Australian Fiction

David Foster has a way with subject matter in his novels. In his dealings with the arcane (The Adventures of Christian Rosy Cross and Rosicrucianism) and the quotidian (the postal protocol of Dog Rock) alike, he has consistently shown the knack of discovering new areas to entertain and inform us. He is mightily intolerant of the glib social overview by scientist or politician and, in his capacity as Juvenalian satirist, he possesses all the qualifications, including a keen eye for human folly, the ability to manipulate and hijack his audience, and a readiness to be mordant and merciless while at the same retaining an unrelenting hold over those who read his books.

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In 1908, on 11 September (an ominous day for the changing nature of planes in our dreams), Franz Kafka and Max Brod travelled to Brescia in Italy to watch Louis Blériot fly a plane. For Kafka, and probably most in the crowd, this was the first opportunity to witness a human crawl into a machine and, like something out of Greek Myth, fly towards the Mediterranean sun. Kafka and Brod decided to record their observations. Brod saw the pilot draw inspiration from the adoring crowd. Blériot ‘was being lifted on high by the mounting murmur of the thousands’. Kafka, sensing the crowd’s devoted gaze, had a different impression, ‘twenty meters above the earth a person is trapped in a wooden construction, fighting a voluntary and invisible danger. And we are down here, crowded and insubstantial, watching.’

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The Coast by Eleanor Limprecht

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August 2022, no. 445

A child of nine is taken to Sydney for the first time to visit her mother, a patient at the Coast Hospital lazaret. Upon arrival, she learns that she, like her mother, has leprosy. Her fate is fixed from that day; she will live the remainder of her life in the lazaret. She takes the new name of ‘Alice’ to hide her former self, and the world closes in upon her. There will be no more school, no playing with her younger brothers and sisters, no friends of her own age, no prospect of romance, no hope of freedom.

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Faithless is the third novel by West Australian writer Alice Nelson. Her first, The Lost Sky (2008), saw her named Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist, and her second, The Children’s House (2018), attracted widespread critical acclaim. All three explore themes of trauma, displacement, memory, and love. Nelson, many of whose family migrated here from Europe, once pondered in a 2019 interview with Brenda Walker at the Centre for Stories whether writers write to ‘heal some kind of loss’ and whether for her ‘it began with that sense of loss of homeland, loss of culture and country that ran through my family’.

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On the surface, Scott McCulloch’s début novel, Basin, takes place in a brutal and degenerated landscape; the edge of a former empire in a state of violent flux. Rebels, separatists, terrorists, paramilitary groups, and the remnants of imperial forces clash over borders and interzones in the wake of the ‘Collapse’, an undefined geopolitical and ecological disaster. Print and broadcast media warn of inter-ethnic conflict and Rebel advances. Bazaars, brothels, and a chain of Poseidon Hotels all operate amid industrial waste and military checkpoints, servicing the region’s fishermen, soldiers, smugglers, and drifters. There is a multiplicity of language and religion (Abrahamic denominations mingle with archaic, pagan beliefs). Alcohol consumption and illicit drug use are rife. The climate is oppressively humid.

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Marlo by Jay Carmichael & My Heart Is a Little Wild Thing by Nigel Featherstone

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August 2022, no. 445

At first glance, neither Marlo nor My Heart Is a Little Wild Thing seemed particularly appealing. Both focus on queer men pining for love in a homophobic world. Both appeared to recycle what Jay Carmichael (Marlo’s author) calls ‘the tradition of tragedy in queer literature’. Digging deeper, we find that the novels offer nuanced and even uplifting perspectives on gay male experience over the decades. There are moments of adversity, but it’s the resilience and emotional strength of the protagonists – their ability to find pleasure in even dire situations – that make both books so compelling.

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The National Portrait Gallery owns a minuscule sepia studio photograph titled ‘Master Johnny Day, Australian Champion Pedestrian’. From this curious gumnut, Robert Drewe has created a sprawling multi-limbed eucalypt.

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In 1961, Gwen Harwood submitted a sonnet to the Bulletin under the name of Walter Lehmann. Her poem, ‘Abelard to Eloisa’, held a shocking acrostic secret that many people considered very bad art. Nobody discovered the secret until after it was published. But despite her transgression, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘she found much greater acceptance’ – to the point that she is today considered one of Australia’s greatest poets.

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How do you get a first novel up and running? Random House has done so with a show of faith unusual amongst Australian publishers ... and faith can move mountains of books. The Last Time I Saw Mother is handsomely produced and has an equally handsome print run of 20,000. It’s been sold into the shops in numbers and its author – Manila-born Sydney-based copywriter, Arlene J. Chai – has had her name linked with Amy Tan and Jung Chang. The back cover has a brisk encomium from Bryce Courtenay, who encouraged her to write. Effective marketing indeed, although one reviewer has commented on an element of cultural cringe.

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Australia is not the science-fiction capital of the world; in fact we are probably not even on the map. This unfortunate fact would change if we could produce more writers like Paul Collins.

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