Many, many years ago, I confessed to my book group that I’d never read Anna Karenina. Oh, the shame!! That Christmas, I dutifully bought myself a copy and devoured it. Similarly, I recently confessed to some book tragic friends that I’d never read an Ann Patchett book, so I borrowed my Mum’s copy of The Dutch House, and now want to read ALL her books.
The Dutch House was an absolute treat. The flawed characters, the piecing together of key events and relationships through the multiple timelines, the gender roles and expectations, and, of course, the house, are all woven together to create a rich story, replete with thought-provoking themes such as the nature of home, family, forgiveness and future.
The Dutch House, with the furnishings and portraits of its previous owners, was influential in the district as well as in the lives of those who inhabited it. Yet, for Danny and Maeve, it represented the hope, but ultimate failure, of a happy home and childhood, and the unshakeable anguish of what might have been.
Patchett’s use of Danny as narrator ensured that only his perspective was provided, so while there were unanswered questions, particularly about the ‘evil stepmother’ Andrea, his insights and reflections were profound and the reader was intimately acquainted with each member of the family.
And so, my to-be-read pile continues to grow with other acclaimed Ann Patchett novels I need to devour.
Many years ago, my niece announced that Jasper Jones was her all-time favourite book, and so I quickly set about getting hold of a copy. Like her, I found it to be a compelling, touching and thought-provoking book.
Ten years later, another compelling, touching and heart-warming book by Craig Silvey emerged – Honeybee. The mullet and garish colours which adorn the cover made me think twice about picking it up, but I needn’t have worried. Silvey’s trademark skill in storytelling did not disappoint.
The opening chapter’s title is The End. In reality, this probably would have been the end for Sam Watson, the trans teen who had given up on life. At 14, Sam was already defined by disillusionment and heartbreak, and these feelings of isolation, loneliness and abandonment rang true. Thankfully, the chance encounter with Vic steered Sam’s life in a completely different direction.
Through the roller-coaster that followed, Sam’s longing for approval and acceptance placed them in situations that ranged from embarrassing to dangerous. Kindness appeared in unexpected places, but fear was constant, resulting in a gripping read with carefully placed moments of levity.
While often referred to as a coming-of-age story, Honeybee is more a reflection of the coming-of-age-of-society. It is unusual for trans characters to take centre stage in a mainstream book, and it is only in recent years that broader society has begun the long journey of acceptance. In the meantime, there are countless Sam Watsons trying to make sense of their place in the world, even if not always in quite as a dramatic fashion.
I found this to be an incredibly moving book, and adored the character of Sam Watson who had such a big heart cloaked beneath shame and vulnerability. Despite the overwhelming sadness I felt by their predicament, I also found this to be a life-affirming novel, a reminder that small acts of kindness can change a person’s world.
The world of Odie and his fellow travellers could not be more different to my world. The Gilead River bears zero resemblance to the northern fringes of Sydney and my childhood was spent with a loving family who provided me with emotional security as well as the essentials of food, shelter, clothing, and access to quality education and health care. And yet, William Kent Krueger tapped into universal themes of journeys, resilience, family and home to craft a novel that was accessible and poignant, even when readers like me are miles, decades, experiences and worlds apart.
Following unspeakable cruelty at the Lincoln School for orphaned and abandoned Native American children, four children escape and canoe down the Gilead River in search of safety, family and home. It is a perilous journey of survival, both physically and emotionally, with high stakes at every turn.
No stone was left unturned in the creation of this epic story. Complex characters were woven in seamlessly throughout the adventure, each with their own back-story determining their actions and relationships with others. Reflecting on the story made me appreciate the author’s skill in not succumbing to two-dimensional characters, regardless of how large or small their role. Each character had a unique and authentic voice, and there was no lapse into either preachy or prosaic narration. The characters told their own stories in their own ways, from detailed descriptions of sharing morsels of food to grappling with the big issues of life and the nature of God.
The setting was almost a character itself. The hardships of the Depression cast an understandable gloominess over the story as Odie and his friends struggled to survive. While the Gilead River was a powerful metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life - calm waters and strong currents - the exquisite storytelling protected it from cliche. Similarly, the depiction of Native Americans was respectful and confronting.
Some of my favourite books examine consequences from a single moment, a single decision. This Tender Land was littered with hugely consequential moments for all of the characters, and resulted in a page-turning, yet very tender, book.
Please find here an assorted mix of what I tend to read - new books, old books, birthday gifts, gifts to myself, books from my to-be-read pile, Book Group books, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs - basically a weird assortment of goodies!
Please follow the arrows at the bottom of the page for more reflections.