Maryanne Wolf’s excellent book about the reading brain, Proust and the Squid: The story and the science of the reading brain (2007), quotes Marcel himself:
There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived as fully as those … we spent with a favourite book … they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we will happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and ponds which no longer exist.
Jane Sullivan asserts in Storytime that ‘it’s no exaggeration to say that reading has made me what I am’. Sullivan is a journalist, essayist, and novelist, who currently writes ‘Turning Pages’, a column in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. (She also contributes to ABR.) The young Jane was brought up in London during the 1950s, the daughter of two Australian artist–cartoonists. Here, she re-examines ‘about a dozen’ books that remain fixed in her memory. The writer lays out her framework:
I will first record my memories of them, which might be hazy, or quite wrong. Then I will read them again, and record my new reactions. Because I have a journalist’s curiosity, I will also look around the periphery of the book – at the author, and so on. But I won’t stray too far into the territory of the biographer or the psychologist or the literary critic. This will not be a book about books. It will be a book about my experience of reading those books.
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- Custom Article Title Margaret Robson Kett reviews 'Storytime: Growing up with books' by Jane Sullivan
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Maryanne Wolf’s excellent book about the reading brain, Proust and the Squid: The story and the science of the reading brain (2007), quotes Marcel himself ...
- Book Title Storytime
- Book Subtitle Growing up with books
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Ventura Press, $29.99 pb 346 pp, 9781925384673
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What is it that so fascinates us about lost children? Whether fact or fiction, their stories keep surfacing: Azaria Chamberlain, Jaidyn Leskie, the Beaumont children, or the schoolgirls Joan Lindsay dreamed up for her 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. Indeed, those girls have wafted through so many subsequent incarnations in books, a play, a film, and a television series that some people are convinced they were real and that the story of their disappearance is true.
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- Custom Article Title Jane Sullivan reviews 'Half Moon Lake' by Kirsten Alexander
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What is it that so fascinates us about lost children? Whether fact or fiction, their stories keep surfacing: Azaria Chamberlain, Jaidyn Leskie, the Beaumont children, or the schoolgirls Joan Lindsay dreamed up for her 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. Indeed, those girls have wafted through so many subsequent incarnations ...
- Book Title Half Moon Lake
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Bantam, $32.99 pb, 336 pp, 9780143792062
A stranger rides into a one-horse town on a shiny new motorbike. Cue Ennio Morricone music. Except it’s not a stranger, it’s that skinny dark girl Kerry Salter, back to say goodbye to her Pop before he falls off the perch. The first conversation she has is in the Bundjalung language (translated for our benefit) with three cheeky crows. One bites a dead snake in the head and its fangs get wedged onto the bird’s beak, fastening it shut. Chances are it’ll starve to death, thinks Kerry. ‘The eaters and the eaten of Durrongo, having it out at the crossroads.’
That hapless crow is an apt portent for what Kerry encounters in Durrongo in the rest of Melissa Lucashenko’s splendid black comedy, where just about everybody bites and gets bitten in a cycle of ancestral woes and injustices, pointless violence, family dysfunction, and general stuff-ups. I’d have sighed and wept a bit throughout if it wasn’t so funny.
Lucashenko, born of a European father and a Goorie mother, has produced a string of fine novels (notably Mullumbimby, 2013) and essays, but she has said that Too Much Lip was the most difficult book to write. I’m not surprised: it is consistently unflinching and makes no excuses for anyone, black or white. Lucashenko has also said she had in mind Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors (1990) and The Beverley Hillbillies television show (1964–71). Somehow she pulls off this zanily incongruous mix of influences.
One thread of plot sounds familiar: big bad Jim Buckley, mayor of Durrongo, plans to bulldoze the Salters’ ancestral land on the river and build a jail, and the family is desperate to stop him. Is this yet another tale of colonial bully boys wanting to destroy a sacred Aboriginal Eden? It’s more complicated than that. Way back when, the men with muskets shot Granny Ava as she swam across the river to save herself and her unborn child. She made it, and without her there would be nobody.
Spectres from the troubled past weave in and out of the story, producing staggering surprises for both the characters and the reader. Meanwhile, Kerry struggles to make sense of her maddening family: Pop, the old bastard, the dying patriarch; Pretty Mary, Kerry’s mother, trying to hold everything together but inclined to hit the Fruity Lexia when the going gets tough; big brother Kenny, always a hair-trigger away from violence; little brother Black Superman, who thought he’d got away to Sydney but is inexorably drawn back; and saddest of all, Donny, Ken’s anorexic teenage son, who escapes into the comfort of war games on his computer. Not to mention a sister who has been missing for decades.
What makes this spark up is Kerry herself, who is not just an observer but an active and frequently aggressive participant, as you’d expect from someone who roars into town on a stolen Harley-Davidson Softail. She’s the one with too much lip, she says with regret, but also a defiant pride: ‘Give the arseholes a blast, then stand and defend, or else run like hell.’ I’m always on Kerry’s side, especially when she’s stupidly courting danger or burgling the enemy stronghold. But I found it a little hard to take that she would fall so fast for Steve, the handsome whitefella, when she has always been drawn to her own kind – black and female. If Jim Buckley is the stock white baddie, Steve comes dangerously close to being the stock white goodie.
Mind you, Lucashenko has a lot of fun reversing the stereotypes as she gives us a lustful portrayal of Steve’s hot bod in language usually reserved for female sex objects. So I can forgive her, especially as most of the characters are caught up in an intricate and horribly sticky web of history, ancient and recent, where it’s very hard to lay conclusive blame, even for heinous crimes. You have to go back to the original ‘hard men’, the invaders and colonisers, and their atrocities – and they too have muddied things with their contribution to the gene pool.
Another astringent pleasure is the blunt and energetic language Lucashenko uses in narrative and dialogue. Much of the story is told in Aboriginal vernacular English and the occasional Bundjalung word that isn’t translated, but the meaning is more or less clear. Here’s Pop showing his granddaughter how the local Mount Monk is shaped like a fist: ‘It’s a gunjibal’s fist waiting for us mob to step outta line, waiting to smash us down. We livin’ in the whiteman’s world now. You remember that.’
There were times when I was so horrified I didn’t want to believe what I was reading. Was Lukashenko exaggerating? But she tells us in an afterword that virtually every incidence of violence depicted in the novel has occurred within her extended family at least once.
Somehow Lucashenko wraps up a happy-ish ending from all this evil, hatred, and sorrow. Reconciliation, forgiveness, and understanding are at least on the cards, threats are briskly dispatched, and, paradoxically, the spectacular arrival of the family’s totem shark makes the contrivances more believable.
There is some extraordinary Indigenous writing around at present that heralds a new stage in Australian literature, perhaps in world literature. Too Much Lip is a worthy addition to the work of such original and passionate writers as Kim Scott and Alexis Wright. Talking crows, a talking shark: these are the surreal and symbolic bookends to a story that so often feels hopeless, yet is still the crucible of hope.
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- Custom Article Title Jane Sullivan reviews 'Too Much Lip' by Melissa Lucashenko
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A stranger rides into a one-horse town on a shiny new motorbike. Cue Ennio Morricone music. Except it’s not a stranger, it’s that skinny dark girl Kerry Salter, back to say goodbye to her Pop before he falls off the perch. The first conversation she has is in the Bundjalung language ...
- Book Title Too Much Lip
- Author Type Author
- Biblio University of Queensland Press, $29.95 pb, 328 pp, 9780702259968
Michelle de Kretser
Sybille 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.
In 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.
In 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.
Charles 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.
I 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!’
In 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.
Dennis 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.
Fay 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.
As 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.
Two 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.
I 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.
‘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.
My 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.
I 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.
George 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.
Tara 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.
Andrew 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).
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.
This 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.
I 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.
Many 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.
Evgeny 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.
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.
For 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.
A 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.
Arundhati 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.
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.
We’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.
I 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.
My 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.
Robert 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’.
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.
Michel 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.
I 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.
In 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.
Mohsin 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.
To 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.
Sometimes 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.
- Free Article Yes
- Custom Article Title 2017 Books of the Year
- Contents Category Books of the Year
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To celebrate the best books of 2017 Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser, Susan Wyndham, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Jane Sullivan, Tom Griffiths, Mark Edele, and Brenda Niall.
I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s novels with great pleasure for most of my life, and we’ve all been getting on a bit: Drabble, me, her readers, her characters. So I suppose it was inevitable that we would get to a novel about old age and death. When I discovered that these were indeed the subjects of her eighteenth novel, The Dark Flood Rises, and saw the sinister black-lace design on the cover (is that a devil face?), I steeled myself for a grim read. But it isn’t grim at all.
Grim things certainly happen: infirmity and illness, pain and loss of faculties, grief and loneliness. By the end, some of the people we have come to know intimately are no longer in this world. But on the whole, Drabble’s people are going gently into that good night. Some of them seem to be having quite a good time, considering.
Novels about old people just being old are surprisingly rare. The aged tend to turn up as parents or grandparents of the main characters. If they take centre stage, like Peter Carey’s impossibly ancient Illywhacker, they often do so in order to look back at times when they were young. This is strange when you consider how many well-regarded novelists are hitting their sixties and seventies (Drabble is seventy-seven), and indeed how many of their baby boomer readers are in or approaching the same age bracket. Are we too squeamish to confront the twilight years? Do we believe they are static, dull, the domain of boring old farts?
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Jane Sullivan reviews 'The Dark Flood Rises' by Margaret Drabble
- Contents Category Fiction
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I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s novels with great pleasure for most of my life, and we’ve all been getting on a bit: Drabble, me, her readers, her characters. So I suppose ...
- Book Title The Dark Flood Rises
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Text Publishing $29.99 pb, 325 pp, 9781925355307
Originally published in German, Albrecht Dümling’s The Vanished Musicians: Jewish refugees in Australia (Peter Lang), a fascinating compendium of Jewish musicians who found refuge in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, is now available in Australian Diana K. Weekes’s excellent translation.
Kevin Windle, Elena Govor, and Alexander Massov’s From St Petersburg to Port Jackson: Russian travellers’ tales of Australia 1807–1912 (Australian Scholarly Publishing) is a treasure trove for anyone with a weakness for ship’s captains’ and spunky young Russian ladies’ impressions of our native land. It was a Russian ship that in 1814 brought the news of Napoleon’s defeat to Sydney.
Next is David Brophy’s Uyghur Nation: Reform and revolution on the Russia-China frontier (Harvard University Press). If you have ever wondered who the Uyghurs are, Brophy, who teaches at the University of Sydney, is the man to go to.
The Great Departure: Mass migration from Eastern Europe and the making of the Free World (W.W. Norton), by Tara Zahra, is a ‘must read’ for history buffs as well as migration scholars.
Four books stood out for me this year. David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting: Historical memory and its ironies (Yale University Press, reviewed in ABR 6/16) makes a startling argument: that cultivating historical memory, especially in the political realm, may do more harm than good.
American writer Shadi Hamid’s controversial Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world (St Martin’s Press) examines how the difficulty of reconciling secularism and Islam not only makes integration tricky for Muslims in the West, but perpetuates sectarian war within the religion.
When Breath Becomes Air (Bodley Head), by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who chronicled his own death from cancer, is simply extraordinary: humane, poetic, moving, and enlightening. And Sebastian Smee – The Australian’s former art critic, now with the Boston Globe – has written a riveting study, The Art of Rivalry: Four friendships, betrayals, and breakthroughs in modern art (Text Publishing, 11/16), the title of which says it all.
I’m not sure any book I’ve read this year has affected me as much as Annie Proulx’s monumental account of the human and environmental catastrophe of North America’s forests, Barkskins (Fourth Estate, 8/16). While it isn’t without its faults, in particular its desire to include everything, that same encyclopedic impulse and sense of incoherent grief lends it extraordinary power and breadth, and makes it necessary reading for anybody interested in the environment.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall (Vintage) is also encyclopedic, albeit in a personal sense, and manages the not inconsiderable trick of being both scarifyingly funny and deeply moving (how many other writers are likely to describe getting drunk and throwing up in Björk’s toilet?).
Finally, I loved my friend Georgia Blain’s Between a Wolf and a Dog (Scribe, 5/16). Like all her novels, it explores the often unarticulated complexities of the intersection of the personal and the political with exquisite grace and intelligence.
It’s been a magnificent year for books by Australian women, but I won’t discuss some of the books that I would normally be celebrating, since I’m reading them for the Stella Prize. Among books by men, one stands out: Anthony Macris’s explosively funny Inexperience (UWA Publishing, 12/16). The first part is a sequence of stories describing the quickly deflating love affair of a pair of Australians seeing Europe, and each other, in the absence of love and wonder. Macris charts the hyper-aware thoughts of his decent, stricken narrator, flying home amid dreams of garbage and his mother. Other more comical stories chase obsessions into sad or ridiculous conclusions. Macris is a sincere and sensationally good writer.
I’ve been in the United States this year, so my reading has a distinctly American ‘flavor’. Assuming the country still exists by the time this goes to print (I write on election eve), here are my picks. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 3, 1926–1929 (Cambridge University Press, 8/16) is a superb contribution to a first-rate series, showing Hemingway up close as he becomes a major writer.
It was a treat to have our greatest television critic, Clive James, return to his beat with the excellent and enjoyable Play All: A bingewatcher’s notebook (Yale University Press, 11/16).
Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right (Scribe, 10/16) is surely one of the most important political books of the decade, vital for understanding America’s hyper-partisan politics.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 12/16) – the first American Booker-winner – is currently whizbanging about my head: a stunning satire that leaves no third-rail untouched.
My favourite work of fiction in this year was Georgia Blain’s lush and loss-ridden Between a Wolf and a Dog. It’s a novel about the ways in which we hurt each other, or are hurt by the world, yet it is hopeful and redemptive in the small moments and minute joys that it charts.
In non-fiction, I loved Catriona Menzies-Pike’s The Long Run (Simon & Schuster, 4/16) for its fascinating exploration of women’s bodies in sport and in public, and the delicious humour it directs at runners as a species.
As for poetry, Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food (UQP, 12/16) delighted me with its emotional heft, its sustaining interest in community and love, and the sparse balance of its lyricism and language.
Two of our finest writers on place – Nicolas Rothwell (Quicksilver, Text Publishing, 12/16) and Kim Mahood (Position Doubtful: Mapping landscapes and memories, Scribe, 9/16) – demonstrate why it is impossible to understand Australia without venturing into the interior and far reaches of the continent. Divining the sacred, Rothwell moves effortlessly from Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia to the Pilbara, while Mahood returns to the Tanami, the country that has shaped so much of her artistic and literary practice.
In The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their craft (Black Inc., 8/16), Tom Griffiths, one of our most acclaimed historians of place, turns his eye to his ‘favourite’ historians and writers, distilling the essence of good history and subtly revealing why the discipline’s limitations are also its greatest source of strength.
Finally, two outstanding examples of biographical writing: Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry and Robert Forster’s Grant & I (Hamish Hamilton, 11/16).
This year I was taken by Michelle Cahill’s new collection of poems, The Herring Lass (ARC Publications), a characteristically restless migration across continents and vast bodies of water, fearlessly interrogating dynamics of power and subjugation in both human and animal worlds; Cahill’s collection strikes against the tyranny of the ‘desiccating colonies’ with a supple intellect and graceful musicality.
I was impressed by Dan Disney’s witty, erudite, quickfire either, Orpheus (UWA Publishing). Disney’s inventive takes on the villanelle, held in playful conversation with poets and philosophers, turn the well-worn form (in one instance, quite literally) on its head.
Further afield, I loved Ottessa Moshfegh’s début novel, Eileen (Vintage), mordant psychological thriller in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it is one of the most gripping and disturbing novels I’ve read in years.
Jordie Albiston’s, Jack & Mollie (& Her) (UQP, 5/16) ticks the three essential boxes for a verse novel: it tells a gripping story, it has well fleshed-out characters, and the poetry demands a second reading. It is a book for dog lovers (Jack and Mollie are canine characters), as well as readers interested in the boss dog – Albiston’s expressive rendering of the black dog.
In Mothering Sunday (Scribner), Graham Swift is at his best. This short, perfectly structured novel tells of an orphan housemaid, her lover, and a day of illuminating bliss. Told from a single point of view, the narrative moves with musical ease between the past, the present, and the unfolding future.
Iris Murdoch’s letters, Living on Paper, edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (Chatto & Windus) reveal the philosopher, novelist, and lover in her own uncompromising words. What a woman. What a life.
The great gift this year was Mick: A life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 3/16) by Suzanne Falkiner, which provides the material for a new look at this much-loved writer. Falkiner recovers Stow from the archive, including his own wonderful correspondence, and travels in his footsteps from Geraldton to Harwich and all the way to the Trobriand Islands. She is good on settings, knowing how someone can be out of place where they are most at home, and writes about his loyalties and antipathies with empathy and a dry wit that Stow would surely have appreciated.
Julia Leigh, by contrast, is both hunter and hunted in Avalanche (Hamish Hamilton, 8/16), as she, the woman in the text, pursues a child through IVF. Funny and unflinching, this self-fictionalising prose does just what its title suggests.
It has of course been an extraordinary year globally in politics, with Brexit, Trump, and the rise of insurgent movements of the right and left across the democratic world. Benjamin Moffitt’s The Global Rise of Populism (Stanford University Press) offers an extraordinarily prescient account of these developments with a sweeping narrative encompassing global developments.
Fellow expat Australian Saul Newman’s Post-anarchism (Polity) also offers a notable take on contemporary politics, albeit one framed in terms of the shortcomings of democratic politics itself.
I enjoyed Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn: A very unlikely coup (Biteback Publishing, 11/16), not least for the insights it offers into one of the stranger phenomena of the year: the takeover of the British Labour Party by a hard-left fringe that had for decades made little headway within or without the party. Strange days in contemporary democratic politics; but each of these books has way offered some illumination to those curious to understand the key trends and tendencies of our times.
A few years ago I commended The Gorgeous Nothings (2013), the first full-colour facsimile publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems scribbled on the backs of envelopes. So it’s possibly cheating to now put forward Envelope Poems (New Directions), a petit curation of these same poems, which, in Susan Howe’s words, seem to ‘arrive as if by telepathic electricity and connect without connectives’. It’s too ravishing to ignore. In the corner of one large envelope Dickinson wrote: ‘Excuse / Emily and / her Atoms / the North / Star is / of small / fabric but it / implies / much / presides / yet.’
Equally a work of art is Melissa Ashley’s début novel, The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press), about Elizabeth Gould, who created more than 650 hand-coloured lithographs for The Birds of Australia and other publications.
Turning to living poets, I was especially taken with Liam Ferney’s Content (Hunter Publishing), which I regard as a genuine knockout.
Philippe Sands’s East West Street: On the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ABR, 10/16) is a gripping account of genocide and international justice, mixing the personal and political with rare balance. It also makes a startling companion to Despina Stratigakos’s Hitler at Home (Yale University Press), a fine and original study of Hitler’s carefully crafted domesticity.
With his novel about euthanasia, The Easy Way Out (Hachette, 9/16), Steven Amsterdam cements his place as one of Australia’s best contemporary novelists. The opening scene is excruciating.
Gillian Mears’s The Cat with the Coloured Tail (Walker Books Australia) enthralled my daughters and me. It’s an odd, pensive, beautiful parable for children, and a fine last work by a wonderful Australian writer.
My picks this year illustrate the pleasure that writing can give to its readers. There are very few writers whose personal essays seem to deepen and widen on a second or even a third or fourth read, but Helen Garner is one of them. Her style is inimitable, for while its elegance is undeniable, its essence is pre-verbal, grounded in her intense and unique ways of looking and seeing. Everywhere I Look (Text Publishing, 5/16) seems the ideal title for her 2016 essay collection.
Sticking with women writers from post-colonial countries, I’d also nominate Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, a very funny novel called Hag-Seed: The Tempest retold (Hogarth, 11/16), which is another joy to read. Exuberant, witty, and deeply humane, it reflects Atwood’s mercurial mind and intellectual depth. It is also a very clever exercise in the reading and re-reading of Shakespeare, something that may never get old.
In Music and Freedom (Vintage, 8/16), Zoë Morrison begins with wisps of piano, all those black notes guiding hands, the act of learning and playing. When it enters, the counter-melody is violent and sad, a choice that reverberates in this memorable début novel.
John Murphy’s biography of H.V. Evatt (NewSouth, 11/16) has tragedy, too, if self-inflicted. Murphy gives us a driven man without humour, sophisticated and naïve, a blunt force who achieves much but ends up bewildered and frustrated.
The study of character flows through the fourteen portraits offered in Tom Griffiths’s The Art of Time Travel. Griffiths evokes a conversation across generations about the nature of scholarship and experience. Always generous, if sometimes gently disappointed, this is a meditation on Australian intellectual history to savour.
Shivaun Plozza is a fresh new voice in Young Adult fiction, and her angry heroine Frankie (Penguin, 6/16) is an engaging rebel with a definite cause. The racy, first-person narration shows a keen understanding of contemporary teenagers, and humour is found in the unlikeliest of situations.
Children love Leigh Hobbs’s Mr Chicken wherever he goes, but I especially treasure Mr Chicken Arriva a Roma (Allen & Unwin) because the Australian Children’s Laureate takes him to my favourite city in the world – and to Via Margutta, where I once lived.
A big hooray for the return of Stella Montgomery, Judith Rossell’s plucky little orphan from Withering-by-Sea (2014), now banished by her awful aunts to Wormwood Mire (ABC Books), a mouldering old family mansion full of dark secrets where she is to live with her two odd cousins and their governess. Thrills, chills, and magic – what’s not to enjoy?
Helen Garner’s collection Everywhere I Look was a pure delight. It showcases Garner’s distinctive voice and her take on the world around her. Her view on things is unpredictable, distinctive, and original.
Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things (Fourth Estate) examines the killing of a young American woman in South Africa by a mob just before the fall of apartheid. Van der Leun finds the killers of Amy Biehl and over four years dissects the case and in doing so exposes the hopes and failings of modern South Africa.
Music and Freedom by Zoë Morrison, a novel about domestic violence, is this year’s best début.
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race (Hachette, 10/16) should be read by every Australian. It lays bare our attitudes to race.
The book that will stay with me well beyond this year is Universal Man: The seven lives of John Maynard Keynes by the historian Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins, 12/15). His stunning success is in assembling seven different narratives of the legendary economist who turns out to be so very much more than this mere title. It travels similar ground to the classic Skidelsky biography but summarises the incomparable, diverse skills of this British polymath. Above all, he reminds us of the incomparable importance of persuasion, as a key skill that should exist in every reformer’s quiver. Oh, how needed right now.
I would recommend Madeline Gleeson’s Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru (NewSouth, 8/16), not because it makes pleasant reading, but because it comprehensively documents a reality we must face. Together with the Guardian’s Nauru Files and Four Corner’s ‘Forgotten Children’ exposé, Offshore leaves Australian citizens with nowhere to hide from the crimes committed in our name.
My favourite Australian novel of 2016 was Jacinta Halloran’s elegant and engaging The Science of Appearances (Scribe, 11/16). I suggest it as an antidote to the horrors catalogued in Offshore, because it celebrates those things that make for a flourishing human life: the love of family, a connection to place, and a feeling of belonging, intimacy, sex, art, science, human endeavour, a sense of purpose, hope in the future, and the capacity for moral judgement.
Two dark novels about claustrophobic worlds and captured characters impressed me this year. Charlotte Wood’s dystopian vision of the logical consequence of a misogynistic society, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, 11/15), took me into a penal colony for young women who had proved an inconvenience to powerful men, and then went further: into what happens when your dreams die. It’s a surreal exploration of the way mind, body, and soul can transcend fetters.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Text Publishing) is a portrait of another closed society, a remote crofting village in nineteenth-century Scotland, and a shocking and seemingly inexplicable act of murder by a teenage villager. Accounts, witness reports, and a trial, all set down as in an authentic case, gradually reveal a truth that is chilling yet inevitable: the power of a feudal system that supports petty tyrants, stereotypes its criminals, and grinds down its victims.
The Romanovs, 1613–1918 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 9/16), Simon Sebag Montefiore’s exhaustive trawl through 300 years of Russian family tsardom, is gripping and often astonishing. The whole shebang is typified by Montefiore’s opening words: ‘It was hard to be a tsar. Russia is not an easy country to rule.’
The Long Weekend: Life in the English country house 1918–1939 (Cape), by Adrian Tinniswood, is a gloriously witty Wodehousian account – the stuff of magnificence and madness. For example, this brilliant solution to rewiring an eighteenth-century ballroom without ruining the décor: drop a dead rabbit through the floorboards at one end; at the other, pop in a ferret with the cable round its neck. Voila! Light!
Barry Jones’s The Shock of Recognition is a masterly distillation of the music and literature that has enthralled Australia’s favourite polymath. It’s almost as good as talking with him in person.
I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a collection of poetry as much as Sharon Olds’s Odes (Picador), with all its wit and inventiveness. The contents page alone is a delight (‘Ode to the Clitoris’, ‘Ode to My Fat’, ‘Sexist Ode’, ‘Spoon Ode’). For all their elegiac weight, these poems are joyful and life-affirming, without sentimentality.
Faber cannily avoids calling Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (3/16) poetry, but it owes much to poetry – to Emily Dickinson for the title, and to Ted Hughes for Crow, the oversized bird who helps the book’s grieving family. Porter’s début is a funny, moving, highly original meditation on loss.
Although I have work in both anthologies, I must mention Writing to the Wire (UWA Publishing), poems on (and sometimes by) asylum seekers, and Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter). Each anthology shows Australian poetry to be the urgent, diverse, and engaged thing it is.
A dystopic fable reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s darkest imaginings, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things expands perspectives of the war between men and women, and of what might motivate people who participate – willingly or coerced – in that war. Beyond the horror is a carefully crafted, beautifully observed account of friendship and perseverance.
Any collection of old and new is likely to have rough edges which, if handled well, enchant the reader. This is the case with John Foulcher’s 101 Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 6/16), thirty years’ worth of poems, which are marked by his characteristic gentle wit, close observation, and narrative edge.
I have been a sucker for poetry/photo combos since I read Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes’s Remains of Elmet, and PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy’s The Hollow of the Hand (Bloomsbury) gives them a run for their money. Few songwriters write convincing poetry, but Harvey does, and powerfully.
Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A history of the centuries-long argument over what makes living things tick (University of Chicago Press) is a major work of intellectual history tracing arguments about mind and matter from Descartes onwards.
Less consistent but intermittently brilliant is Donna J. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press), which discusses connections between human and non-human creatures in the contemporary epoch.
American writer Mary Gaitskill’s first novel in ten years, The Mare (Serpent’s Tail), also addresses human–animal relations. Although occasionally awkward, it is a rich and stylistically ambitious work.
A collection of essays edited by William Coleman, Only in Australia: The history, politics, and economics of Australian exceptionalism (Oxford University Press), makes timely points about how Australian myths of ‘mateship’ have modulated into bureaucratic idealisations of ‘computing technology ... and the recurrent catastrophic consequences of that misplaced faith’.
J.M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus (Text Publishing, 10/16) is the continuation of a masterpiece that is breathtaking and enthralling in its strangeness.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) is an astonishing and poignant account of the love of two men, written in a window-pane prose that recalls Tolstoy’s.
The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 6: 1932–1933 (Faber) covers the terrible years of Tom’s abandonment of Viv and what provoked him to leave her, but it also includes innumerable instances of his kindness, disregard for convention, and capacity to see the tears in things for others as much as for himself : an unexpected revelation of a book.
The second volume of Charles Moore’s life of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography (Allen Lane), provides us with an absolute steadiness of hand, the kind of wholly credible portrait of the Iron Lady who did as much to shape the world we live in as anyone.
Seamus Heaney’s slightly stilted translation of Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Faber) and Clive James’s nominal versification of his thoughts about Proust (Gate of Lilacs: A verse commentary on Proust [Picador]) are reminders of the world elsewhere in literature, in which all our reading must take its place.
Robert Harris’s Conclave (Hutchinson), full of the white and black smoke of papal election, was the thriller that topped the highbrow trash stakes.
Two of the great contemporary writers, Helen Garner and Tim Winton, published volumes of essays and occasional pieces this year. These work partly as memoir, appealing to our desire to know about the life that feeds into the writing. Garner’s Everywhere I Look is a generous collection of pitch-perfect sketches and reviews, each one taking us with her as she looks, really looks, at the world around her and registers her response to it.
The pieces in Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain (Hamish Hamilton, 12/16) range from a chilling evocation of male adolescence in the title story, through accounts of his love for the sea and its creatures, to his hard-hitting attack on Australia’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers, ‘Stones for Bread’.
My third choice of new books, Edmund Gordon’s excellent The Invention of Angela Carter: A biography (Chatto & Windus), has sent me back to re-read that incomparable fabulist’s books.
I have been eagerly awaiting Kim Mahood’s next book because I loved her Craft for a Dry Lake (2000). Position Doubtful is entrancing and different; it is poetic, gritty, confronting, and inspiring all at once, and offers a rare and valuable window onto Aboriginal Australia.
Another book not to be missed is Mark McKenna’s From the Edge: Australia’s lost histories (Miegunyah), which is a series of deep explorations into places of encounter between Aborigines and settlers. It is riveting scholarly storytelling.
In the same class is Peter McPhee’s Liberty or Death: The French Revolution (Yale University Press, 9/16). And for a distillation of wisdom about Australian cities and the people who imagined their possibilities, you can’t go past Graeme Davison’s City Dreamers: The Urban Imagination in Australia (NewSouth, 11/16).
Many engaging books of poetry were published in 2016. The following are characterised by conspicuously individual poetic voices at a time when so much free verse poetry can sound alike. New Zealand poet Tusiata Avia’s feisty Fale Aitu | Spirit House (Victoria University Press) reveals how the personal and the political may be combined in trenchant and uplifting poetry that is also sometimes lyrical.
Have Been and Are (GloriaSMH Press) continues Brook Emery’s exploration of a personal metaphysics of landscape and self in poems that are simultaneously beguiling, worldly, unworldly, and allusive.
John Kinsella’s Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador) encapsulates much of the best of thirty years of his obsessive and protean poetry, which has the environment and its degradations at its restless centre.
Susan Varga’s Rupture: Poems 2012–15 (UWA Publishing, 10/16) is not always technically sophisticated, yet it speaks with a persuasive truthfulness of difficult personal circumstances, allowing the reader wide spaces in which to travel, move, and think.
Kim Mahood spent much of her childhood on a cattle station in the Tanami Desert. In Position Doubtful, she records her experience of returning after a gap of years to that place and working as an artist with its traditional owners. Though written with the immediacy of a journal, this is a sustained meditation on different ways of mapping place. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes grumpy, sometimes elegiac, but always frank, Position Doubtful ranges across the wide meaning of country, extending past landscape into story, family, history, politics, geology, art, memory, and belonging. It is a vivid and memorable book.
Tom Griffiths’s The Art of Time Travel is a powerful meditation on the nature of historical enquiry by one of our leading historians. Its appearance was especially timely in a year that saw the passing of Inga Clendinnen and John Mulvaney, who both feature prominently in its pages.
The year saw many accounts of recent Australian politics, from Niki Savva’s blistering The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government (Scribe, 6/16) to Sarah Ferguson’s elegant The Killing Season Uncut (Melbourne University Press, 8/16), a disturbing account of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd era and the making of a television documentary on it. But my personal favourite was Brad Norington’s Planet Jackson: Power, greed and unions (Melbourne University Press). A veteran journalist, Norington shows that he understands precisely what is at stake in union corruption: the betrayal of workers and, via those unions’ influence on the Labor Party, the government of us all.
If there are rules for memoirists, two outstanding recent memoirs probably break most of them. Michael Wilding in his marvellous Growing Wild (Arcadia, 8/16) wittily undermines the idea that memory will serve by doubting the accuracy of many of his recollections then casting doubt on his doubts with veritable riffs of rhythmically incisive detail.
Tim Winton’s Island Home: A landscape memoir (Hamish Hamilton, 11/15) is a Wordsworthian and Blakean engagement with nature as a living, shaping force. Through observation and experience of the clamorous, mysterious world of natura naturans, Winton obliquely tracks some of the paths of his own life.
Two other writers who excitingly and confidently challenge the boundaries of their genre are Shirley Hazzard (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected essays, Columbia University Press, 5/16) and Graeme Davison (City Dreamers). In both, as in Wilding and Winton, erudition and intelligence are sharpened and enlivened by wit, eloquence, and daring.
It’s been a great year for books that offer a personal perspective on our shared experience as Australians. Drusilla Modjeska’s Second Half First (Knopf, 11/15) and Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look present some of their most thoughtful work. Frank Bongiorno’s The Eighties: The decade that transformed Australia (Black Inc.) wittily reminds us of the ambiguities of a time usually depicted in a rosy glow. Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful probes through layers of understanding of the people and land where she was born, across the Tanami Desert to the East Kimberley; it is rich with insights delivered with sensitivity and honesty.
For sheer reading pleasure, though, I recommend Idle Talk: Gwen Harwood letters 1960–64 edited by Alison Hoddinott (Brandl & Schlesinger) where Harwood amuses her friend (and us) with the vicissitudes of 1960s suburban life in Hobart.
I’ve particularly enjoyed this year The Art of Time Travel, Tom Griffiths’s beautifully pondered account of the work of fourteen Australian historians; and, from the other side of the world, a pair of absorbing biographies: Richard Davenport-Hines’s Universal Man: The seven lives of John Maynard Keynes and Hugh Purcell’s A Very Private Celebrity: The nine lives of John Freeman (The Robson Press). That’s sixteen lives for the two Englishmen, if you take the titles literally – almost as many as cats are traditionally granted – but both men, as these authors show, were indeed quite brilliantly diverse in their talents, aspirations, and achievements, and their life stories are hard to put down.
Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton) is the first novel in a proposed series of four. It is about the edges of life and what can be said without words, the language of cow parsley and silence, love, transposition, borders, and translation. It extends strands of Smith’s short stories in Public Library and Other Stories (2015), about reading, anagrams, and etymology, and enacts a poetics of the digressive and layered, the fructive and petalled.
Judith Wright’s Collected Poems (Fourth Estate) is an updated collection of the poet’s work with a beautiful celebratory essay by John Kinsella.
Then Come Back: The lost Neruda poems (Copper Canyon Press) is a bilingual edition of poems discovered in 2014, translated by Forrest Gander with an exactitude that itself interrogates the art and limits of translation.
Nigerian-born Timothy Ogene’s Descent and Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions) examines love, doubt, solitude and migration in attentive, luminous poems.
I particularly admired Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians (Text Publishing), which is an urgent, semi-Dostoevskian story of brokenness, sexual awakening, perversion, and (partial) redemption, written in a lively, Joycean style. McBride’s uncompromising first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Text Publishing) set the bar formidably high, but The Lesser Bohemians doesn’t disappoint.
It’s been a great year for the shorter forms of Australian fiction. Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers (Black Inc., 8/16) is an elegantly constructed, knowing, and funny collection of invented biographical profiles of Australian literary figures. O’Neill blends satire, formal playfulness, and pathos with rare skill.
Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo, 12/16) is a high-literary, reflexive, empathetic, and diverse assortment of outward-looking fictions that pack a punch, and Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities (UQP, 8/16) is uniquely surreal, entertaining, and sometimes dazzling.
It has been a rich year for fiction, but the book which stands out most for me is a biography. Suzanne Falkiner’s Mick is a beautiful and detailed examination of Randolph Stow’s life, supported by a wealth of research. This is a work which not only feels overdue, but is touching in its intimacy.
More playfully, Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers collates (hilarious) fictional biographies to form a larger narrative, probing the idiosyncrasies of both Australian literary culture and the biographical genre. Read side-by-side, these two works seem to push at what biography might be – one in a positive sense, the other through the ridiculous, with a marvellous sense of fun.
These three books were balm in a year pocked by venality and a narcissistic degradation of language. Powerful words, flowing from writers whose depth of experience is matched by their integrity and frankness.
The essays in Tom Griffith’s The Art of Time Travel, about his fellow Australian historians, many of them women, is a revelatory and reconciliatory sweep of a landscape too often obscured by academic infighting. A stylish joy to read.
Imagine an Australian politician game enough to utter these words: ‘Music ... is an epiphany, a sudden exposure to the numinous.’ Barry Jones is game – always has been. The tour of his musical and literary milestones in The Shock of Recognition: The books and music that have inspired me (Allen & Unwin) is as beguiling for its self-revelation as for its extraordinary erudition.
Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain roots you to the spot, forces you to ask questions – about yourself, about the way we live. Sinewy and lyrical by turns, Winton’s is an authentic Australian voice to trumpet to a world audience.
In my early twenties, enthralled by the work of Paul Bowles, I began to use the intrepid author’s philosophy of travel as a guide for my reading life. Bowles wanted each place he visited to be new and unexpected. I want books to usher me into unforeseen regions, writers who allow me to think and feel more deeply. The Mozambican novelist Paulina Chiziane surprised and left me in awe with The First Wife: A tale of polygamy (Archipelago Books).
With grace, humour, and a story that feels absolutely necessary, Brett Pierce’s memoir, Beyond the Vapour Trail (Transit Lounge), confronts us with the life and work of an international aid worker.
Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on art, sex, and the mind (Sceptre) offers a continuing education, while Annie Dillard – marvel and unclassifiable gem – reveals how the everyday can astonish in her selected essays, The Abundance (Canongate, 9/16).
The High Places by Fiona McFarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 1/16) does indeed take us to high and strange places with perfectly tuned prose and a deeply intelligent sensibility. Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities is a slippery and subversive collection that made me laugh aloud as it sank a knife into contemporary Australia. I laughed along with Ryan O’Neill too, in Their Brilliant Careers, a romp through a fictional literary history of Australia where the familiar is twisted into the ridiculous. The Rules of Backyard Cricket (Text Publishing, 10/16) by Jock Serong, while classified as ‘crime’, is a compelling literary novel dissecting toxic sporting culture and its fallout.
Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue (Pan Macmillan) is a deeply moving love letter to books and words and a landmark in contemporary Australian Young Adult literature for being both highly readable and literary, as well as for its ability to convince any reader that books really do matter.
In After the Carnage (UQP, 9/16), Tara June Winch reveals her trademark capacity to depict ordinary lives. Winch demonstrates that sparse, succinct language can be used to conjure memorable images that stay inside your head long afterwards.
Four books where my pleasure was pretty much unalloyed were Gate of Lilacs by Clive James, The Fox Petition by Jennifer Maiden (Giramondo, 4/16), 101 Poems by John Foulcher, and Jack & Mollie (& Her) by Jordie Albiston. James’s blank verse Gate of Lilacs may well persuade those who abandoned À la recherche du temps perdu to persevere. Maiden’s latest collection addressing recent political history is remarkable for the intensity and complexity of its moral vision. Foulcher’s 101 Poems is a timely opportunity to sample the achievement of this sometimes underestimated poet. Albiston’s Jack & Mollie (& Her) is not a strangely written account of a depressed female poet’s relationship with her two dogs: it is an important and affecting book by a leading Australian poet.
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Originally published in German, Albrecht Dümling’s The Vanished Musicians: Jewish refugees in Australia (Peter Lang), a fascinating compendium of Jewish musicians who found refuge in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, is now available in Australian Diana K. Weekes’s excellent translation ...
'Why do we write?' asks David Brooks at the start of this exhilarating collection of short stories. 'What are we groping for?' The entire collection seems like an attempt to answer a question that the author acknowledges is unanswerable. Yet there is no futility here. His groping, as he calls it, charms and disturbs and conjures up images of extraordinary, if fleeting, power.
As the publisher's blurb reminds us, Brooks's first short story collection, The Book of Sei (1985), was heralded as the most impressive début in Australian short fiction since Peter Carey's. While Brooks hasn't achieved Carey's fame, he has maintained a consistently striking output of literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His 2007 novel The Fern Tattoo was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award; another one, The Umbrella Club (2009), has been underrated: it has a Heart of Darkness sense of wonder.
There is wonder too in Napoleon's Roads, often with a dark heart. I am reminded of the Magritte painting of a pipe, with the caption 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe'. Don't look for conventional beginnings, middles or ends, or easily recognisable protagonists. These stories are more in the tradition of Borges and his followers: each one an exercise in extended metaphor, akin to essay or poetry, juxtaposing ideas in surreal and sophisticated patterns. As with the best metaphors, I am never sure what they stand for, but I respond readily to the moods they evoke.
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- Custom Article Title Jane Sullivan reviews 'Napoleon’s Roads' by David Brooks
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- Biblio University of Queensland Press, $23.95 pb, 168 pp, 9780702253911
Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines into fierce yet darkly witty poetry. This is a book that takes corrupt law, peels away sentiment, and uncovers possible truths. It is a surprisingly fresh volume drawn from Maiden's obsessive themes – she is our great poet of humanity. In Sarah Holland-Batt's The Hazards (University of Queensland Press, reviewed in ABR, 10/15), from 'the promise of Berlin' to the 'mosquito net latitudes' there is style and fashion to relish, but under the skin of these poems we experience metaphors of the world's suffering. It is an exciting second book. Martin Harrison's posthumous Happiness (UWA Publishing, 12/15) is a triumph. Classical and romantic simultaneously, this is a book of love poetry and more by a philosopher of language, with 'a new vowelled, strict vocabulary drawn from air'. Harrison has enriched our world with this gift of a book.
Partly because of my interest in the high-level supporters of political leaders, but mostly because it is so well researched and written, I was fascinated by historian Sheila Fitzpatrick's On Stalin's Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics (Melbourne University Press). In a solid year for Australian fiction, the novel that most endures for me – at this early stage – is Amanda Lohrey's subtle and funny A Short History of Richard Kline (Black Inc., 3/15), with a nod to A.S. Patrić's Black Rock White City (Transit Lounge). Amongst a strengthening field of Australian literary magazines (strengthening, at least, in terms of quality), I most enjoyed the illustrated short story magazine The Canary Press (edited by Robert Skinner). Issue 7 was symptomatic of the magazine's qualities, featuring writers living and dead, Australian and foreign – with Lally Katz's witty and disturbing script, 'The Apocalypse Bear – Part 1', a standout.
It has been a brilliant year for Australian poets. Sarah Holland-Batt's 'O California', first published in the New Yorker, was a glistering introduction to her second book, The Hazards. This dark rhapsody on the menace of future threat is an exhilarating read. Lucy Dougan's creation of a female sublime in her exploration of the matrilineal line in The Guardians (Giramondo, 10/15) is a powerful poetic narrative of survival. 'Tiles', a poem read by Peter Rose at his book launch in July, was a profound and haunting way into his book The Subject of Feeling (UWAP). It is an extraordinary book, juxtaposing gorgeous elegies with poems of biting wit. Finally, poet and scholar Lisa Gorton's first novel, The Life of Houses (Giramondo, 6/15), is one of the most finely crafted Australian novels of the last decade. Its sumptuous descriptions, and the imposing mother–daughter dyad at the centre of the narrative, take your breath away.
Per Petterson, the Norwegian writer, is one of my favourites. His novels, gently paced and spare on plot, never fail to satisfy. This year I was rewarded with his latest book, I Refuse (Vintage). The story engages with themes common to Petterson's work; family, intergenerational tensions, flawed memory, and a yearning for love. The ending of the novel, delivered with subtlety, is remarkable and haunting. The Visiting Privilege, the new and collected stories of Joy Williams is my book of the year. Williams for too long hovered in the shadows of her contemporaries of the North American 'dirty realism' school of the 1980s. The first story, 'Taking Care', was enough to remind me that she is a great storyteller. Jedediah Purdy's After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard) presents an intelligent and active discussion as to how we must deal with climate change.
Although I am deep in their midst as I write, it is safe to say that Elena Ferrante's astonishing Neapolitan Quartet will end up being one of my most remarkable reading experiences this year, distinguished not just by their uncompromising moral intelligence and psychological sophistication but by their sheer ferocity and almost eidetic recall of the textures of the world they depict. Marlon James's Man Booker Prize-winning A Short History of Seven Killings (Oneworld) is similarly astonishing, a bravura feat of technical daring and historical reimagination of remarkable virtuosity and ambition. Closer to home, I was enormously impressed by Mireille Juchau's haunting exploration of an ecologically fraying world, The World Without Us (Bloomsbury, 9/15), and by Tegan Bennett Daylight's finely wrought scenes from the world of late adolescence and early adulthood, in Six Bedrooms (Vintage, 12/15).
The most captivating and impactful novels I have read this year are Eka Kurniawan's Beauty is a Wound (Text Publishing) and Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, 11/15). The first is a ghost-filled, vastly populated, and rollicking contemporary mythic tale, in the spirit of Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, but funnier, and a touch less lyrical. The latter is provocative, formally impressive, brutally precise, and topical. Wood's bleak portrayal of gender relations is limiting in some ways, but a nightmare has its own logic, and this makes for gripping reading. On the non-fiction front, Jonathan Bate's comprehensive and even-handed biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life (HarperCollins) is outstanding, and I admired The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy (Harvill Secker), in which Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee address diverse but connected subjects – including memory construction, the psychological underpinnings of Australian politics, and literature – with purposeful intelligence.
I loved Katherine Heiny's Single, Carefree, Mellow (Fourth Estate), a brilliantly observed, dry-witted début short story collection that echoes Lorrie Moore and Nora Ephron, with its intimate accounts of relationships under threat. Hanya Yanagihara took the oft-used 'New York college friendship through the decades' story into new territory in A Little Life (Picador), a tale of horrific abuse and extraordinary friendship that is both life-affirming and devastating. Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us is one of those novels that does everything right, all at once: gorgeous writing about people, place, grief, loss, and our changing environment. Juchau balances all these elements perfectly, raising questions rather than proposing answers to the big themes she explores. I have long been a fan of Tegan Bennett Daylight's short stories, and her spiky, perceptive, engrossing new collection, Six Bedrooms, was a book I wanted to reread immediately.
Illuminating non-fiction in 2015 included Klaus Neumann's essential Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees (Black Inc.), an overdue history which explodes many myths, including amnesiac assumptions about left–right attitudes to migrant intake, which run insistently through the most contentious topic of political debate today. David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House) is both fascinatingly discursive and very lively, a survey of the past which contains lessons for government and citizens now and implicit warnings for the future. Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (John Murray) is not only a wonderful read, beautifully written in a finely produced book that's a delight to handle, but brings to life a hugely influential explorer and naturalist who is inexplicably little known in the Anglophone world.
Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things is a novel of mythological force with the heat of a Grimm's fairy tale. A group of ten women is chosen, it seems, for no other reason than that their sexual power, or sexual abuse, threatens to bring 'important' men down: the football groupie, the politician's mistress, other iconic 'sluts', thrown into a rural camp run by men enduring conditions barely better than those of the women they are brutalising. Do the women save themselves or wait to be saved? Do they work together or turn on one another? There are echoes of Lord of the Flies and also of the Australian film Journey Among Women. Colm Tóibín's new novel, Nora Webster (Picador), set in Ireland in the late 1960s, is a profound study of a woman struggling to maintain her sense of self and keep her family going after the unexpected death of her husband. The backdrop to Nora's struggles is inevitably political, but she remains the novel's gentle star.
'When I was travelling in this state, so many days felt strangely brittle, saturated, super-real,' writes poet Fiona Wright in her first book of prose. In the ten exquisite essays that make up Small Acts of Disappearance (Giramondo), Wright investigates the 'states' – psychic, physical, emotional, existential – that underpin her perilous decade-long entanglement with an eating disorder. The writing is anything but brittle, though the depth of Wright's insights into the pathology of her compulsions makes the book feel saturated, super-real, and at times hallucinatory. Small Acts overflows with quiet self-compassion. It is, in a rare literal sense, a diamond of a book – each essay being a surface capable of reflecting back to us our own complex relations with the fragility of self-identity. None of this would work well in the hands of a less assured writer; Wright feels like a direct heir of Kathleen Norris (Dakota: a Spiritual Geography) and Annie Dillard.
Emily Bitto's The Strays (Affirm Press, 5/14) is a confident and engaging début novel, trading in the ambiguities of a self-conscious artistic world. The Strays richly merits its 2015 Stella Prize. A great literary biography should be celebrated, and Robert Crawford's Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land (Jonathan Cape, 12/15) is superb – detailed but always driving forward, incisive about the poems but equally interested in the life informing the art. Matthew Condon's All Fall Down (UQP, 11/15) completes an important trilogy on recent Queensland history. Condon's prose conveys the urgency of journalism, if now distilled by distance. Despite the years, the magnitude of corruption, and its reach across police and politics, continues to astonish.
Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (Text, 11/15) – was for me, as evidently for many, the outstanding literary event of the year: a powerful story of female friendship rooted in the poverty of postwar Naples, and subtly overshadowed, as the years pass, by loss, mystery, and moral ambiguity. Tony Judt's When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995–2010 (Penguin Press), a superb collection of late essays brought together by Judt's widow, Jennifer Homans, is a further reminder of the courage and humanity of this lucid thinker, who died, far too young, in 2010. Admirers of Kevin Hart's latest impressive collection of new and selected poems, Wild Track (University of Notre Dame Press, 9/15), may also enjoy Alan Gould's The Poets' Stairwell (Black Pepper, 6/15), a witty and lightly fictionalised account of the two poets in their youth at large in Europe.
It has been another strong year in Australian poetry and several new books have impressed and delighted me. I shall mention only two. First, The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt, a charged and effortlessly imaginative evocation and intermingling of the world around us and the world within. The other is the, sadly, posthumous collection by Martin Harrison, Happiness, in which he displays again his astonishing capacity to see into landscape from the widest panorama to the most minute detail, coloured now by love and grief. A book that has enthralled me is Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 6/15) by Robert Macfarlane, 'about the power of language to shape our sense of place', indeed to help us to see it. Each chapter is followed by a wonderful glossary of words for features of landscape in regional varieties of English, Gaelic, Welsh, and others.
During World War II, Banjo Paterson wrote a poem of sentiment and fresh nationalism as the new nation's soldiers sailed to war. In We're all Australians Now (HarperCollins) author and artist Mark Wilson has given those words not just pages of almost unbearable beauty, but a counterpoint to Patterson's simplistic viewpoint. I cry each time I read this book, but then I read it, slowly, once again. In The Peony Lantern by Frances Watts (Angus and Robertson), a nineteenth-century Japanese village girl becomes a lady-in-waiting at a samurai mansion. Her life, and Japan itself, are on the brink of change. Lyrical, fascinating and compelling.
Memorable books for me this year have included poet Lisa Gorton's subtle and disquieting novel, The Life of Houses, and actor Magda Szubanski's memoir (or, as she calls it, 'family saga'), Reckoning (Text), which is thought-provoking, intelligent, beautifully written, and at once heartbreaking and very funny. But my vote for the book of the year would have to go to Charlotte Wood's brilliant and terrifying novel The Natural Way of Things: fuelled by rage and resistance, the novel is a study in power, a tale of misogyny, a meditation on survival, an only semi-abstract portrait of contemporary Australian life, and a reminder of what fiction at its best can do and be.
Three books with a transformative sense of the past have filled my thoughts this year: Tracy Ryan's eighth poetry collection, Hoard (Whitmore Press), T.G.H. Strehlow's 1969 memoir Journey to Horseshoe Bend (republished by Giramondo), and Verso's selection of Walter Benjamin's jottings, drafts, and collected curios in Walter Benjamin's Archive (edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, and Erdmut Wizisla; translated by Esther Leslie). Ryan's poems about Ireland's peat bogs and hoards are spare, sensuous, and haunting, touchstones for writing about place and language. Journey to Horseshoe Bend remembers the author's father, Pastor Carl Strehlow, who ran the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg. It records his last journey, desperately ill, tied to a chair and dragged by donkey wagon along the dry bed of the Finke River, in forlorn hope of reaching medical help in time. But this is also an account of the desert and its sacred places, colonial outposts, massacres, battles, and negotiations. Strehlow leaves a complicated legacy, and this book enriches it. Verso's selection from Benjamin's archive includes photographs of the children's toys he collected, postcards, and records of his son's sayings; it offers a domestic and intimate perspective on his essays and Arcades project.
Any new book by Barry Hill is an event, and Peacemongers (UQP) is especially intriguing: a meditative, playful, and profound prose poem about war and peace, a long book that rewards immersion. As an El Niño summer approaches, I returned to Robert Kenny's moving tragi-comedy about his experience of Black Saturday, Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir (UWAP, 12/13). Noel Pearson's A Rightful Place (Black Inc.) is a significant statement from a great Australian, as is Tim Flannery's Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis (Text, 10/15). I found Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant (Faber, 4/15) a wonderfully mysterious novel and an unusual love story. And don't miss Robert Seethaler's elegiac A Whole Life (Picador) for its lean, powerful prose, and elemental portrait of one man's life in the Austrian Alps.
Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus (1980) was perhaps the novel I enjoyed most this year. Why can't all novels be like this, I remember thinking, a brisker Virginia Woolf: so prismatically clever about the two sisters, London and New York, the passing of time and the passing of life, marriage and spinsterhood, living in sin and attempted adultery, middle-class security and hand-to-mouth, children and none. In poetry, I'm glad that a selection of Philip Hodgins's poems, First Light, has appeared in the United States (George Braziller): never sweet, but sustaining in their harshness. 'The farmer knows that it was useless to call the vet. / So does the vet. / But there are some rituals / that must be carried through.'
Reading Merritt Tierce's bold, scorchingly powerful début, Love Me Back (Anchor Books), I was reminded of Muriel Rukeyser's claim that the world would split open if a woman told the truth about her life. Set in the world of Dallas steakhouses and hospitality workers, Love Me Back's disaffected protagonist Marie is laceratingly candid about womanhood, sexuality, and the dark side of desire. Similarly poised on the sharp edge between adolescence and adulthood, Colin Barrett's stylish stories in Young Skins (Vintage) navigate the rough and tumble troubles of early adulthood in small town Ireland; Barrett's prose is electrifying. In poetry, Sujata Bhatt's Poppies in Translation (Carcanet) is stunning; her bright, saturated poems are a wide-ranging compendium of language, history, place, and politics. Closer to home, I loved David Brooks's Open House (UQP); a tough intellect resides in Brooks's deceptively clean, airy lines. And Robert Adamson's Net Needle (Black Inc., 12/15) is masterful: rereading it is a pleasure 'sweet / as torn basil'.
Andy Jackson goes from strength to strength, and Immune Systems (Transit Lounge, 12/15) displayed once again his ability to see clearly and to write poetry with compassion and rigour about the world around him, in this case India, and as always his own physical universe, making each line count. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things, its young women snatched from 'moral' danger into physical captivity and degradation, never falls into the dystopic trap of fetishing horror. She balances the beauty of language and construction with the horror of what they describe, leaving at the end a caught breath that takes a long time to let out. Jon Ronson, in So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Picador), writes with humour and compassion of internet shaming and public disgrace, does the victims (and even perpetrators) justice, and, that vanishingly rare thing, can actually carry an argument through a whole book.
There have been many fine volumes of poetry in English over the last twelve months, and the three mentioned here are part of a long list. Each collection is starkly different from the others, and each collection challenges the mode of its own writing, which is for me important – that is, there is an awareness of the conditions of writing and presentation. Ouyang Yu's work continues to astonish me with its shifts and range, and Fainting with Freedom (Five Islands Press) is among his finest work. Lucy Dougan's The Guardians reaches deep into the fragility of being and comes out with verve and strength, without ever wavering from a tough and taut literary sensibility, and Paul Muldoon's One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber), opening with a stunning elegy for Seamus Heaney, continues his undoing of what English language is. The most intelligent novel I have read in a long time is Lisa Gorton's The Life of Houses, which configures and reconfigures its own spatiality over and over.
Les Murray's latest collection, Waiting for the Past (Black Inc., 5/15) continues his linguistic and anthropological study of Australian life. This year, I also was taken with Sarah Holland-Batt's dazzling new collection of poems, The Hazards, in which she continues her project to ransack the OED, Peter Rose's smart and happily gin-soaked The Subject of Feeling, and Robert Adamson's Net Needle, which casts a numinous light on his childhood growing up on the Hawkesbury River. Further afield, and following up on his sensational bestseller Eunoia, avant-garde Canadian poet Christian Bök has come up with The Xenotext: Book I (Coach House Books), an 'infernal grimoire' that offers a primer in genetics as it visits the orphic idylls of Virgil: 'Come with me' ends his apocalyptic poem 'The Late Heavy Bombardment'; 'Let me show you how to break my heart.'
Jacinta Le Plastrier
In a standout year for the publishing of contemporary Australian poetry, Martin Harrison's Happiness does the most a book of poems can do: it helps us to live. In Harrison's hierarchy, that means to love, deeply, self, other, world. These poems, also elegiac, glow with light and breath. Magus, and poems of a late master practising, virtually faultlessly, his mastery. It is a poise which also sweeps across Alan Loney's Crankhandle (Cordite, 8/15). The book is really a single sustained poem, learned, vanguardist, the senses also bent, caringly, to philosophy and the natural world. How difficult it is to make poems hilarious, but that is the punch, acerbic, of the Catullus suite in Peter Rose's The Subject of Feeling – LOL. Preceding this suite, in haute relief, are deeply moving poems, also masterful, in poems about loss, memory, intimacy, and love, also familial.
The great fiction discovery for me this year was the German author Jenny Erpenbeck, whose novel The End of Days (New Directions) is simply extraordinary. There were, however, two local non-fiction works that I believe are not only timely and significant, but might also be read fruitfully in tandem. The first is Australia's Second Chance (Hamish Hamilton) by George Megalogenis. Beginning with the First Fleet, Megalogenis considers the different waves of immigration that have shaped Australia and, with characteristic lucidity, analyses the connection between the nation's prosperity and its tendency at different times either to embrace or resist migrants. Megalogenis's briskly argued book is well complemented by Klaus Neumann's Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees. Neumann's soberly written history, which extends from Federation through to the 1970s, examines the ways in which Australian governments have reacted to the global issues created by those fleeing war and persecution, and in doing so it provides an invaluable perspective on the divisive politics of the present.
Andrew Ford's meditation on 'the primitive' in music, Earth Dances (Black Inc.), moves brilliantly across centuries and styles with Ford's characteristic wit, flair, and authority. His single paragraph on Chet Baker's singing is a miniature masterpiece. Ford is also an exceptional composer and broadcaster; what have we done to deserve him? Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) is an original account of racism in contemporary America. Mixing prose poetry, images, and the essay form, Rankine ranges from Serena Williams to the Jena Six in her powerful critique of American racial politics. In the year Adam Goodes was shamefully hounded out of Australian Rules football, there is much Australian readers can take from Citizen. Meanwhile, Ali Smith's How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) demonstrates that formally experimental fiction can encapsulate great joy, empathy, and imaginative seriousness. When will Smith win the Booker?
The book that has drawn me back again and again this year is US novelist James Salter's memoir Burning the Days: Recollection (1997). Salter, who died in June, aged ninety, only gained widespread recognition towards the end of his life. His prose is so finely wrought and the architecture of his storytelling so intricately constructed that I constantly found myself rereading the book in awe of his skill. There is not a sentence out of place. Closer to home, two biographies – Brenda Niall's Mannix (Text, 4/15) and Karen Lamb's Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather (UQP, 9/15) – stood out for their ability to wear exhaustive research lightly and bring their elusive subjects to life. Finally, I was won over by John Blay's rare and beautifully crafted On Track (NewSouth, 10/15) which tells the story of his search for the Bundian Way, the traditional Aboriginal pathway from the Kosciuszko high country to Twofold Bay on the far south coast of New South Wales.
My bedside table is stacked with old comedy – Alan Coren, P.G. Wodehouse – but my three favourites of 2015 are much to do with loss. Clive James's Latest Readings (Yale) is a witty, wide-ranging, and poignant series of essays on the books he is enjoying. James is candid about his mortality, and his great passion for literature flames the harder for it. Murray Middleton's When There's Nowhere Else to Run (Allen & Unwin, 8/15), the Vogel's Award-winning collection of short stories, conveys raw and broken characters in tight, smooth prose. And Jonathan Bate's masterful biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life argues convincingly that Hughes was defined, both personally and poetically, by his love and grief for Sylvia Plath. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, was defined more by purple socks and flung bread-rolls. So it's to him that I return.
My favorite three novels all explore the intertwined identities of society and the individual: the Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter, translated by Angela Rodel) tells of a boy suffering from universal empathy and feeling the sorrow of the world in himself. The Mexican Guadalupe Nettel's The Body Where I Was Born (Seven Stories Press, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein) is the fictional memoir of a woman who refuses to submit to what the world sees as her infirmity. Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us was a revelation, a masterly story involving the refuge of silence, the fate of bees, and the shadows of old sins. The most important non-fiction book was by the American Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), a fierce denunciation of racism arguing that prejudice creates the concept of race, and not the other way round.
Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie: The Correspondence between Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 1976–1995 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 5/14) is a fascinating, endearing meeting of two brilliant, maverick minds. Medlin's wit and Furphy-like evocations of the Australian bush and Murdoch's loving encounter with Australian vernacular ('Dearest Brian, dear mate') mixed with her philosophical digressions are a sublime, offbeat treat. Vincent O'Sullivan's Being Here: Selected Poems (Victoria University Press) traces his poetic growth through works that simply get better and better. Whether it is the easy demotic of 'The Butcher Papers' or the delicacy of 'Secular Thoughts' – 'the fire / leaps on itself, the shaded / lamp brims its chaste corner' – O'Sullivan's intellectual range, inventiveness, and command of tone and register are superb. Tim Winton's Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (Hamish Hamilton, 11/15) is a terrific book – technically, a daring experiment with the genre; artistically, a passionate, Wordsworthian engagement with Nature, indigeneity, and the nature of things.
Two recent novels I want to read again. In Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín tests the limits of understatement. The death of her husband doesn't ennoble Nora Webster, nor does it destroy her. The effects of grief are traced with self-effacing candour by a writer at the height of his powers. Like the provincial Ireland of Tóibín's novel, the setting and the viewpoint of Joan London's The Golden Age (Vintage, 9/14) sound limiting. In a Perth hospital, Frank (Ferenc), an adolescent who is recovering from polio, falls in love with another patient, Elsa. Events conspire to separate the two, who are destined to lead quite different lives. London's artistic triumph is to suggest the shaping force of time and place on Frank and Elsa. In this unsentimental coming-of-age novel, postwar displacements cast shadows on two families without extinguishing the light.
This year's reading has been thrilling, disturbing, and deeply reassuring. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things knocked me sideways with its fury and gradual revelation of beauty and transformation. Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić showed me a different Melbourne of Balkan refugees and working class life. I wept at the end of Marilynne Robinson's Lila (12/14), another of her luminous, wise, compelling studies of the human condition. At the other end of the spectrum The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim (Penguin, translated by Jonathan Wright) exposes the destruction of both Iraq and the psyche of its people in surreal, violent, terrifying stories that read like lucid nightmares.
While Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith's memoir Ordinary Light (Knopf) explores 'collisions with the world's solid fist', its lyrical chapters are as much about creativity and grace as about the violence they defy. And while Smith captures awakenings – of social awareness and creativity – in the first four decades of her life, Drusilla Modjeska's Second Half First (Knopf, 11/15) begins with her fortieth birthday and explores the decades since, with memory's dynamics, questions of art, form, and women's lives at its lucent centre. Like Smith, Lisa Gorton is an acclaimed poet with a remarkable new work of prose. The Life of Houses is dazzling and distinctive, phrase by phrase. And (my friend) Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us is a resonant, wise and achingly beautiful novel about loss, continuance, and the imagination.
In On Brunswick Ground (Transit Lounge), Catherine de Saint Phalle writes with a grace of style and searing authority about the way Melbournians live now. Here, steeped in the intimacies and desires of a community, she proves herself an engaged and engaging novelist we can't afford to ignore. Bob Shacochis's massive literary spy thriller The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Grove Press) stalks the murkiest realms of the twentieth century. With its deserved comparisons to the work of Graham Greene and John le Carré, Shacochis's novel provides great challenges and endless rewards and stands in stark contrast to Kent Haruf's spare Our Souls at Night (Picador). A warm and sincere examination of the sanctuary of friendship, it's one of the most beautiful novels this reader has ever encountered. And don't forget to place the inimitable Rebecca Solnit's essay collection Men Explain Things to Me (Granta) in the stocking of every man for a better tomorrow.
It is a sign of these murky times for books and the written word that my book of the year is a work of loving enthusiasm and selfless devotion, rather than a knowing, self-conscious product by some member of the knowledge class. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, by Clinton Walker (Verse Chorus Press) is a re-edition of a masterwork first published fifteen years ago, but expanded and reconceived so thoroughly as to be something new: an account of vernacular Aboriginal creativity in mid-century Australia, the influences it soaked up and the impact it made – a back channel history worth more than a thousand academic sociologies. Roger Knox, Bobby McLeod, Vic Simms: these are the heroes of its pages: 'Where the crows flies backwards' is its central song, an anthem that defines both an era and a state of mind. What more can a book do than bring you back the past and make it real – especially a past you never knew?
Australian publishers increasingly take on short story collections these days, and among recent volumes I especially admired Danielle Wood's Mothers Grimm (Allen & Unwin), a brilliant and coruscating set of stories on motherhood, where magic works with malice – no happy endings here. On a related theme, Ali Smith's novel How to Be Both is an extraordinary double narrative of a contemporary teenage girl mourning her mother's death and the invented biography of an Italian Renaissance painter: it bends genre and gender, and blends past and present.
If there were an award for Best Family Book, Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay (Hodder) would surely win. The Cornwallis family relocating to a small Cornish town take on disasters and mysteries, school bullies and even a chicken-stealing 'jagular' in a story rich in love and laughter, including a poignant subplot about a trio of cousins who lived in the house a hundred years ago. Twelve-year-old Binny is an endearing heroine. I adored this book. For older readers, Vikki Wakefield in Inbetween Days (Text) proves again that she's the mistress of YA twisted relationships and disturbed characters, all memorable, all sketched with compassion, wit and insight, the adults as well as teens. One of the best of the 'Gallipoli' books is One Minute's Silence (Allen & Unwin) by David Metzenthen and Michael Camilleri: a classroom of bored Year Twelve students catapulted into the action on those hellish slopes in 1915.
It's become quite the thing to write about mothers of yesteryear, whether in fiction or memoir: to tease out notions of good and bad mothering, the almost unbelievable constraints and pressures those mothers were often subjected to, the lingering effects on later generations, and the role that fathers did or didn't play. It can be a hard subject to write about without descending into sentimentality, indignation, melodrama, or utter gloom. Three Australian books hit the right nuanced note for me: Rod Jones's novel The Mothers (Text, 6/15), a wrenching saga of four generations of women and what they were denied; Kate Grenville's story of her mother, One Life (Text, 4/15), an inspiring tale of making the best of very limited opportunities, whether professional or personal; and Stephanie Bishop's quietly devastating novel The Other Side of the World (Hachette, 9/15), which gave me the most exquisite sense of slow suffocation. Lest we forget.
British historian Peter H. Hansen spoke to my weakness for expeditionary adventure. Ever alert to the cultural meanings of our relationship with mountains, The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment (Harvard) roves the great ranges, from Mont Blanc to Everest. If Hansen led me upwards, anthropologist Melinda Hinkson took me outwards to the Tanami Desert. Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life through the Prism of Drawing (Aboriginal Studies Press) is both a beautiful art book and a personal, highly perceptive account of Warlpiri culture, where pencil and crayon drawings, commissioned by anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt in the 1950s, become mnemonic stimuli for Aboriginal people today. A 'huge sunlit series / of changing moods' is evoked by the final poems of Martin Harrison who died in 2014. An elegiac record of the love and loss that coloured the poet's last years, Happiness is another stimulus to memory, majestic in its capacity to listen and observe.
Two books I read this year seem like unexpected companion pieces: the Italian Elena Ferrante's novel Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; and Drusilla Modjeska's memoir Second Half First. Ferrante's novel is the third in a series about a compulsive and uneasy friendship between two poor and clever women. One is a publicly acknowledged writer, the other is her critic, her inspiration, her adversary and her guide. Modjeska's memoir charts the politics and friendships, the writing and thinking, of the later part of her life. Both books register the great exchanges that are possible between life and literature. Both are intense and accomplished explorations of writing, politics, sexuality, friendship, and cities.
Walking: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press, 5/14) contains old favourites and adds to them new poems in Kevin Brophy's signature voice: gentle, slightly mournful, threaded through with humour. I thought I had read every 'take' on the Holocaust, but Ramona Koval adds something fresh with Bloodhound: Searching for My Father (Text, 5/15): the drive to find a more appealing lineage; a rebuilding after the disaster, perhaps. Ross Gibson's poetry is marked by the numinous, then undercut by the quotidian, the earthy. Stone Grown Cold (Cordite, 8/15), a mix of prose poems, lyrics, lists, and fragmentary images, reflects a different way of seeing. A companion piece to the disturbing and engaging Life after Life, Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins (Penguin) has a more elegiac note, and is a lovely essay on grace in the face of disappointment, damage, and death.
Irish author Paul Murray received mixed reviews for his most recent novel, The Mark and the Void (Hamish Hamilton). Yet the man is clearly a genius – smart, funny, profound, ludicrously modest – and the flaws in his story about the Irish experience of the GFC and its fallout are par for the course when you're venturing to wring human drama from investment banking. It made me laugh, ponder, and despair.
It should be taken as no commentary on contemporary Oz Lit that I choose Text's fistful of Randolph Stow reissues for my local favourite(s) during 2015. Their appearance reminds us that a gentle, wise, wounded, and immensely talented poet in prose once lived among us. If you haven't read Visitants, do so: it is the dark heart of Stow's oeuvre. But make sure you read The Girl Green as Elderflower alongside – that pendant work has a bucolic sweetness to balance against the former's bitter taste.
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- Custom Article Title Books of the Year 2015
- Contents Category Books of the Year
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Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines
Kazuo Ishiguro recently sparked off a literary row about whether 'serious' writers should dabble in fantasy when he insisted rather too strongly that he was not writing fantasy in his latest novel The Buried Giant (2015). All those giants and pixies, knights and dragons were but a means to an end.
A strange controversy, considering a galaxy of 'serious' stars have been liberally using fantasy for decades. No one more than Salman Rushdie, who gave us a batch of Indian babies born with superpowers in Midnight's Children (1981), a subcontinental banshee of destruction in Shame (1983), angels and demons in 1988's The Satanic Verses (for which, as we all know, he paid a terrible price), and now a world of roistering jinn.
It is interesting to contrast Ishiguro's toe in the water of fantasy with Rushdie's triple somersault dive. On one side, Ingmar Bergman; on the other, Bollywood. Whereas Ishiguro offers an anaemic landscape with a feeble dragon and battles decided with one swing of a sword, Rushdie gives us colossal technicolour jinn riding on flying urns; giant snakes coiling round the Chrysler building; fire, smoke, and lightning; and a global war that endures for one thousand and one nights.
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- Custom Article Title Jane Sullivan reviews 'Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights' by Salman Rushdie
- Contents Category Fiction
- Book Title Two years eight months and twenty-eight nights
- Book Subtitle a novel
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- Biblio Jonathan Cape, $32.99 pb, 286 pp, 9781910702048
One of the most potent stories we can tell is a story of migration. With the exception of indigenous people, every Australian originally came from somewhere else. Take just one source: the emigrants from England. Kate Grenville writes about her convict and settler ancestry in her Secret River trilogy; in The Golden Age, Joan London writes of European refugees in Perth in the 1950s, a time she can remember as a child; and now a much younger writer, Stephanie Bishop (the subject of this month’s Future Tense), takes as her theme a ‘ten-pound Pom’ migration in the 1960s, in a story based on the memories and experiences of her grandparents.
What these stories have in common is a sense of the other side of the world as ambiguous, unsettling, even alienating. You can so easily escape one set of problems only to be confronted with a new set – or the same old problems in a different guise. And when a couple or a family makes the move, the experience can tug at each individual in radically different ways, putting new strains on the relationship.
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- Custom Article Title Jane Sullivan reviews 'The Other Side of the World' by Stephanie Bishop
- Contents Category Fiction
- Book Title The Other Side of the World
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- Biblio Hachette, $29.99 pb, 352 pp, 9780733633782