Australian Fiction

Though its origins are unknown, the earliest sense of the word ‘quirk’ was as a subtle verbal twist or a quibble. Over time, its definition has become more nuanced: a quirk now also refers to a person’s peculiar or idiosyncratic traits, chance occurrences, and sudden, surprise curves appearing on paths or in facial expressions. Quirks can also be accidents, vagaries, witty turns of phrase.

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In an unnamed land under the thrall of a mysterious coup, mountain-dweller Ren wants only to live off the grid, undisturbed by human contact. Ren’s familiarity with the natural world becomes a liability when a band of soldiers comes seeking information that only she can provide: the whereabouts of a fabled bird with the ability to make it rain.

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Perhaps reflecting the long gestation period of Bem Le Hunte’s third novel, the term ‘Asian Century’ occurs early on in Elephants with Headlights. The sobriquet is certainly apt. Induction into this vaunted space does not befall a country haphazardly: its temporal aspect serves to remind us that the fate is written in centuries-old geopolitical legacies. Before there was an ‘Asia’ to eponymise in this fashion, a wealth of cultures simply went about their business. But the determinations of capital and colonisation were made long ago, and now we live with the press.

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Tasmanian writer K.M. Kruimink’s first novel, A Treacherous Country, a witty, cracking tale set in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s, has more than a hint of Dickens and Moby-Dick about it. It won The Australian/Vogel’s Literary award, established in 1980 for an unpublished manuscript by an author under thirty-five, which has launched the career of Kate Grenville and Tim Winton, among others. The award sets high standards – it was not awarded in 2019 due to a ‘lack of quality’. Kruimink, who described it as an ‘absolute life-changer’, is a worthy recipient.

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‘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

by
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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