Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text, true crime

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2014.

One spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in rural Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. The male driver escaped; all three passengers —  aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned.

Was it an accident, or did Robert Farquharson deliberately drive the vehicle into the dam in order to kill his three young sons, whom he was returning to their mother after an access visit on Father’s Day?

The police thought the latter. They charged him with three counts of murder, and he was tried at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. This House of Grief examines the court case in exacting detail.

In-court guide

I’m not going to chart all the dizzying twists and turns of the case — that’s what the book is for — but Helen Garner proves a kind and competent guide throughout. Her observations are often incisive and cutting, and I like the way she explores the accused’s back story and adds in extra detail gleaned from conversations she has with members of his family and other witnesses.

Much of the detail that happens inside the courtroom is soporific owing to the technical nature of the case — the speed of the car when it left the road, what sort of pattern the tyre treads left, what the skid marks proved and so on — which makes for an occasionally frustrating read, but Garner is at her best when she focuses on the people. Here’s how she describes the jury, all bored out of their brains by that aforementioned technical detail:

Their eyelids drooped. Their necks grew loose with boredom; they were limp with it, barely able to hold themselves erect. Once I glanced over and saw four of them in a row, their heads dropped on the same protesting angle towards their left shoulders, like tulips dying in a vase.

I read this book in one blistering fever of furious page-turning — or should I say Kindle button-clicking? — on a wet Saturday eager to discover answers to my questions: Did Farquharson deliberately kill his children? Was it a failed suicide bid? Or was it a freak accident, caused by him having a coughing fit at the wheel? By the end, I felt completely wrung out. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake off for days; the story had really wormed its way into my psyche and deeply affected me.

To leave such a mark on the reader in the wake of completing the book is testament to Garner’s skill as a writer and journalist. And yet her reportage style, in which she inserts herself into the story, often comes in for criticism. But it’s a style I quite like. Her all-too human reactions and her inner-most thoughts are there on the paper for all to see — removing the illusion that the journalism is utterly objective — and it feels very much as if she’s going on a journey of discovery and you’re coming along for the ride.

Here’s an example of how her thoughts and reactions become part of the narrative:

This testimony filled me with scepticism, yet I longed to be persuaded by it—to be relieved of the sick horror that overcame me whenever I thought of Farquharson at the dam, the weirdness of his demeanour, the way it violated what I believed or hoped was the vital link of loving duty between men and their children. And, as I listened, the phantom of failed suicide shimmered once more into view. Nobody in this whole five-week ordeal had yet said anything that could lay it to rest.

While I knew of the Farquharson case — I remember being shocked when I read the initial news story on The Age online all those years ago — I hadn’t followed it closely, so reading this book was very much a journey of discovery for me. I’m not sure how it works if you already know the outcome of the case (perhaps Australian readers can enlighten me?), but for me it was a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, always intriguing and passionately written read. I like that Garner is open and honest about her fury, disbelief and sheer inability to comprehend certain aspects of the accused’s behaviour, because they were the reactions I had to… and I wasn’t even sitting in the court room.

Unless you live in Australia, This House of Grief is currently available to purchase in ebook form only. It will be published in paperback in the UK next month and in the USA in April.

UPDATE: This edited extract published on The Australian website will give you a taster of the book.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hybrid Publishers, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Hollingworth, Setting

‘The Colour of the Night’ by Robert Hollingworth


Fiction – paperback; Hybrid Publishers; 321 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first came to the UK in 1998 and told people I came from Melbourne, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the Australian soap Neighbours, which is set there. At that time Brits were such fans of the show it was screened twice daily. I still remember staying in a youth hostel in Glasgow and being holed up in my room by a backpacker from Northern Ireland who knew all the characters and storylines inside out but mistakenly thought many of the locations, including the suburb Erinsborough, were real places.

I mention this because if Neighbours is your only reference for what life in the Melbourne suburbs is like then this book by Robert Hollingworth will shatter all your illusions — but in a good way.

The Colour of the Night follows the lives of a group of neighbours living in a terrace of three houses on Frederick Street in an inner-city suburb. They don’t know each other when the novel opens but by the end they’re all familiar with one another in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes shocking.

Meet the neighbours

Stefanie and Simon are married artists, with two children — 18-year-old Jess, a Goth with a drug habit who self-harms, and James, who lives in a bungalow in the back garden and has a job in roadworks.

Next door lives divorcée Adele, who has given up a career in nursing to make more money as an escort, and her son, Elton, who has dropped out of university and spends his entire time online.

Then there is Nikos, a Greek landlord, who rents out the terraced house on the corner to two tenants: Arman, a refugee from Afghanistan who now drives a taxi, and Benton, an Englishman who has an unhealthy interest in children.

Drawing all these neighbours together is Shaun, an 11-year-old boy, orphaned by the Black Saturday bush fires. He has a great affinity for nature — “He entered the bush as other children entered an interactive game, although Shaun’s console control was little more than a snapped stick, his keyboard the whole forest, his mouse a mouse” — so when he moves to the city to live with his aunt, Adele, and cousin, Elton, it comes as somewhat of a shock.

Technological advance

The author, who takes his time to introduce each of these well-drawn characters chapter by chapter, explores many themes in this intriguing novel, including the city versus the country, and nature versus digital technology. He deftly builds up a series of interconnections between everyone (which occasionally relies on a smidgen too much coincidence, but that’s by the by) and in doing so shows how the concept of community in the real world has often been lost, perhaps because we’re too busy building up our social networks online.

There are minor disasters — a DIY basement excavation has repercussions for the entire terrace, for instance —  a blossoming love affair and a case of adultery, but Hollingworth doesn’t resort to cheap operatics: he keeps things fairly restrained and, to his credit, doesn’t let his narrative succumb to predictable outcomes.

It feels like a thoroughly contemporary novel, focusing as it does on how quickly our world is moving in terms of technology. This exchange between Elton and Shaun, whom are just eight years apart in age, is but one example:

… Shaun asked on an impulse, ‘Elton, what did you do where you were my age?’
‘What I do now, I guess. But the computer games were pretty basic. Google was new, no Instagram, no Twitter or Vine, no Tumblr or Kik or…’
‘What did you do when you were five?’
Elton tried to think. ‘It was a different world then, Shaun. You couldn’t do stuff that we take for granted today. Just 64 kilobytes. Unbelievable.’

The Colour of the Night also asks important questions about spirituality, our connections with the natural world and our relationship to art and culture. It’s filled with great dialogue, intriguing characters (with even more intriguing back stories) and brilliant descriptions of people and places. But when all is said and done it’s just a great story well told about contemporary life in modern Australia. And, needless to say, it’s far more authentic — and entertaining — than any episode of Neighbours.

Please note that you won’t find The Colour of the Night in book stores outside of Australia. However, you can order a copy direct from the publisher or buy an electronic edition from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Joan London, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Good Parents’ by Joan London


Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 369 pages; 2009.

Australian author Joan London is probably best known for her novel Gilgamesh, which was published in 2001 and garnered critical acclaim in Australia, the UK and USA. The Good Parents, published seven years later, is her second novel.

Missing teenager

When the story begins we see events unfold through the eyes of 18-year-old Maya, a naive country girl from Western Australia (WA), who is working as a personal assistant in Melbourne. She’s having an affair with her much older boss, Maynard,whose wife has cancer. When Maynard’s wife dies, he decides to shut up shop and head elsewhere, possibly to Asia, taking Maya with him.

But instead of following Maya’s storyline, the book dramatically switches to that of her parents, the beautiful Toni and the dreamy artistic Jacob, who arrive in Melbourne expecting to spend a couple of weeks with their teenage daughter. But she has gone and not even her flatmate seems to know where she might be.

Under the guise of searching for her, Toni and Jacob go sightseeing instead. But when Jacob injures his foot, he is confined indoors, and for some inexplicable reason Toni heads to a Buddhist retreat. This allows both to reflect on their lives, including their childhoods in WA and their subsequent meeting and fleeing city life together in the 1960s.

Their individual stories, which gently unfold in alternate chapters, reveal how both have never had the chance to live up to their full potential, except maybe as parents (hence the title).

Richly layered novel

This is a richly layered story of two people caught up in generational change, whomade poor decisions (either  by choice or circumstance) — Toni married the shady Cy Fisher, while Jacob never followed his dream to be a writer and distracted himself with unimportant work whenever crucial events occurred in his life in order not to think about them. Their own children seem just as perplexed about the real world.


Eventually, the novel returns to Maya, who is living in Brisbane with an increasingly distant and violent Maynard. The book’s resolution, in which Maya is rescued by Cy Fisher, does rely on a somewhat preposterous and unlikely series of coincidences.


And if it wasn’t for this poor ending, I would have heartily recommended this book to all and sundry. But note, this is the only weak point in this rather beaut novel.

For another, much more intellectual, take on this novel, please see Lisa of ANZLitLover’s review.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Lisa Lang, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Utopian Man’ by Lisa Lang


Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 264 pages; 2010.

What a lovely surprise this Australian book turned out to be!

Lisa Lang’s debut novel, Utopian Man, was joint winner of the 2009 Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It is based on the life of  Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a legendary eccentric who built an amazing retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s.

His pièce de résistance was a fabulous three-storey book arcade, supposedly filled with a million books, where readers were encouraged to sit and browse and use like a library. This was later expanded to include a tea room, a conservatory and a live monkey display. Bands would perform regular lunch-time concerts there, too.

And if that wasn’t enough, Cole also installed a printing press to publish pamphlets (often political or issue-based) and his own books, mainly for children — indeed, many Australian readers of a certain vintage will be familiar with Cole’s Funny Picture Book, which was filled with poetry and puns and humorous drawings. (You can read this in its entirety on Project Gutenberg.)

An eccentric’s life

This novel doesn’t really have a plot other than to chart E.W. Cole’s life in two-yearly increments. This allows you to see how his business expanded from the time of the arcade’s opening to his death in 1918 and gives you glimpses into his blissfully happy family life — he married a faithfully devoted much younger wife, Eliza, with whom he had six children, and they all lived in a rather lavish apartment (what we, today, might call a penthouse) above the book arcade.

But the narrative, which is written in a lovely Victorian-style prose, is far from predictable. There are little scandals and tragedies everywhere — including the unexpected death of Ruby, Cole’s 8-year-old daughter, to scarlet fever; an older son who becomes an opium addict; and an employee who steals the arcade’s takings — and there are brushes with extra-marital affairs, spiritualism and politics. In fact, Alfred Deakin, whom Australians know as the “father of federation”, has a starring role (he was a close friend of Cole’s, though that friendship came to a bitter end when Deakin became the second Prime Minister of Australia and helped usher in the White Australia Policy).

Interspersed throughout are flashbacks that recount Cole’s time on the goldfields, where he befriended a Chinese man when racism — the “yellow peril” — was rife. But while Cole made enough money on the diggings to escape — he set up a market stall selling books in Melbourne, the first step towards much greater commercial success — there are hints that something dark and troubling happened while he was searching for gold. You have to read a good two-thirds of the book to find out what that was — and I’m not about to reveal that here.

Melbourne’s history

One of the most successful aspects of Utopian Man is the way in which Lang captures the mood and spirit of an ever-changing Melbourne during the late Victorian and early Federation periods. She manages to evoke a particular time and place so effortlessly that history truly comes alive in these pages. Here we have a provincial town turned into a booming metropolis thanks to the gold rush, but then the depression hits, the banks close and destitution is on every corner — but Cole, good-hearted man that he is, refuses to make any of his staff redundant and chooses instead to expand his business rather than consolidate it.

Indeed, I came away with the impression that Cole was not only hugely generous — perhaps to the point of being weak — he was a man before his time. He champions equality for all and cannot understand when people poo-poo his idea that the colour of a person’s skin does not matter, we are all human underneath. He seems, in many ways, to be almost too good to be true.

All in all, Utopian Man is a charming book, which is an utter delight to read. It will especially appeal to fans of Victorian-era novels and those who love books (I guess that’s all of you, then). And the best bit is it is readily available outside of Australia in both ebook and paperback editions — hoorah!

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

‘Autumn Laing’ by Alex Miller


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 446 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Most non-Australian readers of this blog will not have heard of Alex Miller, much less read anything by him. Some may even have mixed him up with British writer Andrew Miller or A.D. Miller. This is a great shame, because Alex Miller, who is a London-born Australian (he emigrated when he was 16), writes extraordinarily lush literary novels which deserve a wide audience. It’s no exaggeration to say he has won practically every writing prize going in Australia — and was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 — so it’s about time the rest of the world caught up.

His latest novel, Autumn Laing, is his tenth book and has just been published in the UK (the Kindle edition is available in the USA). It’s a wonderfully confident, wise and funny novel, filled with beautiful language and unforgettable characters.

The price of illicit love

Just as Irish writer Sebastian Barry rescued his aunt’s untold history and fictionalised it so vividly in On Canaan’s Side, Miller does something similar with the story of Sunday Reed, an art patron who became the jilted lover of Australian artist Sidney Nolan. In this fictionalised account, Sunday is “played by” Autumn Laing, and Sidney Nolan’s role goes to the talented but struggling artist Pat Donlan.

The narrative is shaped as a personal confession — “my last chance to tell the truth” — written by Autumn over the course of a year. She is 85 years old and her conscience is eating away at her. Recently, she thought she saw Pat Donlan’s wife — the woman she wronged 53 years earlier — coming out of the local chemist shop, and now her mind is thinking back to that time in her life when she met Pat and started a rather erotic affair with him.

But this is more than a story about their affair and the price of illicit love; it also charts the changing face of Australian art — and the desperate need for it to be recognised in Europe — in the late 1930s, and how so much of an artist’s success was truly dependent on patrons to fund and champion it.

A brilliantly witty narrator

The best bit about Autumn Laing, aside from its intelligence, poignancy and wit, is the main character who is one of the funniest and most intriguing fictional creations I have come across in a long while. She’s feisty, cantankerous — and farts a lot, mainly because she consumes copious amount of cabbage on a daily basis.

Sadly, Autumn’s hugely engaging first-person narrative does not run for the entire length of the novel. Instead, the view point changes regularly and some of it is written in the third person as Autumn imagines scenes and events that happened when she was not present — for instance, the meeting between Pat and her husband, when Pat visited him in Melbourne to beg for money to support his art work. Initially, this is disorientating for the reader, but once you get over the initial shock that Autumn’s voice is having a momentary rest, you get used to it — and then you look forward to her interjections, which occur in alternate chapters.

I spent a good two weeks with Autumn (I was reading other things in between) and hugely enjoyed her company, and I was really sad to see her go when I came to the end.

Autumn Laing was shortlisted for the 2011 Manning Clark House National Cultural Awards (Individual category) and the 2012 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature Fiction Award, and longlisted for the 2012 ALS Gold Medal and 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Helen Garner, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 246 pages; 2009.

I seem to have accidentally developed a track record in choosing books for my book group that are universally disliked. Last year I chose Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home, which scored 5.5 out of 10, and this year’s choice, Helen Garner‘s debut novel, Monkey Grip, achieved the far worse score of 4 out of 10.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: Garner has a reputation in Australia for polarising readers, more notably for her journalistic work — The First Stone, an account of a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at the University of Melbourne, generated an avalanche of controversy. And her fiction also seems to attract equal amounts of bile and love. But of the books I have read — including Garner’s most recent novel The Spare Room and her true crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation — I have thoroughly enjoyed.

I can’t say the same for Monkey Grip, which did not live up to my expectations.

Bohemians living in 1970s Melbourne

The story, which is set in Melbourne in the mid-1970s, is about a group of men, women and children living a Bohemian lifestyle in a series of share houses. It is narrated by Nora, a 30-something divorced woman with a school-aged daughter, who develops a sexual relationship with a junkie called Javo.

The diary-style narrative charts this on-off affair, which gradually morphs into an inter-dependent relationship that neither party is willing to break. Nora, who seems intent on sleeping with anyone simply to stave off the loneliness, turns a blind eye to Javo’s continued dependence on drugs — “Smack habit, love habit, what’s the difference?” — and his dishonest tendencies.

It is, at times, a fascinating, albeit frustrating, portrait of two people caught up in a destructive relationship. But for the most part I found it a somewhat tedious read, not helped by the all-too frequent descriptions of Nora’s dreams and her sexual activities.

A journey of self-discovery

There’s no real plot; the story is essentially one person’s journey of self-discovery.

The book’s strengths lie in Garner’s evocative prose — her descriptions of Melbourne baking in the summer sun are particularly eloquent — and the snapshot she provides of a specific time, place and group of people living an alternative lifestyle.

Nora’s voice, while slightly self-obsessed and vain, is refreshing in its frankness and its honesty. No surprise then, that Garner later claimed she adapted it directly from her personal diaries.

Monkey Grip, now regarded as an Australian classic, won the National Book Council Award in 1978 and was turned into a film in 1982 starring Noni Hazlehurst, Colin Friels and the author’s daughter, Alice Garner.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Peter Temple, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Truth’ by Peter Temple


Fiction – paperback; Quercus Publishing; 400 pages; 2010.

When I reviewed Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore in 2007 I described it as a “refreshing take on crime fiction, both in setting and style”. So when his follow-up to that novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 I wasn’t too caught up in the hype about it being the first crime novel to win such a prestigious literary prize. I suspected that it probably had strong literary leanings. I was right.

Two killings — are they linked?

Truth is set in Melbourne, Victoria, and focuses on two separate killings — the murder of a young woman in a luxury apartment block and the discovery of three mutilated drug dealers in a warehouse on the other side of the city — which may, or may not, be linked.

But this is not so much a crime novel but an exposé on corruption — of cops, of businessmen, of politicians.

And while it certainly shares characteristics with the detective genre, the book’s central focus is less on the gruesome killings that Inspector Stephen Villani, the head of homicide investigates, but more on the ways in which Villani copes with events happening in his personal and professional life.

Temple’s prose style is also hard to characterise. There are some chapters which move ahead chiefly through dialogue, and these are blunt and snappy, with everyone talking in a staccato rhythm. But elsewhere, when he describes the city or the bushfires raging in the state’s north-west, he’s rather lyrical and poetic.

A hot north-west wind on their faces, another blocking system was idling out in the southern ocean. Two long valleys ran from the north-west towards Selbourne, the main road down one of them. The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to flowing silver liquids and buckled steel.

Unrelentingly grim

But it has to be said that the story is unrelentingly grim. Villani’s world view is bleak — he’s estranged from his wife but still living in the same house, he is having an affair with a political television journalist, his younger drug-addicted daughter is out on the streets, one of his brothers is about to be struck off as a doctor…

Then there’s the complicated relationship he has with his bullish father, a man who is now refusing to leave his property despite the imminent threat of bushfire.

The state of Villani’s personal life is only matched by his working life, which is also strained to breaking point. He doesn’t feel he’s earned the right to be head of homicide — and there are plenty of others in the force who feel the same way — so he’s constantly on guard, doing things under the radar or taking risks to get results.

Feels claustrophobic

All this means that the book feels claustrophobic — and depressing. I felt heavy-hearted whenever I picked it up and I was anxious to be rid of it.

Here’s but one example of the ugliness that permeates the narrative — this is a description of Melbourne:

Villani remembered when the CBD was still safe enough to walk across on a Friday night. But once the chemicals took over, spread into the suburbs, cops regularly began to see things once rare — teenagers bashing old people, women and children beaten, the punching and kicking and stabbing of neighbours, friends, cab drivers, people on trains, trams, buses, strangers at parties, in pubs and nightclubs, the hacking at people with swords, road-rage attacks, bricks hurled at trams, train drivers.

And 40 pages further, here’s what it’s like to be a police officer in that city:

In uniform, a full understanding of the job slowly dawned. A life spent dealing with the dishonest, the negligent, the deviant, the devious, the desperate, the cruel, the callous, the vicious, the drunk, the drugged, the temporarily deranged and permanently insane, the sick and sad, the sadists, sex maniacs, child molesters, flashers, exhibitionists, women-beaters, wife-beaters, child-beaters, self-mutilators, the homicidal, matricidal, patricidal, fratricidal, suicidal.

I think it’s fair to say that I appreciated Truth — particularly the banter between the cops and the examination of their human failings — but I didn’t like it. The novel was too dark, too edgy, too noirish for me. I found the crime investigation difficult to follow and the subsequent resolution slightly far-fetched. But I wouldn’t mind seeing the film when it finally gets released.

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

‘Loaded’ by Christos Tsiolkas


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.

Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Nevil Shute, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘On the Beach’ by Nevil Shute


Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 320 pages; 2009.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War nuclear arms race. At the time there was a very real fear that Armageddon was just around the corner. It frightened me so much I still remember writing English essays about nuclear war and angst-filled poetry about world peace.

Australia may have seemed a long way away from the two main adversaries, the USA and Soviet Union, but anxiety about the nuclear threat was very real at that point in time.

I still remember the terrifying image, depicting Sydney Harbour after a nuclear strike, on the front cover of Red Sails in the Sunset, an album by Australian rock band Midnight Oil. I bought it upon release in 1984 and remember feeling incredibly impassioned by the lyrics, which were filled with political messages about the nuclear threat we all faced. (The band’s singer, Peter Garrett, even went on to stand for the Nuclear Disarmament Party although he didn’t get voted in.)

Not long afterwards, in 1985, the McClelland Royal Commission investigated secret British nuclear tests on Australian soil, including Maralinga, in the 1950s. I still remember the veterans who had been subject to the blasts being interviewed on TV news broadcasts. This short film (below) sheds further light on what happened.

Meanwhile a Greenpeace campaign was in full swing to protest against French military testing of nuclear weapons on Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. The protest turned nasty when the French Foreign Intelligence Services sunk Greenpeace’s flagship, The Rainbow Warrior, in the port of Auckland in July, 1985.

It was about this time that I read Nevil Shute’s nuclear holocaust novel On the Beach. I was 15 or 16 and remember being totally gripped by the story. It all seemed unbearably sad, totally realistic and did absolutely nothing to dispel my fear of Armageddon being just around the corner!

Twenty-five years later, would it live up to my memory of it?

Before I answer that, let me explain the story.

It is 1963. The entire population of the Northern Hemisphere has been wiped out by nuclear war and now the radioactive cloud is drifting slowly south, killing everyone in its wake. As the most southerly city on the Australian mainland, Melbourne is the last bastion for human habitation. And it is here that the American Navy has retreated. When a faint morse code signal is detected coming from the United States, a submarine is dispatched to make contact…

The novel is largely set in the naval dockyards of Williamstown (which, ironically, is the Melbourne suburb of my birth) and the fictional Falmouth (which, I suspect is a town on the Mornington Peninsula), although a great part of the action is set on a nuclear-powered submarine. However, I use the term “action” quite lightly, because not a great deal happens in the book.

Essentially, everyone knows that death is looming large but instead of going completely crazy about the situation, all the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as if everything is hunky dory. In Shute’s world it’s clear that civilisation is robust and there’ll be no succumbing to riots or looting or anything immoral. Indeed, there might only be two weeks to live but if you want to go and buy a lawn mower, you can simply pop into the local hardware store and you’ll receive the usual friendly customer service to which you’ve become accustomed. I suspect this business-as-usual approach is merely a reflection of the times in which it was written (On the Beach was first published in 1957), but it seems quite odd and dated today.

In fact, there’s a lot about this novel that appears ludicrous when viewed with modern eyes, and I have to admit that there were times I thought the characters behaved so ridiculously or said unbelievably silly things that I wanted to throw the book across the room. After awhile I began to view the entire novel as a comedy, and while there’s certainly a lot of gallows humour in it, I’m not sure that was Shute’s intention.

Peter looked at the price tag, picked up the mower, and went to find the assistant. “I’ll take this one,” he said.
“Okay,” said the man. “Good little mower that.” He grinned sardonically. “Last you a lifetime.”

For the most part I found the characterisation poor — the male characters in particular are almost indistinguishable from one another — but there was one shining light in the form of Moira Davidson, a 20-something single woman, who has a penchant for drinking vast quantities of brandy and flirting with men. She strikes up a platonic friendship with Dwight Towers, the captain of the US Scorpion, around which most of the story hinges.

Mary, the wife of Peter Holmes (the central character), is also well-drawn, in the sense that her sheer naivety makes her stand-out from the rest of the cast.

But strangely for a book about the death of the human race, there’s very little emotion aside from one touching scene in which Mary and Peter discuss how to deal with their young baby, Jennifer, when the radiation sickness strikes.

Shute also tends to write in a fairly stilted manner, using phrases that seem ridiculous — “The breakfast came upon the table” — and referring to characters by their nationality or occupation — “The Australian”, “The scientist”, “The Commander” — which grate with constant repetition.

While On the Beach is an entertaining, dare I say it, fascinating read, its purpose is not so much literary but cultural, revealing as it does a 1950s mindset coming to terms with the end of the world. I suspect this is one of those novels you love first time round, but a second reading only serves to reveal its weaknesses and Shute’s writerly quirks.

Australia, Author, Book review, Deborah Forster, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster


Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books Australia; 304 pages; 2010.

Deborah Forster is a long-time journalist and first-time novelist based in Melbourne, Australia. The Book of Emmett first came to my attention via its long-listing (and subsequent short-listing) for this year’s Miles Franklin Award. When I saw a very positive review of it on Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers LitBlog I was convinced I needed to read it.

The central figure in the novel is Emmett Brown, an abusive, alcoholic father of four children, whose violent behaviour has long-lasting repercussions on his family.

Written in the present tense and using a third person narrative, it opens on the day of Emmett’s funeral. It’s one of those scorching summer days (40.4 degrees) and everyone’s fanning the “slow thick air around their hot faces with funeral programs”. Emmett’s widow, Ann, is there along with her four adult children: Rob, Louisa, Peter and Jessie. From the outset we learn that the loss of their father isn’t the devastating blow one might expect:

In the moment of being held by Peter there in the yard at Gilberts [the funeral home], Louisa understands this as the purest relationship she will ever have. Brothers and sisters want nothing from you. They know who you are and they love you anyway. These are the ones who know and in the war against Emmett, they’d been in the trenches with her.

But we also learn that Emmett, while loathed and feared by those closest to him, is a rather complicated character. He never knew his own father, was dumped by his mother and was raised in an orphanage. Despite a lack of education, he nursed a love of the arts, particularly literature and even ballet, and “kept diaries on and off for most of his life”, stating at the age of 42 that if he were to die he didn’t want “any mealy-mouthed, psalm-singing hypocrite talking bullshit about me”.

“I just want my mob and I want them to cry for me. Cry for me, but not too much and, please, I ask you all now to forgive me for doing some of the wrong things I did. Remember me and laugh about the funny times. Laugh about me. Laugh at me. Doesn’t matter. Remember, I was nothing but a drunken old bum.”

The rest of the book charts the Brown’s lives from the late 1960s to the present day. Through a succession of vignettes, it details the brutal and miserable childhoods of Rob, Louisa, Jessie and Peter, including the death of Peter’s twin, Daniel. The narrative is quite fast-paced so it doesn’t take long before they’ve grown up and are forging their own Emmett-free lives. And yet despite their luck at emerging physically unscathed from their father’s unpredictable heavy-handed temper, their difficult upbringing hangs around their neck like a weight they can never quite escape. It seems particularly telling that Rob proclaims he will never have children because he does not want to turn into his father.

It’s also interesting to see how their relationship with Emmett develops and changes over time, how they begin to see him in a different light when he gets old and sick. Forster charts the inner turmoil of each of Emmett’s children superbly, showing how their feelings of pity for their father cannot be reconciled with the abuse they suffered at his hands when they were too young to defend themselves.

And while all this might sound like quite an unrelenting misery memoir, for want of a better description, it is never dreary, helped in part by a dry sense of humour. In fact, Forster has such an acute sense of people’s inner dialogue that it’s difficult not to get caught up in their lives, to feel their pains and fears and little triumphs as if you were experiencing them yourself. What I most admired was the complete lack of sentimentality in the story, and yet I found it a profoundly affecting read. You feel for these characters, every last one of them, including Emmett, which is surprising given how easily he could have been reduced to a mere caricature.

I suspect that I particularly liked this book because of its Australian flavour. Lisa has already pointed out in her review that Forster hasn’t shied away from using Australian idioms and peopling it with footy players and politicians no self-respecting Melburnian could fail to identify. But this is not your typical Australian bush setting: this is a rough-and-ready Western suburb of Melbourne, the same one where my father was educated, and there are various references to Footscray High (where he went to school), the Western Oval and Australian Rules football legend Ted Whitten (with whom I share a birthday — my dad was pretty pleased about that) that made me nod in recognition.

If nothing else The Book of Emmett is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be (an outdated version) of a “fair dinkum Aussie patriarch”, wanting to do the best by his family but falling short because of his weakness for booze, gambling and the use of his fists. I’ll be intrigued to see how it fares when the Miles Franklin Award is announced next month.