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What should a reader take away from historical fiction, from a novelist dwelling in the past and mining what has already happened to bring us a story?
Surely it should not be just that, a story, but a work of substance and weight and depth that says something exhilarating about how we got to where we are now and in what directions we might like to go next. With the benefit of hindsight and from having access to a great trove of material, a historical novelist has the chance to turn things over and reveal fresh threads and meanings. The novelist’s task in this regard is to tantalise, not to offer up another record.
Enter Texan Kathleen Kent, a New York Times best-selling writer of historical fiction who in her third novel since 2008, The Outcasts, focuses on a loose group of folk struggling to survive the 1870s, that precarious period immediately following the American Civil War. Here was a country – two countries? – torn apart at the seams, deeply divided over race and identity.
The Outcasts is a quest for revenge and redemption. But only of sorts. It is constructed around chapters that alternate between two characters, and within the opening scenes it becomes obvious we are on a collision course – it is just a matter of who is going to live to see another day.
There is Lucinda, an intelligent, somewhat devious but determined prostitute who is fond of getting dosed up to the eyeballs on laudanum because she suffers from fits and ‘the palsy’, though it might also relieve her from the spot of bother she is in – someone she may or may not be using, and who may or may not be using her. About Lucinda we are told that ‘even the dullards sized her up with telegraphic precision’. During a moment in a carriage, she watches a passenger move discourteously away’ and decides that ‘he must have been a Methodist as a Baptist would have spent the greatest part of the trip staring at her bosom’.
Then we have Nate, a newly sworn-in Texas state policeman originally from Oklahoma. Principled and thoughtful, he is also a fine horseman and is dedicated to his wife and child, to whom he writes whenever he has the chance. And we have McGill, a ‘goddamn kidkiller’. And finally we have some buried treasure, which might be the objective of the exercise.
Page after page we travel across the countryside. Horses are ridden, people are shot, and we are told about ‘gaters’ and hard-luck towns and harsh but beautiful landscapes…
Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which commissioned this review and published it on 11 January 2014
It is a big adventure, this writing life. There’s the adventure in the stories: characters experiencing things, discovering things, learning things; overcoming and becoming.
Then there’s the adventure of conceiving stories, writing stories, redrafting stories (repeat ad infinitum if necessary), before sending them out until an editor takes a shine to a particular piece and puts it amongst his or her pages. Then there’s the adventure of feedback. Who will like what? Or will no-one like any of it? Or will there be no feedback at all?
But there’s more: the places writing has taken me, as in real places. A homestead out of Braidwood. A gatekeeper’s cottage in Launceston. The writers’ house at Bundanon beside the Shoalhaven River. The monastic Varuna in the Blue Mountains. And, most recently, the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of UNSW Canberra.
Then there are the people I’ve met, other writers, artists of all kinds. The conversations over coffees, lunches, glasses of wine, dinners even! It doesn’t take me long to be enthralled by those who are far ahead in this game; I become besotted. It is, to tell you the truth, one of the most exciting things: to spend time with extraordinarily creative souls.
I have been so fortunate. A highlight?
In January 2011, as part of a piece for the Canberra Times, I found myself in the Sydney home of eminent contemporary – or ‘pop’ – artist Martin Sharp. All morning we talked about the things that mattered to him: his great love of Vincent van Gogh, Tiny Tim, and, a little surprisingly, UK talent-show contestant Susan Boyle; about how he thought the best art came from school children; about how his thinking has evolved, his relatively newfound religiosity. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘conservative thinking is radical.’ This from the man who was once involved with Oz Magazine, whose London editors would end up being jailed as part of the infamous ‘Obscenity Trials’.
At midday, after he farewelled me, as I walked up his driveway, I thought – and I distinctly remember it – that this would be go down as one of my favourite days. Here was a great artist, but one without a skerrick of pretension. It was as though I’d just spent the morning with a slightly kooky but utterly charming uncle (who chain-smoked).
So, dear writing, thank you for the adventures thus far.
And, dear Martin Sharp, thank you for everything you gave us.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 December 2013.)
It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’
There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request. Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency. But still the request put me in a spin.
All was not lost, however. I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War. I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title. I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.
A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea. My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete. Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting? So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’
I already had the questions – What is a man? Who is a good man? Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories. Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine. I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams. Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction. Whatever that is.
Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan. The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences. The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words. But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground. So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction. With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.
I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction. It’s such an innovative enterprise. Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).
Plus I need more chook food.
Here’s something I want to shout from my shimmering tin roof-top so I can feel the relief as the words leave my body, as my heart begins to beat again, as my brain clicks back into gear, as my whole being finds its beautiful natural shape. IT’S OVER, IT’S OVER, IT’S OVER.
Christmas, you vacuous tart, you slobbering drunk, you’re dune and dusted. And New Year’s Eve, good riddance to you, too. Normal, predictable, boring days: I’m all yours, come have your wicked way with me. These are the words I want to scream until I’m giddy with life, even if they edge me that much closer to a padded cell.
No, I’m not a fan of year’s end.
As November, that month of calm before the storm, trips over itself into December, everything good and reasonable goes belly up. Political leaders prepare YouTube Christmas messages, hoping they’ll come across as our favourite uncle but really they’re the uncle we want to forget. Supermarkets and malls play surreptitious carols in the background as we stock up on food as though the end is nigh. In mainstreets and malls, under harrowing heat and while being dive-bombed by blowflies, shopkeepers have their shop-fronts spray-painted white to give the impression of snow but really it just looks as though the sign-writer had a stroke.
At work, after slaving away at deadlines that are as meaningful as a blow-up Santa tethered to the letterbox, we wear reindeer antlers on our heads and in the tearoom stand anxiously as ‘gifts’ are handed around – nice, another bottle of salad-dressing well past its use-by date.
At home, we drag the plastic tree from the back of the spare cupboard, plonk it in the corner of the loungeroom, and wait for the lights to flash miraculously so we can stare at them until we pass out of an evening. On the twenty-fifth, that hollowest of days, some of us go to church, hoping that by murdering a Thomas Tallis hymn all the evil things we’ve considered and done will be washed away and we can exit the building as happy as fat Elvis.
Later, we’ll gorge on turkey or seafood (if we want to be that little bit more ‘Australian’), we ram into our gobs fruitcake and custard, we drink booze till we pick fights about things that only matter now that we’ve received yet another seven-pack of…
Keep reading at the Canberra Times, which – rather bravely – published this piece on 8 January 2014.
More often than not the experimental end of the ‘new music’ spectrum leaves me wanting to lie down in the middle of the Hume Highway on a forty-degree afternoon. But I love Berlin’s The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble (or, apparently, just Brandt Brauer Frick). They’re a strange combination of techno artists meet classically trained experimental composer who as a bunch like to make dance music using mostly acoustic instruments – and by rights they should be awful. Thankfully their Mr. Machine album is fresh and new and wonderfully playful, and gives a hint where Australia’s Alpine could go if they ever want to chuck a Kid A. Check out ‘Pretend’, though be warned: this is as straight as they get.
As anyone who’s dropped into UTCOAFITD over the years, I do love lashings of Sigur Ros – always have, always will. But I was more than a little troubled to hear that last year their foundation multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson had decided he’d had enough and it would be left to the remaining Icelandic pixies to limp on without him. Amazing, then, that Kveikur is so good. It’s rawer, rockier, darker; certainly it’s less pretty. Because I’m a fussy bastard, hard (almost impossible?) to please, I hold to my view that Sigur Ros never quite let themselves go over the edge – if they did, they’d blow the world to smithereens.
Sure Trouble Will Find Me by The National is appearing on a lot of ‘best of the year’ lists, but there’s a very good reason for it: this is the Ohio band’s finest selection of tunes to-date. It’s Dad-rock for those with an alternative bent, and as some wag somewhere or other put it they’re the Counting Crows it’s okay to like. But when the songs are as lovingly crafted as this it’s music that’s hard to ignore. On Trouble will Find Me, The National are like a good port: it’s an old taste, and it’s a resolutely familiar taste, but it loosens you up…before dropping you down into a glorious pit of melancholia. ‘Graceless’ is just one of the crackers on offer.
The London-based Jon Hopkins is a strange musical beast: he’s a soundtrack composer (he did the tasty music to the tasty Monsters film) and for some reason or other he’s helped bands like Coldplay and seems to enjoy hanging out with Brian Eno, but he also makes his own albums, which, it’s true, can be hit and miss. Immunity is easily his crowning achievement so far and was nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize. At times it’s thumpingly atmospheric dance music, but it can also turn sweet at the drop of a hat. ‘Open Eye Signal’ is such a fantastic piece of minimalist, gritty dance music (it reminds me a little of ‘Rez’, the B-side to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’); damn good video too. Just so you know, Immunity is brilliant in headphones.
For the last few months I thought Immunity was going to be my album of the year, but then came along Engravings by Forest Swords, who is another English producer of excitingly sliced eletronica. But where Hopkins is slick and melodic, Forest Swords creates a more organic and varied sound; certainly there’s nothing here that could be described ‘lovely’. On first listen, Engravings might be a little hard on the old lug-holes (no surprises that the creator of this music suffers from tinnitus and related issues) but, oh my, it reveals itself over repeated listens. The bloody thing’s never far from the stereo.
I’ve written at length about Reflektor by Arcade Fire and after countless listens I still think it’s a very fine record. As always, this Montreal lot are maddeningly, frustratingly brilliant; LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has helped them find their very appealing swagger, but there are still songs which build and build before…they unravel in front of your ears. Perhaps the unravelling is intentional, but it can drive a punter to despair. And ‘despair’ is an interesting word to use here, because Arcade Fire, to a certain extent at least, have built their career on exploring contemporary despair in all its urban and semi-urban grimness. Lucky for us, then, this time around they invite us down to the disco for a party, with a few deliciously weird and wild left-turns to keep us guessing.
Finally, here are three honourable mentions.
Does it look like I’m here? by Emeralds – a strange but beguiling beast, this is gloriously noodly, and at times can come across as good as M83 but without the histrionics. Pedestrian Verse by Frightened Rabbit – a very solid record from these very solid Scots. Being their major-label debut it lacks the rough edges of the earlier work, but perhaps this is a more varied record; it does contain ‘Backyard Skulls’, which is an elegantly structured master-stroke of a pop-song. And, finally, there’s One (壱) Uno (壹) Ein by Australia’s Rat & Co – a captivatingly risky record, perhaps (most likely) the best one from our funny little old nut-case country. Check out ‘The Letter’.