Fourth Estate

Alexandra Philp reviews 'Sorrow and Bliss' by Meg Mason

Alexandra Philp
Wednesday, 25 November 2020

For a protagonist that is self-professedly unlikeable, Martha commands attention – and is likeable. In Meg Mason’s tragicomedy Sorrow and Bliss, Martha navigates living with an undiagnosed mental illness. The novel solidifies Mason’s thematic preoccupations by revisiting those of her previous works: as in her memoir Say It Again in a Nice Voice (2012) and her first novel, You Be Mother (2017), the power of female relationships, loneliness, and the bleak humour of motherhood are apparent.

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Chris Boyd reviews 'Grassdogs' by Mark O’Flynn

Chris Boyd
Monday, 02 November 2020

Grassdogs’ literary antecedents jostle like faces crowding around a porthole on a departing emigrant ship. One can tick them off like books on a required reading list for a twentieth-century Australian literature course. The doppelganger Jekyll-and-Hyde protagonists (blithe young city lawyer Tony Tindale and his bestial, increasingly wretched uncle Edgar) might have been written with actor Dan Wyllie in mind. Edgar even loses teeth in a car accident, just like Wyllie.

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The cover of All Our Shimmering Skies is crammed with surprises. Look closely among the Australian wildflowers and you’ll find black hearts, butterflies, lightning bolts, a shovel, a crocodile, a dingo, a fruit bat, a Japanese fighter plane, and a red rising sun. Trent Dalton has adopted a similar method in writing his second novel, which samples almost every genre you can think of, from war story to magic realism and Gothic horror to comedy. There are references to Romeo and Juliet and a nod to The Pilgrim’s Progress

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James Antoniou reviews 'The Tolstoy Estate' by Steven Conte

James Antoniou
Thursday, 24 September 2020

During Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Germans occupied Yasnaya Polyana – the former estate of Leo Tolstoy – for just forty-five days and converted it into a field hospital. The episode features in the war reportage of Ève Curie (daughter of Marie), and sounds like tantalising, if challenging, source material for a novelist. There’s the brutal irony inherent in the home of a world-famous prophet of non-violence being occupied by, of all people, the Nazis. There’s the human loss and horror of the deadliest military operation in the deadliest war in history. And there’s audacity in invoking and responding to Tolstoy’s great epic of another – Napoleon’s – doomed invasion of Russia: War and Peace (1869).

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In December 1982, publisher Richard Walsh commissioned a ‘life and times of Miles Franklin’ from historian Jill Roe. The book ‘has been a long time coming’, says Roe, ‘due to other commitments and responsibilities, and because of the extent of previously unexamined source material.’ That source material – letters, articles, unpublished manuscripts, journals – exists in quantities that can be inferred from Roe’s comment near the end of the book, where she is describing Franklin’s final illness: that ‘from 1 January 1909 to 1 January 1954, there is some kind of record of what Miles Franklin was doing on virtually every day of her life.’

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In or about that annus mirabilis 1968, Philip Roberts – academic, musician, poet and founder in 1970 of the poetry imprint Island Press – delivered a conference paper entitled ‘Physician Heal Thyself’, which considered eminent poets who had also been medical practitioners. (Roberts had gone from Canada to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to study medicine, but in a Pauline moment switched to Arts.) He spoke of William Carlos Williams, Miroslav Holub, and Boris Pasternak, among others. The climax of his paper was his consideration of Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, which he claimed had as its raison d’être nothing more or less than to serve as a vehicle for Zhivago’s poetry, which appears, if memory serves correctly, as an appendix. The tail well and truly wagged the tale.

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Chapter 148 of Craig Brown’s engrossing book is speculative fiction. Gerry and the Pacemakers are ‘the most successful pop group of the twentieth century’, their 1963 recording of ‘How Do You Do It?’, which the Beatles turned down, having launched their career. ‘To this day,’ Brown writes, ‘they remain the only artists to have achieved the number one slot with each of their first three singles.’ The last bit is almost true: they held that record for two decades.

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Owen Richardson reviews 'The Bride Stripped Bare' by Anonymous

Owen Richardson
Friday, 07 February 2020

You have to sympathise with Nikki Gemmell. When she described her sense of liberation on deciding to publish The Bride Stripped Bare anonymously, she seemed to have in mind only a desire not to offend people close to her. She would also have liberated herself from the literary celebrity machine. But, once the game was up, she got even more of it than she would otherwise have done. It doesn’t seem to have bothered her too much. The profile in The Age and the appearance on Andrew Denton’s television show didn’t suggest that she was determined to salvage what she could from her original plan to stay invisible. Some of my more cynical friends have suggested that that was what she had in mind all along. But the book is written with a candour that confirms her avowals.

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A lover of photography since childhood, by the time Olive Cotton, who was born in Sydney in 1911, was in her twenties she was already creating the pictures that were to define her as one of Australia’s foremost women photographers, although this would not be acknowledged until the 1980s. Apart from the photographs she made, Cotton left little material trace of a life that spanned nine decades (she died in 2003). This lack of physical evidence presented a challenge for biographer Helen Ennis, a former curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia and an art historian, who has nonetheless managed to weave a compelling, if at times diaphanous, narrative.

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Judith Armstrong reviews 'Reunion' by Andrea Goldsmith

Judith Armstrong
Friday, 25 October 2019

What’s the use,’ asks Alice before wandering away from her uncommunicative sister, ‘of a book without pictures or conversations?’ Grown-up readers can probably manage without the former, but it is unusual to find a novel with as little dialogue in it as Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion, or one that so deliberately ignores the common injunction ‘Show, don’t tell.’

Yet Goldsmith has several books to her credit, including The Prosperous Thief, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2002, and for several years taught creative writing at Deakin University. Presumably she knows what she is doing. In point of fact, not only does this flouting of conventional rules come over as quite refreshing, it is in any case justified by the demands of the narrative.

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