Scribner

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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A series of beautifully controlled fictional voices and an exquisite sense of literary craft contribute to the dark magnificence of Chloe Wilson’s début collection of short stories, Hold Your Fire. This volume explores the strange and sometimes surprising abject horror that characterises the quotidian and the ordinary. The stories both examine and revel in the classically Kristevan abject realities of the body’s expulsions and the disgust that is often characteristic of social marginality. For example, the ‘poo phantom’ writes a ‘message in shit on the walls’; tampons wrapped in toilet paper are described as ‘bodies that needed to be shrouded for burial’; a character feels a ‘quiver down to the bowels, the rush that is equal parts excitement and dread’; another tries ‘to pass a kidney stone’; and two sisters try an ‘Expulsion Cure’, where the doctor asks how much they expel: ‘And how often? And what is the colour? The texture? … When you eat something – poppy seeds, say, or the skin on a plum – how long does it take to reappear?’

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Wonderful is not a critical word, but that is where I begin. Now that I have made my peace with foxes, I am full of wonder for them. Doubly receptive to these stories, I am quickly seduced after the first few, in which foxes appear either substantially or marginally. There is much wonderment in these stories, though only one of them is what might strictly be called speculative. Throughout the collection, little hints and details loiter in plain sight but are also hidden from the characters, sometimes from us – a bit like foxes themselves. For example, in ‘Animal Behaviour’ there is a small bomb ticking quietly from the start in the form of just one word – ‘offenders’ – linking the protagonist to her rescue dog; its detonation as the story unfolds is a triumph of structural control.

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Shell by Kristina Olsson

by
November 2018, no. 406

The story of the Sydney Opera House is usually told as the heroic tragedy of its Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, who won the design competition for his breathtaking cluster of white sails but resigned before its completion over conflict about practicalities, costs, and government interference ...

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