The river town is Kempsey on the north coast of New South Wales, 300 miles from Sydney. It is the new year and, we soon learn, just around the turn of the century, immediately before Federation. Once more Keneally has plundered Australian history in order to explore his concern with Australian identity.
These are the opening lines of Wishbone. Already I know that this is a book I want to continue reading, and not just for the promise of sex, romance, and intrigue. I am also attracted by the ‘difficulty’ of knowing just what tone is being taken here, and just who is speaking to me in these words. As well as being thrown immediately into the story, the reader is confronted with this tone – analytic, cool, amused? There is the holding-back of both information and conclusions. There is the emphasis on bodies, their awkwardness, the space they take up, their economics … and later the words and wishes they produce. Knight will say to his lover, Emmanuelle, ‘I thought we could have an affair and just be bodies.’
You can’t help wondering which came first for Brian Castro – the theme/structure of his new novel or the M. C. Escher woodcut reproduced on its cover. It doesn’t seem possible that such an organic match should be fortuitous, although one of Escher’s soubriquets is ‘the poet of the impossible’, and among writers Castro is a prime candidate to share the title. Now that it has been drawn to my attention it is also of course obvious that the seaside hotel in After China was built to Escher specifications.
Midway through Sally Morrison’s new novel, Mad Meg, I began to develop the scissor twitch, an almost overwhelming urge to cut it up and reassemble it into a new structure. Not quite the vandalism it suggests – I read Mad Meg in galley pages, which encourages scissorly desires. It is a vast, kaleidoscopic novel, which opens with a wonderful mischievous energy, full of surprises and pleasures, and laconic wit. Yet it begins to teeter midway and, in my view, ends in unnecessary disarray. Hence the twitch.
We are introduced to the eponymous hero of Jacko by an Australian narrator who is writing a novel about China and teaching a writing class at New York University. The students in his class hero-worship Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver and compose pieces for submission to the New Yorker.
Another book on George Augustus Robinson, the nineteenth-century oddity who toured Tasmania gathering Aboriginals whom he eventually incarcerated on Flinders Island? Historians from John West to Brian Plomley have written about his Tasmanian adventures; Robert Drewe and Mudrooroo Narogin have added interpretations of his singular career. Do we need another?
In the profusion of images in Gerard Windsor’s Family Lore one is particularly insistent. The surgical metaphor makes remembering an act of dismembering. It suggests control and precision, and ostensibly offers an antidote for messy feelings, which looks like a useful resource in the murky business of exhuming family ghosts. It also seems to satisfy an aspect of the narrator-personality that is reflected not only in the prose but also in little self-caricatures (such as his description of the fastidiousness with which knife and fork are used and put aside).