Following on from his other autobiographical explorations, Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee continues to bugger around with the whole prose caper, mixing up fiction and non-fiction in Summertime (Knopf). There’s something about this writer that really gets me going (Disgrace is a favourite novel of mine, and it was great to see the Australian-produced film version living up to expectations). Whilst Coetzee can undoubtedly be a self-absorbed misery guts – the narrator, a researcher writing about a ‘John Coetzee’ who is dead, describes his sexual modus operandi as having ‘autistic’ qualities – there’s a palpable sense of playfulness in this book. I was only half a dozen pages into this when I decided that it would be placed on my shelf marked ‘If the house is burning down, risk life and limb to rescue these books’.
Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy (Text) is a tale of a Moscow boy’s relationship with a pack of wild dogs. Grim for sure, but what an extraordinary piece of imaginative prose. I can’t look at The Old Lady of the House without recalling Hornung’s story, and I can’t walk the peaceful, beautiful streets of Canberra without feeling thankful for being born an Australian and not a Muscovite. The last few lines completely knocked my bloody socks off, but I won’t quote them here as it would suck the life out of this work, and piss you off, dear reader. So go on, don’t be scared – give this book a whirl. You might have nightmares for days afterwards, but the warmth and tenderness in the prose (it is there, it’s just not lashed on like honey spread across toast) will linger with you for a very long time.
Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith (4th Estate) has so much in it: an exploration of relationships, how they can shift deliciously though painfully between love and in love; and a thirst for knowledge and purpose, particularly in a global world that doesn’t really know where it’s going. And that’s just for starters. This is a slow-burner of a novel, but ever so subtly it gets under your skin and before long you find yourself caring about these people, which, of course, is the real test of a piece of fiction. Ultimately, Reunion is a novel about friendship, and I’ll read great prose about friendship until the cows come home.
A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard (Allen and Unwin). Reading young-adult fiction is a guilty pleasure of mine, usually because these books can be gobbled up in one sitting, and, perhaps more importantly, there’s often a lack of over-complication and pretension that can exist in adult fiction (I wanted to write ‘grown-up’ there…which, it seems, I’ve now done). Like Reunion, Millard’s novel is a book about friendship, this time between a young boy and an old man within the context of an Australian city – Melbourne – that’s experiencing war (it’s a difficult conceit to pull off but Millard does it very well here). These two unlikely people gather others to their lives, and soon find themselves forming the strangest though most intimate of families. A surprisingly complex book filled with the deepest of love for its characters.
The Bee Hut by Dorothy Porter (Black Inc.) This isn’t a novel, but as Dorothy Porter made the verse novel her own, and she completely and utterly rocked in every possible way, I’m including her final collection, The Bee Hut, in this list. Everyone talks about Dorothy’s high-octane writing, the sensuality, the cheeky wit, and the jaw-dropping intelligence, and it’s all on show here. From the first line, ‘The most powerful presence/is absence’ (‘Egypt’), to the last, from ‘View from 417’, the final poem she would write, ‘Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck’, I can only shake my head at the depth, the skill, and the sheer power of these poems. If you buy one book of poetry this year… (Disclosure: I have other reasons for including The Bee Hut in this list, but I’m not discussing them here.)