The latest from Mieko Kawakami and more
Book reviewers Cameron Woodhead and Fiona Capp take a look at new fiction and non-fiction releases. Here are their reviews.
Fiction selection of the week
All night lovers
Mieko Kawakami, Picador, $32.99
Fuyuko is a 34-year-old moth-like copy editor who leads a secluded life. Without a partner, vices, or close friends, the recluse has become a creature of routine, interacting sporadically only with her vivacious supervisor Hijiri, who introduces her to sake and beer.
The novel then shifts from ghostly dissociation to a drunken underworld, shaken by a dark, futuristic nightscape, as a beam of light emerges through geeky romance. The physicist love object, Mutsutsuka, may or may not be a fantasy, but it delays, for a time, Fuyuko’s confrontation with the trauma that drained her life.
Mieko Kawakami is a visceral force in modern Japanese fiction, and she handles this denouement with a bold vitality, her psychological insight as close to the scalpel as her descriptive powers (which she transforms, among other things, into superb evocations of 21st-century Tokyo century at night).
Hernan Diaz, $32.99
If postmodern literature has the reputation of disappearing on its own, the metafictional technique is brilliantly deployed in Hernan Diaz. Trust. The truth is buried in a trail of silver in this puzzle-like tale.
It starts like Obligations, a novel within a novel set in 1920s New York City. We first follow a Wall Street magnate and his arts patron wife as they rise to the opulent heights of wealth and fame. Traces of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stand out behind the glamour; yet an economic disaster is looming, and with it a frightening toll. This is followed by notes on the story we just read and the teardown continues as we move on to a secretary from Brooklyn during the Depression. She is employed by a tycoon whose life Obligations was based – a narcissist exasperated by the liberties taken and determined to tell the story in his own way.
It’s a twisted literary maze that draws the reader deep into questions about how extreme wealth can bend reality, how easily truth can be manipulated by the powerful.
The life told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal
Juan Jose Millas and Juan Luis Arsuaga, Scribe, $29.99
Human prehistory can confuse any hard boundary between fiction and non-fiction. The evidence tickles the imagination, and the subject has captured literary attention – one thinks of William Golding’s obsession with Neanderthals in The heirs – for what the crucible of evolution might tell us about human nature.
The life told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal brings together one of Spain’s most prolific and popular contemporary novelists, Juan Jose Millas, with a professor of paleontology, and the result is a thoughtful, wise and impeccably crafted discovery of European prehistory as it breaks through the varnish of the contemporary world.
It’s the kind of essayistic literary work that pulls history from the stone in the style of WG Sebald, and will probably also appeal to readers who lean more towards the non-fiction side of the border, like fans of the late Stephen Jay Gould.
What we’ve all seen
Mike Lucas, Penguin, $19.99
A decent introduction to Stephen King-style horror for early high school readers, Mike Lucas’ What we’ve all seen centers on four friends – Shell, Gray, Charlie and the narrator – who we are told upfront are hiding the death of a child.
They’ve all heard the rumors about Hag’s Drop, a towering cliff from which, it is said, witches were thrown to their deaths long ago. They say the place is still haunted by the spirit of a vengeful witch, and when the children tempt fate while investigating, things take a deadly turn as a nightmare comes to life.
I particularly liked the character of Shell, a young visually impaired girl full of life who seems the most vulnerable to danger but who is also the wisest, the one who sees what others do not see. The novel stays age-appropriate – there’s nothing horrific to melt the eyes – and is essentially a well-turned buddy story dressed in the tension of psychological, supernatural horror.
Non-fiction pick of the week
A dolphin called Jock
Melody Horrill, Allen & Unwin, $32.99
Melody Horrill grew up holding her breath, fearfully awaiting the next violent eruption between her parents. A childhood that left her disconnected from the world and the people around her. Serendipity in the form of an encounter with a damaged dolphin called Jock opened her up “to the possibility of belonging, to love in its raw, unfiltered form”.
The light Jock brought to her life when she started working as a volunteer, monitoring river dolphins in the waters of Port Adelaide, is woven into the dark history of her past. The lone dolphin’s trust in her, his unbridled expressions of joy in her company, and her thirst for connection transformed her.
Their poignant story arc has the satisfying quality of a contemporary fairy tale with an urgent message about the fragile yet profound bond between humans and the natural world.
The Horde of Words
Hana Viden, Princeton University Press, $27.99
When the term “wordhord” appears in Old English literature, it is usually associated with “unlock” – which is exactly what this delightful book does. It unlocks the treasury of 1000 years old English words that shape our language and our understanding of the world.
While some Old English words such as “bliss”, “cild” (child), “wis” (wise), “craeft” (craft) and “englisc” (English) remain almost unchanged, others seep surreptitiously in our consciousness. “Dom” was replaced by “judgment” – from the French after the Norman invasion – but persists in “doom”.
The earthiness of much of Old English makes it ripe for revival. Take “end-woerc” for “pain in the buttocks” or “torn word” for a word that causes grief or distress. And what a pity that we can’t give COVID the more inspired name of “Oelf-siden” (elf-enchantment): an unknown condition accompanied by fever.
Nothing but the truth
The secret lawyer Picador, $34.99
When this anonymous British lawyer started out, he had a firm belief that “stories of bleeding-heart sobbing do not absolve you of your role in the social contract”. Exposure to the world of criminal law completely changed them.
The Secret Barrister opens with law school and the hyper-competitive “brown-nosed race to the bottom” to get an education with an experienced attorney, building as it dawns on them that people caught in the system of criminal justice could be genuinely innocent. Over the years, there are the risks of exposure to harrowing cases and gruesome images, and how that can swing between casualness and paranoia.
Though it may sound dark, this journey through the underworld of the criminal courts is written with a knowing levity, a seasoned wit, and a keen appreciation for the messy complexity of human affairs.
The internet is not what you think it is
Justin EH Smith, Princeton University Press, $34.99
Early on, as he ponders where the internet has taken us, philosopher Justin Smith accuses him of being “anti-human.” Yet just as the Internet isn’t what you think it is, neither is this book.
As Smith addresses what’s wrong with the web — particularly compelling is his exploration of how it affects our attention and how it encourages us to trade our sense of self for “an algorithmically traceable profile” — he also offers insight. holistic view of this machine-mediated communication as an extension of all forms of communication in nature.
In terms of human history, he argues, the evolution of the internet “is just the latest twist in a much longer story of thinking about the connectivity and unity of all things.” So, even if he shows how the canvas deforms us, he remains attentive to the weft of the whole fabric and to the positive potential that it conceals. It is a demanding read but well worth it.
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