Archive

Over the past four months, three homeless men have been murdered in Melbourne, apparently without motive, and Detective Sergeant Dennis Gatz is determined to apprehend the killer. The action starts immediately with Gatz in big trouble for shooting at three fleeing thugs in Banana Alley during an all-night stakeout. Leon Cranston Harle is killed and his mates, Warren and Troy Stimson, swear to seek out this homicide cop and avenge ‘Harley’s’ death. Gatz’s superiors are not too happy about the whole incident either.

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Harley Morrison has never had much luck with women. His mother, a specialist in family law, abandoned him at a tender age and then when he began following her around, at the height of the bomb threats to Family Law Court judges, she called him a little sneak and threatened to sue his father.

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Modern Australians live of course in a concourse or babble of discourses. We make our way through the bubble-and-squeak of chopped-up value systems. There is no tall hierarchy of speakings, no league ladder. Nor is there anything as redgum-solid as permanence; if anything, transience is taken as proof of the genuine.

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The editors of Who Do You Think You Are? cheerfully point out the imprecision and contradictoriness of the second part of their title. ‘How can you be born in Australia and also be an immigrant? If you were not born in Australia but came here at an early age, how can you be second generation?’ Nevertheless, they have chosen to regard the linguistic slipperiness and confusion inherent in the term ‘second generation immigrant’ as being appropriate to the social reality of those to whom it refers. The thirty-five contributors are therefore predominantly women who were born in Australia of immigrant parents or who came to Australia at an early age.

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For its double epigraph, Rock’n’Roll Heroes combines a couple of lines of Midnight Oil’s Hercules – ‘my life is a valuable thing / I want to keep it that way’ – with six wonderfully numinous sentences from Thomas Traherne:

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Kingdoms and kingdoms go, but great books last forever. Rowan Ireland’s is a great book. It catches the otherness of a Brazilian religious/political experience tenderly, humbly. It is masterfully academic and lovingly humane at the same time.

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When, the opening pages of The Butcher Boy, it becomes clear that the narrator is an uneducated toughie whose sorry history is going to be the subject of the book, the reader’s danger flags are likely to be unfurled. To sustain such a voice without losing credibility is a tricky task. But the first chapter establishes that voice with exceptional skill, and this success continues through almost to the final scene, which curls back to the beginning, with the narrator an old man, remembering slowly, frighteningly, his tragic life.

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Thea Astley’s first novel, Girl with A Monkey (1958), signalled the arrival of a writer with a distinctive style. Astley believes that Angus and Robertson accepted the book, although it would not be a money-spinner like the work of their bestsellers, Frank Clune and Ion Idriess, because their editor Beatrice Davis took the initiative in encouraging ‘a different form of writing from the Bulletin school’. The plain Bulletin style, a consciously shaped style representing ‘natural’ narrative, was still the norm in Australian writing in the 1950s, although that decade also saw the publication of stylistically evocative novels like Patrick White’s The Tree of Man and Voss, Hal Porter’s A Handful of Pennies, Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown, A Difficult Young Man, and Outbreak of Love, and Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, A Haunted Land, The Bystander, and To the Islands.

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This is an elegant and satisfying novel. Like fine food, good sex, lasting relationships, and memorable music, it takes time to develop and the artistry that sustains it is understated and deceptive. It is, however, memorable. There is the instant gratification of Farmer’s delicate but sensuous prose and a finely woven narrative about a Danish woman, Dagmar, who is ‘over-wintering’ in Australia after the death of her husband, but this is definitely the tip of the iceberg. It is the cumulative effect of this virtuoso performance that surprises. Throughout, Farmer maintains a balance between the apparent simplicity of one woman’s exclusive story (with its nuances, modulations and personal significances) and the intricacies of a narrative (a kind of linguistic tessellation) which demonstrates a thesis about the inter-relatedness of our ‘one world’.

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Draw an outline of the Cape York Peninsula, far north Queensland. Just a rough one. An isosceles triangle, more or less. Now draw its mirror image away from the baseline. Imagine it in 3-0. Two cones. Two cyclones joined, spinning in opposite directions. Male and female vortices balancing each other, consuming each other. That’s it. Two novellas making a novel: Thea Astley’s brilliant Vanishing Points.

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