Mrs Dalloway (1925) Virginia Woolf

‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged’ but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? (Virginia Woolf in the essay ‘Modern Fiction’)


I normally start my blog entries with an introductory quote from the text, but in this case I felt it necessary to let Virginia Woolf speak for herself. As you enter this novel, forget straight lines and total traditional narrative arcs. Think more of entering a bubble or a ‘luminous halo,’ in the words of the author. Reflect on the myriad thoughts that seem to appear in our minds during the course of a day, as we interact with our perceived external world. This is what is dramatised, in scintillating style, in ‘Mrs Dalloway;’ we each live in a self-contained ‘halo.’ So what do we do from here?

The novel does have a carefully worked structure, based on the immortal chiming of Big Ben, during the course of one London day in 1923. This fluid movement between internal and external experiences was Woolf’s attempt to more authentically record the experience of people, in the dislocated atmosphere of post war London. Any sense that we all live in a common perceptual world, which was underpinned by the social building blocks of the Church, the Houses of Parliament, traditional Educational Institutions and the Class Structure, was shattered forever by the cataclysmic events of World War One and the Influenza Pandemic which followed. This novel is set literally and metaphorically, in the still smoking ruins of the War. As embodied in the character of Septimus Warren Smith and the frail sensibility of Clarrissa Dalloway, the aftermath of the War is still in progress. Yet Woolf’s focus is absolutely on the consciousness of each character; how and what they experience on a moment to moment basis. Does this sound claustrophobic and insular? It may do, but Woolf balances her inward focus with a sparkling sensitivity to a profusion of sensory details

‘June had drawn out every leaf on the trees. The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that.’


The plot of the novel is effectively just a light skeleton for the intimate observations of character, social context, thematic exposition and personal exploration. Clarissa Dalloway is in the early stages of preparing for one of her regular parties, for a museum of wealthy and influential socialites, to be held that evening at her elegant London house. Septimus Smith is a young war veteran who is suffering a form of delayed shell shock, from the traumatic events of the War, especially involving the death of Evans, his former lover. Septimus and Clarissa never meet, but have social and coincidental links. They have a great deal in common in the pattern of their thoughts and their emotional crises. As the day develops, the reader is carried rapidly through the past and present of a varied collection of London society. This gradually builds an increasingly sharper view of each character, in a process of rapid accretion. This is a new technique in the construction of character. As a result partly of the events of the previous decade, and dissatisfaction with the representations of character of writers, such as Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells, traditional characterisations became unsatisfactory for a number of artists. Combined with Woolf’s self-declared uncertain experience of a ‘perceived reality’, the main characters in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ embody a fluidity of sense of self. They need to reconstruct themselves each day, a task that for Septimus, and eventually the author herself, proved overwhelming. These characters appear and disappear with ease, unlike the stolid fixity of representation of the late Victorian novelists. This is only one element of this novel which gives it a contemporary freshness and energy. It feels like a 21st century narrative. Notice the sense of evanescence as Clarissa surveys both her party and herself.

And yet for her own part, it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it. It was too much like being – just anybody, standing there; anybody could do it; yet this anybody she did a little admire, couldn’t help feeling that she had, anyhow, made this happen, that it marked a stage, this post that she felt herself to have become, for oddly enough she had quite forgotten what she looked like, but felt herself a stake driven in at the top of her stairs. Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that everyone was unreal in one way; much more real in another’

This is a novel that has deservedly become a classic due to its narrative innovations, a new paradigm of the construction and representation of character, the authentic beauty of writing, and the personal courage of Virginia Woolf in revealing her internal patterns of thought, through both the major and minor characters. She is able to convincingly integrate the internal experiences of each character, into the events of a single day and the extended recollections and reflections of the past. The reading experience is sometimes one of breathlessly keeping up with the relentless, rhythmic forward motion of the hyper realised narrative voice. Also the constant internal referencing and the dynamic interplay between perception and response, enacts another element of the scintillating, sometimes manic energy of Clarissa’s sensibility. For those like myself who love stories written with poetic intensity, this is certainly one of the best. Why is it a classic? Please savour, slowly, for yourself.

‘The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.’

Death at Intervals (2005 in Portuguese. 2008 in English translation) Jose Saramago


The genre ‘Magical Realism’ has been defined by the ‘Wordsworth Companion to Literature’ as ‘characterised by the juxtaposition of apparently reliable, realistic reportage and extravagant fantasy.’ As well as other political contexts the genre draws heavily on traditions of political satire, fables, tall tales and the full range of comic writing. It usually deals with dialectics on the nature of truth, fate and the power structures of society. All of the joys of the genre of Magical Realism are utililised with relish by the brilliant Portuguese novelists Jose Saramago, in the delightfully provocative novel ‘Death by Intervals.’ The novel explores the startling proposition, ‘What would happen if people in a certain country stopped suddenly dying?

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and , in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds…

Thus starts a curious and eccentric excursion through a world where ‘death’ (lower case!) has stopped doing her job. The initial euphoria in this unnamed small country is soon countered by more practical self centred, economic and political concerns. This premise allows Saramago to unleash a full range of delicious satire on issues of Governance, the use and misuse of language, systems of power and the sinister idiosyncrasies of the free market structures. Sounds dry? In Saramago’s hand the tone is wry and dry; we enjoy chuckles and head shakes rather than superior sneering, as in the following;

‘Occupied as we were with explaining what happened after the fateful stroke of midnight to the sixty-two thousand five hundred and eighty people left in a state of suspended life, we put off for a more opportune moment, which happens to be this one, our indispensable reflections on the way in which the changed situation affected the eventide homes, the hospitals…’


After romping through the societal consequences of this strange turn of events, he alters the focus of the story towards the consequences for particular citizens. This is where Saramago reveals his compassion for individuals caught in a larger, impersonalised system.To personalise the consequences of the end of mortality, he introduces the character of ‘death’ as a skeletal, hooded personnel officer, who can turn into a beautiful a very alive young woman. This reframing of ‘death’ as a character of considerable appeal and human vulnerabilities, challenges the usual depiction of death as Thanatos, the remorseless arranger of dying, or the grim reaper, whose haunting visage occupies most representations of death. This is one transforming and powerful element, characteristic of the inventive mind of the author.

Saramago’s narrative style is unique and for some first time readers may be a little off putting. He mocks himself richly in the text. He faux accuses a subeditor of altering his style to contain “the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter.” Of course this is Saramago himself writ large. I humbly suggest very slow reading at first, to adjust to his convoluted, digressive sentence structures. Then listen well to the delightful yet penetrating musical language of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation. The richness of this text lends itself to the usefulness of rereading. I can’t help but wonder, as with any translations, if we are missing some of the poetic magic of the original Portuguese. This novel is a delightful combination of intellectual inquiry and whimsical characterisation and plotting, voiced with the wry, urbane humour of Jose Saramago. For those who wish to try something refreshingly bold, experimental and just serious fun, ‘Death at Intervals’ or any other Saramago is for you. Looking forward to your comments!

violet image

‘When he finished playing, her hands were no longer cold and his hands were on fire, which is why their hands were not in the least bit surprised when hand reached out to hand…’

Questions of Travel (2012) – Michelle de Kretser

Qu of Trav Pic

‘Away is hard to go, but no one/Asked me to stay.’

This is a great novel! It is one of my favourite books of recent years. It is structured on the parallel stories of Laura and Ravi; she eventually leaving Australia as a traveller, and he coming as a refugee from the horrors of the Sri Lankan Civil War. It is a brooding and compelling investigation, a process of genuine inquiry; an enacting of the disjointed, nonlinear travel experience. ‘Questions of Travel’ features tremendous generosity of material, depth of cultural context, powerful use of rhetorical devices, crystalline descriptions, a cavernous subtext, and a raft of observations and epigrams from the scarily sharp intellect of de Kretser, in her role as a social commentator.

‘She kept her eyes from his heartbreaking maroon jumper with the too-long sleeves. ‘Winter must have been a shock.’People were leaving the kitchen. He held out his hand for her cup and binned it along with his. He said, ‘It is the winter in people’s hearts that is hard to bear.’

De Kretser’s narrative embodies themes such as the experience of Travel, the Construction of Identity, multiple experiences of Time, the Impact of Civil War, perceptions of Body Image, narratives of memory and the mundane nature of office politics. As she explores these ideas, her writing also turns on a pin to record the ordinariness of day to day life in intimate detail, miring her characters in the mistakes, misfortunes and serendipitous moments of existence. The narrative voice has a cool, detached tone, somewhat similar to the voice in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin.’ Her social sensitivity and acuteness of observation are reminiscent of the clear eyed look at violence of Joseph Conrad’s political masterpiece ‘Nostromo,’ and Michael Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan Civil War account ‘Anil’s Ghost’, two other masterpieces of the devastation of War, Greed and Revolution.

‘Somewhere along this stretch of highway, dozens of students suspected of involvement in the first insurgency had been brought at night, stood at the side of the precipitous road and shot…These things-the bodies crumbling backwards in the dark, the reek-entered the child Ravi’s repertoire of horror, where they occupied a vivid niche.’

This is not a novel with wide open, welcoming arms into an engaging hero’s quest. It is highly confronting in its depiction of acts of violence; Laura and Ravi have to deal with several unlovely characters. There is a stimulating tension between the bleakness of de Kretser’s broader political vision, and the magnificence of simple connections between people who live in close connection to each other and their urban or rural surroundings.

‘Who can explain the sympathy that runs swift as a hound and as stubbornly between people and places? It involves memory, prejudice, accidents of weather.’

This novel is unapologetically serious literature, whose value and rewards may take repeated readings to fully appreciate, as it did for me. The study notes I have posted elsewhere on this blog are a tribute to the complexity and depth of this novel. I am an unabashed enthusiast for this magnificent work, and urge readers to give this Miles Franklin winner the sustained attention it needs and deserves, in exchange for the rewards it will deliver.


‘But tourism existed to postpone such questions. It was the first day of Laura’s holiday, the country unknown, the morning pure potential. Rising to meet it, she was conscious of joy. The magic land existed. It had to – hadn’t Laura always known it? She would find it yet: in the depths of a wardrobe, at the top of a faraway tree.’

People of the Book (2008) Geraldine Brooks



There had been a haggedah, also; he was sure of that. Hidden in that secret closet where they went to speak the forbidden language. Her face, when she lit the candles. So lined, so weathered in the flaring light. But her eyes, so kindly when she smiled at him. Her voice, when she sang the blessings over the candles. So soft, just a whisper.’

This novel tells the story of the survival of a priceless cultural icon, the ‘Sarajevo Haggadah’, a small but magnificently designed and illustrated book. Undecorated versions were used by Jewish families in their daily devotions, but this one would have been appropriate for palaces or cathedrals. This fictional version was made in 1480 as a present for a very important wedding. Brooks’ present day protagonist is Dr Hannah Heath, an independent minded Book Conservator. She is called to work on the legendary Sarajevo Haggedah at the end of hostilities in the Civil Wars of the 1990.

‘As many times as I’ve worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It’s a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby’s head.’

In alternating chapters, Brooks takes the reader further back in time to witness Hannah’s search for the origin and ongoing history of the book. The author cleverly interweaves the process of meticulous, sensuous, physical investigation with Hannah’s relationship with her powerful but emotionally distant mother. It also follows her quest to find a partner in a dislocated personal world of endless travel and short term affairs.

The considerable research undertaken by the author to capture the social and cultural contexts of each historical period does not overwhelm the narrative rhythm. What she does establish with sensitivity are the common desires and needs experienced across a diverse range of cultures by characters of varying sympathies and ethical codes. The often existential conflicts between individual desires and social and cultural obligations are acted out in each age. The agonies of Father Vistorini, the Pope’s Inquisitor in Venice in 1609, who is haunted by terrifying memories of the murders of his originally Jewish family, are recorded in powerful detail;


‘He dragged a hand through his greasy hair, as if he could drag the memories from his mind and cast them away. He knew now, perhaps he had known always, the truth of that past about which he must not think, must not even dream. He saw the smashed foot of the Madonna, the small roll of parchment in some rough grip, but through his tears, he had seen the words ‘Love the lord thy god with thy whole heart…’ He had seen the Hebrew letters, crushed into the dirt beneath the boot of the man who had come to arrest his parents and put them to death as crypto-Jews.’

Cuelties of the Inquisitors

The Sarajevo Haggedah is the link between the different ages, which at first glance have little in common with each other. Brooks has brought together people from different faiths who are striving to maintain their religious beliefs and cultural practices in often hostile or indifferent environments. They endure spiritual persecution and the brutal destruction of not only cultural icons, but entire peoples and ways of life. In this context, the survival of the real ‘Sarejavo Haggedah’ is celebrated in this fictional account, written in Brook’s characteristically crisp, detailed style. Her delicate imagery and swirling subtext of suffering and longing make this a rewarding and intriguing reading experience.

Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me…’

haggadah moses

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011) Jeanette Winterson

For most of my life I’ve been a bare knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned never to cry…’

young jeanette


This quote from early in the memoir shows both Winterson’s tough response to her brutal upbringing, and focuses on some key themes: the damage it caused both to her identity and her teenage and adult relationships. This memoir is a striking and wrenching account of Winterson’s response to the brutalities and injustices of her childhood. The ‘troubled childhood’ memoir is a common one, but in the hands of a fine writer, with the perceptive intellect of Jeanette Winterson, it becomes an exploration of identity and the nature of experience. It is the author’s quest to find a better life and a stable sense of self.

‘What I want does exist if I dare to find it…’

This gut wrenching process of coming to maturity took place in the context of living with an adoptive mother who had serious mental health issues – ‘My mother’s eyes were like cold stars. She belonged to a different sky.’ But for each of the brutalities and abuses suffered by the author, she mustered responses of great resilience and courage. After one particularly dramatic event she concludes, ‘only what is inside you is safe.’ Following further trauma she reflects:

‘I needed lessons in love. I still do because nothing could be simpler, nothing could be harder than love.’

Winterson finds much needed solace, then a life purpose, in narratives and creative writing, at the local library: ‘The library was my door to elsewhere.’  By reading through the A-Z fiction section of the Accrington public library, she discovers a community of fellow feeling, who share the love and power of words to transform her life.

‘I began to realize that I had company. Writers are often exiles, outsiders, runaways and castaways. These writers were my friends. Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it.’


Winterson’s penetrating writing style and powerful sensibility make this memoir a mesmerising, edgy and confronting read; a book full of decisive personal insights, raw emotion, penetrating social observations and disturbing events. I was left with nothing but admiration for her ability not only to endure, but to reconstruct her personality and character, to become a more loving person and a widely admired writer of significance. Now I am keen to seek out and live in the fictional worlds, which derive from such a life.

‘In my work I found a way to talk about love – and that was real. I had not found a way to love. That was changing.’



The Slap (2008) Christos Tsiolkas

‘…The boy’s face had gone dark with fury. He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright. He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy. The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight…’

This is a very powerful ‘slam’ of a book, which is, on the surface, a harsh and damning portrait of three generations of middle class Australians, from mainly Greek heritage. This novel is a brilliant portrait of dysfunction – a group of individuals who are struggling, desperately at times, to carry on and continue in lives of sometimes quiet and not so quiet desperation. The author portrays a group of people he clearly feels strong empathy with, but is also willing to expose to harsh scrutiny, for their manifest failings. They are consistently off balance; in a state of tension which frequently explodes into violence, narcissism or resorting to drug abuse or brutal sex. Tsiolkas’ achievement in this novel is to portray the interior angst of each character, as they battle conflicting desires and allegiances. This novel has been highly controversial and has had a very polarised critical response. Moments of fine self reflection and sensitive consideration of past events, especially in Manolis’ heartfelt chapter, sit side by side with casual violence, drug use and some brutally described acts of sex.

One excellent feature of this novel is the clever structure. By positioning the ‘slap’ barbeque and introducing all characters in the first chapter, Tsiolkas entices the reader into making critical judgements about an unappealing group of people in action. The rest of the novel is allocated to single chapters presented from the viewpoint of the key characters. So the reading process is one of gradually learning the backstory of these characters, and having to gradually reflect, reframe and possibly dismantle the initial readings of this cast. This is a challenging and painful process for the reader, but one that embodied the theme of avoiding shallow judgements and prejudices. How long can we hold on to our prejudices, in the presence of new information and self awareness?

‘Manolis struggled to find words. ‘I saw so many people from the past, and it made me ashamed of how long it had been since we had seen each other. Forgive me, forgive me, Dimitri…
Dimitri turned back to him, smiling…’I should ask your forgiveness for not coming to visit you and Koula. There, we’re even…Life went too fast and fucking death goes too slow…’


This ‘class’ of men are depicted as sex obsessed, egotistical and unfaithful in their relationships with their partners. Both Hector and Harry take excessive pride in their physiques, their sexual prowess and in their ability to be visually attractive to younger women. Manolis, the aged patriarch who possesses more nobility, still fantasises of sleeping with the young women of his dreams. Gary is an angry and frustrated anglo Australian, under enormous pressure from his own self hatred and the difficulties of being married to his fragile and obsessional wife Rosie.
The women vary more in being a differing spread of self obsession and manipulation. Hector’s veterinarian wife Aisha gains strength from her career, and refusal to obey all of Hector’s expectations of how she should act as his wife. Yet she finds her values under siege in a conference she attends in Bangkok. Sandy plays the fearful, repressed and obedient wife to the constantly angry and brittle Hector. Rosie reacts to her disappointment in Garry by developing and unhealthily indulgent relationship with her four year old son Hugo. Anouk, Hector’s sister, is a single career woman who is struggling with scripting for a soap opera, while nursing a desire to write literature of greater self expression and power. The younger characters of Connie and Richie get caught up in the cycle of unhappiness as each battles with their own issues of identity and sexuality.

Like any portrait of dysfunctional characters or people in turmoil, the reading experience is distinctly uncomfortable and disturbing, as is watching a car crash or train wreck. But what lifts this novel well beyond the level of a voyeuristic experience of watching ‘the others’ from a safe distance, is the tone of respect the author pays to each character, no matter how much he may see them as self destructive. Tsiolkas gradually undermines any sense of superiority and disconnection we may feel after reading the dramatic first chapter where ‘the slap’ occurs. The following chapters, each narrated from a different perspective, forces the reader to reflect on the hasty judgements made in the first chapter, when we are presented with a roll call of all characters at the barbeque.
This is a timely novel in a social and political context where we are sometimes urged or dog whistled to believe stereotyped views of people, who are not of our social class, personal experience or political affiliation. Tsiolkas shows us that ‘the other’ is in fact ourselves, and in a context of increasing social segregation and exclusion, this is a timely challenge.

This finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together.

3 on bench

Angle of Repose (1971) Wallace Stegner

‘What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward, the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the west they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future, until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.’

Angle of repose

The title ‘Angle of Repose’ is a powerful metaphor. It represents the compromises necessary for the survival of both the mining pioneers and the incapacitated, aged narrator Lyman Ward. It also forms a fascinating nexus between the narrator’s circumstances and the results of his historical researches. This raise the novel above the level of being just a fine chronicle of the tough living conditions in mid 19th century pioneering mine sites. Lyman uses his researches to do nothing less than reframe his life perspectives, and try to decide whether he can reconcile himself to accepting the return of his unfaithful wife.

This dynamic is what gives the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ‘Angle of Repose,” the power and intrigue of an authentic inquiry. It becomes a search by Lyman Ward into the links between the ability of his grandparents to hold a marriage together, through the most adverse of circumstances, and his confrontation of ‘if I am man enough to be bigger than my grandfather.’

In his wheelchair bound condition, he churns over the potential return of his wife, Ellen, by studying the past; ‘I chose to look back…that is the only direction we can learn from.’ She had previously left him to live with Lyman’s own medical specialist. On his mysterious death, Ellen had returned to see if Lyman would take her back. These events form the psychological backdrop and the contemporary relevance to his semi-historical recreation of the life of his much admired grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. Can he, an academic historian, mine the past (sorry!) for answers to his present dilemma? Absolutely he can, and in the most courageous, authentic and revealing manner possible. It is the striking descriptions, fully created characters and cleverly sequenced transitions between past and present, which engage the reader and creates empathy both for Susan Ward in the 19th century and Lyman himself in the present.

‘I skip over that summer, in which nothing much happened but the passage of time, and jump to a chilly night in September 1883. The four of them sat around a big fire on the beach. Under a wide river of sky the river of water went with wet splashings, sunk in the rock, and above and along the river of water, down the beaches and around corners of worn stone, flowed a river of cold air that was sucked into the draft of the fire and spewed upward as sparks that multiplied the stars. Susan felt it numb on the back of her neck, and pulled up the collar of Oliver’s sheepskin coat and tightened the rebozo around her hair.’

Wallace Stegner has used the letters of the 19th century artist and social historian Mary Hallock Foote as the basis for the character of his grandmother. His extensive quotations from these letters ground the novel in the brutal realities of life in frontier mining towns. They also record a story of the displacement and melancholic yearning experienced by women of higher social standing in the alienating cultural deserts of the west. Despite these conditions, Susan musters tremendous courage and resilience in trying to make the most of her circumstances. (quote?) But Lyman starts to see that the seeds of the difficulties in her grandparent’s marriage were sown in Susan’s acceptance of a good honest man, whom she could never fully love and accept for his own virtues.

‘You married me…but you didn’t marry what you could make out of me.’

The greatness of this novel is that its tone of quiet intensity builds into a powerful tribute to those who pioneered the American West, and the compromises and sacrifices they made in spreading civilization to the new lands. Stegner’s atmospheric descriptions of these various landscapes are a feature of this story. It also foregrounds the challenges of recording the fractured narratives and lives of the present day, where meaning, value and significance have to be written everyday on a newly blank canvas of doubt. There is so much to admire in this powerful, meditative novel.


Homestake Mine South Dakota
Homestake Mine South Dakota

‘I must remember who I am. I am a historical pseudo-Fate, I hold the abhorred shears…And now I really must get down to it. No more of this picking a random card. Let me find the crucial one-the first crucial one. Here it is.’




The Shadow of the Wind (2004) Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Gothic quarter old Barcelona
Gothic quarter old Barcelona

 “Well, this is a story about books.”

About books?”

About accursed books, about a man who wrote them, about a character who broke out of the pages of a novel so that he could burn it, about a betrayal and a lost friendship. It’s a story of love, of hatred, and of the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.”

You talk like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel, Daniel.”

That’s probably because I work in a bookshop and I’ve seen too many. But this is a true story.”



This bestselling novel (15 million and counting!) centres on the story of teenager Daniel Sempere’s personal growth through a dizzying variety of experiences and encounters, set in post 1945 Barcelona. His life parallels that of the mysterious Julian Carax, the author of the novel ‘The Shadow of the Wind.’ This story is an amalgamation of genres including Gothic mysteries, a coming of age, illicit and forbidden romance, social realism and commentary, crime thrillers, revenge tragedy, eroticism, elements of demonic possession, fantasy, magical realism and historical fiction. Zafon’s achievement is to use these elements in convincing combination with a driving narrative, which entices and absorbs the reader. He carries an intricate plot through strikingly realised settings; the shadowy streets and forbidding interiors of the Gothic Quarter of old Barcelona and the purgatorial, magical atmosphere of the Cemetery of Forgotten books.

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”


Inhabiting Zafon’s world is an extensive, strongly delineated cast of characters, including the rich comic fiestiness of Fermin Romero de Torres, the vicious intensity of Francisco Javier Fumero, the haunted obsession of Julian Carax and the palpable sensuality of Nuria Montfort. The protagonist Daniel Sempere is a fine portrait of flawed, risk taking and testosterone driven youth who is driven to explore a world of which he dangerously ignorant and naive. From an opening typical of young adult fiction, Zafon’s previous home ground, he takes both Daniel and the reader into the savageries consequent to the Spanish Civil War, where hundreds of thousands of Spaniards lost their lives. Many of these characters carry the physical and psychological scars of war, an integral part of the atmosphere and setting of darkness, suspicion and fear.

Zafon’s themes are the importance of friendships and community connection, the destructive consequences of obsession, the power of literature and storytelling, and the need for tolerance in a society of fiercely disputed political and cultural perspectives. His use of multiple narrators, some of uncertain reliability, and shifts in chronology, enhances the sense that like Daniel, the reader must navigate through an opaque, uncertain and sinister world.

This novel is a hybrid of the popular, genre and literary novel which consistently challenges the reader to at once be immersed in events, yet at the some time question the authority and reliability of the numerous authorial voices. There is so much to be interested in this story. Above all it disputes the notion that popularity equals lack of quality. Not in this case!


“…until that moment I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.”

Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser – Study Notes

Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser – Study Notes  (7144 words)


I started these notes, in order to prepare a review of this fabulous novel. It is awe inspiring both in its thematic range and in the authenticity and intimacy of the local life of the story. I greatly admire this work and, as you can see, once I started, well, what can I say?


Spoiler Warning. These notes are a summary of the entire novel, including the conclusion.




Qu of Trav Pic
3 – foreshadowing of early death – Laura was ‘prey to the sense of something ending before its time.’


5-8 – ‘Laura would beg for the stories attached to these marvels.’ She is fascinated by imaginative journeys in Narnia and stories behind objects of exotic travel – Hester’s intense romantic/erotic hopes with her boss Nunn dashed – hoped annual trips to Paris would provide exotic spark needed – Hester tells Laura romanticised, embroidered, dramatic version of travel as ‘journeys undertaken in order to seek out delightful new places’ whereas for Hester it is really ‘a kind of flight.’ – Hester recalls poignant, gravely spoken lines

‘Away is hard to go, but no one/Asked me to stay.’


9-11 – Ravi’s life ran to its (the sea’s) murmur of change – his life will be one of movement and growth – tourists disappointed at the ‘third rate copies of home.’ – their experience of travel is bound by their rigid and predetermined expectations – # ‘Ravi’s imagination worked to penetrate the enigma of each dwelling…’

12-16 – ‘It (Sydney) squinted over its brown back at Africa, at India; an old old memory of wholeness stirred.’ – Laura troubled by her powerful awareness ‘ that she was going to die…no one on earth would be spared – Laura’s vain, egotistical father Donald Fraser cruelly sees her as ugly ‘the repository of all that was massive and defective in Donald’s lineage… the runt has copped the brunt.’ – Laura ‘oppressed’ by having ‘an old bag’ as a companion – linked to her father’s unkind perceptions.


17-18 travel and voyages of exploration as ‘ a great global enterprise that ran on greed, curiosity and the human reluctance to stay still.’


19 – Laura’s vision of God as ‘The Absent-Minded Almighty’ as she washed away the ant in the bowl – foreshadows later events.


20-23 – Ravi’s sense of the world as boundless ‘had been reduced by the mapmaker to a trifle.’ ‘He was visited by the same sensation that came when a wave pulled free from beneath his feet. Things tottered and plunged.’ The author again focuses on perceptions of travel and the disturbance caused by sudden shifts and revelations. Brother Ignatius – ‘Geography is destiny. It is old. It is iron.’


24 – Laura’s brother Hamish is killed in a car accident – Cameron’s cruel chinese burn – ‘Back teeth together’ becomes a motto for Laura in moments of crisis


25 – Carmel considers adding extension for tourists but rejected by bank

26 – Hester throws away her travel case – ‘…she was struck afresh by the fraudulence of souvenirs that suggested pleasure while commemorating flight.’


27-35 – Laura realises her artistic limitations ‘an eye is not a photocopier.’ -she bitterly disappointed at missing Paris trip – regrets not having two weeks to dream of Paris as she finds out well before announcement – misses ‘fourteen days of sophisticated depravity in garrets overlooking the Seine…’ – reads novels as guide books ‘looking for direction on which to turn.’ – sees Sydney through literature and as a tourist


36-41 – Ravi’s extended day dreams – link to Laura through ‘The Police’ music – background of civil war and increasing local and distant atrocities – family of Ravi’s friend Mohan Dabrera given asylum in Norway – foreshadows Ravi’s pathway


42-44 – Laura was ‘yearning for irrevocable acts and large, sincere, nineteenth century fictions – Hester dies – leaves Laura an inheritance – ‘She set out to see the world.’


45-51 – ‘Laura had read widely to ready herself for adventure…But no one mentioned the sheer tedium of being a tourist.’ – visits Bali – various significant comments and observations on the experience of travel

52-56 – Laura in India – an exploration of cultural sites with incomplete knowledge and growing sensual awareness – brief affair with Sanjay


57-61 – Laura in London – for an Australian ‘you came to London for the first time and discovered what you already knew.’- unusual feelings ‘in the first floating, glassy days.’ – ‘Laura knew herself incurably alien. English in the mouths of the English was a dream language, an affair of allusion and code.’ – Laura needed to escape into ‘calm, expensive districts’ in the distinctive Autumn. – sees fall of Berlin Wall in an electrical goods shop – late Autumn sun makes room seem more like a painting – romantic ideas of ‘overseas’ gradually broken down to become more realistic – de Mel family leaving for Canada – discussion of atrocities committed in ongoing civil war – Ravi ‘spent days dreaming of cities where everything was new and clean…it was the old human dream of the good place.’ – Ravi urged not to go by old shopkeeper acquaintance


#71-79 – Laura flies to Rome to escape Winter misery – fascinated by architectural marvels of Rome – literary allusions to Katherine Mansfield – tourists expect ‘everything would be different’ if they slavishly followed the travel guides ‘like missal.’ – but Laura experiences her ‘starburst of joy’ without it – De Kretser emphasises how important prior knowledge is in perceptions of travel – Laura sees the middle ages Italian landscapes as she watches out of the window of the train – links Mansfield’s predicaments with her own disconnection from the cold, wintry scene – ‘In every direction, leafless perspectives delivered lectures on ‘fearful symmetry’ – Blake allusion – Laura makes friends in a youth hostel, especially with Masuko – Laura wants to visit Saint-Jean-de-Luz as Patrick White set his first novel ‘The Aunt’s Story’ there – ‘Dream of transcending tourism wasn’t available’ as ‘two was a group barricaded behind we’ – In Madrid Laura experiences ‘the white annihilation of snow.’ – time tracked by Madonna song ‘Like a Prayer’ – has passport stolen in Cintra – ‘too exhausted to continue- ‘senseless, this shuttling – pleasures ‘transient and casual: touristic, in a word.’ Laura enjoys Lisbon – ‘It returned Laura to childhood and to India, which is to say unmodern places’ – historical voyages from here shifted her view of Australia as isolated like a stretched starfish – light shining one night like ‘gleaming black glass…What are you doing here? This was travel, marvellous and sad.’ – three weeks in Lisbon stays with Laura, in sense details, forever- ‘Who can explain the sympathy that runs swift as a hound and as stubbornly between people and places? It involves memory, prejudice, accidents of weather.’ – contrasts large and trivial issues – food crumbs and lack of money.


80-1 – Ravi meets Malini de Zilva, marries her and Hiran is born six months later


82-86 – Laura becoming more settled in London – ‘Piece by piece, she was assembling a city of her own.’ – does house sitting – travels to Antwerp, Istanbul, Vienna, Fes, Manhatten was ‘moving’ – There was such innocence in their hymning of a century that had been enchanted, then.’ – tourists of different nations respond and act very differently – brutality of Sarajevo on television – ‘Her sympathy was engaged, her interest limited.’ – Laura goes for Ramsey travel guide job – critical comments on travel guides


87-93 – Ravi was ‘unnetworked’ in IT. ‘Young boy tourism on beach – teaches IT at old school – ‘He wondered how many seemingly self-evident truths would crumble over the course of his life.’ – cleaner reveals deep social divisions and hatreds – Malini gets a job – loves and hates passionately – money eases their domestic tensions


94-99 – Laura considers flying home – ‘There was the illusion of flight and the safety of tether.’ – Laura meets Sri Lankan family while studying IT – discovers their brutal history and misjudgements – links to Ravi’s story


#100-103 – ‘Long afterwards, when Ravi tried to picture happiness, it was those evenings that came.’ – They discuss emigration but Malini is fiercely dedicated because of her father’s influence. – ‘Who’ll be left if we all emigrate? Only idiots and brutes.’ – ‘That’s the way with people, you have to point out what’s under their eyes.’


104-113 – start of Laura’s relationship with Theo Newman – time marker in death of Kurt Cobain – alternate perceptions of time passing – Theo records 9 minutes of video every Saturday to ‘commemorate’ the last nine minutes of his mother’s life – ‘They’re pointless and vital.’- Theo working on a DPhil on nostalgia in 20th century European novel – pub discussion of Dystopian fairy tale of holocaust prompted by Demedenko literary fraud – as a child Theo fascinated by maps – ‘…the child Theo lost himself in the map’s invitation to imagine.’ – ‘Theo Newman kept the past in a brass-bound chest, drew out memories like ropes of pearls.’ Theo brilliant but dilettante, and increasing alcohol abuse – Laura recalls domestic scenes in Sydney – ‘Why should this now pierce as if Laura had swallowed glass.’ – Theo’s mother overloaded her house with artifacts ‘…like anyone making up for losses.’ – Laura’s love of anomaly pictures reflects on her natural mode of perception; to see difference and alternate perceptions – Laura craves Theo’s presence – Theo becomes the voice of de Kretser’s wider social and cultural observations

114-117 – Ravi works on hospital computer – annoyed at workers holding on to fabrications, as he did himself, as a child, at the dentist – ‘Why did people hold on to lies like that?’ – Malini signs a petition – Carmel angry that she is placing herself in danger – foreshadowing in ‘Are you mad…Are you asking to be killed or worse?’ – helps Carmel in home hairdressing – shows Malini’s compassion for the poor and powerless; feels strong commitment to engage in social justice action but angry with Ravi’s low expectations and ‘…a profoundly cruel assessment: ‘You expect no better of people.’


118-120 – Theo constantly distracted from his uni work – arranges lively Sunday evening get togethers – Laura meets Bea Morley and establishes a life friendship – Laura has brief affair with Brazilian financial analyst


121-123 – Laura invited to Bea’s wealthy family’s weekender in Berkshire – notices brick possibly from Elizabethan age – this meant that the Morleys were deep rooted in the area, unlike her parents – ‘What was the modern age if not movement, travel, change?’ – Theo had commented ‘…that the twentieth century was best represented by an unwilling traveller…millions of soldiers…homeless…Now the world is full of people who didn’t belong where they end up and long for the places where they did.’ – Theo’s childhood memories, nature and culture – Laura sees it as backwards – he was ‘…at that stage of ripeness where the attractive surface held an intimation of decay.’ – Laura felt ‘…that her life was dribbling away unused’ – works in restaurants and house sitting – Laura sees metal tea pot she loves – Tracey Lacey visits.

131-2 – Ravi hopes for job in Silicon valley – takes job as assistant maths lecturer in Columbo – Malini escapes Carmel’s judgements – Ravi saw his wife and child asleep, and thought, Who are these people? He grappled with feelings of suffocation and fear.’

133-5 – Ravi’s mother gives Ravi’s son Hiran a family viewfinder which he adores – Malini thought her father had been killed by a Tamil Tiger truck bomb – her best friend lost her sight – she works for an international aid organisation for women – ominous signs; ‘She was quick, clever, brimming with push.’ – she does not read social undercurrents.

136-140 – Ravi becomes friends with Nimal Corea – build website in dial up mode – ‘Yahoo,’ ‘Surfing the net,’ ‘Place had come undone – Jennifer Ringley in revealing website – ‘Jennifer Ringley was a new type of person…wanted to give everyone a really open, honest view into her life.’ – tyrants had wanted to spy – ‘disembodied travel’ – ‘Soon everyone will be a tourist’ – Malini searches for human rights sites on internet – speaks of remains found in a mass grave – ‘Bodies are always local – story of eight year old raped nightly by her father, protected by corrupt authorities.

##141-147 – Laura and Theo discuss travel – ‘Isn’t that the point? Discovering things?’ – ‘no past in tourism…no time for time to accrue.’- Laura- ‘I hope for the moment when what I know turns strange.’ – they share enthusiasms – Laura feels connected to Theo – ‘He has come for me.’ – Theo introduced Meera Brydon from Wayfarer magazine for potential job – Laura recalls brief affair in Strasbourg – sees Cathedral ‘scene of a disaster’…’something couldn’t be looked at- it could only be encountered – image of giant bat turned to stone – Emile’s story of opening hotel window and screaming due to sight of black rock face – jolt delivered by strangeness – first step on the road to disenchantment – time marker; current schoolgirl murder movie with Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures 1994) – Theo in slow decline; no longer pleads when friends leave house in Hampstead, junk spreading – Laura’s gruesome ‘misdirected memories’


148-151 – Malini shares brutal stories of war atrocities after ‘shameless, experimental, bold, sex. – Hiran growing up, playing with local boys eg ‘bomb’ game– Malini’s dispute with Deepti Pieris – has ‘thug of a brother-in-law’ – office bullying – Ravi’s ‘world wide web’ associated with Malini’s ‘glistening mesh’ on their wedding night – woman has her kidnapped husband’s eyeball’s delivered in a box –Ravi worried about Malini’s activities – ‘Be careful.’


152-4 – Laura goes to live in Naples; will write for Wayfarer – Theo gives her the red tea pot as a farewell present – Laura cries.


155-162 – Naples airport carousel as ‘a melancholy rubber stream.’ De K uses imagery to create atmosphere for Laura’s arrival in Naples – lost but loves it -# – voice of soap opera in Vivienne’s flat – ‘Whispering wall’ – time marker; death of Princess Diana – 158 – sensual imagery of the cloister – ‘Naples chose secrets and revelations’ – Laura followed dingy street – ‘unpromising stair’ – travel as ‘treasure hints of childhood: mysteries, astonishments, gifts that weren’t delivered but earned.’ – Donald Fraser, Laura’s father, gives her a digital camera – had sent random money at erratic times – saw Laura 4-5 times in 10 years – had ‘occasional lacerating thoughts of his child far from reach and defenceless in the world.’ – Donald sees Laura ‘ shrank in memory…too solid flesh(Hamlet)…the runt was no longer young.’ Laura makes him aware of his own desertion of …full bodied prime – 160 – # used camera in travels to capture shapes, colours, textures- Sicily – Laura to stay until following summer- Laura turns 34 – ‘the evening held the knowledge of passing unnoticed in the world. Where was the gaze that would gather up her worthlessness and invest it with loving sense? – neighbour crying for Diana ‘She was only a shorthand for the unbearable sadness of being (Kundera ‘lightness’) – ‘Back teeth together’ Laura’a mantra under stress – time marker ‘Hallelujah – death of Jeff Buckley # ‘Laura Fraser sat alone, and turned her heavy rings, and wished what everyone wishes.’

163-166 – Nimal Corea leaves university – Malini influenced by new executive at the NGO, Freda Hobson – Ravi gets a passport – considering overseas position knowing that Malini would never agree – increased security unease; ‘But in that skirt, she looked like a target, standing there against the wall.’


167-177 – Laura has brief affair with Marco, who runs an art gallery – trades in Tiwi carved poles – issue of value and authenticity – first person Laura knows with a mobile phone – Theo visits; trying to drink less, bought her a ruby red glass star ‘A tiny object in the night.’ – had ‘glassy, high-storeyed, empty’ conversations – something ‘iron’ still present – asks Laura to marry him – refuses but would have wanted a child 12 months prior – controlled to please interaction ‘Once we didn’t have to be careful with each other…; – late night calls – television through walls. ‘Night wakefulness is distinctive, sublime and blurred, consciousness peering though a caul.’ – no one calls.


178-182 – Deepti Pieris resigns from the NGO – dinner in chinese restaurant ‘Ravi realised that he never looked closely at anything. Knowing what he would see, he paid it only scant attention; the world and his wife passed in a blur. But she was a woman concocted from spells.’ – Ravi jealous of Freda – Malini speaks powerfully against torture and for human rights – ‘A schoolgirl was keeping a capital-letter promise: I RESOLVE NOT TO LIVE MY LIFE IN VAIN.’

Ravi has lesbian fantasies in on line sites.


183-186 – Laura was constantly travelling for her work – ‘She was inert, strapped into place, yet hurtling and fast-forwarded.’ – travel creating multiple identities – ‘Laura Fraser was a late twentieth-century global person. Geography was beside the point.’ – series of observations on many locations – justice for the flower seller ‘…justice would yet be done, her species’ great, vague, consolatory fiction – Laura’s travel leaves her with a lot of ‘intractable matter.’


187-188 – Ravi finds Malini’s mutilated body on the television – ‘The whole arrangement resembled a vase from which outlandish flowers of feet and hands emerged on fleshy stalks.’ – Ravi feints as he sees his name scratched in her shin.


189-199 – Hiran found dead in the street – light narrative tone to reinforce sense of individual helplessness, horror and cruelty ‘The Mercedes was a novel touch. As a rule, a white van was preferred.’ – Detective’s advice/warning to Ravi ‘Don’t you think there are questions it’s better not to ask? His tone was pleasant and conversational. He said, ‘You’re lucky. You know they’re dead.’ – Ravi looked after by Freda Hobson ‘Light moved through him unimpeded…’ the banyan tree ‘ encompassed all that was unimaginable: the future, for one thing, or the last minutes of his son’s life.’ – anger at Malini for his son’s death – Nimal Corea sets up a website to Malini and Hiran – for Ravi everything ‘had the overlarge quality of a film.’ – Ravi disembodied; surprised to see his hand – Freda; ‘He’s just not making connections.’ – But the internet, abolishing distance, undermined relativity; it offered sapphire and plastic with an even hand.’ – Ravi recalls argument with Malini about her connection with torture victims – she taunts about his coffee pots site – ‘Global, connected: that was how Ravi pictured Freda Hobson’s life.’ Ravi jumpy at door knocks – communication gap grows between Ravi and Freda – media coverage of murder overtaken by talk of ceasefire ‘…hope of a swift resolution to the conflict, flickered and went out.’

200-204 – Theo’s old crowd dispersing – Laura dreads time alone with Theo – his drinking spins slowly out of control – Laura becomes intensely nostalgic for Sydney ‘jacaranda haunting…’ – keeps thinking ‘What are you doing here?’ – another silent phone call.


205-211 – Ravi returns to work – ‘he looked as if someone had forgotten to inflate him.’ – dark thoughts symbolised by the ‘black square of the banyan’ – he counts to ward off his dark thoughts – ‘806 and counting’ shows the depth of his despair – Ravi finds living with Freda increasingly difficult, in spite of her kindness – not allowed to return to old boarding house – ‘Could put a bomb’ – old suitcase returned – Ravi feels bouts of anger that he did not ‘act decisively, impressed the need for caution on Malini, he should have insisted and banned.’ – ironic luck – ‘He even knew that the two people he loved best in the world were dead.’ – Ravi listens to Freda’s discman obsessively – wants to reconnect to internet – sees open pages of NGO recorded atrocities – Ravi advised to ‘let bygones be bygones’ as police ordered to do nothing about Malini’s murder – Ravi has visions of Hiran – stops washing his body as an act of mourning and grief.


212-216 – death of Theo – Laura distraught – learns that Theo’s memories were stories told by his mother – Laura cries in the street and is comforted by strangers – starts to recover after some weeks – ‘Forgetting was the real meaning of death.’ ‘Life asserted itself as one small betrayal of the dead after another.’ Laura starts to think of food.


217-222 – Ravi sent a ‘frightener’ – ‘…a stylised drawing of a vase of flowers.’ – Ravi moved to different locations – receives another drawing – Freda arranges for a secret Australian contact to get a visa for Ravi.


223-233 – a ‘dreamlike’ time for Ravi – ‘the struggle against memory exacted its revenge.’ – sometimes unable to move – ‘For the first time, he registered: They are gone.’ – sees visions of Malini – eventually starts to breathe and eat – ‘Evil was a real thing. Ravi had seen it-it had looked like a vase.’ – Ravi acts as a tourist – has a variety of disturbing and satisfying dreams – tale of local roadside horrors – little boy runs to bus; Ravi ‘undone.’ – speed of tourists compared to casual pace of locals ‘Tourists see invisible things.’ – Ravi gets a visa and Freda buys him a ticket to Australia.


234 – time marker – Sydney Olympics – booing and ‘rat-smile’ of PM Howard – Laura buys a ticket to Sydney.


235-242 – Ravi has a farewell at Priya’s house – Varunika, Ravi’s sister, works in Tanzania – Ravi has a last walk on the beach – ‘…the gravity of the last time.’ But he was ‘enmeshed in his thoughts…and noticed almost nothing that he passed.’ – Priya and Ravi have an enjoyable well shower – Ravi finds Hiran’s lost toy viewfinder – Freda takes Ravi to the airport and gives him a detailed folder of Malini – he puts Freda’s phone down the toilet in revenge at her role in Malini’s death – he realises she did it for her father – ‘Do you think it was worth it?’ he thinks angrily, in the most bitter of rhetorical questions.



qu of travel circular quay
245-6 – Laura returns to Sydney – lives in her father’s house with her ‘anaesthetising stepmother’ – cool invitation to family Christmas in Portsea.


247-256 – Immigration lawyer Angie Segal looks after Ravi – starts his long walks ‘Everything bore the glaze of strangeness…’ – only some flowers and the smell of the sea familiar – range of strong impressions – physical descriptions – Ravi can only remember unimportant details when giving statement to Angie – boards in sleepout with Hazel Costigan in Hurlestone Park, with Fair Play the dog as his main companion – cannot bear picture on wall – hides then removes it – examples of Australian attitudes to refugees.

257-259 – Laura joins Ramsey Publishing – ‘The world of work. She heard doors sliding shut.’ – lives with journalist Danni Holt in a warehouse.


260-267 – Ravi exhausts himself walking in his first months ‘but he couldn’t outwalk Australia…’ – enjoys watching Circular Quay view that he had long known on a postcard.


268-276 – Laura details the endless list of administrative tasks required in her role at Ramsay’s office – taunted by Alan Ramsey’s tales of his luxury adventures.


277-281 – Ravi gets weekly aerogramme from mother, emails from Priya in Sri Lanka and Varunika in Tanzania – Nimal Corea leaves his failing IT business; opens internet café on a southern beach with his brother – links to concluding scenes – Ravi dreams of Hiran – removes picture from under his bed.


282-286 – Ravi gets job at Banksia Gardens Aged care facility – keeps him busy enough to stop thinking about his past – gets his own computer – sees his old website with Nimal – reminds him of Malini – # ‘the web had grown from usefulness into beauty. It was as complex and various as a world. The web was like that (Circular Quay), a city of strangers and connections…’ Hazel feels old and sad at constantly losing people – sees people wanting to escape the sleepout – Ravi surprises her – gives extra board money to asylum seekers charity -Freda sends Ravi some wedding cake.


287-293 – Damo takes Ravi on a series of Sunday drives to explore the Sydney region – Ravi sees a Sri Lankan family with a boy of Hiran’s age; pretends they are Indians – Ravi friendly with Ethiopian nurse’s aid; very moved by group singing, reminiscent of his family on Saturday evenings, with some songs in common – recalls Malini singing to Hiran – Ravi almost forced to count as he had done to calm his mind in Sri Lanka; but hums instead.


294-295 – 9/11 Twin Towers destroyed by terrorist plane hijackings – low plane has become a threatening sight – ‘It was an everyday sight that had been altered forever.’ – Laura thinks of the ‘vast and pitiless trap of school.’ – reminds her of Hester.


296-298 – Laura moves to McMahon’s Point to share house with Carlo Ferri – to help with roof garden.


299-307 – satire on office gossip of trivial, self centred values – visions of Sydney at night – Tracy Lacey visits to look for old paintings of Hugo Drummond – Laura was ‘fearing that she might be slipping, slipping into the Great Australian Smugness…’


308-311 – Ravi appalled at consumer waste – Varunika calls; considering coming to Australia – Ravi regrets not being more welcoming – Ravi’s immigration case delayed – dreams of home and soldiers’ brutality – ‘There’s no limit to how far pleasures, of solidarity in work, of making and learning…’ ‘Lack of a tolerable alternative: that was why people put up with it. As to how; by paying attention, Laura saw that ambition was useful. Ditto intrigue, adultery, gossip. Myth.’ – Laura reflects on dedication to a larger cause; travel as a good thing; could not connect her travel with her daily work – ‘But something true hadn’t turned out, after all, to be the same thing as the truth.’ Laura feels ‘comprehensive fraudulence’ in her relations with her colleagues.


319-324 – Damo’s excursions stop happening – Ravi starts going on mystery flights all over Australia – refugees in detention camps sewing lips – But what Ravi took home was the knowledge of how kind Australians could be.’ – Ravi dreams that Varunika comes to Australia – misery of nursing home patients.


325-329 – Carlo’s cologne takes Laura back to Italy – Sunday meals together – ‘They painted out towards the edge of the canvas, filling in the past for each other.’


330-337 – Ravi picnics with Abebe, Hana and Tarik – notices cultural differences – Ravi’s mother Carmel dies – he sees lots of messages on Malini’s online website.


338-344 – Laura strips for Carlo after Sunday dinner; he pays her rent in return – Ravi calls family over his mother’s death – old injustices haunt him – Laura explores internet – encounter with the Asian fishermen – another anonymous phone call – regrets not speaking to the lost young boy.


345-351 – Ravi mourns his mother on her funeral day – possible relationship with Hana; her background; more death in war – meets Irish girl Keira in cemetery – has sex back at her flat; gives her wrong email address to stop contact – feels Malini’s presence again.


352-355 – Laura argues with Carlo about impressions of Naples – ceremonial peacock feather on Carlo’s twisted feet – ‘the deep past was dangerous’ – Iraq invasion begins – Ferdinand Hello’s mother’s brutal death in war.


356-362 – Ravi’s appeal rejected – suspects Deepti Patel as informer – imagines vicious revenge – Varunika’s false memories – Ravi feels Angie Segal does not even care or believe in his cases – but ‘She didn’t know how Ravi Mendis managed to go on living.’ – Damo recognises Ravi’s taboo about Hazel’s picture of her boys growing up – Ravi’s banyan tree fear grows as he recalls atrocities from the war – Hazel wants Ravi to take shorter showers but she ‘would see eyes that had peered into hell.’

363-366 – Laura begins affair with Paul Hinkel after global marketing conference – Laura passively follows his directions – satire on ‘buzz’ and ‘vibe’ of office culture and post conference hijinks.


367-371 – Laura continues affair in a state of ‘dreamy benevolence’ – she sometimes hears the old voice of ‘What are you doing here? But there was the human wish for an end to loneliness.’ – Laura’s first meeting with Ravi ‘the new web guy’ – office satire continues.


372-378 – Ravi compares work environments – disturbed by flowers ‘…jammed into a vase…’ – ‘Thus tourists, trying to decipher strangeness, compare home and here.’ – souvenirs as a record of travel – ‘Keep moving, love! remembered Ravi. Whatever you do, don’t stop! ‘ – ‘but what he noticed was the magic of money.’ – early reflections on working at Ramsays – Damo had convinced Tyler to take Ravi on – Tyler thought it would boost his flagging career – Crystal Bowles exhibits her ignorance, and that of the general population about refugees – ‘to boost their line that boat people can be treated like shit.’


379-387 – Laura works on her appearance during affair with Paul Hinkel – ‘you dreamed of working at Ramsay because you loved travel…Thereafter, what you knew of travel was your daily commute.’ – Laura dashes to see lost child – she reviews her limited knowledge of Paul Hinkel – ‘At saner intervals, Laura could see that the only future his tenderness implied was retrospective.’ – Thus Laura substituted fantasy for history…’ – she tries to be friendly to Ravi, after Paul suggested he was a ‘nice guy.’ – Laura realises there will be little left of Paul Hinkel ‘when it’s over.’ – she sees this relationship as a legacy of her refusal of Theo’s marriage proposal – ‘So now it was necessary to persist…The dead are called ghosts, but what name could she assign to the never-were?’ – Laura losing interest in roof top garden – works quickly when Alice Merton visits – Alice reveals more of Carlo’s past connections with Rosalba.


388-392 – Ravi has tea at Paul Hinkel’s house – they show Ravi their old Sri Lankan tourist photos – ‘The past reconfigured itself as scenery – Martene, Paul’s wife, has trouble suppressing received racist ideas – ‘Long ago, people she loved had taught her that black skin harbours germs.’ – gives Ravi a souvenir spoon to cover her concerns – ‘Martene knew that Paul had spotted the anomaly.’


393-401 – Ravi intrigued by Crystal Bowles – sees his workplace as a ‘labyrinth’ – links hibiscus flowers to the old sideboard in the blue house – developing relationship with Hana – she shows her homeland class prejudice – ‘At home, I’d never speak to people like that.’ – Ravi takes bus trips on the weekends to explore Sydney – sees Sydney as an outsider still – ‘She might have stepped from a spacecraft dispatched by a superior civilisation’ – his trips lead him to suggest Western Sydney be included in the new Sydney guide – debate of stereotypes – Crystal’s shallow judgements revealed.


402-406 – Laura has lunch at her father’s unit – satire on deluxe renovations of previous Bellevue Hill mansion – her brother Cameron confers with her about getting money from the sale of the family home – Donald Fraser in early stages of dementia – continues cruel and critical thoughts on Laura.


407-410 – Ravi and his sisters argue over selling their mother’s house – Ravi invited to lunch with their mother’s cousin – feels warmth of family connections – their daughter Tania brings recent photos from Sri Lanka – ceasefire in place – old house and names have changed – Ravi gets new phone with sms function.


411-418 – Paul Hinkel visits Bali with Martene- marks a change for Laura – but ‘Now that she judged and condemned, her craving was consuming and pure.’ – satire on office ‘chinese whispers’ on falsely rumoured Chinese takeover.


419-424 – Abbebe tells Ravi that Hana had a seven month old son who died of SIDS – they visit the University Campus at Parramatta – for Ravi ‘Hana was a landscape smoothed by distance; up close, the weather struck.’ – Ravi sees Malini briefly in the water but hears Hiran locked in a sandstone building – Ravi sees Hana’s ambitions as ‘steps carved into a golden mountain.’ – Hana’s agonising question – ‘Is my son completely dead? – is never forgotten by Ravi.


424-427 – Nimal Corea bemoans failed plan to marry American divorcee and live overseas – Ravi and Hana see each other every weekend – Hana is enthusiastic about her ambitions – ‘He wanted to divulge their symmetry.’ – Martene Hinkel calls Ravi late at night looking for Paul – Ravi dreamily considers an intrigue – ‘Ravi thought of a child whose face was the only bright thing in the room. He remembered the tortured tree.’ (at Paul’s house)

428-432 – Paul drives over to Laura’s flat – ‘ I can’t live without you.’ – they make love twice and fall asleep together – they look at the city from the roof and both realise that the affair has to end – ‘A clean break. It’s cleaner.’ Laura disappoints Carlo – ‘How dare he expect. Let him taste what she did twice a week in a motel, naked, waiting, certain it was all over.’ – ‘…an accumulation of silence…was already thickening afresh over their disruptive moans.’ –‘…traces of a pattern called Laura Fraser and Paul Hinkel twinkled through the dusty coat of indifference that time slapped over everything in the end.’ – Laura realises that she was a fool as Carlo was loved by Drummond but she was not loved by Paul.


433-438 – Ravi sees Laura as upholstery; ‘an armchair advanced across the concrete, bearing a mug.’ – Laura criticises Paul ‘talking to an invisible figure at his shoulder.’ – sees Ravi regularly in the car park – Ravi divided about whether to stay in Australia or not – he sees Hana as one of the ‘newcomers with their faces set to the future.’ – ‘In his life, too, everything vital had already happened. He felt too tired to start again.’ – Freda Hobson and Angie Segal discuss Ravi’s difficulties – following a harbour cruise, ‘He believed, then, that he wanted to stay.’


439-443 – Laura starts to struggle with motivation at work; ‘The pettiness of her work overwhelmed her…the unremitting busyness of office work obscured its triviality.’ – Laura tries to talk to Paul Hinkel at work but he ignores her – she comes to enjoy her conversations with Ravi in the car park – ‘Ravi was easy company: a stocky, silent, handsome man.’ – Ravi and Laura play a Sri Lankan child’s game with the flower blossoms.


444-449 – Ravi visits Hana to profess his love but is unable to go through with it – Hana and Ravi both realise it would be a mistake – Ravi speaks to Malini – ‘Unbolting the side gate, he spoke to a dead woman: Did you really think I would leave you?’


450-453 – Laura urges Robyn Orr to go for new CEO job – Robyn recalls Cliff’s inappropriate touching after last year’s conference party.


454-462 –## Ravi and Angie Segal present his case to a sceptical immigration appeals board – ‘What he really wanted to say was. Sir member, you are making the same mistake I did: you are looking for clues and connections. What happened has no plot, it’s only true.’ – the board member shows his lack of empathy and knowledge by suggesting that vase drawing could be a joke; ‘All the devils were one and the same…’ – board reserves its decision – trivial office conversations contrasted with Ravi’s thoughts – ‘Bodies are always local, whispered Malini the spoilsport.’ ‘When Hiran’s photo appeared in answer to Ravi’s summons, he spoke to his son silently: In 2000, someone slit your throat.’ – people in office change ‘the look of the day.’


463-470 – Laura has lunch with old friend Charlie Fraser – ‘Laura had gone looking for the past and found a bad copy.’ – she sees a couple in a house opposite with ‘narrative, progression, symbol.’ – notices these aspects missing in her life and decides to go away – her apparently exciting trips for the magazine had only been ‘interludes’ – ‘real life was Sydney’ – ‘The world waited like a lighted, veiled room: a vague, bright amplitude. What am I doing here? she wondered – ‘It seemed to Laura that her faith in away, too, had been lost.’ – Laura shows Carlo last years photos of the roof garden – Australian Federal Election ‘between two bullies.’ – warning of the vase of waratahs. – strong disconnect between Ravi’s culture and experience and the shallow commercial culture of Ramsay publishing – Ravi given asylum – decides to go back to Sri Lanka – ‘I’m frightened of going back. But I’m frightened of what will happen if I stay in Australia, too.’ – ‘I don’t want to be a tourist in my own country…’

478-482 – Laura uses a Sri Lankan tourists guide book to confer with Ravi about travel options – she had revealed to him about ‘getting away’ and is to arrive two days after Ravi – when Ravi thinks of going home ‘The truth was that a light-filled hollow opened inside him at the thought, and he was free to assign it any meaning he chose.’ – conflicting impressions of Sri Lankan tourism – Angie shows Ravi a drawing of the execution methods used in the Columbian civil wars ‘I don’t want you to leave here thinking that the way she was killed was personal.’ .– ‘If you go back, I truly believe you’ll be at risk.’ – Ravi realises ‘he had behaved badly with both women’ (Freda and Angie) – Ravi saw himself strapped to a seat inside a silver capsule, wafted back and forth across sunsets; a connoisseur of clouds, he belonged nowhere.’ – Angie raises the possibility of children – ‘What Angie hadn’t understood was that some sweets are flavoured with ashes.’ – literal and metaphorical promise after hearing nothing from Malini ‘But overhead a promise appeared: quite soon now, the train that he needed would arrive.’

483-485 – Laura discusses Paul Hinkel’s application for CEO – finds out that his next child was conceived during Bali trip – she understands his fear and her level of betrayal by Paul.


486-488 – Paul’s baby boy born – Carlo notices her sorrow – feels guilty for ruining his garden – wants to striptease for Carlo one last time – ‘This time, Laura hadn’t mistaken his meaning. No one was asking her to stay.’ – echoes Hester’s thoughts when leaving London.


489-495 – The Ramsay Publishing office Christmas party – Laura plans to visit Nimal Corea’s internet café on the Sri Lankan south coast – ‘Having imagined her triumphant, he saw now that the multitude she left was in flight.’ – Ravi is presented with an ipod – ‘Gripping a paper bag, descending into obscurity, Ravi wanted to howl, Please keep me from making a terrible mistake.’ – he flees in panic when Cliff receives a vase in the shape of a human torso – Laura runs him outside and dances drunkenly – Ravi farts and the moment is ended.


496-502 – Laura packs up her flat – provokes memories of buying clothes for Paul – ‘What an idiotic obsession, she thought…’ – Tracey Lacey arrives to look at Drummond’s works – Laura leaves the red star as ‘a tiny object in the night’ in memory of Theo – ‘she didn’t want to leave only darkness behind when she went.’ – Laura misses her father’s phone call as she is on the roof cutting back the dead plants – Donald Fraser is suffering from dementia – ‘Donald explained that he had been trying to get through to the runt for years. But whenever her voice was greeted at the other end of the line, Donald would realise that it was too late to call.’


503-509 – Hana, Abebe and Tarik show Ravi the local Christmas lights – Hana says ‘It’s like a different country, all these people out in the streets at night.’ – Damo disappointed at Ravi’s decision to return, after showing Ravi his ‘special places.’ – Hazel gives Ravi a photo album – he notices Fair Play’s greying hair ‘The photo showed him a change to which he had been blind in life.’ – Ravi notices the ‘lilac’ women going past their car repeatedly ‘So ghosts are said to walk through walls.’- Ravi had been transfixed by the lights – the lit floating ship would remain ‘a radiant prospect.’ – ‘So that’s what I’ve become, thought Ravi, a man whose best hope is avoidance. He remembered when the whole world had floated before him, a ship of possibility.’ – Hana’s ‘attention had swung away from Ravi – he kisses her cheek goodbye – ‘He saw that she had never been available anyway: she belonged to that winner, the future.’ – ‘There was a glint in the corner of his eye.’ – he sees ‘broken glass.’ – he remembers the lilac woman ‘but they were moving a different speeds.’ – Ravi finds Hiran’s broken viewfinder ‘Sitting their on his heels, Ravi could see that the picture wasn’t going to change. He went on clicking for quite a long time.’


510-515 – Laura’s connecting flight from Bangkok to Columbo forced to turn around due to engine trouble ‘…they had never expected to die in the company of a bald man in tracksuit pants and a child vomiting on his mother’s shoes.’ – ‘Time stretched, sagged, snapped, sang.’ – this prevents her meeting Ravi and his family so she decides to go straight to the south coast – ‘It was the unforeseen that returned tourism to travel.’ – Laura contemplated her future – ‘What could she do that wouldn’t stun with busyness, lull with routine, infect with compromise like a slow, fatal blight?’ – ‘But tourism existed to postpone such questions…she was conscious of joy…The magic land existed. It had to – hadn’t Laura always known it? She would find it yet: in the depths of a wardrobe, at the top of a faraway tree.’ – Laura sends money to Carlo to buy new plants for the rooftop garden – ‘She would change her life, she would start over.’ – Laura starts a friendship with Nimal Corea – tsunami warnings not heard by Laura and misunderstood by Nimal – Paul Hinkel sends a blank email – ‘Laura could read his blank letter any way she chose. As she pondered its intent, there came a great shuddering sigh as if the whole planet were sorrowing…the cook’s attention claimed by a blue car surfing a black wave.’ – Nimal is slow to emerge from an erotic fantasy concerning Laura – last image of the novel is of an expensive Sydney harbour mansion – ‘It was white and storeyed with a view of water from every room.’



Dangling Man (1944) Saul Bellow

Dangling Man (1944) – Saul Bellow

 ‘In all my life I had never felt so stock-still’ 

 The reactions of Joseph to his enforced ‘dangling’ time, while waiting for the glacially slow wheels of government bureaucracy to approve his army enlistment, forms the premise for Saul Bellow’s first novel. At only 144 pages, this is a deceptively rich burst of ideas, interspersed with the increasingly and comically chaotic events of Joseph’s life.

His journal opens with a feisty and self conscious defence of his right to self expression, in the era of ‘hard-boiled-dom,’ where revealing the existence of an emotional inner life breaks the ‘code’ of the era; ‘a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste.’ Joseph is acutely aware of his level of verbosity, compared to the crime solving heroes of contemporary fictional sleuths. This allusion to the popular genre of the period, highlights the tension between action, reflection and inaction which dominates this novel. Bellow posits a new voice, in a journal, which celebrates and reveals uncertainties, clarifications, complaints, wrong headedness and painful self revelation, at a new level of intensity. This is set against the Marlowe of “I do my thinking myself, what there is of it.’ Economy of words will be replaced by a new plenty.

Using his scholarly interests, and powers of language, he reluctantly undertakes a period of reflection. He experiences shifting levels of self awareness in increasingly chaotic efforts to replace the external sources of discipline and life structuring he so desperately needs.

‘(he) suffers from a feeling of strangeness, of not quite belonging to the world, of lying under a cloud and looking up at it.’

His sense of being once removed from his personal experience creates space in his mind for extended reflections on issues such as his relationship to those around him and his uncertain identity. But it also allows him to commit casual and callous acts of selfishness and cruelty towards his friends and family, especially in his treatment of his wife Iva. The shifting authorial voice is an intriguing mix of Joseph’s musings and those of the narrator himself at times

This is a novel of restricted narrative scope but which is also ‘bursting with intensely felt reflections on themes which Bellow has pursued consistently in his stellar career e.g. the search and redefining of the modern self, the problematic influence of traditions, social participation and alienation and great loves and great hates. This novel is a great place to start an exploration of the Nobel Prize winning author’s work, an expression of the rootlessness felt by many in the western world, as a result of the cataclysmic decades of War and the Great Depression. As he enters service, Joseph considers;

‘I am no longer to be held accountable for myself; I am grateful for that. I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom cancelled.’