If history is a graveyard of dead aristocracies, the novel is their eulogy. It is now, for instance, a critical commonplace to explain the young Proust’s entry into the closed world of France’s nobility as an occurrence made possible by its dissolution. Close to death, holding only vestigial power, the fag ends of the ancien régime lost the will or energy to keep their secrets. Proust’s social talent, as opposed to his literary genius, was to be in the right place at the right time – to be under the tree, waiting, when the fruit of that intelligence fell.

We’ve never really had an Australian equivalent – until now. Not because, as it has long been argued, Australia is a classless society; its social strata are marbled with subtle discriminations and always have been. But, prior to Summerland, the upper reaches of that society were impermeable and omnipresent – and so seemingly invisible to fiction. Here is the novelty and fascination of Malcolm Knox’s first novel: the world he anatomises, with its QCs and charity matrons, their suburban stupor and genteel decadence, has, in revealing itself, admitted a decline.

Although the narrative is given exoskeletal sheen by a documentary vividness and factual rigour drawn from his years as a journalist, Summerland’s metafictional centre betrays Knox’s wider ‘literary’ ambitions. Two novels in particular inform the work: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. The latter furnishes Summerland with a good deal of its plot, and tone, too. Richard, a successful Sydney lawyer in his thirties, recalls the novel’s events in sodden retrospect, his whisky-fuelled meanderings reflecting the digressions, backtrackings and revelations employed by Madox Ford. In the course of a single night, a lifetime of friendship is recounted with Hugh Bowman, an Ashburnham-like aristocrat and weak-spirited heir of an old pastoral family; a man whose impregnable wealth, background, and charm have propped him up through a youth and adulthood of criminal behaviour, drunkenness, lassitude, and, most terribly for Richard, betrayal.


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    If history is a graveyard of dead aristocracies, the novel is their eulogy. It is now, for instance, a critical commonplace to explain the young Proust’s entry into the closed world of France’s nobility as an occurrence made possible by its dissolution. Close to death, holding only vestigial power, the fag ends of the ancien régime lost the will or ...

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In 1880, Turgenev visited Tolstoy at his country estate after a long period of estrangement, only to discover that the great novelist had, in the interim, renounced art in favour of ethical enquiry. Turgenev was appalled, and dashed off a letter complaining that

I, for instance, am considered an artist. But what am I compared to him? In contemporary European literature he has no equal … But what is one to do with him. He has plunged headlong into another sphere … He has a trunk full of these mystical ethics and various pseudo-interpretations. He has read me some of it, which I do not understand … I told him, ‘That is not the real thing’; but he replied ‘It is just the real thing’.

The reader of Diary of a Bad Year should be forgiven a similar perplexity. J.M. Coetzee has used his formidable skills to produce a novel whose overriding concern with ‘the real thing’ also plunges it into a sphere outside of art. Given a main narrative that purports to be a work of non-fiction by the author of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), one that battles quixotically with a world gone awry, and in a manner not so far removed from Coetzee’s own public efforts, it is hard to escape the connection with Tolstoy’s didactic period: a time when the author’s ethical impulses – the agonising question of how to live well – overwhelmed aesthetic ones, in what the critic Philip Rahv called a ‘willful inflation of the idea of moral utility at the expense of the values of the imagination’.

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    In 1880, Turgenev visited Tolstoy at his country estate after a long period of estrangement, only to discover that the great novelist had, in the interim, renounced art in favour of ethical enquiry. Turgenev was appalled, and dashed off a letter complaining that ...

  • Book Title Diary of a Bad Year
  • Book Author J.M. Coetzee
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $35 hb, 178 pp, 9781921145636
Monday, 26 November 2018 15:49

Books of the Year 2018

Michelle de Kretser

Man out of Time by Stephanie BishopMan out of Time by Stephanie BishopStephanie Bishop’s remarkable novel Man Out of Time (Hachette, reviewed in ABR 9/18) explores a man’s breakdown and its effects on his family. It’s shimmering and sorrowful, and the writing is extraordinary. Too Much Lip (UQP, 10/18) by Melissa Lucashenko is a strong, unflinching novel about homecoming and history. With trademark wit and lucidity, Lucashenko connects the lives of her sharply drawn characters to a dysfunctional national story. Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge (Scribe, 5/18), set among working-class lives, considers the collapse of the Westgate Bridge alongside a contemporary tragedy. It’s a moving, unsentimental novel about ethical complexities. Ghachar Ghochar (Faber, 2015) is a disturbing novella by Vivek Shanbhag (translated by Srinath Perur) about an Indian family that becomes wealthy – a gem.

Fiona Wright

Axiomatic by Maria TumarkinAxiomatic by Maria TumarkinI was most excited by two ambitious and wild books of non-fiction, Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (Brow Books, 9/18) and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its aftermath (Granta, 8/18). Tumarkin’s book is breathtaking in its audacity, its deep empathy, and its intellectual rigour. It’s unlike anything I have ever read. The Recovering is a deeply affecting and complex blend of biography and autobiography, drawing intimate and affirming portraits of what it might mean to come back from addiction and illness. My favourite work of fiction was Ceridwen Dovey’s taut and thrilling In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18), which is about trauma and legacy and how we understand the past. It is full of images of tragic beauty.

 

Judith Beveridge

Her Mothers Daughter: A memoir by Nadia Wheatley]Her Mothers Daughter: A memoir by Nadia WheatleySarah Day’s eighth collection of poetry, Towards Light and Other Poems (Puncher & Wattmann, 11/18), achieves a sustained and generous weaving of lyrical intensity with moral engagement. Balanced, focused, elegantly executed, this book shows Day at her best. Simeon Kronenberg’s Distance (Pitt Street Poets), is an impressive first volume. The intimate shaping of the language and the stunning reach into the imagination in a series of historical dramatic monologues makes this book shine. On quite a different emotional register is Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets, (Giramondo). Hip, suave, pert, pinpointing, and penetrating, these poems engage with locale in most enterprising ways. Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir (Text Publishing, 9/18) is a book to weep over for the tragic lives it skilfully explores.

Andrea Goldsmith

Sun Music: New and selected poems by Judith BeveridgeSun Music: New and selected poems by Judith BeveridgeJudith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and selected poems (Giramondo, 9/18) is a feast. I happily indulged in the old poems, but I gorged on the new. Filled with a plethora of living things – people, insects, animals, birds – these poems are vivid, insightful, and gorgeously poetic. I am a long-time fan of the English novelist Simon Mawer. His latest, Prague Spring (Little, Brown), plunges into the heady days of 1968: the pleasures of new freedoms, the hopes that were brutally crushed, and the politics, both behind the scenes and in the streets. All that you would want from a novel. Jacqueline Kent’s 2001 biography, A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis: A literary life, has been republished by NewSouth (9/18). It’s a terrific history of the Australian book industry, with the narrative pull of a plot-driven novel. Given current trends in publishing, this is a timely and welcome book.

AK Brand ABR 600x200 12 2018

Glyn Davis

Half the Perfect WorldHalf the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 by Paul Genoni and Tanya DalziellIn The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton, 2018), Pat Barker reworks a strand from The Iliad. Briseis is a prize for invading Greek men. Her story becomes a meditation on the fate of women in war. Barker evokes a world entire from a few lines in Homer and invites us to rethink the original. David Malouf embraces this approach in his last novel, Ransom (Penguin, 2009). In 2018 Malouf returns to his original craft, poetry, with An Open Book (UQP, 12/18). This broadly chronological reflection on language and experience gives us the familiar observer, watching endlessly for meaning, expressing his findings through direct and sparse lines. For a different reflection on artists and writing, Half the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 (Monash University Publishing, 11/18) by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell recalls the exile of Charmian Clift and George Johnston. Newly recovered photos from James Burke, destined originally for Life, see a Greek idyll marred by jealousy, frustrated ambit-ion, and the world outside. Lovingly researched, carefully constructed, compelling.

Sheila Fitzpatrick

What the Light Reveals by Mick McCoyWhat the Light Reveals by Mick McCoyI loved Dunera Lives: A Visual History (Monash University Publishing, 9/18), by the late, lamented Ken Inglis with Seumas Spark and Jay Winter. It presents a wealth of images of and by the German, mainly Jewish, ‘Dunera Boys’ who were sent from Britain to internment here in 1940. In What the Light Reveals (Transit Lounge), a fictionalised version of the lives of Australian communists David and Bernice Morris, Mick McCoy offers an intriguing Moscow Cold War story (though I’m not sure what I think about finding myself as a character). For another remarkable, non-fiction Cold War story, read Secrets and Truths (CEU Press, 2013), American anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s account of her reactions to the huge surveillance dossier Romanian Securitate kept on her over thirty years, complete with confrontations with informers (most of her Romanian friends) and even former spymasters (who turn out rather likeable, with a methodology resembling that of anthropologists).

Marilyn Lake

The Arsonist: A mind on fire by Chloe HooperThe Arsonist: A mind on fire by Chloe HooperChloe Hooper’s writing is animated by a profoundly humanist impulse and a desire to understand what happened. Just as The Tall Man: Death and life on Palm Island (2008, 10/18) charts the destructive legacies of colonialism with attention to evidence and historical context, so The Arsonist: A mind on fire (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) documents the tragedy of the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in the La Trobe Valley. Like the best historians, Hooper recognises her complex responsibilities to past and present, to her historical subjects and contemporary readers. The Arsonist is a brilliant and moving book about ecological devastation and social desolation. Samia Khatun’s account of early encounters between Indigenous and Indian peoples in the Australian interior, Australianama: The South Asian odyssey in Australia, (Hurst) is post-colonial history at its best. Opening with the discovery of a Bengali songbook in an outback mosque, Khatun’s book eschews the conventional migrant narrative in favour of a strikingly original perspective on settler colonialism and multiculturalism.

Paul Giles

Love and Lament by Margaret PlantLove and Lament by Margaret PlantThe most surprising and engaging academic book I read this year was published in December 2017: Jason R. Rudy’s Imagined Homelands: British poetry in the colonies (Johns Hopkins University Press), which describes how canonical English poets were reverentially parodied by nostalgic settlers in Australia, South Africa, and other colonies during the Victorian era. Equally impressive in a scholarly sense is Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing: The speculative origins of U.S. citizenship (Harvard University Press), which traces the retroactive and fluctuating ways in which citizenship has been defined in the United States since the days of the Founding Fathers. And Margaret Plant’s Love and Lament: An essay on the arts in Australia in the twentieth century (Thames & Hudson, 5/18) offers an eclectic overview of how high arts intersected with low arts, one that highlights the heterodox, often highly innovative nature of Australian culture over this period.

John Hawke

A Stolen Season by Rodney HallA Stolen Season by Rodney HallFor its empathetic portrayal of the outer-suburban underclass, refugees, Aborigines, and all those excluded by mainstream nationalism, the most pertinent book for 2018 would be Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. In a similar vein, Rodney Hall offers a convincing portrait of the political realities of contemporary Australia, where military spending has spiralled while extremes of income inequality remain unaddressed: A Stolen Season (Picador, 4/18) confronts these issues with savage candour and a virtuosic attention to style that directly recalls White’s example. Clive Faust, another octogenarian, has provided a masterfully crafted collection of his life’s work in poetry, Past Futures: Collected poems (Shearsman, 2017). Faust’s writings appear only fugitively in local publications, but they have featured in leading international imprints over many decades. This example of his exquisitely sculpted work demonstrates that success in poetry has little do with conventional notions of a literary career, but is measured by sincere and objective technique.

Susan Wyndham

Shell by Kristina OlssonShell by Kristina OlssonI fell more deeply in love with Sydney’s architectural diva while reading two complementary books. Helen Pitt’s The House: The dramatic story of the Sydney Opera House and the people who made it (Allen & Unwin) is a thoroughly researched, colourful, and often shocking narrative history. Kristina Olsson’s shimmering novel Shell (Scribner, 11/18) uses the half-built Opera House and the Vietnam War as backdrop to a human drama about love, family, commitment, and loss. Two other novels stood out. Gail Jones’s The Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing, 4/18) wraps a richly layered family story in an art theft mystery that travels from Western Australia to Sydney and Sicily. Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber) is an on-again, off-again not-quite love story set in contemporary Ireland. Behind the humorously deadpan millennial voice lies astute commentary on class, sexual violence, and other pressing issues.

David McCooey

Kudos by Rachel KuskKudos by Rachel KuskThis year, Rachel Cusk’s ‘The Outline Trilogy’ came to a suitably brilliant end with Kudos (Faber, 8/18). I am, months later, still bereft at the series’ completion. Will Eaves’s Murmur (CB Editions), while not part of a trilogy, is also one of a hat-trick of superb books. Murmur, which is partly inspired by the life of Alan Turing, ambitiously and brilliantly illustrates the relationships between fiction, consciousness, and artificial intelligence. The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – Alison L. Strayer’s compelling translation of Annie Ernaux’s Les Années (2008) – shows why Ernaux has such a high reputation for life writing in France. Lastly, there have been an extraordinary number of terrific collections by Australian poets, but I must mention Jordie Albiston’s Warlines (Hybrid, 11/18). A collection of found poems based on the correspondence of World War I soldiers, Warlines is a masterwork of documentary poetry that is both profoundly moving and intensely crafted.


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Lisa Gorton

Click here for what we do by Pam BrownClick here for what we do by Pam BrownPam Brown’s new poetry collection, Click here for what we do (Vagabond, 8/18) is made of four long poems that, taking a walk through the everyday, assemble its weird onrush of habit, newness, news, advertising, commentary, forgetfulness, and changes in weather. They are quick, spare, alert, and companionable. It was fun to discover Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women, first printed in 1965, reissued this year with an introduction from Ali Smith (Silver Press). In this, Nell Dunn talks honestly with nine friends – writers, artists, factory workers – about work and sex and love and freedom. Black Inc. this year ended its long-running series Best Australian Poems. But, led by Jacinta Le Plastrier, Australian Poetry has been publishing an impressive, and impressively various, sequence of guest-edited journals and anthologies.

Dennis Altman

Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy GriffithsDeep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy GriffithsIs it a reflection of the times that the books that most impressed me this year are non-fiction? Understandably there has been an outpouring of books about US politics. Of those I read, Ben Rhodes’s The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House (Bodley Head, 12/18) stands out. Rhodes was speechwriter and foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama; this book is a stark reminder of how the world has changed since Donald Trump’s election. Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., 4/18) is a wonderful account of the discovery of Australia’s Indigenous history, blending archaeology, politics, and landscape. Most powerful of all is Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, 10/18), written from the detention centre on Manus. It should be compulsory reading for every federal politician.

Mark Edele

The Long Hangover: Putin's new Russia and the ghosts of the past by Shaun WalkerThe Long Hangover: Putin's new Russia and the ghosts of the past by Shaun WalkerMy highlights of the year are all first books. Shaun Walker is a reporter with a history degree. His The Long Hangover: Putin’s new Russia and the ghosts of the past (OUP, 4/18) is the best recent book about contemporary Russia. Johannes Due Enstad’s rigorously researched Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile loyalties in World War II (CUP) brings a new complexity to the study of the USSR’s World War II; and Iva Glisic’s The Futurist Files: Avant-garde, politics, and ideology in Russia, 1905–1930 (Northern Illinois University Press) combines the sensibilities of the art historian with the rigour of archive-based political history. It invents a new genre: the political history of radical art. This achievement is all the more impressive, as the author is among the growing number of talented Australian scholars forced to make a living at the margins of an under-funded university sector.

Brenda Niall

The Shepherds Hut by Tim WintonThe Shepherds Hut by Tim Winton‘Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,’ remarked Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I was reminded of laconic, unshockable Huck when I read Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18). Winton tells the story in the first-person voice of fifteen-year-old Jaxie, who is on the run as a suspect for the murder of his abusive father. When he finds a protector in dubious circumstances, Jaxie’s capacity to trust is tested to the limit, as is the physical strength needed to survive in a harsh West Australian landscape. A powerful, haunting story. In 2018 it was time to say goodbye to the irreplaceable William Trevor with Last Stories (Viking, 6/18). In a fictional world that is peopled with eccentrics, misfits, and failures, Trevor’s quiet comic sense and his compassion are held in a unique balance. These final stories are elegantly crafted, finely observed, and inventive as always.

Geoff Page

An Open Book by David MaloufAn Open Book by David MaloufThis has been a year of summations and farewells in Australian poetry. Four books may be mentioned, the heaviest of which is Les Murray’s new Collected Poems (Black Inc., 12/18). As you might predict, its 736 pages contain some of the best poetry written in this country. A work of comparable interest, if smaller scale, is David Malouf’s collection An Open Book, which maintains an almost airy, late-life suspension throughout. Another likely valediction is Clive James’s The River in the Sky (Picador, 11/18). It’s a phantasmagoric verse memoir, less strictly controlled than his other books produced since a life-threatening diagnosis six years ago. Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is the summation of an exemplary Australian career. Her poems are constructed from finely described details, most of which are tapped into place with simile or metaphor. The most memorable of them involve a rejection of cruelty, whether to humans or animals.

Beejay Silcox

No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz BoochaniNo Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz BoochaniAs an undergrad – full of pith and vinegar – I dismissed Australian literature as tedious, irrelevant tosh. In my defence, I’d been introduced to Aussie writers at school with all the enthusiasm of a vaccination, a literary inoculation. Rest assured, I’ve since been proved thoroughly and delightfully wrong. 2018 has been a magnificent year for Australian letters. For me, the year’s quiet marvel was Robert Lukins’s The Everlasting Sunday (UQP, 4/18) a gorgeously restrained début, in which a house of unwanted boys must survive more than winter’s cruelties. A novel of ice, with a heart of fire. But the year’s clarion call was No Friend But the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani’s inconsolably human account of his inhuman detention on Manus Island – a plea, a poem, and a mighty indictment. As Richard Flanagan insists in his foreword: this is an Australian story, its author ‘A great Australian writer’.

John Kinsella

Aboriginal Country by Jen Jewel Brown Aboriginal Country by Jen Jewel Brown Lisa Bellear once wrote to me in an email, ‘Let’s get busy’ – a call for living life, in conjunction with action, in so many ways. Jen Jewel Brown has done an excellent job compiling much of Bellear’s uncollected poetry in the vital collection Aboriginal Country (UWAP). The emphatic, committed voice of this remarkable Goernpil woman, feminist, poet, photographer, and activist shines through. Other remarkable collections of Australian poetry this year include Kent MacCarter’s postmodern tour de force, California Sweet (Five Islands Press), Sarah Day’s striking book of seeing Towards Light and Other Poems, Philip Mead’s intensely honed and intelligent late-modernist re-engagement with the world as experienced in Zanzibar Light (Vagabond Press, 5/18), and the poised tension and verbal control of Misbah Khokhar’s prose poems in Rooftops in Karachi (Vagabond Press).

Astrid Edwards

Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen DoveyIn the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Doveyis intense and provocative, an artful exploration of love and power. It is fiction to devour over the summer break. The Tall Man was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Chloe Hooper has done it with The Arsonist. Hooper creates emotion from fact and recounts the Black Saturday fires with empathy and intelligence. Rachael Brown achieved an Australian first: turning a number one true-crime podcast into a Walkley-shortlisted book. Trace: Who killed Maria James? (Scribe) is a gripping read. And finally, imagine if Harry Potter had been written with a female protagonist? Jessica Townsend has done just that with Wundersmith: The calling of Morrigan Crow (Hachette) The series is a reading gateway drug for the next generation.

Frank Bongiorno

The Battle Within: POWs in postwar AustraliaThe Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia by Chrstina TwomeyIt has been a year dominated by history and non-fiction, even more than is usually the case for me. I enjoyed several, but two stood out. Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming is a beautifully written account of how the archaeological profession came to learn what Indigenous people had long known: that they had lived in this country for aeons. Christina Twomey’s The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia (NewSouth, 8/18) manages to be quietly moving without ever descending into mawkishness. In a highly readable and superbly researched book, Twomey shows how Australian POWs in Japan moved from being an embarrassment on the periphery of Australian consciousness to finding a place near the centre of our collective memory of war.

Gregory Day

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker Blakwork by Alison Whittaker Richard Powers’ The Overstory (Norton) was my 2018 fiction highlight. I lost myself in the branches of this big book, in the ideas, the imagery, the eloquence, and the melodrama. I already think of it as a Moby-Dick of trees and, like Moby-Dick, it redeploys a bristling field of natural science for the purposes of an emotionally charged human narrative. Not to mention an environmentally urgent one. Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and selected poems was also a highlight. Like Powers, Beveridge has a gift for finding ways to match the natural world in words. I also very much enjoyed Alison Whittaker’s virtuosic collection, Blakwork (Magabala). The way Gomeroi words are always bursting through the English in Blakwork feels more like the future than the past. It’s surely one of the key books in our current Aboriginal literary and linguistic renaissance.

 

Brenda Walker

Milkman by Anna BurnsMilkman by Anna BurnsAnna Burns’s Milkman (Faber) – winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize – is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Political idealism has rotted into lethal small-scale totalitarianism, coldly observed by a funny, sensible, and relentlessly literary eighteen-year-old girl who is sexually menaced by a senior paramilitary figure. Milkman is fabulously digressive, a brilliant survey of cruelty and coercion. Alice Nelson’s The Children’s House (Vintage, 10/18) is an exceptional Australian novel about exile, also witnessed by a young and thoughtful woman. Marina’s New York is haunted by the loss of countries – Rwanda, Israel, Ireland, El Salvador. It documents both the brutal severance and the unexpected reconfiguration of community, families, and ideals.

Anthony Lynch

White Houses by Amy BloomWhite Houses by Amy BloomIn White Houses (Granta), American novelist Amy Bloom inhabits the voice and spikey character of Depression-era journalist Lorena Hickok. Through archival research and vivid reimagining, Bloom offers a remarkable portrait of the not-so-secret love between ‘Hick’ and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Closer to home, David Sornig in Blue Lake (Scribe) also mines the archive, as well as extensive interviews and his own first-hand knowledge, to reconsider the zone west of Melbourne’s CBD that was once fertile wetland and lagoon. Imaginatively constructed and with erudite first-person guidance, this is the kind of riveting non-fiction that deserves the term ‘creative’. Poet Kevin Brophy sensitively explores another geography and body of water in Look at the Lake (Puncher and Wattmann, 9/18). Brophy spent two years at Mulan, home of the Walmajarri people in the Kimberley, and his wry, beautifully weighted poems quietly diarise an outsider’s observations of community life.

Suzy Freeman-Greene

Eggshell Skull by Bri LeeEggshell Skull by Bri LeeI read Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull (Allen & Unwin) in one furious day. This dark, sparkling memoir of a young judge’s associate tells how she gradually finds the nerve to report the man who molested her as a child. Lee’s voice is warm and surprising; her writing fizzes with energy, ideas, and great sentences. I also devoured the edition of Freeman’s literary journal (Text Publishing) that is devoted to the theme of power. Exceptional essays include Josephine Rowe’s charged account of her time as a life model, Aminatta Forna on street harassment, and Nicole Im’s exquisite meditation on suicide. The funniest book I read this year was Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Abacus, 2017). It’s rare to laugh out loud while reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Greer’s tale of an almost washed-up novelist nudging fifty is hilarious, touching, and deceptively profound.

Tom Griffiths

Tracker by Alexis WrightTracker by Alexis WrightAlexis Wright’s Tracker (Giramondo, 1/18) offers rich and complex storytelling, a kaleidoscope of voices that illuminates the remarkable Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth and advances a new model of life writing. Mark McKenna’s Quarterly Essay Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (Black Inc.) is a product of decades of deep thinking and a passionate and timely call for a ‘reconciled republic’. Two novels that have impressed me with their radical ecological consciousness are Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (Fourth Estate, 2017) and Richard Powers’ The Overstory. And I enjoyed the late meditations of two great writers: Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye: A thought diary (Faber).

Felicity Plunkett

Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. CoetzeeWriters on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. CoetzeeThroughout Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water (Penguin), the pain of chains ‘someone was made to drag’ is replaced by the ache when ‘love let them be / Unclasped’. Whether her subject is the fight against chemical pollution, slaves’ liberation, or a sorrowful woman visited by angels, Smith’s poems insist on love as cure, solution, and light, as into a room ‘where the drapes / Have been swept back’. The fragmentary revelations and vivid slivers of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight (Jonathan Cape, 9/18) collect in the dim lights of memory and secrecy as his protagonist traces ‘the obscure rigging of our mother’s life’. Robin Robertson’s The Long Take (Picador) is a marvellous book-length poem mapping a young veteran’s postwar journey in an exhilarating poetics shaped by film noir and jazz. Ceridwen Dovey’s Writers on Writers: On J.M. Coetzee (Black Inc., 11/18) limns desire, abandonment, connection, reading, and writing in an exquisite, layered essay.


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Gideon Haigh

The Lost Boys by Gina PerryThe Lost Boys by Gina PerryWith the best book I read in 2018, I was catching up. Peter Pomerantsev’s travelogue of Russia under Putin, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (2014), came out in paperback last year. It covers events from 2006 and 2014, during which the London-based journalist was mostly working as a television producer for Russian entertainment television. It’s like Stasiland adapted in the style of Black Mirror, bleakly hilarious when not downright chilling. An ideal historical companion volume was Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017), a saga of domestic life in a Soviet apartment block before, during, and after the Terror. Gina Perry’s The Lost Boys (Scribe, 5/18), an engrossing expose of the Robbers Cave experiment, a classic study in social psychology, was also a fine historical recreation.

Judith Bishop

Rainforest by Eileen ChongRainforest by Eileen ChongWhat a strong year for poetry. I loved the resonant, perceptive lyrics in David Malouf’s An Open Book and Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry). Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Rondo (Carcanet) rollicks through time and space in the green fields of his joyous imagination. Here, the first Homo sapiens baby is eyed by bemused hominids, who ponder ‘Was this bod something to do with a future?’ Thirty years ago in I’m Deadly Serious (1988), Wallace-Crabbe pictured cars ‘with hearts in their mouths / as though they had something big to offer knowledge’. Yuval Noah Harari certainly does. His own epic imagination of the human journey through evolutionary time ended on a note of high alarm in Homo Deus (Vintage, 2017). His latest, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Cape), brings his winged vision to subjects ranging from fake news to freedom to humanity’s uncertain future.

James Ley

Trigger Warnings by Jeff SparrowTrigger Warnings by Jeff SparrowFrom the avalanche of books trying to make sense of our present moment, I would like to single out two for special mention: Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings: Political correctness and the rise of the Right (Scribe) and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Pantheon). Sparrow’s book is a provocative reading of the culture wars that develops a distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘delegated’ politics. Jacoby’s book takes a longer historical view: it attempts to trace the irrationality of contemporary US culture back to its origins. Along the way, Jacoby develops a stimulating and wide-ranging thesis about why certain forms of unreason should have found such rich soil in the secular democratic republic of the United States. I would also recommend the latest novel by Richard Powers. The Overstory, written with characteristic intelligence, is a rich and satisfying novel that addresses the environmental catastrophe we are creating and challenges us to rethink our place within the natural world.

Kerryn Goldsworthy

Less by Sean GreerLess by Sean GreerPhillipa McGuinness’s The Year Everything Changed: 2001 (Vintage, 6/18) is full of exploding memory-bombs for those who were paying attention to the news back then. McGuinness takes that watershed year and interrogates the tripes out of it, her lively intellect playing across the 2001 news calendar like a beam of light. It also reflects the way we all live, with one eye on current affairs and the other on our own intimate and daily experience. At first, the reader may wonder why Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. While it’s witty and warm and full of delightful characters, it seems a little lightweight. But it gathers heft as it goes, with its tale of a lonely gay novelist looking down the double barrels of his fiftieth birthday and his ex-lover’s approaching wedding.

Clare Corbould

An American Marriage by Tayari JonesAn American Marriage by Tayari JonesThe most important book I read this year was Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains. Part philosophy, part reportage, part memoir, Boochani’s account of Manus Island lingers in the mind. That it was composed by SMS and WhatsApp messages makes the book, and its author, all the more impressive. Recent policy changes in Canberra suggest the book has even had its intended impact. In the long term, it should also find a lasting place in the canon of prison literature. Novelist Tayari Jones probes the effects of the carceral state on intimate relationships in An American Marriage (Vintage). It’s a stunning portrait of the pressures under which even middle-class African Americans live.

Geordie Williamson

Collected Poems by Les MurrayCollected Poems by Les MurrayThere was no competition. Les Murray’s Collected Poems squats on my desk like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a handsome volume and a substantial one whose contents are by turns grotesque, elegant, abstruse, innovative in form, conservative in spirit, and often achingly felt. Murray is a difficult poet in many respects, but this grand summa demands awe and admiration. Barry Hill’s Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980–2017 (Monash University Publishing, 5/18), is a compendium of life-work by another commanding figure in Australian literary culture. It reveals the sheer range of Hill’s passions and concerns over time, and it reminds us of the commitment, curiosity, and care he has brought to bear upon each of them. No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani may or may not be the best book of the year; it is certainly the most important.

Morag Fraser

No Place like Home: Repairing Australia's housing crisis by Peter MaresNo Place like Home: Repairing Australia's housing crisis by Peter MaresPeter Mares has been pricking Australian consciences in his informed, dispassionate way for decades. No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s housing crisis (Text Publishing) is yet another instance of his salutary ability to take a highly politicised issue, examine its details, and provide both a lucid and ethical response and a context that informs, rather than inflames, his general audience – journalism at its very best. Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut is a tour de force. Winton is one of the few writers I know who could carry off such a sustained vernacular performance. The voice of Jaxie Clackton is utterly authentic (sounds like the Tim Winton I heard twenty-five years ago), and his helter-skelter Bildungsroman is searing and morally confronting. Unforgettable fiction for exactly this moment.

Susan Sheridan

The Death of Noah Glass by Gail JonesThe Death of Noah Glass by Gail JonesAmong this year’s Australian publications, Gail Jones’s mesmerising prose and intricate structuring made The Death of Noah Glass my top novel-reading experience. Also from Text, Nadia Wheatley’s memoir Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir moved me deeply, recounting the life of a strong woman who found the constraints of domestic life in the postwar years unbearable. To complete a trio of genres, I choose David Malouf’s poetry collection An Open Book. UQP has made a beautiful book to house poems of limpid grace and wise insight.

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    To celebrate the best books of 2018, Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser

A healthy suspicion should surround books that arrive neatly on some commemorative due date – in this case, the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is not that biographer Fiona Sampson is less than able and diligent in her efforts to celebrate a novel which has resonated like few others during the long modernity inaugurated by the European Romantics. Nor is it wrong that she should foreground Mary Shelley’s life experience as a woman and a mother as a way of revivifying a text so absorbed into our collective consciousness as to be paradoxically invisible.

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  • Custom Article Title Geordie Williamson reviews 'In Search of Mary Shelley: The girl who wrote Frankenstein' by Fiona Sampson
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    A healthy suspicion should surround books that arrive neatly on some commemorative due date – in this case, the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is not that biographer Fiona Sampson is less than able and diligent in her efforts to celebrate a novel which has resonated like ...

  • Book Title In Search of Mary Shelley
  • Book Author Fiona Sampson
  • Book Subtitle The girl who wrote Frankenstein
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  • Biblio Profile Books, $34.99 pb, 304 pp, 9781781255285

‘In nearly all Trevor’s stories,’ wrote V.S. Pritchett almost four decades ago, ‘we are led on at first by plain unpretending words about things done to prosaic people; then comes this explosion of conscience, the assertion of will which in some cases may lead to hallucination and madness.’ Even here, in this collection drawing together those final stories left after William Trevor’s death in 2016, the same method holds true. Take ‘The Crippled Man’, the second piece of ten. It begins with an exchange between an older Irishman and two foreign workmen in the kitchen of a crumbling smallholding in County Kildare about the possibility of their painting his house. There could be no more homespun opening than the question of price based on one coat or two while a black cat pounces on pieces of bark fallen from firewood.

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  • Custom Article Title Geordie Williamson reviews 'Last Stories' by William Trevor
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    ‘In nearly all Trevor’s stories,’ wrote V.S. Pritchett almost four decades ago, ‘we are led on at first by plain unpretending words about things done to prosaic people; then comes this explosion of conscience, the assertion of will which in some cases may lead to hallucination and madness.’ Even here, in this collection ...

  • Book Title Last Stories
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  • Biblio Viking, $29.95 pb, 214 pp, 9780241337776

Most editors look forwards, not back. We have to: there are pages to fill, readers to court, deadlines to meet. But publication of a 300th issue of a literary review invites retrospection, if not undue nostalgia.

Australian Book Review was founded in Adelaide in 1961. Edited by Max Harris and Rosemary Wighton, the first series ran until 1974. The second series, of which this is the 300th issue, began in June 1978. (The contributors included Don Watson, Thomas Shapcott, Bruce Beaver and ABR stalwart Margaret Dunkle; Horner sketched Manning Clark on the front cover; and new books under review included Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, Sumner Locke Elliott’s Water under the Bridge and Dennis Lillee’s The Art of Fast Bowling.) John McLaren edited ABR until the mid-1980s, and was followed by Kerryn Goldsworthy, Louise Adler, Rosemary Sorensen and the late Helen Daniel.

It is always a privilege to work with fine writers and upholders of literary values. I thank all our contributors – and all our readers – for enabling us to maintain what Delia Falconer memorably described as not just a magazine but an ideal. I salute my colleagues and forerunners. To celebrate the publication of our 300th issue, we invited a few of them to comment on the milestone.

Peter Rose

 

Inga Clendinnen

I wrote my first books as offerings to the Mesoamerican Academy across the Water, which I imagined as very like the Nine Mayan Lords of Death: nameless, aloof, implacable and almost certainly fatal. Then I met Helen Daniel (through, as it happens, a review in ABR) and discovered the Republic of Letters, Australian Branch. Helen ran her second-hand book and furniture shop on Brunswick Street as a literary drop-in centre. Then she took over the editorship of ABR, with its comet-tail of committed helpers, writers, readers and sympathisers. Then she introduced me to the professionals – the publishers, the booksellers, the journal and newspaper editors – who keep the Republic in health, and to the writers’ festivals where this normally secretive society flexes its muscle and shows its strength.

Journals such as ABR are the Republic’s blood and sinew, linking and animating its parts, and also its voice, declaring its presence, demanding it be heard.

Happy 300th birthday, ABR.

Glyn Davis

The recent demise of Australia’s longest-running magazine, the Bulletin, recalls the fragility of literary culture in Australian society. Despite its legendary status, the Bulletin joins the daunting list of local magazines and journals which falter and then vanish.

We are lucky that some defy the odds. ABR, now celebrating 300 issues, sits alongside long-running journals such as Southerly, Meanjin and Overland, and relative newcomers including the Griffith Review and the Australian Literary Review, in offering reflection on contemporary Australian literature, politics, policy and society.

ABR demonstrates how a good review sharpens the quality of Australian writing through intelligent criticism. This leads to celebrated controversies and occasional injustices. Yet without judgment there is no way to celebrate great authors, to promote the undeservedly obscure, to create audiences for new works and nurture debate about content and style. Criticism takes text seriously, as the ideal vehicle to carry Australian ideas into a wider world. In sup- port of such important work, 300 ABR issues is barely sufficient to start the task.

Morag Fraser

It was a Miles Franklin moment: a large crowd gathered in the marble foyer of the National Library and speaker after charismatic speaker calling for the establishment of an Australian equivalent of the London/New York/Paris Review. Suddenly a quiet voice cut through. We have an Australian Book Review already, she said. Why search so anxiously abroad for models?

The speaker was Helen Daniel, editor at the time of ABR, and a forceful advocate throughout her life for Australian literature and for a critical culture to support that literature. She would be delighted, I know, to be cutting the 300th birthday cake with her equally passionate successor, Peter Rose.

It is a brave person who edits, funds or publishes a literary review in Australia, with its small, scattered reading public and the grinding uncertainty of funding, but it is an essential labour if we want to understand ourselves in the way Miles Franklin intended – beyond the straitjacket of national identity politics. Literary magazines are the echo chambers of a society, the place where poets’ words can resonate beyond their own heads, where essays find their ease, where argument can run over more than two column inches, where novelists find their obsessive, isolated labours acknowledged – not always loved perhaps – and received by the culture they explore and articulate, where scholars can touch a reading public broader than the academy. Magazines that claim longevity, as ABR can, help build that national habit of critical scrutiny and the vital tradition of civil argument and engagement. How much better than war?

But it is endless, relentless attention to detail and dedication – to the twists and turns of the culture, and to the placement of every comma – that produces a magazine of quality, so I salute all at ABR, and all who have gone before them, for being there, day after day and night after night, to see her grow old(er) with such precision, wit and grace.

Kerryn Goldsworthy

Asked in my capacity as one of its former editors to say a few words on the occasion of ABR’s 300th issue, I am reminded of my mother in the cake shop one year, buying, for the family celebration of my sister’s birthday, a cake featuring her favourite cartoon cat. ‘And how old is the child, Mrs Goldsworthy?’ the man in the cake shop inquired oleaginously. ‘Thirty-seven,’ Ma replied, deadpan.

While I was its editor in the mid-1980s, ABR was my baby. Twenty years on, I’m glad to see it still being looked after so well as it celebrates another anniversary. Nothing could have prepared me for the reality of editing the magazine, for, as with a real baby, it required, with unrelenting ruthlessness (and no doubt still does), to be fed and cleaned up. When you edit a monthly magazine, you’re working on three, sometimes four, issues at once: commissioning, editing, marking up, laying out, and trundling round the country to conferences and writers’ festivals with promotional bundles of the current issue costing you a fortune in excess baggage.

But one of the unexpected satisfactions of ageing is watching things that you had a hand in twenty years ago as they continue to thrive. I am sure the original editors Max Harris and Rosemary Wighton never thought the magazine would outlive them, but at this rate it will outlive us all.

Richard Walsh

I was actually on the board of the National Book Council when we made the big leap of faith and revived ABR in 1978 under the inspired editorship of the bearded and somewhat dishevelled literary warrior, John McLaren. I later served on its advisory board, as I think it was then called, under Brian Johns. I recall delivering a toast to its sainted editor, Kerryn Goldsworthy, at a typically rumbustious lunch in a small Melbourne eatery, probably on the tenth anniversary of the Glorious Restoration.

Such fond memories emerge from the mists of time, but the need for ABR remains constant. In March I reviewed in these pages Bruce Dover’s new account of Rupert Murdoch’s adventures in China. For some reason or other, this book will definitely not be reviewed in the Australian news- paper, nor, it seems, in its monthly Australian Literary Review supplement. Eric Ellis’s excellent review of it for the Far Eastern Economic Review (which recently fell into Rupert’s clutches) has been spiked.

Long live independent publishing! Long live ABR!

Geordie Williamson

I remember my first conversation with Peter Rose, even though it took place seven years ago, because I took the call on a mobile while standing beneath the four-tonne chandelier hanging in the auditorium of Sydney’s State Theatre. It glowed in Kitsch affirmation as he asked whether I was interested in reviewing for ABR. I was, and did, starting with some bloke – Malcolm Knox – who had written a novel called Summerland. I don’t think my effort was up to much, but it was largely positive and hopefully not too far off the money. (When, years later, we finally met, Malcolm was blissfully unaware of my review. ‘Actually,’ he added, ‘I thought you were a woman.’)

It sounds naïve to say so, but that review was my first glimmering that Australian critics could write about Australian artists, and that such dialogue had its own weight and worth. For someone who had been living solely on imported literature, it was a timely reminder of the riches to hand. I began devouring everyone from Thea Astley to Patrick White by way of restitution.

After moving to London for work and study, I turned to Australian authors for a different reason: homesickness. I know, for instance, that I read Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown in a pub off the Portobello Road, because my copy still contains the establishment’s beer mat as a bookmark. Likewise, a dried umbril of Cow Parsley pinpoints a reading of the ‘Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ to the Undercliff, above Lyme Regis in Dorset. Oz Lit became my Moveable Feast during these years. Or, more appropriately, it became my endlessly nourishing Magic Pudding.

When I eventually decided to return home, to join the Noble Society of Pudding Owners – whose ‘members are required to wander along the roads, indulgin’ in conversation, song and story, and eatin’ at regular intervals from the Pudding’ – it was ABR I was thinking of. I’m grateful to the magazine for welcoming me back to the feast.

Clive James

In Australia, one of the penalties for having survived long enough as some kind of literary figure is to be asked, in one’s senior years, to write a chapter in the latest distinguished volume devoted to the history of Australian literature. Such requests, though flattering, oblige the victim to write a story from which he must leave himself out. My powers of self-abnegation stop well short of that, so I always say no. Why should I leave myself out when I have so many contemporaries to do it for me?

But if I were forced at gunpoint to write such a chapter, I would begin by saying that the growing prominence of the independent literary magazines in recent years has helped to create an inhabitable Australian literary world, and that ABR has been in the vanguard of this development. Long wished for, an Australian literary world was slow to arrive, partly because it was so keenly awaited: the pot grew nervous from being watched. Especially in the field of poetry, the pre-modern era was dependent on the newspapers, with the Bulletin counting as a kind of amplified newspaper. The requirements of popularity had some strong results. (Les Murray has always been right to stress the importance of what he was first to call the ‘newspaper poem’, and, gratifyingly often, he still writes it.) Looking back to my own beginnings, I remember the magazines as being few, thin and hard to find unless you were attached to the same university as they were.

Actually, this memory is inaccurate: it was always worthwhile to keep a file of Meanjin, for example, and when James McAuley started Quadrant he raised the stakes for everyone. But when I sailed for England in the early 1960s, that was the way the Australian picture looked to me. From here on, my brief account gets personal. Peter Porter, I suspect, has a more informative story about what it meant to become an expatriate Australian poet. He had more reason to think about what was involved, because poetry was his whole endeavour, and the problem of maintaining a spiritual presence in the homeland he had physically left would be a matter of life and death to him. I could never claim that kind of thoughtfulness. Working more by instinct than by strategy, and always more by luck than judgment, I had a big enough task establishing and maintaining a poetic reputation in Britain, where my other reputation as a professional entertainer seemed determined to get in the way. Get caught on screen with your arms around Margarita Pracatan and see what it does to your status as a lyric poet.

But precisely because Britain was in possession of a fully developed literary world, it had room for someone who broke its rules of dignity. In Britain, everyone is aware, even if they hate the idea, that the poet who doesn’t fit the picture might be part of the picture. One could be given the cold shoulder – any number of cold shoulders – yet not be frozen out. Even my poems about Australia found space in the literary pages of London. Eventually, I found my- self writing more and more such poems, and Australian editors – who were still keeping their eye, as always, on the British and American magazines – began asking to re- print them. I was glad to comply, although I hasten to insist that I had no plans for making a reconquista. It had long been apparent to me that the expatriate, should he wish for a return, was up against the same difficulties as a space traveller making a re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere: unless he got the angle exactly right, he would burn up, with the implacable Australian press waiting on the ground to interview the fragments. But really my poetry was proof that I had never been away.

It had already proved that to me. Any decent poem begins in feelings so deep that we might as well call them instinctual, and what I had been discovering was the nature of my instinct, which had been formed in Australia and never forgotten it, whatever my conscious mind might have thought. With a whole heart, I can thank the Australian magazine editors for having spotted this almost before I did. At the head of these editors was Peter Rose, who generously made space available in the ABR for poems I had published in Britain and America but which might also appeal to Australian readers who had no easy access to the periodicals they first appeared in. Later on there were other editors, and there were poems which had their first publication in Australia, but ABR continued to provide me with my most welcoming landing strip for things I was sending in, or bringing back, from abroad: it was my Edwards Air Force Base. ABR even ran the full text of the address I gave when I received, in Mildura, the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal, which remains my sole big literary prize, and the only one I will ever need (ABR, September 2003).

When I published that address as a chapter in a book, I gave the book the same title as the chapter, The Meaning of Recognition. Self-dramatising is what I do for a living – everything I write, in whatever form, is an unreliable memoir – but the drama, I would like to think, is not always entirely about me. In writing about the magnificent but cruelly abbreviated achievement of Philip Hodgins, I was an expatriate trying to fulfil what I think of as part of the expatriate’s duty: to help give Australia to the world, and to bring a world view to the task of clarifying Australia’s position to itself. Laid out as an argument, the full story of how I view that duty would take a book all on its own, but I would be surprised if my work had not been telling the story by implication for these many years. ABR has played a crucial part in helping me to tell it, so I have a personal reason for being grateful for the magazine’s existence, and I am sure there has been many a contributor, over the course of its 300 issues, who could say the same.

Finally, it comes down to the importance of having a forum in which the concept of intellectual freedom trumps all other political standpoints: a forum in which, wrapped in our separate togas, we can speak our minds to each other without being knifed on the way home. No literary magazine is worthy of its title if it doesn’t provide that. ABR does.

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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 (re.press). ‘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
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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.

Every author has some version of origin story: a narrative describing what it was that first compelled him or her to write, or at least what attracted them to the role. You can hear the tale harden into myth as an emerging author shapes themselves to those obligatory rubrics of self-disclosure required by writers’ festivals. Sometimes the transition from would-be novelist or short story writer is so smooth as to be seamless, an osmotic passage from student of literature to practitioner. These are more likely to be authors already inculcated with the requisite cultural confidence and tutored intelligence of their caste. The children of the creative classes are those who are born to write, as others are born to rule.

But there is another, perhaps more interesting kind of author – the sort who emerges from nowhere. The progenitor figure in the modern Anglosphere tradition is D.H. Lawrence, that wild, weird, proletarian genius (in the local context, Miles Franklin offers a different yet no less compelling case, based on gender and nation rather than class). Unlike those who have been raised up in the relatively sophisticated cultural infrastructure of English literature departments or creative writing degrees, whose tendency is to address themes or subjects removed from direct experience, self-made writers are likely to take their own emergence as a subject. They have willingly chosen their way, not inherited the possibility of the writing life. The story they have to tell, at least in part, is the story of their becoming.

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  • Custom Article Title Geordie Williamson reviews 'The Passage of Love' by Alex Miller
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    Every author has some version of origin story: a narrative describing what it was that first compelled him or her to write, or at least what attracted them to the role. You can hear the tale harden into myth as an emerging author shapes themselves to those obligatory rubrics of self-disclosure required by writers’ festivals. Sometimes ...

  • Book Title The Passage of Love
  • Book Author Alex Miller
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Allen & Unwin, $32.99 pb, 592 pp, 9781760297343

An annual challenge: how to select essays which capture the moment but live beyond the immediate?

For some, rigour matters. The series editor for The Best American Essays invites magazine editors and writers to submit contributions to a Boston postal address. The rules are strict: an essay is a literary work that shows ‘an awareness of craft and forcefulness of thought’. It must be printed during the year, in full, in an American periodical. Unpublished work cannot be considered, nor extracts from longer works. The endless flow of submissions is reduced to just 100 potential essays and submitted to a guest editor – in 2016 Jonathan Franzen. The resulting volume includes a list of essays considered, so readers can test their judgement against the editor.

Geordie Williamson, critic and Picador publisher, takes a more expansive view. There are unpublished essays in The Best Australian Essays 2016: from Vicki Hastrich on art and death, and an unflinching reflection on her vagina and childbirth by Tegan Bennett Daylight. Most contributions touch on an Australian theme, though several essays do not. Williamson has curated carefully but says little about his editorial decisions. There are essays from fifteen women and fourteen men, with the women published first. The collection pivots on a discussion about football by Anna Spargo-Ryan, a homage to her grandfather’s deep love of the Norwood Reds,gently shifting the voice from female to male. Williamson has commissioned some pieces, sourced others from small magazines and web publications. Every rule offered by the American guide is broken somewhere, usually to good effect.

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  • Custom Article Title Glyn Davis reviews 'The Best Australian Essays 2016' edited by Geordie Williamson
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  • Book Title The Best Australian Essays 2016
  • Book Author Geordie Williamson
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  • Biblio Black Inc. $29.99 pb, 320 pp, 9781863958851
Friday, 25 November 2016 10:51

2016 Publisher Picks

Ben Ball

THE GOOD PEOPLE 200pxI’m fresh from Hannah Kent’s compelling, humane, and utterly convincing The Good People (Picador, 10/16). Kent completely inhabits her material. In this single nineteenth–century Irish valley, she has created a whole world – indeed, a whole cosmology – that we struggle to break free from at the end of the book. The folded landscape, the terrifyingly precarious lives (especially of women), the honest engagement with folk wisdom, the cold – is it too early to think of a Kentland?

I also recently read Tara June Winch’s After the Carnage (UQP, 9/16), a remarkable collection of stories roughly a decade after her knockout début, Swallow The Air (2006). Startling without being showy, various but not tricksy, moving, fresh, and beautiful – an extremely potent voice ready to roar.

Ben Ball is Publishing Director, Penguin Books Australia.

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    I’m fresh from Hannah Kent’s compelling, humane, and utterly convincing The Good People (Picador, 10/16). Kent completely inhabits her material. In this single nineteenth ...

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