Bellman & Black

It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote anything substantial on this blog, but my lack of writing has been made up for by an overdose of reading. Actually, I don’t think you can overdose on reading. The book I finished last week was called Bellman and Black. It was written by a British author named Diane Setterfield. She has written another novel called The Thirteenth Tale that I have yet to read.

Bellman and Black is very dark and gothic in nature and the tale it tells is one of disquiet, fear and of obsession; or at least of obsessive compulsive behaviour. The main character of the story is William Bellman. The story follows his upbringing, career and family life, and of how an event in his childhood seemingly brings him misfortune until he makes a deal with a mysterious partner, or at least he believes that’s what has taken place. Early on we are introduced to Bellman’s obsessiveness with details, – each of his business endeavours becoming successful as he checks off endless lists of requirements. I think it is the constant listing of what Bellman thought of, selected, bought or had made etc that made me feel kind of tired while reading this book. It felt as though I was reading an inventory or business plan. By the second or third new expansion or endeavour he undertook, you knew he’d be getting to grips with the details … so do we need to be told exactly what he bought, who he employed and so forth, especially when these particulars had little impact on the narrative. Yep, he’s OCD, we get it.

I also felt as though the story wasn’t tied together well enough. I don’t mind a work of fiction being open-ended, but for mine the ending didn’t really explain what happened during the rest of the story – were all of his misfortunes just coincidence? How did the rook’s final actions relate in any way to the other misfortunes that befell Bellman? Were those misfortunes simply revenge and if so what made the rook wait to get what he ultimately would have taken anyway?

All in all while I did find Bellman and Black entertaining to read, I felt somewhat unsatisfied at the end. I might put it away and have a second reading sometime in the future – I might get something I missed on a second inspection.

Burial Rites

‘Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes Magnusdottir has been removed to her homeland’s farthest reaches, to an isolated farm in Northern Iceland, to await execution…’

Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, is a semi-fictional retelling of the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, punctuated by excerpts from original letters and documents related to the case. My favourite thing about this book was Kent’s ability to paint the bleak, cold setting of this story so vividly. I could almost feel the chill and smell the pungent odours present in the farmhouse to which Agnes was sent. I could feel her desperation at her present situation and indeed at circumstance that had confronted her throughout her life.

The story is told primarily in the third person, following various character’s point of view, with Agnes herself picking up the narrative in parts. Despite already knowing Agnes’ fate, I still found her story gripping and my interest was also held by the parallel stories of those around her.

I was really thrilled to find a novel by an Australian writer that was ‘un-put-down-able’. Heavy as the subject matter was, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I can’t wait to see what Hannah Kent produces in the future.

 

 

 

The White Earth

I have a history of disliking award winning novels. I have a history of particularly disliking award winning Australian novels. I didn’t mind Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda but I didn’t really enjoy Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, and I thought the ending to Dirt Music was ridiculous. So it was with much trepidation that I decided to read the 2005 Miles Franklin Award winning The White Earth, written by Andrew McGahan and published by Allen and Unwin.

The novel is set in a fictional region of the real-life Darling Downs, west of Brisbane. It charts a year in the life of a young boy named William who, having recently lost his father to a fire, moves along with his mother into a dilapidated mansion – Kuran House. Kuran House is owned by William’s Great Uncle and the history of the great House and its inhabitants is woven throughout the story. It is part family saga, part supernatural thriller, part history lesson, and deals with some heavy themes including Native Title.

I really enjoyed the first ten or so chapters of this book where the scene was set and I got a glimpse into both the past and the present, describing how life at Kuran House and in the surrounding district was shaped; however, as the novel progressed I began to struggle. The main protagonist, William, is said to be eight years old. The dialog, thoughts and emotions attributed to William seem far too advanced for a child of that age and the adults seem to interact with him in a manner that suggest he is much older than eight. Had he been perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old I may have swallowed it, but my inability to believe in William experiencing the events of the novel as an eight year old really ruined the story for me. Additionally, in the final third of The White Earth the narrative becomes very dialogue heavy, almost as if McGahan lost his ability to describe events without dialogue and decided to have each character spell out every thought, action and decision verbally. The ‘he said / she said’ seemed a little … basic? Certainly not what I would expect from a Miles Franklin Winning novel. And then there’s the bunyip…

So once again here I am, left unsatisfied with what is supposed to be great Australian literature. I feel very disloyal. Many critics loved the novel – maybe I’m just missing the point.

It’s ok though, I’ve found another Australian author to read. Maybe not so award winning … but so far I’m loving her book! Stay tuned for a review.