Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick unwraps some fiction for Christmas


Stephanie Dowrick writes: I adore reading intelligent, absorbing fiction at any time of the year. But there is something about the Christmas period and the days that follow that are particularly inviting of that glorious pleasure of losing oneself in a world created by a talented (and hardworking) writer. The hard work of course never shows, when it's done well. And by that I mean, when the writer successfully draws you into the very heart of the world she or he has imaginatively created - and you enter as a willing visitor into their spell-binding reality.

On the recent writing retreat I led in Japan I took with me for evening reading British writer Sarah Dunant's novel Sacred Hearts. Set in 16th-century Italy, and largely in the confined space of a single (though fairly vast) convent, it is an exceptional portrait of the lives of highly intelligent, ambitious, talented women whose choices in life may appear exceptionally constrained, by contemporary standards. And yet - and Dunant's story-telling skills are exceptionally skillful in conveying this - we also see how and why convent life also offered some extraordinary opportunities for independence and safety at a time when marriage and childbirth frequently cost women their freedom, health and even their lives. You can find a longer review at this link. But if you are interested in women's history, religion and religious cultures, Italy, the Renaissance and music and healing...what a wonderful range of topics!...then know that here they unfold through story-telling that is memorable and deeply satisfying.
Perhaps Elizabeth Gilbert will go through life associated with her massive best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Clearly, though, she takes fiction immensely serious and her long debut novel, The Signature of All Things, is immensely ambitious as well as utterly engaging. It, too, is an historical novel and also reflects intensely on women's lives and opportunities. It opens with a new century: 1800, and moves not only through the interior lives of its characters but also "travels" externally: from England to Australia, USA, Tahiti, the Netherlands. Gilbert has reflected publicly on how much she relished doing the research the novel (and her ambitions for it) required. This doesn't sit heavily; it adds greatly to the reader's pleasure. An interview with this immensely accomplished writer can be accessed via this link.

Sanjida O'Connell is a writer new to me, but I picked up The Naked Name of Love in part because it is about a journey across the intensely demanding lands of Mongolia, taken in 1865 - as Darwinian theories are beginning to challenge widely-held assumptions and beliefs - by a Buddhist monk, a courageous, selfless local horseman and guide, and an English Jesuit botanist in search of rare plant specimens and especially a breathtakingly beautiful white lily. It was only when I began to read this quite wonderfully engaging novel that I discovered its author had in part based it on the life and passions of Teilhard de Chardin whom I have always deeply admired. I don't believe she intends us to take this too literally; in fact, she does not. But questions of faith, science, commitment, loyalty, and the differences between people culturally and religiously as well as what binds them, are most intriguingly and intelligently drawn out here. At the heart of the novel, too, is an entirely plausible love affair; the reader cannot help but feel for and with the heart-wrenching decisions that face Joseph, the priest, and Namuunaa, an heroic, extraordinarily competent young woman, perhaps a shaman. The dangers of monastic life are extreme in different ways for the Buddhist monks. Life is so tough in this time and place, yet many of the relationships appear to be remarkably tender and loyal, and are most tenderly drawn. It's a story of real strength and beauty. Many readers will additionally love the excitement of the botanical finds and the intense relationships between animals and humans.

I didn't set out to recommend historical novels exclusively for this holiday season and beyond, but the last of this very special group of novels is also set in the past, and also conjures that past with bewitching sensuality and sensitivity for the lives of the people she is evoking. Claire Scobie, author of The Pagoda Tree, is an English-Australian writer who is vastly experienced as a journalist and as a travel writer. This is her first novel but like Elizabeth Gilbert she brings to this new venture a deep intelligence and writing confidence. The time is late 18th-century; the place is Tanjore, India; the characters are, variously, the colonizing English and the devadasi, the women who are - at least somewhat - doubly colonized: by the power of the British and also by the expectations of their caste, destiny and religion. The power and place of dance in Hindu ritual is central here, most skilfully revealing what it means to the women themselves to "carry" the dance and all that it well as the ways in which even their exquisite talents and dedication cannot save them from forces outside themselves. Courage is vivid here, in the characters and in the writing. I can imagine many of you giving or receiving this beautiful novel and doing so with confidence and joy.  
Want to purchase these books postage free? (You can follow the individual link to purchase any other books also - and a small, welcome % returns to us to support these pages. Thank you!) Just click on the titles that follow:
Sacred Hearts
The Signature of All Things
The Naked Name of Love
The Pagoda Tree

Dr Stephanie Dowrick's latest book is Heaven on Earth: Timeless Prayers of Wisdom and Love, a book not only of sublime prayers, but also a highly accessible guide on how to pray.  In 2014 Stephanie Dowrick will be teaching the WRITERS' WORKSHOP for the Faber Academy in Sydney.

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