Questions of Travel

Questions of Travel

Michelle de Kretser

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

RRP: $ 39.99

515 pp

Category: Fiction

Copy courtesy of the Publisher

“What are we looking for when we leave home?”

“How can we tell when we’ve found it?”

These are the questions at the core of Michelle de Kretser’s 4th novel, Questions of Travel.

Beginning in the 1960s, we meet Laura Fraser and Ravi Mendis – two people from very different backgrounds. Laura is a dreamy, not so good-looking girl, trying to find her place in the world. When Laura’s Aunt Hester dies, Laura is left with a large inheritance which she uses to travel overseas. She goes to Bali, India, and many European countries. Thirty years later, Laura lives a peripatetic life as a writer, travelling from country to country, searching for stories for the glossy travel magazine she writes for.  Really though, she is just longing for her home in Australia. In 2000, after the death of a close friend, she returns to Australia, but the boredom of office work and the fast-paced excessiveness of 21st Century society have her longing to travel again.

In a dual narrative, we meet Ravi who lives a relatively stable life in Sri Lanka as a computer programmer. Secretly though, Ravi is longing to travel.  In the year 2000, he is forced to leave his beautiful but brutal country after a tragedy involving his wife and son. He flees to Australia, where he attempts to seek asylum.

Eventually, these two lives coincide (albeit not until page 369!), while both are working for Ramsay’s – a publisher of guide books for travellers.  Ravi’s bid for asylum is ultimately successful, but he opts to return to his native Sri Lanka. Laura also decides to travel again, and chooses to go to Sri Lanka.

For anyone who has ever travelled, this novel describes the nostalgia of travel beautifully – seeing the wonders of the world, discovering something new at every turn, the smells, the heat, the bad hotels and the pickpockets. Laura works in the glamorous industry of tourism, but as she realises at the end of the novel, “It was the unforseen that returned tourism to travel.”

De Kretser’s writing is gorgeous, and her descriptions are so vivid that the images just pop off the page. Obviously there are too many examples to list here, but a couple that really stood out for me were when describing Sydney after a thunderstorm, she writes:

“When there was a scorcher, afternoon tightened around the streets in a blinding bandage.”

and,

“in the park the light was necklaces and pendants looping through the trees.”

A few pages later, she adds,

“Light was starting to fade, rubbed from the sky with a dirty eraser,”

Questions of travel is a sprawling, lyrical novel,  and I enjoyed it so much that I will definitely be seeking out more of her work in the future.  The ending, which I didn’t see coming, was like a punch in the stomach.

8.5/10

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The Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Author: Edmund de Waal

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

RRP: $19.95

351 pp

Category: Biography/History

This month, Club Read has been reading The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal.

In 1994, English Ceramicist, Edmund de Waal inherited 264 Netsuke from his great uncle Ignace.  All hand crafted in Japan, the Netsuke were originally made as toggles to fasten a pouch onto the obi of a Kimonos. They were intricately crafted from ivory and wood, often inlaid with amber or bone, and were no bigger than a matchbox.

The Netsuke had been passed down through generations of the Ephrussi family.  The Ephrussi’s originated from Odessa and at one time were the largest exporters of grain in the world. Charles Ephrussi, the family’s patriarch, was an avid collector who socialised with the likes of Proust, Renoir and the Rothschilds. Over the decades the family, and the Netsuke with them, moved all over the world – to Paris, Vienna, Hungary, and Japan.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is a book that defies genre. It combines history, art and biography together in a way that is engaging. It is crammed full of interesting details about the Ephrussi family – how they gained their fortune in Odessa and Paris, and lost it in Austria on the eve of World War Two.  I loved discovering that Charles Ephrussi is the man in the top hat, standing in the background of Renoir’s famous painting Luncheon of the Boating Party (a copy of which just happens to hang on my wall!).

There was a general consensus amongst club members that the early part of the book was quite dry – particularly in regards to the acquisitions of Charles Ephrussi. We were all agreed, however, that the second part of the book when the family moved to Vienna was much warmer. The story of how the Netsuke managed to survive is a fascinating one and there are many colourful characters of the large Ephrussi family to enjoy along the way. All in all a terrific read filled with interesting historical insights.

8/10

Club Read average: 8/10

Bitter Greens

Bitter Greens

Kate Forsyth

Publisher: Vintage

RRP $ 32.99

550pp

Category: Fiction

Bitter Greens is an epic story full of magic, romance and intrigue. Part historical fiction, part fairytale, it is the complex story of three lives.

The year is 1697, and Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished because of one too many scandals. She is sent to the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie. Once famous at court for her story-telling abilities, Charlotte-Rose is mortified when the nuns at the Abbey destroy all her writing quills and paper. In time though, Charlotte-Rose becomes friendly with one of the older nuns and the apothecary of the Abbey, Soeur Seraphina. While planting parsley seeds in the Abbey’s garden, Soeur Seraphina narrates the story of Margherita…

Some one hundred years earlier in Venice, Italy, seven year old Margherita encounters an evil sorceress, Selena Leonelli. She learns from her parents the story of how her father came to steal bitter greens from the garden of the sorceress and how it came to pass that, after seven years, the sorceress would come to take Margherita away. Margherita is imprisoned in a tower on the Rock of Manerba from the age of twelve. Once a month, at the time of the full moon, Selena Leonelli, otherwise known as La Strega, comes to the tower for Margherita’s blood. La Strega is hoping this will keep her young forever. Margherita tries to escape, but there is no way out although she continues to remind herself of three essential truths:

My name is Margherita.

                                                                                My parents loved me.

                                                                                One day, I will escape…

                                                               

Venice in the early 1500’s, and Maria is a young girl being brought up in the house of her mother, a courtesan. When her mother dies, Maria begins to learn the art of witchcraft from Wise Sibillia and changes her name to Selena Leonelli. When the plague strikes Venice and Wise Sibillia dies, Selena is left with no other option than to become a courtesan herself. Although she is beautiful, Selena is obsessed with maintaining her beauty and will stop at nothing to keep her youthfulness. She begins to practice her dark magic in order to keep youth and becomes known as La Strega…

Forsyth has cleverly woven these three stories together in a lavish tale full of magic, intrigue and romance, and is all the more powerful because of the strong thread of storytelling that runs through it.

Although a work of fiction, Bitter Greens is based on the real life of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force. This feisty heroine was the original author of the fairytale Persinette – the earliest knownversion of the Rapunzel story.

8.5/10

Graffiti Moon

Graffiti Moon

Cath Crowley

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

RRP: $16.99

264pp

Category: Young Adult Fiction

Lucy Dervish is in love with Shadow, even though she has never met him. On one hot Melbourne night at the end of Year 12, she goes looking for him with her friends Jazz and daisy. Shadow is a graffiti artist working with Poet, spraying their thoughts onto walls around the city.

Ed is an artist. He lives to paint. Sometimes all he can do is take his thoughts and spray them as fast as he can onto a wall. But Ed’s world is a dangerous one. He dropped out of school in Year 10, and has recently lost his job. His friend Leo owes money to a bad guy, Malcolm Dove. On this particular night, Ed and Leo are planning to risk everything so that they can be square with Malcolm once and for all.

Graffiti Moon is written from the dual perspectives of Lucy and Ed – interspersed with Poet’s writing – which allows the reader to be privy to the thoughts of both main characters simultaneously. All the characters are sharply written, and Crowley does teenage angst really well. On the brink of adulthood, the characters are all trying to find where they fit into the world.

Lucy and Ed are both artists, and are both a bit lost. Lucy thinks her parents are getting divorced because her dad moved out and is now living in the shed. Ed lives with his Gran and they are struggling to pay their rent. Luckily for both that they do have some mentors in their lives who have tried to help them find their way. Ed had Bert who, until he died, owned the paint shop where Ed worked. Lucy has Al, the glassblower who has been helping with her portfolio called “The Fleet of Memory”. The idea behind the work is that Lucy has condensed her memories inside a fleet of glass bottles. Ed is doing the same with his painting – spraying his memories onto walls and trains. Both are trying to find a way to fit in to the world, and are using art to express themselves. Crowley’s descriptions of colour, whether it be Lucy’s glass, Ed’s struggle to find exactly the right blue for the sky, or the pink shag pile carpet that lines the walls of the Kombi van Leo uses, are so vivid, I felt like I was living that hot Melbourne night along with Lucy and Ed. In fact, while reading this book I really wanted to search out some graffiti art just to visualise the book even more. At the start of the novel, Ed paints a yellow bird lying face up – its legs facing upwards towards the sky. It could be asleep, or perhaps dead. At the end of the book, he paints another yellow bird but this time it is wide awake – fully open to the possibilities his life might hold in the future. As with all good coming of age stories, the promise of hope after all the angst is like a ray of sunshine.

I think this book would make a superb movie – with fantastically drawn characters, and a rockin’ sound track!

8/10

On the Jellicoe Road

On the Jellicoe Road

Melina Marchetta

Publisher: Penguin

RRP $19.95

290pp

Category: Young Adult Fiction

When Taylor Markham was eleven years old, her mother left her at the 7/11 store on the Jellicoe Road. “The prettiest road I’d ever seen, where the trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-La.”  She was picked up and taken to the Jellicoe School by Hannah, who has looked after her since then. From that day on, Taylor has wondered who her mother really is…

Six years later Taylor becomes the leader of the boarders at the Jellicoe School, and leads them in the secret territory wars between the Townies, the Cadets, and the Jellicoe boarders.  The wars take place in September every year when the Cadets come down from Sydney to take part in an outdoor education program. This year the leaders are Taylor (Jellicoe), Chaz Santangelo (Townies), and Jonah Griggs (Cadets), but just as she becomes leader, Hannah disappears, leaving behind a mysterious manuscript. As Taylor reads the manuscript, and dreams of a boy in a tree, she begins to realise that Hannah’s story is inextricably linked to her own. The manuscript tells the story of five children growing up on the Jellicoe Road. Twenty years earlier, tragedy had brought these five children together. They dreamt of their futures – growing old together in a house on the Jellicoe Road – they dug secret tunnels, and they began the territory wars.

Meanwhile, Taylor has fallen for Jonah Griggs “who will change the way I breathe for the rest of my life.” As leader of the Cadets, however, he is off limits. They have a complicated history, having run away together when they were fourteen. Taylor was running to find her mother, and Jonah was running from something he did to his abusive father. But Jonah got scared and turned them in last time. Will he be able to save her now that he has returned? The end of the novel sees Taylor come full circle, as she begins writing a journal of her own history, just as Hannah has done previously. There is also a lovely parallel between the five children who began the turf wars twenty years earlier, and the five children that make up Taylor’s story.

This is Marchetta’s third novel, and by far the most complex to date. The structure of the book is complicated, jumping from past to present, and is told from many different perspectives. It is a book about loss, abandonment, friendship, dreams, the struggles of growing up, and hope. Although there are some dark moments, it is often told with humour. The characters are wonderfully drawn, and at the end of the novel, are hopeful of a brighter future. Like many readers before me, I struggled with the first half of this book but it was definitely worth persevering as things became much clearer the more I read. I think it actually warrants a second read straight away and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it even more the second time. Like the other two of Marchetta’s novels I have read (Looking for Alibrandi, and Saving Francesca), I love the sense of place in the novel. Although the characters could easily be placed in other countries in the world, for me this book has a distinctly Australian feel – from the Jellicoe houses which are all named after Australian rivers, to the squalor of Kings Cross in Sydney, and the fictional country town of Jellicoe.

This is a tough, gritty, tragic story, but also one of hope because, as Taylor notes at the end of the book, “life goes on.”

8.5/10

Peaches for Monsieur le Cure

Peaches for Monsieur Curé

Joanne Harris

Publisher: Doubleday

RRP $ 32.95

458pp

Category: FictionCopy courtesy of the Publisher

Peaches for Monsieur Curé is the third book in the Chocolat series. Eight years on from Chocolat, Vianne Rocher is living on a houseboat-chocolaterie in Paris with Roux and her daughters, Anouk and Rosette. One day she receives a letter from her old friend Armande. Armande has been dead for eight years, but the letter had been sealed inside another letter given to Armande’s grandson for his twenty-first birthday.

“Someone once told me that, in France alone, a quarter of a million letters are delivered every year to the dead.

What she didn’t tell me is that sometimes the dead write back.”

This is the premise for Vianne returning to the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes where, eight years earlier, she had set up her chocolaterie. But Lansquenet has changed. There has been an influx of migrants from Morocco – the Maghrébins – who have moved into the river community of Les Marauds. They are mysterious and hidden under their hijabs. They have built a mosque with a minaret on the river, and seem to be governed by very different rules to the villagers of Lansquenet. Vianne finds Francis Reynaud, the priest of Lansquenet, struggling to accept these new people. Although he has mellowed somewhat in the last eight years, he still has little tolerance, regards the newcomers with suspicion, and struggles to accept change. Even his local parishioners have turned on him in favour of the younger Peré Henri Lemaître “with his blue jeans and his bleached smile and his new ideas.”

Things take a sinister turn when the mysterious Inés Bencharki arrives. She doesn’t speak to anyone, wears her hijab all the time, and somehow seems to anger both the people living in Lansquenet and those in Les Marauds. She sets up a girls’ school in the old chocolaterie in the town square. When the school is burnt down, the people of both Lansquenet and Les Marauds blame Francis Reynaud.

Joanne Harris has said that her “initial point of entry is through food”, and I love the way she uses food to bring her characters together. Whether it is making peach jam, or pancakes, or a comforting mug of hot chocolate, people are united over food throughout the book. While Chocolate was set during lent, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is set during Ramadan. Setting the novels during a time of fasting provides an interesting contrast with the idea of food bringing people together.

Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is a luscious novel – as comforting as a mug of hot chocolate.  It has all the elements I loved in Chocolat, but seemed to be missing in The Lollipop Shoes – the charming French village of Lansquenet and its quirky characters, the food, and the magic. Reading Vianne’s story in Peaches is like catching up with an old friend.

Joanne Harris is currently appearing as a guest of the Brisbane Writers’ Festival.

8/10