ISABELLE OF THE MOON AND STARS by S.A Jones

isabelle_cover_grandeIt’s a Monday morning and the train is thick with lassitude. Wherever you look heads loll onto shoulders and eyes are glazed. Only a young woman in the middle carriage seems immune to the warm treacle atmosphere. She sits, straight-backed, intent on the scene scrolling by. It is high summer. The sky is candy-hard and cloudless with the roofs of the houses cut stark against it. The lines are so sharp you might slice your finger if you traced them on the window. She breathes in the lavender and fresh laundry scent of her home town in January and smiles.”

From the moment I read this opening paragraph, I was irresistibly drawn into this remarkable novel written by S.A Jones. The descriptions of places and events are well-crafted resulting in vivid imagery that accompanies a bold and beautiful story about love, relationships, pain, confusion, and what it takes to face the dark places of depression.

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars tells the story of Isabelle, a young woman who works in mundane government position as a data analyst where, after the ‘incident’, she is relegated to making statistical reports that no one ever reads. She knows this because she has started substituting ridiculous material into her reports such as “Sucking up to management: good or bad for building ventilation?” and “ Gonorrhoea and P3: a comparative analysis” and Jack, her boss, hasn’t mentioned a thing about it. Out of boredom and meaningless direction, Isabelle starts ignoring her work and using work time for her own personal projects, namely to plan an Australia Day party on the rooftop of her apartment complex, and to research her favourite topic: Prague.

The unspoken ‘incident’ was an anxiety attack that lead to a serious bout of depression, during which time Isabelle’s boyfriend Karl heartlessly ditched her for another woman. This pushed Isabelle to the darkest of places and almost to the edge of her life. Isabelle hates the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. They are ‘blank, nothing words’ that do nothing to describe the pain, the fear, and torture that she feels when The Black Place comes for her. She loathes that her torment and trauma is diminished to terms such as ‘the incident’ and wishes that her Black Place could come with a splint or cast to prove how real her pain is.

It is only because of her best friend Evan’s support and love that Isabelle managed to claw her way back to sanity and control. Evan is celibate, having made a promise to God to cherish his virginity but has neglected to set a reason or time as to when he can be released from this promise. Isabelle has gone to great lengths to control her life and keep The Dark Place at bay. But things start to unravel when she develops a sexual attraction for her middle-aged boss Jack, and Evan confesses his desires for Isabelle herself. Jack’s wife, Kate, is not going to give him up without a fight. She is well aware that her husband has a wandering eye but she’s no pushover and has a few tricks up her sleeve to tempt him back. In the midst of this chaos Isabelle is preparing to throw an Australia Day party, something she has never done before, and has invited all of the people in her apartment block, many of whom she doesn’t even know, to attend. This gesture brings her into the life of her dear, sweet, elderly neighbour, Mrs Graham, and the relationship that develops between them is one of gentle tenderness and deep affection.

The tension within the novel builds to a sizzling point, and as the summer heat escalates so does the risky game that Isabelle is playing with Jack. Frictions overflow, and a moment of unrestrained passion sees Isabelle doing what she does best: running away. To Prague. Running from Evan, running from her own demons.

I was first heard about Isabelle of the Moon and Stars through an interview with the author, S.A Jones, which featured on Amanda Curtin’s blog, looking up/looking down. The concept of a story that attempts to express through its main character a realistic look at how depression and anxiety are experienced intrigued me. Jones mentioned that she was inspired by ‘a dissatisfaction with the way mental illness is often portrayed in popular culture’. Depression is often still very much misunderstood with sufferers enduring a ‘get over it’ attitude by people in their lives, and society at large. It is a difficult topic to base a novel around but Jones has managed to not only construct a convincing narrative, she has created a main character that is so life-like, so engaging and flawed that I cared deeply for Isabelle, felt her pain acutely.

Jones doesn’t stereotype Isabelle. Instead we are given an insight into the daily struggle that Isabelle faces in trying to keep the threads of her life together, keep the façade of wellness in place while desperately fearful of failure, of her world falling apart, of losing the fight to keep The Dark Place from consuming her. Isabelle experiences intense panic attacks, which are her Dark Place. The intensity of these attacks, the sense of being at the mercy of her own body and mind, which seem to have conspired to kill her, are scenes that have been composed with skill and grace, they are raw and confronting, completely believable, and reflect real depressive experiences.

Depression is often viewed as a dark topic but that doesn’t mean that Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is a dark, depressing novel. The opposite in fact. It is a novel that explores what it means to have depression with sensitivity and insight coupled with humour, strength, courage, resolve, love and friendship. There are wonderful moments of tenderness and developing trust in Isabelle’s friendship with Mrs Graham; there is passion, desire, disappointment and mortification in her relationship with Jack; there is a deep solid friendship and blossoming love with Evan; and there is reflection and unification within herself.

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars was a joyous book to read. The prose was beautiful, heartfelt and kept a steady pace. I was immediately drawn into Isabelle’s life from the first delightfully written paragraph right through to the last. It is an immensely satisfying novel from a very talented Australian author, and I highly recommend you put it on your reading list for 2015.

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Isabelle of the Moon and Stars (UWA Publishing 2014)                                                                    ISBN: 9781742586038

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ELEMENTAL by Amanda Curtin

Elemental

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such an evocative, richly woven story that drew me into the depth of the pages so convincingly that I felt I was experiencing the life of the character in Technicolor.

Elemental is the story of Meggie Tulloch, a Scottish lass from Roanhaven, who promises that she will never resign herself to the harsh life of the cold, wind-blown fishing village that generations of her family were born into and never left. She promises herself that she will never carry a man on her back from the shore to the fishing boats so that his socks may remain dry.

We first meet Meggie as an old woman who, sensing she is dying, decides to write selected stories of her life as a gift for her granddaughter, Laura. Meggie’s story is one of love found and lost and of family and secrets that are fiercely hidden from prying eyes but that live on, eating away at the hearts of those who carry their knowledge. Meggie’s life is about many things but one element that stood out to me is her remarkable strength and endurance: the enduring determination in her young heart to follow her dreams and leave Roanhaven and venture into the world, taking her from the icy cold winds at the top of the world to the endless blue skies and scathing heat of Fremantle, in Western Australia; the physical endurance of fingers eaten and disfigured by salt through her working as a fish gutting girl on the Shetland Isles; the endurance to keep going in the face of despair at the loss of so many people that she loves; and the endurance to overcome her fears and open her heart to the joys that life delivers like sunshine on a rainy day. Spanning several generations, Elemental highlights the strength of women, their capacity for love and friendship, laughter and forgiveness, and just getting on with things in a world dominated by men, because that’s how it’s always been.

Elemental is a testament to Amanda Curtin’s ability to turn words into beautiful, evocative and haunting lines of prose. Contributing to the success of this book is the vivid characterisation and voice of Meggie as she tells her story. The depth of Curtin’s historical research is evident and this has allowed her to create the rich background against which the story is told. The use of Scottish, Doric and Shetland words enhance the sense of connection to time and place, bringing Meggie and her family members to life. There is a succinctness to the writing that drives the narrative forward and each sentence has been weighed and considered, shaped by the sharpness of an editor’s eye, resulting in prose that flows, and rolls, and swells. It’s magic.

Elemental by Amanda Curtin. Published by UWA Publishing.              

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The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash

Translated by Jason Grunebaum

Uday Prakash’s three novellas are at once spellbinding and heartbreaking. What’s so compelling about these three tragedies is that they reflect real life for the majority of people in current day India. The stories are written with a masterfully crafted blend of satire, sadness, humility and humour. The characters face one wrenching struggle after another and just when you think they can’t endure any more suffering the gods smile, provide a moment of respite, and then in the flick of a page hopes are dashed, crushed, and the struggle to survive continues.

Prakash’s stories unveil an India that most of us could never imagine, have never encountered. There is struggle and hardship but also a richness to the works, a beauty that shines through the writing.

‘The Walls of Delhi’ is about a secret, a dangerous secret, one that can make men disappear, never to return. Ramnivas discovers a hidden treasure that transforms him from a simple cleaner into a man of means, a man of standing, but this treasure exacts a heavy price: a man’s life.

‘Mohandas’ is a story of corruption (that sinks so deep it’s unfathomable), lies, deceit and greed, and one man’s obstacle-laden attempt to reclaim the thing that he holds most sacred: his name. Written with deep emotion, interwoven with facts, this novella alternates between a global view of the world and the microscopic inspection of the events surrounding on man in India. Cleverly written, the effect serves to provide an enormous canvas against which Mohandas’s life is played out. This story is crammed full of detail, vivid imagery, shocking events and a myriad of characters. It’s impossible to come away unaffected. ‘Mohandas’ touched me to the core, and it will undoubtedly resonate deeply with all who dare to read this eloquent tragedy.

‘Mangosil’ is a love story about the young, beautiful, tortured Shobha and the servant-driver Chandrakant who rescues her. It’s the story of their bravery as they run away together; it’s the story of their passionate, enduring love; it’s the story of their desperation to have a child that lives. And when, after seven births and deaths, they do finally have a child, Shobha and Chandrakant are further challenged by the fact that Suryakant is no ordinary child – he’s sick, diagnosed as having ‘mangosil’.

Interwoven throughout all three novellas is the hierarchy of the caste system and the devastating, brutal treatment of India’s poor; the majority ruled over by the minority. Prakash’s characters endure a suffering that we in the West would find intolerable. These novellas carry within them not just the characters and their lives but convey a deep message of love and hate, loss and gain, despair and hope that unites all of us, regardless of the colour of our skin.

The Walls of Delhi is available from all good bookstores or through UWA Publishing at http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/

About Uday Prakash

Uday Prakash, the author of The Girl with the Golden Parasol, has published numerous volumes of poetry and fiction over the past twenty-five years. He is an important figure in contemporary Hindi writing and his latest work The Walls of Delhi is an important addition to this collection.

Great Summer Reading

Buzz Aldrin, What happened to you in all the confusion? by Johan Harstad

In today’s image-saturated, hyped-up, drama-infused world Buzz Aldrin is the equivalent of taking a walk down a meandering country lane: the pace is slower; there’s time to stop and smell the roses, take in the surrounding scenery and really appreciate everything happening around you.

Written in a stream-of-consciousness-style, Johan Harstad takes the reader on an epic journey alongside main character, Mattias, who has developed an obsession with Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. Mattias’s obsession is as much with the man Buzz Aldrin as it is his status of being number two. Mattias is content, make that determined, to live his life not as the main man but as ‘number two’, the man who is part of something bigger than himself, anonymously contributing to the whole. The fact that Mattias has a brilliant singing voice that can bring a room to a complete standstill and his friends want him to join their band is something that Mattias resists with irreversible consequences.

A loner, Mattias’s world comes crashing down around him when he loses his job and his long-term girlfriend leaves him for another man. A series of events culminating in a blackout sees our protagonist awaken wet and bloodied on the roadside of one of the Faroe Islands, unable to remember how he got there. Havstein, a passing motorist and psychiatrist, stops and convinces Mattias to accompany him back to the Factory, an outpatient centre that Havstein runs for people who have trouble integrating back into society after being institutionalised. Mattias, unbalanced by the direction his life has taken, decides to stay at the Factory as a guest until he finds his centre again.

Is Mattias mad like the other patients at the Factory? It’s difficult to tell: if he is, then so am I because much of his logic, his reflections and his interpretation of life resonated with me. And that is the power of Harstad’s writing. Characters are keenly developed, the story unfolds, layer upon layer, amidst a plethora of pop-culture references, which I personally felt enhanced the storyline and gave Mattias depth and credibility, and both haunting memories and heartfelt moments are revealed with just the right amount of tension. Harstad’s writing is such that I felt as though I was right there alongside Mattias experiencing his highs, his lows, his confusion and his insights. As I read, Mattias changed from a character that I observed to a friend that I cared about and he lingers still, even though I’ve moved on to another book. Buzz Aldrin, What happened to you in all the confusion? is a book that will change the way you view life and what you think it means to be crazy.

Published by UWA Publishing    http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/

Johan Harstad will be appearing at the 2012 Perth Writer’s Festival. For more information go to:  http://www.perthfestival.com.au/en/

Spiel Book Review

Spiel by David Sornig

Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Spiel is a story of adventure, intrigue and the imagination, crossing into parallel worlds. The protagonist, an architect, finds himself compelled to travel to Berlin where he meets a strange blind woman. She entices him to play a game, the ‘Spiel’, and once he accepts there is no turning back. Told across parallel times, the protagonist wrestles with finding Rosa Stumm, a girl from his past, who also has ties with the Stasi, and an explosion, which destroys a theatre and kills the leading lady. Or does it? For a day later, he meets the same leading lady in a bar. To unravel this mystery and others the protagonist travels back through his past and into the present. This book has serious plot twists and turns, dark characters, and will keep you guessing right up until the end. Spiel is a novel that really gripped me but, be warned, it’s not the kind of book you put down and come back to. To keep up with the plot twists you’ll want to give it your undivided attention. I think it would make a great movie, and if you’re into movies like Inception (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1375666/), then you’ll get a thrill out of Spiel.

Published by UWA Publishing (http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/)

More new ‘must reads’

The Perfume River: writing from Vietnam edited by Catherine Cole

This is a fabulous anthology of stories told by writers from within Vietnam, expats, and those living out of country but for whom Vietnam holds a special place in their hearts. The stories these writers tell are honest, evocative and compelling with themes such as migration, war, love, cultural displacement, and the struggle between retaining old traditions whilst embracing new ones.

I couldn’t put this book down and the stories and poems painted vivid pictures of a Vietnam reborn, the frenetic energy of a country rebuilding itself, its people and their struggles and triumphs, of love found and lost. I was touched by the lives of the characters portrayed in these stories and you will be too.

My Driver by Maggie Gee

Vanessa, a brittle, somewhat neurotic British writer, has been invited by the British Writer’s Council to attend a conference in Uganda. While in Kampala Vanessa plans a surprise visit to see Mary Tendo, her former housekeeper, (who is now the Executive Housekeeper at the Sheraton where Vanessa is staying)  but she can’t track her down. Mary meanwhile has secretly whisked Trevor, Vanessa’s ex-husband, away to her home village with plans of getting him to build the village a well. Despite war looming, Vanessa insists on travelling to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, on the border of the Congo, to see the gorillas. Along the way she offends her driver so badly that he abandons her at the forest and it’s up to Trevor to rescue her.

This book is very well written and Gee creates a strong, vivid background against which to tell her story. She skillfully navigates between the two cultures, showing the highlights and flaws of all her characters, and provides surprising insights into how the two cultures, British and Ugandan, view each other. Gee’s rich writing drives this book and you’ll feel yourself drawn into the both countryside and humorous foibles of the characters.

Great New Reads

Murdering Stepmothers by Anna Haebich

Three small children are dead. Did they die of natural causes or is Martha Rendell  the evil stepmother who killed them? Perth in the 1900s is a harsh place to live and children often fall victim to diphtheria and typhoid. Arsenic and spirits of salts are common ingredients in home remedies. The citizens of Perth, incensed at such a shocking crime, demand that Martha be punished.

Based on a true events,  this compelling novel brings to life the story of Martha Rendell – the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia. Told through the voices of the photographer, the detective, the doctor and the reverend, Haebich successfully portrays the people, the mood and the harsh realities of life in Perth in the early 1900s.

There are startling flaws in the prosecution’s case, the press incites the general public into a frenzied state, and bigotry, slander and the dismal state of women’s rights makes this a compelling yet tragic story.

Haebich handles the subject matter well and the different voices are a great way to introduce varying viewpoints as well as introduce the facts of the case. Did Martha kill the children or was an innocent woman hanged? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Sustenance by Simone Lazaroo

On a tropical Balinese island, the guests and staff at a small resort are taken hostage. Perpetua, the cook, finds herself providing nourishment to the guests, staff and their captors.  Her love and understanding of the sustenance of food helps the hostages to navigate their  through the trauma. Everyone emerges changed in some way.

This enchanting novel combines Australian and Balinese stereotypes and then disintegrates them. The characters are well-rounded and while they reflect the cultures that they come from, they are given room to change. Lazaroo weaves love, greed, racism, sensual food and the frailty of the human condition into this rich and suspenseful novel. A wonderful read  that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.

Holy Water by James P Othmer

Henry Tuhoe works for a multi-national conglomerate that has just made him redundant. They have, however, offered him a position setting up a bottled water call centre in the far-flung Kingdom of Galado. Henry’s marriage is on shaky ground: his beautiful wife demands he get a vasectomy, then won’t let him touch her. The job in Galado put’s Henry in the path of a sociopath monarch, moral conundrums, an Aussie intent on getting lost, and a woman intent on redeeming his soul and her country.

This novel confronts the myth of contentment attached to settling down, buying a house in the ‘burbs and having 2.5 children. It tackles the subject of large corporations outsourcing to third-world countries and the resulting repercussions in an engaging and entertaining way. Othmer’s advertising background gives depth and credibility to the story and his flowing writing style make this book an easy read.

Where Have You Been? by Wendy James

A house in the Northern  beaches suburbs, two cars, two kids: Ed and Susan Middleton couldn’t ask for more. Life is just about perfect. That perfection is shattered by the death of Susan’s mother and the sudden reappearance of Karen, Susan’s sister who has been missing for the past twenty years. Only Karen, now known as Carly, seems different. Susan can’t quite put her finger on why. Carly reveals different things about herself to different people. Is she really Karen? Susan’s life will spin out of control before she finds the answer.

Wendy James writes this thriller with conviction. Is Carly really Karen? James keeps you guessing right until the end. This story twists and turns and twists again and just when you think the game is up, it takes off again. Told through Ed, Susan and Karen’s eyes, this techniques gives the reader a sense of being right in the story with the characters, adding to the tension.