Saturday, December 22, 2012

Me and Mr Booker by Cory Taylor (2010)

Me and Mr Booker is the debut novel from Australian writer Cory Taylor. It is the coming-of-age tale of 16-year-old Martha, whose parents have recently divorced and who feels like she is waiting for her life to begin:

It told them about my mother and father.
‘They broke up,’ I said. ‘So now I am emotionally scarred for life. At least that’s my excuse.’
‘For what?’ said Mrs Booker.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

The novel opens with Martha meeting Mr and Mrs Booker at an open house party that her mother throws. She begins an intense friendship with the pair, who ‘adopt’ her (they are having trouble conceiving any children of their own), and an affair with Mr Booker. The beginning of the novel is its strength as Taylor captures perfectly the ennui of being 16; feeling trapped and if you are waiting for your life to begin as well as the heady emotions that come from first-time adolescent love. The start of Me and Mr Booker is really fantastic and very engaging.

Unfortunately, after the strong start, the novel just peters out. About midway through the book, the characters who were engaging and provided a strong incentive to turn the pages just get a bit blah, as if Taylor has lost interest in them. It was like her impetus to finish the novel had vanished but she still had a contract with a publishing company that she was obliged to finish, so she pushed on but just didn’t care that much. Elements of the book, like the tension evident in the relationship between Martha’s and her brother Eddie as well as her brother and her father Victor, were hinted at and then never developed or explored. I feel like this book had so much potential but just didn’t reach the heights that it could have, which is disappointing given Taylor’s obvious writing talent.

The most disappointing part of this book was the really poor research. I think it’s supposed to be set in the early ‘70s, so we have references to Five Easy Pieces (1970), the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday (1967) and the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967). However, Martha’s relative marries a gay Asian man so she can have a baby and both the homosexuality and miscegenation, two issues that would have been a Very Big Deal in the early ‘70s, were just mentioned matter of factly. It’s a big enough deal at the start of the book when Martha’s parents separate that her best friend isn’t allowed to play with her anymore but then the divorce scandal is not worth a mention for the remainder of the book? And I strongly question the likelihood of a regional university having a specialist film studies university teacher, although in all fairness maybe it was easier for a new discipline like film studies to become established in a regional university than in a major metropolitan university that was more fixed in its ways. The constant questioning the veracity of the period setting had a jarring effect and disrupted my reading experience.

Reading back over what I have written this sounds like a negative review, but really there’s a lot to like about this book. I will definitely be looking out for Cory Taylor’s next novel.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Autumn Laing by Alex Miller

Alex Miller is one of Australia’s most famous and awarded literary writers yet, for some reason, I’d never read any of his work. When, after reading yet another glowing review of his most recent novel Autumn Laing I saw that very same book on display at the library, I figured the universe was telling me it was time to fill this literary hole of knowledge so I picked up the book and took it home with me.

The eponymous Autumn Laing is loosely based on Sunday Reed who, with her husband John, ran a kind of artists community at what is now the Heide Art Gallery. Sunday Reed had an affair with Sidney Nolan, the famous Australian painter (and apparently is rumoured to have painted parts of his work). In Autumn Laing, Autumn is at the end of her life, reflecting on her two great loves, the talented artist Pat Donlan (Sidney Nolan) and the somewhat bland Arthur Laing.

I am deeply torn on my opinion of this book. If I were do a pros and cons list, each column would have the exact same amount of items in it. The language was lovely and the book was very well written. BUT it did seem to take a long time to get anywhere. Some of the paragraphs were over two pages long and occasionally I found myself skimming rather than reading every word. The female characters in this book are written exceptionally well, in fact better than the male characters, which surprised me given that the book is written by a man. In particular, the essence of 80-plus-year-old Autumn Laing is captured spectacularly (although, honestly, I could have done with a little less talk about farting). BUT the character of Autumn Laing reminded me a lot of my own grandmother, with (unfortunately) her tendency to tell really really long and rambling stories with little temporal or internal consistency. The descriptions of Australia and Melbourne were very vivid BUT omigod the foreshadowing was ridiculously excessive. From about the second page we are told repeatedly that something happened in the Australian outback but the ‘something happened’ doesn’t actually happen until 30 pages before the end and, by that stage, I just really wanted it to happen so I wouldn’t have to read the dire foreshadowing anymore! One positive for the book that doesn’t have a negative balancing item is the exploration of the restrictions placed on the women in this book due to their gender. If Sunday Reed had been born in a different time, she would have lived a very different life.

I did enjoy this book. It definitely inspired me to read more about Sunday Reed and the Heide artist colony – I do feel I have a special connection with the gallery since I lost a baby shoe there. It was also a real pleasure to read a literary novel that didn’t contain a scene about a privileged white man masturbating! But I am reluctant to recommend it as it is a very long book which, in itself, is not a bad thing, but it’s a long book that feels like a long book, if that makes any sort of sense! Reading this book took effort and required work and, if you like your books effortless and enrapturing, Autumn Laing is not for you. Also, this book has a lot of characters who commit suicide in it, which may be a trigger for some. 

A solid literary effort - I give it three stars.