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The Biographer, The Empress, Her Dynasty, Her Lover: Linda Jaivin in China

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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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The New Outlier Fiction: a look at Evie Wyld

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After The Fire, A Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyld             Published by: Vintage, $19.99

One of the fascinating aspects of Granta’s Twenty Under 40 list is the range of countries from which the young novelists originate. Yes, the list features writers who were born in Britain, but there are also writers born in many other countries including India, Africa, Australia and Canada who now live in Britain. Over the next few months, I’ll try and look at a number of these young writers. Some, like Zadie Smith, are well-established and need no introduction. Others are new to me and I’m looking forward to exploring them.

Twenty years ago, Granta’s list was predominantly male with few foreign-sounding names among them. The 2013 list has more women than men and its sheer cosmopolitan quality shows the literary revolution that has occurred over this time. Today’s young writers explore the world through a well-travelled lens. They may be called “Best of Young British” but their formative experiences often lie elsewhere. This brings a richness to their writing but also a sense of displacement. Do the writers feel more at home in Britain or their birth country?  Is home more than once place? Or are they still searching for a place to call home?

These existential dilemmas are often explored through their writing. In a recent Guardian Books podcast, Michelle de Kretser was interviewed about her Miles Franklin prizewinning novel, Questions of Travel. Born in Sri Lanka, she now lives in Sydney and admitted to feeling neither particularly Sri Lankan nor Australian. She is both a part of, and no longer a part, of two continents. She writes, she says, with an outsider’s gaze that has learned to categorise and appraise many countries. This strange limbo state has no precise term in English but the French would call it dépaysement, alienation from an intimate connection with place.

It gives rise to what I’ll call Outlier Fiction, and I suspect we will see more and more of this as Generations Y and Next continue to publish. It’s evident in one of Granta’s Best of the Under 40s,  Evie Wyld. Her  first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, published in 2009, is set in Australia, in particular the rugged border between Queensland and New South Wales.  Her second book, All The Birds Singing, which was released a few days ago, alternates narratives between a sheep station in Australia and a bleak island off the British coast.

Though born and living in Britain, Wyld has an Australian mother and since childhood has frequently travelled to Australia to see her family. What strikes the reader of After the Fire…. is the vivid technicolour brushstrokes with which Wyld paints the Australian bush. You feel the heat, the barren landscape, the wide sweep of miles and miles of dusty, dirt roads. For someone who isn’t a native Australian, this is an extraordinary tour de force.

In an interview with Granta earlier this year, Wyld commented that she was able to write so convincingly because being away from Australia allowed her to uncover a narrative freedom she couldn’t have developed if she lived there. She was able to write more easily about Britain when living in Australia, she confessed, and about Australia when living in Britain. This surely, is a characteristic of Outlier Fiction – the cultivation of distance and objectivity that gives rise to a heightened sense of awareness, allowing the writer to conjure an unique image of place because of their status as outsider. And yet the danger here is that this very distance may give rise to a distortion of the truth, a personal fiction that may not be unbiased.

In After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, two narratives intertwine. Frank moves to a ramshackle shack off the east coast of Queenland that once belonged to his grandparents. Escaping from a broken relationship, he’s trying to rebuild his life in the wilderness. In alternating chapters, we also meet Leon, forty years earlier, and follow him through Aussie suburbia, then as a soldier after he’s drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. As the novel weaves their lives together, the reader discovers the link between the two men and the ties that bind them.

The assuredness with which Wyld adopts the male voice is striking. There is blood and violence here, the horror of war, desperation, loneliness. Wyld mimics Aussie demotic speech perfectly. Her men are rough and unsophisticated, as unpredictable as the weather and the bleak and barren landscape in which they live. At the same time, she paints a highly unflattering portrait of Australia: in the space of a few chapters, we’re presented with wife beaters, incest, rampant drunkenness, bigotry, blatant racism and child abuse. This is a country infested with huge, malign spiders, biting insects and dangerous sharks. Reading this book, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole of Australia was, as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once put it, the “arse end of the world”.

As a city dweller, I admit this is not the Australia I personally live in, and it isn’t a portrait of a society I recognise, although I suspect isolated, rural communities share similar problems the world over. Unsurprisingly, Wyld hasn’t been adopted by the Australian establishment (notorious for figuring any excuse to claim a rising star’s Australian roots) as one of its own. This is especially notable as many ex-pats, including Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Peter Carey, who haven’t lived in Australia for years, are still trumpeted as being “Australian” in our press.

As an exponent of Outlier Fiction, Wyld’s cool analysis may lead her to over-sensationalise occasionally. But she is also able to raise  the curtain on unseemly aspects of Australian society that we’d prefer to forget. I’m intrigued to see how she paints Australia again in her new novel. (Interestingly, the novel she is currently working on is set entirely in Britain.) And I will be eagerly comparing her to many of the other novelists on the Twenty under 40 list, to see if they share her divided, distanced view of what was, and is, no longer home.

Read it: For a haunting evocation of the Australian landscape by a powerful new voice in fiction


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Two Australian Fiction Debuts

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THE ROSIE PROJECT, BY GRAEME SIMSION

Published by: Text; $29.99

Everyone’s talking about Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. Since its publication in February 2013, the book has had the international acclaim most first-time authors only dream about. Sold for nearly $2 million around the world, the film rights have just been purchased, and Simsion will write the screenplay. With so much hype, the question has to be asked: is it any good? Well, yes, it is. Really good.

Don is a professor of Genetics who cannot find a partner. This is not surprising, because for all his brilliance, he cannot empathise with people. Although it’s never stated, Don is either a high-functioning autistic or suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He takes things at face value, finds it impossible to understand irony or relate to the subtleties of everyday social interaction and  communication. Not surprisingly, he has failed miserably in love, but as he wishes to find a mate and reproduce (his words), he decides to create a 16 page questionnaire to find the right woman. Into his orbit comes Rosie, who needs his help to locate her biological father. Beautiful, self-opiniated and independent, Rosie ticks few of the boxes in Don’s questionnaire. But will they still get together?

Few books make me laugh out loud, but I was chuckling audibly when reading this and getting some strange looks from commuters on the train (watch out for a hilarious scene with a laboratory skeleton). Films such as Rain Man and novels like Toni Jordan’s Addition and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time  have  also focussed on heroes and heroines with disabilities. The reader immediately sympathises with them, despite their foibles and Don, for all his misguided views on life and love, is an endearing character.  The novel succeeds both as a delightful rom-com but also as an intelligent and perceptive narrative on the importance of compromise in personal relationships. Don and Rosie are both ultimately on a quest to find out who they are, and personal identity also means accepting the good and bad in those you love and the people you fall in love with.

Read it if you: enjoy well-written, fast-paced, feel-good comedy.

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BURIAL RITES, BY HANNAH KENT

Published by: Picador, $32.99

Hannah Kent has been mentored by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, which is reason enough to mark her as a writer to watch. Burial Rites won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, and Kent is both a lecturer in creative writing at Flinders University and co-founded the literary journal Kill Your Darlings.

This is a remarkable debut and heralds a strong and individual literary voice. Kent turns to Iceland in 1829 for the novel’s plot, which is based on the true story of a domestic servant, Agnes Magnusdottir, who was beheaded after she was found guilty of murdering two men. Kent divides the novel into two voices: that of Agnes remembering her past, and Toti Jonsson’s, a young pastor who is sent to help Agnes repent of her sins before her execution. The storyline therefore moves both backwards and forwards in time, creating a satisfying and unifying narrative arc.

Burial Rites is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace: in this novel too, the story of a servant who committed murder two hundred years ago, slowly unravels under the watchful eye of a man who wishes her well. Like Alias Grace, Kent’s novel is a tense psychological drama that builds page by page to create a mesmerising portrait of Agnes. Kent doesn’t falter, and artfully combines the thrill of a who-dunit with the keen eye for detail demanded by historical fiction. She’s excellent at capturing the language and mood of  isolated communities, their archaic superstitions and malicious gossip.

Kent calls Burial Rites her “dark love letter to Iceland” and indeed Iceland’s bleak, desolate landscape with its wild weather is a character in its own right. Kent is marvellous at describing the dogged self-sufficiency and determination of the peasants for whom every day is a battle for survival. And even though we know Agnes’ fate from the start, it says a great deal for Kent’s authority as a writer, that we’re still shocked at Agnes’ execution as the book draws to a close. I’m still thinking about this book two weeks after finishing it. Kent’s words linger.

Read it if you: enjoy literary and historical fiction, laced with a murder mystery and psychological drama.

What do you think? Drop me a line and listen to my book programme podcast, Page Turners on www.3mbs.org for more interviews and news on the world of books.