University of Queensland Press

Coralie Clarke Rees and Leslie Rees are not remembered among the glamour couples of twentieth-century Australian literary life. Unlike George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Vance and Nettie Palmer, or their friends Darcy Niland and Ruth Park, neither of them wrote novels and they both spread their work across a range of genres. Critics, journalists, travel writers, children’s writers, playwrights, they devoted themselves to supporting the broad artistic culture of Australia rather than claiming its attention. Their lives were spent in juggling their literary interests with the need to make a living at a time when Australian society was even less supportive of writers than it is now. They made compromises to suburban life and the need to care for their two daughters, without ever abandoning their determination to live by the pen.


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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 Thousand Crimson Blooms by Eileen Chong & Turbulence by Thuy On

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July 2021, no. 433

The biographical note to A Thousand Crimson Blooms observes that Eileen Chong’s first book, Burning Rice (2012), is ‘the first single-author collection of poetry by an Asian-Australian to be studied as part of the NSW HSC English syllabus’. Having run many writing workshops for students and adults over the years, Chong takes her pedagogy as seriously as her poetry. It’s no surprise, then, that A Thousand Crimson Blooms, Chong’s fifth collection, is replete with scenes of instruction. In ‘Teacher’, the poet corrects her mother’s pronunciation (‘I say TEAcher, then, I say teacher.  / … I feel like an arsehole’) only to stand corrected by memories of her mother’s gentler tutelage. The collection’s dedicatee, Chong’s grandmother, metes out corporal punishment in ‘Hunger’, but has her own body disciplined in ‘Float’. The poet learns the meaning of ‘thole’ (Scottish for ‘to endure / what is barely bearable’) and after surgery discloses the origins of her nurse’s name. If there is pathos evoked by these anecdotes, much of it has to do with the way knowledge – how to care for the body, where to look for the roots of words – helps the poet overcome the inertia occasioned by violence, whether racial, sexual, or medical.

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The middle class has always been the target audience for the ever-optimistic, benign phrasing of Australia’s economic prospects. It is for them that there runs a vein of exceptionalism that believes no matter what the numbers say, the nation is immune to the dangerous excesses of the American brand of capitalism. This extends to debt. Despite the widely touted fact that we have among the highest levels of household debt in the developed world, we assume that any downturn will be temporary – the next mining or housing boom is just around the corner.

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Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

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April 2021, no. 430

Smokehouse is an engagingly constructed collection of interlinked stories set in small-town, yet globally connected, settler Tasmania. The volume, which is focused on personal crises and family breakdown, is bookended by the two parts of the novella that lends the collection its name. This splicing is an inspired decision: the end of Part One keeps us turning the pages through the subsequent, fully realised short stories; with Part Two we feel rewarded whenever we spot a character first encountered in a story that seemed discrete.

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When as a boy I listened to football on the radio, I would often hear mention of David Harris, a skilful midfielder who played for Geelong and Geelong West respectively in what were then the VFL and VFA. Harris was mostly known as ‘Darky’, not ‘David’. Recently, thanks to a YouTube interview, I learnt that Harris’s parents were Lebanese Australians. While in the interview Harris did not express offence, one can only wonder about the effect on him of this nickname – one he’d had since his own boyhood – based on the colour of his skin.

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How could she write happiness so well? For Gabrielle Carey, this is the driving question in her search for Elizabeth von Arnim (1866–1941), an Australian-born writer of more than twenty bestselling satirical novels who married a German count and then an English lord, bore five children, lived all over Europe, and hosted the British intellectual and literary élite at her Swiss chalet. Von Arnim’s novels are still available in many editions. A literary celebrity in the early twentieth century, she retains a loyal readership but has been largely forgotten by literary history. After losing ‘faith in the very idea of happiness, let alone the pursuit of it’ in a deep personal crisis, Carey turns to von Arnim as a guide to restore her faith, following the author’s dictum that happiness is ‘attainable by all except the unworthy and deluded’.

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In 1795, Friedrich Schiller wrote: ‘So long as we were mere children of nature, we were both happy and perfect; we have become free, and have lost both.’ For Schiller, it was the poet’s task to ‘lead mankind … onward’ to a reunification with nature, and thereby with the self. Central to Romantic thought, reimaginings like Schiller’s of Christian allegory, in which (European) humans’ division from a utopian natural world suggests the biblical fall, strike a chord in our own time of unfolding environmental catastrophe. Against such an unfolding, three new Australian books of poetry explore the contemporary relationship of subject to place.

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Change Machine is an exceptionally strong third collection. To the extent that a schematic of thesis–antithesis– synthesis applies to poets’ books, this one both exceeds and incorporates the work that came before. Intriguingly, the title poem seems a late addition, citing the pandemic in three clipped lines, borne on the shoulders of two innocuous words, should and but:

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Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matters, shows the same talent for precise observation, pathos, and humour as her accomplished début collection, Trick of the Light (2018). It differs in its creation of a greater range of narrators and voices, and in its use of a specific ideological framework through which to unify the collection: each of its twenty stories is prefaced by the name of a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist and the ‘prize motivation’ for her award. This device might be read as subverting the sexist stereotype that, denying women the capacity for rational thought, consigns them to the ‘softer’ realms of emotion and artistic endeavour. It also encourages an interesting way of thinking about female desire as it pertains to a range of experiences, including creativity, ambition, motherhood, sexuality, and political activism.

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