A Writer’s Review of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.
“Goes to the very heart of what literature does.”
ALAN Bennetthas made a career out of writing about ordinary people, in fact he seems embroiled in a competition with himself to ‘out-ordinary’ his cast of characters who fade into the wallpaper, noticing the dust and fingerprints on the skirting board as they disappear.
From his gripping Talking Heads series to the divine ordinariness of memoirs about his Yorkshire family in Untold Stories, this has been a fascinating journey into the humour and pathos of the seemingly mundane.
At the other end of his oeuvre sits Bennett’s ruminations on those most would class as ‘extra’-ordinary, most notably in Bennett’s stage- and screenplay The Madness of George III, famously altered to The Madness of King George at the cinema so as not to confuse US audiences about having missed I and II in the series, a ‘Bennettian’ twist if ever there was one.
Written a decade later, The Uncommon Reader is a beguiling companion piece to that previous study of royal character and frailty. Like King George, Queen Elizabeth II is quickly overtaken by something those around her consider madness after a fashion, when she exhibits a surprising appetite to read, and read voraciously.
As the novella’s protagonist, Elizabeth proves every bit as plucky, observant and youthful as a Jane Austen heroine. Reading affords her a sense of escapism and leads her to seek connections with those around her.
But a pervading sense of regret waits around every corner for Her Majesty. As literature becomes the great companion that Bennett observes is missing from this privileged life, it comes with a realisation of enormous opportunities missed.
In this regard, the Queen becomes less Lizzie Bennet and more like the central protagonist in one of Bennett’s monologues, which I’ll speculatively title Mrs Mountbatten Turns Over a New Leaf, in honour of how his characters always seem to find the key to reaching out.
Whether they manage to turn that key – and thereby escape their circumstances – is the rich seam of Bennett’s tragicomic style, and there are some stark differences between the journey of Queen Elizabeth and the classic Talking Heads mix of self-delusion of characters who tend to remain in their comfort zones.
The Uncommon Reader is a divine little diversion, but don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity.
This book goes to the very heart of what literature does, and how it has the potential to change the world through opening hearts and minds.
A writer’s review of Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World.
I CALL them ‘weather stories’, books in which the protagonists are anaesthetised by the attention they pay to the elements in endless cycles of sun and rain and the sensations of water, leaves, dust and wind; and this intriguing novel qualifies.
Locked in the inevitability of marriage and parenthood in the 1960s, Charlotte and Henry play out the drama of migration and separation between England and Australia.
One nation is predictably damp, the other is advertised as – and turns out to be – dry. One spouse is capable of seeming sure about the family journey, the other is troubled by being placed in that dilemma, so the author has them take up weather watching instead of communicating.
The dynamic raises plenty of questions: How long have they existed this way? Was it their parenthood, their different homelands and cultures, their careers or their entire generation that brought on the angst?
In exploring what she reveals in the acknowledgements as her grandparents’ story, Stephanie Bishop has either cleverly created a couple whose thought processes are so similar that even their inner voices are the same, or she’s failed readers significantly by making them so.
The result is two characters so frustratingly parallel that if they’d only talk to one another instead of watching the skies and the foliage, there’d be a sense of belonging that they seem to seek… and probably nothing more than a happy tale of life in an English cottage.
“She casts her mind and her voice back into her ancestry and reads the conditions.”
There is a scene in that place – the breakage of a precious object not long before the family departs for Australia – that I found comical and familiar enough to engage me, yet so poignant as to be painful. I felt in solid writerly hands here (there were no passages on the weather, for once, but great insights into the way families fit into houses), yet the solidity quickly vanished and we landed back in more abstract meteorological territory.
Similarly, when Bishop places Henry unexpectedly in his homeland, the descriptions of the places, the walls, the fabric, the people – not the weather – evoke a sense of chosen permanence that is engaging and insightful.
In a less page-turning way as Tim Winton’s The Riders, but every bit as inexplicably, Bishop avoids a story with easy and clear resolutions. Sometimes this is frustrating, but I was left with the sense that Bishop’s family has no explanation for their real-life, enduring mystery.
There are great stories to be told in this space, but they need more solidity and less abstraction to engage readers who want to see connections.
Bishop’s novel is set in the 1960s, but apart from the absence of mobile phones and computer games as a means to placate needy kids, there is almost nothing that places the characters in their time. Henry and Charlotte seem removed from time altogether.
Except Charlotte’s reality, as several members of the book club I read with were swift to point out: a married mother in 1960s Australia had little respite from her children’s demands.
This was perhaps another intention of the writer, but it’s this time disconnect that has led many readers to question Charlotte’s choices – she seems to exist in a more modern period where she has options, whereas Bishop has attempted to portray a woman who is challenged by motherhood at a time when that struggle was deeply misunderstood and seen as a complete aberration.
This book reminded me of my own family mysteries, also wrapped up in motherhood, loss, pain and migration. I kept reading because I felt there might be insights for me, but apart from the sense that children eventually grow up to realise our parents are human, not all-knowing and capable of protecting us from anything, Bishop doesn’t unravel the knot.
She casts her mind and her voice back into her ancestry and reads the conditions. When she finds little detail, she looks to the skies, and the prevailing weather makes for a cloudier story than it needed to be.
UNDER the general theme of ‘belonging’, the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival (BWF) set itself up with few boundaries, and writers have been rushing to traverse the intentionally unfenced territory across the city.
“We were inside the building. We belonged, inasmuch as new students belong in new classrooms when they change schools.”
As an independently published author, I was pleased to find the door open to my memoir, which has national significance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex (LGBTI) equality movement. It was written in Queensland about the battle to maintain my next-of-kin status after the death of my same-sex spouse in New South Wales in 2004.
But my indie book about stigma – Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love– has been regularly stigmatised across its first twelve months in print. Locked out of traditional publication and several literary events, awards and festivals, it nevertheless made it into BWF through the generosity of director and CEO Julie Beveridge.
On opening night, emboldened by a glass of quality wine and rallied by a brilliant welcome to country, my husband Richard and I managed to be the first to meet Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk as she left the stage.
The Premier was generous with her time, listening to my thoughts on independent publishing and allowing us to update her on the national marriage equality campaign. It was indeed a privilege to have her interest and spark a few new ideas about the future of publishing – and marriage – in Australia.
I am my book, it seems. Where it gets access, I follow.
Turning to crime
The next day, journalist and author Caroline Overington came to Wynnum Library in my part of the world – Brisbane’s Bayside – to talk about her latest psychological thriller The One Who Got Away.
Overington immediately engaged and challenged her audience, noting there were just a few men in a crowd of women. I laughed with the other guys. I reckon we knew we were not the typical Overington crowd. It’s her journalism I find plenty in common with, and what the heck, I was there to support the festival that supports me and comes to my doorstep. Who am I to be picky?
Caroline proved a very disarming presenter on the deadly issue of crime, explaining how coverage of two crucial Queensland legal cases – the trials of Gerard Baden-Clay and Brett Peter Cowan – led her deeper into fiction writing than she’d ventured before.
Her reason? As the author, she gets to ensure the perpetrator “really gets it”. We all laughed, but it was a knowing ripple, considering the way the legal system all too often works in real life.
I was the one who got away when I had to rush from Caroline’s session into the city to appear on a BWF panel discussion at the State Library of Queensland.
Crying into my book
The LGBTI-themed ‘The Right to Belong’ was something of an experiment, giving oxygen to themes Julie Beveridge told me BWF had often been asked about.
We each presented our titles, all non-fiction dealing mainly with the national struggle to maintain LGBTI identity in the face of legal and cultural oppression.
Faulkner and Hardy’s works document through images and words some critical LGBTI histories, particularly Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen years. They are groundbreaking in their scope.
I had not planned my appearance but had a short section of my book to read if the mood took me. Just before I began to speak, Heather read a letter from a friend who couldn’t be there.
That gentle and powerful message tipped me over the edge almost immediately, and I struggled to recover. My late partner’s death was 12 years ago, but the echoes of the struggle to honour our relationship without him still run very deep. The chances that our story would never reach anyone because of the crippling impact on me, the vessel of the story, were all too relevant in the light of the other authors’ work.
Wondering what on earth I had done by blubbering my way through an extract about the day I gave a live submission to the Human Rights Commission a decade ago, I thanked the audience for letting me come to share part of my story.
In it, she called-out Shriver (author of We Need to Talk About Kevin), describing the first 20 minutes of the speech as: “A monologue about the right to exploit the stories of ‘others’, simply because it is useful for one’s story.”
This has been an issue for many Australian writers – me included – for more than a decade.
“I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point,” Abdel-Magied wrote.
Cue my right to belong in this argument.
The event that saw three Queensland-based LGBTI authors discuss our work had not been the classic writer’s festival offering.
Authors and audience blended. LGBTI had come to see their own. They asked questions of us and we of them. There were no celebrities and plenty of spare seats.
We were inside the building. We belonged, inasmuch as new students belong in new classrooms when they change schools. It’s an incredible honour, yet there’s a sense that it’s very embryonic.
One of the questions from the floor urged we panelists into some much-needed future thinking: how does the LGBTI community open itself to the kind of mainstream attention that engages the publishing economy in the book and media trade to back us?
The answer relies on readers ‘walking out’ on the kind of media and publishing that marginalises LGBTI stories, and finding us regardless. It also relies on people finding their way to writer talks that might not interest them at first glance.
Within the same 24-hour period, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and I had done just that.
I am not my next book
Caroline Overington and I had the briefest of conversations about books for, by and about women, particularly in Australia.
“I don’t believe I will leave a mark in territory I do not already inhabit or have to fake.”
I was engaged because I am venturing into territory that Lionel Shriver tells me I have a right to enter, and Yasmin Abdel-Magied suggests I do not: creating a 19th century, Irish-born, female protagonist based on the life of a real woman in Colonial NSW whose unique achievements left almost no trace.
Shriver’s point – that fiction writers fake it anyway, so why should there be a limit? – is valid up to the line that Abdel-Magied drew in the sand so effectively in her response.
Access to publication for genuine voices must precede the “colonisation” of identity with inauthentic fictional voices, no matter how effective or sincere.
But I would add there has never been a better time for those voices to reach audiences through independent publication regardless of the notion of access. I’m living proof that if they’re loud and genuine enough, such voices are increasingly being heard.
I am writing a book that is not me.
As a gay, Anglo-Saxon, Australian man with a Maori great grandfather, I don’t believe I will leave a mark in territory I do not already inhabit or have to fake. Inequality is an overriding theme in my writing; it’s a roughly hewn stone with as many slices taken out of it as there are writers.
As someone who may be required to independently publish it, I am keen to write something popular. If that takes artful, empathetic imagination and skill, then so be it.