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Since 1995, when he published Loaded, a slim but incendiary novel about twenty-four hours in the life of a young, gay, Greek man living in Melbourne, Christos Tsiolkas has been a powerful literary force. He would go on to receive high praise and perhaps even riches for The Slap (2008), a kaleidoscopic novel which would be adapted for television in Australia and the US. There has been Damascus (2019), Tsiolkas’s award-winning re-imagining of the life of St Paul and the dark and violent early days of the Christian church, as well as other novels, a short story collection, and criticism.

His is a towering presence, one that would be intimidating if the man did not have a reputation for being warm and generous.

But this reviewer can now hear Tsiolkas spitting venom: ‘Do not bring my personality into this, you fool. Do not mix my life with my art.’

So then, this latest work.

7 ½ is subtitled ‘a novel’, but how much of that is true? It concerns a Melbourne-based novelist called Christos Tsiolkas. He lives with his long-term, same-sex partner. He is in his mid-fifties. The narrative involves Christos (sometimes ‘Christo’ and sometimes ‘Chris’) taking himself to a rented holiday house on the far south coast of New South Wales in the hope of retreating from the world with all its distractions to write a new book. We see Christos writing in the house – often on the deck overlooking a manicured garden – and swimming at the beach, making meals, watching films, smoking, reading, and dreaming, which is a close cousin of the imagination, as it is of writing fiction.

The Christos of the novel makes it clear that he is telling a number of stories simultaneously, one relating to his childhood and adolescence, another about a retired gay porn star who, despite now being married to a woman and has a son, is offered a large sum of money to return to the US, the country of his birth and former profession, to have sex with an elderly gentleman who never had the opportunity to properly explore his sexuality.

In typical Tsiolkas fashion, 7 ½ is also a polemic.

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Keep reading this review at the Canberra Times, where it was published on 13 November 2021.

On 29 May 2015, the famous Electric Shadows Bookshop closed its doors after 27 years. There was a wake. There were tears. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

On 29 April 2015, the famous Electric Shadows Bookshop closed its doors after 27 years. There was a wake. There were tears. We don’t know what to do now. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

Of all the emails I’ve received this was the most difficult – by far.

In the past I’ve received emails announcing the death of a friend or colleague, and I’ve received emails containing heartbreaking literary rejection, but the one that lobbed into my laptop last week truly knocked me sideways. First there was shock, then disbelief, then emptiness, before anger set in; I guess that echoes the stages of grief, doesn’t it. What did the email say? It said that one of my favourite bookshops, one of my favourite shops of all time, was closing its doors after nearly 30 years of trading.

For many Canberrans, the Electric Shadows Bookshop, or ‘ESB’, or ‘Lecky Shads’, has been a bona fide institution. For a couple of decades in the city it co-existed with the infamous but now defunct Electric Shadows Cinema. If you enjoyed the film, you could go next door and buy the book or screenplay or soundtrack – even late into the evening you could do this.

ESB ran a highly regarded video rental library, and it was the only placed in town that stocked genuinely obscure (and sometimes risqué) titles. ESB was also well-known for supporting community events, such as SpringLit, a popular annual gay and lesbian afternoon that celebrated literary luminaries such as Dorothy Porter, Andy Quan, Judy Horacek, and Christos Tsiolkas. Speaking of Tsiolkas, astute readers will remember that in the late 1990s the future author of The Slap could be found behind the Electric Shadows Bookshop counter closing a sale with that warm and generous smile of his.

When the cinema closed in 2006, ESB moved to a new location in Mort Street, Braddon, which at the time was full of caryards, Summernat types, and people wobbling ecstatically out of Civic in the early hours of Sunday morning. The new version of ESB was smaller but funkier, and it hung out next to the Cornucopia Bakery, another Canberra institution that’s bitten the dust. Despite the somewhat cramped conditions, the bookshop continued to support the ACT region with all manner of literary events. The staff members were always knowledgeable and eager to please, with more than a dash of quirky humour.

In short, to me, Electric Shadows Bookshop has been a constant reminder that the world is more interesting than I sometimes think it is. It has given my little life depth and context and meaning. It has given me hope.

So what now?

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 20 March 2015. Visit Andrew Sikorski to see more of his series of images taken in the last days of the Electric Shadows Bookshop.

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