Text Publishing

Nicolas Rothwell is perhaps best known as a critic of art and culture for The Australian, though he has also published several non-fiction books, one of which, Quicksilver, won a Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2016. Red Heaven, subtitled a ‘fiction’, is only the second of Rothwell’s books not to be classified as non-fiction. Always straddling the boundary between different genres, Rothwell has cited in Quicksilver Les Murray’s similar defence of generic hybridity in Australia: the novel ‘may not be the best or only form which extended prose fiction here requires’. Working from northern Australia, and intent upon exploring how landscape interacts obliquely with established social customs, Rothwell, in his narratives, consistently fractures traditional fictional forms so as to realign the conventional world of human society with more enigmatic temporal and spatial dimensions.

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In 1994, the Afghan mujahideen commander, Abdul Haq, rebuked the United States for forgetting about Afghanistan once the communist-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah had fallen in 1992. He predicted that Washington would rue its neglect: ‘Maybe one day they will have to send in hundreds of thousands of troops,’ he told The New York Times. ‘And if they step in, they will be stuck. We have a British grave in Afghanistan. We have a Soviet grave. And then we will have an American grave.’

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By the end of Hugh Breakey’s The Beautiful Fall (Text, $32.99 pb, 349 pp), it is hard to remember that the prologue hinted at stimulating possibilities. In it, Robbie’s past self writes to his present one, explaining that he suffers from recurring amnesia, which strikes every 179 days. Readers could be mistaken for thinking they are in for meditations on time and memory, maybe even on the meaning of a life lived episodically. When it is revealed that Robbie is building an intricate arrangement of 83,790 dominoes in his living room, readers might even imagine a novel that touches on metaphysical themes in the vein of Jorge Luis Borges.

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Two Women and a Poisoning by Alfred Döblin, translated by Imogen Taylor

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July 2021, no. 433

In Two Women and a Poisoning, Alfred Döblin (1878–1957), one of the twentieth century’s greatest fiction writers, brings his other gift – a profound insight into psychological suffering honed by decades of experience as a psychiatrist – to bear on a baffling murder trial in Berlin in March 1923. Like Sigmund Freud’s famous case histories, his account is compelling as both narrative and an analysis of the unconscious inner conflicts of the people involved. Unlike Freud, however, Döblin warns his readers not to expect definitive answers: ‘Who is so conceited as to fancy that he knows the true driving forces behind such a crime?’

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The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen begins like a fable, the story of a poor family that wins the lotto and moves to a remote Queensland location to make fairy-tale characters for a tourist attraction called Dragonhall. There should be a happy ending, but there isn’t.

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For this reviewer, the sign of a healthy crime-fiction ecosystem isn’t merely the success of the ‘big names’ but also the emergence of writers whose voices are so distinctive as to be singular. Sometimes these writers become commercially successful in their own right, and sometimes they remain literary outliers, drawing their readership from a smaller but avid following. When I think of the health of American crime fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I recall not only the success of Mario Puzo, but also the kind of writing culture that sustained the dark vision of an author such as George V. Higgins. The same goes for Britain in the 1980s, where Dick Francis was still publishing prolifically when Derek Raymond emerged. Turning to twenty-first-century America and the success of writers like Michael Connelly and Karin Slaughter, it’s the rise of Megan Abbott and Richard Price that illustrates the full potential of that culture’s capacity for crime storytelling.

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To survey concurrent works of art is to take the temperature of a particular time, in a particular place. And the temperature of the time and place in these four début Australian novels? It is searching for a sense of belonging, and, at least in part, it’s coming out of western Sydney in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. All four novels are set in New South Wales, three of them in suburban Sydney. Each is concerned with who is entitled to land and the stories we tell while making ourselves at home in the world, sometimes at the expense of others.

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More than twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay on the work of Oliver Sacks (Island Magazine, Autumn 1993). Entitled ‘Anthropologist of Mind’, it ranged across several of Sacks’s books; but it was Seeing Voices, published in 1989, that was the main impetus for the essay. In Seeing Voices, Sacks explored American deaf communities, past and present. He exposed the stringent and often punishing attempts to ‘normalise’ deaf people by forcing them to communicate orally, and he simultaneously deplored the denigration and widespread outlawing of sign language. Drawing on the work of Erving Goffman, Sacks showed how deaf people were stigmatised and marginalised from mainstream culture, and he revealed, contrary to prevailing opinion in the hearing world, the richness and complexities of American Sign Language.

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The Climate Cure should have been on every Australian federal politician’s Christmas list. As Tim Flannery explains, our federal politicians, stymied by Coalition climate change denialists and the fossil fuel lobby, have failed the climate challenge of the past two decades, so that we have ‘sleepwalked deep into the world that exists just seconds before the climate clock strikes a catastrophic midnight’. But ‘at the last moment, between megafires and Covid-19, governments are at last getting serious about the business of governance’.

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He. by Murray Bail

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March 2021, no. 429

In 2005, Murray Bail published Notebooks: 1970–2003. ‘With some corrections’, the contents were transcriptions of entries Bail made in notebooks during that period. Now, in 2021, dozens of these entries – observations, quotations, reflections, scenes – recur in his new book, He. It’s to be assumed that this book, too, is a series of carefully selected transcriptions from the same, and later, notebooks.

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