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.
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 Jennings was an unpublished forty-year-old at the time, yet within two years Penguin had launched his first short story collection, Unreal!
‘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.
In Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), Don Watson wrote that Lowitja O’Donoghue ‘seemed then and has seemed ever since to be a person of such transcendent warmth, if Australians ever got to know her they would want her as their Queen’. Robert Manne, in the first-ever Quarterly Essay (2001), portrayed her as ‘a woman of scrupulous honesty and great beauty of soul’. These qualities gleam in Stuart Rintoul’s handsomely produced biography.
Honeybee, Craig Silvey’s highly anticipated new novel, his first since Jasper Jones (2009), chronicles the coming of age of fourteen-year-old transgender narrator Sam Watson, who was assigned male at birth. This is a story of desperate loneliness and fear, of neglect, family violence, betrayal, and self-disgust. But it is also one of love and solidarity, a celebration of the kindness of strangers who become family and friends.
Sofie Laguna does not shy away from confronting subject matter. Her first adult novel, One Foot Wrong (2009), is about a young girl forced by her troubled parents into a reclusive existence. Her second, The Eye of the Sheep (2014), which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015, tells the story of a young boy on the autism spectrum born into a family riven by poverty and violence. Her third, The Choke (2017), concerns a motherless child in danger because of her father’s criminal connections. Infinite Splendours is also about the betrayal of a child by the adults in his life, but here Laguna ventures into new territory, exploring the lasting impact of trauma on a child as he becomes a man, and whether the abused may become the abuser.
Opening a review with a book’s first line allows a critic to thieve the author’s momentum for themselves. I am in a thieving mood. For the first line of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, carries an enviable wallop: ‘Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.’ It’s the kind of line – charged, discomforting, and vicious – that makes Ferrante so electrifying to read. Ferrante’s novels are whetstones; her narrators are knives. When we meet twelve-year-old Giovanna Trada in this novel, she is a meek and dutiful creature – clever but incurious; a dewy-eyed admirer of her affluent parents and their hermetic life. Four years later, when Ferrante is finished with her, Giovanna’s heart is a shiv. Here is womanhood, Ferrante shows us once again: a relentless abrasion, a sharpening.
Grace Karskens’s previous book, The Colony (2009), which dealt with Sydney and the Cumberland Plain during the first years of invasion, was one of the great books about the early colonial period in Australia. People of the River is just as important but more profound and risky. In both, Karskens has found ways, brilliantly original ways, of taking in entire populations, and she is particularly good with webs of human connection and patterns of movement. Her focus on multi-centred relationship belongs to the twenty-first century, an age which is beginning to rethink the human individual as an interlinked being, a creature shaped by circumstance and by connection.
When Alex Miller first thought of writing about Max Blatt, he imagined a celebration of his life. But would Max have wanted that? He was a melancholy, chainsmoking European migrant, quiet and self-effacing, who claimed nothing for himself except defeat and futility.
Malcolm Knox told Kill Your Darlings in 2012 that with The Life (2011), his celebrated surfing novel set on the Gold Coast, he wanted to write a historical novel about the Australian coastline and ‘that moment when one person could live right on the coast on our most treasured waterfront places, and then all of a sudden they couldn’t’. In Bluebird, set on a northern beach a ferry ride from ‘Ocean City’, this brutally undemocratic transformation is promoted from a minor theme to the engine that drives the highbrow soap-opera narrative.