It begins with a projected haze of ocean horizon. In this blurry liminal space, silence is misted with anticipation, like the moment before an echo comes back empty, right across the sea. Then a close-up of multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis’s hands unpicking tranquillity’s fabric, each piano note a loosened stitch.
The machinery of the Bad Seeds emerges: scarred midriffs of violins and guitars, a shimmer of pinstripes and a flourish of the pocket squares favoured by the rock dandy, fingers heavily ringed. The stage is set with percussion, keyboards, flute, a grand piano: jangle and spark itching to launch. Deep concentration: the glance among colleagues who have worked together for decades, in the moment between rehearsal and performance when everything is scripted but anything can happen.
Nick Cave steps onstage, slim, suited, singing: The things we love, we love, we love, we lose, the last word snuffing itself out, almost inaudible. There’s a sob edging the note and sky-raised eyes: there are powers at play more forceful than we. Austere instrumentation drops into silence as he continues: I’m begging you please to come home now, come home now. He is right on the edge, singing convalesce into palpable empathy, mask of twigs and clay, hands reaching towards him: with my voice, I am calling you. Deep within this mood of aftermath, something is stirring. In the echo of witness – the audience, still, holding each syllable – a stretch and wrench of sung words and an eerie swoop of synth and harmonies signal the crossing to a new part of Cave’s creative life.
On 12 April 2018, Distant Sky, a live concert film of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds screened once in cinemas around the world. Made in October 2017 at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen and directed by David Barnard, it captured Australian-born musician and writer Nick Cave and his band The Bad Seeds playing to an audience of sixteen thousand people.
The concert was part of a tour following the 2016 release of the band’s sixteenth studio album. Skeleton Tree was recorded over eighteen months. During this time, in July 2015, Arthur Cave, the fifteen-year-old son of Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, died after an accidental fall at Ovingdean Gap near their home in Brighton, England. To avoid promotional interviews, Cave commissioned Australian director Andrew Dominik to make a documentary. Dominik describes One More Time With Feeling as ‘a practical solution to a practical problem’. The thought of interviews ‘made [Cave] feel sick, because he was going to have to discuss the context of the record with a whole bunch of journalists. That prospect was very alarming to him. His instinct in making the film was one of self-preservation: it was a way to talk about what happened, but there was a certain safety in doing it with someone he knew.’ Cave found himself caught between the need for silence and the need to speak: the human instinct for privacy and the artist’s sense of a responsibility to say something. ‘The idea of a traditional interview,’ writes Dominik, ‘was simply unfeasible but … he felt a need to let the people who cared about his music understand the basic state of things.’
Dominik describes Cave as ‘trapped’ and needing ‘to do something – anything – to at least give the impression of forward movement’. In the process, an unexpected kernel appeared. The resulting film is more than a holding bay, and more than a way out of a trap. It grows from self-preservation into documenting Cave’s crafting, from elegy and empathy, a new creative mode.
The film explores the final stages of Skeleton Tree’s production, capturing the band’s work that continues through, and comes to embody, Cave’s mourning. Dominik shot the film in 3D and black and white using a specially made camera: a ‘massive, lumbering piece of equipment that’s almost comic lack of mobility added to the eerie drift of the film itself’. Cumbersome, awkward machinery that doesn’t always work seems apt for capturing the impact of trauma and the lurching dynamics of resilience. The angles are often askew, shots out of focus. Cave is split and mirrored – in the sheen of a grand piano or in a bathroom mirror, itself reflecting a line from Skeleton Tree’s ‘Magneto’: And in the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink / And all through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns.
‘Magneto’, the song that gives the film its name, is about intimacy: In love, in love, I love, you love, I laugh, you laugh / I move, you move / And one more time with feeling. It evokes the way pain is necessarily shared to some extent by those in love: I’m sawn in half becomes we saw each other in half.
The plan was that Dominik would shoot the film but that Cave could veto anything. Dominik asked him to record his thoughts on relevant subjects to form a voice-over. As Cave watched the footage and recorded responses on his iPhone, he escaped the restriction of enforced or inspired public words on one side and silence on the other. Poetry and reflection opened the path to a more intuitive approach.
In a review in the Guardian, Andrew Pulver, who admits to never having been a massive Cave fan, sees the film as a moving collage, but also as a ‘spectacle’. His description of some writing on Cave as ‘hagiographical’ sets the tone for the review. It seems, especially bizarrely under the circumstances, sniffy or sneering, though sniffing and sneering recur in critical work on Cave. But then, so does a hagiographical tone. The trouble is that neither the demonising mode nor the hagiographical captures the paradoxical transparency an artist can find when afforded privacy and spaciousness.
In Rolling Stone, Dominik expresses the fear he felt when, not long after Arthur’s death, Cave contacted him to say he wanted to talk: ‘I was terrified at the thought of receiving that phone call … I just didn’t know whether I would be equipped to deal with somebody who I knew was going to be in state that was unimaginable to me.’ How we might imagine or witness something we have not experienced is a central human question. The film bears witness to mourning. It studies both Susie Bick and Nick Cave, the former reserved and private, the latter used to working in public and with words.
Cave’s meta-commentary contains tones familiar from his decades of songwriting. It is allusive, wry, self-deprecating, risky, intelligent, tender, and darkly comedic. New, though, is the ruminative lens through which he tries to convey some of grief’s impact. At one point, he has to overdub a vocal, something he describes as ‘some kind of torture’ because it’s disconnected from the music’s original energy and has to be grafted back on. His commentary does something similar, stitching itself back through the film. This mirrors trauma’s aftermath, when finding ways to reattach the self cut loose from life-as-we-know-it is part of a solitary labour. Cave explores ‘what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic … that you just change. You change from the known person to an unknown person. So that when you look at yourself in the mirror, you recognise the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person.’
One More Time With Feeling is about the conjunction of mourning and creativity. In his study of elegy, Poetry of Mourning: The modern elegy from Hardy to Heaney (1994), Jahan Ramazani discusses the sublimation of mourning and elegy’s increasing role as ‘refuge from the social denial of grief’. Elegiac, One More Time With Feeling openly places grief in the contexts of work and love. It documents collaboration and friendship, especially between Cave and Warren Ellis, part of The Bad Seeds since 1994 (a decade after its formation in 1983) and Cave’s collaborator on projects including the band Grinderman and numerous film scores. Ellis’s uneasy comment that he won’t discuss other people’s private lives prefaces the film. Extreme close-ups of Ellis watching Cave struggle with his singing or tacking a song to the music’s fabric are just as telling as this protective remark. ‘What would I do without Warren?’ reflects Cave. The sense of Ellis’s vigilance shapes Dominik’s work. It was Ellis who watched the film and assured Cave and Bick it worked.
One More Time With Feeling shows slivers and flashes of how ineptly many people relate to trauma (Cave’s word). Ramazani charts the rise of ‘an increasing neglect of the dead and mourning’ that comes to look ‘more and more like active denial’. He quotes social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer that ‘it would seem to be believed, quite sincerely, that sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will or character so that it need be given no public expression’. This suppression of mourning has endangered consolation. Sydney writer Mark Mordue describes how people faced with other people’s grief feel ‘shamed by inadequate condolences’. Shame and clumsy gestures on one hand – flowers, cards, casseroles – and shame and evasion on the other.
Early on, Cave gently corrects Dominik’s comment that lives have a similar arc. Of course, broadly, they do. But there are extreme experiences many people don’t have. Cave is quietly emphatic. Sure, our lives have a broad common outline, but ‘the arc can be very different’. Cave describes being in a bakery, and someone approaching ‘with his kind eyes’, saying: ‘We are all with you.’ Now, ‘all the bakery is looking at you with kind eyes’. This is both beautiful and repugnant: ‘When,’ Cave asks himself, ‘did you become an object of pity?’ Part of the artistic and personal triumph of Cave’s work on Skeleton Tree and beyond is about bracing for and embracing the stumbling kindness of other people’s consolation.
Cave has a way of turning the film’s vignettes into something larger. When he struggles vocally, he worries ‘I think I’m losing my voice’, a moment critics have noted for its metaphoric resonance. In the figurative, where Cave is very much at home, he stretches it into an improvised poem about losing things: ‘My voice. My iPhone. My judgement. My memory, maybe.’
This catalogue, with its twist from the arch into the dark, the self-admonishing shove at the end, recalls Elizabeth Bishop’s acute villanelle ‘One Art’, which begins ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’. It works through losses – tuning up from ‘lost door keys’, past ‘places and names’ and ‘my mother’s watch’ – until it reaches its final stanza:
– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Cave doubtless knows Bishop’s famous poem, and his is ghosted by hers. He has articulated poetry’s place in his creative life in a series of online letters The Red Hand Files: ‘I try to read, at the very least, a half-hour of poetry a day, before I begin to do my own writing’, adding: ‘It jimmies open the imagination, making the mind more receptive to metaphor and abstraction and serves as a bridge from the reasoned mind to a stranger state of alertness, in case that precious idea decides to drop by.’
Cave has written about lost love many times. Now, though, when he evokes ‘the lost things that have so much mass and so much weight’, he’s well beyond the terrain that Bishop conjures. Yet a similar jagged barked command to the self – Write it! – runs through the documentary, and this phase of Cave’s career.
The film documents two people – Cave and his wife (Arthur’s twin, Earl, appears at several delicate moments, but is shielded by his parents, even as he shields them) – faced with suffering on a catastrophic scale.
It would be naïve to suggest that trauma’s gifts include creative renewal. Trauma is a stingy benefactor and if pain is the exchange for its benefits, anyone sane would go without. Cave is clear that trauma is ‘extremely damaging to the creative process’. In his interview with Mark Mordue, he speaks of how trauma ‘fills up all the space. It fills up your body. It’s like a physical thing. You can feel it pressing against the insides of your fingers. There’s just no room for the luxury of creation.’ In one of the letters, he describes ‘the uncontainable and merciless dimensions of grief’.
And yet, in a poem he recites in the film, Cave says: ‘There is more paradise in hell than we’ve been told.’ In spite of its ironic undertones, this highlights the possibility of renewal through a process of transmutation almost as unimaginable as other people’s trauma. Poetry might jimmy the imagination open. Trauma’s less delicate approach can achieve the same result. Sometimes, together, trauma and poetry can produce a radical openness.
Cave is now undertaking a series of ‘In Conversation’ events, opening up a fearless dialogue with his audiences. The Red Hand Files respond to fans’ questions: ‘You can ask me anything. There will be no moderator. This will be between you and me. Let’s see what happens.’ This is a version of the ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) sessions hosted in various forums, made close and intimate by the epistolary form and the use of a website rather than social media. Cave writes about creativity, love songs (‘maybe songs are the parlance of love’, maybe they are ‘small unassuming love bombs’), and the letters themselves: ‘When I started the Files I had a small idea that people were in need of a more thoughtful discourse. I felt a similar need. I felt that social media was by its nature undermining both nuance and connectivity. I thought that, for my fans at least, The Red Hand Files could go some way to remedy that.’
The letters return to loss. In response to a question about sensing the presence of his son, he writes that whatever this presence is, its basis is ideas, which might be the bridge to new ways of being in the world: ‘It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.’
The next letter can arrive at any time. When it does, it will have weight and light. This time, the echo comes back full. Skeleton Tree approaches a tentative conclusion – a very quiet one, its final song threaded with the refrain it’s alright now and the image of a candle in a window – maybe you can see? Cave is like Wallace Steven’s ‘scholar of one candle’, effulgence and fear his companions as he works.
Almost prophetically, The Bad Seeds’ previous album, Push the Sky Away, expresses the hope that Cave’s new work limns. The title song quietly urges us to keep on pushing the sky away, while the wild, wired surrealism of ‘Jubilee Street’ has Cave singing: I’m transforming. I’m vibrating. I’m glowing. I’m flying. Look at me now.
Cave’s talent is undimmed and this exhilarating staged ‘I’ is evident in Distant Skies. But in the dark, by the light of that single candle, he has found something else – something urgent, vulnerable, and profoundly kind. He uses the word ‘need’ several times in the letters, writing about audiences and artists’ need for connection, an uncertainty that ‘propels us forward’.
In January 2019, Cave replies to a father raising a small daughter after his wife’s death. A shared understanding of the house haunted by hyena hymns allows Cave to speak in this new way, consoling and empathetic. He has described actively living our lives ‘in the service of others’ and using ‘what power we have to reduce each other’s suffering’ as the ‘remedy to our own suffering’ and ‘the essential antidote for loneliness’. He depicts his wife: ‘defiant and scoured clean by grief; a woman with a mutinous and ferocious grace, now more open, daring and creative than ever; a woman who has simply defied the cosmic odds and bloomed’. Everywhere in these responses, and Cave’s new work, are the currents of his own mutinous and ferocious grace:
We are alone but we are also connected in a personhood of suffering. We have reached out to each other, with nothing to offer, but an acceptance of our mutual despair. We must understand that the depths of our anguish signal the heights we can, in time, attain. This is an extraordinary faith. It makes demands on the vast reserves of inner-strength that you may not even be aware of. But they are there.
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- Custom Article Title ‘A mutinous and ferocious grace: Nick Cave and trauma’s aftermath' by Felicity Plunkett
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It begins with a projected haze of ocean horizon. In this blurry liminal space, silence is misted with anticipation, like the moment before an echo comes back empty, right across the sea. Then a close-up of multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis’s hands unpicking tranquillity’s fabric, each piano note a loosened stitch ...
An essay at the heart of this collection, ‘Against Motherhood Memoirs’ by Maria Tumarkin, is not as insistent as its title suggests. Tumarkin, interested in ‘fissures and de-fusion’, troubles the awkward spots in her analysis. While reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) – which places ‘motherhood and queerness side by side’ with autotheory and what Nelson calls ‘post-shame’ autobiographical writing – Tumarkin describes being ‘beside herself’ with exhilaration.
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- Custom Article Title Felicity Plunkett reviews 'Dangerous Ideas about Mothers' edited by Camilla Nelson and Rachel Robertson
- Contents Category Essays
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An essay at the heart of this collection, ‘Against Motherhood Memoirs’ by Maria Tumarkin, is not as insistent as its title suggests. Tumarkin, interested in ‘fissures and de-fusion’, troubles the awkward spots in her analysis. While reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) – which places ‘motherhood and queerness side by side’ with ...
- Book Title Dangerous Ideas about Mothers
- Author Type Editor
- Biblio UWA Publishing, $29.99 pb, 246 pp, 9781742589909
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
‘We think back through our mothers,’ writes Virginia Woolf (twice) in A Room of One’s Own. At first, she seems to be suggesting that women artists can only derive inspiration from women who precede them: ‘It is useless to go to the great men writers for help … the weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own.’
But Woolf’s bravura rhetorical essay (she calls her writing ‘harliquinade’ for its ‘assortment of patches’) arrives at far more radical ideas about gender and the imagination than this essentialist position foreshadows. The artist’s mind, she argues later, is androgynous, with ‘no single state of being’, and can think back ‘through its mothers or through its fathers’.
On J.M. Coetzee is a bright gem, with similar formal adventurousness. A kind of palimpsest, South African-born Ceridwen Dovey’s reading of Coetzee overlays witnessing her mother’s study of his work. It traces abandonment and desire through the relationship between readers and writers. Curiously, beautifully, despite and through its surface subject, it comes like Woolf’s essay to limn ideas of women and fiction – or mothers, reading, and writing – in revealing ways.
Part of Black Inc.’s series in conjunction with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria, Dovey’s work follows Alice Pung on John Marsden, Erik Jensen on Kate Jennings, and Christos Tsiolkas on Patrick White, and precedes Nam Le on David Malouf and Michelle de Kretser on Shirley Hazzard.
Dovey quips that ‘writer on writer’ is ‘a curious phrase that makes me imagine covering his body with my own’. She quotes South African scholar Hedley Twidle envisaging his complex feelings about Coetzee – of becoming ‘childishly possessive, stalkerish, reluctant to teach Coetzee because he doesn’t want to share him’ – resolved by, to borrow Dovey’s phrase, ‘seeing Coetzee’s bum in lycra as he heads off on one of his cycling routes’.
To imagine this possessiveness in voyeuristic terms – something I find creepy with its note of control or ridicule – strikes me as a way to manage both the erotic charge of reading and the uncomfortable distance between the work we host in our heads (and hearts, if you imagine words, as poet Paul Celan did, like messages in bottles that may with luck ‘wash up on land, on heartland’) and the person who wrote it. My Coetzee, it insists, who can’t be yours.
The initials ‘J.M.’ are ‘an act of distancing, a warning shot my mother clearly heard: do not come too close, you will not find me here’. Yet for Dovey, quoting Woolf, his novels ‘seemed to issue a sly invitation to join in their “dangerous and exciting game, which it takes two to play”’. What does Coetzee want from readers: ‘For them to back off, or to come closer?’
Besides the vista of the lycra-clad writer, the corporeal is central to Dovey’s work. In 1980, the year Coetzee published his third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Dovey was born, her mother read as she breastfed her newborn. Dovey imagines her mother’s ‘somatic response to the words’ coursing ‘through her into me: elation and despair, trepidation and longing’. She feels ‘marked by that embodied encounter with his writing, via my mother, as a newborn’.
As Dovey thinks back through her mother, motifs of distance and loss recur. The young child wanting ‘to know what was inside the book that kept my mother in thrall’ understands that ‘this book was one of the portals through which I might one day follow her’ to ‘the secret world of her mind’. Although she writes, ‘I felt no bitterness at having a door temporarily closed between my mother’s world and mine, for there was never any doubt that my sister and I were front and centre of her life’, the ‘mysterious man whom she referred to only as “J.M.’’’ hovers, ‘an unseen but strongly felt presence in our small family drama’.
Dovey situates this within another of Coetzee’s correspondences. In his exchange with psychoanalyst Arabella Kurtz, published as The Good Story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychoanalysis (2015), they discuss ‘the third position’, which Kurtz describes as ‘the ability to build a space in one’s own mind for the relationships between others’. While Dovey celebrates her mother’s relationship with Coetzee as a means to learning this step towards a child’s maturation, a shadow lingers. In this flickeringly lit place – beyond the closed door – where the daughter variously understands, admires, and is mystified by the mother’s own intimate imaginative world – individuation and abandonment hover.
This is a work about eroticism, and the other face of abandonment: giving oneself generously and wholly, here, to the life of the imagination and the pleasures of reading. The story of Dovey’s mother, writing the first critical study of Coetzee as her PhD and corresponding with a Coetzee famously ‘allergic to any interlocutor who wants him to make the meaning of his work explicit’, frames Dovey’s reading and her emergence as a celebrated writer whose books Coetzee endorses.
Dovey and her mother exemplify the ‘scholar of one candle’ Wallace Stevens wrote about. They meet Coetzee’s work in different, private ways. Stories of the family’s migration between South Africa and Australia ebb and flow, as does Dovey’s ‘worship’ of Coetzee’s novels and her sense of being unable to ‘interpret them without my mother’s prompts, which in turn makes me feel helpless and resentful’. In this ambivalent, fructive space, Dovey’s reading and writing develop, along with this work, which enfolds an exquisite Künstlerroman, and a celebration as much of Teresa Dovey as of J.M. Coetzee.
- Free Article Yes
- Custom Article Title Felicity Plunkett reviews 'Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee'
- Contents Category Literary Studies
Custom Highlight Text
To imagine this possessiveness in voyeuristic terms – something I find creepy with its note of control or ridicule – strikes me as a way to manage both the erotic charge of reading and the uncomfortable distance between the work we host in our heads (and hearts, if you imagine words, as poet Paul Celan did ...
- Book Title Writers on Writers
- Book Subtitle Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Black Inc., $17.99 hb, 96 pp, 9781760640613
Behrouz Boochani describes being smashed into the sea by the boulder-like weight of an overpacked, splintering boat transporting asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia. The wreck’s ‘slashed carcass’ gashes the flailing survivors and the bodies of those who have died, and Boochani settles under a wave, finding refuge ‘by imagining myself elsewhere’. Finding the strength to surface, he sees a group of men clinging to a wooden spar torn from the battered boat. Its spikes lacerate Boochani’s legs as he sinks and surfaces amid violent waves. A British boat approaches: ‘our gruelling odyssey has come to an end’. Having faced death in those underwater moments, Boochani reflects that ‘even a brush with mortality gives life a marvellous sense of meaning’.
If it were a piece of fiction, this intense account of being rescued would settle after its zenith. The writing recalls other stories of refugees’ sea journeys to Australia, such as Nam Le’s celebrated 'The Boat'. But Boochani’s work is not fiction, and respite is illusory.
It is July 2013, days before the Kurdish poet and journalist’s thirtieth birthday and days after the second Rudd government’s announcement of measures to reinforce its borders by turning back asylum seekers arriving by boat. After a month on Christmas Island – CCTV cameras in the toilets, strip searches, and the issuing of ludicrously ill-fitting polyester clothing – Boochani is transferred to Manus Island, one of the offshore immigration detention centres originally set up by the Howard government in 2001.
Boochani, whose educational background includes a postgraduate degree in political science, political geography, and geopolitics, began to record his experiences of what he names Manus Prison. The word expresses the loss of asylum seekers’ freedom and highlights a dark irony: a prison legally holds prisoners as punishment for a crime or while awaiting trial. Given that Australia is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, with its principle of non-refoulement – which guarantees protection to refugees who have reason to fear persecution should they return to a particular country – the question of legality is important here. Several arms of the United Nations have condemned Australia’s policy of offshore processing.
No Friend But the Mountains is a work of witness. Richard Flanagan, in his foreword, acknowledges the ‘near impossibility of its existence’. Written in Farsi, amid the traumatic deprivation it evokes, the narrative was sent as text messages to refugee advocate and translator Moones Mansoubi, who formatted the material and sent it to Sydney University academic Omid Tofighian. Others involved include Janet Galbraith, founder of Writing Through Fences, an organisation devoted to enabling the writing of refugees, and Sajad Kabgani, a PhD student who worked with Tofighian and Mansoubi to produce the translation. Arnold Zable provided feedback and encouragement.
In its steady witness, No Friend But the Mountains recalls accounts of the Shoah such as Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (1947), which Philip Roth described as motivated by the need ‘systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose’. Levi, who describes a dream of relating his experiences of Auschwitz with no one is listening, is driven by the need to ‘bear witness’, conscious of the words of a guard who taunts prisoners that if they were to survive, their testimony would soon be considered ‘too monstrous to be believed’. Boochani, too, writes against forgetting. In his case, though, bearing witness to history abuts a project of informing the world beyond Manus Island of what is happening there now. This extends Boochani’s work as a journalist.
The work transcends memoir, especially because Boochani is often self-effacing. The blaze and flicker of his self-assessment limns a more empathetic project through which he examines larger questions of the nature of human behaviour and the search for an adequate way to name and anatomise the cruel experiment that is offshore detention.
In this sense, Boochani’s work recalls psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). At once an account of Frankl’s experience of concentration camps and the foundational expression of his psychotherapeutic method, logotherapy, Man’s Search for Meaning argues that human suffering, while unavoidable, might be endured best by having some focus beyond it, by having a sense of meaning. ‘Those who have a “why” to live,’ Frankl wrote, ‘can bear with almost any “how”.’ For Frankl, the salvation of humanity is ‘in love and through love’.
Boochani’s project shares this kind of philosophical enquiry. In his translator’s note, Tofighian strives to illuminate the book’s various generic elements to frame its reading. Supplementary transcripts of discussions between Boochani and his interlocutors continue this. Of these, the use of the term ‘kyriarchy’, first used by feminist theologian Elisabeth Schlüssler Fiorenza to describe enmeshed social systems of domination and oppression, is a key aspect of Boochani’s project.
Prose is interspersed with ribbons of poetry. These lyrical slivers are drifting and meditative, though they enclose moments of trauma as well as respite. For Boochani, as for many vastly more privileged poets, isolation and silence are treasured. He writes of longing ‘to isolate myself and create that which is poetic and visionary’. In the intensely hot, crowded spaces of the centre, he asserts his indomitable imaginative freedom: ‘the mind still has the power to leave the prison and imagine the coolness under the shade of a bunch of trees on the other side of the fence’.
Boochani is a prodigiously gifted poet and prose stylist. There are few false notes. When he describes the bodies of female lawyers visiting the complex, what may sound like objectification underscores the inhumanity of secluding people from the liberty to love. His fleeting allusion to past loves highlights the barbarity of five years of isolation.
Like No Friend But the Mountains, the chapbook of poems Truth in the Cage by Mohammad Ali Maleki has been produced with the help of Australian supporters. Their translator is fellow detainee Mansour Shoushtari, whose interview by Boochani was published in the Guardian. Boochani writes that Shoushtari ‘projects beauty, he projects tenderness, he projects kindness’.
Maleki tends a garden on Manus Island, yet his poems evoke images of the natural world thwarted or gone awry – ‘the autumn leaf grows green’, ‘the moon implodes’, ‘the butterfly flies back to its cocoon’. In an allegory of refoulement, everything in ‘Silence Land’ is turned back: the tree to its seed, the sea to its source, the river to its spring. In the more surreal ‘Myself’, groans swell the sky, the sea becomes stormy and fish ‘[scatter] in fear’.
The book’s first poem, ‘Dream of Death’, begins by addressing readers as ‘my dears’, and implores: ‘please, I ask you, listen’. Both Boochani and Maleki evoke the experience of there being absolutely nothing to do and the impact this has on the mind. Each writer has endured this year after year.
Although Maleki writes of blankness and weariness, in ‘Where is My Name?’, he affirms ‘I won’t neglect to report on these days’. From the ‘cursed city’ of Manus, he writes tender works of witness and consolation commemorating others people’s deaths – Hamed Shamshiripour, who died by hanging, and Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian asylum seeker whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach. Yet for all their gentleness, these are steely poems, refusing silence and namelessness.
Boochani interrogates his history of ‘non-violent resistance’, of choosing the pen over fighting, but these important books offer ways forward that violence in response to violence is unable to do. And each recalls Paul Celan’s courageous insistence on literature as resilience: ‘Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.’
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Felicity Plunkett reviews 'No Friend But the Mountains' by Behrouz Boochani
- Contents Category Journals
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Behrouz Boochani describes being smashed into the sea by the boulder-like weight of an overpacked, splintering boat transporting asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia. The wreck’s ‘slashed carcass’ gashes the flailing survivors and the bodies of those who have died, and Boochani settles under a wave ...
- Book Title No Friend But the Mountains
- Book Subtitle Writing from Manus Prison
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Picador, $32.99 pb, 400 pp, 9781760555382
‘A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend,’ wrote Emily Dickinson. Yet part of the lure of letters – and life writing generally – is a sense of the corporeal, the promise of discovering the writer herself. As Jacqueline Rose suggests, writing about biography and Sylvia Plath in the London Review of Books, it is tempting to imagine access ‘not just into the inner recesses of the poet’s thought, but through the veils, behind the closed doors of her past’.
Perhaps suicide intensifies this desire. Rose suggests ‘it is a paradox of suicide that the murderer, who lives on for ever, is the one who didn’t survive’. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), she probes the antithetical after-effects of this. Plath ‘haunts our culture’, Rose writes, but is caught between execration and idealisation, hovering in ‘the space of what is most extreme, most violent, about appraisal, valuation, about moral and literary assessment’.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Felicity Plunkett reviews 'The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956' edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
- Contents Category Letters
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‘A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend,’ wrote Emily Dickinson. Yet part of the lure of letters – and life writing generally – is a sense of the corporeal, the promise of discovering the writer herself. As Jacqueline Rose suggests, writing about biography and ...
- Book Title The Letters of Sylvia Plath
- Book Subtitle Volume 1: 1940-1956
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Faber & Faber, $69.99 hb, 1424 pp, 9780571328994
In this episode of Australian Book Review's States of Poetry podcast, State Editor Felicity Plunkett introduces the second series of ABR's Queensland States of Poetry anthology.
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- Custom Article Title State Editor Felicity Plunkett introduces series two of the QLD anthology
- Contents Category States of Poetry - Introduction
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.
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- 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.
In the preface to Demi-Gods, a boy burns moths with a magnifying glass. A girl – the novel’s narrator, Willa – watches ‘khaki wings’ that seem to be ‘folded from rice paper’. She imagines ‘ten moths circling a candle to form a lantern’, cries later, but does not stop Patrick. The wings ignite ‘like dog-eared pages in a book’.
Like dog-eared pages, Willa’s memories are folded for revisiting. Memory, she thinks, returning to a handful of charged encounters with Patrick over many years, is a dwelling place both in the sense of a residence and ‘a lingering’. Lingering disrupts time. It holds and expands some moments, eclipsing others. In narrative terms, the novel’s vivid pieces enact the push-pull of magnification and erasure, set against the backdrop of a child’s developing awareness amidst neglectful and self-absorbed adults.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Felicity Plunkett reviews 'Demi-Gods' by Eliza Robertson
- Contents Category Fiction
Custom Highlight Text
In the preface to Demi-Gods, a boy burns moths with a magnifying glass. A girl – the novel’s narrator, Willa – watches ‘khaki wings’ that seem to be ‘folded from rice paper’. She imagines ‘ten moths circling a candle to form a lantern’, cries later, but does not stop Patrick. The wings ignite ‘like dog-eared pages in a book’ ...
- Book Title Demi-Gods
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Bloomsbury, $24.99 pb, 240 pp, 9781408895597
In his luminous paean to poetry, modestly titled How to Read a Poem, Edward Hirsch writes that ‘poetry is made of metaphor’. This lucid statement is beautiful enough, but as a poet, Hirsch continues, making music, elaborating, forever taking the idea onwards, upwards and outwards, with poetry’s relentless energy: ‘It is a collision,’ he writes, ‘a collusion, a compression of two unlike things: A is B.’
If A is B, everything is mobile, active, and energetic. As Paul Celan puts it, poetry is always ‘under way: heading towards something’. In poetry, ideas are capable of transformation, and of transforming other ideas, and lives. Poetry is about energy. That’s why we reach for the metaphor of poetry to describe beautiful human movement – the flex and reach of a dancer’s body, the loop of a backbend, the arc of a cricket ball sailing over the fence to be caught (usually less poetically) by the spectator who will endlessly relive the moment as the time they reached for poetry. Marianne Moore knew about this when she compared poetry to baseball:
Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;
generating excitement –
You can never tell with a poem how it will go. That’s the thrill. That’s why Emily Dickinson identifies poetry through the rush, the goosebumps, the body’s alert catching of energy:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way.
Hirsh continues, collecting poets’ metaphors about poetry in a luminous assemblage that, again, keeps moving, shifting and unsettling:
the poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets (William Carlos Williams). A poem is a well-wrought urn (Cleanth Brooks), a verbal icon (W. K. Wimsatt). A poem is a walk (A. R. Ammons); a poem is a meteor (Wallace Stevens). A poem might be called a pseudoperson. Like a person it is unique and addresses the reader personally (W. H. Auden). A poem is a hand, a hook, a prayer. It is a soul in action.
Poetry’s energies reach into other poems. The poems here are allusive, expansive, and mobile. These poems converse with, bounce off, and sail over other poems, to social media, music, and memory, from the therapist’s couch to the therapist on the couch, taking in Yiddish words, Polish words, tweets and amnesia, fish ‘n chips and VHS, Zen and Kerouac, Ted Bundy and Pliny the Younger. A is B. Everything is energy. These are just some of the ways poetry is thriving, in dialogue, mobile and thrilling.
- Free Article Yes
- Custom Article Title State Editor's Introduction by Felicity Plunkett | States of Poetry Queensland - Series Two
- Contents Category States of Poetry - Introduction