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As a schoolboy I lied to my friends.

Not about what I had done on the weekend but about the ‘fact’ that I did not watch war movies, because I did not like war. To be accurate, I clearly remember saying, ‘I object to war.’ I grew up with parents who were constantly fighting – they hated each other with an unfathonable intensity – so it made sense that I did not seek out high-conflict stories in which violence was at the core.

But I did engage with war stories.

Very much.

I used to be glued to the television while watching The Dam Busters, which was made in 1955 but repeated regularly, and The Great Escape (1963). Along with most other children my age, I laughed along with Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971 with endless reruns). I was obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds (1978) based on the novel by HG Wells (1898) – as the disco rhythms got my heart beating fast I would sit on the floor and be transfixed by the cover illustrations that depicted a war between humanity and alien invaders.

I allowed myself to be captivated by the serialisation of Roger McDonald’s classic war novel 1915; it was aired in 1982, when I was 14 years old. At the end of the final episode, when the main character, a soldier, comes home a physically and psychologically damaged young man, I turned to my mother and said, ‘What will happen to him?’ She said, ‘We don’t know, do we?’

I said, ‘But I need to know.’

Four decades later, that need has not gone away: I have not stopped trying to work out how we let things get so out of hand that the only ‘solution’ is to pick up weapons and try blasting the enemy to smithereens.

Just before I sat down to begin writing this piece it took less than ten minutes to retrieve 50 war books from my shelves. There is the Great War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. There are the Great War novels: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928), Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929), and Regeneration (1991), Pat Barker’s fictional account of the close friendship between Owen and Sassoon as they recovered from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is Stephen Crane’s American Civil War story The Red Badge of Courage (1952), which I first read as a boy – perhaps that was the book that had sparked my bold schoolyard claim

I own the classic Australian war novels, including The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (1929), the previously mentioned 1915 by Roger McDonald (1979), and Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013). There are the glittering international successes: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014), and Robin Robertson’s astonishing verse novel about post-war life, The Long Take, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (1991) and Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man (2013) have both had a significant impact on me.

There is nonfiction too. Peter Stanley’s gutsy Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force (2010), which was the co-winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for history, and Charles Glass’s very moving Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War (2013).

I could go on.

What if I applied that old trick: my house is on fire – or there is an approaching army at the end of my street – and I only have time to rescue three war books?

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 7 November 2020.

It has been a fantastic year of reading, to the point that the thought of compiling a list of the books I have enjoyed the most is almost too daunting. But I am up for the challenge. As has become tradition around these parts, not all the following books were published this year; some were published in 2014 or even 2013. However, all have had a big impact on me one way or another.

So let’s do this.

Life After LifeLife after Life by Kate Atkinson – what a cracking piece of work this is, and as a reading experience it is sublime. Primarily set in London during the Blitz, Atkinson has her main character Ursula die regularly, often at the end of each chapter. As others have noted, Atkinson’s great achievement with this novel (and at 632 pages it is a whopper) is that we keep caring even though we, as readers, know that we are being toyed with. The writing is just so full of, well, life: humour and wit and intelligence and love. I am very much looking forward to the sequel, A God in Ruins, which apparently is even more extraordinary. Atkinson is a marvel.

Another work that has been getting a lot of international attention is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. The author’s beloved father has died so she decides to work her way through her grief by training a goshawk. The prose blew me away: like Atkinson (though the tone is very different), each and every one of Macdonald’s sentences is superb. Just open a page and pluck a sentence at random: ‘Sodium lights, dusk, a wall tipped sideways from the vertical and running into the distance; a vanishing point of sallow, stormy sky.’ Yes, superb.

The Golden AgeThe Golden Age by Joan London has been getting recognised in many of Australia’s highly regarded literary awards, including most recently being shortlisted in the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. And so it should. It is a post-World War Two story set in Perth’s Golden Age polio rehabilitation facility for children. With great gentleness, but also with precision, London explores the world of the disease mostly through the eyes of two children, but we are also given a portrait of a migrant family and an exploration of an Australia that is still trying to find itself. So much of this novel lingers after the last page is turned.

In Tom Houghton, Todd Alexander explores the life of a young boy growing up gay in Western Sydney, the bullying he experiences, and the impact this has on him as an older man. What makes this novel remarkable is the linking to Katharine Hepburn’s teenage brother, who died in tragic (and potentially mysterious) circumstances. The interplay between the young and older Tom is beautifully done, and there is an appealing openness and honesty in the prose. Highly recommended.

Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award and it is not hard to see why. On the surface, we have been here before: an overweight and long-suffering mother, an abusive father, and a child with special needs. But the story, which is told from the child’s perspective, is artfully done – in a way this novel is a masterclass in voice. It is heartbreaking (in so many ways), but Laguna shows such care for her characters and her words on the page. It bursts with life.

The Natural Way of ThingsThere has been a real buzz around Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, and it is more than justified. A fable for our time, a group of young women wake from a drug stupor to find themselves entrapped in some kind of Australian desert prison; the commonality appears to be that they have all suffered some kind of sexual abuse, often in very public ways. This is a truly harrowing story, but it is also an important one: Wood unflinchingly reveals the misogyny that blackens the heart of contemporary Australian life. The Natural Way of Things is going to be all over the awards next year.

A similarly harrowing story is khulud khamis’ Haifa Fragments. Set in the Israeli city of Haifa, khamis refuses to allow her main character to be defined by boundaries. As it says on the cover, ‘Raised a Christian, in a relationship with a Muslim man and enamoured with a Palestinian woman from the Occupied Territories, Maisoon must determine her own path’. Haifa Fragments is a raw and vital piece of work published by Australia’s unstoppable Spinifex Press.

As I write this list I can see a theme emerging: harrowing books that have been artfully written. In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward is no different. It opens with ‘There is a grave in my family that was never visited’ and from that moment Ward takes us on a journey through her family, focusing on her mother’s mental illness and its long-term impact. It sounds disturbing, and it is, but Ward’s prose is thoughtfully turned. An important book.

The AnchoressThe same could be said for The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. In the thirteenth century, Sarah is seventeen and a holy woman who chooses to be shut away in a small cell attached to a church – for life. In a way, Sarah is like a good-luck charm for the church and the broader society. Cadwallader’s challenge is to bring Sarah to life and have her go on some kind of journey despite being trapped (it is interesting to think of the thematic link between The Anchoress and The Natural Way of Things). Amazingly Cadwallader’s novel is a rich and sensual experience, and the prose is full of compassion – the author does not judge. An original and thought-provoking piece of work.

It has been fascinating to observe the emergence of climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, and perhaps the most prominent recent Australian novel in this genre (terrible word), is James Bradley’s Clade. Beginning in a year about now, Bradley takes us through various climate-change scenarios. If that sounds like polemic, it’s not: each interlinked story is very much character driven, and climate issues help to create the world rather than be an overbearing element. Reading Clade is a highly memorable and moving experience – the tone is hopeful and the prose luminescent.

I also enjoyed the wonderfully subtle The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton, We Are Better Than This, an important and timely collection of essays on Australia’s deplorable asylum-seeker policy (edited by Robyn Cadwallader), Gerald Murnane’s hilarious A Lifetime on Clouds (first published in 1976 but republished in 2013 by Text as part of its Classics series), and the poised poetry of Sarah Holland-Batt in The Hazards.

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