Australian Fiction

In the mid-1990s, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paid me to research the year 1948. Although a little narrowly conceived for my liking, it wasn’t a bad job for a recently graduated PhD in history. I lasted a year. Most days I would head to the National Archives of Australia, then nestled among the panel beaters and porn shops of a Canberra industrial estate. My task was to work through departmental files, identifying and photocopying the most promising candidates for inclusion in a series of published foreign policy documents. The idea was that the general editor, a formidable old historian with a large corner office back in the city, would then select the documents to be included. The job itself, or at least the way it was organised, was itself redolent of an industrial world that was flourishing in 1948 and on its last legs by 1995. Indeed, I recall a demonstration in the department that very year of a newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. I took away from the demonstration that it was the internet with fancy pictures.

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Rivers seem to be something of a preoccupation for Melbourne writer Anna MacDonald. They feature prominently in her 2019 essay collection, Between the Word and the World, and are both setting and centrepiece to her first novel, A Jealous Tide.

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When you begin to read a book about a remote town heralded by the sign ‘Darnmoor, The Gateway to Happiness’, you know it’s not going to be a happy place. The opening chapter of Nardi Simpson’s first novel describes a neat, drab town of streets with names like Grace and Hope. Under a vast cerulean sky, a whitewashed war memorial lies at its ‘bleeding and dead centre’.

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Since the publication of her acclaimed first novel, Blood Kin (2007), Ceridwen Dovey has established herself as an intelligent author who typically probes what it means, and might mean in the future, to be human. Equally au fait with literary analysis, politics, and science, Dovey has since 2007 published several more books of fiction, two non-fiction books, and numerous essays, contributing regularly to The Monthly and The New Yorker. Now she has extended her range in fiction to a lighter mode, focusing on contemporary life and the pleasures of storytelling. Publishing in audio form has worked well in signalling Dovey’s new voice: Life After Truth was first published through the Australian and New Zealand Audible Originals program in November 2019, and her novel Once More with Feeling was released as an Audible Original in May 2020.

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There are at least two types of ‘snowdroppers’ in the world. I grew up around economic snowdroppers, working-class women who stole laundry from clothing lines in more affluent suburbs and sold the contraband, mostly linen and women’s clothing, to pawnshops across inner Melbourne. The snowdropper introduced early in Garry Disher’s new crime novel, Consolation, is of another variety. He steals underwear, women’s underwear specifically, then trophies the garments home and enjoys their company. The thief is pursued by Constable Paul Hirschhausen, the local cop in the town of Tiverton, whom we know from Disher’s previous novels in this series, Bitter Wash Road (2013) and Peace (2019).

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Kate Mildenhall’s confronting new novel, The Mother Fault, is set in an alarming near-future Australia. Climate change has left refugees ‘marking trails like new currents on the maps as they swarm to higher, cooler ground’. Sea levels have risen, species have died out, farmlands have been contaminated, and meat is a luxury. Unprecedented bushfires occur regularly; technology and surveillance are ubiquitous, with bulbous cameras hanging ‘like oddly uniform fruit bats from the streetlights’. The media is controlled, and Australian citizens are microchipped and monitored by a totalitarian government known as ‘the Department’. The ‘Dob in Disunity’ app offers ‘gamified’ rewards to informants (‘Even kids could join in the fun!’), while troublemakers can be relocated to ‘BestLife’ housing estates where the reality is far from the Instagram hashtag. Reflecting on the events that led to this, protagonist Mim notes that the world ‘shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed in the beginning.’

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For a protagonist that is self-professedly unlikeable, Martha commands attention – and is likeable. In Meg Mason’s tragicomedy Sorrow and Bliss, Martha navigates living with an undiagnosed mental illness. The novel solidifies Mason’s thematic preoccupations by revisiting those of her previous works: as in her memoir Say It Again in a Nice Voice (2012) and her first novel, You Be Mother (2017), the power of female relationships, loneliness, and the bleak humour of motherhood are apparent.

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In Western culture’s calendar year, is there some hidden fifth season, and if there is, what is it? The main character of Philip Salom’s fifth novel, a writer called Jack, asks himself near the end of the book whether the fifth season might be ‘Time, which holds the seasons together’, or perhaps the fifth season is simply ‘the Unknown’. Jack is preoccupied with the lost: with those people whose bodies are found but never identified, or those who, suffering amnesia, can’t be identified, but who need ‘to find their proper location in the story. In the seasons. A lost person must be allowed other dimensions.’

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The Wreck by Meg Keneally

by
December 2020, no. 427

In 1819, sixty thousand people gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to protest for parliamentary reform. Industrialisation had transformed a city of skilled tradespeople into factory workers, tariffs on imported grain kept food prices high, and few were eligible to vote. Although the protest was peaceful, local magistrates sent in the Yeomen and the Hussars who killed approximately eleven people and injured more than four hundred.

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When Shirley Hazzard was invited to give the 1984 Boyer Lectures, it was an astonishing break in tradition. Her twenty-three predecessors included only one woman, Dame Roma Mitchell, a supreme court justice who was later governor of South Australia. Except for architect and writer Robin Boyd, and poet and Bulletin editor Douglas Stewart, Hazzard was the only creative artist on the list. All her predecessors were well known for their public contributions to Australian life.

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