Fiction

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noun Stack of Books 2157520

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‘When I was eighteen my boyfriend’s father died in jail.’ This is the opening sentence of Ben Winch’s second novel; it is also the conclusion of the novel and, having got that out of the way, we can settle into the details that will tell us why this man died in jail and what his story means for this now eighteen-year-old woman.

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It is a common assumption that nothing much happens in small country towns; that they are insular places where people live their entire lives, unchallenged by the outside world. But I never found the towns I lived in to be stagnant: conservative and sometimes small-minded, yes, but never uniformly dull. Individuals and families come and go; people run away or arrive, seeking refuge; people return after years of absence to settle down again.

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The cover of All Our Shimmering Skies is crammed with surprises. Look closely among the Australian wildflowers and you’ll find black hearts, butterflies, lightning bolts, a shovel, a crocodile, a dingo, a fruit bat, a Japanese fighter plane, and a red rising sun. Trent Dalton has adopted a similar method in writing his second novel, which samples almost every genre you can think of, from war story to magic realism and Gothic horror to comedy. There are references to Romeo and Juliet and a nod to The Pilgrim’s Progress

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Anna MacDonald reviews 'Honeybee' by Craig Silvey

Anna MacDonald
22 October 2020

Honeybee, Craig Silvey’s highly anticipated new novel, his first since Jasper Jones (2009), chronicles the coming of age of fourteen-year-old transgender narrator Sam Watson, who was assigned male at birth. This is a story of desperate loneliness and fear, of neglect, family violence, betrayal, and self-disgust. But it is also one of love and solidarity, a celebration of the kindness of strangers who become family and friends.

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A short story collection can have much in common with a collection of poetry, where each story pivots on attention to something particular and arresting – an image, a memory, the encounters with strangeness or beauty that can occur in a life. Individual stories build delicately towards such a moment, then fall away quickly, willing a reader to engage with feeling and suggestion rather than the comprehensiveness of narrative.

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Sofie Laguna does not shy away from confronting subject matter. Her first adult novel, One Foot Wrong (2009), is about a young girl forced by her troubled parents into a reclusive existence. Her second, The Eye of the Sheep (2014), which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015, tells the story of a young boy on the autism spectrum born into a family riven by poverty and violence. Her third, The Choke (2017), concerns a motherless child in danger because of her father’s criminal connections. Infinite Splendours is also about the betrayal of a child by the adults in his life, but here Laguna ventures into new territory, exploring the lasting impact of trauma on a child as he becomes a man, and whether the abused may become the abuser.

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In Andrew Pippos’s immersive and multi-layered début novel, Lucky’s, a tragic shooting that occurs in the last bastion of a Greek-Australian restaurant franchise becomes the fulcrum around which mental health, heartbreak, displacement, and toxic masculinity are explored.

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During a 1995 television interview on Charlie Rose soon after the publication of Martin Amis’s The Information, another long novel, there is a moment when, as Rose begins to read the opening passage, Amis’s mouth visibly slackens. Silently he intones the first lines. His hand (often tentatively raised toward his chin in interviews) searches out his forehead. There is a spectral waver in his gaze, a registering (as if accommodating, or incorporating, new information). He looks adrift, unmoored. Free-floating. One has the sense of a man assimilating his own self as it is spoken back to him. For a moment, he seems precarious.

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At the heart of every fairy tale, there is violence: Snow White’s stepmother calling for her heart on a platter, Cinderella’s sisters mutilating their feet to fit the silver shoe. ‘All the better to eat you with, my dear,’ says the wolf, his belly already stuffed with grandmother’s flesh. From this bloodletting, the fairy tale tries to spin something wondrous, turning straw into gold and men into beasts.

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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.

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