Australian Fiction

'History always emphasises terminal events,’ Albert Speer observed bitterly to his American interrogators just after the end of the war, according to Antony Beevor in Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (2002). Few events in recent history were more terminal than the Holocaust, it might be urged. Yet the singularity of that ‘terminus’ has been questioned in recent years ... 

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These four titles are reissues of well-known texts, or of the work of well-known writers, from four different publishers. A good sign perhaps, very welcome at a time when publishing seems ever more ephemeral and when many works, even from the recent past, are unavailable.

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One of my all-time favourite short stories, ‘The Shipwreck Party’, opens this volume of Collected Stories. Any book of short pieces invites readers to enter wherever they like. I decided to start at the last piece and work backwards so that I could end up with my old favourite. The pace, structure, rhythm, images, restraint, wit, irony, and tone of this short narrative always work their magic on me, and I wait for the last thirty lines in joyful and horrified expectation. Having read the book backwards, I write this review in a mood of sheer pleasure.

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Joan London’s new novel, Gilgamesh, is the story of several generations of travellers, moving between Australia, London, and Europe, as far east as Armenia. As such, it is part of a long and venerable tradition in Australian fiction: a tradition of quest narratives organised around topographical and cultural difference ... 

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Harold Bloom’s comment on one of Poe’s stories that ‘the tale somehow is stronger than the telling’ came to mind during my reading of the nineteenth century mystery, The Murder of Madeline Brown. In spite of unevenness in the writing and some irritating Latin affectations, the story has a haunting quality which lingered long after the reading.

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This is both an exciting and a sad collection. Kenneth Mackenzie, like those later Western Australian writers Randolph Stow and Tim Winton (and, I might add, Griffith Watkins), first appeared in print with work composed at a remarkably young age and which was extraordinary in its poetic intensity and command of language. And like Stow and Watkins (but not, fortunately, like Winton) the early achievement was matched only in fits and starts by the later work. Griffith Watkins committed suicide in his thirties, Randolph Stow has been beset by long periods of silence, and Kenneth Mackenzie drowned in a river near Goulburn, aged forty-one. He had become an alcoholic.

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The note from Text’s publicist read: ‘Hope you enjoy this.’ I did. I did. (I read it twice.) The note continued: ‘There’s no other Australian novel quite like it.’ I couldn’t quite bring myself to agree with that. Garry Satherley’s (as in ‘satherley buster’, no doubt) first novel suggests, to my perhaps over-convoluted consciousness, Murray Bail’s Homesickness, Anthony Macris’ Capital: Volume 1, Glenda Adams’ Dancing on Coral and, drawing a long bow, Henry Handel Richardson. I will let Text Publishing and anyone else interested chase up the resemblances, which are casual rather than causal. That The Arch-Traitor’s Lament more pertinently suggested to me Czech novelists such as Josef Škvorecký and Ivan Klíma, for example, was a different matter, they not being Australian, and they have earned their right to their political fictions on the decks of those two dreadnoughts, hardship and censorship. That was my grumpy not-quite-convinced first reading. My second reading convinced me that Satherley was doing something quite different from the Iron Curtain callers. He was writing an Australian novel (well, he was born in New Zealand, but we are masters of ethnic appropriation across the Tasman) with European facts and fictions as pan of its subject matter.

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In last year’s Cat Catcher, Caroline Shaw established her detective heroine, Lenny Aaron, as one of the most original characters in recent Australian crime (Cat Catcher was runner-up for the Australian Crime Writers Association Ned Kelly Award for best first novel). Gaunt, weird looking, an obsessive compulsive with a phobia about being touched and a serious addiction to over-the-counter drug cocktails, Lennie is in the tradition of dysfunctional and damaged investigators muddling their way through recent crime fiction.

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A Symposium on the state of Australian Fiction with McKenzie Wark, Katharine England, and James Bradley ... (read more)

Into the Wadi by Michèle Drouart

by
April 2000, no. 219

‘I remember only peripheries, not centres,’ Michèle Drouan says in her memoir of marriage to a Jordanian and life with his family in a village near Jordan’s borders with Syria and Lebanon. Her perspective is deliberately oblique. Elegantly shaped, and or the most part gracefully written, her story bypasses the obvious cultural divisions. Political, religious, and sexual tensions are given minimal treatment. No dates are given: you would hardly know that the Gulf War comes within the book’s timespan, and when the sound of bombs is heard from across the border, someone quietly says ‘Lebanon’, and leaves it at that.

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