Category Archives: READING


By Annah Faulkner

Published by Picador, 2015

The title of this book is portentous and I began reading with an expectation that something explosive would happen. It did, and sooner than I thought. On the first page a stick of dynamite is wedged into the stubborn roots of a camphor laurel tree, because despite its hacking it would not die, ‘a tiny green shoot had sprung from its stump’. A metaphor surely, of hope perhaps, or the persistence of truth. By the end of page two the green shoot is gone for good, but the memory of it lives long in the boy who ran from the blast, and it lies like a foundation stone beneath the architecture of this lovely book.

The story starts, in earnest, more than thirty years later. Chris is now in his forties and he’s mourning the death of his aunt, and adoptive mother, Jo. Her passing ignites the fuse that drives the narrative of this book. Jo was his mother’s sister, but about her, she spoke very little. She was the keeper of knowledge and the hoarder of secrets. Her death magnifies Chris’s feeling that he doesn’t really know who he is, and intensifies his longing to understand his mother, and identify his father.

It often takes a while for me to enter fully into a story. I observe it from a safe distance, making assumptions about its worth, judging its scale, the quality of its construction, the attention to detail. First impressions can set up a resistance. it’s like seeing a house for the first time; its style, its era, the embellishments on the balcony. These things have nothing to do with how habitable the building might actually be, but they can all slow your progress to the front door. It took no time at all to feel comfortable in this story. It was immediately familiar. An Australian voice perhaps, an iconic Queensland setting – the sloping block and old Queenslander recognisable no matter where in this big country you grew up.

Last Day in the Dynamite Factory draws you in. It’s not like the pull of a car crash or the voyeurism of salacious gossip. Instead it’s the kind of story you want to hear because it reflects your own concerns – identity, relationships, work, family and love. The detail may not be ours, but the larger questions are the same as those that echo through our own quiet moments.

There is a big story here, and at times it explodes and the shockwaves move it forward at a perfect pace. But the smaller stories are equally engaging. Chris’s relationship with his wife, Diane, is delicately told and Faulkner writes beautifully about sex and love and the longing for them to coincide.

Work is another theme that many readers will relate to. Why we do what we do, and what it costs us. Chris is a conservation architect who would like to be doing something else but is shackled by his expertise and good reputation.

The very domestic nature of these themes, and the human scale of their rendering, make this an accessible read. But it is the skilful writing – the sturdy frame and invisible joinery, the balance of form and function – that make this a great read.

The persistence of truth – within us, between us, and over the course of time – is like a tiny green shoot that sprouts through this book. The truth, in the end, makes a good story and I would not hesitate to recommend it.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


By Emily Bitto

Published by Affirm Press, 2014

Who hasn’t imagined themselves part of a world more exiting, more colourful, more sensual, or perhaps, more dangerous than their own?

1930s Australia is a bland and conservative place, subdued by economic depression, isolation and censorship. For an adolescent Lilly, becoming friends with Eva is like glimpsing the colourful spectrum of ordinary light as it passes through a shard of broken glass.

Eva is the middle daughter of Helena and Evan Trentham. He is a well-known avant-garde painter; she has a glamour that rebels against the restraint of the times and separates her from the other mothers, who dote earnestly on their children and keep tidy hours and tidy homes. The Trentham home is old and expansive; the architecture of the house, and the people within it, is ramshackle. But inside and out Helena cultivates a kind of unrestrained beauty; bringing artists together with the same eye that nurtures wild growth in her garden.

Lilly is drawn into the life of the Trentham’s like a stray is drawn towards food. She skulks on the edge of that life, observing, but unobserved. She collects the crumbs of hedonistic abandon: moments of attention; fragments of knowledge; discussions and behaviours found nowhere in the beige confines of her parents’ home.

The neglect of the Trentham daughters is extended to her, and as their large house fills with more and more strays, Lilly becomes witness to the emergence of Australia’s Modern Art Movement and its most notorious actors and scandals.

Emily Bitto has written beautifully and convincingly – I had to double check the Trenthams did not actually exist because Bitto’s portrayal of their life seems familiar. In particular, I couldn’t help wondering about the lives of children living on the periphery of the Heide circle in the 1940s. This is not their story, but it might have been.

What is born of an uncompromising commitment to a life of art? The Strays asks this question over and over, and the answer swings between light and shade; between vibrant beauty and hidden rot.

Bitto uses metaphor to great effect. When describing Helena’s miniature paintings she writes, “She had put them in places where they were vulnerable to damage … They were neglected, mishandled, exposed to the elements. But this did not lessen their impact. They contained the strength of weather within them.” This passage could be about Helena’s approach to her children as much as her art. Like the paintings, Eva and her sisters are marked and sculpted by exposure and neglect. Lilly, too, is windswept by her time in the household.

Lilly is so recognisable in her longing to be part of the Trentham Family, and also in her moments of reluctance, when risk is perceived and her conventional upbringing shows its hand. But she is not one of them. In her words she “was a cuckoo in the nest, an imposter who listened and observed, hording and collecting.” When the time comes, she is returned from whence she came.

This book was so satisfying in its rendering of the complexity of a life lived for creativity, and the inherent potential and hazards of that life. I do not know, even now, who should be held responsible for which outcomes. The Trentham’s life, like Helena’s garden, was full of creative chaos and colour brought about by a rejection of convention and a certain amount of neglect.

But, as any gardener knows, neglect can promote growth, or retard it. It depends entirely on the nature of the organism.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


By Andrew O’Hagan
Published by Faber & Faber, 2015

The recurring motif in this book is light, which isn’t surprising given the title. But it is not immediately clear what is being illuminated. Early on we are introduced to the Blackpool Illuminations, a festival of light that has been drawing people to that English seaside town since 1879. But we don’t return to Blackpool until much later. In between lays the story, and it is a good one, with two interweaving narratives that initially could not be further apart, but which come together gracefully.

At the heart of this book is Anne Quirk, a woman in her eighties living in a retirement home in Saltcoats on the west coast of Scotland. The electricity sockets in her kitchen have been taped over with Elastoplast, and the rings of her stove are covered up to prevent her from cooking. Anne’s neighbour, Maureen, pops in frequently to sort out small confusions, and to hear Anne talk about her past; about living in New York, about taking photographs and about the love of her life, Harry Blake. There is a sense of time running out for Anne, of days darkening and memories falling like autumn leaves. Maureen tries to catch them, and when letters arrive from Anne’s Grandson, Luke, Maureen reads them aloud.

Luke is a captain in the British army, though he might have been a poet. During the long hot wait for landmines to be dug out of the Afghan road on which his convoy is travelling, he tells his boys to write their last letters, ‘a quick note just in case’ writes O’Hagan. They write them while waiting for their turn on XBox. When Luke sits to write his letter, it is his grandmother, rather than his mother, that he addresses. When he was a boy, Anne had talked to him about art and books, she had shown him how light can illuminate the most ordinary object and make it beautiful – she ‘had given him the world not as it was but as it might be.’

O’Hagan moves effortlessly between the soft furnishings of a Scottish retirement home and the harsh desert heat of Afghanistan. He has so convincingly captured the mood and vernacular of both, that I imagine he was imbedded, alternately, with the Royal Highland Fusiliers during a recent Afghan campaign, and with a bingo group that met weekly at a local aged care facility somewhere in Scotland. But it is not his skill as a writer of place that makes this book so enjoyable, it is his sensitive understanding of relationships, and his ability to show human frailty and strength with subtlety and compassion.

In a photograph, it is the play between shadow and light – what is seen and what is unseen – that makes for a beautiful composition. This book has been composed in much the same way. O’Hagan reveals just enough about his characters to convince the reader their lives are worth investing in, that the story hidden in the shadows of the text is worth perusing. This is a well written book with a satisfying conclusion.

And one more thing, for those who do not know, the Blackpool Illuminations are turned on at the beginning of autumn, at a time when the seaside season is coming to an end. They stay on for more than two months, adding light and colour to the darkening days leading up to winter. I didn’t know this when I read the book, and I didn’t need to, but it was illuminating, non-the-less.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney

Published in In Daily, 17 June, 2015


A Novel by Miranda July
Published by Canongate Books, 2015

I’m going to start this review by saying things that may turn prospective readers away from The First Bad Man, but that is not my intention, so please bear with me.

Reading The First Bad Man felt a little like cleaning out my fridge. I was frequently disgusted, surprised by some of the content, but compelled by each disturbing discovery to keep going. Just like I can’t help lifting the lid on some mouldy mass in the bottom of my crisper to try and figure out what it is, I couldn’t help turning the pages of this book. A few chapters in I started to appreciate the deliciousness of what I was reading. If this book had a flavour it would be umami, that trendy new taste that Wikipedia says induces salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat and resulting in a lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe.

The first chapter introduces the reader to Cheryl and her globus hystericus, an uncomfortable swelling in the throat that, at its worst, causes saliva to pool and requires frequent spitting because of an inability to swallow. I wanted to stop there – and I’m sure you want me to stop there – but Cheryl intrigued me, so I kept reading, and I’m glad I did.

In The First Bad Man Miranda July celebrates and denigrates human weirdness, revealing it as both frailty and conceit. She has created a small cast of characters that few would want to identify with but many would relate to.

Cheryl is middle-aged, lives alone, and is a long-time employee of ‘Open Palm’, a not-for-profit that teaches women’s self-defence and distributes role-play DVDs. She is awkward and submissive, and when the owners of Open Palm ask if their nineteen year old daughter, Clee, can stay with her for a while, she says yes, even though she’d like to say no.

The relationship between Cheryl and the selfish, oafish, bullying Clee, is the back bone of this story, and at times it is so repellent that all my instincts told me to look away, but I couldn’t. Other relationships in Cheryl’s life provide relief, of sorts. None of them are functional and most of them are strange – there’s a love interest, her accidental therapist, the enigma of her gardener and, most intriguing of all, the bond she has with Kubelko Bondy, the soul of a baby she loved as a child. These are bizarre relationships between seriously flawed individuals, but each reveals vulnerabilities and strengths – hers and theirs – that make this book quite extraordinary.

It’s difficult to say what this book is about without initially conjuring clichés – none of which apply. It is a coming of age story, but Cheryl is in her mid-forties; it’s a satire – and the narrative weaves-in all manner of Southern Californian bunkum, from re-birthing to chromotherapy (as if the essence of white can cure a fetid case of athletes foot) – but the emotion is recognisable and true; it’s sexually explicit, but not at all erotic; it’s a love story, but for much of the time I couldn’t help thinking I was reading a feminised version of Fight Club. In the end it’s about motherhood, although not as we commonly understand it. By this stage I was totally convinced, and deeply moved, by the authenticity of the fiction.

Miranda July has created a unique and subversive story that takes the characters, and the reader, on an absurd journey towards fulfilment. If at first you find it repulsive, hold your nose and keep reading.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


by Mario Vargas Llosa
Published by Faber & Faber, 2015

Oh, where to start with this review? Perhaps with the author: Mario Vargas Llosa was born in Peru in 1936 and is one of the most significant Latin American writers of his generation. So significant, in fact, that in 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now to the reader: I was born much later, on the other side of the world, and while I had a love affair with the magical realism of Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marques and Isabelle Allende in the 1990’s, I have never written a novel, and the Nobel Foundation will never, ever, ever, bestow a prize on me. I tell you this so that you can ignore all the critical things I am about to say, because, let’s face it, what would I know.

So, to the story: The Discreet Hero is set in modern day Peru and tells two tales that intersect late in the book. The first is of a self-made man who refuses to give in to extortionists – even in the face of arson and kidnap – because he lives by the advice of his poor, uneducated but very hardworking father, to ‘Never let anybody walk all over you’ – we are told this, over and over again, and Llosa’s habit of repeating what we already know is my first criticism (with all due respect, of course). The second narrative is of an old and wealthy patriarch who marries his house-keeper and thereby cheats his hateful sons, known to all as ‘The Hyenas’, of the inheritance they would most likely squander. When he flees on his honeymoon the fallout is felt most keenly by his trusted confidante, Don Rigoberto, a cultured Europhile given to sensual pleasure of all kinds and, most-likely, Mario Vargas Llosa’s alter-ego.

This book started well, and I quickly felt like I was reading a lightweight detective novel. It didn’t quite fit with the calibre of the author, but, between you and me, this came as a bit of a relief – it’s often hard work reading Nobel Prize winners. The expansive roll-call of characters and relationships reminded me of those other Latin American stories I have loved so much, and I was particularly intrigued by the very mysterious figure of Edilberto Torres. He pops up throughout the book, and the possibility he was the devil became reason enough to keep reading.

So I did. And I soon got to know who was who, and what was where, but the experience of slotting it all together was unsatisfactory, and the whole was no more than the sum of its parts, and perhaps, it was less.

What I did enjoy was Llosa’s evocation of place and its role in the mood of the story. There is also a dexterity in the way Llosa superimposes dialogue from two separate conversations to shed light on the past and the present simultaneously – once I realised what was going on, it was easy to keep up, and a pleasure to read. But these literary delights were not enough.

It may be that The Discreet Hero has suffered in its translation from Spanish to English. Or, it may be that the editor’s pen was stayed by the thought of deleting words written by a man of such literary renown. Or, it may be that I cannot appreciate Mario Vargas Llosa, because I have not read any of his previous stories. While this book stands alone, some of its characters have seen the page before. If I was familiar with them, I may have recognised and enjoyed the many references to their habits and previous adventures. But I wasn’t familiar, and as these references rarely had any bearing on what was going on in this story, they seemed only to confuse and clutter. How is this relevant? I found myself asking, again and again.

The one element that kept me reading when all else was tempting me to stop was the enigmatic Edilberto Torres. So what of him? Well, who knows? He and his literary potential were vaporised in a dull and saccharin ending that made me wish I’d read an Agatha Christie novel instead, just for the big reveal when all the little hints and seemingly irrelevant details coalesce into a satiating conclusion. No such luck with this story, though it’s possible Edilberto Torres will turn up in the next novel, and if I read it I will have all the satisfaction and enjoyment of a reader in the know – it might well be worth it, but I’m unlikely to seek it out.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


by Brooke Davis
Published by Hachette, 2014

I loved this book. Like many people who’ve read it, I found it warmed my heart, tickled my funny bone and made me think, deeply.

Lost & Found is the story of seven year old Millie Bird, Eighty-seven year old Karl the touch-typist and Eighty-two year old Agatha Pantha. They are an unlikely trio, with unlikely names who get into all sorts of unlikely situations during a road trip in search of Millie’s mother. Everyone in this story has been left behind, even the minor characters, but the texture of each person’s grief is unique. Sometimes it is smooth and reflective and you can feel their grief because it would be your own. Other times it is like the nap of velvet; look at it one way and you see a woman who has lost her husband, look at it another and you see a woman who has lost her self.

Lost & Found is a funny book about grief and loneliness, and, as unlikely as it all is, it worked for me. The poignancy of loss, experienced by each character at the start of the story, is not dulled by the playfulness of Brooke Davis’s style. Rather it hums like a base note throughout, and I never felt the seriousness of the themes was overpowered by the melody of the story. I can’t imagine this book without the sweetness of that melody – with so much loss, it would be an unbearable read.

There is little more I can tell you about the plot without re-writing it, and I have not the talent of Brooke Davis. So instead I want to alert the prospective reader to another far more subtle pleasure of Lost & Found – it’s celebration of words.

Throughout her book, Brooke Davis plays with, explores and venerates words. They are not just the vehicle by which she travels along this story; they are the scenery, the background music, the glue that binds her characters. Karl’s fingers habitually type out every word he says, and his pockets are full of dashes stolen from computer key boards. On their own, they have no value, but he arranges them to spell out the words I AM HERE, imbuing the dashes, and his elderly , invisible self, with meaning.

Agatha insists that any observation she makes with a ring of wisdom to it be written down immediately – ‘Never trust a woman skinnier than you!’ she shouts to Millie and Karl, then, ‘Write that down!’

For Millie, the words of strangers are curiosities she collects into poems as she walks through the carriage of a train – ‘Sandwiches / What? / and curtains / read this / potatoes’ . Words are also the cause of much confusion, and source of all her hope – IN HERE MUM she writes, over and over again.

The sound of words, their shape and flavour, are important to Brooke Davis, and I think Lost & Found is an ode to their power and potential. This is just one of many descriptions that brought me joy:

They yell outside the bakery, the supermarket, the pubs and in the main thoroughfare, chopping at words as though throwing their sentences into a blender.

Despite being a best-seller, this book is not universally loved, but neither is the sound of a Mr Whippy van, or the taste of ice cream on a hot day, or the scent of Jasmine at the end of a long wet winter. Some can’t get past the cute names, peculiar stereotypes and comically absurd situations, to appreciate the deeper reflections on ageing and love, on depression and devastating loss, on redemption, acceptance and gratitude. Or, on the power of words to hurt and to heal. I am reminded of the adage that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down – there is serious intent in this book, and it has been delivered in the most delightful way.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


By Eva Hornung
Published by Text Publishing, 2009

Yann Martel – he who wrote The Life of Pi, one of my favourite books of all time – describes Dog Boy as ‘Extraordinary’. This word is printed in quotation marks on the cover of the book, and it is the reason I picked it up from the pile of pre-loved tomes at my local second-hand book store. Of course I doubted it would be ‘Extraordinary’ – these superlatives are often found on the front of books I pick up and I am too often disappointed – but not this time.
Like The Life of Pi, Dog Boy is a story that uses animals to explore humanity. It is fascinating and shocking and heart wrenching, but it is compelling, and written with such insight into human and canine behaviour, that the events of the book are completely believable.
It is about a Russian boy, called Romochka, who is abandoned by his human carer and adopted by the matriarch of a family of feral dogs. It is an ancient story, but unique in its telling. From Romulus and Remus, to Tarzan, to Mowgli, myth and literature have placed helpless children in the care of wild animals and challenged us to rethink what it is to be human and what it is to be animal. They are never mutually exclusive states of being. When real life examples are found, and every now and then they are, we are horrified by the tale of human neglect and awed by the possibility of animal compassion.
Besides Romochka, most of the characters in Eva Hornung’s book are dogs. Without a hint of anthropomorphising, she has managed to convey their personalities and peculiarities as vividly as any human character, and so I was invested in the lives of these animals and convinced of the truth of their experience. I finished Dog Boy not only satisfied with a good read, and moved by a well told story, but with a feeling of having understood something that has always been beyond me. Let me explain.
As a child, I never had a dog and was generally wary. My own children were not going to be similarly deprived, and three years ago we bought a whippet who goes by the name of Bilbo. I have fed him and walked him and fallen in love with him, but I must admit that I have never understood him. Why, for instance, does he rub his neck in bird poo, why does he have to wee on every post and clump of grass, why does he love my husband more than me, and me more than my children? When I walk him and we come across other dogs I keep a wide berth, because I don’t understand them either, and I have always feared their barking and been perturbed by their need to sniff each other’s bottoms. Dog boy has been a revelation, a turning point in my understanding of these most beloved animals, and, while it may not have been the author’s intention, I am grateful for the lessons I have been taught by this book. Now, when I walk our dog, I show a little more respect for the social conventions of his species; I let him sniff bottoms and wee where he likes. And I watch him: I’ve noticed that he tolerates small children more than big and I wonder, what would happen, if… ?

Whether you like dogs or not is irrelevant to your enjoyment of this book; it is about relationships and hardship, survival and hope. In a word Dog Boy is ‘extraordinary’ and it is now one of my all-time favourite books.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


By Niall Williams
Published by Bloomsbury, 2014

The words of Jane Austen, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and so many others, are woven like snail trails across the cover of this book. They are only visible when light strikes them in just the right way, so I didn’t notice them until I was about a hundred pages in and had found a sunny spot to read. When I did notice them they made perfect sense, because this book is all about stories; those that have been written down and those that are told, and how both make up a life.

Ruth Swain is the narrator of this story and she speaks to her readers directly, from her sick bed in the attic of the house in which she and her twin brother Aeney were born, in the small village of Faha, County Clare. It is a house that has seen fire and flood, and from a window in the attic roof, Ruth can see the constant fall of rain. She is surrounded by her father’s library of books (3958 to be exact, all catalogued and frequently referenced). She is telling us his story, and hers. It is a story of life swimming upstream, and she tells it in that particular Irish way that meanders like the Shannon.
And it is this meandering that will either delight or frustrate. The first half of the book is an ode to the kind of Ireland so many fell in love with after watching Ballykissangel. If not for a peppering of twenty-first century colloquialisms we could be reading about any time in the past century (though to Ruth, a Facebook is a book ‘where faces have been’). It is also an ode to everyday tales and storytelling, with fragments of family history and local lore flowing like tributaries towards the main story, which we do not really get into until half way through the book. I loved the beautiful lyrical Irishness of it all, and was tempted, on more than one occasion, to read a paragraph out load in my best Irish accent, but I did want dear Ruth to get to the point a little quicker.

Once she did, I couldn’t put the book down. I fell a little in love with Virgil, her hapless father, and finally realised what all the stories were for. I finished the book wishing that a few of the hundreds of stories she started had been given just a few more lines, but I am grateful for the one she told, and the way she told it.

Which brings me to the real author: Nyall Williams is an Irishman in love with words and books and reading. The History of the Rain is his eighth novel and it was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. But don’t let that put you off, I understood every word and despite recurring tales of loss, it sang with the poetry of love and hope. Here is one of those tributaries, a story with no beginning or end.

Tommy is a gentle man and he loves Breda with a kind of folklore love. She’s losing her hair now and bits of it land in the dinners she cooks and the scones she bakes, but Tommy doesn’t object, he sees the hairs and eats away.

History of the Rain now sits on the shelf I have dedicated to books worth saving in a fire or a flood – it is book number 43 if you’re interested, which seems a bit impoverished by contrast. But I’m a slow reader constantly distracted by life, need I say more?

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


By Robert Dessaix
Published by Knopf, 2014

I need to preface this review with a bit of context. I recently sat among the greying crowd of Adelaide Writers’ Week enthralled, amused and occasionally titillated (in that delightful way heterosexual women can be when gay men tease them with sexual innuendo). Robert Dessaix was being interviewed, and he was in fine form. He had just turned seventy one and the span of years was deeply etched across his expressive face, and obvious in the careful tread that took him from chair to lectern when asked to read from his book. But age has not wearied him, and when he read he was magnificent. A raconteur of the most theatrical kind, he would pause mid-sentence, look us over to ensure we were paying attention (as if it were possible not to) then deliver the final words as if each were a precious stone. And they shone, those words, as they rolled off his tongue, so when the performance was over I went straight to the book tent and bought his book.

What days are for is a memoir, ostensibly written during Dessaix’s time in hospital after having a heart attack. Amid the comings and goings of visitors, nurses and doctors, and in the company of three other patients and the constant drone of channel 7, Robert Dessaix found himself asking, what are days for?

It isn’t an original question; Philip Larkin asked it in his poem, Days, where he wrote, What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in: where can we live but days? Robert Dessaix has dedicated a whole book to the pursuit of an answer.

So what are days for? In this beautiful memoir Dessaix suggests it is the kind of question a child would ask, and as he lies in his bed on the 10th floor of St Vincent’s Hospital it strikes him as a more sophisticated question than the clichéd adult version, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Well, it would wouldn’t it, when your heart has just failed and your hold on existence is via various plastic tubes connecting your body to bags of elixir and machines with a simulated pulse. Days come into their own when their numbers are threatened.

I have read a lot of Robert Dessaix, his personal essays are my favourite morning tea company. He is conversational in his writing, he challenges received wisdom and he is funny. I sometimes imagine being his neighbour and popping in on a dull Wednesday morning (Because nothing very interesting ever seems to happen on a Wednesday). He’d invite me to stay for earl grey tea and biscuits, and I’d ask about his latest travels, then sit back and listen. That is what this book is like; it is the recollection of days by someone who has lived them so well – childhood days, travelling days, days of infatuation, and days of love. None of us recall our lives in a continuous narrative, and so these days are scattered randomly through time. But their meaning is not random and their relationship to each other, or to the day Dessaix is experiencing on the 10th floor of St Vincent’s, is clear.

I finished What days are for, knowing a lot more about an Australian writer I have long admired. But perhaps the greatest gift of this book was an appreciation of days. As Robert Dessaix says, ‘Within the framework of a day, I can hope.’ And that is what we do, every time we open our eyes in the morning, we acknowledge the day’s potential and hope for something good to come from it.

What days are for will be pleasant company for any reader, and it will be a gentle joy for those who are interested in contemplating life. If you are a fan of Robert Dessaix, reading this book will be like meeting up with an old friend just back from a grand adventure. Whichever category you may fall into, your experience of this book will be a little more sublime if you have Dessaix’s voice in your head as you read. So find a recording online – the Wheeler Centre website is a good place to start – and listen to the way the words roll off his tongue. If nothing else, it will be a pleasant way to spend your day.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney


By Jenny Offill
Published by Granta, 2014

Speculators on the universe … are no better than madmen.
This quote, from Socrates, begins a story of an ordinary marriage within an ordinary life. But it is told in such an extraordinary way that it demands to be read to the end in one sitting. Of course, I have kids and I work and there are plums falling from the tree in our back yard insisting they be turned into jam, so I didn’t read it in one sitting, but I wanted to. And I might when the kids grow up – that’s how much I enjoyed this book.

It is svelte; just 177 small pages with wide margins and large type (this was its original selling point I’m ashamed to say – I refer you again to the kids and the job and the plums), and its style is episodic; small paragraphs act like photographs in an album, and the life of the narrator flashes before you as you turn the pages. At first I wondered if any depth could be gleaned from such a style, and whether I would find myself wanting more. In this respect it was initially a challenge, not due to any difficulty in the language or obscurity of meaning, it has neither of these, but because it was unfamiliar. I have never read a book like this and there was a certain fear of the unknown. But it didn’t last more than a dozen pages (and remember, they are small and spaciously written so the period of discomfort was barely 10 minutes).

I definitely did not want for more. Dept. of Speculation achieves so much with so little. It is a sketch of a marriage so perfectly drawn that colour and detail would only spoil it. The narrator, the wife, is unpicking her life in the way life is unpicked by any of us – in a moment that represents months, in an action that reminds us of habit, in a phrase that speaks volumes. Lives and relationships evolve over years but we only notice change occasionally. This book compiles those observations to extraordinary effect.

Halfway through the story the narrator says, ‘Some women make it look easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.’ I didn’t need her to describe the years of trying to be something more or someone else, and the emotion of not succeeding.

There is lethargy in the tone of the narrator and a disarmingly calm disclosure of events that leaves the reader to interpret the emotion of the story. There is no manipulation here and no hand-holding, just a simple tale, told simply. I am reminded of the Raymond Carver short story – What we talk about when we talk about Love – the words we use are just a veneer; they are often inadequate to the task. Our experience of love is complicated and difficult to explain. In Dept. of Speculation there is no explanation, and so, as a reader, I feel I understood more.

So, what of the title? I have been trying to work it out. We are told that the narrator and her husband signed off their letters with the Dept. of Speculation, but I think Socrates gives the greater clue: Speculators on the universe are no better than madmen. Perhaps the message is that speculation on love and marriage may send you mad.

Dept. of Speculation was published last year so it will be easy to find at your local independent book store (though not so easy to find at the discount chains, for obvious reasons). Buy it or borrow it, you won’t regret the moments you spend reading it.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney