Good Reading : October 2015
GOODREADINGMAGAZINE.COM.AU GOOD READING OCTOBER 2015 32 In learning what she could about David’s time, Geraldine also came to recognise his strengths and weaknesses – as both man and monarch. Among his strengths, in her opinion, are his capacity for love – in sexual relationships, as well as paternal ones – plus his significance as a musician, poet, composer and patron of the arts, and his ability to hear cr iticism and to be self-critical. ‘His weaknesses are what we today would call abuse of power and war crimes; his overindulgence of his spoiled, malevolent sons; and the selfish and abusive indulgence of his own sexual appetites,’ she says. ‘As a person, I have imagined him as highly charismatic, with all the danger that comes with that. As a king, it’s a harder call. Was he really acting for the good of his people, or in an egocentric desire to consolidate power? I’ve left that question open for readers to decide.’ Geraldine’s earlier novels – Year of Wonders (published in 2001), March (2005), People of the Book (2008) and Caleb’s Crossing (2011) – examine, among other themes, the role of the individual within a society that is facing a period of trouble or calamity. Year of Wonders is set in an isolated English village infected with plague in 1666. March, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, imagines the US Civil War experiences of the father of the four girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. People of the Book follows an Australian rare book expert’s analysis of the mysterious history of a priceless and beautiful Jewish book through Bosnia in World War II, Inquisition-era Venice and 13th-century Seville. And Caleb’s Crossing chronicles the challenges facing the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Geraldine finds explor ing the actions and motivations of people under trying conditions more interesting than seeing how they behave and respond in good times: ‘I don’t think any of us know who we will be, what we will be like, in a crisis. It’s a mystery. Most of us in the safe world never find out. But a few of us do, for better or worse. And I’m drawn to exploring those moments of interior, individual revelation.’ Matters of religion are also significant in her fiction writing. I ask whether her personal spiritual beliefs influence the subjects of her stories. ‘I’m not a deist, but I’m obsessed by humans’ long search for meaning. Asking the question matters; believing you have the right answer is where it gets gnarly and highly dangerous,’ she confides. Among characters in her novels, Natan – the narrator in The Secret Chord – is a favourite: ‘I love Natan – I love the whole idea of the Hebrew prophets, these immensely brave bad-asses who spoke truth to power, and who took the whole society to task for hypocrisy and venality. ‘I also love my female characters. Anna in Year of Wonders and Bethia in Caleb’s Crossing, who strive so hard to transcend the limits of gender and class that their societies use to try to shackle their minds and hearts.’ Among her favourite authors, contemporary Australians Tim Winton, Helen Garner and Eva Hornung stand out. Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel and Rose Tremain impress her among contemporary British writers, as do Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson and Andreï Makine. ‘Jane Austen is a fiction goddess, Mary Renault is a huge influence, and poets, poets, poets from every era,’ she says. She adds that the accolades achieved for her fiction and non-fiction writing may be wonderful because they mean more readers, but they have little impact on the practice of her craft. ‘They don’t affect the day-to-day business of getting up in the morning and putting words on a page,’ she explains. ‘You can’t control the COVER STORY ‘This is a man capable of great love but also ruthless cruelty. He makes great art; he massacres innocents. He’s beloved and he’s hated. He’s a hero; he’s a traitor’.