Australian Fiction

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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‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’ That gunshot of a quotation comes from the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. I suspect he means writers are traitors to biology – they have higher allegiances than blood ties. Art is their true spouse; their works are the favoured first-born.

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The poet Anne Michaels once wrote that when love finds us, our pasts suddenly become obsolete science. All the secret places left fallow by loneliness are flooded with light and the immanence of the longed-for one draws us into the clearing, stains us with radiance. Yeats’s wing-footed wanderer arrives at last and the miraculous restorations of love and the imperatives of desire render our separate pasts ‘old maps, disproved theories, a diorama’.

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Three recent début novels employ the genre of the Bildungsroman to explore the complexities of female experience in the recent historical past. Anna Goldsworthy, widely known and admired as a memoirist, essayist, and musician, has now added a novel, Melting Moments (Black Inc., $29.99 pb, 240 pp), to her list of achievements.

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True West by David Whish-Wilson

by
March 2020, no. 419

True West is the latest historical crime thriller from David Whish-Wilson, author of The Summons (2006), Perth (2013), The Coves (2018), and the Frank Swann series. True West is set in Western Australia in 1988, the time when Jack van Tongeren’s Australian Nationalist Movement (ANM) was papering the city with hundreds of thousands of racist posters, and when John Howard and Ian Sinclair were calling for a reduction in Asian immigration. True West ’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old Lee Southern, is on the run from the Knights, a Geraldton-based bikie gang whose marijuana plantation he torched in retaliation for his father’s murder.

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In a 2013 interview with British literary magazine Structo, Anglo-Australian author Evie Wyld recalls lamenting to a writing tutor that she wanted to write a big action thriller, ‘something with Arnold Schwarzenegger and machine guns and blood and explosions’ but was always writing ‘really quiet little paragraphs about Dads’. These paragraphs evolved into her haunting début novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009). Wyld’s Miles Franklin Award-winning second novel, All the Birds, Singing (2013), was followed by a graphic memoir produced in collaboration with Joe Sumner, Everything Is Teeth (2015), detailing childhood summers spent on Wyld’s grandparents’ sugar cane farm and her shark fixation. The Bass Rock, her new novel, may not be a big action thriller either, but it is far from quiet and there is plenty of blood.

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From the mainland, the fictional Chesil Island appears to float on the horizon. Perched above its bay, a statue of the Virgin Mary spreads its arms, its robes ‘faded and splintered by salt’. This icon of the miraculous and maternal, crafted from trees and symbolic of the invasion and settlement of Indigenous land, is imposing and worn, revered and neglected.

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Collected Stories is a misleading title for Louis Nowra’s new publication. It’s nothing as uniform as that. Apart from poetry, is there any genre in which Nowra has not made his mark? He’s a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, memoirist, local historian, essayist, reviewer, feature journalist – and the author of one enduring Australian gem in Così (1992), in all its multiple forms. Yet he has scouted out other territories and the results jostle together in Collected Stories. Such a title conjures up a lifetime’s labour in the genre – gatherings of Anton Chekhov or John Cheever or Alice Munro. But Nowra’s volume is essentially a ragbag of disparate writings.

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Leah Purcell has described how her lifelong fascination with Henry Lawson’s iconic 1892 short story provided her with abundant creative ammunition. Her mother read her the story when she was five; it held a special place for them both. ‘I’d say the famous last line: “Ma, I won’t never go drovin ... she’d tear up”.’

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The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has revealed systemic mistreatment of vulnerable children over decades. Though these crimes have not been the exclusive province of the Catholic Church, its education system has brought more children into intimate care by religious orders, and even those never abused have observed the tics of brutality in some of their teachers and mentors. In a note at the end of his new novel, In Whom We Trust, John Clanchy mentions James Joyce’s hell-fire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and the recurrence of these ‘tropes of terror’ in the rhetoric he heard as a Catholic schoolboy in 1960s Melbourne. The system has long-standing practices of psychological control.

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