Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting, Text

‘Limberlost’ by Robbie Arnott of

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2022.

With just two novels under his belt, Robbie Arnott has made a name for himself as one of Australia’s most exciting, original and acclaimed literary writers.

His debut, Flames (2018), was nominated for almost every prize going (see his publisher’s site to see all his prize listings) and earned him a Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize. His second, The Rain Heron (2020), won the Age Book of the Year award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the ALS Gold Medal and the Voss Literary Prize, amongst others.

His latest book, Limberlost, is sure to earn him more accolades, although this novel is far less experimental and more “traditional” than his earlier work. But what it does share with those books is the same magical sense of wonder for Nature and the rich, evocative descriptions of the Tasmanian landscape.

Dreams of adventure

Set on an apple orchard in Tasmania during the Second World War, it tells the story of teenager Ned, whose two older brothers join the Army, leaving him behind with a taciturn father and a bossy older sister.

While the narrative largely unfolds over the course of a summer, it also weaves in glimpses of Ned’s future life as a husband and father to show how the choices he makes as a 15-year-old have long-lasting repercussions in the decades ahead.

As a teenager, he keeps to himself but he works hard to gain his dad’s approval and his sister’s respect. He spends his spare time trapping and shooting rabbits, selling their pelts as part of the war effort. But while he knows the rabbit fur is used to make the Army’s distinctive slouch hats, he’s not doing it as a patriotic act — he simply wants to save up enough money to buy himself a boat.

That boat, he believes, will not only give him a sense of freedom to explore beyond the orchard perimeter, but it will also allow him to sail to the mouth of the river where, as a young boy, his father took him and his brothers to see a “mad” whale that had destroyed several fishing boats and wreaked havoc with its fluked tail, an experience that has stuck with him ever since.

If he killed enough rabbits, he might earn enough to buy his own boat […] Nothing fancy, just a small, single-sailed dinghy he could run into the river. Out of the water he could sail wherever he liked, from downstream where the current ran fresh to the broad estuary in the north. Squid-filled reefs, forested coves, schools of flashing salmon, trenches of snapper, lonely jetties, private beaches on whose cold sands he could burn hidden fires — all would be open to him if he had a boat. If he killed enough rabbits.

Be careful what you wish for

Most of the story charts Ned’s pursuit of his dream and then shows what happens when it is realised. The boat, of course, is not just a boat. It’s a conduit that brings him closer to his father — and, to some extent, his sister — as well as his friend Jackbird and Jackbird’s gun-toting sister, Callie, who later becomes Ned’s wife.

It’s also a metaphor for Ned determining the direction of his life, of longing to experience the adventure and excitement that his older brothers are encountering in the war, and of making tangible that emotion he felt when he saw the whale thrashing in the sea years earlier.

Emotion, it turns out, is something Ned feels keenly. He might think nothing of killing rabbits, but when he finds a badly injured quoll in one of his traps, for instance, he’s too kind-hearted to put it out of its misery: he takes it home, hides it away in a crate and looks after it as best he can.

Later, when he goes mustering as a 30-year-old man, he witnesses a cow drowning in a river and blames himself for the incident because he hadn’t been able to chase it down and rescue it. He tells himself that his brothers, Toby and Bill, would never let something like that happen and wonders when the “surefootedness” and  “the natural competence of other men would come to him”.

It’s this tendency for self-reflection, of beating himself up about things, combined with his empathy and gentleness that makes Ned who he is, but in a world of strong males (every male character in this book makes a living off the land in one form or another), he sees these as character flaws, not strengths. Even his university-aged daughters challenge him:

Ned met her gaze. Felt her condescension tear a new wound in him. He felt off-balance, disoriented, angry. His daughters had never spoken to him like this before. Nobody had.

Of course, these traits as an adult have their long roots in his teenage years, particularly that formative summer involving the boat, the quoll and his budding friendship with Callie.

Favourite read of the year

I absolutely adored this book. From the lush prose and its gorgeous descriptions of the natural world to the way Arnott taps into the rich interior world of a lonely teenage boy, it’s a truly moving coming-of-age novel about kindness, loss, love and family.

And there’s something about the passing of time and the nostalgic tone of the story — without ever resorting to sentimentality — that makes this such a powerful read. I can’t remember the last time I read a book and had a good old sob when I came to the end of it!

There’s no doubt that Limberlost will be my favourite novel of 2022.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZ LitLovers, Brona’s at This Reading Life and Susan’s at A Life in Books.

I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. It has been published in the UK and if you hurry you might be able to pick up a Kindle version for just 99p if you don’t mind buying books from that bad corporate citizen known as Amazon.

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

‘A Brief Affair’ by Alex Miller

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

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

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

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

Twin narratives

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

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

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

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

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

A rich inner life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Projects

It’s time to dust off your novellas!

I’m a big fan^^ of novellas — those works of fiction, generally less than 200 pages, that can be read in a matter of hours but linger in the memory for much longer — so I don’t normally need an excuse to read them. But this month is Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck so I’m devoting the month to reading as many as I can from my existing TBR.

And because there’s a couple of other reading months happening, I’ve made sure there’s some in the pile by Australian authors for Brona’s #ReadingAusMonth and a few translated from the German language for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth.

Here’s what’s in my pile:

AUSTRALIAN BOOKS

GERMAN BOOKS

  • ‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
  • ‘You Would have Missed Me’ by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
  • ‘Two Women and a Poisoning’ by Alfred Doblin (translated by Imogen Taylor)

OTHER BOOKS

  • ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ by John Buchan
  • ‘Catholics’ by Brian Moore
  • ‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson
  • ‘The Man I Became’ by Peter Verhelist
  • ‘Confessions of a Mask’ by Yukio Mishima
  • ‘The Faces’ by Tove Ditlevsen
  • ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ by Sigrid Nunez
  • ‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante
  • ‘From the Land of the Moon’ by Milena Agus

I’m really looking forward to reading as many of these as I can in November, but where to start?

Have you read any of these books? Recommendations for what to read first are very welcome!

 

^^ Some of the best books I have ever read have been novellas. Some examples include ‘Academy Street’ by Mary Costello, ‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras and ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney. For more truly memorable novellas, please check my list of 17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon).

Book review

November reading plans

My pile of novellas

I don’t usually plan my reading that too far ahead, but next month there are various reading events hosted by some of my favourite bloggers all happening at once, and I don’t want to miss out.

I’ve dug out all my novellas so that I can participate in Novellas in November (#NovNov) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, and to ensure I can kill two birds (or is it three?) with one stone, I have ensured there’s some in the pile by Australian authors for Brona’s #ReadingAusMonth and a few translated from the German language for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth.

I’m not going to read everything in the pile photographed above, but it’s nice to have plenty to choose from depending on mood and time. Here’s what’s in the pile:

AUSTRALIAN BOOKS

  • ‘In the Winter Dark’ by Tim Winton
  • ‘The White Woman’ by Liam Davidson
  • ‘The Long Green Shore’ by John Hepworth
  • ‘The Orchard Thieves’ by Elizabeth Jolley
  • ‘Girl with a Monkey’ by Thea Astley

GERMAN BOOKS

  • ‘You Would have Missed Me’ by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
  • ‘Two Women and a Poisoning’ by Alfred Doblin (translated by Imogen Taylor)
  • ‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
  • ‘To Die in Spring’ by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

OTHER BOOKS

  • ‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (translated from the Icelandic by Borg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery)
  • ‘The Man I Became’ by Peter Verhelist (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer)
  • ‘Untold Day and Night’ by Bae Suah (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)
  • ‘The Faces’ by Tove Ditlevsen (translated from the Danish by Tina Nunnally)
  • ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown
  • ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ by Sigrid Nunez
  • ‘One Fine Day’ by Mollie Panter-Downes
  • ‘Touch the Water, Touch the Wind’ by Amoz Oz (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange)

I’m really looking forward to reading as many of these as I can in November, but where to start?

Have you read any of these books? Recommendations for what to read first are very welcome!