In Chris Womersley’s novel Cairo (2013), a middle-aged man looks back as his seventeen-year-old self is caught up in the notorious theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria by a group of bohemian artists. The heist-Bildungsroman combination is energetic, and decades of distance give Tom Button’s narration a lush, nostalgic quality. His sifted memories of 1986 fall gently, landing somewhere between regret and sustained desire.
There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,’ Vladimir Lenin has been credited with saying, with reference to the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s a sentiment that immediately springs to mind when reading Jessica Stanley’s A Great Hope, a début that, while not billed as historical fiction, is deeply concerned with history and its making.
In 2015, Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life was published to a critical response so effusive as to seem almost hyperbolic. Jon Michaud of the New Yorker described the novel’s depiction of the Promethean repetitiveness of trauma as ‘elemental, irreducible’; Garth Greenwell declared in The Atlantic that ‘the great gay novel’ had finally been written. Even critics who viewed the novel less favourably acknowledged its extraordinary affective force. In one of the few unflattering reviews, Daniel Mendelsohn of The New York Reviewof Books savagely describes the novel as ‘little more than a machine designed to produce negative emotions for the reader to wallow in’.
Olivia Laing describes her latest book, Everybody: A book about freedom, as one about ‘bodies in peril and bodies as a force for change’. I would describe Everybody as a biographical project, about people whose work engaged with the ideas of bodies and freedom in the twentieth century. This might seem like a subtle difference, but it’s an important one: had Laing conceptualised and framed the book in the latter way, I think Everybody would be a less frustrating read. As it stands, Laing’s biographical writing, while insightful and rigorously researched, ends up feeling like an (admittedly deft) avoidance tactic; Everybody sets out to be a book that takes a hard and uncomfortable look at the topic of bodies and their roles in the pursuit and denial of freedom, but it doesn’t quite dare to do so directly. It ends up being a book about people who have.
Colm Tóibín’s eleventh novel, The Magician, is a dramatisation of the life of Thomas Mann. It begins in 1891 with the death of Mann’s father, a successful businessman from the north German city of Lübeck, whose last agonised words to his fifteen-year-old son are, ‘You know nothing.’ It ends in 1950, five years before Mann’s death at the age of eighty, when he returns to Europe after a long period of exile in the United States, by which time he is one of the century’s greatest novelists and a respected public intellectual. Cop that, dad.
There is something, or rather someone, in the air in Jennifer Mills’s dark fourth novel. The Airways represents another leap towards the uncanny for Mills, whose previous book, the Miles Franklin-shortlisted Dyschronia (2018), was already a departure from the more traditionally realist modes of her earlier novels, The Diamond Anchor (2009) and Gone (2011), and short story collection, The Rest Is Weight (2012).
Poor old Sydney. If it isn’t being described as crass and culturally superficial, it’s being condemned for allowing developers to obliterate whatever natural beauty it ever had. Is it doomed, will it survive, and if so, what kind of city is it likely to be?
The timing was apt. In September, Fake Law: The truth about justice in an age of lies – written by pseudonymous British writer ‘The Secret Barrister’ – was published in Australia. The same month, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States following the untimely death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From two legal systems that have historically influenced ours came salutary warnings about the ill effects of law’s politicisation.
‘Literary talent,’ writes Martin Amis in his new ‘novel’, Inside Story, ‘has perhaps four or five ways of dying. Most writers simply become watery and subtly stale.’ Not so the eighty-three-year-old Don DeLillo, who has published seventeen novels over the last fifty years, all of them muscular, intelligent, prescient. In 1988, he told an interviewer from Rolling Stone, ‘I think fiction rescues history from its confusions.’
One of the frustrating things about being a historian is the number of times you are told by others that surely everything in your specialty must already have been ‘done’. After so many decades or centuries, what more could there possibly be to discover? One of the answers is that what interests scholars, and what topics are considered worthy of examination, changes over time. This explains how ‘new’ material – often sitting in the archives for centuries – comes to light. It also explains why women have not always made the cut, a problem compounded, as recent Twitter discussions have highlighted, by how often research about women by female scholars still goes unpublished.