Tag Archives: Australia

Barracuda (2013) – Christos TSIOLKAS

Very few sports novels are actually about sport, and Barracuda is no exception. Recent discourse in Australian literary circles has focussed on how to better promote the excellent work done by female writers in this country. Barracuda is a slap in the face to this trend—more than any novel I have read recently, this is a novel that interrogates what it means to be a man. How do you go from being a man in your prime, a man perfectly sculpted to take part in the ultimate masculine challenge to man reviled for the very things that make you who you are?

All of this is embodied in Daniel Kelly. Danny is the misfit at his private school—placed there on a sport scholarship, he is hated by his teammates because he is better than then, even though he is poorer, and much less white. But while he is being bullied mercilessly in the classroom, he is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the pool. He is the Barracuda, mercilessly beating everyone that gets in his way. The disconnect between his in-pool and out-of-pool selves is unsurprising, but the vast distance between the two is.

Out of the pool, Danny’s weakness is his crippling self-doubt. and I cannot help but wonder how many other athletes suffer a similar affliction. Danny’s self-worth is so intrinsically tied to how he performs in the pool, he quite literally cannot imagine a life in which he cannot compete with the world’s best. There would be nothing else for him. To see a man try and claw his way back to having any kind of functional self-respect is a fascinating journey, and one Tsiolkas treats with deftness and dignity.

There are, of course, no excuses for what Danny does to his friend (think Nick D’Arcy on a bad night). At that point, he embodies everything that is wrong with Australian sports culture, particularly in respect to way we build up young men (I use that word deliberately) to succeed. And so, in parallel with this story of the Fall is a story of redemption, of a broken man attempting to find himself. The internal has become external as Danny becomes a drifter, floating through the world, trying desperately to find a role for himself in a world that has no time or space for losers.

I always image people who came to Christos Tsiolkas’ work via The Slap get something of a shock when they decide to dip into his earlier work. Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe are glorious novels, unlike anything else in the Australian canon, but they are intense, in-your-face works that force the reader to re-evaluate a great many of their opinions about contemporary Australia. The big question I wanted answered when I opened Barracuda was this: which way would Tsiolkas go this time? Would he continue the careful examination he began in The Slap of contemporary Australia, or would he return to his wilder youth?

I can’t help but feel that Barracuda is Tsiolkas defanged. There is no question that he is an excellent examiner of the contemporary Australian psyche—indeed, I can think of no other. But Barracuda is another step towards the mainstream. The scenes designed to shock are no longer shocking (particularly the sex scenes, which seem crowbarred in just for shock value), the barbs aimed at upper-middle-class white Australians seem to be just a little bit less sharp.

Barracuda is not Christos Tsiolkas’ best novel. But even when he’s having an off day, he forces us to think. How do we deal with the internal pressures we place on ourselves to satisfy the wants and demands of the many? I think Tsiolkas is ultimately hopeful in this respect: he sees paths of redemption for all of us who have done something terrible, for those of us who struggle to find our place in society.

Oh, and that last chapter? Perfection.

Tagged , , , ,

Death of a River Guide (1994) – Richard FLANAGAN

Aljaz Cosini is in something of a spot of bother. He is lying at the bottom of the Franklin River, trapped under a rock. He is dying. But something strange is happening. Instead of blacking out, he finds himself having visions he cannot control. As the history of his ancestors flashes before his eyes, he is forced to examine his own life.

Those of us on the mainland have a tendency to mock Tasmania, I think, for a whole variety of reasons. But there is something to be said for the strength of a Tasmanian identity over an Australian identity, and Flanagan does his darndest in this novel to create a Tasmanian literature, removed from mainstream Australian literature.

There are, of course, similarities to what we might term traditional tropes of Australian literature: a violent colonial history; an uneasy relationship between white and non-white Australians; and a contemporary society struggling to come to terms with these things. But Flanagan reappropriates these into a uniquely Tasmanian context, tracking them through almost the entire history of the tiny island, as well as through the history of the people throughout history who have emigrated to the land to find a new life.

It’s startling (and, quite frankly, a little depressing) to realise that Death of a River Guide is Flanagan’s first novel. Not only is he in complete command of the language—in his descriptions of Aljaz’s interiority as well as his bountiful descriptions of the Franklin River and its surroundings—but structurally, too, the novel is almost perfect. The series of seemingly random flashbacks through Tasmanian history experienced by Aljaz as he lays dying slowly shimmer into order. As the history of Tasmania becomes the history of his ancestors, so too do the dark secrets of Tasmanian history become the dark secrets of Aljaz’s family. Things Tasmania has tried to hide are things hidden from Aljaz as a child, but like all family secrets, they eventually come out.

Again and again, Flanagan connects Aljaz’s feeling of isolation to his time away from the Tasmanian landscape. It is only when Aljaz comes home, to where he belongs, that he is able to feel calm once again, and come to terms with what has happened to him. In fact, it is not until the very end of the novel when Aljaz is able to fully accept his life, mistakes and all. It takes his coming to a point just moments before death at the hands of the natural environment to allow himself forgiveness. Aljaz’s existential epiphany comes as he is submersed in a uniquely Tasmanian river. It’s a powerful image, and one that hijacks tradition and reappropriates it into an Antipodean context.

I don’t think Richard Flanagan wants us all to almost drown in a freezing river on the west coast of Tasmania, but he certainly wants us to think more closely about the relationships between individuality, family, nature and history. Death of a River Guide deals deftly with the complexity of these relationships, and proves that Richard Flanagan is one of the best contemporary Australian novelists.

Tagged , , , , ,

The Swan Book (2013) – Alexis WRIGHT

It’s been six years since Alexis Wright’s last novel, the Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria, a sprawling novel about the north of Australia. The Swan Book sees Wright return to similar themes, but in a setting quite unlike anything else ever seen in Australian literature.

The world has been ruined by climate change. In the north of Australia, one group of Indigenous Australians has been granted self-determination, and created a nation on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. One young girl, Oblivia, lives in a shipwreck in the bay with an old white woman. One young boy, Warren Finch, has been anointed by the elders to be the vessel of their future. As their lives begin to intertwine in ways Oblivia could never have imagined, the fate of the Australian nation could be in their hands.

The Swan Book is postmodernism at its finest. Wright has no qualms about mixing high and low culture, or about placing European, Asian and Indigenous mythology on the same level. A quick glance at the quotation list at the end of the novel shows sources as varied as Auden, Wordsworth, Paterson, Goswami and Ch’i-chi. These quotes and references are weaved into the text seamlessly, never feeling forced or tokenistic. While mainstream Australian literature can often feel parochial and inward-focussed, Wright proves that Australian writers can mix with the best when it comes to internationality.

There can be no questioning, though, that this is Australian writing—indeed, Indigenous Australian writing. If you’ll forgive my getting theoretical here for a moment: postcolonial theory suggests that when colonised groups write in the language of the colonised, they are reclaiming the centre. They take back the power taken from them by the destruction of their language and culture by appropriating it for their own stories with their own language and words.

Wright has certainly reclaimed the centre in this novel. It is a blistering critique of almost every piece of legislation and policy aimed at Indigenous Australia in perhaps the entirety of Australian history. Nothing is safe from Wright’s keen view, from the Stolen Generation to the ultra-politically-correct language of the bureaucracy. Blame for the state of Indigenous Australia in this time is laid squarely at the feet of the white settlers. Make no mistake—this is at least as much political protest as it is piece of art.

And even though this novel is set in the future, where an Indigenous man, a man who is a world leader when it comes to minority rights and environmental policy, is one step away from becoming Australia’s Head of State, the sharp divide between Indigenous communities in outback Australia remains as stark as it is now. Wright does not see traditional power structures as a way for Indigenous Australian to solve their problems.

There is no one—in Australian or international literature—who writes quite like Alexis Wright does. After the success of Plains of Promise and Carpentaria, The Swan Book cements her claim to being one of the great writers of our time. Imagination is easy, but to be able to couple it with a socially and politically relevant argument to create a cohesive, enthralling and beautiful piece of art is a talent few others have.

Tagged , , , , ,

Floundering (2011) – Romy ASH

The Miles Franklin Award is being announced this week, and the last book I have to read on the shortlist is Romy Ash’s Floundering. It’s also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, was longlisted for the Stella Prize, and was just yesterday shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, so clearly some judges around the world are quite liking it.

As Lisa mentioned in her review of the novel, Floundering is the latest in a long line of Australian novels that deal with depressing stories about abandoned children going on their own journey into the wilderness—see, for example, Favel Parrett’s heartbreaking Past the Shallows, and Patrick Holland’s depressing The Mark Smokes Boys. I loved both of those books, so I went into Floundering read to be amazed, and to need a box of tissues at the end.

Whisked away from the comfort of their grandparents’ house, Tom and Jordy find themselves on a road trip to the coast with their mother—the mother they last saw a year ago when she dropped them off without so much as a goodbye.

In many ways, Floundering acts as the mirror image of Past the Shallows. While Parrett focuses on the absence of a mother, Ash explores what it is like to have a mother, but one that is wholly unsuited to the job. Make no mistake, Loretta seems to (mostly) care for her two sons, but for whatever reason—wisely left unsaid by Ash—she cannot make the connection between emotional caring and actual parenting. Too caught up in her own issues, she cannot see what she is doing to slowly destroy the lives of her sons.

I’ve made clear before my feelings about child narrators, but fortunately, Tom never seems annoying, whiny or precocious. He reacts to the world around him in a depressing realistic way: his inability to understand what is going on around him, particularly when it comes to his mother, is palpable. In the first part in particular, his innocent willingness to believe his mother is back for good hits you right in the gut.

Sadly, the second half of the novel is not quite as good as the first. Loretta once again runs out on her sons, leaving them to their own devices in a rundown caravan park. Though they wander aimlessly through other families’ Christmas and New Year celebrations, they survive off the few cans of cold baked beans and the slowly emptying container of fresh water. In an attempt to find their mother, they hitch a ride with the dodgy man.

Unlike Parrett or Holland, Ash doesn’t feel the need to crush her readers with an ending that is horrendously bleak, though she would easily be forgiven had she chosen to. Turning convention in its head, Tom and Jordy reach out to find help. It’s a subtle reversal, but it’s nice not to need counselling after finishing a novel of this kind.

Floundering close to being perfect. Though the genre Ash works in is hardly new or revolutionary, the first half hits all the right notes, and elicits a deep, emotional response. Though the second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise, Floundering marks Romy Ash out as a writer to watch.

Tagged , ,

The Odd Angry Shot (1975) – William NAGLE

I have an odd relationship with Anzac Day. On the one hand, I certainly bear no grudge to individual members of the armed forces of Australia, and admire them for doing a job I never could. On the other hand, though, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about a public holiday that seems to revel in an Australian culture that, for me, no longer exists: that of the strong Australian male bravely going out into the battlefield with his mates to defend us. It seems desperately at odds with the fact that modern Australia was not born out of violence or war, a fact of which we should be quite rightly proud.

Here, then, is Text Classics’s answer to Anzac Day 2013: William Nagle’s The Odd Angry Shot, a novel that details a year in the life of four Australian soldiers during the Vietnam War.

First things first: this is a very short novel. The Text edition is less than 140 pages. So this is not so much a huge, sprawling epic about Vietnam so much as a series of vignettes, many less than a page, providing a fractured, kaleidoscopic view of what we can probably assume to be a fairly typical Australian draft experience of the war.

Our main group of protagonists are an odd bunch. If I ever met them, I think I’d probably not like them very much. They are, I suppose, the typical Aussie larrikin, built with a quick retort, and a healthy disrespect for authority. In many ways, they seem completely oblivious to the immediate danger they are in, and their reckless behaviour, both on- and off-duty, seems to compound their ignorance. Almost all of them are draftees, and there is a clear demarcation between the enlisted officers—men who are proper military types—and those young men that have been unlucky enough to have their birthday drawn out of a barrel. The tension between enlisted and drafted plays out through the whole novel, occasionally in quite amusing ways.

And yet, so often, these shenanigans are brought sharply into focus by the horrific events taking place around them. Nagle doesn’t shy away from describing the intense results of skirmishes and attacks from the enemy. Friends are often killed, though the emotional impact of this is never physicalised by these men. The only moment of emotional pain in the whole novel comes when one man is informed by mail that his mother and fiancée, living safely in Australia, have been killed in a car accident. The irony of this is too much for Bung who breaks down.

Perhaps, then, we need to see the actions of these men in a different light. They are acting out, not necessarily because they are bad people, but because they are put under intense pressure to perform every time they leave camp. They are in a country that does not want them, doing a job for which they will never be thanked.

But again, we have to come back to the evidence presented. These men take advantage of the very people they are supposed to be protecting. Perhaps this is why soldiers now have cultural sensitivity training. The women of Vietnam seem to be nothing more than receptacles for these men to unload into, and the men and children are to be taken advantage of at every opportunity, despite being desperately poor, living in a country that has been invaded by outside forces.

The final pages of The Odd Angry Shot are reflective and quiet. Two men have arrived back in Sydney, no longer required by the military machine. They are irreparably changed. The things they have seen and done cannot never be unseen or undone. But they have fought a war that has become deeply unpopular, and are now required to never mention it again.

This is the true horror of the Vietnam generation. Left to fend for themselves, these men, many of whom had not choice in their service, were forced to reintegrate into a world that now seemed strange and superficial. It is this that Nagle leaves dangling at the end, forcing us to question our own attitudes towards the politics of war.

Tagged , , ,

Mateship With Birds (2012) – Carrie TIFFANY

The inaugural Stella Prize was announced last week. Conveniently, because Mateship With Birds was longlisted for both the Stella and the Miles Franklin, I thought I should probably read it and see what all the fuss as all about. Looking through the archives of this place, it would appear that I have in fact read Carrie Tiffany’s first book, Everyday Rules for Scientific Living, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.

Harry lives next-door to Betty. Betty has two children who, in many ways, see Harry as their surrogate father. Underneath this arrangement, though, is the desire Harry has for Betty, and the desire Betty has for Harry. As time passes, the question of whether they will act on their feelings

The hilariously Australian pun in the title—for those across the seas, ‘bird’ is a very retro, slightly derogatory term for women—highlights the main theme of the novel: the relationship between men and women.

The most obvious, of course, is the relationship between Harry and Betty who, despite living next-door to each other for many years, and despite the fact that both seem to be attracted to the other, they never act on it in anything more than awkward social fumblings. The reasons for this are never explicitly stated, though Tiffany suggests that perhaps it is because of the historical context—Betty has moved to this town because her past as an unmarried woman with two children has proved to be problematic for her family in the past.

Because Harry feels he never had the chance to learn about women, Harry decides to educate Betty’s teenage son, Michael, in the ways of women. The two have already formed a close bond over bird watching, and in many ways, as the only adult male in proximity, Harry acts as a surrogate father to Michael. But like any man, particularly one who actually has little real-world experience with wooing and loving real women, Harry’s advice is tinged with his own past mistakes. Unable to draw on any experiences of his own, the advice given to Michael is littered with well-meaning but ultimately incorrect information. Who knows, perhaps this is Tiffany’s own little dig at the way men talk about sex to the next generation.

At the end of each scene/chapter/section, Tiffany gives us part of a poem about kookaburras, penned by Harry himself. Structurally, it’s really nice—the trials and the tribulations of the kookaburra family are contrasted with Betty’s family to good effect—but it still frustrated me. I have to confess, I’m not a huge fan of poetry in novels, so I found myself zoning out. I know, I know. I’m a terrible person.

It’s easy to fill the voids that Tiffany creates in Mateship With Birds, to fill in the gaps, both thematically and plot-wise, that stretch out between the glimpses of life afforded us on the pages. Questions of love obviously linger above everything that happens—Harry’s unspoken, unacted feelings towards Betty, for example—and in some ways, this is to the detriment of the novel. There’s a lot to be said for allowing the reader to read meaning into a text, but when there is so much blank space on your canvas, it begins to look more unfinished than purposefully unanswered.

I don’t usually say this, but I would have loved for Tiffany to go into more detail, broadening her scope. In just over 200 pages, we cover quite a lot of time, leaving one with the distinct impression of fleetingness that doesn’t quite satisfy. There is no doubt that Mateship With Birds is well written, but it lacks that killer punch that makes good writing great.

And I still think The Burial should have won.

Tagged , , , ,

The Commandant (1975) – Jessica ANDERSON

Expectations are a funny thing. If a book is marked as a ‘classic’—particularly as a forgotten classic that needs re-evaluating—a reader can be forgiven for expecting something quite special. This is particularly relevant considering my past encounters with Text Classics—forgotten Australian novels that Michael Heyward thinks deserve a wider audience. For the most part, I have enjoyed reading old Australian novels. So when I read the blurb for The Commandant, I was expecting a novel full of fireworks and fights, of complex moral ambiguity.

The first scene is a promising opening. On a ship from Sydney bound for Moreton Bay, several women are discussing their future lives. Of particular interest to us is Francis, whose sister, Letty, is married to the commandant of Moreton Bay: Patrick Logan. Mr Logan has recently come under fire in Sydney for his perceived bending of the rules when it comes to the punishment of the convicts for whom he is responsible.

But Letty is friends with a journalist who has made claims about Logan; claims Logan has refuted by filing suit against said journalist for defamation. Letty, being the naïve teenager she is, has spent so much time with the journalist’s family, she has been caught up in his truth, and believes Patrick Logan to be a monster, a throw-back to a time that has passed, and needs to be forgotten. I think it’s safe to say that, were she alive today, she would be what some people might disparagingly refer to as a latte-sipping, inner-city, bleeding heart lefty. So, of course, the most exciting thing the novel can offer is the confrontation between a man who believes what he does is right, and a woman who believes what he does is a crime against humanity.

This clash between Frances and Patrick never eventuates quite like I imagined it would, though again, perhaps my expectations were getting in the way of reality. Despite Francis’ willingness to shout loudly her opinions on the ship journey to Moreton Bay, as soon as she meets the man in question, she finds herself barely able to talk. She is, of course, only 17 years old, and Patrick Logan is, if nothing else, a physically imposing man. For Francis to be struck so dumb by the encounter immediately sets up the dynamic of the relationship between the two characters in a way that one might not otherwise expect.

There can be no question that the whipping of convicts—particularly with a cat-o’-nine-tails one hundred times—can be anything other than a vile abuse of power and position. But Patrick Logan never seems to overstep the limits set in place by colonial law when it comes to punishing his charges for their wrongs. And he is certainly not a bad man—yes, he has a bit of a temper, and is not exactly a revolutionary when it comes to penal reform, but not everyone has to be. The promised fight between a lefty on her moral high horse and a traditional man willing to follow the law in order to meet out punishment for people never happens.

Instead, there is talk. A lot of talk. Which, in Anderson’s defence, is something she does very well. All the dialogue in the novel is perfectly pitched, particularly the idiosyncratic speech patterns of Frances’ sister, Letty, whose lisp

It all seems to come to a head about halfway through the novel, when the talking stops, and something actually happens. Frances, who has already crossed social mores, is sexually assaulted by Martin, a young man who works as a gardener for the Logan household. The next events are strange. Frances is blamed for the attack, because she led him along by talking out of turn. Then she pleads for him not to be punished, not with the whip. Of course, Logan assures her that only the appropriate punishment will be given. Of course, the ‘appropriate’ punishment is whipping. The chance to turn this into a journey about Frances having to deal with an actual crime committed against her, and how she deals with punishment, glitters hopefully, like a diamond in a boulder.

But this interesting side road comes to a halting stop when the section ends, plunging us into the final third of the novel, which opens several days after the second ends, and we finds ourselves plunged into the middle of the bush just outside Brisbane, where a search party are looking for Patrick Logan, who has gone walkabout. The momentum built up in the last section surrounding the sexual assault and the subsequent fallout is completely lost as we go into the bush with this group, and spend fifty pages looking for the body of a dead man. It’s an odd choice, and for me, not one that paid off. Again, though, maybe this was just because I was expecting more page time for the clash between Patrick Logan and Francis.

That is the central mystery of The Commandant: why would Patrick Logan, a man so ostensibly committed to the law he has been tasked to uphold, go by himself into the bush? Was it to find the convicts that had escaped the camp to live with the Aboriginal tribes? Was it to escape the gossip surrounding his impending trial? Did he not want to go to India with his regiment? There is never a satisfactory answer, but to be honest, that is not the problem. The problem is that I was never invested enough in any of the answers to particularly care what the answer was.

Does anyone really change by the end of the novel? Have any of these characters learned anything? Frances goes back to Sydney, having seen the punishment Logan (and by extension, the law) hands out, and doesn’t like it. Logan himself is dead. Letty is a widow, and has to move back to Sydney with her children. It all kind of fizzles out in a weirdly anti-climactic fashion.

Expectations are unavoidable. Why read anything if you don’t already have some (at least vague) idea about what you are getting yourself into? But sometimes expectations work against you. The Commandant is a passable historical novel, notable particularly for the fact that it is set in Brisbane, not Sydney. But I’m not sure it’s a classic that deserves to be read for generations to come.

Tagged , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , ,

Questions of Travel (2012) – Michelle DE KRETSER

I haven’t read any of de Kretser’s other work, which includes the Booker longlisted The Lost Dog, from 2007. But when here new book arrived at our store a few months ago, the blurb caught my eye, and I gave it a go. I’m glad this worked out, because – and I don’t want to call it too early – but I think we’re definitely looking at a potential 2013 Miles Franklin winner here.

Unsatisfied by her small life in Sydney, Laura decides to travel to Europe, to find herself. Almost accidentally, she loses herself in the art of travelling, and ends up living in London. Meanwhile, Ravi, a young man from Sri Lanka, falls in love with a girl, and almost immediately after, has a son with her. To feed his young family, Ravi starts designing websites for universities in Sri Lanka, and becomes mildly successful at it. But both Laura and Ravi will be rocked by life-changing events that will force them to question how they live, where they live, and if there’s a future for them.

So what are the eponymous questions of travel? There are a few de Kretser wants us to think about: who travels; where do they go; why do they go there; how does this travel affect you?

There is an inherent danger, I think, in writing a novel with competing narratives. There is always a chance that one will gradually become more interesting, or more engaging, or more thought-provoking. And because I’m a terrible person, I try and pick it. The good thing about Questions of Travel is that there is no bad half. Both narratives compete for your love, and while each ebbs and flows, neither ever feels like it’s dragging, or stretching to make a point about the other.

And the two really do compliment one another. Laura starts travelling much earlier – like all good recently-graduated Australian uni students, she flies the coop to Europe, in the hope of finding herself in what is ostensibly her family history. It’s not an uncommon trope, but de Kretser handles it with care. I like that Laura ends up working for a travel guide company – it’s what we all want to do, but Laura manages to do it.

Her travelling time, though, does eventually come to an end, and like all good birds, she eventually comes home. Tired of travel, wanting to put down some roots, she finds a place to live, with an elderly Greek gentleman. Still finding her family unbearable, she settles down and makes friends with her workmates. Of course, as we move out of the 70s, and into the 80s and 90s, where stupid boardroom talk becomes the norm, and people become more and more obsessed with making money and profit margins and ways to increase productivity, her office life becomes instantly recognisable, and though mundane, it is the new journey she must take.

As Laura travels the real world, Ravi travels the imagined. Connected to the world by the internet, he finds solace and escape from the banality of his own life in things far away he can access from the comfort of his own home. I like that, finally, there is a good novel that deals with the way the internet has shaped so much of our culture over the past twenty years. As a Gen Yer, I cannot begin to imagine a life without the internet, so it’s nice to see someone in fiction deal with the coming of the computer revolution, and how that opened up possibilities previously unimaginable.

Sadly for Ravi, his need to travel rapidly becomes more real. Forced to flee Sri Lanka, he arrives in Sydney with little knowledge of what he has to do to survive. Though I can’t imagine the overlap between refugee haters and de Kretser readers is huge, it’s nice to see someone dealing with what it meant to be a refugee in Howard-era Australia, and providing a sympathetic viewpoint. It’s clearly an arduous journey – even for someone like Ravi who has had the chance to sort out his papers before arriving in the country. By plane, for anyone who’s wondering. Moved to a foreign country not by choice, his journey is very different to Laura’s, and it provides a moving counterpoint.

Surprisingly, for a novel largely set before the present day, Questions of Travel is a deeply modern novel in its sensibilities. It is asking questions of us that focus on how, in such a deeply interconnected global society, we interact as humans. It is so much easier for us to go to Europe, say, than it was even 30 years ago. That has to have an effect on global culture (whatever that is) – though de Kretser doesn’t have any definitive answers. With Ravi’s eventual return to Sri Lanka – despite finally receiving refugee status – perhaps we are to think that home is where the heart is, no matter how hard that is. But then Laura doesn’t feel at home in Sydney, nor London, nor Naples. She seems destined to wander the globe, looking for answers.

Like all of us, really.

Tagged , , , , ,