Fiction

There are a number of strands at play in this curiously titled novel set in postwar London in the Coronation year, 1953. The well-to-do Mrs Harriet Wallis, convicted of the murder of her husband, Cecil, becomes the second-last woman in England to be hanged. The last woman to be executed for murder in England was Ruth Ellis, about whom Mike Newell made the film Dance with a Stranger (1985), with Miranda Richardson as Ellis.

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In July 1999, ABC’s 7:30 Report ran a story on the Western Suburbs Magpies, an NRL club struggling financially and playing out its final season before a merger with the nearby Balmain Tigers. For that human touch, the story featured shots of a family decking out their children in the Magpies’ black and white, their relationship with the ninety-year-old club described as ‘something in the heart’. It was all very warm and fuzzy, at least until the camera cut away and a voiceover delivered a neoliberal sucker punch: ‘love does not necessarily deliver dollars’. Set in the same Western Sydney suburbs still mourning the loss of their team, Max Easton’s terrific début novel, The Magpie Wing, tracks a trio of Millennials as they similarly battle to retain their identities in a rapidly gentrifying world.

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More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

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December 2021, no. 438

Studying The Crucible in English class engendered fierce competition for the part of John Procter, drawn as we schoolgirls were to his irradiating idealism and dogged pursuit of truth, and besotted by his nobility. The play’s force remains even as the passage of time has worked upon subsequent rereadings. When resisting false allegations of witchcraft, Proctor’s plea is harrowing: ‘Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’

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A year before his death in 2015 following a cancer diagnosis, the writer–playwright Henning Mankell responded to a question about his love of the crime genre. He stated that his objective was ‘to use the mirror of crime to look at contradictions in society’. Mankell’s mirror was evident in his Kurt Wallander series (1991–2009), in which the detective was faced with contradictions not only in the landscape of crime and murder but also in his own domestic life. Great crime fiction does not need to focus a lens on the overlapping worlds of the private and the public. But well written, the genre’s interconnected spheres address the moral complexities that drove Mankell’s passion for crime fiction.

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Paige Clark’s She Is Haunted (Allen & Unwin, $29.99 pb, 264 pp) opens with the story ‘Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’, a title that alludes to the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – that inform the rest of her début collection. Clark doesn’t explain why the narrator feels anxious about the survival of her unborn child and its father. The reader is left to assume that the prospect of too much undeserved happiness impels her to embark on a series of amusing and escalating bargains with a capricious God. That the narrator bears the losses with equanimity is indicative of the deadpan humour with which Clark deflects serious matters.

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One year after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009, my family travelled to the city of Jaffna after the main highway leading to the country’s north reopened to tourists. Driving up the narrow, two-lane road as it became progressively bumpier, the busy towns, Buddhist temples, and green rice paddy fields of the central region gave way to scrubland sparsely broken up by army checkpoints, villages with ruined buildings dotted with bullet holes, and small roadside stores in front of which sat people whose eyes followed our van with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. We were met by the same enquiring eyes when we reached Jaffna, a port city whose temples and institutional buildings are marked by Hindu and colonial Portuguese architectural styles, respectively. Jaffna’s population differs culturally and linguistically from its neighbours in the southern provinces of the island, where my family originates. Essentially, we had landed in a foreign country.

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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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Rachel isn’t the last woman in the world, but she might as well be. Cloistered in her bushland home on Yuin country, in New South Wales, Rachel’s days consist of birdsong, simple meals prepared from a pantry stocked with home-made preserves, and glass-blowing in her private studio – a craft that is both her livelihood and her religion. It’s a peaceful yet precarious existence. The land is scarred by bushfires. Rachel’s senses are attuned to the absence of wallabies and small birds. For all her proficiency with sourdough starter, Rachel isn’t self-sufficient. Her older sister, Monique, provides an emotional tether to the world, while townswoman Mia delivers supplies and transports Rachel’s glassworks to a gallery. When Mia fails to show, Rachel rues the lack of a back-up plan. When Hannah, a young mother, raving about a nation-wide outbreak of death, arrives on her doorstep with a sick infant, luddite Rachel must choose between taking Hannah’s word for it or rejecting her.

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Elizabeth Jolley is quoted in this volume saying that ‘Writing for me is a ragged and restless activity with scattered fragments to be pieced together rather like a patchwork quilt.’ To a degree this is an apt metaphor, suggesting as it does careful attention to the particular and the gradual accumulation of the discrete parts into a whole. It also suggests the contrast between light and dark that is the feature of many quilts and of Jolley’s writing. However, patchwork is altogether too domestic an activity to contain the driving intelligence and iconoclasm that are dominant elements in Jolley’ s work.

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One of the hardest challenges for a novelist is to write a story for adults from the point of view of a child. In 1847, Charlotte Brontë set the bar high with Jane Eyre, the first novel to achieve this. The story ends when Jane is a woman but commences with the child Jane’s perspective. So effective for readers was Brontë’s ground-breaking feat that Charles Dickens decided to write Great Expectations in the voice of the child Pip, after just hearing about Jane Eyre, even before reading it. But the risks are great: creating a child narrator who knows, tells, or understands far too much for their age; dumbing down the story to fit with the character’s youth; striking the wrong notes by making the voice too childish or not childlike enough. It’s a minefield, and any novelist, especially a debutant, who pulls it off deserves praise. Thus Harper Lee, who never had to produce another book to maintain her legendary status.

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