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

Australia, Author, David Malouf, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘Harland’s Half Acre’ by David Malouf

Harland's Half Acre by David Malouf

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 240 pages; 1999.

There’s no doubt that David Malouf is one of Australia’s finest writers — and Harland’s Half Acre, first published in 1984, is testament to that. I read it wholly absorbed by the story within, but mostly enamoured of the lush, beautifully evoked prose that marks Malouf as a true literary giant.

This novel is one of those “great epics” that charts one man’s life from cradle to grave and in doing so tells the story of Australia’s history in microcosm from before the Great War to the late 20th century. At its heart is a moral certainty about the ways in which people can rise above their circumstances to follow their dreams, and the challenges associated with leading an artistic and unconventional life, especially at a time when Australian art was viewed as second-class compared with almost anything coming out of Europe.

A second chance

When the book opens we meet a young Frank Harland living in a single-roomed shack in the Queensland bush. He’s only a toddler. His mother has died, leaving his father, Clem, a widower at the age of 23 with two young sons to raise. Clem doesn’t waste time getting remarried, and when his new wife falls pregnant, Frank, who has become a bit of a handful, is sent away to live with Clem’s older sister on a farm.

The first nights, waking to a strange darkness, he had felt panic. Reaching out for Jim [his older brother] or for his father in the big cool spaces he had found nothing but sheet; though it would have been scarier of course if he had found the body of the cousin he had never seen, who was dead on the far side of the world, but whose shirts, all mended and ironed, hung in the wardrobe against the wall, and whose spirit haunted so much here.

What seems such a cruel decision — to send him away to unfamiliar relatives, depriving him of the warmth and love of his siblings, including three half-brothers that follow later — is, in fact, a saving grace for Frank. It is here, in the loneliness of a seven-roomed house, amid the quiet grief of his Aunt Else and Uncle Jack, that Frank first learns to draw. It’s a talent that sustains him for the rest of his life.

When, as a teenager, he visits Brisbane, a pile of paintings under his arm to show to an art dealer, the path of Frank’s adult life looks assured. He gains employment as a copywriter and lives a frugal existence in a shabby boarding house in order to send money home for the education of the half brothers he barely knows.

But then the Great Depression hits, and gentle, kind-hearted, dignified Frank has nowhere left to go. His big dream — to buy back the land his ancestors had lost through gambling and mismanagement — seems unlikely to be realised…

His lawyer’s story

Harland’s Half Acre is not just about Frank Harland, however. There’s a twin narrative that alternates with Frank’s story, and this follows the life of Phil Vernon, who comes from a much more privileged background than Frank. Phil is considerably younger, but their lives intersect when Phil’s father, a Brisbane dandy with money to spend, buys one of Frank’s paintings.

Phil lives in a big house, which is constantly filled with relatives, including a dying grandfather, whom he keeps company, and a domineering grandmother. His story, which is in the first person (unlike Frank’s, which is narrated in the third person), is told from the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood as he tries to make sense of the artist he knew, loved and, eventually, came to work for — as the lawyer who sorted out his legal affairs. What was it that made Frank so unconventional, prepared to live in impoverished conditions, but always so well-mannered and not bothered by success? And how had the pair become friends?

Why me? I never did understand that. But his shyness, his gradual unveiling of himself to me as I was allowed to shake out of him the last details of what he wanted and what he was, the softness of the man under the scratchy exterior, his real innocence beyond the slyness and crude native wit, all this touched as well as exasperated, and without ever feeling sure of my ground, I grew fond of him, as I believe he was of me.

A tumultuous life

This is one of those lush, wholly absorbing stories about one man’s life that gets under the skin and leaves an indelible mark, perhaps because it’s so filled with messy, tumultuous detail and doesn’t shy away from harsh realities. At times it is heartbreaking to read.

It reminded me very much of Patrick White’s extraordinary novel about a successful artist, The Vivisector, while the first chapter, which records Frank’s childhood in such wonderful detail, brought to mind James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But no matter which way you look at it, Harland’s Half Acre is a wonderfully realised tale about the pursuit of dreams, artistic (and emotional) expression and the ties that bind.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s (much more perceptive) review at ANZ LitLovers.

The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one — though you might have to place a special order.

This is my 21st book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2012

Books-of-the-yearAs the year draws to a close, it’s time to choose my favourite reads of 2012.

Until I sat down to do this task, I would have described the past 12 months as a fairly average reading year.  I read a lot of books I awarded four stars and several that I thought worthy of five stars, but there were few that really stood out in the memory. And yet, when I went back through my archives, I recalled so many fabulous books that I began to find it hard to narrow it down to just 10 titles.

Without further ado, here’s what made the cut. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks take you to my original review.

Pilgrimage

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick (1961)

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace.

Plainsong-original

Plainsong by Kent Haruf (2001)

Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.

Gillespie-and-I

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a novel. It transports you into a strange world of art, deception, troubled families, disturbed children, grumpy housemaids and caged greenfinches, and then takes you on a rollicking good ride that you don’t want to end.

Devil_I_Know

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.


Colour-of-milk

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob.


Fly-away-peter

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (1999)

This is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.


The_Lighthouse

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (2012)

I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.


Everybody_has_everything

Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad (2012)

It is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.


Imposter-bridge

The Imposter Bride
by Nancy Richler (2012)

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.


Heaven-and-hell

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (2011)

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

Australia, Author, Book review, David Malouf, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Fly Away Peter’ by David Malouf

Fly-away-peter

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 142 pages; 1999.

David Malouf is a critically acclaimed and prize-winning novelist and poet from Australia. Fly Away Peter, his third novel, netted him The Age Book of the Year in 1982 and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1983.

A Great War novel

It is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.

When Fly Away Peter opens it is 1914. Jim Saddler, a 20-year-old man from southern Queensland, devotes his time to watching birds in the estuary and swampland near the home he shares with the father he does not like very much.

One day he meets the owner of the land, Ashley Crowther, a rich farmer not much older than himself, who employees Jim to record the coming and going of the birds — both native and migratory species — as part of his plan to create a sanctuary.

A little later Jim befriends an older English woman called Imogen Harcourt, whom he sees in the “sanctuary” taking bird photographs which she sends to a London magazine. These photographs also accompany the long list of birds that Jim transcribes into a special book using his “best copybook hand, including all the swirls and hooks and tails on the capital letters that you left off when you were simply jotting things down”.

Trio of characters

This trio of characters come from vastly different backgrounds — Miss Harcourt is an English immigrant who lives alone, Australian-born Ashley was educated in England’s finest schools, Jim has never left Queensland — and yet they are united by their mutual love of birds and the natural world.

When he talked to Miss Harcourt, as when he talked to Ashley Crowther, they spoke only of ‘the birds’.

But their idyllic existence comes to an end when war erupts in Europe and both men decide to sign up — Jim goes to Salisbury, England, to be trained; Ashley is an officer in a different division. It is here, on the battlefields of the Western Front, that Malouf’s extraordinary novel really comes into its own.

The mud and the trenches

His gut-wrenching descriptions of the mud and the trenches and the fear of going over the top are eloquent and moving, as is his depiction of the friendships, and occasional personal hostilities, formed on the front line.

There is one particularly god-awful scene in which Jim loses his best friend in the platoon, a larrikin called Clancy, that is more horrifying and bone-chilling than anything I’ve ever read about the Great War.

But the great strength of Fly Away Peter is the way in which Malouf not only describes how war is a machine, spitting out more and more young men who will die horrible deaths far from home, but also the way in which he contrasts the fighting in the trenches while the residents of Armentières are getting on with their day-to-day lives:

Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered the war through an ordinary gap in a hedge. One minute you were in a ploughed field, with snowy troughs between ridges that marked old furrows and peasants off at the edge of it digging turnips or winter greens, and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards, and although you could look back and still see farmers at work, or sullenly watching as the soldiers passed over their land went slowly below ground, there was all the difference in the world between your state and theirs. They were in a field and very nearly at home. You were in the trench system that lead to the war.

Explores Australian myths

It’s easy to see why the novel is a set text in many Australian schools. It explores the myth of the Australian soldier and the ANZAC spirit, and contrasts the horror of war with the beauty — and peace — of the natural world. It shows how an appreciation and respect for nature is a great leveller, crossing the boundaries of race, class and experience. And the text is rich with symbols, not least the migratory birds which represent Jim’s “flight” to the other side of the world.

But it is the poignancy of the ending, in which Miss Harcourt stands on the beach and reflects that life continues to move on — “Everything changed. The past would not hold and could not be held” — that elevates this novel from excellent to exceptional.

I haven’t felt so devastated by a First World War novel since I read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And going by how much I loved and adored those novels, I don’t make this statement lightly…

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite novels from Australia

10-booksDespite growing up in Australia and spending the first 29 years of my life there, I can’t say I’m very well read as far as Australian fiction is concerned. I do miss the “Australiana” sections that are found in pretty much every Aussie bookstore. This means I usually stock up on Aussie literature whenever I go home, because it’s often hard to get on this side of the world, unless, of course, the novelist pens international bestsellers.

Here’s my list of favourite Australian fiction books, written by Australian authors and set in Australia (in alphabetical order by author’s name):

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (1998)

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

This is a wonderful fable-like story, set in rural NSW, in which a man plants hundreds of different species of gum trees on his farm. When he announces that his 19-year-old daughter, Ellen, can marry the first man to name all the species correctly, a series of would-be suitors from around the world turn up, but many are more interested in the challenge than the prize. Set under the searing light of the unrelentless Australian sun, this story reads like a magical fairytale about love, destiny and nature.

This book won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1999 Miles Franklin Award.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)

Oscar-and-lucinda

This unforgettable book set in mid-19th century Australia is a rollicking good adventure story that combines old-fashioned romance with history, humour and religious piety. The two characters — Oscar, an Oxford clergyman, and Lucinda, an orphaned heiress — both share a penchant for gambling. Together, they make the biggest gamble on earth: to transport a crystal palace of a church across the harsh and dangerous Australian bush without destroying it in the process.

I’ve read a handful of Carey books, but this one stands out in my memory the most. The characters are wonderfully realised, strong and believable, and the descriptions of the Australian bush and life at that time in history are pitch-perfect. The 1997 film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, is a very good adaptation.

This book won the 1988 Booker Prize, the 1988 Miles Franklin Award and the 1989 National Book Council’s Banjo Award.

The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall (1991)

The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall

Hall’s novel, the second in the Yandilli Trilogy, is a classic of the Australian convict genre. In this dark, but spellbinding book, a young convict escapes his captors and finds himself on the run in the unfamiliar Australian bush. He is adopted by a tribe of aboriginals, who revere him as a kind of mythical creature. But the narrator remains a solitary being who wanders dreamlike through the landscape for two years, before being recaptured.

I read this shortly after publication because it had attracted a lot of media publicity. The writing was poetic and lyrical, but the mood of the book was almost Gothic, dark and claustrophobic in places.

While this book did not win any awards, it was critically acclaimed for its exploration of universal themes: civilisation, exile, justice and our need for human companionship.

My Brother Jack by George Johnston (1964)

My Brother Jack by George Johnston

My Brother Jack is my favourite book of all time. As a person who never re-reads books (there’s too many other unread tomes to make my way through), I have made an exception for this one and have read it several times now. I first read it as a teenager (it was on my school syllabus), then again in my twenties and more recently in my thirties. I particularly identify with the narrator, David Meredith, because he is a journalist who becomes an expat Australian, which is kind of the story of my life too.

Essentially it’s a tale about two brothers who grow up in suburban Melbourne between World I and II. The elder brother, Jack Meredith, is the epitome of the macho Aussie male who is full of bravado and wants nothing more than to fight for his country, while David, the narrator, is more introverted, unsure of himself and lacks self esteem. Ironically, it is David who gets to see the frontline as a celebrated war correspondent
while Jack, through one misfortune after another, never passes his army medical.

This book has been described as a quintessential Australian novel which explores two Australian myths, that of the man who loses this soul as he gains wordly success, and that of tough, honest, Aussie battler, whose greatest ambition is to serve his country.

This book won the 1964 Miles Franklin Award. George Johnston died in 1970.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (1967)

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

If you’ve ever seen the 1975 Peter Weir film of this book, then you will know this story is very atmospheric, if slightly creepy. It’s about a party of schoolgirls who go on a picnic to Hanging Rock, a real-life sacred aboriginal site near Mt Macedon in Victoria, on Valentine’s Day 1900. During the picnic four girls mysteriously disappear when they explore the rock.

Despite the fact that there is no satisfactory conclusion to this intriguing mystery, it’s a cracking read. One of the best things about this book is Lindsay’s evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape and wildlife.

A final “secret” chapter was published in 1987, which supposedly solved the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. But I never bothered to read it, because I quite liked the idea that it was up to the reader to figure out what happened; it was part of Picnic at Hanging Rock‘s charm.

1915 by Roger McDonald (1979)

1915 by Roger McDonald

This debut novel explores the seminal year in Australia’s history, the year that gave birth to the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) legend that endures to this day. It’s essentially about two boys from the bush, shy Walter and extroverted Billy, who sign up to fight in the Great War on the other side of the world. It’s a moving and passionate story that mirrors Australia’s coming of age, and when I read this book as a 16-year-old I was completely smitten by the whole drama and romance of it.

It was made into a popular television mini-series in the mid 1980s.

The Great World by David Malouf (1990)

The Great World by David Malouf

The blurb on the back of this book sums it up better than I ever could: “Every city, town and village has its memorial to war.  Nowhere are these monuments more eloquent than in Australia, generations of whose young men have enlisted to fight other people’s battles — from Gallipoli and the Somme to Malaya and Vietnam.  In The Great World, his finest novel yet, David Malouf gives a voice to that experience.”

Essentially The Great World is about two men, Vic and Digger, who become POWs during the Second World War and how that soul-destroying experience affects the rest of their lives. It is, above all else, a tale of mateship and a study of human nature under extreme conditions.

When I read this in my mid-twenties the story stunned me. It was the first time I’d ever read a book about men living under such brutal conditions; these were the men of my grandfather’s generation, who still lived and walked among us. There’s one particular scene in this book which remains with me more than a decade after having read it: of a POW guiltily gulping down food that does not belong to him while eyeballing his mate who has caught him in the act. That one scene says so much about the human condition, it still makes me cringe with a kind of knowing embarrassment.

This book won the 1991 Miles Franklin Award, the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 1991 Prix Fémina Etranger.


The Harp in the South
by Ruth Park (1948)

The Harp in the South by Ruth Park

This is one of those books every Australian teenager is made to read at school. Set at the end of the Second World War, it chronicles the ups and downs of an Irish Catholic family living in an inner-Sydney slum among the razor gangs, brothels and grog shops. The main character, Rosie Darcy, falls in love and makes something of herself despite the sadness, despair, violence and poverty that fills her existence.

I’ve included this on my list, because I think it provides an interesting glimpse of the immigrant experience at an important time in Australia’s history.

This book, which is a trilogy, was made into a mini-series. Ruth Park, a New Zealander by birth, was an incredibly prolific author, writing both adult and children’s fiction, including the much-loved Muddle-headed Wombat series.

Tree of Man by Patrick White  (1955)

Tree of Man by Patrick White

This is an extraodinary story about ordinary people living on the edge of the Australian wilderness at the turn of the 19th century. Stan Parker and his wife Amy are pioneers struggling to survive the harsh environment. The novel follows their ups and downs, highs and lows, their triumphs and disappointments. The great beauty of Tree of Man is that it provides the most enlightening glimpse of a past way of life and chronicles the achievements of Australia’s pioneers in a non-glorifed but totally real way.

I have to admit that when I read this circa 1990, it took me two goes because at almost 500 pages it seemed so impenetrable, the writing was also very dense and heavy, while the lack of plot was a challenge. But perserverance paid off, and when I eventually finished it I felt genuinely sad that this lovely family saga had come to an end.

Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973; he died in 1990.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (1991)

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Cloudstreet refers to a broken down house on the wrong side of the tracks in Perth, Western Australia, the most isolated city on earth. But when two rural families, the Lambs and the Pickles, move into the ricketty old structure they turn the place into a home against all odds.

The story follows their complicated soap-opera-ish lives over the course of 20 years, and it is, by turns, funny and heartbreakingly sad.

This book received huge publicity upon publication and Winton, who was born in 1960, was hailed as Australia’s new literary hero at a time when there didn’t seem to be any new, young writers around.

This book won the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? Do you agree/disagree with my choices? Are there any other Australian books that you think are worth including on this list?