Australia, Author, Book review, Germany, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Moon Sugar’ by Angela Meyer

Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Angela Meyer’s Moon Sugar is the most original novel I have read all year.

It reads like literary fiction but contains elements of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy and crime. The blurb describes it as “genre-busting” — which is just another way of saying it refuses to be pigeonholed.

Regardless, it’s an entertaining story that addresses themes of late capitalism, desire, intimacy, grief and the pursuit of sensory experiences. Above all, it is about connection — with ourselves, the people around us and the environment.

On the road

The story is told from the point of view of 40-year-old Mila, a personal trainer, who has broken up with her long-time boyfriend and has used a sex worker website called “SugarMeetMe” to find a new, much younger, lover.

Her transactional relationship with Josh soon morphs into something more intimate, so when he dies in what appears to be a suicide during a solo European trip, her first thought is to retrace his steps to find out what happened.

Accompanied by Josh’s friend, Kyle, she goes to Germany to investigate, but her quest generates more questions than answers.

Part road trip, part detective story, Mila’s journey, which includes visits to Berlin, London and Budapest, is complicated by the mention of an “experiment” both she and Josh were involved in back in Melbourne. Did this have something to do with his death?

A page-turning novel

Meyer carefully controls the narrative, slowly revealing aspects of the experiment to keep the reader guessing. This is complemented by an additional narrative thread involving a pair of astronauts from an earlier period who discover an elixir with mystical powers. How this is connected to Mila’s present-day story does not come together until right near the end, adding to the page-turning quality of the novel.

I am being deliberately vague here because Moon Sugar works best if you go into it knowing as little about it as possible.

I enjoyed the ride it took me on, although some aspects felt uneven and a little stilted. The road trip, for instance, just felt like an excuse for the author to tell us about her own European experiences, and some of the ideas around gender fluidity, reproductive rights and what billionaires chose to do with their money felt heavy-handed.

But on the whole, the novel is a refreshing take on the human desire for deep connections — and it’s hard not to see the writing of it as a reaction to the global covid-19 pandemic when so many people endured isolating lockdowns and enforced separation from loved ones.

Lisa at AnzLitlovers has also reviewed it.

Update: For some reason, this post was not in the WordPress app and when I went to refresh it the whole post was deleted. I have rescued the copy from my laptop and republished it. Phew. 

Angela O'Keeffe, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe

Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 144 pages; 2021.

If there was a prize for the most original conceit for a novel, then Angela O’Keeffe’s debut, Night Blue, would surely win it. That’s because the narrator is an inanimate object: the painting Blue Poles, by American artist Jackson Pollock.

That abstract expressionist painting currently hangs in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. It was purchased by the Australian Government in 1973 and caused a bit of a scandal at the time, not least because, at $AU1.3million, it was the most expensive American painting ever bought by anyone anywhere in the world.

O’Keeffe works that controversy into her novella as well as telling the story of the equally controversial artist who created it.

Story of a painting

This is what the painting, which measures 212.1cm × 488.9cm, looks like:

By Source, Fair use,

And this is how the story starts:

I began one night in 1952 in a barn on Long Island, New York. Jackson unrolled a piece of Belgian linen, five metres by three, onto the floor. He liked to work on the floor, to be able to walk around and around a painting: to feel like he was part of it, in it, he said.

From there we follow the painting — originally called Number 11, 1952 — for the duration of its life, from its time hanging in a private Manhattan home, to going into storage, being sold and transported to the other side of the world, and being put on display amid a sea of controversy. (Many Australians, for instance, bemoaned their tax dollars being spent on foreign art and not local art.)

We get glimpses of the painting’s inner-most world, what it feels, thinks, sees and hears,  and its growing awareness that it has always been mired in some kind of debate. The rumour that Jackson did not create it alone, that he had outside help, is a constant theme. (Apparently, if you look closely enough, you can see multiple footprints in several places around the edge of the canvas. You can read more about this on the NGA website.)

In part two, the point of view switches to a human one, that of Alyssa, an art restorer and PhD candidate studying the works of two 20th century abstract artists, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, who were overshadowed — unfairly, it would seem — by Jackson Pollock. Alyssa knows the rumours that Blue Poles was not solely created by Jackson, and she wants to find something that will prove her theory because in doing so she will show that Krasner and Frankenthaler deserved to be recognised in their own right.

The final part of the story then switches back to the painting’s interior monologue, rounding out a narrative that covers all kinds of unexpected topics — including feminism, politics and scandal — as well as ruminating about art, its purpose and its value, and the ways in which those who create it can be revered or condemned.

Bold and original

But for all its freshness and originality, there was something about Blue Poles that didn’t really hold my attention, perhaps because I was constantly aware that I was reading a fictional construct. Knowing that the story was being narrated by a painting meant I couldn’t really lose myself in the book.

And some of the facts surrounding the painting, especially the bits about Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam giving the go-ahead for its purchase, felt rammed in.

But these are minor quibbles because Night Blue is an extraordinary feat of imagination and a great read if you love stories about art and artists or are looking for something written from a wholly original point of view.

Lisa at ANZLitlovers has also reviewed this one.

This is my 11th book for #AWW2021.

2021 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Malaysia, Publisher, S.L. Lim, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Revenge: Murder in Three Parts’ by S.L. Lim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 199 pages; 2020.

Despite the title, S.L. Lim’s Revenge: Murder in Three Parts is not a crime novel. Instead, it’s a beguiling tale of a Malaysian woman who finds herself on the wrong side of the gender divide, constantly overlooked by her parents in favour of her older brother, who is given all the advantages and manages to make something of himself, first in the UK, then later in Australia.

As the only daughter, Yannie must give up any hope of attending university (despite being an excellent student), to help run the family’s corner store. Later, after her parents retire, she reinvents herself as a personal tutor to pay the bills and support them in their old age.

It’s not until her mother’s death that she finally has the opportunity to go abroad to visit her brother and his family in Sydney, Australia, and it is this change of scenery that gives Yannie pause to reflect.

Outwardly, Yannie is passive, polite and pliable, but inwardly she’s full of rage, (understandably) angry at the opportunities denied to her. Her rich interior life, in which she imagines living with Shuying, her schoolgirl crush, is the only thing that seems to sustain her.

Her life, dictated by others close to her (and society in general) means that she has not been able to follow her dreams, nor live her most authentic life. Her physical impoverishment has only been matched by her spiritual impoverishment.

When she moves in with her brother Shan, she begins to see the abuse he once doled out to her as a child (and which her parents ignored) has now manifested in coercive control of his wife and teenage daughter, with occasional temper tantrums and angry outbursts that everyone seems to shrug off as if they never happened.

During her stay, Yannie grows close to both her sister-in-law Evelyn and niece Kat, whom she tutors, but can’t quite get her head around the fact that both have become beholden not only to her psychopathic brother but the money he earns and the extravagant lifestyle which he provides them.

When a seemingly innocuous opportunity for revenge presents itself, Yannie grabs it — but the consequences aren’t quite what one would expect.

Revenge: Murder in Three Parts is a powerful story about women’s inequality, domestic abuse, impoverishment and the struggle to live your most authentic life. And it asks important questions about revenge, guilt — and redemption.

For other reviews of this book, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Kate’s review at Booksaremyfavouriteand best.

Revenge: Murder in Three Parts has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

I read this one as part of my attempt to read all the book’s on this year’s Stella Prize shortlist. it is also my 8th book for #AWW2021.  

2020 Miles Franklin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘The Returns’ by Philip Salom

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 336 pages; 2019.

Philip Salom’s The Returns is about two middle-aged people in inner-city Melbourne who become housemates and develop an unlikely friendship. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It has everything I could wish for in a literary novel. Eccentric, middle-aged characters with unusual backstories. Geat dialogue and wry, understated jokes. A bookshop setting. A character who is an editor. Another who is a would-be artist. Lots of mentions of food and cooking. References to things — books, films and places — that I know well.

And yet something about this novel just did not gel for me. I struggled to connect with the story.

New beginnings

The Returns revolves around two people whose lives have not panned out the way they might have expected. Both have successfully reinvented themselves after career setbacks, but neither is truly happy.

Elizabeth is a freelance book editor who divides her time between her work in Melbourne and looking after her aged mother in Ballarat. She has an adult daughter she very rarely sees. Most of her spare time is spent obsessing over her diet and what she puts in her mouth. She has prosopagnosia, which means she is  incapable of remembering and recognising people by their faces.

Trevor is a bookshop owner with a penchant for cooking who once longed to be an artist. He survived a nasty car accident and now walks with a limp. His marriage has run its natural course but he is still living with his wife, albeit in separate bedrooms. He is effectively stuck in a rut, going to work every day, dealing with difficult customers, then coming home to cook dinner for his ex-wife.

The pair meet when Elizabeth collapses near Trevor’s bookshop. Her unhealthy obsession with healthy eating means her blood sugar is dangerously low. Trevor rescues her, and later she returns to ask him to put an advertisement in his shop window. She has a spare room in her house she wants to rent out.

Trevor recognises this as an opportunity to move out of the marital home and start afresh. The added bonus is that Elizabeth has a shed in her back garden which would be perfect to use as an art studio, giving him the chance to rekindle his thwarted artistic career. And so Trevor becomes Elizabeth’s lodger.

Getting to know each other

Not much happens plotwise in The Returns. Much of it revolves around two characters getting to know one another, the uneasy tension giving way to trust and friendship. Salom takes his time to flesh this out, using wry humour, well-versed conversations and detailed set pieces to show how each character becomes acquainted with the other.

Their individual perspectives are told in alternate “chunks”, for want of a better word (there are no chapters in this novel), so that the reader gets to know both characters incredibly well.

On the face of it, it would seem neither has much in common. But they are both “the offspring of Narcissists”, as Trevor puts it. His Polish-born father went missing when Trevor was a child and despite been declared legally dead has recently reappeared on the scene making unreasonable demands, while Elizabeth’s mother belonged to the Rajneesh movement, otherwise known as the Orange People, and failed to protect her teenage daughter from the sexual deviants within its midst. Both Trevor and Elizabeth, it would seem, are still grappling with the psychological wounds of their upbringings.

Similarly, they both have an obsession with food — Trevor for cooking it, Elizabeth with being Over The Top about its provenance and nutritional content — and the power of art and literature to transform and giving meaning to their lives.

I particularly loved the little asides about literature, such as this one:

Trevor is standing beside a man who is a big fan of Irish fiction and especially of Dermot Healy and the new star Eimear McBride. ‘A man of good taste,’ says Trevor. They have been discussing linguistic tangles and how and when or if they are appropriate in the novel and how this book by McBride was thrown aside by umpteen publishers, umpteen meaning for nine years, before it was finally taken, sold and immediately made her famous. A very French outcome for an Irish book.

And yet, for all the richly detailed prose and the total immersion in two character’s slowly intertwined lives, I struggled to fully connect with The Returns. Perhaps it was just too slow-moving for me and lacked sufficient drama to make me want to keep turning the pages. Or maybe it was the right book but the wrong time?

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers liked this much more than me.

This my 6th book for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Fiction, horror, literary fiction, Lois Murphy, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Soon’ by Lois Murphy


Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 246 pages; 2017.

It might only be two months into 2018, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that Lois Murphy’s Soon will be the strangest — and most intriguing — book I read all year.

This deliciously creepy debut novel defies categorisation: is it dystopian? literary fiction? horror? The answer, I suspect, is a combination of all three.

I’m not much of a one for fantastical, supernatural tales, but there was something about this story, which compelled me to keep turning the pages long into the night. (Lisa, at ANZLitLovers, who reviewed this book last year, felt the same way.)

An isolated town

The setting is Nebulah, a fictional town in outback Western Australia. Woodford, the nearest town, is more than two hours drive away and that town is a long way from anywhere else, too.

One winter’s evening in 1998 a ghostly mist descends on Nebulah. This mist, swirling with apparitions and evil spirits, has the power to kill anyone caught in its path. The only way to escape it is to hide indoors, with all the doors and windows locked, until the sun arrives the next morning to burn it off.

We’d run for the house as the mist around us started to transform itself into figures, howling faces and reaching arms, elongated grasping fingers snatching at us, gleeful. Thankfully it was still hazy enough to evade — we wrenched ourselves through it and I slammed the door as it streamed after us up the porch steps, screeching with delight at this unexpected opportunity. As I flicked the locks it was pressed against the windows, a chilling kaleidoscope of bones and teeth against the glass.

This nightmarish situation has confounded all the scientists. No one seems to know where the mist came from and what its purpose is. But now a once humble community of 500 or so people has dwindled to just a handful — and the only reason these people have stayed behind is that they have nowhere else to go.

The story is narrated by Pete Macintosh, a tough character, who has a soft spot for two women who have remained in town: Li, a Cambodian refugee, who has a successful business growing organic fruit; and Milly, a widow still grieving for her husband who died more than a decade ago.

Pete is a former policeman, cancer survivor and widower with an  estranged adult daughter. In other words, he’s a bit of a loner. But he has a community spirit and he cares deeply for his neighbours.

A menacing mist

The story charts a year in the life of the town and shows how the mist — perhaps a metaphor for pollution or changing economic circumstances — affects the stalwarts who stay behind.

The characterisation is superb. We get a real insight into the fears (and hopes) of not just Pete and Li and Milly, but we meet well drawn subsidiary characters along the way, including Denham, the disbelieving policeman from Woodford; Alex, the clairvoyant from out-of-town who warns Pete to leave by winter solstice; and Anne, the visiting student, who is bewitched by the mist and wants to examine it more closely, putting her life and the life of her friends in mortal danger.

The story, as I am describing it, probably sounds ludicrous, but there’s something about Murphy’s literary prose style that makes the whole idea of a menacing mist, alive with the town’s dead people, seem totally authentic. I never once felt I had to suspend belief.

And the tension and suspense that builds up is almost unbearable, as the taut narrative races towards a heart-palpitating climax that had me wanting to bolt my front door and draw all the curtains against the night. The denouement is powerful, memorable — and as near to perfect an ending as one could expect.

If you haven’t guessed already, Soon is a terrifying tale that will make your heart race. It’s atmospheric, spine-chilling, dark and twisted, and probably the most original novel I’ve read in a long while. But it’s more than just a macabre horror story: there’s commentary here about what happens to country towns when industry comes to an end, how society treats those without money to fall back on, and the importance of friendship and a shared purpose as the glue that holds communities together.

Note that Soon hasn’t yet been published in the UK, though you can buy a Kindle version from Amazon. I ordered my copy direct from the Australian book store

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2018.

A.S. Patrić, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Transit Lounge

‘Atlantic Black’ by A.S. Patrić

Atlantic Black

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 288 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Atlantic Black is the new novel by A.S. Patrić, whose debut, Black Rock White City, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2016. That novel was set in Melbourne, Australia, in 1999 and told the story of a married Serbian couple coming to terms with a new life in a new country. But his latest novel couldn’t be more far removed — in setting, style and time period — for the entire story takes place on a ship mid-way across the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Eve 1938.

Written in rich, lyrical prose, Patrić turns his perceptive eye towards a Russian teenage girl on the verge of womanhood and shows us how her sense of freedom and bravura is tested in the brief space of a day and a night.

Tale of an ambassador’s daughter

Seventeen-year-old Katerina Klova is the daughter of an ambassador. She has lived a cultured, albeit sheltered, life, and now she is travelling from Mexico to Europe with her mother on board RMS Aquitaine.

There are hints that all is not well with her parent’s relationship (her father has been recalled from Paris to Moscow) and her older brother, Kornel, whom she adores, writes secret letters to her, confessing his troubles at the military academy to which he is attached. Her relationship with her mother, Anne, is also strained, for Anne watches her every move and even reads her personal diary.

The diary has become a fiction over the last year, the “Katerina” within it only partially resembling its author. The pages are intended to confuse her interloper, sometimes to torment her, though it began as nothing more than teasing.

When Anne falls ill on the ship, midway across the Atlantic, Katerina seems relatively unconcerned: she’s now free to do as she likes. It’s both exciting and terrifying, but Katerina is a smart girl, confident and unafraid to mix with people of all classes and distinctions.

Of course, she’s not as worldly-wise as she thinks, and is occasionally oblivious to the personal danger she often finds herself in — mostly, it has to be said, from men who do not have her best interests at heart — so that the narrative takes the reader on a perilous journey of nerves and anxiety.

Microcosm of the world

Patrić explores a lot of themes in this wonderful novel, not least the interplay between generations, nationalities and classes, almost as if the ship is a microcosm of the world, which, as we know, was on the verge of a devastating global war at the time.

There’s a sense of impending doom throughout (Anne’s illness in which she plucks out her own eyeball could, perhaps, be seen as metaphor for the violence that awaits Europe), but this is nicely balanced by the party-like atmosphere as the ship prepares for the big New Year’s Eve ball.

The narrative pacing comes in waves (pun fully intended), surging forth at intervals to keep the reader turning the pages, helped also by the use of present tense, which creates a sense of urgency. The denouement, unexpected and shocking, is a fitting conclusion to a historical novel that treads dark and often treacherous territory. I loved it.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers.

Note that Atlantic Black has not yet been published outside of Australia, but it is available to download in Kindle format in the UK, US and Canada.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, A.S. Patrić, Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Black Rock White City’ by A.S. Patrić

Black Rock White City by AS Patric

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2015.

A.S. Patric’s Black Rock White City is set in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs in 1999 and tells a story not particularly common in Australian fiction — that of European migrants setting up a new life for themselves in a foreign land. In this case those migrants are Yugoslavian refugees who fled the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s.

The story largely revolves around married Serbian couple, Jovan and Suzan Brakochevich, whose two young children died in a UN refugee camp en route to Australia. Five years on they are still grappling with the loss and their marriage is on shaky ground.

Running parallel with this story is another:  at the bayside hospital where Jovan works, an anonymous person is scrawling graffiti  (on one occasion in blood on the walls of the operating theatre), vandalising property and carrying out sick stunts (filling a water cooler with human fat, for instance). Over time, the deeds and messages become increasingly gruesome and targeted, with devastating results. But who is carrying out these horrendous deeds? And for what purpose?

But this is not a crime novel, nor, indeed, a mystery with any clear-cut solution. Instead it forms an interesting backdrop for Jovan’s story, of a man who has endured unspeakable horrors in his homeland confronted, once again, by the worst that humanity can throw at him. Even in the safe refuge of a peaceful country and an institution that supposedly heals the sick, he witnesses yet more trauma. And, once again, he simply  gets on with his life.

Strangers in a strange land

The story is very much what it is like to be a migrant, one whose first language is not English, and the compromises that need to be made in order to survive in an unfamiliar culture. Jovan, for instance, was once a professor of literature at Belgrade University and a renowned poet, but now he’s a janitor who is often mocked for his poor grasp of English. (He speaks Russian and German, too, languages that are not useful in Australia.) He has given up on that side of his life; even though he still thinks in poetry, he has no desire to write it or read it.

Jovan is an articulate man and he wants to speak to his wife. What stops him time and again isn’t the pain, it’s a feeling that talking makes it trivial. Not that it makes it real—it makes it small. The reality is clear from when they open their eyes to when they close them, perforating even that boundary almost every night. The death of their two children isn’t the erasure of two beings. It is the loss of God and the skies, it is the loss of the past and the future, of all their small-voiced words and their hearts. The only possible response is suicide. To survive they have found a way to live without response.

Suzana is also working a manual job — as a carer for a disabled woman in Black Rock, a well-to-do bayside suburb (hence the title of the book — the White City is supposedly a direct translation of “Belgrade”), but she, too, was once a writer. She’s now more passionate about words and language than her husband and has devoted a lot of time to studying English (by watching TV and reading), softening her accent and writing in her new language. She’s distressed that Jovan no longer shares a love of words with her:

She knows that Jovan used to be able to turn almost anything over to a new perspective, see something deeper, redeeming, more beautiful even if pitiful. It was what made him such a superb poet back in Yugoslavia. And it still takes her breath away, an actual gasp of air at the top of her lungs, when she thinks how crucial poetry used to be to him. How Jovan used to wake in the mornings with poetry emerging in rhapsodies. How it used to drive him, his body slumping over a bedside table and writing with eyes that couldn’t open from sleep, and with a drowsy hand, poetry that cut through all the usual bullshit poetry was, the usual mediocrity, and opened up new ways of feeling, seeing, understanding and being. And now nothing. He doesn’t write anymore and it’s as though he never did.

Black Rock White City is also very much about the attitudes of others to refugees, even though so many characters in this novel — from the Brakochevich’s neighbours to the people they work with — are all migrants or the children of migrants. One of Jovan’s colleagues, a janitor with Greek heritage, is dumbfounded that Jovan, a tall, well-built man, is a refugee:

 “When you think refugee, you think black, brown or Asian. Skinny and small, because there’s never been a lot of food. But look at you. Raised by basketballers. Smiling like a fucking wood duck.”

Character versus plot

Interestingly, this is A.S. Patrić’s first novel. He’s an accomplished short story writer and can certainly write vivid, confident prose. His depiction of Melbourne’s bayside suburbs is pitch-perfect and he expertly captures the melancholia and purposeless drifting of suburban lives. But the overall narrative felt slightly uneven to me, because even though the malevolent hospital crimes thread is drawn together neatly at the end, it peters out somewhere near the middle. It’s almost as if Patrić couldn’t work out whether to write a character-driven novel or a plot-driven one — and the character-driven one won out.

However, as a novel about migration and displacement and of coming to terms with the horror of war long after the fact, it is extraordinarily good. There’s a moral force to the writing, which I loved, and despite the trauma of Jovan and Suzana’s lives, both in the past and in the present, it’s not without hope. These are people who are adjusting to a new reality, who still have dreams, who still need to make sense of the every day, who still carry pain but are learning to live with it. It’s a bold story.

Black Rock White City has been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

This is my 34th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

UPDATE: Congratulations to A.S. Patrić: Black Rock White City was named winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award a little over an hour after I posted this review.

Australia, AWW2016, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Sonya Voumard, Transit Lounge, true crime

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

Non-fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Earlier this month (9 April) marked my 20th anniversary working in journalism, while earlier this week (29 April) marked the 20th anniversary of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people died. At the time it was the world’s worst civilian massacre by a lone gunman and it had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.

I remember the event clearly, because I had only started my first proper job as a reporter a few weeks earlier. While we didn’t actually cover the shootings in our pages (it was a rural newspaper in Victoria more focused on local events), we had the radio on in the newsroom listening to updates on the Monday. It was all rather strange and terrifying, because after Bryant killed all those people on the Sunday he held some others hostage in a local B&B for a day, before setting the property and himself on fire. (He was later found guilty and given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole.) Now, all these years later, any mention of the Port Arthur massacre immediately transports me back to that time with a kind of shuddering dread.

The relationship between journalists and their subjects

Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre, recently published in Australia by Transit Lounge, looks at that tragic event and explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects. It draws inspiration from one of my all-time favourite reads, Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, and it’s also clearly influenced by Helen Garner’s true crime reportage (specifically This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial and Joe Cinque’s Consolation).

But its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, which tried to examine what made the killer carry out such a horrendous crime. In the process of writing their book, the two respected broadsheet journalists found themselves embroiled in an ethical — and legal — minefield when Carleen Bryant, Martin’s mother, withdrew her support for the project. She later sued them over the use of her personal manuscript and accused them of exploitation.

As any journalist will tell you, there are always two sides to every story, and Voumard, who is a respected journalist and academic herself, tries to flesh these out — with mixed results. For as much as I enjoyed this book, which is part memoir, part ethical investigation, I felt that it was designed with one aim in mind: to discredit Wainwright’s and Totaro’s work. Funnily enough, Wainwright and Totaro did not want to take part in Voumard’s project, directing her to the public record instead, a decision that proved challenging, as the author points out in Chapter 15:

Any suggestion that a writer should abandon a project because one or more of the key individuals declines to be interviewed would, I believe, be defeatist and contrary to the journalistic function of shining a light where some would prefer it not to be shone. […] When interview subjects decline to participate, you look and dig deeper elsewhere in the knowledge that no story begins with an exact destination mapped out. You discover the vast and rich landscape of the public record. If you are dogged and fortunate you may uncover hitherto unseen material that sheds light on some of the sorts of answers you need.

Despite this setback, Voumard slowly builds her case by examining written records — emails, newspaper articles, public appearances and passages from Wainwright and Totaro’s book. But that is only part of the story, for The Media and the Massacre looks at the wider issues of “the writer’s treachery” by looking at how journalists operate, what their roles are in the broader scale of things and how the media handles complaints.

Easy-to-read prose style

The best bit about the book, which originally began life as a doctoral thesis, is how easy it is to read. Voumard has an effortless prose style and despite tackling some big subjects she puts things into context using simple jargon-free language, as you would expect from any good journalist.

Like Garner and Malcolm, she inserts herself into the story, taking the reader on a journey as she uncovers evidence or interviews subjects for the book. I tend to like this style because by showing the working practices of a journalist the reader comes to understand how news stories and feature articles, or, in this case, a book are put together. And you can see how journalists often bring their own prejudices and subjectivity to their work even though they operate under the guise of “objectivity” and “truth-telling”. But at times I felt Voumard was adding extraneous detail that wasn’t always needed simply to emulate a narrative non-fiction “style”.

Yet there’s no doubt that The Media and the Massacre is an important book in the canon of literature that examines the pitfalls of journalistic work and the ethics surrounding the relationship between reporters and their subjects. It raises important issues about the ways in which journalists communicate with their subjects, especially when working on books or longer form journalism and collaborative projects, in order to prevent fallout (of both the ethical and legal variety) at a later date. And it also highlights the ways in which journalistic behaviour has ramifications for the people who are interviewed in the aftermath of tragic events whether these be victims, first responders or eyewitnesses. It shows, as Voumard so eloquently writes at the outset, how journalists constantly tread a difficult, sometimes morally ambiguous, line:

At our best, we do good work — bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.

The Media and the Massacre is currently only available in Australia, where you can buy it direct from the publisher’s website.

This is my 24th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 18th for #AWW2016.