Monthly Archives: February 2013

Book review: Elsewhere in Success, by Iris Lavell

9781921888540_ELSEWHEREINSUCCESS_WEBElsewhere in Success begins with a little vignette: Harry and Louisa hear that a previous owner of their suburban house buried a lawnmower in the back garden, and Harry decides to dig it up. Louisa would rather he didn’t. It’s a bizarre and telling image. The notion of burying is richly suggestive of drama and mystery—buried bodies, buried secrets—and here the item being dug up is that terribly ordinary suburban artefact, the lawnmower. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the territory of this novel. For the idea that we can never tell what lies beneath the surface of ordinary lives, ordinary hopes and dreams, ordinary quotidian existence. And for the drama of the ordinary itself.

Harry and Louisa are a baby-boomer couple who come together in middle life, both of them carrying the baggage of previous relationships. It is a surprising and hopeful merging of two lives, but the relationship is derailed in its infancy by the death of Louisa’s son, Tom, which leaves her struggling with grief and depression. Now, some years later, they are unsure of what they want and what the future holds for them.

Lavell, a debut novelist and a psychologist, handles the darker themes of the novel well. I found it hard to read a couple of chilling scenes involving domestic violence and the debasement of women, and it is the mark of a fine writer that these episodes derive their power through restraint, through under-statement.

‘I love you,’ he’d say, while she cowered on the floor, humiliated, bleeding. The kids always seemed to be somewhere else, in their rooms asleep. She would try to be damaged quietly so she didn’t wake them up.

Male violence circles this novel, threading through the lives of several characters and across generations in the form of abusive husbands and fathers, war, and casual cruelty.

This is not, however, an overwhelmingly dark novel. There is a lot of humour to be enjoyed, and the characters’ ability to laugh at themselves is endearing. Louisa’s wry, gentle humour is a foil to Harry’s—brash, obvious and often infantile. As he observes at a neighbourhood get-together:

There is plenty of rough banter, accompanied by laughter, a common language of what it is that constitutes acceptable humour. It’s hard-hitting but never nasty. Life’s not easy but with loud enough laughter you can get through just about everything.

Well, maybe!

Elsewhere in Success is a gentle, compassionate, funny novel that takes us on a journey almost without leaving the house. It is a contemporary story underscored by the grief of loss and the grief of ageing. It reminds us that ‘ordinary’ does not mean ‘simple’—or perhaps just that there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

Elsewhere in Success, by Iris Lavell (Fremantle Press, 2013)

ISBN 9781921888540

This review counts towards my total for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.awwbadge_2013

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Reasons to love a novel: voice

Tomorrow I am going to see a session at the Perth Writers Festival featuring visiting superstar author Margaret Atwood. It reminds me how much I loved her novel The Blind Assassin—and that one of the reasons I loved it was its voice.

The voice of a novel is an elusive thing to define. It takes in things like point of view, psychic distance between writer and reader, syntax and language, imagery, metaphor. I once heard an editor describe it as ‘the author on a plate’—presumably because those choices are an extension of the writer’s own personality. But if that were true, all the novels written by a particular author would have the same voice, and what drives an author to make such decisions may be more to do with the material—what it seems to want, or need—than with the writer her/himself. Still, it’s the writer making that judgment of what is needed, so perhaps there’s something in this.

Coincidentally, three of the novels I love for their voice are written in the first person—quashing (for me, anyway) Henry James’s view that use of the first person in a long work of fiction is ‘barbaric’! (Very comforting, too, given three-quarters of my forthcoming novel, Elemental, is a first-person narrative.) Here is the first we hear from the acerbic, enigmatic Iris Chase in The Blind Assassin:

78433Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.

And Chris Cleave’s unnamed grieving mother in Incendiary (subtitled A novel of unbearable devastation and unbounded love):

701738Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop. Well I wouldn’t know about that I mean rock n roll didn’t stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse. Next thing you know there was Sonny & Cher and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I’ll come to them later. My point is it’s easier to start these things than to finish them. I suppose you thought of that did you?

And the third is the sometimes capricious, sometimes caustic, always unflinching voice of Nora Porteous in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River:

1236307I arrive at the house wearing a suit—greyish, it doesn’t matter. It is wool because even in these subtropical places spring afternoons can be cold. I am wearing a plain felt hat with a brim, and my bi-focal spectacles with the chain attached. I am not wearing the gloves Fred gave me because I have left them behind in the car, but I don’t know that yet.

Ah, so many reasons to fall in love with a novel… more later. And I’d love to hear yours.

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(Up and) down time

I read an article today that suggested ‘the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less’. A provocative hook but the article’s message was simple: take a break. The writer advocates, among other things, working in 90-minutes intervals, giving yourself breaks for renewal of energy in between:

Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.

Well, yes. I know that. We all know that. But in practice? Perhaps I’ll give the 90-minute work bursts idea a try, with a leisurely pot of Earl Grey and an imaginary walk in between. Why imaginary? Read on …

In my first blog post I wrote the following, an observation by a character-in-progress from a novella-in-progress:

When you reach an age—you’ll know it when it comes—looking forward won’t do. Looking back, if you let it, can consume every breath you take. But looking up, looking down …  it’s here, in these oblique moments, that we truly live, where it’s possible to find joy.

Sitting here in Perth on a scorching February day—34 degrees before 9am—I have to confess that if I was to take my own advice literally, I’d be seeing not much more than the jarrah ceiling beams of my studio and the worn rug on the floor. But I can take the reminder as it was intended—beyond the literal—as 2013 cranks up its pace a few notches. Pause. Feel. Listen. See.

For now, here are a couple of Paris Blues, looking up/looking down images of the literal kind. Stay cool (or warm if you’re in the northern hemisphere)!

DSCN1869DSCN2482

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