Thomas Shapcott

A first novel written with fine-honed discretion and linking three generations of very ordinary Australians, this book has a satisfying sense of the continuities and disjunctions within families.

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These stories are well written and rather depressing. That makes them, I guess, rather representative of what one might call the current state of short-story writing by urban males. One thinks immediately of recent collections by Garry Disher and Nick Earls. There seem to be a few basic starting off points, the most notable being in the delineation of defensiveness and insecurities that give the male characters, who are often the narrators, a sensitive but decidedly uptight response to, well, almost everything. Women, parents, children (their own), and particularly the drab world that has snuffed out some early spark of liveliness or vitality (which is usually rubbed for sympathetic magic in moments of nostalgic recall).

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Come on in. Do you like mango chutney? I myself have never had mango chutney, not liking mangos, but Phil’s an expert on making the stuff. It never lasts, but make sure you use green mangos because the old ones are too stringy.

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Thomas Shapcott uses as a basis for his novel the fascinating life story of Karoly Pulszky, who left Hungary as the disgraced Director of the National Gallery of Art and who committed suicide after two months in Queensland. Pulszky, a forceful and flamboyant man, followed in the footsteps of his distinguished father in building up Hungary’s art collection. He was married to Emilia Markus, ‘The Blonde Wonder of Budapest, the Greatest Actress in Hungary’. Financial mismanagement enabled his family’s political enemies to bring him down and he left Hungary in shame. Years after his death, one of his two daughters, Romola, married Nijinsky, and she wrote extensively about her own colourful life. Shapcott draws on her writings with considerable skill.

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For the previous Commonwealth Writers’ Week associated with the Commonwealth Games at Edmonton, a large if not necessarily lively anthology of writing from all countries of the Commonwealth was produced. Brisbane produced a twelve page ‘Guide to Participants’ which showed that only eighteen of the sixty-three listed participants were not Australian or Australian born. Not all of the eighteen visitors turned up, the most conspicuous absentee being Edward Brathwaite of Jamaica. This imbalance was reflected in the sessions themselves, nearly half of which were exclusively Australian in content.

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