Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Great Reads for April

The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst
Alan Hollinghurst deservedly won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 for his superb novel of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain of the 80’s;  a relentless account of high hopes and low types;  a booming economy – until the ’87 crash – and the radically changing social scene where any behaviour becomes acceptable – until the AIDS epidemic takes hold.
Mr. Hollinghurst’s many admirers have waited seven years for his next  book, and while his writing is still as elegant and incisive as before, the story was a disappointment to this reader for its lack of impetus, and a kind of languor that slows the plot further.  The author relies much on conversation, trivial and otherwise, to push his story along, and as artful and witty as some of the characters are, none of them are sufficiently strong or memorable to be up to the task.
The story begins shortly before the First World War.  The Sawles, a middle-class family are expecting a weekend visit from son George, a student at Cambridge and his new friend Cecil Valance, a fellow student and published poet already being hailed as a new literary lion.  George’s 16 year-old sister Daphne is particularly dazzled by the handsome and aristocratic Cecil, ignorant as is the rest of the family that George and Cecil are lovers.  The account of this weekend is perhaps the strongest part of the book, full of potentially satisfying plot developments and strong characterisations – then we are moved along to 1926, on the eve of the General Strike, and we find that Daphne is now married to Cecil’s younger brother Sir Dudley;  she is the mother of two children, and the mistress of the Valance family home, the great house of Corley Court.  Cecil was killed in the war by a sniper’s bullet, and thanks largely to his mother (whom both boys unkindly referred to as ‘the General’)he has been lionised, anthologised , deified, and finally entombed under a marble effigy in the family chapel.  Dudley also went to France to fight ‘but did not have a good war’ and the marriage is foundering.  There is much swilling of alcohol in an attempt to drown unhappy memories, and as 1926 is the age of the Bright Young Things there are lots of wild parties, and Gay young Blades are more openly accepted than a decade before – in fact, Daphne runs away with one!  Ah, how she has changed from the impressionable, sheltered young teenager of 1913,
Cut to 1967:  Daphne is celebrating her 70th birthday.  There are more children, supposedly fathered by the Gay Blade, but only Daphne is privy to the truth, and even the reader at the end of the book is unsure – as one could also be uncertain as to whether ‘The Stranger’s Child’ is ultimately the story of the unhappy union of the Sawles and Valance families , or a 100-year history of homosexuality in Britain, evolving from The Love That Dare not Speak its Name to the civil marriages of the early 21st century.  The best thing I can say about Mr. Hollinghurst’s latest is that it is like the curate’s egg:  good in parts

Death on Demand, by Paul Harris
A prominent businesswoman is killed in a hit and run accident in posh St. Heliers;  a wealthy old Remuera matron dies in a mysterious fall at her home;  a partner in a publishing firm about to be sold is clubbed to death in Ponsonby, and a police informer is found dead at his  villa – also in Ponsonby.  Oh, the corpses are turning up in every Auckland suburb in Paul Thomas’s latest book, the first of his crime novels to feature detective Tito Ihaka in a starring role, and a lot of readers would say ‘and about time, too!’ 
Detective Ihaka is not known for toeing the line and keeping a low profile – well, he couldn’t because of hi s enormous  size -  but he managed to rub so many people the wrong way at Auckland Central, particularly because of his conviction that the St. Heliers hit-and-run investigation should be classed as murder, that he was exiled to the Wairarapa for five years.  Now, at the request of the dying widower of the late businesswoman, he has been brought back to hear What Really Happened.  The widower wants to confess.  It is as Ihaka always suspected:  Hubby hired a hitman, identity unknown, who carried out his orders most efficiently.  Oh, Ihaka could wallow  like a hippo in all the ‘I told you so’s’ but is content to let his superiors at Central try to clean the egg off their faces :  he wants to track down the hitman before any more contracts are undertaken, particularly as he has a nasty suspicion that he might be the next victim.
Paul Harris has constructed a very  competent and well plotted story;  all the loose ends are satisfactorily tidied away by the end of the novel, but the big attraction here is Mr. Ihaka, a singular character in his own right. The snappy, riotously funny dialogue is always a delight, and the sprawling, messy city of Auckland is portrayed so well that it made this reader (an old ex-Jafa) quite nostalgic.  This is the ideal airport or beach read;  I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it.

Empire Day, by Diane Armstrong. 
Sydney, 1948:  the occupants of Wattle Street in Bondi Junction are celebrating Empire Day as always, with fireworks and a bonfire.  Their actions are viewed with confusion and in some cases fear by new residents of the street, postwar displaced persons, refugees from the carnage in Europe, all struggling to start life again after the unspeakable horrors they suffered in the Camps;   all trying to erase terrible memories and cope with the loss of entire families  - and learn an incomprehensible new language on top of everything else.  Fireworks and bonfires are completely outside their experience. 
Diane Armstrong chronicles a year in the life of several of these families, and the effect they have on the true-blue, Dinky Dye Aussies who are their neighbours.  She is well-qualified to do so, arriving in Sydney herself in 1948 with her family from Poland, so writes with utter conviction of the hurdles they faced:  bland food and the inability to buy the food they were accustomed to; a  colloquial, every-day language entirely different from the formal schoolroom English they took such pains to learn on the ship voyage to Australia, and worst of all, suffering discrimination -  being called ‘Bloody Reffos and DPs’  because they dared to speak their own language to each other in public.  Their new life is hard, a leap into the deep end of the unknown – but it is SAFE:  the bloodshed and slaughter are over.  The monsters who haunt their dreams  are far, far away, never to be seen again – until Ted Browning, an idealistic young newspaper reporter starts investigating one of his neighbours, originally from Latvia, the father of the girl he has fallen in love with.  Through his research he is horrified to discover that a number of war criminals have been accepted as refugees with the tacit approval of the government, the proviso being that these former fascists, members of Death Squads, SS et al, spy and report on communist affiliations among the refugees.  The government is more worried about the communist threat than the sheltering of war criminals in its cities.
Sadly for the reader, Ms Armstrong doesn’t develop this theme to a satisfactory conclusion and there are other plot devices which are simplistic in the extreme – however!  She is still a good enough storyteller to absorb us completely, especially in her account of everyday life back in the Forties:  New Zealand and Australia were so similar all those years ago;  the children played the same games, the family life was the same, with mum at home boiling up the copper and bluing the wash on Mondays – and Dad weaving home after being tipped out of the pub at 6PM.  ‘Time, Gentlemen, Please!’  I’m not sure if those were the good old days or not, but Diane Armstrong has captured them expertly.

The Berlin Crossing, by Kevin Brophy

Here’s something different:  Kevin Brophy’s first novel could belong to several genres – a  spy novel;  a mystery;  a love story;  a suspense novel – or a successful combination of all.  In fact it’s impossible to categorise this work;  suffice it to say that it was such a page- turner I couldn’t stop reading until I had finished, and as I have been reading a lot of ho-hum stuff lately, ‘The Berlin Crossing’ was a rare treat.
In the Germany of 1993, the infamous Wall has fallen, and  in the Eastern part of the country, previously the German Democratic Republic ‘liberation’ by the West is in full swing;  there are no longer two Germanys;  instead all those previously enslaved under the Communist yoke are encouraged to embrace the New Order.  Incomprehensibly, there are some who don’t see the ‘Wessies’ as their saviours;  they functioned very well under the old regime and are defiantly proud to say so.  One such loyal party member is Michael Ritter, a young man previously lauded as a respected academic with a PhD in English from Rostock University – until he upsets his new western bosses at the Gymnasium where he has taught for years,  by his outspoken disapproval of the new system.  He is summarily dismissed, but that’s not his only problem:  his wife has thrown him out and he is forced to return to live with his mother in her tiny flat near the railway station in Brandenburg.  His humiliation is complete.
Michael’s mother is dying of cancer.  They have always had a love/hate relationship;  his mother abhors his ardent embrace of the communist system, consciously and carefully doing nothing at all to draw party attention to herself;  she has flown below the communist radar all of their lives together.  Now she has reached the end of her life, and in her last hours begs Michael to visit an old Pastor who knows the secret of Michael’s ancestry;  the identity of his father.  It is her last hope that her son will see the fatal errors in his thinking, see the GDR for the monstrous system that it always was, and gradually come to embrace and learn to live in a fully unified Germany.
Michael’s reluctant journey into his origins is never less than fascinating  and the flashbacks to his parents’ great and fatal love and its consequences  are convincingly written, suspenseful and always absorbing. 
I was impressed with this story.  It places an entirely different slant on the two Germanys of the early 90’s:  the Wessies want to show those gutless East Germans, so lacking in ambition and initiative, how to catch up with them and the rest of the world – and are shocked to the core to find that there are many inhabitants of the former GDR who liked things as they were, thankyou very much, SO JUST LEAVE OUR LIVES ALONE!!  Highly recommended.   


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