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Australian Fiction

The Good Parents, Joan London’s second novel, begins with the seduction and disappearance of Maya de Jong, an eighteen-year-old who has recently moved to Melbourne from a small Western Australian town. Maya’s worried parents, Jacob and Toni, travel to Melbourne, set themselves up in her Richmond share house, and begin to search for clues to explain her absence.

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One striking feature of Nicholas Jose’s fine new novel is its principled versatility. Set in multiple locations – Adelaide, Washington, DC, East Timor – and introducing alternative narrative voices, Jose evokes a world of complex intersections comprising many different angles and viewpoints. As a former diplomat himself, he writes with expert knowledge of a variety of professional and personal environments. His novel ranges across the ‘loyalties and long memories’ of lives rooted in Adelaide, along with some of the city’s ‘dunderhead complacencies’, while also presenting an insider’s view of diplomatic exchanges in Washington, DC and Canberra.

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When Richard Flanagan left school, he tells us early in Question 7, he worked as a chainman or surveyor’s labourer, ‘a job centuries old set to vanish only a few years later with the advent of digital technology’. Chainmen would have followed the surveyors who mapped Van Diemen’s Land and the rest of the British Empire; their task was to ‘drag the twenty-two-yard chain with its hundred links with which the world was measured’. The clanking surveyor’s measure evokes convict chains, and it demonstrates one of the principles at the heart of this book: that the past lives and redounds in the present. The chainman is a descendant of convicts, and he insists that ‘there was no straight line of history. There was only a circle.’

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Twenty years after the publication of their ‘inclusive Australian literary history’, The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970–1988, Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman have returned with a ‘sequel’, After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989–2007. One leaden title succeeds another, although the tone of the second book is angrier. More of that later. As the authors note in their preface, The New Diversity was published by McPhee Gribble, an independent outfit that would largely be subsumed by Penguin in 1989, the year in which that book appeared. This observation prepares for the consistently impressive aspect of After the Celebration: its detailed, incisive, intelligently informed account of the changes in the circumstances of publishing, and especially fiction publishing, in Australia during the last two decades. One might take counsels of hope or despair from their analysis (particularly if one were a novelist), but still be grateful for it.

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The Sitter by Angela O'Keeffe & Vincent & Sien by Silvia Kwon

by
September 2023, no. 457

The relationship between artists and their sitters has long been a topic of fascination and enquiry – not least for artists themselves. The study of portraiture is often informed by investigations of this relationship as well as that with a third party: the viewer.

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Given the huge popularity of crime fiction, some readers might wonder why there are not more examples by Aboriginal authors. Perhaps it is because crime in general is too close to the bone. It was only coincidental to be reviewing Julie Janson’s Madukka the River Serpent amid the controversy that followed the ABC’s coverage of the recent coronation, yet the relevance was inescapable. For the tiny number of readers unaware, this is when the slimy gutter of social media-fuelled racism dragged journalist Stan Grant down to the point where the national broadcaster lost one of its best (temporarily, one hopes). Grant’s departure speech at the end of his final Q&A on 21 May was so moving and thought-provoking it will stand in history alongside other landmark speeches – Paul Keating’s Redfern address springs to mind – and may well prove to be a catalyst for reform. Though prompted by cruelty and hate, it responded with generosity and love – love of people, love of culture, love of country.

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Where I Slept opens with an ending. The nameless narrator, a twenty-something woman, is leaving her rural hometown and the boarding house where she lived, for new adventures in the big smoke – but not before daubing ‘sentimentality is the enemy of truth’ on the front gate of her soon-to-be former university. That proverb proves prophetic as the narrator establishes a new life in Melbourne’s inner city. This is the 1990s, just before gentrification had gained ascendance, when the area still had a ‘bohemian’ feel. The narrator drifts through sharehouses where rent goes unpaid and housemates are replaced frequently. She frequents seedy bars where strangers shout her drinks, and exhibitions where free booze flows.

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Melbourne author Aisling Smith’s début begins with a question that snakes the whole way through her novel: ‘What has happened to Benjamin?’

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The aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg likened reviews to ‘a kind of childhood illness to which newborn books are subject to a greater or lesser degree’, like measles or mumps, which kill a few but leave the rest only mildly marked. But how should we consider reviews of books that come late in an author’s career? In instances such as these, the reviewer is tempted to avoid any chance of career-ending pneumonia, applying a nurse’s gentling touch to the text. Often the result is career summation, a soft peddle at indications of decline.

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Australian rural noir – very much in vogue right now – exhibits Australians’ fascination with landscape, crime, and our complex history. Sean Wilson, who was shortlisted for the Patrick White Playwrights Award in 2016, has encapsulated these elements in his début novel, Gemini Falls. What emerges from the novel is a reflection on our modern society. ... (read more)