Australian Fiction

‘What is the use of saying, “Peace, Peace” when there is no peace below the diaphragm?’ asks Chinese writer Lin Yutang in The Importance of Living (1937). The subject of food and its manifestations – sustenance, communion, gluttony, longing – has claimed a place in the books of every era and genre, from heavenly manna in the Book of Exodus to starving gladiators in Suzanne Collins’s multi-billion-dollar The Hunger Games franchise. Writers as varied as Marcel Proust and Margaret Atwood have prioritised this theme in their work.

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Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne

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May 2020, no. 421

How do you define love? How much of yourself do you need to sacrifice to keep a friendship afloat? And can we ever truly understand the inner workings of other people’s lives? These are some of the questions that Laura McPhee-Browne explores in Cherry Beach, a gentle tale of female friendship.

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In this multi-perspective novel, Mirandi Riwoe trains her piercing postcolonial gaze on Gold Rush-era Australia, lending richness to the lives of the Chinese settlers who are often mere footnotes in our history. Ying and Lai Yue are outsiders before their arrival in Far North Queensland, where they have gone to find their fortunes after their younger siblings are sold into slavery. While Ying struggles with hiding her gender in the male-dominated goldfields, Lai Yue is haunted by his betrothed, Shan – killed in a landslide back in China – and by his failure to protect the family from penury. Meanwhile, in nearby Maytown, a white woman, Meriem, grapples with her exile from respectable society while working as a maid to local sex worker Sophie.

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Connor is a thirty-something Australian who bides his time grifting in India. His targets are Western female tourists, whom he describes as ‘talent’, and whom he seduces and fleeces. Connor seems to be escaping something, most likely the upbringing in which his masculinity and personal safety were constantly called into question.

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Talking animals in fiction have, for the most part, been confined to children’s or otherwise peripheral literature. Yet they often serve a serious purpose. Aesop’s fables, with their anthropoid wolves, frogs, and ants, have been put to use as moral lessons for children since the Renaissance. The ‘it-narrative’, fashionable in eighteenth-century England and perhaps best exemplified by Francis Coventry’s History of Pompey the Little: Or, the life and adventures of a lap-dog (1752), saw various animals expatiate their suffering at human hands.

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One of the few details we learn about the unnamed narrator of Ronnie Scott’s début novel, The Adversary, is that he is fond of Vegemite. Although only a crumb of information, this affinity for the popular breakfast tar reveals much about our hero. Just as Vegemite ‘has to be spread very thin or you realised it was salty and unreasonable’, his human interactions give him a soupçon of a social life, a mere taste that never threatens to overwhelm his senses.

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Mammoth by Chris Flynn

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May 2020, no. 421

Everything about Chris Flynn’s Mammoth – the characters, plot, and structure – should not work. But it does, and beautifully so. Mammoth is narrated by the fossilised remains of a 13,354-year-old extinct American Mammoth (Mammut americanum), who likes to be addressed as Mammut. On 24 March 2007, the eve of his sale at the Natural History Auction in New York, Mammut finds himself in a room with Tyrannosaurus bataar (who prefers to be called T.bat).

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James Bradley’s Ghost Species arrives at a time when fiction seems outpaced by the speed with which we humans are changing the planet. Alarmingly, such writerly speculation has been realised during Australia’s tragic summer, when the future finally bore down on us. And there are few writers of climate fiction – or ‘cli-fi’, the term coined by activist blogger Dan Bloom and popularised in a tweet by Margaret Atwood – who so delicately straddle the conceptual divide between present and future as Bradley.

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Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle

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April 2020, no. 420

Below Deck is a stunning literary novel. This is a poetic work that can be read aloud just as easily as it can be read in silence. Sophie Hardcastle wrote Below Deck in 2018 when she was a Provost’s Scholar in English Literature at Worcester College at the University of Oxford. As she reveals in the acknowledgments, she read a draft aloud to her professor, an experience that no doubt consolidated the flow of her prose.

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The Hypermarket by Gabriel García Ochoa

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April 2020, no. 420

The Hypermarket, an enigmatic and deeply uncanny novel, explores ‘mistranslation’ against the backdrop of Nietzsche’s philosophy of Eternal Return. Gabriel García Ochoa’s début novel transforms the Houghton Library at Harvard University into a Borgesian space. As the narrator is undertaking his research, he comes across an excerpt from a letter copied into an old diary. It details the lives of people living in a supernatural Hypermarket, ‘where the linoleum floor gives way to moss and a young, tender turf’. In a highly significant moment, the narrator rips out the pages and stores them in volume six of The Arabian Nights.

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