Fiction

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Andrew McGahan’s first novel, Praise (1992), concludes with its narrator, Gordon Buchanan, deciding – perhaps accepting is a better word – that he will live a life of contemplation. This final revelation is significantly ambivalent. The unresponsive persona Gordon has assumed throughout the novel is something of an affectation. On one level, he is playing the stereotypical role of the inarticulate Australian male, but his blank façade is also defensive; it is a cover for his sensitivity. For Gordon, life is less overwhelming in a practical sense than in an emotional sense. His true feelings are a garden concreted over for ease of maintenance. He feels that the defining quality of human relationships is doubt, and this doubt confounds expression. ‘I’m never certain of anything I feel about a person,’ he says, ‘and talking about it simplifies it all so brutally. It’s easier to keep quiet. To act what you feel. Actions are softer. They can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and emotions should be interpreted in lots of different ways.’

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Katherine England reviews 'The Book of Miles' by David Astle

Katherine England
Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Mark Twain did Australian literature a service when he remarked that Australian history ‘does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies’. It is an observation with which Australians are happy to identify, for it stimulates the imagination, accommodates the larrikin we like to see in ourselves, and has the effect of sanctioning the revision of a past that is not all that we might, from the vantage of hindsight, have wished. At least three writers have adopted it as an epigraph, including Peter Carey, who wove Illywhacker around the notion, and now David Astle, personalising a possible past for a corner of country Victoria.

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Steve Gome reviews 'Shadowboxing' by Tony Birch

Steve Gome
Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Shadowboxing is a collection of discrete short stories charting the arduous journey of the narrator, Michael Byrne, from childhood to fatherhood. Living in the inner-Melbourne suburbs of Carlton, Richmond, and Fitzroy in the 1960s was for many a tough proposition – and the Byrne family is no exception. Their household is headed by an embittered alcoholic whose violent tendencies are a source of constant dread. Money is always tight, and the family’s grip on any sort of security or comfort is invariably tenuous. Yet when the stories have been told, what we are left with is not a litany of woe but rather powerful examples of resilience and resourcefulness provided by the inhabitants of these impoverished communities.

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Those who read the gloomy criticisms of modern education by some educationalists might be pardoned for wondering whether any but the most privileged children nowadays can hope to gain mastery of their language or development of their mind and talent. Meanwhile, the talented young blithely make nonsense of crabbed and intolerant age. Paul Zanetti, aged twenty-three, wins the Walkely Award for a political cartoon. Paul Radley, while still in his teens, and Tim Winton, barely older, won Australian Vogel Awards and continue writing with force and imagination.

Winton is now twenty-four. Shallows is his second good novel. It is set in a fictional West Australian whaling town called Angelus. Although I have never been to Albany (where Winton had part of his education), I suspect I might find it recognisable after reading Winton’s devoted and detailed account of Angelus. The time of the action is now, or a year or so ago, but the story ranges through much history. Change is inevitable for whaling ports and industries but whether it should come abruptly or gradually is still debatable.

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Rosemary Creswell reviews 'The Impersonators' by Jessica Anderson

Rosemary Creswell
Monday, 28 October 2019

As she did so vividly in Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson uses a returning expatriate woman to cast fresh eyes on the social and urban landscape of Australia. Here, it is Sylvia Foley who has spent some twenty years in Europe eschewing the comforts and constraints of suburban life, teaching Italian and conducting tours of the British Isles and the Continent. On a whim, she abandons her peripatetic life to return to Sydney for a few months prior to her plan to settle in Rome. Unbeknown to her, her autocratic father, Jack Cornock, is dying and she is immediately suspected by other members of her dislocated family of returning to benefit from the will – which she ultimately does as the recipient of her father’s vindictive gesture to spite his wife. And Sylvia’s ‘family’ is considerable. There is her illiterate mother Molly, now married to Ken, her brother Stewart, and her stepsiblings: Harry, Rosamond, Hermione, and Guy, the children of her father’s second wife, Greta.

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John McLaren reviews 'The Twyborn Affair' by Patrick White

John McLaren
Monday, 28 October 2019

Like every one of his previous novels, Patrick White’s latest work is both utterly characteristic and completely unpredictable. With the third line, we know we are in for another of White’s dissections of human behavior. ‘“Bit rough, isn’t it?” her chauffeur ventured.’ The verb almost parodies White’s careful placing of human acts any other writer would – perhaps rightly – consider insignificant. It is also characteristic of his more recent novels that the first people we meet are peripheral, people who serve both to comment on the action and to offer a commentary just by their presence. They are the reverse of the chorus of a Greek tragedy in that they are the problem to which the central characters address themselves rather than the passive victims of this address.

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Rosemary Creswell reviews 'A Woman of the Future' by David Ireland

Rosemary Creswell
Monday, 28 October 2019

A Woman of the Future, David Ireland’s sixth novel, is narrated in the first person by a woman, Alethea Hunt. This kind of ‘literary transvestism’ is not new, and in any case is not essentially different from writers who, in third-person narration, inject themselves into the consciousness of a character of the opposite sex. Ireland’s book, however, is remarkable for the way in which a male writer deals obsessively with the sexual thoughts and experiences of a woman. Indeed, it may well incur the ire of feminists that a man should presume, on principle, to understand such experiences. But he handles the role with sensitivity and insight, as he traces a young girl’s awakening sexual consciousness (if it was ever asleep) through to her later contacts with boys and men, most of which are, if not brutalising, at least unsatisfying. Though she claims, even as a small child and much to the satisfaction of her liberated ‘feminist’ parents, that she is without penis envy, she exhibits an extraordinary fascination with the male sexual organ, which is usually described in terms that would make most women want to give up heterosexual intercourse permanently. If these descriptions were meant to be representative of women’s feelings, perhaps one might object, but Alethea Hunt is clearly mad, albeit in the context of a world which is far crazier.

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Judith Armstrong reviews 'Reunion' by Andrea Goldsmith

Judith Armstrong
Friday, 25 October 2019

What’s the use,’ asks Alice before wandering away from her uncommunicative sister, ‘of a book without pictures or conversations?’ Grown-up readers can probably manage without the former, but it is unusual to find a novel with as little dialogue in it as Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion, or one that so deliberately ignores the common injunction ‘Show, don’t tell.’

Yet Goldsmith has several books to her credit, including The Prosperous Thief, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2002, and for several years taught creative writing at Deakin University. Presumably she knows what she is doing. In point of fact, not only does this flouting of conventional rules come over as quite refreshing, it is in any case justified by the demands of the narrative.

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In his latest novel, Everything I Knew, Peter Goldsworthy uses this famous quotation. Indeed, it is so apposite that it might well have provided the epigraph. Everything I Knew is, in part, a self-conscious reworking of Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953). The first-person narrator, Robert Burns, is a naïve fourteen-year-old boy in desperate thrall to a young woman. But where the emotional life of Hartley’s boy protagonist is destroyed by the precipitate arrival of sexual knowledge, Everything I Knew subverts this notion.

The year is 1964 and the setting is Penola, a country town in South Australia. Robbie is a Year Seven schoolboy, precociously intelligent, restlessly pubescent. His father is the town policeman and his mother a well-meaning but stolid housewife. The community is narrow; everyone knows everyone else. At the beginning of the novel, Robbie is beginning to outgrow Billy, his best friend from primary school, an Indigenous boy with a reputation for getting into trouble that Robbie, to a lesser extent (being white), shares.

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Shannon Burns reviews 'Ducks, Newburyport' by Lucy Ellmann

Shannon Burns
Friday, 25 October 2019

Lucy Ellmann’s ambitious seventh novel stages the workings of a mind as it digests – or fails to digest – life-altering experiences. Ducks, Newburyport is, for the most part, the ruminating inner monologue of a bewildered and frightened woman. It spans a thousand mostly artful pages and is an undeniably impressive accomplishment. However, for readers who relished Ellmann’s brilliant comic novels, Ducks may lack the energising charge – absurd, erotic, and darkly funny – that is so satisfyingly prominent in her earlier work.

Its chief narrator is a well-educated American mother of four afflicted by sharp anxiety. Her concerns include: the existence of President Trump; repeated  mass shootings; the threat of nuclear war or climate catastrophe; male violence; and precarious health care. Her inner life is expansive but oriented around  a handful of personal wounds, many of which are recast in the parallel story of a hunted lioness in search of her babes. Leaving aside a memorable sexual encounter, the latter resembles a children’s fable, a similarity that is knowingly signalled when the narrator recalls ‘some Disney movie about an escaped lion that wonders around some town’.

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