Australian Fiction

Joan London’s new novel, Gilgamesh, is the story of several generations of travellers, moving between Australia, London, and Europe, as far east as Armenia. As such, it is part of a long and venerable tradition in Australian fiction: a tradition of quest narratives organised around topographical and cultural difference ... 

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A Symposium on the state of Australian Fiction with McKenzie Wark, Katharine England, and James Bradley ... (read more)

My Boyfriend’s Father by Ben Winch & The Man Who Painted Women by John Newton

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July 1996, no. 182

‘When I was eighteen my boyfriend’s father died in jail.’ This is the opening sentence of Ben Winch’s second novel; it is also the conclusion of the novel and, having got that out of the way, we can settle into the details that will tell us why this man died in jail and what his story means for this now eighteen-year-old woman.

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David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon is his eighth novel, his first since The Great World (1990) which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Prix Femina Etranger. It is approximately two-thirds the length of that book but is longer than his first three fictions, Johnno, An Imaginary Life, and Fly Away Peter. Its length is important, as in its 200 pages it packs one of the most powerful punches to be found in any contemporary novel. Astonishingly compact and almost feverishly lucid, Remembering Babylon is a searing and startling literary parable, in my opinion destined to endure as one of Australia’s literary commandments.

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‘One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced scarcely more than halfway up the coast …’ The opening lines of the novel seek to place it and us squarely in the discourse of history; to require that we lay aside the credulity with which the reader welcomes in romance and fantasy and become fellow-enquirers into the world of factual record, population figures and dates, marks on maps, important conflicts and the names of governors.

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This is an elegant and satisfying novel. Like fine food, good sex, lasting relationships, and memorable music, it takes time to develop and the artistry that sustains it is understated and deceptive. It is, however, memorable. There is the instant gratification of Farmer’s delicate but sensuous prose and a finely woven narrative about a Danish woman, Dagmar, who is ‘over-wintering’ in Australia after the death of her husband, but this is definitely the tip of the iceberg. It is the cumulative effect of this virtuoso performance that surprises. Throughout, Farmer maintains a balance between the apparent simplicity of one woman’s exclusive story (with its nuances, modulations and personal significances) and the intricacies of a narrative (a kind of linguistic tessellation) which demonstrates a thesis about the inter-relatedness of our ‘one world’.

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Draw an outline of the Cape York Peninsula, far north Queensland. Just a rough one. An isosceles triangle, more or less. Now draw its mirror image away from the baseline. Imagine it in 3-0. Two cones. Two cyclones joined, spinning in opposite directions. Male and female vortices balancing each other, consuming each other. That’s it. Two novellas making a novel: Thea Astley’s brilliant Vanishing Points.

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What do you do when you wake up in the morning and feel the shifty shadow of God lurking? You stay in bed, and hope that it’ll pass you by, that’s what. Sam Pickles doesn’t. He goes to work and loses his fingers in a winch: when he takes his glove off, they ‘fell to the deck and danced like half a pound of ...

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It is surely one of the most widely believed tenets of Australia’s literary history that the short story has a special significance achieved with its rise to popularity in the 1890s under the patronage of the Bulletin and in the hands of a master craftsman like Henry Lawson. Orthodoxy has it that Australian literature was born in the 1890s: that is, it shucked off its colonial cast and developed a distinctly national stance with the emergence of what some call the tradition of formal bush realism and others the Lawson/Furphy tradition. So far as I know, no one has quibbled with the view put forward by Harry Heseltine in his introduction to the Penguin Book of Australian Short Stories (1976) that Henry Lawson was the ‘chronological founder of the tradition of the Australian short story’ and ‘the source of most that is imaginatively important in it.’

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Memoirs of Many in One by Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray (edited by Patrick White)

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July 1986, no. 82

Patrick White is a downy old bird. He has always shown remarkable ability to keep up with the game, even to keep ahead of it. Whether the game is currently being called Modernism, or Postmodernism, or some other ismatic title, he can handle it as a writer and still be himself. From The Aunt’s Story to The Twyborn Affair, he has displayed this ability to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, to go in with the ferrets and also come out with the rabbits. In other words, of all Australian writers he most convincingly builds a bridge between what critics ask for and what readers want.

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