The Horror! The Horror! Thursday, Aug 31 2006 

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

[WARNING: Some Plot Spoilers]

Mistah Kurtz – he alive.

The ghost of Conrad’s unforgettable protagonist broods over Kate Grenville’s graceful new novel, The Secret River, as surely as he did over that other river flowing deep in the heart of Africa. The parallels between the two books cannot be missed – Grenville’s novel may be set halfway across the world in New South Wales, but there are the same long journeys down a winding river fraught with nameless menace, the same scene where a native woman, proud and beautiful, steps from a European hut. More fundamentally, The Secret River shares a central theme with the Heart of Darkness – they are both explorations of the workings of the Western conscience in the context of the imperialist subjugation of foreign lands and people. And while Conrad’s is undoubtably the more metaphysical, and therefore the more powerful, take of the two – Grenville’s more sociological insights shed new literary light in these dark regions and make for an engrossing read. (more…)

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Sons and mothers Thursday, Aug 24 2006 

Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk

All children, except one, grow up. Or do they? A century after J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan first made his appearance amongst us, English author Edward St. Aubyn is asking the question – do we ever really grow up? And more, do we need to?

St. Aubyn’s new novel, Mother’s Milk is a delightful exploration of the dividing line between childhood and adulthood, whose central conceit is that the adults among us regularly behave in ways that can only be called childish, while our children frequently astound us by the grown-up nature of their actions. Do we ever really outgrow our parents?, St Aubyn asks. Or do the roles and relationships of our childhood – our insecurities, our frustrations, constantly return to haunt us? Are we condemned, as grown-ups, to either repeat the mistakes of our parents, or overcompensate for them? And what does it mean to be a grown up anyway? Do any of us truly see ourselves as adults? Or are we simply children who have learnt to hide our insecurities, our bad behaviour, under masks of false confidence, politeness and conceit. Are we living in a world of overgrown children? (more…)

In love and war Saturday, Aug 19 2006 

Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch

Our private love trembles to be enough
Where no rituals reward our desire;
Shy and weary we battle
For how we are
And map out shorter, safer routes
Through forbidden territories
Which grow large,
More dangerous.

– Cherry Smyth, ‘Private Love’

Being in love, especially when you don’t dare acknowledge it, is a bit like being in a war zone. There’s the same sense of risk, the same apprehension of loss, the same fear of being found out, of being caught unprotected. There’s the terror of knowing that at any moment the truth could come dropping from the sky and utterly destroy you – and the secret thrill of acknowledging that possibility to yourself. There’s the constant weariness of the extra effort required, and underneath it, a deeper apprehension of how fleeting your time is, and how important it is that you seize the day, hold on to whatever pleasure it affords you. And even as you suffer and cry out for relief, there’s the certain knowledge that your life will never seem this vivid, this meaningful, ever again.

‘All is fair in Love and War’ we are told. But the truth is that nothing is fair in Love, or in War. The very concept of justice ceases to exist. The passion that drives us to arms, or into them, knows nothing of fair play, nothing of right or wrong – it exists only to feed itself, and its entire force is a kind of hunger, what Yeats memorably called ‘a lonely impulse of delight'[1]. If we persevere in our love and in our hatred, if we continue to fight and embrace against all odds, it is only out of a kind of perverse determination, a sort of pure will. Calculation does not enter into this, these are acts of authentic heroism.

And it is precisely this heroism that Sarah Waters’ exquisite new novel, The Night Watch, is about. Ostensibly, The Night Watch is about four people – three women and a man – living in London during, and just after, World War II. It is the story of how they survive those years, emerging from them badly scarred, but managing, somehow, to cling to their shattered lives. It is, on the surface, simply a novel about their grief and their courage.

But hidden behind their simple, almost too familiar stories, secret as a code, is a much grander novel about the mysteries of forbidden love: about the ways in which we come to desire those we are not supposed to – other women, other men – and how this love of ours overpowers us, betrays us, makes us both less and more than we were, less and more than we could be. It is a story of the first accidents by which two strangers come to recognise a common need in each other, how they discover ways to relate to each other, evolve simulacrums of relationships to take the place of the connections society will not allow them, and discover too late that even these ‘artificial’ relationships can have feelings that are much too real, and that the pain you feel is heightened, not lessened, by the fact that other people won’t recognise it. It is a novel about how terrible it is when love ends – how awful it is to be the more loving one, the one who gets left behind, but also how monstrous it is to be the one leaving. This is not a story about four people, it is four people about a story; unnameable longing is the key character here, the other players are only the eloquent mirrors in which we see her shape. (more…)

Not dead yet Wednesday, Aug 9 2006 

Woody Allen’s Scoop

If there is one virtue of Woody Allen’s new movie, Scoop, it is the joy of familiarity. Watching this film is like visiting a genial, if somewhat eccentric old uncle – he’s silly, he’s not all there, but you can’t help loving the guy.

Don’t get me wrong. Scoop is emphatically not one of Allen’s better movies. Frankly, it isn’t a patch on Allen’s finest. But the days of Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters, are, one suspects, long past. What Scoop is, is Allen’s funniest movie in a decade – the best piece of comic work he’s done since Deconstructing Harry back in 1997. And that, in my books, is enough to make it worth the price of the admission ticket. (more…)

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain Friday, Aug 4 2006 

Philip Roth’s Everyman

“My spirit is too weak – mortality
Weighs heavily upon me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.”

– John Keats, ‘On seeing the Elgin Marbles’

*Begin Rant*

What ails Philip Roth? His new novel, Everyman, is his worst book in years, perhaps his worst book ever (and that includes such eminently forgettable work as When She was Good). It’s an ungainly travesty of a novel that would seem barely promising coming from the pen of a 18-year old MFA student making his literary debut. As the latest work of the Grand Master of American Letters, a man who is, arguably, the finest American Novelist (in every sense of that term) now living, it’s more than devastatingly disappointing, it’s an insult to everything the Roth is and everything we expect him to be. (more…)