If you have read (or watched) The Handmaid’s Tale or Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and loved both, can I suggest a book I think you will like? It’s called The Natural Way of Things by Australian author Charlotte Wood and it very much fits into the same category.
I first read The Natural Way of Things very early on in its life (at manuscript stage) and it has since gone on to sell tens of thousands of copies (and counting) and win many literary prizes*. Having just finished watching Alias Grace on Netflix over the past week, it put this gem of a book back into my mind.
The Natural Way of Things has an intriguing premise—ten young women wake up after being kidnapped and drugged to find themselves imprisoned in a jail in the middle of nowhere. What is their crime and who has put them there? Soon you find out exactly what they have in common—each had a sex scandal with a powerful man made public—but does that make their imprisonment just? Each woman handles her incarceration in a different way as they are lorded over by two inept male jailers. When the food starts to run low, the tension rises.
Have you ever had one of those reading experiences where you wonder – is this book difficult or is it just me? Well, I was left feeling that way about Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. This novel, set in Iceland in the 19th century, has been out for a while and has garnered a lot of praise from critics and readers alike. Which is why I was so eager to finally read this.
Based on real events, Burial Rites recounts the story of the last criminal to be executed in Iceland – a woman named Agnes who was accused of taking part in the brutal murders of two men.The novel starts at the farm where Agnes is to be brought to serve out her last days on earth before her execution. Continue reading →
Big Brother is watching you. He sees what you are doing. He listens to your conversations. He can even read your thoughts. So you better toe the party line and conform with the rest of society – or you’re dead.
This is pretty much the premise of George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published back in 1949, it is a dystopian novel set in a totalitarian society called Oceania which is in a state of constant warfare. Or are they? The government controls everything: what people read, who they should hate, where they work, who they marry (if they are allowed to marry at all), what they watch on TV and do in their spare time, and even how they think. The people are under constant surveillance with cameras and microphones hidden everywhere. People never know when they are being watched or listened to so learn to control everything they say and do. The government even encourages children to spy and tell on their parents.
Winston Smith is one of many faceless people toiling away for the Party. His job is to “correct” documents such as newspaper articles that have already been printed – effectively rewriting the past – to fit in with the current agenda of the Party. He also writes out of history people who have been killed by the Party, making it so that they never ever existed.
Then Winston starts to question the work he is doing. Especially when Oceania goes from fighting with one enemy nation to being their ally against another enemy – something that the general public doesn’t even notice. He starts writing down all his negative thoughts about Big Brother in a notebook in the corner of his apartment that gives him privacy from the telescreen. By this action he has signed his own death warrant should the thought police catch him.
Then two things happen: 1) He meets Julia – a rebellious young woman who he thought was a party devotee, but it turns out she is in love with him 2) He starts to suspect that a colleague called O’Brien may be a member of the resistance movement. If so, Winston wants to join the fight. Once Winston starts down this path, nothing will ever be the same again.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is thought-provoking and downright scary. At times it lost me as it went off on a bit of an ideological rant (probably why I was given this book to study in high school) but I kept on reading hoping for there to be a happy ending to this bleak story. You will have to read the book for yourself if you want to find that out.
All That I Am by Anna Funder has been on my “to read” list for a long time. As the winner of many Australian literary awards, including the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, I knew this was a book that had impressed the critics. What stopped me buying it was the fact that I thought it was another sad story of the horrors inflicted on Jewish people during World War II. You definitely have to be in the right frame of mind to cope with those reads. So I put it off until I received it as a Christmas gift. And then I put off reading it a little longer.
Finally, I picked it up and started reading. When I did, I realised that this was a story I didn’t know. All That I Am follows the lives of two couples – Ruth and her husband Hans and Ruth’s cousin Dora and her lover the celebrated German left-wing playwright Ernst Toller. It takes place in the years before World War II when Hitler and the Nazi party are gaining more power. Before the rest of the world realised what was going on and the political opponents of Hitler, and those activists who openly opposed the Nazis in the public sphere such as journalists, writers and playwrights, were imprisoned or forced to leave Germany – and as time went by those who stayed were not given the option of a trial and prison, but were executed or sent to camps.
What makes it even more interesting is that it is based on a true story. It tells the fictionalised version of real people and real events. Ruth, Hans, Dora and Ernst were lucky enough to be allowed to take exile. They settle in London and as per the terms of their residency in the UK are told they can only stay if they do not engage in political activity. But they are compelled to continue to tell the stories of those left behind in Germany and of the friends hunted down and killed by the Nazis. They want to get countries like Britain to recognise what is going on in Germany. But they are not safe in London. There are men following them in the shadows. And the Nazis are prepared to go to any length to silence their opponents, wherever they may be. It is hard to know who to trust.
In the middle of all this intrigue is the story of Ruth, now an old woman living in Australia looking back on what happened before. Her story focuses on her cousin Dora – a brave resistance fighter who had an unconventional relationship with Ernst Toller. The book is also told from Ernst’s point-of-view.
I can see why this novel won so many accolades. It is beautifully written with a compelling storyline. I learnt a lot about a part of history that I didn’t know about before. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone turns this into a film. It is a story that needed to be told.
What makes a good book? Well, a riveting plot helps, as do believable characters and masterful writing that makes it impossible to put the book down. Rarely do you find a book that combines all these elements and more. The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman is such a book. It is both a critic’s darling and a reader’s delight. I bought it on Saturday and finished it on Monday night, having a good weep as I read the final pages. This book is both heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching. And if I could think of another ‘wrenching’ it would be that as well.
The story is set in the 1920s in a remote corner of Western Australia. Tom Sherbourne is a man still haunted by the things he saw and did during World War One. He is a decorated soldier who doesn’t want to dwell on the past and sees no glory in what he did during the war. He finds solace by becoming a lighthouse keeper. There’s something about maintaining a beacon of light that soothes his soul. He also doesn’t mind the isolation.
Tom’s job brings him to the small town of Point Partageuse and then out to a tiny island called Janus Rock. From the lighthouse he can see where two oceans meet: the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. He is the sole occupant of the island and only sees people from the mainland every three months when the supply boat comes out. He gets shore leave very rarely.Before he took up this post, he met Isabel, the 19-year-old daughter of the local headmaster. She is lively and vibrant, full of life. After a time of exchanging letters, they marry and she goes to live with Tom on Janus Rock.
Two miscarriages and a stillbirth later, Isabel is a shell of her former self, stricken by grief at her loss. That is until the day a boat washes up on the island, carrying a dead man and a crying baby girl. It’s Tom’s duty to report the incident at once, but Isabel has other ideas. Tom reluctantly agrees to keep the baby and pretend she’s their own. But where does the baby come from? Who does she belong to? And what will happen if the truth should ever come to light?
I don’t want to give away any more of the story because not knowing what will happen next is one of the strengths of this book. The language is exquisite, beautifully crafted without isolating the reader. The characters are three-dimensional and constructed so well that you care what happens to them. And the dialogue evokes the bygone era. This book also seamlessly explores themes of loss, love and family.
It’s no wonder that this debut novel has been snapped up in twenty territories so far. Now I’m left to wait impatiently for the next book by M.L. Stedman.