First, a confession. I am one of a tiny minority of readers who were underwhelmed by Pip Williams’s first novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020). I thought it a splendid idea, one undermined by facile messages about how women’s words were ignored by the men who recorded our language and its meanings. Clearly, I was in a minority: Dictionary became an international bestseller, one of the most successful Australian novels ever published. Friends raved about it. I wondered what I wasn’t getting.
In 1961, Gwen Harwood submitted a sonnet to the Bulletin under the name of Walter Lehmann. Her poem, ‘Abelard to Eloisa’, held a shocking acrostic secret that many people considered very bad art. Nobody discovered the secret until after it was published. But despite her transgression, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘she found much greater acceptance’ – to the point that she is today considered one of Australia’s greatest poets.
There are two famous statues in the Gundagai area. One is the Dog on the Tuckerbox. The other is of two heroes, Yarri and Jacky Jacky, who, with other Wiradjuri men, went out in their bark canoes on many exhausting and dangerous forays to rescue an estimated sixty-nine people from the Great Flood of 1852.
Here’s a story about a spy with a wooden leg, another spy who liked to sit around with his penis exposed, and a spy’s daughter who spent decades refusing to believe her father was dead. If this tale of an everyday family of secret agents were a novel or a Netflix drama, we’d laugh, frown, and admire it as a surreal fantasy. But it is real, the children are still alive, and their recollections are proof that truth is nuttier than fiction.
When you begin to read a book about a remote town heralded by the sign ‘Darnmoor, The Gateway to Happiness’, you know it’s not going to be a happy place. The opening chapter of Nardi Simpson’s first novel describes a neat, drab town of streets with names like Grace and Hope. Under a vast cerulean sky, a whitewashed war memorial lies at its ‘bleeding and dead centre’.
When Alex Miller first thought of writing about Max Blatt, he imagined a celebration of his life. But would Max have wanted that? He was a melancholy, chainsmoking European migrant, quiet and self-effacing, who claimed nothing for himself except defeat and futility.
Kokomo has a startling beginning. ‘Mina knew in that moment what love is’, goes the first sentence. She is looking at Jack’s penis, which is compared to a soldier, a ballerina, a lighthouse, and a cooee. It is also the nicest penis she has ever seen.
Art and Paris meant everything to Agnes Goodsir. ‘You must forgive my enthusiasm,’ she wrote. ‘Nothing else is of the smallest or faintest importance besides that.’ Goodsir was the Australian artist who painted the iconic portrait Girl with Cigarette, now in the Bendigo Art Gallery. It depicts a cool, sophisticated, free-spirited woman of the Parisian boulevards. When Goodsir created it, in 1925 or thereabouts, she had lived in Paris since the turn of the century. Apart from brief visits back to Australia, she stayed there until her death in 1939.
What is it that so fascinates us about lost children? Whether fact or fiction, their stories keep surfacing: Azaria Chamberlain, Jaidyn Leskie, the Beaumont children, or the schoolgirls Joan Lindsay dreamed up for her 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. Indeed, those girls have wafted through so many subsequent incarnations ...