Favourite books of 2017

As I was one of the judges for the Ned Kelly Awards this year, I read a lot of wonderful Australian crime fiction and some of this has made it onto the list below.

Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness

I reviewed this last week so it’s very fresh in my memory. This posthumous collection of Sacks’s essays, some previously published in the New York Review of Books, displays the amazing breadth of his knowledge and interests, as well as his charming, lucid and poetic writing. From the mental life of earthworms to Freud as a neurologist and Darwin as a botanist, with many fascinating diversions along the way, all of these essays completely captivated my attention and, as always with Sacks, enriched my perceptions of the world and other people.

Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly

This is the sixth book in the Sean Duffy series, and possibly the best of them, though they are all terrific. It won the Ned Kelly Award for Fiction this year – the second time in a row for McKinty – and sees Duffy in all sorts of his usual trouble, but this time with a partner and a baby to worry about as well. The set-up behind this series provides lots of texture: Duffy is a Catholic in the Protestant police force of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, with both sides of the law often gunning for him. He’s also a maverick with a chip on his shoulder, not surprisingly, who checks his car automatically for bombs every morning.

The historical setting is fascinating; the writing is a dream, with great characterisation and plenty of dour humour; the plot, as always, is convoluted and convincing. (You can read Karen Chisholm’s excellent round-up of the series and full review of Police at the Station here.)

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident

A devastating book about the repercussions of the murder of a young woman, aged-care worker Bella Michaels, in a country town, the loss and grief of those left behind, and the appropriation of that loss and grief by others. Maguire tells the story largely from the point of view of the victim’s sister, Chris, whose voice is completely distinctive and convincing, and the setting vividly lifts off the page.

It’s a terrific crime novel, beautifully written, but it is also an examination of the devastation of people affected by a brutal murder, and of the way women can be subjugated and abused. (Read Linda’s full review here.)

Wendy James The Golden Child

This is a fascinating novel with an absolutely original take on the online world of blogs and cyber-bullying (as well as bullying face-to-face). It is beautifully written and cleverly constructed, with smooth segues among several voices, both adult and adolescent, social media outlets and points of view. The characters are extremely well-drawn (and it takes a lot to win me over with adolescent characters), the use of social media as a plot device is very sophisticated, and the subtle setting up of the plot through the various points of view, mostly of mothers and daughters, leads to a genuinely surprising resolution. ‘… domestic noir at its most intelligent and sharp.’ – Sue Turnbull, Sydney Morning Herald

Emma Ångström The Man in the Wall

Only one Nordic Noir made it onto the list, though I’ve read what seems like dozens this year. A lot of not-so-good stuff is being translated and published, unfortunately, trying to cash in on the recent popularity of the genre and some usually fabulous series writers have produced disappointing books – I suspect being urged into publishing the magical ‘book a year’.

Anyway, the discovery of a terrific new Nordic writer is a wonderful thing. The Man in the Wallis a Swedish psychological thriller with a difference. It has a genuinely original plot and characters and is not so much a whodunit as a creepy exploration of isolation and its consequences. One of the two main characters is an unhappy child, Alva, whose father is in prison, and who has moved with her mother and her two older (actively hostile) sisters to a new apartment building, where a bizarre murder occurs. Other disturbing things start to happen and we get both Alva’s point of view and that of the killer, who can come and go throughout the building unseen. She gets drawn into the killer’s games and we know it can’t end well. Just how badly it does end is an unexpected shock.

This list originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 December 2017 in the article ‘NRB Editors on their favourite books of 2017’.  


Jean on the 2017 Ned Kelly Award shortlist for Best Fiction

The Ned Kelly Awards are run by the Australian Crime Writers Association and have been going since 1995. 

I was lucky enough to be one of three judges of the Best Fiction category of the Ned Kelly Awards for this year. As it’s been impossible to keep up with everything that has been published in the past 12 months, I was amazed at the quality and variety of the 63 books submitted – a couple by established writers I’d never read before, but who will now be on my must-read list, and a few by first-time authors.

The difficulty we had in finally whittling down the submissions to the required shortlist of six books shows the depth and strength of the Australian crime-writing scene. There were at least another six in contention that certainly would have made an Oscars-style expanded shortlist.

In alphabetical order by author, and including excerpts from judges’ comments, the 2017 shortlist is:

Candice Fox Crimson Lake

How do you defend yourself against the unproven charge of child-abduction? Especially if you’re police. Perhaps you try to hide yourself away in a remote, crocodile-infested Queensland town and adopt a goose with goslings – but word always gets out. Ted Conkaffey, the very damaged main narrator of Crimson Lake, is a truly different take on the disgraced cop – and his equally damaged offsider Amanda Pharell, an ex-con (imprisoned for murder) turned private investigator, is also an original. There’s plenty of action and some nice twists. The crisp writing, the lovely description and the ambiguous friendship of the protagonists make this an outstanding crime novel.

Wendy James The Golden Child

This is a fascinating novel with an absolutely original take on the online world of blogs and cyber-bullying (as well as bullying face-to-face). It is beautifully written and cleverly constructed, with smooth segues among several voices, social media outlets and points of view. The characters are extremely well-drawn, the use of social media as a plot device is very sophisticated, and the resolution is a genuine surprise.

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident

A devastating book about the consequences of the murder of a young woman in a country town, the loss and grief of those left behind, and the appropriation of that loss and grief by others. Maguire tells the story largely from the point of view of the victim’s sister, Chris, whose voice is of a type too rarely heard, and the setting is so real you can smell the air. There is profound humanity in this story and a perspective and emotional depth that is unusual and challenging, casting new light on old shadows. You can read Linda Funnell’s review here.

Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly

McKinty (last year’s winner) once again delivers an erudite and perfectly paced crime novel full of fascinating characters, by turns lyrical and tender, laugh-out-loud funny, and heart-stoppingly suspenseful, but always wholly engaging. Sean Duffy has to manage his own domestic turmoil and find his feet as a father while solving a crime that is much more than it seems, all within the charged environment of internecine strife in the RUC and the escalating war between the IRA and the Loyalists in 1980s Northern Ireland. You can read Karen Chisholm’s review and overview of the Sean Duffy series here.

Jock Serong The Rules of Backyard Cricket

This is a personal, Australian tale of two brothers who grew up playing back-yard cricket, often violently, against one another. Darren, the younger brother and the narrator, is incredibly gifted, but goes off the rails, while Wally achieves success. This is a very timely tale given the real world of match fixing, and criminal interest in sport. Serong keeps the real bad guy ambiguous until an ending that will leave readers speechless.

Ann Turner Out of the Ice

The Antarctic setting, remote and cold, makes this a beautiful and atmospheric story. Laura is an Australian scientist tasked with documenting an abandoned whaling station, but a sighting of a young boy in an ice cave sets off a dangerous train of events. The freezing beauty of Antarctica contrasts with the bleak, cruel nature of the people Laura encounters as she uncovers the mystery. You can read Karen Chisholm’s review here.

Other outstanding books included Zane Lovitt’s Black Teeth, L A Larkin’s Devour, Garry Disher’s Signal Loss,  our own Godfather’s Win, Lose or Draw, Christopher Donald Blake’s Macleay’s Swallowtail and Amanda Ortlepp’s Running Against the Tide.

As well as Best Fiction, there are awards for Best True Crime and Best First Fiction – you can find their 2017 shortlists here. The awards will be presented on September 1st at a free event as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

This article was first published in the Newtown Review of Books on 15 August 2017.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Gibbons’s parody is a masterpiece of comedy in its own right.

Cold Comfort Farm was first published in 1932. Gibbons says at the beginning of the novel that it is set in the ‘near future’ though this only seems to manifest itself in television-phones and the preponderance of private aeroplanes.

The novel was written in reaction to the rural romances popular in the 1930s, particularly those of Mary Webb, whose work Gibbons, a journalist, had had to summarise for a magazine. It was also aimed at the excesses of DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy in their morbid romanticising and exaggeration of rural life, and there is a definite tilt at the Gothic in the form of the Brontës as well. In a 1981 article in the Listener, Libby Purves quotes Gibbons as saying:

‘I think, quite without meaning to, I presented a kind of weapon to people, against melodrama and the over-emphasising of disorder and disharmony.’ 

And the epigraph that begins the book is from Jane Austen: ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’

Nineteen-year-old Flora Poste needs to find somewhere to live after the death of her parents, as she ‘is possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living’.

She writes around to various relatives, since, as she tells her friend Mary, living off them seems the best option. She has a long-term plan, and it doesn’t include taking a job:

‘When I have found a relative who is willing to have me, I shall take him or her in hand, and alter his or her character and mode of living to suit my own taste. Then when it pleases me, I shall marry.’

She finally decides to stay with the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm in the village of Howling in deepest Sussex, as the invitations from other relations sound either boring or uncomfortable in prospect. But the reply from her cousin Judith Starkadder is too intriguing to pass up:

‘So you are after your rights at last … Child, my man once did your father a great wrong. If you come to us I will do my best to atone, but you must never ask me what for. My lips are sealed … Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you? Perhaps you may be able to help us when our hour comes.’

Flora is sensible, modern, rational, unshockable and very organised. She comes to a place that is none of these things. Aunt Ada Doom, the matriarch of the farm, once saw ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ (the origin of this phrase) and has never got over it. Ada’s grandson, Seth Starkadder, is a parody of the Lawrentian male principle, his phallocentrism mitigated by his passion for movies. Elfine, a cousin, is away with the fairies, but she is also somewhat grounded by being in love with the local squire, Richard Hawk-Monitor. Adam Lambsbreath is the ancient retainer, 90 years old, who adores Elfine, as well as his cows, Graceless, Aimless, Feckless and Pointless (some of whom casually shed various limbs as the story progresses).

There is also Judith Starkadder, Flora’s cousin, consumed by guilt for some unnamed offence, who obsessively and rather perversely, in the Freudian sense, idolises her son, Seth, and is married to Amos, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Reuben, their other son, wants only to have control of his beloved farm, which his father cruelly denies him. There are numerous other Starkadders and minor characters, including a Mr Mybug, engaged in writing a book that proves Branwell wrote all the Brontë books and that his sisters were the alcoholics, and Meriam, the maid, fecund and bursting with the female principle (full of Lawrence’s ‘blood consciousness’), who bears children (Seth’s) every year until Flora decides to have a quiet word with her.

A sense of brooding doom, connected to rancid secrets, lies over Cold Comfort Farm and Flora soon realises that it has no real basis. She briskly goes about sweeping away the cobwebs and shining the light of clear and sensible thought into the miasma of gloom and despair that envelops the inhabitants:

‘I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are very uncivilized’ …

… ‘If you ask me,’ continued Flora, ‘I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable about her, and so do I.’

Meriam’s mother, Mrs Beetle, proves a surprisingly competent ally in Flora’s further machinations as she determines that ’something must be done’ about the various Starkadders and their associates.

She begins tentatively with Adam, buying him a small dish mop so that he doesn’t have to ‘cletter’ the dishes with blackthorn twigs. This rather misfires, as no one has ever given him anything before and it becomes his ‘liddle mop’, too precious to be dipped into greasy washing-up water. The blackthorn continues to be used for the clettering.

Amos seems an intractable problem until Flora works on his undoubted charisma as a preacher and his suppressed ambitions. Seth, the local Lothario, is simpler:

… a tall young man whose riding-boots were splashed with mud to the thigh, and whose coarse linen shirt was open to his waist. The firelight lit up his diaphragm muscles as they heaved slowly in rough rhythm with the porridge.

And Elfine, elusive and sickeningly whimsical as she first appears, proves simpler still.

But Judith and Aunt Ada are the real stumbling blocks. Ada, particularly, as she rules the family with the threat of her madness, keeps them short of money and forbids them to leave. ‘There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm’ is the tenet they are all forced to live by.

The humour of Cold Comfort Farm lies very strongly in the collision of rational modernity with melodramatic primitivism. Flora is an expert at deflating the overblown and allusive, as when Adam is explaining how wild and shy Elfine is:

‘Why, Robert Poste’s child, ye might as soon send the white hawthorn or the yellow daffydowndilly to school as my Elfine. She learns from the skies and the wild march-tiggets, not out o’ books.’

‘How trying,’ observed Flora …

Gibbons’s writing is fresh, precise and illuminating. Her descriptive passages, consciously exaggerated as they are, even when deliberately parodic, are evocative and often beautiful:

The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers.

But it is the humour, light, quick and wise, that makes this book a small masterpiece. Particularly the dialogue, which often uses pseudo dialect:

After another minute Reuben brought forth the following sentence: ‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’

It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply.

Gibbons’s scorn is saved for the writers she sends up, seldom aimed at the characters, whom she humanises and releases from their masks of literary hyperbole to reveal the ordinary people underneath, with normal aspirations and dreams. Flora becomes fond of many of them, so that her reformist zeal in tidying up the messes is transformed by genuine concern. Some of the resolutions are predictable and satisfying, a couple are a bit absurd and seem slightly rushed, but the strength of the comedic voice carries us through.

In the end, though she returns to her other life and her own romantic comedy, Flora has become personally involved with Cold Comfort Farm and its inhabitants. She has changed things, but she has also been changed slightly, and she is able to calmly let go of the mysteries she has not managed to solve.

(Gibbons revisited the Starkadders in Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and Other Stories and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, 1949.)

Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm Penguin 2009 PB 264pp $12.99

This review first appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 21 February 2017.

Jean’s favourite books of 2016

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is a post-colonialist writing back to Jane Eyre, telling Rochester’s mad wife’s story from before Brontë’s novel begins. It is a frequent re-read for me and I am always freshly struck by the vivid tropical world, the depth of character portrayal and the emotional and psychological insights packed into such a small volume (192pp). It is a finely faceted jewel of a book, cool and polished on the outside but with smouldering fires flashing beneath the surface. Its structure and restraint make it perhaps as close to perfect as it’s possible for a novel to be. (Read my full review here.)

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

This is another book I re-read often. It’s more like a caged tiger than a jewel, always threatening to break out and go on the rampage. Somehow the bars hold, and what could have been a sprawling failure is what I consider to be one of the greatest novels written in English. Layer upon layer of narrative reveal the doomed passion of Cathy and Heathcliff, always through the eyes of others. And around and beneath the story is the Gothic atmosphere of the moors, bleak and wild, reflecting and enlarging the characters’ emotions and experiences. (Read my full review here.)

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

A Twitter conversation prompted me to return to this comedic gem.

After the deaths of her parents, Flora Poste, a capable and pragmatic young woman, comes to live at Cold Comfort Farm in the village of Howling among long-alienated relatives (the Starkadders). Here she finds old grudges and traumas festering away in a mess of emotion and impending doom (in fact there is an Aunt Ada Doom). Commonsensical Flora decides to sweep away the cobwebs from the dark and haunted corners and the resulting clash between unbridled ignorance and modernity is hilarious.

Written in satiric reaction to the romantic and portentous novels of rural life popular in the early 20th century (including those of modernists like DH Lawrence) as well as to Hardy’s rural realism and the Gothic romances of the Brontës, and casting an evil squint towards whimsical fantasists like Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, Cold Comfort Farm is, simply, extremely funny and clever and a must-read for anyone who hasn’t.

The Bird Tribunal
, Agnes Ravatn

Allis Hagtorn flees her life as a TV presenter and takes a job as housekeeper for the enigmatic and morose Sigurd Bagge, who lives way out on an isolated Norwegian fjord. Gradually, as Allis discovers a love of gardening and begins to make herself a new life, Sigurd thaws from his frosty silence and their relationship develops – in strange ways. The claustrophobic and threatening atmosphere builds like a storm cloud, alleviated only by the harmonious descriptions of domesticity and gardening. Is Sigurd’s wife really travelling? What is Allis trying to escape? Secrets are gradually revealed as they both tell their stories in carefully rationed segments that keep the tension building, and the final revelation, though not entirely unexpected, leads to a violent and dramatic ending.

It’s a gripping psychological thriller, as they say, but don’t expect lots of murder and detection. The suspense lies in the characterisation, the brooding landscape, the hints of the supernatural, and the cryptic mysteries that gradually unfold.

I read a lot of Nordic noir, and The Bird Tribunal has been a stand-out for me this year. I’ll be watching avidly for more of Ravatn’s books to be translated.

From the Outer: Footy like you’ve never heard it, Nicole Hayes and Alicia Sometimes (eds)

And on another note entirely, I really enjoyed this book about the only game – AFL – that, as its title implies, canvasses previously unheard perspectives on footy. Of the book’s 31 contributors, 22 are women, several are gay or lesbian, Indigenous, migrants, from ethnically ‘other’ backgrounds, or a combination of the above. Not the usual demographic for public commentary about AFL.

Complexity is the name of the game here, and ambiguity of response. How can feminists and LGBT people relate to this sport that is all about men (mostly white, mostly heterosexual)? The essays in this collection go a long way to explaining, or at least illuminating, the apparent paradoxes, with lots of fun along the way. (Read my full review here.)

This was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 December 2016.

Jean on Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

You don’t need to have read Jane Eyre to love Wide Sargasso Sea, but if you have, you will never think of it in the same way again.

Wide Sargasso Sea writes back to Jane Eyre as a prequel. It traces the life of Rochester’s wife, Antoinette, from before she became the mad woman in the attic and up to the time of the fire at Thornfield Hall that left Rochester blinded and physically debilitated, able at last to marry Jane.

Jean Rhys was born in Dominica of a Welsh father and a Creole mother. She was, like many children of colonialists, minded and nurtured by black servants. She went to England at 16 to finish her education. Later, displaced and alienated, after living the life of a demi-mondaine, she began to write. Her books are full of her sense of otherness, usually from the autobiographical point of view of women who are grudgingly dependent on unreliable men.

Subject to depression and alcoholism, Rhys stopped writing for almost 20 years after the publication of her fifth book Good Morning, Midnight, in 1939. In 1958, following a BBC dramatisation of the novel, she was rediscovered (most people had thought she was dead). Some stories she had written in the interim were published, and she claimed she was working on the manuscript that would become Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading her letters, it is clear that she had revisited an old idea and that she procrastinated, and probably prevaricated, for some years about the progress of the book. But eventually she was happy enough with a draft to send it to her assiduous editor, Francis Wyndham.

The result, first published in 1966, was a brilliant novel that is possibly one of the earliest post-modernist works in English, although Rhys is always described as a modernist. It is certainly post-colonialist and post-feminist. Rhys was ‘shocked’ at her first reading of Jane Eyre: she knew all about mad Creole heiresses, and the way they were exploited by everyone. She determined to give Rochester’s wife an identity and a voice.

But, in doing so, she did much more. This novella-length book is incredibly complex and wide-ranging. It opens up an exotic world and plumbs the depths of the subconscious. It also reveals unpalatable truths behind the respectable facade of the English gentry – subtly reminding us, for example, that Rochester’s fortune, like that of many another English gentleman, was built on his marriage to an heiress and ultimately on the slave trade.

Part One is narrated by Antoinette. It describes her childhood on the derelict Coulibri estate in Jamaica with her widowed mother Annette struggling to survive with two children, one of whom is an invalid, among hostile servants and other locals.

Slavery has recently been abolished. Some of the emancipated have chosen to stay with their ex-owners, but others have nowhere to go and their discontent and anger have grown.

Christophine is one who has stayed. She is a Dominican woman, bought and given to Annette as a wedding present and she, also an outsider, interprets the world for Antoinette and is a powerful and motivating presence in the novel: hers is the first voice we hear apart from Antoinette’s. She is not the patronised and sentimentalised black Mammy of Gone With the Wind – she is a fully realised character, opinionated, rumoured to practise Obeah, and a shrewd judge of people and events.

After Annette marries Mr Mason, a rich and recently arrived Englishman, things get worse. The locals have barely tolerated them while they were poor – ‘They hated us. They called us white cockroaches’  – and now that they are rich the hostility becomes overt and threatening. Mason, representing the incomers avid to exploit the unsettled times, refuses to acknowledge what Annette knows:

‘They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous,’ said Mr Mason. ‘I know that.’

‘They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand.’

Annette’s fears are justified. Coulibri is attacked and the house is burnt down. Antoinette’s brother, Pierre, dies; the family moves away and Annette sinks into a despairing madness. Antoinette is sent to school and after a couple of years, beautiful and now the heiress to the restored estate and a fortune, she is deemed ripe for the marriage market. Enter ‘Rochester’ ­(he is never named in the novel), an impoverished young English gentleman seeking a rich wife.

At first, things go well. But what might have been a joyous love match is distorted by Rochester’s inability to cope with the place and its barrage of sensual impressions – indeed with sensuality itself – and by one of Christophine’s love potions gone awry. He chooses to believe malicious gossip and to preserve his sense of propriety. The marriage reverts to one of convenience and Antoinette is desolated.

Rochester is given his say in Part Two, which he narrates with various characters, most notably Antoinette’s ‘coloured’ half-brother Daniel Cosway, giving their biased versions of the events Antoinette has already described in Part One. Here we see how the place assaulted his senses:

Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.

We see, too, how nearly he went over the brink into love and passion, how he believes he has saved himself from disaster and how he has at least some self-knowledge, some appreciation of what he has, in fact, lost:

I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

In Part Three, set in England, Antoinette (renamed Bertha by her husband) returns as the narrator:

… I open the door and walk into their world. It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it.

Considered mad, she is confined to the attic room at Thornfield Hall, under the cold care of Grace Poole. From this point the story follows the events of Jane Eyre after Jane’s arrival, but from Antoinette’s point of view, complicating and illuminating all that is said and unsaid in Brontë’s novel.

Wide Sargasso Sea is elegantly minimalist in style, with sparing but tellingly evocative descriptive passages. As readers we come away with such a strong sense of detail, place and character that we might have been reading a much larger book. It abounds with metaphor and symbolism, both on the page and subtextually: the burning parrot, its wings clipped, plummeting to its death in the sack of Coulibri; the various forms of enslavement; the intertwining images of heat, fire, madness and sexuality; the changing of Antoinette’s name and the omission of Rochester’s; the contrasting use of heat and cold to suggest personalities and place; the description of the garden:

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched … Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered … a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.

All of this adds up to a richly multi-layered narrative that gives voice and identity to not only the madwoman in the attic, but to many who have been marginalised in literature – the poor, the enslaved, the colonised, the illegitimate and the disenfranchised.

Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea Penguin 2015 PB 192pp $19.95

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 28 July 2016

Jean on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

Sophisticated narrative layering and emotional insight make Wuthering Heights an extraordinary novel.

I believe Wuthering Heights to be one of the best (if not the best) English novels of the 19th century, possibly ever. I’ve read it perhaps 20 times, taught it in various writing courses, and with each reading and discussion I find something new to admire, something new to notice. FR Leavis couldn’t categorise it in his attempt to quantify English literature – he called it a ‘sport’ (meaning a freak). Sport it may be; it’s certainly unique for the time, both in its structure and its imaginative power.

First, there is the sophistication of the narrative layering. The outside narrator is the nerdy Mr Lockwood, writing in his diary, who has come to rent the manor house Thrushcross Grange from a Mr Heathcliff.

The next major narrative layer is that of Nellie Dean, who tells Lockwood about the history of the place and the people; but slyly, and with absolute artistic rightness, her version is preempted by Catherine Earnshaw’s diary, another narrative level, which Lockwood finds when he is forced to spend a night at Wuthering Heights among the viper’s nest of the extended families of the Heathcliffs, Earnshaws and Lintons. Gentleman though he purports to be, Lockwood has no compunction in reading the journal. This device is not unusual in 18th and 19th-century fiction – particularly the Gothic, which was frequently epistolatory, using letters and diaries to tell inside stories – but the placement here shows a maturity way beyond that of a first-time novelist.

Later that night Lockwood has a ghostly visitation from Cathy, tapping at the window to be let in, which drives Heathcliff into paroxysms of regret when he hears about it, as the one thing he desires is to be haunted by her:

‘And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! … Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!’

Nelly Dean has been the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, and a nursemaid to some of the children. Hers is a first-person eyewitness account of everything that happened 20 years ago. She is also an important participant in the events of the story. She relates how Heathcliff came to Thrushcross Grange as a foundling, adopted by Catherine’s father, how he was bullied and despised by everyone except Mr Earnshaw and Cathy, and how the two young people found their soulmates in each other.

Inside Nellie’s first-person narration, in addition to her own observations, is reported speech: what the central characters have said to her. Although we have to believe her reportage, our knowledge of her personality and her partisanship colours the events she describes, as does our suspicion that she might not have fully understood what was going on.

Really the essential story – thwarted passion – could belong to any romance. But having to unpeel the layers of narrative to find the pearl within lifts Wuthering Heights into a different category.

Neither Nellie Dean nor Lockwood is a reliable narrator, and this complicates the telling. Lockwood is a conventional 19th-century gentleman; Nellie Dean is biased and she has been complicit in the events of the novel. This means that their attitudes can be easily discarded by the reader, but still inevitably influence the story. Their prejudices should turn us against the lovers, but in fact have the opposite effect, because we can discount their perceptions when it suits us. Our sympathies are all with Catherine and Heathcliff, and this is directly because of the clever manipulation of unreliable narration.

Secondly there is the characterisation – Heathcliff, the abused and probably bastard child, later the embittered and violent older man; Catherine, the spoiled and selfish pampered daughter of wealthy parents; Lockwood; Edgar Linton, Catherine’s husband; Catherine’s daughter, ‘young’ Catherine and her nephew Hareton, promising redemption in the next generation; Nellie Dean; the pious, hypocitical and judgmental servant Joseph, and others, all stand out clearly as ‘real’ people in this novel. There are no caricatures; everyone has a unique personality and comes with his or her own baggage.

As we now know, abuse continues through the generations. Emily Brontë knew this too. Heathcliff, tormented and humiliated himself as a child, perpetuates the pattern with his wife, Isabella Linton (Edgar’s sister), and with Hareton Earnshaw.

Thirdly there is the fact that we very seldom see the story from the protagonists’ own points of view without the filter of another narrator. But who can come away from the book without knowing this is the story of Heathcliff and Catherine and their grand, doomed passion and empathising with them completely? This is an amazing sleight-of-hand. What might have been dismissed as melodrama and passion bordering on the psychotic is tempered and mediated by pragmatic and often unsympathetic recounting.

Then there is the socio–political context. Unlike her contemporaries, Austen and Dickens, Emily Brontë was not concerned with satire – gentle, humorous and forgiving in Austen’s case, more savage in that of Dickens. In fact, she was an early realist, prefiguring George Eliot (without the polemics) and Thomas Hardy. Brontë’s concern was with the stories of the individuals who suffered, or thrived, under the brutal English class system, and she wrote passionately about their lives, exposing religious hypocrisy, class and gender inequality through characterisation and action, laying bare the nasty realities beneath the English bucolic myth. She could have coined the expression ‘the personal is the political’.

And there is the last section of the book, when Lockwood returns after an absence, echoing the early chapters where he first meets everybody and moving the ‘present’ story forward. What could have produced an unwieldy structure here has in fact balanced the narrative beautifully. It should also be said that without this redemptive coda the book might have been even more maligned than it was when it was first published. Even Heathcliff, irredeemable and violent to the last, has to evoke sympathy in the end for his lifelong raw anguish and passion. But the next generation will not repeat the mistakes of the past; the reverberations of Heathcliff’s awful childhood and his malign influence have finally run their course.

It is the characterisation of Catherine that most interests me, however. People talk of Jane Eyre being a feminist model, and, yes, she had to struggle to make her own way in a bleak and hostile world – yet to me she seems hypocritical, taking the moral high ground over other people’s sins and weaknesses but forgiving of Rochester’s attempted bigamy, lying and wife-abuse. As with any conventional romantic heroine, these considerations go by the board because Jane is in love with him and wants to marry him. And, reader, she did! Rochester holds all the power in the relationship until Jane finds out about his wife, and it is not until the end of the novel, when he is brought low by events beyond Jane’s control, rendered physically and emotionally dependent, that she can claim any real equality and look forward to her happily-ever-after.

Catherine, however, holds all the emotional power from the beginning. Although she is a drama queen, without Jane’s intellect and common sense, she is strongly self-preserving and self-knowing. She realises there can be no happily-ever-after with Heathcliff and, as a woman bound by class and convention, without real freedom of choice, she settles for security over passion, propriety and emotional peace over the depth of her own feelings:

‘I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now so he shall never know how I love him and that not because he’s handsome Nelly but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of his and mine are the same and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning or frost from fire.’

One of the many ironies of the novel is that the eavesdropping Heathcliff only listens until ‘It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now’ – then he skulks away, heartbroken and enraged.

Catherine chooses herself, anyway. It costs her emotionally, but she is willing to pay the price, at least until the end. Paradoxically, although she is ostensibly more shallow than Jane Eyre, she is finally, I think, a more complex character, with a greater control over her own life and feelings, however suppressed they may be – and their suppression adds its own texture and depth. She has a greater self-awareness than Jane, who does not often examine her own motivations:

‘And you love Edgar, and Edgar loves you. All seems smooth and easy: where is the obstacle?’

‘Here! and here!’ replied Catherine, striking one hand on her forehead, and another on her breast: ‘in whichever place the soul lives. In my soul and in my heart, I’m convinced I’m wrong!’

And finally, pervading the whole story, there is the atmospheric evocation of the moors, the mist, the storms (all the pathetic fallacies of the Gothic), metaphorically rendering the characters and events larger than life; elemental beings and happenings in a wild landscape, yet still individuals who suffer, and sometimes rejoice, each in his or her own way.

There are many other aspects, many other details, that make Wuthering Heights an extraordinary novel that will reward the reading. It was Emily Brontë’s only published book and she died, aged 30, in 1848, the year after it came out under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell.

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 16 June 2016

More of Jean’s crime fiction available

Signs-of-Murder-1More Anna Southwood crime now available.

Anna Southwood is known for taking cases with very little to go on, and this time is no different. When her employer is threatened and assaulted, Anna attempts to unravel the various strands in this engaging mystery alone.

Available now from Amazon.


Now-You-See-MeThis gripping standalone thriller set in Sydney is now available.

Journalist Noel Baker reads a particularly disturbing coroner’s report and decides to investigate the deaths of a group of abused children. The killer is still on the loose…

Available now from Amazon.

Jean’s best books of 2015

blockbusterBlockbuster! Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Lucy Sussex

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was published in 1886 (predating the first Sherlock Holmes story by a year) and has never been out of print. Hume himself died in poverty although the book sold millions.

Blockbuster explores the mystery of Fergus Hume and uncovers fascinating details of his life – for example, that he was born at a county pauper and lunatic asylum. Well-researched and scholarly, this is also a charmingly witty book by an author who is a literary detective herself (Sussex ‘discovered’ the first Australian mystery writer, Mary Fortune). You don’t have to have read Hansom Cab to enjoy Blockbuster – though you may find yourself driven to buy it afterwards.

last policemanThe Last Policeman Trilogy, Ben H Winters

I read the first two of these novels (The Last Policeman and Countdown City) last year and the final book (World of Trouble) in 2015.

The series follows the activities of Henry (Hank) Palace, an American policeman living in the last six months or so of the Earth’s existence, before the asteroid known as Maia collides with the planet. Hank is a surprising hero – neither exceptional or gung-ho, his heroism lies in his determination to keep going, to do his job as well as he can, whether the world is ending or not.

The novels are a successful combination of police-procedural and apocalyptic fiction, with Hank continuing to investigate crime while civilisation crumbles around him.

The trilogy is notable for its posing of eternal questions, like what it means to be human and whether morality is circumstantial or absolute. It’s an example of the best SFF – indeed the best fiction – available now. (You can read my review here.)

thedefencelessThe Defenceless, Kati Hiekkapelto

I’m a sucker for Nordic crime and I’ve read lots again this year, many of which have been great reads so it’s hard to pick the stand-outs. But Finnish Kati Hiekkapelto is definitely one of the more interesting new Scandinavian writers. Her first crime novel, The Hummingbird, was published in English in 2014 and introduced police rookie Anna Feketa, a refugee from Serbia. In The Defenceless Anna’s more experienced and her relationship with her older colleague, the loner Esko, develops further into friendship.

As with The Hummingbird, the plotting is intricate and compelling, involving refugees, a drug gang trying to move into Finland and a possible murder. It’s beautifully written; the landscape fascinates; the characters are well-drawn and their development is something to watch through what I hope will be a long series.

silentdeadThe Silent Dead, Claire McGowan

This is the third book (after The Lost and The Dead Ground) in a series featuring Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist reluctantly back home in Northern Ireland and working for a missing persons unit.

Five years after a bomb attack the suspects, found not guilty at the time, disappear – then the bodies begin to turn up.

It’s hard for the police to put aside the feeling that the victims aren’t worth much time or effort, and this moral dilemma infuses the story – what is the difference between justice and revenge? As well, the memory of the Troubles hovers over these books like a dark cloud that just will not go away, adding historical complexity and the dramatic tension of sectarian feuds and old grievances still simmering. It’s this sense of an insoluble problem at the heart of things, as well as the clean, engaging writing, that provide depth and texture, lifting these books well above most police procedurals.

beulahheightOn Beulah Height, Reginald Hill

I’d read most of the Dalziel and Pascoe series before, but I had a bit of a binge this year with a couple I hadn’t read leading me back to re-read some favourites.

On Beulah Height is the 17th in the 24-book series  (some of which are short-story collections) that began with A Clubbable Woman in 1970, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the best – they are all good – it’s the work of a writer at his peak.

Fifteen years ago three young girls vanished after their remote Yorkshire town was flooded to create a reservoir.  Now Dalziel’s never-solved case rises to the surface again with another child missing and the return of local-girl-made-good, opera singer Elizabeth Wulfstan, to present her idiomatic translation of Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children.

Police-procedural, history and a ghost story, combined with Pascoe coping with a major family problem, this multi-layered novel shows Hill’s elegant writing to perfection. Fat Andy Dalziel (pronounced ‘Dee-el’) and Peter Pascoe are familiar characters from the TV series, but if you haven’t read the books, you’ve got 24 treats in store.

Originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 24 December 2015