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Picador

Through the gates of a kindergarten in Melbourne’s inner-north, a man strikes up a conversation with two little girls, which violently alters the course of their lives. The bolder of the pair, a child who ‘runs at life’, goes with him. The meeker stays behind, becoming the serial predator’s only known survivor.

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Suzie Miller’s play Prima Facie is one of Australia’s most celebrated literary exports of recent years. After an award-winning run of performances in Australia, a production helmed by Killing Eve star Jodie Comer triumphed in London’s West End and on Broadway, garnering deserved accolades for Comer as well as a coveted Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2023.

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In his essay on the uncanny, Sigmund Freud observed that fiction writers have an unusual privilege in setting the terms of the real, what he called a ‘peculiarly directive power’: ‘by means of the moods he can put us into, he is able to guide the current of our emotions’, and ‘often obtains a great variety of effects from the same material’.

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The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy & Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy

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January-February 2023, no. 450

A hunter discovers a woman’s body in the woods on Christmas day, ‘hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees’, a red sash tied around her dress to make her body visible in the snow. The strong implication is that she has taken her own life. The series of events that led to her decision is one of many mysteries in The Passenger, the first of two connected and long-awaited novels by Cormac McCarthy.

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Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor

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December 2022, no. 449

The accordion, or squeezebox, takes its name from the German Akkordeon, meaning a ‘musical chorus’ or ‘chorus of sounds’. This box-shaped aerophonic instrument makes music when keys on its sides are pressed, one side mostly melody, the other chords. Squeezing the instrument and playing with both hands, the musician dexterously produces polyphonous music.

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Fantastic Street by David Kelly & Falling Glass by Julia Osborne

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April 2003, no. 250

These two first novels confront the ongoing complaints of literary commentators that new novels are too often set in the past rather than dealing with present realities. Moving from the criticism of ‘literary grave-robbing’ by American author Jonathan Dee, Malcolm Knox has complained that most major Australian novelists tend to mine fantastic or historical subject matter rather than examining the culture of our daily lives. Knox takes Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a popular and critical success, as his model for a perceptive fictional treatment of popular culture. More recently, David Marr urged novelists to use contemporary settings to address what he calls the ‘new philistinism of John Howard’s Australia’. 

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My first thought on reading Father Lands was of Lasse Hallström’s film My Life as a Dog (1985) in the way that both novel and film enter so completely and unerringly into the world of childhood with all its quirks, illogicality, and fears. But there are other traditions at work in this novel, set in Milwaukee in the mid-1970s, and which recounts Cherry Laurel’s experience of the ‘Historical Experiment’ of integrating black and white primary school students. Ballou, an American who has made Australia her home for the last decade, may also have had in mind the use of a child’s-eye perspective that runs through American literature from Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird to Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, in which matters of great historical significance, particularly the racial history of the USA, are brought into relief by the stark honesty of an ingenuous child-narrator.

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The question remains – where is St John the Baptist’s head? David Dale and Glenn A. Baker are both formidable travellers and reliable chroniclers. Both claim to have been in close proximity to the detached cranium of this biblical hero, but in different countries: Dale in the north of France, Baker in Damascus.

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The Diplomat by Chris Womersley

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July 2022, no. 444

In Chris Womersley’s novel Cairo (2013), a middle-aged man looks back as his seventeen-year-old self is caught up in the notorious theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria by a group of bohemian artists. The heist-Bildungsroman combination is energetic, and decades of distance give Tom Button’s narration a lush, nostalgic quality. His sifted memories of 1986 fall gently, landing somewhere between regret and sustained desire.

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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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