On 20 August 2018 the ABC aired a ‘special literary edition’ of Q&A during the Melbourne Writers Festival. It had a stellar line-up: John Marsden, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Sofie Laguna, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, and Trent Dalton. Viewers must have been optimistic. Were Q&A’s producers indulging in a long hour of lively literary debate? Unfortunately, they were not. But even though politics overshadowed much of the discussion that evening, the panellists made a considerable effort to draw on their expertise as writers rather than as political commentators when answering questions from the audience.
One of the most thought-provoking questions of the night came from Laguna, who wondered about the role of fiction given the issues we are facing as a society. Can fiction help us ‘inch a little closer to the truth’, as Marsden suggested? Can it help us interrogate the politics of fear and racism, or even inject new idealism into politics? Later in the episode, Tony Jones followed up with a question of his own, asking Laguna if it is the role of the writer to be a ‘provocateur’. Nodding thoughtfully, Laguna agreed that it was.
While not all novelists have readily embraced the role of provocateur, many have been drawn to the novel’s power to provoke. Four new-release Young Adult novels – Alison Evans’s Highway Bodies, Astrid Scholte’s Four Dead Queens, Neil Grant’s The Honeyman and the Hunter, and Helena Fox’s How It Feels to Float – showcase the continued ingenuity of Australian fiction writers in confronting the social and political issues facing today’s youth. Together these novels dismantle caricatures of queerness, mental illness, and racism, and explore questions of belonging, power, grief, family, and love.
Of the four, Highway Bodies (Echo Publishing, $22.99 pb, 376 pp, 9781760685027) is most likely to surprise. This is the fourth book from Alison Evans, an emerging non-binary author. Set in contemporary Melbourne, it features several queer and gender-non-conforming teenagers in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. In a post-The Walking Dead era, zombies will give some readers cold feet, but these mindless flesh-eating creatures have long held immense symbolic power in popular culture. They have represented all kinds of social anxieties, from fears of voodooism, communism, and nuclear war to the all-consuming force of capitalism. In Highway Bodies, Evans reveals the enduring elasticity of the genre by using it to isolate and represent the queer community. Not just another post-apocalyptic thriller, Highway Bodies reads like an allegory of growing up queer in an often hostile world. Even as zombies ravage Melbourne, darker, more dangerous enemies lurk among the survivors: cars ‘full of white [bogans]’ that will ‘fuckin kill ya jus for lookin at em wrong’ and a hyper-masculine, queerphobic cult working to establish a ‘civilised’ safe haven.
A well-written novel, Highway Bodies eloquently balances absurdity, obscenity, violence, humour, and emotion. While the plot is sometimes underdeveloped – characters wandering aimlessly in the bush or suburban Melbourne – the three teen narrators are compelling. They have had the internet to figure out who they are; unlike many teen coming-of-age novels, they are not on a journey of self-discovery, but of survival.
Far from the post-apocalyptic nightmare of Evans’s novel, Neil Grant’s The Honeyman and the Hunter (Allen & Unwin, $19.99 pb, 288 pp, 9781760631871) tells the story of sixteen-year-old Rudra Solace as he struggles to negotiate his Indian and Australian heritage. Born in the small beach town of Patonga on the central coast of New South Wales, Rudra is shaken out of the rhythm of everyday life by the unexpected arrival of his Indian grandmother, Didima. Filling her grandson’s head with Sundarbans folklore about the Dokkhin Rai and the mawalis (honeymen), Didima eventually persuades Rudra to flee from his home in Patonga to India on a quest of self-discovery.
The Honeyman and the Hunter is Grant’s fourth Young Adult novel with Allen & Unwin. Chiefly a coming-of-age story, it also explores questions of belonging, dispossession, climate change, domestic violence, and racism. Many Australian readers, especially those who grew up on the New South Wales coast, will be familiar with stock characters like surfer boy Maggs and his rival bully Judge Dredd. With dreadlocks and the Southern Cross tattooed on his shoulder in memory of the 2005 Cronulla riots, Judge eggs Maggs and Rudra on with racist insults.
When moving away from predictable characters like Maggs and Judge, the third-person narration risks distancing some readers from the main characters. This is especially the case for Rudra’s mother, Nayna. Once an ambitious young scientist who fled her homeland to escape an arranged marriage, she has sacrificed her career only to marry a racist and abusive fisherman. Why is Nayna still married to this man? Although Grant occasionally journeys into Nayna’s past, many questions about her marriage are left unanswered. Most troubling of all, after accompanying Rudra to India, Nayna returns dutifully to married life, giving readers a bleak picture of women’s ability to subvert traditional power roles.
We get a very different representation of women in Astrid Scholte’s first fantasy novel, Four Dead Queens (Allen & Unwin, $19.99 pb, 432 pp, 9781760685027). Not unlike Veronica Roth’s factions in Divergent, Quadara is comprised of four distinct cultural districts. Each quadrant has its own queen, but they all rule from the same court. The novel alternates between the perspective of these four powerful women and seventeen-year-old ‘dipper thief’ Keralie Corrington, who, after stealing a secret message from the palace, becomes embroiled in a mission to solve the queens’ brutal murders.
With its thieving, mystery, and romance, Four Dead Queens is ideally placed to explore the complex and often contradictory nature of human morality. Somewhat surprisingly, Scholte is reluctant to consider the moral ambiguity of her characters and exaggerates the virtue of her heroine, Kera. Even though the young thief is responsible for innumerable crimes, she is generally portrayed as a victim who would do ‘anything to keep’ people ‘in the light’. She even finds love with an honest man. As Judith Plant noted in her review, ‘the book has a very Disney-esque feel’ to it, embracing many of the familiar tropes of the fantasy genre. No doubt this is exactly what appealed to Scholte’s publishers: fantasy is not every reader’s kettle of fish, but plenty of avid young fantasy readers will find themselves at home in the mystery and romance of Four Dead Queens.
Last of all, Helena Fox’s début novel, How It Feels to Float (Pan Macmillan, $17.99 pb, 384 pp, 9781760783303), heralds the arrival of a talented new voice on the Australian literary scene. The story is told from the perspective of sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Martin Grey (also known as Biz) who is floating through life following the death of her father. After a near-death experience at a Wollongong beach and the departure of her lifelong friend Grace, Biz’s world slowly begins to unravel around her. Feeling herself ‘floating’ away, she clings to the whispers of the ocean and her polaroid photographs. ‘The photos are talking to me, whispering in my bag’. No one else can hear them ‘[s]o I guess the stories are just mine?’ Eventually, as Biz admits in unspoken words to her mum, the stories become suffocating: ‘I couldn’t breathe, Mum. I couldn’t breathe because my skin was crawling with stories. Just imagine you had bugs under your skin, Mum, just picture that, actually crawling with words I couldn’t get out.’
Fox, in passages like these, finds words and phrases that give feeling to the frightening loneliness that often accompanies mental illness. Elsewhere, she grapples with the anguish of Biz’s mum as she struggles to support her daughter. It’s hard, she admits, ‘to love someone who lives outside your body, and whose life you can’t control. You can’t hold anything still. You can’t be sure anything will be okay.’ A gut-wrenchingly beautiful portrait of grief and mental illness, How It Feels to Float is a tribute to the unconditional love between mother and daughter, as well as the power of new rather than old friendships.
While there is no denying that these four new books are very different works of Young Adult fiction, they all acquaint readers with marginalised voices and cultures. As the authors suggest in their stories, a ‘normal’ teen experience is the stuff of fairy tales. Life is complicated and full of contradictions on the east coast as much as anywhere else.
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- Custom Article Title Emily Gallagher reviews four new Young Adult novels
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On 20 August 2018 the ABC aired a ‘special literary edition’ of Q&A during the Melbourne Writers Festival. It had a stellar line-up: John Marsden, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Sofie Laguna, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, and Trent Dalton. Viewers must have been optimistic. Were Q&A’s producers indulging in a long hour ...
In 2009, ABR invited readers to nominate their Favourite Australian Novel (FAN) of any era (view the 2009 poll here). We received thousands of votes for nearly 300 novels. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet was the overwhelming favourite – by a margin of three to one to its nearest rival, Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, which was closely followed by Patrick White’s Voss and Winton’s novel Breath.
Now we’re keen to find out your Favourite Australian Novel of the twenty-first century (published since 2000). There’s been some outstanding fiction published over those two decades – novels by writers such as Alexis Wright, Michelle de Kretser, Shirley Hazzard, Peter Carey, J.M. Coetzee, Tim Winton himself – and on the list goes.
Vote now to be in the running for one of three terrific prizes:
1. A Readings gift voucher ($500)
2. The complete recordings of Herbert von Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca ($1,281), courtesy of our friends at Classics Direct.
3. A five-year digital subscription to ABR
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We’re keen to find out your Favourite Australian Novel of the twenty-first century (published since 2000). Vote now to be in the running for one of three terrific prizes.
Winner of the Calibre Essay Prize!
Calibre Essay Prize, now in its thirteenth year, has played a major role in the revitalisation and appreciation of the essay form. This year we received a record number of entries – 450 new essays from twenty-two countries. ABR Editor Peter Rose judged the Prize with J.M. Coetzee, author of several volumes of critical essays as well as the novels that won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, and Anna Funder, author of the international bestseller Stasiland and the Miles Franklin Award-winning novel All That I Am.The
This year, our two winning essays could hardly be more different: a remarkable contribution to Aboriginal and colonial history from one of our finest historians; and a highly personal account of an abortion – the body out of control and at sea.
Grace Karskens – Professor of History at the University of New South Wales and author of the award-winning The Colony: A history of early Sydney – is the overall winner of the Calibre Prize; she receives $5,000. Her essay, titled ‘Nah Doongh’s Song’, examines the unusually long life of one of the first Aboriginal children who grew up in conquered land. Born around 1800, Nah Doongh lived until 1898. Her losses, her peregrinations, her strong, dignified character are the subjects of this questing essay, in which the author states: ‘Biography is not a finite business; it’s a process, a journey. I have been researching, writing, and thinking about Nah Doongh … for over a decade now.’ The discoveries she makes along the way – the portrait she finally tracks down – are very stirring.
‘Nah Doongh’s Song’ will appear in our Indigenous issue, to be published in August.
Placed second in the Calibre Prize is ‘Floundering’ by Melbourne-based artist, photographer, and fine artist Sarah Walker. Sarah Walker told ABR: ‘The Calibre Essay Prize is an essential avenue for new writing to be published with profound care and respect. I am proud to be joining a lineage of extraordinary writing.’
In addition, the judges commended five essays, which will appear online in coming months. They are John Bigelow’s ‘The Song of the Grasshopper’, Andrew Broertjes’s ‘Death and Sandwiches’, Martin Edmond’s ‘The Land of Three Rivers’, Michael McGirr’s ‘Thicker Than Water’, and Melanie Saward’s ‘From Your Own Culture’.
ABR gratefully acknowledges generous support from Mr Colin Golvan AM QC and the ABR Patrons.
Tell us your Favourite Australian Novel and win!
Ten years ago, we invited readers to nominate their Favourite Australian Novel of all time, and what an informative list it was. Placed first, to no one’s surprise, was Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, followed by The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson and Voss by Patrick White.
Now we’re keen to find out your Favourite Australian Novel published since 2000. Is it True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, Breath by Tim Winton (placed fourth in the 2009 FAN poll), Questions of Travel by Michelle de Krester, Carpentaria by Alexis Wright, Truth by Peter Temple, Benang by Kim Scott, The True Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas – or one of the myriad novels published here in the past two decades?
To vote, all you have to do is complete the FAN poll survey. You’ll then be in the running to win one of three great prizes:
- A $500 voucher from Readings
- Herbert von Karajan’s Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca (valued at $1,281)
- A five-year digital subscription to ABR.
Introducing ABR's new column: Ephiphany
While on the subject of seminal works, we’re also curious to learn what some of the country’s finest writers and arts professionals consider the pivotal cultural encounters in their own artistic formation. Was it a poem, an oil, a pas de deux, a film, a novel, a temple, an aria or riff?
We invited ABR Laureate Robyn Archer – one of Australia’s most culturally sophisticated and distinguished artists – to inaugurate our new column, Epiphany. Robyn recalls a day in 1996 when she ventured to Glyndebourne, which she had previously resisted, only to be entranced by Peter Sellars’s production of Handel’s Theodora – ‘some kind of aural miracle’.
Monash sells film rights to Half the Perfect World
The story of Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift life on the Greek isle of Hydra is unfailingly captivating. The most recent book on the subject was Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell’s Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters, 1955–1964 (Monash University Publishing, 2018). Reviewing it in the November 2018 issue of ABR, Brian Matthews recalled writing to Clift when he himself was contemplating becoming a schoolteacher on another Greek island in the mid-1960s. Our reviewer described Half the Perfect World as ‘a fascinating, impressively researched, well-told story about a place and its moment that time and tourism have since overrun’.
Now Cascade Films has purchased the film rights for Half the Perfect World, to be directed by Nadia Tass with a screenplay by Andrew Knight. Commenting on the sale, Nathan Hollier, Director of Monash University Publishing, said” ‘We are thrilled to have now partnered with such a well-credentialled and talented group of filmmakers.’
Hilary Mantel's new novel
Devotees of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell don’t have much longer to wait for the publication of the third and last volume in the trilogy. HarperCollins has announced that The Mirror and the Light (which will escort Cromwell to the block just as he manoeuvred his arch-enemy Anne Boleyn there at the end of Bring Up the Bodies ) will be published, after many delays, in March 2020 – surely the publishing event of the year.
Both of the first two novels in the series – Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies – won the Booker Prize. Will the finale earn Mantel another Booker, making her the first person to win three Booker Prizes?
Peter Rose, reviewing Bring Up the Bodies for ABR in June 2012, wrote:
Mantel humanises tyrants and psychopaths. Unlike most writers, who have so little experience of it, she understand power … The language throughout is fluent and zesty. Adverbs are at a premium, and most of the sentences are brief. This tautness, the seeming simplicity of the prose, generate real drama and spring … Hilary Mantel’s second novel about this doomed statesman and most improbable of heroes proves even more relishable than the first.
Out of paradise
Few people escape from publishing. Most people, once they get a foot in the door, stay put. Mary-Kay Wilmers has been working in the industry for more than fifty years. She began at Faber & Faber when the company was still dominated by ‘GLP’ (the ‘Greatest Living Poet’ himself, T.S. Eliot, much mentioned in Toby Faber’s epistolary history of Faber). Wilmers, co-founder of the London Review of Books in 1979 and sole editor since 1992, occasionally writes ‘pieces’ for ‘the paper’ (LRB-speak). Now, two admiring colleagues of hers, John Lanchester and Andrew O’Hagan, have collected some of her occasional writings in a volume called Human Relations and Other Difficulties (Profile Books, $27.99 pb).
We meet the warring Connollys: literary critic Cyril Connolly, who ‘famously marked his place in a book he had borrowed with a rasher of bacon’, and his second wife, Barbara Skelton, who bedded many but doesn’t seem to have liked anyone (‘What a terrible waste of time people are,’ she wrote in her diary). Coolly, Wilmers is often deadly: in her essay on Patty Hearst she mentions a pre-kidnap beau called Steven Weed – ‘not a name that would necessarily wish fame upon itself’.
Wilmers is generally suspicious of aphorisms, but ABR liked this one in her article on seduction: ‘One way or another, a plot had to be devised to get Adam and Eve out of paradise.’ This piece, in true LRB fashion, occasioned a lethal exchange of letters. Christopher Ricks, in acidulous form, rebuked Wilmers for misremembering one of his pronouncements: ‘I hope that Ms Wilmers the editor of the LRB is more scrupulous than Ms Wilmers the insufficiently edited contributor to her pages.’ (Wilmers, adverbially deft, was sorry that Ricks had ‘taken the lapse so darkly to heart’.)
Hacks shouldn’t miss Wilmers’s article ‘The Language of Novel Reviewing’ – that toughest of assignments. Wilmers notes some of the pitfalls, the minor misprisions. Here, on her own turf, she is decidedly epigrammatic: ‘Every liberal and illiberal orthodoxy has its champions’; ‘Sometimes it seems as if novel reviewing were a branch of the welfare state’; and ‘Just as some novels supply their own reviews, so many reviews supply their own novels.’
Wilmers is funny about the triads of adjectives flung at novels: ‘exact, piquant and comical’, ‘rich, mysterious and energetic’, etc. etc.. She might have been thinking of those triadic puffs beloved of trade publishers – usually written, at any one time, by a cohort of six reliable encomiasts.
Monash University launches the Ian Potter Centre for Performing Arts
On May 13, Monash University formally opened Melbourne’s newest cultural hub, the Ian Potter Centre for Performing Arts. The $54.3 million venue includes the refurbished 586-seat Alexander Theatre, the 130-seat Sound Gallery for acoustically optimal music performances, and the 200-seat Jazz Club, which operates as a café by day and restaurant and bar by night. Professor Paul Grabowsky, Executive Director of the Monash Academy of Performing Arts, hosted the launch. The night featured a performance by Australian soprano Emma Matthews with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Uncle Jack Charles reciting a poem from the late Les Murray, a circus display by the group One Fell Swoop, Auro Go on the piano, and a performance by Grabowsky with Vince Jones and band
There’s a very active program, and arts lovers are encouraged to sign up to receive regular updates from the Centre.
For more information about the Ian Potter Centre, visit the Monash website.
The Wheeler Centre's $150,000 Next Chapter project
Applications are now open for The Next Chapter, a $150,000 development project for writers run by The Wheeler Centre. Ten writers are chosen as part of the annual program to develop their work. As well as receiving $15,000, each recipient will be assigned a personal mentor. Selected recipients will be expected to complete a manuscript within the twelve months of the program, as well as actively participate in the mentoring relationship. This year, the judges are authors Benjamin Law, Christos Tsiolkas, Sophie Cunningham, and Ameblin Kwaymullina.
Application are open until July 12. For more information, visit The Next Chapter website.
The year of Anchuli Felicia King
What a year Anchuli Felicia King is having. The twenty-five-year-old, New York-based Australian playwright has new productions of her work at the Royal Court, London, the Melbourne Theatre Company, and the Sydney Theatre Company.
First up is White Pearl, at the famed Royal Court. Running until June 15 and directed by Nana Dakin, it opened last week to much acclaim from new ABR arts reviewer Alexander Douglas Thom, who described it as a ‘meticulously constructed black comedy’ and ‘unabashedly political theatre, an accounting of some of the sunk costs of modern society’.
Sydney audiences will have a chance to see White Pearl in October 2019, when the STC mounts a new production directed by Priscilla Jackman. Meanwhile, in August, MTC will present the world première of Golden Shield, directed by Sarah Goodes, described as ‘an urgent legal drama that explores the personal and political ramifications of corporate greed in the political economy’.
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ABR News: The winner of the Calibre Essay Prize; the ABR Favourite Australian Novel poll; our new column, Epiphany; Monash University sells film rights for Half A Perfect World; Hilary Mantel's new novel; Mary-Kay Wilmers; Anchuli Felicia King; and more!
To complement our ‘Books of the Year’ feature, which appeared in the December 2018 issue, we invited some senior publishers to nominate their favourite books of 2018 – all published by other companies.
Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., reviewed in ABR, 4/18) relates the physical and intellectual challenges, adventures, innovations, and discoveries of modern Australian archaeology. In telling this story, commencing in the late 1950s, Billy Griffiths also discusses the social, political, and philosophical changes and issues that this archaeological activity has subsequently contributed to, or been affected by. Great knowledge, clear thinking, careful evaluation, and stylish exposition bring to light questions of existential significance: ‘To dream of deep time … propels us into a global perspective and allows us to see ourselves as a species. It also asks us to respect the deep past as a living heritage.’
Nathan Hollier is Director of Monash University Publishing.
‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past,’ said William Faulkner. He might have been speaking of Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming, an utterly compelling mixture of memoir, biography, history, and science. Griffiths tells the tale of how, thanks to the work of some brilliant archaeologists and their guides and collaborators, we have been able to glimpse not just the ancient human history of this continent, but its living signature, too. Each time Griffiths’s story got older, it found new ways to begin.
Michael Heyward is Publisher at Text Publishing.
The Trauma Cleaner (Text Publishing) – an unforgettable book – is how striking it is. It has the sort of cover that spawns a zillion copies with its powerful simplicity. Hats off to the publishers for that. The second thing to say about this book is that it’s absolutely brilliant. The writing is clear-eyed, filled with humanity, subtlety, and grace. Krasnostein loves her subject and this shines through on every page. I would have loved to have published it; we were one of the bidders but lost out to Text, which published it impeccably. I was cheering from the sidelines to see Sarah pick up a swag of awards.The first thing to say about Sarah Krasnostein’s
Nikki Christer is Group Publishing Director at Penguin Random House.
Blakwork (Magabala Books), even in its more benign moments, is an intense thump to the body. This is because, through poetry and observation, Whittaker unmakes and remakes so much in her narratives by working the language hard. The interposing within a framework of ‘work’ categories yields erudition, worn lightly, alongside experimentation and irony and tenderness. I had to read slowly, so richly dense was it with history and family and people’s lives; encompassing how language assists in oppressing people and how it can also recover worlds of hope and self-determination. A delight, by a young writer of distinction.Alison Whittaker’s
Terri-ann White is Director of UWA Publishing.
Beautiful Revolutionary (Scribe, 10/18), Laura Elizabeth Woollett creates unforgettable characters. Months later, I can still see and hear them vividly. Beautiful Revolutionary is the story of the cult that lead to the Jonestown Massacre, the largest intentional loss of American life in one event until 9/11. The research and writing are impeccable, yet still warm and immediate, especially her depiction of Evelyn, a young woman drawn into the inner circle of the People’s Temple.In
Alice Grundy is an associate publisher at Brio Books.
On Disruption (Melbourne University Press) really is just that, an intervention for our ‘post-truth age’. Not all journalists are great writers, but Murphy is, and she’s not afraid to turn the searchlight on herself and her profession. Pressure from without is also pressure from within, and this book shows how high the stakes are. That she is able to serve as ‘a river guide in white water’ is to all our benefits.One tiny book, a long essay really, punched above its weight and has not left me since I read it. ‘Timely’ is a standby word for blurb writers, but Katharine Murphy’s
Phillipa McGuinness is Publisher at NewSouth Publishing/UNSW Press.
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted (Text Publishing), by Robert Hillman, is an Australian gem: wise, tender, melancholy, gentle – simple yet undeniably powerful. The story of decent Tom Hope and haunted Hannah Babel rang as pure and true as a bell. While the novel doesn’t shy away from showing the darkness of history and the inexplicable cruelty of people, it also shows us that love can help us through – love and books. Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18) is, in a way, its polar opposite: a bravura achievement, dazzling, complex, layered, thought-provoking and mind-stretchingly clever – but equally compelling.
Catherine Milne is Publisher and Head of Fiction at HarperCollins Publishers Australia.
Blakwork proves, yet again, that she is one of the sharpest minds around. This coruscating collection plays with form and style, throughout centring Indigenous voices and experiences, and decolonising language. It’s bold and unapologetic, slicing through the hypocrisies of settler colonialism. Leigh Sales’s Any Ordinary Day (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) undid me repeatedly with its empathetic stories of how people cope when ‘the worst thing happens’. Sales turns the spotlight on her own personal life as well as her professional one, interrogating the role of journalists in reporting tragedy and trauma.I’m choosing two books that affected me deeply – divergent in style and approach, but both challenging us to imaginatively consider the lives of others. Alison Whittaker’s
Aviva Tuffield is a publisher at the University of Queensland Press.
Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Black Inc.), edited by Anita Heiss, is a revelation, and it shouldn’t be. Bringing together experiences from voices new and old, young and mature, this is a collection to return to, not only because we cannot change what we ignore, but also for inspiration. We See the Stars (Allen & Unwin), a début from Kate van Hooft, deftly explores my favourite trait, kindness, as a young boy attempts to broaden his engagement with the small, disturbing, and noisy world in which he lives. Tension builds and the reader is lead to an open ending, or is it?
Meredith Curnow is a publisher at Penguin Random House Australia.
Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp (Scribe), absorbed me on so many levels. Sornig brings a novelist’s eye to his acute portrait of Elsie and the other fringe dwellers living on the edge of Melbourne. During the Great Depression, such outcasts built humpies and scavenged from rubbish tips. Like Janet Frame in Owls Do Cry (1961), Sornig understands the treasures of the spirit to be found in the compromised wastelands of our cities. In fiction, Angela Meyer’s A Superior Spectre (Ventura) grappled beautifully with the dilemma of longevity versus soul.David Sornig’s
Barry Scott is Publisher at Transit Lounge.
I Love Poetry (Giramondo) is one of the stronger books to have come out recently. Farrell’s last few books have shown a real maturation in his voice. Paradoxically enough, it is his more personal and less characteristically playful poems that mark this development in his work. I also enjoyed Maria Tumarkin’s collection of essays Axiomatic (Brow Books, 9/18) for their intensity, honesty, and the Eastern European sensibility from which they derive.As a publisher, teacher, and writer, I have little time to read for pleasure, so I’m fairly choosy about what I read. Michael Farrell’s
David Musgrave is Publisher at Puncher & Wattmann.
In the Garden of the Fugitives: rich, strange, mesmerising. Startling, in fact, as Dovey always seems to be. I note now that it’s sitting on my shelf beside Anna Burns’s Milkman, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, all having a gentle conversation in the way they do. I also read Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist: A mind on fire (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) in a single sitting and at arm’s length. The ability to bear such forensic witness must exert a terrific toll: it is a harrowing read and utterly riveting.I seem to be taken with all things igneous this year. I devoured Ceridwen Dovey’s
On a personal note, I think we all suffered a great loss in the poet and activist Candy Royalle, who died suddenly, and far, far too soon, in June 2018. Her first muscular and uncompromising collection, A trillion tiny awakenings, towards which she had been working for many years, was published posthumously by UWAP. Vale, Candy.
Mathilda Imlah is the Picador Publisher.
The Lebs (Hachette, 3/18). We recognise the characters of this book – these Western Sydney boys and girls and men and women, these ‘lebs’ and ‘fobs’ – and feel as though we know them. Yet most of us don’t know them or their stories. Michael Mohammed Ahmad drags us inside the worlds of these characters. I just wish all realist fiction were as unapologetic in its approach.The locally published book that most knocked me sideways this year was Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s
Sam Cooney is Publisher at Brow Books.
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To complement our ‘Books of the Year’ feature, which appeared in the December 2018 issue, we invited some senior publishers to nominate their favourite books of 2018 – all published by other companies.
Michelle de Kretser
Man Out of Time (Hachette, reviewed in ABR 9/18) explores a man’s breakdown and its effects on his family. It’s shimmering and sorrowful, and the writing is extraordinary. Too Much Lip (UQP, 10/18) by Melissa Lucashenko is a strong, unflinching novel about homecoming and history. With trademark wit and lucidity, Lucashenko connects the lives of her sharply drawn characters to a dysfunctional national story. Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge (Scribe, 5/18), set among working-class lives, considers the collapse of the Westgate Bridge alongside a contemporary tragedy. It’s a moving, unsentimental novel about ethical complexities. Ghachar Ghochar (Faber, 2015) is a disturbing novella by Vivek Shanbhag (translated by Srinath Perur) about an Indian family that becomes wealthy – a gem.Stephanie Bishop’s remarkable novel
Axiomatic (Brow Books, 9/18) and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its aftermath (Granta, 8/18). Tumarkin’s book is breathtaking in its audacity, its deep empathy, and its intellectual rigour. It’s unlike anything I have ever read. The Recovering is a deeply affecting and complex blend of biography and autobiography, drawing intimate and affirming portraits of what it might mean to come back from addiction and illness. My favourite work of fiction was Ceridwen Dovey’s taut and thrilling In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18), which is about trauma and legacy and how we understand the past. It is full of images of tragic beauty.I was most excited by two ambitious and wild books of non-fiction, Maria Tumarkin’s
Towards Light and Other Poems (Puncher & Wattmann, 11/18), achieves a sustained and generous weaving of lyrical intensity with moral engagement. Balanced, focused, elegantly executed, this book shows Day at her best. Simeon Kronenberg’s Distance (Pitt Street Poets), is an impressive first volume. The intimate shaping of the language and the stunning reach into the imagination in a series of historical dramatic monologues makes this book shine. On quite a different emotional register is Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets, (Giramondo). Hip, suave, pert, pinpointing, and penetrating, these poems engage with locale in most enterprising ways. Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir (Text Publishing, 9/18) is a book to weep over for the tragic lives it skilfully explores.Sarah Day’s eighth collection of poetry,
Sun Music: New and selected poems (Giramondo, 9/18) is a feast. I happily indulged in the old poems, but I gorged on the new. Filled with a plethora of living things – people, insects, animals, birds – these poems are vivid, insightful, and gorgeously poetic. I am a long-time fan of the English novelist Simon Mawer. His latest, Prague Spring (Little, Brown), plunges into the heady days of 1968: the pleasures of new freedoms, the hopes that were brutally crushed, and the politics, both behind the scenes and in the streets. All that you would want from a novel. Jacqueline Kent’s 2001 biography, A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis: A literary life, has been republished by NewSouth (9/18). It’s a terrific history of the Australian book industry, with the narrative pull of a plot-driven novel. Given current trends in publishing, this is a timely and welcome book.Judith Beveridge’s
An Open Book (UQP, 12/18). This broadly chronological reflection on language and experience gives us the familiar observer, watching endlessly for meaning, expressing his findings through direct and sparse lines. For a different reflection on artists and writing, Half the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 (Monash University Publishing, 11/18) by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell recalls the exile of Charmian Clift and George Johnston. Newly recovered photos from James Burke, destined originally for Life, see a Greek idyll marred by jealousy, frustrated ambit-ion, and the world outside. Lovingly researched, carefully constructed, compelling.In The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton, 2018), Pat Barker reworks a strand from The Iliad. Briseis is a prize for invading Greek men. Her story becomes a meditation on the fate of women in war. Barker evokes a world entire from a few lines in Homer and invites us to rethink the original. David Malouf embraces this approach in his last novel, Ransom (Penguin, 2009). In 2018 Malouf returns to his original craft, poetry, with
Dunera Lives: A Visual History (Monash University Publishing, 9/18), by the late, lamented Ken Inglis with Seumas Spark and Jay Winter. It presents a wealth of images of and by the German, mainly Jewish, ‘Dunera Boys’ who were sent from Britain to internment here in 1940. In What the Light Reveals (Transit Lounge), a fictionalised version of the lives of Australian communists David and Bernice Morris, Mick McCoy offers an intriguing Moscow Cold War story (though I’m not sure what I think about finding myself as a character). For another remarkable, non-fiction Cold War story, read Secrets and Truths (CEU Press, 2013), American anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s account of her reactions to the huge surveillance dossier Romanian Securitate kept on her over thirty years, complete with confrontations with informers (most of her Romanian friends) and even former spymasters (who turn out rather likeable, with a methodology resembling that of anthropologists).I loved
The Tall Man: Death and life on Palm Island (2008, 10/18) charts the destructive legacies of colonialism with attention to evidence and historical context, so The Arsonist: A mind on fire (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) documents the tragedy of the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in the La Trobe Valley. Like the best historians, Hooper recognises her complex responsibilities to past and present, to her historical subjects and contemporary readers. The Arsonist is a brilliant and moving book about ecological devastation and social desolation. Samia Khatun’s account of early encounters between Indigenous and Indian peoples in the Australian interior, Australianama: The South Asian odyssey in Australia, (Hurst) is post-colonial history at its best. Opening with the discovery of a Bengali songbook in an outback mosque, Khatun’s book eschews the conventional migrant narrative in favour of a strikingly original perspective on settler colonialism and multiculturalism.Chloe Hooper’s writing is animated by a profoundly humanist impulse and a desire to understand what happened. Just as
Love and Lament: An essay on the arts in Australia in the twentieth century (Thames & Hudson, 5/18) offers an eclectic overview of how high arts intersected with low arts, one that highlights the heterodox, often highly innovative nature of Australian culture over this period.The most surprising and engaging academic book I read this year was published in December 2017: Jason R. Rudy’s Imagined Homelands: British poetry in the colonies (Johns Hopkins University Press), which describes how canonical English poets were reverentially parodied by nostalgic settlers in Australia, South Africa, and other colonies during the Victorian era. Equally impressive in a scholarly sense is Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing: The speculative origins of U.S. citizenship (Harvard University Press), which traces the retroactive and fluctuating ways in which citizenship has been defined in the United States since the days of the Founding Fathers. And Margaret Plant’s
A Stolen Season (Picador, 4/18) confronts these issues with savage candour and a virtuosic attention to style that directly recalls White’s example. Clive Faust, another octogenarian, has provided a masterfully crafted collection of his life’s work in poetry, Past Futures: Collected poems (Shearsman, 2017). Faust’s writings appear only fugitively in local publications, but they have featured in leading international imprints over many decades. This example of his exquisitely sculpted work demonstrates that success in poetry has little do with conventional notions of a literary career, but is measured by sincere and objective technique.For its empathetic portrayal of the outer-suburban underclass, refugees, Aborigines, and all those excluded by mainstream nationalism, the most pertinent book for 2018 would be Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. In a similar vein, Rodney Hall offers a convincing portrait of the political realities of contemporary Australia, where military spending has spiralled while extremes of income inequality remain unaddressed:
Shell (Scribner, 11/18) uses the half-built Opera House and the Vietnam War as backdrop to a human drama about love, family, commitment, and loss. Two other novels stood out. Gail Jones’s The Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing, 4/18) wraps a richly layered family story in an art theft mystery that travels from Western Australia to Sydney and Sicily. Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber) is an on-again, off-again not-quite love story set in contemporary Ireland. Behind the humorously deadpan millennial voice lies astute commentary on class, sexual violence, and other pressing issues.I fell more deeply in love with Sydney’s architectural diva while reading two complementary books. Helen Pitt’s The House: The dramatic story of the Sydney Opera House and the people who made it (Allen & Unwin) is a thoroughly researched, colourful, and often shocking narrative history. Kristina Olsson’s shimmering novel
Kudos (Faber, 8/18). I am, months later, still bereft at the series’ completion. Will Eaves’s Murmur (CB Editions), while not part of a trilogy, is also one of a hat-trick of superb books. Murmur, which is partly inspired by the life of Alan Turing, ambitiously and brilliantly illustrates the relationships between fiction, consciousness, and artificial intelligence. The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – Alison L. Strayer’s compelling translation of Annie Ernaux’s Les Années (2008) – shows why Ernaux has such a high reputation for life writing in France. Lastly, there have been an extraordinary number of terrific collections by Australian poets, but I must mention Jordie Albiston’s Warlines (Hybrid, 11/18). A collection of found poems based on the correspondence of World War I soldiers, Warlines is a masterwork of documentary poetry that is both profoundly moving and intensely crafted.This year, Rachel Cusk’s ‘The Outline Trilogy’ came to a suitably brilliant end with
Click here for what we do (Vagabond, 8/18) is made of four long poems that, taking a walk through the everyday, assemble its weird onrush of habit, newness, news, advertising, commentary, forgetfulness, and changes in weather. They are quick, spare, alert, and companionable. It was fun to discover Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women, first printed in 1965, reissued this year with an introduction from Ali Smith (Silver Press). In this, Nell Dunn talks honestly with nine friends – writers, artists, factory workers – about work and sex and love and freedom. Black Inc. this year ended its long-running series Best Australian Poems. But, led by Jacinta Le Plastrier, Australian Poetry has been publishing an impressive, and impressively various, sequence of guest-edited journals and anthologies.Pam Brown’s new poetry collection,
The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House (Bodley Head, 12/18) stands out. Rhodes was speechwriter and foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama; this book is a stark reminder of how the world has changed since Donald Trump’s election. Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., 4/18) is a wonderful account of the discovery of Australia’s Indigenous history, blending archaeology, politics, and landscape. Most powerful of all is Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, 10/18), written from the detention centre on Manus. It should be compulsory reading for every federal politician.Is it a reflection of the times that the books that most impressed me this year are non-fiction? Understandably there has been an outpouring of books about US politics. Of those I read, Ben Rhodes’s
The Long Hangover: Putin’s new Russia and the ghosts of the past (OUP, 4/18) is the best recent book about contemporary Russia. Johannes Due Enstad’s rigorously researched Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile loyalties in World War II (CUP) brings a new complexity to the study of the USSR’s World War II; and Iva Glisic’s The Futurist Files: Avant-garde, politics, and ideology in Russia, 1905–1930 (Northern Illinois University Press) combines the sensibilities of the art historian with the rigour of archive-based political history. It invents a new genre: the political history of radical art. This achievement is all the more impressive, as the author is among the growing number of talented Australian scholars forced to make a living at the margins of an under-funded university sector.My highlights of the year are all first books. Shaun Walker is a reporter with a history degree. His
The Shepherd’s Hut (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18). Winton tells the story in the first-person voice of fifteen-year-old Jaxie, who is on the run as a suspect for the murder of his abusive father. When he finds a protector in dubious circumstances, Jaxie’s capacity to trust is tested to the limit, as is the physical strength needed to survive in a harsh West Australian landscape. A powerful, haunting story. In 2018 it was time to say goodbye to the irreplaceable William Trevor with Last Stories (Viking, 6/18). In a fictional world that is peopled with eccentrics, misfits, and failures, Trevor’s quiet comic sense and his compassion are held in a unique balance. These final stories are elegantly crafted, finely observed, and inventive as always.‘Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,’ remarked Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I was reminded of laconic, unshockable Huck when I read Tim Winton’s
Collected Poems (Black Inc., 12/18). As you might predict, its 736 pages contain some of the best poetry written in this country. A work of comparable interest, if smaller scale, is David Malouf’s collection An Open Book, which maintains an almost airy, late-life suspension throughout. Another likely valediction is Clive James’s The River in the Sky (Picador, 11/18). It’s a phantasmagoric verse memoir, less strictly controlled than his other books produced since a life-threatening diagnosis six years ago. Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is the summation of an exemplary Australian career. Her poems are constructed from finely described details, most of which are tapped into place with simile or metaphor. The most memorable of them involve a rejection of cruelty, whether to humans or animals.This has been a year of summations and farewells in Australian poetry. Four books may be mentioned, the heaviest of which is Les Murray’s new
The Everlasting Sunday (UQP, 4/18) a gorgeously restrained début, in which a house of unwanted boys must survive more than winter’s cruelties. A novel of ice, with a heart of fire. But the year’s clarion call was No Friend But the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani’s inconsolably human account of his inhuman detention on Manus Island – a plea, a poem, and a mighty indictment. As Richard Flanagan insists in his foreword: this is an Australian story, its author ‘A great Australian writer’.As an undergrad – full of pith and vinegar – I dismissed Australian literature as tedious, irrelevant tosh. In my defence, I’d been introduced to Aussie writers at school with all the enthusiasm of a vaccination, a literary inoculation. Rest assured, I’ve since been proved thoroughly and delightfully wrong. 2018 has been a magnificent year for Australian letters. For me, the year’s quiet marvel was Robert Lukins’s
Towards Light and Other Poems, Philip Mead’s intensely honed and intelligent late-modernist re-engagement with the world as experienced in Zanzibar Light (Vagabond Press, 5/18), and the poised tension and verbal control of Misbah Khokhar’s prose poems in Rooftops in Karachi (Vagabond Press).Lisa Bellear once wrote to me in an email, ‘Let’s get busy’ – a call for living life, in conjunction with action, in so many ways. Jen Jewel Brown has done an excellent job compiling much of Bellear’s uncollected poetry in the vital collection Aboriginal Country (UWAP). The emphatic, committed voice of this remarkable Goernpil woman, feminist, poet, photographer, and activist shines through. Other remarkable collections of Australian poetry this year include Kent MacCarter’s postmodern tour de force, California Sweet (Five Islands Press), Sarah Day’s striking book of seeing
Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives The Tall Man was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Chloe Hooper has done it with The Arsonist. Hooper creates emotion from fact and recounts the Black Saturday fires with empathy and intelligence. Rachael Brown achieved an Australian first: turning a number one true-crime podcast into a Walkley-shortlisted book. Trace: Who killed Maria James? (Scribe) is a gripping read. And finally, imagine if Harry Potter had been written with a female protagonist? Jessica Townsend has done just that with Wundersmith: The calling of Morrigan Crow (Hachette) The series is a reading gateway drug for the next generation.is intense and provocative, an artful exploration of love and power. It is fiction to devour over the summer break.
Deep Time Dreaming is a beautifully written account of how the archaeological profession came to learn what Indigenous people had long known: that they had lived in this country for aeons. Christina Twomey’s The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia (NewSouth, 8/18) manages to be quietly moving without ever descending into mawkishness. In a highly readable and superbly researched book, Twomey shows how Australian POWs in Japan moved from being an embarrassment on the periphery of Australian consciousness to finding a place near the centre of our collective memory of war.It has been a year dominated by history and non-fiction, even more than is usually the case for me. I enjoyed several, but two stood out. Billy Griffiths’s
Sun Music: New and selected poems was also a highlight. Like Powers, Beveridge has a gift for finding ways to match the natural world in words. I also very much enjoyed Alison Whittaker’s virtuosic collection, Blakwork (Magabala). The way Gomeroi words are always bursting through the English in Blakwork feels more like the future than the past. It’s surely one of the key books in our current Aboriginal literary and linguistic renaissance.Richard Powers’ The Overstory (Norton) was my 2018 fiction highlight. I lost myself in the branches of this big book, in the ideas, the imagery, the eloquence, and the melodrama. I already think of it as a Moby-Dick of trees and, like Moby-Dick, it redeploys a bristling field of natural science for the purposes of an emotionally charged human narrative. Not to mention an environmentally urgent one. Judith Beveridge’s
The Children’s House (Vintage, 10/18) is an exceptional Australian novel about exile, also witnessed by a young and thoughtful woman. Marina’s New York is haunted by the loss of countries – Rwanda, Israel, Ireland, El Salvador. It documents both the brutal severance and the unexpected reconfiguration of community, families, and ideals.Anna Burns’s Milkman (Faber) – winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize – is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Political idealism has rotted into lethal small-scale totalitarianism, coldly observed by a funny, sensible, and relentlessly literary eighteen-year-old girl who is sexually menaced by a senior paramilitary figure. Milkman is fabulously digressive, a brilliant survey of cruelty and coercion. Alice Nelson’s
Look at the Lake (Puncher and Wattmann, 9/18). Brophy spent two years at Mulan, home of the Walmajarri people in the Kimberley, and his wry, beautifully weighted poems quietly diarise an outsider’s observations of community life.In White Houses (Granta), American novelist Amy Bloom inhabits the voice and spikey character of Depression-era journalist Lorena Hickok. Through archival research and vivid reimagining, Bloom offers a remarkable portrait of the not-so-secret love between ‘Hick’ and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Closer to home, David Sornig in Blue Lake (Scribe) also mines the archive, as well as extensive interviews and his own first-hand knowledge, to reconsider the zone west of Melbourne’s CBD that was once fertile wetland and lagoon. Imaginatively constructed and with erudite first-person guidance, this is the kind of riveting non-fiction that deserves the term ‘creative’. Poet Kevin Brophy sensitively explores another geography and body of water in
I read Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull (Allen & Unwin) in one furious day. This dark, sparkling memoir of a young judge’s associate tells how she gradually finds the nerve to report the man who molested her as a child. Lee’s voice is warm and surprising; her writing fizzes with energy, ideas, and great sentences. I also devoured the edition of Freeman’s literary journal (Text Publishing) that is devoted to the theme of power. Exceptional essays include Josephine Rowe’s charged account of her time as a life model, Aminatta Forna on street harassment, and Nicole Im’s exquisite meditation on suicide. The funniest book I read this year was Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Abacus, 2017). It’s rare to laugh out loud while reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Greer’s tale of an almost washed-up novelist nudging fifty is hilarious, touching, and deceptively profound.
Tracker (Giramondo, 1/18) offers rich and complex storytelling, a kaleidoscope of voices that illuminates the remarkable Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth and advances a new model of life writing. Mark McKenna’s Quarterly Essay Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (Black Inc.) is a product of decades of deep thinking and a passionate and timely call for a ‘reconciled republic’. Two novels that have impressed me with their radical ecological consciousness are Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (Fourth Estate, 2017) and Richard Powers’ The Overstory. And I enjoyed the late meditations of two great writers: Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye: A thought diary (Faber).Alexis Wright’s
Warlight (Jonathan Cape, 9/18) collect in the dim lights of memory and secrecy as his protagonist traces ‘the obscure rigging of our mother’s life’. Robin Robertson’s The Long Take (Picador) is a marvellous book-length poem mapping a young veteran’s postwar journey in an exhilarating poetics shaped by film noir and jazz. Ceridwen Dovey’s Writers on Writers: On J.M. Coetzee (Black Inc., 11/18) limns desire, abandonment, connection, reading, and writing in an exquisite, layered essay.Throughout Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water (Penguin), the pain of chains ‘someone was made to drag’ is replaced by the ache when ‘love let them be / Unclasped’. Whether her subject is the fight against chemical pollution, slaves’ liberation, or a sorrowful woman visited by angels, Smith’s poems insist on love as cure, solution, and light, as into a room ‘where the drapes / Have been swept back’. The fragmentary revelations and vivid slivers of Michael Ondaatje’s
The Lost Boys (Scribe, 5/18), an engrossing expose of the Robbers Cave experiment, a classic study in social psychology, was also a fine historical recreation.With the best book I read in 2018, I was catching up. Peter Pomerantsev’s travelogue of Russia under Putin, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (2014), came out in paperback last year. It covers events from 2006 and 2014, during which the London-based journalist was mostly working as a television producer for Russian entertainment television. It’s like Stasiland adapted in the style of Black Mirror, bleakly hilarious when not downright chilling. An ideal historical companion volume was Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017), a saga of domestic life in a Soviet apartment block before, during, and after the Terror. Gina Perry’s
An Open Book and Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry). Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Rondo (Carcanet) rollicks through time and space in the green fields of his joyous imagination. Here, the first Homo sapiens baby is eyed by bemused hominids, who ponder ‘Was this bod something to do with a future?’ Thirty years ago in I’m Deadly Serious (1988), Wallace-Crabbe pictured cars ‘with hearts in their mouths / as though they had something big to offer knowledge’. Yuval Noah Harari certainly does. His own epic imagination of the human journey through evolutionary time ended on a note of high alarm in Homo Deus (Vintage, 2017). His latest, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Cape), brings his winged vision to subjects ranging from fake news to freedom to humanity’s uncertain future.What a strong year for poetry. I loved the resonant, perceptive lyrics in David Malouf’s
From the avalanche of books trying to make sense of our present moment, I would like to single out two for special mention: Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings: Political correctness and the rise of the Right (Scribe) and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Pantheon). Sparrow’s book is a provocative reading of the culture wars that develops a distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘delegated’ politics. Jacoby’s book takes a longer historical view: it attempts to trace the irrationality of contemporary US culture back to its origins. Along the way, Jacoby develops a stimulating and wide-ranging thesis about why certain forms of unreason should have found such rich soil in the secular democratic republic of the United States. I would also recommend the latest novel by Richard Powers. The Overstory, written with characteristic intelligence, is a rich and satisfying novel that addresses the environmental catastrophe we are creating and challenges us to rethink our place within the natural world.
The Year Everything Changed: 2001 (Vintage, 6/18) is full of exploding memory-bombs for those who were paying attention to the news back then. McGuinness takes that watershed year and interrogates the tripes out of it, her lively intellect playing across the 2001 news calendar like a beam of light. It also reflects the way we all live, with one eye on current affairs and the other on our own intimate and daily experience. At first, the reader may wonder why Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. While it’s witty and warm and full of delightful characters, it seems a little lightweight. But it gathers heft as it goes, with its tale of a lonely gay novelist looking down the double barrels of his fiftieth birthday and his ex-lover’s approaching wedding.Phillipa McGuinness’s
No Friend But the Mountains. Part philosophy, part reportage, part memoir, Boochani’s account of Manus Island lingers in the mind. That it was composed by SMS and WhatsApp messages makes the book, and its author, all the more impressive. Recent policy changes in Canberra suggest the book has even had its intended impact. In the long term, it should also find a lasting place in the canon of prison literature. Novelist Tayari Jones probes the effects of the carceral state on intimate relationships in An American Marriage (Vintage). It’s a stunning portrait of the pressures under which even middle-class African Americans live.The most important book I read this year was Behrouz Boochani’s
Collected Poems squats on my desk like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a handsome volume and a substantial one whose contents are by turns grotesque, elegant, abstruse, innovative in form, conservative in spirit, and often achingly felt. Murray is a difficult poet in many respects, but this grand summa demands awe and admiration. Barry Hill’s Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980–2017 (Monash University Publishing, 5/18), is a compendium of life-work by another commanding figure in Australian literary culture. It reveals the sheer range of Hill’s passions and concerns over time, and it reminds us of the commitment, curiosity, and care he has brought to bear upon each of them. No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani may or may not be the best book of the year; it is certainly the most important.There was no competition. Les Murray’s
The Shepherd’s Hut is a tour de force. Winton is one of the few writers I know who could carry off such a sustained vernacular performance. The voice of Jaxie Clackton is utterly authentic (sounds like the Tim Winton I heard twenty-five years ago), and his helter-skelter Bildungsroman is searing and morally confronting. Unforgettable fiction for exactly this moment.Peter Mares has been pricking Australian consciences in his informed, dispassionate way for decades. No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s housing crisis (Text Publishing) is yet another instance of his salutary ability to take a highly politicised issue, examine its details, and provide both a lucid and ethical response and a context that informs, rather than inflames, his general audience – journalism at its very best. Tim Winton’s
The Death of Noah Glass my top novel-reading experience. Also from Text, Nadia Wheatley’s memoir Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir moved me deeply, recounting the life of a strong woman who found the constraints of domestic life in the postwar years unbearable. To complete a trio of genres, I choose David Malouf’s poetry collection An Open Book. UQP has made a beautiful book to house poems of limpid grace and wise insight.Among this year’s Australian publications, Gail Jones’s mesmerising prose and intricate structuring made
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To celebrate the best books of 2018, Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser
ABR has asked fourteen academics to respond to revelations that Education Minister Simon Birmingham had vetoed eleven Australian Research Council grants despite the Australian Research Council’s rigorous peer-review process. 'The humanities are the heart of our culture and of our knowledge,' writes Philip Mead in his response, 'and their relevance is a constant source of surprise and sustenance – giving us answers to questions we hardly knew to ask.’ One wonders if Professor Mead’s view is shared by the federal government. Not for the first time, it has targeted the humanities in a way that does not apply to science or technology. ABR shares the academic community’s dismay at this philistine assault on academic freedom.
At Senate Estimates on 25 October 2018, it was revealed that eleven ARC grants for 2017 were rejected by the then Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. It has been many years since a Minister decided to override the exhaustive peer-review process. The Minister, with no explanation, rejected more than $4 million of grants to the humanities. Until the Senate Estimates revelation, those researchers believed that, despite receiving positive reviewer reports, they had just failed to make the cut. Now we all know they had made the cut, against fierce competition from the best researchers in their fields in the nation. But the Minister didn’t approve the awards. Not only were his decisions kept secret, there was no accounting for the reasons – apart from the views he revealed on Twitter when this information became public.
This is a fundamental affront to the principles on which universities operate. Academic or intellectual freedom guarantees the pursuit of knowledge free of interference or repression by external and internal parties. We, as universities, guarantee this freedom within their areas of expertise to our staff through statute and regulation. To see this core principle so cavalierly undermined is profoundly worrying. The Minister is, in his role, allocating research funding, on advice, to support the research mission of universities. The discretion he exercises should not be a personal one, based on his limited opinions about research topics.
When individuals seek to undermine the nature of our collective academic endeavour, we must protest. In Minister Birmingham’s secret and ill-conceived derogation of humanities research and researchers, we have reached such a point. We have values to be defend. We demand that these actions not be repeated. We must not let this matter be brushed aside.
Professor Margaret Gardner AO is President and Vice-Chancellor of Monash University and Chair of Universities Australia
Once in office, no federal Minister of Education – however diverse and distinguished their own educational record may have been – has the time, the up-to-date knowledge, or the multiple skills required to assess the many applications for government funding over which they exercise nominal oversight. Happily, the Minister is always helped in this task by the detailed assessments of experts, commissioned from within Australia and across the world, who are asked to judge whether grant proposals are, or are not, of outstanding significance and worthy of public support. There may be occasions when a Minister sees what an expert in the field has failed to see: that a research proposal is in some way mischievous, ill conceived, or damaging to the national interest. On such rare occasions, the Minister must clearly explain to the researchers themselves, to their expert assessors, and to the general public the reasons for vetoing an already recommended grant. To withhold such an explanation – more astonishingly, to suppress all public knowledge of their veto – is to act not as an animator and inspirer of national research, but as a faceless bureaucrat might act in the service of a totalitarian state. Australia can do much better than that.
Professor Ian Donaldson FAHA, FBA, FRSE, Emeritus Professor at ANU and Honorary Professorial Fellow, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne
We learned recently that eleven humanities ARC grants that had been recommended for funding through the peer-review process were denied by the former Education Minister Simon Birmingham. These included an early career fellowship (DECRA) for one of our own staff members, Dr Robert Wellington. I have committed the University to provide support so that Robert is able to maintain his research program.
Universities’ power to speak truth comes through their integrity, which is underpinned by the principles of academic freedom and academic autonomy. Within Western democracies, governments support these principles by providing research grants, typically administered by independent agencies, that are judged by a peer-review process, free of political or other types of interference. The competitive grants programs play a vital role in Australia’s research landscape, so it is essential that trust and confidence in their integrity are restored.
I am proud that ANU stands as one of the world’s strongest centres of humanities research. The outcomes of research in these disciplines are integral to understanding and tackling many of the big issues facing society, and I affirm the commitment of ANU to humanities research as a core activity. ANU joins the broader university sector in condemning the undermining of our peer-reviewed grant system. We will continue to advocate for humanities research to receive appropriate funding, free from political interference.
Professor Brian P. Schmidt AC FAA, FRS, Vice-Chancellor, President and Chief Executive Officer of ANU, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 2011
The effects of Simon Birmingham’s intervention for early career researchers (ECRs) are especially chilling. One victim of this veto consequently moved his young family to the United Kingdom because he could not obtain a position in Australia. ECRs represent some of Australia’s most promising and insightful new talent, yet little is done to keep them in our universities, where casualisation and precariousness are the norm. ARC grants are often make-or-break because chronic failures at institutional, system, and government levels have made stable, full-time academic positions elusive, especially in the humanities. To add a secret veto is injurious; to exercise it on a cursory glance at titles adds insult to injury; to defend the veto with flippant tweets is to rub salt into the wound. It is hard to view Birmingham’s behaviour as that of somebody serious about research excellence – or somebody serious about treating others professionally and respectfully. And if Dan Tehan is so concerned with research in the ‘national interest’, perhaps some enterprising researchers should pitch a project to examine whether national interest tests are in fact in the national interest. It is obviously not in the national interest to lose talented minds.
Dr André Brett, Postdoctoral research fellow in History, University of Wollongong
One of the many troubling aspects of the Seantor Birmingham’s egregious and deeply politicised action, is less the assertion that expertise can be trumped by politics (after all, it has happened before), but that this appeal to the mythical ‘base’ barely stirred the political waters. That suggests something disconcerting about the broader public perception of universities. It is fascinating that what is supposedly happening in the humanities and social sciences looms so large in the popular imaginary of what a university is. On the other hand, that popular imaginary is dispiriting given that it is so far removed from reality. The accusation that all ‘we’ do is ‘identity politics’ is deeply ingrained in many quarters. People look at me in amazement when I tell them that the most popular undergraduate major at Sydney is Economics. What would happen, however, if ministerial interference came to impact research on climate change? Would this rouse a greater popular outcry? I suspect so, but that in itself suggests that we haven’t yet persuaded sufficient numbers of citizens of the value of the humanities, despite years of good and purposeful activity to this end. We have culture work still to do.
Professor Stephen Garton FAHA, FASSA, FRAHS, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, The University of Sydney
Simon Birmingham has interfered in the granting of research funds on the grounds of a notional taxpayer who is apparently unaware of how specialised knowledge-building works and the context in which it takes place. The international context is crucial for universities in more ways than one. Part of the remit of research is to illuminate Australia’s relevance to the world, to ensure that our experiences, concerns, and expertise are integrated into global conversations, that the connections are made. More pragmatically, international research impact is a key measure in all three major university ranking systems, and these are closely linked to the global education market. International students are buyers in the global marketplace and for them rankings count. If researchers are forced to tailor their proposals to Birmingham’s parochial, short-term interests, their universities will be hampered in this market and in the global conversation.
It is ironic that federal governments have increased pressure on universities to rely on international student income. Given Birmingham’s dismissal of ARC applications on the basis of their titles, is it any surprise that someone is failing to join the dots in the government’s flawed approach?
Dr Catherine Kevin, Senior Lecturer in Australian History, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University
Simon Birmingham interfered in an independent review process, failed to understand the gravity of his personal intervention, and mocked the research being proposed. As Minister, he is not the expert on individual research projects. He is there to support the independent ARC, not to undermine its procedures. Decisions about research quality are not matters for politicians. The current peer-review assessment process is rigorous, exhausting, and punishing enough, and the opportunity costs of applying are, I believe, already too high. The Australian summer, which is a scholar’s precious, seasonal window of creativity, is now sacrificed to grant-writing. The impact of such summers on university research culture and morale is dire. If the Minister now imposes a further political veto, then the whole process is insupportable.
Professor Tom Griffiths AO FAHA, Emeritus Professor, ANU
In 2017, Australia’s third-largest export earner was the higher education of international students, beaten only by iron ore and coal. Higher education is the largest service industry, well ahead of income brought in from tourism. Despite cuts to the sector, Australia’s higher education sector is strong, and many Australian universities score highly on prestigious international scales. These scales are developed largely on research quality and quantity (rather than teaching), yet they are a major factor in attracting both undergraduate and postgraduate students from across the globe.
Australian universities have flourishing research cultures. Research cultures require funding, and the Australian Research Council is central to this, especially in the humanities, where grants are both scarce and highly regarded. The recent ministerial interference is troubling on many grounds. If we want high-profile researchers who can perform on the international stage, we need to allow researchers to follow their passions, and to develop new knowledge across all of the humanities, to be shared with our students and the broader community. More pragmatically, lack of funding will lead inevitably to falling rankings of Australian universities on international scales. In the longer term, this will no doubt lead to lower numbers of fee-paying students.
The impact of the minister’s interference is profound, with repercussions that are already reverberating through the sector.
Associate Professor Lisa Featherstone, Director of Teaching and Learning, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland
What has Australia lost with Minister Birmingham’s intervention into national research funding? How is our research culture poorer? And our contribution to world knowledge diminished? We’ve lost the investigative thinking of six established scholars about important contemporary social upheavals like rioting, and its links across the United Kingdom, America, Australia, and the Middle East. One of Australia’s leading art historians and his ideas about orientalist scholarship and the Mediterranean have been rubbished. We’ve lost the excitingly innovative work of three young scholars, including an original contribution to the history of film in a project about the relation of soviet cinema to Hollywood filmmaking. The brilliantly forward-looking work of one scholar about musicology and birdsong, and another’s about the struggle of First Nations peoples with modernity have been turned down.
The humanities are the heart of our culture and of our knowledge, and their relevance is a constant source of surprise and sustenance – giving us answers to questions we hardly knew to ask. Australian taxpayers will be dismayed to see the value of our humanities research disrespected and its global impact reduced. They will also be distressed by the effects of this intervention on our winning researchers.
Professor Philip Mead FAHA, Professor Emeritus of Australian Literature, University of Western Australia, Honorary Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, ARC College of Experts
For at least twenty-five years I have heard speculation about the ARC and its alleged preferences and prejudices. Yet even the most vociferous doubters, when put to the test of service on a selection panel, have declared the ARC’s processes to be as fair as humanly possible. The Minister’s decision to reject the expert advice that generated eleven of the ARC’s recommendations demonstrates contempt both for the proposed projects and the rigorous process of assessment undertaken without payment by humanities and creative arts academics and practitioners. Assessors, whether national or international, have had their confidence in the integrity of the process in which they participate completely undermined by arrogant political censorship. Would the minister have applied what for all the world seems like a version of the pub test to grants from science or technology disciplines?
Margaret Harris FAHA, Challis Professor of English Literature Emerita, The University of Sydney
I agree with the minister. Taxpayer dollars should be spent in the national interest. However, ‘national benefit’ is already part of the application process. So, either the change is semantic or what we are really talking about is a pub test. The outcome would depend on the drinking establishment in question. In my local in the inner north of Melbourne, for example, being a historian of the Soviet Union regularly passes muster. I would happily present my proposals there.
Why not instead shut down the ARC? Distribute the money back to the Universities to be used for Humanities research and teaching. Then, Australian academics would no longer have to spend a quarter of their year on impossibly complex applications and their peer review. The best scholars would no longer be shut away in an ivory tower to write more proposals, never to see a student again. Careers would again be dependent on excellence in scholarship and teaching rather than in grant success. Professors would share the teaching with lecturers. Junior academics, no longer groaning under impossible teaching loads and insecure employment, could also write smart books. Now that would truly be in the national interest.
Professor Mark Edele, Hansen Chair in History, The University of Melbourne; ARC Future Fellow; Member of the ARC College of Experts
In the ongoing furore around revelations of ministerial research grant vetoes, two things are in danger of slipping from view. One is that the vetoes always and only target the humanities. The other is that the government is now gaslighting the public about what went on. In the ludicrous debate about pub tests, no one holds up non-humanities titles for scrutiny. A random search for recently funded STEM grants turns up ‘Noncommutative geometry in representation theory and quantum physics’, ‘Structure-activity relationships in silicon-based photovoltaics through atomic scale microscopy’, and ‘Multi-person stochastic games with idiosyncratic information flows’. I do not know what any of these mean. But that is the point. I need experts to tell me what they are about, why they should be funded, and what they could do for knowledge, humanity, or the planet. If they got funded by the ARC, I trust that they are worthy because I know they were scrutinised by around ten people at the university level before even being submitted, and that they were then reviewed by two to six anonymous peers before passing an analysis by a College of internationally recognised scholars. The government needs to explain its methodology and objective in applying one test for some and a second for others.
Minister Tehan recently claimed to adjust the rules for future ARC grants in order to ‘improve the public’s confidence’ in the grant system. His predecessor, however, gave no evidence of feeling pressure from the public and vetoed titles that had not been seen by the public. After such a flagrant dismissal of expert advice, it is the ministry that needs to regain our confidence.
Dr Kate Fullagar, Senior Lecturer, Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University
Yet again our sector is a victim of its low fiscal stakes and high symbolic value. It was the arts and Brandis in 2015; now it’s Birmingham and the humanities in 2018. The culture warriors make a virtue-signalling racket, knowing that the lives and careers of people in culture can be messed with casually and at no real financial or political cost. No real financial cost: $200,000 for a research project is a lot of money for an individual, but the arbitrarily condemned projects don’t amount even to a rounding error in the context of a federal budget. No real political costs: humanities and the arts have for decades been lost to the conservatives. But real institutional cost: playing to the peanut gallery to subvert settled scholarly and bureaucratic processes (never perfect, but better than decision by populist whim) is the current fad, with everything reduced to tactical political advantage.
Not many dead in this little skirmish, perhaps, but where to next when a future Minister Humpty Dumpty can declare that national interest ‘means just what I choose it to mean’? It’s a very bad decision – even worse as a precedent.
Robert Phiddian, Professor of English at Flinders University, foundation director of the Australasian Consortium of Humanities Research Centres (2011–17)
Historians must attend to context. Even as the Coalition government intervened to veto ARC grants for young scholars in the humanities – eleven of the small minority of applications approved through an extensive independent review process – and insists on maintaining funding cuts to our major cultural institutions, including the Australian National Library and National Archives, it offers an astonishing $500 million dollars to the Australian War Memorial so that it might expand exhibitions of the nation’s military history. With its new insistence on research that serves Australia’s security, foreign policy, and strategic national interests (The Age, 11 November 2018), the Coalition government makes explicit its support for the militarisation of our history and culture at the expense of original scholarship of international significance. Border-force mentalities now police the nation’s intellectual work even as they preside over customs, immigration, and the turn-back of asylum seekers.
Marilyn Lake AO DLitt FAHA FASSA is Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Research for her next book, Progressive New World: How settler colonialism and transpacific exchange shaped American reform, forthcoming with Harvard University Press, was supported by an ARC Discovery grant.
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ABR has asked thirteen academics to respond to revelations that Education Minister Simon Birmingham had vetoed eleven Australian Research Council grants despite the Australian Research Council’s rigorous peer-review process. 'The humanities are the heart of our culture and of our knowledge ...
To celebrate the year’s memorable plays, films, concerts, operas, ballets, and exhibitions, we invited twenty-nine critics and arts professionals to nominate some personal favourites. We indicate which works were reviewed in ABR Arts and when.
‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,’ Franz Kafka famously wrote. Film is equally capable of slashing through the ice – or, in this case, the frozen sea of ‘compassion fatigue’ – as Irish artist Richard Mosse shows with his harrowing video work Incoming (2015–16), the standout, for me, of the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural Triennial. Mosse flips the intended use of an enemy-seeking, thermal-imaging military camera and uses it to track the perilous flight of refugees in ghostly black and white. The result is a mesmerising work about the crisis of our times.
Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius’s adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company, was equally pertinent. It is a superbly cast and chilling re-imagining of Lorca’s tragic tale about gender and power, set in the oppressive heat of outback Western Australia, with a mining fortune at stake.
My theatrical highlight of 2018 was Ivo van Hove’s epic multimedia adaptation of Shakespeare’s Kings of War at the Adelaide Festival (ABR Arts, 3/18), featuring Hans Kesting’s deadpan, Keaton-like Richard III. Also at the Festival was the musical performance that moved me most: Jochen Sandig and Sascha Waltz’s immersive staging of Brahms’s (aptly retitled) Human Requiem (ABR Arts, 3/18).
My dance highlight was at Perth Festival: Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and Japanese sculptor Kohei Nawa’s mysterious, chthonic Vessel. The visual art installation that most absorbed me was also at the Festival: Lisa Reihana’s vast scrolling panoramic video work Emissaries. My opera highlight was WASO’s concert performance of Tristan und Isolde with Stuart Skelton and Gun-Brit Barkmin, conducted by Asher Fisch (ABR Arts, 8/18), closely followed by Lost and Found’s playful, provocative staging of Charpentier’s Actéon at the UWA Aquatic Centre. Finally, the film that most affected me was BPM (Beats Per Minute), Robin Campillo’s visceral account of AIDS activism in 1990s Paris (ABR Arts, 5/18).
Kamila Andini’s The Seen and Unseen, which screened in competition at Sydney Film Festival, is a tonally mysterious, formally assured drama set in Bali. It explores choreography, animism, and dreams in its depiction of twin siblings. Andini, who has completed two feature films, is a director to watch; she elicits terrific performances from her two child leads, Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih and Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena – this in a year of outstanding turns by young actors. Thomasin McKenzie, in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, was preternaturally wise as the daughter of a traumatised US army veteran. Thomas Gloria, in Xavier Legrand’s Custody, vividly embodied the anxiety, fear, and grief of a young child living in the shadow of a physically abusive parent. On a lighter note, the young cast members of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird – including Saoirse Ronan, Lucas Hedges, and Beanie Feldstein – were, by turns, comic and poignant in their ensemble evocation of suburban teenage life (ABR Arts, 2/18).
At the end of 2017, and too late for last year’s highlights, I marvelled at Opera: Passion, Power and Politics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (ABR Arts, 11/17). This extraordinary collaboration between the V&A and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was brilliantly achieved and a miracle of compression: just seven operas by seven composers, each work premièred in a major European city, from 1642 to 1934. Not only did this immersive retrospective display operatic history, it ensured it was heard. The catalogue was just as great. In Melbourne, I particularly liked Victorian Opera’s pioneering production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (the French version) in its first staging in Australia since 1876 (ABR Arts, 7/18). Bravo to VO’s artistic director and conductor, Richard Mills.
The NGV’s exhibition of works from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was exhaustive and exhausting, but I wouldn’t have missed it for quids.
It seems incredible that The Nose, a major opera by Dmitri Shostakovich (his first, in fact), only received its Australian première in 2018 (ABR Arts, 2/18). This production marked the first return of Barrie Kosky to Opera Australia in almost twenty years. Are we so rich in talent, one wonders? This was a celebration of boundless artistic imagination; the delights of this grotesque and quirky story and music splendidly brought to the fore by an outrageously grotesque and quirky production.
A very different artistic and truly cathartic experience was on offer in the latest opus by Hungarian film director, Ildikó Enyedi, On Body and Soul (ABR Arts, 5/18). The metaphorically rich, stunning images of a doe and a stag in the snowy forest were an integral part of a tender love story placed in the unlikely and brutal background of a slaughterhouse.
It’s impossible to go past Sydney Theatre Company’s The Harp in the South as the outstanding theatre production of 2018 (ABR Arts, 8/18). Adapted by Kate Mulvany from Ruth Park’s novels, the two-part epic ran to six hours. The published play calls for a ‘large cast’. Nineteen fine actors portrayed the Irish Catholic family and a muddledom of neighbours across the generations. After the success of The Seed, Medea, and Jasper Jones, Mulvany demonstrates astonishing maturity and confidence with The Harp, capturing its intimacy and sprawl, the colour and shape of characters, and the all-important humour. Assembling a top creative team, STC boss Kip Williams cemented his place as one of the best directors with a production that satisfied in every way.
‘Must the winter come so soon?’ is something nagging at us all in the northern hemisphere right now, but such thoughts are eased slightly by memories of this aria – the most celebrated music in Samuel Barber’s 1958 opera Vanessa – being sung on a summer evening at Glyndebourne. The first professional British staging of Barber’s wonderful opera was a highlight of the year, thanks not least to Keith Warner’s psychologically probing production.
Many of my other revelations came in Poland, from hearing the inaugural International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments in Warsaw, to finally visiting Katowice’s recently built new concert hall, a stunning addition to Europe’s musical landscape. As Poland celebrates the centenary of regaining statehood, it has been revelatory to hear so much of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the virtuoso pianist–composer who was a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles and an early prime minister of the country. And to see him: Warsaw’s National Museum put on a magnificent show about a figure who will no longer be quite so undervalued.
The STC’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy was one of the ensemble’s most ambitious projects to date and a showcase for some of the country’s finest acting talent, a kind of Cloudstreet redux. At the other end of the theatrical scale, the exuberant Calamity Jane, vaulting from the pocket handkerchief-sized stage of the hundred-seater Hayes Theatre Company to Belvoir St Theatre and beyond, was a blast, proving that there is much to be said for unchallenging entertainment and evenings of pure fun. Virginia Gay’s wildcat performance in the title role was one to treasure forever, alongside another great Aussie star Gloria Dawn in Annie Get Your Gun in a big top on Brookvale Oval.
An initiative of cellist James Beck, the fledgling Sydney Art Quartet performs in the Yellow House, an art gallery in Potts Point. Always original and fresh, their programming hit new heights in September when they gave a joyful recital with guest soloist Erin Helyard. Playing first on harpsichord and later on fortepiano. Helyard is not only a noted musicologist and conductor but also a performer with the rare talent of engaging fully with his audience and charming the socks off ’em.
The best piece of theatre I saw this year and the greatest feat of acting was, by a long shot, Barry McGovern’s adaptation and one-man dramatisation of Samuel Beckett’s Watt (ABR Arts, 10/18). It had an absolutely unshowy precision through every wry desolation of a joke, a comical brilliance that was also poignant.
In music, what could touch the great Anne-Sophie Mutter, that transcendent violinist, doing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Andrew Davis and the MSO (ABR Arts, 6/18). It was also marvellous to see Thomas Hampson, a baritone where musicianship and a sense of drama meet and fuse, performing Mahler’s Song of the Wayfarer: a princely performance in every sense.
And my film? Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, and featuring Saoirse Ronan. Such freshness and sap and that rare apparitional thing of recognising something you had never quite seen on a screen before.
In the ABC’s Mystery Road, the East Kimberley was revealed as a glorious embodiment of Country. Much of the power of this mesmerising television series, directed by Rachel Perkins, resides in what is repressed or unsaid. Aaron Pedersen’s masterful portrait of a flawed hero – enigmatic, wry, seething – and his nuanced interplay with Judy Davis make for unmissable viewing.
A revival of Thyestes (The Hayloft Project/Adelaide Festival) left me feeling cowed by its roar of violence and misogyny (ABR Arts, 3/18). Part of its disturbing nature was the sense of audience complicity as its humour plumbed the depths and laughter could still be heard.
Samuel Maoz’s masterpiece Foxtrot (ABR Arts, 6/18) was a sublime portrait of grief with elements of comic surrealism. Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler were luminous as grieving parents. The question it poses – how does one live in the face of so much pain? – was encountered with a pulsating humanity.
Five works dating from 1996 to 2014 and performed in a Portrait Concert at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music put the unrestrained imagination of Liza Lim on stage. My favourite – The Alchemical Wedding – brings together different musical and philosophical traditions amid much whirring and clanking and sheer virtuosity.
I could not attend the performance, but the final rehearsal of Siobhan Stagg singing Strauss with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (at the Melbourne Recital Centre) under Johannes Fritz was exquisite. The orchestral playing was superb, Fritz an inspiring leader, Stagg simply radiant. A similar radiance is to be experienced at The Brunswick Green in Melbourne where each Thursday night Michelle Nicolle performs with her band. She really is an astonishing artist, fielding jazz requests with grace and an impossibly good memory. And what a voice!
David Greco and Erin Helyard launched their brilliant new recording of Schubert’s Winterreise with an inspiring presentation in which they discussed their many startling departures from the received traditions associated with this cycle.
Three exhibitions changed the landscape in their respective fields. The National Museum’s Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters was the most exhilarating and instructive exhibition of Aboriginal art I have ever seen. The exhibition conveyed in nuce the journey across the landscape and the cosmogony that shaped it. The Metropolitan’s bold experiment to show and talk about modern art differently in Met Breuer (the old Whitney building) has given us profound exhibitions, none more than Like Life: Sculpture, Colour and the Body, 1300–Now. The excitement comes from the shock of juxtaposing ancient and modern. Jeff Koons’s sad Buster Keaton on a pony next to a fifteenth-century German polychrome carving of Christ on a Donkey was beyond riveting: it was piercing. Delacroix has taken over the Met this fall. Never have I seen him portrayed in such impassioned terms. André Breton’s ‘beauty must be convulsive’ could be the exhibition’s epigraph.
The year began with sell-out performances of the marvellous musical version of Muriel’s Wedding (ABR Arts, 11/17). The Hayes Theatre Company’s delightful revival of Katherine Thomson and Max Lambert’s Darlinghurst Nights in January reminds us that there are other good Australian musicals in the repertoire, if we could only keep them in production. For Opera Australia, Barrie Kosky’s production of The Nose pushed Shostakovich’s absurd and wayward material to its hilarious theatrical limits.
Later in the year, two art exhibitions were thoughtfully curated and full of beautiful work. The retrospective of John Mawurndjul’s work at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (I Am the Old and the New) was a revelation, full of masterpieces from this modest and prolific artist. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the John Russell retrospective displayed his rarely seen work with companion pieces from his more famous friends (ABR Arts, 7/18). A complementary pleasure was a trip across the harbour to see Luke Sciberras and Ewan Macleod’s paintings of Belle Isle, organised as a tribute to Russell by the Manly Art Gallery.
One standout for me was Melbourne Opera’s Tristan und Isolde (ABR Arts, 2/18). A supreme creative achievement of Western culture, Wagner’s opera is exceedingly difficult to perform. The fact that a local company was able to do so without drawing on any public subsidy belies those who might otherwise wish to claim that this art form neither comes from, nor addresses, modern Australia.
Ladies in Black – Bruce Beresford’s cinematic adaptation of Madeleine St John’s novel – evokes a late-1950s Australia where a profound lack of aesthetic experiences and imagination was the expected norm. Nominally a film about women and dresses, it is in fact as much about men and music and food and drink and sex, and the liberating impact made by a group of Hungarian wartime immigrants who knew about them all.
It’s often the shows I don’t have to write about that I enjoy the most – coincidence perhaps, or the result of being ‘off duty’. There were two such productions for me this year: MTC’s searing The House of Bernarda Alba, adapted by Patricia Cornelius from Federico García Lorca’s classic tragedy; and Chamber Made Opera’s unsettling theatrical exorcism Dybbuks at Theatre Works. With exceptional casts and creative teams dominated by women, both were spooky, fiercely political evocations of patriarchy and its spectres. Also of note were two musical experiences: Melbourne Film Festival’s stunning 4K presentation of Prince’s 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times – a reminder of the Purple One’s much-missed genius – and famed choral ensemble Rundfunkchor Berlin’s immersive and deeply affecting Human Requiem, a ‘broadening’ of Brahms’s German Requiem that proved revelatory in its democratising intermingling of choristers and audience.
This year saw a resurgent Victorian Opera stage two superb productions – one a concert performance of Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues, with a predictably virtuosic Jessica Pratt and a stunning Caitlin Hulcup, and the other a fully realised triumph in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. These works’ rarity only increased their appeal.
Two towering solo performances stuck in the memory: Colin Friels at his most exposed and generous in Scaramouche Jones (ABR Arts, 8/18) and Barry McGovern in complete control of the Beckett world view in Watt.
The finest, most surprising work of the year was Stephanie Lake’s Colossus for the Melbourne Fringe. With a cast of fifty dancers on the tiny Fairfax stage, this surging, multifarious piece managed to be both expansively political and almost microscopically intimate. With this sumptuous and thorny masterpiece, Lake has cemented herself at the heart of Australian dance.
The Sydney White Rabbit Gallery mounts impeccably produced shows of contemporary Chinese artists. I relished The Sleeper Awakes in March. Taking its title from the H.G. Wells novel, this group show imagines waking in China forty years after the death of Mao Zedong to find his vision strangely distorted. It was deliciously witty, subversive, and lyrical, with immaculately realised works. In May, I visited Manifesta, Europe’s roving biennale; this year it is in Palermo, with work centred on the three hot topics of our times: migration, the environment, and digital surveillance. Sicily has been at the crossroads of Africa and Europe for millennia. With Manifesta, life, history, and urgent contemporary art combined brilliantly.
Finally, at this year’s Melbourne Festival, it was a treat to see the Belarus Free Theatre work with local actors to create a searing show about cultural identity. Trustees was exhilaratingly daring. Bravo!
Shostakovich provided my finest musical moments of 2018. Opera Australia gave us his satirical opera, The Nose. Wildly inventive and anarchic, it has been described as an operatic Monty Python; Barrie Kosky’s production, conducted by Andrea Molino, realised this ingeniously. In September, I was lucky to be in Chicago for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert of the 2018–19 season: Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar. Built around five Yevgeny Yevtushenko poems with basso profundo (Alexey Tikhomirov) and male chorus, it is one of the great masterpieces of political protest. Riccardo Muti drew an anguished, tender performance.
Close behind was Victorian Opera’s sublime account of Debussy’s haunting Pelléas et Mélisande, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Act One of Wagner’s Die Walküre (ABR Arts, 8/18), while Melbourne Opera punched wildly above its weight with a fine Tristan und Isolde. Honourable mentions: OA’s Don Quichotte, starring Ferrucio Furlanetto (ABR Arts, 3/18) and the MSO’s The Dream of Gerontius, with Stuart Skelton (ABR Arts, 3/18)
In a year of debased politics around the world, galleries and theatre of all kinds remained a refuge for illumination, brio, and liberal values. Three operas stood out: the Met’s revival of Mary Zimmerman’s stylish production of Lucia di Lammermoor (ABR Arts, 5/18), with Pretty Yende and Michael Fabiano as Donizetti’s demented lovers; WASO’s concert version of Tristan und Isolde, with the phenomenal Stuart Skelton and a sensational stand-in, Gun-Brit Barkmin; and the Australian première of Brett Dean’s Hamlet, even better than the 2017 Glyndebourne performance. Paul Lewis, that most probing and elegant of pianists, continued his revelatory series of Haydn and Brahms recitals. Anne-Sophie Mutter, in her Melbourne début, gave one of the great performances of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.
Theatrically, Barry McGovern was hilarious and tragic and suave in his adaptation of Beckett’s Watt. But the performance that stirred me most was the revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (ABR Arts, 4/18), with the incomparable Glenda Jackson.
It was pleasing to see no fewer than four Australian colonial exhibitions in 2018, given that there have only been fifteen such shows in the thirty years since the Bicentenary. The Art Gallery of Ballarat showed the brilliant Eugene von Guérard as a great travelling artist and displayed, for the first time, his lively on-the-spot drawings with his oils. Next, an exhibition of convict portraitist Thomas Bock opened in his birthplace, Birmingham, then Hobart. It excluded his oils, concentrating on his uniquely individual Aboriginal portraits. The third show, opening at the National Gallery of Australia, displayed Aboriginal images by Bock and other artists. It centred on Benjamin Duterrau’s The Conciliation, which he called ‘the national picture’. The fourth and most ambitious was the National Gallery of Victoria’s huge survey Colony: Australia 1770–1861 (ABR Arts, 4/18). Incomprehensively displayed, it was a noble but cluttered failure compared with the more focused shows. It is to be hoped these exhibitions herald a trend in honouring our visual arts heritage.
It was a rich year for West Australian art lovers. There were the chthonic, textured evocations of the Pilbara and Kimberley landscapes encapsulated by trios of quasi-anthropomorphic vessels in Fragment, Stewart Scambler’s superb exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery; but also the Renaissance and Baroque splendours of Caravaggio, Guercino, Pontormo et al. in A Window on Italy – The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (ABR Arts, 2/18).
Musically, the highlight was undoubtedly WASO’s concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Asher Fisch and featuring the incomparable Stuart Skelton. I also enjoyed Black Swan State Theatre Company’s productions of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (ABR Arts, 5/18) and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins (ABR Arts, 6/18), while Perth Festival’s presentations of Evgeny Grishkovets’s Farewell to Paper and Yeung Fai’s Hand Stories offered contrasting yet similarly elegiac views on culture, history, tradition, and innovation. Joe Stephenson’s wonderful documentary on Ian McKellen, Playing the Part, was the icing on the cake.
In April, the twenty-five-year-old Alexander Prior conducted the Queensland Symphony Orchestra as if it were a massive piano, in a brilliant concert of music by Brahms, Debussy, and Ginastera. Prior’s gift for shaping the micro was balanced by an unusually luxurious overarching coherence. Also in April, as part of the Wave Festival, Gordon Hamilton’s arrangements of Horrorshow hits from albums Bardo State and The Grey Place celebrated the versatility of Queensland Symphony Orchestra instrumentalists and the Hip-Hop collective. In this blend of Hip Hop and Classical, bassist Paul O’Brien mapped out jazzy grooves as skilfully as he underpins QSO’s classical works. Esther Hannaford was riveting as Carole King in Beautiful, presented by QPAC in July. Polished, authentic, funny, with stylised dance routines recalling The Shirelles. Beautiful, delighted the audience. King and Gerry Goffin’s chart-toppers were belted with infectious authority. Southern Cross Soloists’ stunning August concert, Star of the Concertgebouw, featured Principal Trumpeter Miroslav Petkov.
Opera Australia has often been accused of playing safe and rehashing the same repertoire, but with its co-production of Dmitri Shostakovitch’s The Nose it not only struck out, it struck gold. Barrie Kosky’s wildly inventive, hilarious production was matched by Andrea Molino’s incisive conducting and a superb cast led by Martin Winkler.
The STC is developing a rapport with the ambitious and challenging British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. Sarah Goodes’s production of Kirkwood’s post-apocalyptic play The Children (ABR Arts, 4/18) cleverly balanced the humour and horror of the piece, ably abetted by her magnificent trio of actors, Pamela Rabe, William Zappa, and Sarah Peirse. Can we hope for Kirkwood’s latest play, Mosquitoes, in the future?
Small in scale and light in touch it may be, but Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black is an absolute delight. The cast is perfect: unfair though it is to single out anyone, the gorgeous Angourie Rice as the protagonist, Leslie, who blossoms into Lisa, must be mentioned.
The highlights of the past year have been two Adelaide Festival productions: Neil Armfield’s gripping production of Brett Dean’s magical opera Hamlet (ABR Arts, 3/18), with a stunning performance by Allan Clayton as the Prince. Also at the Festival was Belgian genius Ivo van Hove’s breathtaking Kings of War, his Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s melding of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III into a play that went to the heart of leadership and the polarities and venalities attaching to it. This memorable, singular piece of theatre integrated video and live action perfectly with impeccable theatrical purpose. Another wondrous night was at the National Theatre in London with another Ivo van Hove piece – his recreation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, with Bryan Cranston in the central role as Howard (‘I’m mad as hell’) Beale. In a year of theatrical marvels, Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy was a theatrical highlight that touched the heart and mind indelibly.
Mary Finsterer’s The Lost: Missed Tales No. 3, for the MSO (self-confession: I commissioned it), the Canadian baroque ensemble Tafelmusik, and Ross Edwards’s various seventy-fifth anniversary performances rounded out the year with some wonderful music.
Three timely and absorbing dance dramas exploring invasion, colonisation, and the dragooning of Indigenous peoples into indentured labour or wars were this year’s dance highlights. Starry nights at Perth’s Quarry were perfect for Milky Way: Ballet at the Quarry (ABR Arts, 2/18), a meditation on the apotheosis of restless souls. Gary Lang. Deborah Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman, superbly enhanced Milky Way’s mystery, singing Henryk Gørecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs to a WASO recording. Xenos, a haunting critique of the British Raj and the conscription of native men into wars they could never comprehend, was exquisitely crafted by Bangladeshi-British choreographer Akram Khan to mark his retirement from the stage (ABR Arts, 3/18). More contemporary, and pressing, was Marrugeku Dance Theatre’s Le Dernier Appel (The Last Cry), a multiracial, cross-art-form psychodrama, which explored New Caledonia’s Kanak people’s current yearning for liberation from around 180 years of French colonialism (ABR Arts, 8/18).
Perhaps the film that lingers most painfully in the memory is the Russian drama Loveless (ABR Arts, 4/18). Few films maintain such a steely grip on the viewer’s involvement as it traces the disappearance of a child of divorcing – and solipsistic – parents. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s rigorous direction of a tragic story at odds with the luminous beauty of the landscape asks a great deal of audiences, and offers a great deal in return. There is pain of a different kind to respond to in Dominic Cooke’s version of On Chesil Beach, scripted by its author, Ian McEwan, evoking a period of sexual inhibition, but convincingly arriving at a muted yet affecting outcome (ABR Arts, 10/17). Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black, a witty, humane version of Madeleine St John’s novel, captures the time and place and interweaves several personal stories with larger social changes. The result is a kindly but never sentimental piece of recreation.
Three very different operas were my highlights of the year. Firstly, a musically ravishing Parsifal as part of the Bavarian State Opera Festival (ABR Arts, 7/18). While the production was inconsistent, it was probably the most complete musical performance of this monumental work I have experienced, with the dream casting of Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal and Nina Stemme as Kundry. Another standard repertoire opera, La Traviata, was a landmark event, not so much for the production or overall performance, but for the outstanding role début of rising Australian star Nicole Car in the challenging title role (ABR Arts, 3/18). Finally, a welcome revival of Brian Howard’s Metamorphosis (ABR Arts, 9/18) suggested that Opera Australia are looking at reviving neglected Australian operas in exciting venues – in this case in the Surry Hills Workshops of the company.
The ascendancy of sound art as a medium of urgent exploration by contemporary artists was evident in several Melbourne exhibitions. Sensitively curated and politically astute was Joel Stern and James Parker’s Eavesdropping: a purview into the legislative complexities of listening and overhearing, whose highlights included works by artists associated with the London-based research agency Forensic Architecture. The potency of sound was also probed by David Chesworth and Sonia Leber in their mid-career survey show Architecture Makes Us, now interwoven with the nature of time and obsolescence. A suite of alluring works included Myriad Falls (2017), a slick pseudo-corporate video exposing the mechanisms of analogue wristwatch maintenance filmed inside a horologist’s workshop. Both exhibitions scrutinised the ways in which – mostly beneath our threshold of general awareness – sounds, especially private ones, can be extracted, co-opted, and surveilled.
Nothing has left as haunting an impact as Jochen Sandig and Sascha Waltz’s reimagining, with Rundfunkchor Berlin, of Brahms’s German Requiem as Human Requiem. At the other end of the musical and theatrical scale was the Hayes Theatre’s exhilarating, knockabout production of Calamity Jane, as if Peter Brook’s ideas on ‘rough theatre’ had been applied to the Hollywood musical.
Acting performances of the year were all on television. With Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous anti-hero, the final episode of Patrick Melrose spoke of ‘contempt, pity, rage, terror, tenderness’. Cumberbatch’s performance had all these and more. In A Very English Scandal (BBC First) we had Hugh Grant’s brilliant turn as the UK politician Jeremy Thorpe, matched by Ben Whishaw as his erstwhile lover and nemesis, Norman Scott. This series was television at its best. Perhaps the ABC could divert funds from Gulfstream or Jetboat for a repeat screening?
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- Custom Article Title 2018 Arts Highlights of the Year
- Contents Category Highlights of the Year
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To celebrate the year’s memorable plays, films, concerts, operas, ballets, and exhibitions, we invited twenty-nine critics and arts professionals to nominate some personal favourites. We indicate which works were reviewed in ABR Arts on our website, and when.
Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is the tale of a poor man (Antonio) and his son (Bruno) living in postwar Rome. Antonio, searching for his stolen bicycle, moves in restless anxiety around city locations. Scenes recall de Chirico, Antonioni, and Pavese, but at its centre are the desperate, irresistible faces of the father and son. Men with movie posters ride bicycles holding ladders; a truck driver who finds movies boring veers through cinematic rain; father and son mop their faces with the same wretched handkerchief; a near drowning; an epileptic fit; restraint; tenderness. The ending: see it and weep.
The passionate cultivation of unforgettable women characters becomes a manifesto in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999): an intimate homage to drag, performance, and female melodrama. High camp mixed with high sincerity, this is Almodóvar’s signature ensemble portrait of women on the verge, women navigating unendurable worlds. The quintessential work of queer matrocentric desire.
Lauren Carroll Harris
Of all the films Paul Thomas Anderson has directed, The Master (2012) is his favourite, and mine. In it, shell-shocked, alcoholic war veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) gravitates to the charismatic founder of a therapeutic cult, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Though many expected a Scientology exposé, Anderson thought about his story in relation to the idea that the best time to start a cult is after a war. Indeed, The Master exquisitely captures a world at a crossroads and a life in flux. It is alive with symbolism and alert to the psychology of obsession and dependence.
An Angel at My Table (d. Jane Campion, 1990) tells the story of the writer Janet Frame from childhood to her literary success. Recalling the film, I think first of colours – the green of New Zealand and the vivid orange of Frame’s distinctive red hair. The film contains the twin pleasures of its subject’s writing and that of Laura Jones, the screenwriter, who collects a series of moments in a life – some harrowing, some hopeful, all human – and weaves them together to create something wondrous and wholly life-affirming.
Practically everyone with access to a television has seen The Wizard of Oz (d. Victor Fleming, 1939), probably when they were too young to conceive of film (or television) as anything more or less than images set in motion by an unseen power. Who put this girl and her dog and the witch and a scarecrow inside a box that I am watching in my house? No number of viewings could resolve the mystery. Last year I saw the ruby slippers at the National Museum of American History. I practically cried. Judy Garland’s feet were narrow. She flashes through my mind.
There’s nothing like a Coen Brothers film, and the one I keep returning to is The Big Lebowski (1998). It’s not the story itself, which, like many of their other films, is a little hokey, although enjoyably so. It’s the worlds they create, that particular tone, that music. Above all else, it’s those characters. The genius of The Big Lebowski, and of the best of the Coen Brothers’ work, is the way the filmmakers ride that fine line, creating archetypal characters that feel at once mythic but equally human. Balancing on this line is impossibly hard. Too archetypal, and you move into caricature, and we lose connection. Too human, and you lose the epic resonance and the bounce. The Big Lebowski gets it all right.
During my first year of high school, my English teacher showed our class a print of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). Less than half an hour long, it consists of black-and-white stills and a single moving image, a voiceover narration, and layers of sound and music. It is, among other things, a story of time travel, memory, obsession, and inevitability, a work about science, nature, surveillance, the human face, the everyday. I didn’t see it again for years, but I carried it within me and could recall it in an almost tactile way. It feels new every time I watch it.
It was directed by a Canadian and starred two Englishmen. It was panned by critics on its release in 1971, degraded in its VHS format, and then almost lost forever, with the original film and sound version rescued en route to the tip in 2004. Yet Wake in Fright, based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, directed by Ted Kotcheff, shot in Broken Hill, and starring Gary Bond as a bonded schoolteacher and Donald Pleasance as a mad, alcoholic, menacing doctor, is the greatest Australian film yet to be made, an unflinching examination of life in the outback, where everyone is an outsider, even the two-upping, roo-shooting insiders played by Chips Rafferty and Jack Thompson. When the educated teacher says the locals are stupid, the doctor pulls him up. Their lives are a living hell, he observes. ‘You want them to sing opera as well?’
The psychological western Pursued (d. Raoul Walsh, 1947) is a fascinating product of the 1940s – mystery, trauma, repressed memories, flashbacks, voiceovers – moodily shot by James Wong Howe in the brooding landscape of New Mexico. With Judith Anderson as a frontier woman whose adultery sparks a series of tragedies that haunt her family, and a young Robert Mitchum as her adopted son, it is both tough and intimate, with Mitchum and his estranged brother sweetly singing ‘Londonderry Air’, and a no-nonsense Anderson toting a shotgun to save Mitchum from a hanging.
Kylie du Fresne
I’d opt for Desperately Seeking Susan (d. Susan Seidelman, 1985). There was something prescient in its energy, storytelling, and soundtrack, announcing that it knew ‘cool’ before it happened. You can see that vibe through so much of the casting: hip NYC musos John Lurie and Arto Lindsay, as well as Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, and Giancarlo Esposito. But the script’s classic screwball elements with two strong female roles for Rosanna Arquette and Madonna seduced me at the age of twelve in that magical way that movies have. I wasn’t aware then the film was written, directed, and produced by women. More than thirty years later, this alone makes the film exceptional and such an example for the industry.
From its monumental prologue set to Wagner to the spectacle of its apocalyptic ending, Melancholia (d. Lars von Trier, 2011) extends the definition of art house cinema in the digital era. The film is great for its careful use of digital technology, sublime imagery, allegorical treatment of its subject, blend of bleakness and comedy, unsettling atmosphere, and inspired casting. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst give subtle yet audacious performances, supported by such greats as John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, and Stellan Skarsgård. Best described as an ‘art house disaster movie’, Melancholia intellectualises the ‘pleasure in annihilation’ disaster movies tap into, without the deus ex machina of the Hollywood ending.
‘Let’s go home, Debbie’ may not, out of context, seem like the most profound line, but, uttered by Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) as he picks up the niece years ago abducted by Indians, it pulls together so much of what makes The Searchers (1956) such a great film. Ethan’s racism has made him equivocal about rescuing her from her ‘contaminated’ years as a squaw, and it also reminds us that home – and Ethan’s lack of it – is one of the film’s underlying motifs. Home, in John Ford’s complexly stunning western, is a frail defence against a majestic but daunting landscape.
I first saw Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) as a teenager, when some friends and I shuffled to the movies and went in the wrong door. Afterwards, I acted all sullen ‘yeah yeah’ cool, but inside it was like Baz had poured sherbet on my brain and cranked the music up to eleven. The kinetic modern setting, the smash and fizz and dazzle of his aesthetic, perfectly captured the rage of feeling in Shakespeare’s text, and brought R&J roaring gloriously to life for a new generation, inspiring my love of Shakespeare and a career in television. I love it so.
Fans have been debating recently whether David Lynch’s magnum opus, Twin Peaks should be considered a film (1992) or a television show (1990, 2017). Self-evidently it’s both – a single story extending over two seasons of network television, the harrowing ‘prequel’ feature, Fire Walk With Me, and the long-awaited follow-up mini-series shown on cable last year. What began as a quirky soap opera has by now evolved into a masterpiece without precedent on the big or small screen, both a bona-fide religious epic and a liberating vision of what the world might look like if we gave up demanding that things make sense.
When I first stumbled across Wake In Fright on late-night television, I was young enough to be terrified by its nightmarishly familiar portrayal of Australian masculinity – and old enough to thrill to its savage brilliance. I sat mesmerised and appalled. I didn’t know much of that world, but the film’s grotesque intensity spoke truth to me that night. Most know that this great masterpiece was lost and then found and resurrected. When a few years ago I finally saw it projected on a big screen, it was still all true.
By the time David Lynch released Lost Highway in 1997, he had educated his viewers in the predilections of a deeply idiosyncratic auteur. Blue Velvet (1986) suggested to us, and Wild at Heart (1990) confirmed for us, the fact that Lynch was far more interested in the allure of mystery than in anything as mundane as a linear, traditional ‘solution’. Lost Highway represents the pinnacle of Lynch’s cinema: the film’s fever-dream intensity keeps its viewers perfectly off-balance throughout, and delivers them a work replete with the power of the most compelling and disturbing of dreams.
As a boy of ten I happened upon Laurel and Hardy’s silent film Big Business (d. James W. Horne, 1929), a work of singular perfection in eighteen minutes. All of life seemed to be there: bluster, farce, commercialism, amour-propre, violence. When Laurel and Hardy call on James Finlayson to flog him a Christmas tree, all hell breaks loose. Tempers fray and Finlayson’s house is soon destroyed while he dementedly wrecks the tree salesmen’s car. Even an innocent piano is demolished amid this weird suburban havoc. My lifelong love of ruination was strangely seeded, plus my reverence for these two comic geniuses.
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- Custom Article Title 2018 Australian Book Review Film Survey
- Contents Category Film
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We invited some writers, film critics, and film professionals to nominate their favourite film – not The Greatest Film Ever Sold, but one that matters to them personally.
To complement our 2017 ‘Books of the Year’, we invited several senior publishers to nominate their favourite books – all published by other companies.
Two Australian novels have stayed with me through 2017: Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin, reviewed in ABR, 1/17) was brilliant in every way. Challenging and engrossing, it reminded me that it takes courage to live well. Rose is such a keen observer of human nature in all its tortured forms. It also featured Sandy Cull’s gorgeous design work on the cover, so anything within had to be worth reading. Kim Scott’s Taboo (Picador, 8/17) asks the questions that many of us are asking ourselves. How do we make a shared future out of a fractured past? He reminds us that the power of Indigenous storytelling transcends time, race, and politics. They were the first storytellers, and we still have so much to learn from them.
Madonna Duffy is Publishing Director at the University of Queensland Press.
Philippe Paquet’s monumental biography of the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans is entitled Simon Leys: Navigator between worlds (La Trobe University Press/Black Inc.). Superbly translated by Julie Rose, this book explores an extraordinary life. Ryckmans was born in Belgium, where he trained in art history but wanted to become a painter. He first went to China when he was nineteen. Later, he became a scathing critic of Mao and Maoism, writing under the nom de plume Simon Leys, before landing up in Australia where he raised his family, and wrote his unclassifiable masterpiece The Death of Napoleon, along with the masterful essays that were collected in The Hall of Uselessness.
Michael Heyward is Publisher at Text Publishing.
Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin, 10/17) is a quietly brilliant piece of work that left me rather sad at the end, but happily so. The hopeful and abiding love of Bunty and Christabel will long stay with me. The intent of the novel is clear from Part I, The Fictive Self. We all tell ourselves stories and ignore or reinterpret what is too hard to digest. Confronting, cutting, moving, and funny in equal parts. Long may this storyteller continue to absorb fact into her fiction.
Meredith Curnow is Publisher – Knopf, Vintage, Penguin Random House Literary.
I was hopeful that Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe (Black Inc.) would be free of the ‘clunky philosophical dialogue that made the protagonists sound like Marxist gramophones’, a criticism Glover has Orwell direct at another writer. I hoped too that Glover’s prose might hold its own alongside one of the century’s greatest writers. It exceeded my hopes on both counts. I can’t read or publish enough about Sydney it seems. Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney (Giramondo, 1/18) was a joy. It made me want to set off to find the Wrigleys factory in Hornsby, such is its power to make the marginal and the lost seem much less so.
Phillipa McGuinness is Executive Publisher of NewSouth Publishing.
For me this year, Stuart Kells’s The Library: A catalogue of wonders (Text Publishing, 12/17) is an easy choice for any bibliophile. On a vivid tour of the world’s great libraries, both real and imagined, Kells is a magnificent guide to the abundant treasures he sets out. In fiction, Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (Hachette, 12/17) is a powerful and skilful novel – I could mention speculative fiction, but it transcends that tag. It offers a vision of Australia’s future and past whose twist, quite as intended, took me completely by surprise.
Mathilda Imlah is the Picador Publisher.
Increasingly, international publishers are the the first to publish books by Australian writers. As the wealth of local talent grows, it is probably inevitable that some authors will bob up elsewhere. Peter Barry’s The Walk (New Internationalist), a delicious satire, tells the story of a charity worker who brings Mujtabaa, a young Ethiopian man, to London and has him walk from Heathrow to Trafalgar Square to raise funds for famine relief. The hilarious McDonald’s scene is worth the price of admission alone. I found Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt (Text Publishing, 11/17) impossible to forget. Penetrating, soulful, and surprisingly welcoming, it reminded me of my own ancestors and how easy it is to sidestep the past.
Barry Scott is Publisher at Transit Lounge
Rachel Bin Salleh
It is unusual to read a short story and feel the kind of satisfaction that comes with finishing a great novel. I felt this about each one of Tony Birch’s stories in Common People (UQP, 9/17). In this collection, Birch reveals himself as a master of the short story. He draws you in from the first paragraph and leaves you both satisfied and with cause for reflection. The stories are surprising and diverse, and Birch’s sense of humanity pulls you in. I loved the grittiness, the dark humour, and quiet celebration of human resilience.
Rachel Bin Salleh is Publisher at Magabala Books.
Jane Rawson is one of our most gifted and unpredictable – and under-appreciated – writers. I really enjoyed her fourth novel, From the Wreck (Transit Lounge, 4/17), a densely poetic, imaginary tour de force that combines seemingly familiar scenes and characters – an historical shipwreck – with surreal and speculative leaps of fancy. Overseas, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner) by Jesmyn Ward is a spare and searing portrait of just a few of the countless faultlines at the heart of American society. A dysfunctional family drama and modern road novel in one, it is painful, shocking, and illuminating reading, but you dare not turn away.
Rod Morrison is Publishing Director at Brio Books.
The one that got away! This year I devoured Chris Womersley’s rich and gothic City of Crows (Picador, 10/17). With each very different novel Womersley exposes the wanton sides of human nature, and looks for beauty. This dark, visceral book is a brilliant piece of historical fiction. Rural France and Paris, scenes familiar to us from centuries of fiction, are drawn here in many layers. I particularly enjoyed wallowing in the blood and magic of the underground rooms and clusters of trees where most writers do not linger. Charlotte’s quest to save herself and Nicolas stretched the imagination of this reader in the most enjoyable ways.
Nikki Christer is Group Publishing Director at Penguin Random House
Two portraits of writers provided excellent reading this year. Thornton McCamish’s Our Man Elsewhere: In search of Alan Moorehead (Black Inc., 9/16), an ‘in the footsteps’ narrative, returns a legendary war correspondent to public view, revealing an author whose wit and self-deprecation make him an ideal companion on the discovery journey. Helen Garner’s writing has influenced my teaching and thinking about style like no other. In A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (Text, 5/17), Bernadette Brennan offered fresh perspectives with her thorough, immensely readable portrait of one of Australia’s finest authors.
Georgia Richter is Publisher at Fremantle Press.
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- Contents Category Literary Studies
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To complement our 2017 ‘Books of the Year’, we invited several senior publishers to nominate their favourite books – all published by other companies.
Michelle de Kretser
Sybille Smith’s Mothertongue (Vagabond) is a thoughtful, brief memoir-in-essays, chiefly concerned with growing up between two places, Vienna and Sydney, and two languages, German and English. It speaks of loss and carves out recoveries (partial, provisional) in moving, lucid prose; a small gem.
In a big year for Australian novels, here’s a shout out for two collections of stories. Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points (Text Publishing, reviewed in ABR 9/17) consolidates her reputation as a remarkable young writer. Her stories are effortlessly global yet strongly anchored in place. They testify to Down’s remarkable powers of observation and her ability to create bleak but engaging worlds – the longer tales are especially potent. Tony Birch’s Common People (UQP, 9/17) also traffics in characters in difficult circumstances, but Birch is tender as well as unsentimental. This sturdily crafted collection, Birch’s best yet, offers illuminating, sometimes harrowing narratives that sing of solidarity and humour in hardscrabble lives.
In a world where nations are more likely to militarise than to engage in dialogue, to build walls rather than open borders, Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons (Text Publishing, 8/17) is a formally elegant and intellectually rigorous argument for peace. Not a pacifist manifesto so much as a collage built from paradox and juxtaposition – from encounters with images of terror, war, and torture – whose total implication is clear. We in the affluent West cannot remain unsullied by refusing to look at evidence of the multiplying human disasters around us. Sentilles’ book inspires us to be more than we are, to live beyond our historical moment. Not a call to arms so much as a call to the writers’ pen.
In too many biographies of political leaders the private self is lost, or not even sought. Like John Murphy’s subtle portrait of Herbert Evatt (NewSouth, 11/16), which revealed a complex human being, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text Publishing, 9/17) explores our second prime minister’s career with full attention to his intense inner life and family relationships. Her title points to the puzzles, but Brett doesn’t simplify; she ponders, suggests, dramatises. Closely observed and psychologically persuasive, this is more than a life-and-times; it is a life. Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible (Viking) looks like an elegy for small-town America, but the degree of loneliness Strout exposes puts paid to any easy notion of community. Strout’s interconnected short stories reveal the isolation of people who have known one another since childhood. As well as lies and secrets, gossip and harsh judgement, there are astonishing moments of compassion. A brilliant, disturbing work.
Charles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler: A new agriculture – a new earth (UQP, 10/17) is a revolutionary and lyrical story of a farmer’s journey towards ecological literacy. It is learned, wise, practical, and full of hope. Another impressive big book is Tony Hughes-d’Aeth’s Like Nothing on this Earth: A literary history of the wheatbelt (UWA Publishing, 6/17). It is a brilliant work of scholarship that effectively establishes a new genre; I hope it inspires more regional literary ecologies. Don’t miss Kieran Finnane’s honest, powerful, and sensitive report from the streets and camps of Alice Springs, Trouble: On trial in Central Australia (UQP). This is journalism of the highest calibre. And I love Alex Miller’s new novel, The Passage of Love (Allen & Unwin, 11/17), which delivers an enthralling fusion of fiction and memoir.
I should nominate Twitter, because I spent much of the year in America reading and shouting at it. Offline, I hugely admired Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury, 10/17), a magnificent reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone that traces the impact of a brother’s radicalisation on his British-Pakistani family. Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful, magical realist Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) deftly humanises the refugees that Western governments are deftly trying to ignore. Robert Webb’s memoir, How Not To Be A Boy (Canongate, 12/17), is both hilarious and lip-wobblingly poignant. And, without meaning to sound too much of a (tweedy, threadbare) jetsetter, I missed the 2010 Australian release of Ashley Hay’s The Body In The Clouds (Washington Square) while I was living in London, but I delighted in its publication here in the States this year. So I’m going to count it for 2017 and direct some positive shouting towards Hay’s brilliant, multilayered work: ‘huzzah!’
In China Miéville’s October: The story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 10/17) – the liveliest of the centenary publications – the dramatic events of 1917 in Petrograd are related with some wistful regret that things didn’t turn out better. Sarah Dowse’s As The Lonely Fly (For Pity’s Sake, 6/17) is a twentieth-century Jewish family saga encompassing Russia, America, and Palestine – a moving story that makes you think. Chris Hilliard’s The Littlehampton Libels. A miscarriage of justice and a mystery about words in 1920s England (OUP) is a real-crime scholarly history, but Agatha Christie fans should love it. It’s Christie’s world, and those dogged and courteous police officers turn out to be real.
Dennis C. Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the friendship that shaped modern thought (Princeton) is a lively and readable account of how two Scottish philosophers conspired to subvert many nostrums of Western culture during the late Enlightenment era. Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home (Hamish Hamilton, 11/17) is an important novel that treats relations between white Australian and Indigenous cultures through a framework of dark postmodernist humour. Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin, 10/17) sensually incarnates her themes of travel and displacement in a work of fiction that brilliantly evokes the climate, smells, and cuisine of Sydney. And Tracey Moffatt: My horizon, edited by Natalie King (Thames & Hudson) brings together Moffatt’s provocative visual exhibition for the 2017 Venice Biennale with a collection of essays from Alexis Wright and others that testifies to the enduring importance of Moffatt’s oeuvre.
Fay Zwicky’s death was keenly felt among poets and readers of poetry earlier this year, so it is a bittersweet joy to see all of her terse, tough, magnificently spiky poems gathered in one volume. The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky (UWAP) reveals a poet whose oeuvre was the product of what she calls ‘the dissenting imagination’; her poems concern themselves deeply with the ethical realm, but also grapple profoundly with agnosticism and doubt. This meticulously edited collection offers all seven of Zwicky’s books, along with a substantial selection of new and uncollected poems at the end; it is a pleasure to be able to read her life’s work in order and trace how her relentlessly contemporary late style developed. ‘Let us talk of now,’ she said in her masterwork ‘Kaddish’, and her poems follow suit. This indelible collection will be treasured everywhere by those who love poetry.
As one of the Miles Franklin Award judges, I spend the first part of the year reading Australian novels published in the previous year, after which I set out to catch up on other contemporary fiction. Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire, bowled me over: it is a brilliant rewriting of the story of Antigone, set mainly in London, about two families destroyed by jihad and anti-Muslim politics. Apart from fiction, two new titles from university presses – Georgina Arnott’s The Unknown Judith Wright (UWA Publishing, 11/16) and Thea Astley: Selected poems, edited by Cheryl Taylor (UQP, 11/17) – provide fascinating insights into the earliest work of these two giants of twentieth-century Australian literature.
Two books exploring father–son relationships in the context of changing masculinities and gay life stand out. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair (Picador) is as profound as you would expect from this Man Booker winner. Beginning in Oxford in 1940 and stretching over seventy years, Hollinghurst lovingly evokes period detail without allowing it to overwhelm the absorbing drama of lived intimacies. Jim Davidson’s memoir, A Führer for a Father: The domestic face of colonialism (NewSouth, 9/17), by one of Australia’s leading cultural historians and biographers, explores with enviable subtlety the connections between British imperial rule and the patriarchy of a man inside a family. Judith Brett’s excellent The Enigmatic Mr Deakin introduces this Federation-era giant to a modern audience: a timely reminder of the achievements and failings of a century ago, and perfect summer reading for any Australian politician whose aspirations rise above seat-warming.
I am currently judging an Australian literary award, so will refrain from nominating some of this year’s brilliant Australian fiction. Melanie Joosten’s A Long Time Coming: Essays on old age (Scribe) is an important, moving collection of essays on ageing, mortality, and the ethics of writing. Arundhati Roy’s huge – in every sense of the word – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, 6/17) and George Saunders’s lyrical Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 3/17) extend the novel’s form superbly. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire takes us deep inside the psychology of a disaffected Muslim youth, and draws us into a complex world of loss, pain, filial piety, and (largely destructive) duty. My favourite book of the year is Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible. What a thrill to be returned to the richly extended world of Lucy Barton and her narrative people.
‘I found myself immeasurably and inexplicably moved’, to use the words of one of its ghostly narrators, by George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. While it is a novel that is bold in its formal innovations, these never overpower the simple, heartrending premise of a father’s raw grief for the death of his eleven-year-old son. Closer to home, I had my unfairly high expectations met by Kim Scott’s novel Taboo (Picador, 8/17), in which the problems of reconciliation between settler and indigene in Australia were slowly and slyly circled, then seized with breathtaking precision. Both novels rose to a similar challenge, the challenge of all serious literature, which is to narrate the unnarratable.
My list begins with the latest dazzling novel by Ali Smith. Winter (Hamish Hamilton) is the second in a proposed series of four seasonal novels and follows the crisp and crackling Autumn (Hamish Hamilton, 1/17). Set between life and death, closeness and solitude, the mythological and the contemporary, it shimmers with snow crystals, etymology, and thaw. Smith’s winter is ‘an exercise in how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again’. I found Arundhati Roy’s sprawling, magnificent The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a demanding and compelling assemblage of ‘a shattered story’. I have begun Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come and am thrilled by the shape of her every sentence and her acute wit and insight. And Reinhard Kleist’s Nick Cave: Mercy on me (SelfMadeHero) is a rollicking confabulation exploring the Nick Cave universe, all myth, slash, and swagger.
I particularly enjoyed three works of Australian fiction: Kim Scott’s Taboo combines aesthetic and moral seriousness with unusual success, and is a worthy follow-up to his two Miles Franklin-winning novels. His is a truly generative and urgent brand of fiction. Tony Birch’s Common People is a collection of stylistically unadorned yet artfully wrought stories. Birch hones in on protagonists and communities rarely glimpsed in contemporary Australian literature. Ali Alizadeh’s The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo, 10/17) is lightly experimental and emotionally rich – the kind of novel that invites and rewards close attention without forcing the matter.
On the non-fiction front, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-year untold history of class in America (Allen & Unwin) – which documents the social history of the ‘waste’ people transported from Britain to the United States – was particularly eye-opening.
George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, a cascade of voices observing, mourning, and denying death, is a literary high wire act. The peril of an adventurous literary conceit teetering so close to extremes as to threaten collapse kept me reading: the most arresting novel of the year. Judith Brett achieves something rare in political biography: a synthesis of the public life with the beliefs, doubts, private struggles, and spiritual inquiry that made The Enigmatic Mr Deakin our most intriguing prime minister. She rescues Alfred Deakin from recent ahistorical readings of his ‘Australian settlement’. Not only politically minded but also general readers perplexed by the collapse of confidence in public institutions should read Stuart Macintyre, André Brett, and Gwylim Croucher’s No End of a Lesson: Australia’s unified system of higher education (Melbourne University Press) A compelling narrative history of John Dawkins’s revolution in higher education, it is a revelatory instantiation of the intentions, achievements, and unforeseen consequences of recent policy reform.
Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet), a wonderfully angry, self-deprecatingly funny yet tragic collection of poems, reflects on women’s lives in fiction and in history. Bergin gives voice to famous people, fairytales, and folklore in her rhythmic, beautifully disturbing collection.
Vahni Capildeo’s chapbook Seas and Trees (Recent Work Press) is crammed with vivid images, and language that shimmers and sings. It presents a landscape of possible universes where ‘trees had evolved to eat other trees’, where the familiar sea becomes strange and unknowable. Supple, subtle, marvellous.
Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers (Black Inc., 8/16) is probably the funniest literary novel since Tristram Shandy. This unmerciful lampooning of ‘extraordinary Australian writers’ – barely disguised, bizarrely intertwined – doubles as a parodic, playful workshop in OzLit, and a portrait of the literary community and its politics.
Andrew Ford’s memoir of his extraordinary life in music, The Memory of Music (Black Inc.), seems somehow effortless, but it’s also profound, deeply moving, and often very funny. The ‘composer’s memoir’ might be a niche category, but Ford’s is a classic of the genre.
In Australian poetry, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky shows what an uncompromising and playful poet Zwicky was. Meanwhile, I loved Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments (Graywolf). Only ninety pages long, Manguso’s book brilliantly extends the literary possibilities of the ancient form of the aphorism. And talking of brevity and renewal, Fleur Jaeggy’s wafer-thin These Possible Lives (New Directions) reinvents the biographical essay. In Jaeggy’s hands, the lives of John Keats, Thomas de Quincey, and Marcel Schwob become nightmarish and uncanny prose poems. Happily, the year also saw the appearance of a new collection of Jaeggy’s stories, I Am the Brother of XX (New Directions).
One of my favourite books this year felt like a call to arms: Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy (Scribe). Doyle’s book is about how difficult it is for our generation to come to terms with our own adulthood, because so many of the markers of that stage – a house, a stable career, a marriage – are so often unavailable to us; the book seemed to articulate something (some things) that I’d been feeling, vaguely, for years. It’s smart and funny and fierce, but never angry or divisive – it isn’t interested in the intergenerational slanging wars that so often categorise this kind of discussion in the media (there’s nary an avocado toast in sight), rather, in a much more personal muddling through that’s somehow still hopeful and affirming and bold.
This year I particularly enjoyed reading Laurent Binet’s witty and irreverent novel The 7th Function of Language (Vintage), a parodic thriller that pokes fun at the influential cohort of French philosophers and literary critics (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, et al.) whose work colonised the humanities in the latter decades of the last century. In a rather more serious vein, I also enjoyed thinking about the arguments proposed in Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A history of the present (Penguin), which seeks to understand the political volatility of our own time by tracing its origins all the way back to the eighteenth century. It is an impassioned and rather narrowly focused book that draws some long bows, but one that nevertheless contains important insights.
My final hat-tip is to Wayne Macauley’s Some Tests (Text Publishing), a subtle and quietly moving novel about illness and death. Macauley’s stylised and artfully paced narrative, which gradually takes on a dreamlike quality, is a fine example of his ability to evoke the inchoate sense of dissatisfaction and existential disquiet that lurks beneath the surface of contemporary life.
I loved the mix of vaunting ambition, vendetta, and sheer madness in Their Brilliant Careers, Ryan O’Neill’s wicked re-imagining of Australian literary history. A weird mob, these great writers. O’Neill acknowledges Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas as essential background, and Vivian Darkbloom walks on wonderfully from Nabokov. Satire is its own reward. Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities (UQP, 8/16) is darkly comedic, too, combining formal inventiveness with a poker face in a particularly sharp collection of short stories. ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’ is surely a classic. Then there is Sam Carmody’s The Windy Season (Allen & Unwin, 11/16), an emotionally charged novel that kept me awake at night, raw and self-scrutinising in its exploration of the ‘toxic masculinity’ in a West Australian fishing town, scarier than any shark.
Many terrific Australian poetry books have been released this year – how to choose? I was impressed by volumes from many small, indeed, micro publishers, such as Sydney’s Subbed In. But Alison Croggon’s New and Selected Poems 1991–2017 (Newport Street Books) is a long overdue highlight, a deliberate reconfiguration of her poetry, thus, a ‘new’ work. Croggon, again, shows us how to do things with lyric in ways I can only envy. Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives reads like meticulous yet dreamlike collage. The essay on John Keats is worth the price of admission alone. Equipment for Living: On poetry and pop music (Simon & Schuster) by Michael Robbins is an intense, if at times overheated, exploration of the consolations of poetry and music. He’ll never get me to love metal, but his Basho-to-Rhianna ‘playlist’ is a smart coda.
Evgeny Finkel’s eloquent Ordinary Jews: Choice and survival during the Holocaust (Princeton) shows how serious historical research can benefit from the perspective of a political scientist. Claire L. Shaw’s Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, community, and Soviet identity, 1917–1991 (Cornell) is a landmark in the history of disability and the Soviet welfare state. A stunning first book, it covers the entire Soviet experience from a thought-provoking perspective. Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin, 11/17) was published in Russian in 1985 and in a hard-to-get English translation in 1988. This stunning oral history remains unsurpassed. Finally, it is back in print. Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (Icon Books), finally, makes short work of scientific sexism. Male evolutionary biologists sometimes claim that men evolved to be promiscuous because they can, allegedly, make 100 babies a year with 100 different women. The schedule involved would be punishing, as Fine points out.
Australians should long remember Mark Colvin – for his authoritative ABC voice (its British modulations raised Bob Hawke’s hackles) and his exemplary integrity as both radio presenter and foreign correspondent. So the publication of Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a spy’s son (Melbourne University Press, 3/17), a few months before Colvin’s untimely death, was an unexpected bonus – revealing the extraordinary life behind that Radio National sangfroid. Colvin, committed journalist and seeker after truth, was the loving – and loved – son of a Cold War MI6 spy. I found his story psychologically complex and professionally inspiring.
Alex Miller’s new novel The Passage of Love is capacious, wise, and startlingly honest about human frailty and the permutations of love over time. Frankly autobiographical, it is also a work of fully achieved fiction, ripe with experience, double-voiced, peopled with unpredictable men and women, and set in Miller landscapes that characteristically throb with life.
For sympathy and insight, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a welcome contribution to analysis of Australian politics. A difficult subject, often deliberately elusive, is captured with skill. Through close and compelling reading of Deakin’s private writing, Brett brings to life his political thinking and spiritual wrestling. An important book.
For sheer reading pleasure, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: a father, a son, and an epic (Knopf) is compelling. This classical scholar leads us through a semester teaching The Odyssey with his father in the classroom, reflecting on parallels between Odyssey and Telemachus while he displays the hidden weaving in Homer’s text.
Alice Oswald is a precise and powerful poet. Her latest collection, Falling Awake (W.W. Norton), is about change in the natural world, with reflections that speak to motion among people. The opening poem about rain, ‘A Short History of Falling’, approaches perfection.
A number of books have remained with me this year. Teju Cole’s captivating collection, Blind Spot (Faber & Faber, 11/17) rewards slow reading. Cole’s photographs are presented in abstract relation to short texts that read as part prose poem, part metaphysical investigation, and part memory fragment. The whole is often heart-stopping. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is challenging in the most necessary sense. A polyphonic epic, this novel incorporates stories of hijra, Kashmiri rebels, Guajarati Muslims, and is clearly a counterpoint to Roy’s political activism. Beverley Farmer’sThis Water: Five tales (Giramondo, 6/17) is a lyrical and resonantly interwoven rewriting of myth, fairytale, and folklore. Farmer’s last work, This Water affirms her place among Australian literature’s pre-eminent stylists. And Eley Williams’s collection, Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press), playful and genuinely original, is a joy to read.
Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been misread by some critics as being untidy and too polemical. But well-kept gloom or neat literary dystopias won’t satisfy this reading heart. Roy has said that her return to fiction was prompted by a frustration at ‘winning the argument but losing the battle’. Well, her return has produced the most virtuosic and emotionally affecting response to our era’s profit-driven barbarities that I know of. In many ways it makes real some of the ideas prescribed by ground-breaking Californian academic Donna Haraway in her Staying With The Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke). Like Roy, Haraway is responding directly to our age with what could be described as a permacultural approach to organising human society. Staying With The Trouble sits alongside Charles Massy’s wonderful The Call of The Reed Warbler as the most regenerative non-fiction stimulants I digested this year.
Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons, a word collage, is a complex and original reaction to violence, warfare, and conscientious objection: I’m still thinking about it, still dipping back into it. Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a reminder that meticulous scholarship can also be elegantly written. Kim McGrath’s Crossing the Line: Australia’s secret history in the Timor Sea (Redback) chronicles decades of Australian misbehaviour, notwithstanding developments since the book was published in August 2017. The quarterly Mekong Review continues to impress with its mix of Southeast Asian-related criticism, analysis, reportage, fiction, poetry, and more.
We’ve had a feast of Helen Garner with her reissued Stories and True Stories (Text Publishing) for her seventy-fifth birthday, and Bernadette Brennan’s ingenious A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (Text Publishing, 5/17), which gets around the subject’s resistance to biography by viewing her life through her writing, as Garner herself does. Michelle de Kretser warns that The Life to Come may be her last novel. If so, I will miss her mastery of metaphor, her laser insight into the yearnings and pretensions of characters – writers, shopkeepers, travellers; friends, lovers, neighbours – and her scrutiny at once of the domestic minutiae and the global context of their lives.
Living with a bird-watcher, I welcomed The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst et al. (CSIRO Publishing, 10/17) as a gorgeous lure to spend more time in nature.
I am enthusiastic about the two new Fleur Jaeggy translations published by New Directions this year – a collection of essays called These Possible Lives and a collection of stories called I Am the Brother of XX. Everyone seems to be talking about this enigmatic Swiss writer, now in her late seventies, and with good reason. Two Australian novels stand out. The first, Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden (Text, 6/17), is a cut black gem of a book: beautiful, compact, and sinister. The other, Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, overflows with intelligent, incisive observations about identity, imagination, and privilege. I am currently working my way through The Tracker (Giramondo) by Alexis Wright, and it’s proving something of a revelation. It’s both an exhaustive account of the life and work of activist Tracker Tilmouth and, crucially, an experimental form of ‘collective’ memoir.
My literary heart belongs to the rule breakers – to the form smashers and narrative knotters. George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won me over early and easily this year with his fragmented tale of Abraham Lincoln’s transcendent grief for his lost son. A novel haunted by its spectral cast, but also by the ghost of an American future yet to come. Sarah Sentilles’ tender collage essay Draw Your Weapons was an unexpected marvel: equal parts treatise, history, meditation, and prayer. Her premise – that art can vitiate violence – is unapologetically idealistic and deeply necessary. Closer to home, Odette Kelada’s début novel, Drawing Sybylla (UWA Publishing, 12/17), was a mercurial wonder, illuminating the inner lives of Australia’s women writers. And finally, The Sarah Book (Tyrant Books) – an almighty wallop of a book. I wouldn’t have encountered its author, West Virginian Scott McClanahan, had I not lived just across the state line – I’m deeply glad I did.
Robert Hass’s handsome Little Book on Form: An exploration into the formal imagination of poetry (Ecco) begins: ‘A single line is a naked thing. It is both light and heavy. It is, obviously, the basic unit of all lyric forms.’ I could read his prose all night long. One of the contemporary masters of the line is Alice Oswald, whose Falling Awake is ever awake to the repetitions of the natural world. In a hat-tip to Wallace Stevens, ‘Slowed-Down Blackbird’ ends with her blackbird on the edge ‘trying over and over its broken line’. Also in pride of place on my bookshelf are The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky and Lionel Fogarty: Selected poems 1980–2017 (re.press). ‘Do yourself a favour’, Fogarty says borrowing from a Stevie Wonder song – ‘educate your mind’.
The most imaginative Australian history at present comes from young women, who locate our past in a wider world. Sophie Loy-Wilson’s Australians in Shanghai: Race, rights and nation in Treaty Port China (Routledge), an evocative account of the transnational lives and chaotic mobility that challenged the White Australia Policy, prompts us to rethink national history. Katherine Ellinghaus’s fine study, Blood Will Tell: Native Americans and assimilation policy (Nebraska) digs deep into American archival sources to show how ideas about ‘mixed-blood’ facilitated the white take-over of Indian land. In locating her subject in a broader consideration of settler colonialism, Ellinghaus helps us to understand the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Further afield, I recommend Harvard historian David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A history in ideas (Yale). It reminds us that civil wars are now the most common kind of warfare and refugees – including the almost five million from Syria – their most vulnerable victims.
Michel Leiris’s Fibrils (Yale) is the third and latest volume in Lydia Davis’s translations of Rules of the Game, his ground-breaking experiment in ‘creative non-fiction’. A meditation on the relationship between literature and politics, set against the 1950s background of a visit to Mao’s China, Leiris’s self-excoriating writing includes a description of his own suicide attempt. This year saw the first visit to Australia by legendary US anthologist, Jerome Rothenberg: a new and expanded fiftieth-anniversary edition of Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred (California), described by Nick Cave as ‘the greatest anthology of poetry ever created’, has just appeared. Among local poetry, Lionel Fogarty’s Selected Poems gathers the best work of this important Indigenous poet in a single volume. Also recommended are three volumes by younger authors, Matthew Hall’s First Fruits (Cordite), Bella Li’s Argosy (Vagabond), and Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage (Giramondo), each of which indicates intriguing new directions for our literature.
I was fascinated this year by Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin), and thought it a deserving winner of the Stella Prize. More recently, I’ve been enthralled by Alexis Wright’s ‘collective memoir’ The Tracker, which is creative and important, challenging expectations of the biographical form. Weaving several voices together in a unique cultural history focused on the life of Tracker Tilmouth, Wright’s work is testament to the power of Indigenous modes of storytelling. Finally, this year’s poetry titles from UWA Publishing have been exciting; of the eight offerings from their series, Nathanael O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure stood out for me. Separately from UWA Publishing came The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, poignantly released only days before Fay passed away. Edited with love and subtlety by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, it is a rich body of work from an important poet.
In Being Here: The life of Paula Modersohn-Becker (Text Publishing), French author Marie Darrieussecq animates the short life of a passionate German artist with vivid, spare prose. The first woman to paint herself naked and pregnant, Modersohn-Becker died in 1907, at the age of thirty-one, soon after giving birth. This taut biography, written in the present tense, has the urgency and poignancy of the best novels.
In Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles reflects on war, art, the ethics of looking, and how we should respond to the violence governments enact in our name. Sentilles mounts her argument with an accumulation of detail, employing metaphor rather than polemic. Her examination of drone warfare is especially powerful.
Alice Pung’s On John Marsden (Black Inc.) is ostensibly a tribute to an author of Young Adult novels. But this wise, political, heartfelt essay is about so much more.
Mohsin Hamid’s Booker-shortlisted Exit West uses an unexpected fantasy device to disrupt a mode of realism so precise and sharply focused that it would feel like reportage if not for some truly breathtaking writing. His style builds ideas into its very grammar, and gives its account of a world in conflict an extra dimension of meaning and reflection — and sometimes a horrible beauty as well. Closer to home, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster (Text Publishing) is a superbly written book about the redoubtable Sandra Pankhurst and her work as a trauma cleaner: someone who cleans up after hoarders, murders, meth labs, and suicides. This is the startling life story of Pankhurst, a trans woman with a heart the size of Uluru, written in Krasnostein’s irresistibly warm, frank, intelligent voice as she describes sites of sadness and horror that take the reader straight to the dark heart of the human condition.
To narrow the excellent new Australian poetry collections I’ve read so far this year down to four is an almost arbitrary exercise. Among them, however, would have to be Clive James’s unerringly formal and poignant Injury Time (Picador). A comparable technical achievement is Stephen Edgar’s Transparencies (Black Pepper, 8/17). Edgar’s cleverly rhymed poems often end in a single powerful image, leaving us with an awareness of the poem as a resonant whole. A third highly formal book is Euclid’s Dog by Jordie Albiston (GloriaSMH). It’s a pleasure to be carried along by her unfailing metres – and to be surprised by the unpredictable internal rhymes which have so long been a part of her armoury. Melinda Smith has an innate feeling for irony and humour but can also produce poems of extreme tenderness and emotional depth. Her new collection, Goodbye, Cruel (Pitt Street Poetry), displays all of these and more.
Sometimes a year produces a novel that is head and shoulders above everything else, and for me that was George Saunders’s wonderfully weird Lincoln in the Bardo. It reads like a play of fragments performed by ghosts; it weaves historical accounts, fiction and mythology into an inextricable tangle; it is outrageously grotesque, satirical, comical, scary, and poignant. How daring a writer he is: and how well he shows our lack of daring, our skill at deluding ourselves, even beyond death.
Plenty of bold new Australian writing, but perhaps the standout was a first novel that dared to tackle a rich but hugely challenging subject. Pip Smith’sHalf Wild (Allen & Unwin, 12/17) transforms the true story of a transgender man accused of murdering his wife into something far beyond the sensational: it is a sensitive examination of a secret life that for all its subtlety also conjures a sense of rollicking adventure.
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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.