I absolutely loved Restoration by Rose Tremain, about a medical student in Restoration-era England who attracts the patronage of King Charles II after (accidentally) saving the life of the King’s spaniel. Robert Merivel is a most endearing character, despite his many faults, which include laziness, gluttony and a complete inability to resist temptation. He has a good heart and a robust sense of humour, and he humbly accepts his punishment when he does the unforgivable and falls in love with the King’s mistress. All the other characters are equally vivid and interesting, but my favourite is Merivel’s best friend, Pearce, who works at a remote Quaker-run lunatic asylum. The author does a wonderful job of recreating the era in a manner that is accessible without feeling too ‘modern’. It’s true that Merivel’s beliefs about medicine are sometimes extremely progressive for his time (for example, he questions bloodletting as a cure and refers to the spread of the “plague germ”), but then, he is meant to be a rationalist in a rapidly changing world. I actually read this book because the sequel, Merivel, was recently published and sounded very interesting, but Restoration is so perfect and complete in itself (ending in exactly the right place) that I wonder why it needed a sequel. However, I can certainly understand why the author would want to spend more time with Robert Merivel, so I’ll probably read Merivel, too – just not right now.
I also enjoyed The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, a charming story about a group of women working at a grand Sydney department store in the 1950s. I loved the descriptions of familiar Sydney experiences: eating lunch by the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park; catching the train from Wynyard Station; strolling through Martin Place and giving in to the temptation “to walk along the GPO colonnade”. (The only unfamiliar bits were the trams and eating ice-creams at Cahill’s, both before my time.) The author, an Australian who moved to England in 1968 and never moved back, was clearly glad to escape a narrow-minded society that provided her with very limited options. Marriage was then the only acceptable goal for women, although Australian men aren’t exactly portrayed as prizes in this book. For example, Patty’s husband is described as a “drongo . . . neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate”, while Fay’s two previous lovers have dumped her without marrying her. Meanwhile, young Lisa longs to accept the university scholarship she’s been offered, but her father refuses to sign the permission form (“I can’t see what you want with exams and first-class honours and universities and all that when you’re a girl”). Luckily, Lisa and Fay are taken under the wing of Magda, the ‘Continental’ refugee who happens to have a lot of suave, cultured male friends, and even Patty manages to put aside her bitterness and reach for happiness. The plot of this book is utterly predictable, but that doesn’t matter – read this for the gorgeous, detailed descriptions, the spot-on dialogue and the sympathetic portrayal of female friendship.
Finally, I’ve been chortling my way through The Oopsatoreum, by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse Museum. This is an entertaining look at the life of Henry Archibald Mintox (1880–1967), one of Australia’s “most fearless inventors”, whose “sheer diversity of his legacy is matched only by its great lack of practical relevance”. Mr Mintox produced “a startling range of prototype inventions from his back shed in Burrumbuttock, New South Wales, and came to be known as the ‘Edison of Australia’, although only within his own family and at his own insistence.” Among his useless inventions were a ‘lesson trap’ (a giant cage baited with a cupcake for luring in schoolchildren; after being trapped, they’d receive “a stern lecture on the perils of tooth decay”); an automated ‘dog walker’ that reeled in the dog after thirty minutes; and a ‘handshake gauge’ for testing the trustworthiness of job applicants. The book consists of photographs of the inventions with short explanations of their history, along with some illustrations in the form of Mr Mintox’s ‘plans’. Mr Mintox is, of course, a figment of Shaun Tan’s imagination, but the ‘inventions’ are actual objects from the Powerhouse Museum (the ‘handshake gauge’, for instance, is “an artificial hand for use with a resuscitation mannequin in first-aid training”). This is a very funny book, let down only by some design flaws (for example, the designer has chosen to place a lot of the illustrations over two adjacent pages, causing details to become invisible where the pages meet the book’s spine; also, the publishers forgot to employ a proofreader). But I’m sure less persnickety readers will overlook this, and it’s certainly a book that Shaun Tan’s many fans will enjoy – and, according to his website, there’s an accompanying exhibition planned for 2013 at the Powerhouse Museum.