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It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.
One of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.
Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.
Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)
Four poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.
Non-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.
In terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.
Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.
A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.
‘Don’t do it,’ she said, ‘they’ll eat you alive, you’ll regret it, you might not write another word.’ We were in a cafe and I’d just told my friend that I’d been invited to attend a Canberra book-club to talk about Fall On Me. ‘They forget that you’re the writer and it turns feral,’ she explained. ‘I certainly won’t be attending one ever again.’ So I worried about it, whether I should go or not; I became more and more nervous as the evening drew closer. I seriously considered cancelling my involvement, or perhaps I could come down with a very rare but completely depilating illness. Which, thankfully, never had to happen. Because my evening with a book-club turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in 18 years of doing this; in fact, it’s in my Top Three Writerly Experiences of All Time.
For a start, the host was an old high-school friend, and we’d not seen each other for 25 years. I knew this already, which is why I would never have cancelled, because Rosy was wonderful at school, so kind and generous and good natured, and I had no doubt that she wouldn’t have changed, and I was right. Secondly, how often does a writer have an opportunity to discuss his/her book for three hours with people who’ve read it so closely? Even to the point that they picked up a mistake: in the book, two characters – Lou Bard, a single father and cafe owner, and his enigmatic housemate Anna – are having a deep and meaningful discussion in the kitchen over a bottle of red: large wine glasses are used, and the wine is poured out three times, which the book-clubbers said was unlikely out of just one bottle. (I really should know these things, shouldn’t I.) But how lovingly – have I mentioned that the group comprised only women? – this observation was made. In fact, it was a great laugh.
Thirdly – and here’s the truly amazing thing – what really clinched it for me was this: each book-club session someone volunteers to bring food inspired by the book. One of the women made a pizza based on the favourite topping of Lou’s son Luke: potato, fetta and chilli. With a huge smile on her face she said to me, ‘It must be very yummy for you to put it in the book!’ And I said, ‘I have no idea – I just made it up!’ That’s fiction for you. Thankfully Luke has excellent taste, and we all woofed the pizza down, and I’m going to make it, too, life imitating art. She also made caramel slice, because there’s mention in the book of Lou having caramel slice in his cake display at the cafe, but it must have been there for a while because it’s started to get that slightly unsavoury dew on top. So she put her home-made slice in the fridge for an hour to replicate the effect.
How good is that.
It makes me want to do it all again, which is handy because, as reported earlier, it is all happening again: Blemish Books is publishing another novella from me later this year, another of the Launceston novellas, the stories I wrote while I spent a month in that town as an artist-in-residence at the Cataract Gorge Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage courtesy of the City Council.
As a kid I loved writing, telling stories; the highlight of my week was the double creative-writing period. I’d write and write and write, just made shit up really, but I loved how the pen seemed to get carried away on the page, except it was really me who was getting carried away, wasn’t it. And I still get carried away, especially when writing by hand, as in handwriting, which is what I did in Launceston during those four weeks. When school finished all that time ago, however, there was no thought – it simply never occurred to me – that I might go on to do something with this story-telling thing, so I enrolled in landscape architecture, because it seemed interesting enough, and it was.
But the boy in the photo above: though he’s hiding from you, though you can’t see his face, you know what he’s thinking: school is finished, I’m off to university, it’s all a great adventure, but what am I doing, what am I to do with this life? It’s not until now that he knows.
Because the boy is me.