Bill East’s The Arbutus is a dark and challenging novel that delivers a potent dose of madness, violence and erotic tension with the deliberation of a cannula. Maddie, a woman approaching middle age, returns from England to Peter, the Australian lover she fled many years before. Apparently unhinged and obsessive, Peter confesses to a series of murders at his wooded estate on the outskirts of Sydney. An intricate psychological game of revenge follows: The characters’ psyches are built layer by contorted layer; truths are offered and then undermined; the reader teeters on the edge of resolution, only to be pulled back into the game. Plausibility is often stretched to the limit (if the bizarre plot can be called plausible in any way): Is Maddie’s androgyny credible? Would Peter really have planned such a spooky endgame? On both counts, the author builds a convincing case for Maddie’s weird erotomania and Peter’s convoluted creepiness, and in the end, both their fates were easy to believe in. I rummaged in my reading history to find some novels that The Arbutus might echo. For the blending of the macabre and the world of nature (Peter has a thing about trees), I came up with Patrick Süsskind’s Perfume. For the exploration of twisted emotions, John Fowles’ The Collector and Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby came to mind. For gore, Jeffery Deaver’s The Bone Collector resonated. In the end, though, Bill East has created his own monsters. Crime thriller? Black comedy? Erotic mystery? Homage to trees? I didn’t care as I raced at top speed through The Arbutus.
Somehow I missed André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name in 2007, but a friend kindly lent me a paperback copy (there doesn’t seem to be an ebook edition, and so I spent a few days with the unfamiliar feel of paper between my fingers). I’ve bundled Aciman in this post with two quite different works: A short story by indie author Jack Binding, and the dance piece Spectra, which just opened at the Sydney Festival.
Let me start with Spectra, a collaboration between artists from Tokyo and Townsville, that “explores the interconnectedness of the universe – illuminating the potency of intentional actions and their inherent power to bear fruit in the future”. I had difficulty in finding points of connection between the dance and the theme, and in turn between the music and the light sculpture. At the same time, the athleticism of the dancers was stunning, and there were some highly original components, such as the line of arms that took on a snake-like life of its own. While I left the theatre feeling slightly dissatisfied, the performance stuck in my mind the next day, especially the exhaustion and elation of the young dancers in the curtain call, for whom the emotional force of the piece was obviously authentic and drenched with meaning. I spent the rest of the next day reflecting on why I hadn’t engaged with the piece, concluding that I’d failed to remember that every generation rediscovers the art forms of the previous one, and that perhaps I’d left my empathy at home. The review of Spectra by Deborah Jones filled in the gaps for me.
Jack Binding, an English writer living in Sydney, followed my blog recently, so I returned the favour by downloading his short story Dot Matrix. I’m envious of anyone, Jack Binding included, who can write a short story. All of mine have been overwrought flops. Dot Matrix is a smart, short and snappy fantasy of workplace revenge with a technological quirk that floats somewhere between the paranormal and the paranoid. Check out Jack’s well-groomed website here.
Call Me By Your Name passed me by in 2007. My reading experience of gay literary fiction (is that a genre?) is pretty well limited to Alan Hollingsworth’s The Line of Beauty* and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, so I dived into Aciman’s novel without much of a frame of reference. It’s a love story on the familiar theme of self-doubt and unrequited desire, but with two male protagonists – a brilliant student summering at his parents’ Italian villa, and a slightly older house guest who is spending the season working on the translation of a scholarly manuscript. Call Me By Your Name is a skilled depiction of emotional and erotic tension, with the pair warily circling the possibility of a relationship, until the inevitable happens. The striking thing about the book is the psychological particularity of this (or any?) same-sex relationship, which is enshrined in the title. There’s inevitably an element of prurience in reading this kind of work; let me say that the sex is handled tactically, as it should be: In good writing, sex scenes have a job to do, other than to provide entertainment. I wasn’t sure of the need for the final chapters. Did it really matter how our men felt two decades later? Did I really need a cup of cocoa after the degustation?
A movie based on the book is to be released in 2017.
*I found the BBC mini-series of The Line of Beauty thin and wan, on a par with the superficial and rushed mini-series of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Why do they bother? Just read the bloody books!
I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. Find out more about my books here.
Having just read two most unlikely companions in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Pamela Crane’s The Scream of Silence, I stumbled across two reads from earlier in the year – Jenny Diski’s The Sixties and C.S. Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.
Diski, who died in 2016 tweeting to her last days, describes in her 2009 book a decade much more colourful that mine. Her sixties was the real thing, not the toned-down version of the outlying suburbs of London where I grew up. But then, who’s to say what was and wasn’t real? Written more than three decades after the events with the hindsight of a dazzling literary mind, The Sixties is the sixties that I wish I’d had, but perhaps nobody had.
I don’t have much to say about Surprised by Joy. I gulped Lewis’s fiction as a teenager, but decades later he comes across as finicky and laboured. I found this book worthy but not especially convincing in the writer’s explanation of the discovery of his faith. The account of his sadistic boarding school was the high point. I learnt recently that the school, carefully disguised as ‘Belsen’, was located in my home town in England on a road I have walked hundreds of times, probably more than once with one of his novels in my pocket.
Now when it comes to worthy, it takes a lot to beat Harriet Beecher Stowe. Somehow, I’d missed Uncle Tom’s Cabin in my reading career, so I downloaded a free copy and braced myself. I won’t comment on the theme of the book, other than to say that Stowe was a fierce critic of slavery, and that her novel sold many thousands of copies when it was published in 1852. What interested me as a writer was the difference in literary technique in the ensuing one and half centuries. Three aspects stood out: One was the manner in which the author intersperses the narrative with her own critique of slavery, addressing the reader directly before hopping back into the action; the second was the unfashionable treatment of point of view, with Stowe directing proceedings from on high and dropping into the consciousnesses of her characters at will; the third was the sometimes impenetrable rendition of slave speech, which fogs the page and invites the eye to skip down. Nevertheless, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin greatly moving, even though I suspect that Stowe would have got a C-minus in a modern creative writing course.
Let me finish with something quite different in Pamela Crane’s short story The Scream of Silence. Crane writes psychological thrillers of terrific quality, and this short story – a taster of a longer work that is under way -is no exception. I loved the sense of place – the grittier side of Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina, as well as the desperate whackiness of the first-person narrator. I also admire Crane’s professional and entrepreneurial approach to the difficult business of being a writer. Look her up.
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I left home with a packed Kindle last month for my first ever cruise. My eclectic reading tally was as follows:
Peter Ralph’s The CEO: White Collar Crime took me up the Eastern seaboard from Sydney to Cairns. Mr Ralph specialises in corporate thrillers that are apparently based on extensive experience of the business world. I’d read his Dirty Fracking Business previously and been struck by his profound knowledge of the fracking industry in Australia. The CEO: White Collar Crime is a madcap morality tale of how not to do business: Protagonist Douglas Aspine is a monster, intent on gobbling up profits, women, cars, and anything else that falls onto his plate in his quest to be a top CEO. Alas, the trail of damage lengthens until there is only one way out. In Australia, we have an old-fashioned expression ‘Ya wouldn’t read about it!’ as a reaction to something implausible. Alas, I have a horrible feeling that Australia has more than a few Douglas Aspines, and here’s where you’ll read about it.
After Cairns, we were solidly in the tropics and on course for Darwin. Our ship’s ultimate destination was Singapore, after which we were to fly to Penang, and then return to Sydney via Singapore. So what better book to read next, but Tan Twan Eng’s award-winning The Gift of Rain, set in George Town, Penang, a city I hadn’t visited in more than twenty years. This sinuous novel is the tale of a half-English and half-Chinese son of the powerful Hutton trading family during the Japanese occupation of Penang. It’s a big, ambitious novel that often veers towards the mystical. The star of the book was the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, where we were booked to stay, and I finished the book the day we checked into the
dear old thing, with its white shutters and lovely banquet rooms, and photographs of the Sarkies brothers. These gentlemen, bearing record-breaking moustaches, were the very same Armenian brothers who founded Raffles in Singapore.
I wandered George Town, summoning up Tan Twan Eng’s images of the Japanese occupation, but in the meantime I’d started on his The Garden of Evening Mists, an exquisite novel set in the years after WWII, and dealing with the pain of guilt and betrayal as a former prisoner of the Japanese in Malaya rebuilds a Japanese garden in memory of her dead sister. I finished it on the last night of a stopover in Singapore, and after a pre-departure dinner at the venerable Zam Zam Restaurant, I was ready for Kerry J. Donovan’s Cryer’s View, the latest in his The DCI Jones Casebook series.
I’m a big fan of Kerry Donovan, who matures as a writer with every book, and now works in a range of genres: Note his experimental The Transition of Johnny Swift, and his American small town debut On Lucky Shores. In Cryer’s View, we see a strengthening of Donovan’s skill in building complex characters, so that what is at face value a police procedural is a more profound piece of work. I knocked off Cryer’s View just before BA15 touched down at 6am in Sydney, well chuffed, as I think Detective Sergeant Phil Cryer might have put it.
Overall, a great reading experience, and the cruise wasn’t bad either. I’ll award 20 out of stars for the lot.
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The Transition of Johnny Swift is completely different. This time, the author throws us into a jangling world of motor racing, dire injury, psychological stress, simmering romance, and family loyalty. The spiralling plot has the reader on edge until a clever resolution in the last few pages. I was unclear about what genre I was in until the ending, but this added to the pleasure! The technical stuff – medicine, neuroscience and some weird physics – was convincing enought to keep me engaged. The style – an urgent, present tense meld of introspection, narrative and economic dialogue – pushes the pace.
Well done, Mr Donovan. More like this please!
Read about Stuart Campbell’s books here.
Dave’s novel Stateline is free on Amazon for a few more hours. Get it right here.
I just downloaded it, and I’ll be reviewing it in the next few weeks.
*My review of Hard Prejudice is here.
Learn about Stuart Campbell’s books at http://www.stuartcampbellauthor.com
Could this be, I wondered, an experience to parallel the superb police/legal drama series Spiral? Settled into couch with drink in hand, I press the button: Big opening, Gerard Depardieu enters a vast stadium, thousands of fans yell in excitement I’m in Marseille.
The actors deliver their opening lines. What comes out?
American English. Dubbed. Voices that don’t fit bodies. Sentences that don’t go with lips. Ventilated corpses. The essence of Frenchness eliminated.
What was Netflix thinking? That its audiences might get tired lips from reading subtitles?
I am thankful that my late friend Raymond Saucisson did not live to see this day.