Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Denise Leith's What Remains

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Denise Leith’s novel What Remains is first and foremost a love story. Its final chapters are a moving account of the realisation of a friendship that smoulders throughout the novel.

It is also a war story, set in many of the worst conflicts of the last twenty years. It begins and ends with Iraq: Bush Senior’s Gulf War and W’s shock and awe invasion and occupation. It takes us to the darkest corners of human behaviour in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Rwanda especially.

We are not spared the horror. The church in Nyarubuye will haunt the reader as it does journalist and narrator, Kate Price. Denise’s exploration of the nature of evil is very confronting. How can anyone machete or rape a child?

At the same time she examines the forces that attract correspondents and photojournalists to cover the barbarism we call war. For photographer Peter McDermott, “This is who I am. This is where it begins and ends for me.” Terms like Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome can never do justice to the prices they pay for this deadliest of careers. Her earlier Bearing Witness: The Lives of Correspondents and Photojournalists is a non-fiction analysis of this phenomenon.

I am reminded of Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis who received worldwide acclaim for his work in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Indochina war. It was a fatal addiction - he was killed in Bangkok in 1985 filming an attempted coup.

It is Denise’s first novel. Her lean, economical style is reminiscent of that other witness to war – Ernest Hemingway. You won’t find many adjectives or adverbs or transitional words. Although it sometimes lacks the polish of a practiced professional storyteller, its rawness creates much of its power. She concentrates on small details of people and places to create the big pictures of a world gone crazy. Photographs and pictorial memories are key elements. In addition, the first-person narrative is well suited to its emotional purposes – self examination and self discovery.

The novel is old-fashioned in several ways. It’s easy to read and often hard to put down. Denise creates intimacy through the subtle use of the senses rather than bedroom gymnastics. She doesn’t do hot sex scenes.

On the other hand, it is very modern. It begins and ends with email.

The climax is not unexpected. It is foreshadowed throughout the book. What remains? A day after reading, it is the people who wake each day in places the places and situations that most of us could not even imagine.

PS Yesterday we had the opportunity to hear and meet Denise Leith at a Beaumaris Books’ evening event at one of the local cafés Malt. Her thought-provoking talk helped to inform this review.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Amanda Lohrey's The Philosopher's Doll

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012:

[Warning: As they say in cinema reviews, this post may contain spoilers.]

It may have been a mistake to follow Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace with another novel that has a philosopher who doesn't want to have children, and a tense encounter with confit de canard.

In fact the first part of Amanda Lohrey's The Philosopher's Doll is entitled 'Duck'. Despite the weak pun, it is the most satisfying section of a book that has a split personality. It has strong echoes of some of Philip Roth's better writing.

Melbourne academic Lindsay Eynon is not ready to commit to parenthood. Not even his besotted student Sonia can distract him from his speculations about the meaning of reality and existence. Through his teaching we encounter Descartes' and La Mettrie's attempts to unravel the same puzzles. Rumours of René's mechanical doll resurrect the Enlightenment disputes between science and religion. Are we humans just machines that bleed? The theories of his compatriot and follower, La Mettrie, sow questions about the animal soul.

Appropriately named, the next section 'Dog' explores communication breakdown, as husband and wife secretly pursue their separate agenda. Lindsay takes a bizarre detour down the Great Ocean Road to doggy breeding land. His disturbing experiences there should have been an omen. Yet like a Thomas Hardy character who has seemingly lost both commonsense and freewill, he can't help himself.

At the same time Lohrey constructs a pregnancy testing manual, as Kirsten turns to medical science as a substitute for sharing or ethical decision-making. Perhaps her work at what used to called a home for juvenile delinquents clouds her judgment a tad.

Just as the story approaches what should be its climax, there is an abrupt change of voice. Sonia emerges from nowhere to give us not one but two coda (should that be codas or code?). The abrupt jump from third to first person narrative challenges our understanding of earlier realities, especially Lindsay's point of view. This literary device is both intriguing and annoying.

This final third of the novel recounts Sonia's attempts to reconcile her obsessive youth. In 'Dildo' the reader does not get the hoped-for climax. At the very least, we learn that old dogs can be taught new tricks and younger ones old. The writing and style fall off, though this may be caused by the change of voice.

Nevertheless, we don't actually find out about the dog's fate until the actual coda, 'Torque'. Amanda's metaphors take a final twist as precision flying is used as another literary stunt. Sonia seems incapable of taking cardiologist and pilot David Goodman's advice: "...if you rely on your instincts you'll crash". La Mettrie's fatal dish of pheasant morphs into the latest pregnancy as "Headlong we began our descent." It's a soft but unsatisfactory landing.

If only the dog could speak. Latro ergo sum.

Whether you remember this novel fondly or not, will probably depend on your reactions to its concluding sections. Unfortunately you can't choose your own adventure and discover an alternative resolution. Don't be deterred - give it a go. Amanda's writing is very readable, original and thought provoking.