A Labyrinth of Rain

I review a couple of top-notch Australian award winners. And make an announcement!

Issue 11, Sunday 12 December 2021

Bookish News

Recently Released

Only a few books caught my eye this time around.

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk

The Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s richest and most ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe.

As new ideas - and a new unrest - begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a spell that attracts a fervent following. He reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam, then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic, revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his iconoclastic beliefs.

I’ve only read one book by Tokarczuk so far, but I liked that a great deal: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. I also very much liked a novella I read by her, called All Saint’s Mountain. So this major work might well be worth tackling. But I’m not buying a 992-page paperback. And at that length it’s pointless borrowing it from the library, I’d never get through it before it was due back. I’ll have to try to get hold of a hardcover version, though it will doubtless be very expensive.

Published: 16 November 2021

Buy it at Readings.

The Russian Wife by Barry Maitland

When the Russian wife of the owner of one of the most valuable private collections of modern art in the UK is found dead, Detective Chief Inspector David Brock is drawn into a high-stakes world very different to his own. From the dealers and galleries in London’s West End, his investigations take him to Hanover, Miami and New York on the trail of international forgery and fraud.

At the same time, his old colleague Detective Chief Inspector Kathy Kolla, who now leads one of the Metropolitan Police Murder Investigation teams, finds herself at the wrong end of a corruption charge. With her whole career in the balance, she will do almost anything to clear her name.

I don’t know the work this Australian author, but this seems like an interesting new crime novel to give a try.

Published: 30 November 2021

Buy it at Readings.

Never by Ken Follett

A stolen US army drone. A shrinking oasis in the Sahara Desert. A secret stash of deadly chemicals. Each is a threat to the stability of the world but individually are problems that can be overcome. In the diplomatic arena though, everyone will have a different way of dealing with such a threat. And when those in charge disagree and refuse to back down, it will kick off an international chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences: a world edging closer to war.

I enjoyed Follett’s thrillers more than his huge historical novels, thrillers like The Eye of the Needle, Whiteout, etc. It’s been a long time since he wrote books like that, so this one looks very promising.

Published: 9 November 2021

Buy it at Readings.

Other News

Outback police procedural crime story wins Scarlet Stiletto Award

Canberra pharmacist, Hayley Young, tonight (27/11) won Sisters in Crime’s 28th Scarlet Stiletto Short Story Awards, which were presented online by multi-award-winning actor Catherine McClements.

More details

Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2022

The shortlists for these awards have been released. They are for books by Australian authors published during 2021.

There are a number of categories, I’ll just list a couple. I have to say I’ve heard of none of these books:

Writing for Young Adults

More details

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey

The Labyrinth is subtitled: “A Pastoral”. What does the author mean by this? Looking up “pastoral” in the dictionary, there are several meanings listed, but these two seem to apply best to Lowrey’s novel:

pastoral :

- of or relating to the countryside, not urban

- relating to spiritual care or guidance

A focus of the book is the rural, seaside township where Erica first rents, then buys an old fibro house with a large sandy back yard. We discover that Erica has come here to be close to the prison where her son Daniel is incarcerated. But as time goes by she gets to know her neighbours and their various quirks and she becomes a part of the rural community. She’s left the city behind.

And the first words of the story are:

Let me begin in my father’s house.

I grew up in an asylum, a manicured madhouse.

Mental health is an ongoing theme throughout the book in two ways: the madness of Erica’s son Daniel; and her own precarious stability and need for spiritual comfort.

Daniel is or was an artist, and he is in prison because in a fit of unbalanced despair, possibly suffering schitzophrenia, he set fire to his canvases, leading to the whole apartment block going up in flames, killing a number of people. In her first visits to him in the prison, Erica finds him barely coherent, sometimes not speaking at all. She manages to convince the authorities to let her send him some art supplies which seem to begin to break through to him.

But Erica herself is suffering greatly from the shame and guilt of what her son has done. She’s broken up with her brother over Daniel’s actions. She needs to find release and to center herself. To do this she decides to build a labyrinth in her back yard: a labyrinth which isn’t so much a maze as a constrained formal path, a guide to meditation. Much of the book concerns her worrying about how best to design and build this labyrinth.

Finally she encounters a young man, Jurko, who left his own country after a violent dispute with his father, who was a stonemason. Jurko, too, understands working with stone and Erica quickly realises that Jurko is just the man to help her construct her labyrinth. Not only that, but he eventually becomes a kind of substitute son to her.

At the end, with the labyrinth still not entirely complete, Erica has found a degree of peace.

I liked this a lot, and can see why it won this year’s Miles Franklin Award.

Buy it at Readings.

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

The Rain Heron won this year’s Age Book of the Year prize and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and several other awards. It’s not hard to see why. This is a really excellent book, but it’s very difficult to summarize briefly. So I’m probably going to give away too much in the following. Be warned! Spoiler ahead!

At its most superficial level, the book is about the legend of the magical rain heron of the title. A bird composed of rain, of water, somehow connected to the climate, able to summon up storms, bring drought or flood, or steady soaking rains to the farms of those it seems it favours. It is quick to defend itself if attacked, and its favour is easily lost. The author’s descriptions of this bird and its transformations and behaviour are wonderfully done.

The rain heron of course symbolises the beauty, strength and sometimes the danger of the natural world; and the attempts in the book by the authorities to capture and exploit it symbolise mankind’s uncaring destruction of the environment because of greed and the lust for power.

Beyond that initial but important reading, I think that at its core this is a novel of character. It leads us through the character arc of one particular person, from innocence, through mortal sin, to penance and ultimate redemption. However, the book is not told in strict chronological order and it takes us a while to realise who that main character is.

We’re introduced to the legend of this miraculous creature, the Rain Heron, in Part Zero of the book, which is constructed in five parts, numbered zero through four, each of which is told from a different and distinct point of view.

In Part One of the book we have the third-person point of view of Ren, who is a middle-aged woman who has retreated from civilization to live in the forest on a mountainside. She is barely managing to survive there, and does so with the assistance of a man who lives in a village at the foot of the mountains, who trades her essential items for animal skins and fur.

We’re never told explictly why Ren has fled to the wilderness, but it becomes clear that there has been some kind of traumatic political event in the unnamed country where she lives. This event is often referred to as ‘the coup’, although the unrest has apparently been going on for years, so it seems more like a civil war.

Part One begins, ominously, with the words “Soldiers have come to the village”.

These soldiers, led by a graceful and confident young woman, Lieutenant Harker, discover Ren on the mountainside. They have been ordered to find a rain heron and capture it. Harker is cold, determined and very efficient at her job. Through a variety of cruel means, Harker forces Ren to lead the soldiers to where Ren saw the bird as a child. They manage to catch the bird and confine it to a cage, but it pecks at Lieutenant Harker and tears out one eye. When Ren tries to free the bird, Harker, in terrible pain, shoots her.

We then shift gear entirely with Part Two. This is told from the third person point of view of young Zoe, a girl in her early teens, who lives in a fishing village. The main activity of the village is harvesting the ink of a particular species of squid. The ink has almost magical powers; when mixed with food it enhances and deepens its flavour. Mixed with paint, it wonderfully strengthens the colour. How the ink is harvested is a deep secret, only shown by to Zoe by her aunt when she reaches a certain age.

One day, however, a man from the north comes to the village, determined to turn the ink harvesting into an efficient industrial process. This northerner, though he does not succeed in his plan, nevertheless completely disrupts Zoe’s life and kills her aunt, an act which Zoe is later able to avenge. Afterwards, Zoe leaves the village and goes to the north.

In the remainder of the book we follow Harker’s squad as they take the captured rain heron to a remote location as ordered. On the long, strange journey through a series of largely un-populated and very varied landscapes, Harker refuses all but the most basic treatment for her wound even when it becomes infected; it seems as though she is punishing herself for shooting Ren and has second thoughts about having captured the rain heron. Eventually she decides to return the bird to where it came from. In doing so, she achieves an unexpected degree of redemption and forgiveness and the book ends on an optimistic note.

I found this a very powerful book, deservedly applauded and honoured. I’m looking forward to reading Arnott’s forthcoming next book Limberlost and to going back and reading his debut novel, Flames.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

I don't have time or space for a full review of this at the moment; maybe next issue. Suffice it to say I wasn't too impressed by it. An interesting idea, but Weir spends far too long luxuriating in explaining the technology and science behind everything (His The Martian suffers from the same defect).

Buy it at Readings.

Currently Reading

I’m not far into either of these as yet. I’m not sure I’ll get through The Shadow of the Wind before it has to go back to the library.

Waiting on the Shelf

The first two of these are library books, no idea if I’ll get through them before them have to go back. But I bought a copy of The Overstory on the strength of how good Bewilderment was.

An Announcement

Call me crazy, but I’m proposing to start a new newsletter in addition to Through the Biblioscope.

The new newsletter will be called A Flash in the Pan and will concentrate on publishing my short fiction. In the longer run, I’m hoping it will prompt me to do more creative writing. But initially at least, it will include pieces of flash fiction or short stories I’ve written over the years which I think deserve a wider audience than they have currently had. And I’m planning to include a short explanation of how I came up with the idea for each story and how I went about writing it.

If you’re interested, please head over to this link and subscribe for free. It’s possible that eventually I will publish longer stories (even chapters of a novel) on a paid basis, but for now it will all be free.

I’ll start publication once I have a small but reasonable number of subscribers—I want to test how much interest there is first.

Illustration above is by John D. Batten, illustrating a story by Joseph Jacobs in Europa’s Fairy Book (1916).

And that’s your lot for this issue. As usual, please share this post with your friends if you think they’ll be interested.

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