Review: Matryoshka – Katherine Johnson

Matryoshka

Matryoshka

Katherine Johnson

Ventura Press

ISBN: 9781925384635

RRP $29.99

Description:

The award-winning author of The Better Son is back with Matryoshka – a beautifully written and haunting tale of family, secrets, violence, and refuge, set against the breathtaking backdrop of Tasmania.

 

When Sara Rose returns to live in her recently deceased grandmother’s Tasmanian cottage, her past and that of her mother and grandmother are ever-present. Sara’s grandmother, Nina Barsova, a Russian post-war immigrant, lovingly raised Sara in the cottage at the foot of Mt Wellington but without ever explaining why Sara’s own mother, Helena, abandoned her as a baby.

 

Sara, a geneticist, also longs to know the identity of her father, and Helena won’t tell her. Now, estranged not only from her mother but also from her husband, Sara raises her daughter, Ellie, with a central wish to spare her the same feeling of abandonment that she experienced as a child.

 

When Sara meets an Afghani refugee separated from his beloved wife and family, she decides to try to repair relations with Helena – but when a lie told by her grandmother years before begins to unravel, a darker truth than she could ever imagine is revealed.

 

Matryoshka is a haunting and beautifully written story about the power of maternal love, and the danger of secrets passed down through generations.

 

 

My View:

A contemporary read of exquisite design, beautifully crafted and guaranteed to connect to readers of so many levels: the settings, the dysfunctional family story(s) that is at the heart of the narrative, the contemporary issues surrounding Australia’s history of welcoming migration, albeit with the prejudices the “other” in the dominant
culture experiences (perhaps many of you reading this are the 2nd or 3rd generation Australians – you will know what I mean here) juxtaposed against modern prejudices of “other” and a culture of detention and family separation that is modern day Australia.

 

This is a gently written, poignant, interesting read that has great content for book club discussions around the world.

Post Script: Black British – Hebe De Souza

Black British

Black British

Hebe De Souza

Ventura Press

ISBN: 9781925384932

 

Description:

A sharply funny yet poignant story about a courageous girl growing up in 1960s North India, from an exciting new voice in Australian fiction.

 

In the turbulent years that follow the British Empire’s collapse in India, rebellious and inquisitive Lucy de Souza is born into an affluent Indian family that once prospered under the Raj. Known as Black British because of their English language and customs, when the British deserted India Lucy’s family was left behind, strangers in their own land.

 

Now living isolated from the hostile locals who see her family as remnants of an oppressive regime, a young Lucy grows up in the confines of their grand yet ramshackle home located in the dry, dispirited plains of Kanpur. But when it is time to start her education, Lucy finds herself angry and alone, struggling to find her place in this gentle country ravaged by poverty and hardship, surrounded by girls who look like her but don’t speak her language. Encouraged by her strong-minded mother and two older sisters, as she matures the ever-feisty Lucy begins to question the injustices around her, before facing a decision that will change the course of her life forever.

 

A richly visceral and stunning debut, based on the author’s own childhood, Black British is an unflinching and beautiful narrative about feminism, family and the search for identity.

 

 

My View:

Capturing the innocence of youth this novel has a charming authentic voice and I loved every word of it.  Lucy De Souza is our narrator – she is charming, innocent, well-mannered yet delightfully inquisitive about the world; she likes things to makes sense, to be logical (and the Sisters in the convent don’t speak of logic, rather demand their charges obey without question) and Lucy likes to question. At times humorous but mostly full of intelligent observations of the world around her, this is a very engaging read. Lucy how did you get to be so smart? Family makes such a big and lasting impression here.

 

 

A thoughtful look at history, colonialism, migration and displacement with a feminist bent, this story is succinct yet powerful. Hebe De Souza asks and answers the question – what/where is home?   Her response is interesting and personal and can be applied to contemporary discussions regarding refuge and migration today.  A wonderful, well written, engaging read.

 

 

Post Script: Entry Island – Peter May

Entry Island

Entry Island

Peter May

Quercus (US)

Quercus

ISBN: 9781623656850

 

 

Description:

Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times raved: “Peter May is a writer I’d follow to the ends of the earth.” Now Peter May takes us to a small island off the coast of Québec with an emotionally charged new mystery.

 

When a murder rocks the isolated community of Entry Island, insomniac homicide detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at St. Hubert airfield bound for the small, scattered chain of Madeline Islands, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as part of an eight-officer investigation team from Montréal.

 

Only two kilometers wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of just more than 100 inhabitants, the wealthiest of whom has just been discovered murdered in his home. Covered in her husband’s blood, the dead man’s melancholy wife spins a tale for the police about a masked intruder armed with a knife.

 

The investigation appears to be little more than a formality–the evidence points to a crime of passion, implicating the wife. But Sime is electrified by the widow during his interview, convinced that he has met her before, even though this is clearly impossible.

 

Haunted by this strange certainty, Sime’s insomnia is punctuated by vivid, hallucinatory dreams of a distant past on a Scottish island 3,000 miles away, dreams in which he and the widow play leading roles. Sime’s conviction soon becomes an obsession. And despite mounting evidence of the woman’s guilt, he finds himself convinced of her innocence, leading to a conflict between the professional duty he must fulfill and the personal destiny he is increasingly sure awaits him.

 

 

 

My View:

Meticulously researched, a strong sense of place in dual time zones and setting – Peter May writes desolate, isolated communities with passion and realism; you will be able to visualise yourself here, be able to hear the gale force winds, feel the intensity of the storms and climb the unspoilt rugged landscape. You will feel the desolation and the isolation – the perfect setting for a murder and a mystery or two.

 

But this is more than a murder /mystery, this is also a beautiful love story and a history lesson. Peter May is a writer that continually surprises me with the depth of his research, his talent for painting a visual landscape with mere words and for capturing the essence of a community and it history. Versatile is his middle name.

 

 

 

 

Post Script: The Other Side Of The World – Stephanie Bishop

Beautiful prose that subtly explores so many issues – post natal depression, migration, relationships, identity, racism, the meaning of home…

Cover The Other Side of The World

The Other Side of the World

Stephanie Bishop

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9780733633782

 

Description:

In the tradition of Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work or Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine comes a complex, tender and gorgeously written novel of parenthood, love and marriage that is impossible to put down. Cambridge 1963. Charlotte struggles to reconnect with the woman she was before children, and to find the time and energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, cannot face the thought of another English winter. A brochure slipped through the letterbox gives him the answer: ‘Australia brings out the best in you’. Charlotte is too worn out to resist, and before she knows it is travelling to the other side of the world. But on their arrival in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light on both Henry and Charlotte and slowly reveals that their new life is not the answer either was hoping for. Charlotte is left wondering if there is anywhere she belongs, and how far she’ll go to find her way home…

 

My View:

Gently written with visually explicit landscapes and relationships put under the microscope this book is a delight to read. I particularly enjoyed reading about the era the migration to Perth Western Australia took place in and the experiences of the migrants Charlotte and Harry and their young family; I was child when we migrated from England to Perth in 1966 and my early memories are of similar experiences – not for me as a child – I think children just except whatever is thrown at them and the notion of migration and living in another country really didn’t impact me directly but it did my mother.

I think the adults were not particularly well prepared for the physical conditions, the cultural changes and the isolation. Like Harry my father had a job to go to, he had a purpose in his day. Accommodation was provided with the job – but a timber framed house with wood stoves for cooking and water heating in the middle of an extremely hot Australian summer do not make life easy for the homemaker, the wife left at home with no transport, no support network and basic cramped living conditions and unbearable heat. We were a family of six (at the time, which became seven) living in a two bedroom house. My parents had no experience of such heat and the sunburn, heat rash, and dehydration that came with it. Mosquitoes and flies… and other little pests can make life unbearable. I think it was a particularly difficult time for my mother. However, we stayed, maybe there were no other real options?

 

Was Charlotte brave? I think so. She had insight and was able to identify the problems in her life but not the causes. She made a difficult decision, actually several very difficult decisions – but still seemed lost and at odds with her identity. To admit that motherhood as she experienced it, was not for her is a huge undertaking – to go against the popular culture and socially determined role expected of a woman in the 1960’s, of a married woman with children, must have been enormously difficult. I think it would probably still be as difficult today to buck societies expectations but maybe the opportunity for depression to be identified and treated would be better but the underlying struggle to rediscover ones identity when in a long term relationship, when responsible for children…that battle is still be waged. Some deal with it better than others.

 

A fantastic novel that gently looks at the intersections of migration, sexism, racism and women’s place in society. This book is guaranteed to make you think and is a delight to read.

Post Script: I,Migrant – Sami Shah

“You can tell everything about a person by the books they read.”(p. 94)

Book cover I Imigrant Sami Shah

I, Migrant

Sami Shah

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781743319345

Description:

Despite nearly being killed by a kangaroo and almost lynched and run out of town after his comedy was taken far too seriously, Sami Shah is very happy to be living in Australia. He has fronted his own satirical show on TV in Karachi, worked as a journalist and been a highly regarded newspaper columnist – all dangerous occupations to be involved in – when the combination of seeing the aftermaths of a devastating bomb attack and being the target of death threats convinced him to leave Pakistan. Under the terms of their Australian migration visa, Sami and his wife and young daughter were obliged to settle in a rural area, and so they moved to Northam in WA.

Now Sami is battling a crippling addiction to meat pies, but at least is no longer constantly mistaken for an escaped asylum seeker from the nearby detention centre. He has also been the star of Australian Story, the subject of an article in The New York Times, and has performed countless comedy shows to ever-growing and appreciative audiences.

I, Migrant tells the hilarious and moving story of what it’s like to leave the home you love to start a new life in another country so your child can be safe and grow up with a limitless future. Australia is lucky to have Sami Shah. Read I, Migrant, and laugh till you cry.

My View:

Sami Shah writes with an evocative truth that will take you through a range of emotions. Living in Pakistan and experiencing such turmoil, violence, fear and discrimination is one that most Westerners will never understand or appreciate. I (and my family) spent eighteen months living in Sri Lanka in 1993/1994 and though I did not experience terrorism first hand, I did experience its effect on the people around me and the community I was living in. It became the norm to expect to be searched when entering buildings, shopping centres, parking lots etc. Sensible behaviour was to avoid crowds, pageants, processions and anything to do with elections. The president was assassinated the day I arrived in the country; curfews and tear gas were new experiences I would rather not have had. The TV and local papers filled with images of severed heads and gore, images that were to become “everyday”, commonplace, as the toll of terrorism and suicide bombers grew. I understand a little of what you have seen Sami but not what you experienced. But life went on, in Sri Lanka, in Pakistan. This violence or threat of violence became normalised – and that is indeed a tragedy. Sami shares his experiences – and I think we are all better off for reading them and considering how we might have coped or not in his situation. It does us good to walk a while in some one else’s shoes if only through the power of his words.

Despite the violence that surrounded Sami, this is not a depressing book, and in fact it is the opposite. It is full of hope and full of dark humour and personal reflections – some I found a little too personal, but that’s just me. J

Sami Shah is an astute observer of human behaviour perhaps that is the key to being a successful Stand-up Comedian (and a successful writer). I will share some of his wisdom and humour with you, observations that struck a chord with me:

On writing/finding material for his TV shows in Pakistan: “There were some phenomena I discovered that could be guaranteed to write their own punch lines. The most reliable was that, no matter who the politician was and where in the world they were speaking, if they espoused an opinion on something, you could find – with enough research – earlier footage of them saying the exact opposite with just as much conviction. I also realised, more than ever before, that every news story is merely a repeat of events that had occurred previously, with minor changes in the cast of characters at best.” (pp.132-133)

 

“Death, no matter who brings it, will come unannounced and so there is no point in waiting around for it.” (p.39)

 

“Journalists fancy themselves as being at the frontline of human experience –divers into the deepest seas of reality, plunging to extreme pressures that would crush a submarine and turn a chartered accountant or marketer into jelly. The only other life forms capable of surviving to those depths are doctors and soldiers. “(p.50)

“You can tell everything about a person by the books they read.”(p. 94)

 

Sami comments about learning the skills of comedy, “… I studied the power of a simple observation and how the more specific to your own life you get, the more likely you are to speak to a larger shared experience. The great wisdom of stand-up comedy is that if it happened to you, no matter what it is, then it probably happened to other people too.” (pp.109-110)

 

 

 

Post Script: The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing – Mira Jacob

500 pages of the best contemporary fiction you will read this year and probably next year too.

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

Mira Jacob

Bloomsbury Publishing UK

ISBN: 9781408841150

 

Description:

The story of a family, divided across generations and cultures, wrestling with its future and its past, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is at once magical, mouth-watering and heartbreaking.

 

Of all the family gatherings in her childhood, one stands out in Amina’s memory. It is 1979, in Salem India, when a visit to her grandmother’s house escalates into an explosive encounter, pitching brother against brother, mother against son.

 

In its aftermath, Amina’s father Thomas rushes his family back to their new home in America. And while at first it seems that the intercontinental flight has taken them out of harm’s way, his decision sets off a chain of events that will forever haunt Thomas and his wife Kamala; their intellectually furious son, Akhil and the watchful young Amina.

 

Now, twenty years later, Amina receives a phone call from her mother. Thomas has been acting strangely and Kamala needs her daughter back. Amina returns to the New Mexico of her childhood, where her mother has always filled silences with food, only to discover that getting to the truth is not as easy as going home.

 

Confronted with Thomas’s unwillingness to talk, Kamala’s Born Again convictions, and the suspicion that not everything is what it seems, Amina finds herself at the centre of a mystery so tangled that to make any headway, she has to excavate her family’s painful past. And in doing so she must lay her own ghosts to rest.

 

 

My View:

I hesitated before writing this review. Actually I did more than that, I procrastinated…for weeks. Let me explain; I read this book, I fell in love with the writing, the dialogue, the stories and the family and when I finished this book I didn’t know how I could possibly express my feelings and do justice to this book.

 

Maybe I’ll start with the writing – so realistic, flows, appears effortless, and beckons you to keep turning the pages. The narrative is complex yet reads beautifully and simply. The dialogue is natural, full of humour, full of meaning and spoke to me. The multiple story arcs; of family life, of growing up, of immigration, of life with children, of shedding skins and discovering who we really are and what is really important, of love, of death, tradition, ghosts of the past and the present …so many stories within a story, amazing! Delightful! Engaging! There is something in this novel that anyone can and will relate to.

 

All I can really do is suggest you read this powerful book. I know you will enjoy it. You can thank me later for the recommendation.