Australian Fiction

For this reviewer, the sign of a healthy crime-fiction ecosystem isn’t merely the success of the ‘big names’ but also the emergence of writers whose voices are so distinctive as to be singular. Sometimes these writers become commercially successful in their own right, and sometimes they remain literary outliers, drawing their readership from a smaller but avid following. When I think of the health of American crime fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I recall not only the success of Mario Puzo, but also the kind of writing culture that sustained the dark vision of an author such as George V. Higgins. The same goes for Britain in the 1980s, where Dick Francis was still publishing prolifically when Derek Raymond emerged. Turning to twenty-first-century America and the success of writers like Michael Connelly and Karin Slaughter, it’s the rise of Megan Abbott and Richard Price that illustrates the full potential of that culture’s capacity for crime storytelling.

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A new Susan Johnson novel is always a treat, partly because you get the sense that with each one she has set herself a specific creative challenge, and partly because she is such a fine writer. In From Where I Fell (Allen & Unwin, $32.99 pb, 338 pp), the epistolary novel, popular in the nineteenth century, has been updated, with the entire work in the form of emails. Nothing new in that, but what makes this different is that the contemporary problem of emailing someone unintentionally is followed through with that intellectually teasing ‘what if’ thread: what if the person you accidentally contacted was someone with whom you wanted to keep communicating? What if this person was someone to whom you could confess your most private thoughts? And what if this person never responded in a conventional manner?

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Love Objects by Emily Maguire

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May 2021, no. 431

At the core of Love Objects, Emily Maguire’s sixth novel, is a delicate exploration of the responsibility that comes with love and what it means to care for others in both the emotional and practical senses of the word. The book’s protagonist, Nic, is a caustic but kind-hearted woman, positioned, in many ways, so as to be overlooked by the world. Middle-aged, childless, and living alone in her childhood home, she works as a cashier in a low-end department store. She is the kind of woman who often becomes invisible in our society, so it seems fitting that she has an affinity for the forgotten and the overlooked.

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Go to any suburban shopping centre and you will find a metropolis of consumption. ‘Buy, buy, buy’, it screeches, whether you are contemplating fast-fashion T-shirts, new-age solutions to age-old problems, or services and pampering you don’t really need, all in the harsh glare of white lights and a controlled climate, temperature just right. The shopping centre, uniform and tidy, is where you can get everything you’ve ever wanted while also getting nothing at all.

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S.L. Lim’s second novel, Revenge, begins with an ‘all persons fictitious’ disclaimer. The paragraph concludes: ‘Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. LOL!’

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To survey concurrent works of art is to take the temperature of a particular time, in a particular place. And the temperature of the time and place in these four début Australian novels? It is searching for a sense of belonging, and, at least in part, it’s coming out of western Sydney in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. All four novels are set in New South Wales, three of them in suburban Sydney. Each is concerned with who is entitled to land and the stories we tell while making ourselves at home in the world, sometimes at the expense of others.

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Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

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April 2021, no. 430

Smokehouse is an engagingly constructed collection of interlinked stories set in small-town, yet globally connected, settler Tasmania. The volume, which is focused on personal crises and family breakdown, is bookended by the two parts of the novella that lends the collection its name. This splicing is an inspired decision: the end of Part One keeps us turning the pages through the subsequent, fully realised short stories; with Part Two we feel rewarded whenever we spot a character first encountered in a story that seemed discrete.

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When as a boy I listened to football on the radio, I would often hear mention of David Harris, a skilful midfielder who played for Geelong and Geelong West respectively in what were then the VFL and VFA. Harris was mostly known as ‘Darky’, not ‘David’. Recently, thanks to a YouTube interview, I learnt that Harris’s parents were Lebanese Australians. While in the interview Harris did not express offence, one can only wonder about the effect on him of this nickname – one he’d had since his own boyhood – based on the colour of his skin.

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O by Steven Carroll

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April 2021, no. 430

On the back cover of O, we learn that the protagonist of the novel, Dominique, lived through the German occupation of France, participated in the Resistance, relished its ‘clandestine life’, and later wrote an ‘erotic novel about surrender, submission and shame’, which became the real-life international bestseller and French national scandal, Histoire d’O (1954). ‘But what is the story really about,’ the blurb asks, ‘Dominique, her lover, or the country and the wartime past it would rather forget?’

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Pushing Back by John Kinsella

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April 2021, no. 430

Comprising more than thirty works of poetry, fiction, memoir, and criticism, John Kinsella’s prolific output is impressive, and this figure doesn’t include his collaborations with other artists. Here is a writer who swims between boundaries, experiments with form and content, and eludes easy categorisation. His most recent novel, Hollow Earth (2019), was a foray into science fiction and fantasy, and his most recent poetry volume The Weave (2020), was co-written with Thurston Moore, founder of NYC rock group Sonic Youth.

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