Fiction

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These two very different novels by women provide a wealth of suggestive information about the women’s history being reclaimed and re-established by Australian feminists. They also happen to be intrinsically good novels, accomplished and charming in contrasting ways. Add Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, reprinted in the Virago Modem Classics series, was first serialised in 1883 in The Australasian, published in novel form in 1891, and soon became one of Cambridge’s most popular novels. It draws upon the familiar form of the romance, but it also, in its translation into an Australian setting, illuminates an idiosyncratic colonial grafting onto that form.

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At various times in its history, the Australian short story has been predictable, as editorial and public appetites have limited experimentation. I am glad to be reading now, when approval can be conferred on collections as different and as variously excellent as Julie Lewis’s The Walls of Jericho and Peter Skrzynecki’s The Wild Dogs. Lewis’s work is more formally experimental than Skrzynecki’s, but both collections offer insight into the social and the literary.

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First published in 1951 and again in 1959, Dal Stivens’s novel, Jimmy Brockett, is now republished as one of Penguin’s ‘Australian Selection’. Reading it, you find yourself being drawn into admiration of a man who is undeniably obnoxious.

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McDonald’s latest novel, Rough Wallaby, carves out a fascinating position in contemporary literature: an intricately constructed, fast paced yam drawing its narrative from a contemporary Australian myth, the Fine Cotton race horse switch. The intriguing aspect of Wallaby is that it makes no pretence at anything but a great big yam. The yam in Australia is in a position of disgrace, not among readers, but in the academic-critical club. The story is no longer literature, it seems. There have to be other surreptitious elements recognized and codified by the literary fraternity.

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Kate Finlayson’s first novel is a bumpy bronco ride, as exhilarating, confronting, and messy as the Northern Territory that she writes about so passionately. Finlayson’s protagonist, Connie, is stuck barmaiding in a rough city pub. Despite her street smarts and university degree, Connie is starting to go to the dogs along with the pub’s patrons. She decides to leave Sydney to pursue a post-adolescent obsession with Rod Ansell, the inspiration for the Crocodile Dundee films. Ansell (his real name) is hiding somewhere in the Territory, and Connie fantasises about finding him and turning him into her ideal lover, her longed-for soul mate.

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John Birmingham’s After America is the second book in what is clearly intended to be a trilogy of page-turners – a follow-up to his Axis of Time trilogy, the swashbuckling alternative history which saw a US carrier battle group transported back in time to the middle of World War II. After America, the sequel to Without Warning (2009), is set in a decidedly dystopian alternative present, the result of a mysterious energy wave that wipes out most of the human and animal life forms in North America in 2003. As one might expect, chaos ensues. A global ecological catastrophe has accompanied the human disappearance, a civil engineer from Seattle (the only big US city to survive the wave) has been elected president, Israel has launched nuclear strikes on its Middle East neighbours, and groups of well-organised pirates from Lagos have taken over New York City.

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We are introduced to the eponymous hero of Jacko by an Australian narrator who is writing a novel about China and teaching a writing class at New York University. The students in his class hero-worship Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver and compose pieces for submission to the New Yorker.

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We meet Tannenbaum in his ‘cosy Anne Frankish semi-hidden nook’. These writerly Jewish recluses have very little else in common; Tannenbaum is separated from his wife and two children. His friend/lover Anise is trying to drink her way out of a nervous breakdown. For further solace he resorts to ‘horizontal unravelling’ or ‘psychiatric horizontality’.

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As interviewer to the literary gentry in the Yacker series, Candida Baker could hardly be deemed a stranger to the agonies and ecstasies of the fiction writer’s craft. Her skill as interviewer and journalist has attracted attention and praise, and now everyone who’s been holding their breath to see how Candy Baker would manage her own first excursion into fiction can relax with a sigh of relief.

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I have often found myself feeling a little frustrated after reading a David Foster novel. While never doubting his ability as a writer, the convolutions of his narrative have, more than once, overshadowed his undeniably fine prose. His latest book, Hitting the Wall, a collection of two novellas, allows us the opportunity to examine how Foster handles the more urgent needs of this much shorter form.

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