20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Dead Europe’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 411 pages; 2005.

Dead Europe is not the kind of book you forget in a hurry.

It was the fifth novel by Christos Tsiolkas, the one immediately before he achieved international success with The Slap (in 2008).

Like that novel, it is confronting. It’s filled with complex, not always likeable characters and focused on what it is to be a first-generation Australian of Greek parentage but not fully belonging to either culture.

But unlike The Slap, which was a slice of realist drama (albeit one in which married couples had far more sex than you might expect), this one strays into Gothic territory, with elements of horror and religiosity thrown in for good measure. This makes for a rather absorbing, sometimes abhorrent, read.

It’s a proper page-turner, one that draws you into a world that feels familiar but isn’t quite real, leaving an indelible impression on the mind and the emotions. It is rather unforgettable — but it won’t be for everyone. You have been warned.

Dual narratives

Set in the early 2000s, it tells the story of Isaac, a struggling Greek Australian photographer based in Melbourne, who has been invited to stage an exhibition of his work in Athens. He jumps at the chance to visit Europe because he’ll be able to explore his roots a bit more, catch up with cousins and perhaps visit his mother’s village for the first time.

But what he finds is not the sophisticated Europe of his dreams, but a land haunted by its bloody, war-torn past, scarred by religious pogroms and massacres and ancient battles that have left behind an ugly legacy. He meets people bearing generations-long grudges against neighbours, a European culture beset by hate and hostility, and where he is immediately classified as a “naive Australian”, an innocent abroad, who isn’t experienced enough to understand history.

He’s perplexed by the myths and the superstitions that are still upheld, and unable to reconcile his new world outlook with his old world ancestry.

In alternate chapters, a second narrative unfolds: that of Isaac’s Greek ancestors, tracing them over countless generations from Greece to America and back again. Told in fairytale-like prose, this ancient storyline reveals the roots of prejudice, antisemitism and misogyny in a culture that is often upheld as civilised and sophisticated. At times this is a very ugly, murderous storyline, haunting and detestable by turn.

An innocent abroad

Isaac’s first-person narrative charts his travels across Europe (as well as Greece he goes to the Czech Republic, France and the UK) and details his encounters with cousins, friends and strangers. Every interaction forces him to reassess who he is, what he believes in. Here’s an exchange with his cousin, Maria, for instance:

—Do you believe in anything? [Maria]
I was silent. She punched me lightly on the arm.
—Well? Answer me.
—In Australia, I believe in lots of things. Here, in Europe, you all make me feel a little stupid. Do you understand? I don’t know if I believe anything in Europe.
—Australia seems a perfect place in which to finish one’s life. I imagine it’s a very quiet place, a very safe place.
I laughed […]
—Most Europeans know nothing of Australia.
—That’s true. We do not care.

This is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, of the naive traveller having his eyes opened as he comes to terms with the unsophisticated innocence of his homeland and seeing how outsiders view his Australian compatriots.

Here’s how an Algerian woman, caught up in a people-smuggling operation in France, describes it to him:

I have met very few Australians, Isaac, but I have always been struck by their innocence. They remind me of a character from Henry James, they have an innocence that the Americans have now lost. It’s very seductive but I think that if I was to live in Australia, I would learn to hate that innocence. I think it would drive me mad.

However, Isaac’s experiences on his travels aren’t entirely innocent. There’s a lot of gay sex in this novel, described in almost pornographic terms, which doesn’t always feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, and there are long conversations about religion, particularly the Jewish faith, which are deeply uncomfortable and highlight viewpoints that are abhorrent.

But these are not the only aspects that are disturbing. There is a vampiric element and a ghost element that combine to give an unexpected surrealistic slant to the story — but I’ll say no more for fear of ruining the plot.

A novel to experience

Dead Europe isn’t the kind of book you pick up for a relaxing read. This is the kind of book you experience. It gives you goosebumps and heart palpitations, it makes you angry, leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, occasionally makes you laugh out loud or nod in recognition.

As a book that essentially explores hatred — and its long-term, far-reaching legacy — it’s intelligent, wise, thrilling, shocking, chilling to the bone and completely unforgettable.

In 2006 Dead Europe won the Age Fiction Prize, and the Best Writing Award, Melbourne Prize. I can see why it made such an impression. It’s a brilliant novel about lies and myths and hate and truth, topics that are more relevant than ever before.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in Perth CBD last year.

Book lists

6 highly anticipated Australian novels I can’t wait to read

The next month or two looks pretty exciting in terms of new Australian literary novels being published — and for once I’ll be on the right side of the planet to buy them when they come out.

Here are six books I’m eagerly awaiting, namely because I’ve read and loved other books by these authors in the past.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order according to author’s surname. Please note that the blurbs, some of which I’ve cut slightly, have been taken direct from the publishers’ own websites, as have the publication dates (which are subject to change).

Silver by Chris Hammer

For half a lifetime, journalist Martin Scarsden has run from his past. But now there is no escaping. He’d vowed never to return to his hometown, Port Silver, and its traumatic memories. But now his new partner, Mandy Blonde, has inherited an old house in the seaside town and Martin knows their chance of a new life together won’t come again.
Martin arrives to find his best friend from school days has been brutally murdered, and Mandy is the chief suspect. With the police curiously reluctant to pursue other suspects, Martin goes searching for the killer. And finds the past waiting for him.

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia on 1 October. Due to be published by Wildfire in the UK on 9 January 2020.

There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett

Prague, 1938: Eva flies down the street from her sister. Suddenly a man steps out. Eva runs into him, hits the pavement hard. His anger slaps Eva, but his hate will change everything, as war forces so many lives into small, brown suitcases.
Prague, 1980: No one sees Ludek. A young boy can slip right under the heavy blanket that covers this city — the fear cannot touch him. Ludek is free. And he sees everything. The world can go to hell for all he cares because Babi is waiting for him in the warm flat.
Melbourne, 1980: Mala Li ka’s grandma holds her hand as they climb the stairs to their third floor flat. Here, Mana and Bill have made a life for themselves and their granddaughter. A life imbued with the spirit of Prague and the loved ones left behind.
Favel Parrett’s deep emotional insight shines through in this love letter to the strong women who bind families together, despite dislocation and distance. 

Published by Hachette Australia in Australia on 24 September. Due to be published by Sceptre in the UK on 20 February 2020.

Maybe the Horse will Talk by Elliot Perlman

Stephen Maserov has problems. A onetime teacher, married to fellow teacher Eleanor, he has retrained and is now a second-year lawyer working at mega-firm Freely Savage Carter Blanche. Despite toiling around the clock to make budget, he’s in imminent danger of being downsized. And to make things worse, Eleanor, sick of single-parenting their two young children thanks to Stephen’s relentless work schedule, has asked him to move out. To keep the job he hates, pay the mortgage and salvage his marriage, he will have to do something strikingly daring, something he never thought himself capable of. But if he’s not careful, it might be the last job he ever has…

Published by Penguin in Australia on 1 October. There is no date available for the UK — as yet.

Bruny by Heather Rose

The new novel from the author of the award-winning The Museum of Modern Love.
A right-wing US president has withdrawn America from the Middle East and the UN. Daesh has a thoroughfare to the sea and China is Australia’s newest ally. When a bomb goes off in remote Tasmania, Astrid Coleman agrees to return home to help her brother before an upcoming election. But this is no simple task. Her brother and sister are on either side of politics, the community is full of conspiracy theories, and her father is quoting Shakespeare. Only on Bruny does the world seem sane — until Astrid discovers how far the government is willing to go.

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia on 30 September. There is no date available for the UK — as yet.

Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel Damascus takes as its subject nothing less than events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church. Based around the gospels and letters of St Paul, and focusing on characters one and two generations on from the death of Christ, as well as Paul (Saul) himself, Damascus nevertheless explores the themes that have always obsessed Tsiolkas as a writer: class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation, exile; the ways in which nations, societies, communities, families and individuals are united and divided. 
In Damascus, Tsiolkas has written an historical novel of immense power and an unflinching dissection of doubt and faith, tyranny and revolution, and cruelty and sacrifice.

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia on 28 October. Due to be published by Atlantic in the UK on 5 March 2020.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

Four older women have a lifelong friendship of the best kind: loving, practical, frank and steadfast. But when Sylvie dies, the ground shifts dangerously for the remaining three. Can they survive together without her? 
They are Jude, a once-famous restaurateur, Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, and Adele, a renowned actress now mostly out of work. Struggling to recall exactly why they’ve remained close all these years, the grieving women gather for Christmas at Sylvie’s old beach house — not for festivities, but to clean the place out before it is sold. 
Without Sylvie to maintain the group’s delicate equilibrium, frustrations build and painful memories press in. Fraying tempers, an elderly dog, unwelcome guests and too much wine collide in a storm that brings long-buried hurts to the surface — and threatens to sweep away their friendship for good.

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia on 15 October. Due to be published by W&N in the UK on 25 June 2020.

Are there any on this list that have piqued your interest?

10 books, Book lists

10 favourite Australian novels of the 21st century

Earlier today — thanks to @wtb_Michael and @frippet — I discovered that the Australian Book Review is conducting a poll to discover the nation’s favourite Australian novel published in the 21st century. (You can find out more, and nominate your favourite, here.)

Taking Michael’s lead, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of my top 10 favourite Australian novels published since 2000. I published that list on Twitter, but because I know not everyone who follows this blog follows me on social media, I thought it might be helpful to publish it here.

So here is my list. The books have been arranged in chronological order, from the most recent book published. As ever, hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Cleverly constructed tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show how humans have impacted the environment over four centuries.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands by Stephen Orr (2015)
Charming, funny and deeply moving story about three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
Thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which women are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanors.

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013)
Booker Prize-winning novel about an Australian surgeon, haunted by a clandestine love affair, who becomes a  Japanese POW on the Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

Floundering by Romy Ash

Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on holiday by the sea one hot Australian summer — but everything isn’t quite as it seems.

Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (2011)
Set in the 1920s and 30s, this historical novel traces the fortunes (and misfortunes) of two generations of a legendary showjumping family in rural NSW.

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2010)
Ambitious novel comprised of several interwoven narrative threads, focussed on four individual characters as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day.

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang (2009)
Deliciously entertaining award-winning debut novel based on the true-life story of  Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a legendary eccentric who built an amazing retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)
Middle-class angst fest following the fall out when a man slaps a child, who is not his, for misbehaving at a family barbecue.

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2003)
A beautiful, melancholy tale about a lonely, timid nine-year-old boy being raised by his grandmother.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share your own list of favourite Australian novels from the 21st century? 

20 books of summer (2017), Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House Australia, Setting

‘The Jesus Man’ by Christos Tsiolkas

The Jesus Man by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Random House Australia; 414 pages; 1999.

Christos Tsiolkas is one of those writers who divide opinion: you either love him or hate him. Regular readers of this blog will know I fall into the former camp.

The Jesus Man is his second novel. It’s not quite as over-the-top grungy as his debut, Loaded, but it is definitely confronting and just as sexually explicit. It’s also quite violent, perhaps gratuitously so, and there are scenes within its pages that are truly stomach-churning and, well, distasteful. It makes the hard-hitting nature of The Slap (pun not intended) tame by comparison.

But it’s a well-crafted, authentic story about a first generation immigrant family that makes for compulsive reading. I loved the raw, visceral nature of the writing and the door it opens onto a distinctly working class world where pride, politics and prejudice often collide.

The outfall of a shocking act

The novel is framed around a shocking act carried out by Tommy Stefano, a 20-something man, who has broken up with his long-term girlfriend and shut himself off from his family.

The story is told through the eyes of Tommy’s younger brother, Lou, who claims that he wants to “offer a history of my family”:

But remember, please, this is also my story, in my own words. I’ll try and be honest, tell you what I know. But it is an interpretation; and I have to go back to beginnings and in the beginning I wasn’t there. So it may be that some of what I say is bullshit, is speculation, lies and fabrications passed on.

What ensues is a multi-layered, complex tale divided into three major sections devoted to each brother — Dominic Stefano, Tommy Stefano, Luigi Stefano — and two smaller sections about the sibling’s parentage between an Italian father and a Greek mother. Lou takes his time to explain what his close-knit, loud and opinionated family was like before his brother carried out his unspeakable deed and then examines the outfall — social, mental, emotional — on those closest to Tommy afterwards.

The UK edition of The Jesus Man by Christos Tsiolkas
UK Edition published by Atlantic books

Trademark themes

Like all of Tsiolkas’ work, there are recurring themes:  the fraught and complicated relationships between generations; cultural baggage that comes from being the child of a European immigrant in a white anglo-Australian society; and the confusion and shame that arises when a young man raised in a macho culture realises he might be gay.

It’s typically left-leaning (Lou’s mother is a socialist) and there’s a lot of commentary about Australian politics (it’s set in the era of economic rationalism) and it’s often negative impact on the working class. Melbourne, as ever, is faithfully reproduced, almost as if the city is a character in its own right.

Occasionally the prose feels uneven — often angry and over-the-top when Tsiolkas is writing the sexually explicit bits; more sedate and polished when writing about everything else — and it’s debatable as to whether the final section (titled “Epilogues”) adds anything to the story. But on the whole, The Jesus Man is a powerful and absorbing read about the power of family, love and the ties that bind.

This is my 14th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in on one of my trips to Australia — possibly in 2005 — and it has sat in my TBR ever since.

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, short stories

‘Merciless Gods’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 336 pages; 2014.

Christos Tsiolkas has a reputation as a bold writer of daring, often controversial, fiction. Merciless Gods, first published in Australia in 2014 but recently released in the UK, is a collection of short stories that continues Tsiolkas’ trademark flare for writing edgy stories about taboo subjects.

Unsettling stories

There are 15 stories in the collection — and they’re not for the faint hearted. Even those that are “tame” by Tsiolkas’ standards are still confronting and unsettling. There are tales about homophobia, racism, revenge, death, grief, power, parenthood, friendship and family. And most are set in the suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

The range and breadth of the collection is one of its great strengths, because each story has its own distinctive “voice”:  we hear from brothers, mothers, students, immigrants, young lovers, lost souls. Some are in the first person, others in the third person.

Many taboo subjects are addressed, from male rape to drug addiction, but while the writing is fearless — Tsiolksas doesn’t hold back on detail or imagery — it’s usually with a view to shining a light on injustice, bigotry and prejudice. In other words, these aren’t gratuitous tales; there’s a message at their core even if the reader might need to be shaken out of their own complacency to find them.

Tsiolkas is at his best concentrating on his “pet” subjects — what it is to be gay, the fraught and complicated relationships between generations, and cultural baggage that comes from being the child of an immigrant. But he also writes powerful stories about heterosexual couples and friendship — the opening story, Merciless Gods, for instance, is a horrifying glimpse of the competitive spirit between young adults and what happens when you take things too far (and is highly reminiscent of Wayne Macauley’s Demons).

No weak link

When I write about short story collections I tend to highlight a handful of stand-out stories, but it’s hard to do that with this book because they’re all so good: there isn’t a weak link in the chain, so to speak. Of course, some are more hard-hitting and stomach churning than others.

I found the final story distasteful (I won’t name it here because it has a term in it that will generate lots of spam), but only because it presented an unfamiliar world of anonymous male sex (which, to be honest, I’d rather not know about), but it did make me think about the ways in which some people pick and choose when to follow their religion and how leading a less-than-honest life can be psychologically damaging.

I felt the same way about Genetic Material in which a man visits his father in a nursing home and then does something rather shocking, not because he wants to but because he feels that it’s the most kind thing he can do. But it made me shudder and want to take a long cold shower.

Even the less confronting stories are, well, still confronting. In Sticks, Stones a hard-working mother realises she hates her teenage son after she hears him call a girl in his class with Downs Syndrome something rather offensive. Instead of dealing with the situation and ticking her son off and explaining why his language is unacceptable, she chooses to humiliate him instead.

In Tourists, Trina and Bill, a young married couple visiting New York, have a falling out over a racist term that Bill mutters about a gallery attendant who annoys him. The tension between the pair — Trina’s anger and horror, Bill’s shame and confusion — are expertly captured in a story that clearly shows how the stress of travel can cause people to misbehave badly. This is made all the more ironic given the pair are trying not to look like obvious tourists — despite their distinctive accents and attire.

Adult content

I’ll be the first to admit that Merciless Gods isn’t for everyone — the content is very much of the adult kind. But if you have read Tsiolkas’ work before, you will know what to expect.

And even if you haven’t, but you like your fiction to take you out of your comfort zone, to present viewpoints and stories that will make you think, unsettle you and leave you with a lingering sense of disquiet, it’s definitely one to add to the wishlist.

For another take on this collection, please see Simon Savidge’s review.

This is my 37th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

10 books, Book lists

10 (more) of my favourite novels from Australia

10-booksTo mark Australia Day (26 January), I thought I would put together a list of some of my favourite Australian novels.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this: back in 2005 I published a list entitled 10 of my favourite novels from Australia. But a lot has changed since then: my tastes have broadened, I have better access to books (thanks to the internet) and I’m more aware of new Australian fiction at the time of release (again, thanks to the internet and especially to the Australian bloggers I follow).

Since 2005, I’ve read more than 100 Australian books and these have spanned everything from historical fiction to psychological thrillers, much-loved classics to contemporary literary fiction. Gone are the days when I thought Australian novels only revolved around convicts or pioneers!

This new list features 10 of my favourite reads from the past decade. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. You can click on each book title to read my review in full.

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins (2013)

The Burial by Courtney Collins

The Burial
 tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War. Part adventure tale, part romance, part Western (but without the gunslinging), it’s a dramatic story told in a visual, exhilarating — and memorable — way.  Jessie, who is based on a real female bushranger, is wonderful company — feisty, unafraid, daring and brave — and I loved spending time with her.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan (2014)

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I’ve read all of Richard Flanagan’s novels and reviewed most of them, but this book was so profoundly moving I couldn’t find the words to do it justice, so instead of reviewing it on this blog I just went around and told everyone they had to read it! Of course, I could have chosen almost any one of Flanagan’s novels to include here, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, spoke to me in a way few books over the past decade have done so. It’s an unforgettable account of one man’s experience as a doctor in a POW camp and the long-lasting impact of what happened to him and his friends during that time. It’s also a tragic love story between a man and the woman he wasn’t supposed to fall in love with.

‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells is set in Sydney on a single summer’s day in 2008. It tells the stories of four individual characters — Ellie, James, Catherine and Pei Xing — as they criss-cross the city. This is not a plot-driven novel, but one in which the characters’ inner lives take centre stage. I loved Jones’ rich use of language and the ways in which she plays with images and motifs throughout, and the stories stayed with me long after the final page. (As an aside, I could have easily chosen Jones’ Sixty Lights in this slot, which is another evocatively written story, but set in Victorian London, not contemporary Australia.)

‘Utopian Man’ by Lisa Lang (2010)

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Lisa Lang’s debut novel is a sheer delight from start to finish. The central character is Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a real life legendary eccentric who built a magnificent retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s. This included a fabulous three-storey book arcade, supposedly filled with a million books. The novel charts Coles’ life in two-yearly increments and shows how this extraordinary man, who championed equality and was exceedingly generous to all and sundry, always saw the good in people despite suffering small tragedies and scandals himself. It’s a charming read about a charming man, and I wish more people knew about it.

‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman (2005)

Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman

I have Eliot Perlman to thank for opening my eyes to a whole new world of Australian fiction for this is the book that made me realise there was more to Australian literature than novels about convicts and pioneers! Set in contemporary Melbourne, it showed me my home town in ways I’d never come across before in contemporary fiction. Admittedly very baggy and overwritten (I would level the same charge against all of Perlman’s novels even though I admire his work), I loved its breadth and scope: it’s a  psychological thriller, a court room drama, a romance, a satire, an insightful commentary on modern-day existence, morals and values, and a kind of literary juggernaut that borrows the title of a well-known non-fiction book by William Empson on literary criticism. Throw in politics, big business and prostitution and pretty much every genre and theme is covered here. What’s not to like?

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland (1955)

The Shiralee by D'Arcy Niland

The Shiralee counts up there as one of my top three Australian books of all time (the other two are George Johnston’s My Brother Jack and Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea). It’s a wonderful tale set during the Great Depression about a swagman (an itinerant worker) who travels rural NSW in search of work accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, Buster, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden. Six months earlier he “kidnapped” Buster from her city-based mother, after he discovered his wife in bed with another man, but this well-meaning act is now taking its toll: Buster talks too much and slows him down and he’s constantly worrying about how to feed and protect her. It’s very much a novel about father-daughter relationships, and provides a fascinating glimpse of a past way of life where friendship and camaraderie between people “on the road” was so vital to their survival.

‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott (1999)

Benang

This book challenged me on many levels but left a deep impression on me. Essentially it is about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people. This deeply poignant and haunting story is narrated by Harvey, who is of aboriginal descent but has been raised to believe he is a white man because all the aboriginal blood has been bred out of him. But in being raised in one culture while forced to ignore another, Harvey feels that something is missing from his life — and this book is an attempt to reconnect with his ancestors and to try to understand why his grandfather was so keen to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in the family line. I came away from this book feeling a mixture of joy and sorrow, anger and regret. I still think about it four years down the line…

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965)

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

I loved this book so much I read it twice — and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended it to people looking for a quintessential Australian read. Largely semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of Rob Coram, who is just six years old when the book opens, and his relationship with his older cousin, who joins the Army to fight in the Second World War. It’s a beautiful, somewhat nostalgic look at what it was like to grow up in one of the most remote areas on the planet, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian ocean, at a time when the war was raging in Europe, and the Japanese were getting closer and closer to invading Australian soil. It’s very much a coming-of-age story and has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place.

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

The cover of Christos Tsiolkas' acclaimed novel, The Slap.

Set in suburban Melbourne, The Slap is one of those bold, brash and visceral novels that stays with you long after the final page. The whole story unfurls from one seemingly minor incident at a family barbecue when a man slaps a child who is not his own. This one event has drastic repercussions on all of those people present. It tests friendships, marriages and family relationships, and it divides people into two distinct groups: those that think the child deserved it, and those that think the slap constitutes child abuse. I loved the scope and ambition of this novel (perhaps more than its execution) and raced through it in a matter of days. And the eight-part Australian TV adaptation is possibly the best thing to come out of Australia since Tsiolkas himself.

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie by Tim Winton

I’ve only read a handful of Tim Winton’s novels, but this one — his latest — is a brilliant look at contemporary Australia, awash with cash from the mining boom yet ethically and morally bankrupt. It tells the story of Tom Keely, a middle-aged spokesman for an environmental campaign group, who has lost his high-flying, highly pressurised job for daring to speak the truth. Now, holed up in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower, he lives like a recluse, until he becomes entwined in his neighbour’s messy life. What ensues is a bumpy — and seedy — ride,  far removed from his middle-class upbringing.  Despite Eyrie tackling some weighty subjects, it’s done with a lightness of touch and plenty of humour. I loved this book so much, I read it twice — in quick succession.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have a favourite Australian novel? Is anything missing from my list?

Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda-UKcover

Fiction – paperback; Tuskar Rock Press; 513 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas hit the big time with his best-selling novel The Slap in 2008. It won the ALS Gold Medal (2008), the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book (2009) and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction (2009). It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2009) and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2010). It was also adapted for television as an eight-part series (which, by the way, I highly recommend — by far the best thing on TV in 2011).

But while it won plenty of praise and sold by the truckload, it also attracted much controversy — critics complained about the language (too raw), the sex (too filthy) and the characters (unlikeable). Some — mainly British reviewers — claimed it was misogynistic. Me? I loved it. Which is why I was so looking forward to his new novel, Barracuda, which has just been published in the UK.

I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. This is another highly readable, totally addictive, octane-fuelled story that addresses big themes — what it is to be good, what it is to be successful, love, redemption and social mobility  — and isn’t afraid to be in your face about it.

Swimming talent

The story follows Danny Kelly, who acquires the nickname “Barracuda” because of his extraordinary talent in the swimming pool. This talent offers Danny the chance to escape his working class roots. Not only does it earn him a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Melbourne, if he works hard and dedicates himself to the sport, he could end up on the Australian swimming team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But at his first big championship swim meet he blows it — and comes fifth. Where others might have learnt a valuable lesson and become even more determined to achieve their Olympic dream, Danny never quite recovers from the shock of losing. Even though he has the physical ability to be an elite swimmer, he lacks the emotional and psychological maturity to deal with this setback. And sadly, this sets in motion a whole chain of events which will haunt Danny for the rest of his life.

And I understand, I know, it is failure that is evil.
So I run, my strides enormous, not caring who I crash into, who I hurt. I run so fast that I am hurting the ground as I pound it. I run so fast that I am fire. But no matter how fast I run, the Devil is there beside me. The Devil is in me. I am a larva and that which is emerging is something vile, something uglier that what existed before.

Two narrative threads

When the story opens we meet Danny long after that swimming “failure”. In fact, he’s so loathe to remember his swimming past that he refuses to go near water. He’s reinvented himself as a carer helping injured people during their rehabilitiation, and he’s living on the other side of the world, in Glasgow, Scotland, with his male lover, Clyde. But Danny has a secret — and he knows that at some point he’s going to have to come clean and tell his boyfriend because it could scupper his plan to stay in the UK permanently.

From there the book splits into two distinct narratives: one that moves backwards in time, tracing Danny’s new life in Scotland to his time as a teenage swim sensation; and the other that moves forwards in time, following his story from teenage swim sensation to potential Scottish immigrant. It’s a device that works well, because it provides light and shade to Danny’s story — his successes and failures, his struggle to be good against his “natural” inclination to be bad — and lets you see what impact certain events have on his later life. And it also provides just the right amount of narrative tension to keep you moving the pages — what, for instance, is that secret he’s so carefully guarding in Scotland? The shock of it, I must say, left me slightly stunned.

Indeed, there’s many revelations in this book that left me stunned. It’s a thought-provoking read — as ever, the language is raw and often crude (the nickname that Danny gives his college is but one example) and the sex is filthy (you have been warned) — but it explores so many interesting themes and issues that it’s impossible not to like. It feels utterly contemporary, but by the same token, the story, of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks trying to cross over into a more affluent social class, could have been lifted from a 19th century novel.

Life in Australia

As an expat-Australian reading this book, I identified with so much of the social commentary, especially the no-holds barred criticisms of Australia, that I had to stop myself from underlining whole pages for fear I’d end up scribbling over the entire book. I particularly loved this passage, which comes out of the mouth of Clyde, a Scotsman who sums up life in Australia perfectly (forgive the cursive language, which is Tsiolkas’ not mine):

“You all think you are so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve met. You call yourselves laid back but you’re angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you’re anti-authoritarian but all there is here is rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don’t climb there, don’t go here, don’t smoke and don’t drink here and don’t play there and don’t drink and drive and don’t go over the speed limit and don’t do anything fucken human. You’re all so scared of dying you can’t let yourselves live — fuck that: we’re human, we die, that’s part of life. That’s just life.”

I could go on, but I won’t, because I’m not sure everyone would agree with me, but sometimes you have to leave your country to understand it, and reading Barracuda made me feel so much better about many of the things that have bugged me for a decade or more.

All in all, this is a hugely powerful read, not just about sporting achievement and striving to be the best at what you choose to do, but of coming to terms with your own frailties and flaws, of learning to appreciate your family, friends and loved ones, and being prepared to let go of the past in order to move into the future. There’s a lot of love, forgiveness, redemption and atonement in this novel. It’s ambitious — in structure and in subject — but it succeeds, because Tsiolkas forgoes the literary flourishes and makes it a truly entertaining and accessible read — and that, to me, is what the very best fiction should be all about.

And finally…

As an aside, I do recommend that you listen to this You Wrote the Book podcast — a 31-minute interview with Christos Tsiolkas — by my mate, Simon Savidge, which covers Barracuda indepth.

And in the interests of transparency, I should point out I met the author on Monday night at his UK book launch — a kinder, more lovelier person you could not meet. I had a wonderful chat to him (about Australian society — what else?) on the walk to a Bloomsbury restaurant, where a celebratory dinner was held with his publishing posse and a whole bunch of people from the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Festival of the Arts to which I’d kindly been invited. That meeting and meal has not influenced this review; I loved the book even before I had the good fortune to meet the man who penned it.

5 books, Book lists

Five books by Australian writers I’m looking forward to reading

5-books-200pixLast month I went to Australia to visit family for four weeks. But that trip  seems a very long time ago now — especially as I am now immersed in loads of Canadian fiction.

As luck would have it, my return to London has coincided with a flurry of big-name Australian authors releasing long-awaited novels — why couldn’t they have released them all in the first week of September? Oh well, I would have never fitted them in my suitcase anyway.

Here’s five I’m looking forward to buying at some point — if they’re ever released in the UK or if I can scrape together enough cash to pay for international shipping charges!

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order according to author’s surname.

Narrow-road-to-deep-northThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

“August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever. This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost. “

Published by Vintage Australia last month. There is no date available for the UK — as yet.


Coal-Creek
Coal Creek by Alex Miller

“Bobby Blue is caught between loyalty to his only friend, Ben Tobin, and his boss, Daniel Collins, the new Constable at Mount Hay. He understands the people and the ways of Mount Hay; Collins studies the country as an archaeologist might, bringing his coastal values to the hinterland. Bobby says, ‘I do not think Daniel would have understood Ben in a million years.’
Increasingly bewildered and goaded to action by his wife, Constable Collins takes up his shotgun and his Webley pistol to deal with Ben. Bobby’s love for Collins’ wilful young daughter Irie is exposed, leading to tragic consequences for them all. Miller’s exquisite depictions of the country of the Queensland highlands form the background of this simply told but deeply significant novel of friendship, love, loyalty and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding and mistrust. Coal Creek is a wonderfully satisfying novel with a gratifying resolution.”

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia earlier this month. Not published in the UK until next March, but a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.


Barracuda-2Barracuda
by Christos Tsiolkas


“Daniel Kelly, a talented young swimmer, has one chance to escape his working-class upbringing. His astonishing ability in the pool should drive him to fame and fortune, as well as his revenge on the rich boys at the private school to which he has won a sports scholarship. But when he melts down at his first big international championship and comes only fifth, he begins to destroy everything he has fought for and turn on everyone around him. Barracuda is a powerful and moving novel of sport and violence, class and education, dreams and disillusionment; it is the story of a young man who eventually comes to realise that it is in family and friendship that his strongest identity lies.”

Published in Australia by Allen & Unwin on 1 November, but not published in the UK until 2 January 2014. But international buyers can purchase the ePub edition from the Booktopia website.


EyrieEyrie
by Tim Winton


“Tom Keely’s reputation is in ruins. And that’s the upside. Divorced and unemployed, he’s lost faith in everything precious to him. Holed up in a grim highrise, cultivating his newfound isolation, Keely looks down at a society from which he’s retired hurt and angry. He’s done fighting the good fight, and well past caring. But even in his seedy flat, ducking the neighbours, he’s not safe from entanglement. All it takes is an awkward encounter in the lobby. A woman from his past, a boy the likes of which he’s never met before. Two strangers leading a life beyond his experience and into whose orbit he falls despite himself. What follows is a heart-stopping, groundbreaking novel for our times – funny, confronting, exhilarating and haunting. Inhabited by unforgettable characters, Eyrie asks how, in an impossibly compromised world, we can ever hope to do the right thing.”

Published in Australia by Penguin Australia earlier this month, but not published in the UK until June 2014.


Swan-bookThe Swan Book
by Alexis Wright

“The new novel by Alexis Wright, whose previous novel Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin Award and four other major prizes including the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award. The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute teenager called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans driven from other parts of the country, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright’s previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the wild energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale.”

Published in Australia by Giramondo Publishing Co last month. Not published in the UK, but a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.

Please note that the release dates quoted for the UK are subject to change.

Are there any on this list that have piqued your interest?

Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Loaded’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Loaded

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 151 pages; 1995.

Loaded is the first novel by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas, he of The Slap fame. To say the book is loud, brash and in-your-face would be an understatement. It brims with raw energy, power and verve. It’s audacious — and confronting.

It’s also pornographic and those who don’t really want to know the detail of casual, often anonymous, gay sex should probably stay clear. But the sex is central to the novel’s focus, for Ari, the narrator, is 19, unemployed and trying to find his way in the world. He is bored — and self-destructive. He’s looking for any kind of experience to lift him out of his ordinary, dull, suburban existence. And if that means getting it off with strangers in nightclubs and public toilets, then so be it.

Ari is also a drug user — and occasional pusher.

Stark subject matter

Yet despite the stark subject matter and the clear-eyed prose, there’s something sad and tender about this story.

Spanning just 24 hours, we get a glimpse of Ari’s frustrating home life — his father, a Greek immigrant, calls him an “animal” and is prone to angry outbursts; his mother, an Australian, shouts and nags — and see how he prowls the city — its streets, its suburbs, its nightclubs  — because he needs “something else going on”.

What’s clear from the outset is that Ari, aimless, directionless and confused by his sexuality, has a bleak world view shaped by the things he sees around him — his parent’s unhappiness (“I love my parents but I don’t think they have much guts. Always complaining about how hard life is and not having much money. And they do shit to change any of it”), the casual racism among his peers and the ways in which the immigrant community is just as obsessed by money and class as the “skips” (white Australians).

He thinks he looks like John Cusack

He is intelligent, good-looking (“I saw John Cusack interviewed on late-night television and he looked like me”) and obsessed by movies and music. In fact, he spends most of the novel mooching around listening to mix tapes on his Walkman (the music references are particularly good if you are of a certain, a-hem, vintage).

But what resonates most is Ari’s sense of alienation — from his parents (in particular, his father’s Greek background), his older brother (who is studying at university and is not afraid to stand up against his domineering parents), his friends (who have gainful employment) and himself (never quite sure if he is gay or straight).

This alienation is reflected in the city he sees around him — the narrative is very much tied to Melbourne’s suburban enclaves and is split into four parts named East, West, South and North — which he loves and loathes in equal measure. I particularly enjoyed his references to suburbs and places I know from my time living in Melbourne (which is about the same time that events in the book take place) and thought his descriptions of the Eastern suburbs (which are more affluent than the West) — with their “continuous loop of brick-veneer houses forming a visual mantra” — pretty much spot-on.

In the East, in the new world of suburbia there is no dialogue, no conversation, no places to go out: for there is no need, there is television.

An angry young man

The strength of the novel lies in Ari’s voice, which is angry, full of self-loathing and deeply cynical. He’s not necessarily a likable character, but he is empathetically drawn.

Loaded isn’t the type of novel you read for “pleasure”, but it’s worth reading because it offers an eye-opening peek inside a rarely seen world. It’s like getting on a rollercoaster for the first time: it’s deeply frightening but once the ride ends you’re glad you found the courage to experience it.