Fiction

noun Stack of Books 2157520

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Susan Varga’s latest novel, Headlong, is set in Australia in the opening years of the twenty-first century, with the Tampa episode and detention camps as background. This setting reflects Varga’s own work with refugees and the Nazi camps of her family’s Hungarian past. Headlong relates the downward spiral that the previously indomitable Julia undergoes after the death of her husband. Her two children – the narrator, Kati, and her brother – try everything to restore their mother to physical and mental health, but Julia is adamant: life is hell. The fact that she escaped the Holocaust with her daughter and survived the horror of those years makes the story all the more poignant and distinct from similar stories of grief. Why has this loss defeated her, when she has met every other challenge in life? Has it unlocked the hidden pain of earlier years? This question, and Kati’s ensuing grief and sense of guilt, sustain the novel.

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In a way, two words suffice for Plumb. Read it. It would be fair to add, ‘Make yourself read it.’ The inexorable, old man’s voice of its narrator George Plumb may irritate you, but before long you will respect his unrelenting and unsparing honesty with himself and his memories, and you will realise that everything he says has its place in this splendidly fashioned novel. At the end, he writes: ‘I thought, I’m ready to die, or live, or understand, or love, or whatever it is. I’m glad of the good I’ve done, and sorry about the bad.’

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Australia in the imagination of its first European mapmakers was a curious place where odd creatures dwelt. Now that a metropolitan culture emanates from cities to encircle the continent with farms, roads, towns, and nature reserves, the spaces marked ‘exotic’ have shifted. But they’re still here. I know, because I’ve recently moved from Melbourne to Tasmania. Why are you doing this? Asked West Australian colleagues when we talked at a conference in south India. Tasmania’s a great place for a holiday, but how could you live there? It’s so far from everywhere, and you’ll have no one to talk to.

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Marion Campbell’s first book is an ambitious work in which large themes are explored through the consciousness of a complex character, Rita Finnerty, a twenty-five-year-old Australian artist living in France. The writing is richly dense with images, symbolic clues, psychological insight poetic and painterly language, time layered with memory and even stories within the story.

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Herz Bergner arrived in Melbourne in 1938, having left Warsaw after Hitler’s rise to power. Already a published Yiddish short story writer, he joined a group of progressive Yiddish-speaking writers and thinkers who often gathered at the Kadimah Library in Carlton. As information about the Holocaust began to reach these shores, Bergner argued passionately for an increase in European immigration to Australia. He also began work on a novel in Yiddish about a boatload of Jewish refugees (and some others) adrift on the high seas, supposedly destined for Australia.

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Criminal lawyer turned crime/thriller writer Jock Serong has produced five highly successful novels in as many years. His latest, The Burning Island, is probably his most ambitious to date. Set in 1830, it is part revenge tale, part mystery, part historical snapshot of the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait, in particular the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous women, who became their ‘island wives’, or tyereelore. It is also the moving story of a daughter’s devotion to her father, with a cracking denouement reminiscent of an Hercule Poirot mystery.

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Near the beginning of Bruno Lloret’s stark, unvarnished first novel, Nancy, the cancer-riddled protagonist discovers that her husband has died in a workplace accident, sucked into the tuna processor while drunk. With no body to bury, she imagines having ‘a moment alone with the 2,500 tins containing [him]’.

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You wouldn’t envy any writer releasing a novel at the moment, due to the difficulties getting books in front of readers, yet recent UK statistics indicate a surge in crime fiction sales following the relaxing of lockdown restrictions and the reopening of bookshops. It’s hard to say whether the same optimistic reading of the crime fiction market in Australia holds true, though two new crime novels by début authors – Kyle Perry’s The Bluffs (Michael Joseph, $32.99 pb, 432 pp) and Katherine Firkin’s Sticks and Stones (Bantam, $32.99 pb, 392 pp) – appear to have well and truly jumped out of the blocks. And it’s fair to assume that, given the international commercial and critical success of Megan Goldin’s terrific début novel, The Escape Room, her new book, The Night Swim (Michael Joseph, $32.99 pb, 352 pp), will appeal to antipodean readers this winter.

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Margaret Bearman’s We Were Never Friends is a novel that places the myth of the artistic male genius against the critical eye of history. Lotti, the eldest daughter of renowned Australian painter George Coates, narrates from two perspectives: her younger, twelve-year-old self and her present-day one, a trainee surgeon.

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With its cast of freaks and hustlers, damaged souls, and self-proclaimed geniuses, the music world seems custom-made for novelists. Yet while some excellent novels catch more than a whiff of that sweaty, drug-fuelled space where the shared exultance of music becomes something transcendent – Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1987), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), Dana Spiotta’s dazzling and heartbreaking Stone Arabia (2011), and more recent entries like Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six (2019) and Australian author Kirsten Krauth’s excellent Almost a Mirror (2020) – the list of novels that take music seriously is surprisingly short.

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