Allen & Unwin

Ice by Louis Nowra

by
November 2008, no. 306

‘Ice is everywhere,’ observes the narrator of Ice, Louis Nowra’s fifth novel, before succumbing to a bad case of the Molly Blooms and giving us a few pages of punctuation-free interior monologue. No wonder he’s so worked up: ice, in Ice, really is everywhere. It is subject, motif, organising principle, and all-purpose metaphor; it is death, life, stasis, progress; it is seven types of ambiguity and then some. For variety’s sake, Nowra occasionally wheels out a non-frozen alternative – taxidermy, waxworks – but the design is clear: these are merely different nuclei around which the same cluster of metaphors gather.'

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Pitched awkwardly between mass-market romance and a literary novel, Musk and Byrne is a curious creation. Spending excessive verbal effort on a familiar and rather vacuous plot, the book never finds a satisfactory shape, and finally lacks a true purpose. Never intellectually thorough enough to offer an exploration of artistic identity, and not trashy enough to deliver tawdry thrills, it is both too well written and not very original.

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In 1938, the year of Australia’s sesquicentennial celebrations, trade unionist William Ferguson and former boxer John Patten helped to organise the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning and Protest on January 26; later that year, they co-wrote the pamphlet from which the above excerpt is taken, on behalf of the nascent Aborigines Progressive Association ...

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‘More difficult to do a thing than to talk scintillating dialogue of 1890, ‘The Critic as Artist’. To hold to such a belief, Gilbert declares, is ‘a gross popular error. It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it. In the sphere of actual life that is of course obvious. Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.’

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Alex Miller, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award for Journey to the Stone Country (2003) and The Ancestor Game (1992), is one of our most profound and interesting writers. His latest novel, Landscape of Farewell, tells the story of Max Otto, an aged and disillusioned German professor of history, devastated by the death of his beloved wife. He knows now that he will never write the historical study of massacre that was to have been his crowning achievement. Instead, paralysed by a sense of guilt-by-association – he has good reason to think that his father took part in the atrocities of World War II – he has retreated to a remote and bloodless historical study, that of intellectual upheaval during the twelfth century.

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Michelle de Kretser’s third novel opens with a man and a dog in the Australian bush, an image whose hooks are sunk deep in our national psyche. Recall the Edenic first chapter of The Tree of Man (1955), with its portrait of Stan Parker settling on a patch of virgin wilderness with only his dog for company. In the Australian Garden, Eve is a subsidiary companion.

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Childhood, Freud taught, becomes us, but our earliest memories can be sly; they resist us when we seek them, and pounce when we are unprepared. It is thus only by chance that Proust comes upon his first recollections, those idyllic scenes revived in long wafts of hawthorn-scented nostalgia. The legacy of childhood and its fickle reminiscence has always been prominent in Charlotte Wood’s work. In The Children, childhood is remembered as a grim affair, something the three siblings at its centre would rather leave behind. Yet much of this novel hinges on the idea that childhood is something we never escape: old memories involuntarily impinge upon us, and the self that defined us as children, the book suggests, constitutes us throughout our lives.

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I recently went back to New England. It is a long drive from Melbourne, but as I passed through Coonabarabran and Tamworth and began the ascent up the Moonbi Ranges, my gaze responded to the strange and familiar landscape. I periodically wound down the car window to smell the air – crisp but still warm for autumn. I grew up in a few different New England towns – Inverell, Glen Innes, Armidale – so I am familiar with the territory covered in the fascinating essays in High Lean Country. The high elevation of the Tableland makes the winters cold, summers mild. The dramatic landscape is dotted with granite mounds and monoliths. It is edged to the east by the escarpment and the gorge country of Judith Wright’s poems.

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Gough Whitlam is idolised, Bob Hawke respected, and Paul Keating admired, but Barry Jones is undoubtedly the most loved by the Labor party rank and file, a lovability which puzzled many of his colleagues in the Hawke government (1983–91). Insofar as they recognised it, they qualified it – labelling him ‘a loveable eccentric’ – a characterisation of ...

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Although you might not guess it from media comment, The Latham Diaries (MUP, $39.95 hb, 429 pp, 0522852157) is the most important book yet published on Labor’s wilderness years. It provides a pungent characterisation of Labor’s post-1996 history; conveys a profound understanding of the challenges facing a social democratic party in contemporary Australia ... 

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