Fiction

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noun Stack of Books 2157520

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Several years ago, on two separate occasions, Drusilla Modjeska and David Marr called for Australian fiction writers to address directly the state of the country in its post-9/11 incarnation. ‘I have a simple plea to make,’ said Marr in the Redfern Town Hall in March 2003, delivering the annual Colin Simpson Lecture: ‘that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching … So few Australian novels – now I take my life in my hands – address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live. It’s no good ceding that territory to people like me – to journalists. That’s not good enough.’

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The novelist’s art is wide ranging; he is concerned with a multitude of things that comprise the fabric of his book. The short story writer, however, is concerned with one thing that implies many, since singularity and intensity are the essence of his art. The best short story writers depend on a marked personal attitude and this is the distinguishing characteristic of David Martin’s second collection of stories whose common denominator is his compassionate understanding of the problems of New Australians.

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Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matters, shows the same talent for precise observation, pathos, and humour as her accomplished début collection, Trick of the Light (2018). It differs in its creation of a greater range of narrators and voices, and in its use of a specific ideological framework through which to unify the collection: each of its twenty stories is prefaced by the name of a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist and the ‘prize motivation’ for her award. This device might be read as subverting the sexist stereotype that, denying women the capacity for rational thought, consigns them to the ‘softer’ realms of emotion and artistic endeavour. It also encourages an interesting way of thinking about female desire as it pertains to a range of experiences, including creativity, ambition, motherhood, sexuality, and political activism.

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Why do we need another edition of Mansfield Park? Particularly, what is the justification for an expensive one, when we can get a plain reprint for $5, or a well-annotated paperback for $10? The answer is the one that all scholarly editors are driven by: editorial principles have changed. What was considered acceptable textual practice even twenty years ago no longer fulfils readers’ desires to get close to origins, to understand contexts.

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David Malouf’s fiction has been justly celebrated for its veracity. His prose, at once lyrical and precise, has an extraordinary capacity to evoke what a character in an early story called the ‘grainy reality’ of life. For Malouf, small concrete details convey a profound understanding of the defining power of memory. He has a strong sense of the way the most mundane object can embody the past, how its shape or texture can send us back to a specific time and place and mood, just as Proust summons a flood of memory from the aroma of a madeleine dipped in tea. This tangible quality to memory is essential to our sense of self. The prisoners of war in The Great World (1990), for example, cling to their memories as a bulwark against the potentially overwhelming horror of their experiences. They treasure anything, however small, that provides a physical link with home, knowing that these relics help them to reconstruct the past and thus retain a grip on their identity and their sanity.

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The title of Sarah Hopkins’s second novel, Speak to Me, is an exhortation: bridge the gap between us. It is also an expression of hope, however misguided, that such a gap can be bridged: if only we could speak, we could heal.

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Food is often used as a metaphor for a range of emotions, and this device is underscored in Simone Lazaroo’s fourth book. The title alludes to the idea of nourishment as a substitute for love, sex and religion. Indeed, the protagonist, Malaysian Perpetua de Mello, is a chef at a four-and-a-half-star Balinese tourist resort, the Elsewhere Hotel. Although the slogan in its promotional flyer encourages visitors to ‘Find yourself at Elsewhere Hotel’, most of the guests have come to lose themselves, to seek consolation from whatever ails them back home. Though undated, the novel is set soon after the bombing attacks in Bali; the tremors of the terrorist strikes still reverberate. It depicts a nervous island desperate to attract more tourists, if only to stimulate its damaged economy. There has even been a directive in the local media to smile more at foreigners.

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This novel raises more interesting questions about its author than about its characters and action.

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In or about that annus mirabilis 1968, Philip Roberts – academic, musician, poet and founder in 1970 of the poetry imprint Island Press – delivered a conference paper entitled ‘Physician Heal Thyself’, which considered eminent poets who had also been medical practitioners. (Roberts had gone from Canada to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to study medicine, but in a Pauline moment switched to Arts.) He spoke of William Carlos Williams, Miroslav Holub, and Boris Pasternak, among others. The climax of his paper was his consideration of Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, which he claimed had as its raison d’être nothing more or less than to serve as a vehicle for Zhivago’s poetry, which appears, if memory serves correctly, as an appendix. The tail well and truly wagged the tale.

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Miss Maude Silver, Miss Jane Marple, where are you, with your splendid and authoritative bosoms, your discreet inquiries, natural reticence, and cunning powers of deduction? Oh, a long way from these sisters in crime.

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