Australian Fiction

During Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Germans occupied Yasnaya Polyana – the former estate of Leo Tolstoy – for just forty-five days and converted it into a field hospital. The episode features in the war reportage of Ève Curie (daughter of Marie), and sounds like tantalising, if challenging, source material for a novelist. There’s the brutal irony inherent in the home of a world-famous prophet of non-violence being occupied by, of all people, the Nazis. There’s the human loss and horror of the deadliest military operation in the deadliest war in history. And there’s audacity in invoking and responding to Tolstoy’s great epic of another – Napoleon’s – doomed invasion of Russia: War and Peace (1869).

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Gail Jones’s new novel, Our Shadows, provides readers with another virtuoso performance, showing a writer fully in control of her medium. It is a poetic and beautifully crafted evocation of shadowy pasts whose traumatic effects (in the world and in individual lives) stretch deep into the present and the future.

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Criminal lawyer turned crime/thriller writer Jock Serong has produced five highly successful novels in as many years. His latest, The Burning Island, is probably his most ambitious to date. Set in 1830, it is part revenge tale, part mystery, part historical snapshot of the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait, in particular the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous women, who became their ‘island wives’, or tyereelore. It is also the moving story of a daughter’s devotion to her father, with a cracking denouement reminiscent of an Hercule Poirot mystery.

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You wouldn’t envy any writer releasing a novel at the moment, due to the difficulties getting books in front of readers, yet recent UK statistics indicate a surge in crime fiction sales following the relaxing of lockdown restrictions and the reopening of bookshops. It’s hard to say whether the same optimistic reading of the crime fiction market in Australia holds true, though two new crime novels by début authors – Kyle Perry’s The Bluffs (Michael Joseph, $32.99 pb, 432 pp) and Katherine Firkin’s Sticks and Stones (Bantam, $32.99 pb, 392 pp) – appear to have well and truly jumped out of the blocks. And it’s fair to assume that, given the international commercial and critical success of Megan Goldin’s terrific début novel, The Escape Room, her new book, The Night Swim (Michael Joseph, $32.99 pb, 352 pp), will appeal to antipodean readers this winter.

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Margaret Bearman’s We Were Never Friends is a novel that places the myth of the artistic male genius against the critical eye of history. Lotti, the eldest daughter of renowned Australian painter George Coates, narrates from two perspectives: her younger, twelve-year-old self and her present-day one, a trainee surgeon.

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In a 1954 letter to his niece Pippa, artist-nomad Ian Fairweather lamented that he could not write with sufficient analytic detachment to look back at his life and ‘see a pattern in it’. (Ian Fairweather: A life in letters, Text Publishing, 2019). The irony – that one of Australian art’s most profound, intuitive pattern-makers should be ruefully unable to ‘see’ the formative structures and repetitions of his fraught life – would not be lost on Amanda Lohrey. Labyrinth, her haunting new novel, is a meditation on fundamental patterns in nature and in familial relations, and our experience of them in time. But this is a novel, not a treatise, its narrative so bracing – like salt spray stinging your face – that one is borne forward inexorably, as if caught in the coastal rip that is one of the novel’s darker motifs. It is a work to read slowly, and reread, so that its metaphorical patterns can come into focus, and the intricate knots of structure loosen and unwind.

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Wonderful is not a critical word, but that is where I begin. Now that I have made my peace with foxes, I am full of wonder for them. Doubly receptive to these stories, I am quickly seduced after the first few, in which foxes appear either substantially or marginally. There is much wonderment in these stories, though only one of them is what might strictly be called speculative. Throughout the collection, little hints and details loiter in plain sight but are also hidden from the characters, sometimes from us – a bit like foxes themselves. For example, in ‘Animal Behaviour’ there is a small bomb ticking quietly from the start in the form of just one word – ‘offenders’ – linking the protagonist to her rescue dog; its detonation as the story unfolds is a triumph of structural control.

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Kate Grenville’s new novel, her first in almost a decade, is dedicated to ‘all those whose stories have been silenced’, for which, as its ‘memoirist’–narrator heroine is Elizabeth Macarthur, we might read ‘women’. Did she – wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in early Sydney – write what Grenville’s publishers call ‘a shockingly frank secret memoir’? In her ‘Editor’s Note’, Grenville tells, tongue firmly in cheek, of there being discovered in the ceiling of a historic Parramatta house under renovation a long-hidden box containing that memoir. In an ‘Author’s Note’ at the book’s end, we are assured that ‘No, there was no box of secrets found in the roof of Elizabeth Farm. I didn’t [as she claimed at the beginning, in her Editor’s Note] transcribe and edit what you’ve just read. I wrote it.’ Perhaps those who thought otherwise failed to observe the book’s epigraph from Elizabeth Macarthur – ‘Do not believe too quickly’ – though whether those words were inscribed by the historic Elizabeth or by Grenville’s fictional one may be a matter for discussion. Apropos of previous books, Grenville the novelist has had disputes with historians about matters of fiction and fact.

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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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‘You not waibala, you not blackfella. You in between.’ So Granny Wiring tells Muraging, the protagonist in Julie Janson’s latest thought-provoking novel, Benevolence. While this is not Janson’s first foray into historical fiction – The Light Horse Ghost was published in 2018 – it is a tale close to her heart. While Benevolence is based on the oral histories of Darug elders and the archival snippets of her own great-great-grandmother, Janson’s characters evoke notions of belonging and benevolence in early settler Australia. Primarily set on Darug country between 1813 and 1842, Benevolence draws attention to the survival and adaptation of Aboriginal communities in the face of the destruction wrought by colonialism.

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