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Carmel Bird

Stories of the impact of European discovery, exploration, invasion, and settlement on Australia are naturally a source of fascination to novelists. The microcosm of the island of Tasmania, with its cruel yet beautiful landscape and its unforgiving weather, offers these stories with a special kind of eerie horror. Against this setting, the stories emerge both in concert and in counterpoint, desc ...

Jane Sullivan’s novel, which was runner-up in the 2010 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for a novel by a writer over thirty-five years of age, blends the powerful theme of ...

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Maris Morton’s novel is the winner of the Scribe CAL Fiction Prize for 2010...

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Bereft by Chris Womersley

September 2010, no. 324

World War I is lodged in the minds of Australians with mythic power. Chris Womersley, in plain and startling yet tender and lyrical prose, has constructed a moving narrative that opens up the wounds of war, laying bare the events that pre-date the conflict and reach forward into the collective memory. I was reminded of A.S. Byatt’s recent novel The Children’s Book (2009), which also foregrounds in poetic language the Great War and etches forever the horror of broken bodies and minds on the consciousness of its readers.

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We are often far / From home in a dark town’ writes Charlie Smith in his poem ‘The Meaning of Birds’. Home Truth explores dark towns both literal and figurative. The pieces in any anthology are jigsaw-like, forming an overarching image. In this case, it is a sense of home as an entity most powerfully felt in exile; the place we look to from our darkest places. In her perceptive essay, Carmel Bird, scrutinising her immediate thoughts about home, finds in them much that looks like ‘a series of clichés and stereotypes’. Concepts of home, she suggests, may be ‘tinged with the glow of nostalgia, shadowed by poignant reminders of the ideal past’. If this is the face of the anthology’s jigsaw, it proves palimpsestic. Its deeper vision is the idea of resilience and of making a home from a position of exile.

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Why do you write?

It seems to be the only way I can make sense of things. I am often surprised that everybody doesn’t feel like this. It is such a profound thrill to work with fiction and to see the patterns emerge, to feel the rhythm of the story as it develops.

Are you a vivid dreamer?

There’s a thing that happens – I am asleep, but I seem to be awake watching a full colour dramatisation on a kind of screen. If I shut my eyes the scene disappears, but when I open them, it resumes and does not stop.

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The mystique of the Roman Catholic Church has been thoroughly exploited by the likes of Dan Brown and writers of the medieval monastic murder mysteries that gained a certain popularity following the English publication of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in 1983. Carmel Bird’s latest book contains a mystery, though not a murder. It is set mostly in 2001, but monks, convents, rosaries, black madonnas, and miracles fill the pages of The Child of Twilight, along with artificial insemination and air travel.

Sydney Peony Kent, the narrator, is the product of assisted reproductive technology, both of her genetic forbears being anonymous donors; her parents, habitually and oddly bundled together as ‘Avila/Barnaby’, are infertile. Sydney has a couple of imaginary friends, a Mexican nanny, and a collection of snow globes containing black virgins. And she writes novels.

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While Australian women in particular have been avid diarists and letter-writers, the activity du jour is overwhelmingly the writing of memoir, inspired by the notion that everyone’s life is memorable and worth recording. Some memoirists are searching for the truth of their lives, to recover the past or perhaps recover from it. Some are simply recording their story for family consumption. Others, the more ambitious, are seeking publication and fame. Carmel Bird’s advice to them – ‘Stay young. Stay Beautiful. And maybe climb Everest with your eyes shut’ – is the only pessimistic comment in this whole book.

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One of my all-time favourite short stories, ‘The Shipwreck Party’, opens this volume of Collected Stories. Any book of short pieces invites readers to enter wherever they like. I decided to start at the last piece and work backwards so that I could end up with my old favourite. The pace, structure, rhythm, images, restraint, wit, irony, and tone of this short narrative always work their magic on me, and I wait for the last thirty lines in joyful and horrified expectation. Having read the book backwards, I write this review in a mood of sheer pleasure.

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Sally Muirden’s second novel sits well with her first, Revelations of a Spanish Infanta. In each case, the author works through an elaborate historical lens to construct a multi-layered narrative in which the focus is the intimate life of a woman.

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