THE DRAGON BEHIND THE GLASS by Emily Voigt

Every now and again you come across a book that is so out of your usually fairly narrow range of reading, that you just have to take a look at it. And for me, this is definitely such a book. My only exposure to tropical fish was falling into a gold fish pond when I was maybe 3 or 4, and my 8 year old daughter's small fish tank, her Christmas present, that of course I ended up doing all the cleaning, feeding, disposing of expired and repurchasing of replacement fish. I never enjoyed it. And yet, I started reading this - such a weird premise for a book - tropical fish collectors. And they sure are a weird bunch.

The fish at the centre of this book is the wild Asian arowana, dragon fish - the world's most expensive fish. Like most things, its value increases as it becomes rarer and harder to locate. Bizarrely, we find out later in the book that it became 'rare' completely by mistake, the fish having been put onto an endangered list by accident, the list never checked before approval, and a non-endangered fish becomes an endangered fish. So now we have the situation,as one reviewer put it of 'a modern paradox - the mass produced endangered species'.

But this book is full of such odd goings on as Voigt, a journalist specialising in science and culture, finds herself falling into the rabbit hole of fish collecting. It is hard for me to see how an intelligent non-fish person could succumb, and she even admits that her arowana search becomes an obsession. She interrupts her search to get married, then days later is back half way round the world fish hunting. She travels across the US and back again, to Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, South America, always dangling on the thin edge of safe travel, sometimes downright dangerous in her search for this elusive fish, treasured as a both a status symbol and a bearer of good luck. People are murdered for this fish, there is a thriving smuggling industry, there are back room deals. She is not the only one looking for the fish in the wild - other journalists and photographers are all hot on each other's trails to be the first to report the existence of this fish in its natural state.

As well as being an intrepid traveller and going to places she may never before have considered, and may never go back to again, she meets the most fascinating collection of people. I learnt a new word - fish collectors are called ichthyologists for whom aquarium fish are their sole reason for getting out of bed each day. She also meets breeders, scientists, conservationists, and gives us more knowledge and information about aquarium fish than we could ever hope to need. And somehow manages to make the whole book sound more like a travel story than a science story. 

But it is endlessly fascinating, slightly crazy and eccentric, sobering in her discussion of the human impact on something as mundane as wild fish and their habitats, even the rationale behind collecting and showing aquarium fish. And do fish have more than a 3 second memory. I really really liked this, so much to learn, such vivid writing. There is an audio version of this book which apparently is amazing. Could be tempted. 

THE QUIET SPECTACULAR by Lawrence Fearnley

This is condensed version of review in published in LandfallReviewOnLine 1/3/17

What constantly stands out for me in New Zealand fiction is how our land, our environment, our geography is such an inherent part of the narrative, almost like another participant in the story, forming the backdrop to everything that takes place.

It is just so in this, Laurence Fearnley’s latest novel, her tenth, that the landscape has its own life, its own crucial part to play in the narrative. Wetlands are her location of choice in this story, becoming the common ground where three very different women of various ages, stages, conflicts and histories randomly come together. Each interacts with the surroundings differently -  the birds, the lake, the bush floor, the rodents, the quietness, the mysterious den. At all times there is respect, care, nurturing and being at one with the surroundings, a place of healing and comfort. Each woman finds a strength arising from both the surroundings, and their unusual camaraderie enabling them to begin the process of facing down the conflicts in their individual lives.

Take a look at the cover, impossible to replicate via an e-reader. The sheer brilliance of colour, the delicacy of the drawings, how each leaf and flower is so vividly brought to life. The illustrations are by Audrey Eagle, a botanical illustrator, who has given much to New Zealand’s knowledge bank of native flora. A spectacular woman in her own right, I wonder if she was deliberately chosen by the author as an example of a woman quietly and spectacularly going about her life on her own terms.

Who then are the quiet spectaculars that people the pages of this novel? The story is set in a provincial town, close to Christchurch. I feel that it is somewhere like Ashburton, or Timaru. Large enough to be interesting, but small enough to be a little suffocating. The story is framed around the three characters of Loretta, Chance and Riva. Each third of the book is narrated by one of these women, the links between them gradually building and evolving, coming together in the last twenty pages.  

Loretta is in her mid-forties, a high school librarian, married, mother to a 12 year old boy. She is going through that stage in life where she doesn’t know what to do next. She knows her son is gradually going to draw away from her as he enters his teen years, her marriage seems to have stalled, she loves her job, but it seems to have lost its spark. She feels she is becoming invisible, her youth and vitality whittling away, just another middle-aged woman whose life is running downhill. During one of her ‘waiting for Kit’ moments, she comes across The Dangerous Book for Boys. Randomly opening it she begins to flick through the pages.

Loretta’s lightbulb moment. What has she done that is dangerous in her life? What have her friends done? Aside from giving birth it would seem not much. She wonders what has happened to the hopeful, adventurous, curious young girl she once was. Loretta resolves to write The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women, a book about women who have done dangerous things, who will never become invisible, and in the process, maybe learn a thing or two herself on having an adventurous life. While waiting for Kit on yet another day, she begins to explore the wetlands, finding an abandoned den, which becomes a haven, her place to be alone, to think.  

Secondly, there is Chance, a 15 year old girl, who is a pupil at the local high school where Loretta is the librarian. She lives with her parents and two older brothers on a goat farm. Like 99.9% of Year 10 girls she is unhappy, unsure of where she fits in both at home and at school, who she is, who she wants to be, a loner. Her one possible ally, her mother, is a most appalling woman, deeply unhappy in her own life, taking her anger and bitterness out on her daughter.

One day at home, she also comes across The Dangerous Book for Boys, given to one of her brothers. As with Loretta, a new world begins to reveal itself, her rural upbringing giving her ample opportunity and tools to become her own intrepid adventurer. Her father and brothers’ passion for go-karting means they aren’t terribly interested in what she is up to, and her desperation to get away from her mother takes her to the Tinker Wetlands where she, as Loretta did, discovers the den, her own refuge, a space where she can be entirely her own person.

Lastly, Riva, certainly not invisible, or ever likely to be. In her early to mid- sixties, owner of the wetlands where everything quietly and spectacularly comes together. In the not too distant past, Riva was a successful business woman, but returned to New Zealand to nurse Irene, her terminally ill sister. She also bought the abandoned, rundown wetlands area, transforming it into the Tinker Wetlands.

Riva is grieving, still. The fourth-year anniversary of Irene’s death is coming up, and time for Riva to put into effect a promise she made to Irene before she died. This promise is beginning to consume Riva. She doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. Until Loretta and Chance quite separately enter her life. Chance, in particular, grabs her heart – a girl just leaving childhood, taking uncertain steps into adulthood. It is never implied that Chance is the daughter that Riva never had, but a wonderful bond of trust and mutual respect builds between the two, centred on the wetlands reserve. Riva takes Chance’s taxidermy seriously, helping her with trapping animals, conversing with her in that wonderful way where adults treat teenagers like adults and not overgrown children.

With support from these two older and quite different women, Chance blossoms. There are moments of doubt of course, but it is only when her mother treats her in a most shocking and humiliating fashion that Chance does rise like a phoenix, breaking away. What follows is the quiet spectacular between these three women, that enables them all to see that future of possibilities.

It is a gentle book, a story of self-discovery, self-worth, the power of friendship and the bonds that develop between women. I loved the characters of Loretta, Chance and Riva, all quite different, so carefully crafted and real. I can picture exactly what they all look like, how they dress, their body language, their stillness, their essence. The wetlands, described so vividly, sensuously, with its huge diversity of plant and animal life, is the perfect backdrop to the conflicts simmering away in the characters. Nothing dramatic happens, just quiet and gradual realisations that nothing stays the same, and no reason either for it to stay the same, but like nature continually shifting, changing and renewing.  


A CRIME IN THE FAMILY by Sacha Batthyany (trans. Anthea Bell)

This was an intriguing sounding choice from a list of five that I could choose from to review. The author, Sacha Batthyany, is a journalist, born in Switzerland to Hungarian parents. He belongs to a once aristocratic wealthy and powerful Hungarian family who lost everything in the second world war, and the communist takeover immediately afterwards. Like many wealthy families, his grandmother's family chose to flee, in this case to Switzerland.  Sometime before the war, his great uncle, Count Batthyany, had married Margit Thyssen-Bornesmisza, sister of Baron Thyssen-Bornesmisza, billionaire Swiss industrialist and famous art collector, and they lived in the castle the family owned in Rechnitz, a town near the Austrian-Hungary border.  

Quite by chance, around 2007, Sacha finds out that Margit was involved in a massacre of 180 Jews that took place while she was hosting a party one night towards the end of the war at the family castle. Amongst the guests were German aristocrats and SS officers, as well as local officials. This is the first he has heard of such an appalling event, naturally he must find out more, and so his journey begins, the result of which is this memoir.  

Once I had finished reading this book, I tracked down via Google what may be the original article that propelled Sacha into investigating and answering the questions about his family's past. It is clear that the writer of the article, David Litchfield, does not have a high opinion of Sacha Batthyany, but that is another story and just as intriguing as this book. Links to the article and the writer of it are at the bottom of this review. 

After so many years, so much death, records destroyed or altered, so many people refusing to speak, it is very hard to know what is the truth and what isn't. Hungary, being behind the Iron Curtain for so long too has not helped the dissemination of information, and with virtually no-one from that time still alive, maybe the real truth will never come out. However, this does not detract at all from a most interesting and at times very emotional journey that the author must take to track down what his family members did or did not do. 

Sacha has a number of sources in his search. Firstly, his father is still alive, and as a small  boy lived in the castle, although too young to remember what happened in 1944. He is most reluctant to speak about what happened, the rumours, any coverup. Sacha's grandmother, Maritta, kept a diary during the terrible war years, and it is in reading this that Sacha comes across another tragic and violent episode involving a local Jewish family. Sacha again has to question everything he has heard about his family and what went on during those years. 

His investigations uncover the daughter of the Jewish family, Agnes, now very elderly and living in South America with her own daughters. She was a friend of Sacha's grandmother and also kept a diary during the war years, survived Auschwitz and its aftermath, but never knew what had happened to her parents or her brother. The family very generously allow Sacha to read the diaries, and eventually he is able to return to Agnes and tell her exactly what happened to the rest of her family. 

Secrets, secrets and more secrets. As the years pass, the survivors of the war years are dying. In many cases they take the secrets of what happened to them, to their communities, betrayals, good deeds and bad, to the grave with them. It was a truly terrible time, and who can blame them for wanting to bury it all as deep as they can. That their children and now grandchildren are beginning their own investigations is producing many many books of this ilk such as 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' by Edmund de Vaal. Sacha Batthyany is clearly very troubled about what his family did or did not do during the war, and the veil of silence he appears to keep coming up against is difficult for him to bear. 

This book is as much about the author's journey of discovery as it is about what actually happened. At least two trips to the town of Rechnitz, one with his elderly and reluctant father, another to Buenos Aires, and weekly visits with his psychoanalyst are all carefully documented. He actually struggles more with what happened to Agnes's family than he does the massacre. This may be because the massacre has been well documented, accurately or otherwise, but the deaths of Agnes's parents not at all. His 'family' guilt almost consumes him, and as annoying as I found them, the weekly sessions with Dr Strassberg have their own reveal. 

Sacha Batthyany is just one of many thousands of descendants of people who have lived through terrible times such as the second world war. There will be many, many other stories such as what he has uncovered, and it is indeed good that we get to hear of them, wondering what we would ourselves do in such situations that aren't really all that long ago. For these reasons alone it is worth reading, and I am putting this into my book club, because I just know it will lead to all sorts of discussion. 


http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/the-killer-countess-the-dark-past-of-baron-heinrich-thyssens-daughter-395976.html

www.davidllitchfield.com

THE LAST PAINTING OF SARAH DE VOS by Dominic Smith

Do you know the names of any seventeenth century Dutch women artists,  just off the top of your head? I googled it - three. What about male Dutch artists of the same period - twenty four. Did women paint any less than men then? Unlikely - the urge to paint is just that, a personal expression - when you gotta paint, you gotta paint I guess. Sara de Vos is a fictional character, an amalgam of several actual women artists of the time. In this novel she is the first woman to be admitted into the guild of master artists. Women artists existed, but their signatures were never on the works they did, they were signed by husbands or male artists.  Which is what happened to Sara: her husband and father of their daughter, being the earner, his signature was on her work as his own. Life takes a terrible turn for Sara, but she does  manage to paint a most beautiful and haunting picture, that survives down through the centuries.

This painting ends up being bought by a wealthy Dutch merchant, staying in the same family through the years, until it ends up on the wall of his descendant, Marty de Groot who lives in New York. It is now 1957, and one day Marty notices that the painting hanging above the bed is actually a fake. How did this happen? In a very clandestine and deceitful fashion, obsessed with revenge, he tracks down the forger - a young Australian fine arts restoration student, Ellie Shipley who is living in New York at a subsistence level, unhappy, disillusioned. Extraordinarily talented, her skill at restoration leads her down the path of making a forgery of the de Vos painting.

The story moves effortlessly between the seventeenth century, the late 1950s and the year 2000 as the lives of Sara, her family, Ellie and Marty, and the painting itself unfold. In 2000 Ellie, now in her sixties,  is a world renowned art historian living in Sydney. An exhibition of Dutch masters is taking place, and bizarrely, both of the paintings are on their way - the secretly reclaimed original back in the hands of Marty de Groot, and the fake which has been  hanging in a Dutch gallery. Will Ellie's forgery past come back to haunt her? And what will happen when she and Marty meet up again after so many years?

This is such a good story - the plot alone is enough to compel one to pick it up and read. But it is also so extremely well written. Carefully paced, and moving effortlessly across time and back again, it's strength lies in the way relationships between the key characters develop, and how the plot hinges on these relationships. The author has also researched most thoroughly old Dutch masters, guilds, painting techniques, women artists . What was most fascinating was the secret world of stealing/forging/onselling stolen works of art, how these old and valuable works are forged so perfectly, the processes museums and art galleries go through to verify and restore works of art.

Very, very good. 

THE SECRET DIARY OF HENDRIK GROEN 83 1/4 YEARS OLD by Hendrick Groen

I fondly remember that marvellous TV series of the 1990s - Waiting for God. Two feisty oldsters, Tom and Diana, living in Bayview Retirement Village, under the management of Harvey and his hapless assistant Jane. Continually looking for ways to sabotage and subvert the efforts of Harvey and Jane in their 'management' of the residents, Tom and Diana never let an opportunity go by. Even though it was funny, there was a serious message in the weekly escapades of the residents - how to live a meaningful life, build good and strong friendships, how to remain independent in mind and body for as long as possible, when all around you are slowly fading away, whether it be mentally, physically or both. 

Hendrik Groen is one such elderly resident of a residential care home. There is enormous speculation around the world as to whether he is a real person or not, adding a touch of frission to the story telling. In the Netherlands where it was originally published  in 2014 it has been a sensation, and taken the world by storm since its translation into other languages. Most of us will make old bones, and it makes sense for us to be naturally curious, frightened, pragmatic, even fatalistic about where and how we will live out our last days. This could well give you a few ideas to make it all bearable!

This retirement home, north of Amsterdam, sounds like a very reasonable place to be. Hendrick has his own unit within the complex, he lives independently, with like minded people living just like he is. At the beginning of the year, January 1, he decides to write a diary, documenting exactly what goes on in a rest home, because it would appear a lot goes on behind closed doors that never gets out. He has a number of good friends in the complex including the totally impossible Evert, doing everything he can to subvert the noble aims of management. Just like a bunch of teenagers really, hassling their teachers or parents. 

Death, naturally, is part and parcel of everyday life in the home. One day Hendrik has a new neighbour, Eefje,  with whom he strikes up a beautiful friendship, showing that even in your 80s, it is never too late to fall in love or find your soul mate. He, Eefje, Evert and a few other similarly rascally residents form a group - The Old But Not Dead Club - where they take it in turns to organise day outings. These outings and the camaraderie give the old people a new lease of life, some point to their increasingly constrained existences. Some great times are had, and Hendrik is a marvellous chronicler of the goings on in the home. 

We never learn much about Hendrik and his life prior to coming to the home. He is widowed, and lost his only child many years ago. He doesn't have family visiting, or taking him on outings, so becomes a very astute observer of the lives of those around him. He also has a brilliant relationship with his mobility scooter which also gives him considerable freedom, and allows him to pass disparaging comments about fellow mobility scooter users. Very funny.

It is a wonderful story, who cares if it is true or not. It is exactly the type of old person I want to be - slightly bonkers, subversive, able to have great relationships still with people, and seize the day even if at times it will be bloody difficult!