Reading In Review: January to May 2018

Look­ing back on the first half of 2018, a tur­bu­lent year in world pol­i­tics – and in my field of Kore­an Stud­ies in par­tic­u­lar – I see how much my read­ing habits remain an anchor. Hav­ing quit Face­book in March, and rad­i­cal­ly reduced my time on Twit­ter, I have gained an extra hour for evening read­ing (prob­a­bly more). Here are ten of the high­lights of my year so far…

At the launch of Tes­sa Lunney’s April In Paris, 1921 with my dear friends Dr Olivia Mur­phy, Dr Han­nah Ian­niel­lo & Dr Tes­sa Lunney.

Tar­jei Vesaas, The Ice Palace (trans­lat­ed from Nynorsk by Eliz­a­beth Rokkan)

Tar­jei Vesaas is a lit­er­ary icon in Nor­way, yet I had not encoun­tered his writ­ing until this year (on the rec­om­men­da­tion of the infal­li­ble Kate Men­day … thanks Kate!). The Ice Palace tells of Siss and Unn, school­girls liv­ing in an iso­lat­ed rur­al com­mu­ni­ty in Nor­way. Vesaas explores the mys­tery that unfolds when Unn van­ish­es, per­haps into the ice palace now ris­ing from the land­scape like a vision from a fairy­tale. A beguil­ing nov­el, The Ice Palace cap­tures the inten­si­ty of late child­hood friend­ships. Equal­ly pal­pa­ble is its vision of the stark Nor­we­gian land and the secrets it con­ceals. A slen­der masterpiece.

Han Kang, Human Acts (trans­lat­ed from Kore­an by Deb­o­rah Smith)

Han Kang’s Human Acts recre­ates the events lead­ing up to, imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing, and still unfold­ing in the shad­ow of the Gwangju Mas­sacre, one of the defin­ing events in mod­ern Kore­an his­to­ry. Whilst the world – right­ly – focus­es on the DPRK, this is an impor­tant nov­el, like­ly intro­duc­ing many non-Kore­an read­ers for the first time to the recent his­to­ry of the Repub­lic of Korea in the south, and the price paid for its own lib­er­a­tion from tyran­ny. I admired Han Kang’s The Veg­e­tar­i­an (also deft­ly trans­lat­ed by the prodi­gious Deb­o­rah Smith), yet it did not res­onate with me like Human Acts. There were moments in Human Acts that made me dizzy, so pow­er­ful­ly did they con­jure up the sor­row and the anguish of 1980Human Acts will take its place along­side Dark­ness at Noon and oth­er great works of lit­er­a­ture that stand both as impor­tant his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments and mon­u­men­tal works of art.

Ger­ald Mur­nane, The Plains

In recent months, there has been a resur­gence of inter­est in Ger­ald Mur­nane, one of Australia’s most dis­tinc­tive authors, and one of our most inde­pen­dent thinkers. Mur­nane does not use the Inter­net, has nev­er left the coun­try, doesn’t like Peter Carey… and hates the sea. My own new nov­el is set, in part, in the Aus­tralian cen­tre, so I want­ed first to read The Plains, one of the most remark­able books yet writ­ten about what Mur­nane terms “Inner Aus­tralia.” Is this a place or is it a state of mind? Murnane’s nov­el hov­ers between sci-fi, poet­ry, his­to­ry, geog­ra­phy, semi­otics and the­ol­o­gy. Dream­like, it is some­how both imme­di­ate and elu­sive, and I found myself read­ing aloud – some­thing I will rarely do alone– hop­ing to slow my thoughts and bet­ter taste Murnane’s unique lan­guage. He would indeed be a wor­thy can­di­date for the Nobel Prize, as some have sug­gest­ed. In clas­sic Aus­tralian style, the con­fer­ral of glob­al pres­tige might belat­ed­ly rouse Murnane’s home­land to see the mas­ter in their midst. The Plains is a bril­liant novel.

Fran­cis Spufford, Gold­en Hill

Fran­cis Spufford’s Gold­en Hill does not need much intro­duc­tion. The picaresque tale of Mr Smith, a mys­te­ri­ous young man who arrives in the New York of 1746, this debut nov­el has received plau­dits and praise from all cor­ners of the read­ing world. I have been a Spufford devo­tee for over a decade. I adored his mem­oir of child­hood read­ing, The Child That Books Built, and loved Unapolo­getic, Spufford’s explo­ration of his Chris­tian­i­ty. Giv­en my inter­est in Com­mu­nist his­to­ry, it’s a won­der that I’m yet to read Red Plen­ty, but will get around to it even­tu­al­ly. Gold­en Hill is crack for lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry lovers. Brim­ming with wit and intel­lect, Spufford stands tall astride the war­ring blocs of “lit­er­a­ture” and “fic­tion” and says, no thanks. A reminder that there need be no com­pro­mise between sto­ry and craft, Gold­en Hill is tremen­dous­ly rich in every way.

Megan Jacob­son, The Build-Up Season

The Build-Up Sea­son takes read­ers into the world of Ili­ad Piper, grow­ing up in the North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry of Aus­tralia. Jacob­son maps the land­scapes of young hearts as deft­ly as she maps the water, land and sky of a part of Aus­tralia so often hid­den from (and by) our country’s coastal art scene. Mur­nane would approve. There is dark­ness here, but also humour. Jacob­son locates moments of redemp­tion in unlike­ly places. At once soap oper­at­ic, inti­mate, and as epic as the north­ern sky, this is fiery and lyri­cal writ­ing about fam­i­ly, friend­ship, ado­les­cence, and home. Megan Jacob­son is one of the best writ­ers in Aus­tralia today. 

Jack Heath, Hang­man

Jack Heath’s Hang­man is, by the author’s own admis­sion, not for every­one. But then again, no great work of art ever is, and I have an instinc­tive mis­trust of any­one (artist or oth­er­wise) who wants to please us all. Heath is one of Australia’s most beloved and best-sell­ing authors for young read­ers, yet here is his debut nov­el for adult read­ers … and his id is off the leash. Hang­man is a pulpy and per­verse delight. Tim­o­thy Blake – it is not real­ly spoil­ing to explain – is a can­ni­bal in the employ of the FBI. Blake helps solve unsolv­able crimes, and the FBI … feeds him bod­ies. Pre-empt­ing the obvi­ous – as if Thomas Har­ris had any monop­oly on can­ni­bal­ism to begin with! – Heath makes Blake young, rough, street­wise, and pre­cise­ly the sort of per­son Dr. Lecter would avoid in the street. This is a gob­s­mack­ing­ly (or lip-smack­ing­ly) vio­lent tale, but it is also bizarre, hilar­i­ous, and a stealth­ily astute com­men­tary on post-finan­cial cri­sis Amer­i­ca. Give me more.

Tes­sa Lun­ney, April In Paris, 1921

Tes­sa Lunney’s debut nov­el arrives with a remark­able pedi­gree. Dr Lun­ney has a PhD in Cre­ative Arts and has won the Grif­fith Uni­ver­si­ty Josephine Ulrick Prize for Lit­er­a­ture for this exquis­ite piece of writ­ing, as well as appear­ing in all the great and good lit­er­ary jour­nals of Aus­tralia. Tes­sa is also one of my dear­est friends in the world, so it was with great antic­i­pa­tion that I read her debut nov­el, both in draft and final form. Hap­pi­ly, April In Paris, 1921 is an irre­sistible delight, intro­duc­ing read­ers to Aus­tralian war nurse and spy, Kather­ine King But­ton, or Kiki to her friends. Exult­ing in place and time, Lun­ney nav­i­gates the nar­rows between Fran­cophilic fan­ta­sy and real­ism with elan, whilst the novel’s his­tor­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal under­cur­rents offer a com­pelling coun­ter­point to the boozy sen­su­al­i­ty of ’20s Paris. Like one of Kik­i’s cock­tails, this is to be read in thirsty gulps. I would call this a guilty plea­sure, but, as Kiki might ask, why should plea­sure always be thought guilty?

John le Car­ré, Lega­cy of Spies 

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

Tin­ker, Tai­lor, Sol­dier, Spy

John le Carré’s Lega­cy of Spies takes us back into the world of George Smi­ley, Peter Guil­lam and the Cir­cus, indeed back into the events of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the nov­el that launched le Car­ré into the stratos­phere of great con­tem­po­rary nov­el­ists. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tin­ker, Tai­lor, Sol­dier, Spy were already look­ing back at the pass­ing of a gen­er­a­tion of spies (avatars for dif­fer­ent aspects of the soul of Britain and her Cold War friends and foes alike). Lega­cy of Spies looks back again, this time from the even fur­ther van­tage point of post-Brex­it Britain, spir­i­tu­al­ly adrift and still at war, both with­in and with­out. In my ear­ly twen­ties, I thought le Carré’s world­view was too cyn­i­cal. Now in my mid thir­ties, I know I was wrong. 

Le Car­ré, much like Smi­ley him­self, remains a voice of con­science in dark times, yet not a pious one. Both lament the West’s great fail­ures, its sins of com­mis­sion and omis­sion, yet there remain lin­ger­ing hints of Old World romance and a dream of hope for renew­al. Lega­cy of Spies plunged me obses­sive­ly back into le Car­ré Land, so I revis­it­ed The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tin­ker, Tai­lor, Sol­dier, Spy, along with the bril­liant tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of the Smi­ley nov­els star­ring Sir Alec Guin­ness. In infan­til­is­ing times in West­ern pol­i­tics and cul­ture, le Car­ré offers a clar­i­on call for a revival of that most unfash­ion­able of con­cepts, the grown up.