Australian Fiction

In his extraordinary journey through Iceland’s history, Saga Land (2017, with Richard Fidler), Kári Gíslason described Icelanders as ‘being reserved’ and ‘a bit severe’ at first glance, likening them to the Hallgrímskirkja church that looms over Reykjavik with its enormous basalt column wings and stony façade. The first three days I spent alone in that city gave me a wholly different impression of its people. On my first day there in 2013, I was greeted by what appeared to be most of the city’s population lined up on the Lækjargata strip waving flags, smiling from ear to ear, and dancing as the annual Gay Pride parade rolled by in all its garish joy. 

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Australiana opens with a break-in. Lifting away a flyscreen, strangers climb into a man’s house, help themselves to his biscuits. The crime doesn’t feel important – it’s the fourth in a month, we’re told – but the intrusion does. It evokes the entanglements of small towns, the way in which lives intersect, physical proximity breaking down the barriers of class and culture and personal choice that can divide urban populations into subcultures. As a declaration of intent, the image of trespass is pretty clear: there is no real privacy in this town, and as readers we’re about to gain access.

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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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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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‘See, my hands, they reach for you. My heart is a hand reaching.’ So begins Hannah Kent’s wide-ranging and poetic new novel, signalling its key themes of love, longing, and the pain that arises from division. While hands reach out, desperately seeking each other, Devotion explores the possibilities and the limits of such clasping. This is a powerful narrative that grapples with what connects passionate bodies and hearts and what might keep them apart, be it physical distance, religious constraint, or the limits of the imagination. Through the motif of devotion – religious, emotional, sexual – Kent’s skilful novel considers the fundamental human experiences of attachment and desire as experienced by characters who carry the weighty impress of the past, with its complex tracery of love, geography, and suffering, into the unfolding possibilities of new worlds.

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When Anne Shirley dreamed of finding a ‘bosom friend’ in Avonlea, she did more than conjure Diana Barry into existence. The heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) imprinted on us an almost impossible standard for what to expect from our earliest female friendships: a lifelong source of joy sustained by a mutual devotion to each other’s best interests. More often than not, however – as the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels attests – childhood friendships are as complicated as any other. And when they rupture, whether through accident, argument, or design, the aftershocks can last well into adulthood.

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In July 1999, ABC’s 7:30 Report ran a story on the Western Suburbs Magpies, an NRL club struggling financially and playing out its final season before a merger with the nearby Balmain Tigers. For that human touch, the story featured shots of a family decking out their children in the Magpies’ black and white, their relationship with the ninety-year-old club described as ‘something in the heart’. It was all very warm and fuzzy, at least until the camera cut away and a voiceover delivered a neoliberal sucker punch: ‘love does not necessarily deliver dollars’. Set in the same Western Sydney suburbs still mourning the loss of their team, Max Easton’s terrific début novel, The Magpie Wing, tracks a trio of Millennials as they similarly battle to retain their identities in a rapidly gentrifying world.

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A year before his death in 2015 following a cancer diagnosis, the writer–playwright Henning Mankell responded to a question about his love of the crime genre. He stated that his objective was ‘to use the mirror of crime to look at contradictions in society’. Mankell’s mirror was evident in his Kurt Wallander series (1991–2009), in which the detective was faced with contradictions not only in the landscape of crime and murder but also in his own domestic life. Great crime fiction does not need to focus a lens on the overlapping worlds of the private and the public. But well written, the genre’s interconnected spheres address the moral complexities that drove Mankell’s passion for crime fiction.

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Rachel isn’t the last woman in the world, but she might as well be. Cloistered in her bushland home on Yuin country, in New South Wales, Rachel’s days consist of birdsong, simple meals prepared from a pantry stocked with home-made preserves, and glass-blowing in her private studio – a craft that is both her livelihood and her religion. It’s a peaceful yet precarious existence. The land is scarred by bushfires. Rachel’s senses are attuned to the absence of wallabies and small birds. For all her proficiency with sourdough starter, Rachel isn’t self-sufficient. Her older sister, Monique, provides an emotional tether to the world, while townswoman Mia delivers supplies and transports Rachel’s glassworks to a gallery. When Mia fails to show, Rachel rues the lack of a back-up plan. When Hannah, a young mother, raving about a nation-wide outbreak of death, arrives on her doorstep with a sick infant, luddite Rachel must choose between taking Hannah’s word for it or rejecting her.

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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. But the risks are great: creating a child narrator who knows, tells, or understands far too much for their age; dumbing down the story to fit with the character’s youth; striking the wrong notes by making the voice too childish or not childlike enough. It’s a minefield, and any novelist, especially a debutant, who pulls it off deserves praise. Thus Harper Lee, who never had to produce another book to maintain her legendary status.

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