The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D

Nichole Bernier

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

RRP $ 27.99

405pp

Category: Fiction

Copy courtesy of the publisher

Read as part of the Read-A-Long, hosted by http://1girl2manybooks.wordpress.com/

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D is about the friendship between two women, Kate and Elizabeth. When Elizabeth dies in a plane crash, Kate inherits a trunk of Elizabeth’s journals. At first Kate is keen to spend her summer holidays reading the journals, but the further she reads, the more Kate discovers that Elizabeth wasn’t really the person Kate thought she was. Kate finds herself shocked at the number of life changing events Elizabeth has kept hidden. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s husband Dave is upset that his wife hasn’t left the journals to him, and resents the fact that Kate is privy to Elizabeth’s thoughts and he is not. Kate is torn between revealing the things she has learnt from the journals to Dave, and keeping Elizabeth’s secrets.

At the same time, Kate’s marriage is on slightly shaky ground. Her husband Chris travels a lot for work, and Kate resents the fact that she has had to give up her job as a pastry chef in order to raise their two children – often as a single parent. Chris is less than sympathetic about Kate’s involvement with the journals and doesn’t understand why Kate feels such an urge to read them.

 The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D is a novel about secrets, and the choices people make regarding those secrets.  Which secrets should be shared, and which are better left hidden?  At one point in the book, Kate says “You never know”. It highlights that age old question of “How well can we ever really know anybody”? I love the idea of keeping a journal (although I don’t seem to have the patience to actually maintain one), and the fact that writing a journal is such a deeply personal thing. When Kate reads Elizabeth’s journals, she realises she is being allowed into a private world, so different from the current climate where information is so instantly available to everybody via the internet.

The novel takes place just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York, and the feelings of uncertainty that pervaded the world are dealt with well in the novel. Kate’s character is prone to panic attacks and worries about how she will keep her family safe in an increasingly unsafe world. Chris on the other hand, doesn’t share her worries, and is quite the opposite – being almost too relaxed.

I really enjoyed taking part in the Read-A-Long, and felt I got a lot more out of the book than if I had read it by myself. There were many differing opinions about the book, and it was interesting to read how people sympathised, or not, with the characters.

7.5/10

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In the Country of Men

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In the Country of Men

Hisham Matar

Publisher: Penguin

2724 pp

Category: Fiction

Read for my book club

In the Country of men is the story of Suleiman, a nine year old boy living in Tripoli, Libya. His life is one of relative ease with his father a successful businessman. Times, however, are changing, as Libya is in the midst of a revolution, with Moammer Qaddafi having risen to power. Suleiman’s father is playing a dangerous game as he becomes part of an underground resistance group. Suleiman’s mother, Najwa, urges his father to flee the country, but he stubbornly refuses and insists he is more useful within Libya. Left to raise Suleiman alone much of the time, she turns to alcohol to try to forget her troubles, buying it illegally from the local baker. Growing up in a traditional Muslim family, she was forced to marry Faraj when she was only fourteen. Gradually, she grows to love him, but in a country dominated by men, Najwa struggles to find her own identity.

When Suleiman’s father, Faraj, is taken by the Revolutionary Party, Suleiman wonders whether he will ever see his father again. Their neighbour, Ustath Rashid, has been murdered by these same men because of his political beliefs.  For his own safety, Suleiman is sent to Egypt and as it turns out, he is never to return to his homeland.

Sense of place is an important part of the book, and Tripoli, with its market square in town and its coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, is a character in itself.

Opinions differed about this novel in my book club. Some loved it, and some thought that nothing much happened. For me, the writing is deceptively simple, but underneath is a complex novel with many layers and plenty to think about. We can’t really begin to imagine how difficult life must be living in a country such as Libya. The choices people are often forced to make in order to keep their families safe must be excruciating. It is a shame that it is such as struggle to live in a place that sounds so beautiful.

Matar’s debut novel was nominated for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

Collectively we rated this book 7.5/10

The Burial

The Burial

Courtney Collins

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

RRP $27.99

284 pp

Category: Fiction

Copy courtesy of the publisher

The Burial is the debut novel from the young Australian writer, Courtney Collins. Shortlisted for the 2009 Australian/Vogel Literary Award, it tells the story of Jessie – a notorious bushranger based on the life of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, “The Lady Bushranger” working in the Wollemi National Park.

It is Australia in the early 1920’s and, after spending two years in prison for horse rustling, Jessie is apprenticed to work for Fitzgerald ‘Fitz’ Henry. Forced to marry Fitz, she dreams of one day escaping his clutches. Eventually, on one terrible night the opportunity arises and she leaves Fitz for good. In order to survive though, Jessie must bury all the evidence belonging to her past.

While on the run, Jessie joins forces with a band of rustlers and together they perform an elaborate heist, stealing one hundred head of cattle. Soon though, Jessie learns of the price on her head and is forced to sacrifice everything in order to save her friends.

Throughout the novel the theme of burying one’s past is a strong one. Both Jessie and Jack Brown, Jessie’s aboriginal lover, try to bury things in a physical sense; however Jessie is also trying to bury her past as a way of disconnecting herself from it. She tries to bury the difficult life she shared with her mother by joining the “Mingling Bros Circus”, and she tries to bury the horror of her life with Fitz by more radical means. Eventually though, Jessie comes to learn that you can’t always bury the past and that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the past will catch up with you.

In The Burial, Collins has captured a unique slice of Australian history. The writing style is unusual in that it is narrated, in part, by Jessie’s dead child. I thought this gave a haunting, nostalgic feel to the book. I loved the strength of Jessie’s character, which carried through the novel right to the very end.

7.5/10

‘Gold’ by Chris Cleave.

Gold by Chris Cleave

Publisher: Sceptre

RRP $32.99

366pp

Gold is the third novel from British journalist Chris Cleave. It is a story about courage, determination, sacrifice and compassion.

The story centres around three elite cyclists – Kate, Zoe, and Jack – who are vying for gold at the London Olympic Games. The three athletes first met thirteen years agao at an Elite Prospects Programme in Manchester. The friendship and rivalry that ensues, particularly between Kate and Zoe, is intense to say the least. When the Olympic Committee changes the rules, only one rider from each team is allowed to compete in London. In a tense showdown, Kate and Zoe compete against each other for that place.

Gold shows us how driven elite athletes can be in the pusuit of gold, but it also focusses on the sacrifices athletes can sometimes be forced to make; either to be the best at something, or to have the courage to walk away.

As part of his research, Chris Cleave trained as a cyclist, and the sections of the novel which focus on the  training and the competition of bike racing are brilliantly researched and written.

The other part of the story is about 8-year-old Sophie. As the daughter of Jack and Kate, Sophie is also driven in her own way, but she is using this drive to fight against leukaemia. Cleave visited Great Ormond Street Hospital in London as part of his research for the book, and as a result, Sophie’s story is written with tremendous love and compassion. Cleave often writes about children remarkably well, and Gold is no exception.

I absolutely loved Gold, and I think it is my favourite of Cleaves’ novels so far.

9/10