Australian Fiction

When Shirley Hazzard was invited to give the 1984 Boyer Lectures, it was an astonishing break in tradition. Her twenty-three predecessors included only one woman, Dame Roma Mitchell, a supreme court justice who was later governor of South Australia. Except for architect and writer Robin Boyd, and poet and Bulletin editor Douglas Stewart, Hazzard was the only creative artist on the list. All her predecessors were well known for their public contributions to Australian life.

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The cover of All Our Shimmering Skies is crammed with surprises. Look closely among the Australian wildflowers and you’ll find black hearts, butterflies, lightning bolts, a shovel, a crocodile, a dingo, a fruit bat, a Japanese fighter plane, and a red rising sun. Trent Dalton has adopted a similar method in writing his second novel, which samples almost every genre you can think of, from war story to magic realism and Gothic horror to comedy. There are references to Romeo and Juliet and a nod to The Pilgrim’s Progress

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Honeybee, Craig Silvey’s highly anticipated new novel, his first since Jasper Jones (2009), chronicles the coming of age of fourteen-year-old transgender narrator Sam Watson, who was assigned male at birth. This is a story of desperate loneliness and fear, of neglect, family violence, betrayal, and self-disgust. But it is also one of love and solidarity, a celebration of the kindness of strangers who become family and friends.

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A short story collection can have much in common with a collection of poetry, where each story pivots on attention to something particular and arresting – an image, a memory, the encounters with strangeness or beauty that can occur in a life. Individual stories build delicately towards such a moment, then fall away quickly, willing a reader to engage with feeling and suggestion rather than the comprehensiveness of narrative.

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Sofie Laguna does not shy away from confronting subject matter. Her first adult novel, One Foot Wrong (2009), is about a young girl forced by her troubled parents into a reclusive existence. Her second, The Eye of the Sheep (2014), which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015, tells the story of a young boy on the autism spectrum born into a family riven by poverty and violence. Her third, The Choke (2017), concerns a motherless child in danger because of her father’s criminal connections. Infinite Splendours is also about the betrayal of a child by the adults in his life, but here Laguna ventures into new territory, exploring the lasting impact of trauma on a child as he becomes a man, and whether the abused may become the abuser.

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Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos

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November 2020, no. 426

In Andrew Pippos’s immersive and multi-layered début novel, Lucky’s, a tragic shooting that occurs in the last bastion of a Greek-Australian restaurant franchise becomes the fulcrum around which mental health, heartbreak, displacement, and toxic masculinity are explored.

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Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

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November 2020, no. 426

At the heart of every fairy tale, there is violence: Snow White’s stepmother calling for her heart on a platter, Cinderella’s sisters mutilating their feet to fit the silver shoe. ‘All the better to eat you with, my dear,’ says the wolf, his belly already stuffed with grandmother’s flesh. From this bloodletting, the fairy tale tries to spin something wondrous, turning straw into gold and men into beasts.

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The Living Sea of Waking Dreams begins, self-consciously, at the limits of language. Its opening pages are rendered in a prose style that is fragmented and contorted. Sentences break down, run into each other. Syntax is twisted into odd shapes that call into question the very possibility of meaning. Words seem to arrive pre-estranged by semantic satiation in a way that evokes Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett at their most opaque: ‘As if they too were already then falling apart, so much ash and soot soon to fall, so much smoke to suck down. As if all that can be said is we say you and if that then. Them us were we you?’

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These three Young Adult novels differ wildly in tone, execution – even their grasp on reality. Georgina Young’s début novel, Loner (Text Publishing, $24.99 pb, 256 pp), won the Text Prize for an unpublished Young Adult manuscript in 2019, and was a deserving winner. Text has decided to market it as adult fiction, but it works well as a crossover novel. Her protagonist, twenty-year-old Lona (does not sound like loner!).

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In perhaps the most tender story in this textured, interconnected collection, an adolescent son spends the summer sunbathing in the backyard and sneaking glances at the paperboy while his working-class, stay-at-home father, who reads detective fiction and likes to ‘figure things out before the endings’, gently attempts to make it known to his son that he can tell him anything.

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