape aimlessly but rather know which areas provide what they need at different times of the year, travelling accordingly. They believe Pascoe’s argument attempts to make the Aboriginal people appear more European, which is not a positive strategy for re-assessing a difficult history. They take issue with his focus on colonial sources and lack of interaction with knowledge keepers in Aboriginal communities. Not only could the sources be more diverse, but they also point to a number of examples where he doesn’t include full quotes, ignoring passages that don’t fit neatly with his narrative.

This is a thoroughly fascinating and accessible read that encourages the reader to consider their assumptions. It discusses the ways in which Western ideas of civilisation have been perpetuated to excuse past actions around the world, giving us food for thought on the lens through which we form our opinions. Worth reading, but equally valuable to look into the counter-arguments and problems with Pascoe’s approach.

Saturday 9 April 2022

The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett

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Autumn in Cambridge, 1958, and a little dog is about have a big impact on Eva’s life. Innocently cycling to meet her boyfriend David, the dog variously causes her to fall off, get a puncture, or cycle on as planned. Jim happens to be walking by and offers help in two of the versions. Neither of their lives will ever be quite the same again. What follows is three versions of their lives, spanning almost sixty years, with all the ups and downs that a life contains.

Eva is an aspiring author, Jim a painter, and David an actor. We see their varying degrees of success and the impact it has on their relationships. How creatively successful can you be while committing fully to a relationship? Can both parties be permitted the freedom to achieve simultaneously, or must one always be sacrificed for the elevation of the other? These are questions that are explored in the book alongside a certain sense of fate - no matter the circumstances some things never change.

Jim’s father was an artist and Jim lives in the shadow of his fame. He cheated on Jim’s mother, Vivian, and there’s also a sense of trying to go against the grain of his genes. Unfortunately, many versions of their lives and relationships include infidelity. This is a book that shows the realities of long-term relationships - the mundanity and expectations, as well as the more dramatic moments. If you’re looking for a happy, rose tinted romance this may not be the one for you.

Eva is fairly consistent in all versions. Accomplished and caring, she does at times allow her partner’s desires and ambition to overshadow her own. She proves herself loyal and with a strong moral compass time and again, but is not without her moments of weakness. David, on the other hand, rarely comes off well. Self-obsessed and vain, he fulfils his father-in-law’s fear that he will never love Eva as much as he loves himself. He has his moments however, and is not a spiteful character. He is destined to be a secondary character to the love between Eva and Jim. Their lives seem to be drawn together, even when they know each other only distantly, there is a fascination there. There is a sense that they are meant to be together, whatever flaws the relationship might reveal in them.

The story's structure is interesting, and although it has the potential to be somewhat confusing it is largely possibly to keep track of each of the versions (although this becomes more difficult as relationships break down and start up, the same characters populating each version). There are little moments that stay the same in each, but with drastically different consequences in the varying circumstances. This felt like a nice touch, and highlights the many moments where our lives have the opportunity to diverge.

Of the side characters, Vivian is the one that is most memorable. With a mental illness that weighs on Jim’s conscience, and a strong desire for him to avoid following in his father’s footsteps, she is a strong, controlling force in his life. Eva’s parents are kind and attentive, and as a result blend more easily into the background. The passing of the older generation is sensitively and powerfully handled.

The scale of the novel means that there’s bound to be an age or circumstance that particularly resonates with readers of all ages. Whether reflective of your life or not, it is quite unputdownable and will leave you constantly wanting to read on. There are moments of great joy and others of bitter heartbreak. Characters will betray those most devoted to them and sabotage their own happiness, yet at the centre is the constant connection between Eva and Jim. At times frustratingly oblivious or stubborn, you root for them through thick and thin. A book that will make you laugh and cry, absolutely worth your time.