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 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Laura Jean McKay, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘The Animals in that Country’ by Laura Jean McKay

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2020.

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist is due to be announced later this month and I’d like to think that Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country may feature on it.

This wholly original novel is unique in so many ways, not least of which is its premise: there’s a flu-like pandemic raging across Australia that allows those infected to understand what animals are saying. But being able to communicate with non-humans — including mammals, birds and insects — isn’t as wonderful as you might expect, for the messages, random, garbled and incessant, are frightening: the animals are calling for help.

Preposterous but plausible

I ate this book up in the space of a weekend. I would put it down and then itch to pick it up again. It’s spellbinding in a way few dystopian novels can be spellbinding. It posits a truly preposterous idea, yet makes it seem totally plausible.

The story is narrated by a kickass, foul-mouthed protagonist called Jean, who works as a guide at a local wildlife zoo. Jean has “issues” — she’s a hard drinker, a chain smoker and likes rough-and-ready sex with her married male friend, which she usually doesn’t remember the next day. She doesn’t normally get on with people, but she’s devoted to her granddaugher Kim, loves her wayward missing-in-action adult son Lee and has a soft spot for a young dingo called Sue.

The latter “relationship” is important, because when the pandemic hits the local area, and Lee turns up infected to “steal back” Kim and do a runner, it is Sue who provides the companionship Jean craves when she hits the road looking for her son. And it is Sue who is the first animal to communicate with her.

Half the traffic lights are out. The camper’s got low revs, takes off like a baby elephant. I plug in my phone, pull a slug of Angela’s bourbon, wind down the windows and gun it anyway. Beside me sits a dingo dog. Some wolf, some kelpie camp mutt. Her sandy behind on the shotgun seat. Panting, she draws in great gulps of the hot air. A flash of tooth.
RABBIT.
OH SHIT. (DEAD BITS
OF ME.) THAT ONE’S
FOR THE GROUND. THAT’S FOR MY
GUMS.
HOW ABOUT
THERE. AND THERE.
AND —
‘Why are you helping me, Sue? I mean, why aren’t you with your brothers?’
She peels her nose from the window. Amber eyes swirling.
ITS WHOLE FACE
A DESERT WITH WATER. IT’S
WHOLE (YESTERDAY)
MOUTH
THE SKY.

As the pandemic progresses, those infected begin to lose their minds because they can’t shut off the overwhelming babble of animal voices. There’s no quiet. Everything is noise.

Jean keeps her head while everyone around her loses theirs. Her journey is perilous and deliriously strange.

Bold and experimental

Tightly plotted, bold and experimental, The Animals in that Country does intriguing things with language (as you might have noticed from the above quote). The animal voices emerge as an unstoppable stream of consciousness, none of which makes much sense, but the way it is laid out on the page makes it appear like a brutal kind of poetry. (In places, it reminded me just a little of Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.)

But it is Jean’s obscene, audacious voice which provides the real flavour. I liked being in her company, even if I didn’t always like what she got up to or what she witnessed.

By the time I got to the end of this dazzling novel, I felt spent — but in a good way. This is a challenging and compelling read, one that makes you look at the world, and how we relate to animals, in a completely different way. I feel forever changed having read it.

The Animals in that Country was published in Australia last month. It will be published in the UK and USA in September, and Canada in October (although the Kindle version is available to buy in all territories now).

This is my 7th book for #AWW2020.

UPDATE September 2020: This is my 1st book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction

2019 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Jenny Ackland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Little Gods’ by Jenny Ackland

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 352 pages; 2018.

Even at twelve Olive had known that others thought her family odd. Those Lovelocks, people would say, their looks loaded with meaning. They said it in the butcher, the supermarket and the haberdashery. They said it in the milk bar and in the playground at school.

So begins Jenny Ackland’s Little Gods, an evocative coming of age story set in Victoria’s mallee region during the 1980s.

Told in the third person but largely from Olive’s perspective, we are introduced to that “odd” family: Audra and Rue, two “prickly” sisters from the pioneering Nash family who married two sheep-farming brothers, William and Bruce Lovelock. An older Nash sister, the impossibly named Thistle, never married; and a third Lovelock brother, the not-well-liked Cleg, escaped the farm for life as a lawyer in the city, but returns home occasionally towing a rundown caravan with him.

Olive lives in a small rural town with her parents, Audra and Bruce. On the edge of that town lies the sheep farm where Rue and William live with their three children — Sebastian, Archie and Mandy — and the tiny-bit kooky Thistle. The two families are close and Olive spends a lot of time on the farm with her cousins, climbing trees, riding bikes, swimming in the dam and playing with a tame raven called Grace (hence the image on the cover of the book). She also hangs out with Thistle, who is troubled — for reasons that become clear later in the book — but good fun, one of those rare adults who doesn’t treat her like a baby.

Thistle is the key to the story, for when Olive discovers a photograph of a red-headed baby whom she doesn’t recognise it is her Aunt who reveals the child’s identity when everyone else refuses to engage. This sets into motion a chain of events that will have tragic repercussions on the entire family.

A headstrong girl

From the start we learn that Olive, “caught in the savage act of growing up”, is headstrong, intrepid and occasionally cruel. She’s the ringleader in almost every activity she participates in, whether on the farm with her cousins, or in town with her best friend, Peter, the son of the local policeman. She has absolutely no fear of the town’s bullies, the thug-like Sand brothers, and often stands up to them even though they are much older than herself.

It’s this fierce attitude and a desperate need to figure things out for herself that lands her in trouble. She might only be 12 but Olive thinks she knows best. When she discovers the baby in the photograph is her younger sister who drowned, she’s convinced that the adults in her family are hiding things from her, that “she was at the middle of something, so close to the nucleus she could almost touch it with her tongue”. That “nucleus”, she decides, is murder, and so she plans to find out the culprit and then plots ways to extract her revenge.

But like all good coming-of-age stories, Olive learns that life is not always black and white. She might find childhood frustrating, but she soon discovers that being an adult comes with its own set of complications and that it’s sometimes best not to ask too many questions and to just let things lie…

Australian gothic

I’ll admit that I did not expect to much like this story. Coming-of-age tales and family secrets just don’t do it for me anymore, probably because I’ve just read far too many of them. But I was pleasantly surprised by Little Gods — the title comes from the idea that people are little gods who have power to do things — because it’s told in a refreshingly honest way.

It moves along at an unhurried pace, giving the narrative time to breathe, and the characters, all wonderfully colourful and distinctive (except, perhaps, for the men, who are merely shadows in the background), come to life through snappy dialogue, which includes everything from petty arguments to gossip and back again.

Olive is a revelation. She’s a quintessential rural Australian girl, a wonderful mix of toughness and curiosity.

And I loved the “atmosphere” of the novel, a kind of Australian gothic, not dissimilar to Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. It’s the kind of book you can settle down with for an entire day and get immediately lost in the richly vivid world that Ackland has created.

But don’t just take my word for it. Little Gods has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize and has been positively reviewed at ANZLitLovers and Whispering Gums.

This is my 3rd book for #AWW2019 and my 2nd for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to have been published outside of Australia. I bought my copy when I was in Western Australia last month. 

Australia, Author, Book review, Chris Hammer, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Wildfire

‘Scrublands’ by Chris Hammer

Fiction – hardcover; Wildfire; 496 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry are going to love this debut crime novel by Chris Hammer. As well as a similar setting — a drought-stricken country town in Australia — Scrublands is similarly fast paced, full of unexpected twists and turns, and an ending I never saw coming.

But the tale is more complex than Harper’s and is told from the perspective of a 40-year-old journalist (instead of a police investigator) who has an intriguing back story.

I’ll wager that it will win just as many awards as The Dry, perhaps even more so, and promises to turn Hammer into an international star. (It has already been optioned for television.)

Murder in a drought-stricken town

Set during the devastating Millennium drought, the story focuses on an appalling crime committed in a small (fictional) Riverina town — the murder of five men in church by a charismatic and popular young priest with a gun, who, in turn, is shot dead by police.

When the novel begins it’s a year after the fact, and newspaper reporter Martin Scarsden has been sent to Riversend to write a colour piece on the impact of the crime on the town’s residents. It’s the kind of “soft” job he (and his editor) hopes will allow him to rediscover his journalistic mojo, for Scarsden is battle-weary and psychologically damaged after a stint as a foreign correspondent in the Gaza Strip, where he was held hostage.

Within days of him arriving in town, the bodies of two German backpackers are discovered in a local dam and suddenly the world and its media are in Riversend wanting to know more. Scarsden has the inside scoop — and the reliable contacts — and his front page stories dominate the news agenda.

But then it all gets a bit messy, and he becomes front page news himself, when one of his contacts commits suicide and blames Scarsden for his decision.

Brilliant plot and great characters

Scrublands is brilliantly plotted — but it has to be. There are two very different crimes at the heart of it, which makes for a convoluted story, but there are other asides (or red herrings), including a decades-old rape, that add to the complexity.

Occasionally it is difficult to follow what is going on and I lost the thread of who did what to whom and why, but it hardly matters. The story is so fast paced and so evocative — of small town life in places starved of economic investment, of frenzied media packs chasing ratings and circulation figures, of scorching summer days when the temperature hits 30C before 10am — it feels like a totally immersive experience.

But it’s the characters that make this book such a gripping read. Scarsdale is damaged but he’s not without heart: he still cares about the job, even if he sometimes does dubious things, and he’s prepared to put in the hard graft to get a good story. He even has a romantic fling with the local small town beauty (an interesting character in her own right), perhaps the only “off” note in an otherwise atypical crime novel.

The town’s local characters — the general store owner, the local cop, the derro who wanders the streets, the teenage thugs, the hermit and the ASIO agent — are all incredibly well drawn (even if their names are all a bit odd). Even the dead priest, who we only ever hear about via third parties, is deeply intriguing, the kind of person you’re anxious to know more about.

And the town of Riversend, with its closed down pub, crumbling motel and shops that only open a couple of times a week, feels like a very real place on the map.

Combine that with a twisty narrative, authentic dialogue and skilful writing and you have a novel that’s difficult to put down. It’s an ambitious first novel, and one that’s not without its faults, but it’s an impressive debut. I can’t wait to see what Hammer delivers next.

Scrublands will be published in the UK and the US on 8 January 2019.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Pan Macmillan Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Force of Nature’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – paperback; Pan Macmillan Australia; 400 pages; 2017.

Many of you will be familiar with Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, which I read in 2016, long before it started to win every literature prize going, including the 2017 CWA Gold Dagger, the 2017 Australian Book Industry Award for Fiction Book of the Year and The Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year 2017.

I loved The Dry so much — the claustrophobic portrait of small town Australia, the depiction of the landscape and the drought, the wonderful characterisation and the believability of the crime — that I couldn’t wait for the UK publication of her follow-up, Force of Nature, so I ordered it on import at exorbitant cost from Australia. The price, I think, was worth it.

A gripping page-turner

Force of Nature (to be published in the UK on 8 February 2018) is yet another page-turner set in the Australian bush starring Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk.

This time round it’s winter, the drought has broken and a group of people on a corporate team-building exercise in rugged terrain have got themselves into trouble: one of their party has gone missing.

Falk has a special interest in the search-and-rescue mission because the missing bushwalker, Alice Russell, is the whistleblower in a fraud case he is working on with his colleague, Carmen Cooper. Is her disappearance linked to their investigation? Has she met with foul play or done a runner? Or is it purely co-incidence?

Mounting sense of tension

The book is nicely structured, swinging between two main narrative threads: what happens between the corporate team members on the weekend-long hike in the (fictional) Giralang Ranges; and the ensuing investigation by Falk and Cooper.

From the outset we know things are not going to go well on the hike. There are two groups — one comprising solely men, one comprising solely women — who go off in different directions, but the women never make their rendezvous point on the second night. Instead, fraught, frazzled and beset by petty squabbles, they get lost and cannot agree on the best course of action to take: set up camp and wait for daylight, or keep moving.

Meanwhile, Falk’s narrative thread highlights the pressure he is under from on high to solve the fraud case and at the same time we get to see the more human side of him: we learn about his fraught relationship with his late father and come to understand the loneliness of his life and his (unrecognised) need for human companionship.

Brilliantly clever characterisation

What makes this book work is the characterisation. Harper provides intriguing back stories for each character, particularly the women in the corporate group, giving each of them a plausible motivating factor for wanting nasty, short-tempered Alice to “disappear”.

And she does a terrific job of creating not only mounting tension — showing slowly-but-surely  how and why Alice goes missing — but also a sense of foreboding through the clever use of a news story familiar to the women: that of a serial killer, who butchered and buried a number of victims in the Giralang Ranges (loosely based, I suspect, on the real-life backpacker murders of the 1990s).

Force of Nature is not so much a crime novel, but a suspense one — and it’s so vividly drawn and so brimming with atmosphere it will probably deter swathes of readers from ever setting foot on a muddy bush track. (Companies offering corporate team-building exercises might rightly sue for damage, too.)

If I was to have criticise any aspect of the book it would be that we never quite find out what happens to Falk’s fraud investigation. But in the grand scheme things it doesn’t really matter: Force of Nature is a satisfying read, one that will delight fans of The Dry and perhaps attract a new audience to Harper’s work. Call me greedy, but I honestly can’t help but be impatient for the next novel in this intriguing crime series.

This is my my 10th book for #AWW2017 which means I have now completed this challenge for the year. Expect a wrap-up post in a few days.

5 books, Book lists

5 new Australian novels by big-name authors to add to your wishlist

Novels by award-winning Australian authors are like buses. None for ages, and then a flurry arrive all at once.

Indeed, there are so many brilliant Australian writers with new books coming out this month in Australia that the Miles Franklin Literary Award judges are really going to have their work cut out for them next year.

Here’s just five that have caught my attention (and my retail-clicking online tendencies — yes, I’ve ordered a few of these direct from Australia already).

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

The Life to Come

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, “The Life to Come” is a mesmerising novel about the stories we tell and don’t tell ourselves as individuals, as societies and as nations. It feels at once firmly classic and exhilaratingly contemporary. Pippa is a writer who longs for success. Celeste tries to convince herself that her feelings for her married lover are reciprocated. Ash makes strategic use of his childhood in Sri Lanka but blots out the memory of a tragedy from that time. Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people. Profoundly moving as well as wickedly funny, “The Life to Come” reveals how the shadows cast by both the past and the future can transform, distort and undo the present. This extraordinary novel by Miles Franklin-winning author Michelle de Kretser will strike to your soul. 

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia this month. Due to be published in the UK on 4  January.

First Person by Richard Flanagan

Six weeks to write for your life… In this blistering story of a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject, the Man Booker Prize winner turns to lies, crime and literature with devastating effect. A young and penniless writer, Kif Kehlmann, is rung in the middle of the night by the notorious con man and corporate criminal, Siegfried Heidl. About to go to trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million, Heidl proposes a deal: $10,000 for Kehlmann to ghostwrite his memoir in six weeks. Kehlmann accepts but begins to fear that he is being corrupted by Heidl. As the deadline draws closer, he becomes ever more unsure if he is ghostwriting a memoir, or if Heidl is rewriting him―his life, his future. Everything that was certain grows uncertain as he begins to wonder: who is Siegfried Heidl―and who is Kif Kehlmann?

Published by Penguin in Australia this month. Due to be published in the UK by Chatto & Windus on 2 November.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side. The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with. Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.

Published by Pan Macmillan in Australia last month. Due to be published in the UK by Little, Brown on 8 February 2018; a Kindle edition is currently available on Amazon.

The Passage of LoveThe Passage of Love by Alex Miller

Robert Croft, a young Englishman, arrives in Australia in the 1950s, determined to inhabit the outback. After five years of life on the land, he makes his way to Melbourne where, living in a boarding house, working as a cleaner, he finds himself consumed by a burning need to read, write, draw, create. When he meets the enigmatic Lena, she instantly becomes his staunchest champion but as their tortured marriage evolves and gradually erodes she ultimately becomes an obstacle. This intensely autobiographical novel has much to say about the compulsion to create, and the fundamental unknowability of even our most intimate partners. As the reader sinks into the text of this singular book, the artifice of fiction gradually melts away, leaving nothing but truth on the page. In “The Passage of Love” Alex Miller has given us a masterful work which will come to define his career as one of the great writers of our time.

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia this month. Due to be published in the UK on 1 March 2018.

Taboo by Kim ScottTaboo by Kim Scott

“Taboo” takes place in the present day, in the rural South-West of Western Australia, and tells the story of a group of Noongar people who revisit, for the first time in many decades, a taboo place: the site of a massacre that followed the assassination, by these Noongar’s descendants, of a white man who had stolen a black woman. They come at the invitation of Dan Horton, the elderly owner of the farm on which the massacres unfolded. He hopes that by hosting the group he will satisfy his wife’s dying wishes and cleanse some moral stain from the ground on which he and his family have lived for generations. But the sins of the past will not be so easily expunged. We walk with the ragtag group through this taboo country and note in them glimmers of re-connection with language, lore, country. We learn alongside them how countless generations of Noongar may have lived in ideal rapport with the land. This is a novel of survival and renewal, as much as destruction; and, ultimately, of hope as much as despair.

Published by Pan Macmillan in Australia in July. There is no date available for the UK — as yet.

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

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

1001 books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Publisher, Read Along, Setting, Vintage

‘Voss’ by Patrick White

Voss by Patrick White
1994 edition
Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 464 pages; 1994.

First published in 1957, Patrick White’s Voss went on to win the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award that same year. Some 15 years later White received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Australian to ever win the accolade, earning him a formidable presence in the Australian literary canon.

His reputation as a fine but difficult writer often puts people off trying his work (myself included), but every time I read a White novel (I’ve read four now, three of which are reviewed on my Patrick White page) I come away from the experience wondering what I was scared of. Yes, his books are hard work, and yes, the prose sometimes feel convoluted and old-fashioned. But he’s a terrific storyteller and everything about his work — his characters, his descriptions of people and places and atmospheres, his ability to capture people’s emotions and motivations and innermost thoughts — is masterful. You don’t just read a Patrick White novel, you become immersed in it.

The same could be said of Voss, the bulk of which I read in March as part of a Patrick White read along but then put aside (with just 30 pages to go) because work got in the way. I finished those last few pages on the weekend, which explains the long wait for a review I had planned to write two months ago.

An outback romance

Voss by Patrick White
2011 edition
Set in 19th century Australia, Voss charts the journey of a German naturalist, Johann Ulrich Voss, keen to explore inland Australia. It is largely based on the exploits of Ludwig Leichhardt, a legendary Prussian explorer, who disappeared in 1848 while midway through an ambitious expedition to cross the continent from east to west. To this day, no one quite knows what happened to him.

Voss not only tells the story of that fateful expedition, it also tells the (fictional) story of the woman he left behind. Laura Trevelyn is one of those Victorian women destined to be a spinster all her life. She’s plain and intelligent and doesn’t really fit in. No one much likes her, because she’s smart and outspoken at a time when women should be seen but not heard.

The pair meet through Laura’s uncle, who is the patron of the expedition, and while they do not form an immediate attraction, there is something about Voss that intrigues Laura. When he embarks on his adventure with a party of settlers, including a ticket of leave holder, and two aboriginal guides, the pair conduct a romance via correspondence. Later, they communicate via shared “visions” — with Voss in the outback and Laura in Sydney — which gives the novel an other-worldly feel that riffs on the theme of spiritual connection with the land.

Two stories in one

The story is composed of two intertwined narrative threads; one that charts Voss’s journey inland and the pitfalls he must address, including drought, floods, starvation and near mutiny by his party; and another that follows Laura’s life in Sydney, where she “adopts” the orphaned child of a servant and later succumbs to an almost deadly fever that renders her not quite sane.

Both threads are highly detailed, with little evading White’s forensic eye. This makes for dense text, the kind that is so rich and multi-layered it can occasionally feel impenetrable. But it’s worth persevering, for his prose glitters with jewels waiting to be unearthed and the descriptions of the landscape and the expedition’s deeds are gloriously astute and evocative.

Next morning, while the lamps of friendship hovered touchingly in the dew and darkness, and naked voices offered parting advice, the company began to move northward, with the intention of crossing New England. It was a good season, and the land continued remarkably green, or greyish-green, or blue-grey, the blue of smoke or distance. These were sparkling, jingling days, in which sleek horses, blundering cattle, even the sour-heeled mules had no immediate cause for regret. Men shouted to their mates, their voices whipping the blue air, or else were silent, smiling to themselves, dozing in their well-greased saddles under the yellow sun, as they rubbed forward in a body, over open country, or in Indian file, through the bush. At this stage they were still in love with one another. It could not have been otherwise in that radiance of light. The very stirrup-irons were singing of personal hopes.

Of course, when the expedition finds itself in trouble and Voss is no longer seen as an angel but a living, breathing devil, the novel moves into darker, more tormented territory. White is not afraid to plunge his characters into life or death situations and to test their mettle and moral character. This makes for heightened reading, but occasionally the narrative plods along, perhaps mirroring the expedition’s own dull slog towards a destination that seems impossible to reach.

I found myself enjoying Laura’s story more than Voss’s, but even her narrative sometimes got bogged down in extraneous detail.

A powerful novel

There’s a lot to say about this powerful novel. From its richly evocative language to its clever structure, it deals with so many dual themes — good versus evil, intellect versus emotion, spirituality versus reason, Europeans versus indigenous populations, the tamed land versus the outback — that I could never possibly cover them all here.

In Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die it is described as “both a love story and an adventure story, yet it is neither […] but the most striking feature of this novel is its discordance, its unnavigable strangeness”.

While I can’t say I loved Voss, reading it was a fascinating experience. I devoured most of its 400-plus pages on a weekend getaway to the coast, including the 90 minute train ride there and back, because it’s the kind of novel you need to lose yourself in; you need to get to grips with the pacing, the characters and the dense prose style and you can’t do that if, like me, you usually read books in bursts of 30 minutes or so. I’m very glad I took the plunge to read it.

2017 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Fiction, Heather Rose, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘The Museum of Modern Love’ by Heather Rose

Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 296 pages; 2016.

What is art, and what is its purpose? These are the questions posed in The Museum of Modern Love, a fascinating book that blends fact with fiction, by Heather Rose.

In this highly original novel, Rose takes a real life event and peoples it with interesting fictional characters who interact with a particular work of art, are changed by it and come away from it having learned something of themselves and of others.

New York art world

The story is largely set in Manhattan in 2010. Arky is a composer who is lost, lonely and struggling to write his next film score. He has a strained relationship with his 22-year-old daughter, Alice, while his wife, with whom he is separated, is languishing in a health facility thanks to a devastating condition known as Thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura.

My wife is in a nursing home, he imagined saying. She’s been in a coma but now she’s not. She’ll never walk again. Or talk again. She was the most energetic person when she was well. We knew it was coming. It’s genetic. No, I don’t see her regularly. I don’t see her at all. She wants it that way. She took out a court order. We were happily married. I think so.

But when he visits the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to see Marina Abramović in The Artist is Present, his life takes a more interesting turn. In the queue to see the performance he meets a varied cast of characters who take him out of himself, teach him the importance of “connection” and the beauty of art to sustain us through good times and bad.

Art as therapy

The Artist is Present was a real-life performance art exhibition staged at MOMA in 2010. It involved the artist Marina Abramović, who sat immobile in MOMA’s atrium while spectators queued up to take turns sitting opposite her. They could sit opposite her for as little or as long as they liked, but they had to make eye contact. The performance lasted 75 days, between March and May, and more than 1,500 people took part. (You can read about it on Wikipedia.)

This performance art is not merely a backdrop to The Museum of Modern Love; it forms a central element of the story.

The author was granted permission by the artist to include her in the book. “I have drawn extensively from interviews and performances given in the years leading up to her 2010 performance at MoMA,” Rose writes in her Author’s Note. “This does not mean that the thoughts I have attributed to the character of Marina Abramović at any time in this book are a true reflection of any event in history, nor how the real Marina Abramović thinks or feels. That is the risk the novelist takes, bringing to life what we can only imagine.”

The purpose of art

When I first heard about this novel I must admit it sounded pretentious. But somehow, in Rose’s very capable hands, it works. It’s a brilliant examination of how we interact with art and what we get from it.

As well as telling the story from Arky’s point of view, we also hear about Abramović and her varied and intriguing past.

And there are subsidiary characters — an art teacher from the mid-West, an art critic for NPR, a PhD candidate from Amsterdam — that help bring the performance alive from different perspectives — educational, spiritual, academic — as they all try to interpret Abramović’s work.

It’s a hugely engaging novel, written in an effortless, free-flowing style. It’s filled with a seemingly never-ending amount of highly quotable sentences, such as those I’ve highlighted below:

‘Still, what is she trying to say?’ Jane asked again. ‘What she’s been saying since the start, I think. That everything is about connection. Until you understand what connects you, you have no freedom.’

***

‘She simply invites us to participate,’ Healayas said. ‘It may be therapeutic and spiritual, but it is also social and political. It is multi-layered. It reminds us why we love art, why we study art, why we invest ourselves in art.’

***

All the great art makes us feel something quite indescribable. Perhaps it’s not the best word—but there doesn’t seem to be a better one to capture how art can be . . . transformative. A kind of access to a universal wisdom.’ ‘I’m going to use that,’ said Brittika, tapping away. ‘I mean, she’s using the audience to create this effect, but the audience has also created this experience by how seriously everyone has taken it.’

Longlisted  for the 2017 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize, The Museum of Modern Love is currently only available in eBook format in the UK and North America.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

This is my fifth book for #AWW2017.

UPDATE 18 April
Congratulations to Heather Rose — The Museum of Modern Love has won the 2017 Stella Prize!

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, Book review, Chris Johnston, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Rosie Jones, Scribe, Setting, true crime

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“She is skeletal and pale, 95 years old and living in a nursing home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. There are dense layers of secrecy surrounding her, as there have always been. Her followers have been told since the beginning to protect her, and never betray her. To these followers, Anne Hamilton-Byrne is a reincarnation of Jesus, a living god.”

So begins The Family, a powerful work of investigative journalism, by newspaper journalist Chris Johnston and documentary filmmaker Rosie Jones, which looks at the cult Anne formed in the 1960s. Known simply as “The Family”, this cult hit the headlines in 1987 when police raided its property in the hills outside of Melbourne and rescued dozens of children who lived there.

The children, who had all been adopted by Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill, reported serious crimes of physical and psychological abuse. They had been raised to believe they were all siblings (they weren’t) and that Anne was their real mother. Their hair was dyed blond and they wore old-fashioned clothes — think frilly dresses and buckled shoes — hugely reminiscent of the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music.

When it came to answering her accusers, Anne was nowhere to be found. It took police on three continents more than five years to track her and Bill down. The couple was then extradited to Melbourne (from their home in the Catskills in New York State) and charged with conspiracy to defraud and to commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets. They were fined $AU5,000 each after they both pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of making a false declaration.

Their lives barely changed, while “their” children’s lives were left in tatters, none of them entirely sure who their birth mothers were or why they had been subjected to so much cruel and unusual punishment throughout their childhoods.

Painstaking police investigation

The book is essentially a police procedural. It follows Operation Forest, which was set up by Victoria Police to locate the Hamilton-Byrnes and to seek justice for the children.

It also traces the roots of the cult — how it came into being, the major players and the crimes they perpetuated to enable The Family to function — as well as Anne’s rise from obscurity to notoriety. As one of very few female cult leaders in history, she managed to wield a mysterious hold on all her followers, even when she was living thousands of miles away in the UK and the US.

Somehow she hoodwinked fine upstanding citizens to join her “spiritual group” and built a network of “insiders” — doctors, midwives, social workers and lawyers — to help her steal newborn babies and register them in her name (adoption in Australia in the early 1970s wasn’t highly regulated). A similar network of scientists and psychiatrists also helped her “treat” cult members, including her children, with LSD in a bid to make them believe she was Jesus reincarnated as a woman.

And on top of this she recruited a series of “Aunties” who lived with the children, looked after them and educated them. But they also mistreated them and doled out punishment — hitting the children, locking them up and starving them.

No justice

When I read this book — which has been pieced together in exacting detail and based on interviews with the children, Aunties, current cult members, journalists and police, and drags on slightly too long — the first question that sprang to mind was “why did the children not get the justice they deserved?” The Aunties who were brought before the courts got fined more than the Hamilton-Brynes, but no one did jail time for child abuse. Essentially, Anne got away with it.

“There was no justice. There was no acknowledgement that the children had been mistreated. The children saw the Aunties go to jail for fiddling the social security ‘but they didn’t go to jail for beating us nearly every single day and starving us for three days at a time,’ says Sarah [one of the children]. ‘No one got in trouble for that.'”

Detective Lex de Man, the policeman in charge of Operation Forest, says the police deliberately did not charge the Hamilton-Brynes with child abuse because it would be too difficult to make the charges stick — there was no evidence, just reports by the children which couldn’t be legally verified — and he was wary of making fragile, psychologically damaged children testify in a court of law. It was safer to take a more oblique approach: to get Anne on fraud and perjury charges, which they were able to achieve thanks to Anne’s own solicitor turning whistle bower.

Lex claims his investigation, which took years of painstaking work and struggled to get the resources it required, was able to debunk the mysticism around Anne to show that she “was no one special”.

“She was basically a very cunning crook. […] She is the most evil person with the most evil set of crimes that I have ever investigated in my 18-year career with Victoria Police. If you want to know the definition of evil, you look at Anne Hamilton-Byrne.”

A one-hour documentary, The Cult that Stole Children — Inside The Family, has been made to accompany the book. You can find out more about it on the BBC4 Storyville website and the official documentary website. It’s definitely worth watching if you get the chance.

This is my 52nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 35th for #AWW2016.