Q&A with Shirley Barrett, author of Rush Oh!

Shirley Barrett is an Australian screenwriter and film director whose work has won multiple prizes, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the Queensland Premier’s Prize, and the West Australian Premier’s Prize. Rush Oh!, her first novel, is a story of whaling, rural life, and first love, set on the west coast of Australia in the early years of the twentieth century. I reviewed it here, and was hugely impressed by its balance of a light comedic voice with serious personal and political material. Its depiction of the mutual respect between a whaling crew and a pod of killer whales made it stand out–and it’s all based on a true story.

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Shirley some questions about Rush Oh!, and she kindly answered them below.

 

 

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George Davidson with the body of “Old Tom”, leader of the Eden killer whales

How did you first come across the story of the Eden killer whales?

It’s such a long time ago that I barely remember, but I think I learned about them at the Australian Natural History Museum, here in Sydney. I love an animal story, and I liked the way the whalers had given them all names, identifying them by their dorsal fins.  So I went down to Eden (about six hours south of Sydney) to find out more. Eden is very proud of its unique whaling history, and there is a lovely little museum in which Tom’s skeleton is the centrepiece. He is surprisingly huge, and has what looks suspiciously like a rope groove on one of his back teeth, which is possibly from his high jinks towing fishing boats out to sea and hanging off the whale line.

 The book is especially impressive to me because of the way it engages with Aboriginal Australians. As part of the whaling crew, they’re treated equally and with respect, but as a potential husband for Louisa, Darcy is considered completely off the cards. Did it surprise you to find that race relations in 1908 were so inconsistent? Or is that artistic license?

White Australia has a terrible record in regard to its treatment of the indigenous people, and the only surprising thing really is that the Aboriginal whalers do seem to have been treated well by the Davidson family, and certainly they worked closely together for many years.  But to be honest, there’s so little documented material on the Aboriginal whalers that no one really knows for sure. Certainly particular Aboriginal whale men returned every season to work for the Davidsons. As for Darcy running off with Louisa, it seems that would have been extremely unusual.  While there were many documented marriages between white men and Aboriginal women, the reverse was very seldom seen (or at least, documented) at the time. It seems to have been considered much more scandalous – and perhaps consequently hushed up.

Mary’s voice is marvelous: evocative of her era without being too stilted. It reminded me of the technique used in the recent remake of True Grit (removing all contractions, and doing very little else, so that the language sounds more formal and old-fashioned but not silly.) How did you find or develop that voice for her?  

Thank you! Mary’s voice came to me so easily and effortlessly that after I finished Rush Oh! I feared I’d never be able to write in any other voice. Perhaps because Rush Oh! existed as a feature film script first (see below), Mary was already a fully fleshed-out character in my mind before I had to commit to writing a first-person narrative.

You made your name as a screenwriter; would you ever consider adapting Rush Oh! into a miniseries? (I’d watch it…)

 Rush Oh! started out as a feature film script – a much more bare-bones version of the story that culminated in the Plain and Fancy Dress Ball. I tried for years to get producers interested, but all those whaling scenes would have to be computer-generated, of course, so it would be horribly expensive – certainly much more than the usual budgets of Australian films. In the end, I gave up, but I loved the world so much, I decided to have a crack at it as a novel, never having written a novel before. But yes, it would be lovely if a nice producer with access to vast pots of money wanted to turn it into something…

Do you know (or have your own private suspicions about) what/who John Beck really is? 

 That’s a good question!  I think I am as mystified as Mary as to who he was and what his intentions were… certainly I feel reluctant to commit to any one particular version, even just for myself! I’d come across the story of ‘The Missing Clergyman’ in the Eden newspapers of the time (Mary refers to this story in the book), and I loved the idea that this Methodist minister just took off with another woman, and sent his wife a telegram from Suva announcing that he’d drowned!  I suppose I especially loved the idea that it was so easy – apparently – to “shape shift” at that time, perhaps especially in Australia – just change your identity and start out as someone else…  Who knows? Perhaps John Beck has returned to the Church and is the new minister that Mary is about to meet over cheese and celery sandwiches [at the end of the book]…

The relationship between George Davidson and Old Tom is one of my favourites in the book (“He’s a good fish is Tom”! Preserving and polishing his skeleton! It’s wonderful.) How many of these details came from contemporary sources, and how many did you invent?

I really tried not to embellish anything about the killer whales because the story is amazing enough as it is. Tom was very, very well loved in Eden (the obituary and poem written in his honour are all straight from the Eden newspapers of the time). There are many newspaper accounts of his exploits, and he does seem to have been a bit of a scallywag – towing hapless fishermen about the bay, hanging off the whale line so he could be dragged about by the whale, jumping out of the water and crushing George’s hand in his teeth! Tom kept returning to Eden even when whaling had stopped and the other killers had stopped coming, and his body washed up in Twofold Bay when he died, by then a very old killer whale. There was definitely a feeling in the town that Tom’s death marked the end of an era, and needed to be commemorated somehow.  George stripped down the carcase and preserved his skeleton, and funds were raised within the town to build the museum that houses his skeleton. (The photo above is of George on Tom’s carcase.)

 How did you approach the challenge of writing fiction based on a true story? How do you decide what to leave in, what to keep out, even just how to consolidate all of the information from the primary sources?

I made a decision early on that I would keep the character of George Davidson because I wanted to use actual newspaper accounts within the book, and George of course is frequently mentioned. But I invented a whole new set of offspring for him so I could be unconstrained and write the sort of exuberant romp that I wanted the story to be. The actual story of the Davidsons is very rich and very interesting but much sadder – there was a good deal of tragedy, and I didn’t want to venture there. So I was aware of taking a huge liberty, and I was very nervous about the reaction of the Davidson descendants, some of whom still live in the area. They have never made any kind of formal response, but I get the feeling they are not too thrilled about it – and I can’t really blame them. But I tried only to be respectful of George in my writing, and I hope that as some kind of compensation, the book brings more attention to him, the Davidsons, and the killer whale story in general.

What are you working on now?

I work as a television director/scriptwriter, so mostly I have been doing that! I am itching to stop and get back to novel-writing, because I had the loveliest time writing Rush Oh! and I miss it.  But I have just finished a horror novella, which was fun – of course then when I finished, I realise there’s not much of a market for novellas, so now I’m not really sure what to do with it! 

Rush Oh! is published in the UK on 4 February, by Virago Books. You can read my (glowing) review of it here.

 

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What Belongs To You, by Garth Greenwell

How easily we are made to feel, I thought, and with what little foundation, with no foundation at all.

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I’ve done an almost complete 180 on this book. When I first picked it up, I read about twenty pages, then put it down to make a cup of tea or something and realized I wasn’t dead keen on picking it up again. It’s not exactly plot-driven—slightly surprising for a novel that begins with its nameless protagonist picking up a male hooker in a public toilet—and the thoughtful, reflective rhythms of its prose give it a melancholy air that I wasn’t really in the mood for. It’s January, for God’s sake, I thought; reading this isn’t really helping with the whole winter blues thing. But I stuck with it, and halfway through the first of its three sections, something happened: I got into it. Those reflective rhythms became more propulsive, more electric, as the book went on. There was urgency humming just under the surface of the narrator’s seemingly placid existence, and a sort of anger that fascinated me because I didn’t quite identify with it. It was not the rage that I have come to be able to pick out instantly because it hums in harmony with my own. It was something else, terrible and sad, and unspoken.

The book opens with the aforementioned scene: our narrator encounters Mitko, a young prostitute, maybe in his early twenties, in the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria. The narrator is an American; he teaches English in Sofia’s American College. Over the course of the book, his relationship with Mitko deepens and intensifies, never ceasing to be transactional, but also, as Greenwell has said in interviews, no longer “exhausted” by the transaction, by which I think he means that their relationship pushes  beyond its foundation, that it has the ability to encompass things other than (and less well defined than) a business exchange. What Belongs To You is a very apt title: the book is concerned, in a lot of ways, with obligation, and with what giving to, and taking from, someone can mean. Mitko takes money and gives sex, but the narrator knows he’s taking more than sex. He is taking the satisfaction of economic power, the rush of being the one who can grant wishes, give cash and presents. I wondered briefly if there was an element of allegory here—the benevolent West extending a patronising hand to its post-Soviet Eastern-bloc dependents—but if there is, I don’t think that’s Greenwell’s focus or intent. He’s much more interested in how relationships that are meant to stay simple almost always become fraught with difficulty, just by virtue of the participants in those relationships being human. You can’t have a simple relationship with someone if you recognise them as human; it’s painful:

That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale? At first this seemed like a hopeful thought, but then it’s hard to look at things, or to look at them truly, and we can’t look at many at once, and it’s so easy to look away.

Looking carefully, thoughtfully, isn’t simple either. Repeatedly, What Belongs To You figures vision and perception as inherently artificial. The narrator, looking at Mitko’s Facebook photos online, thinks how even the most informal and intimate of them are in some way staged: even if Mitko only took them with the intention of looking over them again later by himself, the photographs by their very existence suggest forethought, arrangement, performativity. In the final section of the book, as the narrator is traveling  by train with his mother, he encounters a little boy—barely more than a toddler—with his grandmother, and they pass a pleasant afternoon in the same train carriage. As the narrator and his mother rise to leave, he thinks about the boy, who has reminded him of Mitko in his absolute conviction of his right to everyone’s attention and admiration. It’s not conceit, but a painful innocence, a comfort in one’s own skin that is the result of simply not knowing that not everyone is kind and loving. The narrator thinks that he’ll write a poem about this little boy, and then he wonders whether that would really achieve the artistic truth that he’s always assumed his poetry achieves:

Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully…But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.

It’s a worry that I think most writers can identify with, this concern that by turning an event or a person into art through words, you’re somehow obscuring them. There’s that sense of performativity again: even if you intend only to capture the truth of a moment, your intention renders that act a little bit insincere. It’s the observer effect of literature. Writing about a phenomenon changes it.

He’s a very distant narrator and at the same time terribly intimate: the second section is essentially about his childhood, about the betrayals of friends and family that made him feel, as a young boy, as though his sexuality was a “foulness”, something that made him worthy of punishment. We learn all about this, all about the pain of seeing the disgust on his father’s face, and yet at the same time, we know little of his life in Bulgaria, other than his encounters with Mitko and vague references to his work in the American College. He has a boyfriend in the third section, a Portuguese man named R. with whom he seems to be truly in love, but he doesn’t tell us how they met or how they make this long-distance relationship malarkey work. R. doesn’t even appear in the book, never taking a weekend trip to Sofia or hosting our narrator in Portugal—we see him only on Skype, though the implication is that they do visit each other regularly. R.’s absence serves to heighten this sense of the narrator as a solitary man, not in the closet by any means but still lonely, still scared, still basically longing to be obliterated by something.

It’s hard to do justice to this novel because it’s not really about the story. It’s about a man coming to terms with the nature of his own desires, and how desire works in the real world, how it bestows and removes power, how shame and deprivation in youth can cripple us for life. It’s about being lonely, and it’s about intense charisma, and it’s about feelings you can’t really describe. It is, in its own unromantic way, about love, and it’s a love more honest and complex and frustrating than much of the other stuff our culture gives us with that word slapped across the front. Don’t buy it for your lover for Valentine’s Day, but buy it for yourself when it comes out (after V-Day, thank goodness), and read it, and be moved.

Thanks very much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for the review copy. What Belongs To You was published in the US on 19 January; its UK publication date is 7 April.

This is an ace interview with Garth Greenwell by the Paris Review, in which he elucidates a lot of the things I tried to say here and didn’t manage very well.

Capsule reviews: The Outrun + Dinosaurs On Other Planets

Another set of capsule reviews for you today, not because I don’t have 1,500 words’ worth of thoughts about either of these books (they are both fantastic), but because I’m afraid of falling behind in my reading/posting schedule. Maybe I should have started the year with fewer rabidly enthusiastic requests for review copies.

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The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot

This is a memoir about alcoholism and recovery, combined with nature writing, in a way that sort of recalls Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. Liptrot grew up on Orkney Mainland, her father with bipolar disorder and her mother becoming ever more firmly enmeshed in evangelical religion as a method of coping. She’s a bright, restless, frustrated teenager who doesn’t feel at home in this tiny island community, and at eighteen she flees to university and to London, where she quickly develops a drinking and partying habit that spirals horribly out of control. Approaching thirty, she is in an intensive rehab programme, and when she gets out, she decides to come back to the islands. It’s meant to be temporary; it ends up lasting for two years, and she charts the process of her recovery along with the seasons on the islands and her growing awareness of the natural world, of how rich and rewarding sensory experiences can be when you’re sober.

For me, the book’s first section doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It focuses on Liptrot’s life in London: her inability to keep a flat, friends, a job, her breakup with her boyfriend. This is the collateral damage of addiction. It’s painful and moving to read about; you want to reach into the past, scoop up her young self, and tell her it’s okay. Where I found the  memoir less effective was in its apparently intentional feeling of distance. When you read H Is for Hawk, you have the sense that you’re right there, watching Helen Macdonald’s disintegrating sanity from inside her skull. Liptrot’s prose has a different effect. It’s as though she needs to create a certain space between her present and her past, the person she was and the person who’s writing now. That’s understandable, but I still wish it wasn’t the case. She analyses herself almost too completely; rehab and the island nights have given her a set of tools, a vocabulary, to discuss addiction and its consequences, but by making use of that vocabulary in her creative writing, she tends to diminish the impact of her observations on the reader.

That said, this is still a very powerful book. By far the best sections were the ones that dealt with life on the remote Scottish islands; she doesn’t just stay on the Orkney mainland, but moves out to Papay, an island off Westray, which is itself off of Orkney, and she takes some day trips here and there to even more isolated rocks. The awareness of nature that pervades her days is beautiful and forbidding. She works for the RSPB, counting corncrakes, a job which requires her to drive around the islands late into summer nights, her car often the only one on the road. That stillness and solitude are conveyed perfectly. So is the appeal of sea swimming, which shocks and invigorates the body in a way that drinking and drugs used to do for her; she also writes about becoming addicted to the Internet–the shipping forecast, maps of the stars–and how it can both facilitate communication and cause meaningful connections to elude us entirely. She doesn’t draw many conclusions about this, just observes and discusses it. People on Papay use Facebook to compare weather warnings, photos of the Merry Dancers (the Northern Lights), water conditions. The people she knows in London, a fairly homogeneous group of young striving media professionals, use Twitter for vastly different ends.

I hesitate to be too critical, because it is such a brave thing to do, to write about your weaknesses and your pain and the ways in which you’ve fucked up and tried to do better. Ultimately, for alcoholism, I’d rather read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, and for finding the wild in yourself and yourself in the wild, I’d still plump for H Is for Hawk. But Liptrot does show us real beauty: the tombs at Maeshowe, aligned so that the setting sun shines straight down their entrances on solstice days; an island-wide primrose count; her, sitting in the front garden of her cottage on Papay, staring at the stars. I wanted to run off to Orkney by the time I was halfway through. It’s good escapism for January.

Thanks very much to Canongate Books for the review copy; The Outrun was published in the UK on 14 January.

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Dinosaurs On Other Planets, by Danielle McLaughlin

On the back cover of my copy of Dinosaurs On Other Planets, there’s a blurb from Anne Enright, the first Irish fiction laureate. It is to the effect that this collection does not (as debut collections are often said to do) “mark the arrival” of a fresh and exciting new voice; that voice–McLaughlin’s voice–is already here. She’s landed; all this collection is doing is announcing her presence.

It certainly doesn’t have any of the wobbles or uncertainties that can mar debut story collections. I’m not a short story kind of girl; things I can’t sink my teeth into tend to bore me, and I cavalierly dismiss stories as being in this category. McLaughlin’s stories are different. They’re sort of like contemporary Flannery O’Connor if you stripped out the religion and replaced it with something very difficult to identify: maybe the clarity of despair, maybe just the lifelong act of putting one foot in front of the other.

She’s got some specific preoccupations: mental illness, especially undefined mental illness, is one of them, as are small children. She tends to come at similar ideas and images from different angles. In one story, a man with a corporate job in Dublin struggles to maintain a work-life balance, with a wife whose flashes of eccentricity are sliding into something more careless, and more dangerous to their little daughter, Gracie. Much later on in the collection, another story focuses on a woman with a corporate job in Dublin whose nine-year-old son Finn’s strange behavior is also performing this inexorable decline from childish peculiarity into something more pathological, but equally vague. She writes several stories about pregnant women, generation and mortality encountering each other in a nursing home or on the seashore among dying seals. None of the marriages in her fiction are happy; all are hobbled by a refusal or an inability to communicate, a crack in the foundations of the relationship caused by personality or timing or stubbornness or bad luck.

Unlike O’Connor’s fiction, McLaughlin’s doesn’t hold disasters, or rather, she doesn’t show us any disasters. She turns away just before the point of no return. One character is left stranded at the end of her story, about to club a seal to death in order to put it out of its misery; another, a habitually unfaithful husband, is just touching the cheek of his ex-lover’s daughter before McLaughlin brings the curtain down. When you read these endings, your stomach lurches. You know the drop is there, but you haven’t been allowed to travel down it. It creates a sort of endless literary vertigo. It’s genius.

Thanks to the kind folks at John Murray for the review copy; Dinosaurs On Other Planets was published in the UK on 14 January.

Meanwhile, At Litro: book reviewing pet peeves

My most recent column for Litro went up yesterday. It’s about the things that drive me berserk in a book review–please note this is not a personal attack on ANY book bloggers! I’ve just noticed that there are some things that nearly everyone who writes a lot of reviews ends up doing once in a while, and collated them for convenience. The column is charmingly entitled Your Disclaimer Is Bullshit; head over to Litro and have a look!

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Rush Oh!, by Shirley Barrett

Only now did I understand why John Beck had returned from his first whale capture straining to recall that passage from the Bible. I imagine he was trying to find some way to live with what he had just witnessed.

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~~here be (a few) spoilers!~~

The first thing that struck me about Rush Oh! was: this is a happy, happy book. That doesn’t mean it’s a book with a happy ending (although I would say that this isn’t a book with an unhappy ending, either). It means simply that the writing was obviously done with  great pleasure and good humour, and the effect is contagious. In an industry that can seem saturated by serious, hard, important reads, Shirley Barrett’s glorious debut—about a whaling family in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century, based on a true story—is a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t shy away from difficult reality, but she doesn’t let the plot twists diminish the joy and the comedy that suffuse its pages. It’s unbelievably lovely.

Its narrator is nineteen-year-old Mary Davidson, the oldest daughter of the Davidson whaling family of Eden in Western Australia. The year is 1908. Davidsons have been whaling in Eden for the past two generations, but last season was the worst in living memory: only one whale was captured in the entire six months. Now her father, George, needs more men in the boats; otherwise, his family of six will be in dire financial trouble. Their mother is long dead, and Mary has been forced to take on her shoulders the responsibility of feeding not only her siblings and father, but the dozen or so whalemen whom her father employs.

John Beck, then, is something of an answer to prayer. He appears at the whaling station wondering if Mr. Davidson might need an extra oarsman, and although he has no rowing experience whatsoever, his arms are strong enough and he’s willing to work a hard job for low pay, so of course he is hired. Mary almost immediately begins to develop a crush on him that she initially doesn’t recognize as such, although we do. She’s a great creation: spirited and indignant, bookish, very funny, and very hardworking. Her initial conversation with John Beck occurs before he even applies to her father—he comes to the house when the men are out in the boats—and at one point they discuss one of Mary’s paintings, a depiction of a whale hunt entitled Stern All, Boys!, which failed to secure first prize at the Eden Show:

I suspect the real reason Stern All, Boys! was deemed unworthy of a prize is that the subject matter was considered unsuitable for a young lady. Far better that I had employed my talents depicting three cows in a paddock at sunset, as did Miss Eunice Martin of Towamba, for which effort she received the coveted blue ribbon.

…”Well, sir,” I ventured at last, turning to the stranger. “Are you still up for adventure, or has my painting put you off?”

“No,” he said. “I mean, yes. In truth, it has scared the bejesus out of me.”

The dynamic of their relationship is marvelously like this: he quietly accepts Mary for who she is, while she finds herself (much to her dismay) occasionally exhibiting behaviour of the sort that she remembers being listed in a newspaper article on “The Woman Who Ought Not to Marry.” Fortunately she seems to put very little store by what the newspaper article has to say on the subject, and her interactions with John Beck—which could easily have been of the whimsically-scatty-heroine-is-immediately-understood-by-Mr.-Right variety—are instead pleasingly nuanced. John Beck himself is not all he appears to be; he has arrived claiming to be “a former Methodist minister”, but this, as you may gather immediately, is not the whole story.

The descriptions of whaling, and of whaling culture, are fantastic, and the book has many of them. I read Moby Dick in my Finals year at university and was deeply frustrated by it (though this may have been because I had chosen to read it for pleasure at a time when my non-pleasure reading was purely composed of academic monographs); Rush Oh! succeeds in returning my interest to the subject. It is, after all, basically incredible: that twelve men in a thirty-foot open rowboat could and did succeed in chasing and killing whales the smallest of which were at least the length of the boat itself, and the largest of which was nearly twice that. The Eden whalers are aided in their task, however, by a pod of orca whales, known as the Killers, who live in the area and who form a kind of guerrilla team, working with the men in the boat to worry and weaken the whale as dogs might a wild boar. Barrett hasn’t made any of this up: three generations of Eden whalers did work in conjunction with this orca pod. It’s not clear why they did this, apart from the fact that they were traditionally allowed to consume the whale’s lips and tongue after a kill. In any case, Barrett’s descriptions of the hunts are excellently paced (unlike, say, Anthony Trollope’s hunt passages, which are charming but tend to bog down) and completely gripping:

Once stung by the harpoon, the whale—who had seemed a placid creature up to this point—put up a ferocious battle for its survival. At once, it executed a series of short, sharp turns, as if attempting to dislodge the boat now suddenly attached to it; then, when this tactic did not achieve the desired result, the creature stopped suddenly and elevated its great tail flukes to a height of some twenty feet above the water, before sweeping them most deliberately across the length of the boat. Fortunately, my father, who was of course standing at the bow, and Arthur Ashby (at the steer oar) had had the wherewithal to hastily duck down, thereby avoiding what could undoubtedly have been serious injuries. (By all accounts, the whale’s tail span was twelve feet across, and of exceptional thickness.)

Arthur Ashby, the abovementioned harpoonist, is Aboriginal, as are four other men in the boats. The way Barrett deals with race relations throughout the book is one of its best aspects. As far as whaling is concerned, the Aboriginal crew members are equal. They are as good as, if not better than, the white Australians; the youngest one, sixteen-year-old Darcy, has exceptional eyesight, while Arthur Ashby is known to have the best aim and the strongest arm. They eat with the white men, sleep with them, bathe with them, and are paid the same as them. In the social circle of Eden town, however, things are different. There’s no violent racism: Darcy, his father Percy, Arthur and the Albert Thomases both Senior and Junior, are all present outside the Arts Club during the dance that precipitates the book’s crisis, and no one has a problem with them being there. But the key to this apparent harmony, of course, is that they are outside, and never attempt to come in.

All of this is brought to a head by the Arts Club dance, for Louisa, Mary’s sixteen-year-old sister (a great beauty who is, fortunately, not sketched as a complete imbecile, though she is somewhat self-centered), is in love with Darcy, and they run away together. Introducing something this serious into a book that has, so far, been fairly light-hearted is a big risk, but it pays off  because of how beautifully Barrett handles it. The family is devastated; there is no sense in which everything will be all right in the end, because interracial marriages, while not unheard of, are still essentially unthinkable. Mr. Davidson’s grief at the loss of his daughter is portrayed with subtle sympathy; Mary notes that when a well-meaning neighbour pays a visit and begins to discuss the iniquities of the Aborigines (“these people are several rungs below Palaeolithic man”), her father simply leaves the room and does not return until the visitor has departed.

Similarly, the Davidsons’ slow decline in fortunes is dealt with gently, but poignantly. The loss of the two boys—to war and estrangement—and the long-ago death of their mother is conveyed in language straightforward and sad; it makes you pause and reflect and feel moved, and because these asides are sprinkled throughout the narrative, you can then go back to a description of the farm dog ruining a cake or what-have-you, without feeling utterly weighed down by sadness. My favourite of these asides is a story Mary tells about her father, who, after selling the whaling station in 1912, does little more than putter about in the old try-works. Evidently, several years before he dies, he spots a whale off the headland, takes an old dinghy out, and actually harpoons it himself. (It floats up a few days later near a local lighthouse.) When Mary finds out, she is furious:

“Why did you do that?” I repeated, and I realised I was angry. I was so angry I felt I could fling something at him, especially since he sat buttering his bread and not responding to my question. He wore a faint, silly smile upon his face, and I noticed his hands were trembling; I suspect he may also have been privately wondering why he had done it, and was unable to provide a satisfactory answer.

Oh, it’s heartbreaking.

The book ends with the possibility of reunion with Louisa, many, many years later; I won’t spoil it entirely for you. There is loss and sadness (it’s made clear from the beginning that Mary doesn’t end up with John Beck, though finding out why is half the fun), but there’s also hope and perseverance and absolute hilarity. It is a wonderful book (especially for the February blues); wholeheartedly recommended.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Rush Oh! is published in the UK on 4 February.

 

The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

They radiate well-being and prosperity, the knowledge that someone cares about them enough to take care of them while they take care of the family.

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~~here be spoilers!~~

It’s odd, the title of this novel: The Expatriates. It’s also odd that there seem to be two slightly different cover designs for it—normally the UK and US versions, if they’re going to differ, do so fairly substantially, but in this case, there are just enough similarities that you could be forgiven for not really noticing. Both feature aerial cityscapes, with big lettering, but whereas in the UK version (above) the focus is on the architecture and the sky, the sense of metropolitanism, even the title font bold and crisp, the US cover is rendered in a much more italicized, cursive script. Its cityscape cover has been photographed just after sunset instead of poised at the moment of transition; there are lights on in buildings and in bars, and most of the lower right corner of the frame is taken up by a huge, glass-walled house. The inflection of the UK cover is “global”; that of the US cover, “domestic”. And, for once, I think the US cover may have nailed it, because—despite that baffling title—The Expatriates isn’t strictly about expatriates at all. It’s about motherhood.

Of course, it’s about motherhood in a specifically expatriate environment, where “expatriate” means “privileged”, but that privilege sits differently on some women than on others. Hilary Starr comes from money and doesn’t work; she and her lawyer husband, David, have been trying to conceive a child for several years with no success. Margaret Reade, meanwhile, has two children, and is suffering from the literal loss of her youngest: little G disappeared in a crowd last year, while the family was on holiday, and despite a public appeal, has not yet been found. Finally, Mercy Cho is the childminder who was meant to be watching G when he was stolen; when the novel opens, she’s twenty-four and unemployed, still in Hong Kong but struggling to make sense of her life and to find an acceptable form for her grief over a tragedy that she feels is her fault. Over the course of the novel, all three women will come to understand and accept motherhood as the highest possible goal of a life—a conclusion which, couched as it is in a foreign setting and an occasionally melodramatic plot, could be overlooked on first reading, but which becomes increasingly uncomfortable the more you think about it.

Initially, the book looks as though it’s going to be about precisely what it says on the tin. It opens with a two-page prologue about Hong Kong’s constant arrivals, and this sucks you in: Lee is great at writing what I like to think of as “general” or “blanket” prose, wide-ranging descriptions of a particular subset of people. It’s descriptive and precise while retaining a sense of sweep, and it serves her very well here:

The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration…They are thrilled, they are homesick, they are scared, they are relieved to have arrived in Hong Kong—their new home for six months, a year, a three-year contract max, forever, nobody knows. They are fresh-faced; they are mid-career; they are here for their last job, the final rung before they’re put out to pasture. They work at banks; they work at law firms. They make buttons, clothing, hard drives, toys.

And so on. The beautiful precision of the description fades early on, though, and it is replaced by some curious repetition. Margaret, the woman who has lost her son, ends far too many of her chapters with the banal thought that you just have to carry on living, after disaster strikes, until you live your way into life again. It’s a true assertion, and endless grief is banal, but there are authors who manage to elevate that tedium of pain into something human and holy, and Lee does not; she simply repeats. Mercy, meanwhile, is astonishingly passive. Many of her chapters end with a bizarrely po-faced version of the whoops-a-daisy that tends to accompany novels featuring scatty, whimsical young heroines of the kind that Zooey Deschanel gets cast to play, a variation on “Of course [insert fresh new crisis here] had happened to her. Things like this happened to her. There was nothing she could do about. She was a magnet for catastrophe.” It’s solipsistic and self-pitying and, frankly, a bit disturbing. It is, again, true that twenty-four-year-olds are frequently solipsistic and self-pitying (I am one, I should know), but there are writers who present young adulthood in terms that are self-aware, and hence more successfully profound. Lee, again, just repeats.

There are some things that she does rather better. One is her description of Mercy’s short relationship with Charlie, a boy she knows vaguely from university and whom she dates briefly. He is oddly naive: born and raised in Hong Kong, he seems exotic to his childhood friends for having made it to America for college, but in Mercy’s eyes he is hopelessly unironic, uncool, provincial. She’s not kind about him, but in one of their dinner exchanges, Lee gives us a glimmer of understanding of how frustrated Mercy must be by their interactions. It’s one of the few times when we see a reaction instead of being told about it, and it’s understatedly powerful:

“What did you do today?” [Charlie asks]

Parrying his questions is so easy it’s like child’s play. “Such a boring topic!” she declares. “How’s work?”

And instead of saying, “And that’s not boring?” he starts telling her about work.

Which of us, o women, has not been there? This perfectly nice man, “cheerful, ebullient, a puppy eager to please”, is still not eager-to-please enough to grasp the level of unthinking, unconscious entitlement that his response reveals. No matter how eager to please he seems, he will never be as keenly aware of another person’s primacy as this woman—who is basically indifferent to him—is of his. I did a double-take when I read it: not out of surprise, just out of recognition.

The authorial emotional awareness present in that scene is strangely absent in other places, though, like when Mercy has an affair with a married man (who is, guess what, Hilary Starr’s husband, David). They’re having breakfast, a few months into their relationship, and he asks her “How are you supporting yourself?” (Why they haven’t had this conversation earlier is beyond me, but I digress.)

“I get jobs here and there,” she says. “I do a lot of different things.”

“Do you need any money?” he asks. It is so unexpectedly kind that her eyes fill with tears. It has been so long since anyone has cared enough about her to ask something like this, and to have an older, mature person consider what she might need, as opposed to her throng of twenty-something self-absorbed friends, is disconcerting and an awful kind of pleasure.

An awful kind of pleasure, it certainly is. It’s conceivable, of course, that a young woman could feel so isolated that her married lover’s offer to give her money makes her feel weepily grateful, instead of patronised and insulted. The issue isn’t so much that Mercy is terribly vulnerable and a bit pathetic; it’s that Lee doesn’t appear to think she is. Her gratitude towards David is presented as totally natural and right, without the slightest hint of reflection or analysis or consideration that maybe she’s not in a very strong state right now. Likewise, this thought, near the end of the book, when Mercy knows she is pregnant:

That’s what a mother is, she remembers thinking, someone who puts others’ needs in front of hers, who takes the pain from others and swallows it herself. Her mother, Margaret: They are mothers…This good person, this figure who is selfless and forgiving: this is who she needs to become.

There is a sense in which that is true. There is another sense in which that is a restrictive and destructive untruth. Lee acknowledges only one of these senses, and it makes for slightly blink-inducing reading.

All of this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the novel much, although I did. Lee’s ability to anatomise a swathe of society works well with the subject of expatriate culture; scenes at the American Club, for instance, where Hilary’s quasi-adopted son Julian is bullied by some expat boys and wreaks his own quiet revenge, are drawn with wonderful clarity. So is Margaret’s relationship to her domestic help and to the party planner, Priscilla, with whom she consults about her husband’s fiftieth birthday celebrations: that weird attempt to balance professionalism with the brute fact that you are addressing someone who is, functionally, a servant. So are the sections about readjusting to life in the US, which evoke a disorientation even worse for being so temporary: the implication is that most expats readjust very quickly, and feel a kind of unnameable guilt for that, for the homing natures of their minds. This is all thought-provoking and fascinating and well expressed. If you are happy to cope with the narrating voice’s apparent conviction that each character’s responses are precisely as straightforward as they are reported to be, there is a lot to enjoy here. But I would recommend taking it all with a pinch of salt.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Little, Brown for the review copy. The Expatriates was published in the UK on 12 January, 2016.

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce

It wasn’t about pleasure; it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.

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I can’t presume to say how other people are going to read this book, but I would be amazed if a good many of you didn’t, at some point, look up from it with a cold, nasty recognition shock. I did. Given its subject matter, this might seem an inapposite confession; but, while I’ve never devoted myself to quite the level or quantity of narcotics, promiscuity and self-harm that the protagonist Marie does, there it is. I’ve done destructive things: bad for myself, bad for other people. A lot of us have. Sometimes it’s only when you read it that you realize: I should never have put up with that. I should never have done that. I should never have treated myself that way.

This is not about slut-shaming, incidentally. Sex is great and glorious and as long as everyone involved is happy and in control of their own actions, then the more, the merrier, say I. (For a perfect articulation of my position [hehe], see Lindy West’s article here.) Nor is it about stigmatizing self-harm or alcoholism. Those things happen, people do them, and it doesn’t make them weak or selfish or somehow innately bad. What Love Me Back, and this whole review of it, is about is self-hatred: the active, venomous conviction that you yourself are a worthless person, and the attendant refusal to set boundaries about what other people are permitted to do to you, both physically and mentally.

Marie gets pregnant at seventeen, on a mission trip to Mexico, and the chapters that recount her just-about-adult life waiting tables in Dallas restaurants alternate with shorter segments that tell the story of that trip. The boy she sleeps with is sweet and bookish and quiet and solid. They get married (in the face of shaming from family and church elders that is sad and sickening to read about: “The elders meet with me privately,” Marie recalls, “in the library. Nine of them and a seventeen-year-old girl…I don’t know her, and I don’t know these men in dark suits, and there is nothing I can do to help her.”) It doesn’t last long, though; within a year, she’s slept with three other men from the Olive Garden, which is her first restaurant job, and her husband has filed for divorce. Their baby, Analisa, goes to stay with him. Marie sees her once every few weeks.

It’s only the beginning of a long, long line of sex, drinking, drug abuse, and self-harm both physical and emotional. Marie is driven by an impulse, but it’s one that she understands entirely, one for which she takes all the responsibility. I’m seeing this more and more in female protagonists these days, and I like it a lot. It feels real, and the fact that authors are writing it and readers reading it says good things to me about how the novel is developing, or can develop, at the moment. Marie is deeply self-aware but not very reflective; she knows that she can’t think too hard about some things, but she can know them nonetheless.

I ask my memory, Why did I take each next step? There was a hateful man who once said I am a step skipper but no, each step was taken. That one, then that one, then another, each voluntary. Whatever is in me that makes decisions is now full of an accretion of plaque, the chalky consequence of, paradoxically, so many hollow moments.

That is about as philosophical as it gets, which is a good thing. Tierce gets through a lot of material in only a little over two hundred pages—we get the sense of the frenetic, coke-fueled sex binges without going through each one in great detail. The effect is much stronger for it; these events are, by and large, flashing past Marie as well as us. The only ones that she lingers on, or describes, are the ones that were for some reason memorable. Everything else is just life. It’s a terrifying, but brilliant, evocation of how to normalize extremity.

There are two parts to Love Me Back, separated by an “Intermezzo”. The second part concerns Marie’s eventual long-term position as a waitress at a very upscale Dallas steakhouse known only as The Restaurant. Everything else was origin story, but here is where Marie comes into her own. It doesn’t mean that she suddenly goes straight, of course. It means that she starts to feel as though she belongs somewhere. She stays at The Restaurant long enough to become professionally confident. The result of this is the other major strength of the book, which is its utterly unromantic, but deeply empathetic, portrayal of the service industry. The lengths to which Marie and her fellow servers go for The Restaurant’s wealthy, entitled patrons suggest, irresistibly, that service work consitutes a hierarchy of power that echoes abusive or unhealthy dynamics of sexuality. It’s all about control: what one person can force another to do, not necessarily through brute physical exertion but also through guilt, coercion, and a sense of obligation. The first scene in the book has Marie sleeping with a restaurant patron out of some combination of the above:

On the third floor we got into his bed and he was so happy. He had done it. Gotten me there. Into the house, up the three stories, onto the bed. I couldn’t not let him have it. I lay down next to him and turned my back to him and heard the drawer of the nightstand open. He hurried with the condom as if I might vanish. I let him penetrate me. No, I thought. No no no. I whispered it each time he pushed. No. No. No.

It’s one of the most disturbing sex scenes I’ve ever read, and that’s where it ends: she gets up, does two lines of coke in the man’s bathroom, and leaves. There’s no hitting, no cruelty. But there is violence: it’s a violence she does to herself, and it’s a violence that the customer commits against her, despite the fact that he’s a pathetic schlub. His indifference to her her-ness, his desperate, fumbling insecurity, are violences.

Her coworker and friend Calvin points out that you can be liberated without deliberately hurting yourself all the time. Her reaction is fascinating for what it suggests about her motives, and about how much of them she recognizes:

It had something to do with love and something to do with grief. It was just this: I’d be down on the floor sometimes, picking up fallen chunks of crab cake near some diamond broker’s shoe…and I’d feel impaled by the sight and feel of the half-eaten crabmeat because it wasn’t her sparkly laugh and it wasn’t that place on her shoulder, right up against her neck, that smells like sunlight. I am not a mother, I’d think as I walked to the trash can.

We also learn—though it’s mentioned only once and scarcely dwelt upon—that Marie was her high school’s valedictorian and had been offered a place at Yale before she became pregnant. (It’s credible; she’s not one of those heroines whom we’re supposed to just believe is super-smart and naturally beautiful. Her voice is sharp, frank, and clever. She’s Yale material.) That combination of frustrated potential, profound mother-love, and a sense of having failed not only yourself but also, possibly, your child: could it be strong enough to make you think yourself worthless, to fuel self-destruction? Yes, of course it could.

Love Me Back isn’t hopeful about people, but it’s incredibly sanguine about them. There’s a sense of camaraderie about the restaurant workers, the people who create chaos, order, chaos, then order again, eight hours a night every night. Danny, The Restaurant’s manager, is notorious for punctuating his sentences with the phrase “Suck it”, and Marie wonders if it’s a Tourette’s-esque form of affection, like a soldier’s swearing. Calvin, DeMarcus, Asami, and her other coworkers will fuck each other, sell each other pills, total each other’s cars, but always, always help each other out when the night or the tips are on the line. At the end of the book, Marie is about to quit, and we hope—of course we hope—that she’ll be able to figure herself out somewhere else. But that confusion, that rage, that numbness, some of it is just part of the deal.

In that restaurant all of us were off. Chipped. […] Maybe it’s the same in a law firm, a nail salon, whatever high or low. Maybe that’s just what it is to be alive, you’ve got that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left.

For the honesty, bravery and beauty with which Tierce writes about those things that make you veer left, Love Me Back is up there, for me, with Katherine Carlyle and The Wolf Border. If there’s any justice in the world, this one’s going to be big.

Thanks very much to the kind Clara Diaz at Corsair for the review copy. Love Me Back is published in the UK on 14 January.