Hamish Hamilton

The National Portrait Gallery owns a minuscule sepia studio photograph titled ‘Master Johnny Day, Australian Champion Pedestrian’. From this curious gumnut, Robert Drewe has created a sprawling multi-limbed eucalypt.

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Now over seventy, Benoîte Groult of the fierce name and fiercer disposition, has written a delightful story about sex and desire that is sure to turn heads. Its central character is a woman named George – as in Sand, and she is small and chic like that writer. (If you thought that George Sand was a formidable hulk of a woman with coarse hair and thin lips, this book points out that she was a little woman, with tiny feet, apparently.) The other half of the story is Gavin Lozerech, or at least that’s what he’s called for the purposes of this retelling of their passionate, life-long love affair. George toyed with Kevin, Tugdual and Brian Boru before she chose the pseudonym Gavin, as in the Gawain of the Breton cycle.

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Lydia Davis writes long essays and short stories; some of them, like this one of six words, very short indeed: ‘INDEX ENTRY: Christian, I’m not a’. Influenced by Kafka and Beckett, she is drawn to Anglo-Saxon words, complex sentences, and literary forms which are hard to define. In the United States she has been awarded Guggenheim and MacArthur Genius Grants; in France she is a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters; in the United Kingdom she won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize for what Christopher Ricks, chair of the judges, called her ‘vigilance … to the very word or syllable’. Rick Moody calls her ‘the best prose stylist in America’, The New York Times compares her precision to that of Vermeer, while for her publisher she is simply ‘beyond compare’. Claire Messud, looking for fresh adulatory epithets, says that Lydia Davis ‘has the gift of making us feel alive’. What, then, am I missing?

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Mothertongues by Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell

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June 2022, no. 443

At the beginning of 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write (2014), author, mother, and playwright Sarah Ruhl notes: ‘At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.’ Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell’s Mothertongues embraces, embodies even, this collapse of the boundaries between living and writing. Rather than extolling the proverbial ‘room of her own’, Bell and Dovey are asking us to heed the kinds of knowledge that come from being embedded in the everyday. 

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What happens when we die? Human curiosity about the afterlife has inspired countless artists and storytellers from the earliest myths through to Dante and Boccaccio. More recently we’ve had Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), as well as sitcoms like Netflix’s philosophical The Good Place and Amazon’s capitalist dystopia Upload, and now Steve Toltz’s alternately bleak and bonkers take in Here Goes Nothing.

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Deborah Levy published the first volume in her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy, Things I Don’t Want to Know, in 2013. Five years later came The Cost of Living. Now we have the finale, Real Estate. Each book is an autobiographical interrogation of women’s middle age in which Levy ambivalently considers the place of the woman writer in the contemporary world.

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It’s an achievement to write about the climate crisis – and the resulting increase in Australian firestorms – without having people turn away to avoid their mounting ecological unease. Despite experiencing the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 directly, I too am guilty of looking away. It’s easier that way. Danielle Celermajer, however, excels at both holding our attention and holding us to account, balancing the horror and hope of not-so-natural disasters, specifically extreme Australian bushfires, in her new book of narrative non-fiction, Summertime.

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I could begin with a lark stitched into a letter. It’s 2020 and ‘all manner of virulent things’ are simmering. Sixteen-year-old Sacha writes to Hero, a detained refugee. She wants to send ‘an open horizon’. Unsure what to say to someone suffering injustice, she writes about swifts: how far they travel, how they feed – and even sleep – on the wing. The way their presence announces the beginning and ending of summer ‘makes swifts a bit like a flying message in a bottle’. Maybe they even make summer happen.

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The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

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August 2020, no. 423

Towards the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory (2018), Richard Powers attempts to articulate why literature, or more precisely the novel, has struggled to encompass climate change: ‘To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.’

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Connor is a thirty-something Australian who bides his time grifting in India. His targets are Western female tourists, whom he describes as ‘talent’, and whom he seduces and fleeces. Connor seems to be escaping something, most likely the upbringing in which his masculinity and personal safety were constantly called into question.

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