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There has been a bit going on this year in my neck of the woods: seeing The Weight of Light have its world premiere in Canberra and then performed in Goulburn and Sydney (plus two other music projects but more on these at a later date) and a final spit and polish of Bodies of Men before it heads into the world in April/May 2019. As always, reading has been the foundation. Stillness and immersion and revelation and depth: there will never be anything like it.

The following is not really a ‘best of’; it’s just a list of work that I have read that has got beneath my skin.

In Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman, a writer from Western Australia who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, reveals the horrors and hypocrisies that underpin contemporary Australia. In a way, perhaps, the novel is speculative fiction, but the scenario is far too present to be ignored, as are the uncomfortable truths it reveals. This is one of the most unique novels I have read in years.

Speaking of unique, a work that I almost literally gobbled up is The Long Take by Robin Robertson. A verse novel, the narrative follows a D-Day veteran as he travels across the US so he can piece his life together. Rather surprisingly The Long Take is as much about urban planning and design as it is about war; there are also evocations of Hollywood. Disintegration appears to be the unifying theme, but this is not a grim read, nor is it inaccessible. Truly remarkable.

With her trademark lyricism, Robyn Cadwallader in Book of Colours brings to life the people and politics behind the making of a fourteenth-century prayer book; the novel is also about the making of art in general. It is fascinating – and highly moving – from first page to last. A beautiful novel in every way.

Also beautiful is Inga Simpson’s Understory, which is a chronicle of the author’s profound attachment to a small patch of Queensland forest. This is much more than a tree-change memoir: it is also about the desire to live a creative life and the need to find and survive love. Very moving.

Two poetry collections especially resonated: Melinda Smith’s Goodbye, Cruel and Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi. In the former, Smith once again displays her extraordinary range, moving seemingly effortlessly from the dramatic to the deep historic. In the latter, Chingonyi investigates music, masculinity and racism, in a tone that reads to me as muscular melancholia – it is wonderful. Both collections I have read more than once.

As others have said, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is a surprisingly light read for a Pulitzer Prize-winner. It is a warm and accessible read, but it is ultimately a deeply yearning hymn to modern love in a global world. Although often hilarious, Less is also a broken-hearted novel and deserves to be read until the end for its full impact to be experienced.

A second heartbreaking novel from this year, though it is also brain- and soul-breaking, is Taboo by Kim Scott. Another writer of Noongar decent, Scott has created a deeply affecting story about race relations in Australia. In spare but lyrical – at times literally magical – prose, Scott writes about the layers of this country’s history that are far too often glossed over to tell a more appealing but largely false narrative. Taboo is powerful and very necessary.

I also thoroughly enjoyed The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser and, though it took me a long time (years) to get to it, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, as well as On Patriotism by Paul Daley and No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging by Zoya Patel.

Much of this year was dedicated to reading gay fiction, which I wrote about for Meanjin. I also loved All Being Equal from Griffith Review, because it includes a suite of novellas that explore the contemporary gay experience, and because the stories are deeply moving.

Finally, I was lucky enough to read advance copies of two wonderfully adventurous novels that will be released in 2019: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, which in a memorably unflinching voice reveals the complex and often fraught nature of creative identity; and Karen Viggers’ The Orchardist’s Daughter – told in the author’s typically unaffected prose, the novel explores the web of relationships and competing viewpoints that exist in and around a Tasmanian forest. Here’s hoping both novels will be much discussed and find a broad audience.

As has become a bit of a tradition around these UTC parts, the following is not a list of books that I consider ‘the best of the year’. Rather it’s a list of books I’ve read in the past twelve months that have had a personal impact in some way or another, either as a writer or reader, or just because they’re remarkable books no matter how you look at it. Also, not all were published in 2014, but in the world of literature that hardly matters, surely.

SixFirst up is Six by John Clanchy (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). As the title suggests, this is a collection of six short stories, although Clanchy specialises – indeed excels – at long stories, some of which are about 10,000 words in length. As is typical perhaps with Australian short fiction, family is the focus, but Clanchy always brings to his stories more than enough plot and action, albeit in the most under-stated way. The author is also committed to depth: of emotion, of relationship, and of meaning. Clanchy is equally adept at handling farce. It’s been a while since I read a short story that made me say to myself, That knocked me sideways – best take the dog for a walk now. That’s what happened when I read ‘The Day My Father Died’, the first story in the collection. (An interview I did with John Clanchy for the Canberra Times/Fairfax Media can be found here, and Peter Pierce’s review of Six is here.)

Drag down to unlockThey say short stories and poetry are close cousins, so let me now mention Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call by Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). For 20 years the Canberra-based Smith has been exploring her craft and being published in the smallest of presses. Then the highly regarded small press Pitt Street Poetry (talk about a micro publishing enterprise that’s punching well and truly above its weight) sent into the world Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call and Smith bags the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry. Divided into sections such as ‘Uploads’, ‘Downloads’, ‘News’, ‘Sport’, and ‘Weather’, what appeals the most is the combination of artfulness and accessibility. Some poems can be understood on first readings; others are more enigmatic. But all are magical and musical, and many are very affecting indeed. Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call should be in all Australians home. Maybe it should be handed out with tax returns.

The Childhood of JesusThe Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee (Text, 2013). As regular visitors to UTC will probably be aware, I’m a fan of JM Coetzee, the novelist from South Africa who has twice won the Man Booker Prize and now lives in South Australia. His Disgrace (1999), which scored the second of his Bookers, is a perfect though harrowing novel about a person, a people and a nation (or a range of nations) in absolute turmoil. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed his fictionalised autobiographies, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and the more playful Summertime (2009). Playful is a good word for Coetzee, who despite being a serious literary practitioner seemingly likes to do nothing more than toy with readers and their expectations; rarely does he appear intent on just telling a story. This marks Coetzee as difficult, but his prose is simple, at least on the surface, and, in most cases, the complexity is in the layers. Having said that, The Childhood of Jesus is an an odd and slightly underwhelming novel. In some ways it seems to be responding to Australia’s morally dubious approach to asylum seekers, and in other ways just meanders along not entirely sure where it needs to go. If it is indeed an allegory it’s a vague one. Still, it had an impact on this particular reader, if only because Coetzee seems to not give a damn about trends and markets; as an author, he is progressing his craft on his own terms.

The Snow KimonoThe Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw (Text, 2014). Like Coetzee, Henshaw appears to enjoy the art of the novel as much as the art of the story. Like Coetzee, Henshaw’s work is about the layers. Unlike Coetzee, Henshaw is not prolific. His first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, was published in 1988 and since then he has co-written two commercial thrillers with John Clanchy (as JM Calder) but no literary works. An intriguing overview of Mark Henshaw’s career can be found at the Sydney Review of Books. The Snow Kimono is a duel narrative, though in reality it has more strands than that. In its review, the Guardian Australia does a fine job of distilling the plot: ‘One night in Paris, in 1989, retired inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter. A chance encounter with a stranger – Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan – suddenly finds him entwined in the stories of Omura’s best friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda, and the lives of three Japanese women, Fumiko, Mariko and Sachiko.’ The review goes on to define The Snow Kimono as a ‘philosophical puzzle’. It’s an apt description. I loved this novel.

The Pure Gold BabyThe Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble (Text, 2013). I was provided this novel to review so I read it in that context. The review didn’t eventuate (the world had moved on), but I found myself engrossed in this novel, which, similar to Coetzee’s work perhaps, meanders through its various sections though never fails to keep the reader engaged. Set in England in the 1960s, the narrative follows a young anthropology student who becomes a single mother after an affair with a colleague. This was my first Drabble and what struck me is the sense of a novel being ‘a directed dream’ (as others have said): the pleasure is in the looseness, the sense of allusion, an appealing lack of interest in traditional plot, and sentences that pulse almost painfully with life.

ChallengeChallenge (MUP, 2014) by Paul Daley. Daley is a high profile, Walkey-winning Australian journalist who currently writes for the Guardian Australia. Challenge is his first novel. And a challenge it is. It’s a brutal, at times confronting exploration of the current state of Australia’s political system. It is a fiction, but it doesn’t take much for the reader to link characters and events to their antecedents. In essence the plot follows, Daniel Slattery, the leader of a slightly progressive party in opposition. Daley himself describes Slattery as a cross between Mark Latham and Holden Coalfield, which is quite something, all things considered. Slattery’s political capital is diminishing and his personal life is falling apart; meanwhile the prime minister is milking a potential terrorist threat. There is a thriller element to Challenge, but the joy (if that’s the best way to put is) is the way Daley makes his readers realise how toxic Australian politics has become. If only 5% of this novel is true, we’re fucked.

Crow MellowOne of the year’s most left-field but highly readable novels is Crow Mellow by Julian Davies (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). This is a rewriting of Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Chrome Yellow (1930), a work that Davies admits in his foreword had a significant impact on him when he was a teenager. In Crow Mellow, a group of artists and intellectuals gather for a weekend at Crow, a bush retreat. Interesting that Davies, who is the key publisher behind Finlay Lloyd, lives in a bush retreat where artists and intellectuals gather, so it’s easy to see why the Huxley original had an influence on the young Davies. Again, it’s the playfulness of the whole exercise that’s so appealing, made even more evident by the drawings by Phil Day that adorn every one of the 400 or so pages. An original, eccentric, and highly enjoyable piece of work.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House, 2013). Enough has already been written about this novel that has won many of Australia’s and the world’s literary awards, including this year’s Man Booker. A Second World War novel, it focuses on the Australian servicemen pushed beyond themselves on Burma’s ‘death railway’. What works best in the novel is Flannagan’s lack of judgement and the commitment (to a certain extent at least) to showing both sides of the story – the Australians who were subjected to such harsh and degrading treatment but also glimpses into the lives of the Japanese guards. The novel also provides an exploration of how these men tried to get on with their lives once home. Readers will be aware that this novel isn’t universally loved, with some critics citing the overt jingoism as being a distracting element. Personally, there are many scenes in this novel that I continue to think about and no doubt I will revisit it years down the track. What I’ll think then is anyone’s guess.

Other works that have been a source of interest and/or inspiration this year include selected poem collections from Rosemary Dobson (1973) and David Campbell (1978), Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse (1906), The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani (1958) (both the Hesse and the Bassani are excellent examples of short novels), The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992; the perfect novel about war due to the poetry in the prose) and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930), which stumped me on first read a few years ago but for some reason made complete sense in 2014.

THE WILD ONES - 6pm 3 Dec 2014 - updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra - both come out winning.

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra – both come out winning.

One anthology (two anthologies)

It’s beautiful in design, it feels good, actually it feels perfect – how it all holds together in colour and shape and form and texture.  A glistening cover, inside the gorgeous black and white and sometimes sepia images, and thoughtfully composed essays and short stories and poems and memoir from some of Australia’s best writers – Geoff Page, Marion Halligan, Alan Gould, Susan Hampton et al.  It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly constructed object.  Which is utterly apt for an anthology with Canberra as the theme.  Meanjin should be congratulated for getting together this particular edition, and the context couldn’t be more fitting – Australia’s national capital turns 100 this year.  And for having the guts to do it: across this crusty, leathery old country of ours there isn’t much love for the little southern city, and, rather predictably, there’s a persuasive view that nothing much happens there beyond political and public-sector hot air, and, so the story goes, there’s nothing much of literary note either, which is, of course, complete bollocks.  There’s another anthology about Canberra out at the moment, The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press; editor Irma Gold), and that more than proves the point.

City living

I lived in the ACT for the best part of 25 years, from 1987 to 2010, and these days I’m only an hour away.  I moved to Canberra from Sydney by choice, to go to university and start my adult life.  However, university wasn’t the real reason: it was about escaping a city that had leached into my bloodlines (I have ancestral connections to that part of the world dating back to 1797) but had also overwhelmed me with its hedonism and dark heart; moreover, it was about putting myself in an environment which I believed would open me out so that, at last, I might be properly alive.  I knew little about Canberra beyond what I’d gleaned from a handful of trips to visit family friends, but I knew it was different in look and feel to anywhere else I’d been.  Even as a child I understood the territory to be fresh and forward-thinking, and this appealed to someone who was born and bred amongst the well-heeled conservatism of one of the wealthiest parts of Australia, and I had the sense that a new way of being in the world was required.

Much of this Canberra edition of Meanjin focuses on built form and town-planning, which is both unsurprising and perfectly reasonable for a city famous for being designed from the ground up.  And it was certainly a resonating experience to undertake my first degree, landscape architecture, in a place where landscape and architecture are so important.  However, these things are not what I enjoyed the most; these things are not what have ultimately made me remember my time in Canberra with great fondness, often love.  In Canberra I discovered who I was, I met people, I fell in love.  Critically, it seemed – and still seems – a place where pre-judgement isn’t the preferred modus operandi.  Is there really much difference between getting drunk or getting stoned?  Do we wish to demonise people who sell sex and people who pay for sex?  For some years now, Canberra – the society of 380,000 people, not the hollow, hill-top political machine – has been asking the question about whether or not marriage is about gender.  And isn’t it time that the nation stood on its own two feet and became a republic?

Town living

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Almost three years I moved out of Canberra into neighbouring regional New South Wales.  Why?  Cheaper housing – most writers can’t afford big-city mortgages, even the rent.  And I appreciate small-town life.  And old stuff.  Canberra has a rich heritage – Aboriginal, natural, and built – but it’s not the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  And I’m a big fan of the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  So these days I live in my little old 1895-era cottage called Leitrim, and I spend my weekends patching up cracks that keep appearing in the walls and I collect firewood for a fire on these cold, damp nights, and I’m as happy as Julia Gillard on a Sunday arvo sitting on the couch in her jim-jams with a glass of red while watching Bruce Willis bash it up in Die Hard.  I love walking down to the mainstreet to visit the post office, which is a truly spectacular late nineteenth-century marvel, and doing a few transactions in a bank where the people know my name, before wandering home through  hidden laneways.  When Goulburn’s good, she’s heart-stopping spectacular.

The future

But still I visit Canberra regularly, weekly in fact, and a hump-day highlight is careering through the rolling back-road Southern Tableland landscape, listening to music (the latest Frightened Rabbit has been getting a good run, which make me laugh in this context – the road’s awash with roadkill) and when I cross the border into the ACT it’s always a joy, a hopeful joy.  Because to me that’s what Canberra is about: the future, and how we can craft it anyway we like, even as a society we can do this.  We can honour the past, live in the Brindabella-boundary present – if you’ve never been around to see snow on those ranges then you’re missing the quintessential south-east Australian experience – but keep eyes open to move forward.  It’s this youthfulness that I admire about Canberra – how my own youth once became a kind of ‘manhood’, whatever that is – and the unashamed optimism.  And the fact that many of my friends still live there.

And that perfection might not be so unattainable afterall.

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