Thursday, 22 June 2017

Book Review - The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2005                         ISBN 1920885757

I kept reading this book waiting for it to "take off": it never did. I picked it up as I'd never read Kate Grenville - an award-winning writer - and the blurb seemed interesting.

Unfortunately for this book Grenville has a barrow to push, and it has affected both the story and the story telling. The book is obviously about the early destructive relations between settlers and Aboriginal Australians. The vehicle for telling the story is William Thornhill, a waterman of the Thames who is transported to New South Wales for theft. He gets his ticket-of-leave, is assigned to his wife and together they go into business in Sydney, he working for a boatman running the Hawkesbury River trade, and she as a publican. Thornhill is intrigued by the River, and soon selects one hundred acres on the River to set up his own farm.

The book then revolves around the relations of the Thornhills (and other settlers) with the local tribe, with misunderstandings leading to thefts, spearings and a terrible massacre. The massacre is the central point of the story, with the book ending decades later showing Thornhill a wealthy and successful man, sitting on his verandah searching for the Blacks that are no longer there, and contemplating his past and future.

The problem with the work is that Grenville is so set on describing the history of the treatment of the Aboriginals that she neglects to develop any of the characters. Even Thornhill himself rarely moves beyond being a cardboard cut-out, moved hither and yon by thoughts and feelings that are not clear to this reader. Portrayed as whip-smart early on, later in the work he is too dim to decipher obvious communication from the Natives. At the climax of the book, when the Aboriginals orchestrate a co-ordinated attack on the settlers farms, and Thornhill takes his speared neighbour to the hospital in Windsor, he then spends some hours in the pub while insurrection mounts and a vigilante band is formed - would he not be desperate to return to his wife and children, alone on the farm? It's unfortunate that most of the action in the book is similarly forced and woodenly written.

In some ways this book puts me in mind of the early Mad Max movies. The story is brutal, obvious and fast-moving, the landscape is beautiful, but the characters are merely figures acting in a landscape.

I think that, at approximately 350 pages, Grenville has made a bit of an error with the length of her book: it's either too long, or too short. To develop her characters more, she should have looked to Xavier Herbert. Her characters (apart from the Aborigines) are in some ways Dickensian creations, as were Herbert's, but she hasn't given them the space to fully bloom into their potential. If Grenville went down the Herbert route with her book it may have been twice as long, but would have had more to recommend it as a truly rollicking read of colonial times, while still keeping her central message intact.

If, on the other hand, Grenville cut the story back to the bone she could still get the message across by looking for inspiration from someone like Randolph Stow. She then could have produced - like he did - a polished gem of a work, where the lack of character development adds to rather than detracts from the story.

But, she didn't do either of these things, and we are left with a middle-of-the-road novel that gives us a moral, but fails to provide us with much more enjoyment than a history book. Much of the character writing is clunky, although some of the landscape description is good writing.

There is not much to like about this book, but there is little to actively dislike. It has left me flat.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Book Review - Dispatches by Michael Herr

Dispatches by Michael Herr

New York: Vintage International, 1991 (first published 1977)  ISBN 9780679735250

Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we've all been there. When Michael Herr wrote those words to end this classic book of reportage, I imagine he little thought that, thirty years later, many would indeed have been to Vietnam, on package tours or backpacker holidays.

Dispatches is a story of a different Vietnam to that seen today, a story of being in the midst of one of the worst wars of the Twentieth Century. Herr was a freelance correspondent, and Dispatches is not his account of this time in Vietnam, but more a reflection of the War: what it did to him, what it did to the US soldiers that were there, and in some ways what it did to the USA as a nation.

When it was first published in 1977 Dispatches was quickly hailed as the best book so far about the US involvement in Vietnam: that may still be the case thirty years later. It should be remembered that in 1977 the wounds that Vietnam had caused in America were still fresh: no heroes return for the troops, no victory - in fact an ignominious retreat and loss. Herr does not go into any detail as to why that happened, as his story is about the troops and the correspondents that wrote about them.

With a fine ear for the unintentional ironies of command-speak, Herr shows us that talk of "kill ratios", "pacification" and so on were meaningless to the "grunts" that risked all to retake Hue or who fought and died at Khe Sanh. It is the regular solider who is the hero of Herr's book, with his savagery, beauty and desire to go home (or, in rare instances, stay), described with respect and care.

Whether Herr supported the War - whether he was a "hawk" or a "dove" - is meaningless in the context of this book. He knew that many ordinary troops were suffering and dying for illusory gains on a map: that when the troops left the VC would return. The US military were like Canute, trying to turn back the tide of the North Vietnamese advance.

That there is in fact no meaning at all to this waste becomes clearer as the reader progresses through the book. The centre-piece of the book is the "siege" of Khe Sanh, a pointless exercise in waste. The Marines at the base die for lack of suitable cover ("Marines don't dig"), and the NVA die because they are told to. What is described by the Generals as a "keystone" to the defence of the South is, several months later, all but abandoned by both sides. Whenever a meaning for the War might be almost discernible through the mists of propaganda and psyops, it quickly disappears, like a night stoned on weed, or changes course like the tracer rounds that curl away from the target at the last moment.

Herr writes as well about his fellow correspondents. About how you only saw the War you wanted to see. About how he couldn't understand the way some could get anything useful from interviewing Generals, just as they couldn't understand how he could get useful material from being with the troops. He describes the soldiers disbelief that anyone could voluntarily spend time in Vietnam, he describes the fear engendered by close shaves, he describes the sadness at the loss of friends. It was a strange thing being a correspondent, the friendships, fear and dreams were similar to enlisted men, but the ability to fly out of the hot zone back to Saigon or China Beach, gave the war a surreal quality that Herr has done a lot to convey with the structure of his book, which moves from overhearing Marines talk during a firefight, to the conversations of "spooks" at HQ, to the chatter of fellow correspondents over drinks at the Continental Hotel in Saigon.

I read somewhere a description of Dispatches as an anti-war book. It is, in the sense that no-one who has been involved in battle could be pro-war, but the book is alive to the fact that there are things that happen during the horror of war that are meaningful, and even at times beautiful. He quotes Tim Page, after being asked by a publisher to write a book that would "once and for all take the glamour out of war."....[Page] "I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that?.....It's like tyring to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones." This passage occurs late in the book, and by then the reader knows that Herr does not entirely disagree with Page on the issue.

What does stay with Herr are the memories - in the short last section of the book entitled "Breathing Out", he is trying to cope with the dreams, the loss (ironically) of meaning in life outside of Vietnam, and tries to find solace in his old friends. Herr was an advisor on the film Apocalypse Now, and it was a character in that film, Kilgore, who cryptically says "Someday this war's going to end." The final pages of Herr's book suggests that, for those that were there, it never will.

A classic.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell