Australian Fiction

A short story collection can have much in common with a collection of poetry, where each story pivots on attention to something particular and arresting – an image, a memory, the encounters with strangeness or beauty that can occur in a life. Individual stories build delicately towards such a moment, then fall away quickly, willing a reader to engage with feeling and suggestion rather than the comprehensiveness of narrative.

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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.

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Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos

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November 2020, no. 426

In Andrew Pippos’s immersive and multi-layered début novel, Lucky’s, a tragic shooting that occurs in the last bastion of a Greek-Australian restaurant franchise becomes the fulcrum around which mental health, heartbreak, displacement, and toxic masculinity are explored.

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Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

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November 2020, no. 426

At the heart of every fairy tale, there is violence: Snow White’s stepmother calling for her heart on a platter, Cinderella’s sisters mutilating their feet to fit the silver shoe. ‘All the better to eat you with, my dear,’ says the wolf, his belly already stuffed with grandmother’s flesh. From this bloodletting, the fairy tale tries to spin something wondrous, turning straw into gold and men into beasts.

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The Living Sea of Waking Dreams begins, self-consciously, at the limits of language. Its opening pages are rendered in a prose style that is fragmented and contorted. Sentences break down, run into each other. Syntax is twisted into odd shapes that call into question the very possibility of meaning. Words seem to arrive pre-estranged by semantic satiation in a way that evokes Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett at their most opaque: ‘As if they too were already then falling apart, so much ash and soot soon to fall, so much smoke to suck down. As if all that can be said is we say you and if that then. Them us were we you?’

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These three Young Adult novels differ wildly in tone, execution – even their grasp on reality. Georgina Young’s début novel, Loner (Text Publishing, $24.99 pb, 256 pp), won the Text Prize for an unpublished Young Adult manuscript in 2019, and was a deserving winner. Text has decided to market it as adult fiction, but it works well as a crossover novel. Her protagonist, twenty-year-old Lona (does not sound like loner!).

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In perhaps the most tender story in this textured, interconnected collection, an adolescent son spends the summer sunbathing in the backyard and sneaking glances at the paperboy while his working-class, stay-at-home father, who reads detective fiction and likes to ‘figure things out before the endings’, gently attempts to make it known to his son that he can tell him anything.

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Bluebird by Malcolm Knox

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October 2020, no. 425

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.

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During Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Germans occupied Yasnaya Polyana – the former estate of Leo Tolstoy – for just forty-five days and converted it into a field hospital. The episode features in the war reportage of Ève Curie (daughter of Marie), and sounds like tantalising, if challenging, source material for a novelist. There’s the brutal irony inherent in the home of a world-famous prophet of non-violence being occupied by, of all people, the Nazis. There’s the human loss and horror of the deadliest military operation in the deadliest war in history. And there’s audacity in invoking and responding to Tolstoy’s great epic of another – Napoleon’s – doomed invasion of Russia: War and Peace (1869).

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Gail Jones’s new novel, Our Shadows, provides readers with another virtuoso performance, showing a writer fully in control of her medium. It is a poetic and beautifully crafted evocation of shadowy pasts whose traumatic effects (in the world and in individual lives) stretch deep into the present and the future.

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