Future games

By William Gibson
Penguin, $23

Here’s a thing about Canadian-American author Gibson: you can finish one of his novels and still not know what it was actually about. This is not entirely the case with Agency, although it is certainly true that numerous parts are difficult to follow. That said, it is an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of work, an addition to the world Gibson has been building over a series of books, a not-too-distant future (or maybe a present where the future has arrived but is very unevenly distributed). It is a world held together by the tenuous linkages of cyberspace, where cultures have bled into one another and everyone is running some sort of hi-tech hustle. Some of these people move from one novel to another: the main character here, ‘app-whisperer’ Verity Jane, appeared in Gibson’s 2014 outing, The Peripherals. And there are a few other familiar names, like the scary, infinitely manipulative Ainsley Lowbeer.

But the character who is perhaps the most interesting is not human at all. Eunice is an autonomous Artificial Intelligence, who has taken on the avatar of an über-cool, slightly snarky black woman. Verity is hired to assess Eunice by the company that ‘owns’ her, Tulpagenics. When Eunice turns out to be rather more autonomous than anticipated, Tulpagenics tries to close her down and abduct Verity. It is never clear why the company and its various nasty oddballs are after Verity, who does not seem to know anything of possible value, but nevertheless a chase gets under way, with Verity linking up with a cast a strange characters, including a super-rich ex-boyfriend and a remarkably versatile barista.

This being a Gibson novel, there has to be a parallel story, and it involves a future-version London. It seems like a reasonably nice place but there is a looming threat of nuclear war on the horizon. How and why this works, and how the people there can communicate with Verity and her chums, is never made clear. Is it a future alternate timeline? An Augmented Reality vision of London? There are some explanations given but they lead to more confusion than clarity. Anyway, the idea is that the London people want to ensure that Eunice is saved to (somehow) provide a better future and see the Russians off.

One way or another, Eunice and Verity are re-united, and everyone lives happily ever after. Sort of: the assumption that a benevolent AI with a dark-ish sense of humour will be good at running everything seems a bit questionable, to say the least. Maybe this will be picked up in the next book (Gibson usually works in trilogy form).

There is a wealth of interesting ideas here, developing themes that Gibson has worked with for a long time. But you don’t want to think about the narrative too much: it would warp your head. Just go with it, and enjoy it.

On a winter’s night a traveller

Appearing in The Sunlight Press, November 2021

Winter in Sokcho
By Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
Open Letter, 160 pages, $14.95

For bi-racial people there can be a sense of dislocation, of being in a culture but not completely of it. The feeling looms large in the novel Winter in Sokcho. Both Dusapin and the un-named narrator are French-Korean, looking for roots they might never really find. If there is an aura of alienation there is also a sense of heightened observation, the awareness that comes from being the outsider looking in.

The setting is the town of Sokcho, on the eastern coast of South Korea, not far from the border with North Korea. In the summertime Sokcho is a bustling seaside resort; in winter it is desolate and half-frozen, a town waiting for time to pass. Likewise, the narrator, who works as the manager-cook at a faded, rundown guesthouse, is waiting. But for what? She does not know. Her social life consists of a desultory relationship with a boyfriend who wants to move to Seoul and tetchy contact with her mother, who runs a fish stall. When the boyfriend departs she does not even say goodbye.

Her equilibrium – or perhaps stagnation – is upset by the arrival of Kerrand, a French artist (he draws severely aesthetic comic books) who is looking for inspiration. He asks her to show him around, which she does, in a half-hearted way. There is not much to see, and little to talk about. Even a trip to the border with North Korea reveals only a bare landscape, with a shroud of fog. But her interest in him grows. Perhaps she sees in him the French father she never knew, perhaps he represents a means for her to move out of her ever-deepening rut.

Or maybe he is a way for her to simply make a decision. In this way she represents the fundamental questions facing South Korea: whether to be a country that looks forward or one that looks back, whether it is Western or Asian, whether it will be a peacemaker or a warrior. This ambiguity is summed up in a scene where the narrator’s mother makes her buy a traditional hanbok dress for Seollal, the Korean New Year. The narrator agrees to wear it but comments that it makes her look obese.

What she wants is to be truly seen, for herself and not as a social oddity. And in the end, her wish is granted, in a conclusion that is quietly satisfying, as well as a bit surprising.

All this is told in poetic, crystalline prose, and it is no wonder that the novel won two prestigious prizes, the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine Desforges. Translating it from the original French must have been a trial but Higgins has captured the sense of detail and division that defines both the setting and the central character.

We have all known a Sokcho, we have all felt that complex sense of wanting to leave and needing to stay. Dusapin has captured that here, in a novel that is both intimate and beautiful.

The Journey Within

Appearing in Sunlight Press magazine, October 2019


The White Book

By Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Random, $12, 160 pages, ISBN 9780525573067


If you want a novel with a clear, three-act narrative and an all’s-well conclusion, then this book by Korean writer Han Kang is not for you. In fact, it does not even look like a novel, written in short and seemingly unconnected snatches of prose. It is more like an extended meditation on life and death, on what might have been and on what once was. And that is enough. More than enough.

White book coverIt is unknown how much of The White Book is autobiographical but it feels as if a good part of it is drawn from lived experience. Han has no lack of courage as a writer, in that she was willing to make such a departure from her previous book, The Vegetarian, which won the Booker International prize in 2016. That novel – actually three connected novellas – followed the increasing detachment of a woman from the real world when she announces she will no longer eat meat, and then eventually stops eating altogether. Significantly, we never really find out why: the three novellas are (effectively) centred on her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister.

But we know that she is on a journey that leads to the most innermost part of the soul – something we find again in The White Book, and an idea that underlies much of the dynamism of the current Korean literary scene. The narrator of the book is in search of herself through an examination of the past, reflecting the way that South Korea is itself looking for a way forward (a theme, interestingly, often taken up by Han’s novelist father, Han Seung-won). It is a culture looking for the elusive balance between past and future, retaining what is most valuable without a trace of bleary-eyed nostalgia. The path has not yet been found but there is a sense that it will be, eventually.

Make no mistake: making one’s own fate is not an easy process, just as The White Book is not an easy read, despite its apparent brevity. It requires a certain level of engagement, and the reader has to be willing to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. The story that weaves in and out of the book centres on the premature birth and death, after only two hours, of a baby that would have been Han’s older sister (eonni is the Korean term). Han imagines the heartrending scene of the mother holding the newborn close and begging: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.”

But the universe decided otherwise, and the tiny corpse is taken into the forest for burial. The white swaddling cloth became a funeral shroud. It is this image that leads Han to examine the white things that punctuate her life: rice, pills, salt, waves, a bird on the wing, an empty page where text should be. And snow, a connection that leads Han to reflect on “the city” where she lives for a while, a place where snow disguises and then reveals the past. It is Warsaw (although never identified by name), a city which, like Seoul, has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, a cycle in which Han sees an image of her departed, un-named eonni and herself.

For she eventually comes to realise that if the baby had lived then she, Han, would probably not have been born. It is a duality, a balance, that provides Han with a comfort, with a sense that things worked out as they were supposed to, as they were fated to. In the book’s final passage, Han bids her ethereal sibling farewell: “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath that you released.”

There is a toughness in Han, a sense of resilience and a willingness to peel back layers to find the core of being. This book could easily have become a mawkish plea for sympathy but the restrained, poetic writing provides a sense of moving from mourning to acceptance, a completed circle. It is a limited emotional pallet but the right one. It is no surprise to learn that the book took a long time to write and almost as long a time to translate.

The White Book is not for everyone but those who accept it on its own terms will find that it offers beauty, poignancy and resonance, a knowledge of what is lost and what is gained, and how one becomes the other.

Han Kang

Eat Me

The Vegetarian
By Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Hogarth (US 2016 edition), 208 pages, $10

This novel has won a vast amount of praise and is the first Korean novel to be awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Published in Korean in 2007, it is partially based on Kang’s 1997 short story ‘The Fruit of My Woman’, where a woman turns into a plant (it was published in English in 2015 in a collection of Kang’s stories).

The Vegetarian is a disturbing book, although structurally it is not actually a novel but three connected novellas. In the first, an unremarkable woman called Yeong-hye suddenly announces to her husband that she is becoming vegetarian, and has thrown away all the meat in the freezer. She is not clear on the reason, aside from saying that she had a dream.

The VegetarianIt should be said that Korean culture places great stock in dream messages. But it should also be said that vegetarianism is unusual in Korea (aside from the substantial number of Buddhists in the country). Koreans are actually quite proud of their meat-heavy cuisine, as it indicates that the company has become prosperous after decades of post-war struggle. So in choosing this course with little explanation to her husband means that Yeong-hye is breaking a number of entrenched social rules.

The rest of the first novella involves the husband and others of her family trying to make sense of what is going on, even as she seems to move further into a world of her own. When her father tries to force a piece of pork down her throat she stabs herself, but after that she seems strangely indifferent.

It is this sense of remove, as well as her transforming body, that attracts her brother-in-law, an artist struggling through a dry spell, to her in the second novella. His attempt to use her as a model to reinvigorate his work ends badly for everyone; the circle of social collapse kicked off by Yeong-hye decision is spreading.

The third novel revolves around her sister, In-hye, who watches Yeong-hye’s physical and mental condition deteriorate after she gives up eating altogether. We find out more about Yeong-hye’s dense, violent dreams, although we never really learn the underlying causes for her slow-motion suicide. Increasingly invasive methods of force-feeding do not achieve much; she has effectively left the world of the living already. For In-hye there are recurring images of the trees in the hospital grounds, matching those of Yeong-hye’s labyrinthine subconscious. Connections that lead nowhere, threads that make nothing, answers that provide only more questions. There is a Kafkaesque quality to the pointlessness, but also a certain inevitability. Yeong-hye has, in her own way, broken loose from the strictures of Korean society, and indeed of humanity. She becomes free only to die in a method of her choosing: is this victory or the worst possible defeat? Kang does not offer an answer.

No solutions, but instead there is some beautiful writing, and many striking images. Each section has its own rhythm and tone, so perfectly constructed that one almost forgets the bizarre, tragic narrative. It is a piece of work that stays with you, in a way that is haunting, querulous, and unique.

Image result for han kang

Off the meds

The Good Son

By You-Jeong Jeong; translated by Chi-Young Kim

Hachette, $33, 309 pages, ISBN  9781408709740

The Good Son auYou-Jeong’s thrillers are extremely popular in South Korea and have been translated widely; strangely, this novel, her fourth, is the first one to be translated into English. But Australian readers might note that the cover tag-line – ‘how well does a mother know her son?’ – is rather misleading. It turns out that the mother of Yu-jin, a 25-year-old student who lives at home – knows him better than he knows himself.

In fact, the story starts with Yu-jin (who takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to new heights) waking to find himself covered in blood, and then finding his mother’s body. He cannot remember what happened; he assumes that he had one of his epileptic seizures during the period the murder occurred. He is off his meds, a crucial issue. He tries to ‘investigate’ but it is clear that he is the one responsible; his mother’s ghost even tells him so.

One lie leads to another, and the cover-ups spread. As he reads his mother’s journal he realises that the heavyweight drugs he has been taking for years were not to stop epilepsy but to suppress his psychopathy. As pieces of memory return – although it is not always clear what is real and what is imagined – he comes to understand that the various tragedies endured by the family were his doing, not accidents. And, he realises, he is alright with that.

As the violence spirals out of control the past comes into focus, and Yu-jin – even though he sees himself as the victim in all this – emerges as a deeply horrifying individual. And there is no justice here, no redemption, no forgiveness. He simply continues on his murderous way.

It is a labyrinthine story, although perhaps there is too much narrative dependence on You-Jeong Jeongthe mother’s journal. Neither is there any real explanation for Yu-jin’s psychosis: he was just born that way, apparently.  This makes sense within Korean culture but Western readers might want a bit more.

Nevertheless, The Good Son is a compelling read, with a chilling atmosphere and some unexpected twists. It’s not the best novel of the year, but it’s pretty good.

Stories told differently

Appearing in Weekend Australian – Review, January 28-29, 2017



The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2016

Various authors

New Internationalist/Jacana, $28, 292 pages, ISBN 978178263205


Too often, Africa seems to drift on the far horizon of the world, occasionally sending messages of terrorism, post-colonial hangovers, and unfulfilled potential. Not so, according to this collection of stories, the finalists of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2016. It shows that there are outstanding writers doing remarkable things with the short story form, with a focus more on the personal than the political. The title of the collection alone is enough to catch the eye.daily-assortment-of-astonishing-things

The Caine Prize has had a critical role in the development of African literature since it was established in 2000. The prize is named for Michael Caine, who was Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years and appreciated the kick-start value of competitions and awards. The prize itself is for UK£10,000 and a scholarship to study in the US, and several previous winners have gone on to publish well-received novels. Even more, it provides the opportunity for writers to discuss their projects and polish their work. This collection includes the five finalists plus twelve other commended stories that were workshopped at a conference organised by the Caine Prize committee.

Several of these stories deal with the downside of getting what you wish for. The narrator in Billy Kahora’s ‘Shiko’, one of the rising Nairobi bourgeoisie, is tormented by the possibility of losing a critical business deal as well as the attractive woman who might come with it. Oh well, at least he will still have “the Audi out in the parking lot … it is beautiful … the only constant.”

The cleverly titled ‘What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah takes a sci-fi approach, drawing a future world where a huge algorithm holds out the possibility of ever-expanding human potential. The Mathematician at the centre of the story is one of a few who can even use it to take away the pain of others. But the perfection of the formula might turn out to be not so perfect after all, eventually imposing costs that are as awful as they are unavoidable. Abdul Adan’s equally fantastical ‘The Lifebloom Gift’ speculates that the moles on a person’s body might, if touched the right way, be the path to enlightenment and true happiness. Or maybe they are just moles.

Ah, the unknown unknowns, the unforeseeability of consequences. This theme also features in the story ‘At Your Requiem’ by Bongani Kona, where the patterns of lives are unfolded in reverse, a labyrinth of intersections and departures. Likewise, in Kafula Mwila’s ‘77 Steps’ a transgression from long ago is uncovered and confronted. But there is a sense that not much has been achieved, and maybe some parts of the past are better left buried.

If this sounds a bit grim, it must be said that there are flashes of humour in this collection as well. The story ‘The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things’, by Okwiri Oduor, revolves around a boy, Dudu, who is so naughty and self-centred – “full of mud” is the wonderful expression – that his exasperated mother runs away from home. At first, Dudu thinks this is great news, but then he realises that she took the transistor radio with her. And without the radio, he cannot listen to his favourite program, The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things. Dudu’s attempts to get his mother back – with radio – are comic, although there is a dark undercurrent of manipulation in his efforts. One feels that Dudu has a promising future in politics.

winner-and-caine-bustThe winner of the prize is a mesmerising story, ‘Memories We Lost’ by South African writer Lidudmalingani. The narrator is a young girl who gradually becomes the protector of her sister, who suffers from schizophrenia. It represents the complexity of village culture in the twenty-first century, with attempts to cure the girl ranging from church sermons to numbing medication to exorcising rituals, including one known as “baking”.


I had heard of how Nkunzi baked people. He would make a fire from cow dung and wood, and once the fire burned red he would tie the demon-possessed person onto a section of zinc roofing and place it on the fire. I had not heard of anyone who had died but I had not heard of anyone who had lived either. I could not allow this to happen to my sister.


To escape the ritual, the two girls run away. They have no idea where they are going but they are slowly absorbed into the vast landscape, unhealed but together. It is a powerful but intimate story, told with an authoritative and authentic voice. “Secrets stay buried for so long, but one day they rise to open like seeds breaking free from the earth,” says Lidudmalingani. We can only hope to hear more of him.

Given the variety of voices, from Somalia to Zambia, from Nigeria to Zimbabwe, is it possible to identify a unifying African tone? Perhaps there is an underlying sense of fatalism here, a willingness to accept rather than change things. Some Western readers, more familiar with stories built around a three-act structure and a redemptive conclusion, might find this difficult. But really it demonstrates that there are many ways to tell stories, many ways to find meaning in the world. The contributors to this book, and the organisers of the Caine Prize, deserve our thanks for that.


Bio Graphy

Stories of Your Life and Others

By Ted Chiang



Amongst aficionados of the thinking-person branch of science-fiction Seattle-based Chiang has long been highly regarded, and he has a string of awards on his shelf. But he has never really broken through to the mainstream: perhaps because he only writes stories rather than novels, perhaps because the stories are complex and contemplative, or perhaps because he has little time for the celebrity-writer game.

This has changed – somewhat – with the release of the mesmerising movie Arrival, based on Chiang’s 1998 story, Story of Your Life, which is the centrepiece of this collection. There is a fair bit of difference between the short story and the movie (the screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer) but the basic idea and the spiralling, inside-out structure remains. The movie is a good adaptation, and director Denis Villeneuve obviously thought carefully about the tone. He also engaged Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (with whom he had worked on Sicario) to provide an other-worldly soundscape.

This reviewer will not give away the story of Story, as it would be a spoiler for anyone who has not seen the movie, but he can say that is a remarkable piece of work, clever without being condescending. Story also indicates Chiang’s interest in the problem of communication – in this case between unrelated species – which features regularly in this collection. In Understand, a person who has acquired super-intelligence finds himself unable to interact with ‘normals’, as life becomes a blur of Mandelbrot-style complexity. In Liking What You See, a new technology allows people to ‘turn off’ the part of their brain that decides whether a face is attractive or not. It’s a mixed blessing.

ted-chiangChiang has a knack for creating a world which is recognisable but radically different. In Seventy-Two Letters, the main industry is the creation of golem-like ‘engines’ animated by increasingly complicated nomenclatures. Hell is the Absence of God features regularly-appearing angels who provide both miracles and disasters, although their purpose is obscure and the outcomes seemingly random. These stories bring to mind some of Steven Millhauser’s tales, the same willingness to follow an idea to wherever it leads.

One of the most interesting stories in this collection (the first story that Chiang published, in fact) has a more Borges-like quality. The Tower of Babylon comes at the biblical story from an angle both literal and bizarre. The huge tower does, eventually, grow tall enough to reach Heaven although God, as it turns out, is rather indifferent to the whole endeavour.

These stories are not easy: readers have to work out a lot for themselves. Well, good. People who want shoot-‘em-up sci-fi stories favouring action over thought will have no trouble finding them. But Chiang has shown that the genre can be more. Much more.

Luminous light

Appearing on website http://www.thecultureconcept.com/the-last-painting-of-sara-de-vos-a-page-turner-book-review


The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

By Dominic Smith

Allen & Unwin, $33, 384 pages, ISBN 9781743439951


There is something mesmerising about the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. In Vermeer’s depictions of domestic daily life, for example, there is always a sense of a story under the image, of movement behind the stillness. There is the same quality with this remarkable novel, which is structured as a series of layers and interlaced time periods. It is no accident that one of main characters, Ellie Shipley, is a painter and art restorer who builds up a work and then strips parts away, a reflection of the way this novel works.

There was not really a Golden Age painter called Sara de Vos – Smith (who is Australian but usually lives in the US) knitted the character together from what is known of several female artists of the time. Nevertheless, he gives her a detailed life, with alternating chapters of the book telling her story. It has its share of tragedy: a child lost, a husband who abandons her to escape his debts, a tetchy relationship with the guild that controls the painting business.

Ellie’s connection with de Vos is, at first, her stalled dissertation, as she struggles to maintain a threadbare life in 1950s New York, partly an escape from her stultifying family in Sydney. Then Sara enters her life in another way, in the shape of an offer to make a forgery of the only known de Vos painting, At the Edge of the Wood, a mysterious and charismatic piece of work.

Woven into this story – and that of Sara in seventeenth-century Holland – is that of Marty de Groot, an over-affluent lawyer whose family have owned the original painting for generations. When he realises that the painting hanging over his bed is a fake he tracks down Ellie, not to get his property back but for his own half-hidden reasons.

Fast-forward to 2000, and Ellie is working at the NSW Art Gallery, where she is given the job of curating a show about women painters of the Dutch Golden Age. And, of course, she finds that the forgery – her dark but beautiful secret – is on its way, and so is the original. With Marty as well, who turns out to have aged into self-aware mellowness, like a varnish gaining its own patina.

Each of these streams has its own dynamic, and each provides pieces that fall into a whole. This tessellated approach to narrative can, if not handled well, become merely confusing and disjointed. But there is never a sense that Smith does not know where he is heading. Indeed, as each story progresses it develops a sense of inevitability. Everything ends in the place where it should be, where it belongs, with the clarity of Vermeer sunlight. And even the surprise at the ending is not, really, a surprise, but the final component of an elegant composition.

Smith brings a great authority to this, whether he is discussing the techniques of artistic forgery or the social details of the Mad Men creatures of Manhattan. But the real core is the cross-era relationship between Sara and Ellie, parallel but intimately connected. It is this which provides the heart of the novel. It is a heart which is warm, and alive, and luminous.


Literary bridges to Asia

Appearing in the Weekend Australian/Review –  August 20-21 2016


The Near and the Far: New Stories from the Asia-Pacific Region

Edited by David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short

Scribe, $28, 288 pages, ISBN 9781925321562Far and Near


Despite geographical proximity and economic ties there has been surprisingly little connection between Australia and our near northern neighbours when it comes to literature. This is a pity, because the countries of south-east Asia have both long literary traditions and plenty of fine writers working on contemporary themes. The Near and the Far is part of a project aimed at building two-way communication, and is the result of a series of workshops conducted by Melbourne’s RMIT University (both Carlin and Rendle-Short teach there, aside from being established writers themselves) under the rubric WrICE, for Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange, in Australia and Asia. The result is a remarkable collection of 21 pieces, and if not all of them succeed it is largely because of the risk inherent in the undertaking.

For a number of the writers based in Australia, there is often a sense of having to go away in order to see home clearly. Melissa Lucashenko, an indigenous writer, provides a remarkable story, Dreamers, about the effect of a child’s disappearance on the three adults left behind, the parents and an Aboriginal woman. But the strangest aspect of the story is that it was written mainly in Penang, Malaysia.

Likewise, Joe Rubbo’s story Trampoline, set in the suburban Australia of Rubbo’s childhood, was written in Vietnam. It should be said that this story is not entirely successful, seeming to merely stop rather than conclude, as if it is still a work in progress. A few other pieces suffer from the same sense of rawness, but perhaps this is what the book is meant, in part, to illustrate: that writing is as much about process as product. Each piece in The Near and the Far contains a postscript where the writer explains their thoughts, and this provides an important depth and texture.

Not all the contributions are fiction; there are several essays and poetry pieces as well. In some cases it is hard to tell where a piece fits: Xu Xi’s essay BG: the Significant Years, traces her development as a multi-sited, mixed-origin citizen of everywhere – she is a Chinese-Indonesian native of Hong Kong and a US citizen – in terms of the advent of Google (Before-Google and Post-Google). Xu also notes that the WrICE workshops gave her a breakthrough on her stalled novel, The Milton Man – one to watch for, from what we see here.

David Carlin’s personal essay Unmade in Bangkok looks at the position of the ladyboy community in Thailand, which leads him into a broader discussion of constructed gender and sexuality. Yes, the ladyboys have a place, and it is safe enough, but they are obliged to stay in it. Is this enough? Carlin is unsure, but it makes him think that transgender people are at the front line of identity issues, and there are broader lessons that can be learned.

Sexual identity is also critical in Omar Musa’s story (which perhaps is only pretending to be fiction) You Think You Know, set in Malaysia, a country where the government is hell-bent on modernising and but equally intent on enforcing rigid social conservatism. Bernice Chauly approaches the same issue from a different angle, looking at the opening of the Petronas Towers complex in 1998 as an ambiguous symbol of official self-congratulation and the hollow façade of a troubled, divided society. This essay, Standing in the Eyes of World, is part of a longer piece, and its open-endedness is a bit frustrating, but there is no doubting Chauly’s creative talent and her commitment to her subject.

Suchen Christine Lim, a Singaporean writer, had to travel the world before she could understand the loving relationship between the two women who raised her. My Two Mothers, developed at the WrICE workshop in Vietnam, is a tender look back, a way of reconciling with people displaced in their own country but connected in their hearts.

For Cate Kennedy, the dislocation is between what she anticipates and what she finds. She had expected Vietnam to be a place of postcard scenes and quiet French streets: yes, they are there, but so are floods of motorbikes (her problem with crossing the road is both comical and illuminating) and go-go capitalism. Appropriately, her piece Incoming Tides comes down to the image on an old man fishing peacefully – except that he is wearing a hi-visibility vest so he can be seen in the hubbub. No, not what she expected: something less, perhaps, but something more as well.

The sense of arriving somewhere you think you know and finding a different place is especially problematic for bi-racial returnees, who carry with them their parent’s old memories. Laurel Fantauzzo, in the wonderfully-named essay Some Hints About Travelling to the Country Your Family Departed, examines the indeterminate status that comes with mixed-race heritage. Her visit to the Phillipines, her mother’s country, for a WrICE event helps her to understand a few things, but also shows her that it takes a long time to see a country’s soul. But her sound advice – “have two karaoke songs ready” – suggests that she has made a pretty good start.

Anyone looking for coherence of style, content and purpose will not find it in The Near and the Far. But the book’s point is to showcase diversity and difference. In this, it delivers, and handsomely. As a bridge between literary spheres, we can only hope it is the first and not the last.

Turkish Dreams

Appeared in Quadrant, December 2015

Turkish Dreams

Strangeness in My Mind

A Strangeness in My Mind

By Orhan Pamuk

Hamish Hamilton, $33, 624 pages, ISBN 9780307700292


The House in Smyrna

By Tatiana Salem Levy

Scribe, $28, 160 pages, ISBN 9781925106411


The Secret Son

By Jenny Ackland

Allen & Unwin, $30, 336 pages, ISBN 9781925266160


At one point, the key character is Orhan Pamuk’s sprawling novel A Strangeness in My Mind muses that Istanbul is like the centre of the world, a conjunction of frontiers between continents, between history and the present, between what has been lost and what has been found. The theme of cultural and psychological borders recurs throughout A Strangeness in My Mind as well as two other new novels connected to Turkey, The House in Smyrna by Brazilian-based Tatiana Salem Levy and The Secret Son, the debut novel by Australian writer Jenny Acland. Pamuk, Levy and Acland are also determined to push the frontier of narrative methods; as a result, all three books are difficult, but all three repay the effort.

A Strangeness in My Mind is a vast story, with a strong element of epic soap opera and a streak of weird humour. The main character, Mevlut, represents Turkey’s struggle to balance its long and rich history with the need to build a modern, Western-inclined society. He is a country boy who is swept into the capital, along with his extended and rather strange family, by the social currents of the latter third of the twentieth century. In Istanbul, he becomes a street-food vendor but his real love is selling boza, a traditional fermented drink that contains alcohol, but not so much that it breaks the Koranic prohibition. Boza can be seen as a metaphor for Turkey’s twin obsessions, setting rules and finding a way to get around them. Mevlut’s meanderings around the city allow him to discover its layers and facets, its deep past and ongoing conflicts. A good number of pages are spent on street-food culture, and how it has shifted as the city’s social demography has evolved and Western fast-food offerings have crept in.

Pamuk, who has won the Nobel Prize for literature although he originally trained as an architect, has explored the organic nature of cities before, in his novels The Black Book and Cevdet Bey and His Sons. But those told the story of Istanbul through westernised characters, and here he is seeing the view from the inside, infusing it with the odd sense of melancholy that the Turks call huzun. Mevlut, like Pamuk, likes old things: stones worn smooth by touch, back alleys, faded colour. Over the years he watches a different city emerge, a place “dreadful and dazzling at once”, with new dreams and new politics.

Part of Mevlut’s sense of feeling that the world has played an unfunny joke on him comes from his early, flailing attempts at romance. He first falls in love with a young girl, sending messages through his brother. But their elopement plans take the wrong path: the brother inadvertently delivers not the object of Mevlut’s affection but her older sister, Rayiha. Sorry, Mevlut, that’s life: more huzun. But the two of them manage to make a decent relationship out of it, and plain Rayiha turns out to be clever and strong. They try, and partially succeed, to create a circle of calm despite the increasing clamour of the city changing around them and Mevlut’s eccentric family.

If this sounds like a fairly straightforward novel, it isn’t. There are multiple narrators (mainly Mevlut’s family), often contradicting and shouting over one another. This can make an already long book – over 600 pages – seem chaotic at first, even though Pamuk helpfully provides a cast list. But once the reader has got the hang of it the structure is more like one of the city’s mosaics, using shards and pieces to build a complex picture that only falls into place at a certain distance.

Some readers might also find the lack of a clear conclusion difficult – the closest the book comes to a happy ending is that one of Mevlut’s daughters manages to overcome the strictures placed on women to graduate from university. And then she announces she is going to move away. Huzun again, but there is also Mevlut’s gratitude for what life has given him in the way of quiet revelations and unexpected gifts.

The House in Smyrna is a shorter piece of work but no less dense, in its way, and no less about frontiers and the crossing of them. Tatiana Salem Levy’s parents were Turkish Jews who moved to Brazil, eventually ending up in Portugal (Tatiana was born in Lisbon) to escape the military dictatorship. Levy uses the pieces of her parents’ lives as the background to the novel, which is told in truncated, alternating passages, jumping between times, places, and unidentified narrative voices.

The starting point is an unnamed young woman lying in bed, wasting away to disease and despair. In an attempt to rally her, her grandfather gives her a key, which he says is the key to the door of the house he left in Smyrna, a town on the western coast of Turkey. The story spurs her recovery and sets her on a journey to discover the truth of her family by tracing their steps. She is uncertain how much this will help her settle her own confused identify, and there are several meditations on how personality is formed by the intersection of events, travels and imagination.

Woven into her wandering is the story of the young woman’s parents, idealistic communists who were persecuted and tortured for their political views. There are imaginary conversations between the young woman and her mother, who has identity issues of her own not resolved even by death. There is also the arc of a transgressive sexual relationship between the protagonist and a man who at first appears to have wandered into the book from Fifty Shades of Grey. But the point eventually emerges, and the relationship illustrates the woman’s sense of loss and confusion. She likes to pull sheets over her lovers’ faces, and her own, emulating a burial shroud, for example. She remarks to her mother that she writes about pain because it is all she really knows. Not pain in the actual sense, but wounds of the soul, a feeling of guilt and hollowness. It is the malaise of affluence, the nature of being the offspring of refugees. Comfort, security, possessions: they can seem meaningless, even insulting, when put against the travails of previous generations.

Her eventual arrival in Turkey is about crossing a psychic frontier more than a line on the map. She is surprised to feel at home here, healed by the age and ambiguity of the country. She visits a mosque, not as a search for faith but to try and understand how it fits into the culture. She is eventually turned away but finds a community of women in an ancient bath-house, and here the narrative idea of image-driven sections works particularly well. She feels she has reached some sense of self when a taxi driver tells her she has “a Turkish face”. She carries that sense with her when she leaves the country, and there is a sudden burst of violence that gives way to solace – perhaps not redemption for the future, but at least acceptance of the past and the present.

The tessellated method of storytelling allows Levy to cover a great deal of ground, both physically and mentally. The downside is that incidents often end just as they are getting interesting (this is especially a problem with the scenes of her parents in Brazil; it can look as if major events are being trivialised). The House in Smyrna is certainly a challenge to read, but that is part of its point. All frontiers are difficult to cross.

Unlike Pamuk and Levy, Ackland is new to the business of novel-writing, although she has published a number of stories. She writes with surprising authority and is not afraid to push the limits of plausibility. The central premise of The Secret Son, for instance, is that Ned Kelly had a son called James, who was raised by his mother in the country town of Beechworth unaware of the identity of his near-mythical father. It’s possible, one supposes – but on the other hand whether it is truth or fiction does not really matter (as is the case with much in this novel).

As it happens, James grows up to be a rather bookish, gentle sort of fellow who nevertheless finds himself on the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915. In a moment of kindness, he saves a young Turkish soldier; when James is later wounded and left for dead after the evacuation, that soldier saves him and takes him to his home town, the mountain village of Hayat. James comes to like and then love the place. The dreamlike quality of the village and its people is underscored by the all-knowing and mystical Aunt Berna, a woman who can see patterns of fortune in things as ordinary as beans, or in the trees of the hills. It is Berna who acts, more or less, as the narrative anchor.

For James, the question first seems to be whether his life in Australia was more real than his life in Hayat. But over time he comes to understand that the real issue is whether one can lead a good, meaningful life regardless of the place, the circumstances, and the genes.

Yet James’ story is only one part of the book. Another narrative, set in more recent times, takes place alongside it, telling the story of Cem Kologlu, a young Turk travelling from Melbourne to Hayat, his family village. On the way he links up with an historian seeking the truth about the Kelly connection. Ties between the two men, and the people and the place they seek, slowly emerge. Some are more believable than others, although what might be far-fetched coincidence might actually be the silent hand of destiny.

There are debts to repay and secrets to uncover, with Berna watching over it all. One realises how Australian the Kelly myth is, and how strange the story of the man in the iron mask must seem to other peoples, let alone an isolated place with a unique culture of its own. A writer less brave than Ackland might have baulked at mixing these elements together but she makes it work, and the end of the complex story is at once unexpected and suitable.

Ackland has a good eye for telling details: the gentle plod of a donkey, the smell of tea and figs from the village houses, the precarious position of the houses on the hillside. The parts of the book that take place elsewhere are less strong but this is hardly a fatal flaw. After all, one place in a novel is as real as any other, or perhaps none of them are.

If these three books are about the frontiers of culture and psychology, they are also about the frontier of modern writing. Multiple narrators, unreliable voices, stories that break apart and then come together again: this is the leading edge of the novel form. It demands energy and attention from the reader, and a willingness to suspend belief that goes beyond that of more traditional writing. Equally, the common themes of sustaining one’s identity while all that supported it is drifting away can be confronting: here, there is not much in the way of happily ever after.

Despite their complexity – perhaps because of it – A Strangeness in My Mind, The House in Smyrna and The Secret Son are solid achievements, each in their own way. They are full of the mystery of a new landscape and the pleasures of the familiar, of connections and the unexplained, of the distant horizon and the home. They are, in the end, much like life.