What We’re Reading: March

Charmaine — Balcony Over Jerusalem by John Lyons

John Lyons is a familiar face to anyone watching ABC news or current affairs programs. He mostly reports from overseas, often from wars and almost-wars, where the risks for journalists can be extreme. He looks like somebody’s dad or uncle, or even the principal of your local primary school, which may partly explain why so many prickly, sometimes dangerous people appear to trust his integrity enough to be honest with him. The resulting information, joined with his polished journalism, (four Walkely Awards speaks volumes) reeking with decades of experience, makes for riveting television, newspaper articles, and now this book.

Six years as a family living in Jerusalem—Lyons, his wife Sylvie Le Clezio and their son Jack—is the backbone of this story. There are side-trips to Syria, Iran, Egypt and Jordan, as well as many days in Gaza, but the lasting images for this reader were the fragments of daily life in the heart of ‘the Middle East dilemma’. The street scenes, the conversations that convey the magic of these ancient neighbourhoods, are a traveller’s dream that turns gradually to grinding tension, as he builds the evidence of lasting trauma for all the players in a descent into hopelessness.

The myriad ways that Palestinians are being forced out of Israel, the illegal settlements and now
Gaza itself begin with petty, humiliating harassment at every step, for people with no vote, and less legal rights every day. It might be murder which is never resolved, or simply turning off the water supply to one house, one street, one village. This is occupation by a hostile state. Once that is understood, it is obvious that all this can only get worse, to the point where endless, escalating violence and hatred of each other spirals into the catastrophe that we see in 2024.

As a journalist, Lyons gets a bird’s eye view of the pressures not to take sides, which he accepts, and also not to report matters which offend one side or the other, which he resists. The evidence he presents of the endlessly vigilant, well-resourced and hugely influential Israeli public relations
machine is formidable. If you wonder sometimes why politicians seem reluctant to criticise Israel, read this book and decide for yourself if John Lyons has given us all a fair explanation. If he’s right, and I think he is, any statement by any part of that machine must be regarded with suspicion from now on.

Annie — Thunderhead by Miranda Darling

Clarissa Dalloway is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century in Miranda Darling’s excoriating new novel. Our protagonist, Winona Dalloway, is going about her busy day: shopping for a dinner party, attending appointments booked by her controlling husband, performing the mental load of caring for two young children. Internally, she is wryly funny and possesses a fierce intelligence, but we see how she has been crammed into an increasingly narrow pigeonhole of suburban housewifery. Her fragmented narrative jumps from memories to real world situations to anxieties to the processes she uses to disassociate from her life—what she terms the ‘Transcendence Project’. Winona is seemingly attempting to embody Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness style and connect psychically to others in the great wash of everyday life.

The dissonance between the chaos of Winona’s thoughts and her apparently serene demeanour is unnerving and feels unsustainable; indeed, as the novel goes on, it rises to a fever pitch. Blackly comic asides punctuate the tension every now and then as the absurdity of of this bougie Sydneysider’s life jumps out at us. Thunderhead underlines how we can never know what happens inside a marriage, can never know what lengths someone is going to appear well. The stories that we tell about ourselves, and those that are told about us, have more import than we might realise. When that narrative gets taken out of our control, it can have dangerous consequences. Darling’s novel rotates around ideas of control, sanity, power and privilege, and she manages to keep these hefty plates spinning while lithely crafting an unforgettable voice. If you loved the circular internal narration of Ducks, Newburyport or the intimacy and intellectual rigour of Deborah Levy’s memoirs, this is the book for you.