Historical Fiction

Garry Disher’s World War II novel Past the Headlands (2001) was inspired in part by his discovery of the diary of an army surgeon in Sumatra, who wrote of how his best friend was trying to arrange passage on a ship or plane that could take them back to Australia before the advancing Japanese army arrived. But one morning the surgeon woke to find that his friend had departed during the night. Mateship in a time of adversity, that most vaunted of masculine Australian virtues, had turned out to be a sham. The elusiveness of real friendship and love, and the difficulty of discerning what is true and what is false in human conduct, are recurring themes in Disher’s writing, and he visits them again in his latest book, Bitter Wash Road.

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The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer is a novel that manages to be absolutely itself, with a wholly idiosyncratic voice, while at the same time acting as a veritable echo chamber of earlier writers. The first page, with its lofty insistence about what ‘should not surprise the world’ in the behaviour of a young woman with the surname Ward, immediately calls to mind Mansfield Park, and the Austen echo is redoubled by the fact that her first name is Marianne. However, Preston’s narrator proceeds to address her readers with a confidence she might have learned from Anthony Trollope, while elsewhere providing information in bulleted lists, a trick Laurence Sterne would probably have found useful had he been writing a couple of centuries later.

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Midnight Empire, the second novel by Canberra author Andrew Croome, depicts political intrigue and acts of violence that play out against the backdrop of the so-called ‘war on terror’.

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The Burial by Courtney Collins

by
October 2012, no. 345

In the cheeky biographical note on the press release for her first novel, The Burial, Courtney Collins expresses a wish that she might one day be ‘a “lady” poet’. If I had read that before reading the novel, I would have been slightly alarmed: with many notable exceptions, poets tend not to make good novelists. It is true that The Burial is finely written, with a lovely ear for the cadences of language, but it also has an urgent narrative drive, along with a strong awareness of place, compelling characters, and a whiff of magic realism to enliven the mixture.

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Toni Jordan’s third novel, after the successful Addition (2009), takes its story from a photograph that graces the cover and that the author tells us she pondered for a long time. It is a romantic wartime scene, a crush of bodies at a Melbourne train station, mostly with soldiers bound for their unknown futures. A woman has been lifted by a stranger on the platform so she can farewell her sweetheart. Jordan tells us the story came to her unexpectedly: ‘grand and sweeping, but also intimate and fragile.’ From this one image nine characters emerge whose lives are interconnected and whose voices will be heard individually in the ensuing nine chapters.

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Percy Grainger has been the subject of a number of books (most notably a 1976 biography by John Bird), a play (A Whip Around for Percy Grainger, 1982) by Thérèse Radic, and a feature film, Passion (1999), by Peter Duncan. He was an avid letter-writer, and his correspondence has been anthologised and critiqued. Thanks to his eccentric way of life and sometimes erratic behaviour and opinions – his famously close relationship with his mother, Rose, his self-flagellation, dubious theories of race and culture – the composer has also long been the subject of salaciousspeculation. Grainger was a large personality, and conjecture about his habits and personal tastes has often over-whelmed considerations of his modest, yet important, output as a composer and arranger.

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Royals, it seems, have their tenacious uses, often fictive. Contemporaries such as Alan Bennett and Edward St Aubyn have deployed them. One hundred years ago, Ford Madox Ford wrote his singular trilogy (1906–08) about Katharine Howard, The Fifth Queen of Henry VIII. Now the esteemed novelist and memoirist Hilary Mantel returns to the Tudor world, again with revisionist intent.

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Deborah Burrows’s well-researched historical novel, A Stranger in My Street, begins with the protagonist, Meg Eaton, declaring that Sunday, 3 January 1943 was the day her life changed forever. We quickly learn why – the Stranger of the title has arrived in the eponymous Street.

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The Longing is an ambitious first novel. Set in the Western District of Victoria, with parallel narratives in the mid-nineteenth century and the present day, its principal theme is the occupation of Gunditjmara country by white settlers, and the decimation of Indigenous tribes. Novel writing is, of course, an act of imagination, and writers should be commended for their research, tenacity, and inventiveness, but I cannot ignore the social and political implications of this particular story, and cannot help but be alert to the authenticity of its three main voices and the sentiments they express.

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Judith Armstrong, a Russian and French scholar, has translated the diaries of Tolstoy’s wife, Sonya, to form the focus of her second novel. Armstrong combines an intimate knowledge of Russian literature with a close reading of the couple’s diaries to create a convincing portrait of their volatile relationship through forty-eight years of marriage.

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