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Hi everone. Lisa from ANZ Litlovers has rightly castigated me for not posting something about my absence of late, and along with Sue from Whispering Gums she’s gently been prompting me to post *anything*… So, all’s well, I have just been taking a break and working on other things but reading more than ever. Expect posts to be irregular, though I always reserve the right to post something here (or on Twitter:@johnlboland) from the Sydney Writers’ Festival!

While I’m here (could this be a return in the making?!?), I’d love to share with you a belated best reads from 2016. Call it a top five that may contain more than five (limited to books published in 2016):

solar-bones-by-mike-mccormackSolar bones by Mike McCormack: wow, the Irish really have it going on, don’t they? If Eimear McBride and Lisa McInerney (gritty and prize-winning The glorious heresies) weren’t enough to convince you of this, then Solar bones will. An audacious stream-of-consciousness novel without a single – yes, that’s right: a single! – full stop in sight. A ‘simple’ story about an ordinary family man but in McCormack’s hands it is transcendent. Solar bones won the 2016 Goldsmith’s Prize, which in only its fourth year is proving to be a ripper of a prize, whose purpose is to “celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. Solar bones does just that.

the-lesser-bohemians-by-eimear-mcbrideThe lesser bohemians by Eimear McBride: another coming-of-age story from the Irish sensation, with wall-to-wall sex, and self sabotaging, so it’s not for everyone, but it’s worth the journey, with a fabulous ending. McBride’s now signature prose style is more accessible here than in her glorious (Goldsmith Prize-winning!) debut A girl is a half-formed thing. And you have to admire a writer who says James Joyce is her major influence. I think he’d be proud of this much-anticipated second novel.

days-without-end-by-sebastian-barryDays without end by Sebastian Barry. Fuses elements of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood meridian, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback mountain, with a dash of Aussie movie Priscilla: queen of the desert. What makes this a standout is Barry’s singular narrative voice that is so of its time and locale (Civil War era America) that it rivals Peter Carey’s similar feat in his Booker winner True history of the Kelly gang. I had serious doubts before I read it given I admire Blood Meridian greatly but DWE stands on its own feet.

 

monglow-by-michael-chabonMoonglow by Michael Chabon. Simply sublime. Chabon is such a thoughtful writer. Inserting himself into the action in this delightfully faux memoir, he takes his family history as the starting point for fiction, tracing a story of his (invented) grandparents, particularly his grandfather, who was on the hunt for Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Bruan as WWII came to an end. Flits effortlessly between multiple time frames in the twentieth century. Family secrets abound, and the one Chabon ‘discovers’ about his own bloodline is jaw-dropping.

 

the-sellout-by-paul-beattyThe Sellout by Paul Beatty. I was ahead of the Booker game last year, reading this before it was even longlisted. What can I say? Daring. Subversive. Funny. A biting satire on race-relations in the US. The narrator, whose nickname is the Sellout, takes on the US government in the Supreme Court in a bid to reinstate slavery. That’s just one strand of this riot of a book. Along the way we see a reworking of Huckleberry Finn, while Dickens’s Great Expectations becomes Measured Expectations. Oh, and the Sellout also credits Tennyson with the start of gangster rap. A wild ride. Often uncomfortable. Not for the fainthearted. Loses a bit of traction in the middle, but it’s not about plot, it’s about making a point. Beatty does that and more.

autumn-by-ali-smithAutum by Ali Smith, the first in her seasonal tetralogy that explores our experience of time. Ah, Ali Smith, reading her is like the best of hugs (if you’re a hugging person!). She’s so inventive and playful and clever. Some hilarious Kafkaesque moments (passport application in the local post office ring any bells?!), pinned against a very fresh take on Brexit (the first post-vote novel?) and the rise of humanity’s darker side in the UK and the lack of dialogue that has come with it (a global issue to be sure). A hymn to transient life. I think the four novels, once done and taken together, will be really special. (Fab cover art too,, from David Hockney. Can’t wait to see the others!)

position-doubtful-by-kim-mahoodPosition doubtful by Kim Mahood. A fabulous memoir and a must for anyone seeking to better understand the nexus between white and Indigenous Australia. Mahood writes with the eye of an artist, the mind of a poet, and the soul of someone born of the desert country. An intensely moving personal journey, and a wonderful tribute to the stunning Tanami desert and lake landscape and the many friends loved and lost over decades of inland travels. Assuming it’s eligible this year, if it doesn’t get shortlisted for the Stella Prize (and many others) then there’s something seriously wrong.

There you go, proof that seven into five does go!

Goodness. I intended this to be a short post and now look what I’ve done. Some things don’t change, eh?!

 

 

 

 

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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

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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

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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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Journey to the Stone Country by Alex MillerWhy did I wait so long to get to Alex Miller’s beautiful, Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Journey to the Stone Country? Set in the famed ‘stone country’ of the interior of far north Queensland, Miller explores themes of possession, preservation, ancestral sins, redemption, love across racial boundaries, as well as Indigenous politics and reconciliation. He does this with the tender lyricism, earthy characters and delicate plotting that are the hallmarks of his stone country works. Journey possesses a sort of mystic gravitas that is hard to pin down, but is bound up in the rugged landscape and its Jangga people. It is a landscape not for the faint-hearted, and yet entering into it with Miller as your guide you feel completely safe, free to become as spellbound to its powers as its protagonists are.

Annabelle Beck, a university lecturer in Melbourne, is the grand-daughter of cattle station owners in far north Queensland. She returns home one day to find her husband Steven, also a university lecturer, has run off with one of his attractive honours students. She retreats to Townsville where she meets Bo Rennie while doing some work for her friend Sue in the area of Aboriginal cultural assessment.

The laconic, wise, chain-smoking Bo is the grandson of Grandma Rennie, a Murri Aboriginal woman who married Iain Rennie, a white stockman, even when such a marriage was outlawed by the ludicrously named ‘Protection Act’. Bo reminds ‘Annabellebeck’ they have met before—they used to swim naked as little kids in one of the old inland waterholes. He says to her he always thought she’d come back. She is intrigued by Bo and this cryptic message. Is he saying to her he has waited for her to come back? One of the delights of the novel’s progression is the way Annabelle has to throw off the part of herself that was raised and schooled to inquire into the reasons for everything.

Together they begin a journey that takes them through landscapes of their families’ joint pasts. They navigate the fractious relationships in modern Aboriginal politics and come to learn of past brutalities that threaten their growing bond. Bo seeks to recover Verbena Station, the land Grandma Rennie inherited when Iain died, which she was swindled out of by a white relation.

Grandma Rennie was ‘one of the last to give birth to up there in that stone country’. Bo educates Annabelle about this tough scrub country, which he and Dougald Gnapun used to muster cattle through as ‘boys’. Bo describes how Grandma took him and some other children into the stone country of the Old People when he was a boy:

And when Grandma seen that we was ready she rose from the fire and led us out of the silverleafed wattle into a great wide clearing. I’ll never forget it. And there was the labyrinth of stones lying there on the bare ground, polished by the wind and gleaming in the moonlight like rows of skulls laid out in a secret pattern. And we knew we was looking on our old people. We never spoke but stood and gazed on them ancient circles and paths and patterns on the ground and we seen it was the playground of life and death and we knew them old people was little children just like we was and they had gone on before us and left us their dreams and their sweet lives. Grandma never needed to say nothing to us about having something to live for. We seen it ourselves.

In one of their first joint work efforts, assessing country that a company wants to mine for coal, Annabelle finds a ‘cylcon’, a ‘cylindro-conical stone artefact of unknown purpose’, which she takes with her, but when she shows it to Dougald he almost recoils from it; he doesn’t know its original purpose or whether he should even be looking at it. Annabelle’s faux-pas stings her, makes her reassess her sense of the need to preserve artefacts. Indeed, one of many wonderful things in Journey is the way Annabelle realises there are some things in Indigenous culture she should not know.

When Bo invites her to go with him to the Stone Country of the Old People, she is wary. I love the way Miller handles this, both Bo’s invite, the way it meant he was offering her everything without declaring it overtly; the way she receives it with a ‘yes’ that sounded like a no. The subtlety is lovely.

Bo and Annabelle are shadowed by one of the most interesting secondary characters I’ve come across: Arner, Douglad’s son, who is almost Buddha-like, contemplative, someone with ‘the gift’ of being able to talk to the ‘Old People’. And yet he and his sister Trace often stay inside his ute, playing modern dance music with throbbing base at high volume, as if they don’t want any part of the landscape that is theirs by rights. He provides a wonderful counterpoint to Annabelle’s yearning for connection. (Trace provides a lovely counterpoint of her own as she finds an interesting and unexpected love match on their journey.)

I recall Kim Scott’s masterful Miles Franklin-winning novel That Deadman Dance (my review here) being described as a ‘post-reconciliation’ work, one that showed the terrible things of the past while offering an olive branch, a way forward. Of Noongar descent, Scott writes from a place of authority on the vexed issue of reconciliation. Miller is not Indigenous, and yet he too writes from a place of authority. He knows these people. In a way he is these people.

There are lovely touches throughout, such as the meta-fictional title for Annabelle’s husband’s conference paper – ‘Biography as Fiction’ – biography being the basis of much of Miller’s fiction.

And consider this for a sentence, Bo talking to one family of recent settlers about the old scrubber bulls eating poisonous zamia nuts and dying out in the scrub:

They laughed uneasily and reached for their tea, sipping from their mugs, picturing the doomed bull trapped among the tumbled rocks, the dingoes eating into his quivering flesh while he yet lived and suffered; a transformation scarcely to be imagined, a brutality that must surely leave its ghostly impress on this country, an imprint for them to encounter in their quest to live among these stony ridges and ravines of the escarpment, the history they must adopt if they were to prevail in this place.

There is a dual use of ‘zamia’: both poisonous nuts and the name of the street on which Annabelle’s parents’ house stands in Townsville. It’s a nice echo, and underpins the sort of poisonous thinking from one Indigenous elder Bo and Annabelle must overcome. Some relics, such as the stone cylcon deserve to be left to past times and past landscapes. Other things, such as the love Grandma Rennie shared with her husband Iain, should be resurrected.

Lovers of Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country must read its ‘cousin’, Landscape of Farewell, which also features Dougald Gnapun, this time in a central role. It is a fine work, covering similar themes from a slightly different angle, as is Miller’s more recent return to stone country territory in Coal Creek (my review here). Many things tie these novels together: mystical landscape, laconic characters and beautiful, thoughtful writing from one of our best. Journey to the Stone Country was worth the wait and then some.

Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller

2002

Allen & Unwin

364 pages

ISBN: 978174141467

Source: purchased

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Lost and Found by Brooke DavisTake the whimsy of Inga Simpson’s Mr Wigg (my review here) and multiply it, then add the quirky-character humour of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (read, not reviewed here), and you’ve got Lost and Found by debut Australian author Brooke Davis. Exploring the theme of grief and how we deal with it, the story is a romp, told from three perspectives—the young Millie Bird, and the elderly Karl the Touch Typist and Agatha Pantha.

Wearing her favourite red gumboots, red-haired Millie is seven years old and struggling to understand the death of her father when her mother abandons her in a department store. Millie writes all the dead things she sees in her Book of Dead Things. Her dog Rambo is #1 in the book; her father is #28. Like some young children, she is kept away from her dad’s funeral, and is confused about where he has gone.

One of the things she struggles with, and another theme of the novel, is the way adults talk down to her. She asks a lot of questions, as children are apt to do, and the answers she gets are often misleading. In one very humorous exchange with her father when discussing the demise of Rambo, which spills into a discussion about what happens to people after they die, her father talks about Heaven and Hell thus:

In Heaven, you hang out with God and Jimi Hendrix, and you get to eat doughnuts whenever you want. In Hell, you have to, uh … do the Macarena. Forever. To that ‘Grease Megamix’.

Where do you go if you’re good and bad?

What? I don’t know. Ikea?

Millie is a wonderful character. She creates delightful ‘secret’ poems made from snatches of overheard conversation. She lists ‘facts about the world Millie knows for sure’. One of these is ‘everyone knows everything about being born, but no one knows anything about being dead.’  In one scene, she visits a cemetery and realises there are different heavens for different (religious) groups of people and worries she might not go to the same heaven as her dad when she dies. Her habit of telling people they’re going to die doesn’t go over well with most, and culminates in a hilarious announcement she makes over a train’s PA system.

Millie somehow manages to stay overnight in the department store without anyone noticing, except, that is, for Karl who is also sleeping there after leaving the old persons’ home his daughter-in-law effectively put him in. Millie meets Karl in the department store café. Karl is 87, and is missing his late wife, Evie. Karl is particular. He’s in the habit of typing out everything he says with his fingers (he met Evie in a touch-typing school). There are some lovely moments in Karl’s story where he remembers the time he had with his wife before she died of cancer. The way he had proposed to her is wonderful.

Millie still hopes her mum is coming back to get her, and everywhere she goes she puts up a sign, saying ‘In here, Mum’ (which you might see in bookstore windows promoting Davis’s novel). After two nights in the store, Millie and Karl are discovered. Karl is naturally suspected of being a paedophile, but he manages to create a diversion for Millie to escape. She runs back to her home to find her mum has disappeared. The escape scene is one of many hilarious set-pieces, some of which might stretch plausibility but are fabulously entertaining nonetheless. On their break, Millie asks Karl to steal a mannequin, which he subsequently names Manny.

Millie’s return home is noticed by Agatha Pantha, who lives across the street. Agatha has not left her house in seven years, shutting down after the death of her husband, Ron. If Karl is particular, then Agatha is a force of nature, always yelling her displeasure at her perceived failings or shortcomings of people passing by her house. Like Millie, she has her own book to record her ageing, including her flabby arms and other bodily measurements she makes daily.

She has a fixed daily routine, and her chapters are almost diary entries for specific times of the day. She names the chairs she sits in. There are the Chairs of Disbelief, Degustation, Discernment, Resentment, Disappearing, Disappointment, Disengagement, and so on. (It probably would have been better if they were all named using words starting with ‘D’.) At the end of each day, at 9:23 pm, ‘Agatha allows herself to be lonely.’  Davis walks a fine line with Agatha, because she’s not very likeable at first glance, but her personality quirks come from her bewilderment of what life has become. Her loneliness is heart-breaking.

Agatha is aghast when Millie walks up her garden path and asks her to make sense of a piece of paper she has found, which is an itinerary of her mother’s ‘runner’ to the USA via Melbourne (the story begins in south-western Australia). Agatha then tells Millie to go away, but she eventually marches across the street to Millie’s house and tells her to pack her bags because they are going to find her mum.

Thus begins a road trip like few others, with Karl, who has escaped arrest, catching up with Millie and Agatha, bringing with him Manny the mannequin (who I love… #teammanny!). The trio, or should I say foursome!, rub against each other in funny and moving ways as they stay on the run from the authorities and others. Millie’s conversation with Agatha, when she asks if she can start a new family, is a hoot, as the increasingly exasperated Agatha tries to explain that she is too young to start a family and the biological reasons for this and how it all involves the government.

Do things get a little over-the-top? Maybe for some they will, but I enjoyed the majority of the climactic scenes. Millie, Karl and Agatha all transform in satisfying ways, and there is a well-balanced ending, including a nice pay-off from Evie’s puzzled message for Karl that he finally decodes. Out of the grief each of these characters suffer at the open comes a life-affirming message: that while death catches up with us all in the end, until it does we can change in ways that will surprise, perhaps shock, us, and live life to the absolute fullest. If there is a fault, for me some aspects of the relationship between Karl and Agatha strain credibility in an otherwise assured debut.

awwbadge_2014Lost & Found will win many hearts. Like The Rosie Project, it has been sold into multiple countries and will find many readers. Where does Davis go from here? More whimsy? More humour? Many readers will hope for precisely that.

Brooke Davis has followed in the footsteps of Hannah Kent with a profile on the ABC’s Australian Story titled ‘Driving Miss Davis’, which you may still be able to catch on i-view or on the Australian Story website. She talks about the loss of her mother in a tragic accident, the way people respond to grief, and her rather special relationship with her mother’s old car.

Davis is discussing Lost & Found at Berkelouw Books in Leichhardt with Susan Wyndham this coming Wednesday (16 July) evening. It’s ticketed, so call ahead.

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

2014

Hachette

263 pages

ISBN: 9780733632754

Source: review copy provided by the publisher

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard FlanaganRichard Flanagan’s powerful The Narrow Road to the Deep North is in many ways an immense achievement. It took some twelve years to write, during which time he tried a number of different forms for the story, realising each time he had failed, before he settled on the one that appears in the published novel. It was a very personal journey, because his father was one of Weary Dunlop’s POWs on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. For Flanagan, this was a book he always knew he would write. It was the advancing age of his father that finally got it finished; his father survived the war (as well as the cholera he had during his internment), passing away at the age of nearly 99 just after Flanagan had told him he had given the manuscript to his publishers. That this man passed with such poetic timing should perhaps come as no surprise because poetry is one of the foundation stones upon which this fine novel is built.

The title of the novel is the same as haiku master Basho’s epic haibun, and each of the five sections of chapters is proceeded by an epigrammatic haiku that reflects the chapters to come. And those chapters are the prose equivalent of haiku, compact things that generally run for no more than four or so pages, many shorter. Like haiku, they contain multitudes of understanding, depicting human nature at its most loving, needy, compassionate and diabolical.

The story centres on the deeply flawed but magnetic Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian surgeon, although it fans out to encompass the experiences of other captives as well as their captors, both during their time building ‘the Line’ and after the war. I suspect another author would have told the story of the many solely through one central character’s experience, but Flanagan chooses to branch out beyond the story of Dorrigo. Some readers might find this a little discombobulating, others will appreciate the linking of disparate lives on both sides of the war with the themes of poetry, survival, and what it means to love.

The story opens with Dorrigo as a boy, growing up in Tasmania, his earliest memory of a light-filled church hall. Already we have hints of salvation and its twin: suffering. We also have poetry, for Dorrigo grows up as a bookish lad, and often quotes from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’:

My purpose holds,

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars until I die.’

Like Odysseus, Dorrigo will be held captive in a distant land, unable to return to the woman he loves.

The narrative structure is fractured, which seems an apt approach given the way war fractures the lives of its participants and their families. Although generally progressing from Dorrigo’s childhood to old age, there are numerous time slips, with Flanagan taking us forward and back to key moments. One of the early moves is forward, to Dorrigo with his lover Amy, where we get an early reference to Basho’s haibun. Dorrigo recites ‘Ulysses’ to her as he looks ‘to where, beyond the weathered French doors with their flaking white paint, the moonlight formed a narrow road on the sea …’. It’s a perfect image, and deeply resonant, for that is the road he must travel.

I mentioned survival above, and it is one of the great underlying themes of the novel. As a younger man, Dorrigo goes to the mainland, to Melbourne University, where he studies medicine. Surrounded by the elite, he finds that while he loves his family, he is not proud of them. Their ‘principal achievement was survival. It would take him a lifetime to appreciate what an achievement that was.’

For all his flaws, Dorrigo is at his best as the commanding officer of the POWs in the camp. At one point, when desperately hungry, he’s presented with a (contraband) steak by the cook, and although his mouth is flooding with saliva, he refuses to eat it, telling the man to feed it to the sick men in the hospital. He laments the way he is failing his men, as a doctor and a leader. His love for them is absolute.

There are some wonderful characters amongst Dorrigo’s men, including the artist Rabbit Hendricks, Lizard Brancussi, Jimmy Bigelow, Jack Rainbow, the outcast Rooster MacNeice, and Darky Gardener aka the ‘Black Prince’, a man who could got things by trading the black market, even when he’s on the Line.

The horrors are endless, gut-wrenching. Dorrigo ‘persuaded, cajoled and insisted on the officers working, as the ceaseless green horror pressed every harder on their scabies-ridden bodies and groggy guts, on their fevered heads and foul, ulcerated legs, on their perennially shitting arses.’ And these were the officers – the rest suffer even more.

When these horrors have been indelibly inked into our minds, Dorrigo is faced with an impossible dilemma, forced to choose one hundred emaciated souls to march one hundred miles through the jungle to another camp, knowing most will die along the way. Does he send the very sick, or ‘just’ the sick? It’s heartbreaking stuff.

It is here Flanagan does something brave: he makes the leap into the Japanese mindset as an attempt to understand how men can treat other men with such barbarity. We see into the lives of two Japanese commanders, the amphetamine-addicted Nakamura and his evil superior Colonel Kota. To them, the POWs are less than men, had they been Japanese they would have killed themselves because of the shame of being captured. Their purpose now is to serve the Emperor.

It is not just Dorrigo who is placed in impossible situations. Nakamura is placed in one by Kota, who demands more be done in less time. Despite Kota rebuffing Nakamura’s entreaties for more men and machinery, the two bond over Japan’s great destiny, and also over the haiku that reflects the Japanese spirit:

They grew sentimental as they talked of the earthy wisdom of Issa’s haiku, the greatness of Buson, the wonder of Basho’s great haibun, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which, Colonel Kota said, summed up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.

In lesser hands, the post-war tracing of the captors could have been a mistake. In Flanagan’s hands we get to see the great weight carried by survivors and perpetrators, as well as more disturbing truths, such as that of one Japanese engineer-cum-guard, who says the time he had spent building the railway was the happiest of his life. Such is human nature, sadly.

But it’s not all about the war. It’s also about love in all its guises, be it the love Dorrigo has for his men, the men who he believes he is failing, and the love that burns between Dorrigo and Amy. It also explores love’s darker obsessiveness, ownership, the lies people tell out of spite.

The second section of chapters starts with a haiku from Issa:

From that woman

on the beach, dusk pours out

across the evening waves.

For Dorrigo, everything pours out of Amy, light, love, a hopeless inviolable need. It is a lovely linking of Amy and the waves that carry the narrow road of moonlight across the seas that are calling him. Held while he waits to be shipped off to war, their affair is brief but all consuming.

They meet by chance in Adelaide in late 1940 at a book store (where Max Harris is launching Angry Penguins!). They are instantly, magnetically, attracted to each other. The meeting is brief, a few minutes of talking about poetry (and penguins), with no names exchanged. But he meets her again at his uncle Keith’s pub. For yes, Amy is married to Dorrigo’s uncle, many years her senior. And while nothing happened in this next meeting, ‘everything had changed.’

The same is true for Amy. She seems to seek oblivion in it, in them. For her, love ‘is not goodness, and nor is it happiness. … It was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe. It was annihilation, the destroyer of worlds.”

In an interview with Philip Adams, Flanagan said we intone ‘lest we forget’, but we do forget, and quickly. As a counter to this, there are two indelible truths I hold after reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. First, the novel is an unforgettable testament to Weary Dunlop’s men and the other countless thousands who lost their lives in the name of the Emperor’s madness. The second is, while built, the railway was soon swallowed by the jungle, whereas the poetry of Basho lives on hundreds of years after his death. As Dorrigo learns, survival is the incredible achievement. (I’ve already dusted off my Basho and dived back into the world of haiku.) Ah, if only there were more poets and fewer warmongers. If only there were more Richard Flanagans.

The only lingering doubt is whether the story could have been even more powerful had it possessed a tighter focus on the one POW rather than fanning out as it does. Some will like it, some will have misgivings. I suspect that as much as Flanagan tried to write a fictional character who was not his father, he could not help but explore how war affects all its participants, not just its famous leaders. In some ways they all travelled on that narrow road together.

It’s hard to believe he has not won the Miles Franklin Award. While Alexis Wright would also be a worthy winner for The Swan Book (my review), this just might be his year.

Flanagan is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, which starts next week. I’ve got my ticket, so expect some additional musings on The Narrow Road over the coming weeks. You can also listen to that discussion between Flanagan and Philip Adams here (about 52 minutes from memory, and well worth it).

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

2013

Vintage

467 pages

ISBN: 9781741666700

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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