Scribe

In an ABC interview to promote his previous novel, Fever of Animals (2015), Miles Allinson shares a brief anecdote. When Allinson was aged sixteen or seventeen, a teacher told him that everyone turns conservative eventually. Allinson recalls his repulsion at the notion of this inevitable slide towards orthodoxy. His new novel, In Moonland, feels like a rebuttal. Joe, the narrator of the first part of the book, is caught somewhere between consent and revolt: though ambitious, he feels trapped by the flickering lights of his own computer, by the suburbs, and by his run-of-the-mill job. Orbiting him is a coterie of questions relating to his new status as a father, coupled with one more profoundly unanswerable question: why did his father, Vincent, kill himself? Only some of these questions are answered across a narrative that uses four different perspectives and three different timelines, from the present back to the 1970s and into the near future.

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Writers seeking publication are often advised to have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready. These succinct book-hooks are designed to jag a trapped publisher in the wink between a lift door closing and reopening. Has this insane tactic ever actually worked? No idea. But it’s fun to imagine the CEO of Big Sales Books, on their way up to another corner-office day of tallying cricket memoir profits, blindsided by three of the looniest elevator pitches imaginable. A novel narrated by Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles! A faux political memoir about a prime minister and his shark vendetta! An academic satire cum historical mystery mashup told largely through the – wait, wait, wait! – footnotes of a PhD thesis! That CEO will probably take the stairs next time, but kudos to the independent publishers who saw the potential in these experimental works and their début authors. Whatever the path of weird Australian writing, long may it find its way to these pages.

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Three recent novels by Australian women deal with current and increasingly urgent political questions about female identity and embodiment. They each use the conventions of popular realist fiction to provoke thought about the causes of female disempowerment and the struggle for self-determination. Coincidentally, they are also set, or partially set, in Australian country towns, although their locations are markedly different, and their plots culminate in the revelation of disturbing secrets.

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The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

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July 2021, no. 433

The title character of Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s second novel, The Newcomer, is Paulina Novak, who has arrived on Fairfolk Island after leaving a finance career in Sydney. If she is wanting to make a new start, then she’s mistaken; Paulina’s life seems perpetually sullied by alcoholism, an eating disorder, and a tendency to fall for callous men. Acquaintances say that her head is ‘messy’. Paulina herself remarks: ‘My whole life’s a fuck-up.’

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Craig Munro’s latest book shines a spotlight on the work of some very different Australian book editors. It begins in the 1890s, when A.G. Stephens came into prominence as literary editor of The Bulletin’s famous Red Page. It continues through the trials and tribulations of P.R. (‘Inky’) Stephensen in publishing and radical politics in the interwar period and his internment during the war for his association with the Australia First Movement. Literary Lion Tamers then moves on to Beatrice Davis’s long career as a professional book editor with Angus & Robertson after World War II. It concludes with Rosanne Fitzgibbon, with whom Munro developed fiction and poetry lists at the University of Queensland Press.

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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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Monsters by Alison Croggon

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April 2021, no. 430

Alison Croggon has written poetry, fantasy novels, and whip-smart arts criticism for decades, but Monsters is her first book-length work of non-fiction. In this deeply wounded book, Croggon unpacks her shattered relationship with her younger sister (not named in the book), a dynamic that bristles with accusations and resentments. In attempting to understand the wreckage of this relationship, Croggon finds herself going back to the roots of Western patriarchy and colonialism, seeking to frame this fractured relationship as the inexorable consequence of empire.

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Determining connections between books sent as a review bundle is not mandatory, but there is an irresistible tendency to find some common theme. In the case of these three novels, the theme of women’s pain, and hidden pain at that, does not need to be teased out – it leaps out. Since it is unlikely that three different authors would have colluded, the prevalence of this is worth deeper reflection, especially considering recent titles such as Kylie Maslen’s essays on illness, Show Me Where It Hurts, or Kate Middleton’s extraordinary memoir essay ‘The Dolorimeter’, placed second in the 2020 Calibre Prize.

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At the heart of Trevor Shearston’s latest novel, The Beach Caves, is the act of digging. The protagonist, Annette Cooley, is a young archaeology student, thrilled by the allure of her Honours supervisor’s most recent find: the stone remains of an Aboriginal village on the New South Wales south coast that could rewrite the pre-European history of Australia. Intriguing additional sites are soon discovered, but before long the air of excitement is replaced by one of suspicion, jealousy, and dread when a member of the dig team disappears.

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On Getting Off is an attempt to think about sex philosophically, through the lens of personal, literary, and artistic experience. Damon Young, a Melbourne philosopher, is keen on reflective sex and legitimises this fetish with a carrot and stick, seducing readers by arguing for its superior pleasures and threatening us by implying that the alternatives are morally dubious or diminishing. He considers a wide variety of subjects and circumstances along the way, including the power and peculiarity of sexual attraction, the place of humour in sex, ‘teasing’ and suspended pleasure, the bounties and pitfalls of beauty, the stigma of prostitution, the complexities of sexual fantasy, the function of sex robots, and the importance of meaningfulness. He approaches these matters with fluency and an impressive variety of references – literary, artistic, and philosophical – but the insights are often dull.

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