Sunday, 26 November 2017 15:48

Books of the Year 2017

Michelle de Kretser

Pulse Points Books of the YearSybille 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.

Geordie Williamson

Draw Your Weapons Books of the YearIn 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.

Brenda Niall

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin Books of the YearIn 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.

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Tom Griffiths

Call of the Reed Warbler ABR OnlineCharles 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.

James McNamara

Home Fire Books of the YearI 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!’

Sheila Fitzpatrick

October Books of the YearIn 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.

Paul Giles

A long way from home Books of the YearDennis 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.

Sarah Holland-Batt

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky Books of the YearFay 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.

Susan Sheridan

The Unknown Judith Wright Books of the YearAs 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.

Frank Bongiorno

A Fuhrer for a Father Books of the YearTwo 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.

Bernadette Brennan

Lincoln in the Bardo Books of the YearI 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.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

‘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.


Felicity Plunkett

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Books of the YearMy 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.

Shannon Burns

The Last Days of Jeanne DArc Books of the YearI 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.

James Walter

No End of a Lesson Books of the YearGeorge 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.

Jen Webb

Their Brilliant Careers Books of the YearTara 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.

David McCooey

The Memory of Music Books of the YearAndrew 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).

Fiona Wright

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.

James Ley

Age of Anger Books of the YearThis 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.

Nicholas Jose

The Windy Season Books of the YearI 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.

Jill Jones

Equipment for Living Books of the YearMany 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.

Mark Edele

The Unwomanly Face of War Books of the YearEvgeny 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.

Morag Fraser

Light and Shadow Books of the Year 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.

Glyn Davis

An Odysee Books of the YearFor 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.

Anna MacDonald

Blind Spot Books of the YearA 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.

Gregory Day

Staying with the Trouble Books of the YearArundhati 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.

Patrick Allington

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.

Susan Wyndham

A writing life Books of the YearWe’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.

Andrew Fuhrmann

The Last Garden Books of the YearI 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.

Beejay Silcox

Drawing Sybylla Books of the YearMy 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.

Bronwyn Lea

Lionel Fogarty Books of the YearRobert 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 ( ‘Do yourself a favour’, Fogarty says borrowing from a Stevie Wonder song – ‘educate your mind’.

Marilyn Lake

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.

John Hawke

Fibrils Books of the YearMichel 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.

Catherine Noske

The Museum of Modern Love Books of the YearI 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.

Suzy Freeman-Greene

On John Marsden Books of the YearIn 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.

Kerryn Goldsworthy

The Trauma Cleaner Books of the YearMohsin 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.

Geoff Page

Transparencies Books of the YearTo 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.

Jane Sullivan

Half Wild Books of the YearSometimes 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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  • Custom Article Title 2017 Books of the Year
  • Contents Category Books of the Year
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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.

Thinking is my fighting.’

Virginia Woolf

Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons is one of the most erudite, original, and thought-provoking books I have ever read. A philosophical and moral meditation on pain, torture, and the violence of war – part memoir, part history, even a kind of secular prayer – this book asks us to look at terrible human darkness while also celebrating the ways in which love, connectedness, and the making of art nourish and redeem the human spirit.

Sentilles, an American academic, began writing what was to become Draw Your Weapons after seeing two photographs: one of an old man, eyes joyously aglow, cradling a violin; the other of a hooded prisoner standing on a box. These images derailed her preparation for the priesthood. Rather than complete her dissertation about theological imagination, she left the church and wrote instead on the torture photographs taken at Abu Ghraib.

The old man was Howard Scott, who, as a conscientious objector during World War II, had twice been imprisoned. While incarcerated, and separated from his beloved wife, Ruane, and their baby daughter, Howard set about trying to make a violin. Ruane copied out instructions from Violin-Making (1885), squeezing as much information as possible into the few letters she was permitted to send. Sentilles went looking for Howard and was welcomed into his family. The second major character in this narrative is Miles. He enters Sentilles’s life as a student in her critical theory class, where she was using the Abu Ghraib photographs as a teaching tool. Miles had been a soldier stationed at the prison after the photographs were taken. Teacher and student become friends. Miles goes on to become an artist, and remain in the military. From Miles, we hear more complex stories about the realities of war, good stories and bad from inside the prison and beyond.

Draw Your Weapons took Sentilles ten years to write. She first tried to shape her material as a novel. It didn’t work. In her essay ‘Cut and Tape: On Writing Draw Your Weapons’ (, June 30 2017), she explains that she took her manuscript and ‘shattered it as if it were made of glass’. What remains are hundreds of fragments about ethics, torture, slavery, internment, photography, theology, instruments, music, art; the list goes on. The fragmentary structure and the brilliant juxtapositions and segues give this book its extraordinary power. Abraham’s potential sacrifice of his son sits in conversation with the evil of all-seeing, god-like drones. The etymology of souvenir leads into discussion of the body parts of saints via a black site at Guantánamo. Sentilles’s paragraphs – some only a single sentence – are written in direct, simple prose. Thoughts, research, scholarly quotations, old letters, verbatim testimony; all are placed strategically on the page. Each entry stands alone, wrapped in the textual silence of blank space. These gaps invite the reader to pause and contemplate the individual entries. They also provide an imaginative space across and through which the reader is encouraged to make their own connections.

Sentilles writes that in being opposed to America’s wars she felt she was somehow ‘off the hook ... they have nothing to do with me’. Howard’s letter from prison in the 1940s follows: ‘I remain a part of the crimes committed by us ... And I do not wish to separate myself from society or my group. I need to intentionally make myself more a part of it.’ Meanwhile, Miles is disconcerted when he returns home on leave from Iraq and sees no evidence of war. To read Draw Your Weapons is to understand that we are all implicated in the evils of war.

Sentilles cites Judith Butler: ‘We are undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.’ This book calls us to be present to, and responsible for, our fellow human beings. Affirming Levinas’s belief in the ‘irreducible alterity’ of the other, Sentilles insists that we must look directly at war, its violence, its victims. Again turning to Butler, she notes: ‘The critique of violence must begin with a critique of seeing.’ As a teacher, she asks her students to look at images of pain. She knows there is ‘no perfect image of pain that might make the viewer feel the urge to enter and put right the world’. She knows that ‘every photograph taken of another’s suffering is insufficient and so too every response’. But she is passionate in her belief that they, and we, must see. When her students ask what they can do in the face of such pain, she replies that she does not know. Yet she knows, having been inspired by Fred Wilson’s installation Mining the Museum, that what is made by humans can also be unmade. She knows that, ‘Words can take away humanity, and words can give it back.’ Her contribution to unmaking the darkness is to write.

web Sarah Sentilles credit Gia Goodrich at VEV Studios 550 Sarah Sentilles (photograph by Gia Goodrich/VEV Studios)


Howard’s finished violin was sixty years in the making. It was not until 2004 that his grandson found a violin maker prepared and able to put the various mismatched pieces together – to make it whole. The photograph that captured Sentilles’s attention was taken when Howard was first handed the violin on his eighty-seventh birthday. It was the moment just before it was played for the first time. The violin – its genesis, gestation, and fragmentary nature – serves as an apt metaphor for this book. Sentilles’s many fragments, each crafted from disparate material, come together to make something beautiful in the face of violence. The book’s epigraph from Bertolt Brecht reads: ‘In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.’ Draw Your Weapons is a song, a hymn, for the victims of war and equally for all of us who have the potential to make our world a better place.

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  • Custom Article Title Bernadette Brennan reviews 'Draw Your Weapons' by Sarah Sentilles
  • Contents Category Politics
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    Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons is one of the most erudite, original, and thought-provoking books I have ever read. A philosophical and moral meditation on pain, torture, and the violence of war – part memoir, part history, even a kind of secular prayer – this book asks us to look at terrible human darkness while also celebrating the ways in which love, connectedness, and the making of art nourish and redeem the human spirit.

  • Book Title Draw Your Weapons
  • Book Author Sarah Sentilles
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 304 pp, 9781925498622

The epigraph to the first chapter of Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden speaks of Nebelung, a time of great prosperity, joy, and hope for new life. Over the page, Hornung shatters any sense of well-being with an extraordinary opening sentence: ‘On a mild Nebelung’s afternoon, Matthias Orion, having lived as an exclamation mark in the Wahrheit settlement and as the capital letter at home, killed himself.’ The prose just keeps getting better as Hornung counterpoints the consciousness of a man driven to murder and suicide with the heartbreaking innocence of his unknowing adolescent son, Benedict.

Two storylines are in conversation throughout this impressive novel. One follows Benedict, who withdraws from human contact and speech, seeking refuge among the horses and chickens on his father’s farm. Hornung takes us deep inside Benedict’s mind and heart. In a narrative that has much to say about the inadequacy of words, she uses them powerfully to convey the boy’s tortured grief, confusion, and despair. The second storyline concerns the goings on in Wahrheit, a small religious community to which Benedict and his family once belonged. Wahrheit, founded in exile to await the Messiah, is now under the spiritual guidance of Pastor Helfgott. He is a good man who cares deeply for his flock, but he lacks the authority and charisma of his late father. Pastor Helfgott continues to preach from his father’s The Book of Seasons, but the ‘passionate certainty of those loved words’ begins to falter; the threads that once held this community together are unravelling.

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  • Custom Article Title Bernadette Brennan reviews 'The Last Garden' by Eva Hornung
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title The Last Garden
  • Book Author Eva Hornung
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 237 pp, 9781925498127

Who is the I in Helen Garner’s work? This is the question Bernadette Brennan probes by canvassing more than forty years of Garner’s writing and her seventy-four-year existence. It is the proposition Garner’s fans and critics are most exercised by, although some presume to know the answer by reading her fiction as autobiography and her non-fiction as personal opinion.

Brennan examines both assumptions by tracing Garner’s steps to becoming a full-time writer in a style that is both thoughtful and readable. The framework is Garner’s lived experience and life-altering influences; the focus is Garner’s self-doubt and self-questioning, extensive reading, research, and journal keeping. Her personal life is sketchy at best; details are selected chiefly for their impact on her work and states of mind. And yet they are sufficient to orient the reader in time and place, and to sustain a biographical thread through chapters delineated by Garner’s various writings. As it turns out, a detailed biographical account is hardly necessary; Garner’s output so closely reflects the high and low points of her life. Furthermore, everything Garner has written is interrelated, says Brennan. Garner has revisited themes, relationships, situations, characters, and questions in a body of work encompassing fiction and non-fiction, essays, screenplays, short stories, and journalism.

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  • Custom Article Title Jan McGuinness reviews 'A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work' by Bernadette Brennan
  • Contents Category Literary Studies
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    Who is the I in Helen Garner’s work? This is the question Bernadette Brennan probes by canvassing more than forty years of Garner’s writing and her seventy-four-year existence ...

  • Book Title A Writing Life
  • Book Author Bernadette Brennan
  • Book Subtitle Helen Garner and her work
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 334 pp, 9781925498035

In 2004 Kim Scott delivered the prestigious Herbert Blaiklock Memorial Lecture to a predominantly academic audience at the University of Sydney. Provocatively, he began by saying that he did not know much about Australian literature; the literature of this country did not reflect his experiences or his sense of identity. It certainly was not the literature of his country. Scott wanted to question and complicate the categories of Australian and indigenous literature. His concern that indigenous literature was considered to be a lesser version, or subset, of our national literature had seemed to be confirmed when he located his novel Benang: From the heart (1999) in a bookshop under 'Australiana'.

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  • Custom Article Title Bernadette Brennan reviews 'A Companion to the Works of Kim Scott' edited by Belinda Wheeler
  • Contents Category Literary Studies
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    In 2004 Kim Scott delivered the prestigious Herbert Blaiklock Memorial Lecture to a predominantly academic audience at the University of Sydney. Provocatively, he began ...

  • Book Title A Companion to the Works of Kim Scott
  • Book Author Belinda Wheeler
  • Author Type Editor
  • Biblio Camden House $163.95 hb, 184 pp, 9781571139498

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Harrower smaller for OEElizabeth Harrower

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

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

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

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

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  • Custom Article Title Bernadette Brennan reviews 'A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories' by Elizabeth Harrower
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    It is gratifying to witness the renewal of interest in Elizabeth Harrower's fiction. Last year, ...

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

Twenty-five years ago, Drusilla Modjeska's Poppy reimagined boldly the possibilities for Australian memoir. Modjeska recounts in her new memoir, Second Half First, how in her inaugural appearance at a writers' festival she was on a panel discussing autobiography with two established British writers, Victoria Glendinning and Andrew Motion. Poppy was written but not yet released. Feeling at a disadvantage following on from such accomplished performers, she rose with conviction to announce that 'here in Australia we were thinking about what biography might mean if we took as our subjects those who are not usually considered "worthy" of "A Life"'. She wondered how the inclusion of something of the biographer's own story might contribute to a deeper understanding of how 'a life became a narrative'. Glendinning patronisingly found the idea 'extraordinary'. 'We're not thinking about that in England,' she said.

In Second Half First, Modjeska likens those assured of their perspective, often men, but also in this instance the 'English English', to 'Greenwich Mean Time'. She is grateful to have found her voice writing from the 'periphery' of Australia. In her late sixties, she remains energised by trying to 'give shape to feelings and confusions', to understand 'emotional cross-currents', to find new ways of seeing her past and present. For Modjeska, ambivalence is always preferable to certainty.

Modjeska has spent decades thinking about, and experimenting with, the ethics of memoir. She worries about finding a way to write of the important people who have shaped her life without exposing what is not hers to expose. She succeeds beautifully. With an amazing lightness of touch, she takes her reader on a journey across continents and centuries, discussing, among other things, lovers, parents, family, friends, literature, visual art, depression, death, and the post-colonial realities of Papua New Guinea. Modjeska is not entirely sure that this new book is a memoir. 'Maybe', she writes, it is 'simply a reflection on the arc of life thirty years after [my mother's] death.'

The book opens dramatically. On the eve of her fortieth birthday in October 1986, Modjeska sends her unfaithful lover Ross, the man with whom she hoped to have a child, packing. There is much heartache and pain. With the wisdom of hindsight, however, she realises that she fell into Ross's arms because she was grieving for her mother. And so, we are returned to Poppy's life and death. It is a most welcome and rich return.

There are now other deaths to mourn: Modjeska's father, Patrick, her dear friend Hazel Rowley, her friend and colleague David Baker, and her partner for the decade of her fifties, Jeremy. In the eighteen months it takes for Patrick to die, Modjeska makes the journey back to England three times. Despite the tensions in the house, she and Patrick share many quiet, healing hours. They speak of the past, of writing, of the difficulties of love and sacrifice. Patrick is 'a lawyer born of a line of lawyers and clergymen'. For a long while he is not prepared to acknowledge that he is dying. An 'erudite Catholic friend' says it is hard 'for men who've lived in logos to die' because death 'calls forth the feminine'. Modjeska recounts an intensely moving afternoon when Patrick asks her and her niece Amy to read him Tennyson's 'Ulysses'.

'Modjeska has spent decades thinking about, and experimenting with, the ethics of memoir'

The memoir is divided into four main sections. The first, titled 'The House on the Corner', relates the 'restorative' years lived in the Enmore house where friends gathered for meals and parties. Helen Garner is one housemate; Alison Clark lives nearby; Hilary McPhee and Hazel Rowley are frequent guests. The women wrestle with the need to achieve both love and security in their sexual relationships while maintaining their 'independence and freedom of mind'. Modjeska is interested in architecture. She wonders about how our lived environment affects us creatively. She refers back to her contribution in Inner Cities (1989), where she used the idea of living on a corner as 'a metaphor for living with a certain ambivalence'. That sense of ambivalence, which has informed all her work, continues to thread through Second Half First:

No easy pattern this, words inadequate to express the shifting moods and feelings that came with the dilemma of knowing the value – the essential value – of those rooms of our own, and yet being ambushed, despite everything, by the dream of the shared bedroom, or mourning for the baby's cot.

As Modjeska's arc sweeps backwards and forwards over thirty years, she relates her encounters with Dorothy Green and Christina Stead, she explores the ongoing legacy of the world wars, particularly for her British relatives, and she muses about women's experience of psychiatric asylums from Virginia Woolf, through Poppy to her own psychotherapy in Sydney. Repeatedly she insists this book is not a history, but it is a history of her writing and reading. Woolf, Stead, Lessing, Beauvoir, Vera Brittain, George Eliot, and the fifteenth-century writer Christine de Pizan illuminate her concerns. Always anxious about the appropriateness of the memoir genre, she reads Knausgaard. After Patrick's death, she turns to Gosse, Raine, Amis, Swift, Eggers, and Obama. She wonders if Walter White from Breaking Bad qualifies as a good father.

Modjeska Drusilla smallerDrusilla Modjeska

Modjeska's connection with 'that beautiful and heartbreaking country', Papua New Guinea, is well known. She first travelled there with her anthropologist husband Nick when she was only twenty. In 2004 she returns with David Baker to the Ömie villages, up the mountain. So begins her commitment to the Ömie people and their art.

In the third section, 'A Dangerous Road', she recounts the challenges and success of gaining worldwide recognition for the barkcloth art, bringing literacy to Ömie and forming meaningful relationships with the women. It is a huge story and benefits from being read in conjunction with her recent Meanjin piece, 'The Informed Imagination', and of course, her towering novel The Mountain (2012).

In the wake of David's sudden death, Modjeska, recovering from breast cancer treatment, assumes responsibility for his vision and for meeting the school fees for more than forty children in Ömie and the fjord villages. She travels back and forth between Australia and Papua New Guinea, accompanied by numerous friends and family, including some from the Enmore days, Hilary, Sophie, Martha, and now Jeremy. She establishes a charitable foundation, SEAM (Sustain Education Art Melanesia), with the hope of building a 'book house' to support all forms of literacy. Unfortunately, geography makes building financially unviable. And then architect Stephen Collier reads The Mountain, contacts Modjeska, and applies his creative brilliance to come up with a workable solution.

Fittingly, there is much Modjeska does not share, particularly regarding her relationship with Jeremy. He is too recently deceased, and their final years were somewhat fraught. Jeremy's depression and demands on Modjeska meant she faced, at this late stage of her life, the same old conundrum about love, independence, and room to write. She is brutally honest about her refusal to compromise. When she tells Robert Dessaix about her stance, her remorse and her confusion about relationships and the limits of memoir, he replies that there are no answers, and directs her to Rilke: 'Live the questions now.' The many rhetorical questions she poses offer readers a similar challenge.

'With an amazing lightness of touch, she takes her reader on a journey across continents and centuries'

Second Half First is a deeply crafted narrative, not only in its weave and structure, but also in the ways in which Modjeska invokes the visual arts to articulate her concerns. The 'veil of tears' she sheds over the loss of Ross facilitates a discussion of how Janet Laurence's large veiled glass works provoke us to think about clarity and perspective. Modjeska fantasises about being able to create something like Louise Bourgeois's sculptured Personages: 'I'd move them around ... so they faced each other in different combinations: lovers, parents, friends, enemies – categories that were not fixed.' She wonders if such an arrangement would be 'better than words with their relentless march onwards', for giving shape to shifting emotions. As she steps around the bowls made by her artist friend Helen, she accepts that her true medium is language, but she aspires for her book 'when it is finished to transform itself into an object', something solid, corporeal. The sheer scope of this memoir, coupled with the invitation to live its questions, achieves that ambition.

In the Postscript, Modjeska writes of attending an exhibition, at London's Tate Modern in 2013, of Saloua Raouda Choucair's sculpted forms. These works are composed of various shapes, stacked vertically together. Choucair calls them poem sculptures, each shape becoming a stanza. Accompanying the exhibition was a note from Choucair's daughter: 'Her soul expresses itself in form.' Modjeska has chosen one of Choucair's five stanza poems for her cover. She concludes:

You can't see the grain of the wood, but it is there, with its tiny, necessary blemishes. If this book had a soul that could express itself in form, in an object I could place on the table for you to walk around, that is what it would look like.

Second Half First has a soul. It is both solid and expansive. Modjeska assembles her stanzas masterfully to create a poem of great insight, intelligence, and beauty.

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  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title Bernadette Brennan reviews 'Second Half First' by Drusilla Modjeska
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Second Half First
  • Book Author Drusilla Modjeska
  • Book Subtitle A Memoir
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Knopf, $39.99 hb, 378 pp, 9780857989796

Early success is no guarantee of a book’s continued availability or circulation. Some major and/or once-fashionable authors recede from public consciousness, and in some cases go out of print. We invited some writers and critics to identity novelists who they feel should be better known.

Debra Adelaide

Helen de Guerry Simpson was a successful novelist, poet, playwright, broadcaster, and musician. She left Australia at the age of sixteen but returned for visits. Several of her books were set partially or fully in Australia, including the acclaimed historical novel Under Capricorn (1937), which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1949. For me, her most remarkable novel is Boomerang (1932), which is quintessentially Australian in its ironic voice and its wry dramatisation of such things as Catholic–Protestant rivalries, small-town prejudices, and parochialism. Full of surprises, it develops into a sweeping blend of family history, fiction, and romance set from the 1780s to World War I, and ends with the narrator discovering love in the most unlikely circumstances, amid the desolate battlefields of the Somme. If only for its brilliant use of the boomerang metaphor, this novel and its author should be better remembered.

Bernadette Brennan

Such is Life by Joseph Furphy Joseph Furphy, Such is Life (Angus & Robertson, 1986 edition)Naming a single novelist whom I think should be better known is extremely difficult, but I will go out on a limb: Joseph Furphy (or should that be Tom Collins?). Furphy’s Such Is Life (1903) is an erudite, extremely funny, and rollicking read. Gabrielle Carey attends a Finnegans Wake reading group; Helen Garner attends one on Virgil. Such Is Life would come to all its vibrant, baffling, hilarious glory in such a setting. At the very least it deserves to be read aloud. Furphy described the novel as ‘temper democratic; bias, offensively Australian’. He wears his literary learning lightly, his opinions less so. Shakespeare, Sterne, Zola, the Bible, and the English monarchy sit alongside a cross-dressing Australian shepherd, lost children, bullockies, and drovers’ dogs. Sectarian, class, and gendered tensions, philosophical musings, and tales of lost love, all find voice under the stars out on the Riverina. Excised chapters of the original manuscript were redrafted and published as Rigby’s Romance (1946) and Buln-buln and the Brolga (1948). Such Is Life may not be the easiest read, but I will always be grateful that I was introduced to the novels of Joseph Furphy.

Geraldine Brooks

Tony Morphett, best known as a television writer and author of young adult fiction, in 1969 wrote a remarkable novel titled Thorskald, about an Australian artist, whose life is unfolded from multiple points of view.  It is beautifully constructed, with luscious descriptions of painting, the art-making process, and Australian bohemia of the 1950s and 1960s. I loved it when I first read it in my mid-teens. It has been out of print for many years, and Morphett himself does not list it on his website. 

Gregory Day

As the literatures of the mid-twentieth century became increasingly urbanised and internationalised, George Mackay Brown, through illness and shyness, lived a local life in the independent and dramatic weather of the Orkney Islands. His fiction and poetry are a freakish reticulation of historical and elemental voices, rife with the luminosity and high jinks of the Scandinavian sagas, as well as the social exposure of contemporary island life.

Brown suffered from what Auden called topophilia – or place-love. After a brief foray at university in Edinburgh, he returned to the Orkneys and stayed put. The islands had been his first book and now they became his creative foundry. As his work won acclaim, many writers made the pilgrimage to see him, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney among them. They found a generous man whose body of work seems more relevant than ever in our hyper-connective yet disconnected world.

Ian Donaldson

Sinister StreetCompton Mackenzie, Sinister Street (Penguin edition)Henry James believed that Sinister Street (1913–14) was the most remarkable book written by a young author in his lifetime, and its author, Compton Mackenzie, the most promising English novelist of his generation. Scott Fitzgerald ‘idolised’ the novel; Ford Madox Ford thought it ‘possibly a work of real genius’; and the young George Orwell read it with surreptitious admiration – the sexual scenes were considered strong stuff – at his preparatory school. When I first encountered this huge, prolix, but extremely readable work more than fifty years ago (while at Magdalen College, Oxford, where the central chapters of the novel are set), it was still a popular Penguin title, and Mackenzie himself a prominent figure in the British literary landscape. These days the novel, like its author, is barely known. A brilliant television adaptation – the last was by Ray Lawler in 1969 – might help to revive its fortunes.

Anna Funder

Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is perhaps the most brilliant achievement in Australian literature, but it has had a hard life since its publication in 1940. It suffered a trans-Pacific displacement of setting from Sydney to Washington, DC. And it has suffered from the chronic and, as ever, unacknowledged doubt that something as brilliant could come from a woman. Women are not expected to be as chillingly clever as Stead is, as warm and funny, as stupendously, miraculously verbal. They are not expected to have the broad view as well as the narrow, the deft control of plot. Nor, to be fair, are most men – apart from Tolstoy. Yet here we have a book that matches Tolstoy in ambition and greatness – and concomitant grand messiness.

Andrea Goldsmith

W. Somerset Maugham’s work is still in print, but this once-popular writer is no longer fashionable or much read. He is thought to be too middle-class, too in thrall to empire, too British. He is all these things, but he’s so much more.

The structure, pace, and narrative force of Maugham’s short stories are the work of a master. He is a consummate storyteller, whether in short or long form. Of Human Bondage (1915) is perhaps the best novel of obsessive love ever written. Cakes and Ale (1930), with its insider’s portrayal of literary fame and envy, is a gem. The Razor’s Edge (1944) is a subtle yet complex story of a privileged young man in search of spiritual meaning. His notebooks and The Summing Up (1938) are essential reading for all writers.

Maugham’s fiction is timeless with its focus on enduring human concerns like love, desire, prejudice, the powerlessness of childhood, and the situation of women. He merits his metre of shelf in my library.

Rodney Hall

Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, first published in 1935, casts an immediate spell. Every moment of the book is lived intensely. The scale is extremely small, which magnifies the impact. Two children, previously unknown to one another, spend a single day in a house in Paris. Their paths cross in transit to other destinations. The subtlety and vividness of portraiture is astonishing. Even the simplest sentences are fraught with meaning. ‘He noted her nearness without noticing her.’ The nine-year-old boy and the eleven-year-old girl assert themselves in each other’s company with forensic good manners. Heart-stoppingly aware of vulnerability, they ward off their fears and hopes alike. Elizabeth Bowen reveals the self-awareness of all her characters with penetrating subtlety and (in some cases) savage wit. The tone and tension are perfectly sustained.

Sonya Hartnett

Displaced personsLee Harding, Displaced Persons (Puffin Plus, 1980 edition)When I was a teenager it was possible to buy a copy of Lee Harding’s 1979 young adult novel Displaced Person in every opportunity shop between Melbourne and Brisbane. I know, because I often bought a copy somewhere along the highway on our annual Christmas road trips. Now, it is rarer than hens’ teeth, and even my own copies have vanished, which seems fitting, given that the book, a short novel adapted from an even shorter story, is about a young man who gradually fades from the real world into a grey, underlying realm of overlooked or forgotten objects and people. Harding won the 1980 Australian Children’s Book of the Year for this strange, inventive, remorseless and touching novel, which I have found unforgettable. Decades later, whenever I misplace something, I unfailingly think of it as having dropped into Harding’s ‘lost moment of time’.

Gail Jones

Barbara Hanrahan (1939–91) deserves election to the class of writers-whom-we-must-preserve. Adelaide-born and raised, she made her suburb of Thebarton the special territory of her first novel, The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973). In this astonishing book it is the minute and the hidden, the modest and the particular, that compose the dense life-world of a child growing in the presence of her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt (afflicted with Down syndrome). What does this child see? The hair in her grandmother’s nostril, her mother grunting into stockings, the frog-like eyes and snout of her aunt, which make her feel ashamed, grasshoppers, pleated skirts, handkerchiefs folded into triangles ... She has a fear of the dark and the outdoor lavatory. She knows and sees everything. Here, preserved in fastidious and undiscriminating detail is an entire era: feminine, vernacular, almost absurdly specific. No other first novel in Australia has ever matched this one.

Susan Lever

There is no mystery about the fiction of Dal Stivens fading into obscurity. He published hundreds of short stories but only three novels, years apart, and the most consistent feature of his work is an ironic, comic, sometimes whimsical attitude. Though Jimmy Brockett: Portrait of a Notable Australian (1951) is currently in print in the SUP Classics series, the more postmodern A Horse of Air (1970) seems to have disappeared from library shelves. At least one of his short stories (usually the unrepresentative ‘The Pepper Tree’) can be found in most Australian short story anthologies, but his short fables were labelled ‘tall stories’ in an old tradition, before magical realism became fashionable. I recommend Jimmy Brockett for its ambiguous and entertaining depiction of an enduring Australian type, and A Horse of Air for its intimations that postmodernist play could exist in advance of its official label.

Brian Matthews

The name Francis Stuart is rarely heard in contemporary literary discussion. As the author of about twenty-four novels, he represents a solid reading challenge. But at least three of this daunting output are worth resurrecting: The Pillar of Cloud (1948), Redemption (1949), and Black List, Section H (1971). Of these, the autobiographical Black List is stunning. Married to Maud Gonne’s daughter, Iseult, combative friend of Colm Tóibín, encouraged though also corrosively criticised by W.B. Yeats, resident in Berlin from 1940 to 1945, sometime IRA functionary, briefly an admirer of Hitler, Stuart had plenty of extraordinary autobiography to rework. Encountering Black List, which Tóibín says ‘arose from something darkly and deeply rooted in his psyche – the need to betray and be seen to betray’, was like reading 1984 or Crime and Punishment for the first time. Once you began, you plunged compulsively on, preferably nonstop.

Peter Rose

Rodney Hall, Captivity Captive (edition details)Rodney Hall, Captivity Captive (Farrar Straus Giroux, first edition, 1988)Twenty-seven years ago, when it was first published, it would have seemed inconceivable that Australian readers might within a generation need to be reminded of the luminous qualities of Rodney Hall’s novel Captivity Captive, yet the book has long been out of print. My esteemed predecessor Helen Daniel would have thundered at the thought.

There are hammer-blows in Hall’s novel – three of them. In this and in its poeticism, Captivity Captive seems our most Faulknerian novel, and as with Faulkner we learn from every sentence, while shuddering away from some of them. The book might have been written in a day – one inspired day. Veronica Brady, in a brilliant review for ABR (9/88), remarked that this short book ‘ranges through heaven, hell and purgatory’. She concluded: ‘This, then, is a generous novel. But it is one which demands an equal generosity from its readers, heart-work as well as head-work.’

Novels of this stature come along once a decade, at most. We neglect them – patronise them – at our peril.

Susan Sheridan

The fiction of Thea Astley was undergoing an eclipse from public consciousness, as often happens in the immediate aftermath of a writer’s death, when Karen Lamb’s biography, Inventing Her Own Weather (UQP), appeared this year (read Kerryn Goldsworthy's review of it here). It is to be hoped that this event will prompt people to read or re-read Astley’s innovative novels, especially the major later works Beachmasters, It’s Raining in Mango, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, and Drylands. In these powerful fables of colonialism and its aftermaths, Astley’s darkly comic sensibility, working through her witty metaphorical language and shifting narrative voices, makes you laugh and gasp with horror simultaneously – and see life in Australia today with fresh eyes.

Geordie Williamson

J.G. Ballard said of James Hamilton-Paterson that ‘strangeness lifts off his pages like a rare perfume’. A poet, novelist, travel writer, satirist, and foreign correspondent who lives between Austria, Tuscany and (until recent years) The Philippines, Hamilton-Paterson is the kind of true eccentric Bruce Chatwin spent many fruitful decades impersonating. His novel Gerontius (1989), which followed Edward Elgar on his 1923 trip on the Amazon, won fans such as Michael Ondaatje, while Barry Humphries observed of the prose in Hamilton-Paterson’s novel Griefwork (1993), about the relationship between a botanist and glasshouse keeper, that it was ‘writing with a capital W’.

Hamilton-Paterson’s more recent trilogy of waspish black comedies, starting with Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004), almost threatened to make him known to a wider audience. But he is too diffuse in his gifts for that, and too bloody-minded in his independence. There is no work by Hamilton-Paterson that does not have some tincture of pure music in it. Nor is there any work that doesn’t face full-square the Conradian horror and wonder of the world.

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Kate Grenville’s mother, Nance Gee (née Russell), was an extraordinarily resourceful, resilient, and interesting woman. Born in 1912 to ill-matched, working-class parents and surviving a childhood lacking in stability and opportunity, she went on to become an inspirational mother, businesswoman, and teacher. Some years after her death in 2002, Grenville began sorting through Nance’s papers and found, to her surprise, that her mother had ‘often thought about writing a book’. With the exception of one letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, Nance never published. In One Life: My Mother’s Story, Grenville sets out to remedy that lack.

The memoir is bookended by an engaging prologue and postscript, written in Grenville’s direct and vibrant voice. Surprisingly, Grenville seems tentative about the worth of her prospective tale. She muses that her mother ‘wasn’t the sort of person biographies are usually written about. She wasn’t famous … did nothing that would ever make the history books. Just the same, I think her story is worth telling.’ And it most certainly is. I am not entirely convinced, however, about Grenville’s method of narration.

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  • Custom Article Title Bernadette Brennan reviews 'One Life' by Kate Grenville
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 hb, 260 pp, 9781922182050

‘For our house is our corner of our world … If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty.’

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958)

Houses, and their domestic spaces of intimacy and negotiation, sit at the core of Helen Garner’s early fiction. Most often they are large, communal houses in Melbourne’s Carlton or Fitzroy, places where a generation of youngish countercultural musicians, artists, and wounded souls challenge the accepted rules of sexual relationships and attempt to redefine what might constitute family. In the kitchens and bedrooms of Monkey Grip (1977), Honour and Other People’s Children (1980), and Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), Garner’s characters wrestle with their passions and ideals. The new patterns of living that they establish offer, particularly for the women, a sense of liberating possibility beyond marriage and childrearing, but that freedom is coupled with compromise and loss. In The Children’s Bach (1984), Garner shifts her focus to the suburban household of a married couple. In this novella, she both critiques and celebrates the burdens of responsibility and commitment.

The critically acclaimed Monkey Grip had drawn fire from a raft of (largely male) critics, who railed against Garner’s style and subject matter. She was pilloried for working from her journal and for writing from a female perspective about private matters: emotions, sex, interior lives. Following the publication of Honour and Other People’s Children, she was again criticised for focusing on domestic situations rather than ‘larger areas of the normal’. Indeed, Anne Summers was bored by Garner’s ‘fine-etching of the emotions, without reference to any external events’, wishing instead that she would ‘open the front door and move out a little into the world’. In The Children’s Bach, Garner burrows deeply into the domestic space of the Fox family’s home, before throwing the doors wide open to the destabilising influences of the world beyond. The house itself becomes almost porous, a membrane through which various characters pass. Yet something solid remains at its core.

The Children's Bach (Penguin first edition, 1986)The Children's Bach (Penguin first edition, 1986)

Dexter Fox is a principled, gregarious, opinionated man. He and his wife Athena are lovers and friends. They live a fairly mundane, contented life in Bunker Street caring for their two sons, Arthur and Billy. Billy has a form of autism, which places an added burden on family relations. Until Dexter’s old friend Elizabeth and her lover Philip come into their life, the Foxes remain quarantined from the underworld, or the other world, of nightclubs, drugs, and extramarital sex. Athena runs a fairly peaceful, functioning household. She washes, cleans, irons, and gossips contentedly with friends, but she is suffocating in a house whose doors are never locked. She fantasises about escape (yet even in those fantasies she dreams of the fabulous curtains she would sew).

In the novella’s extraordinary opening paragraph, Garner describes a photograph of Lord Alfred Tennyson and his family. In a 1993 interview, she admitted to having found this photograph well into her research and being struck by the body language of the subjects. The photograph seemed to echo her concerns. Here was a confident patriarch, his seemingly subservient wife and two sons, one with a distant, contrary perspective. So, on one level, the dynamics of this group map nicely onto the Fox family unit. Dexter has stuck this photograph to the kitchen wall. It is tattered and grease-stained, but every time it threatens to slip off the wall completely, ‘someone saves it, someone sticks it back’. From the outset, therefore, Garner suggests that the Fox family, though it may be battered and bruised, will persevere. Her use of this particular photograph, however, is just one of the many shorthand strategies she employs to imbue this novella with depth and complexity.

‘The critically acclaimed Monkey Grip had drawn fire from a raft of (largely male) critics, who railed against Garner’s style and subject matter’

It was Tennyson who wrote ‘The Lady of Shalott’, that great Victorian poem about female entrapment and the sacrifice required of women artists. So at a time when second-wave feminism was enjoying ascendancy in Australia, Garner – through her choice of photograph – invited readers to consider how far women have really progressed since Victorian times. Like Tennyson’s ‘Lady’, Athena tinkers with her art, removed from the outside world. Like Tennyson’s ‘Lady’, she too will be tempted from her isolated, unadventurous existence into a world of risk and uncertainty.

Athena operates as a modern-day ‘Angel in the House’, a term coined by the poet Coventry Patmore (1823–96), to describe women in the Victorian era:

Confined to the home, women were expected to be domestic, innocent, and utterly helpless when matters outside the home were concerned. Not only was the home where women would be protected from the dangers of the outside world, it was also where they could keep their innocence and be a beacon of morality for their husbands.

Dexter insists that Athena is a ‘saint’ and that she is lured away by Philip because she is ‘naïve’. Philip’s daughter Poppy thinks she is ‘perfect’. To Elizabeth’s young sister Vicki, she seems ‘contained, without needs, never restless’. Meanwhile, Athena’s shoulders ‘tremble with holding back’.

The Children's Bach (Penguin international edition, 1986)The Children's Bach (Penguin international edition, 1986)

Music, as language, metaphor, and lived experience, infuses this narrative. Each character has a unique approach to music, in its various forms, which reflects their personality and their relationships with each other. For example, Dexter’s booming ‘dramatic baritone’ demands an audience and dwarfs Athena’s attempt at musical expression. In private she ‘picks away at Bartók’s Mikrokosmos or the easiest of Bach’s Small Preludes’, in turn exhilarated and abashed by her attempts. Garner herself had her first piano lesson when she was forty, a few years before she wrote The Children’s Bach. Speaking to Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville in 1993, she noted that learning the piano made her aware of ‘the almost moral struggle that playing music entails’.Like Athena, Garner struggled timidly with the piano keys, striving ‘to perceive form, to establish order’. So too in her writing she pares back, edits and structures her narrative so that it reads seamlessly as an easily accessible domestic drama, while offering the reader a deeply textured, powerful consideration of ethical relations. Philip makes this link between writing and music obvious when he advises the young songwriter to ‘Take out the clichés … Just leave in the images … Make gaps … Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.’

‘Music, as language, metaphor, and lived experience, infuses this narrative’

The novella’s title is taken from a primer of keyboard music, edited by E. Harold Davies, in whose opening pages we read: ‘Polyphony: which is the combining together of many melodies – requires first and foremost, a sure instinct for each individual part.’ Through short vignettes Garner simultaneously provides access to each character’s thoughts and voice. As Don Anderson has suggested, Garner ‘weaves her characters’ loves and lives together … in a way that Papa Bach would have recognised as contrapuntal’.

Garner has credited the women’s movement for giving her the licence to write about ‘what happens in people’s houses’ rather than more obviously political or historical topics, like ‘The War or that kind of thing: huge subjects, mighty things’. The politics of human, and of gendered, relations informs the drama of The Children’s Bach. Athena, Vicki, Elizabeth, Poppy, and old Mrs Fox represent, in various ways, female experience, opportunity, and expectation. They exist in a world where ‘men fuck girls without loving them. Girls cry in the lavatories’; a world where women are sexually harassed on buses and denigrated through obscene humour. But they also exist in a world – unknown and abhorrent to Dexter – where the ‘rules’ of ‘modern life’ allow them sexual freedom and personal liberty.

The Children's Bach (Penguin, 1999 edition)The Children's Bach (Penguin, 1999 edition)

Dexter, for all his old-fashioned ideas and domineering style, is a very likeable character. Indeed, Garner has commented that The Children’s Bach demonstrated a significant change in her writing about relationships between men and women, ‘because there is a male character capable of love, which I hadn’t been able to think about before’. Garner sets up a powerful contrast between the solid, righteous Dexter and the amoral, unreliable Philip. Significantly, both men are caring fathers, but Dexter’s commitment to his wife and children, particularly Billy, contrasts with Philip’s casual availability to Poppy and to women generally. Both men are desirable in very different ways. Ultimately, Athena’s sexual attraction to Philip and the world he represents, cannot be repressed.

In a spare and moving scene, Elizabeth offers Philip to Athena: ‘Their fingers met formally at the high corners of the sheet. Elizabeth’s relinquished, Athena’s accepted. As they folded, as they spoke, the light left the garden.’ With Philip, Athena thinks: ‘Perhaps there was a world where people could act on whims, where deeds could detach themselves cleanly from all notion of consequences.’ And so she abandons Dexter, her sons and her home to go with Philip to Sydney. Yet, in her freedom there is loss: ‘She walks the city feeling like a tourist, aware ‘that the day without duty passes with the slowness of a dream.’ Sydney is represented as a nightmare landscape. Like the family’s pet rabbit, once domesticated Athena cannot survive in the wider world. Dexter follows her and pleads for her to come home, but she is not yet ready. A shattered Dexter returns to Melbourne alone and at the end of a drunken evening makes love to Vicki only to wake up in a blaze of self-disgust. No one, in Garner’s world, is beyond reproach. But neither are they judged.

Marriage, life, and playing music are all complex tasks requiring dedication and hard work. In an early scene where Athena is patronised and humiliated by Dexter and Vicki for her lack of musical talent, Elizabeth remarks: ‘The Children’s Bach. God, listen to this – how pompous. “Bach is never simple, but that is one reason why we should all try to master him.”’ We can substitute ‘life’ and ‘marriage’ for ‘Bach’ in that sentence. Elizabeth exhorts Athena to ‘Show us how you’ve mastered him’, but at that point, she has not.

The Children's Bach (Penguin, 2008 edition)The Children's Bach (Penguin, 2008 edition)

At a time of her choosing, Athena returns to her husband, children and messy home. It is a conscious choice and is a cause for celebration. She sets about restoring domestic order as only she can, finally sitting down at the kitchen table and waiting for her family to come home. Garner concludes the novella with an exceptional sentence in the future continuous tense, a sentence that sweeps up the many fragmentary strands of the novella into a vision of hope. Hope does not, however, translate to facile romanticism. Athena will be reconciled to Dexter, and to life with Dexter, but she will also ‘dream again and again, against her will, of Philip, or rather of not-Philip’. Female desire cannot and should not be quashed. Somehow, Garner suggests, desire needs to be reconciled within a marriage.

Davies’ edited volume of The Children’s Bach (1933) opens with ‘A Song of Resignation’ and closes with ‘A Song of Love’. So too, Garner concludes her novella with a song of love, a song about the complexity of married love and the conscious compromises such a love might entail: both the steady left hand of duty and the soaring right hand of joyous potential:

and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!

That final sentence proclaims not only Athena’s growing confidence; it also declares Garner’s assured sense of herself, finally, as a writer.

Anderson, Don. ‘A Tale of Modern Love: The Children’s Bach’, Hot Copy: Reading and Writing Now (1986).
Bach, Johann Sebastian. The Children’s Bach. Edited by E. Harold Davies (1933).
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas (1992/1958).
Grenville, Kate and Sue Woolfe. Making Stories: How ten Australian novels were written (1993).
Rogers, Shelagh. ‘Interview with Helen Garner’. Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada Vol.1 (1989).
Summers, Anne. ‘Review of Honour and Other People’s Children’, cited in Anderson.
The Angel in the House’, Victorian Poetry, Poetics and Context.

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