Thursday, April 30, 2015

Emily Bitto's Stella Prize winning novel The Strays

The fascinating thing about this novel is that it won this year's Stella Prize but it was not even long listed for this year's Miles Franklin.

Having now read the book I think I know why.

There is a surface brilliance to it. Bitto can certainly write, and in this story of an artist community rebelling against the strictures of a conservative 1930's Australia, she captures the rhythms and dynamics of family and intense friendships exceedingly well.

We are captivated by the central story of the three daughters of Evan and Helena - Bea, Eva and Heloise - and Eva's best friend Lily who comes to live with them on a sprawling property outside Melbourne. Lily is the novel's narrator. She falls under their spell, and both sees things and doesn't see things.   

Stories about Dionysian utopias like this always need a whammy to kick in eventually. It's the underside, the ugliness, the pivotal event that allows reality to crash through and break it all apart. Bitto handles the build up with skill. 

The problem is that this happens two thirds of the way through the book and the final third just loses its way. In fact it's embarrassingly bad. It's cloying, cheesy and a complete fizzer. Bitto seems unable to imagine the real and to follow its inevitable logic. For example the police and state authorities would have been all over this family and community when the serious events took place. But Bitto ignores this.

Why did Bitto chose an artist colony as her central proposition? To make what point? She counterposes a 'conventional' life' against 'the romance of the fully lived life'. When Lily as a middle aged woman, after the failure of her first marriage to a rootless, unfaithful artist, marries a boring 'economist' we're supposed to empathise with her choice of 'an ordinary life'.

But this age-old and cliched romantic polarity has long been scraped of any meaning in today's world with its multiplicity of lifestyles, many of them creative and all of them conventional. The romantic 'ideal' belongs only in literature. 

Which is why, I think, that most of the characters in the novel never really come alive. And in their dotage, when they are reflecting, they matter even less. We don't really care.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's powerful new book Heretic. A Must Read.

I can't do better than the back cover blurb here. It describes the book perfectly.

I loved Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel and Nomad so have been waiting expectantly for her new one, just released. And it doesn't disappoint at all. While the first two volumes were about herself and her own journey of escape from a devout Islamist family in Somalia to a liberating, personal and social freedom in the West, Heretic is a no-holds-barred, thorough-going, and often savage critique of Islam and its beliefs and practices.

It gets down and dirty and it is very persuasive. Hirsi Ali writes with a refreshing, uncluttered lucidity. The book is only 300 pages and won't take you long to read. But it will make your blood boil.

She asks the hard questions of Islam, particularly 'Why the violence?  WHY THE FUCKING VIOLENCE?' 

She puts some flesh on the bones by clearly outlining what's wrong with Islam and how it can be fixed. She gives example after example of atrocities committed under Sharia law by today's pre-modern savages - honor killings, stonings, killings of homosexuals and blasphemers and other 'infidels'.

She attacks a form of appeasing liberalism we often see in the West, that labels IS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, the Taliban and their sister brand names, as 'extremists', rather than confronting head on the self-evident fact that these groups represent a significant and toxic dimension of Islam and have done so from the time of Muhammad.  

Hirsi Ali makes the case that these traditions have to be abandoned. Islam needs substantial reform and modernisation, and the increasing number of dissenters committed to reform, inevitably at huge risk to themselves - scholars, clerics, activists - need to be supported aggressively by the West. 

Some things in this world of ours are simply intolerable. Fundamentalist Islam is one of them. I consider this a very important book that should be widely read and debated. I sincerely hope it will be.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The 2015 Folio Prize winner: Akhil Sharma's Family Life

The Folio prize was established in 2013 by literary elites in Britain in reaction to what they perceived as a downmarket, populist move by the Booker judges in recent years. It's an 'anti-Booker prize' if you will, a bit like the Stella prize here in Australia, which arose in reaction to a perceived male-dominated bias by the Miles Franklin Award judges.
The Folio prize this year went to Akhil Sharma's Family Life, which I have just read.
It's an enjoyable read, no doubt about that, but it's essentially very lightweight and totally unoriginal. An Indian family migrate to America and find it strange and a bit hard-going. Gee! There's a tragedy, there are family stresses, there's just normality. 
Sure, it's been universally applauded by reviewers, from the New York Times to the Guardian and the establishment rest. But the best of 2015? Not at all. It's just not deep. There's no critique, no insight, no resonance. 
It just pains me that Colm Toibin's superb Nora Webster was also on the shortlist and didn't win.