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‘It’s not for us to provide the cement for unworkable relationships, Marjorie,’ cautioned Richard Adler, the director of the Wellbeck Centre where she worked, once casually with smiles and apologetic nods, and once more formally when a brief note had been scribbled to her on one of the Centre’s pistachio-green correspondence cards. Marjorie had shrugged all this off, of course. Beside, she liked cement – its dark, powdery ooze, its scent. And you had to remember, all marriages were bizarre places, rife with signs and codes and unimaginable sharp practice where the more insane aspects human nature flourished, were endured, tolerated, overlooked, sought out and sometimes even admired. You did not need to be a genius to see that people were more unhinged in their behaviour with the very person to whom they were closest. It was the most natural thing in the world.

Very excited about this evening. Once I post this I am running out the door to attend this evening’s Zombies vs. Unicorns event at Kinkuniya Sydney. Margo Lanagan and Garth Nix are representing Team Unicorn, so my loyalties are assured.

Today’s book was a present from Stephanie. She literally judged the book by its cover. Strangely her method has proved the old maxim somewhat inaccurate – so far her choices have proven quite good.

Marjorie is a volunteer marriage counsellor who enjoys her role. She sees it as defending the institution of marriage itself. The couples who come to her find a patient listener and advisor, but the subject of separation is simply not tolerated. Marjorie’s devotion to marriage is spurred on by the early death of her own husband Hugh. Her seventeen year old daughter May has recently left home and the downstairs lodger Frank is nursing a curious infatuation with her, which only serves to increase her anxiety. Adding to her confusion a popular soap star happens to be her doppelganger, causing people to stop her in the street and ask her for her autograph.

As it happens, her clients are increasingly coming to resent her steadfast belief in the sanctity of marriage, cruelly speculating as to the nature of her own ‘missing’, husband. Marjorie’s calm increasingly unravels with every obstacle, forcing her to question everything she has come to believe in.

What I really enjoyed about the book was the richness of the language. It reads in a naturally descriptive manner, the small details of people’s clothing, or appearance lovingly polished. Marjorie’s mental digressions are also winningly captured. The overall tone of the novel is thoughtful and questioning, a honest reflection on the personal insecurities that people must endure.

The endless cavalcade of clients with their casual cruelty and barbed comments are also well described. The Braintrees in particular are trapped in an endless loop of passive aggression and finely tuned marital discord (is that a mixed metaphor?….meh, train’s in twenty minutes).

Susie Boyt‘s writing is full of winning observations, studied humour and captures the incessant fretting of an emotionally strained character.

Warm, lively in its perspective on personal reflections and rich. Sweetly enjoyable.

“Everybody has a part to play,” her mother said. “Bart Seston raises cattle, the butcher slaughters them so we can have food. A midwife brings people into the world, an undertaker buries them when they die. Life is good sometimes, hard sometimes, bad sometimes, and good again.”

“I don’t always understand your part,” Fiona said.

“I am the voice that says ‘I know’ when someone tells me “This is too hard for me to hold on to by myself.” I am the soul who reminds other souls that they are not alone. I cannot bring them solutions, I cannot make their troubles disappear, I can only say that I hear them and I understand. Sometimes that’s enough.”

“Sometimes it’s not,” Fiona said.

Ten years ago I discovered historian Frances Yates through her fascinating account of the life of Giordano Bruno. What interested me the most was her defining the magical systems of Bruno, which he proposed should become a function of the Catholic Church, as a form of early psychology. In effect mysticism was treated of as a means of explaining the secrets of the unconscious mind – centuries before Freud proposed the notion of such a mental facility. I would ally Bruno to more contemporary theorists, such as Julian Jaynes‘ notion of the bicameral mind‘s evolution causing changes in how humans came to perceive reality.

I enjoy fantasy fiction that is not afraid to endorse ‘mythic consciousness’, as a legitimate way of approaching a story. The likes of Yates and Jaynes are rare in that they are academics happy to not condescend to pagan belief systems and mysticism. Of course for writers of the fantasy genre this is their bread and butter – but they also need to beware of that modern chauvenism towards early attempts to explain the world.

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret opens in the traditional manner of a fairy tale. A midnight dash on horseback to an isolated village. An infant child stolen away from the court of a cruel king, hidden in a safe home. What follows feels  traditional and surprisingly unique.

Fiona and Reed are raised as siblings by Damiana, the safe-keeper of the village of Tambleham. Only she and her sister Angeline are aware of the true identity of the child delivered to them by the rider from the capital Wodenderry, on the same night Damiana gave birth to her own child. As both women as safe-keepers the secret is safe with them, for that is their purpose, to carry the secrets of people that cannot be bourne alone. Of course some secrets are too difficult to hide. Reed is widely believed by the villagers in Tambleham to be the illegitimate heir to the throne, a claim that Damiana neither confirms or denies.

Fiona believes that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a safe-keeper herself. However, Thomas a truth-teller predicts that she her life will take her in a different direction. As safe-keepers cannot divulge a secret given  in confidence, truth-teller’s are incapable lying. Furious Fiona remains determined to prove Thomas wrong, but some secrets once revealed have a habit of changing everything.

What I enjoyed most about this book is how subtle the use of magic by author Sharon Shinn is. Safe-keepers and truth-tellers live according to certain mystical precepts and yet their roles in the community are akin to a confessor, or therapist. Shinn also introduces the idea of a dream-maker, a person who endures great suffering so that others can get their greatest wish, similar to the biblical notion of the scapegoat.

The domestic setting of the story I found remiscent of my favourite fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. I enjoy these kinds of novels, because fantasy I believe is simply an approach to story that embraces unreality. The overabundance of sword and sorcery tropes in fantasy fiction is quite limiting. One issue I have with this book is that the critical notices featured on the blurb mention Robin McKinley twice, an author I am not familiar with. Of course I am speaking to my own ignorance here, but I do think this book could have a wider appeal. While the story opens much like a fairy tale, the plot takes in the uglier side of country living, the miseries safe-keepers have to carry alone such as child abuse, or forced incest. Maybe Shinn does not need the controversy attracted by Tender Morsels, but this is a book with a lot to offer.

Gently told with rich storytelling.

I swallowed a pill and recklessly lit a cigarette and concentrated on not throwing up. I don’t know how much it was actually motion sickness. A lot of it was fear. There is something very frightening about knowing that there is nothing between you and instant, ugly death except a thin skin of metal made by some peculiar strangers half a million years ago.

This is funny. I enjoyed reading Joan Didion’s book from yesterday, with its descriptions of immigrants and pioneers crossing the wilds of America and then I pick up this book – which once again describes a host of people setting out for the unknown. Except in this instance, Frederick Pohl is describing people catapulting themselves out into the vastness of space itself.

Robinette Broadhead hates his name. He has tried to go by Bob, or Rob, or Robbie, but none of these attempts at settling himself with a new title work. It’s an essential conflict within himself that he has lived with his entire life, one plagued by indecision and guilt. His mother was a miner and died when he was quite young. He blames himself for this and when he wins a lottery that would ensure he never would have to risk the same fate, he spends his earnings on a ticket to Gateway, a mysterious structure in orbit around Venus.

Gateway was built by an alien race known as the Heechee, long gone already. The humans who first discovered it found a docking bay of sorts, filled with a collection of vessels designed for interstellar flight. Those brave enough to climb into these spaceships and operate the controls were catapulted across the galaxy to strange new stars. Sometimes they would return with more evidence of the Heechee civilization and be rewarded generously by the corporation that controls Gateway. Many never return, or their ships do, with the crew long dead.

In cashing in his chips to avail of this opportunity Robinette has elected to pursue an even more dangerous career than the one that claimed his mother’s life. It did work out for him though. He made a huge score, one that has bankrolled a life of leisure and easy living. So why does he attend therapy sessions with a robot every week? What happened during his last trip out from Gateway that has caused him so much guilt? How could someone as interminably indecisive as him have become a winner?

Pohl alternates between Robinette’s therapy sessions with Sigfrid, who does occasionally utilise a holographic image of Sigmund Freud, and his life between journeys out into space on Gateway. Deeply in denial about what has occurred, this analysand makes life very hard for his robot analyst, cursing and abusing poor Sigfrid despite the fact that no one is forcing him to attend these sessions. No one has even ordered him to strap himself down each time. While Sigfrid finds it difficult to get Robinette to answer a simple question about last night’s dream, the reader is made privy to his experiences in training, his growing love affair with a veteran space traveller and his own sexual ambiguity.

This future society of Pohl’s devising is also very convincingly imagined. For one the human race is struggling due to a serious lack of resources. The discovery of Heechee artefacts was a remarkable stroke of luck. Much of the life of Gateway explorers relies upon luck. They do not understand the Heechee vessels they travel in, or even after almost two decades of exploration know anymore about that alien civilization than they did when they first discovered the station. Dumb luck is a recurring phrase within the book and these space prospectors toss themselves into the void with little hope of returning unharmed by the perilous journey.

The novel’s themes are all beautifully illustrated by Robinette’s profound survivor’s guilt. I also admire how Pohl lets us get to know his protagonist and the people in his life, taking the time to develop their characters. As the book progresses the tension surrounding whatever event caused Robinette to enter therapy despite his boundless success continues to build.

This is masterfully written, character-driven science fiction.

I sat there, chest damp, exposed and chilled. The room was entombed in darkness: the hour of night when not so much as a squeaky brake disturbed the silence. But I had seen something in an instant, a single flash. A child lying next to me in the bed. Grinning, eyes narrowed in mischievous glee, chewing its fingers, wondering if it would be caught in a naughty, practical joke. I sighed. Of course – it had been my Friend.

“Are you there?” I whispered. “Are you there?”

For years I had an interest in therapy, the theories of Freud, Lacan and Jung. It’s no accident that one of my favourite writers is Slavoj Zizek, himself a Lacanian. The relationship between an analyst and a patient is an interesting one. Freud talked about the phenomenon of transference, how the analysand will often attempt to circumvent the process of therapy by attempting to become involved with them emotionally.

Today I find aspects of blogging culture, which of course I am a part of, interesting for how its plays with notions of inviting strangers into our personal lives. This blog, the circumstances of my application for residency in Australia and the lengths I am willing to go to while waiting by reviewing a book each day, is itself a function of this new culture. How honest are we to our blog readers though, to the people in our lives, to the care professionals who sit with us to discuss our issues? As a part of society we are so practiced in the art of playing roles that it is difficult to relinquish them, even when our honesty is essential.

Justin Evans’ book rests on the question of a child’s honesty. George Davies is still recovering from the loss of his father, who died mysteriously after a trip to Honduras. With academics for parents, George never really had a chance in the schoolyard. His vocabulary is overly developed, he can speak German and Latin and his conversation is more suited to a discussion of scholarly pursuits than the aggressive banter of the boys of his age. In short, he is desperately lonely and needs a friend. Then one night George spies a face starring at him, suspended in mid-air. Shortly after that he begins to hear voices calling his name and finally the spectre of a boy comes for him to show him visions of the afterlife.

George’s new friend tells him many things and hints to a conspiracy lying behind the death of his father. He alleges that a family friend, Tom Harris, is responsible for convincing Paul Davies to travel to Honduras. This was all part of a plot to steal away George’s mother and kill her husband. Slowly but surely the young boy becomes convinced and sets about trying to prove that his father was murdered.

Justin Evans begins this story with the adult George Davies entering therapy following the birth of his own child, years after the events described during his childhood in the early 80s. He feels a strange sense of revulsion at the thought of being close to his son, one that deeply alarms his wife. George’s therapist encourages him to write about what happened to him following the death of his father. She argues that the things he heard and saw where the hallucinations of a deeply disturbed eleven-year old. However, the exercise of writing allows George to revisit his feelings from that dark period of his life, including the suspicion that maybe he was not a troubled boy in need of medication. Perhaps he was possessed by a demonic doppelganger.

This is a gripping debut from Justin Evans. He gives equal attention to the development of the psychiatric perspective of the events, as well as the mystical interpretation. The question of whether George is indeed mad, possessed, or simply a compulsive liar remains ambiguous. The character of George’s sceptical mother is well-realized, a liberal feminist whose studies into critical theory are curtailed by the glass ceiling in the academic system. Her son’s resentment of her growing affection for another man is cleverly drawn out. I just felt the ending slightly predictable, but overall this is a very interesting novel.

Think William Blatty’s The Exorcist, with a stronger understanding of psychology.

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