Shannon Burns

Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser

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October 2021, no. 436

To read Michelle de Kretser’s fiction is to sense important details swimming under the surface of our awareness, forming patterns that will come into view by the end of the story, or after contemplating it for a time, or while rereading. There is always enough to satisfy our immediate needs – rich aphorisms, sharp characterisation, satirical wickedness, the play of language, political and historical concerns, mysteries explored – but the presence of morphing repetitions and suggestive references leaves the pleasurable impression that you have only just started reading the novel even as you finish its closing sentence. The structural integrity of de Kretser’s fiction, its intelligence and purposeful virtuosity, combine to induce keen readerly attentiveness. Scary Monsters is no exception.

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The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

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August 2021, no. 434

Bani Adam returns as the narrator–protagonist of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Other Half of You, a sequel to his two previous books. The most recent one, The Lebs (2018), gave us the story of Bani’s teenage years at Punchbowl Boys’ High School: the trials of a Lebanese Muslim boy in a majority Lebanese Muslim community nestled inside the larger, diverse territories of Western Sydney, in post-‘War on Terror’ Australia. The Other Half of You is an account of Bani’s late teens and early twenties, and of an inner conflict between religious, cultural, and romantic pieties.

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O by Steven Carroll

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April 2021, no. 430

On the back cover of O, we learn that the protagonist of the novel, Dominique, lived through the German occupation of France, participated in the Resistance, relished its ‘clandestine life’, and later wrote an ‘erotic novel about surrender, submission and shame’, which became the real-life international bestseller and French national scandal, Histoire d’O (1954). ‘But what is the story really about,’ the blurb asks, ‘Dominique, her lover, or the country and the wartime past it would rather forget?’

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On Getting Off is an attempt to think about sex philosophically, through the lens of personal, literary, and artistic experience. Damon Young, a Melbourne philosopher, is keen on reflective sex and legitimises this fetish with a carrot and stick, seducing readers by arguing for its superior pleasures and threatening us by implying that the alternatives are morally dubious or diminishing. He considers a wide variety of subjects and circumstances along the way, including the power and peculiarity of sexual attraction, the place of humour in sex, ‘teasing’ and suspended pleasure, the bounties and pitfalls of beauty, the stigma of prostitution, the complexities of sexual fantasy, the function of sex robots, and the importance of meaningfulness. He approaches these matters with fluency and an impressive variety of references – literary, artistic, and philosophical – but the insights are often dull.

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Lucy Ellmann’s ambitious seventh novel stages the workings of a mind as it digests – or fails to digest – life-altering experiences. Ducks, Newburyport is, for the most part, the ruminating inner monologue of a bewildered and frightened woman. It spans a thousand mostly artful pages and is an undeniably impressive accomplishment. However, for readers who relished Ellmann’s brilliant comic novels, Ducks may lack the energising charge – absurd, erotic, and darkly funny – that is so satisfyingly prominent in her earlier work.

Its chief narrator is a well-educated American mother of four afflicted by sharp anxiety. Her concerns include: the existence of President Trump; repeated  mass shootings; the threat of nuclear war or climate catastrophe; male violence; and precarious health care. Her inner life is expansive but oriented around  a handful of personal wounds, many of which are recast in the parallel story of a hunted lioness in search of her babes. Leaving aside a memorable sexual encounter, the latter resembles a children’s fable, a similarity that is knowingly signalled when the narrator recalls ‘some Disney movie about an escaped lion that wonders around some town’.

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In The Rapids: Ways of looking at mania, Sam Twyford-Moore takes a personal, exploratory, and speculative approach to the subject of mania. Because the author has been significantly governed by manic episodes on several occasions (he was diagnosed with manic depression as he ‘came into adulthood’), The Rapids offers an insider’s perspective. It also considers some of the public and cultural manifestations of the illness ...

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In Relatively Famous, Roger Averill combines a fictional memoir with extracts from a faux-biography of the memoirist’s Booker Prize-winning father, Gilbert Madigan. The biography amounts to a fairly bloodless summary of the events of Madigan’s life, and his son’s memoir is similarly sedate. This makes for a limp but ...

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To celebrate the best books of 2017 Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser, Susan Wyndham, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Jane Sullivan, Tom Griffiths, Mark Edele, and Brenda Niall.

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The many gaps in the verifiable history of Jeanne d’Arc’s early years in rural France, as well as her improbable rise to prominence and martyrdom, have left room for a considerable amount of speculation and projection over the centuries. There is no shortage of fictional or historical accounts of her life, or ways of characterising ...

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Shaun Prescott’s début novel shares obvious conceptual territory with the fiction of Franz Kafka and Gerald Murnane, both of whom are mentioned in its promotional material ...

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