Archive

The Book of Human Skin details the trials and tribulations of an innocent Venetian noblewoman named Marcella Fasan, a girl ‘so sinned agin tis like Job in a dress’, Gianni delle Boccole, loyal family servant and bad speller, explains. Marcella’s principal antagonist is her older brother Minguillo, who, out of filial jealousy and a desire to be the sole heir to the family’s New World fortune in silver, makes her a prisoner, a cripple, a madwoman, and a nun. Think Jacobean tragedy meets Gothic novel, then add some – namely a crazy Peruvian nun called Sor Loreta, who, in between fasting and self-flagellation marathons, terrorises the saner sisters at the convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It is these four characters – Gianni, Marcella, Minguillo, Sor Loreta, plus the kindly Doctor Santo Aldobrandini, a specialist in skin and its maladies – who, unbeknown to one another, take turns narrating this novel.

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James Ley reviews 'The Ghost Writer' by John Harwood

James Ley
Friday, 07 February 2020

There is a species of Victorian mystery story that is as pure an expression of nineteenth-century rationalism as you are likely to find. A strange event occurs which, at first glance, appears to admit no rational explanation; by the end of the story, it is revealed to have a logical explanation after all. Thus foolish superstition is banished by the pure light of reason. But there is another side to late-Victorian fiction of the unexpected, represented by Henry James’s ghost tale The Turn of the Screw (1898): a darker, slipperier, and far more unsettling narrative in which the supernatural elements are never satisfactorily explained and are charged with menacing psychological overtones.

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José Borghino reviews 'A Private Man' by Malcolm Knox

José Borghino
Friday, 07 February 2020

Gabriel García Márquez once said that all of us lead three different lives simultaneously: public, private, and secret. In his second novel, A Private Man, Malcolm Knox explores two very secret recesses of the modern Australian male’s experience: porn and sport. That both these spheres also have a very public face merely allows for these secret experiences to be played out in front of a paying audience as either tragedy or farce, or sometimes both.

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This is, above all else, a timely novel. In an afterword describing the Beijing massacre, Nicholas Jose explains that he wrote Avenue of Eternal Peace in 1987. The novel ends with the growing push for democracy, with crowds milling in Tiananmen Square, and with a sense that change might be possible, if precarious. The afterword details the end of such hopes. Jose’s novel therefore has a strange air of elatedness surrounding it. On the one hand it offers a very rare example of contemporary Australian fiction confronting China. The fact that the map of history it stems from has changed so dramatically adds an extra fillip to the reader’s vicarious experience of the ‘new’ China, and especially of Australia’s increasingly blasé encounter with China – up until the recent repression. Perhaps it now stands as a testament to what might have been.

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Don Anderson reviews 'Before I Wake' by John Scott

Don Anderson
Friday, 07 February 2020

A masculine reader, one assumes. From that (limited) point of view, John Scott writes the most erotic prose in the country. Linda Jaivin is ham-fisted by comparison. We are talking about a textual sexuality, the kind practised so exquisitely by David Brooks in The House of Balthus. We are talking about a sexuality that may, perhaps, be possible only in language. As Helen Gamer observes in her review of John Hughes film of Scott’s novel What I Have Written: ‘I must state a painful fact; sex in a book is sexier than sex on a screen.’ (The Independent, June 1996). I must state a further painful fact: bodies get in the way. Not of sex; not of lovemaking; but of the erotic. The body trammels the imagination.

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Laurie Clancy reviews 'A River Town' by Thomas Keneally

Laurie Clancy
Friday, 07 February 2020

The river town is Kempsey on the north coast of New South Wales, 300 miles from Sydney. It is the new year and, we soon learn, just around the turn of the century, immediately before Federation. Once more Keneally has plundered Australian history in order to explore his concern with Australian identity.

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Veronica Brady reviews 'Towards Asmara' by Thomas Keneally

Veronica Brady
Friday, 07 February 2020

Tom Keneally used to be a fashionable writer, but not anymore, at least not with the critics, though readers continue to read him. Critical concern today is with aesthetics rather than ethics, theory rather than practice. Towards Asmara is therefore not likely to get a great deal of serious attention. This is a pity because it raises some weighty issues, and the loss is the critics’!

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Owen Richardson reviews 'The Bride Stripped Bare' by Anonymous

Owen Richardson
Friday, 07 February 2020

You have to sympathise with Nikki Gemmell. When she described her sense of liberation on deciding to publish The Bride Stripped Bare anonymously, she seemed to have in mind only a desire not to offend people close to her. She would also have liberated herself from the literary celebrity machine. But, once the game was up, she got even more of it than she would otherwise have done. It doesn’t seem to have bothered her too much. The profile in The Age and the appearance on Andrew Denton’s television show didn’t suggest that she was determined to salvage what she could from her original plan to stay invisible. Some of my more cynical friends have suggested that that was what she had in mind all along. But the book is written with a candour that confirms her avowals.

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Susan Sontag has identified in contemporary fiction what she calls an ‘impatient, ardent and elliptical’ drive. These are features, above all, of the well-wrought story, and they are also adjectives that well describe its inherent paradox: the story is contained but somehow urgent, intensified but working in a system of concision, suggestive but employing referential exorbitance. Four pages might betoken an entire world.

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Jennifer Dabbs reviews 'The Tivington Nott' by Alex Miller

Jennifer Dabbs
Friday, 07 February 2020

Don’t be put off by the cover of Alex Miller’s most recent novel, where a stag-at-bay is invoked, rather reminiscent of an early century front parlour picture. Although this novel is firmly set in period and place, it simply cannot be understated as the definitive deer-hunting tale. There is also the powerful universal sub-theme of the outsider searching for meaning and identity in a society firmly entrenched in a rigid and outdated class system.

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