The Remains of the Day is a narrative that comprises of memories of Stevens’s service for the now deceased Lord Darlington as an English butler at Darlington Hall during and just after World War II. Told as a first person narrative, this story by Kazuo Ishiguro is mostly about regret and misplaced devotion.
Urged by his current employer, an American gentleman by the name of Mr. Farraday, Stevens decides to take a six-day road trip and leave Darlington Hall, where he worked as a butler for almost 35 years. While Stevens likes his new boss, he finds it difficult to converse with him because their personalities clash. The butler is set in his formal ways and is serious and prudent in what he chooses to say while Mr. Farraday, unlike his former employer, is not averse to indulging in some humourous and jovial “bantering”. The old butler wishes to acquire this skill of bantering and frequently expresses his desire to communicate better with his new boss. Stevens’s road trip was triggered by a letter sent by Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall who left twenty years earlier to get married. He reads into the letter that her marriage is on the rocks and that she wishes to return to her former duties. After the end of World War II, he had trouble retaining enough staff to maintain the manor so he regards it as welcome news.
We come to know through interactions that other characters have with Stevens, his former employer was manipulated into sympathizing with the Nazi cause. He even hosts dinner parties for the heads of British and German states so they can come to an amicable resolution. In the opinion of Stevens, who is blindly loyal, it is a shame the reputation of his former boss was destroyed because he misunderstood what was truly happening. During his road trip, he also talks about friendships with other butlers. It is also indicated that Stevens has inhibited feelings of a romantic nature for Miss Kenton as she comes up frequently as a subject. Although the two frequently have childish arguments over household matters, it is clear there is feeling between the pair, even if he fails miserably at being intimate and misreads her intentions.
The end of the novel reveals an obvious fact (at least to the discerning reader) about Miss Kenton, who has since become Mrs. Benn which upsets Stevens. He spent most of his life blindly trusting the choices of a man who made terrible errors of judgment and lost the one chance he had when love stared him in the face because he was blind to that too. He again chooses to be reticent and conceals how he feels and returns to Mr.Farraday, with a determination to master the art of bantering in order to please his new employer.
There is also a movie staring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson inspired by this book although the ending has variation to the novel. If you are interested in other works by this author, also check out Never Let Me Go.
When Alice wakes up, her first concern is about her the first baby she is to have with her husband Nick. The problem is that baby was born in 1998, Nick is in the middle of a divorce hearing with her and she has had two other children. As Alice starts to recall the events that led to her collapse and eventual memory lapse, she realises that the person she has become isn’t someone she likes very much and starts to sets things right again.
What Alice Forgot is light reading material – it’s the kind of book with which you would read a couple of chapters before leaving the rest for another day. This chick lit offering by Liane Moriarty deals with a 40-year-old protagonist called Alice Love who collapses at the gym one day and forgets the past 10 years of life. This would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact a lot has happened to Alice in the past 10 years. The amount of drama in her life in that span of time could have made a full season of a television sitcom.
The narrative is provided to us readers via two perspectives – one by the Alice who is trying to fit bits and pieces together after her memory loss and rest in journal entries by her sister, Elizabeth, who has enough troubles of her own. So we enter the lives of these two women who are struggling to keep their lives in order while learning some life lessons along the way. As Alice starts to recall the past, she can’t help but wonder if she should have started mending bridges when she recalls the drifting apart had been her own doing. This is one of those tales that ponders the What If question in an interesting way even if predictable.
While the prose is easy to read, the clever tactic of revealing tidbits of flashbacks without giving much away helps in making it to the end. Unfortunately while the journey to the destination was nice, reaching it was a disappointment as it was rather abrupt.
In Breath by Tim Winton, we have a gripping tale that is simple and profound in the topics it tackles – adolescence, the need for heart-pounding and risk-filled excitement, a yearning to outshine and outdo the competition and how old wounds affect the passage of life as time passes. This book which is mostly about the friendship between two boys and their daring surfing exploits is melodic in its use of written language and deserved the Miles Franklin Literary Award it won in 2009. As an immigrant Melburnian, surf culture is alien to me but as Winton paints such a vivid verbal picture of that world, and how the ocean could be both enthralling and toxic, Breath is a captivating read.
The most touching moment was when or coming of age protagonist had to admit that he was ‘ordinary’ after all. You realise it is a melancholy book as the trajectory of events clues you in that this is no flowery ode. Since it’s structured from the start as a reflection on past events, you can’t help but feel for Bruce Pike, the main character and later on his love interest. It did surprise me that the amount of time spent in learning about his present was very miniscule.
Set in Western Australia where surfing beaches abound, Breath gave me enjoyment in reading about the landscape. Sometimes authors overdo it to the point that it becomes a pain to read but Winton avoids relying on description and infuses his tale with enough dialogue and dramatic tension to sustain interest. You need to realise beneath the story surface story evoking nostalgia, there are other themes such as addiction, dreams vs reality and growing old integrated into the plot as an undercurrent.
I have shared my opinions about some of the recent Western films but it has been a while since my exploration of foreign films were publicised.
Tada, kimi wo aishiteru (Heavenly Forest)
In the Japanese movie Tada, kimi wo aishiteru (aka ‘Heavenly Forest‘), we are introduced to Makoto (Hiroshi Tamaki). He is a shy photographer who is a loner, partly because of an embarassing skin condition and finds it difficult to share confidences with others until he meets Shizuru (Aoi Miyazaki). She befriends him just before their university orientation after he takes a snapshot of her trying in vain to get cars to stop at a crossing. Their budding friendship allows Makoto to tutor Shizuru in the art of photography in a special location – the ‘heavenly forest’ of this title.
It is clear that although Shizuru is very small for her age and has odd quirks, she genuinely cares for Makoto. He on the other hand is infatuated with Miyuki (Meisa Kuroki) who has a rather disturbing obsession with weddings. Finally realising her feelings are unlikely to be requited, Shizuru makes friends with Miyuki herself. Prior to graduation, Shizuru requests a special birthday kiss from Makoto. He agrees only because she says it is for the purpose of a photography competition. When he makes no acknowledgement of having feelings for her after the kiss they share in the forest, Shizuru disappears completely from his life.
It is only when she is missing that Makoto realises the big impact she had on his life and takes it on to search for her. Except he does not know that Shizuru has kept her own secret from him throughout their friendship, although she discovered his. Then he hears from Miyuki there is an opportunity to see Shizuru once again. The meeting turns out to be completely different affair from what he expected.
This film tells us not to take what you get for granted because you might only realise what you had after you lose it, promotes the beauty of the natural world through the stunning still photography and even the haunting music is captivating because this story is deeply engaging with a universal theme.
Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
You might know of the animated title of the same name which won several awards that was directed by Mamoru Hosada. This live-action Time Traveller: Girl Who Leapt Through Time movie contains similar themes but uses a different plot. The 2010 film stars Akari (Riisa Naka) – the same actress who voiced the protagonist of the animation – as the daughter of Professor Kasuko, who is given a mission to deliver a message to Kazuo Fukamachi (Kanji Ishimaru) in the year 1972 when a bus accident makes it impossible for her mother to fulfill a promise. The time travelling is possible because Akari’s mother develops a formula that enables her to return to and from the past.
Unfortunately Akari mixes up the dates and ends up in 1974, two years later from the actual date, where she meets Ryota (Akinobu Nakao), a budding filmmaker. His friend, the cameraman Gotetsu (Munetaka Aoki), has a deep connection to Akari but this realisation does not strike her until she returns to the present. Meanwhile Ryota and Akari share a sweet but sort of awkward chemistry which is obvious through the significance of the movie reel she is able to take to her present. Most of her time in 1974 is focused on her search for the elusive Kazuo. Even her own mother whom she meets is unable to help her. Ryota gives her help with her search by accompanying her to put an ad in a newspaper that requests Kazuo to meet with her. After she delivers her message, she remains in 1974 because she wants to prevent an accident but she is kept from altering the course of history by Kazuo himself.
So when Akari is forced to return back from the past, it’s a bittersweet pill to swallow given what could have blossomed. This too is one of those movies that depict images captured on film can leave a legacy. Both emotional and powerful in its climax, this is not one to discount in its effect.
I started reading the book on the train yesterday, as we were pulling out from Flinders Railway Station, on the way home after an interview training workshop. The journey took approximately one hour and ten minutes and on reaching my stop of Berwick, I was halfway through the novel.
The first page featured the captivating opening passage below:
Misleading, of course. As always. But unforgettable: the red glow of his face – a boozer’s incandescent glow. The pitted, sun-coarsened skin – a cheap, ruined leather. And the eyes: an old man’s moist, wobbling jellies.
But then … the suit: white linen, freshly pressed. And – absurdly, in that climate – the stiff collar and tie.
I stood behind my mother outside his room at the Swan, perched on a wooden balcony overlooking the beer garden. The hotel – a warren of crumbling weatherboard, overgrown with bougainvillea – was packed, the drinkers and their noise spilling out of the front bar into the garden. Up the stairs, second on the right, a barman had shouted – and every face in the bar had turned and followed us up. One or two drunken whistles had also followed us up; whistles living far beyond their sexual means, my mother later reported to my father, contemptuously.
‘This is Paul,’ she said, pushing me forward, ignoring the noise below.
The figure in the white suit stood aside from his doorway, and motioned us inside.
‘Of course. Your father has told.’
The accent was thick. Continental, my father had described it, vaguely. A voice that reminded him of grilling sausages: a faint, constant spitting of sibilants in the background.
‘Sit down,’ the voice hissed. ‘We will talk.’
A problem: how to capture that accent here? Ve vill talk? It’s tempting – too tempting – to slip into comic-book parody. We haf ways off makink …
Maestro, set prior to and following the damage by Cyclone Tracy, tells us the story of the arrogant Paul Crabbe – the son of two intelligent, music loving parents – whose arrival in Darwin leads him to meet the enigmatic Eduard Keller as his piano teacher of classical music. Although the epithet of maestro is bestowed on Eduard Keller, it is clear the title is used in mockery by the plebeian community. Paul becomes curious about Keller when he observes fragments of newsprint pertaining to wartime Europe in German and nurtures the belief that his teacher is a war criminal because the rapport between them is established in bits and pieces. The vicissitudes of life during adolescence distracts him from being earnest in his pursuit of serious musical study as he debates choosing between the pleasures of Megan and Rosie. Later he realises the missed opportunities and disregarded advice prevented him from reaching his full potential. The truth hits home when he goes to Austria to pay a visit to Henisch in Vienna, who had accompanied Eduard when they were students of Leschetizky. It is only after the tragic death of this incredible teacher who taught Paul the difference between technical perfection and virtuosity, he is able to deduce that “a great man had died, whatever the crimes he felt he had committed.”
The structure of the book is also interestingly split using movements in music as an analogy to demonstrate changes of style and pace e.g. Libretto, Intermezzo. This is useful because we initially believe Peter Goldsworthy is writing in present tense. Later we perceive that he is writing it from Paul Crabbe’s point of view as an older person who is recounting his past. Maestro is a beautifully written bildungsroman that hooks your attention and holds you in suspense right from the start.
I finished the rest of the novel on the train back to Melbourne for the conclusion of the workshop. The journey took approximately one hour and ten minutes.
Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai and Kamillaroi woman who decided to become a lawyer at the tender age of eleven when her Indigenous father found his mother’s removal certificate. This poignant and touching story titled Home about Garibooli, a naive young Aboriginal girl who is displaced from her society to an alien Western world, tells us subtly how advantage is taken of her childhood innocence.
Garibooli, after being taken from her people is put to work in the mansion of the Howard family under the name, Elizabeth . The domestic servitude encumbered upon her during her youth is exploitation enough but worse follows when Mr. Howard begins to pay her flattering attention. Her ignorance and lack of education makes the resulting consequences ultimately tragic.
The story is interspersed with comparisons of Indigenous traditions and Western culture. Highlighted is the friendship between Xiao-ying Chan (Helen Chan to white people) and Garibooli (Elizabeth to white people), her cordial relationship between the strict but kindly housekeeper Miss Grainger and the perpetual annoyance of Mrs Howard when she tries her best striving to get praise for a job well done. Imposition of barriers created by the inability to communicate is well articulated within this tale. The author neatly ties in the impact inflicted on Garibooli by the separation from her family through indicating her conflicting desire to please the Howard household while showing her discontent through nostalgic, contemplative reflections.
The story appears to indirectly comment on the plight segregation had forced on the protagonist since in Australia, similar conditions were faced by many other young Aboriginal girls when oppression against the indigenous people were rife. Prejudice held against this native community has lessened considerably with the passage of time and the public apology but politics and the current legal system still has a big part to play in improving conditions for our indigenous citizens. If you did not know about the Stolen Generations, you might find some enlightening information within this fact sheet.
I have discovered short stories are something I put by the wayside unless they are the sort written by Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Jeffrey Archer. Thinking it is time I should end this discrimination against the poor genre which is overlooked, I have opened myself to reading and reviewing an Australian short story per day for just this week. We will see how long I manage to keep it up!
The Sandfly Man by Matthew Condon is a short story about convictions that spring up and take precedence in the innocence of childhood; he expresses with convincing imagery of the pesticide man of the park how fears that inspire terror from back then can remain with us until our transition into adulthood. His reflective glimpses of how mundane our life can be in the world of the beach caravan park as a home away from home is insightful in its banality.
Queensland in his idyllic narrative setting of Tallebudgera Creek Caravan Park is described so well you cannot help but feel through how he radiates the hot, sticky feeling of summer and the pleasure evoked through moments at the Burleigh Heads beach in adolescence, that it is being conveyed by a native. It is an odd contrast when he details the pleasure of his parents and their friends in a simple game of canasta while he lies in abject terror of his conception of the Sandfly Man. This figure which has arrested his imagination causes him to fear it far more than the fearsome combination of the ‘government, devil and God all rolled into one’.
In its conclusion, we are left to contemplate the inability of the author to return to the caravan park even though his sister does. The family tradition is carried out by his sister after she had kids herself since she forages out her own caravan park space and the card playing scenario continues with a younger generation in her circle of family friends; but the author is an outsider who sits by himself in the lounge on Christmas morning watching television. The door to the past is not open to him.
The fear of the ghost of the Sandfly Man with his swirling mist is still to elude our writer.