Jul 02

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Reading All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg could have been a painful process, the equivalent of having your teeth removed via your nostrils. The story of a woman in her late thirties, childless, unmarried and living in New York screams neuroses, therapist and the sort of wacky misadventures that would embarrass Candance Bushnell. And yet while All Grown Up does feature neuroses, therapists and the odd wacky misadventure it’s written with such honesty and compassion that spending time with our protagonist Andrea Bern in anything but a painful, cringe-worthy chore.

The secret to the novel is that it’s short – because who doesn’t love a petite book – and the narrative is split into a series of episodes that jump forward and backward through Andrea’s life. As the novel progresses, as each story is told, Andrea is pieced together, warts and all, as a wonderfully realised woman who has been through the ups and downs of living a single life. There’s the early years where Andrea believed she would be an artist, there are the middle years where she finds herself in a job she doesn’t particularly like, friends who don’t always seem to be on her wavelength and men with their wide variety of sexual hang-ups and fetishes and there’s the later years where Andrea is coming to terms with her upbringing, her relationship with her mother and brother, her acceptance of what it is to be single when the rest of the world expects marriage and children. Attenberg’s magnificent prose captures each of these stages – the hope, the love, the sadness, the neuroses, the maturity – with great deft and skill.

It’s a novel that can be horribly awkward and laugh out loud funny, such as the scene where Andrea flirts with an older man at a wedding only to have him reject her by talking sadly about his dead wife and then reproach Andrea for desiring to shag someone she’d only just met. There’s also a sharpness to the humour that’s provocative but also authentic in its delivery:

One more drink and we’re sharing our rape stories. Nearly every woman I know has one. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of these stories I could buy an enormous, plush pillow with which to smother my tear-stained face. Near rape, date rape, rape rape, it’s all the same, I think. Close enough is rape. Once I had a friend tell me this breathless, elaborate story about fighting off a drunk man at a party. He tears her dress, scratches her skin, throttles her throat, and it ends with her punching him in the eye, but, she points out repeatedly, he never actually fucks her. “Thank god nothing happened,” she said to me. I stared at her, and then slowly responded. “Yes,” I said. “Thank god for that.

While you can’t deny the book’s sometimes cynical tone, All Grown Up is not as raw or savage as it could have been. Instead there’s a warmth to the novel that emerges when Andrea is dealing with her mother and brother – especially later in the book – but is also present when she is enjoying time with her friends, such as this moment when her mate Indigo hands over baby Effy:

“Here,” [Indigo] says. “Hold Effy. He’s the best picker-upper I know.” I would rather have a glass of wine. But I hold Effy. And he is all the things you want a baby to be. He smells like sweet cream and his hair is petal-soft. All right, show me what you got, kid, I think; let’s see what you know. Indigo coos in the background, the fan shuddering behind her. I look into his eyes. She promised me wisdom. I do not see the wisdom of the ages. But, for a moment, in the tenderness of this baby’s existence, in his blank and gentle ease, I see the relief. You don’t know anything yet, I think. You don’t know a goddamn thing. You lucky baby.”

The poignancy of the scene, articulating a truism that age and experience often brings grief and hardship, but written with a bittersweet beauty that’s understated and powerful, is what makes All Grown Up such an unexpected delight to read.

Jun 29

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

I remarked on Twitter that while Ill Will by Dan Chaon is often gripping and has some fun with typography the novel did very little that was new for a psychological thriller. This feeling that the book was a tad conventional was the result of picking one of the key reveals toward the end of the novel. On reflection though I’ve come to the conclusion that while the plotting is perfectly fine the strength of Ill Will stems from the erudite things Chaon has to say about mental health, about repressed memories and about pattern recognition and how it can easily lead us to confuse fiction with fact.

I’m going to limit what I say about the plot. It’s not because of some massive twist, rather this is a book that gradually, patiently, methodically reveals its cards and to say too much would be to rob the reader of that sense of progression, which is tied intrinsically with the overall feeling of dread and suspense the story evokes. What I will say is that while Ill Will features a number of perspectives, this is very much the story of psychologist Dustin Tillman and how the horrible thing he witnessed as a boy – the brutal massacre of his parents, Aunt and Uncle by his adopted brother Rusty – shaped his life, marriage and career. Now based on a lack of DNA evidence Rusty has been cleared of these murders after spending more than twenty years in jail. At the same time one of Dustin’s patients approaches him with a long-standing case of unsolved murders, a string of drowning deaths involving drunk college boys.

Ill Will reminds us that something like “fake news” or better yet our capacity to believe in outright lies is not a new phenomena. I know as a kid, when I did something wrong, the gut instinct was to create a story – a cobbled together tissue of half-truths and bullshit – rather than face what I’d done. I still have that predilection today, not as bad as Dustin Tillman, but I could certainly appreciate his desire to believe in an alternate reality involving the deaths of his parents. Chaon ties that smartly into two popular crazes, the Satanic madness of the 1980s and the fallacy of repressed memory which, while dating back to the 19th Century, really hit its stride in the 80s and 90s, both which highlight that it doesn’t take much for humanity to incorrectly recognise a pattern and then overlay that on reality. Dustin’s story is therefore emblematic of a society that would rather be comforted by confirmation bias then seek the truth. The madness of our current age, of what’s happening now, Trumpism and the aforementioned fake news, is that it seems easier to believe in conspiracy theories than actually deal with the cold hard facts. It’s easier for Dustin to believe there is a serial killer murdering drunk college kids or accept that his adopted brother hacked up his parents than deal with the death of his wife or the tragic fact that his sons are drifting away from him.

I’d like to say that Dustin Tillman’s story is a cautionary tale, but I think we are well past that. In anycase, Dan Chaon has written a very clever novel that shines a light on our own insecurities, our desire to avoid pain, physical and psychological, by choosing fantasy over reality.

Jun 28

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou opens in the 1970s in an orphanage on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire a port city in the Republic of Congo. Our young protagonist with an incredibly long name but known as Moses (for short) is surprised when Papa Moupelo, a kindly ‘pocket-sized’ priest in elevator heels abruptly disappears. This absence coincides with regime change in the country as the Republic of Congo becomes the People’s Republic of Congo. The introduction of communism and the removal of those people who had an ounce of compassion compels Moses to escape the orphanage. On the streets of Pointe-Noire he joins a gang, helps out the Zairian prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter and attempts to evade the authorities out to clean the streets. Struggling to deal with the abuse of power he sees everyday he wears a green hood in honour of his hero Robin Hood. A clear sign of his principles and philosophy but also a possible sign that Moses might be going mad.

The strongest parts of the book have less to do with Moses and his misadventures and more to do with the Congo. In particular the ways communism becomes a handy crutch for those seeking influence and power and the deep-rooted mistrust and tensions between the varied ethnic groups of the Congo. Where the novel left me cold was in its depiction of Moses, especially post orphanage, and his descent into madness. The fact that Moses is narrating his story from within an insane asylum – which is located on the same grounds as the orphanage he escaped – should be a tragic, shattering revelation. And yet it felt on the nose, partly because there’s never much doubt that Moses has a slippery handle of reality. And while I felt some of the anger simmering under the surface, – especially in regard to the daily abuses Moses witnesses – and I noted the pitch-black tone of the humour – there are some funny moments in the orphanage, especially how Moses deals with a pair of bullies – so much of the short novel just slid off me. Which isn’t particularly insightful but as profound as this review is likely to get.

This is my first taste of Mabanckou’s work – who I note has written for over twenty years and is much respected and praised* – so I have no idea if it’s indicative of his wider oeuvre. My thoughts about this novel aside I’m still interested in reading further fiction by him and I suspect that Mabanckou’s 2003 novel African Psycho might be more up my alley.

*While I may not have loved the book I still thank Serpents Tail for translating Mabanckou’s work.

Jun 27

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

More than one reviewer has compared Katie Kitamura’s new novel, A Separation, with Rachel Cusk’s Outline (2014). Both books feature female protagonists, newly divorced, who find themselves on holiday in Greece. They’re also tonally alike, sharply observed, intricately detailed and almost devoid of passion or warmth. And yet while I loved Outline, I was less impressed with A Separation. Putting aside whether the comparison is fair, the reason I like the Cusk more than the Kitamura is because of what separates – ha ha – the two novels.

While this isn’t a review of Outline – I’ve done that already – it’s worth noting that the strength of that book is that we, like the narrator, are observers. Cusk’s genius is that she’s written a novel where we learn more about the supporting characters than our protagonist. That’s not the case with A Separation. Our narrator may not be named but we learn plenty about her, specifically that she’s only just left her husband, Christopher, that their separation hasn’t been made public and that she still feels conflicted about him, which comes to the fore when she’s informed by her mother in law – who isn’t aware of their current marital status – that he’s gone missing in Greece. And it’s this critical difference between Outline and A Separation – the role of the narrator – that affected my feelings toward the two books.

Before I start on the negative I want to be clear that Kitamura’s prose is top drawer stuff. Reviews of the novel have focussed on her use of the comma splice – Lionel Shriver attacked it, Jonathan Gibbs defended it – but as John Self notes in his review of the novel, whatever your views of this stylistic quirk in Kitamura’s hand it produces sentences overflowing with unexpected detonations of astonishing prose. Take this example:

From across the table, I saw that he had buttoned his shirt up incorrectly, so that the fabric puckered in the middle of the shirt’s placket, an unusual slip in a man so fastidious about his appearance, it was an indication of how distraught he was, he could hardly have looked in the mirror before leaving his room.

Ignore the splice and focus on the rhythm of the sentence: puckered matched tonally with placket (a word I had to look up) followed by the multi-syllabic fastidious evoking the perfect image of a man in distress.

Beautiful prose, though, is not enough for me. As I note above this is a book that’s very much about the psychology of its protagonist. When the experience is this intimate you – the reader – need to have a relationship with the character. You don’t have to like her, or identify with her, or find resonance in her experience. But there has to be something. For me there was nothing. Here is a woman who has flown to Greece not to find her husband but to come to terms with the remnants of her marriage. A woman who seems to have wrapped her identity so tightly in the notion of marriage that she can’t bear to tell her mother in law that she and Christopher are no longer together. And yet I couldn’t muster any emotion about her state of mind or her situation. Part of that is the affectless prose that’s beautiful and serene when describing others but less successful when picking at the thoughts of the narrator. And part of it is that I never bought the relationship between the protagonist and her husband. From her own perspective – it’s all we ever get – her portrayal of Christopher is of a man who craves attention, more interested in his ‘research’ than his wife. A man who his mother confirms could never keep his dick in his pants. If there was ever any love or chemistry between the two of them it’s never made evident. And yet our narrator is incapable, physically, of telling anyone, other than her current boyfriend – bemused as to why the separation is being kept secret – that they are no longer together. It’s possible I’m missing some critical element, but for me it was hard to care, hard to engage, hard to understand our protagonist.

And that’s the big difference between this novel and Rachel Cusk’s Outline. We’re not meant to engage with Cusk’s narrator, she’s deliberately been kept in the shadows. In contrast I believe Kitamura wants us to have some appreciation of the tensions faced by her narrator. Sadly it never came together for me.

Jun 26

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I’m willing to admit that I haven’t read nearly enough of George Saunders’ work other than a couple of short stories and fond memories of his novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. But with all the advance talk about his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I was more than willing to board the anticipation train. Early praise for the book, including a couple of fascinating interviews with Saunders only heightened my excitement.

You know where this is going. Contrary to the promises made by the back cover blurb I never found Lincoln In The Bardo captivating. It left me cold.

The subject matter, though, is not to blame. To open his novelist account Saunders settles on Abe Lincoln. Given the many biographies, movies, and fictional accounts, including that time he was a vampire hunter, a novel about the 16th President of the United States of America seems a conventional choice for someone famous for his askew take on the world. And yet there’s nothing straightforward in Saunder’s approach. For one, he makes the smart decision of limiting his focus to a single event in Lincoln’s life – the death of his son Willie. And rather than provide a fictional but historically factual account of the night Willie died and the controversy that came after – the Lincoln’s were holding a soirée as their son succumbed to fever – Saunders employs a Greek-chorus of ghosts and a collage of excerpts from non-fiction books detailing the tragedy to tell the story. It’s bold, ambitious and George Saunders through and through. And it might have worked if I hadn’t found the ghosts so fucking irritating.

Although numerous spectres get an opportunity to speak throughout the course of the narrative, most of the talking is limited to three ghosts – a Mr Vollman, Mr Bevins and the Reverend – who have come across the recently departed soul of Willie Lincoln. In their attempts to help Willie communicate with his father, who on the first night following his son’s death sits and grieves in the marble crypt where Willie is laid to rest, their constant wittering and general banality undercuts the significance of the moment. It’s meant to be funny, their circular logic, their bitching about the other ghosts, the fact that Vollman and Bevins can’t stand the Reverend, and yet rather than elicit a chuckle it becomes repetitive and tedious. The other ghosts that pop in and out of the story, other than the odd exception, fare no better. They are as teeth-gritting annoying as Vollman and Bevins. The only interesting aspect to Vollman and Bevin’s dialogue, other than their honest desire to help Willie, is their inability to grasp that they’re dead. This is aligned with the metaphysics of the ‘Bardo’, a Tibetan tradition similar to the Christian notion of limbo and the Jewish concept of Gehinom.

And yet this is still a book by George Saunders and while his ghosts – as characters – did bugger all for me there is still some scintillating writing on display. We discover that the Bardo does not discriminate, that it is a repository of souls for all genders and races. And while the white souls keep their distance from those ghosts of colour, the appearance of Willie attracts spirits from all across the Bardo. The point of view shifts from Bevin and Vollman (thank God) and instead we hear the painful thoughts of a slave Litzie Wright. I know it’s bad form to quote large chunks of a book, but I wouldn’t dare fiddle with or edit this astonishing piece of writing:

What was done to her was done to her many times, by many. What was done to her could not be resisted, was not resisted, sometimes was resisted, which resulted, sometimes, in her being sent away to some far worse place, other times in that resistance simply being forcibly overcome (by fist, knee, board-strike, etc.). What was done to her was done and done. Or just done once. What was done to her affected her not at all, affected her very much, drove her to the nervous shakes, drove her to hateful speech, drove her to leap off the Cedar Creek Bridge, drove her to this obstinate silence. What was done to her was done by big men, small men, boss men, men who happened to be passing the field in which she worked, the teen sons of the boss man or of the men who happened to be passing, a trio of men on a bender who spilled out of the house and, just before departing, saw her there chopping wood. What was done to her was done on a regular schedule, like some sort of sinister church-going; was done to her at random times; was never done at all, never once, but only constantly threatened: looming and sanctioned; what was done to her was straightforward missionary fucking; what was done to her was anal fucking (when the poor dear had never even heard of such a thing); what was done to her were small sick things (to the accompaniment of harsh words from stunted country men who would never have dreamed of doing such things to a woman of their own race), done to her as if no one else were there, only him, the man doing it, she nothing more than a (warm, silent) wax figure; what was done to her was: whatever anyone wished to do, and even if someone wished only slightly to do something to her, well, one could do it, it could be done, one did it, it was done, it was done and done.

I wanted to love Lincoln in the Bardo but we never saw eye to eye. And yet, for all my frustrations with the novel, there was always a nugget of brilliant prose that kept me going. I might have been reading a novel but I was regularly reminded that Saunders is a master of the short form.

Jun 22

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

I loved Eileen and I loved this collection but it’s not going to be for everyone. The stories all – with the possible exception of the last one which is tonally very different – deal with similar themes and fascinations. Social awkwardness, being the outsider, an obsessive interest in the human body (a couple of stories make a great deal of oily pimples). It’s all very visceral and sweaty and horribly intimate. It’s makes for uneasy reading. But I loved every word. Loved how the stories got under my skin (which is a cliche but apt when talking about these pieces). There’s no gore or overt violence just the uncomfortableness of life. It’s some time since I’ve read these stories and I’m still deeply affected by one story (“The Beach Boy”) about a man whose wife suddenly, unexpectedly dies.

So not for everyone but highly recommended.

Jun 20

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

A tweet from the critic – and my favourite tastemaker – John Self sent me in the direction of this slim collection of stories by Kathleen Collins. I’d never heard of Collins, not particularly surprising given she died in 1988 (from breast cancer at the age of 46) and was best known for the movie Losing Ground (1982) which, until recently was out of circulation. Having now read this amuse bouche of a collection, I’m keen to check out her film.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is slim and so are the stories. Vignettes about family, about love, about intense relationships, about being a single woman and still desiring a fuck now and again. And race. It’s not an overt aspect of every story but it’s certainly a consistent theme. It’s race in the context of being a black woman, of having a white boyfriend, of coming to terms with black culture and identity. The title piece – Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”” – one of the longest stories in the book is an almost fable about integration and segregation. The story pinpoints 1963 as a year where, in the bohemian nooks and crannies of New York, ‘race was not a factor’ where love was colour blind. But as young black women introduce their white boyfriends to parents who only remember discrimination and racial violence integration feels like a betrayal. In a manner that’s almost prophetic, or inevitable, it highlights the tension between identity and culture over assimilation. It’s an incredible powerful and relevant story.

And it’s not alone. Whether exploring what it was to be a black woman in the 1960s or one very funny and razor-sharp piece about love, infidelity and commitment this collection is filled with magnificent writing, powerful moments and muted tragedy (suicide, in particular, features in a few of the stories). Collins is also playful and inventive in how she presents her fiction, borrowing from her experience as a playwright but also marrying together prose with epistolary. In such a small collection the breadth of styles and storytelling is a little bit amazing.

Not every story wowed me, but what became clear is that Kathleen Collins was a major talent. The tragedy of coming across a writer this good is knowing there’s nothing else to look forward to (at least in terms of prose). And yet the existence of this collection is important in not just reminding us or making us aware of a unique talent but also in promoting powerful, female black voices.

Jun 16

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

I really liked The Grace of Kings when I read it last year and said as much on my blog. In my review back then I noted the criticism levelled at the novel in regard to limited female representation – especially in the first half of the book. I was OK with it because when women do play a role in the novel – in the second half – it’s significant. Still it was a valid criticism. As important as the female characters are, having them barely say a word in the first half of the book while the men battle and strategise and angst and quip does seem lopsided. And it invites the question as to why women are marginalised until the plot needs them.

But that was The Grace of Kings. In The Wall of Storms Ken Liu doesn’t just address this gender problem he takes it outside and gives it a good thrashing. Of course the vagaries of publishing means that Ken Liu, who would have been near finished, if not revising the edits of the second novel when The Grace of Kings came out, isn’t truly reacting to the criticism. He’d already considered the role of women in the series and The Wall of Storms rather than rectify a problem is simply implementing a plan. Women are front and centre in this book. From the first page to the last it’s women who chart the destiny of the people of Dara.

I’m not going to summarise the plot. If you haven’t read the first book – and you should – it will make little sense. If you have read the first novel then all you really need to know is that The Wall of Storms takes place a decade or so after The Grace of Kings and sees Emperor Kuni attempting to implement his progressive agenda. One aspect of this, that explains the strong role of women in the novel, is providing women avenues to higher education and the public service, a move that has received its fair share of criticism. In amongst all this shenanigans are afoot as the question of which son will replace Kuni becomes a hot topic of debate and court politics. Machiavellian manipulations and betrayals ensue and that’s just the first half of this very long novel.

What’s wonderful about this book and the series in general is Liu’s devotion to philosophy. We get a great deal of information about the different schools of thought that form the foundation of Daran society. There are the Moralists, the Incentivists, the Fluxists and the Patternists and like all philosophy they provide guidance on how to live your life and how to govern by drawing examples from the natural world. The book is steeped in conversations about which movement / ideology best suits a society that’s hoping to break clear of its violent, oppressive past. And when Dara is invaded, that debate shifts to a discussion that attempts to distinguish colonialisation from invasion. I haven’t read a huge chunk of epic fantasy, but this deep dive into the mechanics of a just, well governed society feels like something different and new.

But the novel isn’t just high quality navel gazing. There’s plenty of battles, graphic violence, death and awful tragedy. The second half of The Wall of Storms has a body count that would make GRRM rather proud.

And while The Wall of Storms is about three hundred pages too long – I hold the view that nothing needs to be longer than 90,000 words, but that’s a discussion for another – for the most part you don’t notice the length. This is immersive fiction at its most entertaining with a beautifully rendered world and characters who begin life as broad archetypes but develop into complex people. If you are looking for some top drawer big fat fantasy with a strong philosophical bent then I heartily recommend the Dandelion Dynasty.

Jun 15

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

It’s been four years since Michael Chabon published a novel. That was Telegraph Avenue which I never got around to reading (and may have dodged a bullet based on the reviews). It’s been seven years since I’ve read a novel by Michael Chabon. That was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union which was a fantastic read (and still the only book I know of that has the Parah Adoomah, the Red Hefier, as a key plot point). And it’s been two weeks since I’ve finished Michael Chabon’s latest novel. That would be Moonglow and it’s very good indeed (though not as good as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union).

Moonglow is a memoir, the deathbed memories of a man who fought in WW2, who married a Jewish refugee with secrets and demons of her own, who became fascinated with rockets to the point that he devoted his later years to building miniatures of aircraft and space shuttles and lunar modules and who once nearly strangled to death his boss with a telephone cord after being fired from his job to be replaced by Alger Hiss. This man is also the grandfather of a Mike Chabon, a young writer with a familiar sounding name who on a tour for his first novel visits his terminally ill grandfather in Florida. It’s Mike who records his grandfather’s recollections – stories that have never been told – and who presents them as a memoir.

This book is not a true account of Michael Chabon’s grandfather. He did have bone cancer and he did narrate his life to his grandson in the months before he died. But the memories that were told to Michael are not the same as those related to Mike. This is a revisionist memoir, a historical account steeped in lies. Just like most fiction.

To be fair, Chabon makes it clear from the outset – in a glib but revealing author’s note – that this is a fictional account, with a small dollop of truth. If you’re like me you spent most of the novel wondering which bits of Mike’s grandfather’s life and for that matter Mike’s grandmother, his mother and Mike himself were based on a true story – like the best Hollywood biopics – or were imagined from whole cloth. This metafictional game, while key to the book’s theme of truth and history, is the least interesting aspect of the book. It’s the storytelling that sings, that takes centre stage. Yeah we’ve all read narratives about veterans recalling their wartime memories (especially WW2), but I found something a little bit awesome about Mike’s grandfather’s search for Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun and his secrets of the V2 rocket. And yes, we’ve all read books about how war leaves scars on those that survive. That’s certainly the case for Mike’s grandfather and his wife, a Belgium Jew who intimately experienced the horrors of Nazism, but these scars result in some of the books most powerful, tragic and human moments.

But put all that aside. What I truly loved about Moonglow was it’s Jewishness and how Chabon avoids all the usual ‘oy vey’, Matzah ball stereotypes and treats Judaism as a cultural identity, a state of mind that’s nearly impossible to avoid even if you have no faith in God and care little for rituals (Mike’s grandfather in a nutshell). My Jewish upbringing doesn’t match that of Mike or his grandfather and yet it somehow resonates – flash and you’ll miss them moments, maybe only recognisable to someone who was brought up as a Jew. It’s rare to see my culture presented with such matter of fact honesty.

This isn’t a perfect book. The revelation about Mike’s mother and her Uncle left a bad taste, mostly because it felt out of place, gratuitous. And Mike’s grandfather’s desire to kill a snake hunting the pets of Floridian retirees did very little for me. But other than that I certainly bonded with Moonglow.

Jun 14

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Swing Time is my first taste of Zadie Smith’s work and I feel like I might have got on the wrong bus. It’s not that the book is awful or even average. In fact a good deal of the novel is funny and smart and incredibly well written. But it’s funny how one thing, a character, a plot beat, a narrative tic, can upset everything, undermine all the good work. In the case of Swing Time I simply couldn’t get past the character of Aimee.

Thankfully Aimee isn’t our protagonist or narrator. That task goes to an unnamed character – is it me or is there this increasing literary trend of not naming first person narrators? – who, when the book opens, is running away from a scandal, the media on her heels. The rest of the novel essentially explains how our narrator reached this point in her life. She skips between her childhood in London living on a housing estate and her adult life where she becomes an assistant for an Australian pop diva. This would be Aimee.

Those early sections dealing with her childhood and her friendship with Tracey, a girl she meets at a community dance class, is where the book sings. They both dream of being dancers, captivated by the dancing moves of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and then later – and more importantly – Jeni LeGon, a black dancer of the 1930s whose skin colour and dancing chops mesmerise the girls, especially Tracey. Smith’s writing here is just stunning. Capturing the movement of dance in prose while also conveying the sheer joy of the two girls.

The story isn’t told chronologically and at first it’s interesting to compare our narrator in her youth to the woman in her early 20s now working for a pop-star (after a short stint at an MTV clone). She’s smart, aware that the colour of her skin means she’s a novelty even amongst progressive media-types (I should note these scenes are set in the late 90s) and still not entirely sure what she should be doing with her life. It also becomes immediately clear that she’s estranged from her best friend who seems to be posting David Icke like conspiracy theories on bulletin boards. How it got this way is one of the questions the rest of the novel addresses. But between those scenes where we flashback to our narrator’s youth, in steps Aimee.

She’s a pop-star. A diva. And after an awkward first meeting, our narrator has been tasked to shadow Aimee when she visits the office of the MTV clone, Aimee decides she wants our narrator to stay as her assistant. Having always been a fan of Aimee’s work our narrator say yes.

Aimee is a cliché, a strawman, an anvil around the neck of the novel. She’s Australian, born in Bendigo which is described as “sleepy”. (Has Bendigo ever been mentioned so often in a literary novel?). It’s not that Aimee is an awful Australian stereotype, dropping words like drongo and you beaut at random moments (no that role goes to her best friend Judy who says the word bogan maybe fifty times). In fact our narrator makes the point that Aimee has deliberately shaved away anything Australian, including her accent, from her character. No, what bugged me about Aimee is that in a book that features this complex relationship between two best friends Aimee’s lack of depth stands out like a sore thumb.

You can check off the clichés. Aimee is self obsessed and egotistical, only interested in her brand. She is temperamental, treating her assistants like close friends one day and then ignoring them for weeks after. She’s also naïve, especially in a broader political sense, made clear when she decides to build a school in Africa. I know Smith is deliberately tapping into a specific “pop-diva” stereotype. It’s just not clear to me why, or, more importantly, why our narrator stays with Aimee for so many years? The impression is that our narrator, never sure what to do with her life, is willing to be a passive actor in Aimee’s over the top life. Our narrator does eventually rebel, shagging one of the teachers they meet in Africa, a man Aimee is fond of. But it all feels orchestrated, it lacks the natural momentum of our narrator’s relationship with Tracey.

It’s the stuff with Tracey that I wanted to go back to. While the activities in West Africa are interesting from a cultural relativist perspective, I felt that novel truly only shined when we flashed back to our narrators early years with Tracey and our narrators almost reluctant relationship with her mother (another strong aspect of the book which deserves more attention than I’ve given it). But then Bendigo born Aimee appears and the clichés are trotted out and it all feels off kilter, like two novels trying to exist in the same space.

I know this isn’t Smith at her best. And given there’s some incredibly good prose on display I’ll definitely read her next book. (Obviously I should read her back catalogue but we know that’s not going to happen). Even if I got on the wrong bus I wasn’t totally disappointed with the journey.

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