Tag Archives: first novel

Southern Cross the Dog (2013) – Bill CHENG

The recent win by 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars has once again reminded us all that the United States is a great nation built on a terrible past. The complete and utter subjugation of one group of people to do the nation building of another is a scar that has still not healed in the United States. Bill Cheng attempts to unpack just a tiny part of this history in his debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog. (I’m not going to lie—I picked this up almost exclusively for its title. I’m a patriotic sucker like that.)

After the Great Flood of 1927, Robert Chatham is left alone. As he drifts around Mississippi, he finds that being an outsider in the deep south is not easy.

There is no question as to who the villains are in this piece. Off the top of my head, I can think of no white character that is kind to a black character for any extended period of time. And, one supposes, this is historically accurate. Though we might be in the early twentieth century here, we are closer in culture to 12 Years a Slave than we are to speeches about dreams.

And yet, despite the fact that this part of history is ripe for telling stories of injustice and heartbreak, Southern Cross feels somehow soulless. There is no question that the writing is excellent—Cheng’s evocation of a time and place is near flawless—but one can never feel truly close to these characters. Perhaps it is the constant narrative jumps—just as you get close to one person, you have to recalibrate your emotions to prepare for another depressing tale. These kinds of non-chronological narratives can allow authors to play with reader perceptions of events and characters, but the fact that Robert seems never to change in each episode leaves you wondering why bother doing it in the first place.

This is not to say there are not moments when Cheng’s ability to write matches his ability to evoke a human response from his characters. Sketches from Robert’s youth are gorgeous—there is one in particular where the three Chatham men are out hunting, only to be stumbled upon by a duo of white men who have no qualms about beating young black men to remind them of their place. It’s horrific, and the pain of the injustice of this society is keenly felt, unlike in many other places through the novel.

I am curious to see what Cheng does next. If he returns to this Southern Gothic-style tale, I would love to see him try and push the boundaries a little further. Though the politics and argument are there, they are not moulded into a piece of fiction that grabs you by the throat, that makes you feel for these people. Fiction is more than pretty words and big ideas—it’s about making your reader feel something.

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We Need New Names (2013) – NoViolet BULAWAYO

Booker Prize season is on again! I’ve only read one longlisted book (Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire), but I have a gap in my reading pile, so I’ll be filling it with a few choices off the list. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Voices, is the only African novel on the longlist, and I figured that’s as good a place to start as any.

Darling and her friends live in Paradise, a slum in the midst of Zimbabwe’s lost decade. Mugabe is in power, and the poor are just getting poorer. Darling and her friends roam the streets, dealing with poverty, hunger and sickness in the only way they know how—telling stories and playing games to escape. But Darling finally goes to America to live with her aunt, she finds herself missing her friends.

There is no reason to compare Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie to NoViolet Bulawayo. The latter is a good ten years younger, and Nigeria and Zimbabwe almost could not be further away from each other on the continent of Africa. And yet, here are two women who, within the space of several months, have published novels on the immigrant experience in America. But while Americanah felt like a polemic disguised as a novel, We Need New Voices is a much more coherent volume.

There are, of course, many similarities: both are frustrated by the constant generalisation of an “African” experience, and the repetitive conversations they have with white Americans who think they know everything about “Africa” because they saw a BBC new item the other day—though Bulawayo seems less angry about it than Adichie.

Both find themselves longing for their homeland, though while Adichie misses it for the comfort of her family and the life she was leading, this yearning sits more uncomfortably in Bulawayo’s novel: Darling’s experiences in Paradise, the ironically named slum in which she grew up, are the bottom of the bottom. With her friends, they go around stealing guavas off trees, even though a diet consisting solely of this fruit gives the eater chronic constipation, because they have nothing else to eat. One of her friends, at the tender age of 11, is pregnant because her grandfather raped her.

I feel bad about my reaction to We Need New Names. I don’t know if it’s because I have Poorly Treated Child Novel exhaustion (see Past the Shallows, Floundering, The Mary Smokes Boys etc.), but I had trouble being shocked by what Bulawayo was writing about. There is no doubt that the situation in which these children find themselves is horrific—particularly the pregnant 11-year-old girl—but it also felt somewhat unreal, removed from reality. Bulawayo is trying too hard to get us to emote, to feel something for these children, and forced emotion never rings true.

Darling leaves Zimbabwe just after the 2008 reelection of Mugabe. The realities of this election are witnessed by the kids, whose parents’ hope for the future, held in the promise of a new government, is crushed when votes are rigged and retributions for “incorrect” voting are meted out.

The America sections are much better, as we watch Darling come to terms with the huge amount of wealth on offer in the country, but just out of her grasp. She has heard stories of being rich in America, and assumed she would simply become rich by being there: her disillusionment with this is shown in tandem with her becoming more American, to the point where the final chapters are written in a language where all Zimbabwean patois has been erased. Darling’s uneasy transformation is complete.

There can be no question that Bulawayo is a talented writer, and every now and then, there is a passages of such pure brilliance, you forget that this is her first novel. Let’s hope these passages are the ones Bulawayo takes on board in the future.

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The Burial (2012) – Courtney COLLINS

What better way to celebrate Australia Day than by reviewing the promising debut novel from a young Australian writer? The Burial has been sitting on the shelves at work, sadly untouched, so I picked it up to see if I couldn’t recommend it to some people. I’m glad I did—it heralds the arrival of someone concerned not just with history, but looking at new ways of telling old stories.

A baby lies dead in the ground. This is the child of Jessie, a young woman about to be on the run for a crime she definitely committed. But this child has a story to tell. It is the story of her mother, the story of a young woman who has turned to a life of crime to escape the problems in her own life. This is the story of Jessie Hickman, bushranger.

First things first. The narration and the language of this novel are glorious. Narrated by the dead baby Jessie gives birth to in one of the first scenes of the novel (yes, this novel is narrated by a zombie baby), the cadence and colour of the narration give this novel a sense of style. Evoking the Gothic made so famous by Faulkner, McCarthy and Flanagan, Collins shows us the brutal magnificence of the Australian landscape. Perhaps it is the very fact that this child is so aware of its own surroundings—that is, the dirt in which it is buried—that there is such a deep connection with the landscape.

Collins populates her novel with intriguing characters, too, not least of which is Jessie herself, a character based on the real-life bushranger, Jessie Hickman. Her history is revealed slowly and surely, in parallel with the trials she currently faces. She has been in gaol for stealing horses, a crime that, in frontier Australia, comes with several years of quality time in lock-up. Once she is out, though, her troubles really begin. Though she has been freed from gaol, she has not been freed from a life of oppression—she must be released into the custody of man, someone who can look after her and make sure she will not get up to any trouble again. She is released into the care of Fitz, a grazier who needs a wife.

Fitz is an easy character to dislike. He has very few redeeming features. He abuses Jessie, both mentally and physically, forcing her to remain in the house while he does much of the physical labour. Soon, though, he sees the value in her ability to steal horses, and forces her to do it for him, fully aware that he will never be convicted of the crime. Their relationship comes to a sticky end as she goes into labour, when she kills him in a quite brutal fashion with an axe. It is his child she gives birth to in the opening sequence, a child she hopes against all hopes is not actually fathered by Fitz.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Jessie should find physical relief in the form of Jack Brown, a young half-Aboriginal man who also works for Fitz. He has his own subplots, including what is perhaps the least interesting part of the novel, detailing his visits to a brothel and subsequent relationship with a Chinese prostitute. Though this character does become important at the climax of the novel, I wonder if there was a way to rearrange it so we didn’t have to go through the early parts.

Jack Brown’s story runs in parallel to Jessie’s, and it follows his attempts to find Jessie—her murder of Fitz has seen a bounty placed on her head, and now everyone is looking for her. He teams up with a new local policeman—Sergeant Barlow is, however, addicted to cocaine, and in no state to go on a race through the bush—to track her down and save her. This is his motive: he loves her and he wants to save her. A noble sentiment, if ever there was one, but one based on a wildly inaccurate assumption—that Jessie needs saving by anyone.

Collins goes out of her way to explore the plight of women in this pioneering society. Away from the social movements of the 1920s in the inner-cities, women are still treated as second-class citizens in the valley where Jessie roams. The two main female characters—Jessie, as well as the old woman who give she shelter when she runs away—are both in abusive relationships. The entire point of the novel, though, is that Jessie does not need rescuing. She can make her own way in this dangerous world so unfriendly to independent women—what she really needs is a world where women are allowed to be what they want to be.

Jessie seems happiest when she stumbles upon a band of boy thieves, who are also trying to steal horses and resell them. Though initially cautious of one another, she forms a bond with the merry band, and together, they pull off an audacious plan that, surprisingly, almost works perfectly. Sadly, it does force her to once again run away from her problems, as Collins builds to a climax that sees the perhaps inevitable showdown between law and criminal that must be faced by all bushranger novels. Fortunately, Jessie’s stand does not go the same way as Ned Kelly’s at Glenrowan. She again manages to escape, finding herself on the run once again.

The Burial is not a long book, but it is eminently engaging, relying on a narrative trick that could so easily be gimmicky, but never is. Collins creates a beautiful narrative in both voice and structure, heralding the arrival of a new Australian talent that has a bright future. A strong contender, I should think, for this year’s crop of awards.

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Northern Girls (2004) – SHENG Keyi

Continuing my reading of the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist, I find myself in China. I’m intrigued by this novel, not least because it is printed by Penguin China, the first Asian branch of the publishing powerhouse now known as Penguin Random House. Designed to promote Chinese literature, and literature about China, I think I’m right in saying this is the first translation they’ve commissioned.

Xiaohong and Sijiang are ‘northern girls’ (beimei; 北妹), girls from the country who have come to Shenzhen to look for work and money. Xiaohong has been caught sleeping with her sister’s fiancée, and to escape the family shame, she has dragged Sijiang with her to the big smoke to find their fortunes. But it is not easy being a country girl in a big city, and as Xiaohong and Sijiang are about to discover, friends are hard to find.

There is a brutality, a grittiness, to Sheng’s writing that shines through Shelly Bryant’s translation. I don’t know if this is just because we are in southern China, far away from the cultural centre that is Beijing, but the characters in Northern Girls are just that little less couth, that little more grating, than one might expect from the capital. Most of the main characters, not just Xiaohong and Sijiang, are working-class, rough and ready, an attribute that is made only more clear when they encounter characters with higher social standing.

The huge cultural differences in China are a barrier for Xiaohong and Sijiang in their move to Shenzhen. Though Mandarin is the official language of China, and spoken in Beijing and surrounding areas, in the provinces, particularly the rural ones, dialects are spoken that are not intelligible to one another. So when the two girls move to Shenzhen, they must learn to speak both standard Mandarin, and some Cantonese, spoken in the southern provinces where they now live. It’s a reminder of not just the metro-rural divide of China, but of the deeply diverse cultural divide in a country that houses one-seventh of the world’s population.

Sheng does seem deeply concerned with breasts. Indeed, time and time again, the size and heft of Xiaohong’s breasts are mentioned by the narrator, and by the other people she encounters. But this is not a creepy, Murakami-style fetishisation of breasts. Sheng uses them as a symbol of femininity in her work. Breasts are arguably the most feminine of body parts, and the link between the state of one’s breasts and how one is viewed by society is one Sheng makes clear in her work. In the beginning, then, Xiaohong’s breasts are what get her into trouble—men lust after them, and being young, she is happy to go along with it. In the final chapters, though, her breasts begin to grow, heavier and heavier. They weigh her down, and have become a burden. Being a woman in modern China is not something that is easy; it is a burden that must be carried around at all times.

Certainly by Western standards, this book would probably be termed feminist. Sheng is deeply concerned with how modernity in China affects women, young women in particular, and the ways in which they are used by men in positions of power—and indeed, men not in positions of power—simply as objects for sexual pleasure. So few of the men encountered by Xiaohong seem to be decent human beings. Without fail, each one of them ogles her ample bosom. And at first, she seems happy to go along with this, and beds many men. But as she matures, she does this less and less, learning to reject the advances of the men who try to get with her.

Sheng is keen to bring women’s issues to the foreground. Xiaohong finds herself working in a women and children’s hospital, in the PR department, of all places. This allows Sheng to subtly, but clearly deliberately, bring the issue of reproductive rights in China to the forefront of her novel. By the end, Xiaohong has had two abortions, from sexual encounters she did not initiate. Several other minor female characters have also had abortions, either because they have been raped, or because they are not allowed to have children, or because they have slept with someone they shouldn’t have. It becomes almost second-nature to just go and have an abortion when you have discovered you are pregnant and know you cannot keep the baby. And the point is repeatedly made—this is something only women have to decide and endure. Many of the men that have fathered these children never know about it. It is something they will never have to think about or be reminded of in the future. This is women’s business.

This all comes to a head when, one night, Sijiang is mistaken for another woman, and is forcibly sterilised by the government. Think about that sentence. Forcibly sterilised by the government. It’s an horrific concept, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was out of some post-apocalyptic future. But this really happens. It’s a harrowing scene, and Sheng tells it with a grace that belies the rest of the novel, perhaps proving her skill as a writer. And so Sijiang decides to return home. She has been eaten up and spat out by this huge city and cannot take it any longer. Xiaohong decides to remain, but the last sentence, in which she disappears into the crowd, just another anonymous face, highlights the journey she is taking – away from individuality, and towards an uncertain future.

I know this all makes Northern Girls sound terribly dull and intense, but it isn’t. Certainly at the beginning, Xiaohong’s refusal to take any crap from anyone, whether they be her family or people she’s just met on the street, is not only funny, but a refreshing change from so many simpering female protagonists we’ve all read in so many novels. She is a brilliant creation, acting not just as a symbol of an entire generation of girls coming to the big city to find work and riches, but as a human being I think we’d all like to meet.

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Ru (2009) – Kim THÚY

This novel caught my eye a while ago for a variety of reasons. A Vietnamese-Canadian writer, Kim Thúy originally wrote this novel in French in 2009, though it was translated into English in 2011. It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012. I’m a big fan of postcolonial writings, and a short novel on the immigrant experience in Canada struck me as something perhaps something similar to that in Australia.

Nguyen An Tinh was a boat person. Escaping persecution in Communist Vietnam, her family escapes to Canada where they try to build a new life, one they never thought they would lead. But An Tinh finds herself floating through life, unable to put down roots, despite having grown up in Canada, and having two young sons. This is her story, the story of a refugee coming to the West, of a young child growing up, of a mother coming to terms with the realities of being a parent.

I read this short novel in under three hours. It’s easy to read, not just because of how it is set out (Many of the sections are less than a page, more memory fragments or musings about life than true ‘chapters’), but because Thúy constructs a tale that is engaging and well-written, stopping short of over-wrought writing. She sprinkles Vietnamese words and text throughout the novel to create that sense of foreignness that seems to be key to writing an “authentic” immigrant experience. Unrelated to the novel itself – my edition had some weird typographical stuff going on, and I’m not sure the publishers are used to using Vietnamese script in their work, because there were some iffy

Plot is not something this novel has in spades. Or at all, really. Instead, it is a series of jumbled up fragments, things that come to the protagonist as she remembers them. She wants to tell her story, but she finds herself sidetracked by other memories – from both before and after her move to Canada – that are at least as interesting as the glimpses of a privileged life in Canada. It’s an interesting point of view to take—so often, refugees are portrayed as the persecuted poor, but in actual fact, here, the protagonist’s family is the bourgeoisie class in Vietnamese society that was so hated by the Communist regime that took power in 1975. Her life is one of privilege—her mother has never had to lift a finger to do any work in her life, but she teachers her children to do some, perhaps because she is aware that the political situation is fragile.

The journey between this life in Vietnam and her adult life is the least developed section of An Tinh’s life. We get glimpses of the perilous boat trip her family took, as well as her eventual, if gradual, integration into Canadian society. There are scenes of An Tinh finding her feet in school, despite not understanding a word of French; of her teacher calling her parents to make sure she wasn’t eating rice and noodles for breakfast, even though this is a standard Vietnamese breakfast. There are hints of past relationships, of her coming to understand what it means to love and be loved.

What strikes me most of all about her character, though, is her intense isolation from the rest of the world. She is no longer Vietnamese, but does not feel Canadian. She is just as happy sleeping in a hotel bed as she is her own. If she didn’t have children, she wouldn’t be afraid of dying. These thoughts highlight her dislocation and disconnect from the world of the everyday. Thúy equates this isolation with the life An Tinh has lived, with the constant movement she has found herself undertaking, both voluntary and involuntary.

The other story that comes out of this novel is An Tinh’s life now. In many ways, it seems to be defined by her relationship with her two sons, Pascal and Henri. The younger of the two has autism, and in many ways, there is a link drawn between An Tinh’s early inability to understand Canadian society as a foreigner with his inability to read and understand social situations. Both are outsiders, and An Tinh finds herself perhaps more protective of him because she understand what it is like to be shunned by the rest of the mainstream.

By the end of the novel, Thúy has found herself in a rhythm that I wish she had adopted the entire way through: one section talks about her life in Canada, while the next subverts this happy image with an flashback to Vietnam on a similar theme. I like the idea of juxtaposing these two lives, each with its own highs and lows, each complimenting the other in terms of happiness and sadness. I don’t have a problem with the tiny, fragmented narrative, but it jumps all over the place thematically, and if she had started doing this earlier, it would have given the novel a much needed sense of cohesion.

The use of first-person lends an air of intimacy and realism to this autobiographical novel, and Thúy has mentioned that this is a form of fictionalised memoir, based on her own experiences of coming to Canada as an immigrant. It’s a story that maybe isn’t heard often enough—the exodus to the West from Vietnam was a formative experience for the countries that embraced these refugees as much as it was for the refugees themselves. There’s an interesting tale to be told here, and Thúy adds to the narrative with her own tale.

It’s deeply unfair of me to compare this work to another, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar this is to Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, another short novel detailing the immigrant story to North America, told in short, alternating chapters. I love that novel, and sadly, Ru didn’t quite reach the heights Otsuka’s work did. While Otsuka manages to tell the story of an entire generation with heart and with depth, Thúy’s novel just falls short of packing the emotional punch a story like this deserves. But, then, perhaps that’s the point—the life contained in Ru suggests a deeper emotional pain than could ever be described.

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Past the Shallows (2011) – Favel PARRETT

Favel Parrett’s debut novel was longlisted for the Miles Franklin earlier this year, but I’d been meaning to read it well before that. She was in Canberra several months ago, and my bosses raved about how lovely she was. Then a customer raved about the book a few weeks ago, so I finally picked it up to have a look. Just like Rohan Wilson, Parrett’s written an excellent first novel about Tasmania.

The death of their mother has left a hole in the lives of Harry, Miles and Joe, three brothers living on the remote south coast of Tasmania. Though Joe has escaped their abusive father, Miles and Harry remain at home—Miles is often pulled out of school to work on the family fishing boat, and Harry spends time with their Aunt Jean. But it is a fragile existence, and anything could break it.

I don’t know if it’s because of the location, or because of something else, but the best world I can use to describe this novel is grey. Unfalteringly grey. It is not a complex story—indeed, it could be argued that many of these tropes have been used to death, particularly in Australian literary fiction (I’m thinking here of novels like The Mary Smokes Boys and films like Australian Rules)—but Parrett uses them with such deftness that it doesn’t matter at all.

The two main characters, Harry and Miles, are gorgeous. I just wanted to hug them and give them a warm house to sleep in. Harry, particularly, comes off as a naïve innocent, caught up in the dirty world of mortals and devils. His early cheer at finding a $20 note on the ground is followed by such wonderfully childish decisions, including the buying of something like ten showbags he can share with his brother and friend, Stuart. I mean, really. No one like that deserves to live in a world like the one Parrett draws. In some ways, it’s easy to forget that Miles is only 13. He is so responsible, so focused on protecting his younger brother from the monster that is their father, he has a maturity that belies his physical age.

It’s interesting that the ocean serves two functions here, echoing perhaps the wider Australian fascination with it. There’s no denying that the ocean is a recurring theme throughout a lot of Australian literature (Winton, obviously, but others, too), and Parrett taps into our uneasy relationship with it. Miles and Joe love surfing—for them, it’s an escape from their real lives. Joe is even planning on sailing to the South Pacific which, in hindsight, seems a little optimistic from the southern tip of Tasmania. But at the same time, Parrett shows us just how fickle the ocean can be, and reminds us that we have absolutely no control over it, not matter how much we might like to think otherwise. Miles seems particularly aware of this danger. Each time he goes out on the boat, something seems to go wrong. And Harry is not even allowed on the boat, because he gets seasick before they even leave the jetty.

The fact that we keep returning to the ocean gives a sense of inevitability to the denouement playing out of the boat. Each action has a certain reaction, and it seems that it can’t play out any other way. His dad forces Harry to drink half a bottle of alcohol. Miles defends his brother. Their dad hits Miles. Miles and Harry run away. Miles leaves Harry at a friend’s house, but Harry wants to go home, so he wanders back at night.  Miles and his father almost hit Harry wandering on the road. Their dad is so angry, he takes them out on the boat during a huge storm.

The climactic scene, on the boat in the storm, is both page-turning and harrowing.  The ocean has been a symbol of the inner turmoil of the this family for the entire novel, and now, with a huge storm from the south approaching, this turmoil spills over into the real world. And as their father basically attacks the two sons in his anger, Harry takes more and more of the brunt, forcing Miles to protect his younger brother. And, unsurprisingly, the two end up in the water, waiting to die.

In the end, Miles is unable to save his younger brother, despite the slight glimmer of hope Parrett teases us with. When Miles finds out that Harry is dead, I definitely teared up a bit. Which was awkward, because I was reading it at work, in front of the general public. But my goodness, it’s intense. Miles’ previous struggle to get Harry out of the water is intense enough, but for it all to have then been in vein was too much for me. It takes a lot for a book to move me emotionally, but by God, Past the Shallows did.

The only weak link in the novel is George, and even that’s not weak, so much as slightly superfluous. Harry needs a place to escape, and he finds it in a gentle, but terrifying looking man, who has a cute puppy—the polar opposite of his own father.  Yes, he’s Harry’s Hagrid. Which is fine, but it’s an unnecessary distraction in an otherwise tightly controlled, small-scale, almost claustrophobic, family drama. The idea of a young child finding solace and company in a physically deformed, socially isolated outcast is nothing new, and could probably quite merrily have been thrown out to give us some more family time.

Past the Shallows ends on a note of hope and redemption. Miles and Joe are going to leave their father, assumedly never to see him again. But the most innocent of all, Harry, is dead. I wonder, then, if that’s the point. That Harry couldn’t survive in a world like that. That situations like this crush even the most innocent, most beautiful people imaginable. Miles and Joe escape, but they have been blooded in the ways of the real world. It is not a pretty thought, but then, this is not a pretty tale. Real, raw, shocking—yes. Pretty—no.

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The Yellow Birds (2012) – Kevin POWERS

Releasing your war novel on 11 September is a risky business. If it’s really good, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the important message your novel has; if it’s really bad, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the cheap way people cash in on days like this to play on the public’s emotions. Fortunately, The Yellow Birds ticks so many boxes on my “good novel” list – less than 250 pages, fragmented narrative, gorgeous language, depressing content. It’s like this was written just for me.

Bartle and Murph were deployed to Iraq. But Murph never came back. Haunted by the promise he made to Murph’s mother before they left, Bartle cannot stop thinking about the friend left behind in a foreign land. As we flit between past, present and future, and the story of what really happened to Murph becomes clear, a devastating tale of men under pressure emerges. No one will ever be the same again.

The biography at the back on the book mentions two things that I can only imagine are the most influential parts of Powers’ life on this novel – his time in Iraq as a machine gunner, and his MFA in poetry.Obviously it’s not hard to see the influence the first had on this novel, but the main achievement of this novel, for me, though, is the language. The first paragraph is a beautifully haunting personification of the war itself, describing it as hungry. I could block-quote almost every paragraph in this novel, it is so gorgeously written. But what makes it even more amazing is one passage, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, in which the mask slips. I can’t decide if it’s the mask of the narrator, or of Powers himself, but the perfectly controlled, structured language of the rest of the novel falls away, and for a one-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph, expletives and dirty language, the likes of which have been, up until now, not used, are utilised to brutally attack the war machine. It’s a section that proves to me two things – one, Powers has clearly spent a lot of time crafting a poetic style, which is highly effective; and two, this is a story that is close to his heart.

There are three narratives running in parallel: the first, in 2004, while Bartle and Murph are in Iraq; the second, in 2003, while the two are still in training in America; and the third, in 2005, when John has returned to America after finishing his deployment. Each one shines light on a different stage of the cycle of a soldier’s life. We start with Bartle and Murph patrolling This changes as the two are shipped off to Al Tafar, Iraq (Powers was stationed in Tal Afar). In a foreign, hostile land the two are forced to become closer, relying on on another, as well as the rest of their platoon, to simply stay alive. It’s hard to decide whether or not these soldiers are nice people. Most of them are just people, with flaws just like the rest of us.

It’s not just the people Powers describes with vivid detail. The milieu of the Iraq war – the desolation of a desert landscape – the heat, the wind, the sand – as well as the relationship between the occupying forces and everyday Iraqis, are clearly drawn from personal experience. The first major character death is that of the Iraqi interpreter travelling with the platoon. This is not a surprise – we hear of Iraqis working with Americans being killed far too regularly. But Bartle and Murph are more concerned with being killed themselves – the death toll is rapidly reaching 1000, and they don’t want to be the 1000th American troop killed in Iraq. It becomes a powerful recurring motif throughout the novel, of the death count rising, catching up with soldiers still on the ground.

When Bartle returns to America, he moves back home to live with his mother. As with all returning soldier stories, he has trouble readjusting to a life of relative comfort. He becomes isolated and introverted, moving from his childhood bedroom to a shed in his backyard. This doesn’t last long, however, and he eventually moves out of home, opting to live in an abandoned factory just out of town. In what is probably the most horrific scene – and there are certainly no shortage of candidates here – Bartle finds himself awoken next to a river bed, having been dragged out of the river. It is never made explicit if he jumped or simply slipped, but the reaction of the police who save him is terrifying. Though they suspect a suicide attempt, once they discover Bartle is a former soldier, they just leave him alone. They don’t bother to give him a psych evaluation, because he is a solder, not in spite of it. It’s a damning indictment of how soldiers are treated when they return to modern America.

There is a sting in the tail. It is not until the final pages that we discover what it is that has killed Daniel Murphy. It is not a regular shoot-out, it is not friendly fire, and it is not an IED. Murph goes AWOL, forcing the rest of the platoon to search for him for several days. In the pre-deployment sequences, Murph seemed to be a little nervous, a little unsure, about the whole adventure, and the stresses of war have clearly affected him more than most. While their sergeant coped with it by being a dick, and Bartle seems to be able to bottle it up inside, something inside Murph snaps, and he runs away. Of course, Iraq is still a dangerous place, and so he ends up dead. It’s not a pretty sight, and really hammers home the message Powers is imparting here – war is hell.

From what I can only describe as one of the most arresting first lines I’ve read in ages (“The war tried to kill us in the spring”), to a final, surprisingly redemptive scene, The Yellow Birds marks Kevin Powers as a talent to watch. The collision of perfectly formed, poetic sentences with an horrific subject matter – and making this work – is a sure sign that Powers is a gifted writer. Let’s hope whatever he does next doesn’t disappoint.

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Narcopolis (2012) – Jeet THAYIL

I should start by giving full credit to Mark from Eleutherophobia for pointing me in the direction of Narcopolis. Jeet Thayil is a well-respected Indian poet, whose own history with drug abuse seems to have inspired this, his debut novel. I don’t read a great number of drug novels, for no other reason that it’s not the 1960s anymore, and people don’t seen to write that many? Or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.

In the chandu khanas of Shuklaji Street, Mumbai, opium is the drug of choice. Among the hundreds of dens offering people a good time is one belonging to Rashid, where our story takes place. As we follow the lives of his employees and his clients, we uncover a part of Indian history that many people would like to forget – a time when opium was king and where prostitution was the past time de jour. As time passes, though, other drugs begin to make a move, and everything changes.

There’s a danger, I think, when you write a drug novel that you go too far in trying to make the whole thing kind of like a trip. I worry that Thayil has gone too far in that direction for Narcopolis to have a really punchy effect on the reader. One kind of meanders through some scenes that seem to have little to do with each other, and then all of a sudden, we’re thirty years on, at the end of our journey. Maybe this isn’t just a drug novel problem – I wonder if Thayil’s history as a poet meant he spent more time crafting the (admittedly gorgeous) language at the expense of a clear through line.

Bonus points, though, to Thayil’s evocation of Dimple as a protagonist, though. She is a hijra, a man who has become a woman, and the gender politics at play whenever anyone new encounters her are subtly played, but (I can only imagine) well-evoked. It must be tiring to be asked whether or not one’s genitals are still intact, and Dimple manages to make the best of many bad situations. Though we are introduced to a narrator early on, it is Dimple who quickly takes over the story, becoming out eyes and ears in a world where morality is not quite what we might expect. She has ideas above her station, and her attempts to educate herself in both philosophy and the ENglish language are an endearing reminder as to the dire situation in which all these people find themselves.

It is, as ever, a depressing evocation of a part of India that so many writers seem willing to ignore. It is not hard to read only a few pages, and already feel like you need a bath or shower, the grime from the dirty crack dens and seedy men sleeping with prostitutes somehow coming off the page and into your own life. These are characters that, despite probably being good people, have been sucked into a world where they can do nothing but take drugs and fall into habits that die hard.

There is almost some redemption for some of these people near the end – people find their way into rehab, but it never sticks. One character remarks that the choice between rehab and prison is like a choice between syphilis and gonorrhoea. It’s a charming simile, but it really highlights just how much these characters are addicted to these damaging drugs. There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

A shift in tone near the end sees a particularly poignant scene. We have moved into the twenty first century, an India I find easier to recognise, full of young professionals trying to make more and more money, trying to get rich quick. They have assembled at a party in a fancy skyscraper in their fancy suits and dresses, and they are all getting higher than the Empire State in the bathroom on cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy. Thayil show us that drugs are never going away – they will simply change and evolve with time, and for some people, they will always be attractive, no matter how much they get fucked by them.

In the end, Narcopolis is less than the sum of its many promising parts. The beginning monologue is blisteringly good, and though Thayil’s style is nice, the plot loses some of its way through the middle of the novel. The end returns to the promise of the initial pages, but it ends up being too little too late. A good, but not great, debut from a poet who has the potential to marry a beautiful prose style with some deeply unbeautiful subject matter.

I also heartily approve of the Colin Hay cameo.

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Wulf (2011) – Hamish CLAYTON

I picked this up earlier in the year while I was in New Zealand in a rather excellent independent bookshop called Unity Books. I was looking for some new New Zealand fiction, and this struck me as something quite interesting.

A ship filled with a rather ragged collection of sailors and merchants has come to New Zealand to seek trade with Te Rauparaha, a man widely believed to control much of the southern part of the North Island. Aboard the ship are two sailors who will rapidly become caught up in historical events well out of their control, as Te Rauparaha – the Wolf – has plans of his own for the new visitors. Plans that will have far-reaching consequences for the future of New Zealand.

Maybe I’m reading things into the text that don’t really exist, but I like to think there’s a subtle hint of homo-eroticism between our two narrators. Our narrator of the present is deeply attracted to Cowell, our narrator of the past, though his feelings seem to be confused. It’s an interesting point – there’s a scene early on in which he masturbates in the river, only for the whole thing to be reversed, and all of a sudden, he’s watching Cowell do the same thing. As a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of a native knowledge of New Zealand, it’s hard to tell whether the narrator is actually gay, or if he is simply misplacing his own longing to understand New Zealand, transferring it to the closest available symbol.

Look, it’s probably a little clichéd to say this, but Clayton really does make the landscape of New Zealand a character in this novel. Just like Rohan Wilson did for the landscape of Tasmania, Clayton evokes in the reader a series of images and sketches of the southern tip of the North Island (a place I have been, so that helped), told from the perspective of an outsider. That sense of wonder and confusion anyone gets when exploring the bush of a new land—trees that don’t look right, animals that seem bizarre, stars in the wrong place—is something captured by Clayton perfectly.

Attached to this evocation of landscape is the folkloric history of Te Rauparaha. It is gorgeously retold by Cowell, who clearly has the ability to tell a great story. From the language and tone of his stories, it is clear Cowell has a great deal of respect for the Wolf . There is a deliberate sense of the romantic hero about him—by tying the story to the conventions and practices of heroic poetry from the Western tradition, Clayton gives a sense of the epic to his readers. Instead of using Māori structures and traditions, I wonder if, by using Western constructions to describe a great Māori warrior, we, as white readers, get a greater sense of legitimacy from it. It’s that age-old question about whether oral history has any value, and Clayton neatly offers something of an alternative here.

In contrast to the mysterious and enigmatic Cowell, our other narrator fares less well on the character development front, though I rather suspect that’s the point. He is never named – though at one stage, he gets the unfortunate nickname David Jones – allowing us as readers to project something of ourselves onto him. He remains the ultimate everyman in this situation – he is new to sailing, has little experience of going to foreign lands, and is, in many ways, scared of what is going to around him. Indeed, he is so worried about one expedition, he stays behind without telling the rest of the crew. Of course, this turns out to be the sensible option, but his cowardly acts are, in many ways, completely understandable – at least to me.

I don’t want to call Wulf “experimental” literature, but I do want to point out its uniqueness. There is a quality to Clayton’s writing that often seems unreal, a tone that strongly supports the heavy mythology he has used to build the novel. Lloyd Jones (who’s quoted on the cover) is right – the real strength of this novel is its “imaginative derring-do”. There’s a lot to love from this little New Zealand novel – I hope it gets more recognition from some bigger markets.

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The Roving Party (2011) – Rohan WILSON

When Rohan Wilson won the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award last year for The Roving Party, it heralded a change in the way the award functioned. No longer would we have to wait months between announcement and publication – it was available to buy the very next day in all good bookstores. Of course, it has taken me more than a year to get around to reading it, but there you go. I’ve had other things to do.

John Batman has been charged with rounding up rebel tribes of Aboriginals in Van Diemen’s Land. Given a small band of convicts, along with two black trackers – and a man named Black Bill, an Aboriginal man born and raised as a white man. As they make their way around the small island, there is one man they all want to find – Manalargena, a powerful tribal leader who has a personal connection to Black Bill.

There is a deeply violent streak at the core of this novel. It is not far from the beginning that we are given a glimpse into the kind of people we are following – convicts desperate to do anything to escape their conditions have accepted a job for which they are deeply unsuitable. None of them seem to like each other, and this bubbles over when one young man makes the mistake of insulting the youngest member of the team – a teenage boy, barely able to shave. The boy responds by brutally beating him. When this doesn’t deter the man from further taunts, the boy attacks again. These two incidents give us an insight in to the kind of people tasked with tracking down and killing Aboriginal tribes – they are hardly pleasant.

At the same time, though, Wilson goes out of his way to highlight the stark beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness. We get gorgeous descriptions of the bush in all seasons – from the intense (well, for Tasmania) heat of summer, to the brutal cold of an unforgiving Tasmanian winter. It seems perhaps ironic to have this beautiful landscape as the backdrop for some heinous abuses of both morality and human rights, but it seems somehow grimly fitting. I like that characters refer to Indigenous Tasmanians as Vandemonians – it took me far too long to realise this was a corruption of Van Diemen’s Land. It’s a nice touch.

Wilson’s style is worth mentioning, too. Though I am far from expert in this field, there is an evocation of McCarthy in it – whether this is just because they seem to share an intense dislike of commas and quotation marks, or because of the similarly violent concerns, I’m not sure. I’m not alone in thinking this (don’t click on that link if you haven’t read the novel – there are giant spoilers), and it’s nice to see some stylistic experimentation in Australian fiction – there’s such rich opportunities in the Australian tradition for a kind of “Australian Gothic” in response to “Southern Gothic” I’m surprised it’s not taken up more often.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Black Bill is the most interesting. There is a long line of Aboriginal characters raised as white folk in Australian literature, and what is fascinating about Wilson’s character is his clear decision to reject his black identity. He does not struggle with who he is, he knows. For him, there is no question about his cultural identity – he is a white man, despite the colour of his skin. Of course, this causes a wide range of problems when he comes up against people who are less sure about him, whose world consists of good white people and bad black people. What I like even more is that we are never allowed in to his inner thoughts – Wilson denies us the opportunity to explore whether or not this surety is a façade, or whether he truly thinks everyone around him is an idiot for not playing along. This isn’t some take on the inscrutable Other, I should point out – many main characters are denied internal monologues.

I’m genuinely surprised The Roving Party didn’t make it to this year’s Miles Franklin longlist – I thought it was a shoe-in. It takes historical fiction in Australia – so often tired and worn out from overuse by mediocre authors – and gives it a swift kick up the arse. It is brutal, unforgiving and tiring, but it is an excellent novel. I’m excited to see where Rohan Wilson goes next.

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