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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..