Australian Fiction

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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Joe Exotic. Carole Baskin. Tiger King. There was a moment in early 2020 when these were names to conjure with; when a plague-ridden world became fascinated with the outlandish behaviour of these larger-than-life Americans and their unbelievably legal menageries of ‘exotic’ animals. Now, as we inch closer to ‘Covid-normal’, revisiting this surreal world through Emily Bitto’s exuberantly baroque second novel, Wild Abandon, is an unsettling experience.

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by Christos Tsiolkas

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November 2021, no. 437

On page 20 of my advance copy of , I insert a line in the margin: ‘Starting to sound like Sōseki’s Kusamakura here’. I had met the author of the passage – a man named Christos Tsiolkas – at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, sidling up to the Clare Hotel breakfast bar at an enviably early hour each morning to enjoy fruit and festival conversation. As my pen hovers, I wonder how that gregarious and personable figure squares with the bittersweet register of this novel.

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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.

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Ambiguity, done well, has a bifurcating momentum that can floor you. The late Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, a master of unsettling short stories shot through with ambiguity, knew this and used it to pugilistic advantage, declaring that ‘the novel wins by points, the short story by knockout’. Ambiguity is likewise central to S.J. Norman’s début collection, Permafrost, seven eerily affecting stories that traverse and update gothic and romantic literary traditions, incorporating horror, queer, and folk elements to hair-raising effect. No matter how often you read these spectral tales, they simply refuse to resolve themselves definitively. It could be that things have gone spectacularly wrong and that, simultaneously, everything is okay – a see-saw in constant motion, made all the creepier by the fact nobody is sitting on either side.

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Great art provokes by taking great risks. It goads, teases. When we recognise we’re in the hands of a master, the banal becomes profound, the sacred profane, and the grandest of truths reveal themselves in the most innocent of questions. Take Pauly Shore’s scathing 1994 cinematic rebuke of the complicity of heteronormativity in the military industrial complex, In the Army Now. In it, two gay soldiers signal their intent to defy the US Army’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy and serve their country in a neo-colonial war by asking, simply, ‘Is it hot in Chad?’

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Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser

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October 2021, no. 436

To read Michelle de Kretser’s fiction is to sense important details swimming under the surface of our awareness, forming patterns that will come into view by the end of the story, or after contemplating it for a time, or while rereading. There is always enough to satisfy our immediate needs – rich aphorisms, sharp characterisation, satirical wickedness, the play of language, political and historical concerns, mysteries explored – but the presence of morphing repetitions and suggestive references leaves the pleasurable impression that you have only just started reading the novel even as you finish its closing sentence. The structural integrity of de Kretser’s fiction, its intelligence and purposeful virtuosity, combine to induce keen readerly attentiveness. Scary Monsters is no exception.

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Australian novelist and short story writer Jennifer Down has been rightly acclaimed, with an impressive list of awards to her name, including the Jolley Prize in 2014. Her new novel, Bodies of Light, is both much more ambitious in scope than her first and an altogether more harrowing read. Spanning the years from 1975 to 2018, and traversing many different locations in Australia, New Zealand, and America, the novel confronts us with child sexual abuse, a suicide attempt, a series of fractured relationships, allegations of infanticide, recurring social alienation, and a serious drug addiction. But it is also, and mercifully, a story of a woman’s remarkable resilience, the possibility of human kindness, and the necessity of hope. Bodies of Light thus has affinities with the feminist Bildungsroman popularised in the 1960s and 1970s; a genre that championed a belief in productive self-fashioning by women in the face of systemic misogynistic oppression.

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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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A man waits outside a schoolyard and watches a young girl who, it seems, is his daughter, though she doesn’t know him. What appears to be an internal dialogue between the man and the child’s mother commences, set apart from the main text. It is a self-conscious narrative manoeuvre. The narrator, Jules Pyatt, after all has a thesis in English literature behind him (abandoned). He knows what narrative is all about, and he knows he wants to tell the story of his ‘Tazyrik year’, which belongs to a period several years before, when he was in his late twenties.

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