Susan Midalia

Australian novelist and short story writer Jennifer Down has been rightly acclaimed, with an impressive list of awards to her name, including the Jolley Prize in 2014. Her new novel, Bodies of Light, is both much more ambitious in scope than her first and an altogether more harrowing read. Spanning the years from 1975 to 2018, and traversing many different locations in Australia, New Zealand, and America, the novel confronts us with child sexual abuse, a suicide attempt, a series of fractured relationships, allegations of infanticide, recurring social alienation, and a serious drug addiction. But it is also, and mercifully, a story of a woman’s remarkable resilience, the possibility of human kindness, and the necessity of hope. Bodies of Light thus has affinities with the feminist Bildungsroman popularised in the 1960s and 1970s; a genre that championed a belief in productive self-fashioning by women in the face of systemic misogynistic oppression.

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Three recent novels by Australian women deal with current and increasingly urgent political questions about female identity and embodiment. They each use the conventions of popular realist fiction to provoke thought about the causes of female disempowerment and the struggle for self-determination. Coincidentally, they are also set, or partially set, in Australian country towns, although their locations are markedly different, and their plots culminate in the revelation of disturbing secrets.

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Determining connections between books sent as a review bundle is not mandatory, but there is an irresistible tendency to find some common theme. In the case of these three novels, the theme of women’s pain, and hidden pain at that, does not need to be teased out – it leaps out. Since it is unlikely that three different authors would have colluded, the prevalence of this is worth deeper reflection, especially considering recent titles such as Kylie Maslen’s essays on illness, Show Me Where It Hurts, or Kate Middleton’s extraordinary memoir essay ‘The Dolorimeter’, placed second in the 2020 Calibre Prize.

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Eugen Bacon’s début short story collection, The Road to Woop Woop, plays with the genres of speculative fiction and magic realism. Using familiar tropes such as time travel, shapeshifting, and prescient characters, the stories typically refuse formulaic outcomes. The title story, for example, confounds expectations about the horror of bodily disintegration. The ominous angel of death in the story ‘Dying’ turns out to be a true wit. The surreal is transformed by the blessing of love in the heart-warming story ‘He Refused to Name It’.

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Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matters, shows the same talent for precise observation, pathos, and humour as her accomplished début collection, Trick of the Light (2018). It differs in its creation of a greater range of narrators and voices, and in its use of a specific ideological framework through which to unify the collection: each of its twenty stories is prefaced by the name of a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist and the ‘prize motivation’ for her award. This device might be read as subverting the sexist stereotype that, denying women the capacity for rational thought, consigns them to the ‘softer’ realms of emotion and artistic endeavour. It also encourages an interesting way of thinking about female desire as it pertains to a range of experiences, including creativity, ambition, motherhood, sexuality, and political activism.

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The American writer Jack Matthews had no time for what he called ‘a discontent’ with the brevity of the short story. ‘Ask a coral snake,’ he declared, ‘which is as deadly as it is small.’ The claim for ‘deadliness’ certainly applies to four recent début collections; in the tight spaces of the short story, each one presents confronting ideas about contemporary Australia.

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Three recent début novels employ the genre of the Bildungsroman to explore the complexities of female experience in the recent historical past. Anna Goldsworthy, widely known and admired as a memoirist, essayist, and musician, has now added a novel, Melting Moments (Black Inc., $29.99 pb, 240 pp), to her list of achievements.

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The Sea and Us by Catherine de Saint Phalle

by
January–February 2020, no. 418

Catherine de Saint Phalle already had an impressive publication history – five novels written in French and one in English – when her elegantly written, often heart-breaking memoir Poum and Alexandre was shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize. Her new novel, The Sea and Us, is her third book written in English since she came to Australia in 2003. Its title works both literally and symbolically. The Sea and Us is the name of the Melbourne fish and chip shop above which the middle-aged narrator, Harold, rents a room, having returned to his childhood city after eighteen years of living and working in South Korea.

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'Longing,’ thinks Hazel West, the twenty-five-year-old protagonist of Susan Midalia’s first novel, ‘I could begin a story with longing.’ This is a book about various kinds of longing: the desire for intimacy, for human understanding, for self-possession and self-forgetting. Most of all ...

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Barbara Kingsolver, praising the skill required to write a memorable short story, described the form as entailing ‘the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces’. Her description certainly applies to Jennifer Down’s wonderful début collection, Pulse Points. Using the typical strategies of suggestion, ambiguity, and inconclusivene ...

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