The Thorn birds

A conversation in front of the TV, circa 1983:

‘So, is anyone going to prepare dinner?’ The man stands in the doorway, tentatively scratching at an imaginary fault in the surface of the wooden doorway. He’s been here before, once a week in fact, and knows by now not to come across too accusingly, too strongly. Petrol on fire.

The two women sitting in front of the TV flash a look at him. The look is enough of a warning and he retreats back down the hallway from wherever he came. They certainly don’t care where that is. As long as he doesn’t disturb their watching again, and keep the children in tow, like they asked, no, told him to.
The women sit riveted, tissues in hand, for there are many moments where they cry out during an episode. Moments of intense empathy for the two main characters that can never be together; times where they clench their fists and bash the sofa at the unfairness of it all and other times where they laugh and embrace each other.
And as the end credits roll up across the screen they sit for a moment longer, taking their time to awaken to the realities of their world – their world that is not a farm in Australia and does not include a handsome priest and a fiery red-head. They get up reluctantly to start cooking a belated supper.

Can you guess what series I’m referring to? I guess only if you were born pre-1970. Yes, it’s ‘The Thorn birds’! A series that kept every nation across the globe riveted to the screen for months on end.

For us post-1980 babies we are in luck. The series is based on a book, with the same title as the series, by Colleen McCullough. And as always, the book is far better than the series. And what an epic it is!

‘The Thorn birds’ (1977) tells the story of Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of a struggling farmer and his wife from New Zealand whose luck change when his estranged sister contacts him out of the blue to come and run her very successful farm in the Australian outback, called Drogheda, after a town in Ireland.

Meggie is ignored by her mother, who carries her own burdens of the heart and has no time beyond that which is taken up by raising children, cooking and cleaning. Meggie becomes the protégé of the local clergyman, Ralph de Bricassart. Now, before you think – oh no a story about a paedophilic priest, you have to read the story to get to the bottom of their very complex relationship that grows into a forbidden love as Meggie grows older.

These are really the very broad outlines of the story. To go into detail of all the intrigues and drama of an epic tale that spans the lifetime of two star-crossed lovers would take much more than one blog entry and I wouldn’t do it justice anyway.

Colleen McCullough fabricates a story, not just of human struggle and hardship, but weaves the very dust of the Australian outback into it with all its struggles of fires, droughts and many other hardships. She really writes with such vivid descriptions that nature, the very essence of what Australia is made of, becomes one of the main characters in the book. It is just as much part of the story as that of the humans who walk in it.

An interesting fact about McCullough is that she was a neuro-scientist, of quite high acclaim, and wrote ‘The Thorn birds’ amongst other books until she was successful enough to step away from her research and be a full-time writer. She was an intelligent woman who, due to her medical background, knew how to do thorough research with the added benefit of seeing into the human psyche.

When ‘The Thorn birds’ was published a great scandal was caused at the temerity of suggesting that a priest could submit to the ‘wiles’ of a woman. Yet McCullough explores the possibility thereof with great understanding of the human heart.

So, as an experiment, whisper the name ‘Father Ralph’ in an older woman’s ear and see her get that far-away look in her eye and hear her sigh for the pining love between a priest and an ordinary girl called Meggie that was not so ordinary.

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The Hare with the Amber Eyes

Don’t even try to deny it – you love Downton Abbey. I LOVE Downton Abbey! Intriguing plot line, beautiful cinematography, even more beautiful décor, sets, costumes – it is a triumph for all people who like to see something well-made with thought and effort and taste. But we’re not here to talk about Downton Abbey – as always, we’re going to discuss a book! And this book is called ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal.

What is the link to Downton Abbey you may ask? Well, in Season 4 Episode 6, the Dowager Countess suspects that a netsuke carving of hers has been stolen by the gardener’s assistant. Everyone must have been like, ‘What is a netsuke carving and what is the fuss about?’

Netsuke are small (as in miniature small) sculptures that were invented in 17th century Japan. They are button-like toggles that were used to secure the tops of boxes or pouches that hung from the robes of Japanese garments. (These robes did not have pockets, so they had an early form of a ‘man-bag’ to hold their personal items that hung on a cord round their waists.)

Like all things Japanese netsuke evolved from being a functional object into an art object that were exquisitely made. The little carvings showed important aspects of Japanese folklore and life.
‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ (2010) is a memoir about the ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s family, the Ephrussi’s, a wealthy family of European Jewish bankers who lived in Odessa, Vienna and Paris. They lost their wealth during the 2nd World War to the Nazi’s. Most of their art and expensive furniture were never recovered, but a Japanese collection of netsuke sculptures was saved by a loyal maid from their household. She hid it in a straw mattress throughout the war and found a way to return it to the family after the war ended. The collection was passed down for five generation and the book tells the Ephrussi family story with the netsuke as a common thread from 1871 to 2009.

This is not just a historical account of one of the many families who lost all during the World War. Maybe because of de Waal’s artistic background he deeply explores the netsuke’s worth as art objects. De Waal reflects on the craze of Japonism at the time of the early Impressionists, the influence of Japanese art on the Impressionists and the collection of Japanese objects that fuelled the fashionableness thereof. He travels through his family’s collection of artworks and rich cultural heritage with the tiny, aesthetic sculptures as his companions.

A hefty read for some, maybe, but so interesting, you won’t even realise it. And now you can go back to your Downton Abbey and appreciate the tiny ivory carving that the Dowager Countess nearly fired the gardener over.

10 000 Hours of Darkness and Counting

I didn’t blog last week because we had load shedding every night and my computer has no battery power….and I’m the world’s worst procrastinator. What is ‘load shedding’ you may ask? Load shedding is our country’s euphemistic term for electricity black-outs. (Don’t worry, it’s not random, we have a schedule so we know when to expect it.) If this was some smarmy social commentary blog I’d post away about load shedding, but since it’s not, I’ll leave it there! What’s a procrastinator? You can look that up yourself in a dictionary you cheeky monkey!

A conversation I had with my husband about a year ago while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ (2008):

‘I can do this!’ I’m lying on my bed reading, my husband is busy shaving. I can see him through the bathroom door.

‘Do what?’

‘I can totally do well in an IQ test!’ (Why my surprise? They never show you your results when you do it at school aged 15.) On page 77 of ‘Outliers’ in the chapter called ‘The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 1’ there is a widely used intelligence test called ‘Raven’s Progressive Matrices’. Now, I’m terrible at identifying patterns so this test is really encouraging. It asks you to identify what would come next in a pattern and I can do it!

‘Oh?’ He washes off some shaving cream in the basin.

‘What do you mean ‘oh?’’ Slightly on the defence, my husband’s a mathematician, I’m clearly not.

‘I didn’t mean ‘oh’ as in ‘you can’t and I’m surprised that you think you can’. I meant ‘oh’ as in ‘go on, I’m listening.’

‘Oh.’

He keeps shaving, I look at him through slitted eyes, no, he seems to be sincerely focussed on his shaving and did not mean any harm, so I go on.

‘Yes, I got one of the IQ tests right in this Raven’s Progressive thing-a-ma-jiggy’.’

‘Cool.’

‘I think so,’ I turn over, so chuffed with myself, I’m on a roll here, ‘wait, here’s another one.’ I stare at the puzzle. Panic rises in my throat. This can’t be true! I can’t be that stupid! Two clovers followed by a diamond followed by another diamond, a heart, a clover. Whaaaaat???!!! Radio noise! Tears well up in my eyes.

‘Well, that was obviously the easy one. This one is much, much harder! No, it’s true! I am really not that clever!’ I bash the book down next to me in frustration.

‘Impossible!’

I appreciate the support, but here it is in cold, hard facts, I can’t even see the second pattern in a test. After more tear welling and staring at the page hoping that the answer will jump out at me (like one of those 3D pictures that I still fail to see), I continue reading. Oh. Gladwell could also not do that one; it’s towards the end of the test and signifies genius level. Sheesh, they should have said that before dealing a blow to my ego like that.

Feeling a lot better, I read on and my husband’s shaving can continue without the danger of nicking an artery because of blood curdling screams of frustration coming from the bedroom.

I really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’. And before you roll your eyes and say, ‘yes, yes,’ I’ve heard all about the ‘10 000 hours theory’, there’s more to it than that. Success not only depends on how many hours you put in, it has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. And, although an IQ of 170 is more likely to win you success than one of 70, someone with an IQ of 170 isn’t more likely to win a Nobel Prize than someone with an IQ of say 130. A surprising amount depends on culture as well, hence the stereotypical joke about Asian children being good at Maths. They really are! (To find out why, read the book.)

After the internal IQ test debacle I experienced, Gladwell pointed out that IQ tests are flawed in that they only test one aspect of intelligence – mostly the mathematical side that can sort and categorize and identify patterns. Some people are really good with words, for instance, yet there are no essays that are written in an IQ test. Also – people who are ‘intelligent’ in the traditional sense are not necessarily emotionally intelligent – an attribute that should get you very far in life irrespective of the fact if you can do the maths – if you can ‘read’ people and ‘play’ accordingly, you should be able to make your way in the world. Don’t get me started on perseverance and good old fashioned hard work.

The book is insightful and funny and gripping. Although it’s not a doctoral thesis, it is definitely a book that will be picked off the shelf more often than that bound version of a doctoral thesis sitting in some dark and forgotten corner of a campus library. Gladwell has definitely hit the jackpot with writing intellectually stimulating books about topics that people find interesting without boring them to death with too many facts and academic writing.

I’m just going to say it, even though I’m not supposed to and I said this is not a social commentary blog: has our national electricity company put in their 10 000 hours yet? 🙂

Lynne Reid Bank’s Literary Legacy

Lynne Reid Bank’s literary legacy can be seen as markers through my life.

My first encounter with Lynne Reid Banks was as a child when we had to go to the school where my mother taught. School closed for the long Summer holidays, but teachers are still expected to write up the reports and sort out their classrooms and do some planning for the new teaching year for a couple of days before they get to go on holiday. So we, as children of two teachers, had to trudge along to spend days that seemed endless at the school. We played on the kindergarten jungle gym, swam in the pool, walked to the café around the corner and bought sherbet and fire balls.
Just as the tempers started flaring up and the boredom kicked into whine-gear, my mom steered us to the library where we sat on the threadbare jungle-green carpets and watched ‘The Indian in the Cupboard’ – Reid Bank’s children’s story that sold over 10 million copies and was turned into a wonderful movie that fuelled the imaginings of children like me the world over.

My next meeting with Reid Banks was as a young teenager when I read ‘My Darling Villain’ (1986) and ‘Broken Bridge’ (1994). ‘My Darling Villain’ is about a girl who becomes class conscious after she falls in love with a boy from a working-class family and ‘Broken Bridge’ is the follow up to ‘One More River’ and deals with the (continuing) Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a young adult’s point of view. (Wow, how different the books are that I read from the ones teens read today. I am all for fantasy novels, they expanded my world into the realms of the imagination as no other could, but werewolves, vampires and all kinds of supernatural/ occult-ish beings are almost all there is for teens to read about today. Shouldn’t reality be the alternative to balance the scales? AND so that our children can have an intelligent conversation about real life issues?)

Reid Banks’ book I remember best from my teenage years is ‘The L-Shaped Room’ (1960) about a girl who was kicked out of her father’s home because she was pregnant, and ended up in a boarding house where she met all kinds of interesting characters. The stigma that went with having a baby out of wedlock is highlighted from the viewpoint of the main character, Jane, who has to deal with being rejected by her family, pregnant without any support, and the future of her and her baby. (As a teen I really liked books that made me question my own actions if I was to find myself in a situation similar to that of the main character in a story.)

You can imagine my surprise when I walked into a second hand bookstore a year or two ago and found a biography by Reid Banks about the Brontë siblings. It is called ‘Dark Quartet’(1976) and tells the tragic story of the Brontë family. When you read ‘Jane Eyre’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’ after having read the biography, it is easy to see where some of the sisters’ inspiration came from. They wrote out of their own context – miserable years in school where two of their siblings died of TB, their intense connection with the moors where their father’s parish was situated, unhappy positions as governesses and some happy ones as school teachers and the almost macabre inner world they created together. The four siblings who survived childhood – Emily, Anne, Charlotte and Branwell (their brother) – all wrote from a young age, pouring their fantasies and dreams into their stories – they created whole kingdoms and wrote dramatic, complicated sagas surrounding it. (Interestingly enough, they come from a long lineage of ancient scribes and bookish men). Sadly their family’s own tragedy sounded like the fiction they wrote – only Charlotte lived to be 39, the other siblings barely reached their thirties.

Reid Banks recreates the Brontës’ lives into a turbulent, dark and mystic world from which it is easy to imagine the creation of the gothic novels that the Brontë sisters were known for. A very informative, fascinating read!

When will I run into Reid Banks again? I don’t know yet, but I can’t wait for our next encounter!

A World of Contrasts

Before getting married I lived in a rural Zulu community for two years where I taught English at a mission school. The Msinga area is a network of valleys joined by the hip-sway of dusty roads that curve round the side of the hills that keep the Tugela River company as it runs on its course to the sea. Cows and chickens and goats use these roads as their personal highways and clusters of sea-green and pink huts dot the hillsides to mark out the different homesteads.
It is during my time in this beautiful, African setting that I read the voluminous ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ (1920-1922) by Sigrid Undset, (Translated by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott from the original Norwegian.)

What a contrast in setting between the book and where I lived – I still remember clearly the thin brick walls of a classroom with a corrugated iron roof baking the waiting teachers in sweltering summer heat that easily hit the forties (degrees Celsius). We sat waiting for a facilitator to arrive from Durban, about 3 hours’ drive away. (We waited for three hours…clearly the lady left Durban when the meeting was supposed to start.)

I did not understand more than the necessary Zulu greetings and in the amalgamation of teachers that gathered from the regional schools I was the only one whose first language wasn’t the local language. After a couple of friendly ‘hello’s’ and ‘how are you’s’ to colleagues they fell comfortably into their mother tongue to discuss common friends and local news. I had nothing to do but read. So I read Kirstin Lavransdatter. (Yes, there was more than one meeting like this that summer, where we waited and wasted precious teaching time.)

Kristin Lavransdatter is set in Norway in the Middle Ages. The three books that form the trilogy are respectively called ‘The Wreath’, ‘The Wife’ and ‘The Cross’ and deal with the life –from birth to death – of a woman set in these tumultuous times.

My strongest memory of the book is that of a cold, harsh life where families slept in communal beds filled with furs to keep the cold at bay and icy treks on horses over desolate winter landscapes. As I said, it was in stark contrast to my then current situation.

I sound callous about the book. It is probably the best book ever written that captures the complexities that make a woman’s life so perplexing to men. It is about a woman’s love for a man and how wrong it sometimes is, a mother’s undying love for her children no matter their faults and a woman’s ability to beat herself up about past mistakes, better than anyone else can.

We follow the story of Kristin Lavransdatter from her birth into a happy home to a couple that has known personal tragedy, through her strict, yet loving childhood. Kristin becomes the true tragic heroine by being seduced as a young woman and paying for it with various repercussions throughout her life.
Besides the story of Kristin being told with such insight by Sigrid Undset, the historical setting is very vivid and fascinating. Medieval Norway with its strict Catholic laws, the workings of a farmstead, the politics, the plague that sweeps through the country and wrecks devastation and a sense of space that was created by the absence of modern transport – all written with an understanding that speaks of a truly brilliant writer.

Sigrid Undset deserved her Nobel Prize for Literature. She started writing her first historical novel at sixteen, but was advised to steer towards contemporary writing, which she did successfully for years. Yet Kristin Lavransdatter and the volumes of books that are collectively called ‘The Master of Hestviken’ is her crowning glory.

If I have to think about it again, I realise that not much has changed from medieval times in Norway to a scorching valley at the Southern end of Africa – people still love, make mistakes they regret and live with the consequences of their decisions. Women are still complex beings who long for approval while fiercely demanding their independence and know their own mind – sometimes for their betterment and sometimes not.

On Canaan’s Side

It’s a cold, rainy day in Durban, a rare occasion since we live in the tropics and we’re more prone to hot and humid weather and the occasional thunderstorm during the sultry summer afternoons. The air clings to your skin like sticky honey and the whole world is a damp mess – the car seat sticks to your legs, your lovely suede couch that you bought in the winter when all summer heat was but a dark fleck on the horizon of your memory seems to swallow and suffocate.
Rain brings no relief; the air becomes even more swollen with water, so that people with usually straight hair find themselves with ringlets and curls. In the rural areas around Durban where shelter is not protected by the jungle maze of city buildings or tropical vegetation, people get struck by lightning. The thunder roars its dominance over the sea and sweeps over the city like a mighty beast, lashing its tail with strong gushes of wind in its wake.
But today is not such a day. Last night’s thunderstorm decided to settle in a docile cloud over the city and today we woke up, not drenched in sweat, but reaching for the forgotten blanket on the floor. When I got up I had to dig around in my cupboard for my jersey.
Strangely enough, most people who live here, like the heat. They become miserable and moany when the sun doesn’t appear for a day; they miss the beach and the sun baking on their backs as they drive to work.
I am not most people.
I grew up longing for the months and months of cold and curtains of rain that are drawn across the sky for most of the year. I yearned for scarves and boots and hats and soup and hot drinks and snow. I wanted my eyes pierced by a green so green that it hurts to look at, ancient monuments of stone standing in fields that are constantly framed by mystery and legend. My childhood land of such fantasies is, of course, Ireland.
So today I want to write an ode to someone from the Emerald Isle who does his rich heritage of wonderful poets and writers and story tellers, justice – Sebastian Barry.
Sebastian Barry is a playwright, poet and novelist. He published poetry before he started writing plays and then crossed over to novel writing, which, in recent years, has surpassed his plays in prominence.

‘On Canaan’s Side’ (2011) is Barry’s fifth novel and was nominated for the Booker Prize. It is narrated by an old lady called Lily Bere who is the sister of a character from a previous novel ‘A Long Long Way’ and she’s the daughter of a character from a play called ‘The Steward of Christendom’. (I like the idea of creating a world that exists not only for one story, but in multiple stories without being a sequel.)
Lily Bere looks back on her life. She lived through the Irish War of Independence (from 1919- 1921) and escaped to Chicago with her boyfriend, Tadg Bere, where they could not escape the hardship and tragedy that followed them across the sea. (As always I won’t give away too much of the plot.)
The book’s plotline stands back to allow a staggering amount of emotional imagery take centre stage. It is about trauma and people in exile, not just in Lily’s story, but also those who have to deal with the residue of wars – Vietnam, Gulf War, and America’s own racial upheavals – all people adrift, looking for the Promised Land.

The whole book has a feeling of a dream. Barry’s use of imagery is that of the practised master (well in the tradition of his countrymen) without the amateur’s obvious effort to be poetic. It leaves the reader entrenched in the mind of the central character – created so thoroughly and with such ease that one member of our book club was surprised to hear that Barry was a man. She could not believe that a male writer could climb so well into a woman’s skin.
And so, as this cold, rainy day at the southern tip of Africa draws to a close, with the sure promise of sunshine and warmth tomorrow, I long for Barry’s world – where poetry grows at the roots of every rain soaked tree and sings a ballad in every intimate pub of that country that is so steeped in a history of hardship and human nature longing for a Promised Land, on Canaan’s side.

Dangerous, Dark, Delightful

The recent blunder by the Japanese advisor on education and well-known author, Ayako Sono, who dared to say that Japan would have to open up to mass immigration to reverse its declining population, but that racial groups should be kept separate (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/11414141/Japanese-author-provokes-furious-South-African-response-by-suggesting-a-new-apartheid.html) , made me hunt through the books on my bookshelf for David Mitchell’s book ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ (2010).

‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ tells the story of Japan during the country’s ‘Sakoku’ period in the 18th Century. Sakoku means ‘locked country’. During this period Japan had a foreign relations policy under which no foreigner could enter Japan and no Japanese could leave the country on penalty of death. This policy was in effect until 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry showed up with his Black Ships and basically bombed Japan open to Western trade. (Side note: No one was allowed to leave Japan until 1868, even though trade has already been established with the West.)
It’s hard to imagine a country so secluded. During the 1800’s in the West people were practically gobbling up new countries and whole cultures, spreading goods (and disease) near and far and causing havoc in local ruling systems and at the same time there’s a country, Japan, where they were still wholly secluded from any Western influence. I don’t know about you, but I find that fascinating! (And obviously the West found it unacceptable! I’m sure they found the lure of the forbidden too much to resist.)

The only contact that Japan had with the outside world was through an artificial island built in the bay of Nagasaki by local merchants. It was called Dejima, which means ‘exit island’. This was the only place where people could trade with Japan directly. At first the Japanese traded with Portugal, but from 1641 it was used as a Dutch trading post.

Enter Jacob de Zoet and the rest of the Western world. As always when the West takes, and it takes forcibly, there’s bound to be drama. (Oh no, I just made Jacob de Zoet sound like the villain…he’s not!) I won’t give away the plotline, all I can say is that you need to concentrate when reading, there are over 125 characters! (Find them listed, here [Don’t ask me where this person found the time!]: https://sites.google.com/site/078hy63eqp/the-thousand-autumns-of-jacob-de-zoet)

Mitchell’s book was met with mixed reviews, but I disagree entirely with all the criticism. Mitchell is always bold in what he writes. He does not stick to conventions, he does not follow the rule book. It is as if he says, ‘I will write what and how I want whether you like it or not, but you will like it, because I write so very well!’

Mitchell spent four years writing the book, authenticating detail, checking facts; it is clear that he enjoyed the process. (Do I keep coming to this conclusion of ‘enjoyment’ about all the good writers?)

Anyway, for a different, daring read, pick up The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. You won’t be disappointed!

(Can I be daring and say that maybe we can have a little more grace with Ms Sono and view her remark in a cultural context?)