In one of Georgia Blain’s subtle, beautifully paced stories, a young girl is given an IQ test. Believing it to be a game, she is outraged when her older brother crows about his results and she realises she has been evaluated. Later, as an adult, she can put her childhood indignation into words: ‘I thought it was just a matter of random chance. I should have been told that there was a predetermined pattern for me to decipher, and rules to follow.’ But at eight she can only protest at the psychologist’s betrayal: ‘She never said it was a test.’
Hugh Drysdale, thirtyish, appears to have it made. An ambitious account manager with a Sydney advertising agency, he seems poised for a dazzling career. Confident of future success, he has installed his wife and son in a palatial house by the sea – with a palatial mortgage to show for it.
‘You can say a lot more in fiction than you can say in the paper,’ Caroline Overington, journalist and author of two non-fiction books, has remarked of her decision to write a novel. In Ghost Child, she uses this extra scope to consider difficult questions often overlooked in the fast-moving news cycle.
Faced with the publication of her first novel, the narrator of Stepping Out has a terrifying thought. ‘I was about to be unmasked,’ she realises. ‘End of my double life. Everyone was about to dip into my world and find out what was really cooking there ... I felt like I’d placed a bomb and was waiting, under cover, for it to explode.’
In 2005, Lisa Gorton, writing in ABR, named Paddy O’Reilly’s The Factory one of the best books of the year. It was O’Reilly’s first novel, but she was already well established as a prize-winning writer of short stories. The End of the World is a collection of those stories, and should secure her reputation as one of our most interesting, if not best-known, literary talents.
Halfway through Border Street, an ageing Holocaust survivor describes a night spent standing in the snow at Dachau. His companion, a young Australian woman desperate to understand what he has been through, tries to simulate his ordeal: she wades waist-deep into the winter surf and is shocked by the terrible cold. It is a futile, melodramatic gesture, but a touching one as well; here and throughout this quietly affecting first novel, Suzanne Leal explores the limits of human sympathy with compassion, understatement and tender humour.
The heroine of Marion Halligan’s latest novel has little time for reviewers. More often than not, she complains, they are ‘patronising ignorant nobodies’ who wouldn’t know a book from a biscuit. I will not hazard a biscuit metaphor, but I will venture a complaint. The Apricot Colonel is as elegantly written as any of Halligan’s novels. It provides the linguistic curios, surprising digressions and insights into storytelling that made Lovers’ Knots (1992), The Fog Garden (2001) and The Point (2003), among others, so exciting. Next to these, The Apricot Colonel is startlingly slight. In Halligan’s best novels, strong story lines tether the witty digressions and thoughtful asides together. In The Apricot Colonel, the plot never seems quite sturdy enough to hold them.
Here is a rich vein of strange rococo fantasy in recent Australian fiction. Tom Gilling (The Sooterkin, 1999), Andrew Lindsay (The Breadmaker’s Carnival, 1998, and The Slapping Man, 2003) and Gregory Day (The Patron Saint of Eels, 2005) have all imagined tragicomic country towns in which miracles and monsters infiltrate the sleepy lives of unsuspecting villagers. The genre can be a trap for inattentive authors: the lines between quirky and cute, touching and twee, are perilously easy to cross. With this comic apocalyptic fantasy, Catherine Rey – who writes in French but lives in Perth – avoids this trap and achieves something more. In an idiom that is part Rabelais, part Old Testament and part Ocker Pub, she creates an hilarious, troubling fable with a distinctly Australian taste.