Book review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I read an article about books on female friendship written by Italian novelist Elena Ferante (a pseudonym) whose true identity remains a mystery and was intrigued, so I picked up one of her novels.

They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.

Studious and plain Elena who narrates the story, is in awe of the charismatic Lila, always feeling second best despite her own achievements. As children Elena is the teachers pet and fiery Lila relates to her as competitor and a role model. In adolescence Elena continues to study seeing it as a way to escape her circumstances whilst Lila drops out and pursues marriage as a means to escape her situation.

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.  Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad.  Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us

My Brilliant Friend traces the girls relationship and ambitions of rising above their circumstances from childhood through adolescence. It is a story about power and gender relations, the effect of patriarchy and violence, class, and left wing politics and how they influence smart young women trying to make their way in the world.

There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.

Set on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s, Ferante’s writing is vivid, authentic and epic. My Brilliant Friend is an uncensored study of female friendship, the first in a series of three novels about the two highly intelligent working class girls with an intense, enmeshed intimate friendship.

Book review: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who is Vera Kelly? set across dual timelines (1957 and 1966) and two countries (Maryland, USA and Buenos Aires, Argentina) is coming of age meets coming out meets espionage with a side of literary historical fiction.

Vera Kelly is a troubled teenager coming to terms with her sexuality. Her mother lands her in a juvenile detention centre after she steals a car. When released she moves to Greenwich Village in New York City and works night shift at a radio station and tentatively explore the queer scene.

On a Tuesday I came home from school to an empty house, watched the evening news, and then took Equanil caplets lifted from my mother. Nothing happened, so after an hour I took three more, and then maybe after that, I can’t remember.

Vera Kelly is a young CIA agent with a flair for electronics on her first big mission to Buenos Aries during the Cold War in the lead up to a coup. Revolución Argentina would establish Juan Carlos Ongania as defacto president. Vera rents an apartment and pretends to be a Canadian student befriending a group of local students suspected of being KGB agents.

I had found the apartment in San Telmo with the help of a motherly rental agent in a pink suit who had tried to cheat me on her percentage not once but twice, and reacted with a broad and charming laugh both times I pointed it out, as if we were flirting on a date and I was removing her hand from my thigh.

Vera bugs the students bicycles and with the help of a local contact, the Argentina Vice President’s office, tracking the students movements during the day and transcribing conversations from the officials office at night. When the coup seems imminent Vera decides to action her escape plan but the borders are closed faster than she can escape. Upon returning to her apartment she finds she’s been betrayed by her local contact and has to go into hiding until she can find another way out.

Oh my God, you should have seen us in ’55, ’56, ’62,’ he said, sighing. ‘Every year, another old man shouting from a grandstand with all his medals on. “I’ve come to replace your previous old man.” Some people would go to jail, everyone else would get used to it, and then it would start all over

There’s a long set up in this novel, but the character of Vera carries it off with her whip smart intellect, dry humour and keen observations of the times. I really enjoyed the insights into the New York queer scene in the early 60’s when being queer was illegal, and the history of Argentina. There is a correlation between being gay when it’s illegal and a spy running through the novel – the coded language and pretending to be someone you are not.

Vera is a relatable character and if you like women driven, realistic spy stories with a strong plot – this book could be for you. Even better, there are two more Vera Kelly novels to devour – Vera Kelly is not a Mystery (2020) and Vera Kelly Lost and Found (2022)

I woke with an ache in my chest and heard the subsiding whistle of a teakettle in the kitchen. I read the spines of the paperbacks on the night table: Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith. Novels about liars. I needed to call Gerry.

Book review: 7 1/2 by Christos Tsiolkas

7 1/2 is a book about an author (Christos) who has fled the city to an isolated small town on the East Coast of Australia to write a story that has been lingering in his mind for years. Chistos wants the book to be about beauty – an antidote to a world that has been brimming over with crisis. And there is much beauty in it – landscapes and the weather and animals that pass across them, human connections and bodies are described lavishly. He also reflects on his pleasure in his writing process, and with affection on his childhood and the people who made him the man he has become.

I listened to the audiobook (twice) narrated by Lex Marinos and the words spilled over me like honey as I toiled in my Autumn garden and cooked and preserved the excess produce in my kitchen. Whilst listening to Christos’s writing about the things he loved, I was doing things that I love. Turning the soil, making pickled zucchini, poached quinces, pumpkin gnocchi and soup from the abundance of Autumn produce for my freezer whilst glancing out at the grapevine turning fire red through my kitchen window.

But I no longer trust the judgements of my age. The critic now assesses the writer’s life as much as her work. The judges award prizes according to a checklist of criteria created by corporations and bureaucrats. And we writers and artists acquiesce, fearful of a word that might be misconstrued or an image that might cause offence. I read many of the books nominated for the globalised book prizes; so many of them priggish and scolding, or contrite and chastened. I feel the same way about those films feted at global festivals and award ceremonies. It’s not even that it is dead art: it’s worse, it’s safe art. Most of them don’t even have the dignity of real decay and desiccation: like the puritan elect, they want to take their piety into the next world. Their books and their films don’t even have the power to raise a good stench. The safe is always antiseptic.

A man in middle age reflects on what he loves about being in the world. The book is auto fiction – part deeply personal and part fiction. The novel the protagonist is writing is called ‘Sweet Thing’ and is about an ageing ex-porn star and drug addict who leaves his wife and child temporarily to take a trip from Australia home to the USA where his is confronted by his past.

At the start of the novel Christos declares that he is tired of writing about issues – politics, sexuality, race, history, gender and morality – they bore him. Yet there are echoes of these topics throughout the novel – because they are part of life and it is difficult to separate ourselves from them completely. Ugliness and beauty coexist. We never really know what a thing is unless we can give an adequate account of its antithesis – a concepts Christos acknowledges at one point in 7 1/2.

There were moments in this book that were so personal, poetic and exquisite, they bought tears to my eyes. I will no doubt read it again just to inspire my own writing.

Book review: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

There’s something about Richard Osman’s novels that make me think of the famous five in retirement after one of them has popped off their perch. I reviewed his first novel The Thursday Murder Club a few weeks ago and went back for some more laughs.

Some people in life, Sue, are weather forecasters, whereas other people are the weather itself.

Kent based senior citizens are back in the second book in Osman’s comic crime series. Led by ex-secret service woman Elizabeth Best and former nurse Joyce, retired psychiatrist Ibrahim, and former unionist Ron, collude with police detective Donna, her boss Chris and tattooed handyman Bogdan, who has a way with the ladies, to wrangle a local teenage thug who assaults Ibrahim, a lady drug dealer and an underworld middle man from whom Elizabeth’s ex-husband stole diamonds, and gets murdered for his trouble.

That twinkle in his eye was undimmed. The twinkle that gave an entirely undeserved suggestion of wisdom and charm. The twinkle that could make you walk down the aisle with a man almost ten years your junior and regret it within months. The twinkle you soon realize is actually the beam of a lighthouse, warning you off the rocks.

The main two characters, Elizabeth and Joyce, are fearless – and it pays off as most people simply think they are two harmless old ladies – and they never get harmed. Elizabeth is smart, canny and fearless whilst Joyce is optimistic and kind hearted – knitting friendship bracelets in her spare time.

What a tiny, formidable woman. Exactly the sort of woman you’d want parachuted behind enemy lines with a gun and a cipher machine.

The Man Who Died Twice is a light, joyful, fun and entertaining romp with a group of old friends in their twighlight years dealing with the realities of ageing – death, dementia, personal safety and painful grown up children – whilst they happen to be solving major crimes. I hope I have such adventures when I’m a septuagenarian.

Book review: Skin by Kerry Andrew

One day in 1985, eleven year old Matty’s Irish father disappeared. Matty is offered no explanation and starts to hunt for him. Her search leads her to the swimming ponds at Hampstead Heath and she comes to believe he has killed himself by drowning in the men’s pond.

Along with grief, Matty finds freedom in the water and a community of men who provide a kind of refuge from her difficult relationship with her Italian mother. Matty is not an ordinary girl and her mother struggles with her daughters identity.

It began to have its own call. Water has a song, a near-silent lilt. When you got closer – tarn, pool, river, proper swimming lake – the impatience made you sweat.

When her mother dies, Matty makes a discovery in her mother’s house that makes her believe her father is still alive. She sets off in search of him in a camper van, swimming the wild loughs as she travels. Her trip brims with danger and discovery.

The novel is full of layers and includes great beauty, water mythology and moments of magical realism. An evocative novel with themes include loss and grief, journeys, gender and sexuality.

Book review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Literary crime novel Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is set in the early 1960s. Reading it was a journey of cultural immersion – full of wise guys and street talk. It’s noir-ish flavour is a study in how our environment and prejudice can limit us in life, no matter how hard we try – and how frustration at those limitations can boil over.

You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.

When we meet Ray Carney, the civil rights movement is live, but he just wants to get on with his own life and be taken seriously as a legitimate businessman. Ray runs a furniture store in Harlem on 125th Street that he opened using money he found in his dead father’s car.

Carney imagined himself inside because he was looking for evidence of himself. Was there an Argent wingback chair or Heywood-Wakefield armoire in one of them, over by the window, the proof of a sale he’d closed? It was a new game he played, walk­ing around this unforgiving town: Is my stuff in there?

Carney senior, a petty thief and hustler, was a gunned down by police stealing cough syrup from a pharmacy. Ray is as straight as you can be in a town run on corruption, where the cops have to be paid off and the fear of retribution runs deep. Some of the goods he sells have dubious origins – he’s a reluctant fence who innocently gets caught up in a jewel heist.

Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition.

Harlem Shuffle exposes the injustices in the justice system and that the line between legal and illegal is blurred. Whitehead shines a light on the false moralities of capitalism and that the founding of the USA itself, like all colonised counties was done through theft and treachery and that we are all complicit in.

There’s us, there’s water, and then there’s more land, we’re all a part of the same thing. But Park Avenue, with those big old buildings facing one another, full of old white people, there’s none of that feeling, right? It’s a canyon. And the two sides don’t give a shit about you. If they wanted, if they so decided, they could squeeze together and crush you. That’s how little you are

Theatre review: No Ball Games Allowed

Good poetry tackles big ideas, cuts out the unnecessary and makes careful word choices to create powerful imagery and elicit emotion in the reader. It is also often a little elusive to allow us to bring our own meaning and perceptions to a piece. Good theatre is dialectical in the broadest sense and combines sight and sound to engage and challenge us. It makes us think long after we see it.

two actors on stage looking at photos projected onto a mirror

From its haunting opening to its dramatic conclusion No Ball Games Allowed written by Kristen Smyth and directed by Kitan Petkovski brings the elements of good poetry and theatre together beautifully.

There are only two actors on the stage (Smyth and Mia Tuco), one young, one older, identically dressed in drab clothing that obscures their gender and identity. The set is parred back to almost nothing, the central focus a continuous drip of water falling from high up to a grate in the floor.

I suspect setting this postdramatic theatre during the Blitz in 1941 London was carefully considered. Locating the piece during a time when the Nazi party viewed any kind of individuality as a punishable offense and sent thousands of queer people to concentration camps to endure unspeakable atrocities draws the audiences attention to the themes of discrimination and prejudice that run through it.

In one scene, a young woman is assaulted and the phrase ‘Make the bitch beg’ is hurled repeatedly at the audience, eliciting the fear such an experience imposes. In another, a mother punishes her thirteen year old son for dressing up in her clothes. She wants him to be a strong man because ‘women aren’t safe’. She cannot see or accept her son for who he is. Her own fears blind her to her son’s confusion and struggle with his identity. At one point the mother even tries to blackmail her son into being the vision of a man she had for him, but you cannot substitute money for love or identity.

Repetition draws the audiences attention to the multiple meanings within the piece. At one point the actors tell one another repeatedly ‘I love you’. It highlights the affection between the characters and at the same time the fact that sometimes people are confused about what love is and how to express it appropriately.

The two actors play multiple characters during the lyrical vignettes, yet I was also left with a sense that on one level they were one and the same. A person speaking to themselves across time in an effort to make sense of the hostile world they found themselves in. A world that rejected the very essence of who they were. The affection, tenderness, and at times affirmation, expressed between the actors on stage helps provide the audience relief from the bleakness of the set and themes explored.

No Ball Games Allowed rejects the idea of a simple, logical, causal representation, instead using conflicting, contested and irreconcilable multiple logics to deliver a powerful, mesmerising and thought provoking piece of theatre that will stay with me for some time. It was clear that the writer, director and actors were in harmony, supported by a music composition (Robert Downie and Rachel Lewindon) that magnified the intense, emotive piece.

No Ball Games Allowed is on at Theatre Works in St Kilda until next Saturday 9th April. Get a ticket, the show is worthy of a full house every night.

Images: all images by Cameron Grant

Be careful who you hate, it could be someone you love

wording on billboards across the USA by Gay Day

Book Review: The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey

The cure for many ills, is to build something.

A Labyrinth is often used as a walking meditation. The meandering path that leads to the centre creates a symbolic journey for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation.

The novel by that name written by Amanda Lohrey is a story of a personal journey, of taking oneself out of ordinary life to reflect and make space for change, to surrender to forces greater than oneself. A space to meditate on past patterns and symbolism, where outsiders gravitate in to become friends, catalysts or allies who help heal and find a new footing in the world. There is something almost gothic about the story. The reading is of itself meditative, and it demands to be read more than once in order to plumb it’s depths.

Time is a disease of the human psyche. One of my father’s precepts.  Sane people live in the moment, they do not dwell on the past and they do not succumb to fantasies about the future.  But on other occasions he would contradict himself.  When people go mad, he would say, they step out of time because time has become unmanageable and everything is chaotic flux.  They cannot put one foot in front of the other in any meaningful way.  Nor can they make a decisive intervention in the sequence of time as measured in units by the society around them. Chronology defeats them.  One disease generates another.  The larger social disease—generates the smaller private one: a mad resistance.

Erica Marsden abandons her urban life to be near her artist son housed in a jail near the NSW coast for manslaughter. Her visits to Daniel are torturous, but in between Erica tries to piece together a new life, separate from, yet drawing on reflections of her earlier years.

The walls of the visitors’ room are a violent mustard yellow,  On one wall there is a huge mural of crudely drawn trees and boulders in shades of muddy orange and greenish brown.  It has the quality of sludge.  Two warders escort me to a steel table, bolted to the floor, and I sit on a steel chair, also bolted to the floor.  Everything here is steel and concrete; even the air has a metallic taste.

Erica buys an old shack on the beach and decides to build a labyrinth like one she remembers from years ago. Abandoned by her mother as a child, she grew up on the grounds of a psychiatric institution were her father was the chief psychiatrist. She seeks meaning in her own existence as well as for why her son turned out the way he did. In this isolated town filled with other isolated people, Erica starts a new life and befriends those she would never have encountered in other circumstances.

Jurko, an outsider and illegal immigrant with the stonemason skills she requires to build the labyrinth appears in Erica’s orbit and the two form an unlikely alliance, then friendship through the building of the structure. In The Labyrinth, as in life, there is no neat ending just an unfolding that speaks to the complexities of existence and how one continues to unfold in the wake of disaster. It is a powerful and subtle story worthy of more than one visit.

I have learned that a simple labyrinth can be laid out by anyone, unlike a maze, which is a puzzle of mostly blind alleys designed for entrapment.  The maze is a challenge to the brain (how smart are you), the labyrinth to the heart (will you surrender).  In the maze you grapple with the challenge but in the labyrinth you let go.  Effortlessly you come back to where you started, somehow changed by the act of surrender.  In this way the labyrinth is said to be a model of reversible destiny.

Theatre review: Yellingbo by Tee O’Neill

It’s just over twenty years since the Tampa affair, when the Howard government changed Australia’s treatment of refugees from a welcoming stance to offshore processing and detention. It was a strategy to dissuade people smugglers they said. Since that time thousands of people fleeing persecution in their home countries have been locked up by successive Australian governments, often left languishing indefinitely. It is topic debated at protests and dinner parties alike. In Yellingbo Tee O’Neill brings the issue literally into the lounge room in her ingeniously crafted play running at La Mama in Carlton until 20th March.

Loving couple Danny (Jeremy Stanford) and Kaye (Fiona Macleod) live an ordinary life in the suburbs until Danny’s old girlfriend Cat (Jude Beaumont) turns up unexpectedly after having been out of contact overseas for many years. It appears we are about to become enmeshed in an awkward love triangle.

Cat’s arrival triggers an unravelling of secrets and baring of scars that will change three lives forever. Once exposed, secrets cannot be rewound. They test our trust in one another, challenge our values and can reveal whether our rhetoric is true to our behaviour.

Yellingbo is multilayered and impassioned. The lives of the three characters on stage are interwoven and bound, yet fragile. O’Neill balances the emotional tension that ripples across the stage with the relief of dark wit perfectly.

How generous are we really toward people seeking asylum? If confronted with this dilemma in your personal life – literally in your living room – a choice to help, or not – how would you respond?

I was riveted from start to finish.

Book review: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

There is something quite joyful about mischievous septuagenarians. Comedian and television presenter Richard Osman turned his hand to writing cosy mystery The Thursday Murder Club after a visit to an affluent retirement village.

In life you have to learn to count the good days. You have to tuck them in your pocket and carry them around with you. So I’m putting today in my pocket and I’m off to bed.

Residents of Coopers Chase retirement village in Kent, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron meet weekly over wine and cake in the Jigsaw Room for their group ’Japanese Opera: A Discussion‘. It’s a front for the Thursday Murder Club and ensures they are not disturbed whilst they work on their cold-case murders. The ringleader, Elizabeth, has her ways…of getting hold of cold case files, and leveraging others for information the police would be envious of. Her conspirators are an ex nurse (Joyce), a retired psychiatrist with excellent attention to detail and logistical skills (Ibrahim), and militant unionist, Ron, or Red Ron as he is known.

Many years ago, everybody here would wake early because there was much to do and only so many hours in the day. Now they wake early because there is much to do and only so many days left.

When local developer and drug dealer, Tony Curran is found dead, the Thursday Murder Club decide they are going to solve the case. They talk disenfranchised PC Donna de Freitas into secretly working with them, promising her credit to help get her off mundane administrative work and into serious investigations. Soon the bodies start to pile up. There is another murder and a mysterious discovery of human bones that don’t belong in the part of the cemetery where they are found – on top of a coffin.

Donna has always been headstrong, always acted quickly and decisively. Which is a fine quality when you are right, but a liability when you are wrong. It’s great to be the fastest runner, but not when you’re running in the wrong direction.

The sassy characters and gentle humour make The Thursday Murder Club an entertaining and light read. The older I get, the more enjoyment I get out of reading stories with quirky old folk with a zest for life and The Thursday Murder Club hit the spot. The novel is a lovely reminder that the elderly should not be dismissed or ignored – they still have plenty to offer.

After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy. No one tells you off, except for your doctors and your children.