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Michael Winkler

Family: Stories of belonging edited by Alaina Gougoulis and Ian See

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June 2023, no. 454

The nuclear family has a bad literary rap. As we know from fiction and memoir, the traditional two-heterosexual-parents-and-biological-kids model, a structure that provides stability and nourishment for some, can also be a stricture, a disappointment, even a crucible of cruelty. The opening sentence of Anna Karenina notwithstanding, unhappiness is unhappiness; there are common experiences for the survivors of family difficulty, even when specifics differ. 

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Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood is a thriller that, for much of its length, privileges reflection over action. Thus, when aspiring journalist Tony Gallo makes it back to his car after multiple threats to his life, does he speed away from his potential assassins in search of safety? He does not. Instead, he has a good long ponder.

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Early in Gregory Day’s new novel, Uncle Ferny reads Such Is Life aloud in a Roman bar. His niece Sarah observes listeners’ ‘confusion, amusement, their disdain, their curiosity, and also their rapture’. A similar range of responses might be manifested by readers of The Bell of the World.

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Two millennia before ‘pretty privilege’ became a TikTok talking point, Publilius Syrus averred, ‘A beautiful face is a mute recommendation.’ The opposite is also true. Facial disfiguration, whether congenital or acquired, can be psychologically and socially debilitating.

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My sister died seventeen years ago and there aren’t many days I don’t miss her. I’d like us to be walking together beside the Murray River near our place in Merbein, hearing her laugh, and being renewed by the sunshine through the river red gums.

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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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In 1953, the British government conducted the Totem nuclear weaponry tests at Emu Field in South Australia. It was an inhospitable environment for non-Indigenous visitors. One London-based administrator called for the Australian military to remove all flies from the site. These tests earned part of a chapter in Elizabeth Tynan’s award-winning Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga story (reviewed by Danielle Clode in the March 2017 issue of ABR). Now Tynan has expanded the Totem story into a book that purports to uncover the secrets of what happened there and why.

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Grimmish by Michael Winkler

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April 2021, no. 430

Have you ever noticed how boxing matches invariably deflate into two breathless people hugging each other? In pugilistic parlance, this is called a clinch. It is a defensive tactic, a way for fighters besieged by their opponent’s assault to create a pause and regain their equilibrium. And while it is beyond cliché for books to be hailed as knockouts or haymakers or other emptied expressions of victory, Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the best literary clinch you’ll ever read. It is the honest account of a writer overmatched by his subject matter and left clinging on for dear life.

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In Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), Don Watson wrote that Lowitja O’Donoghue ‘seemed then and has seemed ever since to be a person of such transcendent warmth, if Australians ever got to know her they would want her as their Queen’. Robert Manne, in the first-ever Quarterly Essay (2001), portrayed her as ‘a woman of scrupulous honesty and great beauty of soul’. These qualities gleam in Stuart Rintoul’s handsomely produced biography.

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The Aboriginal tracker is a stock character in certain Australian films, employed as set dressing, catalyst, curio. Although fictional trackers have been celebrated on celluloid, few real trackers have been given life within the national memory. Some people may recall Billy Dargin and his role in locating and shooting Ben Hall. Others might think of Dubbo’s Tracker Riley, or Dick-a-Dick, who found the missing Cooper and Duff children near Natimuk in 1864 when they had been given up for dead.

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