Susan Varga

What tethers you to your life? For most people it is the filaments of connection – family, place, friends, work. Hayley Katzen becomes untethered in multiple ways in this engaging and highly readable book. Many will identify with that period of life when you are technically a functioning adult, but there remains a long, long journey ahead to real adulthood. Katzen has a sevenfold whammy: a broken family life; the trauma of immigration; losing her Jewish heritage; discovering herself as a lesbian; dropping out of a career; moving to the country; and falling in love with an ‘unsuitable’ woman.

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Carol Lefevre is the author of two novels and a non-fiction book on Adelaide, all well received and awarded. Yet she is not as well known in her own country as she should be, having spent decades in England. I hope The Happiness Glass will remedy that ...

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Suniti Namjoshi has made an international reputation as a fabulist and poet with a strong feminist bent. Some Australian readers will be familiar with her work, long published here by Spinifex. Another Australian connection: after leaving India, then Canada, Namjoshi settled in ...

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Poetry as the solidifying of memory, poetry as a survivor's sanguine amusement, takes a lifetime. Louise Nicholas relates autobiography through strongly considered moments ...

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Susan Varga’s latest novel, Headlong, is set in Australia in the opening years of the twenty-first century, with the Tampa episode and detention camps as background. This setting reflects Varga’s own work with refugees and the Nazi camps of her family’s Hungarian past. Headlong relates the downward spiral that the previously indomitable Julia undergoes after the death of her husband. Her two children – the narrator, Kati, and her brother – try everything to restore their mother to physical and mental health, but Julia is adamant: life is hell. The fact that she escaped the Holocaust with her daughter and survived the horror of those years makes the story all the more poignant and distinct from similar stories of grief. Why has this loss defeated her, when she has met every other challenge in life? Has it unlocked the hidden pain of earlier years? This question, and Kati’s ensuing grief and sense of guilt, sustain the novel.

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Kate Finlayson’s first novel is a bumpy bronco ride, as exhilarating, confronting, and messy as the Northern Territory that she writes about so passionately. Finlayson’s protagonist, Connie, is stuck barmaiding in a rough city pub. Despite her street smarts and university degree, Connie is starting to go to the dogs along with the pub’s patrons. She decides to leave Sydney to pursue a post-adolescent obsession with Rod Ansell, the inspiration for the Crocodile Dundee films. Ansell (his real name) is hiding somewhere in the Territory, and Connie fantasises about finding him and turning him into her ideal lover, her longed-for soul mate.

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During my reading of Susan Varga’s first work of fiction, Happy Families, I was drawn back into the fields of family and emotion as offered in the two recent American films: The Ice Storm and Six Degrees of Separation. Each of these works hard at tracking the intricacies of humans connecting and communicating, the tectonics of family and emotional landscapes. Happy Families shows us, up close, mothers and daughters, aunts and grandchildren and cousins, lovers and spouses and neighbours. The drive of the work is, as with the two films cited, about how trauma is carried in the body, how we try and trick ourselves about recoveries. And, to a lesser extent, how we integrate the apprehension of difference into our experience of walking through the world. Varga’s novel is one of restitution and connection.

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Heddy is a survivor. She is good looking, intelligent, strong, determined, businesslike, materialistic, positive, rather like those formidable Middle-European ladies who run dress shops and control their customers with a mixture of bullying and continental charm. She has tremendous vitality, guts and initiative, has taken great risks and worked hard to ensure freedom from fear and material security for herself and her family.

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