Australian Fiction

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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What a title, and what a début novel. Jessie Tu brings us Jena Lin, a twenty-two-year-old Asian Australian sex addict who was once a violin prodigy fêted around the world. She is a character to remember. The reader knows this from the beginning, and the compelling narrative tension is driven by the slow revelation of an event that occurred seven years before the novel begins.

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Slipstream by Roger McDonald

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June 1982, no. 41

Aviation was a myth still in the making to my generation of Australian children. We cricked our necks watching a patch of sky for Amy Johnson’s arrival and, indeed, whenever an aeroplane engine was heard aloft, as if the watching itself was a necessary act of will, or prayer, to ensure the safety of those magnificent men and women whose photographs showed them always ear-muffed, be-goggled and leather-jacketed, smiling and jauntily waving thumbs up to us their earthbound worshippers.

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Carol Lefevre has shown herself adept at exploring connection and alienation in different genres. In The Happiness Glass (2018), the ambiguous zone between fiction and memoir forms a creative space within which Lefevre plumbs the intricacies of motherhood and loss; home and exile. Murmurations is imbued with similar tropes, the slight heft of the book belying its ethical density and the scope of its narrative ambition.

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Luke Horton’s novel The Fogging opens with a panic attack. Tom, the book’s protagonist, begins to tremble and sweat when the flight he is on – from Melbourne to Denpasar – hits turbulence. Tom is travelling with his long-term girlfriend, Clara, on a holiday they have organised more out of duty than from any real desire for travel, having booked their flights to use up his mother’s Frequent Flyer points. The turbulence wakes Tom’s ‘ringing nerves’ and anxiety starts ‘chewing his insides’, making him ‘shimmer’ and ‘pulse’. He panics, or comes close to panicking, a number of times throughout the novel. Horton’s handling of this – directly, sensorially, compassionately – is remarkable. Tom’s panic attacks are always vivid and bodily, and they always feel true to life. It’s rare to see this achieved so well in fiction.

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The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

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August 2020, no. 423

Towards the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory (2018), Richard Powers attempts to articulate why literature, or more precisely the novel, has struggled to encompass climate change: ‘To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.’

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Of Elizabeth Jolley’s first novel, Palomino (1980), Nancy Keesing said it ‘establishes Elizabeth Jolley as absolutely one of the best writers of fiction in this country’ (ABR, March 1981). Of The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Tom Shapcott said its ‘capacity to touch the very nerve centre of human fragility, of exposing the tragedy in human needs within the small comedy of existence, is something I have not seen done with such delicate balance and precision since the ‘Pnin’ stories of Vladimir Nabakov’ (Fremantle Arts Centre Broadsheet, January-February, 1982). Sally McInerney’s judgement of The Newspaper is that ‘this slight and disturbing novel sways between socio­political allegory (about work and non­human relations) and conventional storytelling, and the two elements work against each other’ (National Times, 17–23 January, 1982). I agree with Keesing and Shapcott, but can understand why McInerney might have come to her conclusion.

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