anna george, what came before

Some books just feel Australian straight away. A friend recently asked what made Australian literature different, and while of course not everything is the same, I feel that there is a general difference between literature from my home country and that from, say, the American South (a style that I really enjoy even when the content is invariably eye-wateringly bleak.) It’s something about the use of first person, along with the short, sharp sentences and not long flowing prose. I think Australian authors will use less words in a smart way while American South authors will use a thousand words to paint a beautiful picture. While I’m throwing around ridiculous generalisations, I’d posit that in England, the general style is quite clear and simple, and the plot intricacies themselves are the strong point. None of these are flaws, they are just differences. And as I’m not generally inclined to shoehorn myself off this couch for any solid examples that I could use as reference points, let’s just use this as a jumping-off point: do you think that there is a tangible difference between Australian crime fiction (or literature in general) and those from overseas? I’d love to know what you think.

What Came Before felt immediately Australian, though of course I was biased: the hype had reached me before the book did. A dear colleague of mine is pals with the author, and thought I would love it, so I was happy to have at it, not least because Australian crime is my favourite kind. (There’s a sentence that feels very odd to write down. Don’t do crime, kids.) Somewhere in the litany of talk I had heard about it, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was mentioned, as it always is when a book is published nowadays. It’s this year’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have read two books that share a similar vein, but the other four hundred with a connection on the cover are just trying to ride Flynn’s coattails. Gone Girl was excellent, yes. Other books are not the same just because they have a woman in them, or it’s a psychological thriller. Stop it, publishers: sell it on its own merits. Comparisons are insufferable. The only other similarities it has with Gone Girl is that it’s not quite the same as other things you’ve read, and it toes the line of crime and fiction.

Elle Nolan lives in a heady, jasmine-soaked world that is the cause of some readerly jealousy: she is a screenwriter who produced a successful independent movie and is now writing the script for a second one; she lives in a west Melbourne townhouse that sounds divine; she has friends, drama, looks, and love. Well, she did. As the book begins, her husband, David Forrester, is driving away from the scene of the crime, having stabbed and strangled her and left her behind to hover uncertainly over her own lifeless body, trying to figure out how the romance of the century came to this. And so we follow David as he tries pathetically to escape the ramifications of what he’s done, and Elle herself as she reflects upon the past. If it sounds a bit cheesy, it’s not – there is a lot of ghoul-ish type writing out there and when it’s done well, it feels as natural as a flesh-and-blood character. After all, they are not real. Except when they make you feel so acutely that they are.

Reviews for this can be cagey on the subject of the book. I don’t think I’m about to issue any spoilers, but feel free to skip the following if you’re at all worried (this is also a trigger warning, of sorts, which seems faintly pointless when it comes to crime books because shit always gets real, but I do feel they’re important.) At the beginning, it is clear that Elle has said something so horrific that David could not help but kill her; I came into this assuming that we would realise that Elle was a manipulative fiend who deserved it. And Elle, being a human being and all, is not perfect, but that is not what this is about. It’s about a relationship that starts with flowers and beachside picnics and movie festivals and all the sparkle of love, and then follows a trajectory of abuse and unhappiness. It is so unflinchingly real, how a woman with all the wit of your dearest friend can find themselves in such a situation. For those out there who are so completely convinced it would never happen to them, or any of those other vicious and false ideas about domestic abuse, it’s a real eye-opener. David Forrester is an abuser. He is also charming, handsome, lavish with praise, well-connected, funny, rich. He has an ex-step-daughter that he adores in a genuine, heartbreaking, non-abusive way. He is not someone who came in swinging on the first date. They never are.

Reading the decline of Elle’s well-being and David’s acidic mix of self-hatred and violence is as engaging as any crime. As he runs from his actions, tension fairly leaks off the page onto your fingers. Elle’s blood is not the only shed in this book, and it remains a taut thriller the whole way through. The constant edginess is as much a part of Elle’s situation as it is part of the book itself. I don’t think I even realised that until I typed it just then. I finished this weeks ago, but it’s still in my head, rumbling around, causing trouble. One other thing I loved about this: that other characters have no truck with David. When he reports to Reg, an elderly family friend and lawyer what he’s done, instead of rolling his eyes and saying, “Women, right?” as you almost come to expect from such moments, he says, staring right at David, “…we cannot continue to blame women for their death.” Immediately after that line I tweeted the verbal equivalent of a fist pump, I was so pleased to see it there, in writing, in a book, in my hands.

I hear rumours that George is working on another book. When her debut novel has such strength in both the prose and the ideas, it does cause just a little bit of excitement about what might come next. Part of me wants it to be What Came After: A Happily Ever After Sunshine and Rainbows Story, but a bigger part anticipates something as equally meaty even in its horror.

(Kudos also to the cover designer for What Came Before; you know I love being critical of crime covers and this one deserves none. It is strong and ambiguous: what is on her cheek, a bruise, or lipstick? Yes, very good, A+ would put face out on a shelf again.)

international review: robert galbraith, the silkworm

Once upon a time I used to love smashing through books in a day. I’d surround myself with snacks, arrange a thousand cushions in a comfortable fashion on the couch, and just read the hell out of something until it was done. I didn’t have to hurry: I’d have a whole, leisurely day in which to get through it. I’d get up to pee, and to refill my glass of water, and to tear apart the cupboard hoping I’d left some snacks behind after accidentally consuming everything unhealthy during the first four hours of my reading, but otherwise: reading. Glory days, as Bruce says.

I haven’t done that for a while. I hate to blame a child, but it’s my kid’s fault, of course. There are no longer eight-hour stretches of the day in which to read unencumbered with someone throwing Matchbox cars at your face unless you are willing to stay up until four in the morning, which, of course, I am not willing to do because I have already suffered through two-and-a-half years of terrible sleep and every minute is a precious and glorious thing. So books become a lesser priority after 1. Keeping child from unpacking every drawer in house and 2. Sleeping. And 3. Working to be able to afford books. And I guess also 4. Other assorted loved ones. It is definitely 5. though. Or equal 5. with the internet. Which is a different and eclectic type of reading.

The reason for two entire off-topic paragraphs is that I finally read an entire (non-Seuss) book in a day for the first time in years, and it was Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm. Galbraith, if you hadn’t already heard, is a nom de plume for one Joanne Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, an obscure fantasy series that is definitely out of print. This is her third book for grown-ups (well, marketed at grown-ups; I mean, we all read them, right?), after The Casual Vacancy (published under her own name) and The Cuckoo’s Calling, the book which precedes The Silkworm. I read CC after finding out it was Rowling, because a) I wasn’t sent a reading copy when it was Galbraith and b) with the yawn-inducing cover I would never have picked it up on my own accord. Surprisingly, it was excellent, and I genuinely wished characters Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott would return. So it was that on the past Thursday at 9:01am and so help me not a minute before, they did. I had my copy by 9:02am, with enthusiastic encouragement by my colleagues that perhaps I could get a review out shortly afterwards. Because I love a challenge, I thought: I can probably do this by Friday, right? And so I got to ignoring my kid, pleading with her to take extended naps, and feeding her elaborate lunches in front of the telly so I could read with every spare moment. I finished it by around 11:50 that night, and sent a surprisingly coherent review to my overlords by about ten past one the next morning, after which I fell dramatically into bed and then spent the entire next day bragging about my feat, because I am insufferable. And here I am doing it again five days later. Because I am insufferable.

So, 500 words and I haven’t even reviewed it yet. (In case you’re wondering why I don’t blog much: it’s because of this. Sometimes I get to 400 point-avoiding words, throw my hands up in the air, and kick myself off WordPress in irritation.)

Cormoran Strike is so large he almost expands out of the pages of this book. He’s tall, a bit wide thanks to terrible dietary choices, and fit to burst with character. He’s in almost constant pain from the injury he received at war, and wears a prosthetic foot which he doesn’t take enough care of and frequently falls over while pursuing some kind of criminal. He’s a bit emotionally scarred from his chaotic ex-fiancee, Charlotte, who has thrown herself into the arms of another after he finally left her. He’s also a bit broke, slightly in love with his assistant, and rubs up basically everyone the wrong way, except for a few ladies who find rubbing up against that kind of thing attractive. His assistant, Robin, is tenacious, clever, and has the most frustratingly dull fiance in current fiction: he is humourless, jealous, and whiny. To the credit of the author, he’s still not a monster: you just feel kind of sorry for him, being a bit pathetic and insecure, hiding it behind being smug. Anyway, it means you kind of want Robin and Cormoran to shack up, but then kind of not because you want them to be friends forever and never break up, even if they are frequently sulking and fighting because they are essentially children. Robin wants to know where she stands with Strike but can’t bring herself to ask; Strike hates being shown any kind of affection; they both need to grow up, but of course, I don’t really want them to because they are such fun as it is.

Which isn’t to say the plotlines are fun in any type of G-rated way. When Leonora Quine turns up all mousy and odd in Strike’s office, he shouldn’t say yes to taking on her case – her declaration of payment is muddy at best – but he does, because he’s quite lovely. Her husband has vanished and Strike sets out to find him; it seems like it will be easy, because Owen Quine, a moody and pretentious artist if there ever was one, does it a bit to be dramatic. This time, however, things aren’t so simple, and when Strike finally locates him, it is one of the most vividly disturbing skip-to-the-next-sentence scenes of carnage I’ve read since I almost had to put down Robert Gott’s A Good Murder (a gross fucking murder, more like, but I guess the publishers wouldn’t come to the party on that title.) Anyway, it’s not for your nine-year-old who’s just started The Philosopher’s Stone, is what I’m saying.

So who killed Owen Quine? The likely explanation seems like just about everyone, because he had just handed in a manuscript of a surreal, slightly nauseating book where all of his friends and family are portrayed in various offensive ways. No one gets off lightly, and so now everyone despises him. But who would actually kill him for what he’s said? The police think it’s his scattery wife; Cormoran is paid (or will be, in theory, probably) to figure out otherwise.

I’ve said this in my other reviews: Galbraith isn’t really doing anything different or original in crime writing. What they are doing is taking a known genre and doing it very well. It borrows from an Agatha Christie gentle type of investigation in many ways – there are a lot of lengthy conversations over pub meals, and he does a lot of thinking, and despite the blurb saying frantically that there is a “RACE AGAINST TIME” to figure this out, there are very few moments of immediate danger. Which is fine, of course; I get enough of that in other books. Perhaps blurb-writers could read these books? Though of course everyone was embargoed against reading it before last Thursday; I even suspect the editors were too, because it is not quite as tight as The Cuckoo’s Calling, back when only Rowling’s agent knew her true identity. Later Potters suffered from this too, hence why book seven is four hundred times longer than book one and a third of it is spent sulking in a forest.

Still, I had a lot of fun with it, and I think if you were the kind of person who pays attention when reading (unlike me) you may be able to figure out whodunnit. If I need to binge-read the sequel I might get some babysitting so I can do so in a less urgent manner and enjoy it more, but sometimes I also want to pee in private and I don’t get that either, so you can’t have everything. The cover remains just as useless as the first book – another fucking wrought-iron fence (RAAAGE) and a moody silhouette of someone much shorter than Strike walking in a photoshopped way down an alley – but read it, because you should, because it’s good.