Allen & Unwin

It has become a rite of passage for foreign correspondents returning home from a stint in China to pen a memoir recounting their experiences. All too often, the story begins with the said reporter crossing into mainland China at Lo Wu, having just spent time enjoying the bright lights of Hong Kong. Clearly, the Lo Wu railway station holds a certain allure for wandering Australian journalists.

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In July 2020, Indigenous residents of the remote central Australian community of Laramba lost their case in the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal. For decades, the water that flowed through the taps into Laramba homes had been contaminated with high levels of uranium – about three times the safe limit. The case was a desperate attempt to force the government to assume legal responsibility and to fix the problem. They didn’t succeed: the Tribunal found that the Department of Housing (as the landlord) wasn’t required under Northern Territory law to provide safe drinking water to its tenants.

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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

by
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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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.

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Paul Jennings’s literary career can be traced back to three whispered words from the author Carmel Bird, who taught him writing at an evening class in Melbourne in 1983. ‘You are good,’ she told him. Jennings was an unpublished forty-year-old at the time, yet within two years Penguin had launched his first short story collection, Unreal!

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‘A voyage round my father’, to quote the title of John Mortimer’s autobiographical play of 1963, has been a popular form of personal memoir in Britain from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) to Michael Parkinson’s just-published Like Father, Like Son. The same form produced some of the best Australian writing in the twentieth century, with two assured classics in the case of Germaine Greer’s Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989) and Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father (1998). The tradition has continued into the present century with – to list some of the choicest plums – Richard Freadman’s Shadow of Doubt: My father and myself (2003), Sheila Fitzpatrick’s My Father’s Daughter (2010), Jim Davidson’s A Führer for a Father (2017), and Christopher Raja’s Into the Suburbs: A migrant’s story (2020). Mothers in such sagas are far from absent, and they can emerge, though not always, as the more obviously loveable or loving figures. As signalled by most of those titles, however, mothers loom less large over the unfolding narrative. Fathers may not always know or act best, but, partly because of their often tougher, commanding mien, they become irresistibly the centre of attention.

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In Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), Don Watson wrote that Lowitja O’Donoghue ‘seemed then and has seemed ever since to be a person of such transcendent warmth, if Australians ever got to know her they would want her as their Queen’. Robert Manne, in the first-ever Quarterly Essay (2001), portrayed her as ‘a woman of scrupulous honesty and great beauty of soul’. These qualities gleam in Stuart Rintoul’s handsomely produced biography.

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Honeybee, Craig Silvey’s highly anticipated new novel, his first since Jasper Jones (2009), chronicles the coming of age of fourteen-year-old transgender narrator Sam Watson, who was assigned male at birth. This is a story of desperate loneliness and fear, of neglect, family violence, betrayal, and self-disgust. But it is also one of love and solidarity, a celebration of the kindness of strangers who become family and friends.

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Sofie Laguna does not shy away from confronting subject matter. Her first adult novel, One Foot Wrong (2009), is about a young girl forced by her troubled parents into a reclusive existence. Her second, The Eye of the Sheep (2014), which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015, tells the story of a young boy on the autism spectrum born into a family riven by poverty and violence. Her third, The Choke (2017), concerns a motherless child in danger because of her father’s criminal connections. Infinite Splendours is also about the betrayal of a child by the adults in his life, but here Laguna ventures into new territory, exploring the lasting impact of trauma on a child as he becomes a man, and whether the abused may become the abuser.

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