Monday, October 19, 2015

Three wonderful books by Charlotte Wood, Tom McCarthy and Robert Harris

This new novel from the highly regarded Australian author Charlotte Wood is both fascinating and frustrating in equal parts, but nevertheless a compelling read.

A group of ten young women who in one way or another have recently featured in the media through unfortunate sexual experiences have been drugged, kidnapped and sent to an isolated, abandoned rural property in outback Australia where they are imprisoned and cruelly treated by two men.

The book is well written, some passages exquisitely so, and the narrative superbly structured. But I found it pretty weak imaginatively. It lacks the gut-wrenching emotional power of far better prisoner narratives - Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North being the touchstone.

The women never talk of escaping. In fact they barely talk to each other at all. No ideas or theories are tossed around as to why they are being held or by whom, and no plots hatched.

As the months and seasons pass each woman in her own way is sent to the edge of insanity. But there's no evidence of any visceral anger at their captivity.

In a way they are complicit in their own victimhood. They internalise their plight, indulging in fantasies, obsessions and playthings. They retreat into themselves. They could organise to kill their captors, whose only weapons are sticks after all, and escape to freedom, but they don't. Some of them do form close relationships with each other which are sustaining and supportive, and two of the women are strong and independent. The other eight are weak, 'girly' and rather pathetic. Which may well be Wood's main point. 

Presumably the prison is an allegory of their life in the real male dominated world. They often reflect on their unfortunate relationships with men prior to their kidnapping - 'in his every moment with her, his every act, it was his own self he saw and coldly worshipped' - but we're only given glimpses and hints. The prison camp is meant to convey the substance. 

Here's where the reader is, however, left entirely frustrated. If this is an essay on misogyny its premise lacks credibility. But maybe Wood is far more sophisticated than the puff piece boosters on the cover and prelims, great male and female writers all of them*. 

It's a question as to whether this book chooses to represent misogyny at all, or whether it's just a meditation on what it is to be female.

*Malcolm Knox, Ashley Hay, Joan London, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Clementine Ford, Christos Tsiolkas.

I'd not read Tom McCarthy before so when his new novel Satin Island was shortlisted for this year's Booker I took the opportunity and am so glad I did.

(The actual Booker winner, Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, I'm 60 pages into and finding the Jamaican patois tough going. It's like reading a set text - you're not really reading it for pleasure).  

Satin Island has a fascinating corporate premise at its core: a brilliant anthropologist is hired by an elite London-based consultancy company to read the contemporary zeitgeist and uncover patterns and theories to construct a unified theory of the whole that will revolutionise its offerings and bring it glorious success.

'U', as he's known, searches for meaning in the rich kaleidoscope of reality to construct this magic concoction. But he's constantly encountering and being fascinated by little dissonances in our social fabric, be they accidents, glitches and illogicalities - like oil spills, parachute failures, cancer cells, video buffering, torture, etc.    

But he keeps at it, encouraged by his boss, the mysterious Peyman, who is nothing if not insane. U's presentations at future-oriented conferences are unmitigated tripe, but he's ceaselessly celebrated by his corporate audiences.

As the dissonances attest a satisfying and meaningful whole is a baseless proposition. 

Ironically an air of meaninglessness, rather than meaning, begins to surface. An overwhelming sense of the unfathomable and the disjointed bombards our senses and unravels our comfortable webs of comprehension. 

Unsettling echoes of tragedies and disasters seep into the narrative. 

The final chapter is superb. U waits at the Staten Island ferry terminal in downtown Manhattan and simply observes ordinary commuters going about their daily business - queuing, buying coffee and donuts, waiting to board, etc. A sense of heightened normalcy pervades. Anything could happen. This is 9/11 territory. 

I was reminded very much of Colum McCann's lauded celebration of New York and the World Trade Centre towers Let the Great World Spin.

McCarthy is a writer for our times. Satin Island is a brilliant book.

I've long enjoyed the novels of Robert Harris and considered his last An Officer and a Spy to be a masterpiece. I blogged about it here. 

Dictator, the third and final instalment in his marvellous and celebrated Cicero series, is likewise magnificent. 

This is the politics of ancient Rome. It's corrupt and brutal though ostensibly democratic. Its intrigues are awash with blood. Harris has written an essay on war as much as an historical and dramatic novel - an essay that is supremely relevant to our modern times.

Rome is the epitome of a warmongering nation. Flimsy excuses justify aggression, and the self-aggrandisement of Patrician warrior leaders, dealing in treachery and deceit at every turn, expose them as brutal criminals at heart. 

Cicero is an honourable, generous figure of integrity and Harris is committed to faithfully rendering the exact words of his powerful Senate speeches. He spoke truth to power, but was always aware of the ever shifting alliances that could trap even the most powerful and clever.  

We're immersed in the world of Caesar, Pompey, Cato, Cassius, Antony and others, and the many marriages and familial connections that bind them all. Their manoeuvrings drive the plot and provide the suspense.

Harris also gives us a rich flavour of Roman society: its gods, beliefs, superstitions and social structures.

But the central focus is the remarkable Cicero and his faithful biographer, the humble and intensely likable Tiro.

I can't recommend the novels of Robert Harris enough. He's a superb writer.