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Australian Financial Review: Best Books of the Month

This month’s 3 best books: Reviews of A Writing Life, House of Names, Pachinko

Helen Garner’s work is put under the microscope, Agamemnon’s tale retold by renowned Irish author Colm Toibin and a family drama by Min Jin Lee set in Japan are our picks for the best books this month.

by Nicole Abadee

Helen Garner’s work is put under the microscope, Agamemnon’s tale retold by renowned Irish author Colm Toibin and a family drama by Min Jin Lee set in Japan are our picks for the best books this month.

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan

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Helen Garner is one of Australia’s leading authors, and academic Bernadette Brennan does her proud in A Writing Life. Brennan argues that Garner’s life and writing are so inextricably linked that it is not possible to understand one without the other. She has skilfully woven Garner’s personal story into an illuminating literary critique of a writer with more than four decades’ worth of work to her name.

The last book about Garner was published in 2006 – Kerryn Goldsworthy’s Helen Garner – so the time was ripe for an updated examination of the Melburnian’s contribution to Australian letters. Garner granted Brennan unprecedented access to her personal correspondence, diaries and other archives as well as countless interviews over a two-year period.

All of which makes for an utterly compelling book, replete with biographical details which cast light on Garner as a person and also on her work. For instance, despite being dux and head prefect at school, Garner achieved only third-class honours at university. Brennan suggests this left her with a pervasive sense of inferiority, seen over the years in harsh self-criticism and an at times overly sensitive response to criticism by others.

What makes this book especially interesting is Brennan’s close analysis of each of Garner’s books, most of which get a chapter to themselves, in the context of her personal circumstances. Brennan argues that Garner sympathised with the errant master at the centre of the sexual harassment case in The First Stone because she saw echoes of her own sacking years earlier from Fitzroy High. In This House of Grief, Garner shows sympathy towards Robert Farquharson, the divorced father who drove his three young sons into a dam. Brennan suggests that empathy might be a product of Garner’s own experience of the pain and humiliation of divorce.

Brennan asks Garner why she married three times. The illuminating response, that her father was more comfortable with her having husbands than partners, says a lot about his influence on her, despite their tumultuous relationship.

Brennan’s stated goal was not to ask whether Garner’s work is autobiographical – clearly much of it is – but to explore how and why Garner writes about herself. In doing so she has produced a psychologically acute portrait of a complex writer. This is literary critique and biography at its finest.

House of Names by Colm Toibin

Picador

Renowned Irish author Colm Toibin breathes life into a classic revenge tale – the story of Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, and his queen, Clytemnestra, whom he has wronged. Agamemnon is the first play of The Oresteia trilogy written by Aeschylus and first performed in 458BC.

House of Names is narrated by Clytemnestra and her two children by Agamemnon, son Orestes and daughter Electra. This enables Toibin to get inside the heads of his protagonists as each faces a complex moral dilemma, revealing their conflicting emotions and motives and engaging the reader’s sympathy.

This works most effectively in his portrayal of Clytemnestra, who waits 10 years to wreak vengeance on her husband. She has long been painted as irredeemably evil but by giving her a voice, Toibin enables her to tell her side of the story.

This is tragedy writ large. Its themes of vengeance, justice and filial duty make it as relevant today as ever.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Apollo

Pachinko is a Japanese adult gambling game described as vertical pinball. Korean-American author Min Jin Lee chose it as the title for her second book, a gripping novel about four generations of a Korean family living in Japan, because she saw it as a metaphor for Koreans in Japan “as they struggle for their place”.

The story opens in Korea in 1911, when a match is made between disabled Hoonie and the beautiful 15-year-old Yangjin. They have a daughter, Sunja, who emigrates to Japan, where her children and grandchildren will be born, their story unfolding over eight decades.

Pachinko is ostensibly about the plight of Koreans living in Japan but it also tells the story of immigrants everywhere – their battle to assimilate and to survive in the face of hardship, whilst retaining their cultural identities. More than that, it’s a profoundly moving family saga, touching on universal themes of love and courage, suffering and endurance, dislocation and resilience. It will stay with you.


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published: Australian Financial Review WEEKEND