By Chris Flynn (University of Queensland Press, $33)
Reviewed by Dionne Christian
Of course, one of the most marvellous things about books is that there are as many interpretations of a story as there are people reading it. Australian Chris Flynn's Mammoth is likely to be one where those interpretations are even more varied than ever given that even as an individual reader your own position may markedly shift from chapter to chapter.
I confess, at first, I didn't enjoy Mammoth which is actually a modest-sized book with big ambition. I found the language too florid; the anthropomorphism of the animal characters irksome – had Flynn recently watched an Ice Age movie with his kids? Does he even have kids? Does it matter? I was obviously easily distracted.
Parts of it read like the explanatory paragraphs in a university essay - for sure, interesting and necessary but not exactly compelling – and there were distracting interludes where Flynn seemed to talk through the characters to work out what the devil he was doing with the story.
But after the first chapters, I started to appreciate some of the linguistic flourishes and saw the humour in Flynn's (possible) conversations with himself – the honesty in authorial doubt. So, I kept going with the story and I am glad I did as it's a strangely rewarding and charming one that I am happy to recommend.
Maybe it just took me a little longer than it should have to adjust to a story told by a 13,000-year-old extinct American mastodon. After all, there aren't many books narrated by a worldly and eloquent woolly mammoth which are grounded in the true story of how its remains, the skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar from Mongolia, a pterodactyl and the hand of an ancient Egyptian mummy came to be for sale at a 2007 natural history auction in Manhattan, New York.
There's celebrity links to all of this – Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio both bid on items – but thankfully Flynn avoids mention of this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction aspect of the story right to nearly the very end.
As our narrator magically traverses the bloody and destructive Pleistocene to 19th century America, with detours to France and Ireland, back to the USA, it becomes all the more gripping with a cast of inimitable characters who, like our mammoth narrator, aren't usually given due attention by history.
Yes, Flynn wants to make A Point about humanity's role in the destruction of the natural world but by telling the story the way he does, it is far more powerful and poignant than a straight-out social commentary about science and religion and how enlightened we really are or aren't. With heart, humour and charm, Flynn succeeds in crafting a memorable and poignant story which is truly unique and keeps the clever twists – and intriguing information – going until the very end when he presents an optimistic and beautiful vision of how the future could be. After all, who doesn't want to see woolly mammoths live and walk again?
It is particularly moving to be reading it at a time like the one we find ourselves in when we're questioning the very nature of the way we live and how it might change for the betterment of the planet.
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REDHEAD BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
By Anne Tyler (Penguin Random House, $35)
Reviewed by Helen Van Berkel
What an absolute delight of a novel. I don't think I have ever read a book, seemingly about nothing, that I have enjoyed as much as this one. It's about Micah Mortimer, a man who lives in a basement.
He would be classified as a bit weird as he lives his strictly regimented life as a janitor and IT guy. His highly organised existence is thrown into disarray when his girlfriend Cassia – he calls her his woman friend as anyone in her late 30s cannot be called a girl - faces eviction and suddenly a teenage boy shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his son. It's all a bit much for a man who has his life carefully planned and under control.
Micah's rambunctious and utterly chaotic extended family are a foil to his fastidiousness, explaining to a degree, his need for structure and order. Even his IT clients are fully formed characters under Tyler's deft writing. Paragraphs-long vignettes create a background population that exists to reflect the facets of Micah's personality, but you become just a little bit invested in every one of them.
The action takes place over only a few days and within eight chapters, but Tyler's writing is so spare, tight and to the point, you are comfortably carried along as Micah misunderstands and mis-steps his way to revelation. Everything and everyone are ordinary and recognisable and Tyler unwraps Micah and his quirks layer by layer to eventually reveal, well, how ordinary he actually is.
At its heart, Redhead By The Side Of The Road is a sweet love story, not just between Micah and Cassia, but also of oddball humanity in general, the muddles we make of our lives through assumptions and erroneous conclusions. Even the Redhead of the title is a character that exists through a lack of clarity. It's not a long tale - at only 178 pages it's readable in a single sitting, but its characters will continue to knock about in your head for days after you've put the book down. It's a wonderful little read that shows, once again, why Tyler has won the Pulitzer Prize and a swag of other trophies, as well as been nominated for just as many more, for her writing. She is my new favourite author.
SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIOURS
by Kawai Strong Washburn (Hamish Hamilton, $37)
Reviewed by David Hill
A debut novel by an Hawaiian author. I haven't said that very often. One with a great – if rather show-off – title and with a pretty memorable premise. It's 1995 on Honoka'a, the "Big Island" of Hawaii. Seven-year-old Nainoa is saved from drowning; that's got dramatic potential. He's saved by sharks, one of whom delivers him tenderly to his mother. That's got major potential.
So Noa is forever marked as someone outside the normal world. His legendary status grows as years stream by. He can heal and glimpse the future. He has visions in an ambulance, feels "the waves and tides and gods dragging him around". Predictably, his shark-given powers come back to bite him (sorry). He pulls away from others. His family begins to fracture. Brother Dean is swallowed, then spat out by college sport. ("I was a razor, sharp and flashing bright, then I dulled myself.") Sister Malia tries to find definition in academia, dead-end jobs and scary urban climbing.
It's a narrative where gifts and blessings are darkened by tragedies and curses that crash down upon the characters. Other worlds envelop them, from the first moments where Noa's parents witness a torchlit procession of the dead, through his Armageddon-like dream of a "Final Harvest", to a climactic march of ancestors.
You may go for the magic realism. I preferred the grim and gritty elements that counterpoint it – the struggle of being poor in a land crushed under resorts and skyscrapers, where a family exist in their "rented house on the edge of town, with its layers of stripping paint... shower stall patched onto the back of the garage".
Across 15 years, multiple narrators relate imprisonment, mutilation, loss, dereliction and degradation, before a battered recovery and reconciliation.
Echoes of Whale Rider? A bit, but Sharks builds its own directions and dynamics. The multi-levelled family loyalties, bitterness and forgiveness are well structured. The style is lyrical, often lush; purple prose occasionally swells into ultra-violet. It's nearly 400 pages and would read more powerfully if a lot of those pages were thinned.
But Washburn can make you murmur with approval as well as mutter with irritation. Give him a good tough editor and he'll be a name to reach for.
Popular fiction short takes
Grown Ups by Marion Keys (Penguin Random House, $37)
This is a 650+ page commitment that is worth every character, every complicated relationship and every scandalous family dinner party. It follows the fortunes of the Casey family, brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam, their respective wives and children, and begins at one of the many family dinner parties. At this particular dinner, tensions are running high and Ed's wife Cara starts to blurt out months of secrets which begin to unravel the family's lives. We then step back six months earlier, come back through this dinner party and beyond, following numerous get-togethers but from different viewpoints which disentangle secrets along the way. The underlying themes are heavy but the story is so well crafted, I'd highly recommend.
Lovestruck by Bronwyn Sell (HQ Fiction, $33)
This is a fresh and candid Bridget Jones style read set in the beautiful Whitsundays. It's essentially a romantic comedy where unlucky in love Amy has travelled from Melbourne for her father's wedding and finds herself experiencing "The Pull" from her soon-to-be stepbrother, with a sub plot on the other side of the island between a jilted bride and Amy's cousin. These four main characters each form separate narratives which are refreshing, and the funniest (bad) reviews of the resort between each made for a clever interlude. It's an easy read, with adventure, humour and tension as well as a few laugh out loud moments - the perfect escape during lockdown no matter what level we're on.
In Five Years by Rebecca Serle (Quercus Books, $35)
Compulsively readable, I read this book in about 3 hours. It's billed as a love story (which it most definitely is), but a different kind of love story which considers old love, friendship love and tired love. It is based on Dannie, who has everything in her life planned out until she falls asleep on the night of her engagement and wakes up five years in the future with a seemingly alternate reality including a different fiancé and apartment. An hour later she wakes up back at home, and her life returns to normal until she meets her "future-fiance". I loved the premise of this book, where life has different plans no matter what you've planned. Be prepared to be surprised and hooked. The quote on the cover says it all for me, "this is a love story, just not the one you're expecting."
Pretending by Holly Bourne (Hachette, $35)
This one took me by surprise, with the exterior of the book leading me to believe it's a fun and contemporary read about modern day love and"catfishing" (the term for pretending to be somebody else online). However, it also circles around some pretty heavy themes including rape, mental health and PTSD. Pretending is aptly named as it is about April who pretends to be Gretel – the imagined perfect women – when she meets Joshua. As they get closer, she realises Joshua is different and she's not only faced with coming clean, but also facing her fears, flaws and potentially rejection. It's uncomfortable at time but, all in all a wonderful, powerful read about love, abuse, friendship and trust.
The Dior Secret by Natasha Lester (Hachette, $33)
This spans multiple cities and multiple timelines, in Paris, London and Australia from 1939, 1947 and today. A captivating, though slightly complex story, it revolves around the relationship between Skye, Liberty, Nicholas and Margaux and their journey through secret wartime assignments in WWII, alongside Kat in the present day who's trying to find out why her grandmother has a collection of priceless Dior designer dresses hidden in her wardrobe. It's no surprise that the two storylines intersect and what is uncovered is a fascinating world of pilots, spies, fashion, love, resentments and mystery. I'd highly recommend and look forward to seeing it as a movie one day.