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.
‘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.

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.