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

‘No One’ by John Hughes

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

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

One man’s quest to ease his conscience

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

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

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

A crime without a victim

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

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

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

A traumatic childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 Miles Franklin

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that the Miles Franklin Literary Award was on my mind at the start of the month.

Imagine my surprise today to discover the longlist had been unexpectedly dropped via the Miles Franklin Instagram account. (See here.) Of course, I then visited Lisa Hill’s blog to check whether she had any additional news (and to see how many books she had read) and read the official announcement on Perpetual’s website.

There are 10 books on the list and I’ve read three. I have a handful more on my TBR. I’m not sure I will read all the books on the longlist, but will wait for the shortlist to be announced on 17 June and try to read everything on that.

The winner of the $60,0000 prize will be announced on 16 July 2020.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The White Girl by Tony Birch
“Odette Brown has lived her whole life on the fringes of a small country town. After her daughter disappeared and left her with her granddaughter Sissy to raise on her own, Odette has managed to stay under the radar of the welfare authorities who are removing fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families.”

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng
“Since her sister died, Meg has been on her own. She doesn’t mind, not really—not with Atticus, her African grey parrot, to keep her company—but after her house is broken into by a knife-wielding intruder, she decides it might be good to have some company after all. Andy’s father has lost his job, and his parents’ savings are barely enough to cover his tuition. If he wants to graduate, he’ll have to give up his student flat and find a homeshare. Living with an elderly Australian woman is harder than he’d expected, though, and soon he’s struggling with more than his studies.”

Islands by Peggy Frew
“Helen and John are too preoccupied with making a mess of their marriage to notice the quiet ways in which their daughters are suffering. Junie grows up brittle and defensive, Anna difficult and rebellious. When fifteen-year-old Anna fails to come home one night, her mother’s not too worried; Anna’s taken off before but always returned. Helen waits three days to report her disappearance. But this time Anna doesn’t come back …”

No One by John Hughes
“In the ghost hours of a Monday morning a man feels a dull thud against the side of his car near the entrance to Redfern Station. He doesn’t stop immediately. By the time he returns to the scene, the road is empty, but there is a dent in the car, high up on the passenger door, and what looks like blood. Only a man could have made such a dent, he thinks. For some reason he looks up, though he knows no one is there. Has he hit someone, and if so, where is the victim? So begins a story that takes us to the heart of contemporary Australia’s festering relationship to its indigenous past. A story about guilt for acts which precede us, crimes we are not sure we have committed, crimes gone on so long they now seem criminal- less.”

Act of Grace by Anna Krien
“Iraqi aspiring pianist Nasim falls from favour with Saddam Hussein and his psychopathic son, triggering a perilous search for safety. In Australia, decades later, Gerry is in fear of his tyrannical father, Toohey, who has returned from the Iraq War bearing the physical and psychological scars of conflict. Meanwhile, Robbie is dealing with her own father’s dementia when the past enters the present. These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant narrative of guilt and reckoning, trauma and survival. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and reconciliation, Act of Grace is a meditation on inheritance: the damage that one generation passes on to the next, and the potential for transformation.”

A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane
“Lost to the world for more than four decades, A Season on Earth is the essential link between two acknowledged masterpieces by Gerald Murnane: the lyrical account of boyhood in his debut novel, Tamarisk Row, and the revolutionary prose of The Plains. A Season on Earth is Murnane’s second novel as it was intended to be, bringing together all of its four sections – the first two of which were published as A Lifetime on Clouds in 1976 and the last two of which have never been in print. A hilarious tale of a lustful teenager in 1950s Melbourne, A Lifetime on Clouds has been considered an outlier in Murnane’s fiction. That is because, as Murnane writes in his foreword, it is ‘only half a book and Adrian Sherd only half a character.’ Here, at last, is sixteen-year-old Adrian’s journey in full, from fantasies about orgies with American film stars and idealised visions of suburban marital bliss to his struggles as a Catholic novice, and finally a burgeoning sense of the boundless imaginative possibilities to be found in literature and landscapes. Adrian Sherd is one of the great comic creations in Australian writing, and A Season on Earth is a revelatory portrait of the artist as a young man.”

The Returns by Philip Salom
“Elizabeth posts a ‘room for rent’ notice in Trevor’s bookshop and is caught off-guard when Trevor answers the advertisement himself. She expected a young student, not a middle-aged bookseller whose marriage has fallen apart. But Trevor is attracted to Elizabeth’s house because of the empty shed in her backyard, the perfect space for him to revive the artistic career he abandoned years earlier. The face-blind, EH Holden-driving Elizabeth is a solitary and feisty book editor, and she accepts him, on probation … In this poignant yet upbeat novel, the past keeps returning in the most unexpected ways. Elizabeth is at the beck and call of her ageing mother, and the associated memories of her childhood in a Rajneesh community. Trevor’s Polish father disappeared when Trevor was fifteen, and his mother died not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The authorities have declared him dead, but is he?”

Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany
“In the late 1970s, in the forgotten outer suburbs, a girl has her hands in the engine of a Holden. A sinister new man has joined the family. He works as a mechanic and operates an unlicensed repair shop at the back of their block. The family is under threat. The girl reads the Holden workshop manual for guidance. She resists the man with silence, then with sabotage. She fights him at the place where she believes his heart lives – in the engine of the car.”

The Yield by Tara June Winch
“Knowing that he will soon die, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi takes pen to paper. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. Albert is determined to pass on the language of his people and everything that was ever remembered. He finds the words on the wind. August Gondiwindi has been living on the other side of the world for ten years when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened with all she tried to leave behind. Her homecoming is bittersweet as she confronts the love of her kin and news that Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. Determined to make amends she endeavours to save their land – a quest that leads her to the voice of her grandfather and into the past, the stories of her people, the secrets of the river.”

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.”

I reckon this is a really interesting list — there are only two new names to me (John Hughes and Philip Salom) — with a mix of men and women and diverse subject matter. I’m looking forward to reading the books already on my TBR. Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?