Sonya Hartnett

Early success is no guarantee of a book’s continued availability or circulation. Some major and/or once-fashionable authors recede from public consciousness, and in some cases go out of print. We invited some writers and critics to identity novelists who they feel should be better known.

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Sonya Hartnett’s début as editor of The Best Australian Stories is marked by a series of fictions about dysfunctional families, eccentrics, and misfits. The homeless, lonely, disenfranchised, intellectually disabled, sick, afflicted, even the dead, are featured alongside the privileged, rich, and famous in a macabre mardi gras. Readers familiar with Hartne ...

Cecily Lockwood’s heart ‘bounced like a trout’. An arresting simile on the first page of a novel is always a good sign, but will this piscatorial comparison mean anything to young readers? No matter, back to those footsteps climbing the dark stairs to twelve-year-old Cecily’s room, where she is quailing under the bed. She pictures her older brother Jeremy in the next room, his heart ‘flipping and diving’. Ah, so that’s what trouts do. Clever Sonya Hartnett.

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Few writers, it could be argued, have ever cannibalised life for their art as ruthlessly and consistently as did Martin Boyd; and few are born into situations which lend themselves so readily to art. Boyd’s working life – indeed, much of his entire existence – was spent trying to unite the past with the present, the old world with the new, himself with the man he might have been; and in committing his efforts to paper. To this end, he never shirked from using friends and relatives as material for his novels, as well as the real-life experiences of himself and of others. If he paid a price for this – which he occasionally did, for people often hanker to be preserved in print, only to resent the style of preservation – the consequences gave him little pause. By the time he wrote A Difficult Young Man, focusing the cool spotlight of his attention on his brother Merric as well as more sharply on himself, Boyd had form as a writer whose true gift lay not in the power of his imagination, but in the brilliance of his ancestral inheritance.

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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.

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The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett & The Red Wind by Isobelle Carmody

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September 2010, no. 324

I had fun imagining Sonya Hartnett and Isobelle Carmody indulging in a little pre-publication chit-chat:

IC: What are you working on now, Sonya?
SH: A children’s story about two orphaned brothers battling for survival in a world turned upside down; talking animals; themes of freedom and loss. What about you?
IC: A children’s story about two orphaned brothers struggling for survival in a world suddenly turned alien; talking animals; themes of resilience and loss …

The result is two different novels, but the marketing meetings at Penguin must have been interesting.

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A Confederacy of Dunces always makes me laugh. The book I’ve read the most number of times is a collection of essays about animals and insects called The Red Hourglass, by Gordon Grice.

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Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett

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February 2009, no. 308

Sonya Hartnett is one of the most various of good writers. In particular, she is good at creating atmosphere: a distinctive world for every story. As a consequence, every book she writes is a different style of book. Take some recent examples. The Ghost’s Child (2007), with its plot like a fable, reads like an old tale told in an outdated language of ‘sou’westers’ and ‘fays’. Its form, language and style are so consistent its oddity seems like part of its simplicity. In contrast, Surrender (2005), a horror story, has a style of calculated Gothic, playing narrative games to manufacture menace.

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Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

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March 2005, no. 269

If you are regretting the passage of another summer and feeling nostalgic about the lost freedoms of youth, Sonya Hartnett’s latest novel, Surrender, may serve as a useful tonic. In Hartnett’s world, children possess little and control less, dependent as they are on adults and on their own capacity to manipulate, or charm ...

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