On Reading, Part Six

I learnt a new word recently. Bibliobibuli. It means someone who reads too much. H. L. Mencken describes it as being “constantly drunk on books, as others are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing, hearing nothing.” For about a week at the end of August, that was me. For just one week, all I wanted to do was read, readreadread, read as much as I could and then keep going, straight on til morning. It was only when Mum told me to stop being so OCD that I stopped and looked past the end of the book and saw that it was perhaps true. This doesn’t happen often, in fact I don’t think it’s really happened before. And it only happened this time because of J. K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, which I talk about later.

But first up is Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant. Often thought of as a companion or a sequel to The Secret River, it in fact precedes it, at least historically, by a good twenty-odd years, though this distinction is not important. Out of two, The Lieutenant is by far the more engaging and rewarding, at least in my view, and it’s taken me a while to try and work out why. Simply put, it’s because the story is so pure, so elegant and heartbreakingly tender. It is a fictionalised portrayal of William Dawes, the colony of New South Wales’ first astronomer, the Dawes of Dawes Point (hence the reason the Sydney Observatory is where it is). As Grenville writes on her website, “the story has been hidden for two hundred years between the lines of two shabby blue notebooks stored in a London manuscript library [now digitized]. They record the extraordinary friendship between Lieutenant William Dawes, a soldier with the First Fleet to New South Wales, and a young Aboriginal girl, Patyegarang.” At its heart is the story of Dawes – or, rather, Daniel Rooke – and his friendship with Patyegarang (or Tagaran as she is here), and his attempts to learn the local indigenous language, to teach the local people his language. It’s an exchange of ideas and languages unlike anything else, something so profoundly simple and moving, borne out of a need to survive and communicate, that the book’s conclusion is as devastating as it is bittersweet. Taking Dawes’ observations and conversations as he recorded them in his notebooks, Grenville invents the contexts in which they may have taken place in a seamless mix of fictional history. The Lieutenant is a beautiful book, and has something that The Secret River lacks, something I think is heart, a great big beating blood-pumping heart, one that sits at its centre and never stops feeling and being and living and breathing.
The Secret River, on the other hand, is essentially a fictionalized biography of Grenville’s ancestors, set on the Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century. It’s an angry book though Grenville does her best to disguise it; angry at the way white Australia has treated the original inhabitants of the continent, their stubborn iron-willed settlers who may little or no attempt to learn how to live in their new home. The first third of the book is steady and clear, but it soon becomes drawn into the ‘savage’ world of the Hawkesbury, the area in which the local indigenous population thrive. It’s only in the last fifty pages or so, once the settlers decide to take matters into their own hands that the book picks up again. And it’s a shame, because it’s a devastating sequence, a futile (and yet ‘successful’) attempt to take control of the ‘situation’. Too much of The Secret River seems to be Grenville pointing the finger without trying to, wanting to present a case for or against but knowing she cannot, and as a result much of the book is conducted in the shadowy half-light of deception and half-truths. In this regard, The Lieutenant is the stronger, more rewarding book, very much the mirror-image of The Secret River, because the titular lieutenant, Rooke, does make a judgement – ultimately a favourable one – and sets about on his own mission of exploration and discovery. It’s a book about the light and the stars, of dreaming of something beyond what is in front of you. And the book soars because of it.


J.K. Rowling’s latest book – her long-awaited ‘first book for adults’ – The Casual Vacancy, is a harrowing and gruelling five-hundred page novel set in the small English town of Pagford. I was totally unprepared for how different it is to Harry Potter, both stylistically and in its execution, though it certainly works in favour of the book. It is so thoroughly modern, so totally despairingly real, and so frightfully good that it leaves you exhausted after reading any of it. Whilst I enjoyed it (I don’t think that ‘enjoy’ is anything like the right word to use though) – and it certainly is not for children – I would’ve liked it to let up just for a bit; in reflection, I suppose it did, it was just caught up in the middle of everything else that you barely noticed when it did. It’s all so angry and so frustrated and negative, so vehement and passionate and poisonous, at the same time as well-written and beautiful in a weird way, almost cathartic. Simply put, and without wanting to spoil anything, it’s about the people caught on the fringes of society, those caught in the poverty belt of towns, people who fall through the cracks in society, the council disputes over whose responsibility these people are, how success in communities like these can never be measured in conventional ways, how councillors’ bickering and civil wars never lead to any good, how their children become perpetuators of their parents’ opinions and beliefs. The critics are having a field day over it – ‘it should never have been allowed to be sold to children,’ they’re saying; ‘she should’ve had it published under a different name;’ ‘it’s not fit for children to read, she should never have written it,’ blah blah blah. As entertaining as it is to read and watch the critics bicker and argue over it, it’s scary at the way they’ve completely misread the entire point of the book, how they’ve seemingly pigeonholed Rowling into one genre and refused to let her to move. Just because she wrote seven ridiculously successful Harry Potter books, doesn’t mean she is a children’s author or even an author of children’s books.
She is, first and foremost, an author, someone who writes because of a fundamental need to do so and, if anything, The Casual Vacancy is as bold a move as anyone could make with previous books like hers. There is no magic in it to speak of, at least not of the wands and spells kind found within the walls of Hogwarts and the wider wizarding world; there is magic in The Casual Vacancy, you just need to know where to look for it. There’s humour there as well, it’s just similarly hidden and obscured under the layers of vitriol and bile. It’s a frightfully well-observed book, full of the kind of intricacies, intrigues and paranoia that abound in small towns such as Pagford; if you didn’t know better, you’d almost think that Rowling had simply observed such a town over the course of a number of weeks. In an article in The [London] Telegraph, Allison Pearson writes that “the geological layers of misery are revealed with such skill that you want to climb inside the pages and fetch the child out;” and it’s a statement that I completely agree with – I kept hearing Bowie’s ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ on repeat throughout much of the book.
With a cast that would make Jane Austen proud, The Casual Vacancy is yet another example of Rowling’s heart, wit and emotion and passion, just don’t expect owls or broomsticks. One family seem like the Dursleys albeit in a more malicious guise – at least you could love the Dursleys in a roundabout way; I can’t say the same for the Mollisons of Pagford. Somewhere at the heart of the book is the character of Krystal Weedon, and the great big screaming question – ‘what do we do about Krystal?’ It’s a question that gets asked time and time again, in newspapers and on television, in political debates, all over the world, day after day, and yet the answer is never forthcoming. As the town of Pagford self-destructs towards the end, the tiny glimmer of hope that seemed to be there fifty-odd pages earlier disappears in the blink of an eye and we remain in the now, the great big ugly here and now, no magic save that of teenage friendships and a kind word, and definitely no happilyeverafter; just pain, and death and the never ending succession of people caught in the cracks of society – neither by their own fault or the fault of others; it’s just how it is – trying to patch it up somehow, try to live from one day to the next when it goes all goes to shit.
It’s a tremendously gruelling read, something I’ve never quite experienced on this magnitude before, but it was worth it, every single second and every single word on all of its five-hundred pages. It’s not a book that’s going to win universal acclaim – how can it, when it is riddled with the kind of events we read books to seemingly escape from? – nor is it going to be for everyone, to everyone’s taste. But it’s an undeniably decisive move from an author who knows only too well what it is like to be caught up in this world. In many ways, it’s a bit like a Mike Leigh play or film in its unflinching depiction of the real. It also reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s film, Fish Tank, which is as harrowing as it is engrossing. And if nothing else, it highlights the ‘casual vacancy’ which exists inside every one of us, “the spaces, the lacks, the emptiness in everyone’s lives,” the desire for something more than what we’ve got because no one ever has it all. As Jennifer Byrne writes in the Sydney Morning Herald, “[her] characters, like real people, try to fill their lacks and longings - with drugs and bad relationships, with food, drink or bad behaviour… ‘the spaces in our lives we take for granted.’”

The final book is Craig Silvey’s Rhubarb. Perhaps more well-known for his mesmerising 2009 book Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey is perhaps one of the nicest people you could ever meet. I first read Rhubarb in January 2009 I think it was, and reading it I remember thinking ‘this is what I want to do.’ There’s an elegance in the story, to the writing, to the telling of the story, that takes a while to become noticeable, a charm and gentleness to it that takes you by surprise. Rhubarb is the story of a twenty-one year old blind girl by the name of Eleanor Rigby, her zealous overprotective guide dog Warren, and a young cellist, Ewan Dempsey. Set in Fremantle over the course of the last ten days of the year, it’s about the inhabitants of the city and their interlocking and overlapping lives; the paralysing fear of the outofdoors, the fear of falling; the nightmares we dream and the ones we live; it’s about friendships forged in the most unlikely of places and it’s about music and the power it has to heal and mend and bring people together. There are so many lovely moments in Silvey’s book, from the running together of words and phrases to the busker playing requests, to the ineffable whale-like girth of a cornerstore owner to the incessant copulation of two possums in the roof, and the fierce independence of Eleanor. And at the end of it all, there’s Eleanor and Ewan, two lonely people, together, clinging to each other, adrift in an ocean all too big for them to navigate alone. It’s beautifully written, an astonishingly assured first novel, and just about the lightbulb moment for me in terms of what I wanted to do, the book that made me sit up and go ‘yes!’ At a meet-the-author event the other day, I met Silvey and asked him about the language, the rhubarbrhubarbrhubarb that pervades it, subtly, unnoticed, the way that it seems so polished and perfect, and I wondered if he had to work at it or it was just there. And he said that although he wrote it seven or eight years ago, when he was still very much learning to write, the language and the intrinsic stylistic quirks like that just seemed to be there from the start. ‘And never write a book longhand,’ he said. ‘Do it if you need to learn how to write, how to put things together, but never write a book longhand, because you’ll always write it again when you type it out.’ As for favourite books, I’d have to put Rhubarb high on the list. For no other reason than because it is so beautifully written, so gentle, so sweet and so hopeful, because it makes you laughcry and fall in love with it with every single page, every sentence, because every time I read it I remember the feeling of sitting on my bed in the middle of the night reading it for the first time and knowing that I was reading something special.

What I’ve read this year, part six
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
The Lieutenant, Kate Grenville
The Lost Life, Steven Carroll
Toby’s Room, Pat Barker
The Secret River, Kate Grenville
Puberty Blues, Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey
The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling
The Secret Life of Us, Rowan Coleman (writing as ‘Evan Wylde’)
The Girl Most Likely, Rebecca Sparrow
The Household Guide to Dying, Debra Adelaide
Rhubarb, Craig Silvey

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