I’ve heard a movie is in the works for this piece of Gothic Australian revenge fiction by Rosalie Ham that I read a while back. Looking back on it, I’m not surprised this has been chosen for a film adaptation. The plot lends itself to the medium well.
Set in 1950s rural Australia in a town called Dungatar, The Dressmaker is about a daughter, Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who was run out of town after being falsely accused of a grave crime when she was just a child and has only returned to take care of her sick and mentally unstable mother. An expert seamstress trained in Paris, the haute couture Myrtle creates soon becomes the talk of the town in spite of her suspicious status to most folk. When the locals begin to flock to her for their fashions to take advantage of her dressmaking abilities, old rivalries begin to resurface and Myrtle is able to take her revenge and leave.
The quirky and hypocritical characters with particular idiosyncrasies populating the town are the highlight of the book but do at times seem a bit eccentric and over-the-top. The driving force in this novel however is definitely the plot. While The Dressmaker is an enjoyable and fast-paced read, it is no literary behemoth.
Dancing on Knives is the third book by Kate Forsyth I have read and it surprised me because I am used to her fairytale retellings and this deviated from my preconceptions as it was essentially a murder mystery. I didn’t understand Sara’s predicament until I realised that she literally had not left her home in five years because she is a sensitive soul. We learn when she was a child that she was subject to so much torment and bullying to the point that she left school and refused to go back. Her way of enduring the predictability of her life is reading romance novels and seeking solace by reading the tarot cards left to her by her beloved grandmother, Consuela, who used to tell her dark fairy tales that inspired her to paint until her volatile and womanising father Augusto Sanchez, a brilliant artist, undermined her efforts. Her siblings regard her fairly useless as she is in fear of most things which subject her to panic attacks and nightmares.
One stormy night, her father does not come home and his body is found hanging on a branch over a cliff. Although he is found alive, the mystery of his fall brings buried family secrets to the surface. There are a multitude of characters who had good motives to kill Augusto Sanchez: Teresa, the half sister who claimed she went to a party; older brother Joe who comes home late claiming he went for a surf; the twin brothers who were supposedly hanging out with their friend Nya; her father’s brother-in-law’s family who want the farm they have to convert it into a tourist caravan park; even her aunt Maureen who had only visited once after her sister Bridget’s car crash. Dancing on Knives is about how family can suffocate and free us, how art can be felicitous and ruinous, and how strong bonds can be constructed from a crisis. The suspense slowly builds and unfolds telling us about the mystery fall suffered by Augustus while the back story leads us to the day of the fall. Meanwhile the power of the sea and the little mermaid story are played up in the book ultimately enabling Sara to rescue herself from her self-imposed imprisonment and open herself to a real romance.
Dancing on Knives is not what I would call a thriller but it is the beautifully written story of a dysfunctional and unusual family and the denouement clears everything up and makes sense. I appreciated this dark, powerful story even if the mystery was subtle without too many unexpected or surprising twists.
Although fictional, the debut novel and Stella Prize winner The Strays by Emily Bitto is somewhat influenced by the story of the Heide Circle of Melbourne and is a fascinating narrative of idealised dreams, emotional sacrifices and conflicted loyalties mostly set in the atmosphere of 1930s depression-era Melbourne.
Only child Lily makes a connection with Eva, the middle daughter of the Evan and Helena Trentham, on her first day at school that evolves into a complex and deep friendship. When tragedy befalls her family, Lily takes the opportunity to stay with Eva and the community of bohemian artists who are given residence to pursue their creative passions at the Trentham home. It becomes obvious this is not an appropriate environment for children as the artists are far too engrossed in their work to do any thing as mundane as looking after the kids, who need a responsible adult in charge. As they navigate their teenage years, Eva starts to keep things from Lily until she realises things have gone too far when she finds out Eva has been having a sexual relationship with an older resident artist who she had thought was interested in her and that starts the cracks in their trust. Upon being exposed, the artist who has also been upstaging Eva’s father leaves but not alone (he leaves with not one but two girls) leaving a scandal in his wake.
What stood out the most to me was how much power author Emily Bitto’s prose gave to the mediums of art and literature, also my passions. The descriptive passages were not too long-winded and the characters were of sufficient interest to keep reading The Strays until I found out how Lily responded to the invitation she received at the beginning.
So it turns out during my December vacation this year, I will be heading off to the exotic destinations of Spain, Portugal and Morocco with my cousins. This reminded me of The Last Dance, a present my sister’s boyfriend gave me for my birthday, because some of the most climactic action in the book takes place in the bustling alleys and bazaars of Morocco. So i’m pretty excited I have the chance to see this North African country in person.
The initial impression I had of The Last Dance was it was a spy thriller but as it progresses the romance takes precedence. The two main characters first meet at a ballroom dance where Stella has resorted to selling herself as a dance partner to earn an income. The mysterious Montgomery, who is charmed by Stella, organises a position for her as a governess at Harp’s End, home of the well-off Ainsworth family. I was wondering at this point if this was some kind of tribute to Jane Eyre but I was wrong on that score.
Stella is responsible for tutoring Grace, the daughter of Douglas Ainsworth. Coming from an impoverished background and given her position, she struggles to fit in with the grand household or the servants as her employer insists dinners are taken with the family but she is still hired help. When Stella finally comes to face her married employer, she realises the family has a lot of secrets but the forbidden love that sparks between them becomes the hardest to conceal because this story is really about an affair. The palpable tension in the house after an accidental slip of the tongue by Grace almost drives Stella away but she somehow finds enough courage to accompany the family on a cruise to Morocco. As the setting is pre World War II, the trip turns out to be fraught with peril and conspiracy as her employer is not quite who she knew at Harp’s End. It turns out it was for the best Stella went on the cruise as she is able to enjoy a brief romance and witness events of significant importance before her world gets shot to pieces. While the sacrifice that is made is bittersweet, Fiona McIntosh gives birth to hope because of the way she reconciles the end.
The last impression I have of The Last Dance is that in spite of the not so savoury motivations of many of the characters, it was still entertaining.
Shiver is the very first novel written by Nikki Gemmell, the author of very controversial book, The Bride Stripped Bare. Although Shiver is described as a novel, it seems autobiographical given her inspiration for writing the story came from her own personal experiences.
We are introduced to Fin, a radio journalist who works the police beat for the early morning shift. When an opportunity arises to undertake an observatory expedition to Antarctica, she volunteers. In real life, Nikki Gemmell went to Antarctica to cover a scientific expedition, courtesy of radio station Triple J. In the southernmost continent, she crosses a boundary of journalism by falling for someone she interviews. Guess what happens in Shiver? There isn’t much to read between the lines. But falling in love comes at a cost in both the real and fictional worlds and so we are fed the saccharine but trite parable of not giving up and following your heart.
The plot although it has potential felt rather dull. The characterisation of the all the different men in Antarctica was too brief because I felt a new potential suitor appeared every 15 pages and and nothing about their personalities comes through the narration apart from the fact sexism is rampant and mostly tolerated. I will admit though she has a knack for writing imagery in poetic and lyrical prose. However that can be easily be disillusioned by sentences like, ” I’ve been in one of these in Bass Strait, and a bag of vomit was passed from person to person, and there was vomit on vomit” and “I’ve done one very large **** and it’s not going anywhere. I can see bits of my dinner from last night in it”. So while I was interested in her portrayal of landscape, I found her descriptions of human interaction and functions jarring. I wondered if the beauty in prose about landscape and the grossness in prose about human needs was purposefully done but I’m doubtful about that interpretation of Shiver.
Kate Forsyth intrigued me once with her spellbinding retelling of Rapunzel in Bitter Greens. When I saw she authored The Wild Girl, I did not hesitate. This time, she explores the story of Dortchen Wild who is credited as having told many of the fairy tales belonging to the collection of the Brothers Grimm.
Set against the backdrop of the German kingdom of Hessen-Kassel in the early nineteenth century, we learn about boy next door Dortchen fell in love with the first time she saw him, her best friend’s brother, the poor but handsome scholar Wilhelm Grimm, who has returned from Marburg. War interferes in their newly budding romance because Napoleon’s army conquers their kingdom, takes over the palace of the Kurfürst and begins an oppressive regime setting French decrees. So the Grimm brothers embark on a mission to preserve the folk tales of their heritage and publish them in a book.
Dortchen, having grown up in the care of Old Marie, knows several beautiful old stories. These include Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King, All Kinds of Fur and Six Swans. She has to tell them to Wilhelm in secret as her tyrannical father opposes her plans to get married to Wilhelm and as the story progresses we learn it is for the darkest of reasons. Although their ardour deepens, Dortchen has to guard a dark secret but Wilhelm remains mostly oblivious even when she tells him the truth in the guise of a story. For Dortchen, as time passes and all of her sisters find husbands, marriage to Wilhelm seems an unlikely outcome.
Does this teller of fairy tales who has her heart trampled and spirit wounded get her happy ending? You’ll have to read The Wild Girl to find out. This may be a darker forbidden love story but both the protagonists have better fates than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The Light Between Oceans was a heartbreaking story about the consequences of a momentous decision made in the throes of grief and haste. Tom Sherbourne is a lighthouse keeper living on Janus, a remote island off the West Coast of Australia together with his wife Isabel. He harbours Lucy, a baby who washed up on to the shores of the island in a boat, because of guilt over his wife’s miscarriage. However when a chance encounter with the mother of the child preys on his conscience, he can no longer keep silent. When his wife learns of his betrayal, they drift apart while Lucy tries to acclimatise herself to the stranger who keeps calling her Grace and makes a claim that tears the fabric of existence she has hitherto known.
The decision the couple makes to pass the child off as their own has heartbreaking results. Lies quickly unravel, unflattering truths come to light and a lot of pain and hurt is felt. In the middle of this, Lucy navigates trying to find her true identity while locked in a battle of two mothers vying for her custody, one with a legal claim who had never seen her since she was a baby and one with no legal claim but one who raised her in her formative years. M.L. Stedman’s poignant, riveting novel received several literary accolades and awards and since then Hollywood rights have been acquired for film production by Dreamworks.
Three characters stood out to me in this novel because of the internal conflicts each faced and weathered. Isabel struggles to cope with the loss of her baby but the arrival of Lucy changes her life but by the time she is willing to admit the truth, it is too late to not hurt anyone which nearly made a villain out of her to me due to her selfish desires. Meanwhile Tom is guilt-ridden because he feels survivor’s guilt after escaping physically unscathed from the war. This is why he goes against his straight-laced ethics when he decides to omit details in his logbook to keep Isabel happy. Hannah is sympathetic as the mother who thought her child was literally dead but has to fight an uphill battle to convince Lucy of the truth of the situation. The Light Between Oceans plot is complex as it encompasses a moral dilemma and it is possible to be empathetic to both the female leads but as the story unfolds, it shows justice for one party can lead to tragic loss for the other party. The conclusion however just might surprise you.
At work, my colleagues made a big fuss about this book. My interest piqued, I went in search of it and acquired a copy to read. Saving Francesca is about a girl who is searching for her identity after moving into a new school which used to only be open to boys but had later decided to convert to a coeducational system. She is in the first test batch of female pupils who attend the school which has yet to change its way of thinking to welcome the new populace. There aren’t enough sports for the girls, the school play features a minimal number of female characters and the only concession seems to be a female bathroom. In addition, Francesca finds herself initially clashing with Will Trombal after a misunderstanding about Trotsky and Tolstoy. But after she gets to know him, she realises that there is more to him than her first impression.
Francesca also makes new friends with people she might have considered oddballs had she remained at her previous school: Tara, the ultra-feminist who tries to conscript people to causes, Justine, the awkward accordion player who wants to be ‘a rock’ to people and Siobhan, labeled the school slut. True to form, Melina Marchetta shows her understanding of human relationships. Meanwhile Francesca who used to be voiceless in a conformist clique is finding out how to stand on her two feet while dealing with her usually headstrong mother’s battle with depression which culminates in constant sparring sessions between Francesca and her wallflower but reliable father. Marchetta ensures the reader experiences the ups and downs that Francesca faces which is a hallmark of quality writing.
Saving Francesca is a book about love, friendship and the willpower to continue when life throws a curveball. In the end, you’ll be satisfied with an uplifting conclusion. As a character, Francesca can be quite amusing as she tends to end up in detention through no fault of her own and does her best to adapt to the gender wars at St. Sebastian’s. This young adult fiction book covers topics familiar to readers of Melina Marchetta and ultimately is about discovering the self and coming of age. Full of humour, heart break and a roller coaster of emotions, this novel is a worthwhile YA read. All that remains is for Saving Francesca to become a movie as the author’s work is currently trending in film.
On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta is a young adult novel about Taylor Markham, who is elected as the leader of the boarders at Jellicoe School. Although not a popular choice, the fact she lived at the school for most of her life gives her an edge over the competition. While the departing leaders were concerned with protecting their established boundaries in the annual territory wars from the Cadets and Townies, Taylor is preoccupied with a hermit who whispered in her ear, a prayer tree which means a lot to her sincere friend Raffaela and the Brigadier who brought her back when as a junior she ran away with Jonah Griggs, new leader of the Cadets. For Taylor, the answers to the mystery of her past lies in the disappearance of Helen, the person who found her. The only clue is an unfinished manuscript about five people who had their lives collide on the Jellicoe road twenty years ago.
Soon as I turn the initial pages, I am introduced to something called territory wars between the Boarders, Townies and Cadets. This becomes confusing. Student wars in boarding school over land use? I am an adult and I am confused. Luckily I kept on persevering and was rewarded for my tenacity. The disjointed threads of narrative become interconnected to resolve why Taylor’s mother abandoned her on the Jellicoe road when she was 11 years old, the point of the territory wars, the significance of the hermit, the relevance of the prayer tree, the story of the Brigadier and Taylor’s history with Jonah Griggs in evocative prose. To be honest, I can’t say more about what happens without giving major plot details away but suffice it to say Taylor finds answers. To get through the first part, I recommend a dose of patience but I can promise it gets better rather than worse.
So the author on her blog has revealed On the Jellicoe Road is going to be adapted into a film. Not too surprising for a novel that won the Michael L Printz award. It is being directed by Kate Woods, who did the same for Melina Marchetta’s novel Looking for Alibrandi.
I just finished reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent for my book club at work. It is a historical novel set in 1830s Iceland based on the factual story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman who was publicly executed there. She was accused of murdering two men, including Natan Ketilsson for whom she worked as a servant. Björn Blöndal, the district commissioner, clearly the villain, is unsympathetic toward Agnes Magnúsdóttir, because she is clever, intelligent and literate but he does indulge in her request for a new spiritual advisor of her choosing. This is in spite of the chosen reverend’s lack of experience in providing spiritual nourishment for criminals. With a year left to live, Agnes is sent to reside at the farm of Margrét and Jón and their two daughters in Kornsa. From then on, details of her life prior to the murder of Natan is narrated through discussions with her priest. The people who mistrust her when they are forced to take her in find it difficult to let her go when they finally hear her side of the story.
The Icelandic naming system can be confusing on introduction and while tempting to give up, it is not as bad as the Russian names in Anna Karenina. If you understand Agnes Magnúsdóttir stands for Agnes, Magnus’s daughter and Natan Ketilsson stands for Natan, Ketil’s son and decipher in that manner, you will manage okay. Although the first two chapters were slow going, the pace suddenly picked up and I finished the book in about three days by reading during my commute to work. For myself, it started to become interesting when Agnes first met Margrét. The evocative prose is simple enough without being verbose for all readers to engage with it but I felt something in it was a bit too contrived. This may be due to the author trying to conform her novel with plausibility as lots of attention is given to snippets of actual historical details. The book is very typical of the type of novel to win a literary award and so it has – it won the Writing Australia prize for best unpublished manuscript which led to obtaining an agent and mentorship of Geraldine Brooks. So as a reader, I only recommend this if you like historical novels in the vein of literary fiction.
For those not interested in reading, Picador Press stated in their blog, Jennifer Lawrence signed up to star in a film adaptation of Hannah Kent’s novel. This is her first novel completed towards her PhD and a phenomenal achievement as she is only 28 years old. In the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Etherington claims Nielsen Company’s BookScan has revealed Burial Rites sold over 50,000 copies in Australia since May 2013, at a RRP of $32.99.