Fiction

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noun Stack of Books 2157520

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The Coconut Children is an assured début from nineteen-year-old novelist Vivian Pham, who has drawn upon the richness of Sydney’s south-western suburbs to construct a deeply affecting coming-of-age story revolving around teenager Sonny. Pham’s language is melodramatic at times. With bold flourishes she expertly captures the internal monologue of a teenage girl navigating the everyday travails of being a young woman – schoolyard crushes and the ‘violent ammunition of her love thoughts’, an ever-changing body, and a burgeoning sexual awakening – alongside the darker undercurrents present within Sonny’s family and her wider community: sexual abuse, domestic violence, intergenerational trauma, addiction, and poverty.

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Dervla McTiernan’s third novel consolidates her standing as a star of Irish detective fiction, following her breakout début, The Rúin (2018), and its follow-up, The Scholar (2019), all featuring Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly. Dublin dominates the imagination of Irish crime writing, but McTiernan’s stories centre around the western city of Galway and the small towns that surround it, places with pretty, smiling exteriors that mask darker moral and economic realities. For every cheerful local pub and beautiful seaside terrace there is a building lot abandoned in the wake of economic crisis and a cheaply constructed block of units with no heating and a rent-gouging landlord.

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Hilde Hinton’s début novel is character-driven storytelling at its best. Its narrator, Susie, is a perpetual outsider whose world comprises ‘her dad, her crazy sometimes-there mum and a house that didn’t look like the others’. Susie faces life’s brutal realities earlier than most: by Year Seven she has moved from the country to the city, taken up selling newspapers in Melbourne’s streets, where adventure lurks but so do ill-motivated men, and seen her mother drifting ‘in and out of the mind hospitals’.

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The American writer Jack Matthews had no time for what he called ‘a discontent’ with the brevity of the short story. ‘Ask a coral snake,’ he declared, ‘which is as deadly as it is small.’ The claim for ‘deadliness’ certainly applies to four recent début collections; in the tight spaces of the short story, each one presents confronting ideas about contemporary Australia.

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Much political mileage has been made in Australia from the turning back of ‘boat people’. Travel by boat is the cheapest means of getting to this island continent, and the most dangerous. Boat travellers are the poorest and the most likely to be caught and deported or sent to an offshore camp. But their number is less than half of those who arrive by air as tourists and apply for refugee protection: some 100,000 have done so during the seven years of this Coalition government.

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‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’ That gunshot of a quotation comes from the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. I suspect he means writers are traitors to biology – they have higher allegiances than blood ties. Art is their true spouse; their works are the favoured first-born.

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The poet Anne Michaels once wrote that when love finds us, our pasts suddenly become obsolete science. All the secret places left fallow by loneliness are flooded with light and the immanence of the longed-for one draws us into the clearing, stains us with radiance. Yeats’s wing-footed wanderer arrives at last and the miraculous restorations of love and the imperatives of desire render our separate pasts ‘old maps, disproved theories, a diorama’.

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Wolves and goats. The goats represent the ego. They control time, represent culture, continuity, the status quo. They live in the grandfather clock that is at once history and the records of the psychoanalyst. The wolves are the id, the unconscious, desire. They are also reason, and they triumph over time. The Wolf-Man led Freud to his understanding of the war of the id on the ego. Freud identified as neurotics those who, unable to live with the war, regress to the instinctive, the primitive, the animal.

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Grand Days is volume one of Frank Moorhouse’s Palais des Nations novels, and is connected to the author’s previous works Forty-Seventeen and The Electrical Experience by the characters of Edith Campbell Berry and George McDowell. The principal narrative of Grand Days goes on for 500 or so pages, and is followed by some thirty pages of notes and explanations which form another narrative. The most interesting narrative of all, to me, however, is the story of where this book fits into the life and work of Frank Moorhouse.

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Barbara Hanrahan has set much of her work on studies of childhood, sometimes childhood which is involved with fantasy and evil. Always, however, the children are presented through their memories of the minutiae of daily life, vignettes formed by detail, which is vividly presented, conveying the remembered sights, sounds, and smells of childhood and adolescence. Amongst the pictures of plants and pets, houses and relatives, one finds often rather scrofulous details; the hairs in grandpa’s nose, the squeezing of grandma’s blackheads, the smell in the pit dunny, the scurf on aunt’s scalp, the wetting of a bed, the snot discards on the carpet, the persistence of the dog’s penis, glimpses of adult (usually unattractive) bodies, spied­on sexual activity, and the groping of old men under girls’ skirts.

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