From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

‘What’s in the past can’t be changed and what’s to come can’t be known and you can’t give your life to worrying.’

Three men, three separate narratives, separate but similar journeys. Farouk is a doctor, a refugee who has fled war-torn Syria, Lampy is a broken-hearted young Irishman living with his unmarried mother and grandfather, and John is an old man, looking back on his life. Each of the stories unfolds, and the three are drawn together at the end.

I read of Farouk’s flight and tragic losses, of Lampy’s memories of the past and hopes for the future, of the events and choices in John’s past. Each of the men is scarred by his experiences, each is searching for his own space, his own place to call home. Can Farouk find happiness in a new life? Can Lampy live in the present? And where does John’s story fit?

And now I have finished the novel, I marvel at the way in which Mr Ryan creates these separate men, their worlds and concerns yet is able to demonstrate (in so few pages) common concerns and a connection. While I did not need the connection to enjoy the novel (I am still thinking about choices and consequences), the connection made the story even more satisfying.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

‘The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt.’

Miss Judith Hearne moves into a room in Mrs Henry Rice’s boarding house after her aunt dies and leaves her homeless. The setting is post-war Belfast and Judith Hearne is now in her forties. When she was younger, she gave up her job to look after her aunt. Her aunt, who lingered on through some years of dementia, her aunt who (Judith thought) would make provision for her. But Judith’s aunt D’Arcy would never discuss money, and a long period of illness has a way of making inroads into resources. Judith has an annuity of £100 a year:

‘… and nobody in the whole length and breadth of Ireland could on a hundred pounds a year nowadays.’

She also has a handful of students to whom she teaches piano.

The picture I have, in dull shades of grey, is of an unremarkable life lived within boundaries both imposed and assumed, and largely unquestioned.

 We learn that Judith has one social outing each week: a lavish afternoon tea with the O’Neill family who dread her visits (but could not possibly tell her so).

And into this dreary grey story comes James Patrick Madden, the brother of Mrs Henry Rice. A braggart whose self-importance catches Judith’s attention. She dreams of a relationship, while he sees a potential source of money to fund his investments. Self-delusion meets opportunism.

No, it does not end well. Judith is trapped in an unforgiving world, one keen to judge her. Not much compassion here for a woman whose life spirals out of control.

‘And now? 

What will become of me, am I to grow old in a room, year by year, until they take me to a poor-house?’

There is no beauty in this bitter story, just great skill in holding a reader’s attention while depicting various shades of grey in a life lived passively.

My thanks to Lisa, whose review led me to read this. Lisa’s review is at: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Widow’s Island by L.A. Larkin

A new beginning …

After Patrick Miller died, his wife Stephanie and teenaged daughter Amy were devastated. Everywhere they turned, memories of Patrick overwhelmed them. Stephanie, a climate scientist, found a new position and she and Amy moved to remote Whisper Island, Washington State. Stephanie had a friend on the island: her best friend Jen lived there with her husband Mark and baby Zach. Amy was not happy about the move, but Stephanie hoped things would settle and that Amy would make friends at her new school.

But things start to go wrong. Stephanie’s work as a climate-change scientist attracts social media attention. Stephanie becomes the target of an active trolling attack: her work is attacked as is her personal life and then Amy is bullied at school. Stephanie’s house and car are vandalised. Who is behind these attacks, and why? There are only two policemen on Whisper Island, and their limited assistance is further constrained after a murder on the island.

The murder has certain characteristics of a particular serial killer, and the FBI become involved.

There is a lot happening in this novel. Sustained social media attacks by a troll farm on both Stephanie and Amy leading to pressure on Stephanie to withdraw from a Senate Committee hearing. But that does not bring an end to the attacks. The sustained trolling brings out the worst in some and now Stephanie has drawn a killer’s attention.

I could not put the novel down as it built towards its gripping climax.

If you like sustained suspense in a story with multiple twists, then I can recommend this.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

‘Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.’

I am torn. The writing is beautiful, the imagery is clear, the people well-described. But the imagining of a life and death for a child clearly hinted to be Hamnet Shakespeare kept me from totally enjoying the story. Why? I am not entirely sure. Putting aside the imagined lives of real people, the novel itself is a stunning meditation on life and death, on choice and consequence. William Shakespeare is not named in this novel, but there is a performance of ‘Hamlet’ just to reinforce the connection. The major focus on the novel is on 16th century domestic life in Stratford and the connection between Hamnet and his twin Judith. Life, death, and creatures dominate.

My favourite part of the novel is contained within the description (in fewer than twenty pages) of how the pestilence travelled:

‘For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events needed to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people to meet.’

Ms O’Farrell slows the story down:

‘The first is a glassmaker on the island of Murano in the principality of Venice’ the second is a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for Alexandria on an unseasonably warm morning with an easterly wind.’

The detail that follows takes me on a journey of circumstance, coincidence, chance, and tragedy. These are the details that shape and sometimes end lives. Some aspects of existence cannot be controlled.

I kept reading and thinking. I would have loved this story except the Shakespeare connection kept jerking me out of fiction wondering about fact. I’m surprised: I don’t usually have an issue with imagined lives in historical fiction. Hmm.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman Flowers, Bryan Stevenson (Foreword)

‘My story starts in Lowndes County, Alabama, a place that’s been called ‘Bloody Lowndes’ because of its violent, racist history.’

I read a review of this book and was horrified. Could it really be true, I wondered, that an estimated 90% of households in Lowndes have failing or inadequate wastewater systems? Surely not in the USA, the richest country in the world? I borrowed a copy of the book from my library and read on.

At its heart, this is the story of how and why Catherine Coleman Flowers became an activist. It is a memoir and a social history as well as a fight to ensure human dignity through basic sanitation. Ms Flowers writes of the health issues encountered by those forced to share their yards with raw sewage, often living in rotting trailers with mould covered walls. She writes of Pamela Rush’s situation, and how help was at hand when Pamela Rush died of COVID-19 at the age of 49.

I finished the book, hoping for change and wishing that Pamela Rush had lived. I hope that Ms Flowers and others continue to make a difference. I finished the book wondering how the richest country in the world can have some of its citizens living in such awful situations.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE – 1492 CE (The Story of the Jews #1) by Simon Schama

‘In the beginning…’

A chance conversation led me to borrow this book from the library. I wanted to get behind the vague knowledge drifting within my memory to a more factual appreciation of Jewish history.

In this book Mr Schama starts with Elephantine, a Jewish garrison town dating from the 5th century BCE. Elephantine, which I had never heard of, is an island in the Nile River. I kept reading, some of the details reinforced my existing knowledge, others contradicted it. Why, I wondered, did the Jews return to Egypt? The more I read, the more I stepped away from the mythology (part of my Christian upbringing) and into Jewish participation in the world. I met scholars and poets, physicians, and philosophers. I became immersed in a world that I can appreciate without fully understanding. I admire the endurance and creativity displayed by Jewish people despite centuries of bigotry and persecution.

This book finishes in 1492, with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. I intend to read the second book (‘When Words Fail’) as well.

I finished this book with a greater appreciation of aspects of Jewish history albeit overwhelmed (at times) by the detail.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Toxic by Lindy Cameron and Fin J Ross

‘Because no-one stopped him.’

Most people murdered in Australia are killed by someone they know: a partner, a child, a friend. Many of the murderers claim to love those they have killed. Why, then, do they kill?

In their introduction, Ms Cameron and Ms Ross identify toxic personality traits which, broadly speaking, are about control and entitlement. There’s discussion of toxic masculinity (most murders are committed by men) but recognition that women (with toxic personality traits) also kill.

Over thirteen chapters, a series of murders are discussed. Each of these murders, except one, was committed by a family member. The exception was ‘a murder among friends’.

I confess. I am a true crime aficionado, so I recognised quite a few of the cases. Even so, I shuddered as I read about the cold-blooded killing of partners and children, and the steps taken (in some cases) to hide the crime. In other cases, the murder was public.

The female murderers in this book wanted something: usually money or freedom. Some of the male murderers killed because of a toxic sense of entitlement: that someone who had chosen to leave them did not deserve to live, or that they would ‘get back at them’ by killing a child (or children). And sometimes we can only speculate about ‘why’ because the murderer maintains that they are innocent.

Toxic masculinity is certainly an important factor in many family murders: physical strength and a sense of entitlement can be dangerous weapons. Especially when family violence is ignored or hidden, and then escalates.

Two things will stay with me from reading this book. Firstly, the inspiration provided to many by Arman Abrahimzadeh:

‘So traumatised by his mother’s brutal murder and a lifetime of family abuse from his father, Arman, now 33, has made it his life’s work to fight against domestic violence.’

And the second? The tragedy of four-year-old Darcey Freeman being thrown from the West Gate Bridge by her father. I have no words.

I finished this book with more questions than answers.

‘Regardless of the motive or the identity of the victim or offender, or whether the crime is ultimately deemed murder or manslaughter, there is always one word for it: homicide.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Gun, the Ship & the Pen by Linda Colley

‘Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World.’

I picked up this book intrigued by the role of constitutions in the modern world. I am most familiar with the Australian Constitution (an Act of the UK Parliament, passed in 1900), am aware of the American Constitution, and studied aspects of the Meiji Constitution (Japan 1889 to 1947), but apart from the Australian Constitution I have never really stopped to consider how and why constitutions are developed. I have a lot to learn.

Ms Colley’s book took me on a voyage around the world between the mid-18th century and the outbreak of World War I. There is no single way of developing a constitution and in this book both monarchs and radicals have played a role. Consider Catherine the Great and her Nakaz, which incorporates ideas of the French enlightenment. And in Tunisia, where the Ahd al-Amān, or Fundamental Pact came into effect in 1856 followed by the short-lived constitution of 1860 (the first constitution in the Arab world).

I learned, too, that constitutions are not (usually) static. I oversimplify. I see the pen (the constitution, even though not all constitutions are written) as a response to the gun (warfare) and the ship (colonial expansion). Ms Colley amplifies my understanding. I read of constitutions that are inclusive, and those that seek to exclude. I learned that in 1838, Pitcairn Island had a constitution which enfranchised all adult women (thanks to Captain Russell Elliott of HMS Fly).

And, shifting my focus from an Anglo-centric view, I read about Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and Simón Bolívar in South America.

I finished this book, determined to read more about some of the constitutions mentioned. There is plenty of detail here for those who want to immerse themselves in a study of the role of constitutions in the modern world and on the factors which impact on their development and change.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

‘What about the Huntress? She vanished at the war’s end.’

The story moves between three characters: Jordan McBride, a young woman in post-World War II America who dreams of being a photographer; Nina Markova, a young woman from Siberia who joins the infamous Night Witches, an all-female flying squadron in the USSR; and British journalist Ian Graham who has become a Nazi hunter. Ian has a particular target: a woman known as the Huntress, who murdered his brother Seb.

This is a complex story which unfolds over three different time periods. Ian and his team track the Huntress to the USA, but have difficulty making the final connections necessary to identify and locate her. Meanwhile, the tension is building. We know that the Huntress will stop at nothing to cover her tracks, and other lives are at risk. Jordan is trying to find her place in a changing world, while looking out for her stepsister, Ruth. But the central character for me, the one who brings the story to life, is Nina Markova.

Until I read this novel, I had not heard of the Night Witches and knew nothing about the female fighter and bomber pilots of the USSR during World War II. Now, of course, I want to know more about them.

But back to the novel. I picked it up on the recommendation of friends and read it during the course of one day. The story held my attention from beginning to end.  This is the first novel I have read by Ms Quinn, but it will not be the last.

‘Cowardice doesn’t exist, you know. Nor does bravery. Only nature. If you’re the hunter, you stalk and if you’re the prey, you run…’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Night Blue by Angela O’Keeffe

‘I was not yet colour, and time was not settled in me.’

Imagine. Imagine the voice of a painting and listen to what it has to say. In this imaginative, short debut novel, Ms O’Keeffe gives voice to ‘Blue Poles’: the painting so controversially bought by Gough Whitlam in 1973 before the National Gallery of Australia, in which it is housed, was built. I remember the purchase and at the time I wondered about it. Now, when I visit the National Gallery of Australia, I am intrigued by it.

‘The name is not important. It is the feeling that a thing engenders, not its name.’

How does Ms O’Keeffe bring the painting to life? There are three parts to this novel. Parts One and Three are the voice of the painting, Part Two is the voice of Alyssa, an assistant restorer, who is undertaking a PhD on Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler (the women in Jackson Pollock’s life). The voice of the painting takes us back through its creation, through settings and process and back to Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, and then its travels. Alyssa’s voice gives an Australian perspective of the purchase itself and the painting’s journey as well as a look at the life and times of Jackson Pollock.

An inner (logical) voice tells me that it should not work, but it does. Ms O’Keeffe goes behind what is known and imagines life where many of us see a static object. It made me think both about the significance of Blue Poles, and the story it (or any other painting) could tell if we could hear its voice.

This is a clever and engaging novel. I enjoyed it, and I am still thinking about the voices (for surely there is more than one) within and behind this (and other) paintings.

‘The story is a moth; its destiny is light.’

Another novel recommended by Lisa over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog:

Night Blue, by Angela O’Keeffe | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Thank you, Lisa!

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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