Wednesday, September 25, 2013

David Marr's Quarterly Essay on George Pell

This QE is Marr's fourth, and it is easily his best. Which surprises me, Marr not being a Catholic or believer, etc. But that's probably why he's been able to assess Pell clearly and objectively, just based on the extensive research he's obviously done.

He focuses on Pell's handling of the sexual abuse crisis in the church over decades, and very effectively brings all the threads together to produce a damning indictment. Believe me, this QE will make you angry!

Beautifully written and well worth reading.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries

Right from the start you know this is going to be a good read. A faux 19th century big baggy monster set in an exotic location. It reminded me very much of the awesome David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas and Jacob de Zoet fame.

How can a 27 year old produce such a mature, luscious, intriguing story, rich in social detail and human insight.

It's long though, because of the constant repetition involved with so many characters going through the same discovery process around the same set of incidents. This means regular recounting of the story to remind the reader what's taken place previously. It's really not that complicated a plot, centered around a gold heist, but flesh is added to the bones progressively, and by the end it's become a rich and satisfying feast indeed.

Most of the 12 luminaries also suffer from extreme verbosity, and there are plenty of back stories. So we're faced with a novel of 832 pages, and one that demands close reading and concentration. As well, Catton has a habit of subjecting all her characters to lengthy  psychological assessments. Here I think she's trying a bit too hard.

It becomes somewhat claustrophobic and burdened by detail but nevertheless it does deftly convey in microcosm the moral, social, economic and political pressure points of a small but thriving mid-19th century community. The luminaries, eminent citizens, are a fascinating, representative mix - one even a whoremonger, another an opium dealer.

I enjoyed this absorbing novel immensely. It's quite magnificent. Of all the novels shortlisted this deserves to win the Booker. If the judges give the prize to sentimental favorite Jim Crace's rather lightweight Harvest, then the Booker deserves to be swamped by Americans in the future. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Jim Crace's new novel is the Booker favorite apparently. It's set in an English peasant farming community in pre-modern, pre-literate times. 

Superficially it's a simple pastoral tale - 'the amity in everything' - but soon develops into a story of violent social upheaval.Economic 'progress' brings personal and communal disruption, conflict, brutality and revenge. 'Witches' are outed, outsiders are blamed, banished and pilloried, and former friends suddenly become enemies for no real reason.

The problem I have with the book is that these themes are not new. There's nothing original here. The writing is strong, muscular and poetic, particularly in its descriptions of nature in all its moods, but there is little reach into deeper, more resonant meanings. There are no surprises, no dramatic shifts, nothing to break the calm, measured progress of the narrative. It's a book that will not stay with you.

I find that disappointing, particularly in a year when JM Coetzee's extraordinary The Childhood of Jesus did not even make the long list. That remains a travesty.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

At first I thought Cairo was going to be a pretty standard 'Sophisticated Europe/Provincial Australia' narrative. Louche arty types, whiskied up, railing against their boring, backward country. It's a familiar trope. Germaine Greer stuff - you may have heard of her.

But it's not that at all. It's a pretty standard action drama built around a true crime that took place in Melbourne in 1986 - the heist of Picasso's Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria.

Womersley has created out of this an absorbing popular tale. It's written with enormous charm and style, without pretension, and peopled with lively characters.

The problem is it falls well short of its literary and imaginative promise. Inspired by an actual event it remains anchored to it, and never has the chance to take off as a more probing, socially critical literary effort. 

And it desperately needed a final 'Thirty Years Later' chapter.

Womersley's previous multi-award winning novel Bereft was far more accomplished. But read Cairo nevertheless. It's hugely enjoyable.