Archive

Adam Rivett reviews 'Musk and Byrne' by Fiona Capp

Adam Rivett
Thursday, 31 October 2019

Pitched awkwardly between mass-market romance and a literary novel, Musk and Byrne is a curious creation. Spending excessive verbal effort on a familiar and rather vacuous plot, the book never finds a satisfactory shape, and finally lacks a true purpose. Never intellectually thorough enough to offer an exploration of artistic identity, and not trashy enough to deliver tawdry thrills, it is both too well written and not very original.

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In the last essay in this collection, Robert Macfarlane touches on the main reasons why Peter Carey’s novels ‘have proved so very attractive to academic exegetes’, in their combination of the postmodern and the postcolonial. Just how attractive is demonstrated in the sixty-page bibliography, which is sure to be one of the most used parts of Fabulating Beauty, especially by overseas readers without access to the invaluable AustLit. Editor Andreas Gaile, a young German academic, notes in his introduction that Carey is now ‘the most widely commented-on living Australian author’. While Patrick White is currently well ahead, with more than twice as many critical items published on his work, Carey is catching up fast. Visit any bookshop, whether in Melbourne, London, or New York, and you will of course find many more titles by Carey than by White. If, as Simon During has argued, White was the perfect novelist for those wishing to argue for the academic significance of Australian literature in the 1950s and 1960s, then Carey has just as obviously caught the dominant theoretical currents of the past thirty years. While Tim Winton may sell just as well and, if ‘favourite book’ polls are any guide, be more loved, no one has yet published a major critical study of his work.

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The Vogel Prize shares a reputation with the rest of the company’s products: nutritious, worthy, a little dull. But the prize’s earnest image is unfair. Any glance at the roll-call of winners over the last twenty-five years would show that the makers of soggy bread and soya cereals have done more than anyone to introduce fresh literary DNA into Australia’s tiny gene pool of published novelists. But reviewers, mostly, and the public, generally, don’t get excited when the new Vogel is published. This year they should. Julienne van Loon’s desperate joyride, Road Story, is the best Vogel winner to come along since 1990, when Gillian Mears’s The Mint Lawn, equally confident but very different, won first place.

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In one sense, the publisher’s blurb on this novel says it all.

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Michael Sharkey reviews 'Henry Lawson: A life' by Colin Roderick

Michael Sharkey
Thursday, 31 October 2019

Henry Lawson’s death prompted a torrent of lamentation and, despite the distaste of academics and critics, the poet was soon enshrined as a National Treasure. Colin Roderick’s biography is a monument of dedication to the poet.

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Obituary for Helen Daniel

Peter Craven
Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Helen Daniel, the editor of Australian Book Review since 1995, died suddenly on Monday, 16 October 2000. Her death has sent waves of shock and sorrow throughout the Australian literary world. According to Andrew Riemer, at the Writers’ Week in Brisbane, held on the weekend after Helen’s death, session after session paid homage to this woman who, without vanity or arrogation, had made her name synonymous with the profession and apprehension of Australian literature.

Her death diminishes all of us. Its strange to reflect that Helen, who occupied her position so quietly (at times so stoically) was in fact far and away the greatest champion for Australian writing in her generation and that her time as a critic and editor coincided with the great efflorescence of Australian publishing that we now wonder at and ponder.

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Religion and Justice

Raimond Gaita
Tuesday, 29 October 2019

‘Dear God. Save us from those who would believe in you.’ Not long after the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11 last year, those words were sprayed on a wall in New York. Knowing what provoked them, I sense fear of religion in them. Their wit does not dilute the fear, nor does it render its expression less unsettling. To the contrary, it makes the fear more poignant and its justification more evident.

Enough people have been murdered and tortured over the centuries in the name of religion for anyone to have good reason to fear it. Is it, therefore, yet another example of the hyperbole that overwhelmed common sense and sober judgment after September 11 to sense something new in the fear expressed in that graffiti? In part, I think it is. But the thought that makes the fear seem relatively (rather than absolutely) novel is this: perhaps the horrors of religion are not corruptions of religion, but inseparable from it. To put it less strongly, but strongly enough: though there is much in religion that condemns evils committed in its name, none of it has the authority to show that fanatics who murder and torture and dispossess people of their lands necessarily practise false religion or that they believe in false gods. At best (this thought continues), religion is a mixed bag of treasures and horrors.

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Katherine England reviews 'The Book of Miles' by David Astle

Katherine England
Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Mark Twain did Australian literature a service when he remarked that Australian history ‘does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies’. It is an observation with which Australians are happy to identify, for it stimulates the imagination, accommodates the larrikin we like to see in ourselves, and has the effect of sanctioning the revision of a past that is not all that we might, from the vantage of hindsight, have wished. At least three writers have adopted it as an epigraph, including Peter Carey, who wove Illywhacker around the notion, and now David Astle, personalising a possible past for a corner of country Victoria.

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Steve Gome reviews 'Shadowboxing' by Tony Birch

Steve Gome
Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Shadowboxing is a collection of discrete short stories charting the arduous journey of the narrator, Michael Byrne, from childhood to fatherhood. Living in the inner-Melbourne suburbs of Carlton, Richmond, and Fitzroy in the 1960s was for many a tough proposition – and the Byrne family is no exception. Their household is headed by an embittered alcoholic whose violent tendencies are a source of constant dread. Money is always tight, and the family’s grip on any sort of security or comfort is invariably tenuous. Yet when the stories have been told, what we are left with is not a litany of woe but rather powerful examples of resilience and resourcefulness provided by the inhabitants of these impoverished communities.

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Those who read the gloomy criticisms of modern education by some educationalists might be pardoned for wondering whether any but the most privileged children nowadays can hope to gain mastery of their language or development of their mind and talent. Meanwhile, the talented young blithely make nonsense of crabbed and intolerant age. Paul Zanetti, aged twenty-three, wins the Walkely Award for a political cartoon. Paul Radley, while still in his teens, and Tim Winton, barely older, won Australian Vogel Awards and continue writing with force and imagination.

Winton is now twenty-four. Shallows is his second good novel. It is set in a fictional West Australian whaling town called Angelus. Although I have never been to Albany (where Winton had part of his education), I suspect I might find it recognisable after reading Winton’s devoted and detailed account of Angelus. The time of the action is now, or a year or so ago, but the story ranges through much history. Change is inevitable for whaling ports and industries but whether it should come abruptly or gradually is still debatable.

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