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Saturday 20 June 2009

The Madonna Of The Almonds

by Marina Fiorato

The opening of this novel has a dreamlike, almost trancelike quality to it. The writing holds you suspended in a bubble and keeps you focussed on the events unfolding before you.

However, it is when Amaria Sant’Ambrogio bounces on to the page that the novel really takes off. Vividly drawn, she is a character so full of life that the narrative can barely contain her.

If you take these elements and add to them financial intrigue, war and a romp through the world of Leonardo da Vinci, you have a truly original novel.

One of the things that works really well in this story is the contrast between the two female lead characters. Amaria represents nature and simplicity, whereas her counterpart, the ‘limpid and moon-distant’ Simonetta di Saronno (the Madonna of the title) represents all that is cultured and sophisticated.

The very different love stories of Simonetta and Amaria run in parallel through the book only colliding as they rush towards the climax.

Many intriguing themes are used to good effect in moving the story along. The theme of people pretending, or appearing to be something they are not is explored throughout the novel. Religion forms another theme. The iconography of Christianity illustrates and illuminates many scenes and an unflinching view is offered of the horrors and evils of anti-semitism. The heartbreaking conclusion of this theme brought tears flooding to my eyes.

The scent of the almonds themselves pervades the text. The use of language and imagery is powerful as Simonetta is likened to the almond trees. She employs their sweetness to her own ends, and eventually she also finds a fitting use for the bitterness of almonds.

There is a certain inevitability about the ending which brings all the elements of the tale to a satisfying conclusion.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Sunday 14 June 2009

The Spare Room

by Helen Garner

The Spare Room begins with a quote from Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley: ‘It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.’ This quote quieted my spirit, as did the description of Helen preparing a room for her soon-to-arrive terminally ill friend Nicola, before throwing me into what is a very intimate examination of the burden imminent death can put on the living.

The Spare Room didn’t read like a work of fiction; it seemed a factual account of two friends tested beyond endurance. I’ve learned that the writer Helen Garner had nursed a terminally ill friend. Maybe that is why The Spare Room is not at all sentimental; rather it’s cruelly down to earth, a tide that surges between tenderness and brutal truth as for three harrowing weeks the women battle with each other.

When her bohemian friend Nicola arrives, weak and ill, Helen is launched into nursing care. She puts her life on hold and at first pretends to share Nicola's hopes for a miracle cure. Nicola has come to undergo a three-week program of quack treatments. On seeing the clinic, Helen’s description is telling: it ‘is painted a strange yellow, the color of controlled panic.’ She keeps her murderous anger to herself while seeing her friend naked in an ‘ozone sauna’ while charlatans chatter about the miracle of vitamin C injections which ‘sort of scoop the cancer cells out of your body.’ Nicola laughs at Helen's skepticism and explains that the devastation done to her body is ‘only the vitamin C savaging the tumors and driving them out.’

The Spare Room is powerful. The illness of Nicola, the anger of Helen – it is all over quickly, a few weeks gone by in a few reading hours. Helen shares insights on death: ‘It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love.’ She is so honest in the telling.

Carers are usually portrayed as saintly, but Helen doesn’t hide her irritation at having her life disturbed, often making interjections about trips she must take. Nicola’s refusal to face reality and the impact this has on those around her is told very honestly, not a saint in sight.

This novel will haunt me for years for the things that may be ahead – illnesses of loved ones, friendships tested, loneliness, frustration, anger. Maybe there will be a house with a spare room I will be setting up, or perhaps someone will be setting one up for me.

Reviewed by Denise Covey who blogs at L'Aussie's Writing Blog

Thursday 4 June 2009


by Elizabeth H Winthrop

I have to confess I nearly didn’t buy this book after a glance at the text showed it was told in the present tense – something, in my view, very few writers can carry off. Still, I bought the book anyway, and I’m glad I did.

The story, told simply and without exaggeration, is about Wilson Carter, his wife Ruth and their 11-year old, intelligent and imaginative daughter, Isabelle, who hasn’t spoken for 9 months. Doctors and psychiatrists haven’t helped, with the most recent pronouncing her a ‘lost cause’.

Wilson, haunted by memories of happier times, tries to come up with plans to bring those times back. Ruth, who has given up her job to look after Isabelle, feels she must have done something wrong as a parent. And Isabelle, though sorry for the grief she is causing, can no longer find a way through her self-imposed barrier.

As the title suggests, the story takes place over the month of December. The family is preparing for Christmas, trying to put a brave face on the situation while at the same time finding it more and more unbearable. Wilson and Ruth have conflicting ideas of how to help their daughter and what to say in front of her. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Ruth’s brother, a former soldier, is convinced he’s being spied on. On top of that, Isabelle’s beloved dog has cancer - something her parents try to keep from her, worried about her mental state.

For all the angst, this is a warm book, without slipping into sentiment. I found myself identifying with the characters’ fears and frustrations, with a sense of bewilderment that something like this should happen to a perfectly nice, ordinary family.

And it doesn’t suffer at all from being in the present tense.

Reviewed by Rebecca Holmes

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Book news - The Orange Prize

This year's Orange Prize for Fiction has been won by Marilynne Robinson for Home.

The New Writers award was won by Francesca Kay for An Equal Stillness