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Interned Souls: After Darkness

After DarknessAfter Darkness by Christine Piper

It is early 1942 and Australia is in the midst of war.While working at a Japanese hospital in the pearling port of Broome, Dr Ibaraki is arrested as an enemy alien and sent to Loveday internment camp in a remote corner of South Australia. There, he learns to live among a group of men who are divided by culture and allegiance. As tensions at the isolated camp escalate, the doctor is forced to confront his dark past: the promise he made in Japan and its devastating consequences.

First Impressions: The writing style was lovely and I was immediately drawn into Ibaraki’s story.

Highlights: I liked the way the story moved back and forth in time. The author plants a lot of hints about different events that make you want to keep reading. 1940s Broome was brought to life, as was Tokyo; I didn’t feel let down by one setting over another. If anything, I would have liked more detail about everyday life in Broome’s Jap Town! The internment camp was interesting to read about but for me it was overshadowed by silences in the other settings. I also wanted to learn more about the lives led by the Japanese internees from other areas of the Pacific – how intriguing must their stories be! Ibaraki’s reasons for leaving Japan are heartbreaking. I found this novel hard to put down.

If I was an editor: I did worry at one point that this novel came a bit too close to becoming a melodramatic romance but it scaled right back again. I don’t know if I like Ibaraki’s final decision but I can’t think of another way for the novel to end.

Overall: Tender historical fiction.

After Darkenss: 5 Stars

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St Malo Majesty: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History.. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. 

First Impressions: To be honest with you, I didn’t enjoy this book very much at the beginning. Sure, it was a nice read but boy, if it continued to be this descriptive thoughout… how boring!

Highlights: Once I got into the swing of this book I couldn’t put it down. If anything became too overly descriptive I skimmed it. While I liked the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, I really loved the narrative strand of Sergeant Major von Rumpel and his quest to find the missing jewel. I wish this had been the focus of the novel, creating a bit more thriller-esque like tension but that would be a different book altogether! On another note, I did like how the various references to radio were weaved together.

If I was an editor: It would be hard to make changes without altering the essense of the novel but as I said above, if there was a ‘cat and mouse’/chase element to the novel linked to the jewel I may have enjoyed it even more. This wouldn’t have even been drawn to my attention without von Rumpel’s search for the jewel as this narrative thread showed the potential for this to occur.

Overall: A dense yet enchanting WW2 story.

All the Light We Cannot See: 5 Stars

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Just Lovely: The Golden Age

The Golden AgeThe Golden Age by Joan London

It is 1954 and thirteen-year-old Frank Gold, refugee from wartime Hungary, is learning to walk again after contracting polio in Australia. At The Golden Age Children’s Polio Convalescent Home in Perth, he sees Elsa, a fellow patient, and they form a forbidden, passionate bond. The Golden Age becomes the little world that reflects the larger one, where everything occurs. It is a place where children must learn they’re alone, even within their families. 

First Impressions: London’s writing style really transports you back to the 1950s. To say it is beautifully written is an understatement.

Highlights: This is a very thought provoking novel. I hadn’t ever considered the polio epidemic so I found that really interesting, particularly how each polio patient has their vivid ‘onset story’. The additional layer to the story about Frank’s family being migrants from Hungary and their experiences both in Europe and Perth really added an extra dimension to the story telling. I really felt for Frank’s parents as they adjusted to life in such an alien city and landscape. New country, new start, yet burdened with polio – you really feel for the Gold family. One moment from the novel that will stay with me for a while is when Frank’s mother Ida laments that much to her despair the few errors she makes in her otherwise perfect piano playing wouldn’t be noticed by Australian audiences; such errors would not be tolerated by elite musicians or audiences with keen ears in Vienna, and rightly so! One other thing I liked about this novel was that the chapters were told by a variety of characters all linked to The Golden Age hospice. You learnt about their private lives and were often surprised.

If I was an editor: It is hard to think of how to improve this novel. I don’t know if ‘where are they now’ final chapters always work. This one was interesting but perhaps didn’t add to much to the novel as a whole.

Overall: A beautiful and perfect example of melancholy.

The Golden Age: 5 Stars

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An Overabundance of Feeling: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

9780701189051The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I have been curious to read this novel ever since hearing Richard Flanagan on Conversations with Richard Fidler. However, I admit to abandoning Flanagan’s earlier novel Gould’s Book of Fish as I found it just too much hard work. Despite this, I made sure I began Narrow Road with an open mind.

Dorrigo Evans is the surgeon in a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Railway. He tends to the men of the camp afflicted by tropical diseases, beatings and despair while also being haunted by an earlier love affair with his uncle’s wife. Dorrigo realises there are two types of men, those who have been on the Line and the rest of humanity. This novel is based on conversations Flanagan had with his father about his experiences as a slave labourer on the Thai-Burma railway.

First Impressions: This is definitely a novel of high quality literature and the prose really draws you in.

Highlights: If the aim of the novel was to slightly traumatize the reader, then Flanagan has succeeded. I have a good general knowledge of WW2 so it wasn’t that the description of the despair in the POW camp shocked me. I am sure that most people interested in reading this novel would be in a similar situation. The events at the camp were almost like a documentary reel while the deluge of feelings became overwhelming. So many feelings. Everyone’s feelings. The Line that Dorrigo refers to also applies to members of the Japanese army in the camps so we follow their stories after the war too and that proved to be compulsive reading. One thing I confess I did not really know too much about was the respect the Japanese army had for rank, regardless of what side the person in question was on.

If I was an editor: I wasn’t so absorbed by the chapters where Dorrigo’s lover and wife are the focus, nor did I think his references to classics and literature necessary but both of these elements were no doubt included to show the whole man Dorrigo was and the latter also provided a balance to the Japanese haikus included.

Overall: A worthy literary read that perhaps should have won the Miles Franklin.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: 5 stars

Thank you to Random House (Vintage) for a copy of the ARC to review.

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Original Perspective: The Undertaking

The UndertakingThe Undertaking by Audrey Magee

I was lucky enough to win a copy of this novel in a competition run by the Bailey’s Prize. I made sure I found time to finish it before the June 4 deadline when the winner will be announced!

This is a story about ordinary Germans in WW2 who do what they can to make the war tolerable. Peter, a German soldier on the Russian front, marries Katharina, a woman he has never met. It is purely a marriage of convenience. He will get leave for the honeymoon and she will be guaranteed a widow’s pension should he fail to return. Katharina’s father finds his own way to make the war more manageable for his family by endearing himself to the well connected Nazi Dr Weinart.

First Impressions: The author writes in sharp prose making this a very readable novel. However, at times the writing was so crisp and devoid of feeling that I felt somewhat detached from the story but I suspect this is how many of the characters felt.

Highlights: The most memorable events in this novel are the most depressing – the stories of both Katharina’s brother and son, the tactics used by the Russians to lure defectors, the fragile minds of soldiers surrounded at Stalingrad… I liked the way the author didn’t date each chapter. Subtle clues would indicate how much time had passed. I had mixed feelings about the ending but the small ray of hope and optimism for the future was wonderful.

If I was an editor: I would perhaps make this succinct novel even shorter. Katharina’s family’s rise to privilege thanks to Dr Weinart didn’t need so much detail, particularly Katharina’s awe at the luxuries now available to her. I didn’t think this needed to be covered in such great detail in both the prose and her letters to her husband. Perhaps these extra pages could then be filled in with detail about Peter’s missing years…

Overall: Magee has managed the almost unthinkable by writing an original WW2 novel that stands out in a flooded market.

The Undertaking: 4 stars

 

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Lost in Translation

Purge by Sofi Oskanen

Please look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin

Purge by Sofi Oksanen  was heavier in content than expected; I skimmed the blurb and wasn’t necessarily expecting historical fiction. However, I always like an unanticipated journey when reading a novel and this novel did not fail to disappoint.

Aliide is an elderly woman living on the edge of a village in an Estonian forest. She challenges the stereotype of the elderly right from the beginning by showing how alert she is to ploys used by gangs to rob and harass people. One morning she finds a distressed young girl, Zara, in her garden. Zara seems to be tainted by involvement in a gang; is she there as a decoy for a more sinister crime?

As the novel progresses the stories of both women are revealed with Aliide’s story taking the reader to both WW2 and Soviet Estonia. I’ve studied a reasonable amount of history but I had never thought exclusively about Estonia. The fact that this novel describes a moment in history from an Estonian point of view was really interesting. I really got the sense that prior to the war the country was not purely a homogenous Estonian population. Rather it seemed to be a crossroads with people from all surrounding countries drawn there for work including an established German community in the novel.

I also found it interesting that at times of difficulty the old Finnish marrka was used on the black market as a trustworthy ‘hard currency’. Furthermore, Finland was seen as ‘the west’ and many characters would lament that they wished they had left for Finland when they had the chance.

The poverty and suffering in the countryside as a legacy of communism is rather uncomfortable at times. Issues of young people’s migration to cities and other countries also permeates the story. Interestingly, on a recent trip to Helsinki I was quite aware of the large number of young Estonians in the hospitality and service industries.

For the most part the novel is a rather bleak read and some scenes are quite uncomfortably violent. The broader themes of the novel encompass both women’s stories but I really do not want to give them away. Be warned that the book description on Amazon has a spoiler.

One thing that let the book down was the implied Estonian nuances about life in some of the longer passages of description. The whole novel was very readable but someone with an insight into the unsaid parts of Estonian culture may have found some parts of the novel more satisfying.

When I felt I was missing some cultural knowledge in Purge, it reminded me of another book in translation I read recently – Please look after Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin.  I was initially drawn to the mystery of what happened to the elderly family matriarch when she disappeared in the Seoul subway. The story is told from multiple viewpoints with different members of the family revealing to the reader their private lives and surfacing feelings of guilt about not noticing Mother more.

I enjoy reading family dramas but this one just did not captivate me enough. I felt the writing a bit stilted which may have been due to the translation. I can be quite forgiving about this but my main feeling throughout was that there was too much cultural understanding embedded in the novel which made it difficult for me to appreciate the story. I have read quite a few books set in Asia – including a few set in Korea – so I am quite open minded about the cultural differences. In this book the parents lived in the countryside which may have added a different layer of difficulty to the story as they were quite old fashioned in their ways. The lack of communication and awareness between the family members was also something I could not relate to easily. I imagine this book was popular in Korea but I just found it too difficult to become fully absorbed in the story.

Purge: 4 Stars
Please look after Mother: 3 stars

More about Korea I have read:

A Step from Heaven by An Na – A short and poignant exploration of the Korean immigrant experience in the USA. It is narrated by the family’s young daughter.  The sadness and cruelty in the story really brings a tear to the eye. Published about 10 years ago. It’s a shame that vampires, magic and angels have pushed this sort of YA novel to the margins.

All Woman and Springtime by B.W.  Jones – About two female orphans in North Korea. The story branches out to South Korea and beyond. It really made me think about the North Korean diaspora.

Drifting House:  Krys Lee – An interesting collection of stories about family, duty and the struggle between the generations when western influence abound. I particularly liked the sedate friendship that developed between two retirees in the USA.

1000 Chestnut Trees by Mira Stout – I read and loved this when it was first published in 1999. It takes the reader back to the partition between North and South, and the current DMZ.

If you know any other great novels in translation please let me know. Any Estonian suggestions are welcome!