Fiction

S.L. Lim’s second novel, Revenge, begins with an ‘all persons fictitious’ disclaimer. The paragraph concludes: ‘Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. LOL!’

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To survey concurrent works of art is to take the temperature of a particular time, in a particular place. And the temperature of the time and place in these four début Australian novels? It is searching for a sense of belonging, and, at least in part, it’s coming out of western Sydney in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. All four novels are set in New South Wales, three of them in suburban Sydney. Each is concerned with who is entitled to land and the stories we tell while making ourselves at home in the world, sometimes at the expense of others.

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Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

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April 2021, no. 430

Smokehouse is an engagingly constructed collection of interlinked stories set in small-town, yet globally connected, settler Tasmania. The volume, which is focused on personal crises and family breakdown, is bookended by the two parts of the novella that lends the collection its name. This splicing is an inspired decision: the end of Part One keeps us turning the pages through the subsequent, fully realised short stories; with Part Two we feel rewarded whenever we spot a character first encountered in a story that seemed discrete.

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When as a boy I listened to football on the radio, I would often hear mention of David Harris, a skilful midfielder who played for Geelong and Geelong West respectively in what were then the VFL and VFA. Harris was mostly known as ‘Darky’, not ‘David’. Recently, thanks to a YouTube interview, I learnt that Harris’s parents were Lebanese Australians. While in the interview Harris did not express offence, one can only wonder about the effect on him of this nickname – one he’d had since his own boyhood – based on the colour of his skin.

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O by Steven Carroll

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April 2021, no. 430

On the back cover of O, we learn that the protagonist of the novel, Dominique, lived through the German occupation of France, participated in the Resistance, relished its ‘clandestine life’, and later wrote an ‘erotic novel about surrender, submission and shame’, which became the real-life international bestseller and French national scandal, Histoire d’O (1954). ‘But what is the story really about,’ the blurb asks, ‘Dominique, her lover, or the country and the wartime past it would rather forget?’

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Pushing Back by John Kinsella

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April 2021, no. 430

Comprising more than thirty works of poetry, fiction, memoir, and criticism, John Kinsella’s prolific output is impressive, and this figure doesn’t include his collaborations with other artists. Here is a writer who swims between boundaries, experiments with form and content, and eludes easy categorisation. His most recent novel, Hollow Earth (2019), was a foray into science fiction and fantasy, and his most recent poetry volume The Weave (2020), was co-written with Thurston Moore, founder of NYC rock group Sonic Youth.

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Determining connections between books sent as a review bundle is not mandatory, but there is an irresistible tendency to find some common theme. In the case of these three novels, the theme of women’s pain, and hidden pain at that, does not need to be teased out – it leaps out. Since it is unlikely that three different authors would have colluded, the prevalence of this is worth deeper reflection, especially considering recent titles such as Kylie Maslen’s essays on illness, Show Me Where It Hurts, or Kate Middleton’s extraordinary memoir essay ‘The Dolorimeter’, placed second in the 2020 Calibre Prize.

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Set in colonial Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, Karen Wyld’s new novel Where the Fruit Falls examines the depths of Black matriarchal fortitude over four generations. Across the continent, Black resistance simmers. First Nations people navigate continued genocide and displacement, with families torn apart by the state. Where the Fruit Falls focuses on the residual effects and implications of such realities, though it presents a quieter narrative: one of apple trees, wise Aunties, guiding grandmothers, and settlers both malicious and kind-hearted.

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A series of beautifully controlled fictional voices and an exquisite sense of literary craft contribute to the dark magnificence of Chloe Wilson’s début collection of short stories, Hold Your Fire. This volume explores the strange and sometimes surprising abject horror that characterises the quotidian and the ordinary. The stories both examine and revel in the classically Kristevan abject realities of the body’s expulsions and the disgust that is often characteristic of social marginality. For example, the ‘poo phantom’ writes a ‘message in shit on the walls’; tampons wrapped in toilet paper are described as ‘bodies that needed to be shrouded for burial’; a character feels a ‘quiver down to the bowels, the rush that is equal parts excitement and dread’; another tries ‘to pass a kidney stone’; and two sisters try an ‘Expulsion Cure’, where the doctor asks how much they expel: ‘And how often? And what is the colour? The texture? … When you eat something – poppy seeds, say, or the skin on a plum – how long does it take to reappear?’

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There is a celebrated moment in Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 film Birth when Nicole Kidman enters a theatre late and sits down to watch a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The camera remains on her perturbed features for two whole minutes. This image kept recurring as I read Claire Thomas’s new novel, The Performance. In it, three women sit and watch a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), alone in their thoughts, their whirring minds only occasionally distracted by the actions on stage. If for nothing else, Thomas must be congratulated on the boldness of her conceit, on her ability to make dynamic a situation of complete stasis.

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