THE WHITE EARTH by Andrew McGahan
The winner of the 2005 Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, this is a stunning novel set in the Darling Downs, a diverse farming region west of Brisbane. Prior to European settlement, because of its lush indigenous grasses,the region was important as a food source and culturally to the local Aborigine tribes. The arrival of the European farmers in the 1820s and 1830s put a stop to that, and the Downs quickly became the food basket for the region. Farming communities and towns quickly developed, as did large stations and homesteads which dominated their local communities. The indigenous people, as happened many places elsewhere, were displaced and effectively disappeared.
With this background in mind, the story begins in 1992 with 9 year old William's father having an unfortunate accident on the farm, resulting in his death. Forced to leave the farm, William and his depressed mother are taken in by an unknown great-uncle, John McIvor, who owns what is left of one of the big stations, Kuran station established by the White family. He lives in the huge original and now very derelict homestead. The motives for this altruistic act become fairly clear as John attempts to mould, some would say brainwash, young William into his heir. It also becomes fairly clear that John is quite mad, with an unwavering obsession to keep the property in family ownership. This, of course, makes for quite a dangerous situation for a 9 year old boy to be in. No father and a non-functioning mother means he finds himself slowly being drawn into the spell his great uncle is weaving.
At the same time, law changes are taking place that will give local Aborigines greater claim to lands that were traditionally used before European settlement. John knows secrets about the land the station is on that pertain to this, and he is determined that no one else will find out about them, thus safeguarding the property for his own interests.
Sinister yes, and spooky yes, underlying tension and danger oozing throughout the narrative, with young William being manipulated beyond his childish understanding. And yet, the uncle never comes across as evil. His whole life has revolved around Kuran station, he loves the land with a deep passion and enormous respect, and although he doesn't have the financial resources to make it productive again as it once was, he does not want to see it destroyed. The gift of the clever writer is that you actually do feel sorry for the old man as he tries to protect all that is important to him.
Any 9 year old child left to their own devices will project their own imagination and childish perceptions of the world onto what is going on around them. As William comes more and more under the spell of his great uncle's dream, he almost begins to operate in a parallel universe so that as the reader, at times you don't quite know yourself what is real and what is not.
The story is cleverly told, with chapters alternating between John's story which essentially tells the history of Europeans in the area since the 1820s and how he came to be at Kuran; and William's story. There is always a sense of impending doom, with the two symbols of 'white' and 'fire' constantly threading themselves through the story. The third character in the story is the land itself. What a love for the land this author has - the vast pastures, the hills, the water holes, the dryness, the dust, the rain when it occurs. I read an interview with the author which I now cannot find. He grew up on the Downs so has this deep seated love and respect for the land plus a number of things that happened in the book also happened to him.
My only criticism of the book is that I did feel at times, William was much older than 9 years old. He has to deal with a lot, and some of his perceptions and reactions are way beyond what I think a 9 year old's brain would process. Nevertheless this is a marvellous story of Australia and the continuing conflict between the traditional owners of the land and the European new comers.
THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE by Maggie O'Farrell
A beautifully told and poignant story of the universal themes of love - romantic love, marriage and motherhood.
In the early 1950s, 21 year old Lexie Sinclair is desperate to escape her boring, house bound life in the country lanes of Devon. Out of the blue appears the divine Innes Kent. Naturally they fall instantly in love, and he whisks her off to a new exiting life in London. Which for a time it is, then naturally things start to unravel.
Running parallel to the lives of Lexie and Innes, are the lives of Elina and Ted, also living in London, but fifty plus years later. Elina has just given birth prematurely to a baby boy, Theo, and almost lost her own life in the process. Elina struggles with motherhood as do many new mothers - the loss of her former identity, the physical and emotional demands of a very young baby, the lack of time to give to herself. Ted feels guilty for having got her pregnant in the first place, and finds that fatherhood unearths very deep memories of his own childhood and certain things that don't quite match up.
In alternating chapters, the stories of these two women and the men in their lives are gently and lovingly told. There may be fifty odd years between the lives of Lexie and Elina, and different challenges and crises happen to both of them, but throughout is their unconditional love and devotion to their babies which is what makes them get up in the morning and get on with the day. And thus have a life.
I loved this book. Lexie and Elina, Innes and Ted are very real people, they could be anyone that we may know. Strangely the whole story is narrated in the present tense which gives the reader the sense of being a fly on the wall, as if we are actually in the room watching a day unfold, or listening to a conversation. It is also very descriptive of life in London in the 1950s, from the streets, to the office buildings, to the clothes to the houses. Not so much description of course of modern day settings, but the writing is just as rich.
THE LIBRARY OF SHADOWS by Mikkel Birkegaard
Jon Campelli is a lawyer in Copenhagen, ambitious and doing quite well. He lives in an inner city apartment, drives a Mercedes and has a very good life. This is turned completely on its head when Jon's estranged father, Luca, who owns a second-hand bookshop in the city, dies very suddenly and violently. Jon, as the only surviving relative, inherits the bookshop and the staff, and very quickly discovers that things are not as they seem at the bookshop or with the staff. The bookshop is the base for a very secretive society of bibliophiles who have certain powers - either to transmit or receive communications through the power of reading. It does sound rather bizarre and peculiar, but when it emerges that there is an enemy of the group determined to take over control of the bookshop and hence the powers it holds for nefarious purposes, things take on a very sinister turn, and we have a true blue thriller, race against time on our hands.
Interspersed with this of course, is the requisite love story, self-discovery and self-improvement, plus some suspension of reality, which makes for a great story and plenty of tension. It takes the concept of 'talking books' to a new and very imaginative level and could almost put this story into the fantasy genre, if it wasn't so well grounded in the modern urban world that we all live in.
As readers we all know the power that books can have over us - escapism, knowledge, entertainment, opinions. Reading takes us to places and ideas that we may never have been exposed to, and so enrich us and empower us. This story greatly develops the idea of books being all powerful, and like all powers, can be used for good and evil purposes.
I enjoyed the imagination the author has used in writing his story. It is a bit clunky at times; far too much dialogue and conversation for a time of crisis and suspense when the future of the world is at stake! But there is plenty of tension, interesting characters, and you never quite what is going to happen next.
Posted by Kiwiflora