The argument of James Simpson’s Permanent Revolution is that the emergence of liberalism as a cultural and political category in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was shaped by the ‘radically illiberal history of Protestantism’. Rather than adhering to the ‘triumphalist’ tradition of Whig historiography that regarded the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its subsequent Bill of Rights as the exemplification and precursor of a great tradition of English liberalism, Simpson suggests instead that the development of liberalism was inextricably entangled with religious dogmatism and intolerance. He points out that, while executing five hundred women for witchcraft between 1566 and 1645, England judicially murdered more Catholics than any other country in Europe between 1580 and 1600, so that the elucidation of ‘free’ thought always encumbered darker shadows.
The larger repercussions of this thesis involve a reconceptualisation of the British Enlightenment as in almost every respect ‘the reflex of religious culture’, as well as a sense of modernity itself as having ‘a variety of faces, one of which is revolutionary, illiberal evangelical religion’. Though Simpson does not push present-day analogies too far, there are clearly implications here for understanding the broader contexts of ‘Contemporary Liberalism’, whose proclivity towards ‘identitarian politics’ he understands as being interwoven at structural levels with the ‘continuing influence of evangelical religion’.
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- Custom Article Title Paul Giles reviews Permanent Revolution: The reformation and the illiberal roots of liberalism by James Simpson
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The argument of James Simpson’s Permanent Revolution is that the emergence of liberalism as a cultural and political category in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was shaped by the ‘radically illiberal history of ...
- Book Title Permanent Revolution
- Book Subtitle The reformation and the illiberal roots of liberalism
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Harvard University Press (Footprint), $79.99 hb, 464 pp, 9780674987135
Ian McEwan’s new novel imagines an alternative history of England in the 1980s, one in which Argentina won the Falklands War and Margaret Thatcher was subsequently trounced at the polls. It also projects an alternative narrative of scientific progress, one in which the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing did not die in 1954, victimised because of his homosexuality, but instead lived on into a ‘glorious patrician present’ to become the ‘presiding genius of the digital age’. Digital communication is presented here as having become ‘a daily chore’ by the early 1970s, with these characters in 1982 communicating regularly by email. The novel’s plot turns on Turing’s invention of robotic prototypes, known as Adam and Eve, one of which ends up as the property of the novel’s first-person narrator, Charlie. Adam’s speed and dexterity in cognitive processing makes a fortune for Charlie on the Asian currency markets, but Adam eventually asserts his independence, becomes Charlie’s love rival and has to be eliminated.
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Ian McEwan’s new novel imagines an alternative history of England in the 1980s, one in which Argentina won the Falklands War and Margaret Thatcher was subsequently trounced at the polls. It also projects an alternative narrative of scientific progress, one in which the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing did not die in 1954 ...
- Book Title Machines Like Me
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- Biblio Jonathan Cape, $32.99 pb, 320 pp, 9781787331679
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A Season on Earth is the original version of Gerald Murnane’s second published novel, A Lifetime on Clouds, which appeared in 1976. The story behind this book’s publication is now well known, thanks to interviews Murnane has given and the author’s ‘foreword’ to this edition, where he relates how he reluctantly cut his manuscript in half to fit with Heinemann editor Edward Kynaston’s view of it as ‘a comic masterpiece’. Kynaston was probably trying to exploit the publicity surrounding Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which had become a cause célèbre in Australia after being initially banned in 1970 but then published after its acquittal in an obscenity trial. The ‘sin of self-abuse’ is also central to Murnane’s novel. Towards the end of A Lifetime on Clouds, rewritten by the author especially for that earlier version, central protagonist Adrian Sherd imagines Melbourne to be ‘the Masturbation capital of the world’, but then comes to realise ‘the same problem occurred in every civilized country on earth’.
The first two parts of A Season on Earth, like A Lifetime on Clouds, focus primarily on Sherd’s Catholic schooling and his fantasies of a hedonistic life in America. But the second half of A Season on Earth moves beyond the repressive confines of Victoria in the early 1950s to explore both the possibilities of a religious vocation – in Part Three, Sherd attends a junior seminary run by the Charleroi Fathers; and also, in Part Four, the imaginative potential of literature. Whereas A Lifetime on Clouds was a comic novel in the Roth idiom, with the Catholic environment of Murnane’s suburban Melbourne replacing the claustrophobic Jewish community of Roth’s New Jersey, A Season on Earth manifests itself in its full flowering as more akin to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a Künstlerroman about a boy’s growth in consciousness from adolescence to artistic maturity. Murnane characteristically remarked in an interview that he thought his hero wouldn’t be capable of writing anything by the end of the book, but such a sardonic awareness of art’s inherent limitations has always been integral to the author’s own creative consciousness.
Murnane complains in his foreword about the ‘butchering’ of his original novel and how the Heinemann editors had ‘misread’ it. This reconstituted work certainly has more thematic coherence. Perversion was initially a theological category, designating backsliding from a state of grace – the opposite of conversion, which retains a more explicit religious significance – and the fraught attempts of Murnane’s character to reconcile body and spirit are the axis upon which this entire narrative turns, from the tormented adolescent body of the first section to the fledgling literary intellectual of the last. When Sherd says in the final pages that his ‘perverse human nature seemed to want nothing higher than the contentment of sharing a home ... with a pretty, uncomplicated marriage partner’, it is now easier to recognise this within a framework of ontological perversion, where the limits of the human body necessarily circumscribe any higher inclinations.
This is also the source of Murnane’s scabrous comedy, which delights in a rhetoric of bathos and disavows on principle any ‘so-called abstract idea,’ a term he declares in Landscape with Landscape (1985) to be ‘self-contradictory’. A Season on Earth cites Thomas Aquinas, Thomas à Kempis, and Thomas Merton, and there is a characteristically Catholic distaste here for what became known scholastically as the ‘angelist’ heresy, whereby man’s humanist ambitions would try to appropriate some of the perfectionist qualities reserved in Church doctrine for angelic spirits. Despite Murnane’s explicit disbelief ‘in any gods or angels or demons’, his fiction preserves a distinctive theological infrastructure, whereby religious ideas are displaced into broader cultural forms. Sherd concludes towards the end of this novel that ‘his monastery was wherever he willed it to be’. A Season on Earth negotiates paradoxical spaces in between sacred and secular. The book’s title plays intertexually with Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873) to evoke the attractions and torments of transitory terrestrial incarnation.
There are already a number of distinguished novels in the literary canon that exist in variant versions, including Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), which his editor insisted on cutting drastically after Moby-Dick had been a commercial failure, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934), where the author’s preferred back-and-forth time scheme was initially deemed too complicated for the market to bear. Murnane is now generally recognised as a major literary figure, and the excavation of this work from the author’s archives is important for Australian literary history. Michael Heyward, whose initiative is acknowledged in the author’s foreword, and Text Publishing are consequently to be congratulated on making the work available.
There are, however, some oddities about the novel that make it less than totally satisfactory. Whereas in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist Stephen Dedalus’s solipsism is presented with increasing narrative irony and detachment, the reader of A Season on Earth is locked inside Adrian Sherd’s obsessive consciousness, with only the occasional jolt to make us recognise the partiality of his perspectives. At the end of Part Three, for instance, Father Camillus briskly dispatches Adrian from the seminary, saying that the monastic life ‘is not what God wanted of him’; but this alternative angle on Sherd’s inept performance as a seminarian comes as a surprise because we have been following the contours of this protagonist’s imaginative world for so long. Henry Miller is cited here as a potential prototype for Sherd’s own creative work – he wonders if ‘publishers might be interested in Australian stories with a predominantly sexual content’ – but unlike the first-person picaresques of Miller (or Saul Bellow), Sherd’s imagination is framed, indeed boxed in, by various mentors and idealised figures. These range from Denise McNamara, the schoolgirl on the Melbourne train whom he cherishes as his ‘Earth Angel’, to a subsequent series of intellectual types: Matthew Arnold, Francis Thompson, A.E. Housman, and others. (At one point, Sherd decides ‘he would model himself on Housman as far as was possible’.) This renders Murnane’s hero more passive than those of Miller or Bellow, and it also contributes to the odd sense of a continuous present and a flattened mental landscape. Adrian lurches from one scenario to another, failing to bring his life experiences into any kind of conceptual alignment, and indeed giving us the sense that any such alignment would be illusory. The short, chiselled sentences, while reinforcing Murnane’s emphasis on the immediacy of particular experience and the distortions of conceptual abstraction, also reinforce this sense of a radically disrupted discursive flow: ‘Adrian had a hard ride home from Stepney. The wind that had been behind him in the morning was blowing into his face. His stomach ached.’
It is valuable to have A Season on Earth in print, but it is not difficult to understand the reservations of the Heinemann editors when this manuscript was first presented to them. There are many sardonic comic observations here of Melbourne in the 1950s – I particularly liked the report of a man staying up ‘till all hours last night trying to put an extra cupboard in his laundry’ – but what is most interesting about Murnane’s work in general is the way it correlates these social scenes with larger metaphysical questions. Exemplifying an idiosyncratic Australian style of late postmodernism, Murnane’s fiction projects a sliding scale between extension and compression, where larger dimensions are refracted obliquely through parochial perspectives. This is not the greatest work in his oeuvre, but it is definitely worth having.
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- Custom Article Title Paul Giles reviews A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane
- Contents Category Fiction
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A Season on Earth is the original version of Gerald Murnane’s second published novel, A Lifetime on Clouds, which appeared in 1976. The story behind this book’s publication is now well known, thanks to interviews Murnane has given and the author’s ‘foreword’ to this edition, where he relates how he reluctantly cut his ...
- Book Title A Season on Earth
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Text Publishing, $39.99 hb, 485 pp, 9781925773347
Michelle de Kretser
Man Out of Time (Hachette, reviewed in ABR 9/18) explores a man’s breakdown and its effects on his family. It’s shimmering and sorrowful, and the writing is extraordinary. Too Much Lip (UQP, 10/18) by Melissa Lucashenko is a strong, unflinching novel about homecoming and history. With trademark wit and lucidity, Lucashenko connects the lives of her sharply drawn characters to a dysfunctional national story. Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge (Scribe, 5/18), set among working-class lives, considers the collapse of the Westgate Bridge alongside a contemporary tragedy. It’s a moving, unsentimental novel about ethical complexities. Ghachar Ghochar (Faber, 2015) is a disturbing novella by Vivek Shanbhag (translated by Srinath Perur) about an Indian family that becomes wealthy – a gem.Stephanie Bishop’s remarkable novel
Axiomatic (Brow Books, 9/18) and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its aftermath (Granta, 8/18). Tumarkin’s book is breathtaking in its audacity, its deep empathy, and its intellectual rigour. It’s unlike anything I have ever read. The Recovering is a deeply affecting and complex blend of biography and autobiography, drawing intimate and affirming portraits of what it might mean to come back from addiction and illness. My favourite work of fiction was Ceridwen Dovey’s taut and thrilling In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18), which is about trauma and legacy and how we understand the past. It is full of images of tragic beauty.I was most excited by two ambitious and wild books of non-fiction, Maria Tumarkin’s
Towards Light and Other Poems (Puncher & Wattmann, 11/18), achieves a sustained and generous weaving of lyrical intensity with moral engagement. Balanced, focused, elegantly executed, this book shows Day at her best. Simeon Kronenberg’s Distance (Pitt Street Poets), is an impressive first volume. The intimate shaping of the language and the stunning reach into the imagination in a series of historical dramatic monologues makes this book shine. On quite a different emotional register is Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets, (Giramondo). Hip, suave, pert, pinpointing, and penetrating, these poems engage with locale in most enterprising ways. Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir (Text Publishing, 9/18) is a book to weep over for the tragic lives it skilfully explores.Sarah Day’s eighth collection of poetry,
Sun Music: New and selected poems (Giramondo, 9/18) is a feast. I happily indulged in the old poems, but I gorged on the new. Filled with a plethora of living things – people, insects, animals, birds – these poems are vivid, insightful, and gorgeously poetic. I am a long-time fan of the English novelist Simon Mawer. His latest, Prague Spring (Little, Brown), plunges into the heady days of 1968: the pleasures of new freedoms, the hopes that were brutally crushed, and the politics, both behind the scenes and in the streets. All that you would want from a novel. Jacqueline Kent’s 2001 biography, A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis: A literary life, has been republished by NewSouth (9/18). It’s a terrific history of the Australian book industry, with the narrative pull of a plot-driven novel. Given current trends in publishing, this is a timely and welcome book.Judith Beveridge’s
An Open Book (UQP, 12/18). This broadly chronological reflection on language and experience gives us the familiar observer, watching endlessly for meaning, expressing his findings through direct and sparse lines. For a different reflection on artists and writing, Half the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 (Monash University Publishing, 11/18) by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell recalls the exile of Charmian Clift and George Johnston. Newly recovered photos from James Burke, destined originally for Life, see a Greek idyll marred by jealousy, frustrated ambit-ion, and the world outside. Lovingly researched, carefully constructed, compelling.In The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton, 2018), Pat Barker reworks a strand from The Iliad. Briseis is a prize for invading Greek men. Her story becomes a meditation on the fate of women in war. Barker evokes a world entire from a few lines in Homer and invites us to rethink the original. David Malouf embraces this approach in his last novel, Ransom (Penguin, 2009). In 2018 Malouf returns to his original craft, poetry, with
Dunera Lives: A Visual History (Monash University Publishing, 9/18), by the late, lamented Ken Inglis with Seumas Spark and Jay Winter. It presents a wealth of images of and by the German, mainly Jewish, ‘Dunera Boys’ who were sent from Britain to internment here in 1940. In What the Light Reveals (Transit Lounge), a fictionalised version of the lives of Australian communists David and Bernice Morris, Mick McCoy offers an intriguing Moscow Cold War story (though I’m not sure what I think about finding myself as a character). For another remarkable, non-fiction Cold War story, read Secrets and Truths (CEU Press, 2013), American anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s account of her reactions to the huge surveillance dossier Romanian Securitate kept on her over thirty years, complete with confrontations with informers (most of her Romanian friends) and even former spymasters (who turn out rather likeable, with a methodology resembling that of anthropologists).I loved
The Tall Man: Death and life on Palm Island (2008, 10/18) charts the destructive legacies of colonialism with attention to evidence and historical context, so The Arsonist: A mind on fire (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) documents the tragedy of the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in the La Trobe Valley. Like the best historians, Hooper recognises her complex responsibilities to past and present, to her historical subjects and contemporary readers. The Arsonist is a brilliant and moving book about ecological devastation and social desolation. Samia Khatun’s account of early encounters between Indigenous and Indian peoples in the Australian interior, Australianama: The South Asian odyssey in Australia, (Hurst) is post-colonial history at its best. Opening with the discovery of a Bengali songbook in an outback mosque, Khatun’s book eschews the conventional migrant narrative in favour of a strikingly original perspective on settler colonialism and multiculturalism.Chloe Hooper’s writing is animated by a profoundly humanist impulse and a desire to understand what happened. Just as
Love and Lament: An essay on the arts in Australia in the twentieth century (Thames & Hudson, 5/18) offers an eclectic overview of how high arts intersected with low arts, one that highlights the heterodox, often highly innovative nature of Australian culture over this period.The most surprising and engaging academic book I read this year was published in December 2017: Jason R. Rudy’s Imagined Homelands: British poetry in the colonies (Johns Hopkins University Press), which describes how canonical English poets were reverentially parodied by nostalgic settlers in Australia, South Africa, and other colonies during the Victorian era. Equally impressive in a scholarly sense is Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing: The speculative origins of U.S. citizenship (Harvard University Press), which traces the retroactive and fluctuating ways in which citizenship has been defined in the United States since the days of the Founding Fathers. And Margaret Plant’s
A Stolen Season (Picador, 4/18) confronts these issues with savage candour and a virtuosic attention to style that directly recalls White’s example. Clive Faust, another octogenarian, has provided a masterfully crafted collection of his life’s work in poetry, Past Futures: Collected poems (Shearsman, 2017). Faust’s writings appear only fugitively in local publications, but they have featured in leading international imprints over many decades. This example of his exquisitely sculpted work demonstrates that success in poetry has little do with conventional notions of a literary career, but is measured by sincere and objective technique.For its empathetic portrayal of the outer-suburban underclass, refugees, Aborigines, and all those excluded by mainstream nationalism, the most pertinent book for 2018 would be Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. In a similar vein, Rodney Hall offers a convincing portrait of the political realities of contemporary Australia, where military spending has spiralled while extremes of income inequality remain unaddressed:
Shell (Scribner, 11/18) uses the half-built Opera House and the Vietnam War as backdrop to a human drama about love, family, commitment, and loss. Two other novels stood out. Gail Jones’s The Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing, 4/18) wraps a richly layered family story in an art theft mystery that travels from Western Australia to Sydney and Sicily. Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber) is an on-again, off-again not-quite love story set in contemporary Ireland. Behind the humorously deadpan millennial voice lies astute commentary on class, sexual violence, and other pressing issues.I fell more deeply in love with Sydney’s architectural diva while reading two complementary books. Helen Pitt’s The House: The dramatic story of the Sydney Opera House and the people who made it (Allen & Unwin) is a thoroughly researched, colourful, and often shocking narrative history. Kristina Olsson’s shimmering novel
Kudos (Faber, 8/18). I am, months later, still bereft at the series’ completion. Will Eaves’s Murmur (CB Editions), while not part of a trilogy, is also one of a hat-trick of superb books. Murmur, which is partly inspired by the life of Alan Turing, ambitiously and brilliantly illustrates the relationships between fiction, consciousness, and artificial intelligence. The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – Alison L. Strayer’s compelling translation of Annie Ernaux’s Les Années (2008) – shows why Ernaux has such a high reputation for life writing in France. Lastly, there have been an extraordinary number of terrific collections by Australian poets, but I must mention Jordie Albiston’s Warlines (Hybrid, 11/18). A collection of found poems based on the correspondence of World War I soldiers, Warlines is a masterwork of documentary poetry that is both profoundly moving and intensely crafted.This year, Rachel Cusk’s ‘The Outline Trilogy’ came to a suitably brilliant end with
Click here for what we do (Vagabond, 8/18) is made of four long poems that, taking a walk through the everyday, assemble its weird onrush of habit, newness, news, advertising, commentary, forgetfulness, and changes in weather. They are quick, spare, alert, and companionable. It was fun to discover Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women, first printed in 1965, reissued this year with an introduction from Ali Smith (Silver Press). In this, Nell Dunn talks honestly with nine friends – writers, artists, factory workers – about work and sex and love and freedom. Black Inc. this year ended its long-running series Best Australian Poems. But, led by Jacinta Le Plastrier, Australian Poetry has been publishing an impressive, and impressively various, sequence of guest-edited journals and anthologies.Pam Brown’s new poetry collection,
The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House (Bodley Head, 12/18) stands out. Rhodes was speechwriter and foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama; this book is a stark reminder of how the world has changed since Donald Trump’s election. Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., 4/18) is a wonderful account of the discovery of Australia’s Indigenous history, blending archaeology, politics, and landscape. Most powerful of all is Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, 10/18), written from the detention centre on Manus. It should be compulsory reading for every federal politician.Is it a reflection of the times that the books that most impressed me this year are non-fiction? Understandably there has been an outpouring of books about US politics. Of those I read, Ben Rhodes’s
The Long Hangover: Putin’s new Russia and the ghosts of the past (OUP, 4/18) is the best recent book about contemporary Russia. Johannes Due Enstad’s rigorously researched Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile loyalties in World War II (CUP) brings a new complexity to the study of the USSR’s World War II; and Iva Glisic’s The Futurist Files: Avant-garde, politics, and ideology in Russia, 1905–1930 (Northern Illinois University Press) combines the sensibilities of the art historian with the rigour of archive-based political history. It invents a new genre: the political history of radical art. This achievement is all the more impressive, as the author is among the growing number of talented Australian scholars forced to make a living at the margins of an under-funded university sector.My highlights of the year are all first books. Shaun Walker is a reporter with a history degree. His
The Shepherd’s Hut (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18). Winton tells the story in the first-person voice of fifteen-year-old Jaxie, who is on the run as a suspect for the murder of his abusive father. When he finds a protector in dubious circumstances, Jaxie’s capacity to trust is tested to the limit, as is the physical strength needed to survive in a harsh West Australian landscape. A powerful, haunting story. In 2018 it was time to say goodbye to the irreplaceable William Trevor with Last Stories (Viking, 6/18). In a fictional world that is peopled with eccentrics, misfits, and failures, Trevor’s quiet comic sense and his compassion are held in a unique balance. These final stories are elegantly crafted, finely observed, and inventive as always.‘Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,’ remarked Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I was reminded of laconic, unshockable Huck when I read Tim Winton’s
Collected Poems (Black Inc., 12/18). As you might predict, its 736 pages contain some of the best poetry written in this country. A work of comparable interest, if smaller scale, is David Malouf’s collection An Open Book, which maintains an almost airy, late-life suspension throughout. Another likely valediction is Clive James’s The River in the Sky (Picador, 11/18). It’s a phantasmagoric verse memoir, less strictly controlled than his other books produced since a life-threatening diagnosis six years ago. Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is the summation of an exemplary Australian career. Her poems are constructed from finely described details, most of which are tapped into place with simile or metaphor. The most memorable of them involve a rejection of cruelty, whether to humans or animals.This has been a year of summations and farewells in Australian poetry. Four books may be mentioned, the heaviest of which is Les Murray’s new
The Everlasting Sunday (UQP, 4/18) a gorgeously restrained début, in which a house of unwanted boys must survive more than winter’s cruelties. A novel of ice, with a heart of fire. But the year’s clarion call was No Friend But the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani’s inconsolably human account of his inhuman detention on Manus Island – a plea, a poem, and a mighty indictment. As Richard Flanagan insists in his foreword: this is an Australian story, its author ‘A great Australian writer’.As an undergrad – full of pith and vinegar – I dismissed Australian literature as tedious, irrelevant tosh. In my defence, I’d been introduced to Aussie writers at school with all the enthusiasm of a vaccination, a literary inoculation. Rest assured, I’ve since been proved thoroughly and delightfully wrong. 2018 has been a magnificent year for Australian letters. For me, the year’s quiet marvel was Robert Lukins’s
Towards Light and Other Poems, Philip Mead’s intensely honed and intelligent late-modernist re-engagement with the world as experienced in Zanzibar Light (Vagabond Press, 5/18), and the poised tension and verbal control of Misbah Khokhar’s prose poems in Rooftops in Karachi (Vagabond Press).Lisa Bellear once wrote to me in an email, ‘Let’s get busy’ – a call for living life, in conjunction with action, in so many ways. Jen Jewel Brown has done an excellent job compiling much of Bellear’s uncollected poetry in the vital collection Aboriginal Country (UWAP). The emphatic, committed voice of this remarkable Goernpil woman, feminist, poet, photographer, and activist shines through. Other remarkable collections of Australian poetry this year include Kent MacCarter’s postmodern tour de force, California Sweet (Five Islands Press), Sarah Day’s striking book of seeing
Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives The Tall Man was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Chloe Hooper has done it with The Arsonist. Hooper creates emotion from fact and recounts the Black Saturday fires with empathy and intelligence. Rachael Brown achieved an Australian first: turning a number one true-crime podcast into a Walkley-shortlisted book. Trace: Who killed Maria James? (Scribe) is a gripping read. And finally, imagine if Harry Potter had been written with a female protagonist? Jessica Townsend has done just that with Wundersmith: The calling of Morrigan Crow (Hachette) The series is a reading gateway drug for the next generation.is intense and provocative, an artful exploration of love and power. It is fiction to devour over the summer break.
Deep Time Dreaming is a beautifully written account of how the archaeological profession came to learn what Indigenous people had long known: that they had lived in this country for aeons. Christina Twomey’s The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia (NewSouth, 8/18) manages to be quietly moving without ever descending into mawkishness. In a highly readable and superbly researched book, Twomey shows how Australian POWs in Japan moved from being an embarrassment on the periphery of Australian consciousness to finding a place near the centre of our collective memory of war.It has been a year dominated by history and non-fiction, even more than is usually the case for me. I enjoyed several, but two stood out. Billy Griffiths’s
Sun Music: New and selected poems was also a highlight. Like Powers, Beveridge has a gift for finding ways to match the natural world in words. I also very much enjoyed Alison Whittaker’s virtuosic collection, Blakwork (Magabala). The way Gomeroi words are always bursting through the English in Blakwork feels more like the future than the past. It’s surely one of the key books in our current Aboriginal literary and linguistic renaissance.Richard Powers’ The Overstory (Norton) was my 2018 fiction highlight. I lost myself in the branches of this big book, in the ideas, the imagery, the eloquence, and the melodrama. I already think of it as a Moby-Dick of trees and, like Moby-Dick, it redeploys a bristling field of natural science for the purposes of an emotionally charged human narrative. Not to mention an environmentally urgent one. Judith Beveridge’s
The Children’s House (Vintage, 10/18) is an exceptional Australian novel about exile, also witnessed by a young and thoughtful woman. Marina’s New York is haunted by the loss of countries – Rwanda, Israel, Ireland, El Salvador. It documents both the brutal severance and the unexpected reconfiguration of community, families, and ideals.Anna Burns’s Milkman (Faber) – winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize – is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Political idealism has rotted into lethal small-scale totalitarianism, coldly observed by a funny, sensible, and relentlessly literary eighteen-year-old girl who is sexually menaced by a senior paramilitary figure. Milkman is fabulously digressive, a brilliant survey of cruelty and coercion. Alice Nelson’s
Look at the Lake (Puncher and Wattmann, 9/18). Brophy spent two years at Mulan, home of the Walmajarri people in the Kimberley, and his wry, beautifully weighted poems quietly diarise an outsider’s observations of community life.In White Houses (Granta), American novelist Amy Bloom inhabits the voice and spikey character of Depression-era journalist Lorena Hickok. Through archival research and vivid reimagining, Bloom offers a remarkable portrait of the not-so-secret love between ‘Hick’ and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Closer to home, David Sornig in Blue Lake (Scribe) also mines the archive, as well as extensive interviews and his own first-hand knowledge, to reconsider the zone west of Melbourne’s CBD that was once fertile wetland and lagoon. Imaginatively constructed and with erudite first-person guidance, this is the kind of riveting non-fiction that deserves the term ‘creative’. Poet Kevin Brophy sensitively explores another geography and body of water in
I read Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull (Allen & Unwin) in one furious day. This dark, sparkling memoir of a young judge’s associate tells how she gradually finds the nerve to report the man who molested her as a child. Lee’s voice is warm and surprising; her writing fizzes with energy, ideas, and great sentences. I also devoured the edition of Freeman’s literary journal (Text Publishing) that is devoted to the theme of power. Exceptional essays include Josephine Rowe’s charged account of her time as a life model, Aminatta Forna on street harassment, and Nicole Im’s exquisite meditation on suicide. The funniest book I read this year was Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Abacus, 2017). It’s rare to laugh out loud while reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Greer’s tale of an almost washed-up novelist nudging fifty is hilarious, touching, and deceptively profound.
Tracker (Giramondo, 1/18) offers rich and complex storytelling, a kaleidoscope of voices that illuminates the remarkable Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth and advances a new model of life writing. Mark McKenna’s Quarterly Essay Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (Black Inc.) is a product of decades of deep thinking and a passionate and timely call for a ‘reconciled republic’. Two novels that have impressed me with their radical ecological consciousness are Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (Fourth Estate, 2017) and Richard Powers’ The Overstory. And I enjoyed the late meditations of two great writers: Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye: A thought diary (Faber).Alexis Wright’s
Warlight (Jonathan Cape, 9/18) collect in the dim lights of memory and secrecy as his protagonist traces ‘the obscure rigging of our mother’s life’. Robin Robertson’s The Long Take (Picador) is a marvellous book-length poem mapping a young veteran’s postwar journey in an exhilarating poetics shaped by film noir and jazz. Ceridwen Dovey’s Writers on Writers: On J.M. Coetzee (Black Inc., 11/18) limns desire, abandonment, connection, reading, and writing in an exquisite, layered essay.Throughout Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water (Penguin), the pain of chains ‘someone was made to drag’ is replaced by the ache when ‘love let them be / Unclasped’. Whether her subject is the fight against chemical pollution, slaves’ liberation, or a sorrowful woman visited by angels, Smith’s poems insist on love as cure, solution, and light, as into a room ‘where the drapes / Have been swept back’. The fragmentary revelations and vivid slivers of Michael Ondaatje’s
The Lost Boys (Scribe, 5/18), an engrossing expose of the Robbers Cave experiment, a classic study in social psychology, was also a fine historical recreation.With the best book I read in 2018, I was catching up. Peter Pomerantsev’s travelogue of Russia under Putin, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (2014), came out in paperback last year. It covers events from 2006 and 2014, during which the London-based journalist was mostly working as a television producer for Russian entertainment television. It’s like Stasiland adapted in the style of Black Mirror, bleakly hilarious when not downright chilling. An ideal historical companion volume was Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017), a saga of domestic life in a Soviet apartment block before, during, and after the Terror. Gina Perry’s
An Open Book and Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry). Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Rondo (Carcanet) rollicks through time and space in the green fields of his joyous imagination. Here, the first Homo sapiens baby is eyed by bemused hominids, who ponder ‘Was this bod something to do with a future?’ Thirty years ago in I’m Deadly Serious (1988), Wallace-Crabbe pictured cars ‘with hearts in their mouths / as though they had something big to offer knowledge’. Yuval Noah Harari certainly does. His own epic imagination of the human journey through evolutionary time ended on a note of high alarm in Homo Deus (Vintage, 2017). His latest, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Cape), brings his winged vision to subjects ranging from fake news to freedom to humanity’s uncertain future.What a strong year for poetry. I loved the resonant, perceptive lyrics in David Malouf’s
From the avalanche of books trying to make sense of our present moment, I would like to single out two for special mention: Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings: Political correctness and the rise of the Right (Scribe) and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Pantheon). Sparrow’s book is a provocative reading of the culture wars that develops a distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘delegated’ politics. Jacoby’s book takes a longer historical view: it attempts to trace the irrationality of contemporary US culture back to its origins. Along the way, Jacoby develops a stimulating and wide-ranging thesis about why certain forms of unreason should have found such rich soil in the secular democratic republic of the United States. I would also recommend the latest novel by Richard Powers. The Overstory, written with characteristic intelligence, is a rich and satisfying novel that addresses the environmental catastrophe we are creating and challenges us to rethink our place within the natural world.
The Year Everything Changed: 2001 (Vintage, 6/18) is full of exploding memory-bombs for those who were paying attention to the news back then. McGuinness takes that watershed year and interrogates the tripes out of it, her lively intellect playing across the 2001 news calendar like a beam of light. It also reflects the way we all live, with one eye on current affairs and the other on our own intimate and daily experience. At first, the reader may wonder why Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. While it’s witty and warm and full of delightful characters, it seems a little lightweight. But it gathers heft as it goes, with its tale of a lonely gay novelist looking down the double barrels of his fiftieth birthday and his ex-lover’s approaching wedding.Phillipa McGuinness’s
No Friend But the Mountains. Part philosophy, part reportage, part memoir, Boochani’s account of Manus Island lingers in the mind. That it was composed by SMS and WhatsApp messages makes the book, and its author, all the more impressive. Recent policy changes in Canberra suggest the book has even had its intended impact. In the long term, it should also find a lasting place in the canon of prison literature. Novelist Tayari Jones probes the effects of the carceral state on intimate relationships in An American Marriage (Vintage). It’s a stunning portrait of the pressures under which even middle-class African Americans live.The most important book I read this year was Behrouz Boochani’s
Collected Poems squats on my desk like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a handsome volume and a substantial one whose contents are by turns grotesque, elegant, abstruse, innovative in form, conservative in spirit, and often achingly felt. Murray is a difficult poet in many respects, but this grand summa demands awe and admiration. Barry Hill’s Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980–2017 (Monash University Publishing, 5/18), is a compendium of life-work by another commanding figure in Australian literary culture. It reveals the sheer range of Hill’s passions and concerns over time, and it reminds us of the commitment, curiosity, and care he has brought to bear upon each of them. No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani may or may not be the best book of the year; it is certainly the most important.There was no competition. Les Murray’s
The Shepherd’s Hut is a tour de force. Winton is one of the few writers I know who could carry off such a sustained vernacular performance. The voice of Jaxie Clackton is utterly authentic (sounds like the Tim Winton I heard twenty-five years ago), and his helter-skelter Bildungsroman is searing and morally confronting. Unforgettable fiction for exactly this moment.Peter Mares has been pricking Australian consciences in his informed, dispassionate way for decades. No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s housing crisis (Text Publishing) is yet another instance of his salutary ability to take a highly politicised issue, examine its details, and provide both a lucid and ethical response and a context that informs, rather than inflames, his general audience – journalism at its very best. Tim Winton’s
The Death of Noah Glass my top novel-reading experience. Also from Text, Nadia Wheatley’s memoir Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir moved me deeply, recounting the life of a strong woman who found the constraints of domestic life in the postwar years unbearable. To complete a trio of genres, I choose David Malouf’s poetry collection An Open Book. UQP has made a beautiful book to house poems of limpid grace and wise insight.Among this year’s Australian publications, Gail Jones’s mesmerising prose and intricate structuring made
- Free Article Yes
- Custom Article Title Books of the Year 2018
- Contents Category Books of the Year
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To celebrate the best books of 2018, Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser
Love and Lament offers a bracingly revisionist and upbeat account of how the arts flourished across a broad cultural spectrum in Australia over the course of the twentieth century. Margaret Plant, an emeritus professor of the visual arts at Monash University, argues explicitly with the thesis propounded by Keith Hancock, Donald Horne, and others that Australian cultural taste was ‘conservative and backward’. In ranging widely across architecture, film, photography, music, dance, and popular culture, as well as literature and painting, she demonstrates convincingly that, as she puts it, there was ‘no dormant period’ in Australian cultural and artistic life during this time.
Plant’s book is organised conceptually in terms of decades, with ten chapters stretching from ‘Bush, Desert, Film and Federation: 1900 to 1910’ through to ‘The 1990s: Conflicts, Museums, Ceremonies and the Millennium’. The strength of such an approach is that it enables a multivalent, wide-angled portrayal of each different decade, showing how well-known figures intersected in sometimes circuitous ways with the cultural politics of their time. It also integrates a great many fascinating oddball details, as for example with her account of the theosophical radio station 2GB that operated in the 1920s, or of silent cinema director Charles Chauvel’s efforts to run a ‘Chauvel School of Scenario Writing’ in Sydney from 1933 to 1936.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Paul Giles reviews 'Love and Lament: An essay on the arts in Australia in the twentieth century' by Margaret Plant
- Contents Category Cultural Studies
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Love and Lament offers a bracingly revisionist and upbeat account of how the arts flourished across a broad cultural spectrum in Australia over the course of the twentieth century. Margaret Plant, an emeritus professor of the visual arts at Monash University, argues explicitly with the thesis propounded by Keith ...
- Book Title Love and Lament
- Book Subtitle An essay on the arts in Australia in the twentieth century
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Thames and Hudson, $60 pb, 512 pp, 9780500501238
Ever since Henry VIII plundered the monasteries, relations between those in seats of power and learning have tended to be fraught, since political administrators do not take kindly to scholars thinking they know best how to run their own affairs, and vice versa. No End of a Lesson chronicles, in a relatively neutral and detached manner, events leading to the unification of Australia’s higher education institutions into a national system under the direction of John Dawkins, who was appointed Minister of Employment, Education and Training after Bob Hawke won the federal election in 1987.
Dawkins saw his mission as to make this system more efficient by consolidating colleges into larger university groupings, while aligning the research agendas of higher education more with government priorities. The rationale was to increase the rates of student participation while making universities more accountable for the public funds they were receiving. The obvious problem, though, was that such reforms meant that universities became more liable to centralised control, with Peter Karmel, then vice-chancellor of Flinders University, protesting that in ‘a free society’, universities should not become ‘an arm of government policy’. Eminent economist Max Corden, who worked in the United States during the 1990s before returning to Australia, was more graphic in his criticism, describing the Australian higher education system in 2005 as ‘Moscow on the Molonglo’.
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- Custom Article Title Paul Giles reviews 'No End of a Lesson: Australia’s unified national system of higher education' by Stuart Macintyre, André Brett, and Gwilym Croucher
- Contents Category Education
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Ever since Henry VIII plundered the monasteries, relations between those in seats of power and learning have tended to be fraught, since political administrators do not take kindly to scholars thinking they know best how to run their own affairs, and vice versa ...
- Book Title No End of a Lesson
- Book Subtitle Australia’s unified national system of higher education
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Melbourne University Press, $49.99 pb, 332 pp, 9780522871906
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.
On learning that the premise of Peter Carey’s new novel involved a test of automobile reliability on a round trip across Australia, my first response was to dismiss it as a thin conceit for encompassing the country’s remoter landscape within a work of the imagination. The internet, however, quickly delivered old Pathé newsreels revealing not only that this Redex Trial was a demonstrable historical event, but also that no less than 50,000 people showed up at Sydney Showground to see the cars off on their cross-country journey. Truth, indeed, can sometimes seem stranger than fiction. Didn’t they have anything better to do, even in 1954?
A Long Way from Home is a major work of fiction by the writer who will probably be regarded, in a hundred years, as the leading Australian novelist from the early part of the twenty-first century. Though Carey, long resident in New York, is sometimes regarded in the land of his birth as a suspiciously deracinated figure, the unsettling power of his best work derives precisely from the way he hollows out national mythologies of all kinds and reinvents familiar narratives as ludic fables. This is the basis of his demystification of Victorian England in Oscar and Lucinda (1988) or of Tocqueville’s idealisation of US democracy in Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), as well as of the myth of bushrangers in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). In all these cases, Carey flattens out naturalised worlds of emotional affect into systems of pastiche. Many readers hostile to Carey’s work, like those hostile to the work of his friend Salman Rushdie, are uncomfortable with the forms of structural alienation endemic to an author who envisages his objects through a strategic sense of distance that is only partly satirical in nature. The most memorable vignettes in A Long Way from Home derive from the book’s sardonic evocation of Australian domestic culture in the early 1950s: advertising jingles, radio quiz shows, competition in rural Victoria between Ford and Holden car dealers. The fact that the first section is set in ‘Bacchus Marsh, 33 miles from Melbourne’, where the author himself grew up, enhances the nostalgic ambience, and the book is anchored by vivid portraits of car salesman ‘Titch’ Bobbs and his feisty wife, Irene, who conspire to promote their professional fortunes by winning the Redex Trial.
Yet nostalgia is not the main concern of this ambitious novel. A Long Way from Home turns much more challengingly on what the idea of ‘home’ means and how a homeland is framed and memorialised. Accompanying the Bobbs on their car journey around Australia is Willie Bachhuber, a teacher (apparently of German ancestry) who, as the book unfolds, learns more about his own genealogical entanglement with Indigenous culture, with Bachhuber’s reluctant overcoming of amnesia effectively mirroring that of the country at large. Carey deploys again the ventriloquist idiom he perfected in True History of the Kelly Gang, one that uses a first-person narrative to get under the skin of the fictional characters. He also juggles the dialogical style that characterised Parrot and Olivier by his method of alternating chapters between different narrative points of view, in this case those of Bachhuber and Irene Bobbs. This opens up Carey’s text to illuminating (if disorienting) shifts in perspective, with the theme of exile signalled in the book’s title referring not only to Bachhuber’s own loss of his imagined ‘ancestral home’, but to a whole ontological series of geographical and philosophical dislocations. The author’s frequent use of scare quotes for words such as ‘“violent” contact’ or ‘“seed” money’ or an ‘“undulating” road’ introduces what one might call a rhetorical sense of dislocation, where disjunctions appear between a world of conventional signs and the more amorphous nature of experience: ‘The map showed a road but nothing was so definitive in real life.’ This is in accord not only with complex Indigenous relations to place and displacement, but also with the principled alienation promulgated in the book’s final sentence, which suggests how ‘our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak’. Carey’s use of the word ‘earned’ here implies a suffused sense of guilt, as though the author’s own apprehension of his native land from his New York exile could be seen as merely a heightened version of the ‘foreign’ condition haunting Australia more generally.
The acerbic comedy in this book, revolving around the arcane rules and regulations associated with the Redex Trial, makes for a highly enjoyable reading experience. The success of the novel’s larger ambitions, addressing as it does ‘the question of what it might mean to be a white Australian’ (as Carey himself put it), will inevitably be more contentious. The author vividly portrays the casual racism of bureaucratic Australia in 1954, but he recovers this through a retrospective method that reflects Bachhuber’s own ‘passion for atlases’ and the character’s fascination with maps of time as well as space. A Long Way from Home consequently seeks to excavate an alternative history of Australia in the mid-twentieth century, one that juxtaposes colloquial realism with an anthropological, scholarly inquiry into how Indigenous culture is measured and recognised. In the way it encompasses multiple and sometimes contradictory strands, the novel skilfully refracts, as in a trick mirror, the condition of Australia in 1954 through its parallel formation in 2017.
The whole question of how Indigenous cultures relate to white Australian history seems recently to have run into a conceptual brick wall, blocked off by imponderable questions of authenticity. In this context, what is particularly unusual and striking about Carey’s work is its use of dark, coruscating humour as an enabling device, as when Bachhuber remarks of the ‘blackfellah’ riding in his car of how he ‘could feed from this red earth as if it were a grocery store’. This ironic idiom is designed not so much to marginalise Indigenous culture as to render it part of the complex postmodern world. When the wonderfully drawn Doctor Battery, who gains his nom de plume from the way he restores car batteries through seemingly magical rituals involving the heating of corrugated iron, remarks on ‘Tadpoles swimming in his spit’, Bachhuber says that he isn’t sure if the Doctor is ‘communicating ancient Law or teasing me or both at once’. Something of that quality of hybridity, of integrating Indigenous culture with a more opaque style of self-reflexive comedy, is the force that galvanises this brilliantly iconoclastic if inherently unstable and deliberately uneven novel. The Indigenous characters here generally appear more elusive and inscrutable than the Bobbs family, while the multifaceted Bachhuber does seem at times to strain credibility. But Carey’s magical realist dimensions, like those of Rushdie, always seek alternative ways of mapping local scenarios, and by reconceiving Australian cultural history through his double idiom of demotic sympathy and cerebral distance, A Long Way from Home provocatively postulates a state of exile as integral to the constitution of the country.
- Free Article Yes
- Custom Article Title Paul Giles reviews 'A Long Way from Home' by Peter Carey
- Contents Category Fiction
Custom Highlight Text
On learning that the premise of Peter Carey’s new novel involved a test of automobile reliability on a round trip across Australia, my first response was to dismiss it as a thin conceit for encompassing the country’s remoter landscape within a work of the imagination. The internet, however, quickly delivered old Pathé newsreels ...
- Book Title A Long Way from Home
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Hamish Hamilton, $32.99 pb, 360 pp, 9780143787075
Described in one of the blurbs on its back cover as ‘a cabinet of wonders for lovers of faraway countries,’ Jamie James’s The Glamour of Strangeness is unusual in terms of the wide variety of the material it covers. James focuses here on artists who left their homelands ‘to create a new self in a new place’, arguing that the ‘exotic’ aesthetics wrought by these adventurous exiles resulted in them becoming personae non gratae in their native lands.
As James tells us in his preface, this book began as ‘a dual study of Raden Saleh, the Javanese painter who enjoyed a season of fame in Europe, and Walter Spies, the dreamy German artist in Bali’. However, he also explains that ‘as the book progressed, other, similar cases presented themselves that seemed too good to leave out,’ with the result that we are also introduced here to a much more extensive cast, including Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian-Swiss writer who roamed the Sahara; American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren in Haiti; and Victor Segalen, a Breton naval doctor who emigrated to Peking to immerse himself in classical Chinese civilisation. At the time of his death in 1919, Segalen was working on an ‘Essay on Exoticism’, which he subtitled ‘An Aesthetics of Diversity’, and it is a similar kind of ambition to place the ‘exote’ within a broad intellectual framework that provides the rationale for James’s book.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Paul Giles reviews 'The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the lost age of the exotics' by Jamie James
- Contents Category Biography
- Book Title The Glamour of Strangeness
- Book Subtitle Artists and the lost age of the exotics
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Farrar, Straus and Giroux $37.99 hb, 375 pp, 9780374163358
The latest instalment in the Oxford History of the Novel in English is notable for having one of its editors based in Australia and the other two in New Zealand. As these editors admit in their introduction, this volume is ‘something of a hybrid when set alongside the other eleven volumes that make up the series’, since it is organised partly by historical date, tracing ‘the World Novel in English’ from its putative origins up until 1950, and partly by geography. ‘World Literature’ is a problematic and contested term in today’s academy, but the editors here understand it to mean writing from Africa, Asia, Australasia, Oceania, and Antarctica, as well as parts of the Americas (Canada, the Caribbean) outside the United States, whose fiction enjoys its own dedicated volumes in this series. Thirteen of the twenty-nine contributors to this book are, in fact, based at universities in Australia or New Zealand, and taken as a whole this volume tends to highlight literary production in this part of the world. This might well be regarded as a welcome corrective to similar works in which Australasia has been unduly marginalised, although if I were reviewing this book in Cape Town, I would doubtless be surprised at how South African literature is omitted altogether from the chapter discussing ‘Colonial Gothic’.
Even weighing in as it does at 500 pages, it is clearly impossible to cover every aspect of the ‘world novel’ in a project such as this. Many of the editorial choices of inclusion and exclusion are, however, quite revealing. As I know from having contributed to earlier volumes in this series, the general editor (Patrick Parrinder, at the University of Reading) issued a directive that contributors ‘should aim for a long-term, general readership and should not presume acquaintance with current literary-critical jargon’. The editors of The World Novel in English To 1950 have accordingly chosen to emphasise empirical forms of cultural history, the facts and figures of book publishing, rather than to engage with the more deliberately theoretical approach that characterises, for instance, the two volumes of The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature, published in 2012 under the editorship of Ato Quayson.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Paul Giles reviews 'The Oxford History of the Novel in English: Volume 9: The world novel in English to 1950' edited by Ralph Crane, Jane Stafford, and Mark Williams
- Contents Category Literary Studies
- Book Title The Oxford History of the Novel in English
- Book Subtitle Volume 9: The world novel in English to 1950
- Author Type Editor
- Biblio Oxford University Press, $160 hb, 501 pp, 9780199609932