Allen & Unwin

Max by Alex Miller

by
October 2020, no. 425

When Alex Miller first thought of writing about Max Blatt, he imagined a celebration of his life. But would Max have wanted that? He was a melancholy, chainsmoking European migrant, quiet and self-effacing, who claimed nothing for himself except defeat and futility.

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Bluebird by Malcolm Knox

by
October 2020, no. 425

Malcolm Knox told Kill Your Darlings in 2012 that with The Life (2011), his celebrated surfing novel set on the Gold Coast, he wanted to write a historical novel about the Australian coastline and ‘that moment when one person could live right on the coast on our most treasured waterfront places, and then all of a sudden they couldn’t’. In Bluebird, set on a northern beach a ferry ride from ‘Ocean City’, this brutally undemocratic transformation is promoted from a minor theme to the engine that drives the highbrow soap-opera narrative.

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I am a great fan of archives, and so is John Fahey, a former officer of an Australian intelligence service (the Defence Signals Directorate) turned historian. His previous book, Australia’s First Spies (2018), covered the same time period (1901–50) but focused on the good guys (our spies) rather than the bad ones (their spies). His itemised list of Australian, British, and US archival files consulted runs to several pages. Most of these are the archives of intelligence agencies. And here’s the rub: intelligence files contain many names, but not necessarily the names of actual spies.

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Several years ago, on two separate occasions, Drusilla Modjeska and David Marr called for Australian fiction writers to address directly the state of the country in its post-9/11 incarnation. ‘I have a simple plea to make,’ said Marr in the Redfern Town Hall in March 2003, delivering the annual Colin Simpson Lecture: ‘that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching … So few Australian novels – now I take my life in my hands – address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live. It’s no good ceding that territory to people like me – to journalists. That’s not good enough.’

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What a title, and what a début novel. Jessie Tu brings us Jena Lin, a twenty-two-year-old Asian Australian sex addict who was once a violin prodigy fêted around the world. She is a character to remember. The reader knows this from the beginning, and the compelling narrative tension is driven by the slow revelation of an event that occurred seven years before the novel begins.

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‘“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can re-create the father who created me.”’ This is Philip Roth exhorting himself while witnessing his declining father bathe in Patrimony: A true story (1991), a memoir that opens when Herman Roth is diagnosed with a brain tumour. The book, tender but also brutal, slips between the present and the past. Philip Roth, after all, is the writer. The matter of accuracy feels particularly perilous when the subject is the writer’s parent, if the intention is not to write a hagiography. It takes a particular kind of courage to countenance a parent’s failings when not motivated by revenge.

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At first glance, this biography does not look especially compelling. Why should we want to know about Australia’s first woman radio pioneer? But David Dufty calmly and quietly shows why Violet McKenzie is well worth celebrating. From her earliest days, Violet, born in 1890, showed great flair for practical science. She became a high school maths teacher but was determined to study electrical engineering. She qualified, but her gender meant that she was refused admission to the university course and also to a technical college diploma. Meanwhile, her elder brother Walter had become an electrical engineer and was running his own business in Sydney. This was 1912: seduced by the new moving-picture craze, Walter had ploughed all his profits into a ‘flickergraph training school’, teaching people to operate cinema projectors.

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While having a child is an act of hope and joy for many, it is also risky. One can heed expert advice, prepare, even throw money at the endeavour, but there is no guarantee that the creation or nurturing of a child will go as planned.

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This month’s survey features three bewitching novels from authors intent on transporting younger readers to other worlds. In Alison Croggon’s latest fantasy novel, The Threads of Magic (Walker Books, $19.95 pb, 380 pp), Pip and his sister El are living in a poor but snug apartment in the city of Clarel, bequeathed to them by Missus Pledge. Pip, always on the lookout for opportunities, scoops up a silver box from the sidelines during a street brawl. The opening of this box burdens Pip with an ancient and grisly relic: the shrivelled black heart of a child.

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Tasmanian writer K.M. Kruimink’s first novel, A Treacherous Country, a witty, cracking tale set in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s, has more than a hint of Dickens and Moby-Dick about it. It won The Australian/Vogel’s Literary award, established in 1980 for an unpublished manuscript by an author under thirty-five, which has launched the career of Kate Grenville and Tim Winton, among others. The award sets high standards – it was not awarded in 2019 due to a ‘lack of quality’. Kruimink, who described it as an ‘absolute life-changer’, is a worthy recipient.

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