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Beautiful Things, Life

My nanna the mortal

October 30, 2014
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A while ago, Michael’s grandfather died. He was in his mid-90s and had been deteriorating for some time. Nothing specific, just age and frailty.

I called my nanna and told her of this.

It’s sad, I said, but he had a good life.

She was perplexed. Why did he die? she said. What did he die ofWhat did he die of?

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Beautiful Things

Some things that are good

August 13, 2014
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I don’t know about you, but I needed to write down some things I actually like for a minute, so I didn’t plummet into a kind of oblivion for which I’m not yet ready. So here are five things I like today.

1. We Were Liars.

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This is the book I’m currently reading at school pickup time. Not to be confused with the book I’m reading at bedtime, which is A Man Called Ove. It is speedy and in all ways YA clever romance in the spirit of John Green, but that is just fine. It reminds me of times when I pushed my heart all the way into a teenage boy and knew, unequivocally, that it would definitely and absolutely stay right there. And the other times when I retrieved my heart and it was missing the bit at the top reserved for warm breath on my ear.

2. Avocado and feta mash.

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At the boulangerie, which is a fancy word I use because I went to France once and read books in a claw-foot bath, they sell two kinds of baguette. You can buy a campagnard baguette, which is one made of bread, or a rustic baguette, which is also one made of bread but is $1.00 less than the other type of bread.

Choosing a good avocado is very important, and I do this by selecting the one that most resembles touching the end of my nose. Helpfully, this is also a good way to determine when you are not ovulating (when you are ovulating, your cervix will feel soft, like your bottom lip). You can also pick off the dried stem end and look for green underneath. Buy some feta from the fromagerie, which is another word you learn at private school, and then mash the two things together with a fork, paying careful attention to the smugness of your face.

Spread all up and down the baguette and top with a little lemon juice and some cracked pepper.

3. The David Attenborough DVDs in the Herald Sun.

Obviously the Herald Sun itself is terrible in all ways. But the kids and I sit down every evening now and watch the day’s DVD. We’ve learned about leopard seals and fungus that lives inside ants and the cartoon face of a horny bird of paradise. We push ourselves together on a couch designed for two and wrap one pink blanket all the way around. Our knees get cold, but our brains get full.

4. True Detective.

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We watched Parks and Recreation three times (fast forwarding the Ann/Tom thing, spoiler alert). Which was great, but it did mean that we missed watching True Detective at the same time as everyone else. Now, though! Now we are watching two episodes a night, which means we will be finished by the weekend. The writing is amazing. And I mean, everyone said that it was, but the words that come out of Matthew McConaughey are spellbinding.

5. Excellent people.

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It will come as no surprise to you that there are people on the internet with big hearts and big brains, and that yesterday when we were all blanketed with sadness, they spoke thoughtfully and wrote insightfully.

And what can you even say about it, about the way the world crushes some of us? Stuff like this:

Beautiful Things, Mentals

Musings on remarkable women

June 26, 2014
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I had the great pleasure last night of seeing Tara Moss speak at an event Georgia’s school had put on. And I’m having a lot of feelings now, so I hope you like sentences that mean nothing and go on forever.

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I’ve seen Ms Moss on the telly, of course, and thought her astute and articulate and accomplished. In the flesh, though, she is beyond remarkable. It was in the things she said, yes, and they were compelling and fascinating, but it was also in the way she revelled in the achievements of others. A demonstrable, genuine interest in and concern for change, social good and the advancement of women.

What I was most struck by was her ability to incorporate the things that she finds personally rewarding (like writing, which she called “its own reward”, as it is) with those global issues that require more compelling action, more diverse involvement, more self. On the one hand, she gives voice to violent crime issues in her books, but she backs it the hell up with her UNICEF work. She has big feelings and small feelings and local feelings and wider feelings and they culminate in this incredible, truthful, driven woman.

Her book made me feel the things I wrote here. Big things, things about identity and purpose. But ultimately, they are still selfish things. They are things about the way I see myself, and the way I deal with the issues I have, my issues, just my own minute issues that mean I sometimes live in a blanket and sometimes cry at the traffic lights and sometimes shout at my reflection. My issues. Mine.

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot of work with Family Life, as part of their SHINE project. It is really something, SHINE. I’ve been spending my time writing the most harrowing sentences, sentences that keep me up at night like Everyone feels sad sometimes and Anxiety is just your body responding to something your brain says. The thought of these children with their big, fluttering hearts tears me to shreds. In each word I see my own children, lying in their beds and trying to comprehend the whole universe all at once.

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(This is a SHINE octopus)

As luck would have it, Family Life’s CEO, Jo Cavanagh OAM, was also being recognised at last night’s event. Jo is the reason I work for Family Life. When I first met with them, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew they did work in my local community, and I had seen their op-shops down the road. What I didn’t realise was that they’re lead by this woman who is 5% human and 95% ideas for social good. Jo sees opportunity for change in everything, and I could spend entire days just listening to the cadence of her voice as she speaks from her heart.

So, I’ve been trying to understand what I can take away from these two (different, but similar, and utterly wonderful) women. I have always been open about my mental health issues, with everyone. In the beginning, I didn’t have words for them. My mum used to tell me I was at a loose end. She didn’t have the words for them either. We were just two people, feeling different things and kind of looking out in bewilderment and wondering how much longer we had to endure them. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but for lack of knowledge.

But I have some words, now. I am thirty-one years old and I have words to describe the way the brain feels. Not as a clinician, but as a person. And I think that, slowly, so slowly, slowly like a big anxious slug, I am learning of ways to put all of these things together, for the good of the brains that come after mine. That maybe the intersection of my personal challenges and the ones with wider significance is not nothing, and to feel is not for naught. If you’ll just bear with me, cheers.

Beautiful Things

At the seaside

May 9, 2014
shells

I like to write about the places around me. Probably this is partly because I don’t go to many places, and because my imagination about other places is limited, but also because I like to write about the entirety of a place. Its mood, its want, the way it moves in different seasonal light, the types of footprints that are left on it.

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At the moment I’m writing a story that’s set in Sandringham, which is a bayside suburb of Melbourne. There’s nothing really notable about it, or of bayside Melbourne suburbs generally, but the man in my story has lived there his whole life, watching.

Most mornings, I go down to the beach and see how Sandringham is wearing itself. I take some photos, I breathe some air, I write some notes.

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The past couple of weeks in Melbourne have been very cold. People walk out of their front doors, catch a moment of icy wind on their faces, and take the car instead. By the end of the week, the bay is coated in a slick of grime. All of those extra cars, with their extra pollution.

I wonder what the birds think of it. Whether they get up in the morning and look out and go, well, can’t see Corio today, back to bed. They talk a lot, these birds. They’re always in groups, having their conversations, and they move around a lot while they do it.

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They mostly seem unfazed.

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It’s against the law to remove shells from this part of the beach. The shellfish are protected species, and that’s probably why there are so many birds. Maybe they’re not fazed by the pollution because the very still water is their open bar.

Beautiful Things, Book, Writing

Book news and other feelings

May 3, 2014
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You know as well as I do that this post will start with “When I was a little girl.”

When I was a little girl, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I am so very lucky to have parents who spent the first eighteen years of my life insisting that I could be anything I wanted. “You can be a supreme court judge! You can be a bus driver! You can be a metaphysicist!” They never told me I could be a digital strategist, but I’m sure if such a thing had existed then, they would have.

The fact is, I can only ever remember wanting to be one thing. The specifics changed as I got older, but I have been fundamentally and perhaps unhealthily attached to one distinct goal since 1985, when I developed independent thought.

I wanted to be a writer.

I’ve written before about the process of deciding what kind of writer to be. And you know, writing for magazines and newspapers and the inside of juice lids and websites about nappies is excellent. Every time I reached a milestone as a freelance writer, I felt closer to my goal. I felt my ten-year-old self tugging at my shirt and speaking close to my ear, “We’re going to be a writer! Well, you are. I am stuck here in 1992 and frankly the fashion is miserable.”

The first time I wrote more than 5000 words in a row was NaNoWriMo 2011. It was a genuinely appalling story about a woman who was in love with her best friend, and his wife got cancer, then the best friend got pregnant, and they gave the baby to the dying wife. It was like if they fired all the writers on Home & Away and just let infants bang their fists on keyboards. But I finished it, and that was the first time I knew I could.

I started writing LATKES WITH SYLVIA for NaNoWriMo 2012. I wrote about 18,000 words about a woman who was being haunted by her dead mother-in-law while gestating a baby. It wasn’t awful. It was much, much less awful than the previous year.

He was right, though, it wasn’t as good as hers. Four of us sat around Francesca’s dinner table, eating tasteless mince and watery bechamel from Francesca’s plates, drinking stale red wine from Francesca’s glasses. She sat in the chair in the corner and watched as her brothers and son reminisced: nothing could compare to her panettone, Christmas would never be the same, she was literally a saint from heaven. I grew embarrassed for her, but each time I looked over she just sat there, hands folded in her lap, eyes fixated on Dave. Dave, whose hair was plastered against his drunken forehead in liquorice ribbons; whose swollen eyes hardly blinked, staring out at his empty world like black moons.

‘We should go home soon,’ I said. My hips ached from the hours of wooden stools and hard pews and funeral cars.

‘My mother died,’ he said.

‘I know she did.’ I reached for his hand. ‘But we gotta go home sometime.’

‘We are home,’ he said, and Francesca nodded.

Then I put it in the bin, because Francesca was a drag and I wanted the main character to shut the hell up. But I had written this Dave character, and he came with me to the next iteration. I spent eleven months writing a new story about a woman called Meg who had spent her life thinking her father had died, only to uncover a family secret tied up in her own grief. I worked on that story with my very brilliant Writer’s Victoria mentor. It also wasn’t terrible. I think it was probably some of the best writing I’ve done. But I didn’t know what the story was and I couldn’t find a place to hang up my coat while I was in it, so after 60,000 words I put it in the bin.

My mother wore a pink ribbon the day she took us on a picnic. We all went: dad, Jim, Charlie and me, and Sarah in her pusher. We walked along the Yarra where it thinned and twisted to the north, and when we were halfway to town we threw a blanket on the ground and took out our sandwiches.

Under the branches of the silver gums we could have been a real family. Charlie kicked a footy and the dappled light moved in and around my parents’ linked hands. My mother swayed in time with the breeze but no one talked about the redness of her eyes. It might have been the first time we’d all been together without any screaming. It might have been the only time.

Sarah could walk by then. Maybe she was eighteen months old. Tight blonde ringlets and a face like the renaissance and legs that were rounder than they were long. She loved to be by the river. A pigeon: duck! A magpie: duck! The kind of self-assuredness reserved for the very young and the very rich.

Maybe I did see it. A ripple. When the police came to ask their questions, maybe I lied when I told them I didn’t know.

But I couldn’t have. Her shoes are right here in the hall.

But I kept the house from that story, and the man who lived next door, and I smushed Francesca from the first story into Nina from the second story and came out with Sylvia.

And so I started on this version of the story for NaNoWriMo 2013. I took a couple of thousand words from my story about Meg, changed her name to Heather, and wrote. I wrote and wrote and I thought about the things that had been wrong with the old stories, and wrote different things. I wrote and wrote and dripped in the essence of a man I’d seen at the supermarket and the tree outside the library and I sat at that one desk for the whole month and wrote.

“Finishing the draft” had been my goal for 2013, and I did so at just after 10pm on December 31st, at which point I ate pizza.

I was very fortunate after that. Fortunate to have good friends who were willing and able to help with the next part. Fortunate to have interest from people who were able to make decisions about stuff. Extremely fortunate to somehow trick Sophie Hamley from Cameron Creswell into representing me, and then again when Alex Craig at Picador liked it too. When I got the call that started with, “How are you feeling?” and ended with, “PLEASE CALL ME BACK TOMORROW IN CASE THIS IS IMAGINARY.” I sat on the couch and I cried and cried.

And my ten-year-old self was like, “Yeah! Not long now!” and I went to the bookshop and took a photo of the gap where my book will slot in.

Latkes With Sylvia (title TBC) will be published by Picador sometime in autumn 2015, and my next book (which is about an old man who loses his wife in a shell) will be published in 2016, universe willing.

Beautiful Things

Reality and science!

April 21, 2014
Michael and styrene eggs

A couple of months ago, over breakfast, Lily had a revelation. Eyes shining, she threw down her fork, pushed away her plate of scrambled eggs and exclaimed, “I ONLY BELIEVE IN REALITY AND SCIENCE!”

I must admit to feeling a little ridiculous for it. Nights of sneaking to replace a tooth with a dollar, wrapping presents “from Santa” in stripes instead of dots, and my children laughing about it behind my back but happily accepting their additional wares.

Easter was our time for revenge.

“So, you know how you guys don’t believe in Santa anymore?” I said.

“Yeah! Reality and science!” they said.

“You know that means the Easter Bunny won’t be coming, since you don’t believe in him either.”

They were clearly conflicted. On the one hand, their faces said, “We are nine and ten years old, and we have the internet. We have been inside the black hole. And sometimes we say swear words when you’re not around.” But on the other, inhuman amounts of chocolate. Their little hands twitched.

We will make you an Easter egg hunt,” said Lily. “And you can just buy us some eggs and put them in our bedrooms or whatever.”

Michael and styrene eggs

Michael and styrene eggs

A parenting boon.

Together they concocted a series of complex clues, written on card in silver pen, tied off with ribbon. Each clue was pinned down with a polystyrene egg, hand-painted and skewered with bamboo. And we were under strict instructions to watch for dog poo.

“Rules!” Lily loves rules. “Rules! If you see an egg but you haven’t found the clue for that egg, you can’t take it!” The grass was littered with coloured foil. “And the main rule, of course: have fun!” Obviously the main rule was Get the most eggs and then eat them in front of the loser, but Lily is of that newer generation.

The Vicar spies an egg

The Vicar spies an egg

It was completely brilliant. They put more effort into their Easter egg hunt than I have into ten years of parenting. I took out the major prize, given as I am to extreme acts of violence in the name of chocolate, and we spent the day lolling about in the most enormous pile of cacao goodness, watching stand-up comedy and undoing our top buttons.

Christmas is looking pretty good from here.

Sad woofers can't have chocolate

Sad woofers can’t have chocolate

Beautiful Things, Life

Hey tell me what’s going on!

March 2, 2014
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A recap post is the best I can muster just now. I have a cold the size of a whale and it’s making it difficult to even eat chocolate, so you know, typing is next to impossible.

We had parent-teacher interviews at the girls’ new school. Both of their teachers are wonderful, which I knew anyway because I’m “helping” in their food tech classes once a fortnight. I’m not sure how helpful I am, given my tendency to stand around and also sit around, but it is good fun and has been a great insight into how the girls are interacting with the other kids – quite well, as it happens. We’ve had a couple of playdates with the other parents, and everyone is very nice.

I planted a pair of camellias in pots outside my study window.

My agent pitched my book last week, and now it’s in front of editors. Ones I really admire from publishing houses I covet. People who make decisions about whether books should be published. It makes my vision a little cloudy.

I made some whipped potato, but I put too much butter in it and it turned into a kind of garlic soup, which was the happiest mistake of last week.

I am doing something top secret with an extraordinary artist, and it makes my heart flit around like a bird.

On Tuesday I curled up on the couch with my cold, and we watched About Time. The combination of sneezing and violent weeping gave me a sinus infection. It’s a jolly good movie, though.

Here’s an article I wrote recently.

I’ve also written 5000 words of the next book. It’s about a man who loses his wife in a shell. It seemed like a crazy idea at first, but now it makes perfect sense. It is reasonably likely that this is directly related to the number of days this cold has hung around.

This week I’m starting on a project for SHINE.

Our new cat is hilarious. He chirrups like an angry little alien, and when he’s hungry he stands on his hind legs and pats me until I pay attention to him. And his face! He’s almost certainly cross-bred with some kind of adorable bear.

That’s all for now. Bye x

Beautiful Things, Love

Little Lily

February 19, 2014
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After watching the Digital Writers’ Festival session about things we’ve memorialised online, I went back and had a look through some old blog posts, starting in 2000 when I was an idiot with the world’s most terrible boyfriend.

But then I found this, from March 2005, when I was 22.


Little Lily,

I was just thinking today, as I am wont to do (and you’ll discover this later on, I imagine), because I got a shove in my hip and instead of being irritated by the discomfort, I thought about what was actually doing the shoving, and I thought of a teeny tiny wrinkle-soaked hand and the way you’d probably scratched me with those soft baby fingernails (and how they’ll probably smell like milk and memories).

I wanted to tell you that I know I haven’t been a very good pregnant woman this time. With our rough beginnings and all the crazy bleeding, I didn’t really let myself believe we’d ever make it more than a few weeks. Then you were making me too sick to really allow any thoughts other than “MAKE IT STOP, I HATE BEING PREGNANT” and I have to tell you, I really did feel like that at the time. But it was easy to forget how scared I’d been weeks before that, when I assumed we’d never meet. Then afterwards, when I could finally keep a meal down, you split my pelvis in two and I could barely stand. It’s no secret that I wasn’t thrilled with you then, young lady. Instead of being able to marvel at the wonder and miracle of carrying a child, I found it hard to see beyond being bitter that your dad couldn’t be pregnant with you instead of me, and how it was so unfair that I had to hurt so badly.

But just now when I was sitting here, thinking about your little hands, that I realised none of this really matters much to me. I mean hey, you helped me lose ten kilos! Your big sister is asleep in her (and soon, your) cot with her enormous bottom sticking in the air and as I looked at her and my heart filled up with love for her, I wondered if you’d know that I didn’t like you much at times and if that would make you wonder if I loved you less. And I just wanted to tell you that it doesn’t mean that. I know it doesn’t mean that because from the first time I was bleeding, I was out shopping with Georgia and some other girls and I went to the bathroom and the brightest, reddest blood was on the toilet paper. It didn’t matter that I was in a shopping centre with crowds of people, I tried as hard as I could to hold your basically non-existent form in my hand and let you know that even though I was scared, and I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, I didn’t want you to leave me, bloody tissues in hand, in the bathroom.

Even though I was unsure, I knew I wanted you to join in under the doona on a rainy Sunday night, one day, and watch network premiere movies with your beautiful daddy and your very special sister.

And later, when I was hugging the toilet with one hand and Georgia with the other hand because my vomiting terrified her, although I was crying and she was crying and no one was around to hold my hair back, there was a desperate little voice in my head reminding me that this was good, this meant you were strong. That it wasn’t about the minutes I felt sick, or the fact that I couldn’t drink milk in the morning, but that you were hanging in there, you’d felt me thinking of you at night because I couldn’t bring myself to think that it was going to be okay during the day, and you’d heard me telling you about all the people who were waiting to hold you and love you (and especially that there was a piece of me that already did love you, but I was just scared).

And now, in this 38th week of pregnancy, with the sorest of backs and the most rundown feeling just encapsulating me, I feel compelled to tell you all of this, because I’ve only just realised that you’re nearly here, and that I’ve gone whole weeks without making sure you realise that I love you right up to the moon and back, and that if I were my mum, I’d be pretty annoyed by that. But I would go through another nine months of all the same rubbish if I had to, to be able to hold you and tell you all of this to your sweet face.

Soon. You don’t have to hold out on us any longer, tiny girl, I just had to let you know while I was still the only one who knew you well enough to know these things. But I didn’t know how until today.

Love from your silly mum.

Beautiful Things, Book Reviews, Books

5 books I read in 2013

December 5, 2013
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by
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In their words:

I read quite a few books in 2013. Not as many as I had hoped, but enough to feel like I’d given the year a pretty good read. Here’s a list as diverse as I could muster.

16122081Burial Rites (336 pages)
Hannah Kent

Obviously it is not just the book, but also Kent’s journey through publication that makes this tale extraordinary. She has chosen a brilliant setting that teems with landscape and characters that are crying out to grace the page, and the degree of research that has gone into it is apparent at every stage. It uses a few literary devices of which I’m not a great fan (such as large chunks of backstory posing as dialogue), but the language is vivid and the imagery is stunning.

This mostly-true story is so compelling that I sped through the last quarter of the book. I wanted to know what happened so badly that I would have read the testament of a child as long as I got closure. Fortunately Kent is nothing short of a master storyteller, and the final chapters were exactly as grand–and also humble–as they needed to be, to do justice to both the book and to the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir.

Does it “deserve” its mammoth advance, best seller status and incredible visibility? The green-eyed monster in me wants to say no, but it really is a work of exceptional quality.


15790884Questions of Travel (480 pages)
Michelle de Kretser

I’m not sure I saw a single award shortlist this year that didn’t include Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel. It’s that kind of book–an epic, a rollicking tale of two worlds colliding, with cultural texture and enough words that you may be forgiven (no, not that other 2013 book) for getting to the end of the story with no recollection of the beginning. It’s told from a dual POV, which is not easy to do well, and for the most part it may as well be two separate books. The characters are fine, and though their stories are not terribly interesting they are well expressed, but their consolidation really falls short. I found the ‘travel’ theme to be unrealised, and with that being the main tie between the two narrators, their relationship with each other is mostly unclear.

The character of Ravi is far more interesting than Laura, and in some ways I feel that this would have been a better book if it had been his alone. On the whole, the book suffers for its enormous supporting cast, some of which returns at the eleventh hour in, dare I say it, a little deus ex machina. I’ve read quite a few interviews with the author, and she often speaks to the themes of the book and the heartbreak that she hopes readers will experience. Although the themes were present, I didn’t feel them. They got lost in the overly ambitious language, where the choice of words drowned their meaning (this is the only book I’ve read wherein the word ‘labyrinthine’ appears more than once). The complexity of human nature, futility, grief, struggle, displacement … they are all there, but they’re hiding behind an unnecessarily complex narrative that is bloated and a little forgettable.


13491444Floundering (224 pages)
Romy Ash

Had I written this book–had I constructed the lyricism of it, the poetry of it, the subtlety of it–I would have been very, very pleased with myself. There is not a single extraneous word. Not one. Ash doesn’t tell the story of these boys as much as she just leaves it somewhere you might find it, fully formed, as though it was just breathed onto the page and not written at all. Well deserving of all of its accolades, Floundering is a kind of snippet of a life, starting and ending exactly where it is supposed to. It is told in suggestion, allegory, hints, shadows.

The narrative is so moving and the writing so perfect that I bought the book twice, in case I needed a swig of it when I was in my car.


17565927The Embassy of Cambodia (approx. 1 page)

Think about someone you really love: your partner, your child, your parent. Now double it. That is how much I love Zadie Smith. She has better control over the English language than any other living person, as far as I’m concerned. But let’s not beat around the bush; this is not a book. This is, at best, an essay. Not even a long essay. It is masterfully written, with each sentence plucked as carefully from Smith’s brain as you would hope (and expect), but it is not a book, and the book format (you can buy it in a pocket-sized hardcover edition for $14.95) promises something that it isn’t, and this is to its detriment. Not because it isn’t lovely, because it is, in every way, but because it doesn’t offer the resolution of a book, or the narrative arc of a book, or the character development of a book. And it doesn’t need to, because it’s a short story (it originally appeared as one in The New Yorker), but it is choosing to pose as a book, and that carries a level of expectation that it does not meet.

The character of Fatou is sympathetic and interesting. The imagery is strong. The story is engaging and cleverly executed. I will always support wonderful writing and am happy to have bought it, but don’t think that you’ll settle in for a long evening with it. Twenty minutes and you’re done.


17678115Welcome to Your New Life  (226 pages)
Anna Goldsworthy

In reading this book, the thing that occurred to me had nothing to do with the story, or parenthood, or depression. It was that the author is a pianist. Not because she talks about being a pianist (she does, though not at great length) or because she plays the piano in it, or because she has also written a book called Piano Lessons, but because the music is in the words. This book has the precise lyricism of classical piano. If one could take Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and turn it into a piece of narrative, it would be Welcome to Your New Life. The words are so deliberately placed, so rhythmic, even harmonic, that they betray the meaning of the story.

While Goldsworthy struggles to come to terms with new motherhood, and whether she is cut out for her new life (the story is about her new life, not the baby’s), the writing is so pristine, sliced so fine, that the mood seems displaced. Goldsworthy’s parents are (were?) both doctors, and that comes through in this as well–the exactness of it makes for a beautifully told story, but without accessing the very deep parts of the heart, where the new life really begins. I found that distracting, though I liked the book overall.