Astute observations of a locked-down world

Ronnie Scott’s novel moves both quickly, and slowly, just like time through the pandemic. I remembered a comment about Toni Morrison when I was reading it. She expected her readership to keep up. Shirley is well worth it.


Intimacies, Katie Kitamura

This exquisite novel charts many different intimacies, both physical and metaphorical – intimacies of confidences and private rituals, of eating and touching, and of the public gaze and its counterpoint, the personal realm. Among its most vivid are the intimacies imparted through the work of an interpreter, the nuances of language conveying meaning beyond mere words.

A woman is employed in the International Criminal Court in The Hague as an interpreter, arriving from New York on a one-year contract. She is untethered from both family and place, without acrimony but with loss. Kitamura fills her in slowly, our haziness about who she is reflecting her own uncertainty about her future. Her first languages are English and Japanese, but we learn little more about her parents beyond that they were the reason she was in the United States. She grieves her father, who has recently died; her mother has moved to Singapore (a place which seems to hold no attachment for her). Once, when she is addressed in Mandarin, an unfamiliar language, she says, ‘I want to be in a place that feels like home. Where that was, I did not know.’

The novel turns when she takes on the work of a colleague interpreting in the trial of a former president of an African nation. She gradually realises that her work, alone in the court, is without judgement – a neutrality she sees become a salve for the former president, whose heinous acts she is required to voice again and again.

Contradictions abound. The interpreter removes herself as an individual, becoming a vessel for another’s words; yet to interpret is to be in another’s head, to become that person temporarily.

The depersonalized nature of the task – I was only an instrument, and during the hours that I was there, I was almost never spoken to directly, in fact the only person who bothered to address me at all was the former president – sat alongside the strange intimacy of the encounter, the entire thing was a paradox, impossible to reconcile.

Kitamura plays constantly with our tendency for assumption, revealing shifting truths. In a surreal scene when her lover, Adriaan, meets her friend Jana for the first time, the ground shifts and she is beset by what is known and unknown, what is expected behaviour, what is normal, what is real. She does not know who to trust. ‘The entire exercise had an air of futility and falseness.’ Our ability to be led astray by first impressions runs throughout the novel.

Her assumptions about a man she meets at a party early on are shaken when he reappears in a different role. Her relationship with Adriaan, and his with his wife, are rife with hidden meaning. It is through Kees, a man she has just met, that she learns more. She wonders, when does a false impression veer into deception? What do we know of anyone at all? When she is required to attend a detention centre in the middle of the night to interpret for an apprehended jihadist, she assumes that the taxi driver must think she is a prostitute for one of the imprisoned men. When she passes the building later, she notes how it is transformed by daylight.

Kitamura examines where power is held and how it is wielded, not least in the cognitive dissonance of Western democracy, with all its colonial past, prosecuting African war criminals. This is represented in the personal realm by men dominating and harassing women. In a meeting in the defence counsel’s office, the tension is unbearable but she cannot leave:

What actually took place was that I remained in my seat, that I interpreted for the former president, that I remained there, in that room with those men, until they no longer wanted me.

It is Adriaan’s status which feeds his belief that he can have her, even while virtually abandoning her to pursue his wife. In the world of the court and environs, security cameras are a constant presence and Kitamura shows how privacy, and its lack, is another intimacy.

The most extraordinary feat Kitamura pulls off is to give us the narrator’s innermost thoughts over the course of the novel, letting us inside her fear and doubt and powerlessness, watching as she exercises or withholds her agency, yet never once disclosing her name. Written entirely from her point of view in the first person, this clever device reminds us that we can know someone intimately yet not know them at all, and Kitamaura deploys it so perfectly that it is only in reflection, after we have read the last page, that we realise it at all.

Intimacies is reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost; its long sentences and multiple layers demand close attention and reward an immediate rereading.

Katie Kitamura Intimacies Vintage 2021 PB 240pp $22.99

First published in Newtown Review of Books:

Beat in her blood, J.K.Ullrich (Wild Type Press 2022)

Beat in her blood, Heavy metal mysteries Vol.1 (J.K.Ullrich, Wild Type Press 2022) is an astonishing, and prescient novel. Set in Baltimore in the near future, medical science is outrunning regulation and a black market of robotic limbs and implants has developed for HPM – human performance modification – servicing a willing population. So willing, people are ready to chance their luck with shady doctors moonlighting in back-alley operations. Beat in her blood is science fiction but Ullrich reminds us that the medical enhancements it covers exist already. It takes a second on Google to find an array of scholarly articles on HPM. As she says, those chips that monitor our body’s rhythms are just in our smart phone, not under our skin.  

Unfolding within this world is a mystery. From the first page, a brief Prelude, we are introduced to a character who seems to be conducting surgery on herself. It is clearly not a clinical setting, there is blood and self-administered anaesthesia, yet she is assured, in control. Control, and the lack of it, is a theme that drives this action-packed novel. 

Ullrich’s protagonist Petra is a veteran of a recent conflict. She is battle-scarred with titanium bionic hardware throughout her body and a host of traumatic memories. Petra pilots a boat, a ‘screws cruise’ which provides a makeshift theatre outside the territorial regulatory limits. When she finds a surgeon dying in the hold she teams up with a paramedic, Jonathan, to find out what has happened.

Jonathan knows Dr McCormick from the hospital where he works and he acts as a vehicle for the reader as we come to grips with the ethical terrain. His disbelief that his friend, April McCormick, could willingly participate in this medical tourism evolves, as does ours. Jonathan also carries a profound grief about a different medical procedure gone wrong.

Their investigation takes them to the literal cutting edge of biotechnology. Dr McCormick is connected to the development of a new biotech enhancement which uses electrodes inserted under the scalp to redirect a body’s existing currents to target areas of the brain. The Beat, however, is still experimental. It has been developed by research scientsts in a private facility. Jonathan and Petra cross paths with a scientist, Kade, who has his own mysterious connection to the woman in the boat, and who wants to initiate clinical trials for the Beat. 

“What does this Beat cure?” 

“Depends on the brain region you target with the nodes.” Kade indicated a dangling wire for each item as he listed it. “Psychological problems, nervous disorders, endocrine diseases…” 

“…Adrenaline jolts to improve your speed or give you the edge in a fight.” Frost-framed memories clouded Petra’s vision, and she shook her head to melt them away. 

Kade made a face. “Those things are hypothetically possible, but I hadn’t planned to include them in the app.” 

An app. The setup is persuasive enough that it isn’t a stretch to think, Why not? Ullrich’s deft presentation of the context of biomedical research is compelling—a system where research funding and regulation is driven by companies and markets creating artificial scarcity to feed the rapacious desires of powerful lobbies. Ullrich teases out many of the ethical dilemmas—not only who gets treatment, where and how, but why some and not others are legal and what happens when more and more people need or want them in a world where profit reigns supreme.

It is a story familiar to anyone downstream of a tussle between public and private interests. The most vulnerable are left behind. Petra is one of these. She wants more and better treatment for her veteran siblings who are among those forced to buy junk in backyard operations. 

Ullrich’s convincing characters are a pleasure to spend time with and she uses dialogue well to carry action. The language is evocative throughout. ‘Humidity’s thick blanket felt almost comforting after the hospital’s sterile chill. Her sneakers pounded across city blocks, puddles splashing her legs.’

In her Afterword, Ullrich describes a condition that afflicts both her and, more seriously, her sister to whom she dedicates this book. After years of unrelated symptoms, its eventual diagnosis was Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It manifests differently in every patient and can vary from a mostly manageable condition to living with chronic, untreatable pain. 

Understanding this, it is hardly a surprise that Ullrich explores a world where we can exchange one faulty body part for another. And Ullrich also reminds us that even in a future where replacement limbs are infinite, the world our bodies must inhabit is not. The imperative of climate change requires us to either reverse that process or adapt. She asks, ‘Is transhumanism the solution?’

Beat in her blood is a complex thriller, its multiple plot strands meriting more than one read and, as the first in the Heavy Metal series, there is much to look forward to from J.K.Ullrich.

Lay down your guns: how authors and editors navigate ego, ownership and the creative process in publishing fiction

I researched authority in the author–editor relationship: who holds it and how it is exercised by both parties.

I found that prevailing perspectives on this have limited understanding of its role and scope, doing both author and editor a disservice, and failing readers.

The dissertation argues that in an ideal, balanced relationship, forged to create the best book possible, the editor and the author will acknowledge the process and engage with it. Asking who wields more power perpetuates an infantilising culture and a unproductive dichotomy. Instead, we could see the editing process as a partnership, a collaborative opportunity to go further.

Searching for butterflies

‘How can I help you?’

Midnight at Changi Airport and a disembodied face comes to us through the screen. We had pushed ‘i’ and Ritvhik materialised. I guess he can see us too.

‘We’re looking for the butterfly enclosure.’

‘Walk to your left through to Transfer B and you will see signs. But,’ he adds, ‘the butterflies are sleeping.’

We have nearly three hours to kill in Singapore and our mission, guided in its last phase by Ritvhik, continues. My son Hugo and I have been walking for what must be kilometres eschewing the travellators to get the blood flowing again. We pull our carry-ons along sleek tiles to Terminal 3 where he has Googled the location of the butterflies. 

We must be close now, I keep thinking, as we stride through yet another grand sweep of polished tiles, rows of seats and gleaming shopfronts displaying pyramids of duty free whiskey and macadamias. Counters lined with perfume and anti-aging cellular renewal wink at us. We’ve been this way before, haven’t we? I feel frissons of anxiety when we realise we need to take the SkyTrain, taking us further from Gate G27, our portal home, but we push on. 

Why do we travel? The search for an ephemeral experience, it is transitory–contrived–by definition. We are on the hunt for something beautiful. We had just spent a week in Thailand, on the island of Phuket, my south-east Asian roots calling. Our Covid chrysalis saw us emerge blinking, now two out of three children at university with competing schedules and priorities. This might be the last time our family would holiday together and after being cooped up for three years, I craved different vistas, different languages and cultures. Australia’s whiteness, the uniformity of accent from Hobart to Sydney to Cairns to Adelaide and Perth left me wanting difference. I wanted immersion in other; I wanted to dip my toe into new waters.

A ten hour flight later, airport shuffling, boarding calls and stress  at each end and I wondered. I turn to Hugo. ‘The butterflies are sleeping.’ But he’s not dissuaded and, as we have time and will be seated again soon for eight more hours, we follow Ritvhik’s directions, back the way we’ve just come. A long way back. Sometimes travel is about sunk costs.  We are determined.  We had followed the signs from Transfer B and now stand, bewildered, before realising that we have passed it.

We have found the enclosure but it shimmers, mirage-like, its glass walls reflecting the airport lounge and our own flushed faces. ‘It’s a wall of nothingness,’ sighs Hugo. ‘You can’t see anything.’

Is travel the pursuit of the unattainable, an attempt to recreate home comforts, or mythical places as we hurtle through space and time in a steel capsule? I feel my lumbering gracelessness—too large, too white, too wealthy. Reconciling my desire to travel with the colonising of another ecosystem to service my needs feels wrong. 

But the doors are open. Still trundling our bags, we push them ajar and slip through a curtain of weighted beads to the foliage within. Hugo bounds down the stairs to explore but I am content.  

Travel is the pursuit of an experience not found in our everyday. I had missed heat, as I missed crowds, density, tall buildings, the scrabble of trees growing out of cracked pavements and walls. I missed city dirt, and the steady hum of traffic. Now enveloped by steamy air and the steady drone of aircraft noise from the tarmac, I welcome these sensations.

As Hugo and I stand amongst the sleeping butterflies in their recreated forest, this shared moment, this reminder of why I travel is enough for me, for now. 

Mum’s L of a learning curve with teen in the driver’s seat

My youngest child drove herself to work this morning. Her after-school and weekend job is across town in the martial arts school where we have both trained since she was five. We have been driving across Sydney, from the trees and water of the land just north of Parramatta River, the river that cuts through Sydney opening into the Harbour, to the denser, dirtier, livelier inner-south-west for twelve years.

Jane Caro, The Mother

My review of Jane Caro’s new novel, published by the Newtown Review of Books

Tags: Australian fictionAustralian women writerscoercive controldomestic violenceJane Caro

Though I knew the gist of the issues raised by The Mother before I began – I’d read the devastating stories of victims of domestic violence, watched the news, and thought I understood the issues – this novel still shocks.

Read it here:

The Furies, Mandy Beaumont and On Reckoning, Amy Remkeikis

Two books released in this nascent year recount women’s trauma and silencing by men, and their rage. 

In On Reckoning, an essay in Hachette’s ‘On’ series, Guardian journalist Amy Remeikis documents the rising tide of women’s anger that led to thousands marching in last year’s March4Justice. In The Furies,novelist Mandy Beaumont carries that anger in a compelling story of trauma, both inherited and present.

My review of The Furies, Mandy Beaumont and On Reckoning, Amy Remkeikis was published by the Newtown Review of Books.

Overland 6 April 2022

When I moved into a second career in editing and publishing, friends told me that working as an editor might temper my love of books—that a professional eye might spy previously unnoticed flaws. I dismissed this, but they were right. Before, if a book left me restless, dissatisfied, annoyed, I would simply close it and move on. Now, I knowwhat is wrong, why I, the reader, feel short-changed.

Marshmallow, Victoria Hannan

After the success of her debut, Kokomo, in 2020, Victoria Hannan’s second novel is another study of friendship. Its five characters have been friends since university. They are now in their thirties and each is grappling with a pre mid-life but post first-flush weariness. But this weariness is not ennui; through their shifting points of view, Hannan brings us their shared sorrow.

Marshmallow lays out the raw pain of grief and its weight, its pervasiveness, its ‘inconvenience’ and, piercingly, its loneliness. There has been a tragedy that has impacted all five of them, and Hannan brings a rippling tension from the first page. 

Read the full review at Newtown Review of Books.