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An odyssey towards pointlessness.

February 10, 2013

When I spotted Rebecca Harrington’s debut novel Penelope on the shelf of my local bookshop, I became (foolishly) very excited and purchased it immediately. Penelope is about a rather awkward Harvard freshman’s first few months of university life. Penelope, with her ‘lank hair’ and odd habit of telling people that she rode in a car seat until she was in fourth grade, expects groundbreaking things from her new life at one of America’s most privileged educational institutions. The reality—full of aggressive nerds, judgmental rich people, and socially impaired roommates—is rather more disappointing.

So is Rebecca Harrington’s book. There’s an art to the campus novel, and recent laudable efforts such as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly are testament to its continued relevance and versatility as a genre. Harrington is Deputy College Editor for the Huffington Post and a Harvard graduate; surely, with these impressive credentials, she should be capable of producing more than Penelope, a stilted, dull, and poorly written attempt to satirise the contemporary college experience.

It’s quickly clear that Penelope isn’t going to win any prizes for social grace: driving to Harvard for the start of the academic year, her mother warns her, ‘don’t be too enthusiastic, don’t talk to people who seem to be getting annoyed, and for heaven’s sake, stop playing Tetris on your phone at parties’. (Even my mother has more tact than this.) Sure enough, Penelope’s first weeks at Harvard bring a series of embarrassments and disappointments: her roommates are awful, her classes are tedious and she can’t seem to make any friends, although an awkward boy named Ted insists on making unwanted advances that Penelope apparently fails to recognise for what they are. (Penelope is extremely obtuse, to a point that goes well beyond comic and strides blithely across the suspension-of-disbelief border). Things start to get interesting (in Penelope’s life, not in the life of anyone actually reading this book) when Penelope meets Gustav, a German-British-sounding man plucked straight from the fiction cliché shelf: he wears tweed and uses terms such as ‘I say’ and ‘chap’. People like this are not real in 2013. I also question whether it is possible to sound both German and British at the same time.

In fairness, it’s not all bad—there are glimmers of talent here. Harrington occasionally comes out with a line or image that sardonically captures what I imagine it must be like to study at a place such as Harvard, surrounded by a mix of odd, brilliant, and/or pretentious minds in the flush of youth and the process of intellectual discovery. Penelope takes a minor role in a campus theatre group’s experimental production of Caligula; during rehearsal, she watches a scene where the two leads are ‘clad in matching bloody tutus and dancing ballet to the recorded sound of barking dogs. It was not one of Penelope’s favourites’. When she tries to join the Harvard literary magazine, she has to critique a short story wherein ‘the main action seemed to involve drinking orange juice and killing a homeless man’; it’s admired by another student as ‘very visceral. The way the orange juice and the killing of the homeless man are on the same level’. There’s a certain disturbing level of familiarity here for anyone who studied literature at university and was forced to extract the most obscure of meanings from the most obtuse of texts.

Fundamentally, however, Penelope—the character and the novel—lacks depth, and the flimsiness of its construction makes it devoid of any true observational power and wit. The mild absurdity of Harrington’s characters and their situations feels forced and dry, as though she took a few stock figures from the archetypal Ivy League college experience and overstretched them to the point of meaningless transparency.

Worst of all is the dialogue, which is so stilted it made my eyes hurt. Also, no one in this novel speaks in contractions: ‘”There is a party at the Ten-Man in Currier tonight.”’ Ted tells Penelope. ‘”Ooh, a party. I have not been to one of those yet.”’ she replies. Really? No one I know talks like this. Especially no one I knew when I was 18 and starting university talked like this. Ever.

Not much happens in Penelope, and its characters are so bland and irritating—I’ll give it to Rebecca Harrington, that’s a difficult feat to pull off—that it becomes very hard to care about what happens to any of them (which isn’t much) after about page 10. This is a hugely underwhelming first novel, made more so because it could have been an excellent read—the setting and subject matter lend themselves perfectly to a cutting send-up of modern student life. Unfortunately, just like that elective undergrad course you chose because you thought it would be awesome and it turned out to be terrible, Penelope is a slow and tedious disappointment.

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The truth about getting a life.

January 20, 2013

I’ve been slack with my book reviews lately, but, in my defence, I have a rock-solid excuse: I’ve been on holiday. Because I spent most of that holiday eating ice cream, buying vintage clothes, and hanging out with my family in LA (as opposed to reading books), blogging kind of slid to the bottom of my to-do list. I’ve forgiven myself and moved on, although I’m still grieving just a little bit for my holiday.

When I came home earlier this month, I wanted a comfort read. I’ve got a new job, and even though I haven’t quit the bookshop, I’m now only working there for three hours on a Sunday afternoon (yeah, someone can’t bear to give up their staff discount). The pressure’s off to read new releases all the time, so, finally, I’ve been able to turn to the groaning shelf of books-not-published-in-the-past-three-months that have been demanding my attention for so long. I found an Aussie YA classic that I picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Canberra last year for $4: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy.

McCarthy is something of a legend in the annals of Australian YA, and Queen Kat is possibly her most loved and successful book—it was even turned into a TV miniseries for ABC a few years back. It’s a poignant look at a seminal year in the lives of three 17-year-olds from a country town in Victoria: the year they leave home, start uni, and—even though none of them are friends, or even know each other that well—find themselves all living under the same roof.

Katerina is the one who seems to have it all—beautiful, blonde, and brainy, it’s her wealthy family’s house in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton that the three girls share. Queen Kat, as she’s wryly (and secretly) nicknamed by her two housemates, seems to settle swiftly into student life, and is rarely at home; occasionally, she puts in an appearance with a glamorous friend or suave male companion. Equally as sure as herself, it appears—though worlds apart in terms of her ambitions and interests—is Jude, the rather fierce and outspoken medical student obsessed with the legacy of her Chilean father, long ago executed in the 1973 military coup in Chile. Then there’s Carmel, a gifted singer who messed up her final exams and missed out on a place at music school. Desperate to escape her family’s crowded farmhouse for the big smoke, she accepts a place on a teaching course in which she has little interest; but her dreams of city life are hampered by her painful self-consciousness and longing to be slimmer.

We meet all three girls in Manella, their hometown, at the start of the academic year, the weight of their varying hopes and expectations heavy on their collective shoulders; the book splits into three sections, each narrated by a different protagonist, once the trio move to Melbourne. McCarthy’s structure takes us deep into the inner worlds of these characters as each takes her first fumbling steps into adulthood, and cleverly exposes their perceptions and misconceptions of one another as the year unfolds. While Carmel and Jude quickly become close friends, Katerina remains on the outside; it’s not until the book’s final third, when we finally get Katerina’s side of the story, that we’re privy to the small disasters that have been brewing behind the facade of her apparently perfect life.

You’ll probably have gathered that there’s nothing wildly original here: the sad fat girl who finds her voice (literally and figuratively); the hot-headed idealist who comes to terms with her family’s past; the beauty queen who doesn’t really have it all. But McCarthy does a fine job of drawing us deeply into their very different mental worlds, and exploring a time of life that doesn’t seem to crop up often in YA fiction—the year you leave home, when your expectations of what Life in the Real World is actually like so often fall short of the reality and make you wish for those things you once couldn’t wait to escape.

Having said that, I probably would have appreciated the book more had I liked the characters. Carmel is the easiest to empathise with, and it’s her experience that is likely to be the most resonant for many readers—she embodies that awkward stage of trying to bridge the gap between who you think you are and who you want to be. Jude, with her strident political passions and intense personality, feels less accessible, and the crux of her story is at once anti-climactic and rather far-fetched. Katerina is problematic for the same reasons that Jude and Carmel find her so: she’s a character we’ve all met before, and the situation she finds herself in at the end of her first university year is cliched and hard to sympathise with. (Or maybe I just have a heart of stone…)

Still, I can’t deny that Queen Kat is a gripping book, and just because it doesn’t break any originality awards doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. Let’s face it, there are certain expectations attached to the coming-of-age genre, and not without good reason. There are, inevitably, particular lessons to be learned and truths to be discovered when you’re 17 and striking out on your own for the first time; and, as McCarthy’s book goes to show, these same lessons and truths apply no matter where you come from and what dress size you wear.

Broken hearts and fractured morals.

November 7, 2012

In the first chapter of James Meek’s dark new novel, The Heart Broke In, he deliberately wrong foots us with a clever sleight of hand: he convinces us that one of his central characters, record producer Richie, is innocent of the morally and legally reprehensible act that his colleagues secretly suspect him of. But by the end of page three, we discover that Richie is not only capable of this act, but performing it on a regular basis.

This sets the scene for a novel in which various other characters perform various other less-than-worthy acts, most of which engender messy and painful consequences. Because of this, The Heart Broke In—while indisputably an assured and vivid piece of fiction—is also a difficult novel to read. Its central characters are so awful that it becomes hard to care about the increasingly compromised positions they find themselves in; although, as Meek’s gradual machinations slot into place and move towards an inevitably catastrophic conclusion, the narrative tension becomes palpable.

The Heart Broke In is a complex web of love and betrayal, played out against a backdrop of contemporary London, and—briefly—malaria-ravaged Tanzania. Its characters are all connected, either by blood or by circumstance: Meek carefully and cunningly plays his cast of siblings, old friends, colleagues, and former lovers off against one another in a complex unfurling of deceit and desire that can only end badly for most parties involved.

We begin with the aforementioned Richie, once a rock star, now a wealthy and successful record producer with a curious addiction to chocolate pudding pots and an even curiouser belief in his own (imagined) integrity. It’s a trait that remains elusive to everyone but Richie: by not telling his wife, Karin, about his latest affair, he naively believes that he’s keeping his family safe.

Meanwhile, Richie’s sister, Bec, a gifted scientist working on a Malaria vaccine, has just split up with her boyfriend, the creepily fanatic newspaper mogul Val Oatman. When Bec meets Richie’s old friend and bandmate, Alex, another scientist whose work is apparently on the verge of revealing the secret to eternal life (at least, this is what Alex’s Uncle Harry believes), the two begin a relationship.

The stage is set for catastrophe when Val’s bitterness—and his association with a sinister organisation called the Moral Foundation—prompts him to seek revenge on Bec via Ritchie.

Val’s strategy is both cunning and roundabout, and once we learn of it, the narrative branches out to follow Bec’s story, leaving Ritchie—who must slowly grapple with an increasingly grating moral conundrum—to fade into the narrative background, as his sister and her new partner face their own upheavals. As Bec and Alex’s groundbreaking scientific work propels them into the adoring media spotlight (they are ‘science’s golden couple’, presenting a double-whammy of deadly disease cure and possible eternal youth), their struggle to conceive a child threatens to unbalance their domestic equilibrium. In a masterfully orchestrated parallel of personal moral struggle, Bec, like Ritchie, must ultimately confront the conflict between her desire and her loyalty, and face the consequences of her choice.

This conflict between personal desire and the (alleged) greater moral good propels the narrative action. Meek makes it all the more topical by situating it in the context today’s celebrity-obsessed culture: when Alex is given the opportunity to front a TV series about the genetics of ageing, Bec’s response is cynical: ‘“you won’t be a scientist, you’ll be someone who talks about science”’, she admonishes him. ‘“It’s as if people think the highest form of anything in this country’s not doing it, it’s going on television and talking about doing it.”’

In the meantime, the sense of altruism that ostensibly fuels Bec’s and Alex’s work—curing a deadly disease, prolonging human life—falls into sharp contrast beside the complications of their own desire for a child, and the fallout it eventually creates.

Alongside this, Meek skilfully weaves the connecting stories of his ambitiously large cast: Alex’s Uncle Harry, sick and dying and convinced that his nephew can cure him; Alex’s brother Dougie, a sad and drifting soul who falls for Bec, and his devoutly religious cousin, Matthew; and, of course, Ritchie, who must make a choice upon which the narrative’s final climax turns. Layers of want and self-preservation cloak each character’s decisions and motivations: no matter who you are and what you do, Meek seems to be saying, the tables can always turn; trust and loyalty are flimsy tightropes that can only take you so far.

The Heart Broke In gives us a tightly knotted chain of intimate actions and reactions, showing how the doubts and desires that pulse beneath our closest relationships shape the trajectories of our lives. It’s an unflattering portrait of human nature, but also an undeniably compelling and accurate one.

That’s so raven.

October 24, 2012

It’s no secret that I’m a total sucker for YA. If it’s going to make me feel as though I’m 15 again, I’m probably going to read it. (Although there are some exceptions, and most of them involve vampires. And dystopian futures got severely downgraded in the wake of tedious and apparently never-ending Hunger Games fever.)

But if there’s one author who does a stellar job writing about ordinary teenagers in extraordinary circumstances, it’s Maggie Stiefvater. After the huge success of her Shiver trilogy, an understated werewolf love story, Steifvater has produced various inspired riffs on the teenage-supernatural-romance theme, including the Books of Faerie trilogy (still in progress) and The Scorpio Races, a novel about water horses.

Stiefvater’s latest offering, The Raven Boys, is a return to more traditional supernatural territory: ghosts, psychics, and hauntings. The first in a new trilogy, The Raven Boys tells the mysterious tale of 16-year-old Blue, a girl who comes from a family of psychics but possesses no telepathic powers of her own. Blue has always been told that if she kisses her true love, he’ll die; understandably, this is somewhat concerning. But it becomes more so when Blue sees a ghost for the first time—the ghost of a boy named Gansey, a student from the prestigious local school, Aglionby Academy. Blue’s always sworn to stay away from Aglionby students—Raven Boys, as they’re known locally—but when Gansey’s ghost speaks to her, Blue has to rethink her rules.

When it turns out that Gansey is alive and well and on a strange supernatural quest of his own, Blue becomes drawn into the mystery that possesses him and his three friends: Adam, the intense scholarship student desperate to escape his roots; Ronan, the rebellious and angry rich boy; and Noah, the quiet, observant watcher with a secret of his own. As Blue and her Raven Boys begin to investigate the dark heart of their Virginia town, she finds herself, for the first time, having to confront the unsettling prophecy of her fatal first kiss. Who is Blue’s true love? And how will her kiss end his life?

The Raven Boys is vintage Stiefvater. Her prose is elegant and crisp, effortlessly gliding between evocations of Henrietta’s lush and eerie surrounds—a place of corpse roads, ley lines, and enchanted forests—and the complex internal dramas of the novel’s protagonists. While Blue is attracted to Adam and initially writes Gansey off as an arrogant rich boy (she thinks of him as ‘President Cell Phone’) her feelings for him soon begin to shift; and, in the midst of their quest, all four boys face problems of their own, from uncomfortable domestic situations to the awkward flowering of first love.

Unfortunately—and surprisingly—it’s the characters that let the book down. While Blue is an engaging protagonist, and the kind of teenage misfit who never strays into twee caricature, her Raven Boy companions are less convincing. I find it hard to believe that any 16-year-old would be that consumed by a quest to find ley lines; similarly, much of Gansey’s dialogue feels stilted and unnatural: he asks Ronan to ‘queue up the evidence, if you would’, and tells one of Blue’s psychic relatives that he ‘wasn’t trying to insinuate that you were less than genuine’. Of course, Gansey is a formal and proper sort of guy—but, alongside his fixation with finding ley lines, his language makes him come across as 20 years older.

Alongside this, every characters’ obsession with money and class feels tired and overdone. Gansey is embarrassed by his wealth; Blue is affronted by it; Adam is embarrassed by his lack of wealth, and so fixated on not becoming a charity case that he refuses to accept help of any kind, thus making his difficult domestic situation go from bad to worse; the cycle repeats ad nauseam.

Above all, Steifvater’s boys just take themselves too seriously; although perhaps it’s a function of the various secrets they all seem to be keeping. With Blue, what you see is what you get; with the boys, everything worth discovering is hidden beneath the surface. Ultimately, this is what makes The Raven Boys a satisfying and original mystery, weak points notwithstanding: the supernatural puzzle that drives the novel is as engaging as it is creepy, and there’s a fantastic twist in store that I absolutely didn’t see coming.

Predictably, there are hints of a love triangle, and it’s a plot point that’s sure to emerge more fully in the next book. While there’s something inevitable about Blue having her heart torn between not one, but two intelligent, charismatic, and good-looking teenage boys (for the record, this never happened to me when I was 16; actually, it still hasn’t), Stiefvater handles her subject matter with poise. She doesn’t lay the romance on too thick, and nor does she make her narrative intentions blindingly obvious: if there’s one thing TThe Raven Boys isn’t, it’s predictable, and that goes for its romantic element as much as its supernatural plot. Adding to the suspense is the tricky fact that Blue can’t kiss anyone for fear that they’ll drop dead.

I’ll be interested to see where Stiefvater takes her follow up, although I have to admit that I’m not desperate to read it. The Raven Boys isn’t without its flaws, but it’s certainly one of the more original supernatural series on the shelves at the moment; and Steifvater’s writing is more than strong enough to carry the novel’s less-than-stellar aspects.

 

When page and screen collide.

October 11, 2012

Working in an independent bookshop is one of those jobs that people tend to make assumptions about. Incorrect ones. Like, that booksellers get to sit behind the counter and read all day, or that we’re all like Bernard in Black Books, drinking red wine and freely abusing ignorant customers (I wish). Alas, the reality is not nearly so interesting, particularly when you work in a shop like mine, where the computers are from circa 1985 and all the returns have to be pulled by hand (don’t even ask).

But it’s nice to hold onto this fantastical image of the quirky indie bookshop, and Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, the mysterious place at the centre of Robin Sloan’s charming and imaginative debut novel of the same name, brings it vividly to life, albeit with a very modern twist.

What’s special about Sloan’s novel is how seamlessly it blends old and new: it’s a mish-mash of Internet gadgetry and ancient artefacts, typefaces and printing presses, ereaders and leather-bound tomes, an old-fashioned quest narrative, and a modern love story—and, somehow, it all fits together like Bernard and a bottle of red.

Twenty-six-year old Clay Jannon is an affable, unemployed nerd with a passion for fantasy fiction and a talent for web design. When ‘the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century’ costs him his marketing job with a company called NewBagel, he’s at a loose end—until he finds Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when he’s wandering the streets of San Francisco. While it’s ignominiously located next to a neon-signed bar called Booty’s, in ‘a euphemistic part of town’, Penumbra’s isn’t what it seems: inside, rows and rows of dizzyingly tall shelves are stacked with ancient volumes that appear to be filled with code.

Of course, after a mysterious encounter with old Mr Penumbra, who talks a little bit like a wise old wizard in a quest novel (‘I am the custodian of this place’), Clay gets the job of night clerk. From 10pm until 6am, he mans the desk, lending the ancient books of code to an odd group of customers who appear to be part of a secret society. It’s not long before Clay’s curiousity prompt him to start investigating: what do the symbols inside the books mean? What ancient mystery are Penumbra and his strange clients devoting their lives to solving? And will it get Clay a date with Kat, the hot girl from Google who wanders into the bookshop one fateful night?

Clay’s quest is a wildly imaginative and rather Potter-esque trip that encompasses everything from Gutenberg to Google HeadQuarters, a place where employees’ food is personalised with vitamins and natural stimulants. With the aid of his friends and colleagues, whose talents range from data whizbangery to esoteric archaeological knowledge, Clay begins to unravel the truth behind Penumbra’s bookstore and the part it plays in the mysterious Festina Lente Corporation.

At the heart of this journey all is the eternal human yearning for immortality, a desire that even the cleverest technology can’t give us (yet—Kat proudly tells Clay that Google is working on it via a project called Google Forever). But, as in any good quest novel, what turns out to be most important isn’t the symbols or the coveted objects, but the people who seek them, and the passions and ideas that bring them together.

In this unsettling climate of closing bookshops, and the growing popularity of ebooks and online retailers such as the Book Depository, you might not think that there could be any kind of union (imagined or not) between the technology of the future and the dusty bookshelves of the past. But Sloan has created such a delightful and fun fictional universe, and such a lovable cast of characters with which to populate it, that his ideas about how to embrace the future without losing or forgetting the past feel both inspiring and plausible. While his heroes can’t solve their mystery without the might of Google, they’re also lost without what Google employees amusingly refer to as ‘old knowledge’ (OK) and ‘traditional knowledge’ (TK): what’s existed in people’s heads, and in the pages of books, for centuries. “Imagine if we could make all that OK/TK available all the time, to everyone”’, one of Kat’s colleagues muses. At the heart of Clay’s quest is the desire to unite this knowledge with the leaps and bounds of modern technology—to bring the two together without losing something important, and indefinably human, in the process.

Is it actually possible? Who knows. For all that it touches on a very timely and topical issue, Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore has a lovely lightness of touch, and it resonates with Sloan’s obvious passion for the printed word. It’s a fantasy with its head rooted in reality, but it’s no less enjoyable and inventive for that—and no less a resounding testament to why we love stories, no matter what form they take.

Northwest of here.

September 21, 2012

Literary darling Zadie Smith’s much anticipated fourth novel, NW, is a curious beast. Fans of Smith’s previous work, which includes the sprawling and brilliant comic sagas White Teeth and On Beauty, may or may not take to the rather experimental new turn she takes in her latest work. NW is a mixed bag of stylistic tricks, a stream-of-consciousness trip through modern London that jumps between manic staccato and meandering internal monologue with mixed results.

In the Northwest corner of one of the world’s most iconic cities, life has dealt mixed hands to four 30-somethings who grew up on the Caldwell council estate: Leah works for a nonprofit and doesn’t know how to tell her husband, Michel, that she doesn’t want children; Leah’s childhood best friend, Natalie, is a lawyer earning big bucks and serving heirloom tomato salads at her dinner parties; Felix has overcome a drug problem and seeks a better life with his new girlfriend, Grace; Nathan, Leah’s childhood crush, wanders the streets smoking weed and selling travelcards at the local tube station.

Smith squeezes the thoughts and experiences of these four characters into five sections, each with a very different style. What unites these sections—and, indeed, what seems to tie the novel together—is a stream-of-consciousness approach, an attempted narrative immersion that doesn’t quite work.

We begin with Leah, who opens her front door only to falls for a scam: a neighbour pretends her mother has been rushed to hospital, and convinces Leah to hand over the cash for a cab fare.

So begins a skittering journey through the next few weeks of Leah’s life, and her attendant insecurities, memories, and anxieties. Chief among these is the increasing sense of disconnection she feels from Natalie, who has left her Caldwell roots far behind her (including changing her name—at school, she was Keisha) in a way that Leah has not. It isn’t so much jealousy that Leah feels, but anger at the audacity of her friend’s transformation, and the frisson of disinterest and irritation that lurks beneath their every exchange.

It isn’t until we reach Natalie’s section of the book that we come to understand the myth of her reinvention. While she isn’t a particularly likeable character, she’s certainly the best developed of Smith’s foursome. In a series of short, headed paragraphs that begin in early childhood and culminate in the unhappy present of her comfortable middle-class life, Smith reveals the Keisha who lives behind Natalie’s collected exterior—a woman who, even as a teenager, felt an odd sense of internal emptiness, ‘wondering whether she herself in fact had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television’.

In between Leah and Natalie we meet Felix, whose unfortunate destiny we discover before we meet him on what is the final day of his life—a life that, ironically, seems more content and stable than anyone else’s in the novel, despite his past brushes with drugs and the law. Felix is not known to Leah, Natalie, or Nathan, but his fate will connect them all.

The only character whose consciousness we are not privy to—for reasons that become clear—is Nathan, whom we know only from the glimpses and remembered fragments we’re afforded in Leah’s and Natalie’s sections. Nathan is the one who has not made it—when Leah sees him on the high road occasionally (‘Now missing a tooth here and there and there. Devastated eyes. What should be white is yellow.’), she ‘ducks into a shop, or crosses, or gets on a bus’.

In her study of these four disparate characters from a single place, Smith has, to her credit, created an honest and complex portrait of urban society, and those who fall between its cracks (Felix, Nathan) versus those who claw their way free (Leah, Natalie), although this comes at a cost. Queuing behind a woman ‘emptying her pockets onto the counter, offering to relinquish this and that item’ at her local supermarket, Natalie ‘had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand’.

Disappointingly, it’s the style of the book that lessens its impact. Smith’s writerly sleights of hand—which include a passage written as stage directions, a page of thought fragments in the shape of a tree, and a general disregard for quotation marks—often feel self-conscious and fanciful. Ultimately, they thwart Smith’s desire (or what I assume is her desire) to submerge the reader in the hearts and minds of her characters, to give a true and visceral sense of their lives. Smith’s wordplay and fragmented internal monologues and commentaries have the opposite effect, keeping her audience at a remove that dilutes the powerful themes at the story’s centre.

But NW still has much to offer, and much to say. It might be set entirely in the postcode of its title, but it’s not just a London novel. It’s a novel of the modern city, and the modern afflictions that crowd our lives within it: the romantic complications, financial struggles, social mores, and lingering dissatisfactions over whether our chosen paths are the right ones after all. Natalie, Leah, Felix, and Nathan embody an experience familiar to so many of us—the destiny pressed upon you by your class and your beginnings, and the adventure and consequences of your attempted escape from them.

Faith in the past.

September 11, 2012

The exceptionally talented Jennifer Egan has experienced an enthusiastic surge of interest from readers and publishers alike since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with 2011’s masterful A Visit From the Goon Squad. Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, a remarkably assured exploration of identity and youth, is the last of her backlist to be reissued for the Australian market; it’s a welcome addition to our shelves, and further testament to Egan’s impressive scope as a novelist.

It’s 1978, and 18-year-old Phoebe O’Connor’s older sister, Faith, has been dead for eight years. An idealistic but damaged wild child who seemed to embody the spirit of the radical sixties, Faith supposedly killed herself by jumping off a cliff in Italy while travelling through Europe.

Almost a decade on, Phoebe is still haunted by her sister’s death; Faith’s absence, and the mythology Phoebe has woven around her short but troubled life, has become the shroud through which Phoebe views the world. Hers is a life half-lived: sleeping in Faith’s old room, memorising the words on the postcards Faith sent from Europe, Phoebe has immortalised the past at the expense of engaging in the present.

But Faith’s tragedy has its own precedent: Phoebe’s father died of leukaemia when Faith was fourteen and Phoebe seven. The apple of her father’s eye, his death prompted Faith’s descent into a self-destructive rebellion; for Faith, ‘any sense of an ending had awakened in her a driving need to prolong whatever it was’, and this culminated, ironically, in the end of her own life.

Much as Phoebe takes comfort in the cocoon of her memories, she senses its oddity: she rarely invites people over, because sometimes, ‘when outsiders came into Faith’s room, Phoebe glimpsed herself through their eyes and was terrified’. When she finally sees that her mother has moved on from her father’s death, anger and confusion give way to the conviction that she must discover what really happened to Faith. Taking Faith’s postcards, Phoebe packs a bag and leaves for Europe. But her attempt to immerse herself in the past by retracing her sister’s steps is what finally leads to her own painful and cathartic awakening, a bittersweet entry into adulthood that grants her a kind of escape—but not without its emotional cost.

The Invisible Circus is too complex a novel, and Egan too clever a writer, for Phoebe’s story to become just another trite tale of self discovery. Phoebe’s experience encapsulates the fragility and confusion of youth, of seeing that misalignment between who you want to be and who you really are. Alone and unhappy in Belgium in the early days of her trip, Phoebe realises that when she imagined heself abroad, ‘she’d always pictured someone else, physically even, a tall blonde with an answer for everything—as if, in the course of this journey, she would not only shed her former life but cease to exist as herself’.

But Phoebe’s luck changes when she has a chance encounter in Germany. As she finally gleans more information about her sister’s final weeks, she begins to experience, for the first time, a true sense of herself, and a connection with another person that lets her see the past in a new—perhaps less forgiving—light, and start coming to terms with it.

It’s this negotiation between past and present that Egan handles so well, and that gives the novel such an interesting dimension: The Invisible Circus is not just a coming-of-age tale, but a study in nostalgia and melancholy, and how it can nourish as well us destroy us. Phoebe is entranced by the hippie culture of the 60s—mostly because it seems to represent the essence of her sister. But her fascination with this moment in history blinds her to its failures, just as the myth she has constructed around her father—and, in turn, the way her father ‘used Faith to bolster all kinds of myths about himself’—blinds her to the truth, at least for a while. ‘”It was all about watching ourselves happen”’, Faith’s old boyfriend, Wolf, tells Phoebe of their hippie days. ‘”At one point it seemed clear that if we just kept pounding away like we were, some gigantic force would, like, lift us away. And today, the ones who pounded the hardest are pretty much all dead. So you’ve got to ask yourself: How well was that working?”’

Running like an undercurrent through the narrative is Faith, and fragments of her postcards that Phoebe carries with her for part of the journey, their innocent enthusiasm giving little away: ‘”Paris, wow!!”‘, she writes, ‘”and everything is spiritual and when someone leaves maybe you won’t ever see them again but so what, even in that little time you can still love them'”. Although we only ever glimpse Faith through the words and memories of others, she’s a remarkably vivid character, and the strength of her presence makes Phoebe’s journey all the more affecting without straying into sentimentality.

In the midst of this, Egan constructs some remarkable set pieces: the scene where Phoebe endures her first acid trip in the streets of Paris is mesmerising and horrifying, and her encounter with a Spanish student who shows her the Cathedral of Reims is beautiful and sad. As the novel reaches its climax in Corniglia, the town where Faith died, fresh revelations ratchet up the narrative tension.

The Invisible Circus is a powerful and nuanced work that balances the inner lives of its characters with the universal experiences of growing up and facing our deepest fears and our hardest losses. Phoebe’s loss of her sister is unique, but Egan’s depiction of her protagonist’s gradual awakening, her sudden immersion in the heady rush of first love, distils the essence of what it is to be young, and to feel that your life is finally beginning.

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