A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: a worthwhile stroll

girl walks home alone at nightIt doesn’t surprise that director Ana Lily Ampour, a Britain-born Iranian, grew up in the US: this debut feature film is steeped in Western celluloid, to the extent of a laugh-out-loud use of Leone-like soundtrack at one point.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) might be set in Iran, or it might be set in Detroit (based on Ampour’s graphic novel, it was shot in California): its desolate streets and industrial backdrops and urban decay, a single crowded drug-fucked nightclub, bring to mind Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed here).

The hero (Arash Marandi), or at least the protagonist — it’s hard to find heroism in a drug dealer — is a James Dean lookalike, though this rebel has a cause: to get out of ‘Bad City’, where his father is an addict and his horizon is strictly limited.

Enter the titular heroine (Sheila Vand) — her hajib used to effect in one of the black-and-white flick’s best set pieces, skateboarding down a night-lit street, cloth flying cape-like. There’s a degree of feminist bent to our vampire; also loneliness and likely boredom, enlivened by pop music and the occasional murder.

Part of the joy here is in the interaction: the actors convey much with little conversation; the quiet here is engrossing. The performances of the leads in particular are quite wonderful. Combined with the cinematography, that’s plenty of reason to check this out right there.

The movie lacks the subtext of Lovers, the narrative cohesiveness, but it’s a stylish genre-clash and an affecting movie, well worth visiting for some arty pastiche of east meets west.

Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet: what a sweet prince this is, or, the award for best use of condoms in a Shakespearean play goes to:

Hamlet-webOh my bard! I caught the two-and-a-half-hour epic that is Bell Shakespeare‘s Hamlet at the Melbourne Arts Centre last night, and I’m still reeling.

One of the best Shakespearean productions I’ve seen? Without a doubt.

The set design: a facade of doors and windows, shakily climbable, splits the stage. Behind this lit window, a spy, replaying dialogue just heard behind another, as the new king keeps an ear on his fellows. Behind this one, the boudoir. Look, the bed becomes a grave, Yorick! With dirt for the shovelling, a pit for fair Ophelia, complete with toe tag after she is wheeled in in a wheelbarrow. And see here, how the theatre bunting can lose some letters and have others changed to present a far more telling dramatic title! Best use of condoms in a Shakespearean play!

The lighting, used to highlight the areas of the drama, whether by spotlight or torchlight or flickering wall lights, was sensational. One dramatic front-lit Dracula-like moment still blazes in my mind. Underpinning that, the music, just touches of thriller bass or gay song to enhance the mood, or the sound of rain, or the sound of fighter jets doing a flypast.

Here a mobile phone captures a moment; there, an electronic listening device is disabled or revealed. And here, it’s halberds and foils, and the ensemble sharing a king’s joke as he dons a player’s crown.

And here’s the thing of it, the thing that really elevated this production: the acting. Not just in delivery and emotion, and there was plenty of emotion, but in the interplay. In the interpretation of the lines. Bawdiness. Cheekiness. The use of repetition to telling effect. The use of props to add context to the lines, to illuminate character — the play with said condoms between Ophelia and Laertes as he prepares to leave at the airport (with Rosencrantz and Guildernstern hailed over the PA in the background!), the sister-brother relationship anchored around their doomed father. The physicality: Ophelia (Matilda Ridgway, divine), only days in to the play’s run, already sports scrapes and bruises revealed by her dishevelled night dress.

They play them well (better than well; I love that to be fit to receive a guest still in her a nightrobe, Doris Younane’s Gertrude first slips on her shoes, then transforms her hair), but it is Hamlet’s show, and Josh McConville is amazing, physically and emotionally, seamlessly switching from rude imp to avenger to distraught son. Bravo!

Hamlet plays at the Arts Centre till July 25.

The Dangerous Bride, by Lee Kofman: sex, love and belonging

the dangerous bride by lee kofmanThe Dangerous Bride (MUP, 2014), by Lee Kofman, is a memoir of exploration: of relationships, of place, and of self. It’s candid but polite, and the prose shines with description and metaphor.

It tells Kofman’s story of, as a child of Russian Jews, coming to Australia via Israel. In Tel Aviv, her generation of young people lived life as though there was no tomorrow, because in a land of bombs, that was the case.

Melbourne was a sanctuary, with its bookshops and cafes and galleries — once she’d got the courage to explore, English not being her native language and the city filled with strangers. (The Dangerous Bride is her first book in English.)

Overtaken by wonder, I vigorously, like a young horse, clacked my platform shoes upon the wide, friendly sidewalks. The public transport that operated during Shabbat, the cheap sushi, the absence of cockroaches — all these luxuries the locals took for granted filled me with joy. I was amazed at how in Melbourne even police cars drove by quietly. After a while, whenever their sirens did sound, I no longer thought about bombs.

Kofman’s exploration of Australian society and landscape is a strong vein in this memoir, but the focus is on her sexual identity: is it possible to have a successful non-monogamous relationship? She gets caught up with an Israeli known in the book simply as J, who chases easy money in property and business. Escaping him, Kofman ends up with Noah: they have a loving marriage but one lacking in intimacy.

Australian women writers challenge 2015Kofman turns to ‘famous dead people’ for inspiration: Anais Nin (the movie Henry and June was a watershed for her), HG Wells, Iris Murdoch. And she travels, to interview swingers, ‘hunters’ (couples who pick up sex partners), polyamorists, open marriages. She’s looking for the key to maintaining a relationship while still satisfying all-round needs of desire, intimacy, identity.

The book shifts, the chronology of her time in Australia, the changing relationships and eventual second, stable marriage interspersed with flashbacks to relationships past. In particular, the awkward relationship with J takes some unravelling. There is room for rumination on the nature of love and relationships, society’s expectations versus natural impulse. She analyses the non-monogamy of others, looking for the reasons of success or failure, and trying on the templates to see which one best fits her experience. She visits modern social theorists, elements of her academic studies shining through. Arthur Rimbaud’s contention that the poet ‘consumes all the poisons in him’ is a theme.

The honest self-awareness of Kofman’s voice makes this an engaging journey of exploration, at the end of which Kofman has found a comfortable understanding with her new country and — at least for now — her new love.

  • This review is part of my commitment to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • Day Boy by Trent Jamieson: this is vampire fiction

    day boy vampire novel by trent jamiesonThis is Day Boy (Text, 2015), by Brisbane writer Trent Jamieson. Hot off the press. A hot read, too.

    Set in an isolated Australian country town, the story is told by adolescent Mark, entering his final period as Day Boy to the vampire Master Dain. This is in the time after the war, when the vampires rule what’s left of humanity: the Council of Teeth lurks in the bowels of a mountain fortress, casting a long, terrible shadow over Masters and humans alike. There are elements of Trent’s Roil in this, in the flitting, elemental vampires, the evocative descriptions of this place of light and dark and intrigue. Against this backdrop, what comes next for Mark as his tenure as Day Boy approaches its end?

    (T)ime is running down. There’s a city calling me, and I’ll see it if I’m lucky but I’m feeling my luck run thin, feeling old too. Choices heaped ahead of me, and I feel so ill-equipped to make them.

    From these eternal power brokers to their worship of the Sun to their love of music, the culture is beautifully realised. So too is the town of Midfield, modelled we’re told in the acknowledgement’s on Jamieson’s former rural home town of Gunnedah. Life in the dust and heat and storms goes on, despite the toll of blood and obedience.

    But it is Mark’s relationship with Dain that is key here, a paternal exploration, a coming of age story. It is affecting stuff. There are women here, but a few, primarily Mary and her daughter Anne, but this a book about boys and men, their rivalries and cruelties, and the love of fathers and sons. (As the Wheeler Centre on Monday night, Jamieson said he had an idea for a story showing this side of this world. Fingers crossed it might one day see the light.)

    The Night Train comes and goes, its cargo unladen, its whistle calling out, and I’m still awake. Still thinking. Thinking. Thinking.

    When I tumble to sleep, it’s a lean sort of thing, no meat or fat to the bones, just a gristle of drinks not drunk, of girls not kissed, and a tall man, with a taste for civility who’s disappointed with what he raised.

    The larger story unfolds through episodic chapters — ‘nothing happening until it does’ — with some events feeling almost as asides, others showing Mark’s maturation, all illustrating life under vampire rule, the wildness outside of town, that favourite Aussie trope of dangers lurking in the bush.

    The structure and format are intriguing: three sections, short chapters, folios restricted to page numbering and even then not on the opening pages of chapters. As though the typography is kept as dry and spare as the land around Midfield.

    The story is interrupted by five excerpts, each in the voice of a Midfield Day Boy talking about his Master, just short drops of back story and character, bolstered by equally short and pointed italicised drop-ins from Mark, adding texture to the world.

    Jamieson’s prose is not so spartan; it is considered, poetical but not verbose or purple. It is a joy. Day Boy is a joy.

    Cherry Crow Children: rich pickings

    cherry crow children by deborah kalin
    Cherry Crow Children is the twelfth of the Twelve Planets series published by Twelfth Planet Press, with a thirteenth and final volume to come. This most recent volume, by Deborah Kalin, is well worth the wait.

    Kalin is a fellow Melbourne writer with two fantasy novels and a handful of short fiction to her name; this volume of four stories is a strong addition to her bibliography.

    These stories are of endings, and of secrets, and of quests, each situated in isolated and harsh settings that encourage a certain bloodymindedness and limited vision. To go delving in these locales is to risk much. Discovering can be dangerous, even lethal. Perhaps best not to explore this terrain if one is feeling blue.

    In ‘The Wages of Honey’, a man looks for his cousin in a fractured mountain village; ‘The Briskwater Mare’ has a young woman tied to her fate for the apparent good of a town; ‘The Miseducation of Mara Lys’ tells of clockmakers and the price paid for pursuing their secret workings; and the titular story is one of a forest folk who risk the wilds for a crop of drug flowers.

    Australian women writers challenge 2015The settings are engagingly, succinctly drawn, with customs and seasons and economies adding depth to the worlds as the characters navigate the social currents. One cannot help but rail with Kalin’s protagonists as they are caught in the eddies. The stories draw longer, the worlds deeper and darker; the forest denizens of the eponymous final story are wild and amazing.

    As each story unveils its mysteries, as each protagonist pushes the boundaries and pays the price for their investigation, the assured prose is the measured constant.

    This twelfth of the Twelve is a high point in a consistently high field.

    The Dagger’s Path, by Glenda Larke: the journey continues

    daggers path by glenda larkeThe globe trotting continues in The Dagger’s Path (Orbit, 2015), the second volume of the The Forsaken Lands trilogy by Glenda Larke: a year sails by as our heroes reach the Va-forskaen Lands – a conglomerate of island states, lumped together geopolitically by culturally ignorant colonial powers interested only in the spices and, lately, the magic that they have to offer.

    The witan spy Saker accompanies Sorrel, and the babe in arms for which she cares, Piper, and disgraced Chanderawasi Ardhi on a mission to the spice isles, on board a privateer captained by the dashing Juster. All find themselves under the sway of a magically enforced imperative, embodied in a magical dagger, to return sacred plumes from very special birds.

    But more than their lives are at stake: back in the Va-cherished lands, evil is on the rise, and those righteous few who see its emergence – the pontifact, her lawyer spy and a gifted orphan – will need all the help they can get to prevent it.

    Further muddying the waters are the imperial interests of homicidally pragmatic Mathilda, Ardronese wife of the Lowmian king, the dabbling of the Ardronese heir, Prince Ryce, and the various merchant interests and clandestine forces arraying against the order of things.

    It is, as my sketchy summary suggests, an epic tale, and told through a plethora of viewpoints – a couple rate merely a few scenes here, but where this ploy usually drives me to distraction, they passed relatively smoothly, perhaps because of the recurring nature of the characters in the third person. While the story spans a hemisphere and considerable time, the pace is consistent, thanks to the machinations and discoveries at play, the well-rounded lead characters and, as always with a Larke book, the superb world building.

    The twitcher writer’s avian interests continue to be at the fore as Saker learns more of his power to communicate with and influence birds, while other familiar Larke themes of colonialism, extremism and blind faith continue to anchor the narrative.

    Australian women writers challenge 2015A flash forward at chapter 31, about three quarters of the way through, felt unwarranted given the overall clip of the yarn – there’s a bit of biffo and plenty of intrigue driving this middle book, which ends with cards firmly on the table and relationships overshadowed by the looming battle to keep the corrupt and self-serving Fox out of the big chair.

    Australian Larke has drawn on her life in Malaysia for her depictions of the islands and the descriptions are well spiced.

    Plain sailing, this one, with sails unfurled and gun ports open for the grand finale.

  • The Lascar’s Dagger, the first of the series (reviewed here), recently tied for the best novel Ditmar Award and also won a Tin Duck, and was a finalist for best fantasy novel in the Aurealis Awards.
  • This is my first review as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • Recent reads: Gibson, Strahan, Kiernan, Abbott

    I’ve been slack, sneaking in a bit of reading and not passing on the goods. So here’s a quick summary of yarns I’ve read lately (outside of last year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge) that have made me happy:

    william gibson book the peripheralThe Peripheral, William Gibson (Penguin/Viking 2014): Gibson time travels, from the economically bereft American South to a socially bereft future London, where climate change has wrought its sneaky damage and only tech has saved humanity — at the price, perhaps, of its humanity. The book needs its own review — there are plenty out there, and this one by Keith Stevenson tags a bunch of my responses (yeah, the tracking device, way too convenient) — but suffice to say, I love Gibson’s writing. Here’s a protag who is perhaps slightly under-equipped to handle the situation in which, tired and lonely though not alone, he finds himself; here’s another who is coping very well with it, thanks, due to her smarts, and those family and friends in dangerous places. There was little tension, though, and the happy endings all round left me a bit meh, but the ride was comfortable (but not safe — Gibson does not err on the side of over-explanation, bless, though some of the sentence fragments actually jarred me from time to time) and the view deftly drawn and suitably gloomy in all the right places. Makes me want to read Neuromancer et al all over again.

    fearful symmetries anthology editor ellen datlowFearful Symmetries, Ellen Datlow (ed) (ChiZine 2014): I helped Kickstart this tome and it was money well spent; a solid bunch of spooky yarns. One, though, blew my socks off; it dispensed with linear narrative in a way that made my head spin — that it was partly set in New Orleans probably helped, sure, but wow: ‘Ballad of An Echo Whisperer’ by Caitlín R Kiernan floated my boat like few other short stories I read last year.

     

    fearsome magicsFearsome Magics, Jonathan Strahan (ed) (Solaris, 2014): One of the strongest anthologies I read last year, with not even a handful of yarns that made me go ‘meh’. While magic was the core theme, the variations to be found within are wide and wonderful: faery magic, science as magic, high fantasy, urban fantasy. Strahan has conjured a strong field for this table of contents and they cast quite a spell.

     

    die a little by megan abbottAnd finally, I should be reading, oh, dozens of books right now, I guess, but sometimes you just gotta go for a safe, enjoyable read. A palate cleanser, for want of a more charitable description. One where you know the voice and the world will immerse you, the writing will thrill you, and the story will be worth your investment. And so it is I have picked up Megan Abbott’s Die A Little (Simon and Schuster, 2005). It’s another (early) of her period noirs, in which a school teacher and her policeman brother get caught up with a femme fatale with a shadowy past. I’d probably still pick Queenpin as my favourite so far — I note I am behind in Abbott’s catalogue *sigh* — but I love the voice and the use of a chapter-free progression of scenes told in the first person from a rather cool cucumber. I’m halfway through and the dressing’s just hit the salad and I can’t wait to see who dishes up the just desserts …