Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘A Brief Affair’ by Alex Miller

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The self and how we reveal different parts to different people is the central theme in Alex Miller’s latest novel.

The title, A Brief Affair, might suggest a romantic dalliance, and while that does form an element of the story — indeed, it’s a brief affair that acts as a catalyst for all that follows — it’s not the heart and soul of the book.

Instead, this rather gentle story focuses on two women, a generation apart, who must deal with the unintended consequences of forbidden love.

Twin narratives

For married academic and mother of two Dr Frances Egan, a one-night stand with a handsome stranger while on a business trip to China has long-lasting repercussions on her inner life. For Valerie Sommers, the forced separation from her female lover, at a time when same-sex couples were outlawed, lands her in a mental hospital.

Fran’s story is set in the present day using the third person with an emphasis on inner dialogue, while Valerie’s is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is told in confessional style through diary entries, which include prose and poetry.

The link between the two women comes when Valerie’s long-lost notebook is discovered at Frances’ workplace, which was once an asylum. But as Frances reads Valerie’s writings and begins to discover intimate details of this stranger’s life, she seeks to find a more personal connection and strives to find common ground even though she knows Valerie’s suffering has been immeasurably different from her own.

She wanted a definite connection between herself and Valerie. She knew, her instincts knew, that such a link existed if only it could find its way through her tumult to an expression of itself. She needed time to think. Time to reflect. There was never any time. Then the simplicity of it would unfold. Valerie’s poetry would become her own moment in a landscape of real reality.

Their twin narratives are interleaved, but the focus is mainly on Fran who is grappling with the intense afterglow of her own affair, a marriage that has hit a rocky patch and troubles on the career front thanks to a sexist boss who is demanding and condescending by turns.

A rich inner life

There’s not much of a plot, but the story is a compelling one because of the way it charts Fran’s inner life, her views on motherhood and marriage, and the intimate details that make up her personality, including her hopes, dreams, desires and fears.

Miller is exceptionally good at nuance and his well-drawn female characters are authentic, flawed and believable. He has incredible insight into the female psyche and the issues with which women grapple on a day-to-day basis:

When you have children you are no longer free to do as you like with your life. Does everyone know this before they have children? Or does it come as a surprise? Margie was born during the night. An easy birth. Out she came. Pink and ready to make a go of it. And three days later Tom drove us both home. It took a couple of weeks — or was it months? Then I woke up one morning knowing I had paid with my life for the privilege of motherhood.

A Brief Affair is a beautifully told tale that explores the self we present to the world, the self that changes over time and the secret part of ourselves we keep hidden from the world. It’s a story about memory and experience, the compromises we make along the way, the relationships we form and the paths we navigate as life unfolds.

I really enjoyed this quiet, subtle book, the perfect balm for these unsettled times.

I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. Please note it is currently only available in Australia, but his novels generally do get published worldwide, so you might just need to be patient. If you can’t wait, you can order direct from the publisher.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Maryrose Cuskelly, Publisher, Setting

‘The Cane’ by Maryrose Cuskelly

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A few years ago Maryrose Cuskelly wrote a powerful true crime book — Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust about a shocking murder in rural Australia that left three people dead. This deeply contemplative book, free from sensation and sentiment, looked behind the headlines to discover how violence and masculinity and small-town rivalries can collide with fatal consequences.

Many of those themes play out in her debut novel, The Cane, which is set in rural Far North Queensland during the 1970s.

The story focuses on the disappearance of a teenage girl from the fictional sugar cane town of Quala, but this isn’t a whodunnit or a whydunnit or a crime novel in any conventional sense. Instead, this carefully nuanced story explores the impact of the disappearance on the community and shows how suspicion breeds fear and can turn people against one another.

It’s one of the best books I have read all year.

Missing teenager

When The Cane opens, 16-year-old Janet McClymont has been missing for weeks. Her bag has been found lying on the edge of a cane field, but there’s no sign of a body.

The crushing season, in which the canefields are set on fire, has been delayed for fear of burning evidence (Janet’s body could have been dumped in a field somewhere) and this lends a sense of urgency to the investigation — the burn can’t be put off forever.

The story is told through multiple narrators from different generations, all written in the third person (with the exception of Arthur, an older man, whose intimate vernacular voice is told in the first person). This device allows the reader to gain an insider’s perspective as we find out how various residents feel about the crime and an outsider’s perspective as we follow the senior constable, Carmel Maitland — a female police officer in a man’s world — who has been seconded from Brisbane to help with the investigation.

But it is mainly through the eyes of schoolgirl Essie Tranter that we see events unfold for Essie is on the cusp of becoming a teenager in a rural community that is misogynistic and racist. Her mother, Connie, has been deeply affected by Janet’s disappearance because Janet was her babysitter and was walking to her place the evening she disappeared. Connie feels the police aren’t doing enough to find her.

“You lot should be out there.” She jerks her head in a gesture that takes in the land beyond the town. “The McClymonts can’t tell you anything more than they’ve already told the other officers. There has to be dozens of creeks and dams that no one’s dragged yet.”

Small-town intrigue

The story highlights how rumour and suspicion thrive in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where being different marks you as a potential suspect.

Local school teacher Eamonn Sullivan, with his “long red hair and cheesecloth tunics”, who is secretly handing out The Little Red Schoolbook, a controversial banned book, is in the frame. So, too, is Joe Cassar, Janet’s former boyfriend, a quietly spoken brown-skinned Grade 12 student whose mum is a Torres Strait Islander.

There is casual racism everywhere and the men in the pub all have theories and opinions about what happened to Janet and most of it is ugly. The children’s activities are curtailed and they must stay close and in sight at all times for fear they will go missing too.

Adding to this sense of fear is the knowledge that another teenage girl, Cathy Creadie, went missing 10 years ago. She disappeared while swimming off the rocks at a local beach, her body washing up several days later, and no one is quite sure whether her terrible bruising was caused before or after her death.

Malevolent fields of cane

In this claustrophobic atmosphere, the humid weather with “its close, damp heat” acts as an extra form of irritation and frustration, while the landscape — those tall and brooding canefields — is like a character in its own right.

Since Janet’s disappearance, Connie avoids lingering by the fields that surround the house. But in fact, from the time she married Cam thirteen years ago and came to live with him on the farm, the cane has made her feel uneasy, hemmed in, claustrophobic. Leery of its burgeoning growth, its thick stalks and impenetrability, the way the fields carpet the landscape in a thick green sameness, she has always had the sense of something lurking within it, hidden and malevolent

The pacing of The Cane is slow and measured, building to a powerful climax.

It’s a hugely evocative and thought-provoking read and one that the author says is based on several unsolved abductions and murders of children and young women that occurred in Queensland in the 1970s. It’s a gut-wrenching and powerful indictment of a society that views females as second-class citizens.

So much of the misogyny that tumbles off these pages feels familiar from my own childhood and teenage years growing up in a small town. I’d like to think things have changed.

Kudos to Maryrose Cuskelly for articulating it all so well and for crafting an exceptional novel that deserves a wide audience.

Allen & Unwin, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Lukins, Setting, USA

‘Loveland’ by Robert Lukins

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 344 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The ways in which a woman reclaims her past — and her power — are at the heart of this very fine novel by Robert Lukins.

Loveland tells the story of May, an Australian woman, who goes to the US to claim an inheritance: a decrepit house on the edge of a poisoned lake in Nebraska.

Going to visit the house, left to her in her grandmother’s will, for the first time offers May a chance to momentarily escape her controlling husband and the teenage son she feels increasingly alienated from.

And it’s also an opportunity to find out more about her grandmother, Casey, who never spoke about her past. What secrets did she hold? And what happened to make her emigrate to Australia all those years ago?

Dual storylines

These dual storylines, one set in the 1950s, the other in the present day, gently unfold to reveal a tapestry of love and deception and thwarted opportunities and controlling, misogynistic behaviour by the men in both women’s lives.

Over the course of the story, we get to know both women intimately. We see how May ignored the red flags and is now only coming to terms with the fact that her marriage has not been a healthy one.

On the day of their wedding, Patrick had twice gone to the toilet to cry. That’s what he said. What he told May as they stood together and waited for the celebrant to finish her speech on the sharing of joy, new discoveries, and of the couple being not perfect but perfect for each other. Patrick had whispered in May’s ear that he’d been in tears after breakfast and again just minutes before the ceremony. He’d asked if his face was puffy and if she could tell. The crying had been over his worry that May wouldn’t pay him enough attention and that he’d be ignored amid the commotion and stress of the day.

And we learn that Casey’s young life in Nebraska was also marred by an aggressive man who manipulated her to his own ends.

Not a misery novel

But this is not a stereotypical novel about domestic abuse or intergenerational violence. It’s completely free of cliché, free of pity, free of sentiment.

Lukins does not portray the women as helpless victims. Nor does he frame the story about the men or even May’s troubled relationship with them. Instead, the narrative follows May as she finds her voice, realises the truth and summons the inner strength to break the abuse cycle and begin anew.

It’s hard not to see May’s work fixing up her grandmother’s house as a metaphor for fixing herself and the fortitude and resilience required to build a new life.

Loveland is an exceptional novel. It’s eloquent, nuanced and compassionate.

And Lukins, who holds the secrets of the story close, revealing nuggets of information only when necessary, has crafted a compelling second novel, a worthy contender to his atmospheric debut, The Everlasting Sunday, which I much enjoyed when I read it in 2019.

Please note, this book has only been published in Australia. International readers can order direct from the publisher Allen & Unwin. (Shipping info here.)

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Michelle de Kretser, Publisher, Setting

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser + Perth Festival session

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 320 pages; 2021.

Australian writer Michelle de Kretser’s latest title, Scary Monsters, is an intriguing object. It is a book of two halves and boasts two front covers — a luscious-looking cherry on one side and a pretty cherry tree in bloom on the other — and the reader gets to choose which story to start with first.

One story is set in the past — France in 1981 — and the other is set in the near future in an alternative Australian reality.

It’s not obvious how the stories are linked other than both riff on the idea of immigration and what it is to be a South Asian immigrant in Australian society.

I opted to start with the Australian section (with the cherry tree on the cover), rather than reading the book in chronological order.

Lyle’s story

Lyle is an Asian migrant desperate to fit into Australian society and to espouse “Australian values” wherever he can.

People like us will never be invisible, so we have to make a stupendous effort to fit in.

He works for a sinister Government department, is married to an ambitious woman called Chanel, and has two children, Sydney and Mel. His outspoken elderly mother, Ivy, also lives with them.

In this near-future, the country is ruled by an extreme right-wing government, Islam is banned and if migrants, or their Australian-born children, step out of line they can be sent back to where they came from.

Australian values are all about rampant consumerism, being obsessive about real estate and pursuing individualism at any cost. It is late capitalism at its very worst, but there are strong echoes of contemporary Australian life to make the reader sit up and take notice.

There is nothing subtle about this story. It’s a black comedy about ethics, morality, racism and ageism, and I may possibly have underlined at least one paragraph that resonated on every page.

“Australians are never satisfied with what they’ve got. They — we — always want more. We aim for the highest, we strive. It’s called aspiration.”
“It used to be called greed.”

Lili’s story

Lili is a young academic who migrated to Australia from south-east Asia with her family as a teenager. Now she’s moved to the south of France to take up a teaching position.

She rents a top floor flat and is creeped out by the tenant who lives below her because he wants an intimate relationship with her, but she’s not interested.

In the local town square, she watches North African immigrants being rounded up by the gendarmes. On one occasion she is also asked to prove her identity because as a person of colour in a predominately white society she’s also singled out as foreign.

This story is more subtle and nuanced than Lyle’s and examines the idea of what it is to be a “new Australian” living in Europe when your face does not match the idea of what an Australian should look like.

All his life, Derek had believed one thing about Australians, and now people like me were showing up and taking that belief apart.

As well as racism, it also explores misogyny and the difficulties young women can face when living alone.

But it ends on a hopeful note, with the election of François Mitterand on 10 May 1981, a left-wing politician at a time when the world was dominated by right-wing conservative governments.

Uneven novel

As a whole, I found Scary Monsters uneven because the two different sections are just so different in tone and style. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is that they are both written in the first person in warm, intimate voices.

And while they explore similar themes, they do it in radically different ways: Lyle’s story is essentially speculative fiction told with biting wit, while Lili’s is more akin to literary fiction and hugely reminiscent of de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.

Which story you start with may sway your overall feeling toward the novel.

Opinions online have been polarised, as reviews by Lisa of ANZLitLovers and Brona of Brona’s Books demonstrate.

The novel has been published in the UK and US but with a radically different cover design.


Session at the Perth Festival “Writers Weekend”, 26-27 February 2022

I bought my ticket to see Michelle de Kretser at the Perth Festival when we all thought the Western Australian border was going to come down on February 5, allowing writers from the rest of Australia to attend. A few days later Premier Mark McGowan announced the re-opening would be delayed and suddenly the festival’s lineup of writers from the eastern states was in jeopardy.

But organisers did an amazing job to ensure those writers could still appear, albeit via livestream. Ticketholders were offered refunds on this basis, but I figured it was still worth attending, and so this morning I rocked up to the beautiful setting of Fremantle Arts Centre, a mere two-minute stroll from my apartment, to attend Michelle de Kretser’s event.

The 11.30am session undercover on the South Lawn was hosted by ABC Radio National broadcaster Kirsti Melville, who sat alone on stage while de Kretser appeared on a giant cinema screen behind her.

I’m not going to report on everything that de Kretser said, but here are some of the more interesting points she mentioned:

  • She wanted to set Lyle’s story in the very near future rather than the distant future to make it more recognisable for readers.
  • She described it as a “black comedy verging on the grotesque” and that Lyle was “the perfect mediocre Australian man”, which elicited many laughs.
  • Asked whether it was fun to write, she responded: “It was fun.” A beat later, she added: “And it was dreadful.”
  • She set Lili’s story in 1981 and in France because she, herself, had lived there at that time and so was familiar with the region and its politics. She liked the idea of ending the story with Mitterand’s election win because it felt like a “resurgence of hope”.
  • That era was also plagued by violence against women, specifically, the Yorkshire Ripper, which is why she explored Lili’s safety fears and the ways in which misogyny impacts women’s everyday lives.
  • She wanted to write about the migrant experience, but not in a standard way because she felt she had done that before. And she wanted to change the representation of Australians in Europe, which are usually white.
  • The book’s upside down, flip-it-over style format is deliberate. It’s supposed to be a metaphor for what happens when people migrate: their lives are thrown upside down and it can take a long time to feel settled. She wanted the reader to experience that feeling.
  • She highlighted the definition of the word “monster” as something that “deviates from the norm”, which is what happens to your life when you migrate.
  • Writing the stories in the first person was something new for her as a writer — normally she only uses the third person. She has been slightly wary of it because “if your character is female, it’s immediately assumed it’s autobiographical”. She started writing the book in the third person but it wasn’t working for her.
  • Another challenge was ensuring that Lyle’s voice was interesting because he was a deliberately bland character trying to become invisible and this is partly why she uses satire to enliven his voice. She used “the language of advertising”, such as brand names for people’s names, to add humour and colour.
  • Ageism is an issue that troubles her, which is why she explored this topic through the character of Ivy. “Old women are the least valued members of society,” she said.
  • She believes the aged care sector in Australia has been dire throughout this entire century, not just during the pandemic, and she was angry that the Federal Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services Richard Colbeck was still in a job after everything that has happened in this sector during the pandemic, calling it disgraceful and shameful. She said this government’s contempt for the old was shocking.
  • She is not currently working on a new novel, describing this as her precious “fallow time”.

ABOUT PERTH FESTIVAL
Founded in 1953 by The University of Western Australia, Perth Festival is the longest-running international arts festival in Australia and Western Australia’s premier cultural event. The Festival has developed a worldwide reputation for excellence in its international program, the presentation of new works and the highest quality artistic experiences for its audience. For almost 70 years, the Festival has welcomed to Perth some of the world’s greatest living artists and now connects with hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Ella Baxter, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 240 pages; 2021.

Ella Baxter’s New Animal is one of the best books I have read all year. And I have read a lot of great books in 2021, so many in fact I’m wondering how on earth I am going to choose just 10 for my best books of the year post, which I generally publish on New Year’s Eve.

If I had to sum up in one word what this novel was all about, it would be this: grief.

This doesn’t make it sound all that interesting. And this may be why the blurb makes it sound like it’s a novel solely about sex. While sex — specifically one-night stands and BDSM — does feature heavily in this story, that’s not the prime focus. Indeed, sex is used by the narrator, 28-year-old Amelia Aurelia, as a displacement activity, a way to feel something with her body while her emotions remain very tightly held in check, but there’s more going on below the surface.

This is a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally — for Amelia works in a funeral parlour, where she’s employed as a beautician: she applies make-up to those bodies that will lie in an open casket.

I hold up a few of the foundations next to Jennifer’s face so I can see which one will suit, and settle on two. It’s good practice to use the client’s personal make-up mixed with some industry standards. For an undamaged face like Jennifer’s, you can just use an oil-based, full coverage foundation. Chemist brands are highly pigmented and do the job well. Most of us are already using the make-up that we will wear at our funerals, unless something severe happens.

 

UK edition

Despite most people thinking Amelia’s job is creepy, she loves it, not least because she gets to work with her beloved mother and step-father, who owns the business, and her brother who is in a live-in relationship with two other people. (It’s a proper family business, in that sense.)

But when her mother unexpectedly dies, Amelia is thrown into disarray. She does not want to attend the funeral, so books herself a ticket to see her father, who lives in Tasmania. It is here, holed up on his rural property, that she takes her sex life up a level by attending a bondage party with a bloke she meets online.

What ensues is horrific, but it doesn’t seem to put Amelia off. Instead, the pain and humiliation seem to be something she begins to seek out, begging the question: why is she doing it?

Quirky and humorous

This might make the story seem oppressive, but it’s not. It’s quirky, blackly funny and features some terrific one-liners and brilliantly humorous dialogue.

And while the characters are unconventional, they’re not caricatures. In fact, they are well-drawn, alive and believable.

The BDSM scenes are outrageously funny, although they’re also rather concerning because they indicate that Amelia is acting out in an attempt to obliterate past traumas. In as much as I never like to medically diagnose a fictional character, I can’t help but wonder if Amelia might be suffering from PTSD of some form.

Millennial angst

It could be argued that New Animal fits into that new genre of “Millennial angst” (see Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan et al), but it’s nowhere near as navel-gazing as most of those stories and is highly original. I’d go as far as to argue that Amelia is relatively happy. She has a job she loves, a supportive family and doesn’t dream of bigger, unattainable things.

Her problem is that she’s unable to emotionally process her feelings (or lack thereof), especially in relation to all the dead bodies she deals with in her job, many of them the result of suicide or accident, and uses sex as a means of escape.

What I needed was to be flattened, squashed and folded under another person. I can’t just remain all stretched out from the day. Like all the people I see in the late afternoons, or evenings, or early hours of the morning, he [her latest hook-up] was going to move me out of my head and into my body. He was going to fill me up with physical feeling to the point where emotions and thoughts were wrung out. And then, sayonara, thank you very much.

US edition

New Animal will be published in the UK by Picador and the US by Two Dollar Radio next February. (For the record, I much prefer the Australian cover.)

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessica Tu: This Australian novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out.

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams: Set in modern-day south London, this compelling debut novel follows the ups and downs of a young Black journalist, Queenie, as she navigates life without her beloved (white) boyfriend, Tom.

This is my 25th book for #AWW2021. 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘7½’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 360 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In 1963, the Italian film director Federico Fellini directed a film called in which a troubled filmmaker struggles to get a new movie off the ground. Weighed down by the project, he retreats into the inner world of his thoughts, recalling past and present romantic entanglements, which, in turn, begin to affect his film work so that it becomes increasingly more autobiographical.

Christos Tisolkas’ new novel, 7½, transposes that idea into the world of literature, placing himself as the central character who is working on a new novel, all the while getting lost in his own thoughts, remembering his childhood and writing a memoir of sorts.

Three storylines woven together

I have three stories I wish to tell. The simple nature of our craft is to vomit these stories out on a page. It is an ugly analogy but I think it is apt.

The book is comprised of three main threads, which evolve over time, and criss-cross over each other like an intricately woven tapestry. It’s a book that merges meta-fiction with auto-fiction, throws in some nature writing, offers lots of musings and thoughts about art and beauty, love and eroticism, and attempts to explain the meaning of literature and why novelists do what they do. But despite these many disparate threads, it feels like a seamless, effortless whole.

In the first thread, we meet a writer called Christos Tsiolkas who has headed to the southern NSW coast for a couple of weeks solitude to focus on his writing. Here, in a beach-side cottage, he goes for daily swims, breathes in the beauty of the world around him and shuts out all distractions, including his mobile phone which he locks away in a room, only using it to call his partner who remains behind in Melbourne.

The second thread is about writing and why Christos has decided to shun the usual topics — “Morality or Politics or Race or Class or Gender or Sexuality” — he covers in his work. We find out about the genesis of his new novel, which may or may not become a screenplay for a film.  He tells us how he came up with the idea, why it’s important to him and how he is struggling to write it — and then we get to read it in what feels like real-time as the story develops. This novel is about an American porn star, Paul Carrigan, who lives in Australia and is married to an Australian woman with whom he has a teenage son. Carrigan is offered $180,000 to sleep with an ageing fan in California, and the novel follows what happens when he makes the trip.

The third and final thread is the story of Christos’ own life, beginning with memories of his childhood in working-class Melbourne where he was raised by his Greek immigrant parents. Much of what he writes tries to explain how his personal beliefs, his homosexuality and his appreciation of art and beauty have all been shaped by his experiences.

A book about beauty

It can sometimes be a risk for a writer to include different threads in the one work because there’s always the danger that a reader will prefer one over another. But I enjoyed all of the storylines in 7½, perhaps because they were woven together so skilfully but also perhaps because they inform each other: you know, for instance, that Christos watched porn as a young man and that informed his decision to write a novel about a porn star.

I especially enjoyed his musings on literature — he doesn’t claim the novel is dead, but he does say it has become  “timid” and “cowardly”, with writers looking over their shoulders seeking approval from peers, colleagues, friends and social media, instead of being true to their selves. Later he accuses novelists of becoming homogenised:

Every bloody novelist sounds the same now, whether they are American or Austrian or Angolan or Andalusian or Australian. All the same cant, all the same desire to shape the world to their academic whims and aspirations. All this compassion and all this outrage and all this empathy and all this sorrow and all this fear and all this moralising and not one sentence of surprise in it.

Perhaps one of the most telling scenes in the book is when Christos has a frank conversation with his friend Andrea about his work. He confesses that he is writing a novel about beauty because it’s a challenge to capture beauty on the page.

“I want it to be simple, almost straightforward in its intent. If I were a poet, it would be easier. Or if I were a musician. It is harder to distil beauty into prose. The novel is treacherous.”

But she accuses him of taking the easy option, of no longer wanting to change the world with his writing.

“You can’t write about beauty,” she says calmly. “You  don’t have the talent.”

The usual topics

Despite what the author might say, doesn’t shun the usual, sometimes controversial or confronting, topics that are present in his earlier work (see all my reviews here), because you can’t write about beauty without discussing morality and politics and gender and class and so on. The topics might not be capitalised but they are still there.

He’s often at his “Christos Tsiolkas best” when writing about the erotic, the sensual and the pornographic, albeit seen through the lens of a gay man (he’s obsessed, it would seem, with men’s hands and armpits — indeed sweaty, smelly, unshaven armpits are mentioned a lot in this book, you have been warned). But if you have read his work before, this won’t surprise you.

But where this novel works best is in that grey space between memory and imagination, where creativity collides with memoir, and how noticing a particular fragrance or hearing a familiar song can transport us back to another time and place, and how that is deeply connected to our emotions and, in turn, our sense of self.

might not be your usual Tsiolkas novel, but it’s just as powerful and thought-provoking, if not more so, than anything he’s written before.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 306 pages; 2004.

Susan Johnson’s The Broken Book is a novel inspired by the work of Australian ex-pat writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, who moved to the Greek islands in the 1950s (and which is depicted so beautifully in Clift’s twin memoirs Mermaid  Singing and Peel Me a Lotus) to concentrate on their creative lives while bringing up a young family.

I read it hot on the heels of Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, another novel that uses the Clift-Johnston story as inspiration, but found Johnson’s novel more eloquent, more literary — and more heartbreaking.

Multi-layered story

The Broken Book is complex and multi-layered. It reimagines Charmain Clift as a would-be writer called Katherine Elgin who is working on a manuscript called ‘The Broken Book’.

‘The Broken Book’ is about a character called Cressida Morley who falls pregnant at a time when unmarried mothers were frowned upon, bringing great shame upon her family, which is headed by a local newspaper editor.

Cressida Morley, as it turns out, is the name of a character that pops up in George Johnston’s novels and is said to be based on Clift. (And for those who don’t know, Clift had a secret child who was adopted out before she married Johnston, so everything in this extraordinary novel mirrors real life albeit with a creative spin.)

Twin narratives

These two narrative threads — Katherine’s story, which spans three decades and includes her time living in Sydney, London and Greece, and the half-written manuscript she’s working on about Cressida — are interleaved to create a complex tale that explores what it is like to pursue a creative life, how difficult it can be to balance marriage and motherhood, and how a woman’s beauty (and sexual agency) can stifle all else.

It is written in elegant prose dripping with metaphor and meaning, the kind of writing that isn’t afraid to explore emotional truths.

I used to believe there was a pattern to life, or at least you could see in retrospect where a particular life had twisted itself into the wrong shape, buckled by rogue bad luck. I used to think my moment came when a handsome young man who smelled like Sunlight Soap burst like a firework inside me, turning me incandescent. Now I don’t think there is any pattern, any shape whatsoever. All is randomness, chance.

2006 edition

I ate this book up in a matter of days. There’s something about the mood of it  — romantic, melancholy, nostalgic — that is hard to pin down but which envelopes the reader even after this extraordinarily wise and passionate novel has been finished.

I realise I haven’t really explained much about it, but it’s a difficult story to describe. The joy of the book is just letting the dual narratives, which inform one another as they jump back and forth across decades, wash over you.

The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Best Fiction Book section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; the Westfield/Waverley Library Literary Award; and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work. It can be ordered “print on demand” via the publisher’s website.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2021 and my 19th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it secondhand earlier this year having read, and loved, many of Susan Johnson’s previous novels.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Debra Oswald, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘The Family Doctor’ by Debra Oswald

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I repatriated to Australia in June 2019 (after almost 21 years living in the UK), one of the first things that struck me was the number of domestic violence incidents, most of them homicides, in the news. This came to a head in February last year with the shocking and distressing case of Hannah Clarke, who was burned to death in the family car with her three young children, after her estranged husband set fire to the vehicle.

But despite the vital national conversation that ensued about the ways in which women are abused (physically and psychologically) in the home, it’s still clear that the media views such cases as individual events rather than as a systemic problem (something highlighted by this recent study published in The Conversation) — and nothing has changed to make women safer.

More recently, the treatment of women in the workplace has also come to a head, with disturbing revelations about sexual misconduct, including rape, in Parliament House (see this Wiki article for a good summary).

Our own Prime Minister seems incapable of understanding the extent of the problem. He says he is listening to Australian women, but actions speak louder the words. (He refused to meet with organisers of last week’s rally outside Parliament citing “security reasons”, which is ironic, given that it is the lack of safe spaces that was the crux of the whole Women’s March 4 Justice in the first place.) This curated letters page in the Sydney Morning Herald, addressed to the PM, highlights how deeply entrenched this issue is in Australian society.

I mention all this because it is important context for Debra Oswald’s latest novel, The Family Doctor, which puts domestic violence firmly in the centre of its compelling, page-turning plot. In fact, the book’s confronting subject matter — in which a family GP decides to take the law into her own hands — couldn’t be more timely. I ate this book up in a couple of days and came away from it having gone through ALL THE EMOTIONS from laughter and sadness through to a slow-burning righteous fury.

A crime novel with a difference

At its most basic level, The Family Doctor is a crime novel that strides two fences: on one side, it looks at a series of domestic violence cases from the victim’s point of view; and on the other it looks at what happens when a normal law-abiding citizen, infuriated by the abuse she sees on a daily basis, decides to dole out her own form of justice. But it’s also a book about female friendship, romance, the importance of family and wider societal issues, including toxic masculinity, support services, policing and the court system.

When the story opens, Paula Kaczmarek, a suburban GP, has opened her home to Stacey, an old school friend, and her two young children who are on the run from an abusive, estranged husband. One day Paula returns home to find the trio have been murdered. As someone used to helping others, she finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t protect one of her dearest friends when she needed it most. It is this sense of guilt and her slow-burning anger that propels Paula to do more to help other women she believes are being abused in the home.

Later, when patient Rochelle Ferguson brings her ill six-year-old boy into the surgery for treatment, Paula notices Rochelle’s suspicious bruises and her son’s heightened anxiety. Rochelle admits that she is scared of her husband and that he hurts her, but she can’t leave for fear that will escalate the violence and put her son in danger. So when the husband turns up at the surgery a few days later with an injured hand demanding to see a doctor, Paula ushers him into her consulting room and makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that could have career-ending repercussions.

I can’t say much more than that because I don’t wish to spoil the plot, but what follows is a heart-hammering ride that explores a host of thought-provoking ethical issues including whether it is ever justifiable to take the law into your own hands. Is it permissable, for instance, to be proactive in order to prevent a likely tragedy than simply reacting to the aftermath even if that means you have to do something illegal? Can you ever justify taking harmful action if such action will stop more people being harmed? Where do you draw the line between playing God and letting events unfold naturally?

Murder trial

Interleaved with Paula’s storyline is that of her friend, Anita, a seasoned court reporter, who has been working on a feature article about the failure of the justice system to protect women (and children) killed by men.

This issue is demonstrated very clearly in a trial she is asked to cover in which a super-confident, good looking 36-year-old man is accused of murdering his girlfriend. He is said to have pushed her off a motorway overpass into oncoming traffic when she was fleeing him, but he claims she was mentally unbalanced and had committed suicide. He pleads not guilty.

As part of her coverage of this disturbing case, Anita befriends Detective Rohan Mehta, who is part of the prosecuting team, and becomes unexpectedly romantically involved with him. This relationship serves as an important message in the book: not all men are bad; some even go out of their way to help women and try to make the world safer for everyone.

The strength of this book lies in the ways in which it highlights, from multiple viewpoints and situations, what happens when the system continually fails the people it should be helping. Oswald, who writes with insight and care, shows the patterns of behaviour, the coercion, the power and the fear that is wielded by malevolent men to control the women in their lives, and she looks at the heartbreaking impact on the victims and their families.

This is a gripping story, never showy or sentimental, but brutally honest on all accounts, whether in its depiction of male violence or the ways in which women are conditioned to care for others or become subservient. Her cast of characters are all-too real, if deeply flawed, and their reactions and behaviours entirely credible.

Powerful, heart-rending and topical, The Family Doctor is the kind of novel that stays with you long after the final page. It deserves a wide readership.

About the author¹:  Debra Oswald is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. She is a two-time winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and author of the novels Useful (2015) and The Whole Bright Year (2018). She was creator/head writer of the first five seasons of successful TV series Offspring. Her stage plays have been performed around the world and published by Currency Press. Her television credits include award-winning episodes of Police RescuePalace of DreamsThe Secret Life of UsSweet and Sour and Bananas in Pyjamas. Debra has written three Aussie Bites books for kids and six children’s novels. She has been a storyteller on stage at Story Club and will perform her one-woman show, Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?, in 2021.  (1. Source: Allen & Unwin website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire 
A literary crime novel that explores the outfall of one young woman’s murder on her family and the local community in rural Australia.

This is my 8th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 6th book for #AWW2021.  

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 352 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do love a good epistolary novel, and this new one by Australian writer Susan Johnson is a good one!

From Where I Fell is composed of a year-long exchange of emails between two women on opposite sides of the planet whose correspondence is sometimes fraught but always frank.

It begins when Sydney-based Pamela Robinson emails her ex-husband in Paris, only to discover she’s got the right name but used the wrong email address: her heartfelt missive has landed in the inbox of New York-based teacher Chrisanthi Woods by accident. What follows is a strange and wonderful correspondence in which two women, at different stages of their lives, develop an online friendship free of the burden of up-close-and-personal contact.

The two are polar opposites in temperament and outlook. Newly divorced Pamela is self-obsessed and nursing old wounds, struggling to raise three boys alone in strained financial circumstances having repatriated to Australia after living in France for many years, while Chris, married but child-free, is opinionated and independent, a woman who does everything to help others but rarely gets the credit. One is well travelled and supposedly worldly-wise, the other has lived in the same city her whole life.

An unlikely friendship

Over the course of their correspondence, the women share confidences and problems, offer moral support and encouragement to each other, but occasionally one offends the other and long silences ensue.

Are you there?
From:
Pamela Robinson
To:
Chris Woods
Hi Chris,

Just wondering if you’ve forgiven me. I miss your emails.

With love,
Pamela

Through their emails, we come to understand the circumstances of each character’s day-to-day existence, their struggles and triumphs, their ups and downs and everything in between. We see how they evolve over time, how they adjust to change and move on with their lives.

And we also begin to recognise their personality quirks — Pamela’s constant need to talk about herself, to moan and complain, and Chris’s tendency to cut her down to size or take umbrage at what’s been said  — albeit framed through a single, one-dimensional lens, for we can only see these characters through their ability (or inability) to express themselves in written language. We do not really know how the people in their lives see them.

Re: A dream
From:
Chris Woods
To: Pamela Robinson

Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time?

The story works because we are following the narratives of their lives, which are filled with dramas, and we want to know how things will pan out.

Pamela, for instance, is losing control of her three sons (her eldest is physically abusive) while her ex-husband refuses to speak to her. Chris, on the other hand, is losing control of her aged mother, who wants to repatriate to Greece, and is constantly fighting with her sister who is her mother’s favourite.

These domestic grapples are set against a larger backdrop that puts everyone’s problems into perspective: Chris is giving English lessons to two Syrian teenage refugees who fled the bombing in Raqqa with their mother and do not know what happened to their father.

An unlikely friendship

From Where I Fell is an easy read, the kind that slips down like silky smooth hot chocolate on a cold winter’s afternoon.

It’s full of delicious little moments, snide comments, funny barbs and forthright confessions. It’s about the passage of life — marriage, divorce, motherhood, making a home and building a career (not necessarily in that order) — and all the pain, regret, sorrow and joy that make us human. It’s witty, warm and heartbreaking.

I very much enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully resilient women.

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2021.  

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, general, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR 21

‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 432 pages; 2020.

Craig Silvey’s latest novel, Honeybee, is a nice reminder that I ought to always come at books with an open mind. For various reasons, I had not expected to like this book*, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining I found it.

It deals with some universal issues, some of which might be triggering, including drug use, criminality, suicide, domestic violence and sexual identity, but does so in an empathetic manner, free from sensationalism.

And it’s super easy to read, not because the prose is pedestrian, but because it lacks literary flourish — indeed, I would brand it as “general fiction” and it could certainly slot into the Young Adult genre with no problem. (I say all this by way of putting the book into context, rather than being snobby about it.)

An unlikely friendship

The story is set in and around Perth (Silvey is a local author) and focuses on a troubled teenager trying to figure out their identity.

When the book opens, 14-year-old Sam Watson, who also goes by the pet name of “Honeybee”, is contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge. By sheer coincidence, an elderly man called Vic is on the same overpass planning the same thing. The pair end up saving each other and forge an unlikely friendship.

Honeybee charts this friendship through enormous ups and downs as Sam’s family loyalties are tested (his alcoholic mother is addicted to drugs and his step-father is abusive and domineering), while Vic is coming to terms with the loss of his beloved wife after a long and happy marriage.

PLOT SPOILER

It’s almost impossible to write about this book without mentioning the key issue at its heart: Sam is a boy who wants to be a girl, and it is this confusion over his sexual identity that is the cause of so much heartache. When he becomes homeless, he moves in with Vic, who provides the moral support required to become his true, authentic self — but there’s a few bumps along the way.

END OF PLOT SPOILER

The story, which is essentially about learning to love and accept yourself before you can love and accept others, is narrated in the first-person by Sam, who is a naive soul, full of kindness, sensitivity and confusion. He loves fashion and food, tolerates his mother’s bad habits and circle of friends, but dreams of a better life: he knows he lives in the margins but can’t see a way out.

The narrative moves forward via a series of set pieces in which Sam develops his talent for cooking (the descriptions of food are so mouth-wateringly delicious I often felt hungry reading this book), befriends a drag queen, enters therapy and plots a bank robbery.

There’s a few farcical moments, some scary moments, sad moments and violent moments. But there are also a few moments which strain readerly belief; for all its focus on important “issues” there is an element of far-fetched boys’ own adventure that might not be to everyone’s liking (and which I had problems with in Silvey’s debut novel, Jasper Jones, written 11 years earlier).

An entertaining fast-paced read

But all that aside, Honeybee is an entertaining — and tender — read. It’s full of heart and warmth and humanity. Don’t expect anything highbrow. This is a fun read with fun, vividly alive, characters and you’ll race through it in no time! Sure, it’s probably not Silvey’s tale to tell, but I think his intentions come from the right place.

At this stage, Honeybee, which was Dymock’s Book of the Year for 2020, is only available in Australia. (I can’t find a publication date for it in other territories.)

The author is appearing at the Perth Festival this weekend (20 February) and if you purchase a ticket you can watch the session online at home, wherever you are in the world, for up to two weeks after the event. To find out more, visit the Perth Festival website.

For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

* I was not a fan of his debut novel, Jasper Jones, though the rest of the world disagreed with me, and having heard a little bit about what this new book is about, I had to wonder about his right to tell a story that is not his lived experience and might be better coming from someone in the trans community.

This is my 4th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 

And because Silvey is from Fremantle, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.