5 Book Reviews You Need to Read This Week
“The most ambitious and accomplished Australian novel of this century.”
Our quintet of quality reviews this week includes Samuel Rutter on Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy, Catherine Lacey on Sheila Heti’s Alphabetical Diaries, Alexandra Schwartz on Elizabeth Flock’s The Furies, Justin Taylor on Megan Nolan’s Ordinary Human Failings, and Jamie Hood on Blake Butler’s Molly.
Brought to you by Book Marks, Lit Hub’s home for book reviews.
“From the book’s opening—‘Once upon a fine time for some people in the world’—we sense the jagged discord of competing realities, of something ancient or timeless searching for its place in the modern world, like a crocodile in a swimming pool. The town is suffering from the Intervention, the collective term for actual legislation enacted in 2007 that, among other paternalistic measures, restricted access to alcohol and pornography in some Aboriginal communities and increased police presence. But the novel’s historical context is complicated by an atmosphere of red-pill paranoia, one that feels closer to the fractious mood of today. Readers accustomed to the steady linear progress of the traditional social novel should hold on to their frock coats …
Aboriginal peoples use the word ‘country’ to describe not just the skies, seas, waterways and land, but how these elements connect with custom, law, language and history to form a living cosmovision. The concept can prove elusive to those who have not grown up immersed in its lore. In Praiseworthy, this tension between clashing worldviews plays out after a toxic cloud appears above the town, a menace the politicians in Canberra refuse to acknowledge … The book’s 10 parts circle back in time unrelentingly, revisiting events and past language as different versions of the truth come to light and tragedy accumulates. The layering of time and the riot of language are Wright’s great themes and raw materials, and in Praiseworthy—the most ambitious and accomplished Australian novel of this century—they twist and shimmer, doomed forever to their violent pas de deux.”
“Heti put a decade’s worth of diary entries into a spreadsheet, alphabetized the half-million words by the first word of each sentence, then edited the material down to a tenth of its size. Did she do so to remove the embarrassing bits? To save face, to come off as cool? Absolutely not. Vulnerability has long been Heti’s compass as a writer. Any reader who felt embarrassment by proxy from her polarizing and unapologetic How Should a Person Be? or the deeply sincere Pure Color should proceed with caution …
The paradox of the resulting text is that its randomness gradually layers itself into a weightless transcendence. At some point—perhaps during the thirty pages of sentences that begin with ‘I’—I slipped to the other side of the Möbius strip and found myself in what felt like a direct encounter with a contradictory, ordinary person changing and remaining unchanged through the years…The rhythm and randomness of Heti’s voice whispering from different points in time creates an intoxicating trance. Then, in the middle of a swirl of paratactic sentences like these, there are brief, bright moments when a single sentence stands naked in the spotlight: ‘Nobody knows why marriages happen.’ It’s as if a bar’s loud music was suddenly shut off as a patron accidentally shouts a secret. Vacillating between the mundane, the shocking, and the aphoristic, Alphabetical Diaries constantly drew me into its gravitational pull …
In identifying Heti as a horny writer, I mean horny in the broadest sense of the word—the characters in her fiction and the many Hetis in this diary express desire and eroticism without suppression…Governed by this Hetisitic Horniness, romantic relationships loom large because they are stages upon which the most profound kinds of sensuality occur.”
“Flock’s point is that there is a mythic quality to the anger of a wronged woman which crosses cultures, as does the thing that Flock considers to be its source: male domination. The same traits that made the Furies repulsive to men of the past make them awesome to women today, a symbol of female agency in the face of oppression and pain. The Furies, or their descendants, are everywhere … It is hard to overstate how different these people are from one another. They live in different parts of the world. They speak different languages. They are of different ages, backgrounds, circumstances, beliefs. If they met on the street. But that would never happen, and that is one reason that Flock has written The Furies.
This sensitively reported book has an ambition similar to that of a Gloria Steinem talking circle. Without drawing explicit connections between these women—each is presented on her own, a separate panel in the triptych—Flock is putting them in conversation with one another. That is a feminist project, and Flock wants us to see her subjects through a feminist lens … That tension, the real versus the ideal, crops up again and again in Flock’s project. ‘Neither saints, nor whores, only women,’ her book’s epigraph reads, but her attachment to the mythic is hard to shake.”
“Nolan begins by embracing the genre’s major tropes (dead child, plucky journalist, family secrets) only to turn their governing logics against them with prosecutorial persistence and precision. This is a murder mystery in which there is little mystery about the murder, a page-turner in which the suspense hinges less on what happened than on how and why certain people become the people to whom such things happen … Nolan’s prose is clean and exacting, with an almost clinical interest in the power of shame: class shame, sexual shame, national shame, the shame of the addict. It seems to rank high among Nolan’s writerly principles that the cure for shame is honesty, however ugly the truth is … Nolan’s vision is grim but not hopeless, unflinching yet uncynical.”
“I couldn’t shake the feeling while reading Molly—writer Blake Butler’s anguished chronicle of the decade he and Brodak, his late wife, spent together—that she was listening in, and that she and I had surfaced from some underwater place to bear witness to Butler’s act of witnessing, to choke down his story of her life and death, and of their entanglement, with all its mercilessly serrated edges. Molly, unsurprisingly, is a resurrection animated by loss and its affects, from shock to grief, anger to guilt. As a text, it is promiscuously digressive, polyvocal, and sort of messy, calling on those who encounter it to ask: How should a grief memoir be? …
There’s something of the Sylvia Plath–Ted Hughes marriage (or rather, its tortuous mythography) hung like a shroud over Molly. Two young writers—both difficult, the marriage difficult—cleaved by affairs and, later, suicide…Like Hughes’s version of Plath, Butler’s Brodak is a little ruthless, preoccupied by damage, and sort of dour … In my encounter with Molly, I’ve tried to meet it first as a text, which is to say, as a knot of language I am, at least in part, tasked with undoing. But I also respect its work as the testament of a fellow sufferer, someone whose dignity and grief should and must command my attention—another wanderer. ”