The inner-suburban dinginess of Cosmo Cosmolino could place Helen Gamer within an honourable tradition stretching at least from Dickens (Charles) to Dickins (Barry). It is a tradition that, observing the mundane and the domestic (not to be confused with each other), has produced works of pathos and wit, of great emotional intensity and sparkling humour. It is a tradition within which great writers have managed to invest dull lives, mean-spirited characters, and tawdry events with charm and universal significance, with an appeal reaching beyond the local and the specific. It is also a tradition within which great novelists ensure that their readers’ sympathy and curiosity are aroused to the extent that they will keep turning the pages well beyond bedtime and care about what comes next.
In their introduction to this collection of essays, the editors state that Australia’s war experiences in Vietnam left some lasting legacies, but ones that were either unexpected or unintended: a loss of moral authority on the part of Australian conservative governments, a breakdown in the defence and foreign policy consensus about the ‘threat’ to Australia, the revival of populist politics and resistance to conscription, and increasing resistance to orthodox political views on other issues.
This is, above all else, a timely novel. In an afterword describing the Beijing massacre, Nicholas Jose explains that he wrote Avenue of Eternal Peace in 1987. The novel ends with the growing push for democracy, with crowds milling in Tiananmen Square, and with a sense that change might be possible, if precarious. The afterword details the end of such hopes. Jose’s novel therefore has a strange air of elatedness surrounding it. On the one hand it offers a very rare example of contemporary Australian fiction confronting China. The fact that the map of history it stems from has changed so dramatically adds an extra fillip to the reader’s vicarious experience of the ‘new’ China, and especially of Australia’s increasingly blasé encounter with China – up until the recent repression. Perhaps it now stands as a testament to what might have been.
If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then Helen Daniel came up with a wonderful recipe indeed. Invite thirty-odd prominent Australian fiction writers to respond to Jeffrey Smart’s 1962 oil-on-plywood painting, Cahill Expressway, hung in the National Gallery of Victoria. Some declined, but twenty-nine accepted, and Helen Daniel can take great pride and satisfaction in regarding herself as a ‘privileged host’ indeed. This is truly a magic pudding of a book.
Stephanie Johnson writes short stories and writes mainly about women. It’s as though there’s a specific genre in current writing that ties together these two kinds of writing, for women writing about other women in short prose pieces make up a distinct category that includes almost all of the familiar names of women writing in Australia now. These women writers include migrants who have made their homes in Australia and write from that position. Johnson, for instance, is a New Zealander.
What Revolution? The title’s a teaser! Echoes of Lefty/Godot? You’ll understand if I’m infected by Noel McLachlan’s prose. On page after page, sentences and semi-sentences addressing the reader informally/colloquially (even verblessly!), rich in apostrophes, italics, parentheses, sloping lines between pairs/triads, even quartets/quintets, of words, ending often with exclamation marks and (nine times on one page I’ve counted!) question marks.
I have often found myself feeling a little frustrated after reading a David Foster novel. While never doubting his ability as a writer, the convolutions of his narrative have, more than once, overshadowed his undeniably fine prose. His latest book, Hitting the Wall, a collection of two novellas, allows us the opportunity to examine how Foster handles the more urgent needs of this much shorter form.
‘Dissatisfied’ summarises in a single word how I felt after reading Backstage at the Revolution. Dissatisfied not by John Bryson’s undoubtedly eloquent prose but by the publishing and marketing concept of the book.
Donald Horne, pleasantly surprised that he is now a university professor, looks back at the journalist and aspiring novelist that he was in the 1950s. This is to be the third (and final) instalment in the saga of the education of Donald.