Month: January 2023

Book review – Forever Home, by Graham Norton

Title: Forever Home

Author: Graham Norton

Publisher: Coronet/Hachette, 2022; RRP: $32.90

The Author

Graham Norton is a UK comedian and television presenter, popularly known for his BBC self-titled chat show which is aired in Australia on the 10 Network.  Forever Home is Graham’s third novel.

The Book

I would suggest comedians are perceptive observers of human behaviour. Success as a comedian comes from the unique perspectives they afford their audiences when recounting their observations. Forever Home is no exception, but dark.

Lurking within this story is a murder mystery thriller.  However, there is no eagle-eyed detective disguised as a priest, nor sharp witted elderly lady, and not a Belgian moustache in sight. The villain, or the mostly likely villain, is in a nursing home dementia ward. 

The main character, Carol Crottie, could best be described as unfortunate.  She is the daughter of a self-made mid-century kitsch couple, founders of Crottie’s Cafes.  Is that a deliberate tempting for a slip of the tongue?

Carol’s first marriage ended dismally in divorce. Emotionally alone, she continued with the hum drum of life, raising her only son and working as a teacher.  Carol gets another chance at love when she meets Declan and for several years love blinds her to the oddities surrounding her.

The story opens as Carol’s life is again taking a turn for the worse. Declan has Alzheimer’s, and his now adult children have put him in a nursing home and are selling the family home, evicting Carol in the process.

Graham Norton. Image: Hachette

Graham begins this story with a description of an ordinary terrace of houses in an ordinary Irish village.  I liked this opening; it had an identifiable sense of realism. Often when writers write about real life, their stories are filled with prostitutes, drug addicts and/or the desperately down and out.  Not so with Forever Home.  The characters appear suburban and ordinary in a 21st century way, until Graham peels back the hidden layers of smouldering drama and angst that often exist under the guise of ordinariness.

The story line, with its underlying mystery, and the interplay between the various characters make it good holiday reading. Graham has paced the story well and his comedian’s sense of timing comes to the fore. Most readers should find this an entertaining read, never mind the deeper issues on display.

Some social issues/constructs to get a run in this story include same-sex marriage, which I initially felt was a little cliched, surrogacy, exploitation of the elderly by their children, the complexity of second relationships and the accompanying mixed families, and the tension between stepparents and children.  These issues are aired more than explored.

Watch an interview with Graham Norton about Forever Home

@ an post

One of Carol’s sisters has moved to Scotland and is clearly in a same-sex relationship, but the relationship is not acknowledged openly by Carol’s parents.  However, I suspect this was added more to deepen the reader’s view of the relationship between Carol and her mother than to comment on inter-generational acceptance of same-sex relationships.

Graham subtly uses social standing and public image – how we feel we are perceived by the community around us – as a potential threat to Carol and her parents. It also plays a part in her relationship with Declan, an often-underrated source for dramatic tension.

I enjoyed this story, its twists and turns, its use of modern language , social values and constructs.  At one stage the plot seemed obvious but like many obvious plots the only thing obvious is that the ending will be different to what you expect.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – The Queens of Sarmiento Park, by Camila Sosa Villada

Title: The Queens of Sarmiento Park

Author: Camila Sosa Villada, translated by Kit Maude

Publisher: Hachette UK/Virago Press; RRP $29.99

There are three distinct themes and voices in The Queens of Sarmiento Park, all set within a narrative construct interweaving pure fiction with biographical details of the author’s life, and the realities of being transgender in a world that has always denied them validity.

 Sarmiento Park is as an actual park in Argentina. In this work the author often refers to her characters by the Latin American term travesti, referring to the word ‘transgender’ as a construct of Northern academia. Travesti, she states in the author notes at the beginning, is an ancient word that speaks more honestly of how transgender people are viewed by society generally and one, though an insult, Latin American travesti claim as their own.

In real life, Camila Sosa Villada started to dress as a girl at the age of fifteen. At eighteen she left home to study but, without income and unable to find employment to pay for food and a roof over her head because her ID identified her as male, turned to prostitution. She also continued to write while attending the National University studying theatre. Las Malas (‘Bad Girls‘, published by Virago as The Queens of Sarmiento Park), her first novel, was published in Spanish in 2019 and was a major success. It has been translated into a number of languages and won international awards. These include the Premio Sor Juana de la Cruz (Mexico), the Grand Prix de l’Héroïne-Madame Figaro (France) and the Premio València de Narrativa en Castellano (Spain). It also won the Guadalajara International Book Fair Award for Spanish literature written for women.

Initially struggling to find where it fits in literary nomenclature, I found a number of references to it as a work of auto-fiction. Auto-fiction is defined as a work of fiction where the narrator  or main character is understood to be the author, and which explores the author’s real-life story using technical and fictional devices. It especially serves as providing a space about sensitive personal experiences which might otherwise expose them to abuse, making it a literary device of particular value to those who are marginalised.

Read a sample of The Queens of Sarmiento Park

@ hachette

Events, circumstances, characters and experiences described in two of the three distinct and separate themes are held together by the third: the biographical contentment which acts like string, binding all three separate components into an internally consistent whole.   

The biographical component includes early years as a confused and guilty boy concealing his growing awareness of his true self, violently disapproving parents and their own highly dysfunctional relationship.  It continues to when he finally leaves his home to continue his studying, which involves leading a double life with the group of girls he studies with up till where prostitution became necessary for survival.  

The second theme is the world of the travesti when his older travesti self has accepted this is who he is and what it is to live the full travesti life, and including the realities of what that life is, from how to hide the inevitable four o’clock shadow to sex transplants, the loneliness of being disowned by family and the daily dangers encountered simply walking down the street. It also includes the growing realisation that the only real source of income for all travesti is by prostitution. This is shown mixing both fictional and non-fictional elements.

The third theme is the subject of prostitution itself. This includes what it is to live fully as both prostitute and specifically as transgender.  Woven into these sections are details about the double standards transgender prostitutes encounter in their work through the type of clients they meet, and the violence they regularly encounter from the public and the police.

The plot, which ties fictional and non-fictional elements with a dash of the fantastical, is centred around a newborn baby boy found dumped in a Sarmiento Park ditch and taken home by Encarna, a 178-year-old travesti, to a fabulous pink house she rents which provides shelter to a cast of fictional characters through which the reality of being transgender in a world that rejects them is enacted.

This reality is conveyed in the grim humour in the following line:

 ‘Oh, to truly know fear you need to be a travesti carrying a blood-soaked baby newborn in a purse.’ (p6)

This follows on immediately from a reference to the ‘cloak of invisibility’ the travesti must don every time they walk out their front door. The difference in the likely responses by others to this is immediately apparent.

Read an interview with Camila Sosa Villada

@ we all grow

I found the mix of fiction aimed to entertain and inform on transexuality and prostitution particularly, and the non-fictional elements of the author’s inner life and outer experiences as lived totally absorbing. Nothing is glorified but nor is it tailored to suit an audience that might otherwise judge. Though heavily based in a fictional framework, it also manages to do what any good autobiography does, which is to enable the reader, as much as is possible with written text, to get a sense of getting under the skin of another who is very different to themselves.

The language is blunt, sometimes quite crude, but there are also elements of magic realism, like Maria the Mute (a ‘flea-ridden waif’ rescued by Encarna) who slowly mutates into a bird, and Natalia, who as the seventh male daughter of her family, turned into a she-wolf when the moon was full. And then there is the unbreakable bond that develops between the dumped baby – Twinkle In Her Eye – and the 178-year-old Encarna,  culminating in a devastating conclusion to their relationship years later which is both deeply moving and, in this world, inevitable.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

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