The Song of Achilles


It's not often that my younger daughter will wander through the living room, pick up a book I'm reading and say, 'Oh, I've heard about this.' The Song of Achilles has been an internet sensation. Between my borrowing it from the library and returning it, seven reserve requests had built up!

I decided to read The Song of Achilles after enjoying Madeline Miller's Circe, her second book, on the recommendation of my book club; but I think I ended up enjoying The Song of Achilles even more. I can certainly see why it's been such a hit with young adult readers. It's a vivid same-sex romance -- very sexy! -- set in ancient Greece, incorporating plenty of rich everyday detail but also a satisfying amount of interaction with the gods and spirits to create a wonderfully immersive alternate world.

The Trojan War dragged on for ten long years but we don't embark on the war itself until halfway through the book, and the long stay is mostly skimmed over. Miller uses the brilliant device of allowing us to continue to see the action even after our narrator Patroclus' death, as an unburied spirit lingers in our world and can still see the action. (Surely the name Patrick derives from Patroclus? I haven't been able to find confirmation of this anywhere but it must be true!)

The Song of Achilles is a thrilling retelling of a classic love story, and it truly does these shining young men justice.


The Big House

The Big House was an impulse buy from Brotherhood Books (temporarily out of action after their warehouse flooded), based on the appealing watercolour cover and the subtitle: A Century In The Life of an American Summer Home. I have a weakness for houses and architecture generally, a totally untutored weakness I should add, which finds expression in shows like Grand Designs and Restoration Australia and even House Hunters International. One of my favourite books is one I inherited from Sandra Eterović, called How Buildings Learn, a fascinating, lavishly illustrated study of the way houses and other buildings can adapt and morph over time... but I digress.

The Big House is in some ways a story of privilege -- the lovingly detailed history of one wealthy Boston family's beach house, a rambling weatherbeaten construction of (I think) nineteen rooms, surprising closets, random passageways, servants' bedrooms, a big sprawling house filled with family detritus, books and clothes and moth-eaten furniture and pennants and a tennis court... I must admit I began this book thinking, it's all right for some, mate

But as the chapters unspooled, revealing family tragedy as well as privilege, and culminating in the disclosure that the family could no longer afford to keep the house (land tax alone was crippling, let alone the expenses of upkeep on a massive building that was literally beginning to fall apart), I became caught up in the struggle to hold onto the property, a place that kept the family secrets and the family memories.

It took me a long time to wander through The Big House and it ended up overlapping with Swann's Way, with which it shared some striking, perhaps intentional parallels. I'm sure Colt deliberately set out to emulate, in his painstaking descriptions of individual rooms, the cove, the woods, historic boat races and tennis tournaments, the loving detail that Proust brings to his own childhood memories of summers past. If Colt doesn't quite reach the heights of Proust, he does at least provide something closer to a narrative, in the story of the battle to save the house from demolition. The tone is definitely elegaic, a melancholy farewell to a vanished way of life.


Swann's Way

I was persuaded to give Proust another go on the strength of a rave review by Helen Elliott in the latest edition of The Monthly. I had bought and read (and subsequently lost) part 2 of In Search of Lost Time, Swann in Love -- it must have been about thirty years ago -- and not got much enjoyment out of it. Okay, I thought, maybe I'm mature enough now to get Proust, let's try again.

Swann's Way contains the very first part of the opus, the childhood memories and reflections of Combray (including the famous madeleine scene) as well as Swann in Love. Reader, I must confesss, I only reached the end of Combray before deciding that there are so many other books I would rather have been reading. There are certain activities that I'm still waiting to grow into -- gardening, listening to classical music, and now I have to include reading Proust to this list.

Having said that, I think I did enjoy this attempt more than the first. (Maybe Proust is an acquired taste, like olives and oysters, you just have to keep trying??) Taken in small nibbles, I could relax briefly into his exquisite, meandering, attenuated sentences that can wander over an entire page before gently coming to a halt. And I think I have a better understanding now of his feeling that an ideal image, preserved and relived in memory or constructed in the imagination, is superior to the experience of reality while it is being lived. (I suspect many anxious people would agree.) The descriptions are extraordinarily beautiful, transporting, subtle, and intense -- and yet there is a part of me that yearns for a story, and it's that part of me that refuses to be totally seduced by Proust.

I might give it another ten years and then try again...


When Things Are Alive They Hum


When Things Are Alive They Hum was published last year and is the debut novel of Australian author Hannah Bent (not to be confused with Hannah Kent), though Bent, like her character Marlowe, was born and brought up in Hong Kong and studied in London. The novel centres around Marlowe and her younger sister, Harper, who has what she calls 'Up' syndrome, and whose heart is beginning to fail.

This book had a personal resonance for me. My own younger sister has an intellectual disability (though her general health, touch wood, is very good) so elements of Marlowe and Harper's relationship came very close to home. I belong to a Facebook group for siblings of people with a disability, and I know from there, as well as from my own experience, that the sib relationship can be a particularly tangled knot of love, responsibility, resentment, guilt and protectiveness.

When Things Are Alive They Hum explores this complex connection with delicacy and nuance, while also diving into the very political and horrific issue of forced organ donation. I honestly didn't know which way the story was going to swing until the very end. This is a touching and emotional novel -- not just for sibs!


Being Mortal

I can't remember how I learned about American surgeon Atul Gawande's Being Mortal (probably a Facebook discussion), but it is a remarkable and thought-provoking read. Sub-titled Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End, Gawande's book begins by discussing the advances of old age, and how to rethink what makes the end of life good, rather than just longer, and then moves into talking about terminal disease and similar issues there. 

As a doctor, Gawande admits that he has often slipped into the role of 'Dr Information,' laying out treatment options, risks, benefits, side effects etc, and telling the bewildered, stressed patient to make a choice. Very few of us are well equipped to weigh up our options accurately, or even know what questions to ask, in such a situation. After observing skilled hospice and palliative care workers, Gawande has changed his approach, to ask what is most important to each individual patient -- prolonging life? Staying active? What would they be unwilling to trade off? What would make life no longer worth living? For one patient, being able to enjoy chocolate ice cream and watch football might be enough. Another might be unable to endure the risk of paralysis, or invasive medical treatments, or a greater level of pain. Gawande can then help the patient decide what approach is best for them, rather than just offering another treatment possibility, then another (there is always another treatment to offer).

With two elderly parents approaching the end of their lives and a friend in their final days, this felt like a particularly timely read, and one which has prompted me to think hard about what I want for myself in my last days. It's also made me determined to talk about this openly with my loved ones and not shy away from the difficult conversation. As Gawande points out, 'hard conversations can make wonderful things possible.' But it also makes my heart ache, because it's impossible to have this kind of nuanced conversation now with my father, because he just can't communicate with us well enough. I think I have a pretty good idea of his wishes now, but he can't spell them out for us in any detail. Don't leave it too late.


Treacle Walker


I was so excited when Alan Garner was nominated for the Booker Prize -- at 87, this may have been his last chance -- and I was disappointed when he didn't win it. However, having now read Treacle Walker, I have to agree with the critic who said while Garner may have deserved a Booker Prize, he didn't deserve it for this book. (I think The Stone Book is his masterpiece.)

Having said that, Alan Garner is a writer whose books are difficult to evaluate in isolation. He has said himself that he regards his novels as being one work, spread over a lifetime, ranging from the high fantasy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen all the way to this sparse, elliptical work, which is closer to mystical poetry than a narrative novel. Barely 150 pages long, broken up with lots of blank space, this is a very short book indeed; and yet for readers of Garner's other books, it is dense with references, resonance and echoes of other stories, dancing on the edge of dream and reality. Perhaps the entire book is a fever dream; perhaps Joe is dying or actually dead; almost certainly Joe is an echo of Garner himself as a young boy, who spent much of his childhood ill in bed, reading and dreaming himself into stories.

Some readers have complained that there is no plot to this book; I don't agree, though the events are strange and enigmatic. Joe seems to live alone, we never see his parents or any other family, though he does take an eye test at one point. He encounters two mysterious figures, the wandering Treacle Walker and the bog-man Thin Amren, and I like the interpretation that these two characters also represent aspects of Garner himself -- Treacle Walker, the educated intellectual who went away to university, and Thin Amren, the deep-rooted Chesireman, steeped in folklore and fixed in place.

I'm not sure someone unfamiliar with Garner's body of work will find satisfaction in Treacle Walker. Some have called it obscure, self-indulgent, inaccessible, nonsensical, messy, incoherent. I enjoyed it and I will read it again. I've found this is essential to get the most out of Garner's recent work -- should this be necessary to enjoy a novel? Let's just say this book won't be for everyone, but for Garner's fans, this will be a deeply rewarding, meditative delight.


The Tell-Tale Heart


I was put onto Jill Dawson by a friend on-line; I hadn't heard of her before but she is a prolific English novelist. The Tell-Tale Heart (in large print) was, alas, the only title available from my library, but it was a terrific, thoughtful and very accomplished novel and I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for her other books.

The Tell-Tale Heart threads together three narratives -- the story of Patrick, a middle aged professor who has just received a heart transplant; swooping back a couple of centuries, the true history of a young man, Willie Beamiss, caught up in the Fen riots of 1823; and swooping forward again to Willie's descendant, Drew Beamish, the donor of Patrick's new heart. Connections between these three characters unfold and echo across the novel, and ultimately Patrick, despite his protestations, finds his life irrevocably changed by his experience. 

I especially enjoyed the sections in the voice of Willy Beamiss, which were a delight to read and gave the book a real emotional and historical depth. These sections were based on court records from the Fen Riots, an episode in history about which I knew absolutely nothing; in fact, the Fen country in the east of England is an area I only know from books: Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, and Elizabeth Gouge's novels set in Ely. The Essex Serpent and Arthur Ransome's Secret Water have something of the same flat, marshy atmosphere, though technically they're not set in the Fens.

Another example of a weird book coincidence -- I found myself reading three books centred on hearts and death at the same time: The Tell-Tale Heart, When Things Are Alive They Hum (a young adult title about two sisters, one of whom needs a heart transplant) and Being Mortal, a non-fiction exploration of growing old and wearing out. Strange how these things happen, totally by chance!


The Goodbye Year


Now this is a cover I could fall in love with -- all my favourite colours, books, cats, cups of tea, trees a dog and a ghostly soldier, as well as a touch of golden spot gloss -- yum! My only tiny niggle is that Harper isn't wearing glasses... How I longed for more protagonists with glasses when I was a glum bespectacled 12 year old.

Inside the lovely cover, there is also much to enjoy inside Emily Gale's The Goodbye Year, which is perhaps my first full pandemic novel. As 2020 begins, Harper is looking forward to her final year at Riverlark Primary School, but then she's mown down by a truckload of changes. Her parents move oeverseas, leaving her with Lolly, the grandmother she barely knows; all her friends becomes school captains of something, leaving Harper with the dreggiest job, Library Captain (ahem, the best job, I think you mean.) And then Harper starts seeing things -- could there be a ghost in the old library?

I loved the parallels that Gale draws between the Covid pandemic and the Spanish flu, and the disruptions of war and the global upheaval that gripped all of us in 2020. Harper is a lovable character, her school friends are sweet, and William's story is spooky and moving. Gale doesn't dwell too long on the lockdowns themselves, focusing more on the periods of freedom in between, but not shying away from either the difficulties or the unexpected joys of a year that none of us will ever forget.