Black Glass, speculative fiction with a sentimental edge, explores a nation controlled by an intrusive surveillance culture and subliminal social engineering. Set in a dystopian future Melbourne where the formerly affluent inner-city Docklands district has become a ghetto of ‘vacant high-rise towers’ and marginalised ‘undocumented’ persons, Meg Mundell’s first novel outlines the climate in an opening epigraph: ‘There is no legal requirement to submit a full set of personal data to the National Documentation of Identity Database’, Article 18(b) advises, ‘[h]owever, any person whose full data set is not recorded in the Database and updated as stipulated may forfeit certain benefits, privileges and rights outlined in the relevant national and international laws.’

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  • Custom Article Title Shaun Prescott reviews 'Black Glass' by Meg Mundell
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    Black Glass, speculative fiction with a sentimental edge, explores a nation controlled by an intrusive surveillance culture and subliminal social engineering...

  • Book Title Black Glass
  • Book Author Meg Mundell
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  • Biblio Scribe, $32.95 pb, 288 pp, 9781921640933

Darkness, both literal and symbolic, pervades these two recent books. Darkwater, the first Young Adult title by established writer Georgia Blain (author of four novels, including Closed for Winter, 1998), and a début book, This is Shyness by Leanne Hall, trace the aftermath of events in which brightness gives way to ‘sudden black’ in the lives of teenage characters.

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  • Custom Article Title Maya Linden reviews 'Darkwater' by Georgia Blain and 'This Is Shyness' by Leanne Hall
  • Contents Category Young Adult Fiction
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    Darkness, both literal and symbolic, pervadesthese two recent books. Darkwater, the first Young Adult title by established writer Georgia Blain...

  • Book Title Darkwater
  • Book Author Georgia Blain
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Random House, $18.95 pb, 278 pp, 9781864719833
  • Book Title 2 This is Shyness
  • Book Author 2 Leanne Hall
  • Biblio 2 Text Publishing, $19.95 pb, 274 pp, 9781921656521
  • Author Type 2 Author

Prime Cut sounds like the title of a glossy Hollywood thriller. Fortunately, Alan Carter’s début novel is a gritty and engrossing look at crime and racism in a small Western Australian town. Cato Kwong is a Chinese-Australian detective who has been working in the lowly ‘Stock Squad’ since a disastrous arrest some years before. In the novel’s opening pages, Kwong is called to help investigate a brutal murder. He discovers a link between this killing and a similar crime in Britain in the early 1970s. Kwong also uncovers a murky underworld of drug trafficking and exploitative work practices.

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  • Custom Article Title Jay Daniel Thompson reviews 'Prime Cut' by Alan Carter
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Prime Cut
  • Book Author Alan Carter
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  • Biblio Fremantle Press $32.95 pb, 320 pp, 9781921696503

Having been ‘completely screwed over by men’, Libby Cutmore is on a self-imposed and inevitably short-lived ‘man-fast’. Although she loves her job at the (fictional) National Aboriginal Gallery in Canberra, memories of New York adventures with her friend Lauren (Manhattan Dreaming, 2010), and Libby’s own sense of exclusion now that her two closest friends (‘tiddas’) are in relationships, make Libby crave her own ‘international adventure’. Then she has a ‘Deadly exciting, cultural, challenging, even sexy’ idea: find a way to work at the Musée du Quai Branly, in Paris.

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  • Custom Article Title Amy Baillieu reviews 'Paris Dreaming' by Anita Heiss
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Paris Dreaming
  • Book Author Anita Heiss
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  • Biblio $32.95 pb, 313 pp, 9781741668933

The final offering in Patrick Holland’s first collection of short stories is also its best. In ‘The Source of the Silence’, a motor mechanic casts his mind back fifteen years; he is remembering ‘a sister who was fourteen then and has never grown older’, whose thoughts he could hear before she spoke them. The story is an account of a severed bond so enduring that it haunts the survivor’s present and, as indicated in the story’s moving ending, probably his future. Juxtaposing cedar-lined creek with barbed wire fence, Holland’s landscape writing beautifully evokes the light and shade of rural Mary Smokes – also the setting of his second novel, The Mary Smokes Boys (2010).

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  • Custom Article Title Estelle Tang reviews 'The Source of the Sound' by Patrick Holland
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    The final offering in Patrick Holland’s first collection of short stories is also its best.

  • Book Title The Source of the Sound
  • Book Author Patrick Holland
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  • Biblio Salt Publishing (Inbooks), $24.95 pb, 164 pp, 9781844718115

Writing in the Guardian late last year, Philip Pullman said this of what he regards as the dominant style in contemporary fiction: ‘What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.’ This description highlights both the virtues and the flaws in Jennifer Mills’s second novel, Gone. Frequently powerful, and highly attuned to both landscape and psychology, the method by which it conjures these forces – a relentless use of the present tense, with all its sweaty immediacy and driven focus – is also the same method that occasionally exhausts the reader. Mills has created a vivid yet punishing book.

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  • Custom Article Title Adam Rivett reviews 'Gone' by Jennifer Mills
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    Writing in the Guardian late last year, Philip Pullman said this of what he regards as the dominant style in contemporary fiction: ‘What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is...

  • Book Title Gone
  • Book Author Jennifer Mills
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio University of Queensland Press, $34.95 pb, 320 pp, 9780702238710

Jane Sullivan’s novel, which was runner-up in the 2010 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for a novel by a writer over thirty-five years of age, blends the powerful theme of dogged maternal love with the extraordinary world of P.T. Barnum’s freak shows.

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  • Custom Article Title Carmel Bird reviews 'Little People' by Jane Sullivan
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    Jane Sullivan’s novel, which was runner-up in the 2010 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for a novel by a writer over thirty-five years of age, blends the powerful theme of ...

  • Book Title Little People
  • Book Author Jane Sullivan
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  • Biblio Scribe, $32.95 pb, 352 pp, 9781921640964

Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten. 
(Truly, I live in dark times.)

When her mother uttered that line from Bertolt Brecht’s great poem ‘An die Nachgeborenen’, Juliana – the narrator of Elisabeth Holdsworth’s first novel – knew they were in for a hard time. Janna had returned to the Netherlands from Dachau carrying a cardboard suitcase that the Americans had given her. In it was packed the rage that exploded whenever life overwhelmed her. Janna was not only Juliana’s beautiful mother; she was also her deeply damaged antagonist.

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  • Custom Article Title Sue Ebury reviews 'Those Who Come After' by Elisabeth Holdsworth
  • Contents Category Features
  • Book Title Those Who Come After
  • Book Author Elisabeth Holdsworth
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  • Biblio Picador, $29.95 hb, 343 pp, 9781405040501

Maris Morton’s novel is the winner of the Scribe CAL Fiction Prize for 2010. The Cultural Fund of Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) has this year contributed to raising the prize money to $15,000. The winning manuscript, and the runners-up, are published by Scribe Publications. In a world where many prizes are won by experienced writers, and where there are special prizes for young writers, the Scribe CAL competition is open to writers over thirty-five, regardless of their publication history. As with the Vogel, for those aged under thirty-five, the only barrier is age; there is no limit on subject matter or style.

Morton’s A Darker Music, a traditional narrative set in rural Western Australia, spans events of roughly a hundred year, but the focus is on the present day, upon which the past has cast grim shadows. In 1913 Ellen and Edgar Hazlitt came from England to establish their farm, which they named Downe. They brought with them seeds, plants, farm machinery, and the merino sheep for which the property would become famous. Almost a century later, although a wool bale sells for more than a million dollars, the fabric of the farm and the lives of the family are in decline. The place exists in a time warp, prejudice reigns in terms of race, class, and gender, and the hold that Ellen (now deceased) still commands her son Paul dominates the emotional landscape of the people. After thirty years of unhappy marriage , Clio Hazlitt and Paul are estranged, but they still inhabit the house. Their son Martin, communicating only with his father, also lives there. Two other children died young.

Into this atmosphere of complex and unbearable tension comes Mary Lanyon, a widow in her forties, to work as housekeeper for three months while Clio recovers from a serious but unspecified illness. Downe is sixty kilometres from the nearest small town – not a great distance, but the sense of isolation is palpable. There is mention of one or two mobile phones, and one computer, but communication is not a priority here. Even television is unimportant. Mary, the stranger in the midst of the family, becomes the agent through whose eyes hidden truths are revealed and synthesised. Hers is the principal sensibility, while another major part of the novel is seen through the person of Clio, often in flashback. A key element in the revelations of past events is Ellen’s diary. Clio, sensing Mary’s goodwill and sympathy, gives her access to this record of the early years at Downe. The diary also affords Mary insights into the stresses and strains that tear at the Hazlitts.

As Mary learns the rigours of being a shearers’ cook, and investigates the beauty of the surrounding country with its Noongah heritage, and its birds and flowers, not to mention its people, she gradually develops a strong bond with Clio, and a working relationship with others on the property. The abiding virtue of Mary’s nature is her discretion; it is this quality that allows her to participate in the gradual exposure of the darker music, of the secrets that bedevil the family.

Music, in fact, is the key to the mystery. It threads its way through the narrative, lending melody, even joy, but also portending something truly dreadful. Clio’s heritage and early life were steeped in music. She abandoned it at her peril, such that its absence in her existence casts not only a shadow, but spreads a terrible poison and blight. Music for Clio, as a young woman at the Conservatorium, was magic, her viola not simply an extension of her body, but ‘an integral part of it, of her, of her soul’. With her viola she could at last hear ‘her own voice’, and it was a ‘darker voice’ than that of the violin or the cello. It was, as things turn out, the voice of doom.

Clio’s fatal mistake was to imagine she could take her music with her to Downe when she married Paul. The tragedy set in motion by her marriage mounts throughout the novel. Mary discovers one telling detail after another, and the picture emerges in all its sorrowful colours. Paul Hazlitt may be the most destructive and hateful husband in literature.

The sadness that permeates the novel is all the more mordant as it is played in counterpoint to the rational common sense of Mary, who brings with her not just a breath of fresh air, but also wholesome cooking and a lively enthusiasm for life. She is the cleanser, the circuit-breaker, but readers might be warned that this story is a tragic one, and there is no happy ending.

Violets and wisteria, so perfumed and lovely, nonetheless mark the moment of final tragedy, their colour and scent rendered melancholy, while the music playing is Death and the Maiden. The petals of the wisteria drift ‘soundlessly down’. Clio’s life, once so vivid with the beauty of music, is now silent, bitter, broken. The one saving grace was the coming of Mary, who has given Clio a last chance to make contact with the tender places of her own heart.

Maris Morton has written a gripping tale of endurance and loss, a tale in which the errors of the past wreak havoc in the lives of all concerned.

 

 

CONTENTS: DECEMBER 2010–JANUARY 2011

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  • Custom Article Title Carmel Bird reviews 'A Darker Music' by Maris Morton
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    Maris Morton’s novel is the winner of the Scribe CAL Fiction Prize for 2010...

  • Book Title A Darker Music
  • Book Author Maris Morton
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Scribe, $32.95 pb, 312 pp, 9781921640650