I enjoyed this book, a lot. Don’t let the premise put you off (mother of a family dies but somehow ‘remains’ out in the ether somewhere, able to narrate her family members’ lives and her own memories of them as she watches them grieve and heal over the ensuing years). Sounds terrible but actually worked pretty well – In the Quiet is less about negotiating the afterlife than it is detailing a family’s grief and death affects those still living.
I heard about Annabel Smith a couple of years ago during an online book giveaway hosted by a group of writers from WA, where by subscribing to Smith’s blog (as well as the blogs of Natasha Lester, Dawn Barker, Amanda Curtin and Sara Foster), you could win a bunch of novels. I didn’t win, but I now read each of the blogs regularly and am making my way through the writers’ novels. Whiskey & Charlie (originally published in Australia as Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot) was Smith’s second novel, and I picked it up in the States instead of back home to support her international sales!
The story is basically a character study of Charlie, whose twin brother Whiskey is in a coma as a result of a bad car crash. Charlie and Whiskey have been estranged for years, so when Charlie is faced with the prospect of Whiskey’s potential death, he yearns to make amends with his bro. The story follows Charlie as deeply assesses why he and Whiskey became estranged in the first place, working out that his brother isn’t entirely to blame, then forgiving his bro and forgiving himself.
If the plot doesn’t sound action-driven, that’s because it really isn’t – Whiskey is unconscious for nearly the entire novel and most of the dramatic tension derives from Charlie’s inner emotional cycle – the grief, anger and guilt he experiences over and over as he mulls over his brother’s condition ad infinitum, to the point where it starts annoying his other relatives. But despite not being a novel one might read for plot, Smith has written an interesting and very moving story, primarily, I think, because she does such a great job at making the audience care for both Charlie and Whiskey. They’re both utterly infuriating, in their own ways; Whiskey for his arrogance and sense of entitlement, Charlie for his inability to recognise his own flaws, his tendency to blame Whiskey for every mishap that befalls him. But they’re also both likeable and endearing. It’s complicated. It’s good.
I read this book in one sitting, finishing late at night, and am still reeling from it. In fact, I’ve actually been trying to write this review for a couple of weeks and have been struggling with it because the novel just encompasses so much. Anchor Point is a powerful story about how humans, both individually and as a society, relate to the land – how we connect with it, how we destroy it, and how the state of the environment exerts control over our lives whether we like it or not. But it’s also a very personal story of an individual woman, Laura, and her own connection to the sheep farm she grew up on, as well as her relationship with her family, her work, her lover. The whole story is also about climate change. I’m impressed at how Robinson wove all these elements together into a cohesive, almost seamless whole.
The impetus for the story is an unwanted letter. Laura’s mother, Kath, goes missing from their rural property in western Victoria during a terrible storm. After hours of searching the nearby bush and gully to no avail, Laura finds a note from her mother: Kath hasn’t disappeared, she has abandoned them. In her ten-year-old hurt and confusion, Laura burns the note and keeps it secret from her father and sister, for the next forty years.
Even though I found the whole letter-burning ordeal a little clichéd, the way that Laura deals with her grief, shame and guilt about her mother is really convincing. The character feels so real. I was constantly thinking ‘ahh, YES! That is exactly how a person would respond in that situation!’ even though her actions were complex and not always predictable. But, Robinson manages to convey Laura (and other character’s) inner feelings without being too explicit – Laura as a character ‘accumulates’ over the text, so that by the end I felt quite deeply whatever she was feeling.
It was hard to approach Emily Bitto’s debut novel The Strays without any expectations. People have been raving about it since it was shortlisted for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and the hype got even crazier since the story won this year’s Stella Prize (it was also shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards and is on the Dobbie Award shortlist). So I couldn’t help but enter the book expecting it to be flipping amazing. Also, I was super excited to read it because the story is about a group of bohemian artists living together in the early 20th century in Melbourne – I grew up right near Heide, and even though The Strays is not actually based on those artists, it certainly seems to draw inspiration from the activities and shenanigans that went on there.
For the most part, all my expectations were met. One of the most notable (and best) things about The Strays is how well Bitto created an unsettling narrative that left me deeply disturbed and feeling kind of icky. The story is narrated by Lily, a middle-class girl whose family is struggling after the depression. Lily befriends Eva, daughter of provocative modernist artist Evan Trentham, at primary school, and the two become best buds. Lily becomes seduced by the crazy world of the Trenthams and the other artists that live with them – their sexual freedom, disregard for rules, reckless drinking and drug use and of course, their seemingly unbounded creativity and artistic momentum.
The commune is idealistic and appears to function well initially, but soon begins to decay and collapse. This is where Bitto excels. She builds tension exceedingly well, and slowly reveals the consequences of a lifestyle of such abandon, particularly the way it affects the children, who are not only thoroughly neglected but also treated in increasingly inappropriate ways. Since the story is narrated an adult Lily, it’s awful to see how the effects of the childhood years reverberate irreparably through the children’s lives as they grow up.
I walked the length of my cell from the wall with two windows to my altar, counting my steps – nine paces; then across the narrower side, from my fireplace to my squint – seven paces. This would be my world. I touched my squint, a thin window about the length of my two hands from fingertips to heel and as wide as my wrist. I knelt and looked through. It was so narrow…even if I moved closer to the slit or moved my head, I would see nothing more than the crucifix and candles.
For a while I didn’t buy this book as I was put off by the cover: it has a bird on the front, and I had assumed it was another novel using birds as a metaphor for life (‘learning to fly’, ‘leaving the nest’, ‘migrating’) which I am well and truly sick of. However, the blurb sucked me in. The Anchoress is about a woman in the 12th century who chooses to live in an enclosed stone cell for life. I was totally intrigued, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by the middle ages, and partly because I wondered whether a story set entirely in a tiny stone room could be sustained in an interesting way over a whole novel.
Turns out it totally could! It’s pretty full on. Sarah, the protagonist, is only seventeen when she becomes an anchoress and the opening scenes describe the door of her cell being nailed shut, the crushing darkness, the way it feels like death. Historically, anchoresses were real women who chose to cut themselves off from world and all the sensory temptations within it, in order to spend their lives in prayer and contemplation of God. They literally can’t leave: food is handed to them through a window and people chat with them through another window, usually curtained. Anchoresses would also speak regularly to village women, who would confide in the anchoress of their town, pray with them, and turn to them for spiritual guidance. This is Sarah’s life.
Last year my goal was to write ten book reviews for my blog, and I did three. Three. Yes, I had lots of other work to do (i.e. my thesis, and writing I was actually getting paid for) but still. Ten blog posts in fifty-two weeks should not be a difficult goal to achieve regardless of how busy a person is. (I also spent a good portion of 2014 watching New Tricks repeats in my pyjamas, which may have had something to do with it). In any case, in trying to remedy the situation, here’s a review of a book I read ages ago and which I can’t really remember that well, but which I do remember thinking was kind of good and also kind of troubling. Also I’m participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge again (an initiative that encourages people to read and review books by Australian women, in order to combat the gender bias in book reviewing culture) so you know, trying to do my bit.
The book is Fetish by Tara Moss, and it was actually her very first novel, published in 1999. It’s the first crime novel in what has become known as the ‘Makedde Vanderwall’ series. Makedde, or Mak, is the protagonist, a young model whose best friend is murdered in Sydney after Mak arrives there for some modelling gigs. Mak, who’s obsessed with crime solving thanks to her cop dad, gets stuck into the case, much to the chagrin of the local police. The story that follows details not only the solving of the crime, but Mak’s own personal development as she works through her relationship with her father, issues of sexism in her modelling career and life more generally, and problems from her past.
I bought Nona & Me by Clare Atkins after reading Danielle Binks’ excellent review of it on Killings. A novel set in Nhulunbuy and Yirrkala, in North East Arnhemland? I had to get to get it immediately. I have family in Nhulunbuy and it’s so remote (the closest town is Katherine, which is over 700km away via dirt roads) and so small (Yirrkala’s population is about 1000, and Nhulunbuy’s, till recently, has been about 4000 – it’s currently declining because the alumina refinery, one of the main employers, has just closed there) that the idea of reading a book set in the region seemed magical, tapping into an important part of Australia that many people have never even heard of, let alone read about in books.
I wasn’t disappointed. Nona & Me is the story of Rosie, a Ngapaki (white) girl, and her friendship with Nona, a Yolŋu girl. Rosie and Nona were best friends as kids, living together in Yirrkala and spending their days at the Nhulunbuy pool or Latram river, or out hunting wallaby with their families and searching for bush honey. When Nona moves away to Elcho Island, the girls drift apart. Years later, Nona returns to school – but Rosie is too caught up with her new boyfriend and her desire to be popular to reconnect with Nona. The story that follows details Rosie’s inner conflict – does she continue to disown her yapa (sister), or reconnect with her and risk losing her cool, new friends? The whole story takes place during the Howard government’s intervention, suffusing the story with unease and distress about the future.
At its heart, Nona & Me is a coming of age novel, and Atkins does a brilliant job of articulating Rosie’s teenage logic. It was like reading through my own high school diary at some points. Gems include:
We are sitting at our usual spot, on the benches near the basketball courts. Just close enough to see the boys playing, not so close that we seem desperate.
Anya is next to me, but she doesn’t fit on the narrow path. She has to walk with one shoe on the grass. I can tell this annoys her by the way she bangs each pole with her hand as she passes, as if she wants us to be aware that she is sacrificing her walking pleasure for the benefit of the group.
I was also really compelled by the relationship between Rosie and her mother; the content of their arguments and the way they always made up really rang true for me.
Atkins also does a fantastic and interesting job of engaging with Yolŋu culture. Atkins worked closely with a group of Yolŋu women with whom she’d lived in Yirrkala in order to ensure she wrote about the people, land and culture accurately, respectfully, and realistically. Aspects of the Yolŋu kinship system are intergrated into the story, as the way skin names work, the purpose of black/white, the way Ngapaki can be adopted into Yolŋu families. Bush knowledge is also described, such as finding bush honey, and hunting and eating wallaby. Yolŋu culture wasn’t over-romanticised, though – Atkins also also explored real issues such as teen pregnancy, suicide amongst young people, and alcohol abuse with sensitivity.
It’s important to note, though, that this primarily the story of Rosie. Nona is a side character who appears mostly in Rosie’s memories of childhood and occasionally in the present, even though her effect on Rosie is always profound. I found this okay, I suppose, since the book deals so respectfully with Yolŋu culture more generally, but sometimes it felt as though Nona were a litmus test for Rosie’s relationship with her Yolŋu family. I also wasn’t quite convinced by the story’s ending, which seemed to posit Nona and Rosie’s relationship as stronger than it was. However, I still cared a lot for Nona, and her character development was interesting and unpredictable.
Atkins does a great job of exposing how far Australia has to go in terms of eradicating systemic racial inequality and individual prejudice, through both examining the intervention policy and demonstrating how entrenched racism can become amongst white people. Occasionally, the story presented the political situation in quite black and white terms, ie, ‘right wing = bad’ and ‘left wing = good,’ and even though I lean left myself, the situation up north (and indeed, in all Australia) is hugely complicated, and can’t be ‘fixed’ by either end of white man’s political spectrum. Atkins doesn’t really suggest that it can – I suppose I’m just acknowledging the difficulty of writing about the future of reconciliation.
Despite these very minor points, I loved this book, and have been buying it as a present for everyone. It’s heartwarming, it reminded me of the best and worst things about being a teenager, and best of all, presented the Yolngu as an important, and yet normal, part of Australian society. It’s a great book for teenagers and adults alike.
I first encountered Meg Mundell at last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, where she interviewed Scottish writer Janice Galloway. Galloway has such a big personality – loquacious, hilarious – that I imagine an interviewer could easily feel overwhelmed by her. But Meg was present the whole time, with carefully-prepared questions, a warm and welcoming demeanor, and the ability to enter a proper conversation with Galloway – so many interviewers fail to actually listen to what their guests are saying, but the way Meg handled it made it feet as though the two were old friends. Afterwards, I bought books by both Galloway and Mundell: here are my thoughts on Mundell’s second work of fiction, but first volume of short stories, Things I Did For Money, which was released as an eBook by Scribe last year.
Things I Did For Money is a short collection – only eight stories – but sticks in the mind well after it ends. Directly or indirectly, each tale addresses forms of work and the different way people earn their living. Mundell’s prose style is easy-to-read, but laced with intricate details: she seems to have thoroughly researched a range of different professions, and the integration of information feels smooth rather than contrived. Examples include the description of aquatic life and diving gear in ‘Narcosis’, the process for making waffle cones in ‘The Cone Machine’, and the way guns work in ‘The Chamber.’
My favourite stories were the first and last of the collection. ‘Nightshade’ is a haunting tale of a woman who sells men – for what we don’t know, but the suggestion is some sort of labour or sex trade. The story appears set in an older time, but in the familiar setting of Port Philip Bay: protagonist Port-Wine Annie rows drugged men and boys across the water each night in exchange for coins. There are hints that Annie herself has previously been bought and sold, perhaps as a prostitute, and that her choice was to either remain a commodity, or treat others as a commodity. I liked this story because it had no real closure, and it also didn’t give away what Annie was actually doing: we know she brewed a potion to knock men out, but we never really know what she’s selling the boys for. Mundell gives readers enough information to be drawn in, but little enough that we must use our own imaginations. It’s very haunting.
The final story in the book is called ‘Small Change,’ and was a speculative, futuristic tale of a woman who attends a clinic to have a whole-body cosmetic procedure, including ‘facial elevation,’ ‘dermal illumination’ (a process which gives skin a radiant glow’) and skin whitening. The clinic is fine-tuned to convince clients to spend their money. From a control room, a man called Jack alters lighting, releases certain scents and sounds that are registered only subconsciously, and controls the cameras that reveal the client’s body on a big screen. I found it interesting how it was a distant yet omnipresent man that sought to control this woman’s choices about her own body – and yet, Jack’s just trying to make a living too. Again, Mundell doesn’t provide too much closure – we’re left to consider this potential future for ourselves, and what it suggests about our own society.
Other stories didn’t grab my fancy to the same extent – ‘Soft Landing’, about an alcoholic clown, had some great moments, but overall I don’t think it quite escaped the ‘scary/sad clown’ cliché. ‘The Tower’ was a page-turner – it made my heart race! – but I found the ending a little neat. On the whole, though, Things I Did For Money matched my expectations – I’ll certainly be reading Mundell’s novel, Black Glass, at some stage soon.
I was excited when I heard that Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing, was a contemporary gothic thriller about a woman in the wilder parts of the English country side who is haunted by a strange beast in the woods. I love scary novels with female protagonists, and having lived in Scotland, was excited to see how the landscape might be used to explore psychological terror. The book was also shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award and longlisted for the Stella Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which lent it some extra kudos.
The story follows Jake, a sheep farmed living on an isolated farm on a dark and stormy island (somewhere in the UK, it’s suggested). She’s reclusive, introverted and uninterested in making friends, and someone (or something) is killing off her sheep and leaving their bloodied carcasses about the paddocks. The visceral nature of the opening sentence makes the sheep-mauler seem very real (‘Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding’) but we never really know if the creature actually exists. Even though Jake has seen a new fox lingering at the edges of her property, she also has extreme nightmares each night, and seems to hallucinate at times, running outside in the middle of the night to protect her sheep, only to find there’s nothing there.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jake is recovering from (or fleeing) past trauma. The novel is structured through parallel stories, narrated through loosely alternating chapters: the first thread is set in the present, tracing Jake’s life at the farm and her quest to determine what’s terrorising her animals. The second begins in the past, on a sheep station in the Australian outback, each successive chapter going back in time – Memento style – to reveal the origins of Jake’s suffering.
I found the backwards-trajectory narrative about Jake’s life in Australia far more engaging (and disturbing!) than the sections of text set in the present. The scenes set in Australia are richly detailed, and evoke the starkness, beauty and devastation of the Australian outback. I also developed a far stronger sense of Jake as a character in the Australian chapters – her temperament, longings and desires apart from (but also including) her fear and trauma were clearly articulated through relationships with friends, lovers and family. The Aussie sections also contained interesting details around the sheep industry – how to shear so you don’t nick the sheep’s skin, how to remove maggots from the sheep’s bottoms, etc. The specificity and detail in these sections made me feel like I was there with Jake, really rooted me on a cattle station, or in Darwin, or in a pizza place – wherever she happened to be.
The gloomy, rain-covered UK island lacked the specificity and sense of narrative drive that characterised the Aussie sections. Of course, one could argue that the static narrative might well reflect Jake’s inability to move forward or develop as a result of her trauma, but there was something about the clouds and the weather that seemed a bit too predictable, too obviously a metaphor for Jake’s state of mind, to be convincing.
During the Aussie thread, as we moved back in time, Wyld created an incredible sense of tension. Wyld has a great knack for providing enough information to tantalise and terrify, but never quite enough to know exactly what’s going on. I found Jake’s encounter with Aussie sheep farmer Otto one of the most unsettling relationships I’ve ever read about – it still haunts me, and makes me feel a little sick, weeks after reading the novel – and yet it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what was so off about it. I actually found Otto far more disturbing than the original, earlier source of Jake’s pain (which I won’t spoil).
On the island, though, the ol’ ‘is the monster real or a manifestation of protagonist’s psyche’ felt a bit worn and predictable. Sure, Wyld didn’t provide details about it, but it was nowhere near as frightening as the events in the Aussie chapters. This is probably because about a million writers have used the ‘haunting beastie’ trope, including Tim Winton, but also about half of all 18th and 19th century gothic novels ever written. To be honest, if Wyld had published All the Birds, Singing as a novella that only included the Australian sections, it would have been just as good. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book: it’s just that my hopes of a scary landscape were met in the outback, rather than the English hills.