I loved The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a murder mystery in which a police detective solves a four-hundred-year-old crime while lying immobile in a hospital bed. Alan Grant, with the enthusiastic help of a young American working at the British Museum, examines the facts behind Richard III’s supposed murder of the Princes in the Tower and convincingly argues that the villain was actually . . . well, you’ll have to read it to find out. While I don’t think Richard III was quite as saintly as this author believes, the novel was well researched and fascinating, and I was amused (in a horrified sort of way) by the descriptions of the 1950s hospital setting (for instance, Alan lying in bed and CHAIN-SMOKING). It was especially interesting to read about Richard III, given the recent (disputed) discovery of his skeleton under a car park in Leicester. And yes, I did spend the entire book with this song stuck in my brain (“Can you imagine it, I’m the last Plantagenet . . .”). I’m also happy to say that Sydney City Libraries lived up to expectations and provided me with a lovely old volume from the library stacks – not quite a first edition, but pretty close (see picture).
I’ve also been engrossed in Fun Home, a funny, sad, insightful graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (of Bechdel Test fame) about her father, who died when she was at college. She found it difficult to grieve, partly because he’d been such a complicated, miserable, angry person, and partly because she’d grown up in a family that suppressed emotions and unpleasant realities. At his funeral, she wonders, “What would happen if we spoke the truth?” and when a well-meaning neighbour says consolingly, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways”, she pictures herself screaming, “There’s no mystery! He killed himself because he was a manic-depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one more second!” The story of her father’s secret homosexual life (which included criminal charges and being ordered into psychiatric therapy) is told in conjunction with Alison’s own, much happier, coming-out story. My only criticism would be that there were an awful lot of references to Important Books (from The Odyssey and Ulysses to As I Lay Dying and The Great Gatsby), which seemed to have more to do with the author saying, “Look how well read I am!” than with the story being told.
A different take on the subject of coming out was provided by James Howe in Totally Joe, an endearing and funny middle-grade novel about twelve-year-old Joe and his friends (and enemies). While it’s definitely an Issues Novel, the characters are nuanced and the whole idea of Life Lessons is incorporated in an amusing way – Joe has to write an ‘alphabiography’ for English class and explain what he’s learned about life at the end of each chapter. His Life Lessons range from “Middle school is like being trapped in a reality show where there’s no way off the island and you’re always a loser” (after he’s falsely accused of kissing the boy he has a crush on) to “Religion is only as good as the people using it” (after his friend’s proposal for a Gay-Straight Alliance group at school is viciously opposed by the religious parents of the school bully). I’m a bit wary of middle-grade books that deal with pre-adolescent sexuality, whether gay or straight, but this book is about (very restrained) romance rather than sex. While Joe briefly has a boyfriend, their relationship mostly consists of them hanging out with their group of friends, dressing up as Bert and Ernie for Halloween, and on one occasion, holding hands “for all of maybe five seconds” (and Joe thinks kissing sounds disgusting, although maybe in about four years’ time, “I’ll be ready to exchange saliva”). It was nice to see Joe had supportive adults around him (his parents, his aunt, his English teacher who has a gay son), but there were also adults who needed time to grow into acceptance (his grandparents, his school principal) and some realistically unrepentant bigots (the school bully and his family).
Finally, Tea with Arwa: One woman’s story of faith, family and finding a home in Australia by Arwa El Masri was a gentle, simply told account of the life of a “proud and happy Muslim Australian woman”. Arwa’s parents had been exiled from Palestine after the Israeli occupation when they were small children, and although they eventually established a comfortable, middle-class life in Saudi Arabia (her father was an engineer and her mother a teacher), they were not permitted to become Saudi citizens, so they decided to migrate to Australia. Arwa’s story is unremarkable compared to some recent stories of migration – she herself didn’t flee a war-torn nation or arrive here in a leaky boat, her parents simply decided, quite reasonably, that their children would have a better future in a country where the family could become citizens. Arwa, arriving here as a primary school student with limited English literacy skills, had some difficulties adjusting to co-educational schools where students were often disrespectful to teachers and she occasionally faced racism, but just as often, she found Australians to be kind, helpful and interested in learning more about her life.
Arwa is careful to distinguish her religious beliefs from the cultural and family traditions of the Middle East, although it’s clear that both are immensely important to her and not to be criticised. For example, she feels it’s a little unfair that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, because there’s nothing in the Quran that expressly forbids it – but it’s okay, because they all have chauffeurs! She also states that “racism and prejudice do not exist under Islam” and that it’s a religion of “peace and harmony” (especially sad to read, given the hundreds of thousands of Muslims currently torturing and murdering one another in various parts of the world, not that Jews and Christians are much better). She has a tendency to state beliefs as though they are facts, and when this contradicts scientific evidence, well, “some aspects of science are yet to catch up to the Quran’s teachings”. She also discusses her decision, as a young married woman, to resume wearing the hijab, which she regards as “a simple way for a woman to protect herself against unwanted objectionable sexual attention in a world that sexualises women”. (Oh, if only putting on a veil really did provide magical protection against sexual harassment and assault. Then there’d be no rape or violence against women in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, but alas, that’s not true.) Anyway, this is a good reminder that multiculturalism means accepting the values and beliefs of everyone in society (providing they don’t break the law), even when those values clash with those of a modern, secular society. Multiculturalism is about much more than lots of yummy new foods, although a key part of Arwa’s philosophy is that sharing food is an important part of cross-cultural communication. Accordingly, the book includes a number of delicious-sounding recipes, from pavlova and sausage rolls with a Middle Eastern twist, to falafel, babaganoush and tabouli, with many descriptions of the meals Arwa has shared with family and friends. This would be a great book to give to your auntie/neighbour/work colleague who constantly complains about migrants taking over Australia but loves to cook – it might shift her ideas a little, as Arwa seems like a nice person to sit down with for a cup of tea and a chat.