Australia, Author, Book review, Dan Box, Non-fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, true crime

‘Bowraville’ by Dan Box

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 336 pages; 2019.

Bowraville is a small country town inland from the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Around 15 per cent of the population is Aboriginal. In a five-month period, from late 1990 to early 1991, three children were murdered. All were indigenous Australians. All had disappeared after parties in the town. All were linked to a white man suspected of the crime, but no one was ever convicted.

This book, Bowraville by Dan Box, charts what happened when a homicide detective who had been working on the case contacted Dan to suggest he pursue the murders. It was more than two decades after the fact and the victims had seemingly been forgotten by law enforcement and the justice system. Their families still mourned for them and were desperate for the perpetrator, whom they believed to live among them, to be held to account.

In May 2016, Box, a crime reporter with The Australian newspaper, hosted a five-part podcast about the Bowraville murders. I have not listened to that podcast (you can find it on Apple podcasts here) but my understanding is that the book builds on his examination of the crimes and brings the case up to date. The serial killing remains unsolved after 25 years.

Three missing children

The victims, all living in houses about 100m apart, were:

  • Colleen Walker-Craig, 16, who disappeared on 13 September 1990. Her body has never been found, but articles of her clothing were discovered weighed down by rocks in the Nambucca River.
  • Evelyn Greenup, four, who went missing three weeks later, on 4 October. Her skeletal remains were found in bushland in April 1991.
  • Clinton Speedy-Duroux, 16, who was last seen on the morning of 1 February 1991. His remains were found in bushland on 18 February.

Dan spends times with the victims’ families to determine the circumstances of their disappearances. He speaks to police and lawyers and finds many glaring omissions in the criminal investigation. Police initially claimed that the missing children had just “gone walkabout” and didn’t follow up leads until bodies were found.

As part of his investigation, Dan also secures an interview with the main suspect, a labourer living in Bowraville, who was arrested for the murder of Speedy-Duroux but later acquitted by a Supreme Court jury in 1994. The same suspect was also charged with the murder of Greenup at a later date but, again, he was acquitted in a separate court case in 2006. No one has ever been charged or convicted of all three crimes together.

Dan’s tenacious reporting and investigation did result in changes being made to double jeopardy legislation — the principle that no one should face trial for the same crime twice — in NSW. This opened the way for the man acquitted of Speedy-Duroux and Greenup’s murder to go on retrial if “fresh and compelling evidence” was uncovered.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say a retrial was not granted, even though Dan’s interview with the suspect unveiled evidence that had never been admitted in court before.

Fight for justice

Reading Bowraville was an eye-opening experience. It covers a lot of ground and occasionally gets bogged down in soporific detail, but it is a confronting portrait of a deeply divided society, a town where black people are pitted against white, where racial prejudice has infused generations and left a legacy of hate and violence.

The book’s major achievement is the way in which it clearly demonstrates that black justice and white justice in modern Australia are two different things. Three children living in the same street were murdered in a short space of time, but no one in authority seemed to take the crimes seriously and few Australians have even heard about the murders. The suggestion is that if the children were white, it would be all over the media. Having read this compelling book, it is hard to argue otherwise.

As well as an illuminating examination of the tenacity required to seek and fight for justice, Bowraville is also an interesting look at what happens when a journalist becomes part of the story. “I have changed from being a reporter about this case to being a campaigner, joining with the police and childrens’ families in calling for the murders to go back to court,” Dan writes. Later he adds: “That’s what I am now. Not a reporter, not a campaigner. A witness.”

Bowraville is a gripping true-crime tale, but it’s also a disturbing look at the failings of the Australian justice system and Australian society as a whole.

This is my 16th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought this book when it was first published last July and began reading it in December but put it aside, with only half of it read, when things at work got a bit hectic. I picked it up again earlier this month to finish the last 150+ pages.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ by Tim Winton

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton Australian edition

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin Australia; 270 pages; 2018.

I’m very much a late convert to Tim Winton, arguably one of Australian literature’s better known exports, having only read a handful of his novels since 2011.

The Shepherd’s Hut, his 12th novel, was published earlier this year and it’s pretty much quintessential Winton: heavily focussed on landscape and place and centred on a young (male) character coming to terms with adulthood.

The Shepherd's Hut UK edition
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When the book opens, we meet Jaxie Clackton, an adolescent behind the wheel of a car, heading north on the highway. He’s fleeing something, but we’re not sure what, and we know he’s got a box of shells and a .410 shotgun.

For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you. But it wasn’t always like this. I have been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.

The narrative then spools back to the start of Jaxie’s story — “the day the old life ended” — and we are suddenly emerged in a world of toxic masculinity. We learn that Jaxie’s mother has recently died and his father, a drunk and a bully, beats him mercilessly.

Coming home late one day, he finds his father pinned under the car he’s been repairing; most likely he has been crushed to death. This, Jaxie thinks, is an opportunity too good to miss. He packs a bag, grabs a gun and some ammunition, and leaves home, free at last.

The Shepherds Hut US edition
/readingmattersblogdotcom1.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/shepherds-hut-us-edition.jpg”> US edition

[/caption]From there on in, we follow Jaxie’s adventure north, all of it on foot, through wild bush, scrub and salt lands, fending for himself, shooting kangaroos for meat and always keeping an eye out for life-sustaining water. He has a mobile phone with him, but largely keeps it switched off to protect the battery life but also to ensure the authorities can’t track him down and pin his father’s death on him.

It’s a fraught, taut and dangerous journey and the only thing propelling him along is the urgent desire to be reunited with his girlfriend, Lee, who lives somewhere up north.

The plan only goes awry when Jaxie, desperate for food and water, stumbles upon the shepherd’s hut of the title and meets the strange man who lives in it. Suddenly, there’s a new dilemma: should he let his guard down and accept the man’s friendship, or keep moving on, possibly to die alone in the harsh terrain?

Vividly detailed novel

As ever with Winton’s work, place is central to the story and his detailed descriptions of the landscape transform Jaxie’s tale into a vivid technicolour “movie of the mind”.

But what really makes this novel such a compelling, often heart-hammering read is Jaxie’s working class teenage voice. It’s urgent, angry, demanding, intimate, opinionated and often crude, but it’s what drives this novel forward and provides forensic insight into Jaxie’s tortured past and his current state of mind.

Winton does an exemplary job of depicting Jaxie’s interior world, that struggle between wanting to be seen as an adult who’s self-reliant, strong and trustworthy, while coming to terms with strange new emotions: grief for the loss of his mother; relief at the death of his father; and first adolescent love with Lee ( “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper…”).

Perhaps the only thing that lets down the book is the rushed, semi-ambiguous ending, and the fact we never really find out the man in the shepherd’s hut real back story. But that’s by the by. I loved The Shepherd’s Hut in all its fierce, hard-as-nails glory. It’s a story that marries beauty with brutality, but it does something rather special too: it brings into sharp relief men’s emotional needs and what happens when those are not met.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Goat Mountain by David Vann: the story of a family hunting trip that goes wrong, told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 240 pages; 2010.

Reviews of Thea Astley’s novels on this blog are like buses: none for ages, then two come along at once.

First published in 1987, It’s Raining in Mango was Astley’s 10th novel. It tells the story of five generations of one family — from the 1860s to the 1980s — and touches on a wide variety of issues, including racism, sexism and homosexuality, all within a distinctly colonial Australia framework.

As ever, with most of Astley’s novels, it does not make for easy reading, but it will reward those who persevere through at least the first 60 or so pages.

Time shifts

The book’s unusual structure makes it a challenge to read. Instead of telling the story in chronological order, Astley complicates matters by constantly jumping between generations and sometimes letting time frames overlap. This does not make for a straightforward read and requires some effort on behalf of the reader to make things “work”.

Fortunately, there’s a helpful dramatis personæ at the front of the book, which provides the birth and death dates of each character, including the circumstances of their death. Without this I’m afraid I would have been totally lost.

The structure is also more akin to a collection of short stories (it won the inaugural Steele Rudd Award, a literary prize for short stories, even though it’s not branded as such) rather than a novel (a trait shared with her 14th novel Drylands), but the interconnections between characters means that it feels like a cohesive whole.

Reporting on dispossession and slaughter

When the book opens we meet an Irish-born journalist, Cornelius Laffey, who leaves Sydney, dragging his family with him, to set up a newspaper in the goldfields of northern Queensland in 1861. While there he witnesses the violence toward Aboriginals, who are dispossessed of their land and, finding much empathy with their situation, reports on it:

“No attempt is made to understand the feelings or even the natural rights of the indigenous peoples along these rivers. Their fishing grounds have been disturbed. Their hunting areas are invaded. All along the Palmer and the subsidiary creeks they have been pushed off by an army of diggers cradling for gold.[…] For every digger speared or killed along the mudsoaked track to the Palmer, there would be ten or more natives butchered. Many of the butchered are women and children. Blacks are now being shot on sight as if they were some pernicious vermin, and the outraged righteousness of one of our sub-inspectors of police has given sanction to the indiscriminate slaughter of these dispossessed people.”

This brutal, honest reporting results in him losing his job — and so sets into motion the cycle of incredible ups and downs for the Laffey family over the next 120 years.

Heartbreaking individual stories

During the course of this “novel” (I use the term loosely) we meet a wide variety of characters, most of whom are struggling to keep their heads above water, including Cornelius’ wife, who runs a pub, their son and daughter George and Nadine, and their respective partners.

Their individual stories, told in separate chapters, are gritty, often heartbreaking and sometimes violent. Nadine, for instance, has a child out of wedlock when she is 14 and ends up working in a brothel to support herself.

It’s Raining in Mango — the title refers to an imaginary town called Mango in tropical Far North Queensland — also covers the history of an Aboriginal family, whose lives occasionally intersect with the Laffeys. This serves to remind the reader that while things may never be smooth sailing for the Laffeys, things are a lot worse for the Mumblers who have suffered violent dispossession at the hands of white settlers.

What emerges is a portrait of Australia’s hidden history:  of strangers in a strange land trying to make a go of it, and its native inhabitants being massacred in the name of colonial “progress”.

For a much more intellectual — and insightful — take on It’s Raining in Mango, please see this article in the Australian Book Review.

This is my 49th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 32nd for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley

Drylands by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 294 pages; 1999.

Drylands is Thea Astley at her fine, angry best. This novel, which turned out to be her last (she died in 2004, aged 78), earned her the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2000, a prize she shared with joint winner Kim Scott for his novel Benang: From the Heart.

Astley, it has to be said, is not always an easy writer to read. Her prose is dense and rich in metaphors and her ideas are astute and political, the product of an inquiring and intelligent mind.

But this book, which is set in a small Australian town succumbing slowly to the drought, resonated with me, perhaps because I identified with the themes presented here: of small town loneliness and alienation; of kicking back against a culture too obsessed with sport and too inward looking and parochial to care about the importance of reading and language.

It is subtitled “a book for the world’s last reader” which suggests that it might have a literary slant to it, but even readers — and, in particular, book groups and book festivals — get a (slight) drubbing in this coolly intellectual novel.

A novel made up of stories

The structure of Drylands is unusual. It almost reads like a collection of short stories as we follow the trials and tribulations of a complex cast of well-drawn, intensely human characters living in the “God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere”.  They include a foreign accountant on the run, the farmer who sells his property in pursuit of a dream, an indigenous man who lives in a broken down shack on the outskirts of town, a writing teacher who bemoans the “humdrummery” of small town life, the publican’s wife who hates sport and a stressed out house wife with six sons who leaves her family in pursuit of a new life.

Their individual tales are recounted by Janet Deakin, who fancies herself as a writer: she spends her days running a newsagency that in another (more literary) place would be a bookstore, and her nights chronicling in her journal the decline of the town and its inhabitants.

She would write a story, she decided, about a woman in an upstairs room above a main street in a country town, writing a story about a woman writing a story.

This “meta” element of Astley’s novel means it’s not clear whether Janet is an actual character or something dreamed up by writing teacher Evie, but whatever the case, Drylands captures a world in which the written word is in serious peril by a small population obsessed with drinking beer and sport, watching TV, videos and Internet pornography, and playing PlayStation games. (I can’t help but wonder how angry Astley would be if she were alive to see how the Internet and social media have become all-consuming vehicles for serious distraction in today’s switched-on digital world.)

Beautiful language

Aside from the scathing anger and the fierce social commentary in this rather wise and knowing novel, I rather enjoyed Astley’s beautiful way with language. I’m grateful that the copy I read was so battered — I bought it in a charity shop for the princely sum of £1.99 several years ago — because that meant I didn’t feel guilty about underlining so much of it in blue pen.

Here’s how she describes what’s it like being surrounded by bush:

A world of gum trees, bark stripping, dangling, their bony limbs rejecting grace, crowded arrogant as beggars in their rags.

Here’s how she describes the view of the Queensland landscape out of a train window:

The countryside was emerging in the pre-dawn light, misty hills and cane fields blurred silver under an uncertain sun blundering its way through clouds.

And, finally, perhaps my favourite sentence in the entire novel:

Along the main street in the clamorous dark the pub was yowling towards its climatic closing time.

Astley is also very astute at capturing human relationships, emotions and motivations. Here’s Evie, the writing teacher, trying to figure out why the women of the town turn up to her classes even though they have little to no creativity in their bones:

Why had they come? What did they expect? She was beginning to understand the isolation of these places that drove people to seize any opportunity to escape from their humdrummery. These four — these pleasant four — were playing truant from husbands who regarded their activity as female folly. They were fighting the darkness.

Did I like this book? It’s hard to say. I think it might be better to say I admired it. I admired the prose, the ideas, the wonderfully rich characterisation, but these stories did not stick, perhaps because the tales felt ephemeral and “untidy” in the sense that there are no neat endings. But, as a whole, Drylands is an evocative, somewhat pessimistic read about a town that grinds everyone down in the end.

For another take on this novel, please read Whispering Gum’s review.

This is my 48th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 31st for #AWW2016.

Anna George, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘What Came Before’ by Anna George

What came before by Anna George

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 255 pages; 2014.

‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’

So begins Anna George’s debut novel, What Became Before, a dark and disturbing look at a marriage that goes completely off the rails set in Melbourne’s inner-west.

The book charts the two-year relationship between Elle Nolan, a former lawyer turned successful film maker, who is independent and lives alone, and David Forrester, a solicitor caught in a well-paying job that he hates.

When they meet Elle is in her mid-30s, David is 42. Both are a different points in their lives and careers, and seem almost complete opposites, but there’s a spark between them which they flame into something stronger.

When they initially get together the sex is electric, so much so that Elle shelves her original idea that their union was to be a simple one-night stand. Before she knows it, David has practically moved in to her home in Seddon, a Western suburb that he hates and she loves, and spend every spare moment together. Happiness forever after beckons.

But, as one would expect from a novel that starts out with such a dark and intriguing opening line, things start to go a bit awry. When Elle first notices David’s tendency to be immature and spiteful, she dismisses it, thinking she can change him. But when that behaviour escalates to violence, she breaks it off with him.

Yet David is a tenacious man — and won’t let her go. Over the course of two years, the pair have more break-ups than you can poke a stick at, but they always end up back together again — until that one crucial night when David attacks her in the kitchen and ends her life.

A deeply unsettling read

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about this novel when I began it. I thought the characters were slightly pretentious and I found the constant descriptions of sex in the opening chapters a little off-putting. But there’s something about What Came Before that worms itself into your brain, so much so that whenever I put it down because I had to go to work or do chores or whatever, I found myself itching to pick it up again.

And the characters got under my skin, to the point that I couldn’t shake them off even after I’d finished the book feeling exhausted and drained. Now, almost a week down the line, I’m still thinking about their peculiar, but probably more common than we realise, relationship and wishing I could have stepped in and helped them sort it out.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is its unusual structure. It’s written in the third person, but the author writes from both character’s perspectives and intertwines their narratives so it’s hard to separate one from the other (a bit like their relationship): David’s narrative focuses on the night he murders his wife and sees his future life unspool before him, while Elle’s is told retrospectively as she hovers over her lifeless body and recalls the story of their relationship from beginning to end.

The prose style is often short, clipped, fast-paced. But it’s also rather stylish in places and feels slick and contemporary.  The author is very good at capturing that feeling of being in love — romantic love and limerance are recurring themes — and of the give and take required to make a relationship work. And the characterisation is superb: you might not like either Elle or David but they feel real and all-too human.

All in all,  What Came Before is a dark, atmospheric and gripping read, one that brims with suspense and depicts the true horror of an abusive relationship with great sensitivity and insight. It’s full of twists and turns and dotted with little shocks, which gradually become more and more unsettling, but this isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. There’s something greater at play here, and perhaps the secret lies in the author’s afterword, where she states:

It took me over a decade to write What Came Before. During that time, I read countless news stories of women killed by their partners or exes. I’d like to acknowledge those women, as well as the women and children I’ve alluded to in this book, whose lives were so devastatingly cut short.

This is my sixth book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my fourth for #AWW2016.

This book is currently only available in ebook format in the US. It has not been published in the UK but can be ordered from the BookDepository.com with free worldwide delivery.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Helen Garner, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner

Monkey-Grip

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 246 pages; 2009.

I seem to have accidentally developed a track record in choosing books for my book group that are universally disliked. Last year I chose Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home, which scored 5.5 out of 10, and this year’s choice, Helen Garner‘s debut novel, Monkey Grip, achieved the far worse score of 4 out of 10.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: Garner has a reputation in Australia for polarising readers, more notably for her journalistic work — The First Stone, an account of a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at the University of Melbourne, generated an avalanche of controversy. And her fiction also seems to attract equal amounts of bile and love. But of the books I have read — including Garner’s most recent novel The Spare Room and her true crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation — I have thoroughly enjoyed.

I can’t say the same for Monkey Grip, which did not live up to my expectations.

Bohemians living in 1970s Melbourne

The story, which is set in Melbourne in the mid-1970s, is about a group of men, women and children living a Bohemian lifestyle in a series of share houses. It is narrated by Nora, a 30-something divorced woman with a school-aged daughter, who develops a sexual relationship with a junkie called Javo.

The diary-style narrative charts this on-off affair, which gradually morphs into an inter-dependent relationship that neither party is willing to break. Nora, who seems intent on sleeping with anyone simply to stave off the loneliness, turns a blind eye to Javo’s continued dependence on drugs — “Smack habit, love habit, what’s the difference?” — and his dishonest tendencies.

It is, at times, a fascinating, albeit frustrating, portrait of two people caught up in a destructive relationship. But for the most part I found it a somewhat tedious read, not helped by the all-too frequent descriptions of Nora’s dreams and her sexual activities.

A journey of self-discovery

There’s no real plot; the story is essentially one person’s journey of self-discovery.

The book’s strengths lie in Garner’s evocative prose — her descriptions of Melbourne baking in the summer sun are particularly eloquent — and the snapshot she provides of a specific time, place and group of people living an alternative lifestyle.

Nora’s voice, while slightly self-obsessed and vain, is refreshing in its frankness and its honesty. No surprise then, that Garner later claimed she adapted it directly from her personal diaries.

Monkey Grip, now regarded as an Australian classic, won the National Book Council Award in 1978 and was turned into a film in 1982 starring Noni Hazlehurst, Colin Friels and the author’s daughter, Alice Garner.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Peter Goldsworthy, Publisher, Setting

‘Three Dog Night’ by Peter Goldsworthy

Three Dog Night by Peter Goldsworthy

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 360 pages; 2004.

Martin Blackman is a psychiatrist who returns to Adelaide, Australia, after a decade living and working in London. He brings his new wife, Lucy, also a psychiatrist, with him. The couple have several weeks to kill before their new posts start, and so it is that Martin and Lucy hook-up with Felix, one of Martin’s childhood friends, who lives on a farm in the hills outside of the city.

Felix is a brilliant surgeon and has spent a large amount of time living and working in the Australian outback, specifically helping aboriginal communities. But the experience has changed him:

An athlete at school, full-bodied and muscular, he has shrunk to skin and bone. But his manner shocks me most of all — this air of cool mockery, so unlike the Felix of old.

Within minutes of meeting Lucy for the first time Felix has been incredibly rude and scathing towards her, a pattern that is to follow every time the trio meet up. But later it becomes obvious that his obnoxious attitude is a shield for his true feelings: he has fallen in love with her. And so, without wishing to include any plot spoilers in this review, the story focuses on a very tricky, morally ambiguous ménage à trois that has drastic and long-lasting repercussions for all of the characters.

An unsettling read

Admittedly I found Three Dog Night to be quite an unsettling and disturbing book. As much as I enjoyed Goldsworthy’s lovely writing style, heavily influenced by the landscape and wildlife of Australia (I felt homesick reading his descriptions of the weather — “a luminous morning saturated with sunlight and parrots” and the landscape — “a geometric patchwork of orchard groves and vine rows and plush carpet-squares of lucerne and clover”), I found it difficult to like any of the characters. Martin, the narrator, comes across as particularly weak-willed and so in love with his wife that it becomes almost sickening to read.

If love is an obsessive-compulsive disorder […] then I have been ill for years. But never as sick with bliss, as diseased, as now.

And Lucy, subject to so much adulation from her husband and just about everyone else she meets, comes across as nothing more than a sexual object, albeit with a limp that all the men in this novel seem creepily obsessed by. Meanwhile Felix is so utterly detestable you really wish he’d either disappear out of the storyline or someone would throw the punch I so wanted to send his way!

As ever, I know that you shouldn’t judge a book merely on the basis of whether you like the characters or not. That Goldsworthy can craft such a highly entertaining and readable novel out of these occasionally snooty, high-browed and weak-willed people speaks volumes for his writing ability. I found all the characters to behave in inexplicable ways; they puzzled me, irritated me and sometimes made me angry. But I still wanted to find out what happened to them…

As much as I did not love the book, I did admire it and am glad I read it. It’s very much a story about love, friendship, betrayal, divided loyalties and alienation. But it also provides a fascinating glimpse into aboriginal culture and traditions, made all the more striking when the book largely revolves around characters whom generally inhabit the world of western medicine, with its white coats, doctors and reliance on science and technology.

About the author

For those who don’t know, Goldsworthy is an Australian GP who also happens to be an award-winning writer of novels, poetry and short stories. According to wikipedia, he also writes opera libretti and has been credited as a writer on three films. Last month he was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for service to literature as an author and poet, through arts administration, and to the community”.

Three Dog Night, first published in 2003, is his sixth novel. It won the the 2004 Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Award and seems to have been shortlisted for every other award going including: the 2003 Colin Roderick Award; the 2004 Miles Franklin Award; the 2004 The Courier-Mail Book of the Year; the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; and the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, it made the longlist for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, too.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting, Sonya Hartnett

‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett

OfABoy

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 204 pages; 2009.

It didn’t take long for me to discover my first five-star novel for 2010, but with Sonya Hartnett‘s beautiful melancholy Of A Boy I struck unexpected gold. I cannot begin to describe how incredibly affecting I found this short novel to be. There’s something about the slow pacing of this story that gets under the skin and leaves you thinking about it days afterwards. Indeed, it’s been two weeks since I finished Of A Boy and I’m still wondering about nine-year-old Adrian and all that happened to him.

The book is set in 1977 and tells the story of Adrian McPhee, who’s been abandoned by his parents and is now living with his grandmother and his drop-out uncle, Rory, in an undefined suburb in Australia. He is a shy, timid boy, frightened of almost everything, including “quicksand, tidal waves, fire, monsters, cupboards, being forgotten and going astray”. The all-pervasive fear is not helped by the recent disappearance of three young children from a nearby neighbourhood (highly reminiscent of the real-life Beaumont case), which fills the news pages and has teachers and parents on edge.

When a strange new family moves in across the road, Adrian can’t help wondering if the three children — Nicole, Joely and Giles — are the three children who went out for ice-cream and never came home. When he befriends them his small, closeted and lonely world begins to open up…

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence. I found the following passage, towards the end of the book, particularly heart-breaking:

He wasn’t a gregarious boy, he couldn’t push his way into any existing group of friends; he felt that, having nothing to offer, they would recognise him as a parasite and treat him with contempt. The reason he felt he had nothing to offer was that, in his heart, he knew he was dull. Nothing about him gave him value: he was ordinary and dull. But at least he was smart enough to know it: he wouldn’t become one of those wretches who lurk the perimeters, who live the hideous role of whipping-boy, lackey, buffoon. He exiled himself ruthlessly, which at least was dignified. He could not be injured if he shielded himself from harm.
But school is a terrible place for a rejected child. The ringing of the lunchtime bell was enough to cool his blood; the lunch hour seemed an endless desert of time. He didn’t complain or resist going to school but every day he haunted the gates, hoping against hope that his mother would walk by, discover him, and carry him home.

He is a beautifully drawn character, as is his grandmother, the headstrong Beattie, who doesn’t really want him but feels obliged to take over where her own daughter left off. She moans that he rules her days, that she hasn’t the energy to look after him. “My mothering days are done,” she claims.

“I can’t go anywhere. I can’t forget myself – I’ve got to be here every three-thirty, collecting him from school. I get a holiday only when he does. I’ve got to cook a decent meal for him every night, so he doesn’t waste away. He needs cleaning, clothing, carting here and there. It’s hard work, rearing a child. It’s not work for the old.”

Similarly, Uncle Rory is a brilliantly realistic character: a 25-year-old man living with the guilt of a horrendous car accident that left his best mate a vegetable. When most everyone else has written off Rory, it’s clear that he has a lot to offer his young nephew. The scenes between the two of them are very touching.

I hesitate to draw comparisons with other novels, because this one is unique, but it did remind me very much of Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea, particularly in its depiction of childhood, albeit it in different parts of the country in different eras. But there’s something about the melancholy of the stories that are achingly familiar.

Not surprisingly, Of A Boy has garnered awards and nominations aplenty. It won the 2003 The Age Book of the Year and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, the 2003 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It was longlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize for Fiction.

For British and American readers looking to secure a copy of Hartnett’s novel, please be advised that it has been published under a completely different name: What the Birds See.

Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, HM Brown, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Red Queen’ by H. M. Brown

RedQueen

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Books Australia; 268 pages; 2009.

I’m always intrigued by dystopian fiction so when I stumbled upon this debut novel, set in Australia after a deadly virus has ravaged the world, I couldn’t resist buying it.

Red Queen is the name of the constantly mutating and highly infectious virus which has wiped out most of the human population. The only survivors are “in small groups or families in the country and on farms”.

Brothers Rohan and Shannon Scott are two of those survivors. They live in a secluded cabin in the Australian bush designed specifically as a hideaway should there be an apocalypse. It was built by their now-dead father, who had “a different end-of-the-world theory every week”. It’s alternatively powered and accessible by four-wheel-drive only. The brothers grow their own fruit and vegetables and keep chickens and sheep. And just in case they run out of food and supplies they have a secret bunker (built, again, by dad) stuffed to the brim with canned goods, flour, sugar, wine, clothing and anything else they could possibly need to survive that little bit longer.

But they’re extra cautious about protecting their territory, defending it at all times with loaded guns, until one evening a strange woman, Denny, slips in under the radar and makes herself at home. Her presence changes everything, as a power struggle develops, and the two brothers find themselves falling for her charms.

But all is not as it seems. There’s a slightly menacing overtone, helped in part by Rohan’s frank and rather bullish admission that if Denny leaves “and tries to come back again, or puts us under any risk whatsoever of contamination, I’ll shoot you”.

The tension increases when it becomes clear that Denny’s actions could put all their lives in jeopardy. But because the story is narrated by Shannon, the softer of the two brothers, we only ever get his take on events, making it difficult to determine whether Denny’s intentions are innocent or malicious.

Sadly, I found the characters, particularly the brothers, to be poorly drawn: Rohan is the stereotypical older brother, a bully with a raging temper, while Shannon, with his pony-tail and penchant for playing the guitar, is his weak-willed sibling. Denny is pretty much unknowable, although I suspect that’s deliberate in order to give her an air of mystery.

Fortunately, the cracking narrative pace more than makes up for these faults, although the ending, with everything all neatly wrapped up, does feel a little rushed.

But overall this is an entertaining, sexy read, more psychological thriller than dystopian novel (although someone clearly thinks it’s also a horror novel, because it won best horrornovel at the 2009 Aurealis Awards — go figure). And because Red Queen is chiefly told through dialogue I’m guessing it won’t take long before it’s adapted for either the big or small screen very soon. I rather suspect it would make excellent edge-of-your-seat viewing.

Australia, Author, Book review, Bryce Courtenay, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Jessica’ by Bryce Courtenay

Jessica

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 676 pages; 2000.

Bryce Courtenay’s Jessica is a best-selling novel set in outback Australia during the early 20th Century. Jessica Bergman, the heroine of the book, is a tomboy who helps her father, a Danish immigrant, run the family farm. Meanwhile her elder sister, the beautiful but stuck-up Meg, dreams up plans, with the help of her mother, to wed the local rich boy.

When a brutal murder is carried out at a neighbouring farm, Jessica helps the killer survive a lynch mob hell bent on delivering their own form of justice. This one act of compassion has long-term implications for the rest of Jessica’s life – and she is banished from her family, from society and, later, from her child, who is born out of wedlock.

Ultimately this is a relatively sappy and sentimental tale, albeit it an easy to read one. (I was trapped on a long-haul flight with it, and read pretty much the entire 676 pages on the plane.)

While it’s supposedly based on a true story, Courtenay offers no explanations, no historical footnotes or afterword to back this up. I’m inclined to think that the murder and Jessica’s role in its aftermath may, in fact, be the only true elements and Courtenay has fabricated the rest, which is fine, because it’s fiction after all, but as a reader I would have liked to have known what was true and what was not.

That’s not my only problem with Jessica. I found much of it sloppily written and in need of some strong editing. It’s at least 300 pages too long.

The story meanders all over the place and goes off in unexpected tangents. I would not mind this if those tangents were neatly drawn together at the end, but they are not. Instead, it’s like the author made things up as he went along – and no one, not even the editor he so generously thanks in his acknowledgements, bothers to pull him up on this.

The author also has a tendency to hector his readers with his own views (on the treatment of women, on the treatment of aboriginals) instead of letting the reader make up their own mind. I found this patronising and it irritated the hell out of me.

Some of the scenes are overworked and repetitive, much of the dialogue is false (including the colloquialisms, which grated) and the characterisation poor and based on stereotypes (the mother, for instance, is like the Wicked Witch of the West and Jessica may as well have been Cindarella).

All of this is a shame, because there’s a brilliant novel in here just dying to get out. A second, possibly third, draft might have ironed out some of these problems.

All in all, Jessica has confirmed what I have thought all along: that this best-selling author is really not for me. Although, judging by his sales figures, I’m probably quite alone in this view. And if you look at the favourable reviews on Amazon.co.uk I suspect I’ll be lynched for giving this book just two stars. Oh well.