Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2005) 279 p.

mothers milk

Book four of the Patrick Melrose novels, and Patrick is now a lawyer in his forties, married with two young children. We’ve come a long way from sexual molestation and heroin abuse, but Patrick is still unhappy; the strains of parenthood are impacting on his marriage to Mary, and he finds himself once again slipping back into alcohol abuse and womanising. Meanwhile, his mother is wasting away from dementia in a retirement home, on the brink of signing away the family home in Provence – the last vestige of the Melrose family fortune – to a New Age charlatan.

I’ve seen others criticise these novels on what seems like kneejerk class envy; the travails of a man trying to stop his mother from giving away his immense inheritance, and so on. To me this entirely misses the point. Nothing makes me envy the very wealthy less than Edward St Aubyn. Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering. Patrick is not, and possibly never will be, a happy man.

This should really be the kind of book I dislike – there’s a lot of exposition and a whole lot of sloshing around inside the characters’ unstable minds. But St Aubyn is such a brilliant writer that he makes the whole thing immensely readable. Even the more egregious stuff is forgivable: Patrick’s unbelievably gifted and eidetic five-year-old son Robert who serves as narrator for good chunks of the novel, or the constant (and predictably English) bashing of American society. St Aubyn has a way of crafting almost anything into great prose. These really are wonderful books.

Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson (2014) 430 p.

unwrapped sky

Rjurik Davidson’s debut novel takes place in a semi-industrial fantasy city, populated by an array of different creatures, magicians, disgruntled factory workers and corpulent elites. New Crobuzon – um, I mean, Caeli-Amur – is on the brink of political revolution, as the injustices of the ruling class can no longer be tolerated by the characters who populate the pages of Iron Council – uh, that is to say, Unwrapped Sky.

I’m always in favour of fantasy branching out from the stale genre of Tolkienesque medieval Europe. But the hand of China Mieville lies heavy on Davidson’s shoulder.

The fundamental core of Unwrapped Sky is political rebellion: the unrestrained power of Caeli-Amur’s political Houses and the attempts by several characters to overthrow them, as part of a band of rebels unimaginatively named “seditionists.” Davidson’s failure to give them any sort of political ideology robs Unwrapped Sky of quite a bit of depth, and in some ways it became symbolic to me of the failure of the novel as a whole. It’s all schisms and strikes and power plays within the seditionist leadership; it reminded me of student politics. Getting excited about that stuff is fine when you’re handing out pamphlets or arguing with other first-years at RMIT, but not so much when transferred onto a fantasy world which needs a bit of weight and depth to it. I cannot bring myself to care about the fate of characters raging against the vaguely-defined tyrannies of some cartoonish fantasy tyrants, especially when those characters are dull in the first place.

Davidson’s prose doesn’t help. Like most fantasy fiction it’s bloated waffling, stilted dialogue and excessive exposition. He never trusts the reader to infer anything, but instead spells out all his characters’ thoughts and feelings and regrets and reflections on every single page – the sort of thing that turns a passable novel into a tedious slog. A decent editor could have cut 150 pages from Unwrapped Sky and greatly improved it. I keep saying this is par for the course in fantasy fiction, because it is, but just once it would be nice to be praising a fantasy author for being concise instead of giving one yet another pass because I don’t expect anything better.

Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey (2006) 269 p.

theft

I don’t know if my story is grand enough to be a tragedy, although a lot of shitty stuff did happen. It is certainly a love story but that did not begin until midway through the shitty stuff, by which time I had not only lost my eight-year-old son, but also my house and studio in Sydney where I had once been about as famous as a painter could expect in his own backyard. It was the year I should have got the Order of Australia–why not!–look at who they give them to. Instead my child was stolen from me and I was eviscerated by divorce lawyers and gaoled for attempting to retrieve my own best work which had been declared Marital Assets.

I can’t remember where, but I’ve seen another reviewer compare Peter Carey to a “bower-bird,” his books the product of a relentlessly curious mind attracted by flashy things and stitched together into an unlikely nest. Although it jumps around the world, from northern New South Wales to Sydney to Tokyo to New York, Theft: A Love Story is relatively restrained in its focus. Michael Boone – a once famous painter – has fallen from grace after a messy divorce and now ekes out a living taking care of his mentally impaired brother Hugh, living in his patron’s farmhouse in northern New South Wales. Michael is working on a painting which he hopes will propel him back into the graces of the art world when a strange woman named Marlene arrives one night, visiting his neighbour to authenticate a (fictional) Jacques Leibovitz painting. Not long after, that painting is stolen, Michael is accused, and the three characters embark upon an odyssey that will take them to Sydney, Tokyo and New York.

Carey, as always, has a beautifully evocative sense of place – although this was the first book I noticed just how deeply Australian that talent is. He can beautifully paint the muddy riverbanks of subtropical New South Wales, the dusty streets of Bacchus Marsh, the urban labyrinth of central Sydney – but his descriptions of Tokyo felt uncharacteristically flat and colourless. Even New York City – which, by the time this book was published, had been Carey’s home for twelve years – doesn’t quite leap off the page as Carey’s homeland does. Nonetheless he still has a turn of phrase, a garrulous narratorial voice, which never fails to please:

The taxis in New York are a total nightmare. I don’t know how anybody tolerates them, and I am not complaining about the eviscerated seats, the shitty shock absorbers, the suicidal left-hand turns, but rather the common faith of all those Malaysian Sikhs, Bengali Hindus, Harlem Muslims, Lebanese Christians, Coney Island Russians, Brooklyn Jews, Buddhists, Zarathustrians—who knows what?—all of them with the rock-solid conviction that if you honk your bloody horn the sea will part before you. You can say it is not my business to comment. I am a hick, born in a butcher’s shop in Bacchus Marsh, but fuck them, really. Shut the fuck up.

Theft: A Love Story falters quite a bit in the middle, but redeems itself by the end with a very clever plot development, and a final line which echoes one mentioned many times throughout, only now with an entirely different meaning. It’s not his best, but not his weakest either. Which, since it’s Carey, means it’s a really great read.

Here by Richard McGuire (2015) 304 p.

heremcguire

I recently moved into my own apartment for the first time, a one bedroom place in a two-storey complex at the edge of St Kilda Junction. St Kilda is one of those inner city Melbourne neighbourhoods currently in a state of flux, as developers buy up properties, demolish them, and build a new tower as high as they can under the council regulations, to the very edge of the property line, full of as many rabbit warren apartments as they can to flog off to Chinese buyers or our own home-grown all-Aussie negative-gearing baby boomer caste. There are no less than two huge, loud construction sites outside my bedroom window.

My building is from the 1950s. It occurred to me the other day that I will probably be one of the last people to live here; I give this place another ten years before a developer tears it down and throws up something fifty storeys high (which, before I start sounding like a writer for the Age, is exactly what should exist in a location like this). But how many people have lived here before me? How many families, couples, young single professionals?

Even if the building itself goes, this space will endure. People will still live in this same air, whatever kind of building surrounds it, just as the indigenous Kulin people lived here for tens of thousands of years before us. It’s just a patch of ground, but those generations stack up. In the tiny space of my living room, how many human stories have played out over tens of thousands of years? How many arguments, insults, first kisses, agreements, fistfights, break-ups, deaths, murders?

Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here takes place entirely within a single room in a house somewhere in the north-eastern Unites States. The setting is static, but it ranges enormously over time, from the primordial swampland of 3 billion BC to the far future of the year 22,000, when strange new megafauna roam across a tropical landscape. Most of Here focuses on the 20th and early 21st century, when the house exists, and we see a parade of those seemingly banal events that make up a life: children playing, people dancing, lost keys, parties, family photos, sickness, birth, death, and the whole gamut of life.

None of this is chronological (McGuire apparently considered having the publication process jumbled, so that every reader would have a unique book with a different progression) and neither are the years separated. Different panels show different events unfolding in different years; a woman scrubbing the floor on all fours in 1986 is juxtaposed against a wolf in a forest with a fresh kill in its jaws in 1430. A woman reads on a couch in 1999 while a pair of Native Americans make love on the forest floor in 1609. A man practices his golf putting in 1958 while people in radiation suits inspect a desolate landscape in the 24th century.

here

There are no distinct narratives to follow; no names, no families we can trace through the house as they grow and pass on. The constant cutting and chopping and the blurry, pop-art nature of the illustration make this impossible, and in any case this wasn’t McGuire’s intention. “Graphic novel” isn’t the right word for Here; neither is “comic,” not that I’m prejudiced against the word. Here is a creative work unlike anything else I’ve ever seen; a wholly original and fascinating concept executed beautifully. What seems at first an amusing gimmick develops into a meditation on space and time, the indifference of the planet, and the impermanence not just of our own lives but the human species as a whole. Here is one of the most unique things I’ve read in years.

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (2015) 121 p.

Killing and Dying

Adrian Tomine wasn’t a name I knew before I heard of this acclaimed comic collection, although I quickly recognised his drawing style: he’s one of the most regular cover artists for The New Yorker, and has a distinctive style of understated, pastel, almost motionless scenes which manage to capture those small, revealing moments in life. (My favourite is probably the central one here.)

Killing and Dying takes six of Tomine’s short comics and puts them in a collection that’s sad, funny, and surprisingly moving. Tomine has lived in New York for more than ten years, but nearly all of Killing and Dying is set in the drab California landscape of his youth, a perfectly rendered place of quiet suburbs, freeways, and cheap apartment buildings. (I love the cover: that bleak little Denny’s squatting at the edge of an intersection beneath a smoggy urban sunset.) If there’s one word to describe Tomine’s stories, it’s “subtle.” Comics are of course an excellent medium for subtlety, with all the unspoken details the artist can leave in the background, but Tomine is particularly good at it. The title story, “Killing and Dying,” is about a nervous teenage girl who decides she wants to try stand-up comedy, and her parents’ differing reactions to this – until about halfway through, when you suddenly realise it was a different kind of story all along.

The only problem I have with Killing and Dying is a problem I have with most of the comics and graphic novels I read, which is that it’s far too short. But it’s a beautiful book – both for its stories and as a physical hardback – and well worth your time.

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976) 242 p.

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sang

The position of women science fiction is a Hot Topic in the Discourse, because in spite of heavyweights like Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood, there’s no denying that it’s a genre heavily tilted towards male authors. So it’s great to see that writing stilted, awkward and crummy science fiction novels isn’t the exclusive province of semi-autistic male writers.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the 1977 Hugo winner and a fairly colour-by-numbers post-apocalyptic dystopia, split into three parts. The first takes place as global society is crumbling, and a tight-knit family with a farmland valley somewhere in the Appalachians resorts to cloning to keep their numbers up in the face of declining fertility. Why exactly a clan of hillbillies had so many esteemed scientists among their number to kickstart that process is something I’ve already forgotten, which is part of the problem. In a novel attempting to convey the creeping horror of having members of your family endlessly duplicate themselves, it helps if the characters are not in the first place so paper thin: wafer thin, tracing paper thin, the kind of paper they print Bibles with thin. In any case, this is one of those apocalyptic novels that suffers from First Act Syndrome, when all the characters who weren’t worth the effort to remember vanish after the time jump anyway, and the valley has become the domain of a weird new society of clones.

I could go on but there’s not much point. There’s lots of spiritual guff about the power of nature, I guess some Soviet-era hysteria about the fascism of empowering society over the individual, some weird obsessions with incest. It’s not completely unreadable, but it is completely unmemorable (I’ve already forgotten the main character’s name) and it slots in perfectly alongside all those other mid-century sci-fi novels which are more interested in exploring an idea than telling a story or painting interesting characters, yet still doesn’t do any of those three things particularly well.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990) 399 p.

Jurassic_Park-book_cover

This was possibly the first “grown-up” book that I ever read, back when I was about ten or eleven. I must have read it quite a few times following that but I certainly haven’t glanced at it since my early teenage years, so I thought it was worth a re-read to see how it held up.

We all know the story, obviously. The interesting thing is how the book diverges from the film, which has a strong Spielbergian touch, with lots of wonder and joy and a happy ending. The book is much darker.

The opening is very well done, told from the point of view of an American nurse working for a year in a remote village on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. A helicopter from the island off-shore where an American company is building “a new resort” arrives in the middle of a thunderstorm, carrying a badly injured worker. The other workers claim he was run over by a backhoe, but the nuse suspects the injuries are actually from an animal mauling. The man breathes the word “raptor” before he dies, and after the company men leave with his body, she asks another nurse if the word means anything in Spanish. The nurse is attending to a childbirth, and is upset to hear the word, since it’s a Central American superstition – a raptor is an abductor, a demon who kidnaps babies. The American nurse, as an afterthought, checks the word in her English dictionary and is surprised to find it there:

raptor \ n [deriv. of L. raptor plunderer, fr. raptus]: bird of prey

Which, I mean, even before the movie became so famous, the book is called Jurassic Park and has a picture of a dinosaur on the cover. But I still thought it was a very creepy and effective opening.

It later becomes a little ridiculous as characters completely fail to twig what’s going on. Dr Alan Grant is staggered to find dinosaurs being cloned on Isla Nublar, despite being a palaeontologist receiving funding from a genetic engineering company, who was sent fax evidence of what appears to be a dinosaur corpse found on the coast in Costa Rica, has had the company’s lawyers call him about said dinosaur corpse sounding very concerned, has seen the construction plans at Isla Nublar for what appears to be a large game park with very high fences and large moats, and has been invited down to it for the weekend because it would be “right up your alley.” Like… come on, man. And towards the ending of the novel, characters’ actions become increasingly random and motiveless.

This is often the problem with airport fiction – the sparse dialogue, the characters used as chess pieces, the plot as a machine to drive the novel in the direction the author wants it to go regardless of how little sense it makes. What it adds up to, in the latter stages of the book, is a thriller that’s not very thrilling. A film is always going to find it easier to create a sense of terror and suspense, but in this case the novel and the book aren’t even remotely close.

Spielberg was interested in telling an exciting story; Crichton is more concerned with exploring the ideas and the ramifications of cloning extinct species, both scientifically and philosophically. Writing a thriller comes second. Which is not to say that Jurassic Park is not a thrilling book – I found it quite compelling and page-turning, at least in the first half, despite having read it probably a dozen times as a kid. It’s just deeply flawed, and the film is far superior. The novel’s pace is too often interrupted by clunky (and sexist) characterisation, exposition, awkward info-dumps, authorial lectures masquerading as dialogue (especially from Ian Malcolm) and a lack of consistency in how dangerous the dinosaurs are supposed to be. It annoyed the hell out of me, for example, that even after the carnage unleashed on the characters by the raptor attack near the climax of the novel, Grant and Ellie and Muldoon and Gennaro still go off hunting for the wild raptor nest – and enter it – with the casual attitude of a Sunday stroll.

Having said all that, I still like it. Jurassic Park a great piece of airport fiction – a gripping novel which is easy to read and difficult to put down. The movie is unquestionably better, but the book is still worth reading – especially given that it has a very different ending.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989) 355 p.
Discworld #8 (City Watch #1)

guards guards

This is the book Pratchett advised new readers to start with; this is the beginning of the City Watch arc, the strongest thread in the Discworld series; this is the introduction of Sam Vimes, who may be “the most fully realised decent man in modern literature.” This is, in short, the highlight of the first ten books in the series.

The Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork was a proud institution, once upon a time, before the Machiavellian new ruler Lord Vetinari seized power. In an ironic joke mentioned in most of the books up to this point, Vetinari effectively legalised crime: allowing the thieves and the assassins and the beggars a certain quota of permitted activity, overseen by their powerful guilds, while also making them responsible for any unlicensed crime. While this resulted in a much safer, more predictable and prosperous Ankh-Morpork, it also sidelined the City Watch. By the time of Guards! Guards! the Night Watch has dwindled to just three men: the weaselly Corporal Nobbs, the overweight Sergeant Colon, and the wretched drunk in charge of them, Captain Sam Vimes.

The novel kicks off with two separate threads. The first is a shadowy secret society intent on restoring Ankh-Morpork’s “rightful” ruler to the throne; a collection of self-entitled idiots and half-wits manipulated by a leader who is far more intelligent and dangerous. Their plan involves magically summoning a long-extinct dragon to terrorise the city and leave the populace desperate for a hero – but as is always the case with man messing around with things he was never meant to understand, events go quite differently.

The second is the journey of young Carrot Ironfoundersson, a human raised in the mountains by dwarves, whose father – the local dwarf king – wants to send him off to the city to learn to live amongst his own kind. His father consults the only human he knows, the local trader Varneshi:

“I have heard that dwarfs go off to work in the Big City, ” said the king uncertainly. “And they send back money to their families, which is very commendable and proper.”

“There you are then. Get him a job in, in -” Varneshi sought for inspiration – “in the Watch, or something. My great-grandfather was in the Watch, you know. Fine job for a big lad, my grandad said. ”

“What is a Watch?” said the king.

“Oh,” said Varneshi, with the vagueness of someone whose family for the last three generations hadn’t travelled more than twenty miles, “they goes about making sure people keep the laws and do what they’re told.”

“That is a very proper concern,” said the king who, since he was usually the one doing the telling, had very solid views about people doing what they were told.

Varneshi provides Carrot with an ancient copy of The Laws and Ordnances of the Cities Ankh and Morpork, which the young lad dutifully learns off by heart on his journey to the city. The opening of Guards! Guards! is something of a fish out of water comedy, as the naive young Carrot learns how to be a policeman in a very different city to the place he imagined – a difference apparent before he even arrives:

He’d expected high white towers rearing over the landscape, and flags. Ankh-Morpork didn’t rear. Rather, it sort of skulked, clinging to the soil as if afraid someone might steal it. There were no flags.

Carrot’s determination to thrust his own ideas upon the city, however, strikes a chord with Captain Vimes: “a scruffy collection of bad habits marinated in alcohol.” By all accounts Vimes should be an unlikeable character – cynical, bitter, jaded and pathetic. But he’s admirable because he has an internal dignity, because the reason that he’s cynical and bitter and jaded is because he’s right. He hasn’t made it far in life because “every time he seemed to be getting anywhere he spoke his mind, or said the wrong thing. Usually both at once.” He’s a man of principle, and – as the book goes on – we see that he’s actually very good at his job; a keen observer and smart detective. He’s a character who, though it gains him nothing, still goes to confront the master of the secret society near the climax of the novel, and can give a speech like this:

“You can’t give me my job back,” repeated Vimes. “It was never yours to take away. I was never an officer of the city, or an officer of the king, or an officer of the Patrician. I was an officer of the law. It might have been corrupted and bent, but it was law, of a sort.”

By the closing books of the Discworld series Vimes will have gone from rags to riches, obscurity to prominence; he will be second only to Vetinari as the city’s most powerful figure. Yet he remains fundamentally the same man as the drunk in the gutter at the beginning of Guards! Guards!: a watchman, a police officer, a damn good copper. A sentry in the night, protecting the city from itself.

The ensemble cast of Guards! Guards!, who will remain the crux of the City Watch for many books to come, are also wonderful. There’s the disreputable, larcenous Corporal Nobbs, whose pay Vimes docks “for being a disgrace to the species;” Fred Colon, the red-faced man who will “automatically gravitate to the post of sergeant” and, if he hadn’t joined a quasi-military organisation, would have been a sausage butcher; Lady Sybil Ramkin, Vimes’ future wife, who has the careless attitude towards her property and her appearance that only the truly rich can get away with; and of course Carrot, the Watch’s new recruit and very possibly Ankh-Morpork’s long-lost true king, who is much sharper than he appears underneath a veneer of honest simplicity.

The characters are a huge part of why Guards! Guards! works so well. But it’s also tightly plotted, has high emotional stakes around the city’s peril, and is hilarious. I’d completely forgotten this joke but it’s one of my favourites in the series so far, as typical pulp fantasy heroes descend on the city in answer to the call for someone to kill the dragon and start talking about how hard the trade is these days:

“Monsters are getting more uppity, too,” said another. “I heard where this guy, he killed this monster in this lake, no problem, stuck its arm up over the door-”

“Pour encourjay lays ortras,” said one of the listeners.

“Right, and you know what? Its mum come and complained. Its actual mum come right down to the hall next day and complained. Actually complained. That’s the respect you get.”

Guards! Guards! simply works. It works really well: the characters, the plot, the pacing, the jokes. It’s the first really great Discworld book, surpassing both Mort and Wyrd Sisters. It’s actually quite surprising to me that Pratchett didn’t revisit the characters again (in their own book; I think they make cameo appearances for a while) until #16, Men at Arms.

In any case, Pratchett knew his own work. Guards! Guards! is the perfect starting point for a new Discworld reader, because aside from being the start of a major story arc, it encapsulates what the series does so well (and, down the line, does even better): a compelling plot with brilliant characters, sparkling dialogue, and wry observations about human nature seamlessly mixed into the prose. Highly recommended.

Rereading Discworld Index

The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America (2008) 365 p.

atlantic

I first heard of Andrew O’Hagan the way most people probably did, from reading his brilliant profile on Julian Assange which was published in the London Review of Books in February 2014. O’Hagan was contracted as Assange’s ghostwriter for an autobiography which never ended up happening, but it meant he became close to the man in 2011 and 2012, before he went into the Ecuadorian embassy, and the resulting profile is probably one of the best analyses of a living person I’ve ever read. Neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic, it’s a deep, thoughtful and above all sincere analysis of a person – the kind of piece only a novelist could write.

I read a lot of O’Hagan’s other pieces after that, because he has a good and honest writing style and is unafraid to inject his own biases and opinions; I also noted that one of his novels was longlisted for the 2015 Booker. The Atlantic Ocean is just something I picked up because it was on sale at Readings, and despite the thematic linking of America and Europe in its title, it’s a mostly unconnected collection of essays O’Hagan published between the early 1990s and mid-2000s. They cover topics ranging across British farming, Marilyn Monroe, the assassination of JFK, begging, Michael Jackson, George Bush, and dozens of others.

There’s a clear-cut difference between the essays in which O’Hagan discusses things from a distance – often the sort of extensive reviews the LRB publishes when it really wants to discuss a broader issue through the lens of a couple of books – and those in which he draws on his own life experiences and puts himself firmly into the story. The latter are usually far more interesting; there’s a solid piece about the murder of James Bulger in which he reflects on how violent and cruel children can be, and another comparing the lives of two soldiers (one American, one British) who both died on the same day in Iraq. There’s also a piece on Hurricane Katrina, in which he follows a pair of Southern men who want to travel to Louisiana to help people, and in which he curiously keeps himself out of the narrative entirely despite being right there working with them in the disaster zone. I prefer essays by anybody, I think, to involve a personal element; there’s no such thing as a truly disengaged journalist.

Overall this collection mostly fell flat for me, but I think I’ll read one of his novels. And if you never got around to reading his piece on Julian Assange when it got all that buzz two years ago, I thoroughly recommend it.

30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account by Peter Carey (2000) 248 p.

Peter Carey was born in country Victoria and raised in Melbourne, but it’s clear from many of his novels that his heart truly belongs to Sydney – even though, as he explains in the opening to this book, “I did not come to live in Sydney until I was almost forty and even then I carried in my baggage a typical Melbournian [sic] distrust of that vulgar crooked convict town.” (The fact that he misspells Melburnian is perhaps the best proof that he is a proper Sydneysider.) Carey ultimately settled in New York City, but 30 Days in Sydney – part travelogue, part memoir – details a month he spent revisiting his adopted hometown in 2000, the city’s Olympic year.

In both fiction and non-fiction, Carey has a way of beautifully capturing a place. I’ve been to Sydney for perhaps three cumulative weeks in my life and can’t really claim to know it, but the way Carey describes the place makes it stand out in my head as clear as anywhere I’ve ever been: the lush subtropical heat, the parks of palm and fig trees, the huge sandstone cliffs along the coast, the “great height and dizzy steel” of the bridge, and the dazzling expanse of the cerulean harbour itself, the greatest natural anchorage in the world, branching into a thousand secret coves and inlets.

Much of the book is fictionalised; Carey gives all his friends false names, and their conversations have that same wonderful patter as the characters in his novels; rambunctious people ear-bashing, arguing, cutting across each other – garrulous figures who never fail to say what they think. Like Mark Twain, Carey is a writer who will never let the truth get in the way of a good story. One of my favourite stories in 30 Days in Sydney concerns a pair of houses on Pittwater, a semi-wild part of Sydney’s urban fringe, where Carey and some of his friends lived for a number of years. In 1994, during a dreadful bushfire season (and after Carey had moved to New York), those two old houses full of so many wonderful shared memories came under threat as the fire front came down the peninsula:

With the red glow of fires all about them, Sheridan and Jack had stayed there one last night. They cooked a final meal, and at half past four in the morning, as the fire jumped the last break and spread in a great whoosh across the crowns of eucalypt, they boarded Jack’s rowing boat, pulled off into the bay, and watched the houses burn.

A moving image – probably embellished, but who cares?

Carey touches many other things throughout the book: Aboriginal dispossession, the corruption of the New South Wales elite, the experiences of early settlers, the Rum Rebellion, the Blue Mountains, sailing (including the dreadful storm of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart yacht race, in which six people died) and quite a lot more, considering it’s a short book.

Actually it’s 248 pages, but I read it in two days, since Carey is so wonderfully readable. I imagine you’d get less out of it if you weren’t at all familiar with Sydney, but I loved it.

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