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The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen begins like a fable, the story of a poor family that wins the lotto and moves to a remote Queensland location to make fairy-tale characters for a tourist attraction called Dragonhall. There should be a happy ending, but there isn’t.

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For this reviewer, the sign of a healthy crime-fiction ecosystem isn’t merely the success of the ‘big names’ but also the emergence of writers whose voices are so distinctive as to be singular. Sometimes these writers become commercially successful in their own right, and sometimes they remain literary outliers, drawing their readership from a smaller but avid following. When I think of the health of American crime fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I recall not only the success of Mario Puzo, but also the kind of writing culture that sustained the dark vision of an author such as George V. Higgins. The same goes for Britain in the 1980s, where Dick Francis was still publishing prolifically when Derek Raymond emerged. Turning to twenty-first-century America and the success of writers like Michael Connelly and Karin Slaughter, it’s the rise of Megan Abbott and Richard Price that illustrates the full potential of that culture’s capacity for crime storytelling.

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To survey concurrent works of art is to take the temperature of a particular time, in a particular place. And the temperature of the time and place in these four début Australian novels? It is searching for a sense of belonging, and, at least in part, it’s coming out of western Sydney in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. All four novels are set in New South Wales, three of them in suburban Sydney. Each is concerned with who is entitled to land and the stories we tell while making ourselves at home in the world, sometimes at the expense of others.

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More than twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay on the work of Oliver Sacks (Island Magazine, Autumn 1993). Entitled ‘Anthropologist of Mind’, it ranged across several of Sacks’s books; but it was Seeing Voices, published in 1989, that was the main impetus for the essay. In Seeing Voices, Sacks explored American deaf communities, past and present. He exposed the stringent and often punishing attempts to ‘normalise’ deaf people by forcing them to communicate orally, and he simultaneously deplored the denigration and widespread outlawing of sign language. Drawing on the work of Erving Goffman, Sacks showed how deaf people were stigmatised and marginalised from mainstream culture, and he revealed, contrary to prevailing opinion in the hearing world, the richness and complexities of American Sign Language.

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The Climate Cure should have been on every Australian federal politician’s Christmas list. As Tim Flannery explains, our federal politicians, stymied by Coalition climate change denialists and the fossil fuel lobby, have failed the climate challenge of the past two decades, so that we have ‘sleepwalked deep into the world that exists just seconds before the climate clock strikes a catastrophic midnight’. But ‘at the last moment, between megafires and Covid-19, governments are at last getting serious about the business of governance’.

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He. by Murray Bail

by
March 2021, no. 429

In 2005, Murray Bail published Notebooks: 1970–2003. ‘With some corrections’, the contents were transcriptions of entries Bail made in notebooks during that period. Now, in 2021, dozens of these entries – observations, quotations, reflections, scenes – recur in his new book, He. It’s to be assumed that this book, too, is a series of carefully selected transcriptions from the same, and later, notebooks.

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There are at least two types of ‘snowdroppers’ in the world. I grew up around economic snowdroppers, working-class women who stole laundry from clothing lines in more affluent suburbs and sold the contraband, mostly linen and women’s clothing, to pawnshops across inner Melbourne. The snowdropper introduced early in Garry Disher’s new crime novel, Consolation, is of another variety. He steals underwear, women’s underwear specifically, then trophies the garments home and enjoys their company. The thief is pursued by Constable Paul Hirschhausen, the local cop in the town of Tiverton, whom we know from Disher’s previous novels in this series, Bitter Wash Road (2013) and Peace (2019).

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‘Unerring muse that makes the casual perfect’: Robert Lowell’s compliment to his friend Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind as I read Helen Garner. She is another artist who reveres the casual for its power to disrupt and illuminate. Nothing is ever really casual for her, but rather becomes part of a perfection that she resists at the same time. The ordinary in these diaries – the daily, the diurnal, the stumbled-upon, the breathing in and out – is turned into something else through the writer’s extraordinary craft.

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A Letter to Layla is very much a book of our times. Its impetus lies in our rapidly changing climate, and it concludes with the unexpected impact of Covid-19. In between, the book explores both our distant past and our future.

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Virginia Woolf wrote that when trying to communicate about pain as a sick woman ‘language at once runs dry’. How does one talk about wounds without fetishising their workings, and how in a society where pain is taboo does one speak of it authentically? In Show Me Where it Hurts, writer and journalist Kylie Maslen balances the difficulty of this equation: telling the story of her disability and having that story remain fundamentally unspeakable. The act of telling remains for Maslen ‘a rejection of language’, and yet the thing on the table for those suffering is ‘the desire to make ourselves known’.

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