Picador

Tin Toys by Anson Cameron & Stormy Weather by Michael Meehan

by
April 2000, no. 219

These two second novels are rapid follow-ups to acclaimed début novels, Anson Cameron’s Silences Long Gone and Michael Meehan’s The Salt of Broken Tears. Each is, in its own way, resolutely vernacular. Meehan writes about the past and the country; Cameron writes largely about the city, very much today.

In Tin Toys, nevertheless, the characters are very aware of the Australian past. The central dilemmas of Cameron’s novels concern relations between blacks and whites. In Silences Long Gone the narrator’s stubborn old mother refuses to leave her house in a mining town that is being dismantled so that the territory can be returned to its native custodians. In the new novel, the narrator is himself the focus of the dilemma, as the offspring of a white father and black mother (in very peculiar circumstances). He begins life as a black baby, becomes a white boy and ends up a slightly confused young adult. After an opening flashback the narrative is driven by two things that happen to Hunter around the same time. His design for an Australian flag (which he has come up with by complete accident) is selected as a finalist in a national competition and his Japanese girlfriend goes missing in Bougainville.

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Just before the publication of her novel Dark Places in 1994, Kate Grenville said that she was thinking about her next book, ‘a heart-warming old-fashioned love story’. Well, The Idea of Perfection – and isn’t that what all love stories are about? – is that love story, though it warms both heart and head, for the bliss it affords is not so much visceral as aesthetic, even architectural.

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There are now 10,000 books written about Auschwitz. About the Holocaust there must be many more tens of thousands. Lily Brett is one of the great readers and collectors of these books. Her novels and poems are awash with Holocaust details and with an obsessive sense of responsibility for this impossible knowledge. Impossible because the horrific details cannot be held in the mind for long. In Too Many Men, the Holocaust stories do not come with the poised and philosophical moral gravity of an Inga Clendinnen, nor with the outrageous sensationalism of a Darville but with a doggedness and astonishment that are finally powerfully effective.

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How do you define despair? You might choose to describe it as ‘a chemical imbalance of the brain, resulting in fragmented perceptions, often associated with grief and pessimism’. That is the definition Gary Kelp comes across in the course of his working day. It seems to fit. ‘I imagined a picture of myself to go with the text,’ he says, ‘sitting there at the bar, staring into my drink.’

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This novel, Delia Falconer’s first, takes the form of a love lament: all about breath in bodies; textures and surfaces; clouds; mountains; photography; colour; gardens; illness. Much more, too, of course, and it is a work that certainly does not warrant such a glib cataloguing of elements and attributes. It is ambitious, and successful ...

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We meet in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops in Brunswick Street. I order a cappuccino, all milky froth. Hers is a short black; bitter and strong. Over the past decade our relationship has been desultory, unevenly balanced: we live in different states and she is a famous novelist. I have always been in a supplicant role. We have something approaching a friendship, maybe. Today she defers to me. She has just reviewed my book on the Orr case for the Times Literary Supplement. And liked it, she says. She wants my help.

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Janine Burke in Lullaby, is writing about writing-out. Her character, Bea, is a writer with a block, seemingly precipitated by the failure of a marriage and the temporary loss of a recent lover, but the author is trying for much more than just this one story, which looks, on the evi­dence of the first chapter, to have more than enough fuel in it for a novel.

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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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It used to be the case that readers interested in the visual arts in Australia had to put up with long dry spells between the publication of art books. But, over the last three decades in particular, writing about the visual arts in Australia, in terms of its scholarly and especially in terms of its numerical strength, has undertaken a quiet revolution.

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This collection of poetry is similarly accommodating. It is shaped by four quite different tonal movements: ‘All Blues’ (eight lyrics closely observing the ‘still life’ within season, art-work, society and self), ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (a travelogue of past times and places where conscious reflection momentarily counters the movement and cross-currents of historical process), ‘Dogs’ (where Diogenes’ cynicism is invoked to ‘lower the tone’, reminding me of the blues singer’s injunction to ‘laugh just to keep from crying’) and ‘More Blues’ (where episodic vistas of ‘blue hills’ unfold from Tailem Bend to Mount Segur). The collection ends with a nine-part retrospective called ‘The Front’ which is partly about the art of making poetry or music in the face of ‘prevailing imagery’. Here a littoral between performance and reputation is reached as today’s determined play with a language is set against inherited ‘fixed ideas’.

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