Fiction

Song of Less by Joan Fleming & Blight Street by Geoff Goodfellow

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May 2022, no. 442

In the years since Les Murray’s The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980) and Alan Wearne’s The Nightmarkets (1986), the verse novel has become, despite its inherent difficulties, an established literary form in Australian poetry (and fiction, for that matter). Verse novelist Dorothy Porter (1954–2008), with The Monkey’s Mask (1994) and other works, gave it further prominence. Steven Herrick is just one of the poets who are making it an important part of the Young Adult field. A series of interviews with Australasian verse novelists (The Verse Novel), edited by Linda Weste, has recently gone into a second edition.

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oubtless there will come a time when one’s more disciplined reading self requires nourishment from serious books that offer sustained intellectual, creative, and moral challenges. In the meantime, books – in particular the contemporary urban novel – may continue to satisfy by being charming, delightful, witty, heart-warming, hilarious, astringently refreshing, sharply observed, and deliciously original.

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The first thing readers will notice about Son of Sin is the snake coiled across the front cover, its inky scales contrasting with the hot pink background, at once disquieting and strangely beautiful. This striking image sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which is the prose début for Sydney poet and social commentator Omar Sakr. The text provides a disarmingly frank perspective on sexuality, race, and shame in contemporary Australia.

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Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series (1949–63) was my induction into crime reading. I was smitten with the secret society of children who set out to solve mysteries and right wrongs despite adults’ disbelief and objections. As a teen, I graduated to Agatha Christie and Arthur Upfield (in the 1970s, we were still unaware how offensive his depiction of Detective Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte was to Aboriginal Australians). Later, came writers of the hard-boiled school – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes – and others, like Georges Simenon and James Ellroy, who extended or subverted the conventions of the genre.

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Just when you thought there wasn’t enough to worry about, along come bottom trawlers. While the fishing technique of dragging a heavy net along the bottom of the seabed is     nothing new – indeed, there was a British commission inquiry into the practice as far back as 1866 – the sheer size of modern super trawlers maximises their destructiveness. Centuries-old sea coral forests are bulldozed by the thirty-tonne nets, non-targeted fish and turtles become indiscriminately tangled in the web, and the disturbed sediment releases more carbon than the entire aviation industry each year.

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Although Jennifer Egan had several novels under her belt by the end of the 2000s, perhaps most notably the slyly metafictional The Keep (2006), her 2010 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, took the concern with the inner workings of contemporary culture and consciousness that wound its way through those earlier books, and translated it into something startlingly new and resonant. A meditation on time, loss, and possibility filtered through music and the music industry, it was as striking for its formal playfulness as it was for its acuity and countercultural savvy. In the decade and a bit since Goon Squad, Egan has produced only one book, Manhattan Beach (2017), a historical novel set in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite its emotional richness and interest in the often-obscured wartime experiences of women and African-Americans, Manhattan Beach is an oddly subdued novel, its conventional surfaces at odds with the spiky energy that makes most of Egan’s fiction so exciting.

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Orphan Rock by Dominique Wilson

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April 2022, no. 441

Dominique Wilson’s new novel is another foray into the field of historical fiction. Her two previous novels deal with the pain of living through periods of civil strife and migration, and cover long periods of time and several cultures: The Yellow Papers (2014) is set in China and Australia from the 1870s to the 1970s, while That Devil’s Madness (2016) moves from Paris to Algiers to Australia and back from the 1890s to 1970s.

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Allegories can be divisive. They are inherently deceptive, forever speaking with forked tongues. Animal Farm both is and isn’t a fairy story about talking pigs. Spenser’s Faerie Queene isn’t just an epic poem about the Redcrosse Knight’s chivalric virtues. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t merely a fantasy about plucky children conquering a malicious ice queen. Some readers enjoy being literary archaeologists fossicking beneath a narrative’s surface for deeper meaning. There is a thrill in peering through a story’s topsoil, discovering the many-layered substrata beneath it, seeing the author’s politics supporting the words. Others prefer texts without overt messages. To them, as Barthes puts it, the writer should be ‘dead’. Let readers engage with the work on their own terms. Let the book speak for itself.

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What a performance this novel is! And not just in the virtuoso sense. What an exhausting mishmash of contradictions: snobbery, self-abasement, campery, stock masculinity. The whole pastiche is laced with vivid images of what it means to be finally old and ugly.

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Early in Steven Carroll’s novel Goodnight, Vivienne, Goodnight, a middle-aged woman contemplates her own existence: ‘Vivienne, Vivie. Viv. Now distant, now near. Who was she? The Vivienne now sitting in the gardens of Northumberland House, Finsbury Park, is contemplating the question.’ This Viv is Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the first wife of T.S. Eliot – or Carroll’s fictional rendition of her. Northumberland House is an asylum where, by 1940, Viv has lived for several years. Her previous actions include not accepting the end of her relationship with Eliot, dabbling in fascism (‘Did you tell him I just liked the uniform?’), and asking a police officer at five one morning if it’s true her husband has been beheaded. Institutionalised, she now lives in quiet defiance of other people’s perceptions and diagnoses of her. And with the help of her friend Louise and a group called the Lunacy Law Reform Society, she is about to do a runner.

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