Vintage

There are many ways one might write a history of Australian history, but from any angle it’s a heroic project. In Making Australian History, Anna Clark is open about the difficulties, the possibilities, and her choices. How do you make sense of Australian history, she asks, amid a ‘swirl of changing sensibilities, methods, culture, politics and place’? How do you trace the story of a discipline across time, when each generation has defined the contours and boundaries of that discipline differently? How do you write a genuinely inclusive history of Australian History – one that gives due place to the full range of historical forms, not just those approved in academic circles?

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The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Lauren Elkin

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December 2021, no. 438

‘I loathe romans à clef as much as I loathe fictionalised biographies,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir (1908–76). For this reason, the novel and the memoir were her preferred genres, even though the boundaries between the two were frequently blurred, a distinction that Beauvoir insisted must be maintained: fiction has ‘only very dubious connections with truth’. While Beauvoir was adamant that her fictional women protagonists are ‘not her’ in any recognisable sense, she conceded that characters may resemble living models. The most famous example is Lewis in The Mandarins (1954), loosely based on Nelson Algren, the American writer and Beauvoir’s lover for some twenty years. It may be loose, but the resemblance was enough for Algren to take his revenge by panning subsequent American editions of Beauvoir’s work. Even memoir has a very particular relationship to reality for Beauvoir. The writer of the memoir is not the same as the subject: the future, she notes in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), ‘would turn me into another being, someone who would still be, and yet no longer seem, myself’.

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By the end of Hugh Breakey’s The Beautiful Fall (Text, $32.99 pb, 349 pp), it is hard to remember that the prologue hinted at stimulating possibilities. In it, Robbie’s past self writes to his present one, explaining that he suffers from recurring amnesia, which strikes every 179 days. Readers could be mistaken for thinking they are in for meditations on time and memory, maybe even on the meaning of a life lived episodically. When it is revealed that Robbie is building an intricate arrangement of 83,790 dominoes in his living room, readers might even imagine a novel that touches on metaphysical themes in the vein of Jorge Luis Borges.

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The Coconut Children is an assured début from nineteen-year-old novelist Vivian Pham, who has drawn upon the richness of Sydney’s south-western suburbs to construct a deeply affecting coming-of-age story revolving around teenager Sonny. Pham’s language is melodramatic at times. With bold flourishes she expertly captures the internal monologue of a teenage girl navigating the everyday travails of being a young woman – schoolyard crushes and the ‘violent ammunition of her love thoughts’, an ever-changing body, and a burgeoning sexual awakening – alongside the darker undercurrents present within Sonny’s family and her wider community: sexual abuse, domestic violence, intergenerational trauma, addiction, and poverty.

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‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’ That gunshot of a quotation comes from the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. I suspect he means writers are traitors to biology – they have higher allegiances than blood ties. Art is their true spouse; their works are the favoured first-born.

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In a 2013 interview with British literary magazine Structo, Anglo-Australian author Evie Wyld recalls lamenting to a writing tutor that she wanted to write a big action thriller, ‘something with Arnold Schwarzenegger and machine guns and blood and explosions’ but was always writing ‘really quiet little paragraphs about Dads’. These paragraphs evolved into her haunting début novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009). Wyld’s Miles Franklin Award-winning second novel, All the Birds, Singing (2013), was followed by a graphic memoir produced in collaboration with Joe Sumner, Everything Is Teeth (2015), detailing childhood summers spent on Wyld’s grandparents’ sugar cane farm and her shark fixation. The Bass Rock, her new novel, may not be a big action thriller either, but it is far from quiet and there is plenty of blood.

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Elliot Perlman’s fourth novel is tentatively billed as a corporate satire and has a striking opening line: ‘I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate.’ The man in this all-too-familiar predicament is Stephen Maserov, a former English teacher turned lawyer. Maserov is a lowly second year in the Terry Gilliam-esque law firm Freely Savage Carter Blanche, which, apart from sounding like a character in a Tennessee Williams play, is home to loathsome dinosaurs in pinstripe suits and an HR department referred to as ‘The Stasi’.

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Leah Kaminsky’s novel The Hollow Bones focuses on Ernst Schäfer, a German who was sent to Tibet by Himmler in the late 1930s, outwardly to collect plant and animal specimens; secretly to ‘search for the origins of the Aryan race’. Himmler’s abhorrent obsessions are not focused on ...

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To complement our 2017 ‘Books of the Year’, we invited several senior publishers to nominate their favourite books – all published by other companies.

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Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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October 2014, no. 365

In Boyhood Island, the third volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s internationally acclaimed My Struggle cycle, we are taken back to where the series began: an island in southern Norway, seven-year-old Karl Ove and his older brother Yngve live under the tyranny of a cruel and taciturn father in the mid-1970s. Unlike the first volume, A Death in the Family (2012), which stays with young Karl Ove for only a few pages before casting off in many different directions, Boyhood Island follows him from ages seven to thirteen in a rarely broken, linear fashion. It ends neatly on the last day of class for the year, as Karl Ove’s family prepares to leave Tromoya, and he farewells a group of friends.

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