Monday, December 14, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
Nemesis Train is a strange book. I should think many people could be annoyed by it. But an equal number of people will probably be intrigued. The style is different – one feels irritated because it is difficult to feel particularly attached to any of the individuals portrayed.
At the same time, Nemesis Train is difficult to put down. Something is going to happen but what will it be? I was gratified to realise my early guess about the relationship between characters was correct.
I wondered often if Nathan intended his style to reflect the characters' state of mind. I did feel frustrated because I wanted to know them more, but it seemed that my forced distance from the characters was a reflection of the character’s distance from those around him.
A very clever work which, at its shocking conclusion, begs the reader to read it through again.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
A rhetorical question: “Two soldiers go to war. One comes back and adjusts well, leaving it all behind. The other comes home with post-traumatic stress syndrome and cannot get the faces of the dead out of his mind. Which of them is crazy?”1 In a world in which history can often be summarised as a succession of wars, we count the costs in terms of the dead and the dollars but not so often do we pause to consider the tragic toll on the survivors—“Not everyone comes home from the war wounded, but the bottom line is nobody comes home unchanged.”2
The ongoing struggles experienced by veterans of the Vietnam War are perhaps the most notorious example of this. Australians were involved in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1973, during which time 521 Australian personnel died in active service. In the three decades since, 421 “surviving” veterans are known to have committed suicide, with the suicide rate increasing decade by decade.3
This represents a rate about 20 per cent higher than that of the general Australian population. But perhaps a more specific comparison is between National Service personnel who did and did not see active service during this period. In this case, the rate of suicide is 43 per cent higher among those who actually fought the war.
The figures are even more disturbing when we look at the much larger veteran population in the United States. Reports vary across the many studies that have been conducted but as early as 1979 a report from the University of Denver’s School of Professional Psychology concluded that “more Vietnam veterans have died since the war by their own hand than were actually killed in Vietnam.”4
While almost 60,000 US military personnel were killed in active service, estimates of suicides among Vietnam veterans range from 20,000 to 200,000, with most in the higher end of this range. This represents a suicide rate between 30 and 80 per cent higher than the general population.5
And the suicide statistics are simply the most extreme count of larger problems, often grouped under the generic designation of post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide is an expression of the mental, emotional and spiritual scarring that also contributes to mental illness, homelessness, alcoholism and other drug dependencies, family breakdown and continuing physical ill-health.
Meet a chaplain
Someone working with these issues in his community has been Pastor Mike Brownhill, who has served as chaplain of the Beachmere Vietnam Veterans Drop-In Centre on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. He admits this is a strange turn after being in the late 1960s and early 1970s “one of the biggest Vietnam War protestors God ever put breath into.” He is quick to explain that when marching on the streets of Sydney his protests were directed at the politicians, not the servicemen.
Today, he sees the reality of post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by between 40 and 60 per cent of veterans. “So many of them have destroyed themselves with alcohol and eating disorders are common,” Pastor Brownhill explains. “Almost all of them have been through at least one divorce. They can’t sleep properly and many sit up through the night, drinking coffee and surfing the internet. Heaps of them have suicided and the official statistics don’t include slow suicide—just drinking themselves to death.
“They risked their lives out there and came back to insults and shame, treated like they were criminals,” he says. “Soldiers in earlier wars came back as heroes, but Vietnam vets came back as scumbags and were expected just to melt back into society without any treatment. It was only after several decades that the Australian government gave them the acknowledgement and recognition they deserved.
In his role as chaplain, Pastor Brownhill’s approach is straightforward. “My belief is that Jesus fixes everything—but perhaps not completely in this life,” he says. “Jesus changed my life and so I look for opportunities to share that with these people who are still hurting 40 years after those experiences.
“Counsellors might do it a little different but I’m there as a chaplain, so I have an excuse for talking Jesus with them. And these guys are open to spiritual things, they have been through so much and so they are happy to talk about it.”
So how do we respond to these realities?
First, veterans are real people—our neighbours in our cities, suburbs and towns. They were not lost on a remote battlefield with an unpronounceable name, but they carry the burden of having been there, experienced it and participated in it—and they are being “lost” in our communities. As one veteran is quoted on “The Wall of Words” at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Canberra, “I don’t seem to have many friends since I came home. If you weren’t there then you can’t understand.”
Many of us cannot fully understand, but because veterans such as these are our neighbours, personally and as a society, we can find ways to reach out to them to help with that burden.
And then there are the young men and women we, as a society, continue to send to fight wars in various places around the world. Recognising that even the “survivors” and “winners” struggle in the aftermath of war, “Blessed are the peacemakers” is not just a nice slogan or a good idea, but must find new expressions and new champions in our world and in our communities.
1. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President, Zondervan, 2008, page 214.
2. Tom Baldwin, “America suffers an epidemic of suicides among traumatised army veterans,” The Times, November 15, 2007.
3. The Third Australian Vietnam Veterans Mortality Study, Department of Veterans Affairs, Australian Government, 2005.
5. Suicide Wall.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Candice, a reader from Sydney, writes:
I’ve just read your book, and wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed it. It’s great!
I had read some of the reviews on the internet, and was expecting it to be a tough read since I recall some people had used the word “frustrating” a couple of times to describe it. But I didn’t find it frustrating at all—perhaps because I was expecting it. I knew that it was not going to be a conventional novel, so I approached the book with patience and little expectation of actually enjoying it (sorry!).
But this just freed me to really appreciate all the descriptions you so wonderfully wrote and the journey as presented in each chapter—and what a great journey each chapter was! I actually didn’t want the chapters to end because I enjoyed being a fly on the wall of each experience so much. I particularly liked the way you described light, especially in the chapters about “The Driver” (I saw that dark road so well!) and “The Musician.”
I also liked the way you wove the train motif through the book. Did this represent the way significant events/experiences weave their way into all aspects of life and maybe carry us on a journey (not always of our choosing) to certain destinations? At least, that’s what I got out of it!
As for the ending, it’s very good – and, for me, made even more so because it was all based on a true account (that this was someone’s real life makes it all the more profound!). It also invites me back to read the book again (and I’ve never read a book twice!) to put the pieces together.
I just thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you because, if I’d written a book, I’d want to know what others thought!
Well done, Nathan, on a great story and a good book. Can’t wait for the next one!
Thursday, May 14, 2009
A project I have supported for the past couple of years and have contributed to from time to time as a writer has posted a review of Nemesis Train.
Monday, May 11, 2009
“This is a very interesting book,” said Kara Martin, regular book reviewer on “The Open House,” a weekly talk show broadcast on Hope 103.2 FM and syndicated on a number of other radio stations around Australia.
Talking with host Sheridan Voysey this past Sunday night, she reviewed Nemesis Train, reporting that she “had no idea what it was about for most of the time I was reading it. But I was intrigued and I wanted to know.
“Only at the end do you find out how it is all connected and why it has been written in the way that it has,” Ms Martin explained. “It’s well enough written that it keeps you intrigued and it keeps you wanting to find out more.
“It’s the sort of book that when you get to the end you want to re-read it because you want to see were there things I missed and how did this all sit together.”
While critical of the design of the book and suggesting the novel might be “a bit too subtle,” she noted the focus on the issue of the ongoing impacts of war on survivors and described Nemesis Train as “a confronting and real look at this [issue] and personifying it in a very special way.
“It’s a really interesting book that introduces some important messages. As well as the suicide issue, it talks about how do we find meaning, how do we make a difference in the world and in people’s lives, so they’re good messages.”
To listen to the broadcast, go to The Open House podcast page. Their discussion of Nemesis Train kicks off at about the 8-minute mark.
Monday, May 4, 2009
At a conference in Sydney last weekend, I found myself seated at a meal across from an older, professional couple from northern New South Wales whom I had not previously met. We shared the usual polite conversation—where we lived, what we did, that kind of stuff. But the gentleman earned an extra piece of my attention when he mentioned he had read my novel.
This is perhaps my first encounter with someone I have not previously known who has read the book. Reading is often a slightly different experience when reading something from an author that we know, so I was interested in what different comments might come from a reader whom I had not previously met. We had an interesting chat, including his sharing his favourite scenes from the book and his overall appreciation of his reading experience.
A few years ago, I read an article about the difficulties of writing fiction and being published. One of the comments I recall from that article was that an author can survive not being paid, but cannot survive not being read. Thus, the gratification that comes to a writer when meeting a reader, who shares a little of their reading experience.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
This week, my interview with "The Reality Zone" about Nemesis Train and issues in the novel will be airing on selected radio stations across Australia and around the world. "The Reality Zone" is syndicated across hundreds of radio stations and you can find out more here. Hope you can check it out in your corner of the world.
Friday, February 27, 2009
Nemesis Train explores the crushing human need for intimacy amidst the disconnected lives of hungry souls in a careless city. Not your "typical" novel - more of an art piece—with maximum description and minimum dialogue. The reader is confronted with a series of snapshots from the lives of the Wanderer, the Musician, the Clerk, the Driver the Old man and the Child, while the key protagonists Jed and Clair (with the help of sage-like Jack) struggle to make sense of life and find ways to make the world somehow better.
The realisation hits us about the same time as it dawns on Jed, that it's not about the big stuff we do, or even about the gestures we make. rather we impact the world in the day to day—a smile here, a kind word there, a helping hand offered when most needed—a spontaneous kind of risk-taking that impacts on the lives of real people.
Recurring motifs of light and darkness, the movement of trains, and even and the oft-repeated refrain "the atmosphere felt like one of those afternoons where one has the vague feeling everyone else is away doing something or exciting or important and, despite the certainty that there is nothing exciting or important to do, one always feels a little uncertain and left out," keep the reader plumbing the depths for answers.
Are there answers? Read it and find out!
Thursday, February 19, 2009
There were moments of brilliant descriptive prose—especially when visually describing some scene, ambience or mood. One was when “The driver” met the three young people in the early morning. I remember the neon light flickering twice before coming on and the claustrophobia in the law firm.
I loved the plot in a frustrated kind of way. But I loved it more at the end of the journey than the journeying itself. It’s the sort of book you’ve got to read twice to savour the twists and ironies and connections and character similarities with a knowledge of the end in mind. The way it all coalesced in the end was very clever, and reminded me in some ways of Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven. . . .
The episode with the prostitute reminded me of a young man who was idealistic enough to care, while at the same time courageous enough to step out of his cultural comfort zone and do something about it. The conversations with the old man were deep and meaningful.
Keep on writing. You’ve certainly got a talent. I’ll be looking for your next one.