Text Publishing

A rich vein of political writing runs through Australian fiction. From the early days of socialist realism, through the anti-colonialism of both black and white writers, to tough explorations of identity politics today, we have struggled with concepts of justice and equality since Federation ...

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The epigraph to the first chapter of Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden speaks of Nebelung, a time of great prosperity, joy, and hope for new life. Over the page, Hornung shatters any sense of well-being with an extraordinary opening sentence: ‘On a mild Nebelung’s afternoon, Matthias Orion, having lived as an exclamation mark in the Wahrheit settlement an ...

An epigraph from Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected lectures (2012) sets the tone of Libby Angel’s novel, The Trapeze Act ‘what is the moment but a fragment of greater time?’ This book is composed of fragments, which, taken together, capture the desire for a complete understanding of history and the impossibility of satisfyin ...

The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish by Dido Butterworth, edited and introduced by Tim Flannery

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March 2015, no. 369

It is 1932 and as the SS Mokambo steams into Sydney Harbour with Archie Meek on board, the Australian Museum’s young anthropologist is about to discover that he has committed a terrible faux pas. After five years away in the Venus islands studying the customs and culture of its head-hunting inhabitants, Meek is eager to be reunited with Beatrice Goodenough, the beautiful but sheltered registrar of the museum’s anthropology department. In true island fashion, Meek has accompanied his request for her hand in marriage with the sincerest love token a man can proffer. Unfortunately, on receipt of his dried foreskin, lovingly posted, Goodenough fails to respond as a Venus Island maiden would. A younger, weedier Meek might have been ready to crumple at such rejection, but the hesitant stripling of nineteen is now a bronzed hunk of twenty-four, ready to claim Beatrice as his own despite the misfiring of his culturally specific courtship ritual.

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Each fiction in this small but handsome volume emerges from an interesting, perhaps even ‘transitional’ phase in J.M. Coetzee’s writing life: between the publication of Disgrace (1999) and Slow Man (2005); before and after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. The first story in the collection also predates Coetzee’s move to Adelaide in 2002, as does, presumably, the composition of the second (whose protagonist laments the corporatisation of rural South Africa, declaring, ‘I want nothing to do with it’); the third story was presented and published as Coetzee’s Nobel Lecture.

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In times of high moral outrage at the barbarism of others, it is salutary to be reminded of the state-sanctioned viciousness of Australia’s past. Simon Barnard’s AZ of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land does this brilliantly. Australian convict history is a crowded field, but Barnard’s detailed and vivid illustrations breathe fresh life into it. In addition to the many architectural cutaway drawings (hospitals, jails, female factories, commissariats, coalmines, shipyards, treadmills), there is a wealth of social detail: the bell-pull system for solitary confinement cells, a water canteen, cell graffiti, named dogs of the Colony, the tattoos of Francis Fitzmaurice. Indeed, it is the rupture of the human dimension into the totalising aspects of the system that surrounded convict transportation that give this book real intellectual heft. The effect is achieved through image and text, drawing on the stories of many lesser-known personalities of the period from a rich range of primary source material.

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Characters on the verge of a breakthrough populate this impressive début short story collection. An aspiring artist in ‘Making It’ is unsure whether a tilt at greatness is worth the personal sacrifice. In ‘Scar’, a middle-aged geologist feels conflicted by prospective fatherhood and observes, ‘Against that slow patience of stone the need to reproduce had always seemed like vanity.’ Low’s stories cover an ambitious range of locations from Melbourne to Mongolia; his prose is energetic and inspired.

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Are You Seeing Me? by Darren Groth & The Minnow by Diana Sweeney

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September 2014, no. 364

At its greatest, literature offers us the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of someone else; at its most inviting, through a character whose experience could be our own; at its most powerful, through a view of existence that differs vastly, even frighteningly, from ours. The latter is explored in these two new works of Young Adult fiction that show us intensely ‘other’ ways of seeing.

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In August 2013, Robert Farquharson was denied special leave to appeal to the High Court against his conviction for the murder of his three young sons Jai, Tyler, and Bailey, aged ten, seven, and two. This was the final legal chapter in the lengthy story Helen Garner explores in This House of Grief.

Garner begins with the ‘Once’ that prefaces fairy tales – stories we think we know well enough to recite from memory; clear, oracular, and resonant: ‘Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian country town with his wife and their three young sons.’ One day, ‘out of the blue, his wife told him that she was no longer in love with him’. Transformed by this into ‘the sad husband’, Farquharson packs a suitcase and leaves, saddled with the ‘shit car’ of the two owned by the couple.

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When Mark Henshaw’s début, Out of the Line of Fire, appeared in 1988, it was, as literary editor Stephen Romei states in his introduction to the recent Text Classics reissue, the ‘literary sensation of the year’. A novel about an Australian author’s difficulties in writing about his fugitive subject, the young German philosopher Wolfi, it was very much a book of its moment, when a joyous postmodernism gripped Australian letters. In 1984 the country had hosted its first conference on the topic, with Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, the rock stars of French theory; and by 1988 any serious young insect – myself included – was reading Jorge Luis Borges’s labyrinthine stories, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Italo Calvino’s experimental novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. That same year Helen Daniel would publish her dense but hugely influential Liars, celebrating our novelists as purveyors of an Australian history (borrowing Mark Twain’s term) made up of ‘beautiful lies’. Henshaw’s novel also carries something of the crackling energy of our bicentenary when our literature was shedding a realism associated with colonialism while announcing a stake in international (often, but not always, European) intellectual traditions.

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