Australia & New Zealand Literature Month

ANZ-LitMonth-200pixANZ Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters is nearly over but I’ve finally managed to fit in a short novel by Tim Winton to take part reviewing, although I have enjoyed reading contributor’s reviews which are listed here.

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That Eye, The Sky by Tim Winton

that eye
This short novel was published in 1986, so early in Winton’s writing career – his third book. It’s a quirky little thing – not really a coming of age story, but it is definitely a tale about growing up and learning more about what to believe in for young Morton – known as Ort.

Eleven-year-old Ort is in his final term at junior school. In the autumn he’ll have to take the school bus to the city to join the seniors – something he’s not looking forward to.  He lives a way outside their little town – his hippy parents decided to forsake the city for the country when his Mum was pregnant with his older sister Tegwyn. His ancient Grammar also lives with them. His Dad works at the nearby garage for Mr Cherry, whose son Fat is Ort’s best friend. They’re looking forward to a summer swimming in the creek and doing nothing much at all.  Today starts off as a normal day …

‘Seeyaz.’ That’s Dad going. He revs the ute up. He’s in a hurry, going into town for Mr Cherry.
‘Wave him off, Ort,’ Mum says to me. She always reckons you should show people you love them when they go away because you might never see them again. They might die. The world might end. But Dad’s only going to town for an hour. It’s business for Mr Cherry. And there he goes, out the drive and onto the road.

It’s as well that they wave goodbye, for within a few pages, Ort’s Dad has had a bad car accident and is taken to hospital where he lies ‘crook’ in a coma. Neither Ort nor his Mum believe that he won’t come home – Ort himself was in a coma for a fortnight with meningitis as a babe.

Life continues for the Flack family, with added visits to the hospital, when Mr Cherry agrees to take them – although the relationship between the Flacks and the cherries will go sour when Mum finds out what the errand was. Meanwhile, Ort and Fat muck around in the creek and spy on a bum who’s sleeping under the bridge.

Sure enough, one day Sam wakes up. The hospital soon ship him home – he breathes – voicelessly through the tracheostomy hole in his windpipe. He sees, but doesn’t appear to look. He’s little more than a vegetable in appearance, although Ort is sure he hears and understands everything. He’s going to need a lot of looking after.

Help arrives – but not the kind they’d been expecting. Henry Warburton turns up on the doorstep – saying he’s a volunteer. Ort recognises him – but his Mum accepts the offer as she’s getting desperate. So Henry joins the Flack household, an enigmatic stranger, big, grubby and with a speech impediment – he seems to fight with himself a lot. Should they trust him?

Big things in life tend to happen in clusters – and that’s what happens in this novel. Everything coincides that summer and for Ort, that means a certain loss of innocence, yet also an opening of his mind to new things – not always for the better perhaps. Ort has to man up and act as the head of the household. For his Mum, it’s the realisation that their hippy dream only works with both her and Sam in it – and it knocks her for six, making her extremely fragile emotionally and open to suggestion.

Henry brings with him a definite sense of threat; its hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but intermittently I was reminded of Reverend Harry Powell as played by Robert Mitchum in the film Night of the Hunter, but I don’t think Henry was inherently evil in that way. Certainly creepy though. Winton leaves much to our imagination…

Ort is a great child narrator though, on the cusp of becoming a teenager soon, but not until after that transition year when you start seniors. He’s a practical nature boy too, looking after his ‘chooks’, catching lizards and looking up at that sky…

The sky is the same colour as Mum and Dad’s eyes. When you look at it long enough, like I am now with my nose up in it, it looks exactly like an eye anyway. One big blue eye. Just looking down. At us.

I loved Ort’s voice narrating the story. The contrast between long and short sentences. Winton captures the beginnings of his adolescence perfectly, and his rebellious sister Tegwyn too – she is confused and isolated living out there. Naturally, you cross your fingers when reading a story like this, hoping for a happy outcome – but you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to find that out.

Although this probably wasn’t the best Winton novel to start off with, it’s the only one I had to hand. If it represents a writer beginning to find his stride, I have high hopes for his later books, as I enjoyed this one. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
That Eye, the Sky by Tim Winton (pub 1986, Scribner paperback 160 pages.)

Who is Silvia?

Oh Dear Silvia by Dawn French

silviaShakespeare’s question from The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an apposite one to ask of Dawn French’s new novel, for the title character never says a word, being in a coma after a fall from a third floor balcony.

Instead, Silvia’s story is told from many different points of view including her mad hippy sister Jo, her ex husband Ed and best friend Cat amongst others, who all come to visit her. Between visitors, Silvia is looked after by her kind and caring West Indian nurse, Winnie.

With the voices changing each chapter, it does take time to start to build up a picture of Silvia, and it is deliberately confusing at first. As you get to know all the characters a little, certain aspects of Silvia’s life start to become clearer. The clever thing that French does though, as she introduces new information, is to constantly change and update what we think about Silvia; she goes from saint to sinner several times over, and that gives a definite element of drama with a shocking conclusion.

Silvia’s visitors may all be a little stereotypical, particularly Jo, but I’d defy anyone not to like Winnie the nurse who has her own troubles, but puts them aside to provide professional and empathetic care to her patients. We all hear terrible stories about patients, especially elderly ones, being poorly looked after in hospital, and Winnie’s genuine and caring attitude is almost unexpected. I remember one nurse at the Royal Marsden who looked after my late Mum, who took the time to chat, applied hand-cream for her, and generally looked after her wonderfully during her last days – proof that they do exist.

Don’t mistake this for a comedy novel, it is most definitely a drama. Naturally, there are some amusing moments to lighten the tension that develops, but if you were expecting something light from French, you won’t get it here, as Silvia’s untold story is quite dark.

Certain characters worked better than others.  Jo was rather irritating (think Auntie Angela from TV’s Outnumbered), and I wasn’t sure about Ed.  Silvia’s estranged daughter Cassie was interesting, and Tia the cleaner provided most of the light relief.  Winnie was the real star – and if you read her words aloud in your head, you’ll get the West Indian accent portrayed on the page perfectly.

Of course French has always written, not being one of those comedians who don’t write their own material, so it’s not unexpected that she has taken to longer forms so well.  I haven’t read French’s first novel, A tiny bit marvellous, but I really enjoyed this one, liking the original structure in particular, and I look forward to whatever comes next. (8/10)

See also Dovegreyreader’s review.

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I received an ARC to review from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Oh Dear Silvia by Dawn French, pub Michael Joseph in Oct 2012, Hardback 352 pages.