Allen & Unwin

What’s not to love about Arthur Rimbaud? Having run away from his home in northern France, the outrageous and outrageously gifted teenage poet landed on the Paris doorstep of fellow poet Paul Verlaine in 1871. There, he co-opted the twenty-seven-year-old Symbolist into his artistic enterprise of ‘derangement of the senses’, which soon saw the pair embarking on a torrid affair that culminated in their fleeing to Brussels, where Verlaine shot Rimbaud (although not fatally) and was jailed.

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Unsurprisingly, Australia leads the world in the production of close-grained studies of convicts sentenced to transportation. Since 1788, it’s what we do. Emma Christopher proves herself to be a crackerjack at tracking down just about anyone who ever stood before an eighteenth-century court. She reels off their crimes, social origins, associates, aliases, lovers, victims, favourite haunts and previous convictions like a bailiff of long experience. What is more, she appears to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the alleys, lanes and bolt-holes of every city in the British Isles. So stupendous is her talent for conjuring up the atmosphere of the times that most readers will forgive her for too frequently slip ping into the archaic language of the documents she studies.

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The Book of Human Skin details the trials and tribulations of an innocent Venetian noblewoman named Marcella Fasan, a girl ‘so sinned agin tis like Job in a dress’, Gianni delle Boccole, loyal family servant and bad speller, explains. Marcella’s principal antagonist is her older brother Minguillo, who, out of filial jealousy and a desire to be the sole heir to the family’s New World fortune in silver, makes her a prisoner, a cripple, a madwoman, and a nun. Think Jacobean tragedy meets Gothic novel, then add some – namely a crazy Peruvian nun called Sor Loreta, who, in between fasting and self-flagellation marathons, terrorises the saner sisters at the convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It is these four characters – Gianni, Marcella, Minguillo, Sor Loreta, plus the kindly Doctor Santo Aldobrandini, a specialist in skin and its maladies – who, unbeknown to one another, take turns narrating this novel.

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When Miranda Ophelia Sinclair, ‘Moss’ to her friends, discovers a document featuring the name of her heretofore unknown father, she sets out to find him and to discover her genetic roots. Her complicated family history is gradually exposed when she finds her father, Finn, living as a near-recluse in a town called Opportunity. Finn’s next-door neighbour is Lily Pargetter: aged, lonely, haunted by memories and ghosts. Her nephew, Sandy, is a middle-aged man-child, ineffectual but harmless. This eccentric cast of characters could easily hold its own against Alexander McCall Smith’s creations; however, Evans sets her protagonists on a predictable and fairly scripted path, resulting in a message-driven narrative.

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Alex Miller has been named as a finalist in the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature, a rich award given triennially to a Victorian author for a body of work. It is hardly surprising that a writer who has twice won the Miles Franklin Award and frequently been the recipient of, or short-listed for, other prizes should be among ...

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The Great Arch has considerable if unlikely charm. It is a history of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in a novel about real and imagined people living near its construction site. Hastrich brings to life (potentially dry) detail about huge steel plates, creeping cranes, rivets and cables. We see this mostly in the writings and photographs of her central character, an Anglican vicar who records the progress of the bridge-building in his parish paper and also writes a two-volume book about it. The Reverend Ralph Anderson Cage, rector at St Christopher’s at Lavender Bay (based on a real person, Frank Cash), is an endearingly hapless yet decent man who becomes obsessed with the unfolding engineering marvel that reshapes the population and topography of his once-thriving parish.

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Richard Walsh – former OZ co-editor, A&R, ACP and PBL director – has proven again that he has keen eye for what fixates Australians. To be remembered is of course an enduring human obsession, while the ability to send off (or send up) a friend or family member is more often an afterthought, a stepping into the breach.

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David Malouf, one of the subjects interviewed by Margaret Throsby in Talking with Margaret Throsby, recounts his childhood experiences as an eavesdropper. He reveals that by listening in on conversations between his mother and her women friends he learnt about a world that was otherwise off-limits to him. For devotees of Mornings with Margaret Throsby on ABC Classic FM, the experience might sound familiar as they tune in to live conversations between the host and her distinguished guests; conversations which, although obviously public in that they are broadcast on national radio, frequently open a window onto the private world of the subject. Paul Keating, in Talking with Margaret Throsby, reveals that he would often prepare for cabinet sessions by listening to music (‘Start off slow, you know, and finish on something big’), conductor Jeffrey Tate discusses the ways in which he has coped with spina bifida, and writer and restaurateur Pauline Nguyen, who arrived in Australia as a ‘boat person’, talks about the difficulties of growing up in a household marked by fear and violence.

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Ice by Louis Nowra

by
November 2008, no. 306

‘Ice is everywhere,’ observes the narrator of Ice, Louis Nowra’s fifth novel, before succumbing to a bad case of the Molly Blooms and giving us a few pages of punctuation-free interior monologue. No wonder he’s so worked up: ice, in Ice, really is everywhere. It is subject, motif, organising principle, and all-purpose metaphor; it is death, life, stasis, progress; it is seven types of ambiguity and then some. For variety’s sake, Nowra occasionally wheels out a non-frozen alternative – taxidermy, waxworks – but the design is clear: these are merely different nuclei around which the same cluster of metaphors gather.'

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Pitched awkwardly between mass-market romance and a literary novel, Musk and Byrne is a curious creation. Spending excessive verbal effort on a familiar and rather vacuous plot, the book never finds a satisfactory shape, and finally lacks a true purpose. Never intellectually thorough enough to offer an exploration of artistic identity, and not trashy enough to deliver tawdry thrills, it is both too well written and not very original.

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