Allen & Unwin

One of the hardest challenges for a novelist is to write a story for adults from the point of view of a child. In 1847, Charlotte Brontë set the bar high with Jane Eyre, the first novel to achieve this. The story ends when Jane is a woman but commences with the child Jane’s perspective. So effective for readers was Brontë’s ground-breaking feat that Charles Dickens decided to write Great Expectations in the voice of the child Pip, after just hearing about Jane Eyre, even before reading it.

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The proliferation of trauma writing in the past few years is a double-edged sword. While giving public voice to subjects once relegated to the dark lessens stigma and creates agency, there is almost an expectation for women writers to reveal or perform their trauma, as well as a risk of exploitation and retraumatisation.

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In late August, it took only a few days for the Taliban to secure control of Kabul in the wake of the final withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. The breakneck speed of the takeover was accompanied by images of mass terror, alongside a profound sense of betrayal. As in the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975, the international airport quickly became the epicentre of scenes of chaos and collective panic, as thousands rushed onto the tarmac in desperate attempts to board the last planes out of the country. Queues stretched for kilometres outside the country’s only passport office. It is still too early to tell whether the Taliban’s promises of a more ‘inclusive’ government and amnesty for former collaborators of the Western forces will be met. What is certain is that Western governments owe them safe passage, though, from the announcements coming from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office in late August, it seems unlikely this will be properly honoured.

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It has become a rite of passage for foreign correspondents returning home from a stint in China to pen a memoir recounting their experiences. All too often, the story begins with the said reporter crossing into mainland China at Lo Wu, having just spent time enjoying the bright lights of Hong Kong. Clearly, the Lo Wu railway station holds a certain allure for wandering Australian journalists.

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In July 2020, Indigenous residents of the remote central Australian community of Laramba lost their case in the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal. For decades, the water that flowed through the taps into Laramba homes had been contaminated with high levels of uranium – about three times the safe limit. The case was a desperate attempt to force the government to assume legal responsibility and to fix the problem. They didn’t succeed: the Tribunal found that the Department of Housing (as the landlord) wasn’t required under Northern Territory law to provide safe drinking water to its tenants.

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A new Susan Johnson novel is always a treat, partly because you get the sense that with each one she has set herself a specific creative challenge, and partly because she is such a fine writer. In From Where I Fell (Allen & Unwin, $32.99 pb, 338 pp), the epistolary novel, popular in the nineteenth century, has been updated, with the entire work in the form of emails. Nothing new in that, but what makes this different is that the contemporary problem of emailing someone unintentionally is followed through with that intellectually teasing ‘what if’ thread: what if the person you accidentally contacted was someone with whom you wanted to keep communicating? What if this person was someone to whom you could confess your most private thoughts? And what if this person never responded in a conventional manner?

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Love Objects by Emily Maguire

by
May 2021, no. 431

At the core of Love Objects, Emily Maguire’s sixth novel, is a delicate exploration of the responsibility that comes with love and what it means to care for others in both the emotional and practical senses of the word. The book’s protagonist, Nic, is a caustic but kind-hearted woman, positioned, in many ways, so as to be overlooked by the world. Middle-aged, childless, and living alone in her childhood home, she works as a cashier in a low-end department store. She is the kind of woman who often becomes invisible in our society, so it seems fitting that she has an affinity for the forgotten and the overlooked.

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Here’s a story about a spy with a wooden leg, another spy who liked to sit around with his penis exposed, and a spy’s daughter who spent decades refusing to believe her father was dead. If this tale of an everyday family of secret agents were a novel or a Netflix drama, we’d laugh, frown, and admire it as a surreal fantasy. But it is real, the children are still alive, and their recollections are proof that truth is nuttier than fiction.

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Paul Jennings’s literary career can be traced back to three whispered words from the author Carmel Bird, who taught him writing at an evening class in Melbourne in 1983. ‘You are good,’ she told him. Jennings was an unpublished forty-year-old at the time, yet within two years Penguin had launched his first short story collection, Unreal!

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‘A voyage round my father’, to quote the title of John Mortimer’s autobiographical play of 1963, has been a popular form of personal memoir in Britain from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) to Michael Parkinson’s just-published Like Father, Like Son. The same form produced some of the best Australian writing in the twentieth century, with two assured classics in the case of Germaine Greer’s Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989) and Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father (1998). The tradition has continued into the present century with – to list some of the choicest plums – Richard Freadman’s Shadow of Doubt: My father and myself (2003), Sheila Fitzpatrick’s My Father’s Daughter (2010), Jim Davidson’s A Führer for a Father (2017), and Christopher Raja’s Into the Suburbs: A migrant’s story (2020). Mothers in such sagas are far from absent, and they can emerge, though not always, as the more obviously loveable or loving figures. As signalled by most of those titles, however, mothers loom less large over the unfolding narrative. Fathers may not always know or act best, but, partly because of their often tougher, commanding mien, they become irresistibly the centre of attention.

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