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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.

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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.

In The Heart of the Country by J.M. Coetzee (1977) 139 p.

For a 139-page novella this was a hell of a slog. I’ve always found Coetzee, for a Nobel Prize winner and a man very clearly smarter than the rest of us, to be a surprisingly accessible writer: his prose is crisp, clear and concise. In The Heart of the Country, his second novel, this is unfortunately not so. It tales place on an isolated farmstead on the South African veldt, the narrator a young woman whose father is having an affair with the wife of his black farmhand. The novel’s style has a dreamy, unreal aspect to it, often bordering on stream of consciousness, and it can be difficult to tell what’s real and what’s a daydream or a fantasy. I hugely admire Coetzee as a writer, but as I said, this one was a slog.

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