“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
― Joseph Brodsky
My quest to get through the Stella Prize longlist from 2016 has definitely slowed me down, in more ways than one. The list has challenged me in many ways and today I am going to discuss four of the books in one post because I’m not sure I am able to do each of them justice in a post of their own. I struggled with them all, with varying reasons however I’m still glad I read them as they offered a different perspective for me to think about… here it goes!
I find myself rather conflicted when it comes to A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones – it certainly has me stumped! Set in Berlin, we meet six international travellers who meet in empty apartments across the city to participate in speak-memories, while sharing a love of Vladmir Nabokov and his works. While there is a lot to like about this book, I found myself really struggling to read it. It is a book about connections – the strength and/or fragility of them – and yet I found myself on the outer for the whole book. Only once did I feel as though I was almost a part of the story. Each of the characters is looking to rewrite their story, visiting Berlin to start afresh. The main protagonist is Cass, a young Australian who is seeking the inspiration to kick off a writing career.
There is much to like about this book; I loved the descriptions of Berlin (a city I have visited and loved), the idea of the speak-memories (especially the two stories from the Japanese characters being the most interesting), and the overall tone of the book. However, at no point did I feel like I – the reader – was being invited into the group. I haven’t read anything by Nabokov nor do I know anything about him and so it felt as though I was being kept at arms-length, isolated by ignorance, and therefore not understanding the nuances of the story. There are times when it doesn’t matter if you have read the books by the author the book is based on, however this time I felt like I was at a disadvantage. I also didn’t like the characters and while this doesn’t usually bother me, that coupled with the feeling of being an outsider, this book just didn’t do it for me!
I found myself in a similar situation with The Women’s Pages by Debra Adelaide. Again, this is the kind of story I should love – a beautiful tale with lovely writing and interesting characters. It is a story of women, told by women yet it also pays homage to words and the pages they’re written on. However, it is also a story woven with another book I haven’t read – Wuthering Heights (I know, I know, how have I not read it yet?!) – and I feel like I missed out on some really important subtleties in Adelaide’s story. Like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights has its own subculture and multiple interpretations so even reading up on it doesn’t help!
The story flits between thirty-eight year-old Dove and her sixteen-year-old character, Ellis. The Women’s Pages is a story of missing mothers and the everyday challenges that women face, both personally and professionally. Dove’s desire to write is fuelled by her need to purge her grief (having just lost her adoptive mother) and to discover/ reveal/ confront her issues with her birth mother; both characters mourn the mothers they never knew. Unlike her characters, Adelaide shows the reader the control she has over her story and brings it to a magnificent close. Despite my feeling of being excluded from the story, I still really enjoyed it for what it was!
The third book I struggled with is The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau. I was actually unable to finish the book; the tone, the writing and the story are all really interesting however one choice by Juchau put me off the book completely. It seems like such a small thing however I find stories without quotation marks, or any other speaking indicators to be really frustrating to read. I have read other books where it works however this time I found myself working too hard to follow who was speaking and whom they were speaking too. I found it so distracting I wasn’t keeping track of where the story was going and I kept losing my place. I will definitely come back to this book another time but for now, it’s going back on the shelf! What do you think about this choice?
The last book I want to mention is the novella Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig. I’m not going to lie; I don’t understand this book at all! I have read as many reviews of this book as I can find and yet I am still at a bit of a loss. Let me see if I can explain why…
The main protagonist walks down a Sydney road on a Monday morning, narrating the events of the weekend, mingled with past memories. An aspiring writer, Jen Craig (named the same as the author) has had a breakthrough over the weekend having read the unpublished manuscript of a late childhood friend. What greets the reader is a barrage of commentary by Craig; the physical book is unusual in that there isn’t a single break in the text – for a paragraph or chapter – except for the odd black and white photograph, coupled with the story itself being one long monologue. The character Craig never feels like she’s talking to the reader; she appears to be talking to herself. She comes across as an incredibly unreliable narrator, and slightly manic too. She appears to rethink each experience and event to recount to her friend Raf, and the way she mingles present thought and past memories leads the reader to suspect she is falsifying memories although I am unsure if it is a conscious or unconscious thing.
Craig is an unusual character and she provides a detailed account of everything, from her family and past friendships to mundane daily occurrences to childhood events. She appears to have a great desire for acceptance and to be seen as more mature than perhaps she is. The flashbacks are random and jump between time periods; given the length of the sentences and absence of breaks in the text, this becomes difficult to read. It is almost as if the author is challenging her reader…
Panthers is a book that seems completely unaware of anything except the story it tells and maintaining the unique voice it speaks with. I read many different texts at university that broke the conventions of storytelling but there is something about this book I just didn’t understand. I’m happy to admit it; sometimes we just don’t connect to the story we are reading!
Overall, I can see why why these four books were chosen for the Stella Prize. I can appreciate their strengths (the writing, tone and characterisation) and am happy to admit that they’re not for me! I encourage you to try them and let me know what you think!
AUTHOR: Gail Jones
PUBLISHER: Random House Australia
PUB DATE: August 2016
AUTHOR: Debra Adelaide
PUBLISHER: Pan Macmillan Australia
PUB DATE: November 2015
AUTHOR: Mireille Juchau
PUBLISHER: Allen and Unwin
PUB DATE: August 2015
AUTHOR: Jen Craig
PUBLISHER: Spineless Wonders
PUB DATE: March 2015
Thank you to the publishers for sending me a reading copy in exchange for an honest review!