Review – ‘Harriet Said’ by Beryl Bainbridge

harriet-cover

Bainbridge’s first novel written (it wasn’t her first published -it came out in 1972) is apparently loosely inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder case in New Zealand (which you may know from Heavenly Creatures, the Peter Jackson film) however the stories are only similar in so far as they both focus on young girls who intentionally set out to cause harm to an adult; in Harriet Said, though, the goal is not murder, but just really hardcore bullying and stalking. It’s weird and upsetting and sometimes violent.

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‘Anchor Point’ by Alice Robinson

anchor point cover

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.

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Review: ‘The Strays’ by Emily Bitto

the strays coverIt 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.

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‘Trigger Warning’ by Neil Gaiman: the literary version of a curiosity cabinet

gaiman-TriggerNeil Gaiman’s latest collection of short fiction is like a lucky dip containing excitingly obscure prizes: you literally have no idea what’s coming next, both from one tale to the next and within individual stories. Trigger Warning collates twenty four of Gaiman’s stories that have been published in various magazines and anthologies over the past twelve years and is a complete mixed bag in terms of genre and form, with some stories two pages long and some thirty; some hinting at sci-fi and others at spec-fic or folklore; and some written in metered rhyme, others in free verse, most in prose.

What unifies the stories is they way they seem to celebrate creativity – the sheer joy they take in showcasing just how far the power of imagination may take us. A story that seems to be about a stuffed cat in a pub in the English countryside turns into a crazy ghost-story/murder-mystery involving Pagan rites and depression. One about a wandering tourist turns into a pseudo-history of a long-lost and possibly magical rose-hedge maze lit only by the moon. The book also contains the story ‘Nothing O’Clock’ which Gaiman wrote for an anthology of stories about Doctor Who, and it’s brilliant – I put off reading it for ages as I was sure I’d be disappointed, but he captured the dialogue and vibe of the Doctor Who universe perfectly.

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Enjoyable and troubling: ‘Fetish’ by Tara Moss

Get your '90s on.

Get your ’90s on.

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.

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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.