Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Dominic Smith, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Return to Valetto’ by Dominic Smith

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 358 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Dominic Smith’s latest novel, Return to Valetto, is a deliciously entertaining read set in a near-abandoned Italian village rife with human dramas — both past and present.

The gorgeous prose, intriguing plot, captivating setting and brilliant cast of characters make this a truly immersive novel about history’s long tentacles, family secrets and the path to rough justice.

Smith, who brought us the bestselling Last Painting of Sara de Vos and, more recently The Electric Hotel, has a penchant for framing his stories around historical events, people and places. This novel is no different.

His Italian village setting — Valetto, which is perched on an isolated rocky outcrop in Umbria — is inspired by the real town of Civita Di Bagnoregio which can only be reached by a fortified footbridge and is known as “the dying city”.

Italy’s fascist past and the role of its resistance fighters in the Second World War are also fleshed out in this intricately plotted story.

Village on the hill

Just 10 people remain resident in Valetto, which is slowly falling apart — thanks to landslides, earthquakes and the ravages of time — and there’s little reason for people to stay.

Yet one person wants to move into the village – not escape it. Her name is Elisa Tomassi and she’s a mild-mannered chef from Milan. She claims that she’s inherited a cottage attached to a large villa, but the Anglo-Italian family who own it — a trio of eccentric widows, Iris, Rose and Violet, and their elderly mother Ida — claim otherwise.

They say she’s an interloper and that her claim — that their late patriarch, Aldo Serafino, promised the cottage to her family in exchange for sheltering him during the war (when he was a resistance fighter) — is unfounded.

Things come to a head when their nephew, Hugh Fisher, an American-based academic historian, arrives at Valetto for the summer. Recently bereaved and with an adult daughter studying in Oxford, he had hoped to use the cottage — left to him by his late mother — to write a paper about the social history of abandoned Italian towns (his speciality) for an upcoming conference.

But with Elise marking her territory, whether rightly or wrongly, he moves into his Aunt Iris’s guest room instead.

The narrative, predictably, pits Elise against the family; less predictably it looks at what happens when the family try to debunk Elise’s claim, a process that turns a petty dispute over property and the wishes of the dead into something with much deeper, and more disturbing, roots.

US edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Looking back

Return to Valetto asks some in-depth questions about history, including who gets to write it and how we interpret it.

We want history to be a unified narrative, a casual, linear plot that cantilevers across the centuries, but I’ve always pictured it like a filigree of a wrought-iron gate, our unaccountable lives twisting and swooping against a few vertical lines.

And it also posits some pertinent questions about reparations and redemption, including how we bring to justice those that committed unspeakable acts during the war but have never been arrested or forced to confront a court of law.

The story deals with heavy themes, but Smith’s writing isn’t maudlin; instead, it’s light on its feet, frothy and graceful.

There’s humour, too, not least in the vibrant cast of characters, each of whom has their own quirks and eccentricities (Aunt Iris, for instance, dedicates her spare time investigating unsolved crimes from her bedroom), and his grandmother’s 100th birthday celebration, which forms the climax at the end of the novel, is outrageous fun.

And if that’s not enough, there’s also a romance, a road trip and a very public reckoning to contend with. It’s not perfect (some aspects, such as Hugh’s inability to recognise a woman’s romantic interest in him, feel a bit cliched), but on the whole Return to Valetto is a beguiling and thoroughly enjoyable read.

For other takes on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Theresa’s at Theresa Smith Writes.

2023 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, Book review, Debra Dank, Echo, Literary prizes, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘We Come with This Place’ by Debra Dank

Non-fiction – paperback; Echo Publishing; 252 pages; 2022.

Debra Dank’s We Come with This Place is a love letter to Country and family.

A brilliantly evocative memoir about place and culture, it explores Australia’s dark history and the special connection First Nations people have with Country — that is, the lands, waterways and seas to which they are connected.

It takes us on a wondrous adventure out bush, but it also shows us the terrible injustices inflicted on First Nations people and the violence that underpins Australian history. And yet, this is not a misery memoir. It’s hopeful, even joyous in places, and it brims with an intense love for Aboriginal culture and traditions.

Our story is etched into the rocks and it whispers through the trees and with our kin who are more than human. The wind tells it, sometimes strolling gently, sometimes bellowing from cavernous, dark, felt places, where eyes do not see, and only our goodalu can feel.

Warm and generous

Based on Dank’s PhD in Narrative Theory and Semiotics, We Come with This Place is written in a spirit of generosity and is warm-hearted, tender and humorous.

It mixes autobiography with intergenerational family history and First Nations storytelling. (The dreaming tale of three water-women “who came out of the salt water to the north-east of Gudanji Country” is a recurring refrain.)

It gives us a glimpse of another way of life, one in which relationships — with plants, animals, landscapes and ancestors — are crucial and grounded in reciprocity. And where family ties and kinship are key.

As a child I sat with my two sisters and our mum and dad at the fire, watching the gidgea logs burn to coals that could cook a nice, charred edge on a goanna. This night, though, it would be chunks of the recently killed bullock charring on gidgea. The gidgea burned and its dry heat worked its way under our skin and smoothed the dryness already there from the sun, becoming an extra layer of warmth. There was often a chill in the air at night in this place. We sat in company with our old stories, living our new stories and speaking our place into them where they came together. Our dad didn’t often waste air with words, he practised a silence that let other stories be told, so as we sat with the gidgea, we learned to hear and feel those stories waiting in the gaps between the noise.

The narrative is not told in chronological order; instead, it comprises a mix of vignettes, stories and anecdotes which move back and forth in time and cover Dank’s upbringing on remote Queensland cattle stations, her parent’s troubled but loving marriage, her own marriage (to a white man) and the ways in which her grandparents guided her and passed on traditional knowledge and how she, herself, is doing the same with her own grandchildren.

Her father’s story

Much of the memoir focuses on her father, Soda, with whom she has a close but complex relationship. She details his brilliant skills as a horseman and station hand (he could fix anything despite never being trained) and his deep knowledge of Country.

But she also reveals how the trauma of racist violence runs deep. The hardships and horrendous experiences he endured throughout his life (he witnessed, for instance, the brutal rape of his mother by station men when she stood up for herself and refused to return to her place of work), using this as a prism through which to view so many injustices experienced by First Nations people.

As a memoir about resilience, identity and family, We Come with This Place — which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize is heartfelt and honest. It should be required reading for all Australians. I adored it.

Debra Dank is a Gudanji/Wakaja woman who has almost 40 years of experience as an educator. She has worked in schools and universities across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

This is my third book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. I also read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

2023 Stella Prize, Adriane Howell, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Hydra’ by Adriane Howell

Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2022.

Adriane Howell’s novel Hydra is all kinds of strange and wonderful, an artful blend of Australian Gothic and black comedy, with a dash of sad girl tale and folklore thrown in for good measure.

It is the least predictable thing I have read in a long time and it wrong-footed me at almost every turn. This is a good thing because I love it when a story takes me in an unfamiliar direction and throws up surprises in unexpected places.

The quirky story is narrated by Anja, a young Melbourne-based antiquarian specialising in mid-century furniture. She works in an auction house that runs estate auctions, “ransacking dead people’s houses” to profiteer from their good furniture and valuable belongings.

When we first meet her we learn she is grieving the death of her mother. Her short-lived marriage has also broken down following a holiday to the Greek island of Hydra. And she’s constantly bickering with her rival at work, Fran, who provokes her by sitting in her seat and making snide comments about her attire.

Anja, it seems, holds grudges, is cynical and bad-tempered. But she does dream big and wants to advance her career by introducing a new taxonomic system for buyers and sellers in which furniture is classified on the emotional response it evokes — suggesting Anja is either naive or narcissistic.

Then, when she behaves badly at work, tussling with a client over a rare (and supposedly famous) chair that she refuses to sell, she loses her job.

Taking the small inheritance she has from her mother, she flees the city and moves into a secluded cottage on the fringes of a naval base. She dreams of growing her own vegetables and living a quiet life, but the lack of internet access and the sudden appearance of strange “gifts” — foul-smelling human excrement, a mangled rabbit with its guts spilling out — on her doorstep puts paid to that idea.

Her isolation now begins to feel claustrophobic and her behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable and unhinged. The demons within and the demons outwith seem to be conspiring against her.

Anja’s narrative, which features elements of backstory, including her ill-fated trip to Greece, is interspersed with classified naval documents, hinting at a mysterious investigation dating back to 1986. When the two narrative threads come together, the “a-ha!” moment it delivers is a delicious revelation.

Hydra is a truly original and entertaining read. In its depiction of a woman losing her grip on reality, it reminded me a little of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss and Ella Baxter’s New Animal. But it’s a refreshing take on an urban myth and deserves wide plaudits — and maybe, just maybe, Australia’s top literary prize for women writers.

For other takes on this novel, please see Kate’s review and Lisa’s review.

This is my second book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. 

Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Greece, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘Aphrodite’s Breath’ by Susan Johnson

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

There’s a long tradition of people heading abroad to try living in a different country and then writing about it. But I’d wager few have embarked on such an adventure with their 85-year-old widowed mother in tow.

This is what the Australian writer Susan Johnson did when she decided to move from Brisbane, Australia, to the Greek island of Kythera — the birthplace of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty.

Aphrodite’s Breath, subtitled “A mother and daughter’s Greek island adventure”, is a frank and funny memoir. It’s as much about the island’s culture, landscape, history and people as it is about the mother-daughter relationship and the tensions that threaten to unravel it.

The narrative, which spans a couple of years, moves from Brisbane to Greece and back again, via side trips to Paris and London, with the threat of the pandemic somewhere in the middle.

But it’s the first few months of the adventure that pose the greatest challenges. The pre-arranged car doesn’t eventuate, the rented house lacks modern amenities and the winter weather is perishingly cold and unforgivably windy. Then there’s the whole language barrier.

And mother and daughter don’t always see eye to eye about everything.

Mother-daughter tensions

Much of the book deals with the inherent and unspoken tensions within the relationship: Susan is a dutiful daughter who always thinks of her mother’s comfort; Barbara, who is used to the finer things in life, is flinty, headstrong and opinionated.

The more time they spend in each other’s company, the more Susan realises their differences. It comes to a head with a fiery argument only two months into their stay: Barbara wants to go home.

I know I had benefited from many advantages that Mum never had, most notably a university education, and I was forced to examine whether I was guilty of implying my tastes and opinions were superior to hers. As far as I could tell, apart from being a smartypants and falling into womansplaining, I hadn’t paraded any supposed supremacy over her but had done my best to secure her ease and comfort.

Barbara does get her own way in the end, returning home to Australia, but Susan remains in Greece, working on the edits of her previous book (From Where I Fell, reviewed here), writing this one, befriending the locals — a wonderfully varied cast of characters — and embarking on a short-lived romance.

Her reflections on this new life are forthright, unflinchingly honest and often self-deprecating.

Equally, her analysis of what makes a writer and how the art of writing can lay bare the truth at the expense of friends and loved ones is open and candid. Here’s how she puts it in the prologue:

If to photograph people is to violate them, as Susan Sontag suggests, turning them into objects hat can be symbolically possessed, what does writing them do? Perhaps even before we left home, I was the violator, my mother the violated.

Island life

But it’s Susan’s deeply felt personal connection to Kythera, a place she first visited in her youth, that really transforms this memoir into something that feels meaningful and passionate.

That first dawn, the sun lying pale in the sky as if dipped in water, as if it was not lying in the sky at all but in the sea. The village outlined, on the opposite hill, against the dawn sky, the singular cut of trees, buildings, stones; timeless, ancient. In the watery morning sun I wandered down the stony road, emerging into the rustle of pine trees, the wind rising, the sound like the breaking of waves upon an unseen ocean. The fizzing of electricity in the powerlines. The fizzing of my blood.

Her descriptions of the island, its culture and its people are vivid and lyrical (as the above quote attests).

Her interest in history, sense of curiosity and journalistic eye for a story have her tracing the tragic life of Rosina Kasmati, the daughter of one of Kythera’s wealthiest families, who was committed to a psychiatric institution in the mid-19th century after her marriage to an upper-class Irishman fell apart. The couple’s second son, Lafcardio Hearn, became a famous writer (Wikipedia entry here).

Susan’s own personal tragedies mark the end of Aphrodite’s Breath  (tissues are required), but this is a luminous, life-affirming memoir with all the qualities of a finely crafted novel.

Finally, in the spirit of transparency, I know the author personally, but this has not influenced my review. I was surprised to see my name (alongside dozens of others) mentioned in the Acknowledgements!

2023 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Poetry, Publisher, Sarah Holland-Batt, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The Jaguar’ by Sarah Holland-Batt

Poetry – ebook edition; University of Queensland Press; 144 pages; 2022.

First things first. I am not a connoisseur of poetry. Over the lifetime of this blog (19 years and counting) I have only read and reviewed three collections.

I often feel out of my depth when reading poetry. I don’t know what makes a good poem from a bad one. I never know whether to read a collection cover to cover, or to dip in and out. Should I read all the poems in one go? Or just a few at a time spaced out over the course of a week or more? I just don’t understand the **rules** for reading and critically assessing them.

Bearing all that in mind, I picked up The Jaguar, Sarah Holland-Batt’s latest collection (she has two others to her name), on the basis it was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

And I loved it.

It’s intimate. Confronting. Emotional. Philosophical. Alive. Warm. Tender.

Life story in poetry

The collection is divided into four parts, and because the poems are threaded together to tell a narrative — the life and death of the writer’s father — their order is carefully designed to take you on a journey. I read these poems, one after the other, as if devouring a page-turning novella in which I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.

Right from the start we are thrown into the morass and turbulence of one man’s life. In the opening poem “My Father as a Giant Koi”, Holland-Batt writes:

My father is at the bottom of the pond
perfecting the art of the circle.

By the second poem, “The Gift”, we understand he is wheelchair-bound, “garlanded by summer hibiscus”, and that he has been waiting a long time to die:

A flowering wreath buzzes around his head—
passionate red. He holds the gift of death
in his lap: small, oblong, wrapped in black.
He has been waiting seventeen years to open it
and is impatient. When I ask how he is
my father cries. His crying becomes a visitation
the body squeezing tears from his ducts tenderly
as a nurse measuring drops of calamine
from an amber bottle, as a teen in the carwash
wringing a chamois of suds. It is a kind of miracle
to see my father weeping freely, weeping
for what is owed him. How are you? I ask again
because his answer depends on an instant’s microclimate,
his moods bloom and retreat like an anemone
as the cold currents whirl around him—
crying one minute, sedate the next.
But today my father is disconsolate.

The first section of The Jaguar continues to build on this theme, of an ill father living a tortured existence until his death. (It’s not until the very last poem in the collection, “In My Father’s Country”, that his illness is named, when Holland-Batt writes “the creeping lisp of Parkinson’s. / Indiginities compound. Language / sluices away from you, bolts / like a gelding from the box.”)

But there’s humour, too. In the titular poem, we learn that the jaguar is not a spotted cat, but a car, one that “shone like an insect in the driveway” and which her father constantly tinkered with, to the point that he “jury-rigged the driver’s seat so it sat so low / you couldn’t see over the dash”. Neither Holland-Batt nor her mother would get in it. Then, finally …

…his modifications killed it, the car he always wanted and waited
so long to buy, and it sat like a carcass
in the garage, like a headstone, like a coffin—
but it’s no symbol or metaphor. I can’t make anything of it.

Grief, loss and break-ups

The second part deals with grief and loss, but it also jumps back in time to recall childhood memories of her father and more recent ones in hospital, including his diagnosis:

The neurologist explains my father’s vanishing
substantia nigra—Latin for black substance,
midnight bullet of memory.
Bleaching the size of a broadbean
is turning my father jerky, compulsive
— “Substantia Nigra”

In part three,  the focus shifts slightly to a relationship breakdown:

I laze around in French lingerie. Why not?
You’ve gone; the world hasn’t stopped
—”Classical Allegory”

And this one (in full, because it’s so good):

When it ended, he said I had never let him in—
as if I were a country club with a strict dress code
and he’d been waiting outside all those years
without his dinner jacket, staring in
at the gleaming plates of lobster thermidor,
scores of waiters in forest green blazers,
and the stout square shoulders of other men
who alternated tweed and seersucker over the seasons,
silver cloches ringing them in at dinner like bells—
so I said, maybe you’re right, maybe that’s how it is,
when you wanted a table I was always full,
when you want a table in the future I’ll be full then too,
I’m booked out permanently, and no, you can’t borrow
a coat, you have to bring your own, that’s our policy.
— “Parable of the Clubhouse”

By the final part, Holland-Batt’s focus has moved to widescreen as she depicts time spent travelling abroad — to Morocco, Nicaragua, Egypt, New Hampshire, Andalusia, and more.

The final destination

But it’s her trip to the Yorkshire of her father’s youth — depicted in the poem “In My Father’s Country” — that provides the collection’s final, powerful destination. In it, she reveals lingering memories, many tinged with regret:

Each car ride with you was a test—
so sorely you wanted

a mathematician. You got
a daughter instead: wilful, uninterested

in inverse relations. We drove
Bournemouth to Land’s End,

each groyne and harbour wall
pebbled with unnavigable stone

as you drily taught, blue anorak
zippered to the neck. I knew

how to disappoint, feigned boredom.
Pigheaded, I picked over tchotchkes

in seaside shops, chucked gulls
sodden chips, ignored your puzzles.

Throughout The Jaguar, Holland-Batt paints exquisite pictures, plays with language, and shows us the power of parables and metaphors and similies. In shying away from sentimentality, she highlights her father’s humanity and offers a powerful testimony to living life vividly.

The Age calls it “an affecting meditation on mortality” to which I concur.

This is my first book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. 

2023 Stella Prize, Book review, Literary prizes

2023 Stella Prize shortlist

Earlier today, the shortlist for the 2023 Stella Prize was announced.

The titles, in alphabetical order by author’s surname, are as follows:

  • We Come With This Place by Debra Dank (Echo Publishing)
  • big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills (Affirm Press)
  • The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press)
  • Hydra by Adriane Howell (Transit Lounge)
  • Indelible City by Louisa Lim (Text Publishing)
  • Bad Art Mother by Edwina Preston (Wakefield Press)

Each of the shortlisted authors receives $4,000; the winner will get $60,000.

Typically, I have not read any of the books on the shortlist, although Hydra and We Come With This Place — purchased after the longlist was announced — are both in my TBR. A library reservation of The Jaguar came through yesterday, so that’s lying in wait, too.

Not sure my other reservations for the remaining three books will come through in time for me to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on Thursday 27 April – but I’ll see what I can do.

You can read more about the shortlist on the official website and see what the Guardian had to say about it here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fiona Kelly McGregor, historical fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Iris’ by Fiona Kelly McGregor

Fiction – paperback; Picador Australia; 464 pages; 2022.

I used to think only two things made girls go wrong, [Sergeant] Armfield says grimly. Men and poverty. Now I know differently. Now I know that some women simply have a streak of evil.

What is a criminal? That’s the big question at the heart of Iris, a voice-driven novel by Fiona Kelly McGregor, which has recently been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize.

Based on the real-life story of Iris Eileen Mary Webber (née Shingles), a petty criminal in 1930s Sydney, it’s written in the vernacular of the time and depicts a violent underworld of sleaze, drugs and destitution.

Here, in the Depression-era slums, Iris makes a living through sex work, shoplifting and, later, an elaborate scam in which she defrauds businessmen for “unpaid invoices”. But she also teaches herself the piano accordion and does short stints as a busker.

Her story is told in exacting detail and is based on the public record — court documents, police reports, gaol records, census data, newspaper items and so on. It took the author nine years to write (she published other books in between) and she claims it is a story “suspended between the possible and the probable” — in other words, it’s rooted in fact, but elements have been fictionalised.

A resilient woman

Iris is a terrific character — feisty, determined, quick-thinking and resilient in the face of ongoing hardship — so I can see how McGregor might have been drawn to telling her story.

She grows up in country NSW, gets married to a man she doesn’t much like, finds she can’t fall pregnant to him and eventually, in a pique of rage, shoots him during an argument. From there she goes on the run, and her life takes a dramatic turn when she lands in Sydney and is “rescued” by a woman who runs a “house of ill repute”.  With no education, no family support or social welfare to fall back on, Iris must get by as best she can.

And that’s how her life of criminality begins because she has to survive somehow. But does that make her a bad person?  McGregor doesn’t cast judgement; she just tells the tale and lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

She depicts Iris as a quick-witted, creative and high-spirited woman, who is kind and has a strong sense of community, often paying off other people’s debts when she has the money to spare. But she lives in a rough, dangerous and deeply misogynistic society. This danger is only heightened when she falls in love with another woman and has to hide her queer identity from the rest of the world. Criminality, it would seem, infects every aspect of her life.

Detained in custody

Iris’s bawdy, defiant story is told in the first person as she awaits trial in Long Bay State Reformatory for Women. Her rich and flavoursome backstory is told in alternate chapters so we know the outcome of her crimes from the beginning — that is, she gets caught and arrested — but we don’t know all the detail until it slowly comes to light. The fun of reading the book is following her journey from innocent country girl to desperate city crim.

Did I like this book? I’m not sure. I feel ambivalent about it. I loved the vernacular voice, the period detail and the descriptions of Depression-era Sydney (the city is like a character in its own right). But the narrative is too long.

And while I understand McGregor is charting Iris’s experiences, the cyclical nature of her life — trying to better herself then resorting to crime to make ends meet, a pattern that keeps repeating over and over  — didn’t hold my attention.  Another writer might have edited the timeline for dramatic effect, but I guess that wasn’t McGregor’s goal.

Iris has also been reviewed by Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton: A riveting true crime story about an impoverished Scottish immigrant convicted of the murder of her three-week-old baby in Sydney in 1923.

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans: Another riveting true crime book about an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew.

‘Foals Bread’ by Gillian Mears: A novel set in rural NSW in the 1920s and 30s and written in the vernacular of the time about a feisty female who becomes a showjumping champion.

‘Iris’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on or Book Depository, or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Shipping info here.

2023 Stella Prize, Book review, Literary prizes

2023 Stella Prize longlist

I’m on the other side of the country (Melbourne, which is a 4hr plane trip away) for a few days to help my sister celebrate a special birthday. When I was booking my trip I was excited to see it coincided with the Stella Prize longlist announcement, so I bought a pair of tickets and invited my teenage niece to come along.

(My niece has become an avid reader in the past couple of years and our tastes are remarkably similar despite us never having talked about books before.)

That announcement was last night. It was held at the Wheeler Centre, opposite the State Library, in the CBD.

After an introductory speech by the Executive Director of Stella, Jaclyn Booton, the Chair of judges, Alice Pung, wasted no time in announcing the 12 books on the longlist, a mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She then invited the panel of judges — Astrid Edwards, Beejay Silcox, Jeff Sparrow and Alison Whittaker — to join her on stage to discuss the books in more detail.

Each judge took it in turns to champion a book — their passion and excitement about each title really shone through, making me (and I’m sure everyone else in the audience) itching to read them.

The list (see below) is an excellent one. The past couple of years I felt the Stella had lost its way, trying to be all things to all people, and I abandoned the notion of reading the shortlist as I had done in previous years. But this year’s longlist seems genuinely exciting.

I liked that judge Beejay Wilcox said these were books that offered the thrill of the unknown — in other words, they weren’t predictable and often wrong footed the reader. These are the qualities I, too, look for in books. I like them to shun the tropes and try new ways of telling a story, either through structure, plot or both and they get extra bonus points if they do exciting things with voice.

Anyway, here’s the list in full in alphabetical order by author’s surname — note that the hyperlinks take you to the book’s entry on the Stella website:

Interestingly, I’m about quarter-way through Iris, so I’m delighted to see that on the list, and I have We Come With this Place and Hydra in my TBR already.

After the discussion about the individual titles, the panel of judges talked a little about the judging process and why they were excited by the list as a whole. It was pointed out that most titles on the list are by small independent presses, which are more inclined to publish off-the-wall or “risky” books.

And the judges were very frank, claiming that of the 200+ books submitted for consideration some of them were just plain terrible and maybe shouldn’t have been published at all!

But readers shouldn’t worry that the books that made the cut were judged by their covers or their look, feel and heft: all titles were read on e-readers to reinforce the idea that it was the text, and the text alone, being judged.

Will I read the entire longlist? Probably not, but I’m going to give the shortlist a red hot go after it is announced on 30 March.

The winner of the $60,000 will be named on 27 April.

You can watch a video of the announcement here:

Australia, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Martin Boyd, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘A Difficult Young Man’ by Martin Boyd

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 325 pages; 2012.

A Difficult Young Man is the second novel in Martin Boyd’s ‘Langton Quartet’ about an upper-middle class Anglo-Australian family caught between two worlds during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s semi-autobiographical and is based on Boyd’s upbringing, the youngest of four, in a rather rich and well-travelled family, littered with eccentrics and artistic types, who divided their time between England and Australia, often with forays to Italy and other Europen countries.

His siblings all became artists — Merric was a potter, Penleigh and Helen painters — and they in turn produced children who became famous. Merric’s son was the painter Arthur Boyd (1920-99) and Penleigh’s son was the influential architect Robin Boyd (1919–71). In fact, the whole extended Boyd and à Beckett (his mother’s) family is filled with people who found success in the creative arts, but they also had influence in the legal, military and brewing spheres.

Martin Boyd (1893-1972) was the only one to become a writer. He had initially trained for a religious vocation and later studied architecture before joining the British Army during the First World War. He apparently led a nomadic life afterwards,  dividing his time between England and Australia, and later moving to Rome, where he is buried in the same cemetery as the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. His bibliography includes novels, poetry and memoirs.

Is it important to know all this? Probably not, but I found it useful context because it’s clear that Boyd mined his family’s history for this novel, which was first published in 1955.

Out of print Penguin UK edition

Second in a quartet

A Difficult Young Man is the follow-up to The Cardboard Crown (which I read in 2013) but it works as a standalone.

The story is told in the first person by the same narrator, Guy Langton, and is set in pretty much the same locations — the family properties in Melbourne and the greater Melbourne area, and Waterpark, their estate in England, not far from Frome in Somerset.

The main focus is on Guy’s older brother Dominic — the “difficult young man” of the title — who is set to inherit everything as the firstborn son. But he’s also the black sheep of the family, prone to being misunderstood and making bad decisions, regarded by many as being reckless, eccentric and risking the reputation of the Langton’s good name — on both sides of the world.

Dominic was the eldest, and certainly in his own eyes, the most important of the cousins. He soon acquired an added importance to that of primogeniture, but it was only what was called by the politicians of the 1930s “nuisance value”. This sounds as if he was an unsympathetic character, but many people found him quite the opposite. Only a few disliked him, and when they did they repudiated and detested him absolutely. Women found him extremely attractive, especially nice women. The other sort, though they may have at first been excited by his sombre handsome face, soon found something in his nature that disturbed them, a requirement which made them feel inadequate and therefore angry.

Told in episodic fashion, the story charts Dominic’s childhood antics, his bad behaviour and his romantic liaisons — which include a broken engagement and a bad marriage to the bad-tempered social climber Baba — all filtered through Guy’s often disbelieving eyes.

But the novel is as much about Guy as it is about Dominic. We learn about his early childhood; his love for his parents and extended family members, including his beloved grandmother Alice; his happiness at school in Australia and his hatred of it in England; his interest in religion and his failed pursuit of it as a vocation; and the constant struggle to fit in, always feeling like an outsider whether in Australia or England.

Social satire

Full of wit and charm and peopled by eccentric characters often doing farcical things, A Difficult Young Man is essentially a social satire set in the years leading up to the First World War.

It depicts a peripatetic lifestyle as only the rich could live it: the Langton family move from one side of the world and back again in a short space of time, and enjoy multiple long holidays to Europe and Tasmania along the way. The narrative meanders a lot, perhaps as a reflection of the Langton’s way of life, which is always on the move and rarely settled.

It’s told in brilliantly observed detail and written in warm, nostalgic-tinged prose.

A Difficult Young Man won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1957. Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed it.

There are two more novels in the set — Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing — which I will read in due course. Thanks to Bill at The Australian Legend for reminding me about the quartet and encouraging me to read this second volume. I believe Bill will also review A Difficult Young Man shortly.

Australia, Black Inc, Book review, Geraldine Brooks, long form essay, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks (Writers on Writers series)

Non-fiction – hardcover; Black Inc.; 76 pages; 2022.

On Tim Winton is the latest volume in an ongoing series — about Australian writers by Australian writers — which now spans 11 titles. I had previously read On Helen Garner and much enjoyed it, so I was keen to read this one which was published at the tail end of last year.

The subject of this long-form essay is Tim Winton, who is arguably one of Australia’s most decorated and much-loved writers. He’s also one of the few who is published abroad and enjoys an international reputation.

The same could be said of the essay writer. Geraldine Brooks grew up in Sydney, became a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and has six novels to her name, including March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006.

I’ve read plenty by the former (see here) and none by the latter, but the match — that is, getting Brooks to write about Winton — seems ideal: Brooks has a well-honed eye for the cadence and feel of Australian writing because she’s lived abroad for so long (she became an American citizen in 2002) and Winton’s writing is quintessentially Australian.

My island home

Here’s how she describes discovering Winton’s award-winning (and beloved) Cloudstreet in a London bookshop in 1991:

Three pages into Cloudstreet and I could see it, smell it, taste it. Home. I could hear it: our idiom, in all its insouciant vitality, delivered with uncompromising fidelity. Australian writing. Cringe-free. No fucks given if people in New York and London don’t get it.
Tim Winton was writing for us.

What she really loves about that novel, which chronicles the lives of two working-class families sharing a house in Perth, Western Australia, was the way she could identify with its themes and characters.

I had never read a novel that grazed so closely against my own lived experience. It was an unvarnished vision, meticulous in its recollection of the banal, the mundane and the sometimes cruelly philistine nature of mid-century Australian life; vivid in its evocation of the straitened options of the working class, especially working-class women; subtle but frank in its portrayal of the negation and misapprehension of Aboriginal culture.
But it wasn’t only that. This was no cringy put-down. These lives were also funny and passionate, full of imagination and yearning, glimmering with the possibility of transcendence. It was a capacious, generous giant of a novel, Russian in its ambitions, Melvillian in its digressions, Marquezian in its flashes of magic realism. All this, but all ours.

She goes on to describe Winton’s fiction as “acutely class aware” and suggests that by remaining true to his Western Australian roots — “ignoring the siren song of expatriate cosmopolitanism” and the “gravitational tug of Sydney and Melbourne” —  he has “polished his parochialism to a diamond brightness”. She argues that it is this sense of place and the mining of his own experiences for his fiction that makes his writing so distinctively Australian.

Christian values

What also makes him different from many of his compatriots, Brooks argues, is his religious upbringing which was far outside of the Australian mainstream:

The biblical cadence in Cloudstreet is no accident. Winton grew up in a family that read the Scriptures the way my family read the daily newspapers: habitually, fervently, in the conviction that information important to the conduct of one’s everyday life was contained there.

His Christianity, she says, is most obvious in his 1986 novel, That Eye, the Sky, a story about an adolescent whose father is paralysed in an accident and then “rescued” by a visiting evangelist, a scenario which is mirrored in his own life — Winton’s father, a motorcycle cop, was almost killed in a road accident when Winton was a young boy and during his long convalescence was helped by an evangelist who “shifted the Winton family to an urgent, immersive form of worship”.

While his religious tendencies might be less obvious in his later work, Brooks suggests that all his writing is about love, mercy, kindness and liberation — and the Jewish concept of repairing the shattered world. “Winton’s protagonists are always shattered”, she writes. “No one is whole. Everyone is in pieces.”

Literary criticism

Later she discusses the criticism his writing has attracted from the literary establishment and academics. The first is that his novels are too focused on plot, something literary novels are not supposed to be preoccupied by, and second, that his female characters are “too damaged”. Brooks writes that it’s infantilising and offensive to suggest that novelists should only create ideal women:

Never mind that Winton’s men generally are in much worse shape than the women, each one of them staggering under a dense pack of human flaws and moral failings. But all of them, his men and women, are vibrantly alive.

His strength, she points out, is his ability to examine Australian white working-class maleness. To vilify him for this is ironic, she says, especially at a time when anyone writing outside of their lived experience is roundly condemned.

Winton, of course, has done some condemning of his own. His passion for nature, particularly the ocean, has turned him into an environmental advocate. On the rare occasions when he has “stepped out of his carefully woven cocoon of privacy” to lend his voice to a cause he has been impassioned, brave and instrumental in making an impact.

I can vouch for his no-holds-barred approach: I was in the audience at last year’s Perth Festival when he resoundingly called out the organisers for relying on sponsorship money from fossil fuel companies in a speech that Brooks describes as “blistering”. It’s an apt interpretation. (You can read more about his speech here and here.)

On Tim Winton is an eloquent and insightful essay about one of the most successful writers Australia has ever produced. It has made me itch to dig out all those Winton novels I’m yet to read — there’s about four in my TBR — and to re-read those I already have.