This snapshot features Paddy O’Reilly’s impressive third novel, The Wonders (Affirm, 2014), in which a flamboyant entrepreneur turns three human curiosities into global celebrities. Leon is the recipient of a visible metal heart (after undergoing multiple failed transplants). Kathryn is covered in curly black wool (the result of gene therapy to cure Huntingdon’s disease). And Christos is a performance artist who has brackets transplanted into his shoulder blades to hold enormous metal wings (the only one of the three whose aberration is a choice). Together, they perform in an entertainment spectacular called The Wonders.
One of the reasons I found this novel deeply interesting is the questions it raises about how we as a society deal with human otherness and difference—a preoccupation of mine since writing my first novel, The Sinkings. When O’Reilly spoke at the Perth Writers Festival about being inspired by exquisite old anatomical drawings, I remembered my own research, trawling through nineteenth-century medical journals and visiting the anatomy museum at Glasgow University, with its monstrous specimens in glass jars
I’ve chosen the following passage as a brief taste of The Wonders:
Leon had come to think of the stare as admiration. Maybe Kathryn was right. A child uses the stare as a tool of curiosity and wonder. The grotesque is wonderful. The malformed is wonderful, the unexpected is wonderful and so is the beautiful. There is far less judgement in the unguarded stare of a child than the hush-ups of their adult companions.
He told Kathryn how, at a private dinner, a child who was waiting in the corridor for her waitress mother to finish work had asked him if he was a robot. That made him laugh. ‘Is your brain made of metal too?’ she asked. She was five, the age when the questions pour out of a child like milk out of a jug. ‘Do you eat nails? Why did they put it in that way? Do you have feelings?’
‘Oh yes,’ Leon answered her. ‘I have so many feelings that sometimes I think I’ll burst.’
‘Me too,’ she replied gravely. She touched his hand, and looked up at his face with serious eyes. Eyes that didn’t waver. Eyes that never flickered once to the hole in his chest.
I am going to have the great pleasure of talking to five brilliant authors this weekend, through my chairing duties at the Perth Writers Festival. (I love my job!)
On Saturday, I’ll be chairing a session called ‘Fantastic Tales’ featuring Paddy O’Reilly, Diana Sweeney and Porochista Khakpour; on Sunday, ‘In Isolation’ with Robyn Cadwallader and John Darnielle. I’m also taking part in a panel on ‘Art and Innovation on the Periphery’ on Friday, with Brooke Davis, Peter Newman and Griffith Review editor Julieanne Schultz; a story of mine, ‘Nullius’, is in the new ‘Looking West’ issue of Griffith Review. Session details here.
This snapshot is a brief extract from the beginning of John Darnielle’s wonderful debut novel, Wolf in White Van (Scribe, 2014).
On the wall to the right, as you head toward my room, there’s a small bookcase with a painting above it, a western scene: hills and trees, a lake. A blue and green vista near sundown, a silent place. But if you look harder, or happen to turn your head at the right moment as you pass, you see figures, human figures, on what you might otherwise take for an empty ridge. It’s like an optical illusion, this hunting party on the near hill, their curving hats dark in the orange dusk: they come out of hiding if you look at the empty scene long enough. They were always there on my journey, poppping up in the same place each time I’d drift by in my half-sleep. They never lost their power to surprise, just by being there, a little smoke rising from somewhere within their three-strong party, their brushstroke rifles resting lightly on their shoulders.
My January reading has been focused on the sessions I’m chairing or participating in at the 2015 Perth Writers Festival. Among the books I’ve loved is Diana Sweeney’s novel for young adults, The Minnow (Text Publishing, 2014).
Here is a brief taste, in the voice of the novel’s protagonist, pregnant teen Tom (Holly):
There is a commotion outside. I love the word ‘commotion’. I have a notebook that I carry with me everywhere. I try to write a new word in it everyday. Commotion was Thursday’s word. Anyway, it seems Nana has caused the commotion by falling into the pond. Papa and I stay put. We both know she dived in. We have seen her do it more than once. There are nurses and orderlies running about and making a fuss. Nana will be lapping it up.