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SWF LogoAnother year, another fabulous Sydney Writers’ Festival SWF in the sun(SWF). Over the coming few days I’ll post some thoughts on each of the main days’ highlights, beginning with Thursday. You can already catch some sessions on podcasts on Radio National’s Books and Arts website, and the festival’s podcast site will have podcasts up at some stage (not sure when).

 

Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider RahmanWell done to the festival organisers for scheduling an additional session with Zia Haider Rahman, which enabled me to see him on Thursday morning. The session was well marshalled by Aussie expat David Francis, a human rights lawyer based in New York. I wished I had have taken a photo of them, because they walked onto the stage wearing basically the same outfit of brown boots, blue jeans, red check shirts, and similarly styled and coloured jackets. They had only met in person just before the session but Rahman joked they had been separated at birth!

Rahman is the author of In the Light of What We Know, a sprawling epistemological novel that I’m reading now and which has garnered lavish praise from critics around the world. A ‘big’ book, its themes are myriad, including class, friendship, belonging/home/exile, religion and the East-West divide, knowledge and the ‘reliability of what we know’. It owes a debt to WG Sebald’s Austerlitz in terms of structure, a point Rahman made himself, with an unnamed narrator relating the story of his long-lost friend Zafar, whom he met at Oxford University where they studied mathematics.

Zafar is a true outsider, and his rage increases throughout his life at this unmoored life. He arrives at Oxford knowing the mathematics but not how to correctly pronounce the names of the serious mathematicians like Gödel, who devised the ‘Incompleteness Theorem’, which serves as a thematic touchstone for the story. His naivety over pronunciation reminded me of Laura Rambotham in Henry Handell Richardson’s delicious The Getting of Wisdom when she arrives at the posh city school knowing the French language but not how to pronounce it.

The novel features many narrative deviations, which one audience member in a question described as ‘slippings away’. This extends to the occasional footnote. Rahman said he knew when he sat down what the story would be about and where it was going. The ending changed a little after discussion with his publisher, reducing the number of ‘possibilities’. (He later said getting published was an ‘accident’. He sent it to a friend who sent it on to someone in the publishing world.)

He said his fiction is ‘grounded in reality’, which seems a bit of an understatement as it draws heavily on his own life experience. Rahman is a serial over-achiever. Born in Bangladesh (like Zafar), he was educated in Oxford, Cambridge and Yale, studying mathematics (like our protagonists), worked as an investment banker on Wall Street (like our protagonists) and then as a human rights lawyer.

Rahman said he wanted to explore the universal through the specific. He was concerned with this notion of ‘belonging’, how we all romanticise and yearn for ‘home’, and how class clashes or fulfils this need. Zafar, he said, ‘makes a home in the world of ideas.’ Rahman made an interesting point about there being not enough contemporary political writing, and how memoir has been so popular in the last two decades it has crowded out such writing.

I was a touch sceptical of the theme for this year’s festival, which asked the question of ‘how we should live’—sceptical because, to my mind, that is what literature always explores. Couldn’t any literature festival be said to ponder this? Nevertheless, one of the best things I heard said all week was Rahman talking about empathy. He said ‘we can do nothing more valuable than widen our empathy for others’. What a great mantra for how to live.

It was clear from my reading and also from the session that Rahman is a very thoughtful writer. Francis drew out Rahman on questions of masculinity in the book, the bond of male friendship that exists between the narrator and Zafar; and the very Englishness of the name for Zafar’s old girlfriend, Emily Hampton-Wyvern.

Francis also noted that the book reflects well on America. Rahman said this was because Zafar lives in that world of ideas, and the US is that kind of place. It’s a place of optimism and hope. Britain is about ‘muddling through’, a place where pragmatism trumps idealism. In the US, words matter, those founding documents matter.

However, Rahman himself, when asked about his life’s meteoric trajectory, said that he was the anomaly. The notion fed to us that ‘we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps is rubbish’, that so many of us fall through the cracks and needed lifting up.

Knowledge can’t answer every question. The irony is not lost on Rahman: it took a book about knowledge to show us this.

Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldThis was another very well chaired session, with Caroline Baum asking the questions of Helen Macdonald on her bestselling and multiple award-winning memoir H is for Hawk. I read Macdonald’s book (not reviewed here) long before the SWF program was announced, so was thrilled to see her. She also gave the closing address, so do check that out on the SWF website when it becomes available. I know I will. As it turns out, Jane Gleeson-White was also in attendance and wrote up the session brilliantly over at her blog here. It’s a great read.

So rather than cover the same ground, I’ll simply say that one of the most fascinating things about the book and Macdonald’s answers was the way she described becoming one with the bird, almost teetering on the edge of sanity in the wake of her grief. The world became ‘tessellated’, and her senses were so ramped up she could feel ‘intuitions’ in the landscape as she took Mabel out to hunt, the sorts of things Mabel herself was sensing and reacting to. As Baum noted at the beginning, H is also for Helen.

Macdonald, as a poet, writes beautifully. She read out one passage in which she describes Mabel’s appearance, and it is achingly beautiful. I highly recommend reading H is for Hawk. In the meantime, read Jane’s blog post!

These two sessions were the pick of Thursday at the festival.

 

Thursday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: the ridiculously long twitter hashtag preferred by the festival organisers: #SydneyWritersFestival – it was way too many characters. Why not use #swf, #swf15, or even #swf2015 … ? (Ashley Hay beautifully skewered the hashtag on the weekend when she said it’s ‘apparently okay’ for it to not have an apostrophe!); thumbs down also to the change to red shirts for the (wonderful) volunteers from the usual and more distinctive orange. I think I’ll start a hashtag of my own(!): #Bringbackorange

Thumbs up for: the ‘Book of Days’ collaborative project. Over the course ofBook of Days project the four days of the festival, Zoë Sadokierski, together with Astrid Lorange and Monica Monin, was tasked with creating an illustrated anthology—or ‘living index’—of the whole festival, based on the theme ‘how to live’. This included pieces of writing and art from selected presenters, as well as the ability for festival attendees to contribute through tweets or typewriters at Pier 2/3. Zoë is an award-winning book designer who also found time to chair and participate in a book design session on Saturday. The anthology will be available on a print-on-demand basis sometime after the festival, here.

Next up: Festival Friday…

 

SWF LogoThe theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is ‘how to live’, and this question came up in an unexpected way in Evie Wyld’s conversation with Clementine Ford about All the Birds, Singing (my review here), winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Award. It is the story of Jake, who lives on an island off the coast of the UK. Jake has a herd of sheep and something (or someone), some monster, is eviscerating her flock. It’s a powerful book, and I admired the craft Wyld displays throughout, from the opening scene of another dead sheep right through to the gripping and wonderful final pages.

The structure of the novel is a split narrative, with one arc of chapters moving forward while the other arc moves backward to a cataclysmic event in Jake’s childhood. Wyld was asked how she devised this structure. She said she works in a ‘messy way’, and didn’t plan the structure from the start. Rather, she wrote about 60,000 words, looked at what she had, and, in an organic process, rearranged things as the idea for the structure took hold. It was the best form to tell the story she had. In this way, form meets and matches the needs of the story.

For her, writing is about what you decide to leave out, (which has been on my mind after my recent reading of Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes), and also what the reader brings to the table. She likes writing ‘echoes’ that the reader doesn’t pick up right away. She said she receives some rather pointed emails from readers asking for exact clarification of the ending of the novel, but even with these emails, which she quite welcomes, she is of a mind to trust the reader to complete the story in their own mind. As for her, there are some days she thinks ‘X’ happens at the end, while other days she sees something else. For her, the best monster or ghost stories are the ones in which you don’t find out the absolute full story about the monster. Not surprisingly, she is a ‘big fan of open endings’, preferring a story to trail after you when you’ve finished it, leaving you with that after-taste you can’t shake.

Ford raised the topic of the misogyny in the book, with the ‘suffocation of being a woman’ captured well. Wyld said she is quite angry about the objectification of young girls, their sexualisation, and the ‘apologetic’ female experience. However, the cruel men in the story were not born monsters, they were damaged at some point and became monsters. Of course, sometimes this damage is self-inflicted,  and as one audience member noted, the story for her was about Jake’s guilt, a point I agreed with.

The gender discussion delved further into the sort of pressure and resistance female authors have when writing male characters as opposed to when male authors write female characters, and also about the average male response to finding Wyld’s book in her London bookstore: ‘I’ll buy it for my wife/girlfriend’, rather than ‘I’ll buy it for myself’. I don’t doubt all these problems, but as a male reader who bought the book for myself, I felt a bit lost. But I guess that (hopefully) makes be, um, not average? (Sadly, by the standards set by the men in this story and with violence against women such a problem in society generally, it seems this isn’t too difficult.)

Interestingly, when Ford said it was a ‘lingering’ book, and wanted to know whether it lingered for Wyld herself, Wyld said ‘I absolutely hated it when I finished. I was embarrassed by it.’ She said you ‘feel a disappointment when you finish a book’ because you wanted it to be X and it turned out to be Y. She thought it was so bad she had trouble giving it to her editor to read, and thought it wouldn’t amount to anything(!).

One audience member asked her how to go about writing strong female characters, and she made the point that you wouldn’t set out to write strong male characters, you would just write a male character, a real person. That in essence is what a writer should do when creating a female character, ‘simply’ create a person, write them as neither good nor evil, strong or weak, but merely human.

Wyld said she is a huge fan of Tim Winton and, like him, found it easier to write about Australia when overseas (she lives in London). Australia, a place she spent many years in as a child, is a place of nostalgia for her, something that clearly comes through in her writing.

Right at the end of the session, Wyld said she started the story after reading about the infamous Parker-Hulme murder in New Zealand, committed in 1954 by two girls aged 15 and 16, which the movie Heavenly Creatures is based on. Because they were so young, when found guilty the girls ‘went to juvi’, basically a slap on the wrist, and then moved separately to the UK. One lives on an island with some cattle, and has become religious. The other also moved to the UK, changed her name and is now a very successful novelist(!) and is also now very religious. The question came to Wyld: what happens if you’re an atheist and do something unforgivable? Who can forgive you? Can you forgive yourself? How do you live? This was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the talk, as the question of where authors get the germ of an idea for a book always interests me. And it very aptly dovetailed with the theme of this year’s festival.

On that note, bring on the rest of the festival!

SWF LogoMy favourite week of the (literary) year has arrived, with the Sydney Writers’ Festival rolling into town. The program is online at swf.org.au. As usual, it’s a case of wall-to-wall sessions for me later this week and into the weekend, but I’m easing myself into things with a one-off session at the University of New South Wales today featuring Evie Wyld, winner of last year’s Miles Franklin Award for All the birds, singing (my review here).

Authors I’m seeing later include: Brooke Davis, author of Lost and Found (my review here); Zia Haider Rahman, author of the acclaimed In the Light of What We Know, which I’m reading now and quite enjoying; Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, which I read earlier in the year and thought absolutely fabulous (I miss Mabel!); Don Watson, The Bush, another read from earlier in the year, and another stand out non fiction title from last year; Aussies Steven Carroll & John Marsden talking about creating historical fiction alongside Amy Bloom; another Aussie in Terry Hayes talking about his epic (and fabulous) thriller I Am Pilgrim; David Mitchell, discussing his genre bending The Bone Clocks (my review here), and in another session with James Bradley and others talking about dystopian futures; Ben Okri, talking about The Age of Magic; Brooke Davis (again!) and Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole; Quicksand) on sentimentality in fiction; a session on book design with the inimitable WH Chong from Text Publishing and other book designers (it’s great to see a book design panel session return to SWF); Malcom Knox, Sonya Hartnett and Kari Gislason discussing the things people hide, which, having read and enjoyed Hartnett’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Golden Boys, with its menacing underbelly, should be a fascinating session.

Phew, I’m tired just typing that! Should be great fun… and if you ever wanted to know what goes on behind the shelves at your local book store, then you can catch Evie Wyld, Brooke Davis and Krissy Kneen dish all, (what a shame this session is sandwiched between the normal times of other sessions, making it difficult to get to!).

I’ll get around to giving some round-ups of the pick of the sessions in the coming days.

All the birds singing by Evie WyldH is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldIn the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider RahmanThe Bone Clocks by David MitchellLost and Found by Brooke Davis

The Bush by Don WatsonI am Pilgrim by Terry HayesQuicksand by Steve ToltzGolden Boys by Sonya HartnettThe Age of Magic by Ben Okri


When the Night Comes by Favel ParrettWhen the Night Comes
is Favel Parrett’s anticipated follow-up to her acclaimed Miles Franklin Award shortlisted debut, Past the Shallows (my review here). Written in what can now be considered her signature sparse prose and ultra-short chapters, it is the story of a relationship between a young girl, Isla, and Bo, a Danish cook on the Antarctic exploration and supply ship Nella Dan. Laced with nostalgia and melancholy, Parrett takes us back into familiar territory: Tasmania in the mid to late 1980s, a broken family, an exploration of how young children are influenced by the adults in—or absent from—their lives. It is a much ‘quieter’ story than her debut; there is far less narrative drive.

The story opens with Isla moving from Victoria to Hobart, Tasmania, with her depressed mum and her unnamed younger brother, sailing across Bass Strait on a passenger ship in a storm. They are moving because her mother’s marriage with Isla’s father has broken down. Her mum is aloof and ‘absent’ from the story almost as much as her father is. The fact she never names her brother is a sign of just how disconnected Isla is.

The Hobart she finds herself in is all grey, but Isla’s spirits lift when she sees a red ship docked:

RED. Nothing but red. A bright red wall of steel. … A patch of sunlight broke through the clouds, hit the red bow, just a tiny beam. For a second there was nothing else but the words written clear, white against red: Nella Dan. I said the words over and over in my head. Nella Dan. Nella Dan. Nella Dan. They made my heart beat out faster.

She certainly stands out against the grey rain and the black River Derwent. And there is more here, for a man is waving to her from the deck of the ship. ‘Someone could see me.’ It is a simple, almost throwaway line, but it contains multitudes, and we begin to understand Isla’s fragile state of mind. The adults in her life have largely abandoned her, and here is someone seeing her. It’s deft and subtle characterisation. Isla’s mum befriends Bo, and the ship becomes a place of safety for Isla. Afraid of the dark, she finds on the Nella Dan, ‘it was never night’.

Isla’s chapters are told in first person, past tense. She is a woman in her forties, looking back at her childhood. Strangely, she narrates these slight vignette-style chapters as a child would rather than an adult. Bo’s chapters, meanwhile, are told in first person, present tense, and largely work well. Both are very reserved characters, even wary in the case of Isla. When Bo returns to Denmark in the southern winters, he finds himself lonely and wanting to return to Hobart.

There are thoughtfully constructed parallels between Isla and Bo’s two narratives throughout. Both narratives see characters suffer losses at similar points, and as a storm at sea frames Isla’s opening, so too does a storm at sea frame Bo’s opening:

The water hits hard again and we pitch over. I tense my core but I’m back against the bulkhead, sliding up towards the ceiling. I feel Nella shudder, grind her metal teeth. My bones vibrate against her. I try to relax, keep calm – it’s fine – but there’s this creaking, this screeching, like every bolt that holds her together is coming loose. Coming apart.

There is also a lovely and subtle symmetry between the opening and ending, with two voyages being made to islands. Indeed, islands, both physical and metaphorical, permeate the story. Although close to her unnamed brother, the aptly named Isla cannot bring herself to name him, and she is cut off from her mum, whose relationship difficulties she is too young to understand. Bo comes from an island in Denmark, and is drawn to both Tasmania and Macquarie Island; he is also drawn to Isla’s mum, who sits by herself at night, but most of their relationship is withheld from us. There’s an underlying hint that islands can be dangerous. One of her school teachers asks Isla’s class what the most dangerous thing at sea is: the answer is land, running aground, on a reef or rocks. You get the feeling not only ships that might run aground but people do, too.

And what of Nella Dan herself? Parrett holds a clear love for the little red ship, and this love permeates the story. When she is due to depart on the final voyage, she doesn’t want to leave Hobart, as if she senses a dire fate awaits her in the Southern Ocean. (There is a section of pages after the story with recollections of the ship by those who sailed on her.)

When the Night Comes is a bit like an iceberg: so much of it is underwater and unseen. For all the lovely characterisation, it feels like there’s something missing. Some of Isla’s chapters did not feel connected to the whole. Is this a clever play on the theme of islands, I wonder, or a lack of cohesion? I suppose that’s the risk in writing a story about disconnection. That said, I had the feeling the whole was more than the sum of the parts. There is a lovely resolution, quietly moving, and there is much to ponder about the unseen, untold story. It will be interesting to see where Parrett goes from here.

When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett

2014

Hachette

245 pages (plus pages on Nella Dan)

ISBN: 9780733626586

Source: purchased

The Bone Clocks by David MitchellSoon there will be a game called David Mitchell Bingo. Kaleidoscopic narrative with multiple interlinked stories? Check. Characters from previous novels? Check. Wit? Check. Metafictional jokes? Check. Invention? Check. Genre leaps? Check. Future dystopia chapter? Check. Intricate plotting? Check. Entertainment? Check. Our interconnectedness? Check, check, check!

Although of a slightly different ‘flavour’, The Bone Clocks is structurally of the same mould as Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. It has six interlinked stories following the life of Holly Sykes, told in first person present tense by five different narrators, two by Holly herself and four by other people in her life. Each chapter is set in a different time period and setting. There’s Holly as a rebellious teen in Gravesend, Kent, in 1984; the deceitful Hugo Lamb in Cambridge University in 1991, who meets Holly in a Swiss ski village; the war-addicted reporter Ed Brubeck in 2004, childhood friend of Holly and now her husband and father to Aoife; the utterly delicious Crispin Hersey, a once successful author intent on taking revenge against his harshest critic in 2015; the Horologist Marinus in 2025 New York City, who in a previous incarnation treated Holly as a girl and now asks her for help; and finally Holly Sykes, living in the post-apocalyptic ‘Endarkenment’ in 2043 on the west coast of Ireland.

Threaded throughout is an underlying Science Fiction or Speculative Fantasy plot about a war between the immortal ‘Atemporals’, on one side the (good) ‘Horologists’, on the other: the (evil) ‘Anchorites’.  ‘Bone clocks’ is a term given to mere mortals like Holly by the Anchorites. The Horologists are pure immortals, either ‘sojourners’  or ‘returnees’, working to the ‘Script’; while the Anchorites are soul vampires, prolonging their lives by decanting the souls of children, which becomes the Dark Wine they drink every three months in the Chapel of the Dusk to stave off ageing. The Atemporals have all sorts of powers, including telepathy (‘subspeak’); ingressing into, and egressing out of, people’s bodies; freezing people through ‘hiatus’; redacting memories. The Anchorites can also summon the ‘Aperture’, a portal device. The Horologists failed in their ‘First Mission’, an attempt to destroy the Chapel of the Dusk and the Anchorites, and are preparing a second attack.

Still with me? There’s no doubting Mitchell’s storytelling ability. His narratives rollick along with three dimensional characters and intricate plotting. It’s all very entertaining. The bad boy of British letters, Crispin Hersey, with his cynical takedowns of other writers and critics at literary festivals, is an absolute scream. Living off the early success of Desiccated Embryos (Dead Babies by Martin Amis?!), he doesn’t mind referring to himself in the third person. His new novel, Echo Must Die, is ripped apart by critic Richard Cheeseman, who was once a friend in their Cambridge days. Cheeseman could be commenting on The Bone Clocks when he writes: ‘The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look’, and, ‘What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’ Crispin (and Mitchell?) counters with, ‘in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre.’ These playful metafictional jokes are great fun.

There are interesting Australian influences in this location-hopping novel (the only continent we don’t go to is Antarctica). Crispin meets up with Kenny Bloke, a Noongar poet, loosely based, I suspect, on Kim Scott (whom Mitchell mentions in an interview section at the rear of the book, and whom Mitchell met at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2011). Crispin is trying to win the Brittan Prize, which sounds suspiciously like the Booker Prize because it has just been opened up to American authors. In The Bone Clocks, Nick Greek, a US author, wins! And Kenny Bloke thinks it was very well deserved. (I can’t decide whether ‘Kenny Bloke’ is a hilarious name for an Aussie author, or lazily demeaning!)

Crispin and Holly appear at the Hay Literary Festival, then run into each other at the Perth Writers’ Festival, and then again on Rottnest Island. Holly, whose spiritual memoir The Radio People became a bestseller, is able to tune into voices. And there are many voices on Rottnest Island. She tunes into the Noongar Aboriginal people, and I wondered what Kim Scott made of Mitchell writing as a Noongar ancestor being as Holly narrates:

Wadjemup, they called this island. Means the Place Across the Water. … For the Noongar, the land couldn’t be owned. No more than the seasons could be owned, or a year. What the land gave, you shared. … Whitefella ship us to Wadjemup. Chains. Cells. Coldbox. Hotbox. Years. Whips. Work. Worst thing is this: our souls can’t cross the sea. So when the prison boat takes us from Fremantle, our soul’s torn from our body. Sick joke. So when come to Wadjemup, we Noongar we die like flies. 

Not so for the immortal Anchorites, who recruit potential newcomers with this sales pitch:

What is born must one day die. So says the contract of your life, yes? I am here to tell you, however, that in rare instances this iron clause may be … rewritten.

Death and immortality is one of the key themes of The Bone Clocks. It is interesting that the oldest Horologist, now known as Esther Little, otherwise known as Moombaki, is a Noongar woman, who has lived for thousands of years. And the Horologists don’t go across the ‘Last Sea’ where the souls of dead bone clocks end up. It’s a nice echo of the Noongars’ Wadjemup history, and shows Mitchell is a thoughtful writer and plotter.

An adjunct of the mortality theme is a predacious theme, with both Anchorites and mortals eating future generations. The final story is set in the post-apocalyptic future, the so-called ‘Endarkenment’. There are electricity, food and medical shortages, ration boxes, security cordons, and the Chinese Pearl Occident Company (POC) rules everything it seems. (There have also been pandemics of ebola, a disturbingly prescient element given current events in West Africa.) When the POC removes support for the Irish ‘Lease Lands’, the jackdaws take over, with lawless chaos and an every-person-for-themselves mentality. The young look at the older generations, like Holly’s, as future eaters. It’s a bleak and terrifying future vision.

With Mitchell you’re often left feeling you’re reading several novels in one. That’s certainly true of The Bone Clocks. There are passages that add details that don’t seem necessary, in which you wonder whether he is paying attention to a minor character because he wants to use that character in a future story. More troubling, though, is the lingering question of what it all means.

After some thought, I’ve decided there is a serious point here, that of immortality gained through predation, of the rich and privileged eating the future. I enjoyed The Bone Clocks immensely, and I admire Mitchell’s writing. His legion of fans will love it. Fans of Murakami and China Mieville will love it, too.

But there are some cracks in the edifice. Mitchell burst on the literary scene with Ghostwritten, perhaps still his best, and certainly most cohesive, work.  It introduced us to his great unifying theme: interconnectedness. He talks of writing one giant ‘uber’ novel, and it’s great fun identifying the characters who have appeared in previous novels (characters from Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet appear here). The question is, if all his novels are based on this idea, will they all begin to sound alike? (I’m not hugely surprised The Bone Clocks did not make the Booker shortlist.)

Nevertheless, when the next Mitchell novel comes out, I’ll do what I did this time: run to the book store and rub my hands with glee at the expectation of the reading experience to come. I know it will be entertaining. And I’ll find out whether my David Mitchell Bingo idea has any legs or whether he surprises with something new.

There are plenty of Mitchell believers out there. Ursula Le Guin praised The Bone Clocks at the Guardian here.

Carolyn Kellogg loved it at the LA Times here.

James Wood offers a more circumspect assessment at the New Yorker here:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

2014

Sceptre

595 pages

ISBN: 9780340921616

Source: purchased

I came across something very interesting the other day: a collaborative project between Anna Funder and Australian Pearl company Paspaley.

Winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for All that I Am (my review here)Funder has written a short story entitled Everything Precious, which you receive in seven daily instalments after signing up (it’s free) here. (All they ask for is a name and an email address.)

There is a little ‘book’ trailer on the site, which admittedly is more of an ad for Paspaley, but the interesting thing is that here is an Aussie company paying an Aussie author to write a story for them. I have no idea how much Funder was paid, but kudos to Paspaley.

No doubt there’ll be some product placement, most likely in the final instalment. The question is, will it be a roll-the-eyes moment, or a gee-that’s-sweet moment? Given Funder’s the author, I expect the latter. I’ve received four instalments so far and am enjoying my daily dose.

Could this become a model for other corporations to support Australian writing as part of their marketing? Most of us are used to some product placement in films these days. Perhaps we should expect some more of it in fiction.

UPDATE: I was wrong: there was no product placement. (I knew I should have waited to read it all before I posted! Sigh.) And the story was excellent. I dip my lid to all parties.

Australian Love Stories edited by Cate KennedyI admit it: I’m a sucker for a good love story. Give me a happy ending, or the heartbreak, or the bitter sweet, in whatever form or style—realist or speculative, gay or straight or bending, darkly menacing, hallucinatory, or fertile romp. Can there be more fertile ground for fiction? Judging by this excellent forthcoming anthology of short stories, which focuses on love in all its guises, the answer is a resounding no.

Edited by renowned short-story writer Cate Kennedy into seven themed sections, which take their titles from the prose of one of the stories within that particular section, the highlights are so many that when I started to put together my favourites from the 29 stories on offer, the list quickly became a regurgitation of the table of contents. And no wonder, for in her introduction Kennedy relates the enormous task of sifting through, count them, 445(!) submissions—a herculean task and one which she has done admirably given the quality of the stories that made the cut.

On display are some of our finest and most respected proponents of the short form, such as Bruce Pascoe, Carmel Bird, Tony Birch, David Francis, Lisa Jacobsen, Irma Gold and, well, there I go again with the table of contents listing eh? And joining them are newcomers, whose work sits alongside the more established authors with ease.

Where to begin? First an outline of the seven themed sections, which cover: (1) the dawn of love; (2) all-encompassing desire; (3) same sex love; (4) love with children in the picture, with troubled relationships or relationships that are slow burners, only bringing lovers together after decades; (5) love in the midst of babies and/or expectant arrivals; (6) love in times of health crisis; (7) affairs and their aftermath. Six of the sections contain four stories, with the remaining section containing five. There’s a wonderful balance, and I love the titles (‘That Sensuous Weight’, ‘Why Cupid is Painted Blind’, ‘Firm as Anchors, Wet as Fishes’, and so on).

Picking any is to be cruel to the others, for there were only two stories that didn’t resonate with me, but I could see even in them reasons for why they will resonate with other readers. But onward to some of my personal favourites…

An early highlight in the universally excellent first section, (which also features Bruce Pascoe, Catherine Bates, and Kathryn Lomer), is Susan Pyke’s Meltemi. The meltemi is a summer afternoon wind in the Aegean Sea. The Aegean Sea, I hear you ask, I thought these were Australian stories? Hmmm, it is perhaps the collection’s only misstep: there are two stories set wholly overseas, and a couple of others set both overseas and in Australia. Given the title of the anthology, you could mount an argument that those stories set wholly overseas shouldn’t have been included. I suppose the counter argument would be ‘love is universal’. Anyway, Meltemi is a sweet coming-of-age tale, set in Samos, an island near the coast of Turkey with a beautiful end as the girl who is our narrator takes a swim in the sea to cool off in the torturous summer heat, stripping bare, and finds herself swimming near rocks, thinking she is alone until she sees the guy she has had her eye on, who is playing his flute to attract the crabs out of the rocks. It has a lovely poetic ending.

Another stellar story is Leah Swan’s delightful Why Cupid is Painted Blind, also a hot summer story, in which Mallory is introduced to us as a ‘woman who’d danced with a man who was not her fiancé and could think of nothing else. She’d heard that love could be a madness that descended on you, like an illness, like the flu.’ And poor Mallory does suffer from the madness of love, something that turns the straight-laced woman into something of an obsessive. She has danced with Karl, a musician, for whom she writes a poem, and despite seeing him living in happiness with a woman and children, Mallory can’t help herself and pops the said letter in his post box! That’s not the end, of course, but I shan’t spoil it for you… but it’s a perfect ending. Lovely.

The haunting Lover like a Tree by J Anne deStaic deserves special mention. It’s the story of a heroin and methadone addict, whose female partner sticks with him even when she’s not sure if she, being an ‘ordinary’ woman, can handle it or fix him. The story employs the metaphors of terrain and tree, and drips with poetic resonance. Preparing to inject himself he ‘wipes the side of his wrist with an alcohol swab and its fragrance hits him quickly as his veins draw like a map up his arm, wide highways painted blue, picked out against the flat plain skin.’ We switch points of view between the addict and his partner, getting both sides of the story as it were. And how lyrical is this description of his drug-induced haze:

… the caress of her hand has the brush of leaves and twigs and her arm over him is a pale bark branch and her hair a canopy of blossoms and birds are sleeping there and butterflies rest in her cool green shade while her roots sink down through the bed and the floor and the earth to its rocks and he feels the rain sliding over him, dripping from her leaves, his lover like a tree.

I enjoyed the fabulous Hooked by Toby Sime, a powerful story with striking images and word choices. Our male narrator comes across a girl he had seen many years earlier when she was in some trouble; she has a scar near her mouth that is shaped like a hook. And our narrator is indeed hooked. ‘The scar at her lip was the hook in my mouth; my tongue made its shape on the back of my teeth.’ And, ‘the crewel of her scar had put a stitch in me I’d been unable or unwilling to unpick.’ Her kiss: ‘was a labyrinth. All, all I wanted in the world, was to never find my way out.’ And this: ‘… I knew, though she was no ghost, that we were in a spirit realm now, and I could pass my hand right through her, or she through me, because the physical barrier between us had been extinguished.’ The story is peppered with imaginative simile and metaphor, ‘kohl-black hair’, ‘the miraculous Berkeley Square of her bed’, and has a lovely twist at the end.

Oh dear, I am rabbiting on. Special quick mentions to the adorable Swallow by Jon Bauer, about a young boy whose mother is in an abusive relationship with a man who is not his father. The boy goes outside in a gale, believing their argument to have caused the high winds: ‘The kitchen argument going up a notch on the Beaufort Scale, the parental vitriol bending the spruce trees over in the wind. … the first dead leaves aloft in the sky like the spirits of birds.’ He rescues an injured swallow. ‘It felt strange once he’d gathered it in the jacket, light and fragile, but substantial. Meringue.’ Rejecting the tin cans of his would-be step-father, he finds the perfect home for it, opting for something much closer to his heart.

I loved A Greek Tragedy by Claire Varday (aside from a couple of surface copy editing issues, which I’m sure will be fixed in the final published version), which is constructed in two parts, the romance and the tragedy. As the narrator observes: ‘It starts as a romance and ends as a tragedy. There are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret. It is, after all, Greek.’ (Some of this story is set in Oz.) It is an utterly heartbreaking story, very well constructed.

I would be erring not to note Allison Browning’s These Bones, which features Enzo, a gay man with Alzheimer’s, who makes a break from his care facility in order to go home to his partner, Nev. The helpful biography section informs me Browning is developing These Bones as a novel with the assistance of the annual Australian Society of Authors’ mentorship program. So look out for the longer version of this beautifully rendered love story soon-ish (hopefully!). It shows love at its most enduring and blind best, underscoring what it means to love someone come rain or shine. I defy anyone not to fall in love with Enzo, and feel for his and Nev’s loss, and Nev is an absolute stalwart. There is a description of a shower they have after Enzo has wet himself, the two of them standing in the shower ‘firm as anchors, wet as fishes’—a perfect combination of strength and fragility, (and which Kennedy appropriately chose for the title of this section of stories set against the backdrop of illness).

A quick nod to Tony Birch’s wonderful Joe Roberts, which is rife with lingering questions about Joe, who meets a very troubled girl at the train station on his way to the hospital to undergo tests. He leaves the girl lying on the station platform, shuddering wet in the cold. At the hospital we learn he has a shady past, though exactly how shady we’re not allowed to know. It is a masterfully constructed and realised story about the possibility of redemption.

Last, but by no means least, is the final story, Where the Honey Meets the Air by Carmel Bird. Narrated by ‘Sugar Sam’, it is a veritable tour de force. After a very brief introduction of five one- or two-line paragraphs, Sam (and Bird) takes us deep into a story of an affair gone wrong—all delivered in an eight-page long stream-of-consciousness sentence, a deluge without break. There are delightful jokes and puns, allusions to Shakespeare, wordplay, wordplay, and yet more wordplay. And there’s a wily, crafty story, with Sam recounting his friend’s affair and his subsequent murder of his wife and her lover… but there’s another way of reading it, which comes clear toward the end, a delicious and sly turning of the story on its head. Although an affair and a murder don’t sound like a good way to bring the curtain down on a collection of love stories, I don’t think Kennedy had much of a choice!

awwbadge_2014And to think I’ve only mentioned half of the stories I wanted to. There’s no room for Debi Hamitlon’s moving The Edge of the Known World; the lovely slow burn of Sally-Ann Jones’s Hammer Orchid, which sizzles across a racial divide, an age gap and decades of elapsed time, and is reminiscent of Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country in terms of feel even though it’s set in WA; the intriguing pull and laugh-out loud asides in David Francis’s Moses of the Freeway, about a gay couple in Los Angeles; the surprise tail-end of Caroline Petit’s The Contract; the sadness of Susan Midalia’s A Blast of a Poem; the brief pain and lovely turn in Natasha Lester’s It Used to be His Eyes; or the stunning end to Megg Minos’s Need Gone Today.

I’ve already read a few stories twice, and I can see this volume sitting within easy reach for constant dipping into. And for those keeping track of such things, of the 29 stories, 22 are by female authors. (Would it be cheeky to use this book towards my AWW2014 target?! There’s plenty of great Aussie women writers in this anthology, so why not?) Perhaps the only surprise is that Cate Kennedy didn’t contribute one of her own stories, which would have made the collection better (even though I am very wary of editors contributing their own work to anthologies).

Australian Love Stories will hit book stores in October, becoming stable-mate to the well-received Australian Love Poems, edited by mark Tredinnick, which came out last year. Perhaps Stories can become an annual publication, or biennial at least. After all, we all like a good love story, don’t we?

Australian Love Stories edited by Cate Kennedy

2014

Inkerman & Blunt Publishers

289 pages (plus author biography section)

ISBN: 9780987540164

Source: preview copy provided by the publisher

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