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Review

Westerly Vol. 54, No. 1 by Delys Bird and Dennis Haskell

by
October 2009, no. 315

One of the best things about the latest issue of Westerly is the cover, a detail from Helen Norton’s painting The shores of the excommunicated. Norton’s image is a wonderfully disquieting take on the modern Aussie beach. It inspires fresh ideas and imaginings, it unsettles, it punctures complacency, it provokes counter-reactions, but it also entertains – typifying what literary magazines should do.

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Every book implicitly asks its reader a question: What am I? Sometimes this is an easy question to answer, but at other times, as with Andrew McGahan’s new novel, one must reply, ‘I have no idea; I’ve never seen anything like you before.’

The setting of Wonders of a Godless World is an old hospital housing the mad. Somehow the old-fashioned notion of ‘madness’ suits this story; it’s the word McGahan uses most often to describe the patients, and there is more than a whiff about this isolated hospital of the medieval Narrenschiff – the Ship of Fools. The hospital is under a volcano on a tropical island with a harbour city. We are not told the names of any of these places, and, like everything and everyone else in this book, its heroine also has no name; rather, she is identified, as are all the other characters, by her defining characteristic, and is thus exclusively referred to as ‘the orphan’. Other key characters are identified by their roles in a mundanely realistic way: the police captain, the old doctor, the night nurse. Still others have labels more redolent of fairytale and myth: the duke, the witch, the archangel, the virgin. And then there is the mastermind and perhaps the villain of the piece: the foreigner. As far as archetypal characters and symbolic settings are concerned, this book contains an embarrassment of riches, and the fact that none of them is individually identified or named means that all kinds of significance can be projected onto them.

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Learning about the world is one of the great fruits of reading. It can be as much fun as solving a puzzle, provided the information is presented to invite questioning and interpretation. These five attractively produced, accessible books are designed to appeal to their intended audiences, but how well do they avoid the over-simplification that is an inherent danger in tailoring ‘facts’ to the needs and interests of inexperienced readers?

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Figurehead by Patrick Allington

by
October 2009, no. 315

What we might call ‘ordinary Australians’ produced a stream of novels about Asian countries in the 1970s and 1980s, but this is now a mere trickle. Some of the flow may have been dammed by the effect of market forces on publishers; some of it may have been diverted to Middle Eastern channels; some may have drained into the pools of Asia-enthusiasm that stagnated during the Howard years; and some may have dried up in the face of Asian diaspora fiction of the 1990s. Among the few Anglo-Saxon Australians who kept writing novels about Asia, several have turned to narratives set in a historical comfort zone, where they may still have a chance of competing with Asian Australians like Brian Castro, Teo Hsu-ming and Michelle de Kretser – although they too write of the past – or with Nam Le, Alice Pung and Aravind Adiga, who concentrate on the here and now.

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All living organisms are made of cells. Some, like bacteria, consist of just single cells; others, like humans, contain trillions of individual cells. The term ‘cell’ was first used in this context by the remarkable Robert Hooke in his beautifully illustrated masterpiece Micrographica: or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon (1665). Hooke had been observing a thin slice of cork under his newly developed microscope. These cells were ‘[the] first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this.’ He then showed why:

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Evelyn Juers’s wide-ranging and suggestive study of Heinrich Mann (older brother of Thomas) and his second wife, Nelly Kroeger-Mann, opens with a vivid extended anecdote, recounting a meeting between the couple and Bertolt Brecht at a fruit market in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1944. Members of the community of European exiles in Los Angeles had flocked to the market because a farmer ‘was selling berries … Not just strawberries, blueberries … [but] also … gooseberries’. Jokingly translating the English word into Gaensebeeren (the actual German is Stachelbeeren), Brecht is caught handing out ‘a great mound of amber fruit’, giving Heinrich and Nelly ‘a translucent gem to taste’, and wittily punning ‘that he was no gooseberry fool’.

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Sins of the Father focuses on Philip Cooper, a forty-seven-year-old Australian who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian commune established by his father, Neville Cooper, in New Zealand. In 1989, Philip left the commune and came to Australia. Since then, he has been trying to extricate his wife and children and create a ‘normal’ life.

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The Blue Plateau, set in the Blue Mountains, is part memoir, part essay and part anecdotal local history. Mark Tredinnick wrote it during the seven years he spent living in the valley below Katoomba with his wife and growing family. Strangely, we learn little of the author or his family as this informative, sympathetic and poetic book emerges from its landscape in meditative bursts. It is a kind of mosaic of prose poems. If there is an order in this book, it is, as Tredinnick suggests in his prologue, one that is more implicit than explicit.

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One could be forgiven for thinking that after the succès de scandale of her previous novel, The Bride Stripped Bare (2005), Nikki Gemmell’s next novel would also address the permutations of sexual desire, particularly since the title of her latest novel is The Book of Rapture and the cover is a riot of fleshy red and purple. This time round, though, Gemmell is more interested in exploring religious, scientific and familial rapture. There is barely a skerrick of sex within the deckle-edged pages.

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It is easy to be complacent about the Greeks. We know they invented democracy, philosophy, drama, the principle of free speech and other things that we value highly; but how often do we read the works of Homer and Hesiod, of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, of Herodotus and Thucydides, of Plato and Aristotle? How often do we reflect that the Greeks gave the West the very idea of literature? The heritage is so rich that there are whole periods and genres that many readers may never have encountered, except in the most tangential way.

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