MORE GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2015
The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright
In 2009 Camron Wright’s son Trevor filmed a documentary in Cambodia called ‘River of Victory’, an account of the appalling poverty and daily struggle for survival of the inhabitants of Pnom Penh’s huge municipal waste dump. These people had come to the city from even more privation in the country to try to make a living; as peasants most were illiterate, but all had one thing in common: a huge work ethic and powerful desire to make a better life for their loved ones.
The struggles of one such family in the film inspired Mr Wright to turn the family’s travails into an extraordinary, novelised account of their refusal to yield to the squalor of their everyday existence, and their ultimate success in making a better life for themselves.
Sang Li, her husband Ki Lim and their baby boy Nisay eke out a precarious living as trash pickers for recyclables at Stung Meanchey, ‘The River of Victory’ – which is anything but: acres of noisome garbage tower over everything; when it rains the water collects and stagnates in filthy channels that everyone tries to avoid at all costs: cuts and scratches suffered while picking through the rubbish easily become infected, and medical help isn’t cheap.
The lives of everyone at Stung Meanchey are precarious; they are all grindingly poor, but they all have to a greater or lesser degree that vital emotion to get them through each day: hope. Hope that the next day will be better, that the pickings will be larger and get them a bit more money from the buyers who gather at the end of each shift – and the hope that eventually, they will be able to move on from Stung Meanchey.
Sang Li and her husband work as hard as everyone else, but their progress is hampered by the failing health of their baby Nisay, who is continually beset by fevers and diarrhoea, and the predations of the gangs of young boys who roam the dump, looking to rob the vulnerable. Every time Sang Li saves enough money it is eaten up by the cost of medications for Nisay whose symptoms reappear as soon as the pills are finished, and like everyone else, Ki Lim has been attacked and robbed by the gangs of the little money he earned after twelve hours picking through garbage.
The family is desperate: they haven’t enough money to pay the rent on the hovel in which they live, and they know that the loathed Rent Collector, a spiteful old woman known for her complete lack of compassion – and her drunkenness – will accept no excuses: she wants her money. NOW!
Until a miracle occurs: someone has given Sang Li a picture book they found amid the garbage, thinking it would be good for Nisay; when the Rent Collector chances upon the book she is disarmed. Weeping at the sight of it, she takes the book without mentioning the rent.
Sang Li is intelligent - she realises that the Rent Collector can read: can she profit from this situation? Can she convince the Rent Collector to teach her to read, for Sang Li knows that literacy is the doorway to knowledge: knowledge creates opportunity.
And literature is at the heart of this remarkable story, for in a former life the Rent Collector taught literature at a prestigious university. She is an ideal vehicle through which Mr Wright explores human stories, real and imagined; the Rent Collector delivers a fine education to Sang Li, her last pupil - and many compelling, brutal and unforgettable life lessons as well.
Mr Wright is such a skilful storyteller that it is impossible for the reader to discern where reality ends and fiction begins: suffice to say that this reader doesn’t care – the message is loud and clear: hope is the key. Highly recommended.
The Bright Side of my Condition, by Charlotte Randall
In the first years of the nineteenth century four stowaways on a sealing ship are left on an uninhabited island in the Southern Ocean by the captain, furious that they should try to hide themselves on his ship; he didn’t have enough to feed his legitimate crew, let alone four escaped felons from Norfolk Island. Well, they could earn their passage back to Sydney town by collecting seal pelts; he would be back in a year to collect them.
Thus does their privation begin.
New Zealand author Ms Randall has a very large following here; this is her seventh novel (see May 2011 review of ‘Hokitika Town below) and is based on actual events: four stowaway felons were indeed marooned on one of the Snares Islands and instructed to collect sealskins to earn their passage home; unfortunately, the ship’s captain didn’t return to collect them in a year: nearly ten years would pass before they saw a sail on the horizon.
The story is narrated by Bloodsworth, a thief and layabout, transported from England to Norfolk Island for stealing (amongst other things) a length of lace. His reluctant companions are Slangham, who murdered his wife; Gargantua, or Fatty (until privation peeled the weight from his bones), and Toper, a superstitious and God-fearing Irish Catholic drunk not known for deep thinking. Gargantua is reluctantly acknowledged to be of an intellectual bent – he can recite huge swathes of poetry, especially that of Rabelais, his favourite. He is also a classic stirrer and takes smug satisfaction in setting his fellows against each other; it gives him some small pleasure to manipulate those he considers less clever than he.
Slangham is a workhorse; he drives the others mercilessly to provide the skins that they hope will eventually earn their freedom, and he takes no pleasure in life that anyone can see: he is a volcano of hatred and misery: he hates himself and everyone else.
Bloodsworth, initially aghast and horrified at their plight eventually reconciles himself to their environment and learns to love the spectacular wilderness and wildlife of the island. For the first time in his life he feels truly free.
And therein lies his downfall: his mind must be sick to enable him to actually feel so rebellious; to stop taking orders from Slangham, self-appointed ‘boss’; to please himself what he does each day: no, something is wrong. They cannot have a madman in their midst. He must be punished.
Ms Randall does not put a foot wrong in this masterly tale; the island, paradise or hell according to the weather conditions, is described in gorgeous imagery and her characters are all too real, especially Bloodsworth who has a conscience that weighs more than the world – but just in case readers think this is a tale of unremitting gloom, gems of humour like rays of sunlight illuminate the story at strategic points, enhancing more – if it were possible – the reader’s enjoyment. This is a great story. Highly recommended.
Hokitika Town, by Charlotte Randall
The year is 1865; the great Gold Rush is well under way and Hokitika is booming; there are 100 pubs throughout the town to slake the miners’ thirst – and relieve them of their hard-won gold, and everyone is trying to get rich quick by fair means or foul before the gold runs out and all the diggers move on to the next Big Strike.
Into this hotch-potch of goodies and baddies comes Halfie – Half-pint, Harvey, Bedwetter, Monkey: these are only some of the names he answers to, this little maori boy who has run away from his tribe after the death of his beloved tuakana Moana. Being a resourceful and intelligent little boy he has decided to be a ‘coin boy’, and where better a place to earn coin than Hokitika town – he is sure that he will eventually accumulate enough coin to earn a place to sleep by the stove of the reclusive miner and drunk, Ludovic, with the hope that Ludovic will teach him English. He knows that ‘That Inglish is a langwich what don’t behave’ and he would appreciate some tuition so that he can get fair treatment from Whitey. Besides, he’s sick of sleeping up a ponga tree – that’s tolerable in the summer, but Hokitika gets a lot of rain and it’s coming onto winter, so he has to plan ahead.
Thereafter follows a rollicking account of Halfie’s adventures as a coin boy, in his own fractured and inimitable style: comedy and tragedy vie equally for places in this wonderful story of great riches and hard times portrayed by a writer of superlative skill. Halfie is ebullient, shrewd, hilarious, and quite simply unforgettable as he bravely attempts in his little boy’s way to deal with problems that most adults would flee rather than solve: sometimes ‘his heart sag like a old bed’ when his mind turns back to ‘rememorying’, but he has a lion’s heart, a fox’s cunning and a nobility of spirit that many adults would never achieve in a lifetime.
His friends – and enemies – are wonderfully drawn, too; an astonishing cavalcade of the Good, the Bad, and the downright Ugly, and all utterly convincing. Ms. Randall has brought our Goldrush era to thrilling life: as Halfie would say: KA PAI! And I would say A-MA-ZING