Category Archives: Books and writers

Reviews of books, articles

Book review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall is a work of historical fiction. It is meticulously researched, but Hilary Mantel has allowed herself ample space, in which she has thoroughly personalised the figure of Thomas Cromwell.

A divisive figure amongst historians, Mantel has created a personable, sophisticated ‘renaissance man’, humanistic and reflective. His ambition and his successes seem almost incidental to the story, and inevitable considering his intellectual attributes.

The book is set in the reign of Henry VIII, and Cromwell’s story is told from Cromwell’s point of view. It also incorporates a series of flashbacks, and tracks Cromwell’s rise from apprentice blacksmith to his brutish father, to being the King’s trusted Advisor and Counsellor.

Hilary Mantel has produced a narrative which allows us to get to know the great men and women of the time. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, the Boleyn family, and that of the Duke of Norfolk are fleshed out credibly, if not totally accurately. Mantel’s Cromwell is an engaging man, and many of his exchanges are light-hearted, and his moments of reflection are self-aware, almost modern.

He moves further into King Henry’s orbit as his career progresses; from vagabond, to lowly soldier, then a banker, a canny lawyer; his skills bring him to the attention of powerful men, until he is recruited to serve Cardinal Wolsey as his trusted advisor, and confidante.

After Wolsey’s demise, the King ‘recruits’ him. He will spend the rest of his life in the King’s service. His musings are of matters as diverse as the King’s appetites, sexual and otherwise; the King’s desire for a son and heir; how to channel money to the treasury, from monasteries he closes in a search for efficiencies. How to keep England solvent.

He discovers that Henry’s great obsession is to find a way to divorce his current wife, and to replace her with a wife who will provide him with a son.

The book engages with the nature of power, and class, with King Henry’s journey from attractive and well-educated companion, to a cruel and tyrannous ruler, where many of his courtiers, and several of his wives, are cast aside, many of them executed.

The transformation is gradual, and the mastery of Mantel’s writing is in the command of the simultaneous strands of momentous change which Cromwell somehow navigates successfully.

As Henry ages Cromwell is tasked with, amongst other things, the break of the English Church from Rome, England’s relations with Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. He is also tasked with managing the rise of protestant sentiment, especially after Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Church’s corrupt practices.

He becomes the instrument through whom Henry discards and finds wives, and the ‘fixer’ for courtiers, their wives and children; the closing of monasteries and the giving and taking of financial support; he even ensures that the King’s team prevails at jousting tournaments.

His growing knowledge of Henry’s power and of his nature terrifies him, but he is powerless to resist. He is shown as being familiar with Machiavelli’s master work, The Prince. It meshes with Henry’s reputation throughout Europe, as a ruthless tyrant. Nonetheless, Cromwell continues to accumulate property and riches.

Cromwell is portrayed as a basically decent man, who reflects on the often misguided motives of those he is forced to correct. To those who have wandered down the path of overt heresy, he attempts to provide a path to safety; he is disappointed when the help he offers is shrugged off.

His own beliefs are those he knows to be safe. He is not a man to risk his life for a theological dispute.

He is not in a position to defy the King, and so he carries out his orders, sometimes reluctantly. He likes Anne Boleyn for a time, but he does not hesitate to contrive a case against her. He is the ultimate pragmatist, and yet we are on-side with his struggles.

The rich texture of the times, and Cromwell’s place near the centre, is conveyed with power, humour, and a sense of gradually escalating doom.

The writing is powerful, precise and compelling. Mantel has total command of the time, the language, the theological disputes, the families in play against each other, the political realities, the pivotal roles and Cromwell’s progress to the highest positions in the Law, in parliamentary politics, and in the Church.

Her understanding of the relationships between the crowned heads of Europe is also outstanding, as is her depiction of the Tudor family, and Henry’s dealings with his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.

If you have an interest in history, politics, or religion, then this book is for you. It is the first in a trilogy, and it is a fabulous read.

Some of the books I recommend

Most people who read have an inbuilt system of prejudices and fears. They might dread the thought of feminist writing, or post-modernist experiments. Others are afraid of academic writing, with a footnote being akin to an incoming arrow. These are all reasonable opinions, if you really hold them. But why turn what is great fun into a chore?

I only read what I want to read. Here are some categories and some favourites.

Crime novels

My favourite writer of crime novels is Georges Simenon. I would not waste time on his so-called “hard novels”; hard to read is a fair description. Stick to the Inspector Maigret books. 75 novels and 28 short stories, from 1930 to 1972. Each one intense, exciting and in the place. You are in Paris, or a Dutch seaside village, and there is Maigret.

Maigret is monumental. He, along with his pipe, is immovable, and implacable in his search for understanding. He is not interested in law, but in justice. He wants to know why, and his observation of time and place is minute. Maigret evolves over the 42 years, but his appeal remains. Hard to find these days, but op shops are a reliable source. There are some reprints available. Buy them if you can.

Origin stories

This year I read Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun. “NO, I’m not reading a Norwegian from last century,” I hear you mutter. Read it anyway. Hamsun invented the modern novel. In this story he follows a young man into the Norwegian wilderness, where he establishes a modest farm, finds a wife, has children, and sees a town established. But Hamsun makes the personal universal. His style is both formal, and insightful. It has a completely modern outlook, especially in its depiction of psychological turmoil. His treatment of human relationships is refreshingly candid.

If you enjoy reading Hamsun, then there is his masterpiece, Hunger, a tale of a writer’s mad search for love, success and meaning. A forerunner to Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Hamsun introduced the internal monologue to literature. The only caveat is you should find the right translation. Sverre Lyngstad is streets ahead of any other.


History can be an acquired taste. Which is surprising, because history is so regulated by peer review that it is very hard to find a ‘bad’ history. Of course we need to be selective, and to choose history, and not PR hack efforts.

History is usually extremely well written, mainly because historians are highly educated, and they are writing as much for their rivals as for their audience. They also support their arguments with evidence, which can look like academic writing, but it is just ‘quality control’. Curiously open to debate, even from us.

I love to read anything by A.J.P. Taylor, who was something of a ‘rock-star’ historian, who popularised history in Britain with a series of successful television shows. His scholarship remained exceptional, and his “The Origins of the Second World War” is challenging in its ideas, and outstanding in its exposition.

Spy stories

I cannot separate John Le Carre from Len Deighton in the spy business. From George Smiley (Le Carre) to Bernard Samson (Len Deighton) they have each created a small pleasure-based industry based on larger than life characters, excellent plotting, and a light touch. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is out of favour because of its age, but for all that, high art.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana show his range, from realpolitik to somewhat lighter. “Greeneland” is his recurring landscape of disillusionment and despair, but when you finish one of his novels, you know a little more about life, and love.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden series is enjoyable, and based on his real life as an agent in post-revolutionary Russia. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent has been described as “timeless”. Ian Fleming is surprisingly lean on talent. James Bond comes across as a misogynistic snob, and the holes in the plots are legendary. I would terminate 007.

Other great books worth a look

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler is a great, sparely written, adult book. Set against the background of the 1939 show trials in the Soviet Union, it is both frightening and inspiring. Not a fun read, but it will stay with you forever.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel everyone should read, because it is firstly a decent, courageous, upstanding book, and because it is clear and unambiguous in its message of equality before the law, and the danger of all sorts of prejudice. It was published in 1960, just before the reaction against the civil rights movement set in. It addresses race, class and the American South, and it is narrated in a visual style. The movie is great too.

So this is pretty much a personal list of books and writers, which I find interesting and well written. There are thousands of good books out there, and millions of bad ones. Choose with care.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood-the book reviewed

Margaret Atwood
ISBN 978-0-099-51166-3

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, written by Margaret Attwood, and published in 1985. It is presented as a first person narrative, by an unnamed woman. She is now known only by her new name, Offred, given to her since the new regime took power. It denotes that she is “owned” by Fred, a Commander in the regime. Other handmaids are named using the same format.

The novel describes a totalitarian state, bent on eradicating all aspects of life which do not accord with a strict, literalist reading of the Bible. It is a theocratic dictatorship, where all power resides with men, and women of all levels of status are strictly controlled.

The government seeks to reverse the political and social advances women made in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has removed women’s right to control their own sexuality, and their reproductive choices. It emerges that matters as commonplace as reading and writing are forbidden to all women, and left in the hands of men. The right to vote has also been removed.

The production of babies was very high on the regime’s agenda. Women with viable ovaries were rounded up, and then placed into suitable homes, in order to breed. The biblical story of Jacob and his wife Rachel, is clearly the inspiration for the practices imposed on the handmaids.

Unable to produce children, Rachel offers her handmaid, Bilhah, as a child-bearing vessel for Jacob, so that his line will be assured. Bilhah will have no future claim on any children produced, and her consent to the sexual contact is not required.

The setting is Boston, Massachusetts. The book is set in the “late twentieth century”. It relies entirely on the handmaid’s recollections, which have been sourced from a collection of audio tapes, found a century or so later, and here the subject of a scholarly dissertation.

The Epilogue as exposition.

This expository device, called “Historical Notes”, appears at the rear of the novel, and purports to be an appendix. It is an essential element of the novel as a whole, if we are to understand the world that Attwood has created. It allows us access to Offred’s innermost thoughts, fears and hopes, and explains why the dictatorship was installed, and some of the doubtless many mechanisms involved in exerting, and maintaining social control.

It explains some of the concerns within the leadership of the regime; the collapse of human fertility, environmental degradation, the failings of established religions, and a corruption of moral and social norms. Women are seen as the weakness in the fabric, and their suppression is the solution.

It treats the action of the book as being solidly from the past, historical. The lecture resists the temptation of triumphalism, or post-facto moralising, but it does treat the events described as quaint, and consisting of several ‘periods’. The observations presented in the book are treated as primary source material, and not overtly judged by the person giving the lecture. The ‘normal’ of this future is different to ours, but in a suggestive and uncertain way.

Is the book successful in its creation of a dystopian world?

Margaret Attwood has commented, in response to winning a science fiction award for this book, that none of her material belongs in the realm of science fiction. She went on to explain that all the privations and punishments, used here mainly against women, have been practised, somewhere on earth, in the past.

Men are also strictly controlled, but in less intrusive, de-personalising ways. And men can rise to power. Women cannot. The depiction of a repressive system of government is heightened by its setting in parts of Harvard, and other familiar landmarks around the city.

There is a long history of dystopian writing, but the two books with which this novel is mostly compared, are Brave New World, and 1984. The reason this novel may create more of a lasting impact than either of them, is that her world is made from real, everyday examples which we can relate to personally. Even now, the U.S. Supreme Court is examining Roe v Wade again. So this is not science fiction, because, even though it was written last century, we can recognise, if not the totality of the book’s repressions, aspects of the thinking, the fear of women’s empowerment, the wish to put the genie of freedom back in the bottle.

Attwood wrote this novel in 1985, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Thatcher (elected in 1979) and Reagan (elected in 1980) were forerunners to a reactionary assault on civil liberties in the English speaking world. The Handmaid’s Tale foretells where the neo-conservatives were heading. Margaret Attwood is a politically aware writer, and she was no doubt conscious of this shift in the wind of the the late seventies and the eighties.

She also part-wrote the novel in West Berlin. The East German state was known to engage in continuous surveillance of its people, just a stone’s throw away, and the East Germans cast a long shadow over West Berlin. This awareness of repressive measures was obviously in her mind as she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. She has admitted as much.

The recent resurgence of interest in the novel is arguably directly associated with Donald Trump’s election, in 2016. The rise of the religious right, the assault on women’s rights, the rise of the #metoo movement all speak to the relevance of the book, but also to the need for such a book, now.

Recent legislation in several U.S. states, as well as in Poland seeks to criminalise abortion. This appears to be heading toward another round of theocratic lawmaking, and pressure on women’s lives. So the book, although written over thirty years ago, still delivers a timely warning. Stay alert. Your freedom is a valuable, but fragile, thing.

This book is written to reflect the world view of a late twentieth century, educated woman, making her way in a repressive and dangerous world. Margaret Attwood’s writing is above all else immensely intelligent, and accomplished. I believe that every word is meant, as is, and that the book is enough.

The movies and television shows will never deliver the punch that this seemingly slight book will. This is a harrowing story, but it fulfils its purpose. It makes us take the ongoing threats to our freedom seriously.

Rudyard Kipling – A short revisit

Rudyard Kipling stands, 85 years after his death, as a re-discovered literary giant. His re-discovery is conditional, however. He is viewed as a stunningly versatile writer, with verbal and expository skills which can still amaze us. His tone is timeless, and if read today his ability to convey exactly what he intended is remarkable. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first writer in English to be so honoured.

He was a journalist, a short-story writer, a poet, and a novelist. He was born in India, which inspired much of his work. His use of language can be seen in some of the phrases that he has left us. “The white man’s burden”, is probably the best known, for a variety of reasons, mostly bad; but “lest we forget” and “It’s clever, but is it art?” are reminders of his ability to distil an idea into a pithy statement. His reputation as a writer rests on more substantial evidence than a slew of quotable quotes, however.

His stature flows from his breadth and his versatility, his ability to simplify the complex, and his remarkable ability to speak directly to the reader. But his reputation is tied to, and diminished by, his apparently racist, misogynistic, and jingoistic language. His views are undoubtedly those of the society in which he lived, and they also reflect the times, which could be described as being at the high point of Britain’s Empire period.

Is it fair to judge a writer by the standards of a later century? Although a hot button issue for the last fifty years, I want us to see Kipling as a creature of his time, and his work as being deeply reflective of his place in society, and of his sense of belonging to, and pride in, that society. He was writing for the British reader, during Queen Victoria’s reign, and Britannia did rule the waves.

Kipling was Anglo-Indian, a term then used to describe ethnic Englishmen who had lived and worked in India for most of their lives. The term has changed its meaning over time, and it now means Indians of mixed Indian and English heritage. It was a small and self-conscious minority, and although it enjoyed almost unlimited privilege and power, it was figuratively ‘riding the tiger’.

India, after the Rebellion in 1857, and the savage retribution which was rained down upon the Indian population, by a vengeful British Army, had emerged into a period of relative peace, and unprecedented prosperity. The British Government had replaced the East India Company in administering India. But the Empire’s fabric was stretched very, very thin, and the forces of Indian self-determination and rising nationalism were gathering strength. Many felt that it was only a matter of time before the country exploded, again.

Kipling’s oeuvre is dominated by that India. It is difficult to define his relationship with the country, the culture, or the people. There is no single Kipling position on India: In fact each story will differ, and within stories the tone or voice, or even the attitude to aspects of India, will change. And Kipling’s voice was surprisingly nuanced, especially when it described human emotion. He is able to make the specific represent the universal.

To accept that Kipling is writing of and within his time and place does not invalidate his vision. If you read him for the beauty of his language and the style of his writing, but you excise the politics or the social attitudes, you will be in danger of losing the essence of Kipling’s work. You will miss out on the legitimate, and hard-earned ‘insider’s view’, which informs all of his writing. You will also lose a true historical voice.

Of course we are able to read and study Kipling’s work with the benefit of over a century of hindsight. Kipling’s reputation in 1891 was very different to that with which we struggle today. In 1989 Mark Paffard wrote that in 1891 Kipling was seen almost universally as being ‘at the source’, as being able to provide a “tremendous insight into Indian life.”

It is perhaps surprising to us now, but at 23 years of age, Kipling was seen as a second Dickens. He was a prodigy, knowledgeable, patriotic, readable and decent. His accessibility was the very key to his popularity, and allowed him to “persuade, entertain and offer his personal view”. His children’s books, such as “The Jungle Books”, are universally deemed to be classics, and his collections of short stories offer a remarkable range of subject matter, from tales of British soldiers struggling with life in India, to supernatural horror tales. His “Kim” is a spy story with a twelve year old boy as the hero.

Kipling intended to convey specific historical understandings of both the period and the place, and he was highly successful in doing so. His favoured protagonist is a well-loved technocrat, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) man, who stands between chaos and order. He is competent, wise, decent, manly and above all else, protective. He will sacrifice himself, although he often feels neglected and abandoned. He will not complain, but he will criticise from within. He will listen to the demagogues and the liberals, but he knows better, in his heart of hearts, what is best for the country.

It is a difficult decision, reading someone with such a controversial reputation. Should we judge him on our standards, and miss out on a rare artist’s work, or should we approach him, with an interest in his artistry, taken with a good dose of skepticism when it comes to the social commentary. I would read the work, and judge for myself. I think it is well worth the journey. And there is no best place to start. All of Kipling’s work reflects his sublime skills with words and with narrative.

Levin’s God, by Roger Wells, a short review

Roger Wells
FACP, $29.95pb, 462pp, 1 92073 131 8

LEVIN’S GOD is a novel, written by Roger Wells, and published in 2004, by Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and it is a classic coming of age story, charting the personal journey of the protagonist, Levin Hoffman, as his life unfolds, from late seventies tram conductor in Melbourne, into lead singer for a successful rock-band, and then onto Thailand for his next chapter.

The novel begins in 1977, and it is written in the first person. It uses a surprisingly confident (remember it is a first novel) narrative style, which moves effortlessly between interludes of existential angst, peppered with pithy and often amusing ruminations, and non-stop action.

This book is the re-telling of a spiritual and emotional journey, and it is remarkably open about the characters’ successes, failings and excesses. It is relentless in describing unfolding events, and carries the reader forward, in a seemingly unstoppable narrative. This is a book which is engaging, because the characters are open, and vulnerable, and we care about what happens to them.

There is an anarchic vibe which sits well with the time, and the setting. Young men and women in dead-end jobs, yearning for meaning, and success. Melbourne in the late 70s and early 80s was undergoing huge changes. The inner suburbs were changing. There was a creative and cultural surge happening, and some of what we might now call ‘the disruptors’ were emerging.

Students, artists, musicians were invading the old working class suburbs, often causing disruption and resentment. Gentrification raised rents, and the old sureties were challenged by the arrival of, and the lifestyle choices of, the newcomers. Wells’ book catches that shift in mood, but he wastes no time contemplating the change. His characters are rushing toward their destiny.

This was the time when the movie Dogs in Space appeared, when Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip shocked the city, when the artists from Roar Studios took control of their own exhibitions. It was an exciting time in Melbourne.

Roger Wells is the perfect travel guide. He studied art at RMIT, and after several dead-end jobs, tried his hand in the music scene. After early struggles, he ended up leading the band Little Heroes, which enjoyed considerable success between 1980 and 1984. Although the book is a novel, it is fuelled by insider’s knowledge, and the battles and personalities are authentically drawn.

The closing chapters of the book sees the action move to Thailand. The narrative does not falter; it ramps up, if possible, and although new characters are introduced, its force is undiminished, and it ends on a hopeful, if ambiguous note.

With the wisdom of hindsight, some of the introspective musings, and a sexual encounter or two are overblown. Notwithstanding these moments, and they are few, the writing is sure, the journey is documented, the history of a city in flux is spot-on, and the characters’ trajectory is believable, and engaging.

This is a first rate Bildungsroman, or ‘coming of age’ novel, with the added bonus of being a faithful record of Melbourne, and I think a worthy companion to Monkey Grip.

Levin’s God is available as an e-book, but it is difficult to find as a physical book. I would suggest a call to Fremantle Arts Press, demanding a re-print. I only lend my copy to people who leave a deposit. (I’m joking, but I mean it.)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan.-A short review

This is a long book. At first glance it appears to be based on the life of Sir Weary Dunlop, and it is written in a formal style, even slightly academic. Its title is taken from a 17th century haibun, a Japanese literary form, which synthesises haiku and prose. The range of haibun is broad and frequently includes autobiography, diary, essay, prose poem, short story and travel journal. The author has steadfastly included an example of each element, as if ticking off in a catalogue.

Each of its parts is interesting, in its own way. One part serves as a catalogue of the horrors of the building of the Thai Burma railroad, by mainly Australian prisoners of war, after the fall of Singapore. Other parts are hit and miss, but the main message I take from the book is that worldly success does not make one happy.

It also leaps about in time, from the present, where the ‘hero’ is now an elderly, bored rake, looking back, mournfully, to the beginning of his journey, when his eye was not so jaded. There is, however, no credible depth, no real sense of despair. The best, but also the most tedious passages, document the inhumane treatment of the prisoners by their Japanese, and Korean guards. It can read as a cross between a translated diary and an unedited historical treatise.

While it pays due respect to the suffering of the prisoner/slaves, it suffers from being too wordy. Richard Flanagan lacks the elegance of a Henry James, who allowed his readers to provide their own versions of hell: Mr Flanagan provides episodes so overly-detailed that one almost begs for relief. In one memorable scene the guards beat a prisoner for page after page, after page, until it appears he is indestructible. (This sentence is not meant in any way to minimise the real suffering of those who were there, but to highlight the relentless, over writing.)

Preceding the hero’s memories of the war, and interposed, into and throughout, there is a ‘great love story’, wherein the hero chooses the woman he loves, based mainly on a preference for blue eyes over brown. This love story is at best perfunctory, and has very little in it in the way of passion, or credibility, apart from the fact that it is conducted with his uncle’s wife.

Similarly his marriage and subsequent family life are characterised by descriptions of adultery and failure, and a type of nostalgic longing, with flashbacks to the war, earlier love, self-disgust at his continuing philandering, and at his growing celebrity.

He is in an existential hole until he is miraculously rescued by the great Hobart bush-fires of 1967. He not only drives through road blocks onto the burning mountain, where his wife and children are on foot, but he finds them, amidst the firestorm and the smoke and the panic. This rescue is not only highly unlikely in such tremendously hellish scenes, and over such treacherous ground as an out of control bush-fire, but it appears to do duty as another box-ticking exercise, and to fulfil the need in the narrative for some selfless heroics. It lacks credibility as action, and also as redemption.

This book is not really a novel, in the sense that it does not project as a conscious work of art. It is almost an oral history, unedited, verbose, well meaning, and above all else, sincere.

The book seems to have garnered almost universal praise as an Australian classic, which is really more to do with the packaging, the subject matter, and the size of the project.