Florid States by Rod Usher

I’ve read this novel twice (9 and 11 years ago), and I would read it again if I could locate a copy.

`I have a weakness for tangents.’

Ned Quinn, in Melbourne, responds to a lonely hearts advertisement in a magazine. The ensuing correspondence leads him to visit Jennifer Duncan in an isolated insular valley in rural Queensland. Jennifer and Quinn find a rhythm together in their lives, and are happy. The setting, by the banks of the Condamine, in the dusty Overton Valley, is also part of the story. The heat, the river and the isolation, each play a part in this powerful story of love and resilience, and of weakness, small-mindedness and cruelty.

Ned has schizophrenia. The label, even more than the disease itself, becomes a barrier in the small valley where unexplained difference is not welcomed. Jennifer and Quinn find unlikely allies and unexpected foes during a campaign to drive Quinn out. The pressure becomes too much for Quinn, and he becomes ill. Quinn’s episodes of illness, with his flawed perceptions and alternate realities, create a barrier which few try to understand. And yet, Quinn is not the only person in the valley with flawed perceptions.

This is a bitter-sweet story. The writing is superb, the story moves quickly and the main characters are quirkily human. I enjoyed reading this novel although in many ways it made me sad.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

‘Last Christmas Sylvie was here, and this one she wasn’t—and now they were going to clear out the Bittoes house.’

Jude, Wendy, and Adele each make their separate ways from Sydney to the fictional beach community of Bittoes on the Central Coast to clean Sylvie’s beach house prior to its sale.  Jude, a retired restaurant manager, will take charge.  Wendy, a widowed intellectual with an unreliable car, brings her elderly dog Finn (although she knows Jude will disapprove).  Adele, an actor whose most recent relationship has failed, will travel by train. 

 Each of the women, now in their seventies, brings memories – of the past, of their relationships, and of their friendship with each other.  Each has concerns for the future: Wendy, widowed after a successful marriage,  is particularly concerned about Finn (she can’t bring herself to say goodbye to him yet), Jude is looking forward to a private reunion with her lover once the weekend is over, and Adele worries about her future.

Over the course of the weekend, we learn more about each of the women, their relationships, and fears.  The four-person friendship goes back forty or so years and seems to have centred around Sylvie.   The house they are cleaning provides a perfect backdrop: the scene of many memories but now, bereft of its owner Sylvie, showing its age and deficiencies. Just like poor old Finn.

The novel explores the impact of life experience on each of the women: on the shared experiences that cement friendships, on the disappointments and secrets that can undermine them.

I enjoyed this novel for three main reasons.  I liked the depiction of enduring friendship, and the overlap between three quite different lives.  I can relate to the issues faced by ageing women.  I loved Finn.  Knowing when to say goodbye to an ageing companion is something I can relate to.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Crossed Lines by Marie Darrieussecq (translated by Penny Hueston)

‘Those people are crazy—they take children with them.’

Rose and her two children are on a Mediterranean cruise, courtesy of her mother.  Rose is delighted: this cruise provides her with an opportunity to take a break both from her husband and from the house renovations they are undertaking.

But when the cruise ship goes to the aid of shipwrecked refugees, Rose’s life changes.  Rose gives her son’s mobile phone and some of his clothes to Younès, a young refugee.  She wants to help him.  The phone provides a connection with Younès and a way for Rose to try to help.  But how effectively can Rose help Younès?  And what about her family?

I found this novel intriguing.  What is Younès‘s story?  Where is he from, and why did he leave?  Some of the answers are not obvious.  And, because our view into our view into Younès’s world is through Rose’s eyes, it is incomplete.  For me, that is one of the strengths of this novel.  Not because our picture of Younès is incomplete but because Rose, a middle-aged middle-class white woman can never fully comprehend his situation.  She tries, in her own way, to help.  And Younès tries, in his own way, to make sense of where he is.

Rose seems to have difficulty connecting with her own children: a difficult situation for a child psychologist. In part, by being viewed as a surrogate child, Younès meets some of Rose’s needs.  It is complex and complicated: the relationships that humans have with each other.

This is a novel which left me wondering, after I had finished, what would happen next.  Would Younès find the new beginning he was looking for?  Would Rose find what she needs?  And what about her children?  And who are we, really? 

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

‘A year after the first time I met Miwako, I attended her wake.’

When Miwako takes her own life, her friends want to understand why. She had only been part of their lives for a brief period, and none of them knew her very well.  Miwako was reserved to the point of social awkwardness and did not reveal much about her past.

Who was Miwako Sumida?  Ryusei, the boy who loved her (although Miwako rebuffed him whenever he mentioned romance) and her friend Chie travel to the remote village where Miwako spent her last days.  They hope to find answers and they will, just not necessarily the answers they thought they were looking for.

Meanwhile, Ryusei’s sister Fumi looks after Miwako’s cat and thinks about her own relationship with Miwako.

As the story unfolds, we learn more about Miwako, Ryusei, Chie and Fumi.  Each of these characters has their own story, each story involves secrets, each life has layers of complexity.

‘There are two types of farewells: the expected and the unexpected.’

I was gradually drawn into this story, curious to learn more about Miwako. Both Chie and Ryusei know about part of Miwako’s life.  Together, at the rural medical clinic in the remote village, they will make sense of what they know.  I kept reading, wondering about the weight of expectations (especially on Miwako and Fumi) and the role of the supernatural.  Relationships are important, as is trust.  Miwako has helped Chie but is unable to allow Ryusei to help her.  And Fumi has her own battles.  Acceptance and forgiveness are both important.

This is a story to read slowly, to think about and perhaps to revisit.  After I finished, I added Ms Goenawan’s first book ‘Rainbirds’ to my reading list.

Highly recommended.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Scribe UK for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

D (A Tale of Two Worlds) by Michel Faber

‘It was a long, long day without the D.’

One morning at breakfast, the letter D disappears from Dhiliko’s parents’ conversation.   It is also missing from road signs and from school dinners.  Just imagine how difficult life becomes when no-one can say your name properly anymore?  But it isn’t just the letter D itself that goes missing: the local dentist and the neighbour’s dalmatian also vanish.

‘Despite being in the bottom percentile of befriendedness, Dhikilo used to love school.  After the disappearance of the D, she didn’t like it so much anymore.’

The mystery deepens.  Language becomes garbled, Dhiliko is the only person who seems to notice that D is missing.  And then her former history teacher Professor Dodderfield dies.  Dhiliko attends his funeral and visits his home.

And this is where the story really begins.  Dhiliko’s search for the letter D takes her to a world called Liminus, on a quest to find out what is happening and why. Gamp controls Liminus, and D has a specific purpose in that world.  Can Dhiliko and her companion Mrs Robinson save the letter D?  Can they help those enslaved by Gamp?

What a wonderful magical trip this was!  Echoes of other fantastic journeys, character names that readers of Charles Dickens will recognise, a magic portal between worlds.  Dhiliko herself, from a country no-one has heard of, has been adopted by caring (but anxious) English parents.  She is treated as an outsider in England but her trip to Liminus gives her a chance to find her own place in the world.

I really enjoyed this fantasy.  Dhiliko is a wonderful hero, and her journey kept me quickly turning the pages.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Death Leaves the Station by Alexander Thorpe

‘The truth will not be hidden forever.  If you do not seek it, it will seek you.’

On night, in the summer of 1927 at Halfwell Station in the wheatbelt of Western Australia, eighteen-year-old Mariana Harris encounters two strangers.  The first is a corpse that Mariana encounters during her solitary midnight walk admiring the skies, the second is a nameless friar who calls into the station.  But the corpse has disappeared by the time Mariana takes the friar to it, although bloodstained stones remain.  The police are called in.  Mariana and the friar join the search, together with the powerfully moustachioed Detective Sergeant Arnold Parkes and Cooper the tracker.  Their search (which will include Mariana’s third trip in a car) will take them from the goldfields to the city and will uncover several secrets.  This is a journey through a racist Australia, where the treatment of Cooper (and others) is particularly uncomfortable.  Who does the corpse belong to, who moved it and to where?

Mr Thorpe combines an interesting cast of characters and an intriguing mystery (or two).  I enjoyed this novel, a comparatively quick read at just under 200 pages.

‘A slow understanding spread throughout the room.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



A Man of Marbles by Rod Usher

I first read this novel in 2009, and reread it in 2011. My review:

‘Because that’s not the way Stavros does things, I suppose.’

Stavros ‘Stan’ Kristopolis is an Australian greengrocer of Greek heritage.  Stan, aged 34, lives and works with his parents Alex and Marie in Richmond, a working class area of Melbourne.  When he travels to the fruit markets early in the morning to purchase produce for the day’s trading, he likes to take his white rabbit, called Doe.

‘Strange how a white rabbit can get ‘em going.’

When Stan jumps off the pavement to dance, Zorba-like in Bridge Street, the police intervene.  Is Stan a fool: is his natural exuberant innocence an asset or a liability?  Others are keen to apply labels, but are they appropriate?

‘The term ‘certified’ is avoided in favour of ‘recommended’ nowadays; it is easier to padlock a euphemism.’

Stan has a friend, Rose Gallagher, who works as a barmaid.  Rose has a son who is in gaol, and her inability to help him (he wants a television) makes her sad.  Stan decides to help but Stan’s acquisition of a television set and subsequent delivery to Rose has some unintended consequences.  A few days later, a man is murdered outside the hotel where Rose Gallagher works, and when the police arrive Stan is with him.  Stan was trying to help, as is his way, but finds himself accused of murder.  The evidence?   Well, Gus Erickson, the murdered man had a relationship with Rose, and jealousy is considered to be the motive.  It’s enough to get Stan remanded and Rose sacked.  When Stan is convicted of murder and incarcerated in Pentridge Gaol he seems to take it in his stride.

’He got annoyed, at times, flattened, suffered loneliness and fear, but his reserves were never plumbed.’

Fortunately for Stan, corroborating evidence will come to light and he will be set free.

I first read this novel in 2009, and reread it recently to try to understand why I enjoyed it so much.  Stan is a lovely person, but his passive innocence makes him an unusual hero.  There is a wonderful scene where Stan introduces the game of marbles to his fellow prisoners and some delightful interactions with customers and friends in his pre-gaol life.  Stan succeeds in his own life on his own terms, other events may intervene but they do not distract him for long.  There’s a lot to admire about Stan.

‘For the first time in his life his son the fool seemed rather wise.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Crocodile by Vincent Eri

From a review I wrote back in 2011:

‘Tobacco and sugar, two of the white man’s most powerful bits of magic.’

This novel is set in Papua New Guinea in the years around World War II, at a time when colonization was changing traditional Papuan life.  One of those changes was an expectation that a Western education would solve most (if not all) social problems and one of the consequences was an increased migration of people into towns.  Another impact, unfortunately, was that the Moveave people became caught up in the war itself.

The central character, Hoiri Sevese, is a Papuan villager educated in a mission school.  After his mother’s death (which was attributed to sorcery), Hoiri is moved from the Protestant to the Catholic mission schools.  While education makes Hoiri more familiar with some aspects of the world of the white men, he sees firsthand how Papuans are treated in the European-ruled community of Port Moresby when he travels there with his father on a trading trip.

‘Get used to smoking and drinking tea and you’ll slave for the rest of your working life for the white man.’

After he returns to the village, Hoiri is married in a Christian church and soon afterwards becomes a father. The day after his son, Sevese, is born; Hoiri is one of the villagers chosen by a patrol officer to accompany an inland patrol as a carrier.  While on patrol, Hoiri is told that his wife Mitoro has been taken by a crocodile.  Hoiri is refused leave to return to the village, so deserts and returns to kill the crocodile.  The war intervenes, and Hoiri becomes a carrier on the Bulldog-Wau trail and here, and in Lae, he is exposed to more European civilisation.   When the war ends, Hoiri is returned to his village: with eleven pounds; five sticks of tobacco, and hope:

 ‘Maybe this money will send Sevese to the white man’s school, maybe he will grow up to understand the things that baffle us.’

By the end of the novel, Hoiri is confused and torn between two diametrically opposed worldviews and is left without a viable culture.  Hoiri is unable to compete with the whites on equal terms, nor can he find emotional security within his own culture. Sadly, Hoiri has failed in both cultural systems: he was unable to avenge Mitoro’s death, as required by traditional culture, and he cannot sign his name, he prints it instead.

‘In a flash, he saw in front of his eyes all the wasted years of carrying the white man’s cargo.’

The conflict between cultures, between tradition and modernity, and the impact of colonization are all aspects of this novel.  Hoiri is a tragic figure, and it seems ironic that he sees that the same education that has partially alienated him from his own culture will somehow benefit his son Sevese.

I found this an enjoyable and challenging novel to read: it portrays a clash of cultures that is uncomfortable to read about.  Its author, Sir Vincent Serie Eri (1936-1993) was one of the first graduates of the University of Papua and New Guinea in 1970, and became the fifth Governor-General of Papua New Guinea (from 1990 to 1991).  ‘The Crocodile’ was published in 1970, and is stated (by its publisher) to be the first novel published in Papua New Guinea literature.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith