2012 REVIEWS: AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS #3

WHAT REMAINS
Author: Denise Leith
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

What remains‘But it felt as if some vital life-giving part of me had been torn away and I despaired that anything would ever be alright again.’

Kate Price is a naive and idealistic young journalist when she is sent to cover Riyadh in 1991. The thrill of being a war correspondent gets under her skin and over the years she travels to the Arabian Peninsula, Palestine, South Africa, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya and Iraq. By the time she gets to Baghdad in 2004, she has paid the price of bearing witness to unspeakable cruelty, violence and destruction. What can remain of you after constantly being exposed to the horrors of war?

In Riyadh Kate meets legendary photographer Pete McDermott; their relationship evolves from grudging respect and deep friendship to something far more precious. As she questions everything she believes in, from illusions of goodness to hope in the face of evil, her growing attraction to Pete both excites her and scares her.

If you ever wanted a glimpse into the world of a war correspondent, this is an authentic and confronting place to start. It gives a no-holds barred insight into modern warfare; at times it’s graphic and chilling, challenging the reader to stay with Kate as she  experiences the gut-wrenching truth of war and the people involved. But instead of pushing the reader away with the awfulness of what Kate experiences, the reader takes her hand to lead her through, knowing that in order to see Kate find some answers, there is a difficult path to tread.

What Remains is an intense, heartbreaking, moving and profound novel. It’s not one I will easily forget, both for the epic and honest story and the brilliantly honed writing of Leith. It left me wondering how anyone who experiences a war ever gets over what they see. How they can possibly be left untarnished? Can they?

This provocative novel is a must-read in my book. It’s not for those who want a flowery romance; it’s for those who long for hope in the face of darkness. As Kate says:

‘Before you fall in love, or find a dear friend, you should know: this is the day I will meet someone whose memory will touch my heart and change my world forever. I believe the ability to do this is buried deep within each of us, and if we could find it we could imprint on our minds what the world looked like before so we could take the full measure of what remains.’

Read it. Think about it. Share it.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.


BRIDIE’S CHOICE
Author: Karly Lane
Arena RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan


Bridie's ChoiceYou know the warm feeling you get when you’ve just finished a really good read? That’s how I felt when I finished Bridie’s Choice by Karly Lane: warm, satisfied … and wishing it wasn’t finished so quickly. Lane’s novels (this is her third) have a distinctively Australian feel and give readers an insight into life in regional Australia – she’s tapped into a genre (rural fiction) in which there is growing demand and she does it well.

Bridie Farrell is one of “those” Farrell girls. It’s a reputation Bridie has worked hard to shake, going so far as to dissociate herself from her family almost completely; she wants to leave town and her family’s bad reputation behind her, but feels trapped by the obligation to bring up her teenaged brother, Luke. With Luke about to finish school (if she can keep him away from shady, so-called friends) and enlist in the Army, Bridie knows it’s a matter of time before she can make her move … and finally live her life.

Shaun Broderick’s family owns Jinjulu, one of the most prestigious properties in the district. Shaun is trying to put into practice his dreams to make the farm more sustainable in the long-term, but his father is resistant and critical. Life in the Broderick house is unhappy and dysfunctional, despite the family’s wealth; the loss of Shaun’s older brother some years earlier has taken its toll on the whole household and continues to do so. Shaun knows his place is on the property, but life there is increasingly untenable.

When Shaun and Bridie meet there’s an instant attraction, despite Bridie’s best intentions. She doesn’t want to get too involved now that it’s almost time to make her escape, and she’s still smarting from an incident with Shaun years earlier. But gradually she realises that Shaun has changed … and darn it, he’s just so attractive and irresistible … why not just go with it for now and have a little fun? Shaun has a different perspective – there’s something about Bridie that makes him want to hold her – maybe forever.

Their fledgling romance comes under fire immediately – first from Luke, but more significantly from the Brodericks. To them, Bridie is completely unsuitable; she is not the kind of girl they want their son to fall in love with. They go to great lengths to make their feelings clear to the couple, even inviting Shaun’s former fiancee to stay in the hope that “more suitable” relationship will be rekindled. And then there’s Bridie’s dreams to get away from Tooncanny. She’s at a point where she’s ready to put herself first, but at what cost?

There are so many things I enjoyed about this book. Shaun is, well, he’s a wonderful romantic lead; strong, intelligent, caring, gentle and I can see why Bridie found him irresistible. He’s a man with integrity and great patience and at times I just wanted to tell Bridie off for even considering leaving him. On the other hand, Bridie is also a strong female character; a decent, giving and determined young woman with an appealing gutsiness. The more their characters developed, the more I liked them and the more I wanted things to work out. I also love the Australian-ness of the book; from the setting to the characters, it has an appealing Aussie tang that calls to me.

With Bridie’s Choice, Lane once again shows her talent for character development; I like how the characters are flawed separately but together bring out the best in each other. I found her depiction of Luke, bursting with adolescent frustration, anger and confusion, heartbreakingly authentic – he reminded me of my own son at times. Through her characters and skilled writing, Lane draws out readers’ emotions – you live the story with the characters, empathising with their frustration, hurt, fears and joys. As Bridie and Shaun get closer to intimacy, you just want to step away and give them some space. It makes for an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

On one hand, Bridie’s Choice is classic romance (girl from wrong side country town meets rich farm boy, sparks fly); on the other, it’s so much more. Instead of delivering a nice, but forgettable read, Lane has written a book enriched with emotional engagement and tension that leaves the reader wanting more. I’ll be reading this one again. I’m also going to add North Star to my reading list.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen and Unwin.


THE CONVENT
Author: Maureen McCarthy
Allen & Unwin RRP $22.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The ConventAuthor Maureen McCarthy has delivered a heartfelt and emotive read with The Convent, a young adult release that will appeal to adults just as well as its younger counterparts. Writing this book has fulfilled a 20-year old dream of delving into her mother’s past, which included growing up at Abbotsford Convent as a ward of the State. Maureen says her mother shared many positive stories about her time at the convent, but refused to discuss how she came to be there. When her mother died, Maureen felt free to pursue the issue and used her research as the basis for The Convent. The result is a book many will fall in love with, just as I did.

Peach is a 19-year-old university student with a broken heart, a sister to look after and a new job at a café in the old convent near her home. Although she’s adopted, she’s pretty happy with the way things are – there’s no sense of urgency to discover her roots. When she receives a letter from her biological grandmother, Ellen, she realises that the convent (now home to artists’ studios, the café and boutiques) has more personal connection than she realised. Ellen, she learns, was raised in the convent after being forcibly removed from the care of her mother, Sadie; Ellen’s daughter and Peach’s mother, Cecilia, entered the convent as a nun.

The past is confronting her in more than one way and Peach is not sure she’s ready to deal with it. She has enough to deal with already. Her parents are overseas, leaving her in charge of her depressed sister, one of her two best friends is pregnant, and she’s far from over her ex-boyfriend. It’s a lot to take in and Det’s pregnancy is a sharp reminder that her biological mother gave her up. Torn between wanting to know why and not wanting to know, Peach makes a brave decision to visit Ellen, not realising that Cecilia has made a similar decision to find Peach.

The novel gives a glimpse into the lives of Sadie, Ellen, Cecilia and Peach, interweaving the past and the present with skill, although most of the focus is on Peach. The evolution of women’s roles over about eight decades makes for fascinating reading, which is why I predict the novel will have a broader appeal; McCarthy highlights changing attitudes to motherhood, marriage, religion and sexuality thoughtfully and sensitively. There is no judgment – it is what it is. The issues are topical and relevant, without undermining the importance of the past.

A couple of things – the story begins with Peach looking back what appears to be about 10 years and then switches to what must be 1999 (she was born in 1980, so I did the maths).  It’s a short, poignant reflection on how there’s no getting away from the past and how the world shifts position when the past catches up. Then, her story shifts back to “that summer”. Some younger readers may find this a bit confusing. I also did get a bit confused with the dates because of the phones. How so? It just seemed that the characters in 1999 relied on their mobiles much more than I thought they would have 13-14 years ago. There was something about the time frame that niggled at me. Maybe it’s just me.

However, I loved this book; it’s a beautiful and well told coming of age story that with characters as warm and real as their hopes and dreams. The cover is gorgeous and I love the way it draws the reader in, following the girl into her story. I particularly enjoyed the insight into convent life – even one as austere as Cecilia experienced – and I liked the way McCarthy presented confronting issues sans judgment. There is a lot of depth to this book which matches the provocative issues presented. Reading it left me with a lot to think about and that feeling you have when you’ve just finished a really good book … wishing it wasn’t finished.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


A LADY CYCLIST’S GUIDE TO KASHGAR
Author: Suzanne Joinson
Bloomsbury RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar: A NovelThe intriguing cover and title might lead readers to think this is a travel guide featuring a great cycling journey. It’s not. What A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is, is an unusual yet beautifully subtle novel that will appeal to readers looking for something a bit different on the literary fiction front.

A dual narrative tells the stories of Evangeline English (Eva) in Kashgar, 1923 and Frieda Blakeman in present-day London, slowly building to a crescendo where their connection is revealed. Eva’s story is told through her journal, which is disguised as notes towards a guidebook she has been commissioned to write, while Frieda’s is told in the third-person. Switching between past and present in this way could be disjointed, but it’s not – the transition is as smooth as it is compelling.

En route to Kashgar, missionaries Evangeline, her sister Lizzie and their leader, Millicent, come across a young girl giving birth. Millicent stops to help, but childbirth is too much for the 10 or 11-year-old mother. Her death causes uproar among the spectators, who accuse the “foreign devils” of murder and witchcraft. The women are held in Kashgar, a Moslem city, pending the arrival of bribery money. Despite the dangerous situation they are in, Millicent continues to seek converts, using a method she calls “gossiping the Gospel”, blindly ignoring the cultural differences and unrest within the community. Eva, who is charged with looking after the motherless baby, becomes increasingly uneasy; she is not the believer her sister and Millicent think she is – her motive is writing rather than promoting the Gospel – and she is worried by Lizzie’s erratic behaviour and devotion to Millicent.

In present-day London, Frieda is at a crossroads in her life. Unhappy with ambiguity in her life, she realises that she craves consistency, something her affair with Nathaniel, a married bicycle-shop owner, and her job cannot give her. As she ponders this, she discovers a man sleeping on the landing outside her door. He is gone the next morning, leaving a drawing and some words in Arabic; Frieda later discovers that Tayeb, an illegal immigrant from Yemen, is homeless and unemployed. When Frieda learns that she is next-of-kin to a dead woman she has never heard of and is given the keys to the woman’s Council flat to remove her belongings, she offers Tayeb the flat for the week. The unlikely circumstances lead to friendship and an unexpected journey to discover the connection between the dead woman and Frieda.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is a complex, multi-layered novel. It’s slow in the sense that you savour it as you read; you swirl the words around in your mouth like a good wine, tasting the meaning. The characters are intriguing, each with strong voices; I was particularly drawn to Eva. She yearns to be free, to be her own woman, yet she conceals these yearnings in written words; it’s ironic that this “bird” ends up mothering a child not biologically her own (which ultimately takes away some of her freedom). She is naive, but guarded – quite a study in contrasts. Millicent is a charismatic character – manipulative but able to switch on charm to those she sees as biddable; she’s unreasonable and difficult and quite self-centred. I wondered how deep her faith was – was it real or was it a tool?

From a thematic perspective there are many that could be discussed. The novel includes themes of belonging, of losing yourself and finding yourself again, of motherhood in all its guises, of cultural difference, of gender roles and how they have (or haven’t) changed over time … it’s rich in themes and voices that cry to be heard. And then there are the clever plot links – the lady cyclist, the lover with a bicycle shop; Christianity v Islam v communal lifestyles … the combination of strong themes, rich imagery and skilful plotting has, in my eyes, created a terrific debut novel.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar may not be for everyone, especially those looking for a lighter, fast-paced read. But for those who love to set a book down feeling satisfied deep, deep down, I think it’s a winner.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia.