Review – ‘Harriet Said’ by Beryl Bainbridge

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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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Review: ‘This Beautiful Life’ by Helen Schulman

this beautifulcover

Oh man, this was pretty hard to read – not because it’s badly written, but because of the subject matter. It’s basically the story of how people’s behaviour becomes ugly when the crap hits the fan – in this case a family/social crisis (teenage son receive sex video from a younger student; he forwards it on to his friends, who in turn forward it on; mayhem and shaming of various parties ensues).
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‘Whiskey & Charlie’ by Annabel Smith

Whiskey & CHarlie

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.

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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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‘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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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.

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.