Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Guest post: Who'd have thought I'd read this book: The Son by Philipp Meyer

Who'd have thought Jane Riley would read this book?

Today's post is by guest blogger Jane Riley. Jane is a freelance writer who also owns online design store, Who'd Have Thought? Take it away, Jane!

I heard Tim Winton speak recently, as part of the promotional tour for his new book, Eyrie. One of the comments he made struck me as the key to successful writing:

'Readers these days are bombarded by the now. You have to hook them immediately and make them want to not only sit down with your book, but stay with it to the very end. It is the immediacy of the writing, the skill of throwing the reader in the deep end that makes you want to keep on reading.'

So when I sat down with American novelist Philipp Meyer’s latest book, The Son, it was with an element of trepidation. Despite having read – and enjoyed - his first, highly applauded book, American Rust, I wasn’t sure if The Son would keep me page-turning because not everything about it appealed.

At 561 pages and the size of a brick it is the sort of book I would normally shun for something less hefty and, therefore, less time-consuming to read. Then there’s its premise: a violent cowboy and Indian family saga are words that describe books I usually never read. So why did I?

Meyer got me hooked on the first sentence:

‘It was prophesied I would live to see 100 and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it.’ It is the start of a multi-generational, multi viewpoint historical epic that spans from the Comanche raids of the mid-1800s to the oil boom of the 20th century. It transports you to the arid Texan plains back when the frontier was made from grit, spilt blood and a hell of a lot of tenacity. It was true survival of the fittest. And many didn’t.

I may have had to skim over several pages of brutal violence - ‘The only problem was keeping your scalp attached,’ says Eli at the end of chapter one – but I was swept along by the individual stories Meyer tells and the history he recreates so vividly and accurately from extensive research.

I was there when Eli loses his family and is kidnapped by the Comanches only to rise within their ranks. I was there when Jeanne fought against chauvinism and societal norms to head the family’s oil business. I was there when Peter rejects his father and runs away with a Mexican girl.

Like Winton, Meyer puts the reader in the heart of the action. He saddles you up and takes you along for the ride through 100 years of a part of American history you probably knew little about. Sometimes it’s a gallop, sometimes a canter, but never in nearly 600 pages do you ever trot, let alone stop.
It's a testament to Meyer’s writing skill that he can sustain us, the readers, in such a way for such a long time.

And you know what? I gobbled it all up – at times reading late into the night. So, I would like to rephrase the book’s premise and call it a rollicking good literary ride that takes you to a place you’re glad you can now only read about.

I didn’t want it to end. Who’d have thought?

Jane Riley is a Sydney-based freelance writer and owner of online design store,  Who'd Have Thought? which showcases unique gifts and homewares from around the world. The theme: creative reinventions and design innovations; the idea: to make you think, 'who'd have thought?' She also writes a blog which features interviews with artists and creatives and other quirky and interesting stuff going on in the world. 

Photograph of Jane Riley by Hannah Riley.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Ignorance vs. bliss: Would you want to know if your spouse had an affair?

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway wed in September 1921
When I started thinking about packing for our holiday in Fiji last month, there were two items top of my packing list: a new swimsuit and a great read. It took a few hours to track down some swimmers I could bear to wear in public, but finding the perfect book took only a few seconds.

Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, the factional story of Ernest Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, was already waiting for me on my bookshelves. A good friend gave me the book a while ago and I'd put it aside until I knew I would have a good chunk of time to devote to it.

I loved the book instantly. I don't know that much about Hemingway's work, but I didn't need to. The Paris Wife is a compelling tale of two young people navigating their way through marriage and life in post-war Paris. As a writer it was fascinating to read about the early years of Hemingway's career. Hadley describes his passion for writing brilliantly:
"His ambitions for his writing were fierce and all encompassing. He had writing the way other people had religion..."
It's widely known that Hemingway was a womaniser and eventually, like his father, brother and sister, committed suicide, but the early years of the marriage were happy. The Hemingways didn't have a lot of money compared to some of their peers, but still managed to spend a lot of time traveling around Europe rubbing shoulders with the literary glitterati of the time.

Hadley warns us in the prologue to: 'Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything.' And come along she does, insinuating herself into the lives of the Hemingways and eventually causing the break up of their marriage. It's frustrating and heartbreaking to see Hadley aware of what's happening and struggling to break free from the awful ménage a trois her marriage has become. As a reader, I wanted her to fight harder, but she explains why she can't:
"There are some who said I should have fought harder or longer than I did for my marriage, but in the end fighting for a love that was already gone felt like trying to live in the ruins of a lost city. I couldn't bear it and so I backed away..."
Reading The Paris Wife, it's easy to empathise with Hadley who knows her marriage is under threat, but isn't sure how to protect it. Nola Duncan, joint author with Libby Harkness of The Widow, faced a very different challenge. Happily married for 30 years, she thought her husband Michael was the perfect man - until clearing out his office on the anniversary of his death, she discovered 741 love letters between Michael and his lover, proof of his passionate six-year affair with a woman 23 years his junior.

 Nola Duncan's husband took his secret to the grave
It's hard to imagine how shocked and betrayed Nola must have felt. Her story asks many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions: why did he keep the letters? Can a man love two women at once? And how could Nola not have known?

I don't pretend to have any of the answers. But the question that is haunting me now is whose shoes I would prefer to walk in - Hadley's or Nola's? If your husband has an affair is it better to know or not?