Fiction

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In 1927 the London firm Chatto & Windus published a book titled A Chinaman’s Opinion of Us and of His Own People. Supposedly the translated letters of a young Chinese man, Hwuy-Ung, sent home during his years spent in Melbourne, the writing suggested itself to its European and Australian readership as a delightful take on their society as witnessed by an innocent outsider; an enchanting, amusing and unwittingly insightful journal of a sensitive and bewildered Oriental gentleman. Written by an Australian called Theodore John Tourrier, the book was eventually exposed as a hoax, a cheeky, vaudeville-style tease hamming up the image of the courteous and comical Chinaman.

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In her searing novel, The Colour of Walls, Janet Kelly writes about child abuse and incest with clarity and understanding. The subject matter alone is disturbing, and the sense of cyclical hopelessness is both enduring and arresting. Still, Kelly brings us to a faintly optimistic resolution. This somewhat redeems an otherwise bleakly realistic story.

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Spinning Around is reminiscent of Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002), the story of Kate Reddy, a full-time fund manager who also juggles a husband, a nanny, and two young children. The voice of both novels is confessional and conversational. Both use existing brand names as descriptors, employ time as a structural device – Jinks uses days, Pearson, hours – and end with a quick summary of a brighter future illuminated by enlightening experiences. They also open with very similar sentences and sentiments (Jinks: ‘How did I ever get into this mess?’ Pearson: ‘How did I get here?’), and in each novel there is a daughter named Emily, a younger son and a helpful, slightly hopeless husband with less earning power than his wife. It’s hard to tell if this is evidence of the genre’s inherent features, the ineluctable truth of the situations, or a happy coincidence.

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One of Frank Moorhouse’s stories in his collection The Americans, Baby (1972) vividly describes two people’s tentative steps across a divide. It is a sexual overture, but also one that defies the constraints of national stereotypes. Carl, an Australian university student, bristles at an American man’s advances. Uneasy about his new sexual identity, he is unable to shake the sense that he is consorting with the enemy, at a time of mass protests against the Vietnam War. At the story’s end, the two men lie together in bed holding hands. The American urges his Australian lover to wipe his tears, then comments obliquely: ‘I guess this is the way it is with us.’

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At once extravagant and tightly wrapped, this novel reinforces the view that historical fiction says as much about the present and the future as it does about the past. At the level of history proper, Anouar Benmalek’s vision unites three continents that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, are subject to the depredations of European colonialism and domestic tyranny. At the human level, his fiction is preoccupied with the bodily functions and basic needs of survival: things that never change. The broad, impersonal sweep of world history is made up of the infinitesimally small transactions of the primal scene: copulating, defecating, vomiting, bleeding, all driven by the elemental forces of fear and desire, violence and conscience.

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Wagner’s Creek is a rundown seaside village full of fibro shacks, rubbish and the ‘dirt poor’: ‘Their boredom and despair was as high as the dry grass in their yards and as deep as the ruts in the road – and their hearts seemed as broken as their hanging gates and peeling fences.’ Elizabeth Stead’s other novel, The Fishcastle (2000), was also set in a seaside village where, as in Wagner’s Creek, strange things happen. Time goes more slowly in Wagner’s Creek, and the weather is different from everywhere else.

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Last December, the Melbourne Age asked some prominent literary folk to name the best novel of the twentieth century. Readers would have found few surprises in the choices. Most of the punter – some novelist and a few literary critics – went for Proust’s Remembrance and Joyce’s Ulysses. Little argument there. But Ian Rankin, a Scottish crime fiction writer, chose something altogether different: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (which, incidentally, is also Jackie Collins’ favourite novel of all time).

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My acid test of a good novel is how long the characters reverberate in the consciousness after the book has been put down. After I read both these books, I carried Grace Starr and Steven Messenger around in my head for weeks – both of them dangerous and mysterious persons, but in very different ways.

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Come on in. Do you like mango chutney? I myself have never had mango chutney, not liking mangos, but Phil’s an expert on making the stuff. It never lasts, but make sure you use green mangos because the old ones are too stringy.

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The two books reviewed here, although very different in many ways, do have one thing in common – they have something to do with a secret, which the readers, and the protagonists, all come to know.

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