Friday, September 20, 2019

The Dry by Jane Harper

This debut mystery by Jane Harper introduces a city police officer with a rural past. When the story opens, Aaron Falk is back in his home town of Kiewarra for the funeral of someone who was once a close friend. Yet all he wants is to get away from the people he grew up with, both the nasty bullies and those who were kind. In a few short hours, he hopes to start the drive back to the office in Melbourne.

In many ways, the town is much as he remembers, but with one important difference. The river is dry. The lack of rain has frayed the nerves of the townspeople, who are also now reeling from the shock of having to bury an entire family. As the story unfolds, we intuit the reason for Aaron's sudden departure, and why he's never been back before. We also meet a local woman he knew as a teen, now a single mother, and learn of a teenage friend who drowned.

This novel dramatizes the power of weather. Drought puts psychological as well as financial pressure on those whose livelihoods it threatens. The story also portrays the damage caused by fear and lies, suspicion and distrust, when compounded by small-town pressures to conform.

The book is available locally, but I bought my copy on a recent trip to Australia. Until I witnessed it with my own eyes, I was unfamiliar with the concept of rivers empty of water. After crossing many bridges over dry riverbeds, I gained some sense of Australian weather and seasons. The Dry can hit around the country, when the rivers are not overflowing their banks. In the Northern Territory, the Build-up is the name of the humid and uncomfortable season of waiting for the Wet.

Jane Harper's memorable federal policeman Aaron Kirk returns in future novels, and The Dry has been made into a film, starring Eric Bana as Kirk. Filmed in several Australian locations, the movie is still in the editing process.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Empty rivers in Australia

I took this photo from is a highway bridge over the Gascoyne, the longest river in Western Australia  abuts farms and orchards. In late August, it was completely dry. For the past two years, much of Australia has been suffering from drought. Driving north, we crossed many more bridges over dry rivers; some, like the Ashburton, below, had a bits of water in them.

As road signs suggest, rivers spill over in the wet season. In 2010-11, the Gascoyne rose and inundated a vast area. Government estimated soil erosion as about 9 million tonnes.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

North Pacific South Pacific

In the Southern hemisphere, even the sky looks different. Its unfamiliar constellations are dominated by the Southern Cross.

White Rock on a September evening conveyed a very different mood from what we saw two evenings ago at Surfer's Paradise. After a month in Australia, the North Pacific looks chilly and grey. Queensland's Gold Coast (below) is on the cusp of summer.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Cloth of gold - pretty, tiny and very dangerous

Travelling in Australia, my daughter and I visited a small cay called Green Island enroute to the Great Barrier Reef. On the sandy beach, I picked up some bits of coral and tiny shells and and put them in Yasemin's hand.

At once, she identified the conical shell on the left. "A cloth of gold."

"Do you remember playing with Alvina's shell collection when you were little?"

"Of course. And that one nearly killed her."

Sunday, September 8, 2019

True History of the Kelly Gang

According to a Sydney tour guide, a fifth of Australians are descended from convicts who arrived from England in the 1880s. Minor thefts of food could lead to "transportation," and being Irish didn't help. This history helps explain the pride in convict ancestry today, and makes sense of the the folk hero status achieved by the bush ranger Ned Kelly, who was hanged in Melbourne Gaol in 1880, aged 26.

Peter Carey's novel about this revolutionary outlaw affords fascinating insights into colonial Australia. The novelist has researched contemporary writings by and about the real Ned Kelly to create the voice that describes "a colony made specifically to have poor men bow down to their gaolers." The fictionalized Kelly also describes his relatives as "Irish and therefore drunk with land and horses, all the old hardships soon to be forgotten."

As the story unfolds, new hardships pile up around him. With his twice-jailed father dead, twelve-year-old Ned tries hard to be be the man and protect the family. Living in a settler's hut where "the smallest flutter of a mother's eyelids are like a tin sheet rattling in the wind," he feels angry and powerless when she takes up with the outlaw Harry Power.

Looking back on his earlier self years later, Ned feels "great pity for the boy who readily believed the barefaced lie" designed to manipulate him into abetting Harry's crimes. Recalling his earlier naivete, he remembers the Harry's eyes "alive with emotion I mistook for sympathy."

Early in the book, Ned Kelly is portrayed as a sensitive and intelligent boy, in spite of his birth into deep poverty and a troubled family and community. He saves another child from drowning without thought of danger to himself, and later, works to save his mother's land. Sadly, his efforts to raise and trade in cattle and horses honestly avail him nothing. His decision to turn against the law is a conscious one, taken after many incidences of unfair accusations at the hands of the police.

Meanwhile, the new colony is poisoned by the old tribal roles, enmities and superstitions remain, with the banshee "thriving like blackberry in the new climate." Old feuds are passed to new generations: British against Irish, cousin against cousin, police against settlers, and "wild colonial boys" holding up trains, coaches and banks. Forced to fight another bush ranger, Ned wins, only to discover that he is now popular, which is "even worse than being hated as a traitor" although the conditions are much the same -- "every drunken fool" wants to fight him. Kelly also sympathizes with the misfit Steve Hart, whose father "filled his head with all them rebel stories."

Ned also understands "the agony of the Great Transportation that our parents would rather forget what come before so we currency lads is left alone ignorant as tadpoles spawned in puddles on the moon." He is cognizant of the sad truth that "poor people's love is cupboard love and all it took were £500 for the police to be led to the outlaw's secret door."

When his destitute mother is put in jail and her youngest baby taken, Ned resolves to get her out. The depth of the injustice around him results in a political awakening. In the doomed hope of staying on the right side of the law, he reports police corruption and misconduct to the powers that be, believing they will see justice done. The betrayal of this hope turns him into a revolutionary as well as an outlaw. Helping the disadvantaged gains him the admiration of a Robin Hood figure.

The voice Carey has created for Ned Kelly is rustic and untutored, nuanced and poetic. Reading this remarkable book is like hearing an actual voice from the past. In some respects, the history of the Kelly gang seems quaint and distant; at the same time, we see parallel conditions today. Tribalism, religious and ethnic prejudice, poverty and social disadvantage are still very much present in society, and they still lead to violence.

Below: Memorabilia of Ned Kelly are sold as souvenirs at Melbourne Gaol, now a museum.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Himself by Jess Kidd

When Mahony shows up in the village of Mulderrig, the publican notes that while he has "a sort of bearing about him," his trousers are "ridiculous...wide enough at the bottom to mop the main road."

Jack, the guard, invites the newcomer to sit by him. The cop, we're told, "works his stretch of the coast, sorting out the wicked, the misjudged and the maligned without once having to raise his voice."

But this village has dirty secrets, and to save his life, Mahony has to blow them wide open. He finds an ally in the ancient Mrs. Cauley. a long-ago star who once held sway on the the Abbey Theatre theatre in Dublin. The old lady now "lies in state" in the ruined library of her once-imposing house, which retains its "good bone structure," though the mice now have the run of the guest rooms."

The feisty old woman may have "teeth like a row of bombed houses," but she still notices that the newcomer is good-looking. In no time he's begun to charm her and she's judiciously spilling certain village gossip. When he leaves, her warning to her housekeeper Shauna not to "try it on" with him is only half in fun. Mrs. Cauley is not the only widow, but the other one is in mourning, and has been "since the death of de Valera."

This first novel has a large cast of characters, including the unappealing Father Quinn, whose confessional laps up "tales of suffering and spite," and "feeds on shame and remorse. Insincerely kind, the priest "pours the tea with spiteful servitude" for a parishioner he can't bully. Bridget, "who came with the parochial house, is the first to admit that she isn't a patch on her late mammy in the housekeeping department." Though her skill set includes wiring houses, castrating bulls, and drinking the publican under the table, she "holds no truck with the relentless drudgery of housework or the moral authority of Catholic priests." According to Mrs. Cauley, she's also "deep enough to make a well look shallow."

The dead pay visits too, though only Mahony and select others are able to see them. Moreover, even for those with the sight, the dead, "like cats -- don't always come when they're called."

Taking readers back in time, the author allows us to glimpse a possible fate for Mahony's lost mother. Did she really run away to Dublin in her "brand-new baby and her second-hand coat," only to hand the boy over to an orphanage? It seems unlikely that a loving mother would allow her son to be brought up in an orphanage where the "nuns have eyes in the backs of their habits." They "rub their relics if they want to put a saint on you. Then you're truly banjaxed."

Orla, the young unwed mother of Mahony, is well and truly banjaxed. When her parents fail horribly in their duty to care for their child, the father runs away, the mother blames the daughter and the priest blames both.

Early in the novel, we are shown the innocent but telling image of "the mammies inside getting the dinner and the daddies inside waiting to go out for a jar." As Kidd relentlessly unlocks the secrets of the villagers in a series of brief evocations, the reader wonders whether it will be possible for that initial innocence to return.

Meanwhile, with its "magical powers," a good pint can "heal surface wounds" and "cement minor friendships." Boys hot-wire cars, and women "sell black-market fireworks out of prams." At the Post Office and General Store, Marie Gaughan sells rat traps, knicker elastic, feather dusters, "water butts and garden hoses," as well as "banned books and jam made from hedgerows." On the day of the Village Festival, a theatrical evening, villagers fight over roles, "animals are sold...and marriages are brokered in the car park."

The characters are vivid, the themes weighty, and the plot complex and suspenseful. This reader derived equal joy from the vivid originality of the author's voice and language. As a Creative Writing student at St. Mary's University in London, author Jess Kidd wrote a thesis melding genres in crime fiction. In this novel, she's applied the techniques brilliantly.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong

This mystery is wrapped not only in an enigma, but in carefully applied layers of literary reference, contemporary historical realism, and socio-cultural analysis.

After 15 years of walking a knife edge of Party sensitivities, Inspector Chen is suddenly stripped of his job as the Shanghai Police Bureau's Special Case Squad. He gets a new job title -- and title is the operative word. Chen and his colleagues in the precinct know this empty 'promotion' is no more than an effort to sideline one of his investigations. But which one, and why? The wily inspector still has his brain, his poetry and other resources. Obliged to shuttle back and forth on the high speed train between Shanghai and Suzhou, where he's having his father's gravestone renovated, Chen consults his gray cells as well as trusted friends of the utmost discretion to help him investigate.

Qiu Xiaolong is a master of irony and double entendre, as we observe in this layered description of a traditional hotel room in Suzhou. "On one wall, there was an impressive row of pictures showing high-ranking party leaders in the fifties and sixties, eloquently documenting the hotel’s glorious past. The wall opposite displayed a long rice-coloured silk scroll of a seventh-century Tang poem copied by a modern calligrapher."

He portrays the status of women in China under 'Socialism with Chinese characteristics.' Among Qiu's fascinating range of characters are a Suzhou opera singer, the discarded ernai, (non-status concubine), of a Party official, and Chen's friend and former colleague, Detective Yu. Yu's intrepid wife Peqin helps her husband's inquiries in places where he is unable to venture. We also meet Party members who subtly threaten Chen using anodyne phrases, as well as expensive lawyers and American accountants who maintain that they're not obliged to tell the police a thing.

The topsy-turvy world of contemporary Shanghai is an excellent setting for this satisfying mystery. The booming city is rife with corruption, new money, 'Red Princelings' and 'Big Bucks.' While having concubines and playing mahjong are nominally illegal, "every service you can imagine" is for sale in the Heavenly World night club. In such places, officials avoid internet exposure by entering unseen through hidden underground parking access. "Red songs" enjoy an ironic comeback, while 'naked officials' ship their families and money overseas and then stay back with their ernai to see how the political wind blows. 

Meanwhile, skyrocketing Shanghai real estate prices mean many in the city must bury their dead in nearby Suzhou. Thus, the annual Qingming observance leads to a cemetery visit rush hour for the new high-speed train system to cope with.