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.





Reading Australia 2016

Australia, Book review, Martin McKenzie-Murray, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scribe, Setting, true crime

‘A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle’ by Martin McKenzie-Murray

A Murder without motive

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 240 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

You know I like narrative non-fiction, right? And you know I especially love it if it’s about crime? So any wonder when this book, by Australian journalist Martin McKenzie-Murray, was pitched to me that I just had to read it.

A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle is right out of the Helen Garner and Janet Malcolm school of true crime reportage. It looks at the case of Rebecca Ryle, a 19-year-old British immigrant, who was found murdered in the grounds of a primary school opposite her family home in Perth, Western Australia, in 2004, and places that crime in a wider social context. Why did the man who was charged with her murder, 19-year-old James Duggan, do it? And what was the effect on Rebecca’s family and the community at large? How did those closest to her make sense of her loss?

Family connection

McKenzie-Murray, who was 23 at the time, attended Rebecca’s funeral with his parents. He was from the same suburb (though had moved away and gone to university), but there was a kind of weird “connection” to the crime: his brother knew the young man charged with Rebecca’s murder:

They were both 19, and had once chugged beer in car parks and pulled bongs made with punctured Coke cans. They had once joined house parties swollen with aggression, where one’s personal worth was expressed by a capacity to withstand or commission violence. They had never liked each other. They had, in fact, grown mutually contemptuous. […] “He was a bit loopy. […] I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me.”

After the funeral, McKenzie-Murray, a reporter, scribbled down some thoughts about the crime — “My theory of the killing as a symptom of a broader psychic despair was startlingly pretentious” — but he never followed up the story. But it was always in the background, and eight years later he made attempts to track down Rebecca’s parents, working class English immigrants from Bolton, in a bid to write about the crime.

Initially, they were wary of his motivations, but eventually he won their support and cooperation. (This bit of the book is particularly relevant to journalists wanting to work with victims of crime to tell their stories in an ethical way. McKenzie-Murray name checks Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murder, so clearly knew the pitfalls. I would argue that Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre be required reading also.) The book, I suspect, is all the richer for their involvement, because their forthrightness, honesty and pain shines through. This is particularly so in those first muddled and confusing hours when Rebecca’s body was found (it was just 50 metres from their front door): the reader gets a real sense of their shock and disbelief, the way that their lives and the lives of their two sons, were turned upside down. But it is not a gratuitous read. Nor is it salacious or voyeurestic.

The suburbs of hell

As well as being a police procedural in which McKenzie-Murray takes the reader through the events leading up to the crime and the ways in which it was investigated and brought to court, Murder Without Motive is also a kind of memoir about what it is like to grow up in Perth’s northern suburbs. Interestingly, the suburb to which the Ryles immigrated (and where the author comes from) has the highest concentration of Brits anywhere in the world outside Britain. It is working class but wealthy — there is money here to be made from construction and mining — and everyone lives in big houses, close to the beaches and marinas. To all appearances it is a suburban idyll.

But as McKenzie-Murray explains, it’s also a soulless, often violent, place, where boredom manifests itself in all kinds of horrible ways: drugs, alcoholism, car accidents, suicide. He is especially scathing of the small-minded macho atmosphere in which boys are raised:

I saw negligent fathers preside sullenly over a small kingdom of beer and football, markers on the road to adulthood. These avatars of manhood sat — fat, idle and indifferent — on their suede thrones, covering their apathy with the witless tenets of laissez-faire parenting. Boys will be boys.

And he is contemptuous of the student parties, both in private homes and in local pubs, because of their tribalism, violence,  raw sexuality and misognyny, all underpinned by teenage angst and what McKenzie-Murray describes as the “yoke of high school”.

Context of a crime

At times, the book feels like a form of snobbery, but having grown up in rural Australia, where sport, sex and alcohol were the driving forces of teenage social life, I understand where he is coming from. The picture he paints is not a pretty one. And while it may not totally explain why Rebecca’s death occurred — indeed, the murderer himself has never been able to come up with a plausible explanation for why he committed the crime, and police and psychologists are also flummoxed by it —but it does put it in a kind of context. If nothing else, it highlights how that seemingly suburban idyll you see on the outside has a dark undercurrent, a seedy, machismo-driven element, where latent violence can surface in the most abhorrent of ways.

A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle is a compelling, strangely terrifying, read. But it’s also thoughtful, intelligent, forthright — and respectful. McKenzie-Murray set out to “suitably honour” the Ryles’ loss. He achieved it in spades.

This novel is published in the UK, and the Kindle edition is available in the US.

This is my 27th book for #ReadingAustralia2016