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.
The Hotel Albatross was an interesting book with a funny and moving plot. I picked it at random off the library shelf because I liked the conversational tone of the first page. When I choose reading material, the cover or blurb isn’t enough information; I need to know what form the in-text will take. It’s about the running of a hotel and pub in an old Australian outback country town. I used to think running a hotel would be a sexy job in hot demand but the picture this book paints about the hotel management business is bleak. Still the way in which Debra Adelaide, author of The Household Guide to Dying, writes has a certain charm which sustains your interest.
It is mainly about two characters, the Captain and his wife, who find themselves in charge of the hotel after taking on temporary ownership due to mismangement by its previous racist owner. So they find themselves running the place by accident and their endeavours to sell it rarely succeed. The Captain takes care of breaking up fights in the hotel bar, chatting to patrons and dealing with the arising tensions between the indigenous people and the Caucasians. It is told from the perspective of the wife though who takes on the role of housekeeper and when kitchen or bar staff fail to show up for work, either as cook or bartender. She has to sort out decorations for weddings while making sure to satisfy each family member, smooth the ruffled feathers of less than happy staff members and deal with the unhygienic habits of a disgusting customer that brings on a rat infestation. She dreams of escaping to somewhere else where she can avoid the routine.We are treated to eccentric caricatures of the staff and the guests at the hotel and it is this odd cast which makes the story really poignant despite it’s lack of linear structure.
We have the raffle ticket selling waitress Bev, a stubborn and belligerent but good-hearted woman; the ingenious cook who used leftovers to make mouth-watering fare; the pianist doctor who liked playing melancholy pieces and drove away customers; Shirley, who manages the working-class bar and the sultry cocktail waitress Gloria who feels her talents at pouring drinks are of little use at the Galley, the bar mainly patronised by gay men. All this is intertwined with the politics of life in a rural Australian town and how this sometimes clashes with human nature which is always seeking instant gratification. Meanwhile the introduction of bottle shops is causing problems for their country pub. The author provides us with insight into what it is like managing the Hotel Albatross depicting how stressful and tiring it is but at the very end what seems like a very calamitous and heartbreaking misfortune actually also brings the Captain and his tired wife some welcome respite.
Stealing Picasso is an interesting Australian book about the world of artists. While I have some knowledge of the subject history, by no stretch of the imagination can I say that I am a connoisseur. As the title obviously states, it’s about stealing a Picasso painting – from the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) no less. The theft is carried out by a promising student, Harry, who owes money to a curator who helped him with his first exhibition in cahoots with his disillusioned art teacher, Turton Pym, who has given up on being an art genius and has decided he would mould budding geniuses instead. Things start spiralling out of control as soon as Harry meets the beautiful Miriam, an art buyer who is able to appreciate art unlike the ignorant masses.
He asks her to come see his first gallery exhibition where he has paintings inspired by the artistry of Picasso and the psychology of Freud. She does attend and what’s more, she buys the painting he thinks is deserving of having pride of place in a private collection. Unfortunately, Miriam had lied about her profession so her cheque bounced leaving Harry, a poor art student with a debt he cannot possibly pay. Most of the book revolves around a painting titled The Weeping Woman; a portrait of model Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover. Harry had promised Miriam a reward for buying his art – a secret midnight picnic near the painting with his teacher. So far the only people who had been privy to this experience were Harry and Turton. His teacher is first hostile about sharing The Weeping Woman with a stranger but after meeting Miriam, is entranced with her beauty. She discovers Turton has a secret passion – drawing cartoons of beasts on the motorcycles of a bikie gang lead by Larry Skunk. When she openly admires his handiwork realising the extent of his talent, it takes only a little on her part to persuade him to create a convincing forgery of the Dora Maar portrait and steal the real one. They decide they will steal the painting under the name Australian Cultural Terrorists and makes the news of the theft public through the newspapers when officials are slow to discover a Picasso is missing.
Enter into the scene, Marcel, a professional Michael Jackson impersonator who has had surgery to even look like the singer himself. Unfortunately this is set in the time where MJ was accused of being a child molester and this has a negative impact on Marcel’s chosen career. Oddly, he is a regularly painted subject by no other than Turton Pym. Marcel is forced into prostitution to earn income although he is conflicted. Sometimes he is roughed up by opportunists. By chance, he is introduced to Larry Skunk, who provides him with protection but this introduction ultimately leads to the downfall of all three when Marcel decides he will sell a forgery by Turton Pym to a biker for 30,000 dollars after the “real deal” has already been sold to an unscrupulous individual, Laszlo, for one million. When both owners of the paintings decide to sell it to the same customer to pay their debts, a barrister who reveals the existence of the other painting to the biker, all hell breaks loose.
In the midst of all this, Miriam drops a bombshell on Harry which reveals her motivations for deciding to sell the painting to Laszlo, who had outsmarted them. They find themselves in a quandary. If they reveal the true painting to the public secretly, Laszlo would send thugs after them but if they kept it, they would be hunted by the police. They decide it must be returned for public viewing but unfortunately not without some tragic consequences.
It actually has been a long while since I’ve read a Bryce Courtenay because work and volunteering has kept me on my toes. But on a recent jaunt to the library, I found a sequel to The Persimmon Tree. It’s called Fishing for Stars.
So shipping magnate Nick Duncan finds his life revolving around two women: Anna Til, the exotic but damaged Eurasian obsessed with profit and Marg Hamilton, ex-Navy wife and fanatical protector of nature’s treasures. These characteristics give the two women who are loath to let Nick Duncan belong solely to the other have two vindictive names to call each other: Princess Plunder and Green Bitch. The settings are interesting as it involves the Yakuza in Japan, the military environment of Indonesia, the Pacific Islands and parts of Australia. But this is a story narrated by flashback.
Nick is grieving after losing Anna to breast cancer and is suffering from bad dreams harking back to WWII. Marg decides this is possibly the onset of PTSD and finds him an appropriate specialist. On the advice of his psychologist, Nick decides to put his story on paper; the tale of how he has lived since being a war hero. He writes about the lifelong contest of the two women and how he tried to keep each to their separate worlds until he was forced to take action.
The struggle to save Lake Pedder annoyed me with the weight given to all the politics involved but nevertheless the information was so educational that it was easy to forgive this aspect. The take on Anna Til being a BDSM dominatrix with vaginismus who had a smack habit she couldn’t kick but was cool as a cucumber in making multi-million dollar business deals was a bit much. The habit did not really count as a flaw if it didn’t impact on her ability to be a rational and calculating negotiator. Marg was described in a better and believable way but I think this book focused more on what she did than her as a character.
Still, if you have read The Persimmon Tree, reading the aftermath in Fishing for Stars is not a bad experience even if the history is rehashed for the benefit of those with poor memories. You will always be sure to learn something entirely new in the case of this writer.
‘Wedding’ by Glenda Adams is a short story about the fatality of incompatibility. The main character looks forward to marital bliss with her chosen life partner and takes it upon herself to be selective in her choice of negligee for the wedding night. But the dialogue around her, even on her wedding day, includes all but the bride herself. It is unclear whether her husband truly loves her or not but it is clear marriage does not grant her entrance into his world of intellectuality.
You cannot help but feel sorry for the story’s protagonist who is uncertain about the conversational duties of a wife, feels everything she does not go quite as planned and finds winning affection from her husband on her honeymoon a daunting task. Her dress is lost during travel, her wedding cake is ruined and the fault line is repaired with a border of funeral flowers while her lover prefers to watch Wuthering Heights starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff rather than get busy.
The first line of the story makes you hope her sweet, girlish dreams come to fruition. Anticipation is slowly built up when things keep going wrong but its turning point leaves you deflated in defeat. Yet the writing by Glenda Adams is superb in keeping you hooked through all the pages till the very end.
Thea Astley’s short story ‘Coming of Age’ subtly evokes the feelings felt by a girl who is bridging the gap between the preteen years into adolescence. It starts out with a narrative of a playful childhood spent outdoors with the family where she hangs on trees, upside down, wearing no more than a navy skirt and an embroidered red sweater, and observes her parents and their peace shattering spats.
She amuses herself with strange pursuits such as reading life histories of those in graves in cemeteries, skidding down an ancient canon in Newstead Park or taking pride in sinking the gun Oronsay not too far from the mouth of Breakfast Creek. Being incredibly perceptive, she realises her parents live in strained harmony as they whisper things far from pleasant to each other in acid tones and simple arguments escalate.
Her main focus though is on a day at Newstead Park that has been ingrained in her memory. Her parents are fighting yet again trying to conceal the fact but even though she is only twelve, she realises a truce is needed between the warring factions. In her innocence, she makes a display of acrobatics as a diversionary tactic. This backfires spectacularly when her mother beckons her and delivers an embarrassing blow with one simple line which ensures that she will never climb trees again.
Mr. Gleason, a ‘small meek man with rimless glasses’, is the title character of this particular short story but the largest impact he has on his small country town only surfaces after his death. Told from the perspective of a young resident who has since grown older and wiser, it starts with this gem of an opening line, ‘No one can, to this day, remember what it was we did to offend him.’
Initially the town is described as a nondescript, ordinary place in a little valley where people use it as ‘somewhere on the way to somewhere else’. So all of its residents dream of the big city, of wealth, modern houses and motor cars. The father of our narrator calls these ambitions, American Dreams and thus the story by author Peter Carey (Oscar & Lucinda, Bliss, Parrot & Olivier in America) derives its title.
We learn after his retirement, Mr. Gleason starts to build a wall around a two-acre plot up on Bald Hill. This does not please the townspeople because the wall being erected blocked the view of the town and he does not bother to explain his reasons.
When Mr Gleason passes away, the walls are torn down by the Chinese labourers who were originally hired to build it. The revelation inside excites the town until they realise it also has the ability to expose their secrets. But they are thwarted in their desire when Bald Hill is declared a tourist attraction.
This works to the benefit of the town for a while and people regard Mr. Gleason in a new light as they prosper. Then the long awaited Americans arrive . Life goes on as usual but the Americans keep coming as people start to realise their once longed for dreams are quite different in their obtained reality.