Book Review: Quicksand, by Henning Mankell

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_quicksandQuicksand is the late Henning Mankell’s account of his thoughts and memories from the day he was diagnosed with cancer in late 2013 through to May 2014, the end of his first course of chemotherapy. Over sixty-seven short chapters, some no more than a few paragraphs, he pulls together incidents and memories, concerns and beliefs, passions and regrets, from his life, and lines them up alongside his fight against cancer. It was first published in Swedish in 2014, with the English translation following in February 2016, four months after Mankell’s death.

Many will know Mankell from his most widely published and adapted works, the Wallander novels, but these form only a small part of his prolific output. He also wrote more than fifty original plays, two series of children’s books, several screenplays, and a dozen other novels. In 1977, fifteen years before Wallander, when he was 29 years old, he published his first novel. In Quicksand ,Mankell tells how he did not submit the manuscript until he was absolutely sure it was good enough. Like all artists, Mankell had doubts about his ability but when, a few weeks later, he receives confirmation that the novel will be published, he is pleased but not particularly surprised. Throughout Quicksand we see Mankell’s remarkable combination of humility and self-belief.

A writer is an acute observer, and Mankell observed and remembered a lot. The short chapters in Quicksand traverse an extraordinarily full life. Mankell is concerned about big questions, the disposal of nuclear waste and global warming in particular threading their way through the whole book. But these go side by side with many private moments: a dream he once had about the trenches in Flanders; visiting a church lost beneath shifting sands, only its bell tower visible; seeing a boy killed grotesquely in a motorway accident.

The sub-title of Quicksand is What It Means To Be A Human Being. Another writer might, when faced with death, have indulged in self-pity or taken the chance to try and justify past action and mistakes. Apologies to abandoned lovers and children might have been attempted, or reconciliations to former friends. The closest Mankell gets to this is an acknowledgement that he might not have been the best theatre director during his time in Maputo, or that he may regret the way he treated some of his former lovers.

Mankell was always curious. Several times he tells us how he read everything there was to read on a topic. Radiation and nuclear waste, cave paintings, European history, climate change, ice ages – through the fine detail of remembering a stay in a town decades ago, or a photograph, or a street performance, everything he learns is turned into a question about our past and our future. He knows his own future, like everyone else’s, was always limited in time. No-one lives forever. He knows that just a century ago, living to nearly seventy years of age would have been highly unusual. He’s grateful for the years he’s had but the cancer diagnosis is, of course, still a shock. The fear and uncertainty it causes, the bringing into sharp focus an understanding that most of the things you’ll achieve in your life are now in the past, are the scaffolding within which this book was created.

Conspicuously absent from Quicksand are parents, children and lovers, except for his fourth and last wife, Eva, despite the fact he was married four times, and had four sons, each by a different partner. Although understandable – Quicksand isn’t an autobiography – I was surprised that the events that made such a strong impression on Mankell either did not include his relationships and children, or that he chose not to include them.

Mankell wrote in Swedish and many of his works in English, including Quicksand, were translated by Laurie Thompson, a distinguished academic and founder of the Swedish-English Literary Translators Association. It is hard to believe Quicksand was not written in English, so lucid is the phrasing, so perfectly captured are Mankell’s emotions on the page. It was Thompson’s last translation. He died of cancer in June 2015, four months before Mankell in October 2015.

The older we get, we more we realise how short life is. Seneca told us this in his essay On The Shortness Of Life over two thousand years ago, but still we forget it. Mankell, with his fiction, his theatre, his human rights activism, his political life, his relationships, his ever-hungry curiosity for knowledge and about people, packed in more than most but sixty-seven years is not that long. He wanted more. We should be thankful that before their deaths he wrote, and Laurie Thompson translated, this book. Read it, put it alongside your copy of Seneca, and stop wasting what time you have left.

Reviewed by C P Howe

Quicksand
by Henning Mankell
Published by Harvill Secker
ISBN 9781846559522

Book Review: The Dreaming Land, by Martin Edmond

cv_the_dreaming_land_bigAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

I thoroughly enjoyed Martin Edmond’s wonderfully descriptive memoir. With a style and pacing that draws the reader in and envelops them in a New Zealand that had a type of insularity all of its own, Edmonds telling of his early years is a treat and while not all wine and roses, it is a life that would resonate with many.

The son of teachers, Edmond knew the vagaries of moving town, shifting house and losing people in a time when we were ruled by the motherland, where life could be harsh and every town was governed by a set of unwritten expectations, where position mattered and narrow-mindedness could make life hell. The awareness that there were undercurrents of discord in his home and his difficult relationship with his mother kept Edmond precariously balanced, as he struggled through those rights-of-passage experiences and strived to find out exactly who he was. The great thing is there is not a jot of whinging, it is what is and we get on with it.

Edmond is without doubt an extremely talented writer, and he uses a delightful array of language to tell his tale, his humour even as a youngster shines through…a put-together bike is called an anthology of a bike. In many ways the book encapsulates the best of growing up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in New Zealand. It shines a light on a time now past, but fondly remembered by so many of us.

This book would make an excellent gift, especially for someone who grew up in the book’s timeframe. It’s easy to read, very memory-inducing but never trite. A great read.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Dreaming Land
by Martin Edmond
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321490

Book Review: The Lost Landscape, by Joyce Carol Oates

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_lost_landscapeThis book is a compilation of pieces, most of which have already appeared in various publications. The author describes it as “a writer’s coming of age”.

At the beginning of the book she makes this statement: “We begin as children imagining and fearing ghosts. By degrees, through our long lives, we come to be the very ghosts inhabiting the lost landscapes of our childhood.”

It’s not a linear progression of memory, so it does not fit neatly into what we expect of a memoir, and because it’s a collection, or at least I imagine that this is the reason, there is quite a lot of repetition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and even occasionally serves to reinforce some aspects of Oates’ early life – particularly her relationship with her stern Hungarian grandparents.

Some of the pieces are a tad too whimsical, in particular the one written from the viewpoint of one of the chickens. Others hint at the much darker side of life that Oates experienced growing up in a small town in New York state. Life in the 1940s and 1950s in rural America was not easy and the differences observed and described between wealthy and poor families, the somewhat awkward and unbalanced relationship between Oates and some of her schoolmates, and the descriptions of what we would now term dysfunctional families are quite telling. You get a feel for the kind of life she had without her having to spell it all out in detail.

The book covers a huge amount of ground, and I think brings together many of the events and memories which have shaped Joyce Carol Oates as a writer. She clearly wrote from an early age, and was a voracious reader. The detail she applies in description, along with wonderful use of language generally, makes this collection interesting reading.

I wanted it to be more cohesive than it is, but overall found it a satisfying read, and I think now I may go and try something else by her.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Lost Landscape
by Joyce Carol Oates
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780008146597

 

Book Review: Barefoot Years, by Martin Edmond

Available in bookstores nationwide.

I requested Barefoot Years to review immediately after receiving an email from Bridgetcv_barefoot_years Williams Books about events featuring the author, Martin Edmond. I asked for the book at 12.27pm, and received it as an e-book to read on my iPad at 12.56pm. There is surely a small irony in reading this memoir of simple childhood years on a modern technology so commonly used by children today.

Martin Edmond wants to take you along with him through his barefoot years. He remembers, in this book, his childhood: the homes, the environment. This book intertwines local history with personal, in a wonderful flowing narrative.

“The next place we lived is so replete in recall that I do not quite know where to begin to try to describe it; for me it is the original Memory House and the template for all other places I have subsequently known. Let me take you there.”

He’ll bring you in by reminding you that, “Now – by which I mean then, in the 1950s –”. His detailed and descriptive writing connects directly to your imagination,  using his words to guide you on a journey with him to his Memory House.

Edmond’s early years are filled with wonder and excitement around the house. The garden features as the setting for the first loss of innocence: “The garden is also where my father takes me when he has something of moment to say.” He learns the truth about Father Christmas in said garden (something I believe I learned from a TV show) and describes the feeling – “I am not so much disappointed as elated at my entry into a world of adult complicity in the nourishing of childhood illusion.”

As he remembers the women between the two that really caught his eye, Edmonds poignantly pens, “We are, boys and girls both, in some indefinable but profound manner, united; diverse and probably incompatible, we are nevertheless one.”

Every sentence, every page in this book will remind you of your own childhood, no matter where you grew up yourself. The way Edmond pieces together this time in his life strikes a chord with your own early years. My own first experience with wine completely mimics his – “my first taste of wine … a delicious, fragrant white – though it is in fact a pale-yellow colour – made from, of all things, feijoas.”

Barefoot Years is a fragment of Martin Edmond’s full-length memoir, which is to be published by BWB in 2015. This is to be the full story of his childhood years in the Central Plateau. This book serves as a stunning start to what is sure to be a wonderful account of Edmond’s life.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Barefoot Years
by Martin Edmond
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927277676

Book Review: Full Tilt, by Rebekah Tyler

Rebekah Tyler is a New Zealand cv_full_tiltauthor, living in Auckland with her two sons. This is her first novel – a memoir. She has written a wonderful laugh-out-loud story.

Rebekah’s mother dies when she is 4 years old. Her grandmother (Nanny), still grieving for her daughter, takes on the responsibility of a small child (Rebekah). Rebekah’s upbringing is anything but conventional, but the love between the two of them gets them through the many challenges that life throws their way. Rebekah’s Uncle Andrew moves to New Zealand and a few months later, persuades Nanny to move from the U.K. to the other side of the world, where Nanny works well into her seventies as an accounts clerk to support her only granddaughter. She would have to leave at 7 a.m each morning travel by ferry and bus to her office and often worked into the night after she returned each night.

Her Nanny teaches Rebekah to be independent and reliant on nobody but herself, but regardless of that she ends up with one failed marriage, the end result being a small son to bring up on her own. Further down the track, with another failed relationship and pregnant, Rebekah finds herself solely responsible not just for one child, but two. When Nanny dies, the world feels as though it has fallen off its axis for Rebekah. Her mentor and her rock were gone. She knew life had to change and the only person who could change it was herself. So change it she did – sold her house, quit her job, packed up their belongings, moving most of it into storage.

The story that follows is a joy to read. It’s not easy travelling with two sons, one two and the other ten years of age. They embark on an eight month long adventure taking them around the world, to Canada, England, France, Italy and Vietnam.

Having travelling with two daughters, but with a husband, I can relate to some of the stories of tantrums at inappropriate places with a two-year-old, sleeping in so many different beds in strange cities, eating strange food (well to a child it is!) and of course the many friendships made along the way. I understood Rebekah’s challenges along the way, and saw her strength in her ability to cope.

It’s then time for the adventure to stop and return home to New Zealand. Boarding a plane, settling the boys into their seats, putting the ear plugs in, turning up the iPod, makes the journey home a lot less stressful. Small incidents, that once upon a time would have been major, were now minor blips.

I hope Rebekah keeps writing – this is a wonderful light hearted account of travelling with her boys. Having a sense of humour in times of adversity is sometimes the only way to move forward. She is a remarkable woman with a great sense of humour.

Highly recommended

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Full Tilt
by Rebekah Tyler
Published by Full Tilt Press
ISBN 9780473247423

Book review: Hope Street, Jerusalem by Irris Makler

This book is in bookstores now.

The Jerusalem Irris Makler describes in her entertaining memoir Hope Street, Jerusalem sounds incredible. It’s got good weather, cafes and farmers markets galore, gorgeous sandstone architecture, and cultures and languages that have been percolating in a historical stew for thousands of years. It’s where Makler first fell in love, with her Israeli boyfriend Raphael; where Makler found her ratbag of a dog Mia; and where she did some of her most significant work in her job as an international news correspondent.

Jerusalem sounds fantastic. If it wasn’t for all those suicide bombings.

In this way Makler describes her years in Jerusalem in Hope Street, Jerusalem, her troubled love song to the ancient Biblical city. While a good deal of the book is given over to her romance with Raphael and her trials with Mia, it’s nevertheless the shadow of the Israeli-Palestine conflict that looms over all.

It’s jolting to read of Makler’s horror at Raphael taking the bus—a perfectly innocuous thing to do unless you live in a city where buses are frequently the target of terrorists’ bombs. In Jerusalem, the political and the personal live dangerously cheek by jowl, and one of this book’s great strengths is Makler’s ability to navigate between the two to find the personal story within the big political picture.

Again and again, Makler finds just the right human story to bring major political events close to home. To her credit, though, the string of tragedies she inevitably ends up describing never feel maudlin, sentimental or trivialised.

Makler also bares all about her bittersweet relationship with Raphael and her difficulties with Mia in this book. While her romantic life makes good reading (who doesn’t love a good romance?), the number of pages devoted to shenanigans with Mia was rather excessive. But my sense of doggy excess is surely coloured by the fact that I don’t own (and have never owned) a dog, and dog lovers may well adore this book.

Moreover, the drama of the book’s opening (during which Makler’s jaw is smashed by a stone thrown by a protester) is not adequately paid off by the ending, and the attempts at constructing a book-wide theme (namely, fate versus free will) come off sounding exactly that—constructed.

While these large-scale structural aspects fall flat, Makler’s skills at shaping the miniature are undeniable. Makler has a razor sharp eye for detail and for human (and doggy) behaviour, an ear well tuned to Jerusalem’s different speech patterns and accents (from Haim the fishmonger: “Yes, I know they’re different colours, this one is orange and that one is grey, but they are the same fish. What do you think—that I don’t know my fish?”), and a journalist’s well-honed ability to vividly and concisely tell a story well.

These skills bring Jerusalem, in all its dangerous, chaotic, multicultural madness, to life. Hope Street, Jerusalem is part armchair travel memoir, part diary-of-a-dog-owner, part pocket history of the Middle East, part romance, and all in all a perfect beach read.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Hope Street, Jerusalem
By Irris Makler
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780732294168