First Person by Richard Flanagan
Over time, Kif finds himself being corrupted by the strangely charismatic Heidl, just as his friend – and Heidl’s bodyguard – Ray fears he has also been. Heidl has an uncanny ability to get under one’s skin: first drawing the parallels between Kif’s lofty ambitions as a writer of fiction and the stories that that create what we consider reality; then, with his fondness for Nietzsche, his ability to pepper his self-serving monologues with deep, if painful, truths. (The one that made me wonder if I was being corrupted alongside the narrator was his suggestion that goodness, or doing the right thing, “is like God … the worst lie”, p202, when all the evidence speaks against it.)
Set in 1992, and based on Flanagan’s own experience of ghostwriting a corporate criminal’s memoir, First Person can be read as the creation myth of the current cultural decline, with a shameless liar in the White House; the story of celebrity as a mask for crime; and the cynical outsourcing by governments of the common good. It’s also a philosophical treatise on identity (is there such a thing as a real self? And what’s this about the stereotype of Tasmanians as undeveloped and stupid?) and a glorious sendup of commercial publishing.
If you remember my gushing review of his previous novel, the Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, you might wonder how this compares. I confess I didn’t enjoy this as much, partly because it’s more a novel of ideas than story and I’m a somewhat lazy reader. I think it definitely could have been shorter, as there were moments of the first half when I felt a little bored. But The Narrow Road is a hard act to follow and there’s no doubt this is an intelligent, masterful and thought-provoking read which, rather like the character Heidl, gradually sucks you in. Thanks to Chatto and Windus for my pre-publication copy.
Larchfield by Polly Clark
These two narrative threads alternate until, about midway through the novel, Dora’s story begins to dovetail with Wystan’s. I felt for them both, perhaps especially Dora as, after inadvertently offending her obnoxious neighbours, she is subject to a rather vicious Othering that makes no concessions for her frailty as the mother of a premature baby. With my own sensitivity to noise, I couldn’t help identifying with the unremitting anxiety of being besieged by noisy neighbours (p214):
she spent a lot of time listening. There is something maddening about a sound that can be heard but never quite resolved. It never becomes language, but nonetheless promises it will.
Disconnected from her previous life and friends as an Oxford academic and poet, unsupported by the services supposed to help her, devoted to her baby yet yearning for something more, Dora becomes increasingly paranoid. When even her beloved husband fails to understand, it feels it is if the shadow of that other Helensburgh poet is all she can hang onto and she drifts into an alternative reality in which they can be friends.
Poet Polly Clark’s debut novel is a beautifully written story of creativity, loneliness, prejudice and identity, and a furious indictment of contemporary society’s neglect of a new mother’s needs. Thanks to RiverRun for my review copy. Follow the link for my reviews of other books about uncaring of those who care for babies.