Review: Clare Atkins’ “Nona & Me”

nonaI 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.

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Review: Meg Mundell’s ‘Things I Did For Money’

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.

Mundell

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.

Review: Evie Wyld’s ‘All the Birds, Singing’

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.

all-the-birds-singing

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.