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Debra Adelaide

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

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Marshmallow by Victoria Hannan & Higher Education by Kira McPherson

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March 2023, no. 451

A marshmallow is a common confectionery, white and pink, made of gelatin, sugar, and water. We put them in hot chocolate, toast them over campfires. Marshmallow is also a plant, Althea officinalis, containing a jelly-like substance which has been used for medicinal purposes as far back as the time of Ancient Egypt. A marshmallow can also describe someone who is soft to a fault, even vulnerable. That there might be anything approaching complexity linked to this word is unlikely, but by the end of Victoria Hannan’s second novel, Marshmallow (Hachette, $29.99 pb, 292 pp), it is obvious that something as apparently innocuous as that confectionery and medicinal ingredient can have many implications; the intriguing title is an early indication that much will be going on, none of it straightforward. 

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What is a short short story? More specifically, how short is it (or how long)? The most famous tiny example is attributed to Ernest Hemingway: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Whether he wrote this or not, it represents the gold standard in suggesting much in little. Like poetry, microstories or flash fictions allow no formal wobbling as authors tread a perilous tightrope between banality and inspired ingenuity.

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Cut by Susan White & The Registrar by Neela Janakiramanan

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September 2022, no. 446

It can only be coincidence that two very similar novels have been produced by contemporary doctors, but the overlapping characters and themes of Cut and The Registrar are so striking that it’s hard not to visualise their authors, Susan White and Neela Janakiramanan, getting together somewhere to sketch out their early drafts. Both novels feature young female protagonists working in teaching hospitals, who are as dedicated to their patients as they are to advancing their careers.

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oubtless there will come a time when one’s more disciplined reading self requires nourishment from serious books that offer sustained intellectual, creative, and moral challenges. In the meantime, books – in particular the contemporary urban novel – may continue to satisfy by being charming, delightful, witty, heart-warming, hilarious, astringently refreshing, sharply observed, and deliciously original.

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There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,’ Vladimir Lenin has been credited with saying, with reference to the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s a sentiment that immediately springs to mind when reading Jessica Stanley’s A Great Hope, a début that, while not billed as historical fiction, is deeply concerned with history and its making. 

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One of the hardest challenges for a novelist is to write a story for adults from the point of view of a child. In 1847, Charlotte Brontë set the bar high with Jane Eyre, the first novel to achieve this. The story ends when Jane is a woman but commences with the child Jane’s perspective. So effective for readers was Brontë’s ground-breaking feat that Charles Dickens decided to write Great Expectations in the voice of the child Pip, after just hearing about Jane Eyre, even before reading it.

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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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A new Susan Johnson novel is always a treat, partly because you get the sense that with each one she has set herself a specific creative challenge, and partly because she is such a fine writer. In From Where I Fell (Allen & Unwin, $32.99 pb, 338 pp), the epistolary novel, popular in the nineteenth century, has been updated, with the entire work in the form of emails. Nothing new in that, but what makes this different is that the contemporary problem of emailing someone unintentionally is followed through with that intellectually teasing ‘what if’ thread: what if the person you accidentally contacted was someone with whom you wanted to keep communicating? What if this person was someone to whom you could confess your most private thoughts? And what if this person never responded in a conventional manner?

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Determining connections between books sent as a review bundle is not mandatory, but there is an irresistible tendency to find some common theme. In the case of these three novels, the theme of women’s pain, and hidden pain at that, does not need to be teased out – it leaps out. Since it is unlikely that three different authors would have colluded, the prevalence of this is worth deeper reflection, especially considering recent titles such as Kylie Maslen’s essays on illness, Show Me Where It Hurts, or Kate Middleton’s extraordinary memoir essay ‘The Dolorimeter’, placed second in the 2020 Calibre Prize.

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