K-Drama Crush

Visiting my elderly Mum has been all about binge watching Korean Rom-Coms for a while now – ever since she brought herself up to date with every movie Hallmark ever made. Now when I go over there all she wants to do is make me sit down with her – for hours – reading subtitles on a screen. It’s been her greatest joy through lockdown. It’s all she’d talk about. She’s seen so much K-drama that she’s picking Korean.

No way, was I going to do that. There’s enough going on in my life without “relaxing” like that in front of a screen. But it was impossible not to take a bit in – the TV is always on and tuned into some Korean stage of history – Joseon, Goryeon or Contemporary. A parachuter hanging from a tree in the Korean demilitarized zone, a woman sneaking out a lobby behind an upright promo flag, a medieval doctor tending to a patient in the modern streets of Seoul – the drama was intriguing – but subtitles, really? For 16 episodes plus? Better not get hooked. Little by little, scene over scene, I did.

And which series got me in the end?

Huron Ki-joon (Kang Ji-hwan) and Gong Ah-jeong (Yoon Eun-hye) in Lie to Me

Lie to Me

I don’t know how many times mum watched the scene in the corporate lobby but it got me each time.  Civil servant, Gong Ah-jeong, (Yoon Eun-hye) trying to avoid the uber-alpha protagonist and hotel exec, Hyeon Ki-joon (Kang Ji-hwan) while they are both in the proceeds of exiting the same office foyer, runs between vertical banners all the way out. Exposed outside, she ingratiates herself into his group of business associates in front of whom he can’t lose face, and ends up bumming a ride with them. It got me hooked. I had to see more. I had to see it from the start and I had to see more of Yoon Eun-hye. So, Princess Hours and the Coffee Prince followed, and then I was hooked.

Spoiler Alert!!!!

Lie to Me is a refreshing rom-com in its writing. It uses all the expected K-Drama Rom-Com tropes which I will blog about shortly, however, the story is built around recognizable tensions of flawed real life characters. Gong Ah-jeong has been trumped in the marriage race by her close friend who has stolen her love interest and married him while she has closeted herself away trying to pass her final exams.

Feeling belittled, betrayed and the loss of her personal dignity before her close friends and community she pretends that she is getting married, too. She doesn’t have a fiancé, boyfriend or love interest, so she claims to be marrying an untouchable hotel exec, Hyeon Ki-joon. Through a series of interrelated events and with the help of his practical joker brother, the exec agrees to pretend to be her boyfriend for the sake of her friends only. With the further intervention of said, practical joking brother, who introduces her to a Chinese diplomat and his wife as Ki-joon’s fiancé, the secret starts to spread and the fake couple get to know each other better.

Soon he begins using his wealth to help her in her career as a tourism industry official. She in turn is tempted to use her position to confer upon his hotel chain the contract for a mammoth international business deal. What will she do for love and how do they have the scandal afterwards progress the plot. In an interesting twist towards the end of the series we see the heroine grappling with the idea of losing her identity to their relationship and the demands of his world.

K-Drama rom-coms are so much fun – full of comic set-ups, clownish supporting characters, lots of drama, scheming older relatives, class differences and usually have an underlying message. They aren’t sexual explicit – refreshing – but they are very romantic, and like I’ve said, a lot of fun.

1. Exhibitions you may miss due to Lockdown

Kirsten Coelho: The Return

UNSW Galleries – the exhibition was to run until July 30.

Coelho’s work - an exhibit
Coelho’s work is delicate, studied and evocative

Ceramicist, Kirsten Coelho’s largest exhibition on Australian soil is currently gracing an upstairs gallery at the UNSW Galleries in Paddington. The space is atmospheric with dim lighting and strategically positioned spotlights to best show off her delicate, pre-dominantly white forms with a dramatic play of shadows. Their installations – groupings and solo objects – command the space with their presence. Their staging invites contemplation and reflection upon the artist’s theme and inspiration – The Return – Odysseus’ return to Ithaca – and the ruins of Pompeii.

Moving through the darkened room, lots of meanings come to mind. Where the names Ithaca and Shore are employed we are directed to think of a sea shore or ancient cityscape. As a metaphor of a city, the vessels are perfect with individuality in their shapes yet devoid of variety in their softly textured white surfaces – stating diversity exists without naming it. Each vessel houses untold stories – anonymous, untold lives.  Let each observer reflect their own understanding.

Looking through the silent gravity of UNSW Galleries upper exhibition space towards Ithaca, Coelho’s major work

However, with their cylindrical vertical emphasis – of varying heights and breadths- modern city buildings come to mind not ancient ones. We are directed by the artist to see in the bottles and cups ancient ruins, yet each piece is perfect.

And we are told about an ancient Odyssey – one that has been referenced over successive millennia as a metaphor for inner change and discovery, yet this hasn’t been addressed. Ironic when you think that Odysseus’ journey was told and retold on the surface of Ancient Greek ceramics. In fact, when you consider the variety of Ancient Greek ceramic forms and their specific uses, whose span encompasses the human journey from birth through initiation, socialisation and death – their absence becomes conspicuous. It’s about the shapes that are missing – not the illustrations. If we aren’t told to conjure Homer and Pompeii in our imagination I wouldn’t have expected to see  the whitened shape of a krater, amphora or kylix.

Coelho’s works represent a personal statement on the human journey with the installation of beautiful domestic forms – drinking vessels. Across the foyer, Fernando Do Campo’s To Companion a Companion, presents domestic, urban works that succeed in being non-binary in reception. His work proposes the human as a companion species to birds.

The exhibits downstairs focus more on the environment and self-consciously, the reception of the works themselves.

This is an extract of a review that I wrote for the Sydney Arts Guide. To read the entire review visit the Sydney Arts Guide. Four Exhibitions worth Visitind at UNSW Galleries.

A Romance for Mr Flanagan

Have you ever looked forward to a book soooooo much that when it’s finally released you can’t bring yourself to read it? Have you coveted that book to the degree where you’ve squirrelled it away for just the right circumstances to come together to allow you the luxury of time and the indulgence of space to maximise the enjoyment you know it will provide you? And when you finally embarked on that torrent of words did their passage augur more than you even expected? And at the end of the journey when you reached Ithaca, having endured emotional travails and survived, did you experience that redemption – that revelation – that homecoming – that happily ever after?

Well, I didn’t. Not fully. Not exactly. Not quite with Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and boy, did I sit on that book- waiting for the perfect moment to begin reading it – since 2014!

The problem is, Mr Flanagan built up my expectations for a romantic journey out of existential spiritual darkness into the light of reunion and the righting of deeply entrenched wrongs with a happily ever after… but there wasn’t one.


His main character’s story had the hallmarks of romance: melodrama- beautiful moments-charismatic heroine- brooding hero – all-consuming attraction, but not the carry through. It was almost a romance but just didn’t get there.

How? Why? What happened?

Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker prize winning historical fiction, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Hmm… it begs another question, maybe he doesn’t know how to write a romance? What if he tried his best and all he could manage was that much?

How disappointing for him! To put down such a sweeping story and not manage to cross the finish line for the main protagonist!

Flawed? He must have been floored when he finished it. Luckily for him, he was handed a consolation prize to encourage him to keep on – the Man Booker Prize.

Clockwise from top left: The Narrow Riad to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan; A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught; How to Love a Duke in Ten Days by Kerrigan Byrne; Mr Cavendish, I Presume by Julia Quinn; Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas ; central illustration – inside cover art by Morgan Kane for A Kingdom of Dreams

Poor darling….

However, I believe a piddling prize like that alone won’t aid him achieve the perfect historical romance. I think he will greatly benefit from the following reading list. I’ve put it together for him keeping in mind the themes he exercises: melodrama; redemption; pathos; flawed characters; catharsis after struggle; love ethereal, undeniable and uncontrollable; self knowledge/ identity; and a strong sense of mateship.

1. Sarah Maclean’s Daring and the Duke (2020)

Cover’ of Sarah Maclean’s Daring and the Duke

Redemption, redemption, redemption! Flawed character healed by love after years of suffering and searching for his lost love.

The fanciful world building in this one makes it potentially more of an enjoyable book for women than men. Ewan, Duke of Marwick and Doriego Evans have a lot of suffering in common.

Cover: Kerigan Byrne’s How to Love a Duke in Ten Days

2. Kerrigan Byrne’s How to Love a Duke in 10 Days (2019)

Melodrama-flawed characters healed by love – abuse of power by person of responsibility leading to years of disempowerment and grief – healed by love – mateship between the three friends

Classic blend of historical romance and old fashioned melodrama.

Cover: Julia Quinn’s Mr Cavendish, I Presume

3.Julia Quinn’s Mr Cavendish, I Presume (2008)

Crippling self doubts over loss of identity, a long suffering fiancé- love bolstering and healing- humour – Julia Quinn’s light touch

This is not typical of historical romance due to the time spent with the identity crisis of the male protagonist – which is absolutely engaging. To get the full on fun elements from the melodrama the companion story The Lost Duke of Wyndham has to be read. These two books should have been published as one as there is unnecessary overlap between them. To appreciate both, leave a time gap between them when reading.

Cover: Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You

4. Lisa KleypasDreaming of You (1994)

Irrational love, a power unto itself – melodrama – a strong sense of mateship among the club workers that’s sentimental and sweet in its own way – suffering, brooding hero – pathos- forgiveness.

Another classic blend of historical romance and old fashioned melodrama.

Inside cover art by Morgan Kane for Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams

5. Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams (1989)

A warrior trying to relax into civilian life- an irrational attraction that can’t be controlled- melodrama – forgiveness and redemption – loyalties challenged – humour – pathos – dramatic tension

This one has all the charm and humour of a Golden Years of Hollywood adventure tale – think Errol Flynn or Clark Gable in rom-com mode. Sentimentality, loyalty and humour not only through the heroine’s antics but through the secondary characters supporting her.

All with HEAs. Happy reading!

3. Narrow Road to the Deep North vs Romance Genre

Book Review – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be – 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say…

***Spoiler Alert***

So if you haven’t realized over the course of the last two posts where I discuss this book, I’ll tell you now, Flanagan’s book was a tease. It’s a literary, historic fiction that won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and was lauded by the chair of judges, A.C. Grayling with the following words:

“Some years very good books win the Man Booker Prize, but this year a masterpiece has won it.”

Hmmm….my quandary – 4 stars on Goodreads or 5? Four – he built my expectations for a romance with a HEA and didn’t deliver – or Five – surely one of the most acclaimed texts of the 21st Century, studied in schools etc, how dare I even consider less than 5 stars?

The thing is, when he went there, he out-romanced romance novels. He gives us romantic melodrama and its mores – the love interest’s husband is blown up in an explosion freeing her to be with him – the jilted fiancé lies about her rival’s death – the young POW he befriends, admires, and ultimately fails to heal is revealed as his long-lost nephew – at the eleventh hour, a mere 40 pages or so before the ending, a whim of fate presents a situation to both lovers whereby they can alter their life path with a touch, but through a lack of communication, with a reliance on presumption, they don’t.

And then there is THAT moment in the bookstore where Doriego and Amy meet. It’s a rare moment in literature these days- even romance genre fiction. You see, that moment doesn’t depend on a physical attraction. The love interest isn’t sparked by fame, or talent or individual preferences for boobs or brawn. It’s sparked by a chemistry that’s almost other worldly and that moment is teased out over paragraphs.

You know the chemistry I mean: when the orchestra comes in just before the closing credits of a movie, when the hero and heroine finally kiss, when you’re made to feel what they feel? When love hits. That moment when you realise the space between you and him/her as an electrified field of resistance, highly agitated yet ineluctable and debilitating in its yearning need for equilibrium. Just a sound, a look, a touch, may send you into frenzy or dissipate the emotion in a folly of fantasy incapable of fulfilment and you rue the fatality of an attraction you cannot contain.

Find me a romance novel where the attraction isn’t about physical appearance. There are a few, but not many. You may find it in fantasy romance but in a novel featuring mere humans it’s a little rare.

Besides THAT moment that anticipates romance early-ish in the novel there is that stretch walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the close of the novel – the antithesis of THAT moment and the antithesis of the romance ride. Flanagan inverts an expected, tried-and-tested romance technique in another Brechtian lesson served complete with broken expectations and denied complacency.

In a romance novel it would be at this point in the plot where the couple have reconciled and begin their life-journey together and while the reader awaits the finality of hearing either one proclaim aloud their love. It is at this point that one or other will be physically and/or emotionally taken away e.g., the heroine is kidnapped by a rival for her love. It’s the final hurdle to the HEA. Instead of giving us a hurdle to leap, in a strange coincidence Flanagan brings these lovers into close contact. They pass each other on the bridge. Silently. They recognise each other after decades. A word, a brush of a gently swinging hand, a stall in their tread, could bring them together. We watch in slow motion, incapable of prodding them out of the trajectory of their hollow lives.

Finally, there is no HEA. Not even for a war hero. Not even for a woman alone again and childless after decades presumably grieving that short lived wartime fling.

Does Flanagan convince that love existing between a couple can uplift each individual – make each person good – and make life fulfilling?

Hmmm….perhaps he needs to read a few romances.

Previous Posts in this series are:

1.The Narrow Road to the Deep North vs Tolstoy

2. The Narrow Road to the Deep North vs The Illiad

The Artist in His Own Words

When you go to see an exhibition, especially one featuring a contemporary artist, you may find yourself having lots of conversations – both in your head and with the company you’re in. The first reaction to a work is spontaneous, as you approach. If it’s beautiful then it will engage you immediately. Will you walk closer? What if it’s original and beautiful? Does it inspire curiosity? And if it inspires curiosity is it because it has a mystery – its meaning?

Does it matter what the artist intends if it has inspired in the onlooker another state of emotion/being than that with which they walked into the space with? But if art is about the communication of ideas, the conveying of emotions, beliefs, thoughts, then shouldn’t the artist’s message be clear. And then, in a multicultural, pluralistic society are there enough common visual references to convey these ideas, emotions and beliefs without the written or spoken word? It’s a challenge, that’s for sure.

In my previous post I reviewed James McGrath‘s Luscus. I was unable to attend the talk he gave on it before I attended the Olsen Gallery. Here I’d like to share the Youtube AV of that talk.

Interview at Olsen Gallery with James Grath and Robbie Buck

James McGrath’s Luscus is showing at Olsen Gallery, 63 Jersey Rd, Woollahra, until May 29, 2021.

Art Review: James McGrath’s Luscus

Olsen Gallery, Woollahra

James McGrath’s Cloud Flora with Bird, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 150 x 190

With his exhibition of works, Luscus, mixed media artist James McGrath intends to challenge the viewer’s innately isolated lens. He has other stated aims as well referencing the current demise of our natural world, climate change denial and a reconciliation of western artists and their portrayal of the Australian landscape. To pack all of this in a homogenous exhibition is quite a challenge. What we are presented with at the Olsen Gallery are groupings of works – mixed media and film with a tenuous bond to each other – that of referencing carefully curated periods in art history.

What do they all have in common – even in a limited sense? The Baroque period’s preoccupation with classical subject matter, its floral still life, the drama of its landscapes. However subtle or obvious McGrath, takes an element from art history and tweaks it before quoting it.

In the first series of oils on canvas with acrylic gel overlays each image seems to portray a marble statue from the Classical Period – or severe style- of Greek sculpture. This period is recognisable for its idealised human figures with severe or expressionless faces in white marble. It is the attitude of the figure that conveys their story – their faces are masklike. These statues have come down to us imperfect – a missing hand, foot, nose – something. They are iconic of their period and here McGrath has taken them and overlaid a rose coloured gel with an ocular hole pierced through. You can be forgiven for thinking that he is relating them to the art world and referencing them in the same way Warhol referenced pop culture with Marilyn Monroe.

Got it? Maybe not. The name of the exhibition is Luscus, so beware of declaring yourself too soon. If the statues are somewhat familiar their facial expressions may force you to think again. Look closer. Think back to those Renaissance masters and their subject matters…will you recognise a figure or two lifted from a famous canvas or wood panel and re-rendered in black and white to be perceived as Ancient Greek statues? These quirky pictures and their abstruse references would surely have amused Dali.

James McGrath’s Luscus Diptych, 2021, Oil on Canvas mounted to board, 170x150cm

In Luscus and Luscus II we are presented with what appears at a distance to be blown up silvertone photographs of dense eucalypt forests completed with that pierced acrylic gel overlay. However something isn’t quite right – and it’s not the rendering. It’s the subject matter. The trunks of the trees are centred too symmetrically in the frame, and the branches of the trees have been staged carefully to circulate the eyes around the image. Can it really be a photograph? Up close, you see McGrath’s technical mastery of a photo-real painting style with the added treat of painterly texture.  

Again, what you first see is not the only way of seeing.

As an extension of these two paintings, and referencing the first seven works depicting “classical statues” are the five minute video Luscus, and the Luscus Diptych, an oil on canvas mounted onto board. These related works were physically distanced in the Gallery which is unfortunate as although the exhibition space is not huge, the two works enjoy a symbiosis that adds to their reception. In both we see the depiction of Aphrodite as a statue in an Australian flora environment. She is ‘photographed’ and overlaid on a photo-real canvas in the painting. On video she is in a nebulous space admiring the circulating banksia as she is being admired through the curated vision of a moving, colour-changing pierced gel which in turn is watched on a screen. The video has a flirtation between western art represented by Aphrodite and Australian flora that isn’t achieved by the canvas alone.

The ten minute video, Ocular Fleur, is similarly distanced from its painted counterpart, Cloud Flora with Bird. These impressive interiors including Cloud Flora and Stairs, have more success in appealing to a historical art aesthetic than making a strong statement about climate denial. They are a delight to look at. Cloud Flora with Bird gives away, with it’s title, an extra treat with these images that reference the work of the great European masters – an unobstrusive piece of Australiana. Find the parrot? It’s easier when standing before the canvas. S/he is rendered with the intense hue of colour the Australian light gives to our landscapes as opposed to the subtler homogeneity of colour range/hue in the rest of the painting – much more about European light and indoors.

Natura Venor I, II and III could be part of a separate exhibition by McGrath. The subject matter lends from the Baroque, from Rubens and Dutch still life, but they play more with expectations than a way of seeing the world. Natura Venor I, II and III are a series of oils on canvas that have a big issue to deal with – what we have done to the environment. They take on Rubens style in their subject matter, their drama, their colour and their execution. In Natura Venor III, the brushstrokes run quickly over the canvas -with the motion of the hunt, the falling of the arrangement of flowers and even the structure of tree. Standing in front of them I couldn’t help but wish they were bigger – there is such scope to be overwhelmed by them.

James McGrath’s Natura Venor I, Oil on Canvas, 90 x 145cm

Instead of hunting a boar, McGrath has the collared dogs – humankind’s best friend and accomplice- besetting flowers from a bouquet desired for its role in adorning a home that have been made famous by Dutch still life painters. The dogs are ravaging that part of nature that is useful to humankind.

The works exhibited in Luscus are beautiful and quirky and can be a little disturbing when considering the snarling dogs, or mind bending when considering his references but his stated messages aren’t always clear. Overall McGrath’s work is engaging and impressive.

Luscus is showing at Olsen Gallery, 63 Jersey Rd, Woollahra, until May 29.

This review was first published in the Sydney Arts Guide.

Theatre Review: Ken Ludwig’s, The Game’s Afoot or ‘Holmes for The Holidays’

Arts Theatre Cronulla: 7th May – 12th June

Like mystery? Like Hollywood goofballs? A satire on genre? A sendup of preening thespians? Big comedy, big acting, big laughs? Then head down south to the Arts Theatre Cronulla.

Director, Tom Richards, Assistant Directors, Meili Bookluck and Caitlain Cowan, and the ensemble cast and crew of Arts Theatre Cronulla have delivered another polished, hilarious production with Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot.

Hilarious hijinks – The Seance scene, From left to right: SImon Bright (Luke Austin), Martha Gillette (Narelle Jaeger), Aggie Wheeler (Rachele Edson), Daria Chase (Margareta Moir) standing, William Gillette (Gary Clark), Felix Geisel (Michael Barlow) and Madge Geisel (Jayne O’Connell) – Photo: Port Hacking Camera Club

The play opens with the closing scene of a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery beautifully hammed out by a cast of actors portraying a cast of actors and thus heralding in the scale of the comedy. It’s physical, it’s big and entirely believable.  As the players playing players take their bows a gunman from the audience shoots the lead actor, William Gillette (Gary Clark). This instigates an invitation to his fellow actors and the theatre critic, Daria Chase, to his Connecticut Castle for a Christmas get together and his amateur sleuthing into the attempt on his life.

Set in 1936 the play sends up not only Sherlock Holmes but whodunits, séances, a delusional actor who dons his character’s profession in real life, stage actors, theatre critics and fandom. Set in America, a challenge is posed to maintain the US accent which is mostly met. Another challenge is in the delivery of Willam Gillette’s character. Here we have an Australian actor portraying an American actor with a fixation on a famous English character. Having referenced Sherlock Holmes in the title, the advertising and in the stage life of William Gillette, an expectation to see him parodied on stage isn’t quite met. Does it detract from the flow of the show or the laughs – in no way.

Co-conspirators perpetrating laughs – Felix Geisel (Michael Barlow) and William Gillette (Gary Clark). Photography: Port Hacking Camera Club

The show is a rolling farce delivered by a very capable ensemble cast. Where the script has been extended with mime and stage business it becomes hilarious – a real treat. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink takes on a whole other meaning in the eyes and shoulders of William (Gary Clark) and Felix (Michael Barlow). Their physical comedy is perfectly timed.

Inspector Goring (Arianne Hough) processing William Gillette’s (Gary Clark) mother’s (Narelle Jaeger) ‘evidence’. Photo: Port Hacking Camera Club

Among a talented and cohesive cast it’s hard to single out a particular performance, they all do so well. Narelle Jaeger as Martha Gillette has just the right amount of motherly immersion and sangfroid as a foil to her son’s desperation; there’s the plasticity of Arianne Hough’s facial features and her comic timing; the way Margareta Moir, as the despised critic Daria Chase, commands the stage with her presence and then diminishes to a human prop with the problem of her absent presence (no spoilers); Jayne O’Connell’s delivery of brassy American stage starlet Madge Geisel could set the era with her performance alone; and then there’s the séance – you’ll die laughing. The cast is rounded out with strong performances from Rachele Edson and Luke Austin.

The talented ensemble cast of Arts Theatre Cronulla’s production of the Game’s Afoot, from left to right: Narelle Jaeger, Gary Clark. On the sofa: Michael Barlow, Margareta Moir, Jayne O’Connell, and standing from left to right: Arianne Hough, Rachele Edson, Luke Austin and shooter/stagehand, Daniel Ison – Photography: Port Hacking Camera Club

Aiding the comedy is the clever set of James Bruce, Tom Richards and Neil Moulang. They have gone all out including a revolving room, a staircase and a scenic balcony extending upstage through a central door. It’s not just pretty but functional as the revolve’s capabilities are milked for comic effect.

Witty one-liners, clever banter, acerbic wit peppered through a funny, well-paced plot that’s extended with delightful stage business: the game’s afoot and running with plenty of laughs.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.artstheatrecronulla.com.au/thegamesafoot or over the phone after 10am 95232779

This review was first published in the Sydney Arts Guide on 13th May as:


2. Flanagan’s, ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’ vs the Illiad

Book Review – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

***Spoiler alert***

Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be – 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say…

This book could obliquely be summarised as shifting sands. It’s pushed in one direction at the same time being pulled back from another perspective and like a whirly-whirly you may have to fall out of its thrall to see what’s going on.

It begins with the main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, and follows his stream of consciousness until he takes us back to WWII for a brief glimpse of the Middle East before ditching us into the mire of Siam. Here we spend a day with the Australian POWs toiling on Japan’s infamous human rights atrocity, the Siam to Burma railroad – the Death Railroad.

The cover of Richard Flanagan's The arrow Road to the Deep North over WWII newspaper articles and a map of Siam from before WWII.

With his beautifully poignant prose, Flanagan talks to us about human relationships – courage, stamina, small mindedness, cruelty, camaraderie, and the interrelatedness of personal plights and emotional/spiritual ones. Here the book loses its single protagonist and enfolds an ensemble of characters into its purview. This is where Flanagan excels. This is what I was expecting from him – catharsis – an overwhelming cleansing with pure admiration for the moral victory rising from enduring excruciating pain, outrage and achieving survival.

The book is written in several sections – this one can stand alone. It brings to mind Homer’s Illiad.

Both books describe episodes in wartime, including personal ones. Here each member of the POW community is placed within the framework of who they were before the war and how they relate to their fellow soldiers and antagonist in their harrowing present. Absent is a sense of God’s presence. The pagan gods of Olympus are part of the fabric of the War for Homer – whereas for Flanagan, if God exists he has forsaken the POWs. Flanagan’s heroes have only a community that has been thrust upon them by the commonality of being POWs together.

But the story doesn’t stop here. Rising above the muck of humanity is a story, or trope if you like, he has often told – one of pain, fatality, emotional distance and ultimately the redemptive power of love. He continues the stories of the soldiers he has introduced us to in the POW camp – both the Japanese persecutors and the Australian survivors.

Having experienced the indifference, the superiority and the cruelty of the Japanese officers, as a reader we expect some sort of karmic release after the war. We don’t get one. This book is not about salving the atrocities of war – it iterates the waste, the pointlessness of war and to a slightly limited degree human existence.

A downer? Yes and no. No, in that Flanagan doesn’t say that life has no value. He is saying that love – the right kind of romantic/eros love – the type we stake our hopes upon for a happily ever after – not only gives life value but it can heal and uplift the soul.

Contradictorily, there is no happily ever after in this book: although for a brief moment on the Sydney Harbour Bridge we are teased with its possibility. Dorrigo Evans, the serial cheat doesn’t get a happy ending. It’s perhaps the morally correct ending he deserves – if you believe his fiancé didn’t realise she was lying when she reported to him the death of his lover, Amy. If you believe his fiancé lied, then perhaps she too deserved the life he gave her. Their marriage was for Dorrigo more soul destroying than his experiences in the prison camp – for there his memories and thoughts of Amy sustained him.

In the denouement, if we are looking for justice and retribution via karma, we don’t get it. What we see in Nakamura, the cruel war criminal, is the redemptive power of love and family. Over time, Nakamura realises the love of the woman he chose to marry. He becomes a gentle, moral man who no one, not even himself, can reconcile with the monster he was during the war. He goes on to live a full life surrounded by family, warmth and respect – a better life than the majority of the returning Australian POWs.

Having travelled life’s path with Dorrigo can we say whether he is a good man? He was a war hero. He risked his life for his family, despite being emotionally absent and transferring to them a pattern of broken expectations to live by. He lived by the social expectations of the times – had he flouted social expectations and conventions and not married Ella and not committed his flagrant infidelities would he have been a good man?

More to the point, could he have been a good man had he married the right woman? Flanagan drives this point almost all the way home. But do we believe him? Without a Happily-Ever-After for the main character, how can a message about the redemptive power of love between man and a woman be plausible?

Perhaps Mr Flanagan needed to read a romance or two.

For a further discussion about the romance/love story elements of this book:

1.Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North vs Tolstoy

1. Flanagan’s, ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’ vs Tolstoy

Book Review – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

***Spoiler alert***

Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be- 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say. Is it 5 stars for me? It’s ambitious and critically acclaimed, but it’s not what I expected from Flanagan and it was jarring. I had to put myself in the mindset that this is high literature and there is a method in the jarring, Brechtian approach of Flanagan’s romance. Yes, romance, but not as a romance reader would recognise.

Part of my problem sprang from the fact that I had gone on a 2 year romance reading binge before I picked it up. This book I had squirreled away for a perfect time to be swept away in torrents of pathos and catharsis like I had with The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould’s Book of Fish. I expected this book to weigh me down with the inadequacies of its flawed characters and then raise me up with the beauty of their unexpected forgiveness and belated understanding – or mine of the characters I had judged and exiled from the shelter of my sympathies. I expected to shed tears and have my faith reaffirmed in the power of love gently simmering away under the surface of emotional indolence.

The cover of Richard Flanagan's The arrow Road to the Deep North over WWII newspaper articles and a map of Siam from before WWII.

What I didn’t expect was a romantic love story – not in any major contribution to the narrative, anyway.

I did not expect the most beautiful prose around that very special moment when love strikes that sweeps away history-yet-to-be-written and affects multiple lives around it. And then I read a bookshop in Adeliade. From hence forward I shall always equate dust motes with champagne, white tablecloths and roses as accoutrements of Romance. Having spent two years binge reading romance novels – contemporary, historic, rom-com, erotic and written over the span of the last 40 years (back to Johanna Lindsay, Judith Mc Naught, Shirley Busbee, Kathleen E Woodiwiss and through the 90s, 00s, 10s to the present) not once was there a moment in any of them like the one in the book shop when Dorrigo Evans first encounters Amy. The only other moment in literature I can compare it to is the one at the ball when Vronsky first sees Anna in Anna Karenina. (Of course you can binge read romance forever without being able to say you’ve covered it. That moment has to be somewhere but I’ve missed it, or perhaps it wasn’t presented as lyrically for it to have stayed with me.)

Dorrigo’s bookshop encounter is based on a belief in being struck by a love that is not based on physical beauty, nor wit, nor logic, nor any other trope you may read in romance, but on a charisma all of its own – its own entity, energy, power. A chemistry that is built up to, or explained away often in romance novels but rarely, it seems, exists in of itself – the chemistry separate to the psychology.

Flanagan and Tolstoy have different motives with their books. Tolstoy explores love between a man and a woman through various relationships. He demonstrates that a good relationship is a healthy relationship, sanctioned by society, where the individuals become more productive and can contribute more to society by their happy union. He asks the question can romantic love or marital love fulfil an individual’s purpose and his responsibilities to society? When the relationship is based on infatuation and the headiness of erotic love that does not transform and lift the characters to better fulfil their duty to the community – and in Tolstoy’s example –  allow them to achieve meaning, as is the case with Anna’s expectations, tragedy ensues.

Knowing from the get-go that the relationship between Dorrigo and Amy is not sanctioned by society and that it is one of cheating a man who has been her harbour and his uncle, bodes ill especially when you consider that this is a historical fiction. I couldn’t help thinking of Tolstoy’s book. Flanagan doesn’t ask can erotic love alone fulfil the human condition as does Tolstoy’s. He asks repeatedly what makes a man good. What does a man need to make him good? The love of a woman, whose man is in the throes of this charisma-entity that we call love?

***spoiler alert***

But this is not a Romance. Certainly not one as defined by romance critic, Jen Prokop from JenReadsRomance, nor romance writer Sarah Maclean, both of the Fated Mated podcast, on their episode, What Makes A Romance Novel a Romance Novel. In this episode I think it’s Jen who says something along the lines that the reader is left with the belief that the couple are better together than they are apart. As Dorrigo’s life plays out we are left with the conviction that had he believed Amy had survived the blast in the hotel, that he wouldn’t have married Ella and that he would have been the good man – the good husband- the good father and not believed himself a fake – the shell of a good man in the shape of a war hero.

Flanagan doesn’t allow us the comfortable ride of romance with an assured Happily Ever After. In fact he chops up the retelling of the relationship between Dorrigo and Amy in real time with future scenes from Dorrigo’s experiences in the Japanese POW camp as they build the Death Railway – a salute to Brecht – if you want to learn something from a story don’t get too emotionally involved in the storyline – alienation effect. My problem is that it’s written so beautifully, it’s hard to disentangle myself from their beautifully doomed affair. It’s an extramarital affair for Amy and that goes against my expectations for romance and makes for a harder read especially when so many romance triggers have been set off. Cutting to the prison camp and then back again heightens the jarring rhythm.

There is another part to this book that is gratifying as expected and that is the day spent with the Australian diggers in the prison camp. The themes of what makes a good man and can the love between a man and his wife transform him, continue in the years after the war is over. These will be covered in Part 2 of this review:

2. Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North vs the Illiad

Book Review: Imperial Passions- Porta Aurea

“Sailors have told me of the two currents that run through the Bosphorus. One is the surface current of murky blue water; the other is the deeper, hidden river that can drag a ship in the opposite direction, sometimes into the deep. My life has been like that of a ship sailing that treacherous way- living the quiet life of a Roman woman, and yet with invisible streams pilling me into an altogether different place…” Anna Dalassena

Eileen Stephenson’s Imperial Passions: Porta Aurea is a very special book – unique even- in that it’s a historical fiction set in Medieval Byzantium that chronicles the life of an extraordinary woman, a powerful political figure, a wife, mother, granddaughter and orphan, and is told by a woman.

Byzantine fiction doesn’t feature prominently in ranges of historical fiction. It’s almost the forgotten history of Europe. It gets trundled out as an afterthought to the retelling of the Crusades or as a footnote to the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire. Its obscurity to the general reading public have made it a rich treasure trove of colour, politics, medieval weaponry and war tactics for fantasy novelists to explore – just ask George R .R. Martin.

Writers who come to it are almost invariably male and tell its history from a male perspective – i.e., wars, thrones, battles, insurgency and religious upheavals. Men writing about men with women crossing t’s on marriage contracts. However, Byzantium had quite a few powerful women – wives of caesars and mothers of emperors and a few others who lived amazing lives that re-charted history.

Anna Dalassena (c1020 – c1102 CE) was one of these women. Made Augusta (Empress) by her son, Alexius Comnenus, she ruled the Empire in his stead when he was on campaign. It was not a role she was born to but one that she rose to and some may say orchestrated for herself. This history is a personal one – passing through the gynaecium (women’s quarters) and the insular concerns of a young Byzantine girl as she matures.

Eileen Stephenson’s retelling of her life begins with Anna the orphaned teenager from a powerful military family, hoping for marriage so she can take her place in society. Instead, she flees the capital with her family to endure exile as her their favour is lost and re-established in the royal court.

We see Anna being groomed to the role of household matriarch by her grandmother. She has to overcome prejudices of servants as she grows into her responsibilities and learn the family trade at the docks. We see her fall in love and navigate the dictates of decorum in her courtship with John Comnenus, procuring the approval of both families, as well as enduring delays caused by political intrigues. We see the plight she has avoided by marrying a good man when we witness, through her eyes, the beating and mistreatment of her cousin at the hands of the future emperor, Constantine Doukas.

The colourful mosaic that was Byzantium (Constantinople) is brought to life through Anna’s everyday dealings– its monasteries, court intrigues, riots, exorbitant taxes and family alliances. We travel its market streets on litters and experience the important world of the docks in her activities warehousing goods for trade. We are treated to cameos of famous personalities of her era e.g., Harold Hardrada, Empress Zoe, the future Empress Evdokia, the future Emperor Romanus Diogenes. In the case of Evdokia – she is written in as a personal friend and Romanus as a family member. Attention is paid to infusing the story with the culturally important religious dictates that shaped the calendar year for this highly religious society.

What’s engagingly lovely about this story is that it’s a woman’s tale. We see and understand as much political intrigue a noblewoman of her day would have been privy to while living through its consequences on the ground. We live in the microcosm of a woman’s life. We mature with her and at the end of the novel are left behind with her as a waiting woman to the new Empress when her brother-in-law takes the throne. The ending is just the beginning of the story and the world building is so complete that it is hard to leave it after the final page has been turned.

This story has a lot of characters with long and unusual names and, being historical fiction, the same name is often repeated. A list of the main characters is given as well as a glossary of nouns and a map of Constantinople to help orientate the reader. Regardless, I can’t help wanting genealogical trees – with so many names and unusual ones they would help as a reminder of relationships.

Eileen Stephenson well deserves the accolades she has accrues for Imperial Passions: Porta Aurea. (1) This is a well written book, clear and direct in its delivery– it’s the start of a saga. If it begins with a bit of a YA feel, it grows beyond it with its main character as she matures. Anna Dalassena is portrayed as a keen observer of her day. By including Constantine Doukas and Evdokia Makrembolitissa, Eileen Stephenson is teasing us with what is to come. Will his reign be covered in the next book or will it be in a future one? Anna Dalassena was a witness to many changes on the Imperial throne. Will Romanus Diogenes take the narrative to the fateful Battle of Manzikert and beyond? With the sequel coming out later this year it will be interesting to see Anna in a more pro-active role as the saga continues.

  • IndieBRAG medallion; Discovered Diamond; Historical Novel Society-Editor’s Choice Award; Semi-finalist – Chanticleer Book Reviews Chaucer Award for Pre-1750 Literature