Apr 14

From the Wreck by Jane Rawson

If the world was fair and just Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck would win numerous awards, both literary and genre. Not that shiny trophies are the arbiter of great fiction, but they do draw attention to the nominees and this a novel that’s worthy of the hype and buzz regularly applied to lesser works. From the Wreck is an extraordinary piece of writing, in the way it blends genres, in the way its ambitions are matched by sublime prose, in the way it explores and questions life in all its varied states.

At first From the Wreck reads like a traditional historical novel. George Hills, a steward on the steamship Admella, is one of a handful of survivors when the hapless boat sinks off the South Australian coast in 1859*. A second survivor, who plays a significant hand in keeping George alive while they’re lost at sea for eight days, is Bridget Ledwith**. Years later and George who is married with children is haunted by what he and Bridget did to survive (which given they had no food or water should have been impossible). Bridget vanishes soon after reaching shore and George spends his free time trying to find her, hoping she will explain his fractured memories of those eight days at sea.

I’d rather not mention the primary genre element – though for your own safety KEEP AWAY FROM THE BLURB – not because it’s a twist, it’s introduced in the second chapter, but because the novel’s lens, so focussed on this one tragic sinking, abruptly widens its gaze, reminiscent of that famous final shot of “Men In Black” as the camera zooms out, in all its CGI glory, from a street on Earth to the Universe at large. And that abrupt shift generates a giddy sensation, an indication that this intimate story about a man dealing with post traumatic stress is something so much stranger and transcendent.

While the novel is always wonderful, it somehow finds another gear when Rawson’s discussion of the natural world bleeds into a meditation on mortality and the bounty of life. George’s son, Henry, is endlessly fascinated with the skeletons of dead animals, a collection of which he keeps hidden in the house. This fascination with death isn’t expressed in a dark or creepy manner, but as something complex and layered – inevitable and joyful and frightening and numinous. Or as Rawson beautifully puts it:

[Henry] plunged into the swarming ocean, felt its wriggling abundance. […] Henry felt his place in it – just to be this boy and never wonder why or who or how to be better, braver, otherwise. Just to be and to love. To notice it fresh every day. Not to fear it leaving; to know it always was and always will be, and that when this body stops and rots and makes itself food that still it will all go on just like this, just like always. Tiny tragedies, tiny triumphs and none of it meaning a thing against the great still monstrousness of forever and always. This always ocean, this always world, these always stars, this stretching, boundless, eternal universe. This quiet space.

The ease in which Rawson articulates complex thoughts around mortality and eternity, the way she seamlessly slides the narrative between historical and science fiction and how her characters – especially George – are as complex and flawed and brilliant as the themes Rawson’s tackling is, simply put, a master-class of storytelling.

I’m not saying that reading From The Wreck was a spiritual experience – because there’s only so much hype and I can slather on one book. But I truly doubt I’m going to read anything this year that as rich and deep and intelligent as this tremendous novel. And if I do it will be one helluva year.

* There was an Admella. It did sink in 1859. Of the 113 on the ship 24 survived.

** Also a real person and the only woman to survive the wreck. She even wrote a book about it.

Apr 13

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

The praise for Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut novel Amberlough has been voluminous. Out of 200 ratings on Goodreads it has an average score of 4.11 out of 5, which is better than a kick in the teeth.* One of my favourite bookish sites, “Literary Hub”, marked it out as one of February’s great novels you might have missed, quoting from Holly Black who described Amberlough as “James Bond by the way of Oscar Wilde.” When one of my mates asked on his Facebook feed what books were generating buzz and hype Amberlough was the clear winner. This is a book that people clearly love, a book that is likely to feature heavily on award ballots next year, a book that was initially meant to be standalone but has now spawned a trilogy.

Of course, I didn’t finish it.

I put Amberlough down around the halfway mark (shortly after Cyril and Cordelia attend a party, for those interested). I felt guilty doing so, partly because I always feel guilty when I don’t finish a novel – well, with the exception of that awful shit nominated for genre awards a couple of years back – and partly because I genuinely wanted to enjoy this book. Yes, the James Bond / Oscar Wilde comparison is pure hyperbole, but even so a work described as the first gay fantasy spy novel should have been in my bailiwick. Instead I found it tedious.

I didn’t mind the setting – Amberlough is essentially Paris before the Nazis. And initially I thought the prose was strong, like the neat use of “freckled” in this sentence: “An early spring storm freckled the bedroom window with rain”.

But, the characters…

The worst offender is Cyril DePaul. He’s meant to be a master-spy and yet he’s utterly incompetent. His last mission went ball-ups (which is why he now has a desk-job, even if it’s as division head). He’s fallen in love with a man who he’s meant to be keeping an eye on – that would be Aristide Makricosta, Amberlough’s foremost smuggler (and emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret) and when his boss decides to send him on a mission to infiltrate the One State Party (a fascist group on the rise) his cover is blown almost immediately. To be fair this might have something to do with a mole in his department… but then again this would be a department that he’s a division head of. Cyril then spends the rest of the novel – OK, the chunk I read – struggling with his guilt now that he’s become a double agent for the OSP (annoyingly referred to as the Ospies). It’s extremely hard to take Cyril seriously. If I was being charitable I’d say that Donnelly was subverting the cliché of the competent super-spy, but there’s something so clueless and banal about Cyril that if it is a parody it’s one that undermines the reality of the novel.

The other main characters like Aristide and Cordelia Lehane are non-events in as much as their character development is limited. To be fair to Cordelia, of the near half of the book that I read she gets little screen-time (something I’m sure would have increased if I’d kept going). But that’s another problem with Amberlough. For a novel purporting to be a spy-thriller, the plot meanders. The first quarter is spent setting up the setting and the political situation – that’s fine – but in amongst this we have Cyril preparing for his mission, which ends in failure and pages and pages of the politics and sexual shenanigans at the Bumble Bee – which I admit for some will be a thrill but for me was a yawn-fest. Maybe the novel needed to begin with Cyril already a turncoat (though not necessarily revealed to the reader). I don’t know. All I can say is that poor characterisation coupled with ponderous pacing and my attention drifted to the point that I found the book a chore.

All that said I probably would have kept reading if I’d not read an article on Literary Hub entitled, How Many Books Will You read Before You Die. I found the answer so disturbing that Amberlough became the first casualty of my Stop Reading Because Life Is Too Short policy. I would be interested though to hear from people who loved the novel. I warn you though, I won’t accept the argument that the book gets good after the halfway mark.

* The rating on Amazon is 4.9 but with only 44 ratings. Still not a bad effort.

Apr 07

Down The Hume by Peter Polites

I stumbled across Peter Polites Down The Hume in an article published in (I think*) The Guardian discussing the new wave of Australian noir. Because I’ve always been interested in noir and because I was neck-deep in the sub-genre during January / February for a forthcoming episode of Shooting the Poo I decided to give this new generation of Aussie noir a fair dinkum chance with Peter Polites début novel as my go to book.

Set in Western Sydney, Polites introduces us to Bux a gay man and second generation Greek who is addicted to pain medication, namely a drug called Syrinapx**. Working as a nurse in an old age home Bux’s favourite patient is Bruno, an Italian man, who Bux suspects to be gay. Bux’s main squeeze is No Arms Pete, a muscle-man who gets his rocks off from choking and punching Bux while they’re fooling around (To be fair, I didn’t get the impression that Bux had a problem with this). Possibly as a result of the opiates or an unhappy family life – Bux’s father barely recognises his son’s existence – Bux’s paranoia and obsession with his violent boyfriend slowly, but inevitably spin out of control.

There’s allot to like about this novel, especially in how it presents gay culture, the West of Sydney and what it is to be the son of migrants, especially when you also happen to be gay. I appreciated the smattering of Greek throughout the novel, *** often without translation (Marvin has a helpful link to Google Translate, an ebook reader I can heartily recommend). It’s also illustrative of the two worlds that Bux is struggling to come to terms with, his needs and desire as a gay man and the expectation that he settle down with a nice Greek girl.

Typical of good noir, the novel really sings when it describes Bux’s landscape. While I’ve never visited Sydney’s west, Polites evocative descriptions of this inner-suburban setting neatly overlays on places I frequent in Melbourne, whether it be Fitzroy or Carlton or Richmond. For example, Polites almost heart-felt tour through Belmore could easily apply to Brunswick in Melbourne:

My Belmore had three or four takeaway food places. Some sold chicken and chips, those corner-shop hamburgers where they grilled the bread, a kebab shop with a sugary chilli sauce. Chinese. Greeks. Turks. Freshies, broken English shop owners who’d change the prices on you depending on their mood. My Belmore had gambling dens. Places that pretended to be coffee shops. First-wave Greek immigrants ran them. They were above the shops on the main drag. A narrow carpeted staircase up to a room with some tables in it. A gas stove for the briki. Packets of sunflower seeds, walnuts and almonds on plates. Posters of eighties pinups with thick blonde perms, high-cut leotards. Scrunched-up leg warmers against oiled limbs. Legs and arms slimy with an orange tan. The old men inside were slimy too, a different kind of shine. One that sweated too much. Greasy thick foreheads. Smoke floating around Brylcreem and fisherman’s caps.

That’s not to say that Polites setting is a cookie-cutter rendition, but that Bux’s sharp and keen insights of the world he inhabits resonate because they are familiar.

Where the novel is less successful is in its tone of voice. As an Aussie I can appreciate some ocker in my fiction, but Bux – and Polites – take things about eighty steps too far. Maybe it’s cultural cringe on my part, maybe if I was more in tune with my own lingo I’d be more accepting, and maybe I should be thankful that Polites is willing to embrace language in a manner that distinguishes the book from traditional literary noir… but there are times when it all gets a bit indulgent. You can make up your own mind:

I used to work on the pokies. Deros and reffos would put a dollar in the Emerald Oriental Bride machine. Ask for free Pepsi and coffees. I’d never talk, only fake smile and ask them, ‘What can I get for you?’

We had homos come in sometimes. Around Christmas and New Year’s, the poofs who came good came home. They wore thin blue polos tucked into tight beige chino shorts with braided patent belts so shiny you’d think the leather was sweating. Their families dared them to drink VB. They came to the bar heroically.

While Polites nails that aspect of noir that focuses on setting and sense of place, he’s less adept in regard to plotting and pacing. To be fair Bux’s self-destructive qualities, another important aspect of literary noir, are there in abundance. But so much of the noirish bits happen off-screen that it’s hard to view Bux as a victim of a con perpetrated by his boyfriend. In fact, with all the stalking and spying Bux commits in regard to No-Arms Pete you’d think he’d have figured out what was actually going on and how it linked back to the man Bux is caring for, that is Bruno and his wealthy estate.

Still there’s more than enough to like here that I’ll certainly be looking our for more work by Peter Polites, noirish or otherwise.

* It’s possible I imagined this article because I can find it on the interwebs.

** Drug does not exist in the real world according to my pharmacist wife.

*** Even if the Greek is poorly written (according to comments on my Facebook page).

Mar 28

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan is a novella that mixes together Lovecraft’s mythos with men in black suits and Area 51 (the Dreamland of the title). In one sense the novella feels like a throwback to the 90s when the X-Files was popular and every second slice of pop culture had something to do with the Illuminati, the masons, deep state conspiracies or the dreaded, unknowable greys. But Agents of Dreamland is not a journey into nostalgia or a satire on some well-worn tropes. It might be influenced or inspired by those ideas but it’s very much it’s own thing.

The novella opens by introducing us to the Signalman, your typical Government special agent, a seasoned campaigner who has seen it all, has a liver fermenting in alcohol and is close to either blowing his brains out or disappearing into the desert. He’s anxiously waiting in an Arizona diner for his contact. If we pause things at this point inspite the superior prose there’s a familiarity to both the character and the setting. And then in enters Immacolata Sexton, the woman the Signalman has been waiting for, and almost immediately the tension amps up and the familiarity of the scene takes on an unexpected and darker shade.

I’m going to leave things there partly because who reads plot summaries anyway – you’re interested in my thoughts on the novella, not my witty recap – but mostly because one of the great enjoyments of this very smart, sometimes gory story is piecing together what exactly is going on. Kiernan doesn’t make it easy, there’s a deliberate avoidance of exposition, but all the pieces are present. Let’s just say that the outlook for the human species aint great. Also you might never eat a mushroom again.

With a prose style that seamlessly moves from weary noir, to hallucinatory lyricism, to visceral horror this is high quality, literary story-telling that doesn’t spoon-feed, that’s anything but escapist. I’m always impressed at how Kiernan, with an economy of words, blows your mind and punches you in the gut and leaves you wanting more. Another fantastic novella from tor.com.

Mar 23

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami is a collection of three novelettes which, according to the back cover blurb, won the Akutagaw Prize in 1996. This is their first translation and publication in English by the wonderful Pushkin Press who continue to bring fascinating, offbeat translated work to the public.

The opening piece, which provides the book with its title, is surreal and experimental and yet utterly accessible. The story has the most eye-catching of openings:

What was that itch on my back? I wondered. And that it was the night – the night was nibbling into me.

It wasn’t that late, still only twilight, but the darkness seemed to have collected just above my shoulders. A black clump of it had fastened onto me, eating away at my back.

Four hundred words later and our point of view character has transformed into a horse – as you do. And yet on the following page the protagonist is walking with a crowd of people, swept along with the flow where she will meet a girl, heading in the same direction, and a singer who happens to be three stories tall. Is this narrator the same person who became the horse? Is that a question I ever imagined asking myself? The novelette is broken up into 19 sub-sections, each with a single word title – Newt, Lion, Chaos – and while some of these vignettes do (sort of) connect it’s better to treat them as individual slices of beautiful surrealism. Like our narrator(s) the reader is far better off being swept along with the rest of the crowd than attempting to parse any deeper mysteries. And Kawakami, superbly translated by Lucy North, allows you to fall deep into her eccentric world. The writing is evocative and beautiful and, importantly, uncomplicated. If I was someone who had time to re-read I would quite happily jump in and out of these strange vignettes.

The remaining two stories – ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’ – are more straightforward in that they both have a single narrator and a clear beginning, middle and end. But they still maintain that lovely and lyrical surrealist tone. In the magnificent “Missing” my favourite piece in the book, a family must deal with the disappearance of their eldest son, who has literally vanished into thin air. His sudden absence is an inconvenience, rather than a horrible perversion of the laws of nature, because he was about to be married off and now the family need to train-up the second son so he’s capable of whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the intended. The story is tremendously funny – and a tad discomfiting… the eldest son does pop up now and again (and can only be seen by his sister) – as Kawakami pokes fun at family customs and traditions.

In the uncomfortable “A Snake Stepped On” a woman steps on a snake which then promptly moves into the woman’s house pretending to be her mother. This is not a unique occurrence. There seems to be a preponderance of snakes, masquerading as people’s relatives or their wives (the snakes seem mostly to be female). This is not a story for those who are bothered by slithery reptiles. Take this excerpt:

Suddenly, without a sound, the drawer of the gold-latched cabinet slid open, and from it dozens of little snakes came slithering out. Each glided across the floor to the priest’s wife, who picked them up one by one, and deposited them into the bosom of her kimono. A moist, warm breeze was blowing all around the temple. When she’d stowed all the snakes away, the priest’s wife slid smoothly over the floor, going first to Mr Kosuga. She wrapped herself around him, and gave his head a lick. Then she came and did the same to me.

It’s ick, but it’s a wonderful and giddy sort of ick.

I know surrealism isn’t for everyone, but in doses this small, with a tone that is tongue planted in cheek, but also honest and a tad disturbing, it makes for a delightful departure from genre novels that sometimes take themselves too seriously and literary novels that revel in misery.* I look forward to reading more of Kawakami’s work.

*hashtag – not all literary novels

Mar 22

The Intrusions by Stav Sherez

I can’t remember the last time I read a book as genuinely twisty-turny and as gripping as The Intrusions by Stav Sherez.

It’s the third novel in the crime fighting adventures of Detectives Jack Carrigan and Geneva Miller but don’t let that put you off. Yes this book references events from the previous books, specifically an internal investigation into whether Carrigan broke the law when investigating a case involving the Catholic Church, but Sherez – with much skill and only a smidgen of exposition – contextualizes everything so you never feel out of the loop.

The crime that’s front and centre at first has a familiar serial killer vibe until it becomes an episode of Black Mirror (“Shut up and Dance” if you want specifics). It’s a generalisation to say that novels, TV and films that deal with the internet, social media and throw around insidious terms like The Dark Web and Ratting paint the new digital age as the coming of the anti-christ. And while hacking is an actual thing, and while – as recently illustrated – other countries can manipulate the elections of first world countries without ever leaving home, rather than panic and forecast doom Sherez treats this as the new reality.

The Intrusions, for all its brilliant pacing and wonderful character work – I do love Miller and Carrigan – is one of the more mature novels I’ve read about the current digital age. It’s dangers, its undermining of people’s privacy and the murky ground that law enforcement finds itself in as it battles these issues. It’s not a positive portrayal, but it’s also not ill-informed or sensationalist. The book is worth reading just for that.

Mar 21

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

I did not like The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill. That’s an understatement. I found the book to be annoying, miserable and nihilistic. Anyone else would have put the novel down after 50 pages, maybe at the point where an 11-year-old boy is repeatedly raped by a nun, or a girl is beaten black and blue (by the same nun). But no… I kept on going. I’m not proud of this, my ability to persevering with a book I actively dislike is an ongoing issue in my reading life.

The story opens with the abandonment of two babies – a boy and a girl – in a Montreal orphanage during the winter of 1910. As they grow up it becomes clear that these children have exceptional talent. The boy, nicknamed Pierrot, is a piano prodigy and the girl, nicknamed Rose, is a brilliant dancer and has a keen sense of comic timing. Together they are sublime. So much so that the Mother Superior of the orphanage, in an attempt to earn some coin, sends the two children out to the homes of the rich to perform. Inevitably Pierrot and Rose fall in love. Subsumed by happiness the two plan to forge a destiny together once they’re old enough to leave the orphanage.

But as the Mother Superior points out quite early in the piece —

— happiness always led to tragedy. [The Mother Superior] had no idea why people valued the emotion and pursued it. It was nothing more than a temporary state of inebriation that led a person to make the worst decisions. There wasn’t a person who had experienced life on this planet who wouldn’t admit that sin and happiness were bedmates, were inextricably linked. Were there ever any two states of being that were so attracted to each other, were always seeking out each other’s company? They were a match made not in heaven but in hell.

What an optimistic view of humanity and the world. If only Heather O’Neill didn’t agree with such fundamentalist fervour as evidenced by the abuse she inflicts on her two protagonists.

As I noted earlier, a Sister at the orphanage, Eloise, repeatedly rapes 11 year-old Pierrot and belts the living shit out of Rose if she sees the girl speak to, look at or think of Pierrot. (At one point the beatings get so bad that the Mother Superior is compelled to stop Eloise. Can’t have the rich people noticing the bruises on their star performer). And just as Pierrot and Rose are nearing the end of their “stay” at the orphanage they are abruptly separated – without either knowing where the other has gone. Pierrot becomes the ward of an old, rich man looking for companionship (fortunately it’s platonic). Rose becomes the Governess of two little shits whose father runs organised crime in Montreal.

Throughout all this, the Mother Superior’s words come back to haunt Rose and Perriot. Spending three hundred pages looking for each other they will face all sorts of awfulness – whether it’s drug addiction or poverty or having to feature in pornos to earn money. And even when they do, finally, cross paths there’s no happy ending to be found.

This is a wretched, cynical novel. There’s an attempt on O’Neill’s part to obscure the rot by adopting a twee, quirky tone and presenting peculiar set-pieces such as Rose search for Pierrot, which involves checking out the shows of all the clowns performing in Montreal. It’s a style, that when it works, can create a fairy-tale / story-book type atmosphere. When it doesn’t work, like here, it reads as artificial and insincere. As a consequence it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Rose and Perriot because nothing about them seems real or grounded even though they are exposed to some awful shit. Perriot’s otherworldly brilliance at the piano – he just has to tickle the keys and people fall in love with his music – and his Byronesque attitude toward women had me wanting to kick him in the nuts. As for Rose, O’Neill does her character a disservice by having men initially view her as plain or ugly or OK, but not pretty and then, moments later, seeing her as the most beautiful creature on the planet. So much so that rich and powerful (and generally vile) men can’t help but be besotted with her.

I did wonder whether this was a deliberate attempt to subvert the star-crossed lover narrative that we’ve see in recent novels like The Night Circus – which this novel is compared to – All the Light We Cannot See. A romance we want to see succeed because the two lovers are so perfect for each other, but for external reasons fails to happen. O’Neill, contrary to those books*, does allow Rose and Pierrot to marry and have a life. But because the philosophy of this novel is that happiness ends in disaster and tragedy, it (spoilers) ends badly.  Rather than imagine what it might have been like for our two star crossed lovers to have a life together, O’Neill provides us with an answer – it sucks. If that is the point of this book, then fuck that for a game of cards. Or to be less sweary, I have no problems with depressing fiction – I’ve just praised a couple of unhappy novels recently – it just has to be earned, and as Rose and Pierrot are abused from a young age, with only the smallest of reprieves from time to time, nothing seems natural about their relationship.

Still, it would appear that other people do like a bit of misery and nihilism in their love stories, given the book’s popularity and it’s long listing on the Bailey’s Book Prize.** I, on the other hand, should not have finished this book. But I did. Let’s never speak of it again.

* Though I may be misremembering The Night Circus.

** Talking of the Bailey’s longlist I’ll be interested to see what others make of it – that is some of the book bloggers I follow who are reading the longlist. And when I say book bloggers, I really mean Simon Savidge.

Mar 21

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

This is one of those psychological thrillers of the waiting for the penny to drop variety.

I’ve actually read Pinborough’s work before, a forgettable Torchwood novel, and would have passed this one by if not for a decent write-up in the New York Times. Even without that review I might have read the book anyway given all the hype the novel has generated in the last month or so. Pinborough has been writing since 2009 but this would appear to be her breakthrough novel.

I wanted to love this novel – I like a good, twisty psychological thriller – unfortunately unlike so many others who have raved about Behind Her Eyes, the book fell flat for me. The writing is far superior to the pedestrian prose of her Torchwood book (possibly not the greatest bar to jump), and yet as can often be the case with fiction that relies on a significant twist, the sort that publishers and publicists milk for all its worth by asking reviewers NOT TO SPOIL THE ENDING, the reveal is either (a) never going to match the build up or (b) the characters are so dull that even if the twist is a stroke of genius it has little impact. Behind Her Eyes is the latter. Unlike a Gone Girl where the novel’s success is as much about the reveal as it is about the sick relationship between the protagonists, I never felt the same with Louise – a single mother drawn into a web of passive aggressive intrigue between her new boss and her boss’s wife.

The actual premise is the best bit of the novel. What if you were chatted up by a strange man in a bar who the following day you discover is actually your new boss. It all falls apart though when we are introduced to the boss’s wife whom, from the outset, is a sandwich short of a picnic as evidenced by the convoluted revenge game she’s playing with her husband, Louise a key part of her plan.  Once you realise the wife is manipulating events the novel becomes a waiting game, which, again, is OK as long as the characters are interesting and the situation is dynamic and there’s an actual sense of danger. But Louise – who I found reasonably sympathetic in the early part of the novel – keeps making idiotic decisions of the throw the book against the wall variety and once you stop giving a shit as to what happens to Louise you either stop reading the book or impatiently wait for the twist to happen. And then it does and you realise you’d already guessed it and while the second twist is surprising – because there’s always a second twist – sadly none of it justifies the time spent reading the story.

Mar 17

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison

I loved The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. It was raw and unfiltered, uniquely exploring the issue of female reproductive rights in the middle of an apocalypse. I loved it so much that after reviewing it on my blog I suggested the book to Kirstyn for The Writer and the Critic podcast. I then applauded when it deservedly won the Philip K. Dick award and added volume to that cheer when a mainstream publisher bought the first novel (originally released by an indie press) and contracted author Meg Elison to write a second book in the same world. Well… to be absolutely honest, I was hoping the Unnamed Midwife would be a standalone story. Still, when The Book of Etta was announced I pre-ordered it immediately because reservations aside I was curious to see how Elison would develop her world.

The Book of Etta is set one hundred years or so after the events of Midwife. The community that the midwife forms at the end of the first book has grown, slowly, with only one or two viable births a year. Known as “Nowhere” (a possible riff on the literal translation of utopia)* the small colony has adopted a hive structure where a single women is tended to by a group of men. Unsurprisingly, and given the context of a world where human extinction is a real possibility, the matriarchy places great significance on reproduction. Healthy women are expected to fall pregnant even though it might be a death sentence. Cue Etta. She’s less interested in procreation and more interested in saving the lives of women who – outside of Nowhere – are being captured, abused and exploited by men. Inspired by the unnamed midwife (a totemic figure for the community of Nowhere) she spends most of her time outside the colony, searching and raiding for items of value and more importantly freeing enslaved women. Like the Unnamed Midwife, Etta disguises her biology, dressing as a man. It’s more than just a façade though. When on the road, facing violent men, Etta becomes Eddy and is identified as a “he”. As Eddy she becomes increasingly aware of the Lion, the ruler of Estiel (you know it as St Louis) and his harem of opium addled women.

On the surface, The Book of Etta is more conventional and straightforward than its predecessor. Where the Unnamed Midwife was told in first person (diary entries) but also jumped to an omniscient third person as part of a framing story, The Book of Etta is a third person narrative from first to last page. And where the plot of Unnamed Midwife was shaggy and loose with no specific direction in mind (other than survival and spreading the message of birth control) The Book of Etta, with its introduction of the Lion (as evil a bastard as you’re likely to meet) has a far tighter and structured narrative – inevitably developing into a struggle between good and evil.

But that’s on the surface. What makes The Book of Etta more than just a confrontation between Eddy / Etta and those who would continue to abuse and enslave women is the conversation of gender that’s threaded throughout the story. If The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was distinctive for dealing with reproductive rights in the aftermath of an apocalypse, The Book of Etta is unique for exploring gender identity while human civilisation is on the wane. “Eddy” isn’t just an escape hatch, a personae that allows Etta to forget or ignore what’s expected of her back home, he’s also the gender that Etta finds she identifies with the most. But more then just a discussion about what it is to be trans in a world where day to day survival is not a given, Elison highlights the instinctive prejudice that results for a society where biology has greater priority than gender. Etta / Eddy who should be sympathetic to others like her is, in fact, the opposite. When Eddy finds himself attracted to Flora who presents as a woman but has the biology of a man, she feels betrayed, angered that Flora hid who she truly was – as if the “Flora” persona was a disguise. Eddy’s struggle to accept Flora as a mirror of his own circumstances leads Flora to observe:

“You [Eddy] didn’t see me because you think there are only two kinds of things in the world. Men and women. Good and evil. Slavers and rescuers. You’ve seen more of the world than I have, but you know less about it. There’s more in this world than you can even dream about, Eddy. You’re only not seeing it because you won’t.”

This tension between the binary and the fluid, between how we view ourselves and how we views others, is the true strength of the Book Etta. It’s a tension that expresses itself in the politics and power dynamics of this burgeoning world. Eddy / Etta can’t abide the thought of trading with slavers even if it means savings the lives of women. The leaders of Nowhere have a more nuanced take. And this opposition – the binary worldview of Eddy / Etta with the more fluid, complicated position of her friends and families – propels the last third of the narrative and provides for a gripping climax.

The Book of Etta is not as good as The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. But it’s like saying that chocolate ice-cream is not as good chocolate ice-cream with chocolate chips. If I had a reservation it was with the addition of a mystical / vaguely supernatural element, specifically involving the Mormon community that Eddy / Etta encounters and the healing powers of their prophetess. It’s not uncommon for post-apocalyptic narratives to feature psychic or otherworldly powers… but I found it an uncomfortable fit in the world of the Unnamed Midwife. Still, it’s a minor quibble. This is a fantastic, insightful and complex discussion about gender identity and I eagerly await the third book in the trilogy.

*Yes, I know the literal translation is “no place” or “good place” depending on how you compound your syllables.

Mar 15

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I struggled to figure out the point of this book.

I understand that Gaiman has a love for the Norse myths, but this project, which essentially re-writes those myths with a Gaiman gloss, seems indulgent to me. Not that I’m familiar with the source material (the Edda), but from what I could tell from a quick skim of the internet, there is nothing new or revolutionary or revisionist about these stories. When Gaiman said he wanted to be true to the original tales, he means it. So if you’re familiar with the source material I’m not sure how much you’ll get out of this book other than the curiosity of what bits Gaiman changes and how he retells some famous Norse moments.

Having said that, if you haven’t read the source material, which may be most of us, it is entertaining and if the book leads people to the Edda that can’t be a bad thing. Personally, though, I’d rather read original Gaiman than something that requires a microwave.

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