University of Queensland Press

Transgressions edited by Don Anderson & The Australian Short Story by Laurie Hergenhan

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May 1986, no. 80

I have a theory that every second Australian is a closet short story writer. And this is a conservative estimate. According to my theory, the so-called ‘booms’ in the history of the Australian short story in the 1890s and 1950s merely reflected fashions in the book and magazine publishing businesses, not the relentless scratching away in exercise books or thumping of battered typewriters which occupies the waking hours of the determined taleteller and which is, I am convinced, a more popular national pastime than dodging income tax. How else to explain the sheer volume of short stories being published? And these are but the tip of the iceberg – a mere fraction of those that have been and are being written.

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Headlands by Bruce Beaver

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May 1986, no. 80

The jacket painting on Bruce Beaver’s highly wrought little book of prose poems is Lloyd Rees’ ‘The Coast near Klama’. It’s an elevated view of virgin green and dun coloured headland, the ochres rising through. Sea swirls into an oysterish bay. There is one distant figure looking down on another distant figure in a rock pool below. The sky, as with so many Rees skies, is egg-shelly yellow near the horizon, a glowing compliment to the taste we form and hold of earth.

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The immediate virtues of this book are not difficult to see: Andrew Taylor is a skilled poet who understands the workings of syntax and rhythm, and who knows how to shape his poems into unified patterns with an apparent minimum of fuss. The poems tend to have a regular and easy pace; their fluency is considerable. Taylor writes with a genuine confidence and a literary awareness which is for the most part sophisticated and supple. His diction is uniform and he is careful not to overreach himself. There is no visible strain in the whole performance.

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A colleague asked if I thought that Elizabeth Jolley’s Foxybaby might have gone ‘over the top’. I assume she meant that the book might be ‘too much’ because the function of its preoccupation with (say) crime and sex, including incest and homosexuality, was not immediately apparent. The question is a reasonable one, but for two reasons I don’t think that her latest novel does go over the top: there is no theme used or technique employed in Foxybaby which has not appeared in Jolley’s writing before; and, ad astra (perhaps per aspera or per ardua), the book represents a logical but highly imaginative development from her most recent work.

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Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville & Bearded Ladies by Kate Grenville

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November 1985, no. 76

What a pleasure to be reviewing Kate Grenville’s collection of stories and her novel!

First, Bearded Ladies: The stories are a delight. Ranging with ease over four continents, they portray women in a variety of relationships – girls brought face-to-face with a sexual world, women coping with men, without men, women learning to be. The writing is witty, satirical, compassionate, clear as a rock pool and as full of treasures.

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An Illywhacker, Peter Carey reminds us at the start of his latest and by far his longest novel, is a trickster or spieler. Wilkes cites it in Kylie Tennant’s famous novel of 1941, The Battlers. The other epigraph to the novel is also preoccupied with deception and is familiar to anyone who knows Carey’s work: Brian Kiernan used it as the title of his anthology of new Australian short story writers, The Most Beautiful Lies, an anthology in which Carey himself was represented: It is from Mark Twain and reads in part: ‘Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, the incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.’

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With her first book, the short story collection The Home Girls, Olga Masters has made her ‘own’ a particularly neglected area of Australian life and a special way of seeing it. She also became an award winner in the 1983 NBC Awards for Australian Literature. Now, with her first novel, Loving Daughters she confirms the impression that a unique voice and an important one has joined the ranks of our major storytellers. Her territory is confined to the lives of ordinary country-folk in the period between the wars, in the present work the period around the early 1920s and the place a small farming township on the south coast of New South Wales.

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Andrew Taylor’s Selected Poems opens with rain and a quote from Rilke’s first elegy, collects new poems from 1975–80, touches his The Cool Change (1960–70), Ice Fishing (1970–72), and The Invention of Fire (1973–75), and ends with an epilogue the final image of which is a night watchman whittling a wooden deify which ‘Glows like a storm lantern / burning all night’. It’s night and the poet has gone to bed and closed the shutters, and the nightwatchman of the subconscious gets to work.

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Elizabeth Jolley has been around as a writer for some time. Her work dates back to the late 1950s (she came to Australia from England in 1959) and her stories began appearing in anthologies and journals in the mid­1960s, but it was not until 1976 that her first collection, Five Acre Virgin and other stories, was published by the Fremantle Arts Centre Press. Since then, her rate of publication has been phenomenal, and it is perhaps no accident that it coincided with the rise of an indigenous Western Australian Press: three of her first four books were published by the FACP, which, in its few years of existence, has been responsible for the discovery of a remarkable amount of talent.

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Returning to live in Queensland seems to have done something to Thea Astley’s perception of Australian country life. In this novel, as well as in her previous one, A Kindness Cup, she gives as appalling and scathing a vision of life in rural Australia as has come from any novelist since Barbara Baynton. Although her prose is as bitingly astringent as ever in this book, it lacks the sardonic humour of her recent collection of short stories Hunting the Wild Pineapple. The pessimism and anger are almost unrelieved.

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