Kate Forsyth is one of Australia’s most treasured storytellers. On today’s edition of What Katie Read, she gives us the rundown on all of the best books she’s been reading lately…
by Daniel Mendelsohn
My next novel is set in Greece, and so I am reading as much as I can about their extraordinarily rich history and culture. A friend recommended Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir about teaching The Odyssey to his elderly father, and so I ordered it online and settled down to read.
The plot is very simple: Daniel Mendelsohn teaches The Odyssey to undergraduates at an American university. His eighty-one-year-old father Jay decides to enrol in the course, as one of his life regrets is never reading the great classics of literature. The rest of the class are young and don’t quite know how to react to finding a grumpy old man in their class. Daniel, meanwhile, has deep misgivings. His relationship with his father has always been troubled.
Through this experience, Daniel Mendelsohn examines the history and meaning and study of The Odyssey, said to have been written by a blind poet named Homer in the 8th century but most probably composed and retold by many different tellers over the centuries. It is said to be the second oldest surviving work of Western literature, and the sequel to The Iliad which is the oldest.
Daniel Mendelsohn loves this ancient poem, and loves teaching it. He knows it very well. Yet during the long months in which he teaches his father, he discovers that there is always more to learn about literature, about life, and – most poignantly – about himself.
The Odyssey is a poem about fathers and sons, trickery and truthfulness, being lost and searching for home, and Daniel Mendelsohn’s book illuminates both the universal and the personal relevance of these themes today. It is cleverly constructed and beautifully written, deliberately echoing the circular structure of the poem. It made me dig out my old battered copy of the poem from my own school days and dip into it again.
by Jeannette Walls
I ask my students to read and study it because The Glass Castle is such a powerful and thought-provoking story, and a brilliant example of episodic structure (which means a narrative based on inter-linked stories or events or vignettes, rather than a dramatic arc that leads to a climactic resolution).
Jeannette Walls grew up in an unconventional family. Her parents were determined not to live ordinary suburban lives. Her mother was a teacher who refused to teach, her father an inventor who never invented anything. Rose Mary spent her days writing and painting and encouraging her children to run wild … sorry, to be independent and resilient … while Rex got work when he could, though most of it was spent on booze. Brilliant, charismatic, unstable, and increasingly unreliable, he led his family from one small town to another, running when the rent was overdue and couldn’t be paid, or when yet another job ended with him being fired. Jeannette adored him … but in time her love turned to hurt and disillusionment. Eventually she had to take her chance and escape, all the while knowing that she was abandoning her other brothers and sisters.
Written in 2005, The Glass Castle spent months on the New York Times bestseller list and was turned into a movie with Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson. It’s a masterclass in writing memoir.
by Sarah Perry
Sarah Perry is a British author who won many fans with her second novel, The Essex Serpent (including me!) An eerie magic realism novel set in Victorian times, The Essex Serpent had a forbidden love story at its heart, along with sightings of a monstrous human-devouring snake. It’s just my kind of book, and so I was eager to read her latest offering.
The title tugged at my memory. I studied Gothic literature at university, and heard about (but did not read) a book called Melmoth the Wanderer, written in 1820 by an Irish Anglican priest Charles Maturin. It’s a classic of Gothic horror, with storm-racked landscapes, midnight scenes set in graveyards, and a creeping sense of claustrophobia and dread. The hero – John Melmoth – attends the deathbed of his uncle, sees an ancient painting of an ancestor, and is mystifyingly told that this ancestor still lives and John shall meet him anon. It turns out that his ancestor sold his soul to the devil in a Faustian pact, but now roams the world trying to foist the deal on to someone else. The book is told as a sequence of stories within stories, in a technique often called a ‘nested narrative’.
I mainly remember the story of Melmoth the Wanderer because Charles Maturin was Oscar Wilde’s uncle and the book was a strong influence on Wilde’s great Gothic masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After Wilde was released from gaol, he went into exile on the Continent under the alias of Sebastian Melmoth, the name of the cursed wanderer.
Knowing all this, I expected a dark Gothic tale. I did not realise, however, that Sarah Perry’s novel is actually a kind of retelling of Charles Maturin’s story. The story is inverted, in that both the protagonist and the cursed wanderer in Perry’s tale are women. The frame tale is set in contemporary Prague, rather than 19th century Ireland, but there are many echoes, including the story-within-story-within-story narrative structure.
Helen is a British woman living a life of denial and self-abnegation in Prague. She has few friends, few amusements. One day an acquaintance begs her to read a folder of old documents about a woman named Melmoth. He then disappears. Helen is troubled and unsure. She feels like she is being followed. A clattering of jackdaws in the sombre skies. A woman dressed all in black, seen in the corner of her eye. “Who is Melmoth?” you ask.
Let me tell you.
Melmoth once witnessed the resurrection of Christ, but in her fear denied the truth. So she was condemned to wander the earth for ever more, bearing witness to acts of cruelty, betrayal, and atrocity.
She must wander ‘until she’s weary and her feet are bleeding … she’s lonely, and she wants a companion, so she goes to cells and asylums and burned-out houses and gutters … she’ll follow you down paths and alleys in the dark, or come in the night and sit waiting at the end of your bed … it’s as if she’s been watching all your life – as if she’s seen not only every action, but every thought, every shameful secret, every private cruelty.’
Inevitably Helen begins to read the documents – letters, diaries, and first-hand accounts – and so we go back in time to others who have been haunted by Melmoth. Each one is a masterpiece of ventriloquism: a boy in Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia who betrays a Jewish friend; a woman about to be burned to death for heresy in the 16th century; a Turkish civil servant who worked for those who masterminded the Armenian massacre. Behind all these tales of grief and horror is the mystery of Helen’s own crime: what did she do to draw Melmoth to her?
This book breaks a great many rules. Helen is an unsympathetic protagonist. Most of the other characters are too. The narrative is fragmented and uneven. The reader is directly addressed again and again:
“She finds herself unwilling to raise her head to the window, as if she might see beyond the glass a face with an expression of loneliness so imploring as to be cruel. (And since she will not look, you must.)”
The book has divided readers. Some find it slow, boring, repetitive, self-conscious. Others think it is brilliant, provoking, and profound. I’m in the latter camp. It reminds me of other books I have loved – The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Angel of Ruin by Kim Wilkins, The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Each new story takes the reader deeper into the metaphysical truth at the heart of the book. We must bear witness. We must take responsibility. We are all human.
by Dervla McTiernan
This is the second offering from Irish-born, Australian resident Dervla McTiernan and its almost as good as her smash debut, The Ruin, which was a cracker. Both books are set in Ireland, and feature Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, who is struggling to find a place for himself after moving to Galway. His girlfriend Emma has taken a job there, and he has followed her, both hoping for a fresh start.
Emma is a scientist and works in a research lab at the university. The story begins when she discovers the body of a girl lying in the middle of the road. It looks like a hit-and-run, but there are a few odd details which get Cormac intrigued. The clues lead him to believe the dead girl is the granddaughter of the millionaire who funds the lab, but there are so many false leads and lies that nothing is as it seems. And the trail keeps returning to Emma, who Cormac is desperate to protect.
This is top-notch crime writing – fast, clever, surprising, and psychologically acute. I can only wish Dervla could write as fast as I can read!
by Mary Renault
I first read The King Must Die by Mary Renault as a teenager, and I remember being utterly transported to the world of ancient Greece in this story of the clever, arrogant Theseus and his quest to destroy the Minotaur. I love novels which draw on myth and folktale, and I am now working on a very different reworking of this ancient tale myself (mine is set in Crete in World War II, so it could not be more unlike).
Mary Renault’s novel was first published in 1958, and it was hugely successful. She had had a few books published previously and in 1948 had won a MGM prize worth $150,000 (!) which allowed her to give up her day job as a nurse, move to South Africa with her partner, Julie Mullard, and write full-time.
It begins: “The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers.” Theseus is just a boy – small but nimble, and said to have been fathered by a god. He sets out to find out the truth of this, a journey that makes him first a king, and then a slave and bull-leaper in Crete. It’s an extraordinary journey, filled with darkness and blood, war and lust, beauty and betrayal. Mary Renault is truly an astonishingly assured writer; one of those greats whose pace and verve and precision humbles and inspire me.
by Colin Duriez
I am, of course, a fan of both J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Their books have had a profound effect on me from a young age. I re-visit their books every half a decade or so, and every year make a pilgrimage to the Bird and Baby pub in Oxford to drink a cider in their memory (the pub is really called The Eagle and Child, and Tollers and Jack used to drink there every Tuesday afternoon with a few of the other Inkling chaps*). I even have framed maps of Narnia and Middle Earth hanging on my sitting-room wall.
I have quite a fine collection of books written by or about them, but am always interested in fresh new perspectives. And I like to read a literary biography every month if I can. Writers and their lives interest me.
This is a great introduction to anyone who would like to know more about Tolkien and Lewis, and their long and fruitful friendship. It is not an in-depth biography, and skims over their relationships with their wives which I thought was a shame. But the book is really about the bond between the two men, their shared love of history, myth and fairy tales, and their influence on each other’s writing; in that respect, it’s superb.
Their friendship was not without tension. Tolkien disliked Narnia, and was perturbed by his friend’s soaring literary popularity at a time when he was doggedly working away on The Lord of the Rings, unsure whether he would ever finish it. Without Lewis’s constant encouragement and support, however, it may well have ended up another unfinished manuscript in Tolkien’s bottom drawer. And Tolkien also did not approve of Lewis’s relationship with Joy Davidman, a divorced American-Jewish writer with decided opinions and metastatic cancer (Jack and Joy’s unconventional marriage has inspired a number of plays and films, including Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.)
Tolkien & C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship is a deftly handled and very readable biography of two great writers, and a brilliant introduction to the Inklings and their work.
(*Tollers was, of course, Tolkien’s nickname. Lewis’s given names were Clive Staples but he re-named himself Jacksie when he was three after his dog of the same name was hit by a car and never answered to anything else for the rest of his life. The Inklings was an informal literary discussion group in Oxford in the ‘30 and ‘40s that centred around Lewis and Tolkien, and also included Roger Lancelyn Green and Charles Williams).
by Rosamund Lupton
A gripping psychological thriller, The Quality of Silence is on my list of recommended reads for my Cotswolds writing retreat students. I asked them all to read it because it is such a brave and unconventional crime novel. One of the things I really want to do is encourage my students to read more widely and to take more risks with their writing. Rosamund Lupton is one of the most daring crime writers around, and there is much to learn from her.
What is so audacious about The Quality of Silence?
Firstly, the protagonist is a ten-year-old deaf girl named Ruby. She can only speak with her hands, or if she types into a voice-generating computer. She can only understand others if they use sign language, or if they articulate so slowly and clearly that she can read their lips. In darkness, she is both deaf and mute.
Secondly, the book is set in Alaska in winter. The sun sets in November and does not rise again until late January. Sixty-seven days of darkness. And Ruby and her mother Yasmin are alone in this bitter-cold wasteland. The two of them, hurtling along a treacherous icy road in a snowstorm, the only source of illumination their dipping, swaying headlights. And the headlights of the truck that is following them. It is the most intense and claustrophobic setting imaginable.
Thirdly, Rosamund Lupton is not afraid to switch points-of-view, or to jump backwards and forward in time, or to leave a whole page empty with nothing but a single full-stop upon it.
It’s virtuoso writing, and so unusual to find it in a genre that demands narrative pace and tension. I can’t wait for her next book (rumoured to be released in late 2019).
by Andrew Birkin
This is the book which inspired the movie Finding Neverland, about the family of boys that inspired J.M. Barrie to create Peter Pan. It’s a troubling read, and one that has divided the world into those who believe the author was a paedophile who stalked the Llewelyn Davies family and shadowed their live with grief and tragedy; and those who believe he was an asexual innocent who created a work of genius and has been cruelly misunderstood by modern audiences with a Freudian obsession with libido.
There is evidence for both arguments. Here are a few interesting points:
J.M. Barrie was only 5’ 3’’. Some believe he suffered from psychogenic dwarfism, brought on by the tragic death of his 14-year-old brother David when he was six. His mother Margaret was stricken with grief, and little Jamie used to dress up in his brother’s clothes to comfort her (or so he wrote). However, there is no real evidence to support either the existence of psychogenic dwarfism, or that it was the cause of Barrie’s short stature (he was born into a poor Scottish family at a time when the average height for men in Britain was 5’5”). However, the psychic shock of his brother’s death does seem to be the source of his obsession with boys and the preservation of their innocence.
In 1894, he married an actress named Mary Ansell. They did not have any children, and it was implied at their divorce in 1909 that the marriage was never consummated. Barrie wrote in his (believed-to-be-autographical) novel Tommy and Grizel (1900): ‘Grizel, I seem to be different from all other men; there seems to be some curse upon me … You are the only woman I ever wanted to love, but apparently I can’t.’
Barrie met five-year-old George, four-year-old Jack and baby Peter Llewellyn Davies in 1898, in Kensington Gardens. He befriended them, entertained them with tricks with his dog, told them stories, and waggled his eyebrows. He met their mother Sylvia at a dinner party soon after; it was not long before they were holidaying together at his country retreat. Soon two more boys were born: Michael and Nico. Barrie played wild adventurous games with the five boys and photographed them, often in the nude. He then created two photobooks of their summer adventures, one for him and one for their father Arthur, entitled The Boy Castaways. Arthur accidentally left his copy on the train.
In 1901, Barrie wrote a book for adults called The Little White Bird. It introduced the character of Peter Pan, who flew from his cradle at the age of seven to Kensington Gardens and was taught to fly by the fairies. He is described as ‘betwixt-and-between’ a boy and a bird.
In the book, a boy named David is befriended by the narrator, who pretends to have a son of his own who died. This lie creates an empathetic connection with David’s mother, who pities him. The narrator – a man much like J.M. Barrie – persuades her to allow him to have her son for a sleepover: ‘David and I had a tremendous adventure. It was this – he passed the night with me… I took [his boots] off with all the coolness of an old hand, and then I placed him on my knee, and removed his blouse. This was a delightful experience, but I think I remained wonderfully calm until I came somewhat too suddenly to his little braces, which agitated me profoundly… I cannot proceed in public with the disrobing of David.’
The phenomenal success of The Little White Bird encouraged Barrie to turn the story of Peter Pan into a stage play entitled Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. It premiered in London on 27 December 1904 in London. It too was a huge critical and commercial success. Barrie’s publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, then extracted the relevant chapters of The Little White Bird and published them in 1906 under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with magical illustrations by Arthur Rackham.
Tragically, Arthur Llewellyn Davies died from cancer of the jaw in 1907. Three years later Sylvia died of lung cancer. Close to her death, Sylvia wrote: ‘What I wd like wd be if Jenny wd come to Mary & that the two together wd be looking after the boys & the house.’ (Mary was the boys’ nanny; Jenny was Mary’s sister.)
Barrie transcribed this note and sent it to Sylvia’s mother, but he changed the name ‘Jenny’ to ‘Jimmy’ – his own name. As a consequence, he became guardian to the five orphaned boys.
Of the Llewellyn Davies boys, George died in the trenches in World War I at the age of 21. Jack died of lung disease aged 65. Peter was bullied mercilessly all through his school days as the original ‘Peter Pan’, which he called ‘that terrible masterpiece.’ He threw himself under a train at the age of 63. Michael – the most sensitive and brilliant of the boys, and Barrie’s most beloved – drowned in suspicious circumstances with his best friend (and possible lover) Rupert Buxton just before his 21st birthday. Nico (who was only one year old when Peter Pan became a stage hit) had a happy life and marriage, and died at the age of almost 77. He wrote to Andrew Birkin, the author of this biography: ‘I don’t believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone – man, woman, adult or child. He was an innocent…’
I am usually of a decisive nature, with strong opinions. But I cannot determine for myself which of the two portrayals of J.M. Barrie is more likely. Creepy paedophile-stalker, or asexual innocent genius?
Of course, we never can know. Peter Llewellyn Davies burned most of Barrie’s letters to Michael, and we have no evidence but supposition.
But the book has haunted me since reading it.
Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel aged seven and has now sold more than a million books worldwide. Her upcoming novel, The Blue Rose, is inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose, moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution. Other novels for adults include Beauty in Thorns, a Pre-Raphaelite reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, Bitter Greens, which won the 2015 American Library Association award for Best Historical Fiction; and The Beast’s Garden, a stunning retelling of the Grimms’ Beauty and The Beast set in Nazi Germany.
Kate’s books for children include the collection of feminist fairy-tale retellings, Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington, and the fantasy series The Impossible Quest. Named one of Australia’s Favourite 15 Novelists, Kate has a BA in literature, a MA in creative writing and a doctorate in fairy tale studies, and is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers. She is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the author of the first book for children ever published in Australia.
The Blue Rose
Moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution and inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose.
Viviane de Faitaud has grown up alone at the Chateau de Belisama-sur-le-Lac in Brittany, for her father, the Marquis de Ravoisier, lives at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles. After a hailstorm destroys the chateau’s orchards, gardens and fields an ambitious young Welshman, David Stronach, accepts the commission to plan the chateau’s new gardens in the hope of making his name as a landscape designer.
David and Viviane fall in love, but it is an impossible romance. Her father has betrothed her to a rich duke who she is forced to marry and David is hunted from the property. Viviane goes to court and becomes a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette and a member of the extended royal family. Angry and embittered, David sails away from England with Lord Macartney, the British ambassador, who hopes to open up trade with Imperial China.