Master of the novella form

HARMLESS
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By Julienne van Loon. Fremantle Press. 140pp. $22.99.

The action of Julienne van Loon’s novella Harmless is compressed into the late morning and afternoon of a single day. Compression is one of the novella’s hallmarks, and van Loon uses it to good effect. A few pages in and tension clamps the hearts of the protagonists; a few more pages and the reader is struck by an impending sense of doom.

Two of the protagonists, an eight-year-old girl, Amanda, and an elderly Thai man, Rattuwat, are on their way to visit Amanda’s father in prison when their car breaks down. It is hot; the only other traffic road-trains. Rattuwat, who has come to Perth for his daughter’s funeral, has no money and no mobile phone. They get out and walk, leave the road, and soon, carrying neither food nor water, become separated from each other.

Though the landscape is dry and hard, I was reminded of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and the sense, in that classic novella, that, once the initial incident has taken place, what follows, unavoidably, is a tragic downward spiral.

Amanda finds orchids and, hours later, a dying kangaroo. Rattuwat sees a man on a tractor in the distance. But he doesn’t know how to ask for help and wonders if he isn’t some kind of ”walking ghost”. Meanwhile, Amanda’s father, Dave, waits for his visitors and, when they fail to show, is forced into some kind of reckoning with himself. He spends the afternoon regretting his failures, as a father and as a de facto husband to Sua, the Thai woman whom he rescues from her abusive husband, but then leaves, escaping back into the familiar security of prison.

The title comes from Dave’s reflections, after he has climbed onto the prison roof and waits, while guards close in. ”I’m not here,” he thinks, and then: ”Harmless, but; harmless, eh? That was the main thing.” Dave is only dimly aware of the levels of irony that permeate this scene, obliging readers to question the meanings of ”harm” and ”harmlessness” and where the line might lie between the two. Van Loon’s novella works by posing questions and leaving readers with a sense of mysteries that can’t be explained. There is no room, in a novella, for detailed explanations; only what is strictly necessary so the story can be told. Those who understand the form can make remarkable use of it. Van Loon is one of these.

Sua is a character constructed out of memories, lovingly and convincingly recalled by Amanda as she trudges on; Rattuwat’s memories of Sua’s childhood and the family’s misfortunes in Thailand are heartbreakingly real. But it’s a minor character, Darjuna, who manages a petrol station, who offers hope at the end.

Harmless was originally inspired by the Jatakas, stories of the Buddha’s former births, in which the Buddha appears variously as a king, an outcast and an elephant. In the course of writing the novella, van Loon says, she became less concerned with keeping true to the original tales; but surely it is the Buddha as outcast that shines through her narrative, and the grace one outcast can unexpectedly confer on another.

Van Loon’s first novel, Road Story, won The Australian/Vogel Award in 2004.

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Lessons in new lands

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo: Jon ReidAMERICANAH
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By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fourth Estate. 400pp. $29.99.

Americanah is the third novel by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her first, Purple Hibiscus, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book. Her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Prize in 2007. All this bodes well.

However, towards the end of Americanah, one of central character Ifemelu’s friends, Ranyi, says to her: ”Who are you to pass judgment? … Stop feeling superior!” I wanted to high-five Ranyi at this point, because she’d summed up my frustrations with Ifemelu. She’s a woman who says what she thinks. She’s lusty. She can be funny. She’s a sharp observer of the subtleties of the relationships between men and women. But she’s often strangely passive and lacks perspective on her own behaviour.

We meet Ifemelu on the day she decides to move back home to Lagos, after having lived in the US for 15 years, and despite having been granted citizenship. During those years she has studied, worked, dated and become a successful blogger.

Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. I enjoyed the conceit of Ifemelu’s extremely long titles for her blog posts, but any playfulness with form ends there. I became increasingly bored by the writing style of the posts themselves.

The obsession with categories and subtleties of race relations is interesting – Ifemelu observes that she didn’t become Black until she moved to the US – and is one of the main themes of the novel. Some of the observations, especially about the politics – and care – of hair are engaging. (Why does Michelle Obama straighten her hair? Are tight curls too Black?) However, Americanah is written as if Adichie thinks her readers won’t understand her themes unless they’re underlined by the blog.

This all has the effect of making the novel appear to hover uneasily between non-fiction and fiction. While I have no idea how much of the story is autobiographical, it shares with some autobiographies the sense that every detail of a character’s life is compelling.

The result of this is a flattening out of the narrative, with long sections that need to be waded through to get to the scenes that have more momentum. And the resolution, when it comes, seems rushed, despite the book’s 400 pages.

The central plot device is that Ifemelu had to leave her boyfriend, Obinze, behind when she went to university. Will they, or won’t they, get back together when she returns to Nigeria all these years later?

But the structure is too saggy to make that possibility seem compelling. Adichie uses a six-hour hair-braiding session in Philadelphia as a point from which Ifemelu can reminisce about her life as a young girl in Nigeria, and then her years in the US. Obinze’s experiences are interspersed along the way. This structure draws their relationship past the point of any tension, and in the end it feels like a technique to provide shape to a fairly formless narrative.

There is much to like in the novel. Obinze’s point of view informs the extended sequence in which he tries to find work illegally in Britain. It’s one of the strongest and most moving sections of the book. Dike, Ifemelu’s nephew, is a wonderful character, and his struggle as a child and then as a teenager to live with his mother’s decisions produces scenes in which a character actually embodies the challenges and complexities of racism rather than observing them.

Dike’s mother, Aunty Uju, is a terrific study of an intelligent, lively woman who places too much faith in men to help her navigate through life. As Ifemelu observes, America seems to subdue her. It also seems to affect Adichie’s writing about her, and Aunty Uju seems to slip away from the novel once she is forced to leave Nigeria. It’s a loss.

Despite this, there is a lot to like in Americanah. The challenges of immigration, the shock of finding yourself in a culture where you can’t read situations or nuances, are evocative. Not to mention the scenes where we feel what it’s like to fall from a confident middle-class life to one where you may literally die trying to get enough money for food and rent.

Adichie is marvellous at conveying the sense that the life of an immigrant (and getting your hair braided) involves endless patience. That’s when we get real flashes of what it’s like to live forever poised, waiting for that moment when you have permission – from yourself, from the government – to truly embrace life.

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Jockey’s ban halved for sister fight – but no May carnival

JOCKEY Nikita McLean yesterday lost her bid to ride in next week’s May Racing Carnival, but vowed to mend the bitter family feud with her sister that brought her before the stewards in the first place.
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McLean, 27, appealed against a five-month ban imposed a week ago following an ugly brawl with jockey sibling Jackie Beriman at Hamilton races on April 14.

Yesterday, the appeals board halved her sentence to two-and-a-half months, which still prevents her from riding in next week’s carnival.

The board heard the sisters came to blows after McLean’s husband, top Warrnambool-based jumps jockey Brad McLean, and Beriman, 18, had an affair. The story of the warring sisters of the racetrack soon captured the attention of national media.

On April 18, McLean angrily told stewards that Beriman had wrecked her marriage and was now trying to destroy her career. But yesterday she appeared to have changed her tune.

She told the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board that she now wanted to end the battle with Beriman.

“I’m committed to trying to restore my relationship with Jackie and will work hard to achieve that,’’ McLean said.

Board chairman Russell Lewis said there had to be some degree of understanding shown to McLean, given the domestic circumstances that led to her attacking Beriman. The board was told that Brad McLean’s infidelity with Nikita McLean’s younger sister had driven her to the limits of her capacity and she had felt betrayed.

Patrick Wheelahan, for McLean, said the five-month penalty would have cost the jockey up to $70,000 in earnings and was too severe.

She will now be off the track until June 30.

McLean said she was relieved and glad the ordeal was behind her and said she wanted to now ensure that “the conduct of all riders in the female jockeys room was professional and up to the workplace standards that apply in 2013’’.

Beriman declined an offer to speak to The Standard.

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Weight expectations

WAGGA GOLD CUP
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MURRUMBIDGEE Turf Club is in the box seat to host one of the strongest Gold Cups on record after nominations exceeded expectations yesterday.

Dual Group One winner Danleigh tops the weights with 63.5 kilograms among 47 nominations for Friday’s $140,000 Listed Wagga Gold Cup (2000m).

Leading Sydney trainer Chris Waller nominated five for the race, with entries also from fellow big-name horsemen Peter Snowden, David Hayes, Robert Smerdon, Anthony Cummings, Clarry Conners, Graeme Rogerson and John Thompson.

Murrumbidgee Turf Club chief executive Scott Sanbrook was blown away by the nominations and believes the Cup is shaping up to be the best he has seen.

“I can’t recall so many nominations with such a high standard,” Sanbrook said yesterday. “It’s beyond our expectations, we couldn’t be happier with the standard we’ve got.”

Danleigh, fifth in the Doncaster last start, leads Waller’s team and is joined by overseas imports Class Is Class, Illo, Moriarty and Fulgur.

Danleigh is an unlikely starter due to the 63.5kg with Waller believed to be leaning in different directions with Moriarty and Fulgur.

That leaves Class Is Class and Illo, both owned by former Wagga man Richard Pegum. Among the other high-profile nominees were Peck and Sindarin for Snowden, while Hayes has Whisper Downs, Auld Burns and Rock Robster all nominated.

Classy city winner Single is already a confirmed acceptor with Nathan Berry in the saddle, while Crafty Irna and Scream Machine are all but certain starters.

Last year’s Gold Cup winner Coliseo was also a surprise nominee, given he is due to run in the Group One Sydney Cup (3200m) at Randwick today.

Wagga is likely to have just the one Gold Cup representative in Devised for Tim Donnelly. Lexical Ambiguity is the next best hope but needs luck. Brendon Avdulla is also the latest Group One-winning jockey to confirm his attendance at the carnival.

Sanbrook said everything was shaping up for a huge two days of racing.

“The nominations are simply exceptional,” Sanbrook said. “To have a number of leading stables supporting to the feature races is wonderful for a country club and to have a Group One performer such as Danleigh among the nomination tops it off. “Across the board is there is a lot of depth in the nominations.”

Meanwhile, nominations have been extended until 11am on Monday for the Jason Motor Group MTC Guineas and the Rules Club Maiden Plate (1200m).

STAR FACTOR: Group One winner Danleigh, for Sydney trainer Chris Waller, headlines the list of 47 nominations for Friday’s $140,000 Wagga Gold Cup (2000m).

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Trickling down the order in desperate times

No, I didn’t have Brad Haddin in my Ashes squad. Thought his time might have passed. Didn’t believe he had done enough to displace the incumbent Matthew Wade, or even earn a touring berth ahead of the younger Tim Paine.
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But, counter-intuitive as it might seem, it was reassuring to see his name among the 16 announced on Wednesday. A sign of desperate times? The whimsical thought that the deeds of a now distant past can be repeated? Or a reaction to the obvious vacuum in experience and leadership in a team that seemed at odds with itself in India?

Or – more optimistically – was Haddin’s selection resonant of an experienced (read elderly) Ashes squad that sends an unexpectedly encouraging message: Yep, this is going to be tough. Perhaps too tough. But we are going to do everything in our powers to be competitive. Not in two years or four years or when the progeny of Boon and Warne and some Waughs reach the age of cross-Pacific-can-drinking-record consent. But now.

Hold your fire. Do not hit the button on angry missives about the shortcomings of a batting order that seems, on paper, as fragile as my psyche standing over a downhill two-footer. Put yourself in the selectors’ Hush Puppies and remember they were shopping at a garage sale, not a Brighton boutique.

Yes, they have more openers than a wine taster’s kitchen drawer – although, admittedly, none who would displace the still raw Nick Compton from the England line-up. Let alone Captain Cook, the English skipper with the dashing Downton Abbey land baron good looks and serene born-to-bat manner.

We have been left with no choice but to institute a form of trickle-down selection whereby openers are redistributed to fill the gaps. My batting line-up is Cowan, Rogers, Hughes, Clarke, Watson/Khawaja, Warner.

Keep your fingers off that keyboard! There is method here.

Cowan and Rogers are real openers. Blunt the attack, take the shine off, tire the bowlers. That sort of thing. I’m trusting Roger’s experience in English conditions and Cowan’s cussed nature and professionalism. At least for the first two Tests.

Hughes? Iffy against the swinging ball. But I’m ignoring the way he was tortured by the Indian spinners, rewarding the manner in which he fought back, and reaching for a blindfold.

Clarke at four. Not voluntarily, but obviously. Watson plays if he proves in the tour matches he can give me 10 overs per-innings with the ball, that his form with the bat has improved and, of course, if he has completed his homework and kept his room tidy. If not, Khawaja gets his chance.

Warner at six? Why not bring him in when the ball is doing less and he can attempt to discombobulate the English bowlers with his cross blade? Alternatively, some might suggest he will be in before lunch anyway. So not much change there.

Much better Warner at six than the unfortunate Wade. His elevation to No.6 was an act of desperation, and his glove work has let him down. Haddin’s leadership, experience and – fingers crossed – form with the bat prevails. With the caveat that, despite the vice-captaincy, he is not immune from being dropped.

The bowling? Pattinson, Siddle, Harris and Bird. (Four seamers for Trent Bridge. With Lyon to get his chance at the Oval and other spin-friendly venues.)

By now, every New South Welshman will have screamed ”What about Mitchell Starc?”

Harris is a strike bowler with a big heart and a consistent line. Bird is dangerous and miserly. But Starc gets his chance when the first MRI comes back showing a stress fracture in one of the other bowler’s back or shin.

So here it is: Cowan, Rogers, Hughes, Clarke, Watson/Khawaja, Warner, Haddin, Harris, Pattinson, Siddle, Bird.

Not exactly The Invincibles. But, I reckon, not utterly vincible either.

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Facts key to fiction

Alex Miller warns literalism in novels should be avoided. Photo: Jay CronanIf you’re going to write fiction, you had better get your facts straight. This is the creed of multi-award-winning Australian novelist Alex Miller, whose books are peppered with people he knows, and historical events he has read about. They are set in places he has visited. When he was an honours student at Melbourne University in the 1960s, he took a course called The Theory and Method of History. In studying three different accounts of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, the students were challenged with the idea that written history could be as elastic as fiction.
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In Canberra earlier this month to give a lecture to University of Canberra students, Miller says he has often considered the authenticity of his own writing in this context, even while he invents storylines.

“History – or historiography – is often held up as about the facts of history, whereas fiction is held up as ‘it doesn’t matter because it’s not true’. It matters absolutely if fiction is not true,” he says.

Readers must be able to recognise the places he’s writing about – and recognise themselves if he has based characters on them. If they don’t, he has failed, because anyone who has ever stumbled across a factual error in a novel will know how quickly the book’s authenticity can dissipate.

“Writing a novel is an act of faith, absolutely, and you’d better get your facts right,” he says.

“And that doesn’t mean to say you’ve got to be earnest about it, and god forbid you’re literalist about interpreting the spirit of what you’re doing.”

His 1992 novel, The Ancestor Game, is partly set in China, where it is still in print, in two different translations, and is taught at various universities there. Miller recalls once being set upon by a Chinese professor of Australian studies, who demanded to know how he could possibly know “the smell of duck shit in Hangzhou in 1932”.

“I said, ‘Well I didn’t, but you did – it was already up your nose, and you were there, apparently.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was there! I was a boy!’ “

In writing the book, Miller had refrained from describing such a smell in too much detail. “What to leave out is critical,” he says. ”That there was the smell of duck shit, that ducks were kept and allowed into a courtyard … I knew about such things because I did a bit of reading, I’d had some experience, and I certainly knew the smell of duck shit. I think the smell of duck shit in 1932 in Hangzhou is the same as the smell of duck shit today, pretty well, if it’s in an enclosed space especially, because the ammonia fume goes straight up your nose. So I left that to the reader because with fiction, and with history, if you don’t allow the reader’s imagination to play its part, the book will be boring and they will put it aside.”

Factual is key, but literalism is to be avoided at all costs – a killer, he says, in all the arts. Fiction should only be limited by the human imagination, and how can we begin to be literal about something so ephemeral?

That history he read so many years ago – William Prescott’s “definitive” account of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, for example – isn’t made any less enjoyable by having been overtaken by later events.

“It’s contributed to the conversation, and it’s not the truth,” Miller says. ”It’s a version of what happened, and novels are a version of the intimate lives of us.”

After all, he says, no one reads War and Peace to find out who won the Battle of Borodino, but Tolstoy still had to do his homework, lest readers lose faith in his work.

“Those sorts of things are so important in my life, that the people I write about recognise themselves in what I write,” he says.

“If you write about somebody and they read the book and they know that the character they’re reading about is based on them and they find it awkward, strange and untrue, that would be terrible. It hasn’t happened yet.”

So it’s not for him, that writer’s rule of masking their characters lest they be recognised?

“I don’t have rules like that because I think other people do different things,” he says.

“I’m not trying to tell anybody how to write novels. I know what I do, and what I do is I write about people and places I love. I write about them as novels, and I’ve given my life to them and I respect it more than anything. I think it’s an honourable thing to do if you do it honourably. The imagination of the reader is as least as important as the imagination of the writer, and what to leave out, like the smell of duck shit or the attempt at that point to say what that smell was actually like … As soon as you make a rule of it, somebody writes something witty and wonderful about the smell of duck shit that does say exactly how it is, so there are no rules. It’s an old rule, isn’t it? There are no rules.”

Alex Miller’s 11th novel, Coal Creek, is due out in October, published by Allen and Unwin.

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Frightened kids refuse to sleep

THREE children are too scared to go to sleep at night after thieves broke into their Tolland home and stole their Christmas presents and toys.
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Now their mum, Vanessa Whitley, says she’s been looking at counselling for them because the heartless break-in has left them so scared.

The incident happened on Monday, April 15, and saw the family’s Dennis Crescent house ransacked during the day.

Among the items stolen was the children’s PlayStation console, an iPod, laptop, games and a Thumpstar motorbike.

Even a money box that her son, Lachlan, 10, had been proudly filling with gold coins wasn’t spared.

“It makes me sick that the children have to go through this,” Mrs Whitley said. “A lot of these items were Christmas presents.

“They’ve had nothing to play with on their school holidays.”

But it’s not what the thieves took that has been the main issue.

The most concerning part of it is the fear and sleepless nights that have followed.

Mrs Whitley’s eldest son Tyson, 12, sleeps on the couch because he doesn’t want to be in his room alone.

“It’s upset the kids, they won’t sleep at night,” she said.

“They just cried when they saw the house after it had first been broken into.”

Mrs Whitley said everything had been padlocked and secure when the break-in occured, but since this hadn’t worked they had installed security cameras.

She said police had taken finger prints but she’d been told there wasn’t much they could do.

The family are putting a call out for the community to keep a look out for the Atomick Pro X 125cc Thumpstar that is black, red and grey.

Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

LOW ACT: (From left) Tyson Whitley, 12, brother Lachlan, 10, and sister Britney, 6, feel scared after thieves stole their toys and Christmas presents. Picture: Michael Frogley

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