Book review: Return to Tamarlin by K. M. Steele

It is rare that I read a general fiction novel set in rural Australia. I thought I better spread my wings a little, so here’s my review of Return to Tamarlin by K. M. Steele.

“When Tamara Slender disappears from an isolated property in Western NSW in 1975, gossip runs wild with rumours she has run off with a local man, Roger Bryte.

Months later, Tamara’s teenage daughters, Nancy and Mary, realise they encountered Bryte in caves on their property the day before their mother disappeared. Despite their suspicions, their father refuses to involve the police, and the girl’s grief, fuelled by the town gossips and their father’s inaction, drives them apart.

In 2007 a stranger arrives at the farm seeking information about Roger Bryte. His questions give Nancy a reason to contact her estranged sister. The sisters are reunited, and their mother’s disappearance is finally solved when Mary returns to Tamarlin.”

My thoughts:

K. M. Steele has penned an intriguing novel of two sisters and the dark mystery that separates them. Return to Tamarlin is well-written, slow-paced and rich in sense of place. Steele’s rendering of a sheep farm in crisis as its owners battle drought and plague, along with the prejudices and gossip of a small country town are spot on. This social realism provides the perfect back drop for a story involving the disappearance of Nancy and Mary’s mother on the very day they decide to try to re-enact the disappearance of the schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock, at some caves on their property called the Limeholes. Two weeks earlier, another local disappears, a local the girls encounter when they visit the caves. Are the two disappearances connected? What is it about their mother and her past that troubles both her daughters, and causes one to fiercely defend their father, and the other to flee the farm for larger horizons?

Good characterisation and a well-crafted plot hold the story together and the various tensions within the family and in the local community are convincingly portrayed. Tragedy, loss, grief and belonging are the emotional themes underpinning Return to Tamarlin, themes many a reader will relate to. This novel will appeal to those who want to lose themselves in an Australian rural setting and re-visit Australia in the 1970s, with all of its social prejudices intact.

 

 

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Fran Cooper’s debut novel, These Dividing Walls, is a meditation on the way ordinary lives are impacted by racism, Islamophobia, terror attacks and the far right in contemporary Paris.

“One Parisian summer
A building of separate lives
All that divides them will soon collapse…

In a forgotten corner of Paris stands a building.

Within its walls, people talk and kiss, laugh and cry; some are glad to sit alone, while others wish they did not. A woman with silver-blonde hair opens her bookshop downstairs, an old man feeds the sparrows on his windowsill, and a young mother wills the morning to hold itself at bay. Though each of their walls touches someone else’s, the neighbours they pass in the courtyard remain strangers.

Into this courtyard arrives Edward. Still bearing the sweat of a channel crossing, he takes his place in an attic room to wait out his grief.

But in distant corners of the city, as Paris is pulled taut with summer heat, there are those who meet with a darker purpose. As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…”

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These Dividing Walls takes the reader on a journey into the lives of the inhabitants of an apartment block in arrondissement Paris, drifting seamlessly from one character’s perspective to another. Meet among others, Edward and Frédérique, both stricken by grief; depressed and emaciated mother of three Anais and her absent husband Paul; Chantal and her lost and disillusioned husband César Vincent; Madame Marin, the gardienne who runs a hairdressing salon in the courtyard and slips out in the night; the hate ridden Isabelle Duval, and Josef, the vagrant who sleeps in the doorway opposite. Through this cast of quirky and troubled characters the various attitudes to be expected in any social mix, from tolerance through prejudice to extremism, are explored.

The writing is exquisite and discursive. The narrative meanders, rich with incidental details and acute observations, Cooper’s strength, her ability to enter into the souls of her characters. Frédérique seeks “a world beyond the bourgeois formalities cradled within these walls…everything that has suffocated her before in its intensity turned now a cushion against pain; scar tissue around her heart.”

The use of the present tense brings an immediacy to the story, focusing the mind of the reader on the characters in close proximity. Through it, Cooper, invites the reader to ponder the inane and banal aspects of prejudice.

These Dividing Walls is a slow read that contains few surprises. The portrayal of terror and reprisal bleeds into the narrative, growing ever larger, vying for centre stage, seeking to oust the much larger and more poignant story of grief. Contemporary fiction is difficult to write, for the risk is always that themes appear stuck on, worked into something already in existence. Cooper manages to achieve a good balance, using the weather – Paris endures a June heat wave –  to full and dramatic effect. Ultimately, it is the weather that binds this story and makes it work.

Liam Brown’s Wild Life

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As the title suggests, Wild Life by Liam Brown is not a sober story comfortable within the confines of the ordinary and the every day. Instead, protagonist Adam Britman takes the reader on a downward spiral into a nightmarish underworld.

Adam is an accounts manager for a digital marketing company, husband, and father of two. A self-made success it would seem, only his work style and his own propensity for addiction lead him, with the assistance of his little plastic bag of white powder, headlong into alcoholism and gambling. Adam is Dionysius gone wrong. He doesn’t seem to know it but he’s on the archetypal hero’s journey, one filled with the trials and tests and tribulations of the initiatory transition to manhood. His fall is sudden, dramatic, and absolute. He loses his job, walks out on his family, and ends up, drunk, on a park bench.

He’s found by a trickster figure reminiscent of Santa Claus, and welcomed into a cult of homeless men ruled by a bully bent on back-to-earthing, boot camp style. These are not wild men. They are feral, a by-product of shallow, hedonistic, consumption-driven late-capitalism. And as the story unfolds, the reader wonders if Adam will ever find his way out.

Composed in the style of an older, wiser man looking back on a younger, foolish self, Adam’s is an acidic confession. The wry and self-admonishing prose, laced with gritty hyperbole, makes for a face-paced and intense read.

“No, the pros understand that the best way, the only way, to tell a lie is to swallow it yourself. Better still, you have to let the lie swallow you. You have to commit to it totally; to eat, breathe and shit the lie twenty-four hours a day until it becomes part of you, inscribed not only on each and every strand of your being, but on the genetic code of future generations of relatives yet to be born.”

There’s a forward drive to the writing, and a punchy, urban beat. Little space given over to introspection; Adam is not an especially thoughtful narrator. Yet this is the story’s appeal. And while Adam may not be all that reflective, there is much for the reader to reflect on, not least the nature of depravity.

It’s hard to pull off what is essentially a coming of age story, albeit of a man suffering a kind of arrested development the result of his decadent lifestyle. Brown succeeds with a story of betrayal and brutality, that serves as the antidote to Robert Bly’s Iron John.

(Big thanks to Legend Press for my review copy)

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Liam Brown is a writer, filmmaker and former-life model. His debut novelReal Monsters was published in 2015 and long-listed for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. He lives in Birmingham with his wife and two children.

http://www.liambrownwriter.com

@LiamBrownWriter

@legend_press

 

 

Narrative as Navigation Through the Self: Isobel Blackthorn’s Asylum

(‘Narrative as Navigation Through the Self: Isobel Blackthorn’s Asylum’ by Ness Mercieca was originally published in the October 2015 edition of  The Tertangala)

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They say the mind does not create, and that it only cuts and pastes the stimulus it receives from the outside world.

Author Isobel Blackthorn has a talent for this, in fact, I often get the feeling with her that she is cataloguing my idiosyncrasies. I suspect I am not the only one to suspect this, and that she has an arsenal of our traits and habits to be appropriated for the right character at the right time. It’s the literary skill that brought us Plath’s The Bell Jar, and it goes by the name of semi-autobiography.

When I asked Isobel about her creative process, her words confirmed what John Cleese (whose name my computer insists I correct to Cheese) once said about creativity, that the subconscious will reward you with an idea if you spend long enough contemplating a topic. Here it is in Isobel’s words; “I let the story brew inside me for a while, sometimes years, and when some other far larger part of me has it all figured out, I have a powerful irrepressible urge to write. And I go into lockdown and give that other self total freedom.”

The true art to Plath and Blackthorn’s (Plath-thorn’s, if you like) literary style, however, is dissecting the self. Most authors do it; a mood or thought is isolated. It becomes the embryo from which a new self germinates, and it becomes a complex character. (Ever wonder why writers think of their characters like children? Well, there you have it.) Entire books can be populated by these alternate selves of the author, and a narrative becomes the ship through which the self is navigated.

Who’s at the helm, you ask? Isobel speaks not only of smaller selves, but of a larger one who personifies her creativity; “I prefer to think of my source of inspiration as some other greater me deep inside,” she says, “and every time I write a first draft, I’m paying homage to her, to the muse.”

Isobel’s most recent book, Asylum, is the story of such an alternate self. Yvette Grimm speaks with an incredibly honest voice from the perspective of an illegal immigrant waiting to be told to leave Australia, but having no-where else to go. She has been given a personal prophecy that she will meet the father of her children in Australia, and her hopes of permanent residency depend on meeting him very, very soon.

What resonates the most with me, however, is the creative block that all of this brings about in Yvette. Blackthorn made me want something, as a reader, that a book has never made me want before; I wanted Yvette Grimm to paint. Blackthorn played on a knowledge we all have that when you find inspiration, it’s probably because you’ve found something else too.