From time to time, Australian literature has been fortunate enough to attract the enthusiasm of international critics, from C. Hartley Grattan in the 1920s to Paul Giles, who compared Australian and American literature in his scholarly Antipodean America (2013). Nicholas Birns, a New York academic, tells us that he first encountered Australian writing back in the 1980s and has been a member of the American Association of Australasian Literary Studies since then, including a long period as editor of its journal, Antipodes. In 2014 he spent six months in Australia, reading widely and talking to writers and critics. His resulting study of contemporary Australian literature is more the record of a personal encounter with Australian writing than a scholarly reference book.

The subtitle may be disconcerting: 'A World Not Yet Dead' implies a world that is soon to be dead, possibly already moribund. But the implication is intended to go the other way, as a comment on the deadness of prevailing values outside literature. Birns frames his discussion as a critique of neo-liberalism, a term not much used in Australia, perhaps because liberalism has such a range of meanings and ambiguities. He suggests that it is a synonym for what Australians call economic rationalism – simply put, the valuing of all human effort in terms of money and profit, success and failure. It is a surprise to read literary criticism that invokes Thomas Piketty on the growing inequality in the world, but that is part of the idiosyncratic and personal nature of this book. Birns argues that writing – particularly contemporary Australian writing – is one of the last bulwarks against neo-liberal dominance. Imaginative writing, exemplified by the fiction and poetry he discusses, offers ways to 'conceive life differently than merely valuing one another by our financial conditions'.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Susan Lever reviews 'Contemporary Australian Literature' by Nicholas Birns
  • Contents Category Literary Studies
  • Book Title Contemporary Australian Literature
  • Book Author Nicholas Birns
  • Book Subtitle A World Not Yet Dead
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Sydney University Press, $30 pb, 280 pp, 9781743324363

There is something alluring about the publication of a lost or unknown literary manuscript. How will it fit into the author's body of work? Is it inferior to or better than the published work? Does it illuminate a hitherto unknown aspect of the author's thinking, or make you re-examine the known sequencing or themes? These questions were on my mind as I read Fear Is the Rider, a previously unpublished manuscript by Kenneth Cook, completed in the early 1980s and published for the first time by Text Publishing.

Cook is best known for his 1961 début novel, Wake In Fright (reissued by Text Publishing in 2001), a brutal depiction of drinking and masculinity in Australia's outback. On the strength of this work alone, Cook is regarded as one of the foremost exponents of the small but vibrant body of Australian 'gothic' literature, which, from the nineteenth century to the present, has focused on white Australia's alienated relationship with our harsher regions. Wake In Fright's popular status has much to do with Canadian director Ted Kotcheff's influential 1971 film of the same name.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Andrew Nette reviews 'Fear Is the Rider' by Kenneth Cook
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Fear Is the Rider
  • Book Author Kenneth Cook
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $19.99 pb, 196 pp, 9781925240856

Late in 1998, the Times Literary Supplement, as was its wont, sent Randolph 'Mick' Stow a book for review. It was Xavier Herbert: A Biography (1998) by Francis de Groen, and Stow accepted the commission with enthusiasm. 'What a ghastly, embarrassing old pillock,' he wrote to his lifelong friend Bill Grono. 'Well, you'll soon read my opinion of him.' Stow's review tells a personal story of an encounter with Herbert at a 1963 supper party in Perth, and concludes that he liked Herbert even less by the end of the book than he did when he began it.

This story, recounted with a biographer's relish by Suzanne Falkiner near the end of her massive and admirable book, brings up questions about the reviewing of a literary biography. This task should be relatively straightforward: it should consider what research the biographer has done, what truths she or he has uncovered, what quality of analysis is brought to the assembled facts, how good the writing is, what contribution the book makes to literary scholarship, and whether it is, as we say in the reviewing trade, a Good Read.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Kerryn Goldsworthy reviews 'Mick' by Suzanne Falkiner
  • Contents Category Biography
  • Book Title Mick
  • Book Author Suzanne Falkiner
  • Book Subtitle A Life of Randolph Stow
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio UWA Publishing, $50 hb, 896 pp, 9781742586601

'I try to imagine going back': so begins a story about a woman remembering her childhood even when it seems she would just as soon forget it. Hope Farm is Melbourne writer and musician Peggy Frew's second novel. Her terrific début, House of Sticks (2011), was about, among other things, contemporary parenthood and the rhythm of conventional and unconventional lives. Hope Farm explores similar themes, but it pushes further and deeper. Although it is a realist tale, at times Frew's focus on the interpreting and recasting of memories leads to odd-shaped realities; although it is set in the 1970s and 1980s, the novel's focus on counter-culture gives it an unfixed, ethereal quality.

When Karen becomes pregnant aged seventeen, her parents shunt her from Toowoomba West to Brisbane to conceal her from gossipy neighbours. Having resisted heavy pressure to give up the baby for adoption, and now unwelcome at home, she moves to an ashram. There she names the baby Silver and renames herself Ishtar, and begins life again.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Patrick Allington reviews 'Hope Farm' by Peggy Frew
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Hope Farm
  • Book Author Peggy Frew
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Scribe, $29.99 pb, 352 pp, 9781925106572

'Freg nisht dem royfe, freg dem khoyle – Don't ask the doctor, ask the patient,' my grandmother says in Yiddish, one of eight languages at her disposal, having grown up in Europe during World War II and migrated as a teenager to the multilingual melting pot of Israel. I smile and ask her for another gem. My grandmother obliges, this time with a juicy-sounding Bulgarian phrase with a similar meaning: 'Ne pitai uchilo, pitai petilo – Don't ask the learned, ask the experienced.'

The word patient comes from the Latin verb pati, meaning to suffer or endure. So do patience, passion, and compassion. The notion of receiving medical treatment is inherently linked in the English language to suffering – and to waiting.

In The Waiting Room, the first novel of author–doctor Leah Kaminsky, the link is suggested as early as the epigraph page, where the last entry in Katherine Mansfield's Journal reads: 'We all fear when we are in waiting rooms. Yet we all must pass beyond them ...' Throughout the book, the setting of a doctor's waiting room serves as an extended metaphor for a state of restless transience, and echoes the psychological enclosure of its protagonist, Dr Dina Ronen.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Naama Amram reviews 'The Waiting Room' by Leah Kaminsky
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title The Waiting Room
  • Book Author Leah Kaminsky
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Vintage, $32.99 pb, 304 pp, 9780857986221

In Jo Case's 'Something Wild', young single mother Kristen is tempted to rediscover 'the thrill of doing what she feels like, just to see what happens'. She could be speaking for characters in many of the pieces in The Best Australian Stories 2015, a collection that features people on the verge of transgression. As Amanda Lohrey writes in her introduction, itself a compact work of art, the stories all contain 'an element of danger'; risk is palpable in the sexual and power-driven desires that overflow these narratives, with transgression enacted by, or perpetrated against, central characters. The possibility of forging an ethical self and the wish to be self-determining – the need 'to steer something in a direction she chose' identified by the protagonist of Eleanor Limprecht's 'On Ice' – are associated and equally significant thematic concerns. The realisation that being authentic might involve flouting social mores, cultural markers, or even, simply, entrenched behaviours is sometimes overt, sometimes implicit.

Almost all of the short fiction here has been published previously in a range of literary journals, anthologies and collections, with Meanjin well represented. Lohrey reprises her 2014 editorial role; five of the authors represented in The Best Australian Stories 2014 are also found in this book. Of these five stories, Mark Smith's 'Manyuk', Julie Koh's 'The Level Playing Field', and Nicola Redhouse's 'Vital Signs' constitute effective companion pieces to their 2014 equivalents. 'Alphabet', by Ryan O'Neill, builds upon possibilities of language and structure explored in the author's 2014 story. Claire Corbett's '2 or 3 Things I Know About You' is not as strong as her 2014 piece – though flash fiction is a welcome inclusion – and suffers through following the sustained act of imagination in 'Picasso: A Shorter Life'; however, Corbett's 'teen girl stalker' does provide an effective antidote to John A. Scott's disturbingly misogynistic central character.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Josephine Taylor reviews 'The Best Australian Stories 2015' edited by Amanda Lohrey
  • Contents Category Anthology
  • Book Title The Best Australian Stories 2015
  • Book Author Amanda Lohrey
  • Author Type Editor
  • Biblio Black Inc., $29.99 pb, 240 pp, 9781863957786

Towards the end of Fiona McFarlane's enigmatic collection of short stories, The High Places, we meet the odd, enchanting story 'Good News for Modern Man', which functions as a key to many of the book's concerns. The story centres around Dr Bill Birch, a malacologist undertaking an obsessive study of a colossal female squid, Mabel, which he has trapped in New Zealand. Overseeing Birch's quirky undertakings is the ghost of Charles Darwin, who sprints alongside Birch 'in his nineteenth century socks', a figment of Birch's imagination. As the story progresses, we gain insight into the zeal gripping Birch, from the moment he loses his faith in God to his rationalist understanding that he is simply an animal among animals, and his subsequent quest to free Mabel so she can 'remain a mystery'.

In another writer's hands, this material might function as a whimsical eco-critical fable about the impossibility of knowing the animal Other, but for McFarlane it is a vastly more interesting and complex enterprise. The surrounding cast of characters express their concern for Dr Birch, who, we intuit, is hallucinating, and possibly suffering from some kind of tropical malaise; we sense his passion but doubt his sanity. His identification with Mabel is all-encompassing, transcending the realm of usual concern or belief; his surety and self-righteousness are alarming. The reader is thus cast in the pleasurably discomfiting role of rationalist, asked to see past the protagonist's myopia and grope towards the truth.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Sarah Holland-Batt reviews 'The High Places' by Fiona McFarlane
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title The High Places
  • Book Author Fiona McFarlane
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Hamish Hamilton, $32.99 pb, 275 pp, 9781926428567

The port of Old Harwich can be approached by a streamlined highway through a barren industrial landscape, or via the high street through suburban Dovercourt. Either way, you keep going until you reach the sea: 'and if you get your feet wet, you've gone too far', they'll say when you ask directions. Finally, you reach an enclave of narrow streets lined by small cottages and terraces huddled together with their backs to the North Sea winds and surrounded on three sides by the Stour estuary. Beyond the dock areas, where a variety of fishing boats, yachts, and barges are moored and pigeons and seagulls ride the stiff updrafts, old men in fluorescent jackets mess about in smaller boats. Further away, the concrete and containers give way to a beach lined with pebbles and myriad tiny blue mussels, bleached oysters, and slipper shells.

Along the Quay, a small number of American tourists make pilgrimages to the miniature museum housed in the ticket office to the Ha'penny Pier. 21 Kings Head Street, diagonally opposite Randolph Stow's old house, is the birthplace of Christopher Jones, the captain of the Mayflower. Joseph Conrad – with whom Stow felt a particular psychological affinity – would have felt at home here when he passed through in 1896, and again in July 1914, on his way to Poland.

Local landmarks include the Customs House, two lighthouses, and a fortress: Harwich was once a garrison town, encircled by a medieval wall against Scandinavian invaders. Stories persist of inns with bunks built into the walls and chains attached – 'They'd drop a shilling in your beer, and then you'd have taken the King's shilling', the locals enjoy telling you. 'You'd wake up next day, with a sore head, out at sea.'  Others reputedly featured tunnels dug from one to another, to expedite the movement of smugglers.

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  • Custom Article Title 'Randolph Stow's Harwich' by Suzanne Falkiner
  • Contents Category Commentary
Wednesday, 25 November 2015 17:15

Luke Horton reviews 'Ghost River' by Tony Birch

With Ghost River, Tony Birch returns to a world he has delineated over many short stories and in his first novel, the Miles Franklin-shortlisted Blood (2011): the world of adolescents living on the margins. Invariably in trouble and in unstable family environments, the adolescents in Birch's fiction tend to find in their marginal status a degree of freedom. They use this freedom to explore what he has described elsewhere as 'landscapes of abandonment'.

The landscape of abandonment in Ghost River is one particularly close to his heart: Melbourne's Yarra River as it was in the late 1960s, winding through the working-class suburbs of Collingwood and Fitzroy, poisoned and largely ignored, and being further debased by new construction projects such as the South Eastern Freeway. Way past its prime as a site of leisure, and as yet untroubled by the busy bicycle paths that line it today, the Yarra at this time was the realm of the homeless and the odd local boy like Birch, or in Ghost River, local boys like Ren and his new best friend, Sonny.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Luke Horton reviews 'Ghost River' by Tony Birch
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Ghost River
  • Book Author Tony Birch
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio University of Queensland Press, $29.95 pb, 304 pp, 9780702253775

It is gratifying to witness the renewal of interest in Elizabeth Harrower's fiction. Last year, In Certain Circles, Harrower's fifth novel, written in 1971, was finally published. Now, for the first time, a collection of her short fiction is available. Earlier versions of five of the twelve stories from A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories, were published during the 1960s and 1970s in Australian magazines and anthologies. Two stories, 'The Fun of the Fair' and 'The City at Night' are previously unpublished. Other entries have appeared this year in journals at home and abroad. The diverse publication history attests to the quality, power, and reach of Harrower's writing.

For the most part, these stories are set in an old-fashioned world where characters nurse acute memories of the Depression, ocean liners transport Australians back to the 'Old Country', and Sydney is 'two million strong'. Yet each and every story remains vitally relevant for contemporary readers around the globe. Harrower explores eternal themes such as loneliness, bereavement, cruelty, and depression. The penultimate story, 'It Is Margaret' (ABR, October 2015), articulates the central question investigated by this collection. Clelia, whose mother has been bullied into the grave by her husband, Theo, is perplexed by Theo's apparent vulnerability in grief: 'Here it was again – the mystery that pursued her through life in one form, in another, returning and returning, presenting itself relentlessly for her solution: how should human beings treat each other?'

The collection opens with 'The Fun of the Fair'. It is vintage Harrower. Janet is a motherless ten-year-old, unwanted, misunderstood, fragile. The story is told from her perspective as she undergoes a series of trials at the fair with Uncle Hector and his girlfriend. When she is conscripted into a stage show between a giant and a dwarf, the final threads of her childhood innocence unravel. She recognises the 'empty yet completely familiar' look they exchange and knows irrevocably that she is unloved and unseen.

The need to be seen informs this collection. Characters, whether young girls, adolescents, professional women, wives, or middle-aged men, hanker for some kind of recognition, something that suggests they are known and valued. In 'Lance Harper, His Story', the young protagonist is melancholy: 'one of the facts of Lance's life was that it had never contained a soul who had dreamed of observing him.' The teenagers in 'The City at Night' fare better. When they let down their guard and admit to loneliness, a friendship is born: 'The strange silent world of adolescence had exploded, the eggshell walls had collapsed, proclaiming, You are not alone.'

Most of Harrower's characters are very much alone, never more so than when they are in relationships. In their solitude they play their internal tapes of guilt and despair over and over again: 'all I was was someone conscious of error', 'nothing about herself, her life, her death, was worth taking seriously', 'everyone, everywhere, all the time. Ambling round till they die.' In several stories characters experience a profound numbness of spirit, 'wanting nothing, feeling nothing, believing nothing'. Repeatedly they wonder about the purpose of life.

'Harrower explores eternal themes such as loneliness, bereavement, cruelty, and depression'

A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories, as may be obvious, is not what one might call a happy read. It is not the kind of collection that asks to be read straight through from cover to cover. Rather, it is a book to dip into. The range of stories and styles demonstrates Harrower's extraordinary literary skill. In 'The Cornucopia', a timeless story of a selfish, wealthy socialite, she is at her cutting, satirical best. In the technically sophisticated 'English Lesson', Laura learns the language of insult. Harrower's edgy narrative pace, clipped phrases, and enigmatic sentences mimic Laura's disorienting intellectual and visceral response to rudeness. Above all, this collection has much to say about two central concerns of our life and times: domestic abuse and depression. Harrower, writing decades ago, knows about both, and because she cares for her characters she develops our understanding of the destructive power relations, and emotional paralysis, they experience.

Elizabeth Harrower smaller for OEElizabeth Harrower

Some stories share a close resonance with Harrower's novels. 'The Beautiful Climate' packs all the terrifying claustrophobia and menace of The Watch Tower (1966). The cruel, domineering husband and father even shares the same surname as Felix Shaw from that novel. 'Alice' is reminiscent of Emily's desperate need for parental love and concern in The Long Prospect (1958). The title story can be read as a companion piece to In Certain Circles. In that novel, Anna attempts to explain to her friends that she was 'chosen' by suicide and that it 'had seductive arguments'. She knows her explanation 'sounds confused'. In 'A Few Days in the Country', Harrower maps a convincing dialogue between suicide and the depressed Sophie. In a sense, the story answers what readers were expected to surmise about Anna's change of heart.

In 'The Beautiful Climate', the teenage Del reads psychology books in an attempt to 'find out why people were so peculiar', and to 'come across a formula for survival'. A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories offers no sure-fire formulas, but through its interrogation of characters' psychological motivations it affords a deeper understanding of human behaviour.

'Some stories share a close resonance with Harrower's novels'

Despite her unremitting focus on the pain of existence, Harrower affirms, through the act of writing, that there is hope and that she has faith in the human spirit. The collection opens with the arresting image of lightning and a blackout: 'And then ... the lights ... went out.' Its closing sentence reads: 'She had learned.' In various ways, these stories chart a path through darkness to arrive, often, at moments of empowering self-awareness.

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  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title Bernadette Brennan reviews 'A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories' by Elizabeth Harrower
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Custom Highlight Text

    It is gratifying to witness the renewal of interest in Elizabeth Harrower's fiction. Last year, ...

  • Book Title A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories
  • Book Author Elizabeth Harrower
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.95 hb, 256 pp, 9781925240566
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