‘Filthy Animals’ by Brandon Taylor, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

Brandon Taylor is something of an acquired taste with his preference for what I described in my reflection on his debut novel “Real Life” as ‘micro-examination of his characters’ motives and experiences’. He is, nevertheless, something of a literary darling selling well and obviously accepted by the BCC library with their 10 copies of this book. No, I am not at all sure, why this book is titled ‘Filthy Animals’ though there is an expected mix of human behaviours, good and bad.

The location is somewhat vague but seems like his previous title in a Mid-American town where science, mathematics, education, and the arts are present and important in his characters’ lives and prospects. Once again, there are several strands represented by individuals with different orientations or interests which eventually intersect as each chapter explores one direction while gradually revealing connections. This can be rather confusing initially until the reader becomes aware of some central issues which, on this occasion, are not heavily racially oriented.

The Wallace of the previous novel is replaced by a markedly insecure Lionel who is still working his way out of a suicide attempt and has returned to his academic environment somewhat reduced as he is given the task of proctoring exams, hardly a whole-hearted ‘welcome back’. He is also linked to the world of professional dance (ballet) which I found quite interesting as there is a long history of dance-related themes involving careerism, injury, and opportunity, all present here. I was quite prepared to pursue the storylines involving the doctor’s office visits over dance injury and a strangely dangerous pernicious coughing but ended up disappointed.

Out of this strand comes a pair of dancers living in an open relationship which permits Lionel to explore his gay orientation with Charles while Sophie in her distant yet interfering manner seems almost to encourage this with the unfeeling manner of a boy pulling the wings off an insect. She is a truly unlikeable character.

The novel is presented as a series of separate stories each with their own titles. I found it almost a feeling of hope as each opened with the prospect of something perhaps altogether new and engaging. All too often, it simply didn’t happen though some were definitely more interesting than others,  especially when Christianity was invoked.

It seems to be a characteristic of Taylor’s storytelling that we are never sure of our feelings or responses to the behaviour of characters as they seem to flip-flop or gradually segue in their interest and attractiveness from time to time.

As I said at the beginning of these notes, the micro-examination of thoughts and motives persist here alongside some elegant writing of place and even the sex, though not as focused as in ‘Real Life. This, for me constantly pulls me in two directions. At times, it is fascinating and enlightening but, just as often it is exhausting, off-putting, and begs for speed reading.

There is still here a lot to recommend this second offering. Some may find the indecision and lack of direction worthy of attention but I felt it needed more focus and at least a bit more completion to satisfy this reader.

BCC Library has 10 copies

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‘Memorial’ by Brian Washington,

A review by John Cook.

I rather enjoyed Washington’s first book ‘Lot’ which I wrote to this blog about a couple of years ago and there are continued similarities with this new offering. Houston, Texas is still a central focus but there is a central ‘away’ focus in Japan. This time, there is a somewhat established gay couple who are interracial (black American daycare teacher Benson and Mike, a Japanese American chef in a Mexican restaurant!) and living in a slightly shaky relationship. The atmosphere of Houston is well evoked while that of a claustrophobic Japanese living/working environment in Osaka absorbs.

Washington has turned his focus on relationships inward and tighter. The two protagonists have fallen into their ongoing relationship and are now beginning to question what they have, its nature and commitment, and how it relates to others and especially family. The key flashpoint is the impending death of Mike’s father in Japan and his relationship with his mother who is an intense but somewhat mysterious figure.

After some debate, Mike goes to Japan to be with his father, Eiju, while his mother, Mitsuko, moves in with Benson. This provides the two in Houston with an opportunity to explore and understand one another, a little. Mike experiences a deepening understanding of his father who was previously viewed as having abandoned him. I found this story in Osaka quite fascinating in so many senses, learning about the small closed world in his father’s bar both the clientele and those closer. The issue of the bar as an inheritance becomes closely woven into exploring the future direction of Mike and Benson’s relationship.

There is diversity in this tale though often briefly explored as in the case of Benson’s work acquaintances and putative new lover and also some in Osaka. The thing that varies most is the language. Washington is known as a poet but he can wander from the oddly descriptive phrasing to the utterly flat (though also quite evocative) in a way that is sometimes confusing and may be quite off-putting for some.

Here is Benson listening to his room-mate and his mother breathing in harmony with the overtones of its importance to his relationship

‘And then

And then.

And then slowly, suddenly. I’m asleep and when I wake up, it’s six in the morning.

Mike is snoring. The sound mingles with his mother’s murmurs, wafting in from the living room. She’s speaking on the phone in Japanese, warmly, decisively. She pauses every now and again, and I can practically hear her nodding. If you really squeeze your ears, the two noises suction in harmony, with Mitsuko and her son rising and falling in tandem, conducting their own tiny orchestra.’

Here are Benson and Mike talking about Benson’s wannabe trick, Omar.

‘He’s not my guy.

Fine. Your person.

This conversation is insane. I say

Maybe, says Mike. But tell me about him.

I’d rather not.

You were ready to dish earlier.

Stop it.

His name’s Omar, I say.

Omar, says Mike. That’s a nice name.

Don’t be a dick.

I meant it, says Mike. It’s a nice name.

Fine. I say

Do you like him?

No.

And then I say. I might like him.

But I don’t know, I say. I don’t know what we’re doing’

Mitsuko and Mike jousting about their relationship.

‘What if I said that I wanted you to come with me, said Ma.

What if I wanted to come home? Would that sway you at all?

If that were the biggest deal to you, I said, we would’ve gone back earlier.

And I suppose I’m not a big enough reason, said my mother, smiling.

And I’m not important enough for you to stay, I said.’

On balance, I found this to be an interesting and, at times, another interesting read from Washington. It is not always easy and some may find his literary expression tiring. I thought it was a deft description of a very contemporary real-life situation. Recommended.

(BCC library has 10 copies, plus 4 large print)

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‘Do Let’s Have Another Drink’ by Gareth Russell. 2022.

A review by John Cook.

I can perhaps award this book extra kudos for keeping me partly sane during my illness. It provided me with some interesting moments, a few laughs and some looks back to the past. Yes, I did stand wih my Mother at the side of the Queensland Parliament after a dinner in the Queen’s honour and cheered her on all those years ago. The book at times managed  to get me to re-assess again my jaded views on the royal/imperial thing and the lives those who are largely trapped within and what it means to them on all sorts of levels of their existence, public and private. There are so many ways individuals in ‘The Firm’ can project themselves in ways we like, enjoy, hate or just treat with disinterest. The latest set of scandals have highlighted this process and certainly made this book at least partially enticing, if only for that ‘grab you’ title.

I have read extensively over the years of Royal history at different depths of probing especially from Victorian times as various authors have stripped off layer of layer of fabrication and adulation. There are perfectly good very serious and well-researched books on this lady, her husband, marriage and role as matriarch. I did pick up snippets about her early very aristocratic but non-royal life and plenty more about her later years, early widowhood and her subsequent pastimes and general enjoyment of life enshrined in those stories of her regular spending, alcohol intake and the coterie of gay men who surrounded her. I must confess that if I had been ‘drafted’ into such a role I would have made sure that I always had an opportunity for another ‘drink’.

If you feel interested by all means drop in and sample the 101 tales (one for each year of her long life). She was always only human and made her way through life pretty much always true to her up bringing, beliefs and passions. Go for it! It probably won’t convert anyone but it does bring flashes of wit and insight that you just might enjoy.

BCC Library has 1 copy, 20 holds, on order

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‘She Who  Became the Sun’ by Shelley Parker-Chan, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

I looked forward to this book as I have a long-term interest in Chinese culture and history dating back to my Uni Ancient History days plus five visits to China since 1981. This fantasised version of history is spiced with at least two added elements. One is the role of eunuchs serving the Sons of Heaven, an interest which was originated for me with Taisuke Mitamura’s ‘Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics’. Many people are unaware of the role played by these servants as Military and Navy commanders who originated either as slaves or as a voluntary offering by their parents. The author has also included what could be described as transsexuality-by-choice with a peasant-born woman with emergent feminist views  “I refuse to be nothing…” taking up her dead brother’s role as being predestined to greatness to rule as Zhu Yuanzhuang, the first Ming Emperor.

I am aware of the linkage between ancestor orientation and the phenomenon of ghosts in Chinese culture but I found its use here regularly discomforting in this context. The author has researched well and presented the reader with a lot of detail about most aspects of this distant time and life and I often enjoyed that (If you are interested in methods of execution, you certainly will not be disappointed). The constant nature of local and wider states of warfare is on display and especially the to and fro between the constant threat of Western invaders (mostly Mongol) and the locally-based landed interests. The story is set in 1345ish at a time of local resentment and rebellion against the apparently invincible Mongol forces which are later carefully described at their Summer hunting venue.

In this book, we are presented with the story of a boy (Zhu Chongba)  born into a poor family and who is declared to have a date with ‘greatness’ but who then succumbs to extreme deprivation and a bandit attack leaving only his sister, number two daughter,  alive. The author makes it clear that this girl is at least a strong-willed survivor as she adopts her brother’s name and destiny by seeking entry to a monastery (where there is at least food). Don’t underestimate the author’s skill in describing the nature of famine and extreme poverty.

After displaying great determination, the faux monk applicant is accepted into the monastery with its way of life and personality very well described. In fact, this proved to be my favourite portion of the book. Just when things look like settling into an enduring pattern, the monastery is totally devastated by a revenge-seeking force from the Great Khan and the central character must once again seek her fortune while maintaining her male monkish persona.

From then on, we are treated to levels of incidents that put the character (always a monk with problems and advantages doubled by sex characteristics) in positions to influence events always towards opposing the Mongol rule. The problems of concealing her female characteristics are managed always against the background of certainty that she will fulfill her brother’s promise over which she endlessly ruminates, becoming quite lengthy and overstated. Zhu is accompanied in her adventures by a fellow male monk Xu Da, who becomes the first of her supporters and few intimates.

The eunuch interest is provided in the form of Ouyang, an emerging military figure who is part of the local Mongol influence which Zhu needs to overcome. He has all the expected feelings and concerns over his role in a local and distant Imperial influence that might be expected with his vengeful and suppressed anger suffused by a hidden love.

Both Zhu and Ouyang live in circumstances of complication that relate to those in power around them that highlight the constant scheming for advantage that is at once a danger but also a means to advancement if correctly gauged. Zhu’s main advantage comes in the form of a series of incidents that ensure her success in military adventures. While the first seems a bit improbable, the latter events are even more so.

The characters surrounding the action are several and often complicated and cruel so the emergence of one woman who can understand and support Zhu is an important element of the story. This is Ma Yingzi, a kindly woman who was engaged to a brute who is removed from the scene and becomes her closest supporter and lover, prostrating herself before her in the intended future glory. One other aspect that may be traditional was the references to human radiance which simply reminded me of comic book and cartoonish displays however it may have been traditionally expressed.

This is a fine mixture of several elements that try to take something rooted in tradition and recast it with important elements of modern culture while reflecting on their basic elements in all human behaviour. Some of that I did like but eventualluy felt the mix did not gel for me and instead I too often felt the dreaded longueurs.

I have read that there may be more to come on the pathway to power for Zhu.

BCC Library has 9 copies, 1 audiobook, and 1 ebook

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‘Son of Sin’ by Omar Sakr, 2022.

A review by John Cook.

I recently noted the publication of two Australian novels that focus on growing up gay/bisexual in the S-W suburbs of Sydney with the extra layer of being of Middle Eastern origin. I would suggest for further investigation you read ‘George Haddad and Omar Sakr centre bisexual Arab Australian protagonists in their debut novels’ at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-05-29/omar-sakr-george-haddad-novels-queerness/101097216.

There cannot be many Australians who have not been exposed in various forms to stereotypes of life in that part of Sydney where several ethnic Muslim groups and others from Asia coexist in a sometimes uncomfortable and even dangerous tribal mix. I wanted very much to read and hear about this environment, especially from a relatively younger population which experiences the same youth culture across Australia and the world but with the overlay of family, religious, and ethnic concerns and the issue of developing sexuality.

Both authors utilise the nature of the same-sex marriage debate, amongst other things, to illustrate the feelings and pressures of young people in communities that voted heavily against the proposal for religious/cultural reasons and the effect this had on their self-examination.

“He was used to ignoring their nonsense. The whole country was debating the legal validity of love, churches and mosques and Liberals unleashing all the hatred and fear they’d spent so long cultivating. He was used to the negative will of strange millions, too.” Sakr in interview

Jamal Smith is the product of a Turkish liaison living in Sydney’s SW, his Mother Hala is difficult with problems of her own while his father has retreated to his birthplace in Turkey. He is embedded in that community but remains uneasy about who he is especially concerning his father and overall his clearly emerging homosexuality.

“He was fatherless, or he had too many fathers, and neither felt right. The one time he’d asked his mum about it, she said that he was an accident and his dad was a cunt.”

On schooling …

“Ironically, going to a homophobic boys school was the gayest experience possible: all the boys did was talk about their dicks, what they wanted to do with them, how they liked to get off. He missed it, despite everything.”

There is a lot to savour in his early life with descriptions of the core group of his friends that include a Samoan and a Bosnian – no white bread here! Most of us remember the 2005 Cronulla riots and the reader experiences them again here from a very different perspective, how indicative they were of that time and continuing today.

He is profoundly confused by what he feels,  does, and wants to be.

“Earlier that night, he had knelt and died. He had sucked a dick into his mouth, putting another boy into raptures, and he wanted to do it again. This life, this world, was already over, and nobody but he knew that he had crossed an uncrossable line. They were all ghosts, still operating by the old rules, while he had become a new being.”

Sakr is a prize-winning poet and t shows at times as he contrasts elements of his life and interactions with his inner questioning, sometimes an uneasy combination. I found it difficult initially to keep up with his scattered family life, friends, and associations though this slowly settled and I began to appreciate how he was educating me about life for someone of his ilk trying to hold onto what he knows of family, friends, contrasting cultures and his desires even though this has been punctuated with his mother’s abuse and that from his uncles and aunts. He is haunted by his awareness of being ‘ibn haram’ – a son of sin.

As is appropriate and sometimes insightful the text is peppered with snatches of Arabic that relate to everyday life and relationships. Some escaped me but, again, drew me in to try to understand what is often presented in one dimension only.

The narrative progressed with Jamal finding a way to get to Turkey (this is a resourceful young man), where he enjoys cosmopolitan Istanbul but fails to fully attain the depth of relationship he sought with his father and family and their schemes while finding brief sexual comfort.

Overall, I found this to be a very worthwhile read. It is intensely personal with an extended treatment of internal ruminations that some might wish was more concise. I can recommend it to anyone who wants a greater and deeper understanding of the issues that permeate Jamal’s life.

‘”Who am I becoming now? I’m a person invested in love, invested in being whoever I want to be without fear. I don’t think I could have said that before writing this book.” – Sakr

BCC Library has 10 copies, 1 audio, I ebook

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‘The Death of Vivek Oji’ by Akwaeke Emezi, 2019.

A review by John Cook.

I say wonderful simplicity. Simplicity because the prose is so easy to read and absorb – even when the occasional local word or expression is employed. Wonderful because this was one of the most enjoyable books I have had in my hands for some time. It has so much to offer in its interest, emotional engagement, and moral questions. I enjoy a book that takes me out of my comfort zone and this one set in small-town modern Nigeria highlights differences in understanding between age groups, cultures, class and social settings, gender and, of course, change.

The title character, Vivek Oji, is found dead with head injuries wrapped in cloth on his home doorstep.

‘the length of his body stretched out on their front veranda … the back of his skull … broken and seeping into their welcome mat’,

We are promptly plunged into an extended family and friends dynamic that centres around Vivek’s parents, Chika (father), and Kavita (his Indian mother). His Aunt Mary, her husband, and son Ostia. They are descended from a common grandmother who lived and died in a more traditional farmland setting.  Vivek is very close to her and has a physical link in the form of an identical ‘soft starfish’ scar under his foot.

The family has moved into a more Westernised business-oriented way of life but the threads of traditional ways of thinking and acting are mixed with social-political pressures (Northern Nigeria and Muslim terrorists) and their local consequences in mob activity and ‘necklacing’. One further element that intrudes is the impact of Christianity and especially fundamentalism. The amount of multi-culturalism in this location was surprising, especially in the form of a group of immigrant wives who move and respond almost like a chorus – the Nigerwives. It is fair to say that the female elements in this story are largely stronger and more effective than the men which is not surprising when considering the traditional role of Nigerian women as marketers and businesswomen.

Three elements from this book will remain with me for a long time. One was the treatment of blood in associations with Vivek’s death and funeral, the descriptions of his interment alongside his grandmother, and the jewel-like tale of Ebenezer and Chisom which had the feel of Chaucer and Boccacio.

The book is organised with a continuing narration with occasional inputs from the now-dead Vivek and his cousin Ostia. This worked remarkably well especially toward the end as a lot of the incidental clues are orchestrated into a final revelation. Keep an eye out for Vivek’s change in naming and gender pronouns (he (Oji) and she (Nnemdi)). There are a number of images that are cleverly interwoven with events that are signaled quietly without any indication of their future significance such as his silver chain necklace ..

‘placing one of the necklaces against his sternum, over his silver chain, clipping his ears with the earrings … so beautiful he made the air around him dull’

The main interest in the story is who Vivek was, how he lived his life and the apparent mystery of his death and deposition on his parents’ doorstep. He was born unpropitiously at the time of his grandmother’s death and his behaviours as he grows are seen by others as increasingly strange. This is initially explicable as he is subject to fitting (petit mal). However,  his increasing withdrawal and changes signaled by growing his hair very long (dangerously non-masculine) and his association with his female cousins lead to more and more isolation and deepening concerns from his mother who only wants a conventional life and successes for her son. This is not happening and she is constantly searching for ways to change things but, until too late, lacks the capacity to truly understand him.

Given that he kept so much of himself internal and hidden, it is not surprising that other voices do not see and feel the real Vivek which helps to maintain the tension about how others react to him (exorcism through to assault with bottles) until the truth begins to gradually seep through. I feel most readers will gradually sense a greater identification with him and understanding of his life and manner of death. Vivek is not always a totally sympathetic character and could be irritating to know with sudden bursts of behaviour such as the one that led to his demise.

This is a clever, sensitive beautifully written book that was a joy to read, to try to incorporate its message, and to absorb its emotional load.

BCC Library has 10 copies, 1 ebook

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‘Becoming Ben: From God to Gay’ by Lindsay Duncan, 2022.

A review by John Cook.

At my most unfortunately disparaging, I could describe this book as a composite of a long-term Sydney coming-out story and the DSM5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). That would be unfair as it has a lot to offer for people with several relevant different needs and situations. It starts innocently enough with a young man (Ben) growing up in an inner-West suburb of Sydney (Annandale) – it has to be said that the locations in this story are mostly easily identifiable and rarely disadvantaged. It rapidly becomes clear that whatever pressures surround this boy, his sexual interests are homosexual.

He lives in a good-quality home and goes to a good-quality school. However, this does not extend to his mother who is very distant, dominating, punitive (the feather duster holder), secretive, alcoholic, sexually abusive, and deeply involved (dependant) in a typical Sydney evangelical religious group which distorts and damns his family life (count those problem areas). Apart from his inner life and schooling, Ben lacks a decent social environment which is provided by a family who live opposite and supplies him with warmth, understanding, and an opportunity to develop his creative skills in many respects. They not only provide him with a supportive emotional and working environment, but they also have a very bright daughter (Prue Goldberg) who becomes a ‘bestie’ for Ben even with her weird supernatural predispositions. The family, including Ruth, is a very talented and understanding non-practicing Jewish lot with skills and interests stretching from gardening to photography, art, and cooking. They are very understanding and supportive of Ben.

The author, Lindsay James Duncan is a Registered Psychologist, Life Coach, and  Business Adviser, and its shows in two key respects. The number of developmental and familial factors that mark the lives of all characters are substantial ranging from childhood problems to developmental, sexual, business-oriented, honesty, and the full range of coming-out characteristics including self-worth, self-harm, panic attacks, substance abuse, and suicide along with being involved in the well-documented history of adoption from unwed mothers in this country. At the same time, Ben eventually encounters helpful understanding psychotherapy (Dr. Jones) which becomes something of a mantra for many others in his life space. Who knows from what basis the author has drawn this series of stories which mostly didn’t always disturb me but eventually have me guessing what the individual characters’ problems might be, their causation, and therapeutic response. Ben like many gay men has a problem with commitment ( love?) which shapes a lot of the tale and ends reasonably well. Like much in the book with plenty of twists and turns, I did find myself questioning so many instances of happy circumstances that led to good things – just too much at times.

There is a heck of a lot going on in this tale including legal will problems and dealing with the discovery that one has a twin and that can be quite interesting and enjoyable reading.  I identified with many of the dimensions especially avaricious religion and the history of care (at all ages) of Australians who need help. Who wouldn’t want a Russian Blue cat called Boris to come home to?

I can recommend it but with the caveats expressed.

BCC has 0 copies

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‘Something Else’ by Alicia Thompson, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

I set out to read this book as it is clearly Aussie and the author was in town for a promo talk. I got a bit more than I had bargained on. I thought it would probably be a romantic tale of two men finding each other under somewhat unlikely circumstances – a locum doctor and a local small-scale grazier. I got all that but with some extras. The author is based at Wollombi and is very much a local country person though with overseas and much business experience. I admit to a personal interest as my ancestors raised a family there in the early days of the convict road. The bush living elements in this story ring very true in so many details from drought, storms, stock and feed prices, bank managers, home cooking, and the sometimes claustrophobic social setting – even a Henry Lawson style faithful dog and snake attack! The author has earned a Masters in Creative Writing and says that the book was some seven years in gestation.

The farmer isn’t totally that by trade and inclination. David Mulkerin had left town to train and work successfully as a High School teacher. The death of his father had him return to the property which has strong emotional entanglements surrounding the accidental death of his younger brother for which he blames himself. His mother has retired to the coast and there is now pressure on him to sell off which is currently stymied by drought and financial considerations. He has embedded himself in the local community and has close relations with his neighbour and their daughter. There is nothing gay about this man – certainly, he doesn’t think so!

Dr Martin James arrives in town as a locum putting him in a place to be known as a local doc and working in the local hospital. While apparently successful and something of a Sydney sophisticate, he carries baggage concerning his sexual preference which went down badly with his father and somewhat abusive brother. He is, however, in the closet with the locals but rumours swirl.

The link between the two is forged through a farm accident to David’s hand which he male-typically mistreats until Martin gets on the job with, of course, the need to follow up on the repair. This, fortuitously, occurs on the farm and the two gradually put out feelers based on their shared love of music (piano and flute) and a good meal, settling into a pattern of a weeknight meal and shared weekends when townie Martin is introduced to smallholding life. Just fellers together though the local rumour mill grinds on..

I thought that this was well done throughout with all sorts ofaspects of country life being accurately presented while Martin is a little baffled over why David doesn’t simply cut and run with him, even with the financial and emotional baggage he is carrying. He has underestimated the situation as David cannot bring himself to see himself as being ‘gay’ even when he is doing what the two patently enjoy doing together. The book gives a fair treatment to the business of male-to-male sex, its sequalae, and even its lingering aspects. You could call it bisexuality, fluid sexuality, or anything else but David cannot bring himself to see his behaviour classified in this way and especially feels betrayed when he accidentally discovers Martin’s sexuality.

You could think that this would just be a matter of time with some rain on the paddocks and more time in bed before things could be resolved in some kind of happy ever after fashion but that doesn’t make for a good read. No spoilers but a sizable eruption occurs in the storyline that has to be dealt with both in terms of the rural locality and the city. This author certainly knows her stuff when it comes to Sydney’s Centennial Park inter alia. I can attest to it.

So, this certainly cannot be classified as a conventional Romance but it certainly is a love story between two men who drift together under an almost magnetic influence and find their way down a rocky road to what can only be described as true love. It probably doesn’t matter what label you may try to attach to their meeting and being together, just that they found their way to being in love.

BCC Library has 10 copies.

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‘Belladonna’ by Anbara Salam, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

This is essentially a lesbian first love story. It is, however, far from being simple, which gives it all sorts of complications in terms of time, place, religion, ethnic origins, and the backgrounds of its characters. Some of this is quite interesting and enlightening and provides a range of character and narrative potentials. Unfortunately, this was not always realised. While I sometimes responded well to the physical descriptions of the Tuscan locations and what transpires there, I found myself equally unlikely to respond to the characterisations of some of the individuals presented and the often flat tone and dialogue.

The author has a very interesting background as she is described as half-Palestinian and half-Scottish who grew up in London and has a Ph.D. in Theology from Oxford. Her grandmother Anbara Salam Khalidi came from a French-period Lebanese family and gained importance for promoting women’s education and literature. She married a Palestinian educator.

This is the author’s second novel and she has drawn much of her own above-mentioned background and feminism into the story. What is unusual is its timing and placement. There are two main locations – a small town in Connecticut US and a decaying convent in the Tuscan Hills (the Accademia di Belle Arti di Pentila). The time is 1957-8. The linkage is Roman Catholicism. I had to check to verify that Connecticut is still a strongly Catholic state, probably even more so at the time presented.

Initial contact with the two main characters, Bridget and Isabella, shows them to be quite close friends enjoying most benefits of education at that time but with a disparity in wealth, popularity, and racial profile. In this respect, Isabella is the clear winner, and Bridget with her part-Egyptian background scrambles and frets about her position always with a watchful eye. Both are looking forward to an approved overseas educational experience that might act as a finishing layer for the ever-present marriage market. Interestingly, the author has chosen to go back in time to explore the world of these two young women and while I was aware of the pressures of social, marriage, and peer group pressure of that time, I was not aware of their drinking and smoking habits. I was a teenager at that very time and the Brisbane equivalent was Stuartholme school and convent. As an aspiring gay boy, it was unlikely I would have known much apart from the claims of my more boastful straight fellow school boys.

There is more than friendship beginning colour Bridget’s ‘relationship’ with Isabella who seems on the expected trajectory with Ralphie while her family and her sister Rhona her anorexia are always underlying concerns for Bridget. The much-anticipated experience arrives and the girls find their way to the convent art school.

There is a great deal of detail about the physical location of their school as an appendage to a group of nuns who have taken a vow of silence. While this is a useful plot device, it can also be seen as a metaphor for the traditional subjugation of women. We are treated to considerable detail about the school, meals, routines, and eventually expressions of a desire to break away apart from smoking and drinking.

One aspect of this involves exploring some of the more ramshackle parts of the school environment with the aid of the one nun permitted to talk with and assist the students – the cigarette-smoking sister Teresa.

While still often wracked by her finger-pressing anxieties, Bridget becomes aware that the polarity of social acceptability between her and Isabella is reversing which she enjoys but her obsessive desire to be with her companion overrules all else. At this point, I had to do battle between teenage excess and an obsession that borders on the pathological. There follows an almost whirlpool-like acceleration of the narrative with some pretty obvious twists that will need to be resolved (no spoilers here). Suffice it to say that the conclusion is forward-looking in terms of feminism.

I am afraid that the long less colourful periods were only occasionally relieved by flashes of interest for me and I sometimes found the book somewhat hard work though it had its reward. Anyone who remembers unrequited crushes will savour at least some parts of this story and perhaps prove that they got off lightly

I have to confess to a deep-grained perhaps unreasoned prejudice. I have often heard Connecticut-bred ladies who possess an accent that is thin, harsh, and strident rather like nails on a blackboard. I associate it also with an unfortunate incident on a cruise ship so I found myself injecting this dislike into the backstory of the two principal characters of this story. Sorry, it turns out it was probably unwarranted.

BCC library has 5 copiesBCC library has 5 copies.

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‘The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle’ by Matt Cain, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

This book had me recalling ‘Baxter’s Requiem’ by young Matthew Crow – another gentle reflection on older age and missed opportunities. While Baxter was a more ‘out’ character and was a recognizably ‘different’ individual in his old folks home environment,  Albert has done a pretty good job of suppressing who he is for a very long time though both characters share the initial need for someone younger to support their projection into the present or realisation of the past.

Our Albert has lived out his life (a few months short of retirement) in a smaller Midlands town. His early years were unexceptional with a severe Dad and an increasingly needy Mum. After his father’s death, he devoted his life to working, maintaining the family home, and as carer for his gradually declining mother who seemed to be wrapped in her misery. Albert got a job as a postie when young and has remained in the job knowing quite a lot about his customer’s lives but remaining very withdrawn even from his workmates, though once again he has his views about them. His life (skillfully portrayed especially at home) has become extremely regimented and routine and there seems nothing much that would draw him away from his introspection.

His mother has died, creating a small opportunity for change but the pattern lingers right up to the death of his beloved cat which was his only companion and welcomer home each day. Here is the simple but moving time when Gracie has to be put down.

“Once the door was shut, Albert bent down and rested his head against Gracie’s. Despite the pain she was in, he could hear her start to purr. ‘Bye bye, my little girl,’ he said. ‘My beautiful, special little girl.’ As he felt the softness of her fur and breathed in her familiar nutty scent, he couldn’t quite believe this was the last time he’d be able to do this. If only he could keep stroking and smelling her for ever. He tried not to choke on his sadness. Come on, lad, don’t fall to pieces. ‘You know you’re the best friend I’ve ever had,’ he went on. ‘And I’ll never stop loving you.’ He checked there was no one at the door and nuzzled her the way she liked to nuzzle him. Her purring grew louder. He could feel the tears welling in his eyes and sniffed them back. He held her paw in his hand and stroked her soft, warm pads the way he did when they were sitting together on the sofa. ‘I’ll never stop loving you, Gracie, and I’ll never forget you.’ He could hear the sound of Duncan’s footsteps in the corridor. ‘Bye bye, my little girl,’ he said. He let go of her paw and pulled away.”

However, there is a largely unresolved issue in Albert’s life. He is gay and had realised this while still at school and had a very happy, but very guarded, relationship with George. George is flamboyant with the then usual love of musicals, dancing, and language. He complements Albert beautifully even at an early age and the two enjoy romantic trysts in an old army pillbox overlooking the unaccepting town (nice imagery here). There is an inevitable discovery with parent-dominated consequences to which Albert acquiesces while George wants to rebel. The two part with George’s family leaving town. We get the impression that Albert did not have an interpersonal sex life after that time but has woven his memories of their time together into his daily routines such as dancing around the living room to musical recordings with only his beloved cat as an audience.

‘Worried he might be about to throw up, Albert felt his way to the exit and yanked in a breath of air. In an instant he was hit by another fragment of memory: two young men dancing on the hillside, dancing with their arms locked around each other as one of them sang out loud, safe in the knowledge that they were too far away from the town for anyone to see or hear them. Albert’s ache grew so strong he began to fold in on himself.’

The touchstone issue occurs when Albert is notified that his 65th birthday is imminent and he must retire. This is something he typically tries to avoid confronting but eventually realises he must deal with it. The two matters collide as Albert realises this might be his chance to reconnect with George. His problem is that doesn’t much know how to go about it apart from the existence of forwarding addresses of which he would be well aware. The key to getting help means that he might have to start outing himself and this is what happens on an ever-widening scale. Interestingly enough, he largely encounters a lot of understanding and support along the way which, for me, was a minor weakness. Albert suffers the fears and concerns of doing this but it all seemed to go a little beyond what normally might be anticipated.

His search for help in navigating the world of internet searching and apps lead him to single Mum Nicole and her bub Reenie. These characters were quite well defined within what might be expected for a contemporary young woman struggling with abandonment in her recent relationship, trying to educate herself for some job security and generally get ahead. Albert has seen her on his rounds and knows that she is smartphone capable and has her hard times. The two combine with Nicole helping with leads to locate George while Albert counsels her (in his own way) as she is trying to determine if her new relationship will withstand disapproval from the parents of her boyfriend (Jamie).

‘He cradled his tea in his hands as he explained that he hadn’t had any success on social media, something that worried him. But he had found the address the family moved to nearly fifty years ago. Nicole’s heart heaved. Fifty years? So does this mean he’s lived without love for all that time?’

Things begin to move along quite smartly as Albert learns more about George’s life including becoming a drag queen of sufficient skill to be invited to perform in London where he is found to be living at the present. At the same time, Albert’s departure from his job leads to a shower of acceptance from his workmates and community (again, a bit overdone for me).

There is a comfortable resolution for Nicole and her partner while Albert and George set out to explore what might be possible for them at this stage of their lives.

This is a good and easy read with a praiseworthy message about coming out. Am I just a bit too much of an old cynic to find it all too welcoming? Certainly, the central message of optimism is loud and clear.

‘Albert took a sip of his tea. ‘And that’s exactly as it should be. But I did want to share with you what I’ve learned since I started looking for George, in case there’s anything you can learn from it. And one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that people can only really like you if you show them the real you and give them the chance to.’

“When he was little, if he ever cried, his dad would say he looked like a ‘melted welly’. Now not only must his face look like it was melting, but he could also feel snot leaking out of his nose and a low wailing sound escaping from his mouth. The heat prickled his face and his body began convulsing, as if in shock at expelling such an intense emotion after such a long time. But even though Albert was feeling acute pain, he was dimly aware that part of him was pleased to feel it. Because it transported him back to a time when he’d lived with the intensity of his feelings for George. Slowly, the gulf between who he was then and the man he’d become since was beginning to close. Have I really changed that much after all?”

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