Gillian Dooley

Personal Effects by Carmel Macdonald Grahame

May 2014, no. 361

A woman, married but alone, stands at a window in a high-rise apartment in Calgary watching the snow fall. Later she might unpack a carton, go out to eat, go to bed. That is about all that happens in the present time in Grahame’s Personal Effects. The rest is memory. This woman, Lilith, from a coastal town in Western Australia, ruminates on a life story fil ...

I have often thought that a large part of achievement is just fronting up; having an idea and acting on it, however unlikely success might seem. What you need is a resolution (or the disposition) not to be discouraged by failure and to be pleasantly surprised by success. If it doesn’t work, you try something else. You make the most of any opportunity. You sh ...

The depredations of time on the ageing human is an unusual topic for a young writer to confront, especially in a first novel, but why not, if the negative capability is not wanting? After all, it’s common enough for an older writer to inhabit young characters. The difference is, of course, that a young writer hasn’t yet been old. In Fiona McFarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, the main centre of consciousness, through whom the whole narrative is perceived, is more than twice the author’s age. In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, McFarlane revealed that both her grandmothers suffered from dementia and that writing about Ruth, a seventy-five-year-old widow who is clearly becoming increasingly confused (the D-word is never used), is an act of homage and remembrance.

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Boy, Lost is a sad and shocking memoir, unique in particulars but not in broad outline. Domestic violence and psychological sadism lie at its heart.


Julia Gillard’s magnificent tirade against Tony Abbott in parliament last year has given Anne Summers her title for The Misogyny Factor, a polemic on the landscape of sexism and disadvantage in Australia based on two of her own recent speeches. Hillary Clinton’s distinction between progress (the signs of how far we have come) and success (enduring c ...

The Beloved by Annah Faulkner

June 2013, no. 352

God gave me polio?’ Taken aback by her grandmother’s bland insistence on unquestioning submission to divine will, the six-year-old child in Annah Faulkner’s novel The Beloved has already started questioning the articles of faith and the assumptions of the adults in her world, in that penetrating way some children h ...

J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing by J.C. Kannemeyer, translated by Michiel Heyns

February 2013, no. 348

When I heard that someone was writing Coetzee’s biography, I thought he must be either brave or foolish. After all, Coetzee’s own approach to autobiography is slippery, to say the least. J.C. Kannemeyer was (he died suddenly on Christmas Day 2011) a South African professor of Afrikaans and Dutch, a veteran biographer, and a literary historian. Coetzee co-operated fully, granting extensive interviews, making documents available, answering queries by email, and offering no interference. ‘He said he wanted the facts in the book to be correct. He did not wish to see the manuscript before publication.’ In other words, he behaved impeccably. Any suspicion that Coetzee’s Summertime (2009), in which a biographer researches the late J.M. Coetzee’s life, is based on his experience of being Kannemeyer’s subject is removed by the epilogue. Summertime was conceived and largely written before the biography was contemplated.

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The skills involved in writing successful novels are rather different from those needed for a weekly newspaper column. In a column, a thousand words must engage the reader, week in week out, whether or not the writer has anything urgent to say. A short deadline is less forgiving, allowing scant time for polishing and self-editing. On the other hand, stylistic idiosyncrasies that might become tiresomely repetitive in a longer format can be indulged, even encouraged – part of the charm.

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The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer is a novel that manages to be absolutely itself, with a wholly idiosyncratic voice, while at the same time acting as a veritable echo chamber of earlier writers. The first page, with its lofty insistence about what ‘should not surprise the world’ in the behaviour of a young woman with the surname Ward, immediately calls to mind Mansfield Park, and the Austen echo is redoubled by the fact that her first name is Marianne. However, Preston’s narrator proceeds to address her readers with a confidence she might have learned from Anthony Trollope, while elsewhere providing information in bulleted lists, a trick Laurence Sterne would probably have found useful had he been writing a couple of centuries later.

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The Burial by Courtney Collins

October 2012, no. 345

In the cheeky biographical note on the press release for her first novel, The Burial, Courtney Collins expresses a wish that she might one day be ‘a “lady” poet’. If I had read that before reading the novel, I would have been slightly alarmed: with many notable exceptions, poets tend not to make good novelists. It is true that The Burial is finely written, with a lovely ear for the cadences of language, but it also has an urgent narrative drive, along with a strong awareness of place, compelling characters, and a whiff of magic realism to enliven the mixture.

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