Fiction

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Several years ago, I was privy to a breakfast conversation with one of our venerable literary critics, in which he lamented the proliferation of novels in Australia by young women. Of particular concern, he announced, was the tendency of said young women to construct ‘itsy-bitsy sentences from itsy-bitsy words’. And he smiled around the table warmly, secure in venerable male polysyllabic verbosity. As a young woman myself of vague literary urges, I felt thoroughly rebuffed. The only words I could think to form were both too itsy-bitsy and obscene to constitute effective rebuttal, and they remained unsaid.

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This is The Great Tradition. Spade, Marlowe, Archer, Spenser. Peter Corris has relocated it, given it another place and another name and done it all with verve and flair. In ten adventures, Cliff Hardy lurches around Sydney in the rusty armour of his Falcon (except on one occasion when he goes to his spiritual home, California). While Corris does not achieve as much in the short stories as he does in the novels (but then that is true of Hammett), he does present Cliff Hardy as alive (miraculously) and well (apart from batterings and hangovers) and doing good (if not entirely within the meaning of the act).

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There’s something about country towns that makes them peculiarly well suited to being described in short stories. Or is it that short stories are particularly suited to describe life in country towns? Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor wrote about little else, and several Australian writers’ best books have been collections of stories set in country towns: Olga Masters’ A Long Time Dying, for example, and Frank Moorhouse’s The Electrical Experience. Gillian Mears’s Fineflour is a work which may be placed with absolute confidence beside any of those mentioned above.

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Below Deck is a stunning literary novel. This is a poetic work that can be read aloud just as easily as it can be read in silence. Sophie Hardcastle wrote Below Deck in 2018 when she was a Provost’s Scholar in English Literature at Worcester College at the University of Oxford. As she reveals in the acknowledgments, she read a draft aloud to her professor, an experience that no doubt consolidated the flow of her prose.

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The Hypermarket, an enigmatic and deeply uncanny novel, explores ‘mistranslation’ against the backdrop of Nietzsche’s philosophy of Eternal Return. Gabriel García Ochoa’s début novel transforms the Houghton Library at Harvard University into a Borgesian space. As the narrator is undertaking his research, he comes across an excerpt from a letter copied into an old diary. It details the lives of people living in a supernatural Hypermarket, ‘where the linoleum floor gives way to moss and a young, tender turf’. In a highly significant moment, the narrator rips out the pages and stores them in volume six of The Arabian Nights.

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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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