Category Archives: Reasons to love a novel

Reasons to love a novel: issues and empathy

When I was writing the novel that eventually was published as The Sinkings (2008), I used to become anxious whenever anyone asked me that dreaded question What’s it about? It wasn’t that I was trying to keep it a secret, nor that I was lacking in focus. But I believe it can be creatively disastrous to talk too much about a work still in development; that it can have the effect of closing off what is, and should remain for some time, an open question. My novel was ‘about’ many things, and I didn’t have a neat one-sentence answer handy. (Come to think of it, I still need more than one sentence to describe The Sinkings!)

I remember, one time, mumbling, Oh, it’s about a convict. And, another time, mentioning intersex. In the latter case, the person I was talking to responded, Oh, so it’s an issues novel.

An issues novel. I don’t think I’d heard that term before, but I immediately understood what my friend meant. I’d read novels that position a medical condition or a current controversy or a matter of social justice front and centre, with everything else—characters, relationships, place, dramatic arc—almost incidental to that, there merely as a vehicle for the big ‘about’.

The Sinkings isn’t like that. But it does—among other things—explore the black, white and many greys of an ‘issue’, and that kind of exploration is one of the things that inspire me as a writer. And I realise, too, that it’s something I find compelling as a reader.

I love the capacity of fiction to spirit us, emotionally and intellectually, into the skin of other characters, to worry for the impossible situations writers have put them in, to feel their dilemmas for ourselves, to wonder: Why did this happen? What if I were that person, in that time, that place, that situation… would I have done that? What would I do?

The experience of falling into the universe of a book, and into the skin of the other, can help us to understand, to think, to feel, and when people do that they are far less likely to fear or to denigrate. In other words, it can engender empathy.

My reading in 2013 brought me to several impressive books that did exactly that. In this post I’m highlighting two of them.

In her hugely successful debut novel, Fractured, Dawn Barker gives a compassionate portrayal of a family pulled to pieces by a young woman’s severe postpartum mental illness. The beauty of the way Fractured is structured, moving forwards and backwards from a pivotal event, is that cause and effect are kept in suspension, layering the reader’s means of understanding the how and the why. Similarly, the narrative point of view is continually shifting, so that we see what is happening through the eyes of the young mother, Anna, her husband, Tony, her parents-in-law and her mother—a strategy that tends to keep the reader’s allegiances also shifting, making judgment impossible. This extract is from Anna’s point of view.

fractured coverAs soon as Anna sat down in the waiting room, Jack began to cry. Just give me a break, she wanted to shout. Just shut up for five minutes. I can’t do this. But, of course, she didn’t shout. She stood up and pushed the pram back and forward, back and forward. The lady sitting across from her was trying to catch her eye; Anna felt obliged to meet it.

‘Aww, he’s so little! How old is he?’ The woman leaned over to see into the pram.

‘He’s four weeks,’ she said with a slight smile, then turned away.

‘He’s so beautiful.’ Now the woman’s head was right inside the pram. ‘Hello, gorgeous boy. What’s the matter with you? Are you hungry?’

‘No, he’s not,’ she said. ‘He’s just crying. That’s what babies do.’

The stranger raised her eyebrows and went back to her magazine.

‘Sorry,’ Anna mumbled. Her face burned. She didn’t want to cry, not here, in front of everyone. She sat down and took a deep breath, but she couldn’t get enough air. Her lips and fingers tingled. That woman was staring at her, but her face was blurred around the edges and white flashes exploded in front of Anna’s eyes. Was the woman laughing at her? She gripped the arms of her chair with her numb fingers and hoped she was smiling.

—Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl—also a debut—is one of the most confronting novels I’ve read in a while, plunging me into what is now an alien world, but which of course was once (a long time ago!) my world: that of an adolescent girl. Fourteen-year-old Layla is an impressively drawn character—intelligent, sexually precocious, terribly vulnerable. Her story is given nuance and context by those of two adult characters—her mother, Margot, who is struggling with lonely middle age, and an unrelated Japanese man, Tadashi, who has a disturbing sexual fetish. just_a_girl is a powerful, and often uncomfortable, look at contemporary culture, with Layla at the heart of it, as subject and object, as confirmation and contradiction. Living, for the duration of the novel, in Layla’s skin made me reflect that it has possibly always been so with teenage girls, and to feel compassion for both the girl beneath the armour and the armour itself.

Here is part of the opening passage:

justagirl_web_mainEdnThe guy formerly known as youamizz told me he’d be wearing a red Strokes t-shirt. I see him from the train as it pulls in at Newcastle. He’s not bad enough to make me run away. But he’s older than I thought. Old enough to be my … maybe. He looks average but also kinda sweet when he spots me. He’s got a pretty hot bod. His smile lights me up. I can feel him framing me. Sizing me up as I swing towards him. I’m in my poxy school uniform. As I always am when mum drops me off at the station heading to granny’s. Mum doesn’t handle change. She gets suspicious. I went to put on my jeans and boots in the train toilet. But I opened the door to the puddles and stench and just thought, fuck it. At least he already knows.

He takes my hand. Kisses me on the cheek. Laughs and we’re away. He’s just as funny in real life. I relax and sit on the wharf and he buys me hot chips. We check into a hotel down on the water at Honeysuckle. The concierge asks if he requires an extra trundle bed for me.

—Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (UWA Publishing, 2013)

Fractured was one of the most reviewed novels in the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Hill has just posted an excellent review of just_a_girl.

33 Comments

Filed under Reasons to love a novel

Reasons to love a novel: community

I’ve just finished reading an e-book that has reminded me of another of those things a novel can do so well: create a community within the pages (or screen views) of a book. By that I mean the combination of place, characters and social world that a community is—but also a sense of community, of something shared among people who occupy the same space, whether the source of that something lies in the past, the present or even the future. When you, as a reader, become immersed in how those characters fit together in that place, the way their world works, the values that determine who belongs and who doesn’t, you almost start to feel you belong yourself, or at least know whose sofa you’d be sleeping on if you did.

The book I’ve just read is Marlish Glorie’s second novel, Sea Dog Hotel (2013), and the community, located in the fictional West Australian wheatbelt town of Nyacoppin, is centred around the eponymous hotel. Enter two outsiders: Ruth, a woman whose brain is ‘permanently broken’, and her longsuffering daughter, Grace. They arrive in Nyacoppin as new owners of the Sea Dog Hotel, the latest destination in a long series of disappointing ‘new starts’ in Ruth’s relentless search for the place where happiness lives.

Nyacoppin’s residents all seem to be broken, one way or another, and the town itself is built on marginal land, ‘a place where farms shouldn’t be, but were.’ But Marlish Glorie constructs, from these unprepossessing elements, a compelling fictional world—a community—where there are secrets, jealousies, nurturing, swindling, tragedy, bullshit, respect, love. And at the heart of it is the Sea Dog Hotel.

In this exchange, Ruth and Grace meet the woman who is the Sea Dog’s manager, cook, bartender, and (shifty) accountant:

18627596The woman viewed Ruth with amusement. ‘My name’s Faith and I know every single person in Nyacoppin. All eighty. You ain’t any one of them. We never get tourists. So, you two have either lost your way, or you’re the new owners.’

‘New owners,’ declared Ruth, clapping her hands together and then leaning against the bar. ‘What a beautiful town you have here.’

Faith looked at Ruth suspiciously, trying to calculate if she was being sarcastic or polite. Either way, she didn’t like a newcomer telling her what Nyacoppin was like. It was best to shoot her down before she got too uppity. ‘This town is a shithole. But it’s our shithole.’

Ruth was mystified, convinced she had said the right thing. Grace suppressed a smile; someone else didn’t give a damn about her mother’s new start.

Marlish Glorie’s compassionate, often humorous novel is more than a story of a collection of colourful, quirky characters in a colourless, quirky town: it is a story of brokenness and redemption.

I have also recently read P.A. O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust (2012), a novel set in a different kind of rural town. Gunapan is the kind of place where the nearest hospital is more than half an hour away, the primary school is being threatened with closure, and the council is doing deals with developers that benefit wealthy out-of-towners and not the struggling majority of the population.

O’Reilly’s first-person narrator, Loretta Boskovic, is a deserted single mother with two kids, two goats, a swag of women friends, a fairy godfather in the form of old Norm, the junkyard man, and a crush on the newly arrived mechanic. She is also head of the Save Our School committee and the Sod Off Development committee—an all-round annoyance to the upper strata of Gunapan’s community and those who belong to its corrupt council.

I love this paragraph for its comedy and for what it tells us—in the space of 170 words—about Loretta, her inner life, her community and the contours of her world:

12914567Melissa’s a mature eleven-year-old, but I am convinced that if I leave her alone in the house for more than twenty minutes a spectacular disaster will happen and she’ll die and I’ll be tortured by guilt for the rest of my life. I’ve pictured the LP gas tanks exploding, the blue gum tree in the yard toppling on to the house, a brown snake slithering out of a kitchen cupboard. Of course, any of those things could happen while I’m at home too, but I would have no guilt factor. The guilt factor means I may never have sex again, because attractive men looking for a good time rarely drop in spontaneously at my house. On the other hand, it has saved me from many of Helen’s girls’ nights, involving outings to pubs that the same attractive men looking for a good time never visit. I was also lucky enough to miss Helen’s ladies-only party where an enthusiastic twenty-year-old tried to sell dildoes and crotchless panties to astonished Gunapan farm wives.

Sea Dog Hotel and The Fine Colour of Rust welcomed me in to their communities, and I felt a punch of loss when it was time to leave.

Marlish Glorie’s first novel was The Bookshop on Jacaranda Street (Fremantle Press, 2009).

P.A. O’Reilly has published (as Paddy O’Reilly) The Factory (Thompson Walker, 2005) and The End of the World (UQP, 2008).

13 Comments

Filed under Reasons to love a novel

Reasons to love a novel: the wise child

I have just finished reading Chris Womersley’s 2010 novel Bereft, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and in the same year won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Indie Award for Fiction. I was late in coming to this one, but I now join the horde of admirers of this brilliant novel that fits into what I’m beginning to think of as a small sub-genre of Australian literary fiction: Australian historical gothic. I would put Courtney Collins’s The Burial (my review here) into this cluster. At a pinch (because it’s a hybrid of historical and contemporary), The Sinkings might find a place there too.

There are so many things to love about Bereft, but perhaps the greatest of these, for me, is the mysterious orphan child, Sadie Fox, a character who takes on the archetypal role of helper, appearing almost by magic to aid the journey of the novel’s protagonist, Quinn Walker. Quinn, returning from the trenches of World War I as a ‘hero’ but in many ways barely more than a boy himself, is drawn back to the hometown from which he fled ten years earlier after the rape and murder of his young sister. But it is a dangerous return, as Quinn is believed to have committed this horrific crime. He hides in the surrounding hills, observing what is left of the home of his past, venturing down to visit his dying mother. Enter the child Sadie, also hiding from those in town who would do her harm—Sadie, whose practical knowledge and almost preternatural wisdom will be the difference between life and death for Quinn.

bereft_B finalcrop‘What happened to your face?’

Quinn blushed and kicked at the edges of the fire. ‘The war. I got injured.’

‘I always live up here. I live in these hills.’

Quinn doubted this boast, but nodded by way of answer. He had wandered these ranges as a boy and knew there was little here apart from boulders and bushes, the dark and disordered press of trees. No people lived up here now the miners had gone.

The girl licked her lips. ‘I have a house. A whole house, hidden away where no one can find it.’ She looked inordinately pleased to have told Quinn this and said nothing more for a few minutes, before standing to stretch and yawn. Now she was upright, Quinn could see she was a bony cat of a girl, all angles and joints. ‘But you never answered my question.’

‘What question?’

‘Why are you up here when your house is down there?’

‘How do you know where I used to live?’

Her smile was thin-lipped, as if what she prepared to reveal pained her. ‘I know all sorts of things.’

—Chris Womersley, Bereft (2010)

I suspect Sadie is going to be one of those characters who remain with me for a long time.

Thinking about Sadie and her role in Bereft brought to mind another novel with a ‘wise child’ character who, in a very different way, helps, guides, saves. Who recognises—and is it not recognition that sometimes saves us?

Selena, in Natasha Lester’s T.A.G. Hungerford Award winner, What Is Left Over, After, is a far more realist character than the otherworldly Sadie, but she is no less memorable for that. Loud, larger than life, disarmingly vulnerable, thirteen-year-old Selena foists her company onto the grieving, reclusive Gaelle, a young woman who has fled her home to a seaside town on the other side of Australia. Selena’s curiosity and blunt questions draw Gaelle, at first reluctantly, into a storytelling of mothers and motherhood, fabrication and truth.

whatisleftoverafterSelena stops just before we reach her house and turns to me, cheeks flushed, eyes bright against the dusk.

‘Take a photo of me now, Gaelle,’ she says, and takes off again, riding around in a circle, arms lifted off the handlebars, grinning.

And even though it’s a pose of the worst kind, I pull the camera out of my backpack, move closer to her and use the difference between what I see in the viewing lens and what the film will see in the taking lens to misalign her head and shoulders. I want the error. The detachment. The vanished body.

After the flash fades, Selena turns her bike towards home. Then she stops. ‘Do you have kids, Gaelle?’

‘Yes. One. She’s just a baby.’

‘I thought you did.’ She cycles away, waving.

‘Why?’ I start to ask, but stop. She moves too quickly on her bike; she cannot hear me now. The words come out anyway, in a whisper. ‘Why did you think that?’ She could tell that I was a mother. Why is she the only one who can?

—Natasha Lester, What Is Left Over, After (2010)

Coincidentally, a novel I am currently editing, for a Western Australian publisher and author, has among its cast of characters a wise child who is breaking my heart. I look forward to being able to tell you about that one in 2014.

13 Comments

Filed under Reasons to love a novel

Reasons to love a novel: beginnings

I love the feeling of entry into a novel, the sense of being drawn into a world, a life, a relationship, a story. If a writer succeeds in doing this in the first few paragraphs, then I am usually hooked for the duration; I am already reading with goodwill—wanting to like, or love, the story the writer has promised me.

There are many ways this can be achieved, and the fine examples below use different narrative techniques. But I’m struck by how often a good beginning seems to contain within it a sliver of the whole, a glimpse of all that is to come, sometimes even a shadow of the ending in these first few lines. Of course, you don’t fully realise this until you have finished the novel, and that realisation brings yet another pleasure—and a deep satisfaction—to the reading experience.

Another reason to love a novel.

9781921361920_THELASTSKY_NEWEDITIONMy husband told me a story about buildings before we came here. In the central district the old Hongkong and Shanghai Bank looms proudly above the other buildings, full of British bankers and rich Americans. When the People’s Bank of China built their rival headquarters several blocks away they designed the top of the tower to look like a knife’s edge thrusting towards the British bank. It was no accident, Joseph laughed. In Hong Kong nothing was left to simmer under the surface.

It must have been during those first December days that he told me the story, before he got caught up in the suspended time of the interior. Perhaps on one of the days we walked together up a mountain path and saw the vista of islands rising up from the China Sea, curving smoothly out of the green glassiness like the contours of a body, the mist of early morning a canopy against the blue of the sky. We looked at one another, each about to say something, our double gasp of awe fading in the air.

It was these luminous moments, rescued from days of waiting and silence, that I was trying to hold on to.

—Alice Nelson, The Last Sky (Fremantle Press, 2008)

howtobeagoodwife coverToday, somehow, I am a smoker.

I did not know this about myself. As far as I remember, I have never smoked before.

It feels unnatural, ill-fitting, for a woman of my age: a wife, a mother with a grown-up son, to sit in the middle of the day with a cigarette between her fingers. Hector hates smoking. He always coughs sharply when we walk behind someone smoking on the street, and I imagine his vocal cords rubbing together, moist and pink like chicken flesh.

—Emma Chapman, How to Be a Good Wife (Picador, 2013)

9781741666632A whisper: sssshh. The thinnest vehicle of breath.

This is a story that can only be told in a whisper.

There is a hush to difficult forms of knowing, an abashment, a sorrow, an inclination towards silence. My throat is misshapen with all it now carries. My heart is a sour, indolent fruit. I think the muzzle of time has made me thus, has deformed my mouth, my voice, my wanting to say. At first there was just this single image: her dress, the particular blue of hydrangeas, spattered with the purple of my father’s blood. She rose up from the floor into this lucid figure, unseemly, but oh! vivacious with gore. I remember I clung to her, that we were alert and knowing. There might have been a snake in the house, for all our watchful attention.

‘Don’t tell them,’ she said. That was all: don’t tell them.

—Gail Jones, Sorry (Vintage, 2007)

1 Comment

Filed under Reasons to love a novel

Reasons to love a novel: discovery

Have you ever finished a novel and realised that you’ve learned something new, or understood something you’d only barely grasped before? I love the capacity of a novel to open my eyes in this way.

There is a qualitative difference, of course, between a writer who imparts information in the service of plot and one who lives inside its world and then makes their experience of that world accessible to readers. You might discover something new from both, but good novelists take you there and make you feel.

Here are three who achieve this.

Sara Foster’s Shallow Breath, a psychological thriller with an animal conservation theme, made me weep more than once. Dolphins, in one way or another, shape the life of Shallow Breath’s main character, Desi—a childhood encounter with a wild dolphin, her work with the performing dolphins at Atlantis Marine Park (long-defunct) in Perth’s northern suburbs, her witnessing of the horror of the Taji dolphin hunt in Japan. I knew nothing of the award-winning documentary film The Cove (2010), which investigates Japan’s dolphin industry (and which is referred to in Shallow Breath), so this was new territory for me.

 imagesAt that point, to Kate’s surprise, another group of people had arrived. ‘The trainers,’ the same girl murmured disgustedly. ‘Hand-selecting the prettiest dolphins for a life of captivity, and turning their backs on the dying cries of the rest. This is where the real money is. This is why they do it. A dolphin to be eaten is worth six hundred dollars. A dolphin to be saved, and petted, and ogled is worth more like a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They are sent all over the world. A dolphin in a show might well have endured this or something similar to get there. ‘Shame!’ she suddenly turns and screams towards the trainers, and Kate jumps at the rawness in her voice, a mix of pain and anger and devastation. ‘Shame on you all! Shame!

But the group ignores her, and gets to work.

—Sara Foster, Shallow Breath (Bantam, 2012)

The Winter Vault, the stunning second novel of Canadian poet Anne Michaels, is the story of a marriage torn asunder by grief, and also the story of peoples and nations displaced from land and home. It begins with the drowning of land to dam the Nile in the 1960s—a history I was aware of only vaguely, and only in the sense of being aware of a fact, something I might have read in an encyclopaedia. The Winter Vault, as well as teaching me more about this history, gave me cause to imagine what it might feel like to see one’s birthplace literally disappear.

4682252Before the building of the High Dam at Aswan in the 1960s, a small dam was constructed, and its height was raised twice—ten, then twenty years later, the villages of lower Nubia, the fertile islands, and the date forests were drowned. Each time, the villagers moved to higher ground to rebuild. And so began the labour migration of Nubian men to Cairo, Khartoum, London. The women, with their long, loosely woven black gargaras trailing in the sand, erasing their footprints, took over the harvesting and marketing of the crops. They pollinated the date palms, cared for their family’s property, and tended the livestock. Men returned from the city to be married, to attend funerals, to claim their share of the harvest. And some returned in 1964 to join their families when, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cement and steel, and millions of rivets, a lake was built in the desert. Nubia in its entirety—one hundred and twenty thousand villagers, their homes, land, and meticulously tended ancient groves, and many hundreds of archaeological sites—vanished. Even a river can drown; vanished too, under the waters of Lake Nasser, was the Nubians’ river, their Nile, which had flowed through every ritual of their daily life, had guided their philosophical thought, and had blessed the birth of every Nubian child for more than five thousand years.

—Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (Bloomsbury, 2009)

As a writer, I have always been interested in obsession and addiction, and in the course of research I’ve read a lot about various disorders such as bulimia and cutting. However, until I read Dianne Touchell’s young-adult novel Creepy & Maud (recently shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year for older readers), I had never heard of trichotillomania.

E-9781921888953_AMAZONUKKINDLE … it’s Maud’s hair pulling that I love the most. Her fingers are thin and white and her hair quite wiry. I know I’m supposed to say something like: ‘and her hair is spun like gold ablaze in the lamplight with an incendiary burnish.’ But most days it really looks like it could do with a good brush. She winds lengths of her hair around one finger (usually an index or middle finger) and then pulls quite hard, letting the hair slide down and off the finger in a smooth ringlet. I can feel my own scalp tingling, just thinking about it. Sometimes she pulls really hard, and thick strands come away in her fingers and she flaps her hands wildly as if they are covered in cobweb. I find myself breathing through my mouth, watching her.

It’s called trichotillomania. I didn’t know that at first. It wasn’t until I noticed her pulling all her hair that I did some research. And I do mean all. At first I got really excited when she slipped a hand inside her knickers. I’ve never seen a girl do that before. But it didn’t take me long to realise there wasn’t a lot of pleasure involved, just concentration. And that same hand flapping. Well, I guess she’ll never have to wax. Once I watched her sitting in front of her mirror, tears streaming down her face, as she pulled out her eyelashes.

—Dianne Touchell, Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012)

The novel as encyclopaedia? Of course not. And I’m certainly not making claims for fiction as superior to history. But in reading a novel, in becoming immersed in its world and the lives of its characters, we can also discover something new by default, and for me it’s another reason to love it.

12 Comments

Filed under Reasons to love a novel

Reasons to love a novel: sense of place

I love being taken somewhere else, somewhere unknown, when I read a novel—whether that journey is geographical or, in the case of historical fiction, temporal (often it’s both). I also love reliving, through a novel, the experience of a somewhere-else I do know, comparing notes with the characters—their impressions, their interactions. And there is a special thrill in finding your own place in the world you are reading about.

The following extracts give us the perceptions of characters who are strangers to a new place, and it occurs to me that the well-used expression sense of place is particularly apt in thinking about how these writers succeed in taking us there: sight, smell, sound, touch, taste.

Although I’ve not yet made it to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia—a rare cool-climate pocket of South-East Asia—or Dubrovnik or Moscow, all three are on my list of places to visit, and it’s partly thanks to these beautiful novels. I can’t help feeling that when I do, I will be unconsciously searching the streets, the clouds, for a glimpse of the Eurasian Ghislaine de Sequeira looking for herself in the space between Tudor guesthouses and her uncle’s house, or the wide-eyed traveller Rosa, or Hannah showered in ice crystals.

6509137The house clung to the curve of a hill that overlooked a valley about halfway up the highlands, between the kampongs in the dust of the foothills and the clouds. Above the clouds were the rose gardens and the tennis courts, strawberry farms and mock-Tudor guesthouses where the English expatriates spent their holidays. Ghislaine strained her eyes looking for a gap in the clouds. There, in the very spine of Malaya, on the other side of the cloud, were so many ideas of England. Standing on the verandah of Journey’s End, Ghislaine was struck by the distance between herself and these ideas. She sat and felt another wave of cold sweat wash over her. She smelled the white flowers stiff as wax and fragrant as coconut rice that grew in the bed against the verandah, but did not know their name.

—Simone Lazaroo, The Travel Writer

crewAlong by the sea is a city of stone with columns and statues and marble stairs and salt in the air. It is a walled city and the road winds around the perimeter and sugary parcels fall from the fig trees. They rot sweetly all around the limestone walls and on pink-veined marble. It is silent and a salty breeze blows.

I am facing the great white walls of Dubrovnik, a fortress-city that clings to the floor of the sea. I walk across the drawbridge, under a pale guardian saint that stands over the Gate of Pilê and into a portal of steps. This is an ancient city. I stand in a dip worn into the marble step. The stone is almost conscious, exhales its history into the soles of my feet. My breath is distinct, this is just the beginning, I will stand upon history all over Europe. I can hardly wait, the thrill of it shakes inside me.

—Donna Mazza, The Albanian

9780646496610_frontcover.jpeg.jpgGorky Park in winter, under snow. She tried to take a picture with her camera, but it was so cold the mechanism refused to work—as did the hand she had exposed for some minutes. They sat on a wooden bench in the park. It was so beautiful, so cold, that for some minutes they were wordless.

Their eyes traced the rise and fall of snow mounds in the park. Here a splash of colour thrown off by the carousel, there the stark black spindles of a tree. Two figures flashed past them, arm-in-arm, cut across the ice, then were gone in a spray of ice crystals.

K. Overman-Edmiston, The Avenue of Eternal Tranquillity

14 Comments

Filed under Reasons to love a novel

Reasons to love a novel: imagery

Sometimes a writer will create a mental picture so compelling that it seems, in its beauty or its depth or its tenderness, or its raw, shocking slap, to open up a neural pathway, connecting me to something never before felt, or seen, or heard. It changes the way I am wired. It writes itself on my memory. It becomes permanently implicated in all of the reasons I love to read and want to write. I always wish I’d written it myself. I always feel—as my friend Marlish Glorie said recently of Annie Proulx—grateful that such writers exist.

Here are three images I love, from books I love:

419MMJTJS6L._SY300_This is what she had seen, earlier that day: An Indian man had been climbing the bamboo scaffolding of one of the high colonial buildings, with a large mirror bound to his body by a piece of cloth. His white dhoti was flapping and his orange turban was atilt, and he hauled himself with confidence from level to precarious level—altogether a fellow who knew what he was doing—when some particular gust or alarum that carried the dimension of fate caused him to misjudge his footing and fall through the air. Because he could not release the mirror, but clutched at it as though it was a magic carpet, he landed in the midst of its utter shattering, and was speared through the chest. The quantity of blood was astounding. It spurted everywhere. But what Lucy noticed most—when she rushed close to offer assistance along with everyone else—was that the mirror continued its shiny business: its jagged shapes still held the world it existed in, and bits and pieces of sliced India still glanced on its surface. Tiny shocked faces lined along the spear, compressed there, contained, assembled as if for a lens. She simply couldn’t help herself: she thought of a photograph.

—Gail Jones, Sixty Lights

resized_9781741140651_224_297_FitSquareI would not wish for you to think that I was a nice child. I was not. Mother called me a storm child. A foundling, she said, washed up on the beach beneath the lighthouse in a storm, without so much as a scrap on my little body. She looked as if she wished she had left me there. If she cut me, she said, I’d bleed icy-cold sea water all over the floor. Once, she said that she was only waiting for the tide that would come up high enough to wash me back out into the sea where I belonged.

—Danielle Wood, The Alphabet of Light and Dark

resized_9781741755763_224_297_FitSquare‘The first Swiss to ski in Antarctica,’ Hurley said. ‘He makes it look dead easy.’

Ginger would have bowled X over had her chain been longer. She nuzzled under his arm as he untethered his skis. He scratched her back and she leaned her weight against his leg, her tongue lapping at the air.

Then the dogs pricked their ears in unison; penguins halted in their tracks. Douglas watched X smile with the sweetness of the melody rising from the hut.

Ginger laid her ears flat when X hoisted her up by her front legs and placed her paws on his chest. He stepped from side to side, one hand on his dance partner’s back, the other resting on her paw. Mertz and Ginger swayed to ‘The Shepherd’s Cradle Song’; the lullaby playing on the gramophone spilled across the bay. On each turn Ginger hopped and shuffled; with each step she licked her master’s chin.

Douglas nodded. ‘The first to dance.’

—Robyn Mundy, The Nature of Ice

Serendipitously, these are all Australian women writers, in a year when I’m taking part in the Australian Writers Women Challenge. And today is International Women’s Day.

I’d love to hear about the images that have caught your breath and you know will remain with you forever.

9 Comments

Filed under Reasons to love a novel