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The Empress Lover by Linda Jaivin            Fourth Estate   $29.99

Linda Jaivin is best-known for her erotic fiction, which fuses the political and personal with refreshing dollops of wit. Her 1995 best-seller, Eat Me broke new ground in exploring the lascivious possibilities of fruit. But Jaivin is also a renowned sinologist, a fluent Mandarin speaker with an encyclopaedic knowledge of China. She has lived and lectured there, and apart from writing fiction, one of her sidelines in as a translator and movie sub-titler.

Her seventh novel, The Empress Lover, blends her love of this complex country with myth, memoir, memory and more than a hint of magic. She also bears a passing resemblance to her heroine, Linnie, a middle-aged Australian movie sub-titler, who lives in one of Beijing’s older quarters. They share the same Chinese name Jia Peilin, are consumed by the desire to write fiction, and are bound emotionally to spirit of place.

But here the similarities end and what begins is an examination of “fusa”, a wonderful Chinese word that means obscure, complicated, uncertain. If modern China is fusa incarnate, laden with historical baggage and contradictions, then Linnie’s own background is as fusa as they come. Brought up by relatives after her 17-year-old mother dies in childbirth, Linnie has no knowledge of her father. All she has been left are a richly carved pair of expensive jade bracelets, and the dying words of her mother who said her father was “a Prince” – certainly the stuff of fiction.

Linnie herself lives in a highly imaginative world. For years she’s been struggling to write her novel about her experiences in China, and has returned to Beijing after a long spell in Australia to complete it. She has also written another book, an account of the real-life trickster and scholar Edmund Backhouse. Backhouse wrote a sensational and fictional account of the 19th century court of the Empress Cixi. In his erotic fantasies, he imagined an affair with the then elderly Empress. Linnie’s novel, The Empress Lover, replicated his “saga stuffed full of gratuitous, sensationalist sex scenes, murder, history lessons and purple prose”.

One day, Linnie receives a letter from a man on horseback dressed in 19th century costume, purporting to give her news about her mysterious father. The writer of the missive is no less than Backhouse’s own biographer, a man so ancient everyone presumed he was dead. Curiouser and curiouser. Or more and more fusa.

By now, the reader realises that the novel is like one of those carved ivory Chinese balls within balls, or a series of Chinese boxes. Fact and fiction blur. What starts out as a straightforward narrative dips into magic realism and back again. As we get to know Linnie, we discover the circumstances that have shaped her, in particular a life-long love affair with the handsome, enigmatic and elusive Q. We also learn a great deal about China’s rich and complicated history and lifestyle, from the earliest days of the imperial dynasties to the massacre at Tiennamen Square and today’s schizophrenic society, which balances extreme wealth and commercialism on the one hand with communist values on the other.

As Linnie prepares for an evening rendez-vous to find out about her father, Jaivin dips in and out of anecdote and memoir, history and fantasy. The story is told in a number of voices, from Linnie’s own (essentially part 1), to a poet who knew both Linnie and Q in their youth, in part 2. In the middle are other storytellers, including Backhouse himself. It’s to Jaivin’s credit that for the most part, she juggles these multiple story-lines expertly. Every so often the sheer weight of fantasy and absurd coincidence seems to overpower the novel, threatening to split those interlocking ivory balls apart. But Linnie is such a sympathetic character, and her voice so touching and believable, that you forgive Jaivin her little peccadilloes.

More than anything, this is a novel about the weight of history impacting on the present, the persistence of love and memory, the redeeming power of fiction and imagination to redress the hurts of the past. And it’s a wonderful evocation of China, in all her bewildering, dazzling fusa-ness.

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Celebrating the Eternal Feminine


I am that Woman by Vanessa Shields       Black Moss Press    Ca $17

I rarely review poetry, partly because I’m time poor and because temperamentally I am probably best suited to reviewing fiction. Nevertheless, some poets are very close to my heart. I dip into Eliot, Plath, Whitman, Keats, Ashbery, Bishop, even the odd line of Ginsberg, again and again. It’s the conciseness of poetry I love, the world freeze-framed, reality eye-blinked..

So when Canadian blogger and Books Now! subscriber Vanessa Shields asked me to review her first book of poetry, I am That Woman, I was delighted. It’s published this month and I’m happy to devote one of my last Books Now! posts before a four week hiatus, to her work.

IATW is a celebration of femaleness in all its rawness, sweat, blood, love and confusions. There are 60 poems in the collection. Some deal humorously with the difficulties of the post-partum body, as in How to Sneeze After You’ve Given Birth Twice; others with the challenges of parenting, coping with fretful kids, trying to write when the kids are vying for your attention. Some are souvenirs of childhood, the nascent blooming of adolescent’s female sexual power, others explore the power of friendship between women.

Shields is tough. In Using Cancer to Get Out of a Speeding Ticket a woman tells the police officer she was speeding in order to get home and take her cancer medication, when in reality she wants to see her favourite TV show. The twist is that the cancer is real – only the protagonist is in remission. This tension builds great irony, as well as raising a wry smile.

At her best, Shields tackles the great subjects, sex and death, with passion and compassion. In The Final Visitation, the poet visits a dying relative and gazes at his chest, now “Grey and black hair./Dappling the surface/Like seaweed on rippled skin sea”. Later, in Casket, she talks about the dead man,“ I have to hold him differently now/Not just in my arms/On my shoulders/In my blood.” This is vivid imagery which lingers.

Shields’ love poems are earth-woman rich, and she understands both sex and love in equal measure. One of my favourite poems is Where is the Love? Here, a woman and her partner try to rediscover their pre-kids attraction for each other in a world full of bottles and nappies. “Where is the love in this poem?/… In the passing glance he gives me as I wash the dishes/… in the way he tells me I’m beautiful even when I haven’t brushed my/hair and I can’t remember the last time I took a shower.” It’s these small details of recognisable everyday life that build this collection into a memorable portrait of a mother, wife, lover, friend and eternal woman. This is a debut full of promise and I look forward to seeing what Vanessa does next.


A Love-song to Beirut



An Unnecessary Woman by   Rabih Alameddine Text $29.99

Rabih Alamedddine is an acclaimed Arab-American writer who is new to me. However, novels about book lovers will always make this reviewer’s ears prick up. In doing so, I have discovered a new novelist to check out and a fascinating – if controversial – literary presence.

Let’s be clear: through his central character Aaliya, Alameddine lays out his political and global perspectives clearly. He has no room for political correctness. This may alienate some readers, and I suspect many Americans, in particular, may bristle at some of the comments made here in regards to Middle East politics. Persevere. For what emerges is a love-song to a city, war-torn, ravaged Beirut, in all her faded gorgeousness.

Aaliya is 72 and lives a life of quiet seclusion. Every year for the past 30 years, this retired bookseller translates a new novel into Arabic, starting on the 1 January. Last year it was Sebald’s Austerlitz. This year it will be Bolano’s 2666. Fluent in three languages, Aaliya’s very choosy about the translations she undertakes: nothing must have been previously translated into Arabic. If she can’t speak a language, she’ll use French and English translations as a basis for her own, which is how she tackles the Russians. After she completes the task, she carefully files the works in a drawer. The thought of publishing never seems to occur to her.

She was married off at 16, long divorced and her now-dead husband was impotent and never loved her. She has an uneasy relationship with her step-brothers, all eager to dislodge her from her spacious apartment and completely alienated from her dementing mother, who never had time for her. She has no friends: Hannah, the loved companion of her youth, has been dead for years. She listens to the conversations of the “witches”, the widows and divorcees in the apartments above her who meet for daily coffee and cake, but never seeks to join them, preferring her own company.

Instead, she lives among her writers and books, (“Literature is my sand-pit”) and through imaginary worlds she’s sustained through years of civil war and political unrest. Her books are a constant presence through which she lives, remembering snatches of poetry and spattered paragraphs of text. Proust, Saramago, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Malouf, Cavafy, Borges, Calvino, Faulkner , Pessoa– it’s an awesome, daunting and occasionally confidence-destroying list. As a French speaker of Eastern European extraction, I’ve read Yourcenar, Kertesz, and many others, but Aaliya’s huge grasp of Western and Eastern traditions is mind-boggling and can make you feel intellectually dim-witted.

Aaliya actively cultivates such feelings of inferiority. She’s an intellectual snob, who pushes human contact away, preferring the company of dead writers and old memories to the possibilities of the present. One part of Aaliya is immensely unlikeable. Her unguarded political comments, in particular, are sweeping, over-generalised, sometimes historically inaccurate. At the same time, she can be very endearing, acknowledging her own insignificance in the vast scheme of things.

Without a trace of vanity, given to wearing old clothes and cutting her own hair, she finally gives in to her neighbours’ pleading and shampoos her hair with “Bel Argent” for a distinguished blue-tinged rinse. But shortsightedly, she misreads the instructions and emerges with brilliant blue hair. That’s the opening of the novel, which lays the ground for the rich vein of humour and self-deprecation that run through it.

Yet the supporting characters never seem as fully realised as those in Aaliya’s head. Take Ahmad, a shy young boy who volunteers at her bookstore and then reinvents himself as a gun-toting Black September terrorist. Their passionate one night stand appears faintly ridiculous and completely unbelievable. Even Hannah, Aaliya’s dearest friend, seems sketchy and insubstantial compared to the fictional wealth in Aaliya’s head.

It’s Beirut which emerges as a fully-developed character here and Alameddine’s descriptions of the city are a hymn to a beloved, war-torn friend. Once-grand buildings are pockmarked with bullets, single women sleep with Kalashnikovs beside their pillows, everyone is exhausted. No wonder, for Aaliya, “My books show me what it is like to live in a reliable country where you flick on a switch and a bulb is guaranteed to shine and remain on.” Despite modernisation, the overwhelming impression of Beirut is one of flux, impermanence, lack of control. It’s literature, friendship and the artistic life that have any sense of permanence and which Alameddine celebrates in this witty, affecting, if frustrating, novel.

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Tackling the big issues: Lionel Shriver writes fat


shriver                          big

BIG BROTHER by Lionel Shriver                        Harper Collins  $29.99

In her career, Lionel Shriver has never shrunk away from tackling confronting topics. The Orange Prize-winner of the best-selling We Need to Talk About Kevin is known for her dark subject matter and dry, sardonic prose. There’s a watchfulness about Shriver – when reading her, I feel she’s artfully dangling her characters like well-crafted but frequently hollow wooden puppets. As many of her characters are also extremely unlikeable, it’s often hard to empathise with them.  At the same time, I appreciate her honesty and complete lack of sentimentality as she deals with the noir in fiction.

Her latest novel. Big Brother, was inspired by her own story: Shriver’s brother Greg was morbidly obese and died without her being able to help him. This first-hand understanding has led her to write a novel that is perceptive, and thought-provoking, ranging widely from sibling affection, to dysfunctional family life, and naturally, the nature of obesity and body image.

Pandora is a successful forty-something business woman, whose custom-made “Baby Monotonous” dolls have brought her wealth and a degree of fame.  She is married to Fletcher and step-mother to his two adolescent children. Fletcher, a health food “Nutritional Nazi”, makes custom-made furniture nobody wants. This creates a degree of tension within the relationship that is hinted at rather than fully explored. When, after a long absence, Pandora’s brother Edison comes to stay, she can’t even recognize him at the airport. Her once slim, sexy, jazz musician brother now weighs nearly 400 pounds.

Edison proceeds to create havoc in the household – he breaks Fletcher’s favourite piece of handmade furniture; cooks calorie-ridden meals for the family dripping in fat and sugar. In one graphic scene, he rushes to the bathroom and blocks the toilet with a bowel movement so gigantic, effluent overflows onto the floor.  Shriver handles this scene with characteristic coolness, letting the facts speak for themselves.

Pandora makes a life-changing choice: she leaves Fletcher to look after Edison and ensure he returns to a healthy weight. Pandora has also put on weight over the years and joins him in his diet. A large section of the novel is devoted to their stringent low-calorie meals (a “Ketosis Party” is a highlight), their struggles and triumphs as they both return to their former, lightweight selves.

With the exception of We Need to Talk About Kevin (in my view still her best book), I have never felt Shriver handles love and intimacy with any great insight and subtlety. Scenes between Pandora and Fletcher appear contrived, her relationship with her step-children aloof. Even her affection for Edison reads like a rationale for plot – after all, they haven’t seen each other for years so why should Pandora become his rescuing angel?

But when she talks about food, our attitude to eating and our concepts of self, Shriver excels. In a world where one in three Americans and Australians are classified as obese, this novel raises important questions. Pandora cannot bring herself at the beginning to discuss Edison’s ballooning weight with him. It is the “elephant in the room” she feels embarrassed to acknowledge. Ignoring the problem is almost like wishing it away, and one wonders how many cases of obesity in families are also put into the too hard basket.

Similarly, Shriver talks convincingly and astutely  of the differences between private and public images, explaining body image partially as a bi-product of flawed perception. Pandora does not recognize herself in photographs, as her own view of self is so different to the black and white starkness of a print. She writes: “I do not, under normal circumstances feel seen. When I walk down the street, my experience is of looking.  Manifest to myself in the ethereal privacy of my head, I grow alarmed when presented with the evidence of my public body… In the main I fail utterly to recognize myself , the me of me, in my photographs…The body…is mine. …But it is an avatar”. The self in the head therefore distorts the reality of the self in the mirror.

Shriver accurately pinpoints the hypocrisy of an image-obsessed culture, which equates thinness with success and happiness and is highly prejudiced towards the overweight, whilst dishing out cooking show after cooking show on primetime TV. There is, Shriver suggests, something sick and twisted in these conflicting forces, summed up in this vow Pandora and Edison make during their retreat.

I pledge aversion to the flab

Of the derided waists of America,

And to the repulsion for which it stands,

One nation, underweight, practically invisible,

With misery and smugness for all.

Shriver doesn’t find answers for the questions she raises, but by holding up a mirror to society, she makes us look at obesity in a new, more compassionate light. Whatever the shortcomings of Big Brother, this is a lasting take-home message.




For balletomanes: Balanchine’s ‘Lost Muse’

ABR_logo_black                          balanchine

 This review appears in the March edition of ABR

Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer by Elizabeth Kendall, Oxford University Press, $41.95

George Balanchine’s name is synonymous with ballet. We know him as a dancer in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union before his flight to the West in the early 1920s. After joining Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as an innovative choreographer, Balanchine soon realised that moving to the United States would enable him to fulfil his creativity and ambition. In 1934 he founded the New York City Ballet, remaining its prime choreographer and ballet master until his death in 1983. He combined the classical aesthetic he learned at St Petersburg’s rigorous Imperial Ballet School with daring modernism. Collaborations with composers such as Stravinsky ensured that his ballets would remain icons of contemporary dance.

Much has been written about Balanchine, but less is known of his fellow students, in particular Lidia (Lidochka) Ivanova, a talented young dancer who was killed in a boating accident at the age of twenty. Balanchine had many muses during his career. A serial lover of ballerinas, including his first wife, Tamara Geva, his ballets regularly featured or were choreographed for his current love interest. Elizabeth Kendall contends that Balanchine’s original muse was Ivanova herself. Her book is an attempt to prove this theory, as well as a history of classical dance from the last years of Imperial Russia to the turbulent post-revolutionary years.

Kendall has impeccable credentials. A professor of literary studies at the New School in the United States, she has written regularly for international ballet journals. She interviewed Balanchine two years before his death. He was seventy-seven, white-haired, straight-backed, and whippet-thin, with a twinkle in his eye, and a penchant for bright young women. They flirted and talked about food as well as dance.

What this obviously ignited in Kendall was a passion for discovering more about such challenging times in dance’s history. But nowhere in that interview, or in any other, did Balanchine mention his ‘lost muse’, and that’s the problem. Much of this book is pure conjecture on Kendall’s part, a desire to find an ur-source for Balanchine’s genius, cobbling together research, excerpts from memoirs, old photographs, and letters to substantiate her claim. The result may be romantically satisfying, but it lacks the hard evidence needed for a compelling case.

This is what we do know. Ivanova was the daughter of an army officer who had risen through the ranks. Obsessed with the arts, he enrolled her in the Imperial Ballet School at the age of nine. By the time Lidia was fourteen she was well on the way to becoming a ballet star. Although boys and girls took lessons separately, she quickly became friends with the then Georges Balanchivadze. Both had come from humble origins. Balanchine’s parents won a lottery and rose swiftly up the social scale, only to see their money disappear in bad investments. A place at the prestigious Imperial Ballet School for their son enabled them to win back some lost face. The training was spartan, with exercises designed to discipline the spirit as well as the body.

However tough the students’ lives were before 1917, after the revolution uncertainty reigned. Amid the chaos of a society in total reconstruction with ensuing fear and famine, what place would the rarefied art of ballet have in this new proletariat world? In one telling passage, Kendall relates that it took the influence of the school’s Red Army-endorsed new director, Oblakov, to ensure the now-renamed Petrograd State Theatre Ballet School received sufficient winter fuel so that the young dancers wouldn’t freeze.

What followed was a complete rethink of ballet’s role and purpose. The annual presentations to the imperial family were replaced by performances at factories and to the bureaucrats forging Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Revolutionary zeal replaced pomp and circumstance. It was during this period that Balanchine choreographed his first ballets. None, however, was inspired by, or even featured, Ivanova.

Balanchine definitely recognised a kindred spark in Ivanova. They were often paired in ballets. An account of their dancing in The Magic Flute in 1920 mentions Ivanova’s dark good looks, ‘sunlit smile’, exuberance, and preposterously high leaps. Both appeared ‘not so much to dance the steps as to live the ballet, sincerely and spontaneously’. They were young stars in the making, daring and optimistic. But four days before going on tour, Ivanova drowned.

Praised for her fearlessness, her ability to create ‘real, living creatures’, and her intuitive timing, Ivanova was also a risk-taker, especially in her private life. Her death gave rise to several conspiracy theories. Was her death a terrible accident? Was she disposed of by a jealous rival or murdered because of her associations with the secret police? (Today’s shenanigans at the Bolshoi pale in comparison.)

Kendall links Ivanova’s premature death with the leitmotif of dead young women who regularly feature in Balanchine’s ballets, asserting that ‘Lidochka was simply … the realest in a long line of balletic Deaths and Maidens’. This is simply not true. Balanchine did feature corpses in his ballets, but many of them were male, not female. And a dead maiden is the heroine of his first ballet, Night, written before Ivanova’s death.

Georges and Lidia were colleagues, not lovers, and, though he was clearly affected by her death, Balanchine’s course was set. This is a rich account of the socio-political framework and cultural beginnings of the early days of the Soviet Union. But by romanticising Ivanova’s role in Balanchine’s life, Kendall does her narrative a grave disservice.


SYMPHONY FOR SINGLE VOICE: The late blooming of Eimear McBride


A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING By Eimear McBride          Text, $22.99

Every so often, you come across a “first book miracle” – the novel, turned down by every publisher, that is finally picked up and becomes an international sensation. Last year, that novel was A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by first-time novelist Eimear McBride. Written in an intense burst of creativity when she was 27, she spent the next nine years hawking it around the UK publishing circuit, but the answer was always the same: McBride showed great promise, but the book, written in an experimental and poetic stream of consciousness, was considered too difficult to sell.

That was until McBride submitted her novel to Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press, established in 2011, which is committed to new work. What followed was a literary coup de théâtre. On publication, ‘A Girl’ was both critically acclaimed and snapped up by the public. Anne Enright called McBride “a genius”. The novel won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, offered by London University. Now it’s finally published in Australia.

Born in Liverpool, Eimear McBride was raised in western Ireland and now lives in Norwich. It’s not hard to spot her prime influences – the spicy vernacular of Joyce, the dark imagery of Beckett haunt each page. With lilting phrases, humour, bleakness, she’s an Irish original through and through. “In writing the book I was consciously trying to do something new,” says McBride. “I’m very interested in the modernist tradition. Finnegan’s Wake sort of signalled the end of literature, so I wanted to take a step back and try to find a new way forward.”

The result is a novel that is sometimes difficult to read, often opaque and requiring re-reading. McBride pummels and pounds her sentences, stretches, inverts, teases out language till it re-forms into her own particular syntax. It takes a while to settle into her jagged sentences, her backwards-forwards glancings. But ‘A Girl’ rewards and ripples with its own music. You’re in the narrator’s head in every line. The novel is a tone poem written in interlocking movements, a symphony for single voice.

Take this passage, from early on in the novel:

“I’ll jump the bath when she has me. Running with my headful of shampoo shouting no Mammy no no no. Cold chest where water hits windscreen belly in the rain. Down those stairs fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead.  In my eyes. Nettle them. Mammy. Yelling, Lady come back or you’ll get what for.  A mad goat I’ll be. Rubbing bubbles. Worse and worse and hotter than mints I’ll turn my nose at. Always get me. In the hall. You by wormy bit of hair. Lug me rubbing ankle skin up the stairs. She in suddy ocean.”

The story itself reminds me of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls – a young woman’s coming of age in a stifling Irish Catholic community, where religion curbs spontaneity and sexuality is clouded by recrimination. McBride’s heroine is never named. With no male role models to guide her (her parents are separated), her uncle by marriage seduces her at the age of 13. This early onset of sexuality triggers a chain reaction of promiscuity. She’s the girl the boys touch up at school, who goes home blind-drunk with guys at parties, the one pious neighbours mutter about behind twitching curtains. Sex is a source of power, but it’s also coupled with self-loathing. So far, such rites of passage and small town prejudices are familiar fodder.  What sets the novel apart is the narrator’s personal circumstances.

The novel is addressed to “You” – the narrator’s much-loved older brother, companion and protector, who had a brain tumour as a child. He’s never made a full recovery – clumsy, slow to learn at school, the only job he can find is packing shelves. In his early 20s, the tumour returns, more aggressive than before. Now his family have to confront the finality of his death.



Lungs go out. See the world out.

You finish that breath. Song breath.

You are gone out tide. And you close. Drift. Silent eyes. Goodbye.

My. Lllllllllllllllllll. Love my. Brother no.


He’s gone. He’s gone. Goodbye.”

The poetry here lies in the simplicity as much as the imagery. What is not said makes this passage even more affecting. Throughout the novel there are leitmotifs of water, drowning, getting lost in dark places, becoming dirty, becoming cleansed. McBride’s power lies not only in her virtuosic turn of phrase but in highly visual set pieces throughout the novel. There’s a filmic quality to the writing, particularly in the sex scenes, which are raw, violent and abusive.

It’s clear that the narrator is suffering not only from an ever-present Catholic guilt, but from survivor’s guilt too. In many ways, she’s her brother’s polar opposite, the bright university student while he flounders at home in menial jobs. It’s a difference she feels keenly and her guilt skewers like a blade. Seeking out harmful relationships and physical pain stills her torment for being the sibling allowed to survive – for a while.

He hits hard. I say don’t be done. Don’t be done. I don’t want this he says I don’t want. Just till my nose bleeds and that will be enough. So he hits till I fall over….Jesus he says. I feel sick. But I’m rush with feeling…..In fact I am almost best.”

This desire to obliterate herself leads to the final scenes, a vicious rape in the woods soon after her brother’s death, recounted blow by horrifyingly graphic blow. It is her family’s reaction to the attack, and her Mother’s lack of empathy and understanding, that bring about the novel’s inevitable conclusion.

The title is arresting, and it’s been pointed out that despite her psychological fragility, this girl is not deformed, but half-formed. Throughout the novel the narrator harks back to her childhood, when brother and sister laughed, played and supported one another. It’s as if he were her other half, her second self and without him she is indeed ‘half-formed’. This makes the ending especially poignant, as the reader shares the extent of her loss.

The question now is how can McBride follow this tour de force? ‘A Girl’ is such a one-off,  it would be difficult to replicate and indeed, any novel written in similar style would suffer unfairly by comparison. McBride, in interviews, appears gratified but somewhat bemused by all the hoo-ha. All she lets slip is that she’s “working on something”. That ‘something’ is now guaranteed publication and the bidding wars will be astronomical.

I’ll be speaking to Eimear McBride in a forthcoming edition of my Pageturners podcast on 3MBS..


Bring Back Boris, Donna!! The enduring appeal of fictional characters

tartt                    goldfinch

Donna Tartt                                                                        Fabritius’ The Goldfinch

When I was growing up, my favourite literary characters included the usual suspects, Jo and Laurie, Jane Eye and Edward Rochester, Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Mr Knightley, Scarlett and Rhett, Pip and Estella. They all felt very real. If they were girls, I would often identify with them; if they were boys, I’d sigh deeply into my pillow. Characters were more important to me then than a novel’s form, style and purpose. As a child, I rarely thought about how a novelist had created plot. Whether I was swept away by a book through my love of characters was my only value judgment.

By my teens, heroes had well and truly trumped heroines in my romantic imagination and I was completely smitten, (eclectically but not necessarily simultaneously) by Howard Roark, Sydney Carlton, Daniel Deronda, Joseph K, Stephen Dedalus, Count Vronsky, Julien Sorel, even the infamous Vicomte de Valmont.

There was usually something dark or dangerous about these male characters – depressed or tortured souls, some had a cruel, sadistic streak; or they were artists and visionary dreamers, philosophers and sinners. All, though, were larger than life, highly intelligent and drawn with insight and empathy. By this stage I had become more conscious of literary devices and authorial voice, and obviously took note of a character’s physical descriptions. Yet in my fantasies, the heroes I longed for were all tall and saturnine and bore a strong resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis or Kevin Klein. It took a few more years (and my first love affairs) for female characters to get a look in once more.

Our attraction to fictional characters is both passionate and possessive. In her book, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, author Blakey Vermeule asks: “Why should we spend attention on people who will never care about us in return?” The reason, she explains, is curiosity: we may idly speculate about the lives of people we see on trains and buses, knowing we will probably never see them again. But when we read, we are in a highly privileged position, able to go on a journey with characters and enter their world intimately. We know them, warts and all, with an immediacy we rarely have with people we meet in everyday life.

So we fight on the battlefield alongside Napoleon in War and Peace, steal handkerchiefs with the Artful Dodger, glory in Jean Brodie’s prime and approve Martha Quest’s political coming of age. By entering this world willingly, we gain social information that would often be, according to Vermeule, “too costly, dangerous, and difficult to extract from the world on our own.”  This trade-off in turn builds attachment to story-line and character.

So much for science.  As readers, we’re hard-wired to seek out memorable heroes and heroines Yet, despite the many novels I’ve read, few characters have stayed with me as vividly as the ones I encountered in my youth. That is until I met Boris, who appears in Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch.

Let me preface this by saying that until now, I wasn’t a fan of Tartt’s. I disliked her debut novel, The Secret History. Of course she had talent, but I didn’t care for a murder in a stuffy college committed by a group of over-privileged, over-reaching spoilt brats. So I chose not to read her second novel. But The Goldfinch, published late last year, intrigued me. First, it is an imaginary story about a real 17th century painting, the Dutch masterpiece The Goldfinch, painted by Fabritius.  I adore that painting, as I love all Dutch Old Masters. Fabritius was a pupil of Rembrandt and taught Vermeer. Few paintings of his survive, because he was killed at the age of 30, when a munitions factory exploded and much of his work disappeared with him. The Goldfinch was painted in the year of his death.

In her novel, Tartt surmises that the miniature painting (no bigger than a sheet of A4 paper) is taken by 13 year-old Theo, after a terrorist bomb destroys the New York museum in which it is housed. The Goldfinch is part bildungsroman - Theo’s story - but it is also the story of that painting, of moral ambiguities, lost loves and the enduring power of art in a post 9/11 world.

Early on, Theo says the bird reminds him of his beautiful, delicate, arty mother, who is killed in the blast. The painting, one of her favourites, comes to symbolise everything that Theo has lost.  But this post isn’t a review of this wonderful, wonderful book, its intricate Dickensian story-lines and fully realised worlds which cross, effortlessly, from psychological drama to thriller and back again. I’m celebrating character, because, when we meet Boris, we come across one of the most loveable, maddening and completely believable creations in contemporary fiction.

After the bombing, Theo reluctantly joins his estranged father in Las Vegas. Through Theo’s eyes we see the vast, crass, cardboard emptiness of that city, in which Theo wanders like a lost soul. But at school he meets Boris, another misfit and an instant connection is born. “He was pale and thin, and not very clean, with lank dark hair falling into his eyes and the unwholesome wanness of a runaway, callused hands and nails chewed to the thumb”.

When they begin talking, Theo marvels at his accent. “Though he spoke English fluently enough, with a strong Australian accent, there was also a dark, slurry undercurrent of something else: a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent.”

Boris is from everywhere and nowhere, half Russian, half Polish, swears fluently in four languages, a true global citizen. His father is in the mining business, so he’s lived in Australia, Russia, Scotland, New Zealand, Sweden, Texas, Alaska, Saudi Arabia, New Guinea, Scotland, the Ukraine. As we get to know him, we find he’s tough and tender, irresponsible and compassionate. Both boys are motherless only children, living with drunk, physically violent or neglectful fathers, with no parental guidance and supervision. They’re rootless, so cling to each other, and as their friendship grows, they become closer than brothers.

The story of this lifelong friendship is the indelible marker in The Goldfinch, more lasting even than the fate of the stolen painting. It’s depicted without one grain of sentimentality. The boys fight, play truant, get blind drunk, take drugs. There’s a bit of adolescent horseplay, but the relationship isn’t sexual. As adults, both Boris and Theo end up in that murky zone that hovers between outright criminal behaviour and legitimate business deals, but you can’t help liking them for all that because you understand their history.

At first glance, both men appear irreparably damaged from their childhood traumas. Boris is an alcoholic, Theo, still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has a hopeless drug dependency. Yet Tartt ensures their relationship is life affirming. There truly is honour among thieves, loyalty, brotherhood. Sometimes, as Boris himself says, “you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right.”

Part of the joy of Boris is his Russian-inflected, mangled English, which Tartt renders faultlessly. “My official business so called is housecleaning agency. Workers from Poland, mostly. Nice pun in title of business, too. ‘Polish Cleaning Services’. Get it?” He also a Slavic tendency to overdramatise, frequently ending sentences with an emphatic “Never! I rather drown myself!”, or a telling “Pfa!” Boris’ energy, warmth, volubility, enthusiasm (and, it must be said, undeniable sex appeal) add  much to the pleasure of reading the novel. Here he is, reunited after many years, with Popper (Popchik in Boris-speak), Theo’s Maltese terrier he played with as a boy.

Boris – whooping with laughter – dropped to his knees. “Oh!” snatching him up as Popchik wriggled and struggled. “You got fat! He got fat!” he said indignantly as Popchik jumped up and kissed him on the face. “You let him get fat! Yes hello, poustyshka, little ball of fluff, you, hello! You remember me, don’t you!” He had toppled over on his back, stretched out and laughing, as Popchik – still screaming with joy – jumped all over him. “He remembers me!”

I’m pretty good at predictions. I saw Cate Blanchett in a tiny theatre production here in Melbourne in the early 1990s, and urged all my friends to see her saying I’d just spotted the next great star. So here are a few more:


Boris will spawn fan clubs. There will be Boris soundalike contests. A vodka will be named after him. Consumption of pickled herring, smoked salmon, caviar and truffled eggs will soar. Benedict Cumberbatch will play him in the movie (not only is he great at accents but Boris, like Sherlock, wears a long black coat). And please, please Donna Tartt, can you reincarnate him in another novel, because I’m already suffering withdrawal symptoms?

In the meantime, witty Claire Cameron from The Millions has penned the hilarious “How to Tweet Like Boris” which I share here:  I defy you not to laugh.


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