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.

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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

‘And so I patch it together … I take the liberty of seeking not only an explanation but a connection between what at first might appear to be disparate ingredients.’ The narrator of Gregory Day’s new novel, A Sand Archive, takes many liberties. Enigmatic in various ways, apparently solitary, nameless, and ungendered, this character is nevertheless full of fascinated admiration and affection for an older man who is virtually a stranger, and candid about the feelings and impulses that compel the creation of an intimate account of his life and career. The patchwork is composed of clues found in an obscure publication titled The Great Ocean Road: Dune stabilisation and other engineering difficulties by FB Herschell, along with an archive in ‘the small prime ministerial library at the university on the edge of the water’ in Geelong.

I will admit that this novel sent me, from time to time, to atlases, library catalogues, and Wikipedia. It is absolutely anchored in its place and time, as befits a novel about a civil engineer employed by the Victorian Country Roads Board in Geelong in the second half of the twentieth century. To foster the illusion of historical plausibility, there are illustrations dotted through the pages – grainy greyscale photos of sand dunes, car factories, and, tantalisingly, scraps of manuscript from Francis Herschell’s ‘diary’. But he is not in the author catalogue of the State Library of Victoria and no book with exactly that title exists. Gregory Day’s novel is, like the narrator’s construction of Herschell’s biography, built from a powerful mixture of established historical circumstance and imagination.

A road that is built on sand dunes is both an engineering problem to be solved and a potent metaphor for the human predicament. In A Sand Archive, the young Herschell – familiarly called ‘FB’ in the novel – travels to France in 1968 to meet the experts and report on the suitability of a species of grass to solve the problems of the Great Ocean Road, which periodically collapsed.

In the exultation and chaos of Paris in May 1968, FB meets Mathilde, a student from the very coastal area of France he is about to visit. Their affair is brief and intense, constrained not by convention or family disapproval, but by Mathilde’s sense of the historical moment, which makes her ‘return to the fray,’ away from her undoubtedly strong attraction to the shy young civil engineer from Australia. FB’s encounter with a passionate French woman becomes his defining moment. He never marries, spending his life in Geelong wrangling with his unimaginative and suspicious boss in the CRB, quoting Hélène Cixous to the seagulls, frequenting ‘the bookshop in James Street, Geelong’ where one day he meets the narrator. He writes his book, an obscure volume in which the narrator finds ‘no schmaltz, no spin, only knowledge, technique, experience, and, every now and again, an unexpected glimmer of poetry’.

Poetry glimmers in the novel, too. Often enough I found myself gasping with delighted surprise at an apt and original phrase. Paris in 1968 is alive with ‘a festivity of discontent’. When FB is with Mathilde, everything felt ‘both electric and ambiguous’. At his moment of plenitude, ‘this quickening convergence of his heart and mind’ in France, he wonders if he is ‘suddenly homesick for the astringent and slightly defensive version of existence which he led in Australia’. This is a beautiful description of the life of an intellectual in the provincial Australia of this period, when the life of the mind tended to be regarded with suspicion. The narrator writes, ‘Perhaps for my generation in Australia it has been easier to live the examined life, easier at least to find friends who would be excited by Proust’s theatrophone, or Marguerite Duras’s honesty, or the creative experiments of Georges Perec and Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo).’ But we are warned against pitying FB as ‘a single man shut away with his intellectual obsessions in a quiet house on a quiet street in a small regional city’. The narrator emphasises that this is not the man he met only briefly in person but got to know through the written word, in manuscript and print. ‘My feeling upon meeting him was that he was a man who had fully digested the absurdity of human endeavours, in the sense that we as humans so repeatedly get things wrong.’ He could live with knowing that his great contribution to Victorian road safety was doomed to be condemned by later generations as environmental vandalism: ‘that even as we attempt to rectify our old mistakes we are destined to make new ones’. The introduction of European marram grass to stabilise sand dunes in Australia is perhaps not a mistake on the scale of the introduction of rabbits or cane toads, but the grass is nevertheless now regarded as an invasive species.

Gregory Day photograph by Reg Ryan ABR OnlineGregory Day (photograph by Reg Ryan)This novel about sand and engineering is also, of course, a novel of ideas and passions; a novel about writing a book about sand, engineering, ideas, and passions. ‘Can I presume?’ wonders the narrator. For the biographer, inevitably the question arises as to ‘whether the FB I have created, or re-created, in these pages bears any real resemblance to the man who actually lived’. For the novelist, there are other questions. This is an ambitious, multilayered novel, a novel for intellectuals, for bibliophiles; a book to contemplate, to burrow into, to enjoy with ‘a thinking heart’.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'A Sand Archive' by Gregory Day
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Custom Highlight Text

    ‘And so I patch it together … I take the liberty of seeking not only an explanation but a connection between what at first might appear to be disparate ingredients.’ The narrator of Gregory Day’s new novel, A Sand Archive, takes many liberties. Enigmatic in various ways, apparently solitary, nameless, and ungendered, ...

  • Book Title A Sand Archive
  • Book Author Gregory Day
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Picador, $29.99 pb, 302 pp, 9781760552145

Despite the detailed excavatory art of the finest biographies, sometimes it takes the alchemical power of fiction to approximate the emotional geography of a single human and his or her milieu. Stephen Orr’s seventh novel, a compelling and at times distressing portrait of a twentieth-century Australian painter and his family, is one such book. Roland Griffin’s resemblance to that of Russell Drysdale is clear from early on, not only through Orr’s descriptions of the type of creator Griffin is – a painter of ‘small towns, deserted pubs ... it was all he knew’ – but also through the portrait of the artist’s troubled son (Drysdale’s only son suicided at the age of twenty-one). Drysdale’s family story obviously worked as a catalyst for Incredible Floridas but rather than chronicling that story itself, Orr employs his own creative divinations to construct a breathing and tactile fictional amalgam from its outlines and contours.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Gregory Day reviews 'Incredible Floridas' by Stephen Orr
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Despite the detailed excavatory art of the finest biographies, sometimes it takes the alchemical power of fiction to approximate the emotional geography of a single human and his or her milieu. Stephen Orr’s seventh novel, a compelling and at times distressing portrait of a twentieth-century Australian painter and his family ...

  • Book Title Incredible Floridas
  • Book Author Stephen Orr
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Wakefield Press, $32.95 pb, 335 pp, 9781743055076
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.

When W.H. Auden took the cue for his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ from Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, he did not presume the reader’s knowledge of the iconography of the painting but rather sprang open its central and universal theme, which touches all our lives: how ‘dreadful martyrdom must run its course’. It is easy to think our lurid times are perhaps unsuited to such universalities, given the way we loudly chart even the smallest martyrdom, or indulge the biggest Trump on any manner of forums without ever feeling the need to properly situate the subject within a unifying longue durée. The cultural seeds of Trumpism may be found in most real estate offices, just as they are in Aeschylus and Dan Brown. But who cares about that? When it comes to capturing hearts and minds, umbrage and outrage are as much subject to the traction of demand and supply as anything else. At present, there are more poets writing in this country alone than there are footballers kicking goals at the highest level or politicians compromising the healthy future of our children’s climate. But where are the crowds, where is the hysteria, and the press conferences? Thankfully, not here. Like the ploughman ignoring Icarus falling into the sea in Brueghel’s painting, the workaday world and its directional spotlight will always carry on as if nothing has happened in the poetry world.

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  • Custom Article Title Gregory Day reviews 'The Best Australian Poems 2017' edited by Sarah Holland-Batt
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    When W.H. Auden took the cue for his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ from Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, he did not presume the reader’s knowledge of the iconography of the painting but rather sprang open its central and universal theme, which touches all our lives: how ‘dreadful martyrdom must run its course’. It is easy to think our lurid times are perhaps ...

  • Book Title The Best Australian Poems 2017
  • Book Author Sarah Holland-Batt
  • Author Type Editor
  • Biblio Black Inc., $24.99 pb, 192 pp, 9781863959629
Wednesday, 26 July 2017 16:45

Open Page with Gregory Day

Why do you write?

Because I get enjoyment out of it, and so do other people.Gregory Day Open Page

Are you a vivid dreamer?

Could be. I’m still waiting for the dancing brolgas in my novel The Grand Hotel (2010) to materialise on the riverflat near my house.

Where are you happiest?

There’s an unmarked bush track near home that we privately call ‘The Poulenc’, after the composer of Trois Mouvements Perpétuels. I can be as pretentious as I like out there.

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    Why do you write? Because I get enjoyment out of it, and so do other people.

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

Debra Adelaide

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

Bernadette Brennan

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

Geraldine Brooks

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

Gregory Day

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

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

Ian Donaldson

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

Anna Funder

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

Andrea Goldsmith

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

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

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

Rodney Hall

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

Sonya Hartnett

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

Gail Jones

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

Susan Lever

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

Brian Matthews

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

Peter Rose

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

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

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

Susan Sheridan

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

Geordie Williamson

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

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

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An official account of a naval battle off the coast of Crete on 22 May 1941 includes reference to a ‘friendly fire’ incident when ‘HMS Orion was … repeatedly hit by 40mm shots from HMS Dido, which, in the maelstrom, ended up shooting at her comrade’. A few days later, during the evacuation from Heraklion, the crippled HMS Imperial had to be scuttled and, according to one version, some Australian soldiers were left behind on Crete and others went down with the ship.

In the ‘Author’s Note’ to Archipelago of Souls, Gregory Day cautions that, although ‘the research that has gone into this novel has been extensive, it is a work of the imagination and should not be read as history’, but quite possibly his considerable knowledge of the catastrophic 1941 Crete campaign included the separate fates of the Orion, Dido, and Imperial. Fragments of their sorry story, ‘rearranged or relocated’, as Day puts it, could credibly have contributed to his fictional construction of the central event of this novel, the one which haunts the protagonist, Wesley Cress, and, after the war, helps fuel his inclination for reclusiveness and guarded silence.

For all that it intriguingly echoes aspects of the historical events, however, Archipelago of Souls is unquestionably ‘a work of the imagination’, and it is a daring and often poetic imagination that conducts the narrative of Cress’s Cretan ordeal and its peacetime aftermath. He begins with the ‘true horrors of the German landing’:

the shock came from the open sky when hundreds of coloured brollies of the Fallschirmjaeger suddenly appeared over the water.
       From that moment on, Hell ruled the island. Tiny Freyberg had expected the Germans to come by sea but instead from the air the brollies came down in a slow insidious drift. Were they dots in front of our eyes, a mirage of the heat? No, they came and then they began to land, to become indisputably real. They fell into quarries and fountains, onto beaches and spits, into lanes and backyards and into dried-up riverbeds.

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  • Custom Article Title Brian Matthews reviews 'Archipelago of Souls' by Gregory Day
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  • Biblio Picador, $32.95 pb, 374 pp, 9781743537190

Georgie heard it too. On the very first morning of this story, though so much had gone beforehand. The usual warbling of the typical magpies, if anything so mysteriously complex as a magpie’s song can be called typical. There she’d lie, day after day, alongside Muir in their countless beds, in cramped corner flats and large creaking homesteads, in cold fibro shacks and bedsits baking for the lack of ventilation, listening to the warbling giving birth to the light upon its loom: the many coloured strands of light that, no matter where they were, began each ordinary day. Muir would hurrumph in bed – he was a cranky sleeper; he dreamt of his novels’ characters, he told her, was not to be disturbed, except for sex – his thick freckled shoulder would rise against her and she would sigh and listen, to the coming of the light, until it was eventually strong enough for her to muster the energy and get the kids ready for school. More often than not it was a new school.

But here, in this two-bedroom bungalow on the inlet, with its boxy kitchen and only one wall big enough to hang Muir’s portraits the way he liked, she’d heard it too. The way the subsong of the day had changed, the way it was different then.

As usual they’d arrived at night and nothing could be seen, but in the morning the eldest two, Gus and Jo, had found the yard was flat, there was a cubby out the front, a barbecue made out of beachstones, a towering woodpile too, a flowering gum with a rope swing, the freedom to call and roam. They were straight out amongst it, running the corduroy paths with milk lipsticks and marmalade on their tops, breasting the air. But the youngest, Mossy, did not emerge. When she went in to stroke his head and see if he was sick or sad he only looked up at her and said, the magpie sings a song here Mamma.

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  • Custom Article Title 'The 900s Have Moved', a new story by Gregory Day
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In the weeks and months after his Moira died he’d whittled off the callers, one by one, until even gentle Dave O’Donnell, his oldest friend, felt like a stranger when he came by to drop off a family-size pie. This was an unlikely turn of behaviour. In the resolute stare he gave Dave at the side door of the house, there was a grief that could brook no niceties, despite their history together. Dave wouldn’t be coming in. All the tasks and laughter the two old men had shared over the years became just a dwindling sound on the doorstep between them, an echo like they used to hear from currawongs under the bluestone bridge, when dusk settled in and rain was on the wind and they were called home by their mothers for tea.

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  • Custom Article Title Jolley Prize 2011 (Winner): 'The Neighbour’s Beans' by Gregory Day
  • Contents Category ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize