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Opening a review with a book’s first line allows a critic to thieve the author’s momentum for themselves. I am in a thieving mood. For the first line of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, carries an enviable wallop: ‘Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.’ It’s the kind of line – charged, discomforting, and vicious – that makes Ferrante so electrifying to read. Ferrante’s novels are whetstones; her narrators are knives. When we meet twelve-year-old Giovanna Trada in this novel, she is a meek and dutiful creature – clever but incurious; a dewy-eyed admirer of her affluent parents and their hermetic life. Four years later, when Ferrante is finished with her, Giovanna’s heart is a shiv. Here is womanhood, Ferrante shows us once again: a relentless abrasion, a sharpening.... (read more)
Dominic Knight’s début novel chronicles a life on hold. Its narrator, Paul Johnson, is a twenty-five-year-old law graduate from Sydney University. Single and living off his parents, he detests his job as a mobile DJ, yet also loathes the prospect of working in a legal firm like his friend, Nige, whose life ‘is a corporate T-shirt saying “work hard, play hard”’. Paul’s comic struggles to overcome indecision and inertia shape the narrative, and the inner-city culture of Sydney’s young professionals provide its backdrop.... (read more)
The prolific David Malouf, another of our poets turned novelist, just had two short prose works published within a few months of one another. Although Child’s Play (which also includes two short stories) is set in Italy, where Malouf now resides, and Fly Away Peter in Brisbane where he grew up, the two books are thematically related, not only to each other but to the author’s earlier work.... (read more)
A sympathetic reader might feel that Tim Winton, winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, is a victim of one of the unkindest tricks Fate can play on a writer, with the publication of his first novel, An Open Swimmer, at the age of twenty-one. A first novel from a writer of this age is typically seen as, a ‘young man’s book’, full of the gaucheries and immaturities of the precocious, and even if a success, it is an albatross around his neck for the rest of his career. The best one can hope for is a moderate success, substantial enough to start a career, but not either brilliant enough or bad enough to determine its direction from then on. Fortunately, Tim Winton’s first novel does not neatly fit this stereotype.... (read more)
Writing novels, he’s Tom Keneally. Works of history – such as The Great Shame (1998) about the Irish diaspora to the USA and Australian in the nineteenth century, and this year’s American Scoundrel, concerned with the adventures of politician, general and amorist Dan Sickles – are by Thomas Keneally. There is more doubling in Keneally’s most recent novel, for he uses two titles. In this country, we have An Angel in Australia; in Britain, The Office of Innocence. Each suggests a different line of approach to a novel that seems in some ways old-fashioned, so instinct is it with his earlier work. By the way, Keneally’s novel count is now twenty-six, including two under the pseudonym ‘William Coyle’.... (read more)
Welcome again to Morris Lurie’s global village: Melbourne, Paris, New York, London, Tangier, Tel Aviv, Melbourne again, London. Lurie is one of our most reliable entertainers, but he is also, in the recesses of his stories, a chronicler of inner loneliness. The round world for him is signposted with stories; as one of his characters says, ‘everything is a story, or a prelude to a story, or the aftermath of one.’ The sheer variety of narrative incidents and locales in this collection is, as usual with him, impressive in itself. His characters play hard with experience in those bright or familiar places, a Tangier of easy living and surprising acquaintances, a London of the sixties fierce with contrasts. Yet finally they are always partly detached from it all and able to set themselves free, curiously able to resume the role of spectator of life. Many of Lurie’s characters give the initially disconcerting impression of possessing that ultimate detachment of a certain kind of writer, even when, as is usually the case, they are not actually cast as a writer or artist.... (read more)
In Dove, the familiar Barbara Hanrahan ingredients – acute realism and the fantastic, the grotesque – are combined once again to produce yet another powerful and moving novel. The scale of realism and fantasy is, as always, finely balanced. The various locations of the novel, for instance, are beautifully realised. Hanrahan has the eye of the graphic artist for the broad canvas, the sweep of light and sky, and the telling detail. Her eye ranges from the Adelaide Hills to the suburbs of ‘pebble dash and pittosporum’ to the Mallee: ‘an antipodean jungle of stiff splintered branches, a mysterious pearly-grey gloom’ interspersed with the ‘faraway rash of green’ that is the wheat. Yet there is more to landscape than this; place is used throughout to evoke psychic states. Appleton, for instance, suggests beatitude and primal innocence. Arden Valley the fairytale potential for the transformation of life, and the Mallee the promised land of plenteous crops and realised love.... (read more)
These three Young Adult novels differ wildly in tone, execution – even their grasp on reality. Georgina Young’s début novel, Loner (Text Publishing, $24.99 pb, 256 pp), won the Text Prize for an unpublished Young Adult manuscript in 2019, and was a deserving winner. Text has decided to market it as adult fiction, but it works well as a crossover novel. Her protagonist, twenty-year-old Lona (does not sound like loner!).... (read more)
In perhaps the most tender story in this textured, interconnected collection, an adolescent son spends the summer sunbathing in the backyard and sneaking glances at the paperboy while his working-class, stay-at-home father, who reads detective fiction and likes to ‘figure things out before the endings’, gently attempts to make it known to his son that he can tell him anything.... (read more)
It is day one hundred and seventeen of the official ‘Shelter in Place’ order in Berkeley, California, when I finish Susanna Clarke’s surreal, heartbreaking novel Piranesi, having rationed the final pages over several days.... (read more)