Monday, 19 September 2011

The Streets of Melbourne

When taking on Booklover Book Reviews' Aussie Author Challenge for the second straight year, I had the feeling that the devil was, once again, in the fine print.  To complete the challenge (or, at least, the higher True Blue level), you needed to read twelve books by an Australian writer.  Sadly, as I prepared to celebrate after completing my previous Aussie novels, I remembered the second condition of the challenge - the twelve books had to be by at least nine different writers, and I'd only managed to knock off eight...

Luckily, I've finally managed to rectify that with my fourteenth Australian work for the year, Scraps of Heaven by Arnold Zable, whose Café Scheherazade was one of my favourite books of 2010.  This novel takes us back in time to 1958, to the Inner-City Melbourne suburb of Carlton, where Josh, a young Jewish boy, roams the familiar streets of his neighbourhood in search of something to do and a reason to belong.  Meanwhile, his parents Romek and Zofia, Polish Jews and survivors of the dreaded concentration camps, carry on their stuttering marriage, a partnership overshadowed by the ghosts of what they have seen.

Scraps of Heaven is split into four parts, one for each season of the (southern) year, and as we start off roaming the roads and laneways of Carlton, I found myself constantly referring to the Melway (Melbourne's ubiquitous A-Z).  The idea of the compactness of the setting is emphasised by the daily walks of another of the main characters, Bloomfield, a fellow veteran of the wartime terrors who literally is a wandering Jew.  In rain and shine, Bloomfield ambles around the streets, always returning to his favourite park, content to soak in the sunshine and the silence - when he can get it.

The first part of the book, with its nostalgic look back at life in the late 1950s, eventually moves on into a more serious examination of the memories haunting the lives of those who escaped Europe.  The longer the book goes on, the more the reader is shown of what happened before CarltonIn fact, the writer divides time into three distinct periods - before, after and during the horrors of the war and the holocaust -, and some of the characters have trouble communicating with those who were (or weren't) there.  As the past continues to seep into the future, the homeliness and comfort of the small suburb, for many of the characters a welcoming environment, eventually become stifling.  It's no wonder that by the end of the book the younger generation is dreaming of escape - both from the over-familiar streets and the constant battles with the past at home.

Scraps of Heaven is an enjoyable book, and the style is just as effortless as in Café Scheherazade.  There are also many parallels with Steven Carroll's tales of suburban Melbourne (Glenroy is just a few kilometres up the road, and Scraps of Heaven is set half-way between the settings for The Art of the Engine Driver and The Gift of Speed).  However, it wasn't a perfect read by any means.  The constant introduction (and subsequent translation into English) of Yiddish expressions grated after a while, and there were a few too many migrant clichés for my liking.

The most off-putting part for me though was the introduction of a fantasy, older love interest for Josh, which culminated in a rather unlikely moment towards the end of the novel.  I won't go into details, but I'll just say that beautiful Swedish teenagers rarely stumble into one's life in this way outside Hollywood movies...  I mentioned The Gift of Speed above, and Carroll's handling of Michael and Kathleen's blossoming relationship in the second of The Glenroy Trilogy books is light years ahead of Zable's clumsy handling of what is essentially a bit of a male fantasy.  Perhaps I'm overreacting, but this one small sub-sub-plot detracted from my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

Still, don't let me persuade you that this is not worth reading because it certainly is.  I love Zable's languid, poetic style of writing, and anyone who (like me) enjoys learning more about Melbourne's past, even if (especially if) they didn't grow up here, will get a lot out of Scraps of Heaven.  Its slowly evolving story shows us all that home, while it may be where the heart is, can also hide some dark, disturbing remnants of the past...