The autobiography, that seemingly inevitable act of self-revelation, is frequently a work tricked out with very little art. For the novelist, unlike the anecdote-disposing musician or painter, the problem is doubled: they are making a home with the same tools. Rare is the autobiography that, like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1951) or Martin Amis’s Experience (2001), speaks in the voice of the working artist, similarly lush or distinctive – the same register, that same unmistakable snap and hum. Too often a plainer style is attempted: the unadorned truth, as it were, after so many convincing lies. But what happens when, at some crucial point in a writer’s oeuvre, the distinction between fact and fiction – or, to use the market’s terms, fiction and non-fiction – becomes a useless one? Gerald Murnane has always been a deeply autobiographical writer – he once famously claimed to possess no imagination, which would seem to make memoir of any kind a default position – and his latest work of fiction, A History of Books, renders the distinction more useless than ever.
For ex-Orangeman Billy, history is a nightmare from which he’s trying to get a good night’s sleep. Haunted by ‘all the bloody faces of Catholic lads I done over and worse’, he’s an exile in Thailand, regularly numbing himself with cheap sex, beer, and the occasional fight. He claims he’s never seen the sunrise sober in his life. Things are about to change.
Wolf Creek, released in 2005, was always smarter than your average slasher. Anchored by a brilliant performance by John Jarratt, the film was harrowing enough to strike the unobservant as another Saw or Hostel, but far more lurked there for those who bothered to look. In acclaimed novelist Sonya Hartnett’s brief but vivid critical study, the film has found the analysis it deserves. In the book’s arresting autobiographical opening, Hartnett, describing the fear and deprivation of childhood, coins the term ‘two-bit antipodean horror’, which she claims to prefer to the more familiar ‘Australian Gothic’. It evokes a ‘sullen blandness’ at the heart of the country, and it’s this pinched meanness, this horror, that she describes so well in her study.
For a work that deals heavily with culinary aspirations, it is going to be hard to review Wayne Macauley’s brilliant new novel The Cook without reference to Masterchef, so let’s get it out of the way early. This year, after each new episode of the television show aired, the assorted snark-addled wits of the Fairfax press gathered online to do their mocking work. The mechanics of the show were pulled apart, and the comments section soon filled with the matching-set echoes of disdain and mockery. Filling their prose to breaking point with jokes – it wasn’t a sentence unless it tried to get a zinger away – the gathered souls confessed, through their sneers, that the show was nonetheless utterly compelling viewing.
How would Dennis Keith – or, if we’re using the language of legends, DK – characterise it? ‘The Life was this mythic world where you could surf as much as you want, every day, any day, go anywhere [...] Getting waves was everything, every day.’ In Malcolm Knox’s exceptional new novel, this world – with its singular focus, and its sacred ecstasies – is revealed in a language both ...
Keeping Faith, Roger Averill’s first novel after his non-fiction début, Boy He Cry: An island odyssey (2009), is a quiet and resonant piece of work. Befitting a novel set partly in a labour ward and beginning with a description of a stillborn baby, it proceeds with the knowledge that finding the right words can be difficult. It speaks carefully and tactfully, in a spare language of great focus.
Keeping Faith, Roger Averill’s first novel after his non-fiction debut, Boy He Cry: An island Odyssey (2009), is a quiet and resonant piece of work. Befitting a novel set partly in a labour ward and beginning with a description of a stillborn baby, it proceeds with the knowledge that finding the right words can be difficult. It speaks carefully and tactfully, in a spare language of great focus.
George Alexander’s new novel opens with a racially motivated murder, committed on Australia Day, 1998. A gang called the Cleaners abducts and executes Sly Bone, an Aborigine, whose body they dump in country New South Wales. We then jump forward a year. Australia Day looms, and the Cleaners have another target in mind. Meanwhile, journalist Alex Tolman and his colleague Larry Sheridan, investigating the crime, anticipate more violence.
Self-evidently, the short story demands precision. The term ‘short story’ more than likely brings to mind the magazine-length sprint or the rapidly delivered epiphany. John Updike was a master of this demanding form. In his Olinger and Tarbox tales, characters are assembled quickly and sent to their fate with little delay. Never cursory, this was writing performed under haiku-like restraint. In the short stories of Wendy James and Tom Cho, we are presented with similarly brief and precise tales of two different Australian landscapes: one as small as a kitchen, the other as capacious as an arena. Why She Loves Him is James’s first story collection after two well-received novels. For the most part, the stories are quiet and domestic affairs. Her characters are frequently repressed and restrained, filled with rage that is rarely given voice. If the short fiction of some novelists feels too constrained, James’s evocation of despair is perfectly suited to these short bursts.