20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), 2020 Miles Franklin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, John Hughes, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, University of Western Australia Press

‘No One’ by John Hughes

Fiction – paperback; UWA Publishing; 158 pages; 2019.

John Hughes’ No One is a beguiling novel about ghosts, memory and identity. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

One man’s quest to ease his conscience

Set in inner Sydney, it tells the story of one man’s quest to discover the person he believes he may have hit in his car driving home in the early hours of the morning. The only problem is, he didn’t see what he hit, he simply felt a “dull thud, like a roo hitting the side of the car” and later noticed the damage to his beaten-up old Volvo station wagon — a dent on the passenger side near the front bumper.

I looked again at the depression in the front panel. It seemed larger now, and higher on the body. A dog could not have made such a dint, I thought, or only a dog as large as a man or a roo. What I did then I can’t account for. For some reason I looked up, as if I felt I was being watched, though I knew there was no one there. I’ve come to think that everything that followed can be traced back to that sensation, though if someone were to ask me what it was, I would be at a loss to explain. I often feel in any case that language is really no more than a banging of our head against a wall.

Haunted by what he may have done, he returns to the scene of the “crime” near Redfern Sation but cannot find anyone injured nearby. He visits a local hospital to see if any hit-and-run victims have been admitted. His search proves futile.

A crime without a victim

At its most basic level, No One is simply a mystery without a resolution. It’s not even clear whether a crime has been committed — there’s certainly no victim unless we consider that the man himself is the victim of his own paranoia and sense of guilt.

But scratch the surface and there’s a whole lot more going on within this slim novel, so much so that something I thought would take me a few hours to read took a week or more. I wanted to savour the story, to reflect on certain episodes within it, and to enjoy Hughes’ hypnotic prose style and his metaphor-filled narrative.

I particularly admired his playfulness with the themes of memory and time and the strange ways in which our brains process events, and I was occasionally reminded of Gerald Murnane’s work, which often explores similar issues.

A traumatic childhood

Much of the story focuses on the man’s upbringing. A child of Turkish immigrants who abandoned him, he was raised in five different foster homes in various wild and remote places of Australia. These experiences shaped his outlook on life, his separateness from Australian-Anglo culture in general, and his inability to “escape his childhood”.

A transient as an adult, he has lived in a series of boarding houses and prefers those on the outskirts, rather than the city, because it’s quieter and “the sky seems wider and there are paddocks and areas that feel unused”.

He discovers a sense of home when he hooks up with an Aboriginal woman, whom he dubs The Poetess. She helps him on his quest to find the missing victim of his crime, but that, too, proves futile, and their relationship, cemented by mutual loneliness, is put to the test when her violent ex-partner, responsible for her scar-ravaged face, arrives on the scene.

When a shocking real crime is committed, it feels almost as chimeric as the ghostly one that has frustrated the man from the beginning. And while I personally didn’t think this climax was needed to make the story work, it makes an unarguable point: that violence, whether seen or unseen, is often the common thread that binds minorities, whether they be women, immigrants, orphans or indigenous Australians.

There’s much more to unpack in this novel, and I suspect different readers will gain different insights from it. Rich in language, in metaphor and allegories, and told in an episodic, languid and dreamlike fashion, No One is about alienation, belonging and Australian identity.

This is my 5th for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award and my 4th novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I bought it not long after it was longlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award. It was published by University of Western Australia Publishing, which is a 15-minute drive down the road, so it feels local even though the story is set largely on the other side of the country and the author resides in NSW.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Emily Paull, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Madelaine Dickie, Margaret River Press, Michelle Johnston, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR2020, University of Western Australia Press

3 books by Western Australian women writers: Madelaine Dickie, Michelle Johnston and Emily Paull

Last year I decided to embark on a project to read books from my adopted state of Western Australia. And then my plans flew out the window when I started a new full-time job in a new career just a couple of weeks later!

Alas, six months on and my working life is now (slightly) more manageable, giving me more bandwidth to get on with my reading life.

Here are three excellent books I’ve read recently by women writers from Western Australia. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Red Can Origami is a brilliant, politically motivated novel about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general. But it’s also a deeply personal story about living in a tiny tropical town, adapting to a new lifestyle and remaining true to yourself.

It’s narrated in the second person by Ava, a journalist, who works on the local newspaper. She later takes a job as an Aboriginal liaison officer for a Japanese firm that that’s big into nuclear power. That firm is going head to head with a Native Title group in a bid to begin mining uranium on country. As the fast-paced plot races its way towards an inevitable showdown between the local community, the white do-gooders and the mining company, Ava finds herself out of her depth — and in love with a local Aboriginal man.

The novel is set in Australia’s tropical north and is as much a love letter to that landscape and climate and remote way of life as it is an exploration of morals and principles and the importance of cultural understanding and awareness. It’s written in rich, vivid language, has a cast of strong, well-drawn characters and covers some pertinent issues without being too heavy-handed. It’s a wonderfully authentic Australian story told with insight and sensitivity.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 306 pages; 2018.

Dustfall is set in Wittennoom, the asbestos mining town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which was classified as a contaminated site and then degazetted in 2006/7. Its deadly legacy, in which hundreds of miners developed terminal mesothelioma, is the lens through which this delicately rendered story is told.

Split into two distinct time frames — one historical, one current — it looks at two doctors, a generation apart, who go to Wittenoom as a way to distance themselves from mistakes they have made in their medical careers. For Dr Raymond Filigree, working in the town’s small hospital is a way for him to rebuild his confidence, but instead, he finds himself at war with a mining company that has no respect for human life; while for Dr Lou Fitzgerald, the now-abandoned Wittenoom, full of eerie silence and empty buildings, offers a refuge from a career-ending error, but it also opens her eyes to much bigger crimes from the past when she discovers the town’s ruined hospital.

These twin narratives tapped into my own long-held fury about Wittenooom’s deadly blue asbestos mine which has been with me ever since I read Ben Hills’ Blue Murder, circa 1990, and heard Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine at around the same time. Another politically charged novel, Dustfall is eloquently told but brims with slow-burning anger. It’s absorbing, intelligent — and powerful.

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull

Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 242 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Well-behaved women seldom make history, so the saying goes. And that’s pretty much the theme of this collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.

Many of the characters in these succinct tales live quiet lives with little fanfare, they know their place and don’t seek the limelight, they simply get on with the business of doing what they do. They are the kind of people that go unnoticed, even in death, such as the free diver in “The Sea Also Waits” who goes missing at sea during routine training and whose absence only appears to be noted by her adult daughter, or the female skeleton in “From Under the Ground” who has been buried under a lemon tree in a suburban backyard for so long even the police hold little hope of figuring out who she might be.

Then there are characters who ensure that other women don’t get above their station, such as the bitter and twisted television soap-opera-star-turned-drama-teacher in “Miss Lovegrove” who cruelly convinces her starry-eyed young hopefuls that they will never achieve acting success. “My job is to tell you that the world is sometimes a dirty, ugly place,” she tells one of her charges.

It’s hard to believe that Well-behaved Women is a debut because the writing — in the tone, the prose style and the range of subjects covered — feels so accomplished. There are some real gems in this book and it will be interesting to see what Paull comes up with next. She’s definitely a talent to watch.

I read these books as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

These books are all by Australian women writers. I read Michelle Johnston’s novel for  #AWW2019 (I just never got around to reviewing it last year). The remaining two books represent the 3rd and 4th books I have read this year for #AWW2020 and the 6th and 7th books for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Josephine Wilson, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, University of Western Australia Press

‘Cusp’ by Josephine Wilson

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 247 pages; 2005.

Sometimes I pick up a book and it so perfectly matches my mood that I immediately fall in love with it. This is what happened with Josephine Wilson’s debut novel, Cusp, a serendipitous find in my local independent bookshop earlier this week. (Wilson’s second novel, Extinctions, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017.)

Mending a fraught relationship

Set in 1990, Cusp tells the story of a mother and daughter trying to recalibrate a sometimes fraught relationship.

Lena Hawkins is 27 and has spent the best part of 18 months in New York, trying to reinvent herself as an art curator but is cleaning people’s homes instead and doing admin work because she doesn’t have a Green Card.

Her mother, Mavis, is half a world away — in Perth on the Western Australian coast — and she’s desperate for her daughter to return home. “Come soon,” she beseeches on the phone, before putting $900 on Lena’s Visa card to buy a flight. “Pack up properly, just in case a good job comes up. Or you meet a man. Or something,” she tells her daughter.

Back in Perth, in the height of an Australian summer, Lena finds herself hauled back to a past she’d rather forget, while Mavis struggles to make her daughter see what is right before her eyes.

Reissued edition, 2018

A layered narrative

The beautifully layered narrative, which is composed of vignettes and flashbacks, some set in New York and some in Perth, moves effortlessly between past and present and between two very different points of view — that of Lena’s and that of Mavis’s — from two vastly opposed generations.

What results is a complex picture of two lives inexorably linked but never quite working in unison. There’s a failure to understand one another. Mavis, who had Lena when she was 41 at a time when most women had their children in their 20s, can’t comprehend many of Lena’s life choices. Why did she drop out of university? Why did she have her heart set on such a flimsy career? Why did she go to New York instead of London like every other Australian wanderer? Why hasn’t she found a nice man yet?

While Lena doesn’t understand why her mother settled for such a boring domesticated life and why, now that her father has died (prematurely of a heart attack a few years earlier), she hasn’t used her new-found freedom to do something more exciting. Why, for instance, did she sell up the family home but move to a smaller unit in the same suburb? Why hasn’t she escaped the city she’s always complaining about? Why is she so intent on cleaning things up and throwing things away?

Portrait of a mother-daughter relationship

As well as a wonderful portrait of a mother-daughter relationship, with all its complexities, misunderstandings, tension and love, this book is also an insightful look at the impact of time and place on our lives and the ways in which our personalities and opinions can be shaped by experience, particularly travel.

There are some hard-hitting moments in Cusp, but it’s also full of vividly funny dialogue that often had me laughing out loud.

The characterisation is also superb: both Mavis and Lena feel truly authentic with their flaws and foibles, their little ways and viewpoints, and their inner monologues a curious mix of self-doubt and self-belief. I loved spending time with them.

Funny, poignant and wonderfully compelling, Cusp explores what it is to belong, to be loved and to find your rightful place in the world.

This is my 17th book for #AWW2019. I also read it as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here. Unfortunately, if you are based outside of Australia you may have trouble buying this book. I recommend searching for used copies on BookFinder.com, or you can always buy direct from the publisher UWAP, which has a flat international shipping fee.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kirsten Krauth, literary fiction, Setting, University of Western Australia Press

‘just_a_girl’ by Kirsten Krauth

Just_a_girl

Fiction – Kindle edition; University of Western Australia Press; 265 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the author.

The media often warns us of the perils of the internet, but just how dangerous is it for young people? If Kirsten Krauth’s confident debut novel just_a_girl is anything to go by, it’s pretty hairy indeed.

A trio of messed-up characters

The book is set in modern-day Sydney and revolves around three characters: super-confident 14-year-old Layla, who is mature beyond her years;  lone parent Margot, who has found Jesus and fallen in love with the married pastor at her church; and Tadashi, a young single man with a strange fetish.

Each character is dealing with complicated issues of their own, all told in distinct narrative threads — both Layla and Margaret tell their stories in the very immediate first person, while Tadashi’s tale is related using the more remote third person.

What is most striking is the voice that Krauth adopts for each character: Layla is upbeat, frank and “speaks” in a short, clipped style; Margot is anxious, often fearful and her thoughts tumble out of her head in rush of breathlessness; and Tadashi is detached and living in a world of his own.

Online exploits

The book’s main focus is on Layla, who spends a lot of time in internet chatrooms, where she uses the handle just_a_girl (hence the title). She knowingly gets involved with men online and then meets them in hotel rooms for all kinds of shenanigans.

This is in stark contrast to her mother, who is too busy fretting about failed relationships from the past and grappling with depression to know what her teenage daughter is getting up to when she goes to “visit” her grandmother. It’s both alarming and disturbing at the same time.

What’s even more alarming and disturbing is Tadashi’s behaviour: unable to form a sexual relationship with a real person, he invests in a doll, whom he treats like a living, breathing human being.

Modern teenage life

just_a_girl could very easily have fallen into clichéd territory about teenage girls being molested by internet stalkers, but Krauth keeps a tight rein on everything and has her characters behave in unexpected ways. It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but Layla’s thoughts, dreams and fears are bang on, even if her exploits are quite a bit more daring than mine ever were at that age.

For that reason, this book feels very fresh and contemporary, and provides a glimpse of the complicated world teenagers face every day in which peer pressure is no longer restricted to the school yard during term times but the internet 24 hours a day every day of the year.

This is a super confident debut novel that explores all kinds of issues — online security, teenage sexuality, loneliness, alienation, violence and depression — but in an accessible, easy-to-read way. It should be required reading for parents, but also teenagers themselves — it’d make a terrific novel to discuss in the classroom or a book group.

For another take on this novel, please read Lisa Hill’s review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.