Fiction

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World War I is lodged in the minds of Australians with mythic power. Chris Womersley, in plain and startling yet tender and lyrical prose, has constructed a moving narrative that opens up the wounds of war, laying bare the events that pre-date the conflict and reach forward into the collective memory. I was reminded of A.S. Byatt’s recent novel The Children’s Book (2009), which also foregrounds in poetic language the Great War and etches forever the horror of broken bodies and minds on the consciousness of its readers.

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Australian involvement in World War I has in recent years attained a high profile in books, film and television. The trend has been to demythologise the legends of heroism and courage associated with war, and the theme often adopted is the rapid and brutal transformation from naivety to understanding of how baseless the myth was. Although this might be considered well covered ground, Geoff Page in his first novel, Benton’s Conviction, has returned to the war setting. However, because he concentrates on an aspect which hitherto has not been fully explored, and sustains the work with deft prose, Page has succeeded in producing a novel of originality and consistent interest.

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This is a first novel from Alexander Buzo, the playwright of the 1960s and 1970s who gave vitriol a new status in the Australian vernacular and who, through characters like Coralie Landsdowne (Coralie Landsdowne Says No) and Edward Martello (Martello Towers), raised pretentious speech to new levels of social acceptability. In a published comment on audience reception to Martello Towers, Buzo describes Edward Martello as ‘an educated ‘rake’, who is, in keeping with the style of the play, articulate beyond the grounds of naturalism’ and concludes, ‘Still, as long as they’re enjoying themselves’. Defensive disclaimers from writers hint at a nervousness which must, eventually, find its way into the writing usually in the form of overkill. The worst recent example of this is the introduction to Clive James’s Brilliant Creatures in which a rather affected statement of pre-emptive failure is intended to head the critics off at the pass if they were to do anything as unkind as suggest that the work was any more frivolous than intended by its author, who, of course, intended it to be.

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Paul Radley’s novels are about loss and growth. The first, the prize-winning Jack Rivers and Me, showed how ‘Peanut’ was forced to shed his imaginary companion as a part of his joining the world of school. My Blue-Checker Corker and Me dealt with a twelve-year-old boy’s reaction to grief at the loss of his racing pigeon. Now, in his latest, he takes us through five years in the lives of two mates from just before they leave school until one of them dies in the mud of New Guinea. The setting of the novel is again his fictitious township of Boomeroo, but the time is now the late thirties and first years of the war.

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At a time when novels by women must run the gauntlet of feminist criticism it is surprising to find one which is prepared to discuss love and female dependence without any deference to feminism. Natalie Scott makes it clear that her heroine lives in ‘liberated’ times but she insists that the need for love remains a fundamental human weakness or strength. Furthermore, she is not afraid to link a woman’s desire for beauty with her need for love. The traditional feminine concern for beautiful things and personal beauty becomes in The Glasshouse part of a search for completeness, though the other interpretation – that it is evidence of feminine materialism and obsession with security – is also acknowledged. At the same time, Natalie Scott’s writing is careful, considered, occasionally witty, and always finely crafted. Her narrator, Alexandra Pawley, convincingly conveys the attitudes of an intelligent and well-groomed woman who desperately wants to form her life into a beautiful pattern.

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Eric Rolls begins his Celebration of the Senses with an image of his wife’s left buttock shining through a split in an old blue sheet ‘like an early morning moon’. He ends the book with the smells of his semen and her cunt as the warm sheet is lifted and the day begins. He shares his delight in his partner (‘I will not name her. A name both exposes and confines her’) as he shares all the sensual pleasures that give him his being and inform his work.

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Eddie Leonski was a private in the United States Army who was tried and executed for strangling three women in wartime Melbourne. Barely three weeks elapsed between the first murder and Leonski’s arrest. He was executed six months later, in November 1942. There seems no doubt that Leonski committed the crimes; whether he had a fair trial is another matter.

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At its best, popular fiction is almost cinematic. As readers, we know what to expect but still gasp in awe as the rug is pulled from under us in pursuit of thrills, chills, and narrative twists. Honey Brown’s second novel, The Good Daughter, is a fine example of the modern ethos. It reads like a classic girl-gone-bad screenplay. Rebecca Toyer, from the wrong side of the tracks, meets Zach Kincaid, a rich boy with skeletons in his closet. They are drawn together, but family secrets threaten to drive them apart. When Zach’s mother goes missing, Rebecca is implicated in her disappearance. During the course of the narrative, she encounters drug dealers, crooked cops, and her fair share of sex, lies, and betrayal. Zach struggles to cope with his family legacy. From early on, he is the powder keg that threatens to ignite the book’s narrative.

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When Miranda Ophelia Sinclair, ‘Moss’ to her friends, discovers a document featuring the name of her heretofore unknown father, she sets out to find him and to discover her genetic roots. Her complicated family history is gradually exposed when she finds her father, Finn, living as a near-recluse in a town called Opportunity. Finn’s next-door neighbour is Lily Pargetter: aged, lonely, haunted by memories and ghosts. Her nephew, Sandy, is a middle-aged man-child, ineffectual but harmless. This eccentric cast of characters could easily hold its own against Alexander McCall Smith’s creations; however, Evans sets her protagonists on a predictable and fairly scripted path, resulting in a message-driven narrative.

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Matthew Flinders, arriving in Sydney in 1803 after circumnavigating Australia, wrote to his wife bemoaning ‘the dreadful havock that death is making all around’. The sailors in Peter Mews’s Bright Planet have a more phlegmatic attitude. At least twelve of the ship’s complement of sixteen fail to survive the expedition. There may be more, but death becomes an everyday occurrence hardly worth mentioning. By the end, we are not entirely sure whether the remaining characters are alive or dead.

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