Amnesty | Aravind Adiga | Pan Macmillan AU | February 2020 | RRP $30.00 | 9781509879045
“There is a buzz, a reflexive retinal buzz, whenever a man or woman born in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh sees another from his or her part of the world in Sydney — a tribal pinprick, an instinct always reciprocal, like the instantaneous recognition of homosexuals in a repressed society. Because even if both of you believe that one brown man holds no special significance for another in Sydney — a city and civilisation built on the principle of the exclusion of men and women who were not white, and which fully outgrew that principle only a generation ago — which is to say, even if you want to stay icebox or indifferent in the presence of the other brown man, you are helpless.”
Booker Prize-winning author Aravind Adiga returns with the story of a day in the life of Dhananjaya ‘Danny’ Rajaratnam, an illegal Sri Lankan immigrant, who unwittingly becomes embroiled in a murder, and must decide whether coming forward with information that would aid the police investigation is worth the risk of deportation. As he evaluates the morality and consequences of either decision, we learn of Danny’s past, and his daily struggles to survive as a cleaner in Sydney; living in a grocery storeroom under the thumb of its tyrannical owner; wracked by the fear of the authorities who want him expelled; and the desperate measures he must go to in order to assimilate into Australian society.
What makes Amnesty propulsive, powerful and unsettling in equal measure is Adiga’s ability to render this tale apolitically. The novel neither berates nor bolsters Australia’s immigration policy, merely spotlights a singular human story that so often gets lost amidst the debate, framed around a young man’s quest to negotiate the blurred line between justice and responsibility. It’s a story of dreams; those already shattered, those for the future, and the cost of making them a reality.
This timely novel depicts the struggles faced by immigrants — legal and illegal — with heartbreaking specificity; the constant fear of being discovered by immigration officers alongside the desire to acclimate to a society that doesn’t want you. It’s one of best, and most bittersweet novels I’ve read in some time; as a reader, you are burdened by the knowledge that whatever Danny chooses to do, the ramifications will be ruinous. Sober and erudite, Amnesty is another tour-de-force from a brilliant writer whose literary powers show no signs of abating.
The Godmother | Hannelore Cayre | translated by Stephanie Smee |Black Inc | September 2019 | RRP $28.00 | 9781760641610
“My fraudster parents had a visceral love of money. They loved it, not like you love an inert object stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No. They loved it like a living, intelligent being that can create and kill, that is endowed with the capacity to reproduce.”
Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother arrived at the bookshop billowing a trail of hype, anticipation and acclaim behind it. Winner of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious award for crime fiction, and adapted to screen, this bite-sized slice of French noir tells the story of Patience Portefeux, a widowed 53-year-old translator for the Paris drug squad, who lives meagerly, struggling to provide for her daughters and her aged mother’s care. When she comes into contact with the mother of a drug trafficker, she uses information gleaned from the police wiretaps she translates to secure a large quantity of hash. Under the alias the Godmother, she constructs a small criminal empire, thereby securing her financial future, and her family’s, and marinating over the moral implications of her decision.
It’s eminently readable, and efficiently translated by Stephanie Smee, but there’s a distinct lack of tension or excitement in The Godmother. It reads at a lackadaisical pace, which never threatens to become boring, but never got my blood boiling. It’s a fascinating portrait of a woman pushed to extremes, and her sardonic observations of French society are lacerating, but it faded in and out of my life with a glimmer rather than the explosion I was hoping for. I was never particularly anxious about Patience’s fate, and for a novel that’s fundamentally about a woman exposing herself to a city’s underworld and steeping herself in a corrupt world, that’s a real killer. It’s not bad; I just prefer my crime fiction with underlying menace.
This year I managed to read 147 books, which is 19 less than in 2018, which is a lot, but then, 2019 has been a much better year for me personally, so it’s hard to complain. I’ve already posted about my favourite books of the year, but as I’ve been doing since 2016, this year I tracked my reading by a variety of categories, the results of which are below.
This year I reached as close to gender parity as I ever have before, and I hope to continue closing the gap. In fact, I’d love an even split in 2020. I read far less crime than last year, but it’s still the genre I read most. And my reading continues to be dominated by American authors; I’d love to read more nationalities, and that’ll be another mission next year. Interestingly and unintentionally I listened to far fewer audio books. And despite the avalanche of proofs several publishers supply me, I actually buy most of the books I read.
Kokomo | Victoria Hannan | Hachette Australia | August 2020 | RRP $30.00 | 9780733643323
“Mina wondered what other secrets lay between these people, wondered if maybe every family was built on an intricate web of lies, or at least things people chose not to tell each other. She’d learned that not every truth deserves air: some truths were better smothered, extinguished before they could take hold and burn everything to the ground.”
Victoria Hannan’s seriously impressive debut Kokomo charts the complex, resilient relationship of a mother and daughter, and the toxicity of decades-long secrets finally surfacing. It’s a sharply-observed portrait of devastating loneliness and human fallibility, and what it means to belong.
When Mina’s agoraphobic mother leaves her house for the first time in more than a decade, she rushes from her life in London to be by Elaine’s side in Melbourne. On the one hand, it’s to commemorate her mother’s decision to unshackle herself from the house; on the other, it’s to untangle the mystery of why Elaine has chosen this moment to return to the world. But Elaine is reticent to explain, or delve into the agony of the past; and Mina’s homecoming engenders emotional fallout of her own with people she thought she’d left behind long ago.
Smart and sensitive, punctuated with moments of real humour, Hannan has crafted a novel in the mould of Anne Tyler’s finest work. Like Tyler, Hannan trades expertly in the themes of the struggle for identity, the lack of meaningful communication between loved ones, and individual isolation; and although it positively glows with poignancy, it’s somehow free of gross sentimentality. This is first rate fiction from a writer to watch.
Number Of Pages: 320
Available: 28th July 2020
It’s been some time since I last read a novel that so beguiled and baffled me in equal measure as An Yu’s debut. In an unsettling, utterly captivating opening, Jia Jia discovers her husband Chen Hang drowned in a half-filled bath. Next to him is a strange sketch of a “fish man,” which Jia Jia believes is related to a dream he had during his time in Tibet, of a similar lurid creature. Was Chen Hang so haunted by his nightmare that he chose to end his life? Or was his demise just an unfortunate accident?
Either way, the death of her husband completely upends Jia Jia’s life. Although theirs was a marriage of convenience, the repercussions are devastating on a practical and emotional level. As she struggles to regain equilibrium, Jia Jia determines the best path to closure is by recreating Chen Hang’s trip to Tibet to find this mysterious “fish-man.”
Boasting overtones of Murakami, An Yu has crafted a novel saturated in magical realism that totally runs against my literary proclivities. Braised Pork worked best for me when Yu explores the human relationships rather than the ‘unreality’ of the water world, and the mystical figures Jia Jia meets in Tibet. Metaphors abound, but for me, they’re elusive; I didn’t quite comprehend all of the symbolism, which is less the fault of the author’s, and more the fact I’m not the smartest reader. When I was done, I was left oddly dissatisfied; not because of the quality of Yu’s fiction, or indeed her prose, which is beautifully lyrical; but because of my inability to truly understand it all. This’d be a great one for book clubs.
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 9-Jan-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom
A magnificent coming-of-age novel about two young boys from Mumbai, raised by their tyrannical father to be the number one and number two batsmen in the world, that tackles the weighty themes of corruption, class, sexuality and religion with extraordinary elegance.
When Selection Day opens, seven-year-old Manju is overshadowed by the supreme cricketing prowess of his brother Radha, but still a tantalising prospect for a prestigious gatekeeper named Tommy Sir, who brings both boys to the attention of a venture capitalist, which suits their father; he is determined to maximise the commercial potential of his sons. Readers familiar with the real-life story of cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli — the former a cricketing legend, the latter retired at 24 — might think they know where the story is headed, but Adiga is far too an intelligent writer than that to simply emulate history. As Manju and Radha get older, they begin to rebel against their father’s strict rules, and cavort with the temptations of youth, which threaten to derail their journey towards stardom. And just when you think the narrative is going to zig, it zags; and it feels right, and true.
Honestly, one of the best books I’ve read this year, or any year.
Format: Paperback / softback
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 10-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom
“I scream not in the way the damsel in distress screams from the tower. I scream the way tectonic plates tear apart on the ocean floor, silt and sand and cracked rock. Lava spewing from the abyss. Hot lava spewing from me. I roar.”
Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck is the kind of book that cracks open your heart, then knits it back together, leaving you scarred. It sears a place in your memory, not only because of its characters and the legacy of trauma experienced by its protagonist, but because of Hardcastle’s luminous prose and quite brilliant implementation of colour. The savagery of its subject belies the beauty of its writing. It’s a powerful, unforgettable synthesis; a painfully page-turning read, a vividly three-dimensional, lacerating dissection of female abuse at the hands of men.
Below Deck charts several years in the life Olivia; from waking up on a boat as a twenty-one year old, with no recollection of how she got there, which introduces her TO Mac and Ollie, who will become the two most important people in her life; to four years later, when she works among a group of men on a yacht sailing from Noumea to Auckland, where she experiences below deck; to her time in London, when the events of that day continue to haunt and resonate.
Fierce, poetic and uncompromising. There’s a lot of hype surrounding Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck. It’s warranted.
Number Of Pages: 296
Available: 3rd March 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Country of Publication: AU