Australian Fiction

Writers seeking publication are often advised to have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready. These succinct book-hooks are designed to jag a trapped publisher in the wink between a lift door closing and reopening. Has this insane tactic ever actually worked? No idea. But it’s fun to imagine the CEO of Big Sales Books, on their way up to another corner-office day of tallying cricket memoir profits, blindsided by three of the looniest elevator pitches imaginable. A novel narrated by Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles! A faux political memoir about a prime minister and his shark vendetta! An academic satire cum historical mystery mashup told largely through the – wait, wait, wait! – footnotes of a PhD thesis! That CEO will probably take the stairs next time, but kudos to the independent publishers who saw the potential in these experimental works and their début authors. Whatever the path of weird Australian writing, long may it find its way to these pages.

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The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

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August 2021, no. 434

Bani Adam returns as the narrator–protagonist of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Other Half of You, a sequel to his two previous books. The most recent one, The Lebs (2018), gave us the story of Bani’s teenage years at Punchbowl Boys’ High School: the trials of a Lebanese Muslim boy in a majority Lebanese Muslim community nestled inside the larger, diverse territories of Western Sydney, in post-‘War on Terror’ Australia. The Other Half of You is an account of Bani’s late teens and early twenties, and of an inner conflict between religious, cultural, and romantic pieties.

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The Tribute begins with a corpse. And not just any corpse. This body is discovered in a Sydney terrace house with its organs removed. One detective describes the crime as ‘butchery’, and that’s an understatement. This murder is the work of Stephen Porter, a deceptively bland chap who uses his bank job to secure the schedules and addresses of victims. These victims are then dissected as ‘tributes’ to the Fabrica, a collection of sixteenth-century anatomy books.

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‘And what is wrong with sad stories? The world is always sad.’ So advises Little Red, the aged, marginalised, knowing female character in the title story of Tony Birch’s latest short fiction collection. As in Birch’s previous works, Dark as Last Night contains an abundance of sad stories, but with grief and trauma ameliorated by the main protagonist’s affection for at least one other character, be it a family member or neighbour.

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Three recent novels by Australian women deal with current and increasingly urgent political questions about female identity and embodiment. They each use the conventions of popular realist fiction to provoke thought about the causes of female disempowerment and the struggle for self-determination. Coincidentally, they are also set, or partially set, in Australian country towns, although their locations are markedly different, and their plots culminate in the revelation of disturbing secrets.

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The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

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July 2021, no. 433

The title character of Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s second novel, The Newcomer, is Paulina Novak, who has arrived on Fairfolk Island after leaving a finance career in Sydney. If she is wanting to make a new start, then she’s mistaken; Paulina’s life seems perpetually sullied by alcoholism, an eating disorder, and a tendency to fall for callous men. Acquaintances say that her head is ‘messy’. Paulina herself remarks: ‘My whole life’s a fuck-up.’

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‘Ern Malley’ – a great literary creation and the occasion of a famous literary hoax – has continued to attract fascinated attention ever since he burst upon the Australian poetry scene more than seventy years ago. But his sister Ethel has attracted little notice, she who set off the whole saga by writing to Max Harris, the young editor of Angry Penguins, asking whether the poems left by her late brother were any good, and signing herself ‘sincerely, Ethel Malley’.

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After Story by Larissa Behrendt

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July 2021, no. 433

In the latter half of this novel, one of its protagonists is viewing a collection of butterflies at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. This forms part of Jasmine’s holiday with her mother, Della, a tour of famous literary and other notable cultural sites in the United Kingdom. By this stage they have visited Stratford-upon-Avon, Brontë country in Haworth, and Jane Austen’s Bath and Southampton, and have been duly impressed or, in Della’s case, underwhelmed. But now Jasmine can only feel sadness: ‘We take the life of a living thing, hold it to display, because we feel entitled to the knowledge, entitled to the owning, the possessing.’

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Is it tautological to describe a work of fiction as ‘family Gothic’? After all, there’s nothing more inherently Gothic than the family politic: a hierarchical structure ruled by a patriarch, as intolerant of transgression as it is fascinated by it, sustaining itself through a clear us/them divide, all the while proclaiming, ‘The blood is the life.’ Yet three new Australian novels Gothicise the family politic by exaggerating, each to the point of melodrama, just how dangerous a family can become when its constituents turn against one another.

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It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be raised in a Chinese family, especially when you are surrounded by markers of Western society. There is no such thing as talking back to your parents or refusing to do what they say. As a child, I never went to sleepovers. During my teenage and young adult years, I felt increasingly trapped in my own home. Everything I did was scrutinised; my parents never seemed to take into account my wants or needs. I found myself grasping for any scrap of independence, usually through lying or stealing or a combination of the two. As children, we are continually told that adults do things to protect us, especially when they are things we don’t particularly like. But when does protection morph into something uglier? When does it smother us, as if our agency has been stripped from us?

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