18 April 2017

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark, UK, 1971

Witty and intelligently written, this novella is set in a upper-class home outside Geneva on a particularly stormy and inclement night. The Baron and the Baroness have withdrawn to the library with their secretary and have impressed upon the staff that they are not to be disturbed.

With the three central characters off-stage in the library, the butler, Lister, orchestrates the entire evening as though it is a play; reality and the absurd are expertly woven together; and it is difficult to know where the one begins and the other ends. The butler and the other members of the staff prepare for a three-way tragedy, although why or how this should be happening remains a partial mystery. With great flair, Lister organizes everything for the expected onslaught by police, the media and outsiders at daybreak; he has even given taken care of things like the Baron’s mad brother cloistered in the attic and the inheritance of the estate. Everyone practises the lines he or she will later repeat for the police and others, and, like the director of a play, Lister adds a word here, removes a sentence there, makes suggestions...

Not to Disturb needs to be read several times in order to appreciate the satire and the very clever twists and turns of language. The ending leaves the reader with many questions: how much did the staff actually know in advance? Were they complicit in the tragedy? What happened afterwards? . . . Perhaps one of the strengths of the novella is that there are no definite answers to these many questions.

The photo of Muriel Spark in 1960 is from Wikipedia

04 April 2017

The Good People by Hannah Kent, Australia, 2016

Hannah Kent’s second book follows in the footsteps of her first book, Burial Rites, where the story plays out against a background that is harsh, grey, cold and unforgiving. While Burial Rites is set in Iceland, The Good People has the Irish winter of 1825/1826 as its background. Kent’s ability to capture a physical sensation of cold and deprivation in her writing is to be admired.

This is a book about the complexity of myth and superstition and the way in which it merges with traditional religious belief. The story, situated in an Irish rural village of the early nineteenth century, centres on three women: Nόra, newly widowed and the guardian of her deceased daughter’s four-year-old child, Micheál; Nance, the village wise woman; and Mary, a fourteen-year-old girl hired by Nόra to help her with Micheál.

Micheál is disabled, though, if we are to believe Nόra, he began life as well and healthy as any other child. Although she fears that her daughter and son-in-law may have failed to care for him and feed him properly, Nance strongly believes that he is a changeling: the real Micheál has been taken by the fairies or the good people.

The story unwinds against a background where a depressing Irish winter competes only with ignorance, herbal remedies and an unbelievable array of concoctions to ward off harm and/or bring luck. Traditional religious practices may be part of every-day life for these people, but as the new priest soon realizes (much to his chagrin) his flock is not only Christian but also pagan.

The Good People should appeal to most readers but especially to those who have experienced Irish superstitions and folk lore at first hand. It is a book that once commenced cannot be put down.

Photo of Hannah Kent from The Australian

21 March 2017

On the Beach by Nevil Shute, UK, 1957

I first read this book many years ago when I was in my late teens, and although I could remember the main theme I had forgotten many of the details. This second reading added many different perspectives, which was inevitable given the fact that years had become decades.

At the very beginning of the book it is apparent that all life has been eradicated from the northern hemisphere after the unfortunate firing of several nuclear bombs by the “Irresponsibles”, and that the nuclear cloud is rapidly approaching Australia, the last island of life on the planet. But it is the 1950s and, despite being swept towards such a horrifying reality, people are more friendly and courteous, and things seem simpler.

Yet, underlying all the polite, and at times seemingly unnecessary, conventions, people are actually in a state of disintegration: Moira is losing herself in alcohol; Dwight (an American) clings to the impossible belief that his family is still alive and well in America; Mary devotes her time to her garden and other home improvements. Peter is one of the few characters who is able to admit to himself the inevitability of what is about to happen, and yet he finds himself in a situation where he is forever balancing other people’s fantasies with the unavoidable reality.

Photo of Nevil Shute from Wikipedia

Readers living in the twenty-first century might wonder at the perceived apathy of the Australian people as they wait for the cloud to envelop them; however, there are substantial differences between the 1950s and the twenty-first century. The transport possibilities that had been fairly basic at best were made null and void with the scarcity of petrol – bikes and horses were not going to move many people very far, nor would it happen quickly. Also, the idea of cycling in front of a cloud that would sooner or later overtake every human on the planet would not have been very encouraging. People from that period were not tied to information media as we are today, but were this to happen today we would most probably find ourselves in a similar position: no radio, no newspapers, no television and no internet. Once our twenty-first-century dependence on external media was forcibly removed we would probably feel that we were in a worse position than the people from the 1950s.
The writing is typical Nevil Shute: it does not create a literary masterpiece, but it gives us a few hours of relatively fast-paced entertainment. That said, On the Beach is not just mindless entertainment as it paints a reality that was extremely possible in the latter part of the 1950s and, unfortunately, is just as possible today, sixty years further on.

07 March 2017

The Spare Room by Helen Garner, Australia, 2008

This is a book about life and death, and about how the two are intricately intertwined. It is a book about friendship and love, frustration and anger and the complex connections between these emotions. The Spare Room is a book about the necessity of being able to let go.

The ‘I’ of the book, Helen, is in her mid-sixties and lives in Melbourne. A friend, Nicole, who is a stage-four cancer patient, moves in with Helen for three weeks while she is undergoing alternative cancer treatment. Initially, Helen is happy to be able to help her friend, but this emotion becomes jaded as she realizes that the treatment is bogus, that Nicole is refusing to accept the ineptness of the alternative therapies and her own mortality, and that the three-week stay is likely to be extended. Indefinitely. Moreover, Helen is torn between love for her friend and frustration at having to be complicit in Nicole’s construction of positive outcomes and happy endings.

Photo of Helen Garner from Text Publishing
Eventually the situation reaches a crisis point.

Through her two main characters, Helen Garner presents the important ideas of life, death and friendship. She lays out the facts and lets the reader make his/her own decisions. It is a beautifully written book, and one that I definitely recommend to others.

21 February 2017

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, UK, 2016

Julian Barnes writes on page 125 (edition published by Jonathan Cape): What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.

This a beautiful book, beautifully researched and written. There is nothing in the early part of the book that indicates that the book is about Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich; this is information that appears piece by piece, until the reader says: “Why, of course… ”

Drawing upon a number of biographies of the composer, The Noise of Time is not itself a biography, even though it follows a rough timeline from birth to death. In many ways it is a painting of Shostakovich where his emotions and his vital essence take priority over dates and happenings. It is this presentation that makes the book so special and so readable.

Shostakovich is a gifted composer, for whom music is everything, who is caught up in a society that has lost its soul. He watches while other creative people are exiled to camps or executed, and he awaits the knock on the door that will lead to the same fate for himself. Bit by bit he learns that the truthful expression of his innermost emotions will only lead to annihilation. In the end he compromises.

It is this compromise that is the most difficult thing Shostakovich has done. He is no longer being completely truthful to the creative force within him, but the alternative does not bear thinking about. Some may see him as a coward, but opting to reconcile two opposing forces – his own creative nature and the Soviet State – Shostakovich must be given due praise.

His fears, his love of music, his frustration with the State and the people administrating it weave together to give us the portrait of a man filled with the boundlessness of music but also with many regrets and much soul-searching. Definitely a book worth reading.

The photo of Julian Barnes above is from HeadStuff

07 February 2017

Argo by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, USA, 2012

In November 1979, Iranian revolutionaries, many of them students, stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took more than sixty staff hostage. The attack was condoned by the Ayatollah Khomeini who, only months earlier, had formed a provisional government after the exile of the shah, and although several hostages were later released the majority remained captive for 444 days. Unbeknown to the revolutionaries six Embassy staff were outside of the Embassy when it was attacked, and they managed to keep themselves hidden until the Canadian Embassy gave them refuge. The fact that they had avoided capture and that the Canadians were now harbouring them had to be kept secret, but everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before the revolutionaries would flush them out.

Antonio Mendez, working in the disguise and extrication section of the CIA, was given the job of getting the six Americans out of Iran. He knew that his chances of success were extremely slim, but he was prepared to try even if it meant that he could lose his life in the process. He came up with the idea of a film company producing a film ‘Argo’, and the six Americans were to be Canadian film crew checking possible locations for the film. Mendez hoped that the airport immigration authority would accept the story – evident from all the forged paperwork – that the Americans had only been in the country for a few days and were now on their way elsewhere.

Photo of Antonio Mendez from

The amount of background work that went into building up this story is amazing, and from this point of view the book is extremely interesting. However, excluding the final chapter where there are some nail-biting scenes, the book fails to impart the tension and the suspense that would have been a major part of such an undertaking. This could be the fault of the writing, which is very mediocre, or it could be due to the fact that there is far too much, to my way of looking at it unnecessary, information and too many references to incidental characters. I can understand that Mendez most probably wanted to give some idea of his standing and his exploits within the CIA, but the overload of information impacts negatively on the story as a whole. 
Photo of Matt Baglio from
The book was followed almost immediately by the film by the same name. Since reading the book, I have seen the film, and thankfully it does manage to extricate the suspense and water down the information overload.