Australian Fiction

The idea of the sequel probably goes back to the earliest cave drawings in the bowels of the oldest hills. ‘What happened next?’ was surely .among the first words babies ever gurgled as parents grunted bed­time stories around ancient camp-fires. It is not given to the armchair anthropologist to know whether· ‘What happened before that?’ is quite so fundamental, but I suspect not – otherwise, stories would begin with an end at least as often as they do with a beginning.

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An Illywhacker, Peter Carey reminds us at the start of his latest and by far his longest novel, is a trickster or spieler. Wilkes cites it in Kylie Tennant’s famous novel of 1941, The Battlers. The other epigraph to the novel is also preoccupied with deception and is familiar to anyone who knows Carey’s work: Brian Kiernan used it as the title of his anthology of new Australian short story writers, The Most Beautiful Lies, an anthology in which Carey himself was represented: It is from Mark Twain and reads in part: ‘Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, the incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.’

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This is the largest and most eclectic of Wilding’s four collections of short stories so far. Its 284 pages include stories ranging from ninety pages and two. Mostly written in the first person, they range in space between England and Australia, go back to the childhood of the narrator(s) (sometimes identified as Mike or Michael, making the autobiographical inferences irresistible) and in mode range from social realism through to the surrealistic modes of ‘What it was like, sometime

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I must declare an interest. Dickins was once a student of mine and is still a friend. Readers of this review are invited to exercise their reservations.

I believe The Crookes of Epping is in the tragi-comic tradition of Charlie Chaplin which reaches back to one of the world’s greatest books, Don Quixote. In it pathos is as important an element as humour, wit and absurdity. It also has a connection with the earliest Greek Comedy in which the celebration of the God Dionysus was an important element.

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Serpent’s Tooth is a massive, sprawling novel. It is panoramic in its vision of twentieth century social and political history, and meticulous in its rendering of one man’s struggle to sustain the mighty ideal his father has inspired in him.

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The characters in Helen Garner’s new novella The Children’s Bach make up the kind of social molecule in at least one of which all of us feature as an atom.

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T.A.G. Hungerford’s new book Stories from Suburban Road is sub-titled ‘an autobiographical collection’ and comes complete with an appendix of photographs in the style of a family album with captions such as ‘Mick and me, 1922’, ‘Me, aged 16, and Phyllis Kingsbury, Scarborough, 1931’, and ‘Mum and Mrs Francis Victoria Wood, Como Beach, 1930’. Also, throughout the collection each story, sixteen in all, is accompanied by a photograph of the period of the author’s childhood and adolescence between the wars. The impression this provides is that the reader is invited to participate in Hungerford’s nostalgia for his past which consequently may be an inaccessibly private world – more reminiscence than substance. This impression proves to be quite incorrect. The photographs are moments frozen in time, enclosed in a period before this reader was born and the stories offer insight into them. They mutually contribute to the impression created, generally, of a world of innocence and delight. The happy and robust youth in the photographs looks contentedly into the camera from an ordered, acceptable world. They also perhaps complement the selectivity of the author’s imagination.

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This is not a reissue of a novel almost twenty years old, nor is it quite a new novel: it is a heavily revised version of an early work by the author of the prize-winning novel Year of Living Dangerously. Across the Sea Wall was written before C.J. Koch was thirty. In a prefatory note to the new version he writes: ‘If such novels of youth are worth republishing, they are worth revising ... The cuts and alterations are not fundamental, but they are extensive.’ He concludes with the hope ‘that the earlier version of this work will be consigned to oblivion, and that anyone referring to the book, or quoting from it, will go to no other version but this one’.

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This is a very fine first novel by Jean Bedford. Her first publication was the collection of short stories, Country Girl Again, published by Sisters Press in 1978. Sister Kate justly deserves to be one of the two bestsellers in Melbourne.

The novel traces the life of Kate Kelly, sister of the famous Ned, and opens when Kate is twelve and Edward just returned from a three-year stint in Pentridge. He is shocked and outraged to learn that his brother, Jim, a mere sixteen-year-old, has been arrested for horse stealing and sent to Pentridge also. Ned is nineteen. Kate remarks:         

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This collection of stories put me off from the first page. In the opening paragraph there is ‘an exuberant kelpie bounding’. The second paragraph outdoes that, presenting seagulls as ‘wheeling and screaming’, in search of ‘a reeking fish head’. We already know that ‘the life was lonely, but it was peaceful’. Clichés enlivened by irony or just some simple surprise of context proves useful tools in the hands of a good writer. But Julie Lewis, on the evidence of Double Exposure, is not a good writer and cliches are offered up to us without any apology. Much of the problem seems to be that she overdoes adjectives and adverbs:

She felt for a pulse. Feeble. She gingerly touched the stubbly cheek It was bruised and there was a gash on the forehead. His clothes, seaman’s wear, were soaked. She studied the unconscious form. He was fairly young, about thirty, she thought. Looked a battler. She smiled ruefully and gently lifted the lock of hair that had fallen across his brow. It was matted with blood. (‘Flotsam’, p 2)

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