99 Homes (and the devil): an interview with director Ramin Bahrani

still_241851Hollywood director Ramin Bahrani describes his acclaimed film, 99 Homes, about the post-GFC housing crisis and the millions of people forced out of their homes, as a ‘Faustian – deal with the devil’ – tale.

But it’s not Faustian in the sense that many movie-goers might interpret the central plot, that of evicted homeowner Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) who goes to work for the man who foreclosed his home, corrupt, gun-toting real estate broker Rick Carver (played by the enigmatic character actor Michael Shannon).

Rather, according to Bahrani, it’s the housing system itself which is Faustian, creating unscrupulous characters like Carver, who we see in the film manipulating government and banking rules at the expense of struggling home owners to make himself rich.

“[Carver] is not such a horrible person, he is just doing what he needs to do to survive,” Bahrani told me.

“The devil is the system. It is a corrupt system.”

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon playing opposing characters in 99 Homes.

The are of course parallels to Australia with its unscrupulous property spruikers and their get-rich-quick schemes, a housing and tax system that seemingly favours the cashed-up older generation of owners and investors at the expense of young buyers, and where tales of windowless apartments in high-rise towers and students living in tents or on bathroom floors abound.

According to Bahrani, this corruption extends beyond housing and into the wider financial and banking system, noting that both Australia (Malcolm Turnbull) and New Zealand  (John Key) have prime ministers who were former investment bankers.

“The banks were fined millions [in the wake of the financial crisis], but nobody went to jail. But if you stole a carton of orange juice, you would go to jail.


“The people who are responsible for bankrupting the world got away with it. Nothing has changed”.

To research the film, which opened in Australia this week (November 19), Bahrani spent many hours in foreclosure courts watching the corrupt system at work as families lost their homes in snap judgements that took less than a minute

“It’s not called the rocket docket for nothing,” he said.

One day in court he observed a Hispanic family that needed an interpreter. “The judge said he had no time for an interpreter and dismissed their case – they lost their home.”

But Bahrani says the film is not about picking sides.

Researching material for the film in 2012 and 2013, Bahrani witnessed both side of the brutal US foreclosure system: the middle-cass families living in motels and the school buses that would pick up their kids from these motels as part of their morning routes, but also the sheriffs and real estate brokers “terrified about who would be on the other side of the door, when they evicted them”.

He says he did not set out to deliver a sermon or pass judgement about the real estate industry or real estate brokers but instead wanted to explore both sides of home ownership – the home as a place of “safety, community and memory” or in the case of real estate agent Rick Carver just a commodity to be “bought and sold”.

For those in Australia fruitlessly or frustratingly pursuing the housing dream or, alternatively, enjoying the riches that housing investment can bring, the parallels in Bahrani’s movie are obvious.

This article first appeared on afr.com

My Orwellian odyssey: a descent into the fiction of George Orwell

George_Orwell_press_photoAs it happened, I was in the midst of reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s very fine first novel about imperialism and prejudice set within a rural Burmese village during British rule, when the plans for “Operation Fortitude” were made public.

The press release, issued by Australian Border Force on the morning of Friday, August 28 detailed a sinister operation planned in Melbourne over the coming weekend when ABF officers would be patrolling the streets, scrutinizing everyone coming into the city centre and targeting “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

coming up for airMost ominously and invoking the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984 with its constant surveillance and suspicion, the press release said that “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

As the outrage at this trampling of individual rights (and suspicions of racial profiling) grew louder and louder, it seemed  everyone from Booker prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan to protestors at hastily arranged gatherings were referencing Orwell or using the adjective ‘Orwellian’ to describe the planned paramilitary-style operation.

burmese daysGripped by it all, I finished reading Burmese Days and proceeded to re-read my tattered copy of Orwell’s Coming up for Air (1939) featuring my favourite Orwell anti-hero, the rotund, bald, bowler-hatted insurance salesman George Bowling who as the bomber planes fly overhead, casting shadows over London and bringing with them portents of the approaching descent into worldwide destruction and death, reminisces about his carefree youth and plans a return his countryside home town of Lower Binfield to seek out a legendary fishing spot.

keep the aspidstraNext up, I re-read Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – also a tattered paperback on my bookshelf – about the idealistic London poet Gordon Comstock (brilliantly played by Richard E. Grant in the film version, A Merry War), who has forsaken a promising career as a copywriter in an advertising firm in order to escape the moneying world and all its artistic-destroying influences to write something that matters. We find Comstock virtually starving in his bleak bed sit in a men’s lodging house scrawling away at an epic poem he can’t seem to finish while bemoaning his poverty, which has ironically become an even greater destructive force to his writing than a well paid job as well as to his relationships and his sanity.

animal farmAfter that, I dived straight into Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s political fairy tale about the failings of socialism set among the world of animals who overthrow their human masters only to become slaves under the control of the intelligent, cunning pigs who are “more equal than others”.

Finally, I ended my Orwellian odyssey with 1984 (written in 1949), Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece set in a futuristic London of enormous windowless government buildings, squalid tenements, always watching’ telescreens’ and posters of ‘Big Brother’, where timid revolutionary Winston Smith, an employee in the Ministry of Truth and his lover, Julie, battle the belligerent totalitarian state, its thought police, doublespeak ideology and hunger for eternal power.

1984_by_alcook-d4z39dhSo what was my Orwellian journey like?

Melancholic and depressing give the current state of the world.

As described in 1984 and Animal Farm, the loss of individual freedoms has occurred even in democratic countries like Australia, the USA and the UK, with their gag orders against speaking out against refugee abuse, surveillance and collection of meta-data and secret actions of spy agencies like the NSA and ASIO.

Imperialism and prejudice is alive and well

As in Burmese Days, which sets its modernistic central character,  35-year-old teak merchant John Flory against the bigotry within the walls of European Club, we find ourselves in an quasi-imperialist world where the richest, most powerful countries continue to oppress minority populations, invade sovereign countries at will and turn a blind eye to the consequences: thousands of displaced refugees.

“After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people, an inferior people with black faces” – from Burmese Days

Secondly, invigorating and wondrous. Orwell’s writing sparkles, glows and comes alive as you read it and follow the adventures and exploits of his characters. His manages to address weighty and universal themes by creating engaging characters, brilliantly plotted storylines and living, breathing places. He is a master craftsman, who true to his famous rules for writing knows that a few, carefully chosen words, expertly put together, can create vivid scenes that leaps out of the page:

In the deadly glare of the neon lights the pavements were densely crowded. Gordon threaded his way, a small shabby figure, with a pale face and unkempt hair – From Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Then there are his characters. I found myself happily inside the head of all of them, even the ones that are on the surface, unlovable like fat, unhappy George Bowling whom we find on the very first page of Coming Up for Air, locked in the bathroom of his home on a dreary London housing estate, plotting his escape from his wife and kids on a “beastly January morning”. After all, who doesn’t yearn – now and then – for a return to their youth, to a time when they were carefree and without adult responsibilities?

Similarly, I identified with the idealism of malnourished and unwashed poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with his rallying against “money, money, always money” encapsulated in his distaste for the catchy slogans that hang from windswept, tattered advertising boards outside the secondhand bookshop he works in.

No doubt Gordon would find our advertising-saturated world with its sponsored content and brand placement even more nauseating as he would the greedy capitalism and worship of money that defines success today.

And then there is John Flory, the lonely, lost colonialist searching for companionship in Burmese Days who sees skin colour as a mystery to be explored and celebrated, but set against a world of cunning corruption and prejudice. One of the most tragic of Orwell’s characters, he is also one of his most loveable and most admirable.

Orwellian, as we understand it.

And then there is the sheer devastating power of 1984 and Animal Farm, whose much-discussed and debated themes of tyranny, oppression and the crushing of individualism find their reflection in the darker  actions of governments with their ‘Operation Fortitudes’, metadata laws and secrecy and in mega-corporations like Facebook and Google, now the most powerful players in the world of news, information and personal data.

Indeed, it is no surprise, that as I finished reading these five novels, I read also a review of anew theatrical version of 1984 running in Melbourne and the seemingly never ending articles about Orwell and the Orwellian – though I confess that Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are my two favourites.

Read them all!

play about 1984

How to survive a horror movie marathon this Halloween


“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie” – so says Randy, the geeky virgin played by Jamie Kennedy in the original Scream movie.

But can you survive a Drew Barrymore movie?

Randy’s rules are a) you never have sex b) you never drink or do drugs and c) you never say “I’ll be right back” – because you won’t!

Sound advice, although doesn’t Randy end up dead too at some point? Perhaps its in one of the rubbishy sequels. I can’t remember.

Never mind. Halloween is coming up soon (October 31) which means it’s the perfect time to re-acquaint myself with Scream and other horror classics, both good and bad.

lost_boys_ver2_xlgI should warn you. I am a terrible horror movie watcher, always in a state of perpetual terror, heart racing. Once in the cinema, when I was a teenager, I threw my popcorn straight up in the air when a vampire awoke in The Lost Boys (Kiefer Sutherland with fangs) and did the same, unfortunately with a glass of red wine this time (on someone else’s couch) when one of the masked intruders in the very creepy (and underrated) The Strangers made a sudden appearance.


I have also been known to bury my head behind a pillow, hide behind the couch, hide behind the curtains, block my ears and close my eyes – much to the amusement, but also annoyance of my fellow film watchers.

But if you had to ask me what I would need to survive a movie marathon of my favourite horror movies, these are things I’d pack in my man crate*:


Extra thick gloves so I don’t get touched up by evil psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lector, and night vision goggles for later so I can shoot transvestite serial killer Buffalo bill squarely between the eyeballs before he gets me in the dark basement of his creepy old house (For The Silence of the Lambs).

A good local map or perhaps a decent GPS device so I don’t get lost while inexplicably taking a walk on a moonlit night in the barren Yorkshire Moors, plus a little note-book to write down handy hints like “Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors” and “Beware the moon, lads”. Also, a gun loaded with silver bullets in case a deranged hairy monster leaps out at me (For An American Werewolf in London).

I’d need a beach bag, with towel, but no bathing suit so I would have a damn good excuse for not getting into the water and a scary book about sharks to convince me I really don’t need to go in for a swim in my undies. (For Jaws, the original, where the shark actually looked real).

For later in the evening, three books, “A guide to old Manhattan apartment and their ghoulish histories“, “How to know if your partner is a Satanist” (pocket size) and “New York’s most reputable obstetricians: the Definitive List“. (For Rosemary’s Baby)


A few more odds and ends: Extra strong coffee so I don’t fall asleep while having a bath (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and my anti-psychotic medication to keep the subway demons at bay (Jacob’s Ladder)

And of course, a decent recipe for pea soup! (The Exorcist).


*I was invited to write this post for mancrates.com, an American gift company that makes up collections of nostalgic gifts and then ships them out in actual wooden crates, complete with an Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style crowbar, to open them.

I haven’t been paid to write it, nor did I get a free man crate (I did ask) but I loved the concept when I checked out their website. Pity they don’t ship to Australia.

I especially liked the crate filled with exotic meats crate (including biltong), the coffee crate with genuine NATO ammo case and one I am sure would be sought after by many blokes, the retro gamer man crate.

Reading newspapers, video store browsing, cinema without distraction, film processing anticipation and other pleasures killed off by the digital revolution

I still get immense pleasure from reading the newspaper, accompanied by a cup of coffee.

It's not the same reading an iPad on the toilet

It’s not the same reading an iPad on the toilet

It’s not that I don’t get most of my news from other sources (I am a Twitter addict, and the most used apps on my iPad are those for ABC News, The Guardian Australia, The Age, the BBC, CNN and of course the AFR), it’s just there is a certain pleasure that I get from reading the newspaper that cannot be replicated digitally, even with e-ink.

In a digital world of endless distractions and diversions – a newspaper is a finite sum of its parts and that’s something to cherish.

And so it seems to me utterly unfathomable – even though the boffins say its inevitable – that there may one day be a world without this compendium of daily stories, facts and figures, photographs, commentary, weather reports,  obituaries and trivialities.

For me it’s still one of life’s great pleasures – reading the paper, but it seems a dying one too, or on life-support at best.

And it got me thinking about other things I took for granted while growing up that have all but disappeared thanks to the digital revolution.


14196995087_160e0fed5b_zThe uninterrupted movie

– the ability to sit through a 90 minute movie in a darkened room, transfixed by the screen, without any distraction, appears lost for ever. It seems every time I go to the movies, I must also sit through a second viewing via a giant screen lighting up in front of me the size of a human head as someone in the audience gets bored and scrolls through their Facebook account on their smartphone. Cinema etiquette – that you sit quietly and focus on the film you are watching (and forked out a small fortune to watch) – has long disappeared. I don’t even bother complaining anymore, sometimes I check my own phone.

Remember these?

Remember these?

Developing your camera film

Remember those bygone, halcyon days when you put film in your camera, took 24 or 36 what you thought were well-considered shots and then handed the film into a man behind a desk in a little shop. The next day you would return with knots in your stomach in anticipation of your artistic genius as you received an envelope of glossy pics (Remember the little sleeve for the developed negatives?). Now I can’t remember the last time I bought a roll of film. Do they even sell film anymore? Didn’t Kodak go bankrupt? Now its all instant gratification, you can take thousands of shots and see the results immediately. You don’t even need a camera, just a good quality smartphone. And does anyone print out their photos anymore? Or create albums of their holiday? It’s all just digital folders marked “Holiday, August 2012” on your computer.

16571720284_4de9e13b6e_z-1The writing and receiving of letters

I used to love getting hand-written letters, but I can’t remember the last one I received, or, the last one I wrote one myself, affixed a stamp and dropped in the letter box. Emails, texts, Viber messages, are instantaneous  – and brilliant in many ways – but what happened to the anticipation of receiving a hand written letter from a far off country covered in stamps and post office markings?

4165217347_ec1dabe345_zChoosing a movie in a video store

I have previously blogged about the demise of the suburban video or DVD store – we have none left in our suburb – killed off by video streaming services, video kiosks and – dare I say it – online piracy. Once a part of the Saturday night ritual for many lonely hearts, kid-weary families and movie geeks, prowling the aisles, the local video store is disappearing fast.

751707089_c25111d1c8_zPsychiatrists & psychologists

Ah, lying on the couch and talking about your problems. I have no hard evidence for this but surely demand for the services of shrinks is plummeting when you have Facebook. This seems to have become the place where everyone pours out their problems. And while I groan at every “oh woe is me” post, I can see the appeal: There’s instant feedback ( you can count the ‘likes’) and advice from your pop psychology Facebook friends via the inane comments they write.

There’s plenty more things killed of by the internet, or dying slowly – here’s a list of 40 compiled by the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

I wonder how many of these things my five-week old son, Aubin, will know of when he is older?

Will there still be newspapers around when he is old enough to read them? Will he laugh in disbelief when I tell him of the time I forgot to put ‘film’ in my camera on my first visit to London? (Yes that did happen).

Perhaps like the skateboard and vinyl records, some will make a comeback…


Perhaps a hover board instead of a skate board?

The Junkie in literature: A review of ‘The Lotus Crew’ by Stewart Meyer

lotus crew cover

Cover of the original novel The Lotus Crew

Of all the junkie authors I have read and reviewed on this blog – Burroughs, Welsh, De Quincey, Garner etc – for my mini-project “The Junkie in Literature” Stewart Meyer would undoubtedly be the least well-known.

Meyer, a protegé, friend and chauffeur of William S. Burroughs and a regular at Burrough’s Bowery apartment writer hangout known as ‘The Bunker’  published The Lotus Crew in 1984.

Lauded to a degree at the time of its publication – no doubt helped by Meyer’s association with Burroughs and his Beat Generation entourage – The Lotus Crew has been largely forgotten by the literary establishment, but has been given a fresh audience with its recent re-publication in e-book format by Open Road Media.

The Lotus Crew is a gritty, moment-in-time novel about the hectic drug scene in Alphabet City on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early years of the Reagan era.

Meyer throws you into the junkie cesspool – at street level – amidst the “blanco” junkies full of sickness and the Hispanic drug lords and their “crew” who peddle dope bags from abandoned tenement flats and underground parking lots and where the threat of a police bust is ever-present.

A misleading calm prevailed as they descended on Alphabet City. The biggest smack emporium on the East Coast stretched before them as they drove through narrow bombed-out streets. Blacks, Latins, blancos, shadows in somber colors; lips tight and drawn down, eyes dead but active with the scuffle. Waiting, watching, copping, splitting.

You only have to look at photos taken of Alphabet City and other parts of the Lower East side around the time the novel is set – 1982 – to see the appalling, run-down state of the streets and the desperate characters that walked them looking for a soothing fix to cure junk sickness.

A photo of the Lower East Side of NY in 1980s

A photo of the Lower East Side of NY in the 1980s

There’s a lyrical street poetry to Stewart Meyer’s prose reinforced by him assembling a collection of half a dozen quintessential “junkie” characters who tell the story of what it was like back then to be immersed in that type of desperate society of the powerful, cruel, sick and tortured.

There’s thoughtful, introspective and loyal Alvira, who tried to get clean in LA but who returns to New York having relapsed and who “felt like the proverbial incongruity when not opiated”.

There’s Tommy (or T) who dreams of becoming the emperor of Alphabet City selling the best heroin in town. We meet 16-year-old heroin scholar and drug pusher John Jacob (JJ), eager for a slice of the action and his weak-minded, doomed sidekick Furman.

And there’s the ‘blancos’, the white guys with big heroin habits who are easy pickings for knife-wielding gangs, like Jewish taxi driver Eric Shomberg who cannot “resist the sweet ambiguity of opium, the way it softened the real world without negating it altogether like booze did” or Bronx bartender Dave Skully “a few hours away from severe withdrawal”.

Like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (read my review here) which is written in the Glaswegian Scottish dialect, much of the dialogue in The Lotus Crew is written in the broken down, sing-song Hispanic English and street slang of the time.

This street authenticity combined with Meyer’s snappy writing style and short, punchy, action-filled chapters that describe episodes in the lives of junkie players gives it a vivid, documentary quality and a engrossing depiction of the heroin game.

And while perhaps not as powerful a text about heroin addiction  as his great mentor’s “Junkie” (perhaps because Meyer was an observer, not – it seems – a user) he knows his subject well and has the narrative skills and poetry to give it life:

Desperation was part of the game, and no matter how long you did bizz with someone, if you caught them at the wrong time you’d be chumped and scumbagged for every cent you had. Just a rule of the road, a piece of the code.

Stewart Meyer cooking a meal for Burroughs (from his Facebook page)

Stewart Meyer cooking a meal for Burroughs (from his Facebook page)

“In Youth is Pleasure”: exploring the forgotten literary talents of Denton Welch

cover61513-mediumWere it not for his untimely death in 1948, aged just 33, Denton Welch might have become a household name in modern literature, perhaps spoken of in the same breath as George Orwell, Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski.

Until very recently, I had never heard of him (Thank you to Open Road Media for sending me a review copy of ‘In Youth is Pleasure’ and getting me acquainted).

That he was admired by the likes of Beat writer William S. Burroughs, celebrated English playwright Alan Bennett and literary giant E.M. Forster says something quite significant I think about his concise career. Denton Welch was struck by a car while out cycling in Surrey when he was 20. He suffered permanent damage to his spine, an injury that would eventually lead to his early death. Despite his chronic ill-health, he continued to explore, observe and write, acquiring a distinctive literary voice set within the English countryside and acquiring many admirers of his vivid prose and precise descriptons.

He produced numerous novels including In Youth is Pleasure plus many short stories and was a prodigious diarist. As a classically trained painter at Goldsmiths College, London he had mixed success, but did produce a striking, colourful self-potrait showing a gaunt, thoughtful young man in glasses and a purple collared shirt that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

In Youth is Pleasure’ is a deeply autobiographical novel with Welch transformed into Orvil Pim, a 15-year-old public school boy, who spends his summer holiday with his father and two older brothers in a grand old hotel in the English countryside.

It should be an idyllic time, indeed the novel begin in almost fairy tale fashion:

One summer, several years before the war began, a young boy of fifteen was staying with his father and two elder brothers at a hotel near the Thames in Surrey…

But, adolescence is never that much fun especially for a sensitive soul like Orvil Pym whose only wish is to be left alone so he can explore the hotel gardens, or take walks along the river, set sail on a canoe, ride a bicycle to an old church or search for curios in an antique shop.

Welch beautifully creates a portrait of the adolescent mind with all its longings, desires, pangs of guilt and rich imaginative powers.

Orvil’s dealings with strangers from the adult world beautifully describe adolescent confusion, most notably in Orvil’s unsettling encounters with an eccentric holidaying schoolmaster, with whom he forms both a fatherly attachment and something of a homo-erotic crush.

Welch’s compact writing style reminded me of George Orwell and his dictum not to use too many words when few will do. The text is sparse, pared back, the descriptions of Orvil’s adventures and mis-adventures precise, creating vivid pictures of the English countryside in summer and the inner world of Orvil’s imagination.

Upon entering an empty church on one of his ramblings, Orvil is filled with a “tingling expectancy”. Later on, discovering a gothic brass tombstone inside, he suddenly “without knowing why” lies down at full length on the cold slab and put his lips to the brass lady’s face, kissing her “juicily.”

The novel bristles with undertones of sexual expectation, desire, uncertainty and excitement: Orvil is voyeuristic, he takes off his clothes when alone and unobserved, he consumes different medications at once, he steals great gulps of communion wine in an empty church and smears his lips and cheeks red with stolen lipstick.

Mostly, like every rebellious adolescent, he longs to be left alone and not forced to return to boarding school, with its “iron beds like black enamelled skeletons”

He saw himself refusing to go back to school and disappearing completely. He was alone in a small London room with a gas-ring. He was working on something at a desk. It might have been a book, or a painting, or even a wool mat. It didn’t matter; it was real work, all alone, full of joy.

Self-potrait of Denton Welch hung in London's National Gallery

Self-potrait of Denton Welch hung in London’s National Gallery

The last third of the book is given over to a delightful detail-rich account of Welch’s walking tour as an 18-year-old through southern England called I Left My Grandfather’s house.

He recounts his lonely walks along country roads and through fields, his meetings with fellow travellers and eccentric hostel dwellers (not much has changed in that regard) and descriptions of ancient, ruins, old churches, architecture, art, food and the English countryside.

Here, again, Welch displays his talent for painting vivid scenes and for creating that longing in the reader to join him in his lonely wanderings.

In an article published in The Guardian in 2005 following the publication of a biography of Welch, Alan Bennett writes of his admiration for Welch’s vivid writing style, sensitivity and his ability to speak directly to him as a young man who read his journals in the early 1950s. 

“Utterly unlike any person I had come across, he seemed a sympathetic voice and – a characteristic of books read when young – seemed to be speaking particularly to me,” Bennett wrote.

William S. Burroughs pays Welch the highest compliment, saying that he was the writer that “most directly influenced” his own work – a statement that should encourage others to explore this forgotten writer.

With the publication of Welch’s novels in e-book format, a new generation may yet discover his talents.

Literary adventures in the female perspective: four books worth reading

FullSizeRenderFor anyone interested in exploring the female point of view, I can recommend four excellent books I read recently.

They’re all written by women. Two are novels by post-apartheid South African writers being Marita Van Der Vyer’s  ‘Entertaining Angels’ and Pamela Jooste’s  ‘Frieda and Min’. The third is ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by English writer Jeanette Winterson  and the fourth is a collection of three autobiographies by the late New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame called ‘An Angel at My Table’.

All are prize-winning writers, all broke new ground and while each tell very different stories set in different places and times, there is a common thread running through each: they tell stories about women that go on painful journeys of self-discovery and emerge stronger, more complete and with a defining sense of who they are.

While all four novelists would, I am sure, happily where the tag of “feminist” they are really “humanist” writers, telling stories about the female human condition.

For me, it was an un-expected journey into the female psyche that began by accident when I picked up the two South African novels in a tiny little second-hand bookshop in Norwood, Johannesburg, run by two elderly African ladies, while on holiday last year. Later, back in Melbourne, I found the two other books on a shelf of ex-library books for sale outside our local library.

entertaining angelsEntertaining Angels (translated from Afrikaans) was the first book I read. Set in 1989, just before the collapse of apartheid, it tells the story of Griet whose life is in a downward spiral: her husband has thrown her out, she lost her baby and her attempt to kill herself by sticking her head in the oven – a la one of her literary heroes, Sylvia Plath – failed (rather comically) because a dead cockroach inside put her off. Griet starts to see a therapist and begins writing fairy tales as a path to healing.

It was a ground breaking South African novel when first published in 1992 in the early days of the ‘new South Africa’. Van Der Vyver broke free from her conservative Afrikaans culture with the story of a young, well-read, enlightened Afrikaans woman writing about grief, sex, Mandela and ‘The Struggle’ and literary heroes like Germain Greer, Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin.

Van Der Vyver’s writing has a magic realism to it as it flits between Griet’s contemplation of her real life journey – alone and barren living in an unfurnished flat with cockroaches – and her fairy tales adventures and travels back in time to Grandma Hannie and Grandpa Petrus’s old farm-house in the stillness of the Karoo.

Written from the perspective of an intense, questioning, deeply thoughtful young Afrikaans woman trying to heal herself in the days before the end of Apartheid, Entertaining Angels is deeply nostalgic, quirky, tender and wryly funny.

But everyone knows it’ easier for a man to live out of a suitcase. What do you do if you begin menstruating in the middle of the night and you discover you didn’t pack your Lil-lets? Or if you forgot your imported night cream….

frieda and minFrieda and Min is a ‘coming of age’ novel spanning three decades of friendship between Frieda Woolf, a Jewish girl growing up in a traditional, poor family in a South African mining town near Johannesburg and Min, a fiercely principled young girl of the same age who dreams of becoming a rural doctor to black South Africans, defying the orders of the Apartheid regime and its puppets. Being Jewish and having grown up in the same mining town as the novel is partially set (Germiston is Frieda’s home town) gave it a deeply personal resonance, but for anyone else, it’s a classic story of two friends from different backgrounds and beliefs and how their lives unfold and diverge, and eventually come back together amidst personal and political upheaval. Despite having many stereotypical characters – the idealistic white girl taking on the evils of apartheid, the Jewish girl looking for a husband and marrying the wrong (rich) man – and plotlines, the writing is superb and fresh. Each girl tells their story in their own words and in the first person as they lose their innocence and come of age. In parts it reminded me of Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs‘ but with the Jewish family in South Africa and the apartheid themes of Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the ‘Beloved Country’ with a dash of JM Coetzee‘s stoic fatalism.

Frieda: My mother loves shul. She’s there twice a week. You have to take either a train or two buses to get there and everything costs money, but you couldn’t keep her away if you tried. Where we live in Germiston she may be the Jewish woman, but when she gets to Waverley, she is the Queen of the Waverley shul.

orangesOranges are Not the Only Fruit, is written from the perspective of Jeanette, a young gay girl growing up under the thumb of her religious, adoptive mother in an ultra-conservative English Pentacostal Community in a Northern industrial town. Jeanette has been indoctrinated into her evangelical beliefs, but as she grows older, she questions them. Then one day she falls in love with and has an affair with Melanie. There follows an attempt at exorcism, she returns to the fold, but later after another affair with a woman she runs away, discovering her independence and identity. Drifting into allegorical fairy tales, it has a dark humour (chiefly Jeanette’s at times terrifying mother) and provides a ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess (exorcism and fiery sermons) and obsession.

I knew that demons entered wherever there was a weak point. If I had a demon my weak point was Melanie but she was beautiful and good and had loved me.

an-angel-at-my-tableAn Angel at My Table is the title of three autobiographies that trace the life of New Zealand’s most famous literary hero, Janet Frame, from her birth in Dunedin to her impoverished childhood in the coastal town of Oamaru and later her great journey to live in London and the island of Ibiza, returning seven years later as a famous novelist. The first volume deals primarily with her family – her sacrificial mother, her early attempts at poetry, the musing of a bright, highly sensitive, creative mind and the death of her sister Myrtle, who had dreamed of a life in showbiz. The most famous part of her life – Frame’s lengthy stay in a mental institute where she was wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic and narrowly avoided a lobotomy. Part three follows her journey to the North island of New Zealand, where she meets the short story writer Frank Sargeson, who invites the intensely shy Frame to live at his guest house and encourages her talent and is the impetus for her seven-year overseas odyssey.  Perhaps no one has written as intimately about the inner workings of a fragile, doubting, creative mind as Janet Frame. Reading all three intricate autobiographies is an extraordinary adventure that requires a devoted reader, but the pay-off – sharing the monumental journey with Janet Frame – is well worth it.

(Back in London from Europe)…my own past continued to loom. How could I regain my confidence when I had never been able to tell ‘my side of the story. I knew it was time for me to find out ‘the truth [about my schizophrenia]’…In the meantime I found a job, a literary agent, and I bought an encyclopaedia of sex.