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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

Rich pickings this time: a courtroom drama, a trove of language, a poetic pilot and a death-defying poet

Maggie Fergusson | May/June 2015

REPORTAGE  This House of Grief by Helen Garner, Text, trade paperback, out now. On Father’s Day 2005, Robert Farquharson was driving his small sons home to his ex-wife when he veered off the Princes Highway near Geelong and plunged into a dam. He managed to swim to the surface; the three boys drowned. His trial gripped Australia. Had Farquharson been overcome by a paroxysm of coughing, and lost control? Or was he possessed of a “dark contemplation”—an urge to inflict unbearable suffering on an 
unfaithful spouse? Compassionate and dispassionate in equal measure, Helen Garner takes us into the courtroom and shows a melting-pot of venality. She writes with a profound understanding of human vulnerability, and of the subtle workings of love, memory and remorse. In remaining alive, Farquharson has perhaps committed greater violence against himself than against his three dead boys.

BIOGRAPHY  The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Harvill Secker, hardback, out now. “My constant aim is to remain, personally, unknown to the world,” the Reverend Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, once wrote. One hundred and fifty years after the publication of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” he remains elusive, and fascinating. This triple biography—of Carroll, of the imaginary Alice, and of Alice Hargreaves, who spent 70 years in her own fictional shadow—explores the triangular relationship initiated by a fastidious Oxford mathematician with a speech impediment, a flair for stories and an obsession with little girls. Carroll was, by his own admission, “an inveterate child-fancier”; today he’d be condemned as sad and sleazy. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst presents Carroll’s motivations as sentimental rather than sexual, and leaves you grateful that the Victorians, supposedly so censorious, made room for his eccentricities and enabled his genius to flourish.



NATURE  Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, hardback, out now. Robert Macfarlane is a shape-shifter: a mountaineer who lives in the flattest city in Britain, a seeker after solitude perfectly at home heading up the Man Booker judges, a Cambridge don who is also a sparky columnist (see Landscapes of the Mind). Now he becomes a linguistic Noah, constructing a book to shelter precious words and phrases about the countryside against a rising tide of urban indifference. Travelling in the company of the literature he loves, he first explores a landscape, then sets out its glossary. He finds tiny words that contain whole stories: èit is Gaelic for the practice of placing quartz in moonlit moorland streams to sparkle and attract salmon. “Landmarks” is both a celebration and an elegy, and its effect is cumulatively spell-binding. There’ll be a word for that in Doric or Manx or Norn.



TRAVEL  Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, Chatto, hardback, out now. Vanhoenacker, who contributed to The Big Question in our last issue, is a born high-flyer. A Cambridge graduate and former consultant, he is now living out his boyhood dream as a Boeing 747 long-haul pilot. This endlessly surprising, strikingly original book is a hymn to the wonders of his working life. Inter-weaving science, engineering, literature and personal reflection, he carries us with him as he leaves “the low world beneath its eaves of water” and travels into sunlit uplands, divided for pilots into kingdoms with poetic names: Fukuoka, Turkmenabat, Tower of Silence. We watch icebergs calve off Greenland, and explosions of shooting stars; we begin to appreciate how little of the Earth is inhabited. Vanhoenacker combines intelligence and sensitivity with an “outward-looking introspection”. Long hours in the sky have allowed him to sift his thoughts, giving his prose a contemplative clarity.




FICTION  Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, Bloomsbury Circus, hardback, out now. The Bloomsbury Group are upmarket Marmite: you either love their genius, or recoil from their self-regard. I’m a recoiler, but I romped through this novel and longed for more. It opens in 1905, when Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster et al had yet to make their names; and at its centre is not Virginia Woolf, depicted as a brilliant, unbalanced troublemaker, but her painter sister, Vanessa. Through imaginary, uncannily convincing letters, postcards, diary entries and telegrams, Priya Parmar enmeshes us in a tangled web of love, lust and envy. Vanessa marries Clive Bell; Virginia steals him. Lytton Strachey pines for Duncan Grant, who will one day father Vanessa’s daughter—and so on. Around them, Edwardian London, from Fortnum’s Dundee cake to the first post-impressionist exhibition, comes to life. Roll on a sequel.




POETRY  Sentenced to Life by Clive James, Picador, hardback, out now. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wished the world to know, as he died, “that what I have seen is unsurpassable”. The same desire pulses through this slim, uplifting collection. As leukaemia eats away at him, Clive James’s pace slows and his horizon narrows. He squares up to frustration, sorrow and regret; yet these are outweighed by gratitude, wonder and a sense that life has become more “real” than it ever was in his “heedless”, hurtling glory days. He cherishes simplicity; he sees ordinary things—birds, leaves, bees—with “a whole new emphasis”; he feels “restored by my decline”. If youth is wasted on the young, death may be wasted on the dying. James’s poems brim with a wisdom he now has little time to enjoy. We are his beneficiaries.

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