The year is six weeks old already, and a blog post is long overdue. I blame it on the PhD: I’ve spent most of the past six weeks preparing for my confirmation panel next month. Still, I did manage to get in some great reading over the summer — none of it crime fiction. I didn’t plan it that way, but I usually end up setting aside one month each year to be crime-free, so to speak, and this year, January was it.
First up was Christos Tsiolkas’s short story collection, Merciless Gods (2014), which I finished over the new year. In fact, the first fiction I read in 2015 was ‘Saturn Return’, a story told from the point of view of a young man travelling from Melbourne to Sydney with his partner, Barney, to be with Barney’s father when he dies. En route, they visit the remnants of the migrant camp at Bonegilla, ‘a hateful place’ where the narrator’s father had been sent after migrating to Australia. The story was so moving, it made me cry. A great start to the new reading year!
‘Saturn Return’ is only one of many riveting stories in this collection. Normally, I dip in and out of short story collections, but this is one I read cover to cover. Hypnotic.
Next up, Laurinda (2014) by Alice Pung. Set in an exclusive girls’ school, Laurinda is narrated by Lucy Lam in the form of a conversation with her alter-ego, Linh. Lucy/Linh is Laurinda’s inaugural ‘Equal Access’ scholarship recipient, and the novel covers her experience of Year 10, her first year at the school, as she tries to fit in without losing herself.
The prospect of reading a novel set in an exclusive girls’ school wouldn’t normally excite me, but Pung turns this into a meditation on class, race and power that is sharp and satisfying. Plus her prose makes me swoon. A novel that will appeal equally to young adults and not so young adults alike.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) is a novel I bought about a year ago on the recommendation of Kirsten Krauth, who spotted its brilliance long before it won a swathe of awards, including the 2014 Man Booker Prize — a worthy winner in my opinion.
The central character is Dorrigo Evans, a doctor in the Australian army, who is taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War, and sent to the notorious Death Railway camp in Thailand. The story interweaves this horrific experience — told from the point of view of Dorrigo and fellow Australian prisoners, as well as the Japanese camp commander Major Nakamura, and his superior Colonel Kota — with a love story that precedes the war, and an account of both Dorrigo and Nakamura’s post-war lives.
A number of readers I know concurred that the novel gets off to a slow start before hitting a point where it’s hard to put down. I found myself coming to the end of a long reading session, only to realise I’d been holding my breath.
This novel ticked all my boxes: heart-stopping, intelligent, innovative and deeply moving. I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading it.
My other fiction read of the last six weeks is Nice Work (1988) by David Lodge. I also read Lodge’s wonderful work of literary criticism, The Art of Fiction, over the summer (a great resource for writers) and I was at a point in my PhD research where I needed to escape into fiction without straying too far. Nice Work is a novel about the relationship between Dr Robyn Penrose, a feminist lecturer of English literature theory at the fictional Rummidge University, and Victor Wilcox, Managing Director of a struggling engineering plant. The two meet through a PR exercise designed to bring the Industry and the University closer at the time, under Thatcher, when both the Industry and the University are threatened by government cuts and the rising power of financial services industries.
Nice Work is engaging, witty and unpredictable, and has the added bonus of explaining aspects of literary theory, making me feel that, although I was reading it for pleasure, I could count it as study. Satisfying on both counts.
I read a hell of a lot of academic writing over the summer, too, but I’ll spare you those details. As for my current read, it’s a thriller with a twist. But more on that later…hopefully within the next six weeks.