Ransom by David Malouf

 Malouf has taken the final book of The Iliad, and has transformed it.  Homer’s account of the penultimate days of the Trojan War is, in the best Ancient Greek tradition, master-minded by the gods, bound by the structure and repetition of epic poetry.  Without taking anything from its rightful reputation as a cornerstone of Western literature, Malouf’s achievement is to breathe fresh life into this ancient story.  His light, pellucid prose takes the reader into the heart of the matter, effortlessly evoking a lost world, and granting humanity to Homer’s archetypes.

 The reader will remember the story.  Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, is sulking in his tent after losing his slave girl to his commander, Agamemnon.  As he sulks, the Greeks are losing the siege they are conducting, still, against the embattled city of Troy.  They have been there for nine years, and there is still no victory in sight.  Eventually Patroclus, the lover of Achilles, persuades his friend to lend him his armour, that he might lift the Greeks’ morale by appearing to return to the fight.  This plays out so convincingly that Hector, the great Trojan Prince, challenges Patroclus (whom he believes to be Achilles) to combat, from which Hector emerges triumphant, with Patroclus dead at his feet.  In his guilt and his raging grief, Achilles storms out to fight Hector, slaying him in bloody battle.  It is what happens next that is so interesting to Malouf.

 Achilles’ guilty grief is not mollified by his victory.  Making matters worse, he proceeds to desecrate the corpse of Hector, tying it to his chariot each morning for twelve days and riding around the city with the body bouncing in the dust behind him.  Hector’s father, Priam, eventually decides to venture out of the city, to ransom his son’s body, and seek a truce in which to bury him.  In the moment of this truce, Homer’s epic ends, and Malouf’s story rests.

 It is unfair to dismiss the Homeric characters as stereotypes, but there is something ponderous about the original lines.  Perhaps Malouf’s inspiration stems from Priam’s plea in Book 24, lines 490 and following:

            […] ‘Remember your own father,

            Achilles, in your godlike youth: his years

            like mine are many, and he stands upon

            the fearful doorstep of old age.  He, too,

            is hard pressed, it may be, by those around him,

            there being none to defend him

            from bane of war and ruin.  Ah, but he

            may none the less hear news of you alive,

            and so with glad heart hope through all his days

            for sight of his dear son, come back from Troy,

            while I have deathly fortune.’

 Achilles is moved, but as much by the god’s intervention as by Priam’s appeal, and he releases Hector’s body to his father with all due ceremony and ritual.  In contrast, Malouf’s story is pared right back.  No god appears to warn Achilles of Priam’s arrival; instead, he is moved by “fellow feeling”, his loss mirrored by Priam’s, and in relinquishing his gruesome revenge on Hector’s dead body, Achilles’ grief, too, is assuaged.

 The gods do play their part in Malouf’s narrative, but they are shadowy suggestions, not fully embodied (as they are in Homer).  They appear only in dreams, visions and memories; to Priam in his sleep, and Achilles as he roams the beach, thinking of his mother.  Centre stage for Malouf, are the humans, whose destiny we know but perhaps have not understood so well until now.  Priam must, in fact, break out of his role as king to play the part of father.  Malouf deftly explores this transformation, altering the story to more believable proportions.  Instead of emerging from the city accompanied by his herald, mounted on his horse-drawn carriage, Priam spurns these accoutrements of royal pageantry.  He insists on a simple wooden cart, pulled by two mules and led by the carter, Somax, who is renamed for convenience after the royal herald (which raises further interesting questions about the nature of myth, its interaction with legend and truth) but who retains throughout his own earthy nature.

 Somax has a mule, Beauty, who captivates all who see her.  Indeed, it is due to Beauty that he was chosen to take Priam, with his prince’s ransom, out of the city.  Priam’s remaining sons visit the marketplace to facilitate their father’s wishes, and although at first they misjudge and offend their father, they redeem themselves eventually by finding Somax and his Beauty.  These characters of man and mule are lovingly drawn.  Typically of Malouf, his real interest lies in the ordinary life of men and women, especially those who live on and with the land.  The reader fears for Somax’s little granddaughter, the only descendant remaining to him now that all his sons are dead, who was suffering from a fever when he left so unexpectedly.  We are reminded of how fleeting and fragile life continues to be for those who barely scrape a living from what remains at the edge of battle; the innocents caught up in wars not of their making or desire.  Yet Malouf’s touch here is subtle; as the King learns to appreciate the simple pleasure of bathing hot, tired feet in a rushing stream, so the reader understands how far removed from most realities his life has been to this point. By providing such detail, Malouf opens a window to Homer’s world, through which we can recognise our own.

 Ransom has already been lauded by many as a masterpiece, and for some, that is reason enough to read it; others will be drawn to it because it is Malouf’s first novel for a decade, and they are hungry to read his writing again.  I hope that new readers will be attracted by the engaging image of the donkey on the front cover, and perhaps are sufficiently intrigued to read on.  I certainly found the story-telling gripping, with enough subversions and inversions to send me back to the original with new eyes and fresh insight.  If this novel brings a new readership to Homer, then it will have served one purpose; meanwhile, it stands as further evidence, if that were needed, of Malouf’s stature within and contribution to Australian literature.

Amanda Scott

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

Juliet Ashton is a writer of wartime wit, but by 1946 the War is over and she’s stuck for ideas.  Then one day she receives a letter from a stranger, and a story is inspired.  This is an epistolary novel in the best 18th Century tradition; a heart-warming tale of loss and love, full of humour and sadness.  It also tells a Holocaust story that is not widely known, chronicling some of the details of the Nazi’s five year occupation of Guernsey.

In almost thirty years of reading about the Holocaust, starting with Anne Frank’s Diary when I was 13, I was only vaguely aware of the fact that the Nazis occupied Guernsey, which is one of the Channel Islands, just off the coast of Normandy.  They invaded in 1940, and the British did nothing to stop them, preferring to focus their military attentions on defending the English South coast and their plans for the D-Day landings.  Of course, the British had no idea it would take a further five years of warfare before the Nazis were finally defeated, and the Island liberated.  In that time, the people of Guernsey suffered extremely, finally reduced to a diet of little more than roots and berries; deprived of the most basic commodities like soap, and denied any contact whatsoever with mainland Britain.  Subject to the brutal whims of their Nazi overseers, they suffered alongside the Polish slaves who were sent to work in the Todt (Death) camps on the Island.  Unsurprisingly, many Guernsey inhabitants were also sent away to suffer and die in the more notorious concentration camps of continental Europe.

Shaffer’s story touches only lightly on these horrors.  Indeed, the first half of the novel is an entrancing introduction to the many interesting characters that people the book.  Using their letters, Shaffer convincingly creates their several voices.  Juliet’s is the dominant voice, but even her character is cleverly rounded for the reader through the interesting device of referees, one favourable, the other distinctly less so.  The Society requests an assurance that, as a journalist, she will treat their stories with respect, so she provides two referees to testify to her character.  One is the village parson who has known and loved her since childhood; the other, an hilariously uptight former co-firewarden, who comments acerbically, “While I question her taste, her judgement, her misplaced priorities, and her inappropriate sense of humour, she does indeed have one fine quality – she is honest.” Of course, this has the effect of further commending her to the reader, and we are free to continue to enjoy her lively and observant letters, trusting in the truth of the narrative.

On two levels, this is a love story.  It details several romances of Juliet’s, one of which proves, ultimately, to be satisfactory, but it also tells of the love affairs people can have with books.  While the former provides the happy ending, it is the latter that I found most engaging, both as a bibliophile and an English teacher.  The eponymous Literary Society comes into being more by accident than design, and it is comprised of a motley collection of largely uneducated non-readers, all of whom are converted to reading by a most surprising selection of writers, ranging from Charles Lamb to Seneca.  Connections are established and life-changing friendships formed through the sharing of books and reading.  The horrors of occupation and starvation, betrayal and tragedy are mitigated by the treasures that can be found within the pages of a book.  As Eben Ramsey comments movingly about Shakespeare:

“Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most?  It is, ‘The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.’ I wish I’d known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, planeload after planeload of them – and come off ships down in the harbour!  All I could think of was, Damn them, damn them, over and over again.  If I could have thought the words, ‘The bright day is done, and we are for the dark’ I’d have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstances – instead of my heart sinking to my shoes.”

Without denying the force of tragedy, this illuminates the impact and power of language that we have at our disposal when we are open to Literature, which is at the heart of this engaging novel.

Everyone has a story to tell, especially about war, but it takes a writer of skill to convey such stories distinctly and with sympathy.  Shaffer clearly understands and endorses the salvatory power of story: without flinching from the hard truths, she weaves her characters’ tales into a work of humanity, humour and hope.  This is not another Holocaust novel – it is a beautifully written tale that made me laugh out loud, as well as weep. (The hardback copy that I read also comes beautifully to hand, tastefully covered in a buff paper sleeve.)  I thoroughly recommend it.

Amanda Scott

Breath by Tim Winton

How do you live life, and not be ordinary?  This question lies at the heart of paramedic Bruce Pike’s account of his adolescence, brought to the surface by his encounter with the mother of a boy who appears to have committed suicide.  His compassionate insight into her agony bookends this engrossing ‘coming of age’ story.  Winton’s maturity and skill with his craft are fully in evidence in this thoughtful and lyrical novel.

As ever, when Winton writes best, he writes about the sea off the West coast of Australia.  Pike, known as Pikelet, and his mate Loonie (the name says it all) team up in primary school, daring each other to hold their breath underwater in the river for the longest.  Their fear-defying feats graduate in high school to surfing, in which they are mentored by the over-grown hippy Sando, angrily watched by his bitter and frustrated wife Eva.  In their quest for the sickest wave, they take ever more stupid risks.  These do not culminate in the tragedy the reader expects, but somehow the pain and the damage that are inflicted, is all the more haunting for its unpredictability.

Winton understands the male adolescent mind.  This has been evident ever since his engaging Lockie Leonard series, and Breath seems in some ways the adult version of those stories.  Surfing, and the image of a man ‘dancing’ on the water, is intoxicating, liberating, even for the reader who has never surfed.  Winton evocatively conveys its beauty, freedom and excitement.  He also engages with the necessity of teenage rebellion, using the act of breathing as his motif.  Early on, Pike reflects:

“More than once since then I’ve wondered whether the life-threatening high jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to in the years of my adolescence were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.  It’s easy for an old man to look back and see the obvious, how wasted youth and health and safety are on the young who spurn such things, to be dismayed by the risks you took, but as a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine […]”

Against the stifling back-drop of semi-suburban respectability, Pikelet’s driving need for adventure is both credible and sympathetic.  His voice, and the circumstances in which he finds himself, do engage the reader, especially one that remembers a similar crying need to escape mundanity, to live a life less ordinary.  However, as is often the case with Winton, other characters are far less sympathetic.  Loonie begins as a brat and ends up a monster; Sando the pseudo-guru, is wearily familiar from the back-packing trail, and while perhaps it is intentional that we are put off-side by Eva early on, even when her story is better understood, she remains more of a shrew than a real person.  Winton’s inclination to focus on other people’s selfishness suggests rather a bleak view of human nature.

Nevertheless, the quality of Winton’s writing is unarguable, and this book is a hymn to the beauty and the rhythm of the sea.  Describing the fall of a great wave, he evokes at once its terror and its glory:

“All the way down the big board chattered against the surface chop; I could hear the giggle and natter of it over the thunder behind me.  When the wave drew itself up to its full height, walling a hundred yards ahead as I swept down, it seemed to create its own weather.  There was suddenly no wind at all and the lower I got, the smoother the water became.  The whole rolling edifice glistened.  For a moment – just a brief second of enchantment – I felt weightless, a moth travelling light.”

Suspense builds like the waves themselves, and the reader finds herself breathless with the surfer’s ecstacy.  We get why Pikelet keeps driving himself, so when it comes to sex, things seem rather tame by comparison, and the dark perversions that then emerge make further sense.

Without a doubt, Winton is a leader in Australian literature.  The timbre of his writing is already unmistakeable, and his observations are largely humane and honest, if sometimes dark. This is a gripping story, which is also beautifully written.  If you enjoy words, philosophy, the ocean and the power of the past over our future, then this is a book for you. 

Recommended for Adults.

Amanda Scott

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

This is, quite simply, an extraordinary book about an ordinary boy.

Romochka is four when both his mother and uncle disappear. He manages to look after himself in the loneliness of their flat for a couple of days, but eventually hunger and cold drive him onto the streets.

On his very first morning on the streets Romochka is threatened by two feral dogs. Romochka can see in their eyes that the dogs plan to eat him. He is rescued by some other dogs, and over time, the rescuers become his friends, then his relatives and, finally, his clan.

Their lives are harsh, and at times stomach-churning, but throughout this book runs a strong sense of what it means to belong – in both human society and in a doggie clan.

Hornung’s writing style is simple, but this simplicity hides her wonderful ability to describe emotion and place. The reader becomes totally immersed in the life of this boy and his dogs, and the ending is powerful and emotional.

For Adult readers – language advisory.

Miffy Farquharson

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