Archive

Gillian Dooley reviews 'Bright Planet' by Peter Mews

Gillian Dooley
Friday, 05 June 2020

Matthew Flinders, arriving in Sydney in 1803 after circumnavigating Australia, wrote to his wife bemoaning ‘the dreadful havock that death is making all around’. The sailors in Peter Mews’s Bright Planet have a more phlegmatic attitude. At least twelve of the ship’s complement of sixteen fail to survive the expedition. There may be more, but death becomes an everyday occurrence hardly worth mentioning. By the end, we are not entirely sure whether the remaining characters are alive or dead.

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It’s not racism that makes my mother – once a poor girl from the Welsh valleys – side with the Howard government on the refugee issue: it’s an instinctive territorial defensiveness that can be easily exploited by emotive phrases: illegals, queue jumpers, people smugglers. She’s not alone, if her friends, other relatively prosperous, tax-paying senior Australian citizens, are anything to go by; but it’s not a hardline position. All it might take to soften their attitude is a copy of The Haha Man by Sandy McCutcheon, a rollicking good read that highlights the refugee plight without a whiff of the lecture hall.

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In 1927 the London firm Chatto & Windus published a book titled A Chinaman’s Opinion of Us and of His Own People. Supposedly the translated letters of a young Chinese man, Hwuy-Ung, sent home during his years spent in Melbourne, the writing suggested itself to its European and Australian readership as a delightful take on their society as witnessed by an innocent outsider; an enchanting, amusing and unwittingly insightful journal of a sensitive and bewildered Oriental gentleman. Written by an Australian called Theodore John Tourrier, the book was eventually exposed as a hoax, a cheeky, vaudeville-style tease hamming up the image of the courteous and comical Chinaman.

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Christopher Bantick reviews 'The Colour of Walls' by Janet Kelly

Christopher Bantick
Friday, 05 June 2020

In her searing novel, The Colour of Walls, Janet Kelly writes about child abuse and incest with clarity and understanding. The subject matter alone is disturbing, and the sense of cyclical hopelessness is both enduring and arresting. Still, Kelly brings us to a faintly optimistic resolution. This somewhat redeems an otherwise bleakly realistic story.

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Spinning Around is reminiscent of Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002), the story of Kate Reddy, a full-time fund manager who also juggles a husband, a nanny, and two young children. The voice of both novels is confessional and conversational. Both use existing brand names as descriptors, employ time as a structural device – Jinks uses days, Pearson, hours – and end with a quick summary of a brighter future illuminated by enlightening experiences. They also open with very similar sentences and sentiments (Jinks: ‘How did I ever get into this mess?’ Pearson: ‘How did I get here?’), and in each novel there is a daughter named Emily, a younger son and a helpful, slightly hopeless husband with less earning power than his wife. It’s hard to tell if this is evidence of the genre’s inherent features, the ineluctable truth of the situations, or a happy coincidence.

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The Survival of Poetry

Peter Porter
Wednesday, 03 June 2020

Some years ago I wrote a poem called ‘A Table of Coincidences’, which contained the lines: ‘the day Christopher Columbus discovered America / Was the day Piero della Francesca died.’ This is a verifiable fact, unless changes in the Western calendar have altered things. Clearly, I was being sententious and reactionary: the ancient good of the world and its new doubtfulness seemed to start on the one day. A hostile reviewer pointed out that every date in the world is the anniversary of some other date, and poured scorn on my notion by suggesting that a momentous event like the Armistice in 1918 might share a date with the invention of Coca-Cola. But we still honour anniversaries, and I am only too conscious of the 365 days that have passed since 11 September 2001.

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At once extravagant and tightly wrapped, this novel reinforces the view that historical fiction says as much about the present and the future as it does about the past. At the level of history proper, Anouar Benmalek’s vision unites three continents that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, are subject to the depredations of European colonialism and domestic tyranny. At the human level, his fiction is preoccupied with the bodily functions and basic needs of survival: things that never change. The broad, impersonal sweep of world history is made up of the infinitesimally small transactions of the primal scene: copulating, defecating, vomiting, bleeding, all driven by the elemental forces of fear and desire, violence and conscience.

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Wagner’s Creek is a rundown seaside village full of fibro shacks, rubbish and the ‘dirt poor’: ‘Their boredom and despair was as high as the dry grass in their yards and as deep as the ruts in the road – and their hearts seemed as broken as their hanging gates and peeling fences.’ Elizabeth Stead’s other novel, The Fishcastle (2000), was also set in a seaside village where, as in Wagner’s Creek, strange things happen. Time goes more slowly in Wagner’s Creek, and the weather is different from everywhere else.

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Judith Armstrong reviews 'Anastasia: A novel' by Colin Falconer

Judith Armstrong
Wednesday, 03 June 2020

What’s a nice girl called Anastasia doing in the Whangpoa River? Maybe she’s the daughter of the last tsar who everyone thought was dead, or maybe it’s just a girl who looks like a Russian princess and happens to have the same name. If the proposition sounds familiar, be assured by Colin Falconer that Anastasia Romanovs were thick on the streets of Shanghai after the White Russian diaspora of 1917–18.

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Bev Roberts reviews 'Selected Poems' by Gwen Harwood

Bev Roberts
Wednesday, 03 June 2020

One afternoon at the recent Melbourne Writers’ Festival I noticed that, while adulatory throngs surrounded Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley, another notable member of our literary matriarchy, Gwen Harwood, sat quietly outside in the sun, deep in philosophical discussion with a younger poet. This is a comment on the differential status accorded to fiction writers and poets, but also on the relatively self-effacing Gwen and her presence or place in the literary world.

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