Australian Fiction

Determining connections between books sent as a review bundle is not mandatory, but there is an irresistible tendency to find some common theme. In the case of these three novels, the theme of women’s pain, and hidden pain at that, does not need to be teased out – it leaps out. Since it is unlikely that three different authors would have colluded, the prevalence of this is worth deeper reflection, especially considering recent titles such as Kylie Maslen’s essays on illness, Show Me Where It Hurts, or Kate Middleton’s extraordinary memoir essay ‘The Dolorimeter’, placed second in the 2020 Calibre Prize.

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Set in colonial Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, Karen Wyld’s new novel Where the Fruit Falls examines the depths of Black matriarchal fortitude over four generations. Across the continent, Black resistance simmers. First Nations people navigate continued genocide and displacement, with families torn apart by the state. Where the Fruit Falls focuses on the residual effects and implications of such realities, though it presents a quieter narrative: one of apple trees, wise Aunties, guiding grandmothers, and settlers both malicious and kind-hearted.

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A series of beautifully controlled fictional voices and an exquisite sense of literary craft contribute to the dark magnificence of Chloe Wilson’s début collection of short stories, Hold Your Fire. This volume explores the strange and sometimes surprising abject horror that characterises the quotidian and the ordinary. The stories both examine and revel in the classically Kristevan abject realities of the body’s expulsions and the disgust that is often characteristic of social marginality. For example, the ‘poo phantom’ writes a ‘message in shit on the walls’; tampons wrapped in toilet paper are described as ‘bodies that needed to be shrouded for burial’; a character feels a ‘quiver down to the bowels, the rush that is equal parts excitement and dread’; another tries ‘to pass a kidney stone’; and two sisters try an ‘Expulsion Cure’, where the doctor asks how much they expel: ‘And how often? And what is the colour? The texture? … When you eat something – poppy seeds, say, or the skin on a plum – how long does it take to reappear?’

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There is a celebrated moment in Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 film Birth when Nicole Kidman enters a theatre late and sits down to watch a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The camera remains on her perturbed features for two whole minutes. This image kept recurring as I read Claire Thomas’s new novel, The Performance. In it, three women sit and watch a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), alone in their thoughts, their whirring minds only occasionally distracted by the actions on stage. If for nothing else, Thomas must be congratulated on the boldness of her conceit, on her ability to make dynamic a situation of complete stasis.

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At the heart of Trevor Shearston’s latest novel, The Beach Caves, is the act of digging. The protagonist, Annette Cooley, is a young archaeology student, thrilled by the allure of her Honours supervisor’s most recent find: the stone remains of an Aboriginal village on the New South Wales south coast that could rewrite the pre-European history of Australia. Intriguing additional sites are soon discovered, but before long the air of excitement is replaced by one of suspicion, jealousy, and dread when a member of the dig team disappears.

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Paul Dalgarno’s fiction début, Poly, charts a romp through the romantic and sexual lives of married couple Chris and Sarah Flood. When the sexual intimacy in their relationship dies, Sarah opts to sleep with, as Chris describes it, ‘all but the worst of Melbourne’s walking wounded’, and takes her woebegone husband along for the proverbial ride. A reluctant Chris eventually finds his polyamorous feet with the understanding artist Biddy. True to the logistics of polyamorous lives, almost the entire book is in the form of communication – either conversations between lovers and friends or Chris’s internal machinations (the story is told from his perspective). Indeed, Poly might well be a masterclass in how to write dialogue.

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Dystopias, apocalypses, and postapocalypses have been part of Young Adult literature long before ecological disaster became the prevalent social narrative. They give writers a chance to indulge the youthful desire to upset the table and start over, rather than partake in the tedious and often fruitless work of actual progress. Blowing stuff up is far more exciting than endless meetings or political discussions. Asphyxia’s Future Girl, Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s The Other Side of the Sky, and Charlie Archbold’s Indigo Owl each deal with the end of the world and how young people navigate it.

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‘Every last word that follows from here is a word I have tortured out of myself. If what I have written sometimes warbles towards the inarticulate, that is the price exacted by torture and the price of articulating ... at all.’ So warns the narrator of Daniel Davis Wood’s first novel, Blood and Bone (2014). He may well be describing Davis Wood’s second novel, At the Edge of the Solid World, which is, above all, deliberate. Davis Wood has written precisely the book he meant to write.

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‘When I was three days old, a nurse … stole me from the obstetrics ward … and raised me as her own,’ the voice of Nella Gilbert Pine tells us in the compelling opening of Joyce Kornblatt’s fifth novel, Mother Tongue. This is a moving contemplation on core elements of human experience: the complex connections between mothers and daughters, what it means to love and be loved. It is also an exploration of the ripple effects of trauma, those shocking events that ‘explode’ in the unsuspecting hand, leaving trails of harm far into the future.

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Eugen Bacon’s début short story collection, The Road to Woop Woop, plays with the genres of speculative fiction and magic realism. Using familiar tropes such as time travel, shapeshifting, and prescient characters, the stories typically refuse formulaic outcomes. The title story, for example, confounds expectations about the horror of bodily disintegration. The ominous angel of death in the story ‘Dying’ turns out to be a true wit. The surreal is transformed by the blessing of love in the heart-warming story ‘He Refused to Name It’.

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