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AirshipA quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did.  McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond.  His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers.  And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago.  This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice.  It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.

Best 100 Poems of Dorothy PorterIf there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter.  Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart.  Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live.  No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him.  It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.

BarracudaI’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size.  It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender.  Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality.  Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws.  As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.

DeserterStaying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones.  Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013).  What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.

The Hired ManJust going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013).  Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict.  In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’

I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.

Some novels do amazing things.  This is one of those novels. Do seek it out.

Some novels do amazing things. This is one of those novels.

Violence is never far beneath the surface, it’s always just over the horizon, it rarely leaves us alone.  Surely one of the best means we have of examining our innate capacity for violence, to survey its insidious possibilities, is the novel.  And surely one of the most astute English-language novelists whose primary focus is violence, particularly the lingering impacts of civil war, is Aminatta Forna.

Born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, Forna’s previous novel was The Memory of Love, an awful though not inappropriate title for an astonishing work.  This was a complex and multi-dimensional examination of the consequences of war in Sierra Leone, a country with which Forna clearly has a profound affinity.  The novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011 and won that year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize.  The Hired Man, despite again delving into war, is a lighter, simpler work, and, due to a miracle of literary achievement, is an even more potent piece of story-telling.

Set in Croatia, and spanning the shaky decades leading up to 2007, The Hired Man has as its central protagonist a forty-six-year-old man called Duro Kolak.  Duro lives alone, enjoys the company of his two dogs, and gets by doing odd jobs around his small hometown of Gost.  A sometimes reticent soul, he is an adept observer of human relationships, but his real passion is hunting.  Indeed, it is telling that on the first page of the novel there is Duro seeing a new arrival in town:

I trailed the bird lazily through my rifle sights and that was when I noticed the car.  A large, newish four-wheel drive, being driven very slowly down an entirely empty road as though the driver was searching for a concealed entrance.  I lowered the gun so that I had the vehicle fully in my sights but the angle and reflection of the sun made it impossible to see who was driving.

The woman who is driving is Laura…

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Keep reading over at the Sydney Morning Herald.  Originally commissioned by the Canberra Times and published on 3 August 2013; thanks to Rod Quinn.

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