Category Archives: Reviews

Lionel Shriver weighs her options

A Writer’s review of Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother.

FRESH from witnessing the fuss Lionel Shriver inspired at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, defending the right to use her imagination without being labelled a cultural appropriator, I took to this book with a half-baked plan to test out both sides of the argument.

“Hopeful, insane, self-fulfilling learning curve.”

That failed at the first hurdle, simply because Shriver’s prose is always so darned good it lifts readers high enough off the earth to forget ourselves; but since finishing Big Brother, with its infamous much spoiler-alerted conclusion, it’s easy to see Shriver’s imagination was not heavily taxed in this novel.

It’s a simple set-up: Edison Appaloosa is a failed jazz pianist who comes to stay in Iowa with his successful younger sibling Pandora. She’s turned her back on a catering business but had plenty of luck with her own start-up.

Last time she saw her brother, Edison was every inch the suave New Yorker, and Pandora anticipates being in his slightly louche orbit again; but the monster who appears at the airport is a man she fails to recognise, literally and emotionally, because the inches have piled onto his waistline.

Huge and hyper-sensitive, Edison is hiding the truth beneath the body fat, and his bluster is a challenge to Pandora and her husband Fletcher, nattily portrayed as a calorie-counting fitness junkie. It doesn’t take long for ultimatums to be issued that drive the drama to unexpected places.

Applying some of the plainest fiction I’ve read in a very long time, in Big Brother, Shriver calls to mind her journalism as much as she does any of her novels, lending realism to what might have been a far more clichéd set of characters.

It comes as no surprise that her experience of a chronically overweight brother Greg ‘fed’ both the need to write Big Brother and ‘flesh it out’ with many believable threads that leave the reader in no doubt the author witnessed morbid obesity up close, and shared its impact.

We are ‘stuffed’ with food references, on our screens and in our language, and Shriver’s book serves as an investigation into the Western obsession with consumption. In that regard, this hopeful, insane, self-fulfilling learning curve could have served as a ripping work of non-fiction by simply holding up the mirror.

But even Shriver admits to facing the very paradox she confronts Pandora with – trapped between her loyalty to a brother who has dead-ended his life by becoming grossly overweight, and her comfortable circle of attainment, complete with husband and career.

“As it happened, my brother’s condition abruptly plummeted again, and he died two days later. I never had to face down whether I was kind enough, loving enough, self-sacrificing enough, to take my brother on, to take my brother in. I got out of it,” Shriver wrote in The Financial Times on the book’s release.

When Pandora’s husband demands she make a choice between his fit lifestyle or the fat sibling, she eschews her marriage and embarks on a year-long, weight-loss odyssey that is Shriver’s imagination given free reign and healthy abandon.

Knowing the factual roots of the story only makes Big Brother’s pathos more powerful, because ultimately what Shriver construes is a startling piece of fiction, as unsettling as Tim Winton’s The Riders and every bit as capable of blindsiding readers.

The greatest part of the telling, for me, was not the exploration of weight but the surveillance suggested by the doublespeak of the book’s title, because Pandora’s solution for Edison is as Orwellian as its possible to be.

Despite being powerfully written in observational first-person, it’s in the minutia between siblings and spouses, unbridgeable even between those who ought to be close, that Big Brother makes the strongest claim on the human heart. See if you can keep it down.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A place for truth in Titanic’s lifeboat

A Writer’s review of David Dyer’s The Midnight Watch.

“This novel grows organically into the rarest of literary adventures: a journey into the very heart of writing and all its private motivations.”

IN the scratchy, indefinite pulses of Marconi transmissions – the standard wireless communication in the era of the great transatlantic ocean liners – first-time Australian author David Dyer rediscovers a story at once indelible and elusive, of human frailty that turned the world order on its head.

This shorthand of ship radio operators, whose brief and highly-coded messaging system kept ships in communication and carried telegraphic messages to shore for passengers, crew and commercial interests, was past its infancy when RMS Titanic embarked on its maiden voyage, but it was certainly not a definitive means of delivering clarity under pressure.

Yet the lives of more than 1500 people came to rest upon it.

the_midnight_watch_0The Midnight Watch holds human communication at its core.

Protagonist John Steadman is a journalist, a newshound the likes of which has all but disappeared in the twenty-first century. He has a keen sense of injustice, having endured grief and loss as a young man, scars that have made him into the industry’s ‘body man’, reporting on untimely, unjust deaths.

By the time of the sinking of the Titanic, this fictional character is so skilled he’s able to navigate his way into what he sees as the real story: the factual mystery of the ‘other’ ship – the Californian – which sat in sight of the Titanic as the latter foundered, firing eight distress rockets, each of which the crew of the Californian witnessed, and did nothing about.

It’s the supreme postmodern maritime mystery, as replete with conspiracy theories as the Shakespeare authorship question, and Dyer tackles it through recreating the players and the dramatic tension that existed before the world knew about the Californian’s failure, taking readers on a compelling journey.

The tale pivots around the inaction of two men: Captain Stanley Lord, who remained in his bed during the two-and-a-half hours the Titanic sank, and his second officer Herbert Stone, who reported what he saw to the captain via a narrow pipe, yet did nothing more when the captain failed to act.

CAPTION
CALIFORNIAN CAPTAIN Stanley Lord of The Californian.

But in the end, Steadman cannot escape the way the ultimate truths remain fractured and inaccessible, lost in the pulsating radio signals that passed suddenly from workaday passenger telegrams to the desperate calls that were heard only by ships too far away to lend assistance; in the breathy, frustrating exchanges between two starkly different men onboard the Californian, up and down the speaking tubes; and in the explosive, beautiful, but ultimately meaningless sparkles of distress rockets that may as well have been fireworks launched for passengers’ pleasure off the listing deck of an unsinkable ship.

You know exactly what is going to happen, and you know the horrifically short timescale, yet you still want to reach out and lift the hapless victims out of the water you know will be too cold for them to endure.

The fate of the 1500 drowned is universal knowledge by now, but Dyer uses it to place the reader in a vortex of failure, after making the case for the thinnest, most abstract and unexpected of causes for the men who allowed the disaster to happen under their gaze.

The entire Industrial Revolution went down with the shock of it, leaving a century of war and insecurity in its wake that many believe we are yet to recover from.

This novel grows organically into the rarest of literary adventures: a journey into the very heart of writing and all its private motivations. Escapism and fantasy, avoidance, guilt, lust, fear and a pulsating sense of injustice.

I agree with other reviewers who noted the author’s unnecessary use of repetition on occasion – readers never require a retelling of moments we’ve already heard; and at times, during the rising action of the book, I questioned the very set-up of the whole fact-fiction combination.

But where it counts, The Midnight Watch is absolutely gripping and does not fail to deliver.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Massacre books a Myall off the mark

ONE of the earliest crimes I ever became aware of took place just a few kilometres from my home. It wasn’t recent and it wasn’t widely discussed between neighbouring farmers. My mother whispered what she knew of the story one afternoon, in between social tennis matches at the Myall Creek courts adjacent to the old tin hall where we gathered for community events.

The 1838 Myall Creek Massacre has haunted and inspired me ever since, in much the same way it has done for generations of grazier families in the uplands between Delungra and Bingara in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales.

Haunted, because there is justifiable guilt attached to the murder of innocent Aboriginal people. Haunted, too, because white men were hanged for the killings, for the first time in Australia’s history. Inspired, because the massacre memorial has become one of the most enduring actions of reconciliation this country has experienced.

In 2016, two new books, pitched as seminal to an understanding of this hateful crime against innocent Aboriginal people, were published. I read with interest, not only because I am indirectly writing about the massacre, but also because I was part of the great ignorance about this pivotal moment in modern Australia.

The more we read about it, the more we come to understand the inherent racism and inhumanity that fuelled it, the closer we get to shuffling off the fundamental penal colony principles this country still practices when it comes to race relations.

30329712Terry Smyth’s Denny Day, the Life and Times of Australia’s Greatest Lawman (Penguin Random House) adds two critical elements to the analysis of the Myall Creek Massacre that I have not encountered before.

The first is the suggestion that part of the motivation for the killings was the habit of utilising Aboriginal trackers in the recapture of escaped convicts; that the massacre was, in part, justified by the convicts among the killers as payback for Aboriginal participation in Colonial justice. But Smyth doesn’t provide much direct evidence or make an argument for any of this, leaving him wide open to accusations of victim-blaming.

The second is Smyth’s courage in including the oral history about the exact nature of the crimes, as witnessed by an Aboriginal man who was not permitted under Colonial law to give evidence at either of the trials.

Most if not all of the writing on the Myall Creek Massacre stems from a desire to ‘own’ the story, or meet another storytelling agenda, and Smyth’s book adds to a growing list of titles that view the events from one strong angle.

However, by including the description of the crimes themselves – horrid, gutless acts of evil – Smyth has done a great service that far outweighs his focus on his eponymous Denny Day.

As interesting as Day’s story is, it is not the most critical element to the story of the Myall Creek Massacre.

The crimes are the core of that story, and must never play second fiddle to the stories of others. The book that has the courage to begin with the crimes themselves, and not shy away from the scene, will be the definitive Myall Creek Massacre title.

murder-at-myall-creek-9781925456264_hrMurder at Myall Creek by Mark Tedeschi (Simon and Schuster) is not that book. It’s an absorbing read but it should probably be re-branded as more of a biography of colonial NSW Attorney General John Plunkett and his impact on the legal system of New South Wales, and less of a broad title on the Myall Creek Massacre.

What it adds to the record are insights into why Plunkett moved for an immediate second trial of some of the massacre perpetrators, and how the risk paid dividends in terms of a generally just outcome.

Tedeschi makes the case for a better understanding of Plunkett’s character and exactly what he added to Australian civil rights. He also argues for why Plunkett has been largely forgotten by a nation whose history he impacted so significantly.

Elucidating the differences between Colonial and modern Australian legal processes is one of the key aspects to Tedeschi’s work, and this focus is essential to a full understanding of the prosecutions, and several unjust outcomes of the trial.

Day’s is a policeman’s story, Plunkett’s an attorney’s. Both their accounts will become crucial resources for whoever creates an unambiguous, mainstream book on this critical episode of modern Australian history, unfiltered by post-colonial perspectives.

A deeper look at the crimes that were the pivot of both men’s contributions will be key to the meaning and scope of that work. It has the potential to make white Australians see where we have for far too long feared to really look.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.