Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Cover of the book Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a woman wearing an apricot colored dress lying on her back on a green couch. Her head is hanging over one arm of the couch with her hands placed over her head. Cover is the same green as the couch.

Sorrow and Bliss is the story of a woman called Martha. As described on the back of the book, ‘It is sad and funny’ and so much more.

The story is narrated in the aftermath of Martha’s separation from her husband, as she reflects on her life, trying to better understand it and herself. For Martha has always known there is something wrong with her, she just doesn’t know what it is. Martha is a vivacious and intelligent character and her narration is laced with acerbic wit that makes the story so endearing and very funny.

But at the heart of the novel is the crushing mental illness that Martha has lived with since childhood. At age 17, she has a complete breakdown and spends the summer in her father’s study. Even when Martha is well, her fear and anticipation of a recurrence is never far from mind and, more importantly, she lives with information a doctor told her at one of the many interventions during her teenage years: that falling pregnant while on the medication would not be safe for a developing baby. Because of this, from a young age, Martha has convinced herself that she doesn’t want children, despite her adoration and desire to have them.

Over the years, Martha tries to manage her condition through varying diagnoses and prescriptions, but ultimately believes she is just bad at being a person. Her eventual full and correct diagnosis brings clarity, understanding and anger. The fallout from this revelation is utterly absorbing, heartbreaking and sad, as Martha finally navigates her way to uncovering who she really is and admitting what is important to her.

I loved how the story is told through a series of linked vignettes on Martha’s life, from childhood, through to her early 40s. Each of these vignettes typically give a short description of what happened, laced with witty asides, and is then finished with a final crucial line to hint at the wider tragedy of that particular anecdote.

The story is set in London and Oxford (with a short time spent in Paris), giving it a quirky Notting Hill vibe.

There are so many great characters in this novel. Martha has been fortunate to grow up surrounded by people who care, support and love her, including her family (both immediate and extended) and a much-loved work colleague. She has a strong bond with her sister Ingrid, so strong that others describe it as a ‘force-field’. Their father, an aspiring poet, is dependable, strong and kind. Their mother is largely absent, devoting her time to creating sculptures out of repurposed materials in the garden shed and prone to throwing huge parties at their Goldhawk Road flat. (I loved that Martha grew up on Goldhawk Road. It’s the same road I lived on when I lived in London. But ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ isn’t the story of 12 expats living together in a three bedroom flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Back to Martha.) Her Aunt Winsome hosts Christmas every year in her central London home. One year, Martha’s cousin brings his friend, Patrick, home to celebrate Christmas with the family, after Patrick’s own family neglect to book him a flight home from boarding school. This begins a tradition whereby Patrick joins them for Christmas every year, becoming a welcome addition to the extended family.

What is really liberating about this story is that Martha’s illness is never named, even once she receives a diagnosis. In her writing, Mason simply refers to it as ‘— —’. Despite this being somewhat of a frustration for the reader who is well and truly invested in Martha by the time of her diagnosis, by refusing to label her condition, the author removes the medical prognosis and any preconceived notions of a particular condition. After all, the name itself is not important. What is important is Martha’s ability to finally understand and know herself, and to see herself for who she really is after decades of that being compromised by false information and advice from doctors, by loved ones who have turned the other way, and by her own fear of what besets her.

So much of Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha trying to reimagine her past and the person that she is, and to redeem the hurt and loss at its centre. It is tender, sad, heartbreaking and funny throughout, thanks to the author’s sharp writing and intelligent wit. It is a revealing look at family, relationships and navigating life with serious mental health challenges. Finally, it’s about finding yourself and starting again from nothing, if you can find something else to want.

Published in 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers; 341 pages.

A Story to Devour Like A Delicious Bowl of Pho

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham

Image of the cover of the book The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features lots of incense smoke swirls in pink against a grey background.

The Coconut Children is the story of two teenagers, Sonny and Vince, growing up in Cabramatta, south-western Sydney in the late 90s. Both are first generation Australians from refugee Vietnamese families. Sonny is quiet and lives with her family, including her perpetually inebriated grandmother and her volatile mother. Vince became a bit of a legend around Cabramatta after he was hauled off to juvenile detention when he was 14.

Sonny and Vince are neighbours and as children, they were very close. Now that Vince is back from his two year stint in juvie, Sonny watches on with interest as he steps back into life in the ‘burbs.

‘Since he had been taken away, it seemed a mist had settled over Cabramatta and their suburb had gone to sleep. The world was only awake when Vince was there to see it.’

Sonny (page 4)

In The Coconut Children, I loved the way author Vivian Pham portrays life for migrant and refugee families who arrived in Sydney from the late 70s. Trying to establish a new life in neighbourhoods troubled with gangs, violence, drugs and socio-economic hardship. But this is just the backdrop to the story. The Coconut Children is a moving, funny and sharp observation on community, family, love and loyalty.

I also loved the nods to Vietnamese culture throughout the book – Sonny’s mother always in the kitchen, cooking; her father tending to their garden filled with Vietnamese herbs, fruits and vegetables; the untranslated Vietnamese language filtered throughout the book. Most of all, I loved the way in which the author nails the balance between emotion and humour throughout the story. For her to achieve this at just 19 years of age, as a debut novelist is extraordinary.

Like Sonny, author Vivian Pham is a first generation Australian from a refugee Vietnamese family. 

Her father fled Vietnam at age 17 and made the dangerous journey by boat when, after 10 days at sea, it had run out of gasoline and was drifting with barely any food on board. The boat finally hit a coral reef and all passengers were forced to flee to safety on a nearby deserted Indonesian island. During the journey, their small boat was raided by pirates several times, leaving dark physical and emotional scars on the men, women and children on board. They lived on coconuts and fish for three months before finally being rescued by Indonesian officials and being taken to a refugee camp where he spent the next 12 months before finally being granted entry to the United States. You can read more on Vivian Pham’s family story here.

The stories her father shared with his daughter from this time is largely what inspired her writing. As Pham notes about her father in the back of the book, “…she grew up writing stories because she knew there was one stuck inside of him.” So, whilst The Coconut Children isn’t biographical, it is very much inspired by both her own upbringing in Sefton, Western Sydney and her father’s stories as a refugee.

When Vivian was 16, she joined a novella writing program run by a not-for-profit creative writing centre for marginalized young people in Redfern. Instead of writing short, she handed in 90,000 words – the first draft of The Coconut Children. A senior editor at Penguin Random House was a volunteer on the program and was assigned to work with Vivian on her story. He read the first page and was stunned. Her draft soon found it’s way to a Sydney literary agent who quickly realized it’s potential and took the manuscript to auction. Every publishing house that saw it, bid for it and in 2018, when she was just 17 years of age, Vivian signed a contract with Penguin Random House.

Now a third-year Arts student, majoring in philosophy and minoring in creative writing, The Coconut Children is no fluke. Vivian Pham is intelligent, funny and keenly observant. You can read more about Vivian Pham’s writing journey thus far here.

The Coconut Children is warm, funny, tender, and wise. It’s about not just what it means to be an immigrant, but what it means to be the child of a refugee and the responsibility of carrying that legacy and those stories with you, even though they aren’t directly your own.

Vivian Pham has been described as a ‘voice of her generation’ (Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Feb 2020). If you do decide to read The Coconut Children, I hope, like me, you will devour it like a big, delicious bowl of Pho.

The Coconut Children scores 5 coconuts out of 5.

Brilliant First Nations Debut

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson

Image of the cover of the book Song of the Crocodile by author Nardi Simpson to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features the bare branches of a lone tree against a starry night sky. There is a black crow on one of the branches.

Song of the Crocodile is the debut novel by First Nations author, Nardi Simpson. It is set in the fictional ‘gateway’ town of Darnmoor, home to the Billymil family. The story is told through three generations of women from the Billymil family. Along with the rest of the Indigenous community of the town of Darnmoor, the Billymil’s live in the Campgrounds – makeshift camps that are located out of town, past the dump, with no running water or electricity.

Meanwhile, in town, the white settler families live comfortably in their homes, with their neatly manicured gardens and watered green lawns. The differences between the black Indigenous community in the Campgrounds and the white settlers in town are stark and uncompromising.

As the town of Darnmoor marches towards ‘progress’, the divide between the white settlers and the Indigenous community widens. Though the rigid status quo is mainly upheld through threats and soft power, rather than the overt violence of yesteryear. The inhabitants of the Campgrounds struggle to navigate a world that doesn’t want them. Some of the Indigenous community bravely try to affect change, others survive by keeping their heads down. There is deep segregation, discrimination, racism and violence inflicted on the Indigenous men, women and children.

The story culminates in a violent act that shakes the town to it’s core. Nardi Simpson heightens the suspense in this multi-layered story by intertwining the legend of the mighty crocodile into the final shocking events.

Reading the story of the three generations of Billymil women, I felt deep sadness and shame for the treatment of our First Nations people. But the shame and sadness that I felt sat alongside me as I read and never took over from the story itself.

Yes, Song of the Crocodile is an emotional read, but it is also wise, warm and gentle. It is an astonishing and brilliant read with great depth, a compelling storyline and beautifully written.

I would encourage everyone to read, not just Song of the Crocodile, but any book written by First Nations authors. It is so important that we search out and continue to read books about First Nations people, told in their own voice. When you do, you are rewarded with stories that are contemporary, wise, warm, brilliantly written and brimming with First Nations people’s culture, sense of community, spirituality and connection to the land.

Song of the Crocodile was read in Yugambeh Country, Gold Coast, Australia.

Other notable books by First Nations authors:

Swallow the Air and The Yield by Tara June Winch (Fiction)
Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (Fiction)
Talking to My Country by Stan Grant (Non-fiction)
Loving Country, A Guide to Sacred Australia by Bruce Pascoe (Non-fiction)
Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller (Young Adult Fiction)
Welcome to Country by Aunty Joy Murphy and Lisa Kennedy (Children’s Non-fiction)
Bindi by Kirli Saunders (Middle School Readers)

The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Cover of the book The Good Sister by author Sally Hepworth featuring a pink paper cut out of two sisters holding a bunch of flowers against a bright blue background. Image is to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page.

Australian author, Sally Hepworth, brings us her sixth book just in time for the summer holidays. ‘The Good Sister’ is the perfect holiday read with a captivating story, a cracking pace, lovable characters, humour, suspense, plenty of twists, drama and a satisfying ending.

The story revolves around twin sisters, Rose and Fern, and alternates between each of their perspectives and between their childhood and the present.

Fern is portrayed so wonderfully, I loved her right from the start. She is a librarian and loves her job at the local library. She avoids loud noises, bright lights, crowds and anyone looking for help with the photocopier. Fern’s interactions with library visitors and staff are delightful and bring much warmth and humour to the story. She has dinner three nights a week with her twin sister, Rose.

Rose has always looked out for Fern and protected her. The sisters are very close, bound together as twins and by shared secrets from their childhood. Early in the book, the reader learns that there was a tragic event that occurred when the girls were 12. As a result, Fern has never been able to fully trust herself, often questioning her memory and doubting her capabilities. Fern relies on Rose, just as she does her strict daily routine.

Rose is married, however her husband has recently left her and she remains desperate to have a baby. Fern sees this as an opportunity to repay Rose for all that she has done for her, however unforeseen events soon threaten to disrupt Fern’s carefully structured life and reveal deep secrets from their past.

‘The Good Sister‘ is a compelling story of family, love and the ties that bind us. It is part mystery, part romance, part thriller and part domestic drama. There are a lot of elements to this story, but the author weaves them all together so seamlessly and by doing so, creates a story that is highly engaging and addictive. This was my first Sally Hepworth novel. I enjoyed it so much, it definitely won’t be my last.

Published 2020 by Pan Macmillan Australia; 328 pages.

An Australian Epic by the Author of The Book Thief

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Cover of the book Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak featuring the silhouette of a boy sitting on a roof and behind him is an orange sky. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

Bridge of Clay is Zusak’s next novel following the huge success of his international best-seller The Book Thief, and it couldn’t be more different. It is an Australian epic of family, love and loss – and it’s an absolute ripper.

At 579 pages, you can really immerse yourself in this sprawling family saga, set largely in the outer suburbs of Sydney. The story revolves around five brothers – the Dunbar boys – Matthew (the eldest and the narrator of the story), Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy. Their mother is dead, their father has fled. The five boys, aged in their teens and early 20s, are growing up together in the family home.

A family of ramshackle tragedy. A comic book kapow of boys and blood and beasts.

Matthew Dunbar, Bridge of Clay (page 9)

They live with an assortment of pets collected by the youngest brother, animal lover, Tommy. The pets are each named after characters from the great Greek literary works, The Illiad and The Odyssey. So named perhaps in tribute to their mother, Penny Dunbar, who carried the books as a young immigrant from the Eastern Bloc and went on to lovingly read the stories to her sons, just as her father had read them to her.

Following the death of the boys’ mother, their father has retreated to the outback, in a house beside a river that overflows in big rain and isolates him from the town.

Our protagonist, Clay, is 16 years old and the fourth Dunbar boy. He is quiet and sensitive, yet also extremely physical. Always training for something, but none of them, including Clay, know what that is. All they know is that whatever it is, when that day comes, he’ll be ready.

And that may just be the day their father (only ever referred to as ‘The Murderer’ throughout the book) returns to ask the boys for their help to build a bridge over the river by his home. The sudden, unexpected return of their father is not welcomed by the boys; Clay, the only one who agrees to take their father up on his offer.

As the story unfolds, the building of the bridge provides a metaphor for the slow, rebuilding of the relationship between Clay and his father and the healing from grief following the death of their mother.

Clay will absolutely work his way into your heart. His young life has been marred by immense loss, tragedy and grief, but also love. As Matthew writes on page 10

“Let me tell you about our brother. The fourth Dunbar boy named Clay. Everything happened to him. We were all of us changed through him.”

Matthew Dunbar, Bridge of Clay (page 10)

Bridge of Clay will have you laughing out loud at unexpected moments. Equally, there will be times when your heart will swell with sadness and grief for the Dunbar boys, particularly Clay. With both scenarios, Zusak often catches the reader off-guard with his trademark laconic style.

Bridge of Clay took Zusak over ten years to write, and I for one am so glad he persevered.

Published 2019 by Pan Macmillan Australia, 592 pages.

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

Image is of the cover of the book Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty. Cover features a young boy walking along the beach with his backpack on and a bird soaring overhead. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

This is the diary of a year in the life of Dara McAnulty; a fourteen year old boy, growing up in Ireland, with a deep love of nature. Through the turning of the seasons, Dara’s observations of nature are told with childlike wonder and amazement, but also with wisdom and insight that belies his years. 

Dara lives with his mother, father, sister and brother. They are a very close family, together sharing a love of adventure and nature. Everyone in the family is autistic, except for Dara’s father. His parents were once told that Dara would ‘never be able to complete a comprehension, never mind string a paragraph together’. In actual fact, writing helps him make sense of the world. In Diary of a Young Naturalist, Dara’s words are poetic, heartfelt, brave, compassionate and inspiring.

Woven alongside Dara’s observations of nature in each changing season are typical teenage and family events. He is very honest about the bullying he has endured at school up until this point. At the end of Spring, the family relocate to the east coast of Ireland, Dara starts a new school and is finding his place in the world. He is invited to go on field trips with conservationists. 

Increasingly, his connection to nature brings a stronger need for awareness and conservation. His frustration, disappointment and feelings of helplessness in regards to the protection of nature and wildlife are shared by many of us, and in his book, Dara urges and inspires us all to keep taking action, to keep caring.

The feelings of so many of us, young and old. Those of us that care. We feel it, every hour of every day. It’s heart-wrenching and exhausting, but it’s vital to keep pushing on, doing heartfelt things.’

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist

Dara notices and knows so much about the natural world around him; from the tiniest bug to the oldest trees; from birds of prey to the regular feathered visitors in his backyard garden. I wanted to read this book slowly; to absorb all of Dara’s observations and relate them to my own, here on the other side of the world in Australia. I wanted to stop and look and appreciate the nature that exists alongside us everyday. There is a lot of solace to be found in nature. It’s the antidote to our busy, anxiety-filled lives. Dara’s observations plug you into nature, prompting a stillness and awareness that connects deeply with your heart.

‘We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion.’

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist

I love the navy blue hardcover of this book, the typeface and the texture of the pages. I love that it’s in the form of a diary and that the young naturalist’s year is divided into the seasons. At the end of the book is a delightful glossary which includes the pronunciations of words in both English and Irish Gaelic. The inside front and back cover has a rough map of Northern Ireland indicating several places mentioned in the book.

Diary of a Young Naturalist is a small book that gives so much. I simply adore it.

Published 2020 by The Text Publishing Company, 288 pages.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Image is the cover of the book Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Image features a girl swimming face down in the water. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

After reading Ng’s second book, Little Fires Everywhere, and being gripped by the Netflix series of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon, I was keen to discover more from this New York Times bestselling author. 

The title of Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, grabbed my attention and had me intrigued right from the start. My curiosity only grew upon reading the first line of the very first chapter:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

Who is Lydia? 

Why is she dead? 

Who doesn’t know?

So many questions! And all of these questions fuel a constant sense of wariness and dread which hang in the mind of the reader as the story of the Lee family unfolds over the decades to the current day when their eldest daughter’s body is discovered in the local lake. 

Set in small town Ohio in the late 70s, Lydia is the favourite child of blonde-haired, American born Marilyn, and her Chinese-American husband, James. Their other children are the older and much loved brother to Lydia, Nathan, and the youngest and often forgotten child, Hannah. 

As in her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, Ng explores the complex and delicate relationships that exist in families, with an undercurrent of race relations and an exploration of minority groups. Everything I Never Told You gives readers an insight into how we as parents, whether deliberately or unknowingly, pass on our own personal fears and shortfalls to our children, and the inevitable fallout and damage that can result, despite our best intentions.

Everything I Never Told You is not a new release. It was first published in 2014, winning Amazon.com’s Best Book of 2014. At 292 pages, it’s a great weekend or holiday read. If you’re feeling particularly busy and time poor, it is equally one that can be picked up and put down intermittently, and will capture your attention at each sitting. Either way, Everything I Never Told You is an intriguing read. Understanding this family from the different perspectives of each character will inevitably prompt the reader to confront their own familial expectations and family dynamics. 

Published 2014 by Hachette Australia, 320 pages.

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