Tag Archives: David Malouf

Ransom by David Malouf: Book Review

The opening pages of David Malouf’s Ransom had me gasping for breath, mesmerised by the poetic language, lulled by the music of the words, wooed by a seductive dance.

Based on one of the earliest poems of Western Literature, Homer’s epic Iliad, it fleshes out the characters of the great warrior Archilles and King Priam.  Priam’s personality in particular is so finely drawn, so recognizable in its regal remoteness that our own reigning Queen Elizabeth occasionally came to mind.

But the character I found most interesting is one realised totally by Malouf.  It is Somax, the carter who is persuaded to transport Priam to Archilles, who stands out. He provides the perfect contrast, in his earthy practicality, to the king’s pomposity.  Poor Somax.  He is “bull-shouldered, shock-headed” and so clearly out of place “in his homespun robe and broken sandals” amongst the dazzling cleanliness and orderliness of the palace courtyard.

Priam, in cavalier fashion, bestows upon Somax the name of Idaeus because that has always been the name of the man at the king’s side (whether or not it had been the same man was inconsequential because, according to Priam, it is “the office and the name that matters, not the person” (97).  While confirming what we know of Priam, it also imparts something of the carter’s sense of self.  He is “silently, sullenly affronted” by the idea that his name should be considered of no import and wonders how the gods will recognize him without it.  Then, when the royal princes start calling him by his new moniker, he smoulders and “in spirit at least, clenches his fist” (100).

Despite their differences, Priam warms to Somax, understanding that the carter is full of good will and that “It was not reverence he lacked, only a knowledge of the forms”. (117) Through Somax, Priam gains some appreciation for the minutiae of life like the feel of cooling water running over his feet, the fish that come to investigate and the wheeling birds, recognizing that these things were always there but there had been no reason previously for him to take notice of them for “They were not in the royal sphere” (122).

Priam and Somax have both lost sons but even that commonality is not fully shared for where Somax knew his children so well, Priam was distanced from his.  “Royal custom – the habit of averting his gaze, always, from the unnecessary and particular – had saved him from all that.” (139)

While noting that it is unnecessary to know anything about the Iliad, Lisa Hill in her review at ANZ LitLovers writes that “for those who read Ransom, Malouf’s imaginative rendering of this episode of The Iliad will forever be an unforgettable part of the original”.

The story ends as we know it will, and yet the end came too soon.

Some other interesting reviews:-
Tom Holland for The Guardian. Holland is ultimately disappointed feeling that “Malouf does not do enough with his source material”, John Clanchy’s  award-winning review for ABR, in which he calls Ransom a “minor miracle of a novel” and Read, Ramble.

Addition 22nd January 2012.
Apologies, book detail not originally posted.

Malouf, David. Ransom. 2009. Random House, North Sydney. ISBN 798 1 74166 965 7


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Guest Review – ANZ LitLovers

I have taken a Sunday morning detour from my regular 200 Word Riff to send my readers on a detour of their own.  

I was thrilled to be invited to review David Malouf’s short story collection Antipodes by Lisa Hill of the reputable and much-read blog ANZ LitLovers.

Here’s a copy of the review (posted 23.08.11)

My first reading of David Malouf’s 1995 collection of short stories Antipodes was perhaps a little too earnest.  I was desperate to like the stories as much as previously-read poetry and I hoped it would at least equal the much-read, much-talked-of and much-loved Johnno. 

              In a collection of stories so full of contrasts – the old world and the new, city and country, life and death, masculine and feminine – it is not surprising to find Malouf capably handling the prosaic alongside the poetic, leaving me searching – as in a treasure hunt – for those glassy-eyed bring-me-to-the-knees passages I longed for.

               In ‘A Trip to the Grundelsee’, for example, the background to a group of friends taking a car-trip is told in a very straight-forward – unpoetic – voice:  Michael is visiting two women who had been friends of his father’s before the war;  Gordon and Cassie were along because “Anick had invited them”;  Anick was offering female support.  Each explanation is succinct and unvarnished.

                But, later, a gem-like description of Cassie’s black depression, manifesting in thoughts like “the lake might contain unbearable secrets – drowned babies, or the records, deep-sunk in leaden boxes, of an era.”

                And, in ‘Southern Skies’ (a story about trust and mistrust, knowledge and naivety), the mundane of “nothing ever happened” and “we lounged and swapped stories” is offset by the evocative, when a young boy looks at a photo and recognises the Old Country that his parents dreamed of.  He thinks: “those flowers are the ones, precisely those, that blossom in the songs they sing.” Ah, the poetry!

                Throughout the collection, Malouf presents the Australian male in all his guises: at home and overseas; city or country; native-born or transported from the Old Country.

                The men in ‘Sorrows and Secrets’ are the embodiment of that old national stereotype, The Australian Legend. Taciturn, dry-humoured men, licking cigarette papers, using gestures rather than words; tough land-clearing, fire-building blokes like the foreman: “he was a sandy, sad-eyed fellow of maybe forty, with a grey-flannel vest instead of a shirt”; someone to be trusted, though not easy to get along with.  The men’s stories, “dense with the details of their lives” are kept in the dark.  Some secrets, it transpires, are beyond sorrowful.

                Malouf gives a nod to another stereotype – the Aussie Larrikin – in ‘Bad Blood’.  Uncle Jake is a charmer, a story-teller, a spender, a joker and a snappy dresser with his fondness for two-toned shoes and his Akubra worn “at an unserious angle”.  

                As easily as he brought us the legendary outback Australian bloke and the Larrikin, Malouf transports the reader – in ‘That Antic Jezebel’ – to  a classic Sydney Eastern suburbs socialite, whose elegantly tailored black dress and single piece of jewellery (heavy but understated  and “too plain to suggest ostentation”) belie the life she lives behind the closed door of her Elizabeth Bay apartment.  Her frugality is such that “she ate a great deal of boiled rice, was careful with the lights, and on the pretext of keeping trim, she walked rather than took the bus”.

                ‘In Trust’ reads like a fable to me with two anecdotes to illustrate its moral.  An American insurance assessor’s heart collapses at the moment he is confronted by his true lineage in Jerusalem and a young girl who, when offered a piece of family history by way of little trinkets and treasures, chooses a set of x-rays of a young man’s thorax and jaw.  The x-rays were Aunty Connie’s last memento of her boyfriend who died at Bullecourt in France in 1917.  As another Aunt holds the x-rays to the light, Malouf parts with more of that poetic imagery I craved: 

The young man’s adam’s apple rose in her throat.  A word it was, that he had intended to speak but could not, because he had to hold his breath for the machine; a thought that had sparked in the skull, travelled at lightning speed down that luminous cord and got stuck in his throat.  It was there, still visible. 

                Later, she thinks: “that lump in his throat must be my name”.

               This idea of people as custodians of objects touches upon my own experiences of items bequeathed, with their memories, truths, longings and imaginings.  

There are natural lines of descent in a family. They are not always the direct ones.  It is proper that the objects people care for should find their way down through them, from hand to hand and from heart to heart. 

             Antipodes won both the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Vance Palmer Award for Fiction.

 BOOK DETAIL: Malouf, David.  Antipodes, Random House, London, 1999.


Please click on the link below, check it out and let me know what you think.

   ANZ LitLovers Blog

The Answer to Fiday’s Fictionary Dictionary… Mutch is a close-fitting linen cap


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