Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Potato Chip-Style Reading



I've been hard at work on the Bronte canon (she said pitifully, after only two books, Agnes Grey and Shirley) this year. I was 500 pages into Shirley, and needed a break baaaaad. I was smarty-pants pleased with myself for predicting a particular plot twist about fifty miles back up the road, but was vexed with the stuff that usually vexes me when I read 19th century literature, like flowery ornate dialog and authorial intrusion. The title character finally showed up on page 203, but she hit the ground running, so better late than never, and her arrival gave the novel a much-needed blast of fresh air, but I still felt unpleasantly yoked to the book.

[Did I mention that the "Penguin Classics" edition of Shirley has the ugliest cover? It's a detail from a painting by someone named Turner, and the only color in his palette seemed to be a sad dun-brown. Seriously, this cover is one of the worst I've seen in a while; calling it ugly is actually giving it too much credit. There ought to be a prize for something that outstandingly hideous.]

Sweet respite came in the form of a book in my mailbox sent by the Literary Acquisitionist: Gilgamesh, a 2001 novel by Australian author Joan London. Reader, (as Charlotte Bronte would say) I devoured that book. I gobbled it up like potato chips.

Gilgamesh is the story of Edith, who grows up in Western Australia. Her father tries to be a farmer after World War I, but isn't really suited to the work and suffers a series of disappointments. After his death, her English-born mother, Ada, who has found the life difficult and bewildering, seems sad and resigned to staying put, but the cheese slips off her cracker more and more with each passing day.

A year or so after Edith's father's death, visitors arrive: Ada's nephew, Leopold and his friend, Aram, an Armenian. They stay for a long visit, charming Edith with tales of their many travels. Leopold introduces Edith to the epic of Gilgamesh, which fires her imagination.

Leopold and Aram finally leave, and Edith discovers a couple of months later that she's pregnant with Aram's baby. She has the baby and decides to keep him and also decides almost instantly that she's going to get out of Australia, as Leopold encouraged her to do, and although she's not at all sure about how to go about it, she's going to take the baby and go to Armenia to look for Aram.

Joan London does such a great job of describing the Australian landscape and also Edith's gritty and grubby fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants travel. As an expat, I could really relate to Edith's experiences in dealing with a new culture and some of her difficulties with passports and visas and red tape that gets more progressively tangled as World War II gathers steam across the world. Kudos also for her portrayal of Edith's relationship with her son, Jim. Their bond continues to grow even after their travels have ended, but London's writing is spare and honest and fine and there's not even a trace of sentimentality.

There's more I want to say about Gilgamesh; I could burble on all day. I'm not really doing justice to this novel by writing about it here, because I like it too damn much. That's always my problem. So you'll just have to take my word for it and track down a copy if you haven't read it already. Thanks again, Acquisitionist. It's a winner! And the dust jacket's brilliant!

5 comments:

Caitlin said...

You've not heard of Turner?!!

Maybe the detail of the particular painting didn't translate well into a book cover but he is an AMAZING painter. One of the best watercolour painters ever and Britain's major art prize is named after him.

http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/turner/

Pour of Tor said...

I am glad to hear your positive review of "Gilgamesh," as I have been considering reading as part of my Year of Australian Literature self-challenge. I might have to move it up my TBR list!

acquisitionist said...

I'm ecstatic that you liked it. What a great review. I too love that the spareseness of the writing style complements the arid physical landscapes. Not sentimental, but beautifully told. Is it back to Shirley for you?

Bybee said...

Caitlin,
No, I hadn't heard of J.M.W. Turner. I embarass myself, and things like this give Pablo fuel for the fire when he mutters that "Americans know fuck-all about anything outside of America." I will keep an open mind about Turner's work, I promise. The detail from the painting "Richmond, Yorkshire" was a great idea thematically on the part of Penguin Classics, but its execution was lousy.

Pour of Tor,
Oh yes! Definitely move it to the top of the pile! Gilgamesh is a gem that deserves to be read!

Acquisitionist,
Thank you again for Gilgamesh. After that lovely break, I got back to Shirley. Now it's on to Andersonville. My gripe there: No quotation marks! But I'm adjusting.

Lesley said...

Wow, that sounds like a great book! Off to Amazon to investigate further ...