Shelley Burr, Wake (#BookReview)

Regular readers here will know a few things about me. One is that I don’t regularly read crime, and another is that for three years, before the pandemic struck, I was the litblogging mentor for an ACT Writers Centre program. One of the last two participants in that program was Shelley Burr, author of the just-published crime novel Wake.

In my post on that 2019 program, I introduced Shelley as follows:

Shelley Burr is working on a novel, and took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s well-regarded Hard Copy program last year … She is particularly interested in what she calls “drought noir”, which term sounds perfect for some of the crime coming out of Australia at present. Shelley has had her writing place well in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages program.

That novel she was writing was Wake. It won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2019. It was also shortlisted for the 2019 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award, which gave her a Varuna fellowship, and the 2020 Bath Novel Awards, which is an international award for emerging writers. Judge for the Bath award, literary agent Jenny Savill, wrote of Wake:

With forensic attention to detail, the reader is effortlessly drawn into the small town, rural Australian setting and a community in mourning. Immersive and riveting.

Savill was right on all fronts. Burr’s attention to detail is forensic, and readers (even non-crime readers like me) are “effortlessly drawn in”. I was thoroughly engaged from the opening pages, and this is because, besides being a crime novel, it’s a novel about character, and what happens to people when terrible things happen to them. How do people respond, and why do different people respond differently? It confronts readers to think about our own responses. How would we respond if it happened to us? And, how would, or do, we respond when it happens to others?

Wake is about a cold-case that took place on a remote farm some twenty years before the novel opens. Nine-year-old Evelyn (Evie) McCreery disappeared from her bed one night, never to be seen again. This means the novel alludes to a longstanding Australian writing tradition, that concerning the lost child. However, this motif has layers of cultural complexity that are not central to this novel, so I’m just mentioning it and moving on.

Now, the plot … as the book’s promotion says, “no forced entry, no fingerprints, no footprints, no tyre tracks”. Evie’s twin sister, Mina, has grown up in the wake (pun intended!) of that disappearance. She has never fully recovered and is quietly trying to solve the mystery on her own. The novel opens with the clearly fragile Mina doing her shopping under the kindly eye of a local shopkeeper. A stranger, who turns out to be private investigator Lane Holland, approaches her, but she is not interested. The novel progresses from this point with the twists and turns typical of the genre until its inevitable – though not completely expected – resolution.

Wake is carefully plotted, with, for example, hints concerning Lane Holland and why he has chased this particular case being gradually shared. Wake is also well-paced, starting slowly, and gradually building intrigue until near the end when the pace hots up. Suddenly, the chapters become shorter, causing the alternating perspectives, which characterise the narrative, to become more urgent.

As I mentioned above, the characters are a major strength of the novel. Mina and Lane are sensitively developed. Both are driven by past trauma, and can be tough and prickly, but both also exhibit moments of vulnerability and tenderness which help us care about them. There are a few other characters, the main ones being Mina’s more together friend Alanna whose sister had also disappeared around the same time as Mina’s, and Lane’s much younger sister Lynnie. Though minor, they too have flesh.

The narrative is chronological, with occasional flashbacks filling in some gaps. Other gaps are cleverly filled in by entries on a social media forum, MyMurder, which open some of the chapters. They add a thoughtful layer to the story, by conveying how such mysterious cases catch the public attention and how obsession with them can play out. They show how crime aficionados, conspiracy theorists, and others, can spear wildly away from the truth and potentially, if not actually, cause mental harm to those most touched by the crime.

So, yes, I was impressed. The writing and plotting is so sure, and Burr’s exploration of the crime is considered, sympathetic, and grounded in reality. There is drama – of course – but it properly serves the story and the complexity of the emotions, reactions and consequences that Burr is exploring. This made for engrossing reading for a non-crime reader like me, but Wake is also, if the awards tell us anything, great crime reading. It’s a page turner, with depth.

Now, I’d better at least mention the setting, given I’ve referenced Burr’s interest in “drought noir”. Wake is set in rural central New South Wales. Burr, herself, grew up in regional New South Wales, and her grandparents had a farm in regional Victoria, so her writing of place and country life felt authentic. The setting adds tension because Mina and her father Liam’s property is remote, remote enough that they have installed alarms on the gates to announce the arrival of visitors. You can’t be too careful when you live so far away from help.

However, the property also neatly reflect the challenges being faced by Australian farmers in climate-change-affected times. It was a working farm, but the disappearance of Evie consumed the family’s energy so much that viable farming fell by the wayside. In a nice political touch that speaks to our times, Burr has Mina and her father moving into working it as a conservation project.

Wake earned Shelley a two-book deal with Hachette, and is about to be published in the USA. Having now read it, I’m not surprised. I recommend it.

Shelley Burr
Wake
Hachette Australia: Gadigal Country/Sydney, 2022
360pp.
ISBN: 9780733647826

(Uncorrected proof courtesy Hachette Australia)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (4)

The current winners of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists were announced recently. I haven’t seen much publicity, so given I’ve reported on this award for the last two years, I thought I’d do it again this year. It’s a worthwhile award, and one that has seen writers go on to develop good careers.

Just to recap, the award was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. It’s an emerging writers’ award, open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book (novel or short story collection) is published. They don’t have to be debut novels, though they often are – like this year’s three winners.

The winners, as announced by Robert Moran, a culture reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (winner, $8,000) (see Brona’s review)
  • Ella Baxter’s New animal (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2022 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, and the 2021 Readings Prize ) (see Kim’s review)
  • Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award) (see Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey; critic and poet Thuy On; and a 2011 SMH Best Young Australian Novelist Gretchen Shirm (whom I’ve reviewed). The number of awards used to vary, but in recent years they seem to have settled on three. The prize money comes from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

The Herald‘s Melanie Kembrey, writing in the emailed newsletter I receive, said of the candidate books:

There were clear recurring thematic interests, including consent, cultural identity and the environment; many were coming-of-age tales; and others experimented with different forms and styles. It was tough selecting the winners and many of the entrants have bright futures.

She also commented on the importance of prizes like this:

It’s tough being a novelist, let alone an emerging one. There are the occasional unicorn stories: novel selected for Oprah’s book club gets adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster and sets author up for life. But these stories are rare. The reality of life as a writer, even more so a new one, is writing around day jobs, trying to flog your manuscript, being at the mercy of publishers, and then releasing your novel and watching this thing that has consumed you disappear into the depths without leaving a ripple.

This is why, she says, this award was created all those years ago.

The winners, briefly

You can find interviews with the three authors in the Robert Moran article linked above.

Diana Reid (26)

According to Kembrey, Love and virtue is “a piercing examination of university campus culture” or, as Brona puts it, “a campus novel about sex, power and consent”. Very today themes, eh? This novel has been making quite a splash amongst bloggers and readers, including Daughter Gums to whom I gave it for Christmas.

Brona said that “It’s an easy, quick read, but layered with oodles of moral grey areas and nuanced, contemporary issues”. She appreciated the way the novel deals with the complexity of consent, and said that Reid “does not shy away from contradictory behaviours or the realities of modern life as seen through the eyes of young adults”, although she did feel it was more a novel for the age-group it’s about than for older readers. Reid wrote this when she was 24, just after she left university.

Ella Baxter (36)

Of New animal, Kembrey says its “caustic tone … will crack you up”. Kim would agree. She loved this book, describing it as “a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally”. Literally, because the protagonist works in a funeral parlour. Kim suggests that the novel is part of the new genre of “Millennial angst” but, she says, it’s not “as navel-gazing as most of those” and is “highly original”. I am tempted.

Michael Burrows (33)

Kembrey describes metafictional Where the line breaks as “a playful take on academia and history”. Lisa found it an absorbing, unconventional novel that “interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend”.  It has, apparently, three narrative threads, which include one focusing on PhD student Matt, and another on his WW1 hero, Alan Lewis. The playful take on academia comes partly through the footnotes which, I’m told, readers should not ignore. It sounds like my sort of book.

These three books appeal to me, as being meaty but not overly earnest. I can’t help noticing, though, that it doesn’t look like a particularly diverse list.

Have you read any of these books?

Margaret Barbalet, Blood in the rain (#BookReview)

When I thought about Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, I knew I’d have some hard choices to make as I have many eligible novels on my TBR shelves. However, the choice wasn’t too hard because there was one author who just doesn’t seem to be talked about and I wanted to include her on my blog. Little did I know that Lisa had a similar idea, so this week you have not one but two posts on Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain.

I am a bit embarrassed about it, though, because I must have bought my copy around the time it was published, as the “Aust. recommended” price sticker on my Penguin says $7.95! Indeed, I referred to this book, albeit not by title, when I wrote about Canberra’s Seven Writers of which Barbalet was a member. This is another reason I’ve been keen to read this novel.

Barbalet might have been part of the Canberra Seven, but she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Tasmania, and went to university back in Adelaide, before living in Canberra for many years. Blood in the rain is set in Adelaide and environs, and its descriptions of place reminded me at times of Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review), although the style is different. It might be just me, but I had a strong sense of Patrick White’s intensity in Barbalet’s book, particularly in the weight of her descriptions.

And this is probably a good time to tell you what the novel is about. The back cover tells us that it’s “about Jessie … a young girl growing up and reaching for maturity in the Australia of the Great War and the Depression, as she moves from country town to country town and eventually to Adelaide”. It also says that her life is “in may ways, ordinary” but that Barbalet “follows Jessie’s odyssey with a perception and compassion that reveals a person who is quite extraordinary”. This is accurate, but it misses a few salient points.

“she feels everything”

For example, the novel starts when Jessie, 4 years old, and her brother Stephen, 8, are living with their parents in a small coastal town. In the first chapter, their mother walks out, and we never hear from her again. Jessie adores her brother, but with their father deemed incapable of raising them – in the eyes of the local churchgoing women – the two children are taken in by different relatives. And through one of those twists of fate, Jessie is taken into a loving family, the Whaites, while Stephen goes to the home of a stern maternal uncle Theodore, and his cowed unmarried daughter. There is no affection here, and, indeed, there’s disdain from Theodore, because Stephen’s father was an Irishman – “Of course, Catholics, Irish, what can you expect”. In his opinion, Stephen “had never been checked”.

We spend a little time with Stephen – just enough to realise that his youth was miserable, and for us to see the contrast with Jessie’s life – but the book is Jessie’s. The war comes, and with the death of Mr Whaite in that war, Mrs Whaite can no longer afford to keep her, so Jessie is moved on to an unmarried relation, Miss Symes. Miss Symes doesn’t have the motherly warmth of Mrs Whaite but Jessie realises early on that she “would not be unkind”. A major theme of the book concerns, as Jessie ponders in adulthood, “what made a life good or bad”. One factor, this novel shows, is a secure, loved childhood, something Jessie had well enough, but not Stephen.

Anyhow, the story progresses from here, with Jessie going off to work as a domestic when she’s around 14 years old … and we move into the Depression. Meanwhile, Stephen, with whom she manages to stay in contact, goes to war, and returns with an injured arm, but it’s clear that Stephen’s greatest injury is emotional. The siblings reconnect after Stephen returns to Adelaide with a wife, Pamela, and baby – and some time after, Jessie moves in with them. I’ll leave the story there.

Since I read this for Bill’s week, I want to comment on how this book might or might not fit into his ideas about Gen 4. I’ll start with style, and return to my point about Patrick White. A little research into Barbalet uncovered that she was a fan of DH Lawrence. Guess who was also a fan of DH Lawrence? Yes, Patrick White. I rest my case!

Seriously though, White writes in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass, about missing Australia, and says “I could still grow drunk on visions of its landscape”. Well, you get the sense that Barbalet could too, as her descriptions of place – whether city, country, or coast – are so intensely evocative:

There was no one about but the smell of poverty remained.

The dew on the grass looks dirty, she thought, glancing through the pinched paling fence on the vacant block at the corner. Yellow light leant at corners, streaking the walls with new angles the colour of old flannel. Fingers of sun lifted new dirt in the glare.

There is also intensity in her descriptions of humanity, a Whitean (sorry!) sense of tough, hard lives that need resilience to survive. Jessie has resilience, seeking and enjoying, whenever she can, “manna in the dry waste of life”.

None of this is specifically Gen 4, but Blood in the rain does also embody its era. Barbalet, for example, plays with point of view, something that seems to start once Jessie is sentient. In other words, the novel is told third person, but at moments when Jessie’s feelings are likely to be strong we slip into second person. It begins when she is taken to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to her brother’s guardian. The mention of Stephen brings out feelings:

Your brother Stephen. If you skipped and walked even your feet would say the words. That dear face might suddenly slide in front of your eyes … You said the name over and over.

As does the awareness that, while Mrs Whaite had loved her, it wasn’t enough to keep her:

But, you, you, were someone who could be left.

It’s an intriguing technique, and a bit disconcerting at first, but it gives intensity to Jessie’s emotional self.

Besides style, though, is genre and subject matter. Blood in the rain is historical fiction, which was not particularly common in literary fiction, and it’s historical fiction about ordinary people, about ordinary women in fact. It’s a domestic story with little dramas, the sort of story that Gen 4 women made particularly their own.

Domestic, however, doesn’t mean trivial. This novel is about important ideas – about women’s resilience and stoicism in the face of poverty, about the raising of children, and in fact about love. Love, Jessie decides, is what makes the difference between a good life and a bad one. If that’s women’s fiction, it’s fine by me.

Margaret Barbalet
Blood in the rain
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1986
204pp.
ISBN: 9780140089448

Irma Gold, The breaking (#BookReview)

Book cover

I have broken a golden rule! That is, I am reviewing Irma Gold’s debut novel, The breaking, out of the order in which I received it for review, which is something I (almost) never do! But, I am attending an author event on this book this weekend, and I really wanted to have read it before that conversation.

The breaking is an example of a growing “genre” of literature, eco-literature. This literature encompasses cli-fi, and focuses on human activities that endanger the environment in some way. It’s a broad church, covering climate, water and the land, deforestation, animal rights, and more. Books in this genre are often inspired by their writer’s passions. They tend to have a strong plot because the author wants to engage the reader in an issue: how better to do this than with an engaging plot. However, the plot is, largely, subservient to the issue, because at heart these are political novels, often in the “personal-is-the-political” sense.

So, some examples? Heather Rose’s Bruny (my review), which is deeply concerned about the future of Tasmania, Angela Savage’s crime novel The dying beach (my review), which explores the impact of shrimp-farming on the environment, and Karen Viggers’ novels, like The orchardist’s daughter (my review) which addresses deforestation, are three. These could be called “passion project” books. Critics often find this sort of writing difficult to asses. If it sells well, if it’s popular, is it good?

I’m going to sidestep the implication of that concern, and simply say that of course something popular can be good. If it’s well-plotted, well-written, has engaging characters – and deals intelligently with something relevant or important – then it’s good.

All of this is a very long introduction to Irma Gold’s book, but relevant, I hope. So, The breaking? The title doesn’t give away its passion, though if you look carefully at the gorgeous cover you might see it. It’s the plight or exploitation of elephants in Thailand. Gold, as she explains in the Afterword – I love an Afterword – has been to Thailand, and worked with elephant rescue projects, so she knows whereof she speaks. (I hope to have more to share after the weekend!)

It’s a grim situation, as I’m sure you know, and, like many grim situations in developing nations, it’s complicated by the fight for survival. For many Thais, elephants are their bread-and-butter, both as beasts of burden and, more, for their tourist potential. Gold addresses this dilemma in her novel without being overtly didactic, by having her characters see the situation with their own eyes, discussing it with each other, and weighing up the options.

“Be brave” (Deven)

The breaking is about two young Australian women, Hannah Bird, who has just arrived in Thailand as a tourist, unsettled and insecure because she’s lost her job, and Deven, who has been living there for some time and is involved in elephant rescue projects. They meet in a hostel lobby, as tourists do, and the experienced Deven invites Hannah to go to the night markets with her. From there, a friendship – and eventually something more – develops as the somewhat naive Hannah is drawn into the more experienced and confident Deven’s passions and views of the world. It’s not long before we discover the layers in the title as Hannah is introduced to the cruel practice of phajaan.

We follow their trajectory – told in Hannah’s first person voice – as they tread an activist’s path. It starts with involvement in organised, legal rescue projects that aren’t going to change the world quickly. However, as often happens to those who stay the course, they find themselves confronted with the ultimate activist’s dilemma of “how far will you go” for the cause you believe in? Always, it is Hannah following Deven, deeper and deeper into both political and personal engagement. Deven is driven to save those elephants, while Hannah, who believes in the cause, is more cautious, but, she’s falling for Deven, so, where Deven goes … the ending is powerful, confronting us head on with what can happen if you let passion rule your brain.

“We have to change the culture” (Deven)

Throughout all this Gold takes us on a journey through Thailand, showing it through the eyes of wide-eyed oblivious tourists, like Hannah, and those of the more experienced, aware Deven, who rejects the tourist path, the ladyboy shows, the elephant rides, and so on. Gold shares the food and culture of Thailand, using local words with little attempt to translate. She addresses this in her Afterword, explaining that although it is traditional to italicise foreign words, she “made a deliberate decision not to” do so here. Italics, she says, makes it easy for readers to “skim over foreign words” but she “wanted to encourage readers to engage with Thai language in the way that the Australian characters attempt to”. Gold’s solution is deft, because we readers puzzle and feel our way along with narrator Hannah, who is guided but not spoon-fed by Deven. Deven can be tender and caring, but she doesn’t mollycoddle!

However, if I have given you the impression that Hannah is all follower and Deven all leader, then you’ll have the wrong impression. Deven, alienated from her parents, has her own demons, and Hannah is not a push-over. As the novel progresses she takes in what Deven says but processes it in her own way. She sees “it’s not that simple; it’s not that black and white”, while for Deven it is simple. The denouement suggests where Gold lies, but the question remains for each reader, where do you lie? And, beyond that, whose rights should prevail?

Irma Gold’s The breaking reminded me somewhat of Madeleine Dickie’s Troppo (my review), which also explores the experience of young Australians caught up in unfamiliar lives and cultures, and who must forge their own way, morally and ethically, in places where the usual signposts are missing. Like Troppo, The breaking is an engaging debut novel that encourages us to consider some of the critical questions of our time.

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Irma Gold
The breaking
Rundle Mall, MidnightSun, 2021
271pp.
ISBN: 9781925227819

(Review copy courtesy MidnightSun Publishing via Brendan Fredericks)

Anna Goldsworthy, Melting moments (#BookReview)

Book cover

Melting moments is Australian writer and concert pianist Anna Goldsworthy’s debut novel, following her highly successful memoir of a decade ago, Piano lessons (my review).

Melting moments – for those not familiar with this Antipodean classic – are little shortbread-based biscuits (cookies) sandwiched together with buttercream. In titling her book by these little treats, with the added intimation of moments that melt our heart, Goldsworthy flags the tone and subject matter of her book. The tone is going to be gentle, and the subject matter domestic. The question is: does this make for an interesting book, or just a sweet one?

Overall, I’d say interesting. As a member of my reading group suggested, there is another connotation of the title, that of moments that melt away, of moments that don’t last. So, Goldsworthy’s Melting moments captures the life of a woman from the so-called “greatest generation”. Born between 1901 and 1927 (so my mother just misses it), they went though the Great Depression and World War 2. Sociologist Glen Elder suggests they came out of these experiences “with an ability to know how to survive and make do and solve problems”. This could describe Goldsworthy’s protagonist, Ruby, who marries Arthur, after a short courtship, on the eve of his heading off to the War. She might as well have the “war widow pension” he says, an idea that was, I think, behind a few marriages at the time. This social history aspect is one of the reasons for reading this book which takes us through the decades of marriage, children, empty nest, ageing parents, retirement village life, leaving us when Ruby reaches her early eighties.

This, I know, makes it sound like one of those big family sagas, but in fact it’s not, on two counts. First, it’s short, at just 230 pages, and second, it has no big dramas – just the little trials and tribulations of life.

“misplaced life”

However, this doesn’t mean the book is boring. Ruby lived in the pre-feminist world when women had few rights but many gender-prescribed responsibilities – stay-at-home, cook and house-keep, bring up the children, and keep the husband happy. Like many of her generation, she doesn’t rock boats, but knuckles down to it (using her consciously developed “resourcefulness” to help her along the way). But, she’s not blind to what all this means and, sometimes, she feels

the emptiness rush in at her, as if she were living on a road from nowhere to nowhere …

Or, occasionally wonders

whether life should be something more than a series of daily tasks, successfully dispatched.

Indeed, later in the novel, she considers a path not taken – one involving throwing it all in for the exciting man. But that way led to “briars … social condemnation; impecuniousness; the heartbreak of children”, and, anyhow, the man had removed himself. Nonetheless, she sometimes feels

as if she had missed a summons. As if she had somehow missed her life.

This situation, of course, is not unique to her generation, but it is true that making such a break in her era would have been more difficult. And, anyhow, Arthur, as Ruby recognises herself, was not a bad husband – just a “stolid” one – and their marriage was “more or less” successful.

The novel is written third person, but its focus is Ruby, meaning that the other characters are not significantly fleshed out. Most are nonetheless more than just simple stereotypes. The “stolid” but kind Arthur, for example, is more willing to accept daughter Eva’s grasping the freedom of the 1960s and 1970s than Ruby. And Eva, though frustrated with her mother’s conservatism and inability to understand the changing world, is a loving daughter who finds a balance between living her life her way and loving and supporting her mother.

Ruby’s parents have some individualised flesh on their bones too, but Arthur’s mother, Granny Jenkins who lives with them much of their married life, is rather more the stereotypical unsupportive, demanding mother-in-law. However, Ruby just gets on with that too – as most women did – organising things as much as she can to minimise the imposition .

Now, early in this post, I mentioned that this book, despite its chronological sweep, is not a saga. This begs the question of how Goldsworthy tells the story of such a long life in such few words. She does it by using an episodic structure, skilfully paced so that you always know where you are in Ruby’s life. The gaps are obvious, of course, but it’s also clear that we are getting the critical “moments” in Ruby’s life.

The end effect of all this is a quietly observed book, one unsatisfying for some, and perfectly satisfying for others, as my reading group discovered. Some of us wanted the gaps filled in. Why was Arthur released early from active service, for example. Others of us accepted that the focus was Ruby and what she thought and cared about. When the opportunity finally comes when Arthur might share his war story, she turns away and makes a cup of tea! “What’s done is done”, she says.

There is some humour in the book, and I did smile many times, but, while it felt like an Austen-ish story, it doesn’t have the sharpness of her wit. I must say that in a nicely observed story like this, I did miss that bit of bite.

Melting moments, then, did not exactly wow me, but neither did I find it trivial. Without being consciously political, it works as a reminder of those women who didn’t always identify what it was that caused their feelings of “emptiness”, but who just got on with it, and somehow managed at the same time to bring up the Evas who went on to grab the opportunities available. Goldsworthy has paid credit to them, in a warm-hearted and enjoyable book.

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Anna Goldsworthy
Melting moments
Carlton: Black Inc, 2020
230pp.
ISBN: 9781863959988

Shokoofeh Azar, The enlightenment of the greengage tree (#BookReview)

Book coverI bought Shokoofeh Azar’s novel The enlightenment of the greengage tree when it was longlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, for which it was also shortlisted. However, it was its shortlisting this year for the International Booker Prize that prompted me to finally take it off the TBR pile.

Born in Iran, artist and writer Azar was still a child when the Islamic Revolution started in 1979. She grew up there, and, as an adult, obtained work as an independent journalist. However, after being imprisoned three times, she fled Iran by boat, ending up on Australia’s Christmas Island, and was eventually accepted as a political refugee by the Australian government. She has written a children’s book and two short story collections, but The enlightenment of the Greengage tree is her first novel. Like many first novels, it feels autobiographical, though given the narrator is a ghost and Azar is clearly still with us, it is not exactly autobiography!

The story chronicles the lives, experiences, and reactions of a family caught up in the chaos and brutality of post-revolutionary Iran. This family comprises father Hushang, mother Roza, son Sohrab, daughter Beeta, and another daughter, the above-mentioned ghost narrator, Bahar. Following the 1979 Revolution, they flee Tehran for the remote village of Razan, which was untouched for years by the revolution, until it came there too during the Executions of 1988.

While the story is roughly linear, it does slide around a bit, so you need to keep your wits about you. It starts in Razan with Roza’s attainment of enlightenment “at exactly 2:35pm. on August 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree”, the same moment at which her son Sohrab is executed amongst hundreds of other political prisoners in Tehran. This, of course, is told to us by thirteen-year-old Bahar who, we don’t discover until chapter 5, had died in a fire set in her father’s library in 1979 by Revolutionary Guards.

Now, the book is described on its back cover as magical realist, but this is term I have been uncomfortable about ever since hearing Alexis Wright question it. I fear that with our rationalist Western minds, the description “magical” can carry a hint of condescension. Alexis Wright said that “Some people call the book magic realism but really in a way it’s an Aboriginal realism which carries all sorts of things.” Toni Morrison has spoken similarly. Azar, on the other hand, embraces the term, describing it like this: “People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems”. That makes sense. I also rather like this description in Wikipedia by Mexican critic Luis Leal. He says “to me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world” or, to be more specific, toward what happens to them. I guess it’s really a matter of a rose by any other name, and that the issue is less the term, than how we readers understand or approach what we read?

So, when I tell you that Roza finds enlightenment at the very top of a greengage tree, that the ghosts of 5000 executed people confront the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in his bedroom, that Beeta becomes a mermaid and joins the merpeople to escape the sorrows of the world, that forest jinns place curses, or, even, that the novel is narrated by a ghost, I am accepting that this is how the characters experience their world.

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is, then, the story of people in extremis. The background is the repressive regime, but the book’s ambit is much bigger. It’s about life and death, love and loss, and how those play out in brutal, politically-charged times. While “most people”, says Hushang, “wanted to get used to everything”, his family heads to the jungle town of Razan, where they think, foolishly as it turns out, they will be safe. When the revolution does reach them, the people are unprepared, and are left

wondering how they’d ended up in a game whose rules they hadn’t written. The game of aggressor and victim. A game in which it didn’t take long for the victims to become the aggressors; become victim aggressors… it wasn’t long before they forgot their myths and dreams, their history and balance …

With Sohrab soon arrested, our family soldiers on, each reacting to the brutality they confront in their very different, beautifully differentiated, ways.

Roza leaves home early in the novel because:

… she wanted to lose herself.  She didn’t want to sit in her newly rebuilt house and look at the freshly-painted walls, and the new furniture and carpet, and imagine how Sohrab was killed or how I suffered as I burned.  She didn’t want to think about the future and what other calamities might befall Beeta and Hushang.  She wanted to run away from herself, from her fate.  She didn’t want to be wherever she was.

Beeta, on the other hand, who had stayed and struggled, eventually transforms into an aquatic creature, “so as to experience and live life with a freedom that had been impossible as a human”. Meanwhile, Hushang, who also stayed, reads. He had “a thirst for reading”, a desire to be “connected with the world’s thinkers”, to distance himself “from the contemporary world of intellectual midgets that had overrun his country.” Eventually though, his reading brings him to “contemporary Iranian history; the place where all his questions turned to bottomless chasms”.

History is, in fact, a constant thread in the novel, one that is pored over from every angle – including an attempt by the people of Razan to discard it altogether. Azar shows, graphically, the damage done by those regimes which try to quash people’s past, their heritage.

Late in the novel, there’s a confrontation between Hushang and his brother Khosro who had taken a mystical path. Hushang is furious, arguing that “this mysticism game” had done nothing against the various atrocities and traumas, and criticising “smart people” like Khosro for hiding “in the safety of temples instead of doing something to fight the corruption and injustice.” Khosro, though, believes, probably realistically, that nothing can be done to avert the ongoing destruction of Iranian culture. He argues that “all I can do is not become tainted by something I don’t believe in.”

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is a wonderful read if you like books which pose these sorts of fundamental questions about how to live in difficult times. It could be a grim read, given the brutality contained within, but it’s not. It’s tragic, of course, but it has a sort of unsentimental, slightly melancholic tone that doesn’t weigh you down. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, Beeta tells Bahar that “imagination is at the heart of reality”. A perfect description of what Azar has done in this book.

In the front matter, Azar expresses gratitude to the Australian people for accepting her “into this safe and democratic country” where she can “have the freedom to write” such a book. We, however, should be grateful, in return, to have such a creator in our midst.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

Challenge logoShokoofeh Azar
The enlightenment of the greengage tree
Translated by Adrien Kijek*
Melbourne: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
268pp.
ISBN: 9780987381309

* Translator’s name is a pseudonym; the European edition was published with translator as anonymous.

Melanie Myers, Meet me at Lennon’s (#BookReview)

Book coverI was keen to read Melanie Myers’ debut novel, Meet me at Lennon’s, because it is set during the Brisbane of my mother’s early teens, that is, wartime Brisbane when her school, Somerville House, was commandeered in 1942 by the Australian Military Forces and served as a US Army Headquarters for the rest of the war. I grew up knowing this story, so was keen to see what Myers made of it, particularly since not many literary fiction novels, as far as I know, have tackled Brisbane during those times. Ariella van Luyn spends some time there in Treading air (my review) and David Malouf’s semi-autobiographical novel Johnno, which I read a long time ago, covers those years. However, being five years younger than my mum, Malouf was only 11 when the war ended, so his perspective is necessarily different.

Myers’ focus is the lives of women during those strange, heady days when women experienced new freedoms through filling the jobs left by men. Added to this was the excitement and glamour of the American GIs in town resulting in increased socialising at bars, like the titular Lennon’s Hotel, and dance venues, like the Trocadero.

It’s something isn’t it? It’s hard not to get caught up in the fever of having a common purpose. Uniforms everywhere and everyone feeling what they’re doing is important and useful. And the Americans, let’s not forget them. For all their braggadocio, they’ve certainly brought a touch of glamour to our little colonial outpost. (April 1943. p. 233/4)

But it was a dark time too. It was a time of austerity and rationing. There was tension between the Australian men and the Americans whose cashed-up glamour, with their gifts of “nylons” and fur coats, attracted the women. There was racism towards black American soldiers. And there was sexual violence against women. This is the complex world that Myers explores in her historical novel, Meet me at Lennon’s.

However, this novel is not straight historical fiction because Myers has taken the increasingly-common dual narrative approach, alternating between the 1940s and the present, when protagonist Olivia Wells is struggling, not only with her PhD on the life of a now-forgotten feminist author Gloria Graham, but also with her abusive (as it turns out) boyfriend, Sam, and the reappearance of her estranged father. Just like her 1940s counterparts, Olivia meets an American man. The stage is set in chapter 1 …

You might be getting a glimmer now of why Myers chose the dual narrative approach? It serves to compare the lives of women in the 1940s with those of women now, asking us to consider what, if anything, has changed? Myers undertook extensive research into wartime Brisbane, looking particularly at police and newspaper reports of crimes against women, as well as the infamous Battle of Brisbane. She uses this research to create stories of several young women in the 1940s, stories she winds around a plot based on an unsolved crime – the River Girl murder. Through these women we learn, for example, that crimes by Americans were mostly passed to their Military Police and quietly handled, with justice rarely being obtained for the victim. Such was the River Girl’s fate. Can Olivia and her friends solve it now? There is, then, also a mystery at the heart of this novel.

Myers does a lovely job of recreating the times. Her characters not only engaged me, but they felt authentic. There’s sturdy sensible Alice, who, having worked pre-war as a house-maid for rich people, sees the opportunity, now that she’s in a well-paid job, to buy a fur coat, just like her former employer had owned. To her horror, however, she soon realises that fur coats were “the gift of choice for women whom American servicemen ‘favoured'”. There’s Gwendolyn, engaged to the uninspiring Robert, but now having fun, as the much more exciting Dolly, with the “energetic” Corporal Charles Feely. There are several more, including those in the present time. One of the book’s challenges is keeping track of the characters and clocking the clues that might connect them.

Myers plays about a bit with her dual chronologies. Chapter 4, for example, is divided into three sections, September 1942, July 1942, then August 1942. The aim, I assume, is to reduce the focus on plot tensions, by preparing us for characters’ actions and feelings. In September 1942, Alice burns the above-mentioned fur coat she buys in July 1942. She also remembers a violent act by her brother when they are children, which prepares us for meeting him in August. And Chapter 12 is set in 1993, when we meet again, as an older woman, Alice’s friend Val from 1942. It works fine – and indeed meeting the lively Val again in 1993 provides some light relief, while also moving the more serious issues on.

The writing is generally sure and expressive. Myers writes some evocative descriptions, such as “a confident early sun fixed on warming the rest of the day ahead” and “the vaulted plaster ceiling of Reckitt’s blue was badly deteriorated and hadn’t felt the caress of a paintbrush in decades”. However, for me at least, she does overdo the similes. While, individually, most are fresh, they often felt irrelevant and distracting, such as “like a starlet’s eyelids, the brownout covers …”, “unfolding like a crumpled flamingo, Clio …”, and “the details landed like clumps of pelted sand.” Too much, I’m afraid.

Meet me at Lennon’s, which won the Queensland Literary Awards’ Glendower Award for an Emerging Writer in 2018, is a good and meaningful read about a significant and little covered period in Australia’s and Brisbane’s history. Early in the novel, Olivia’s American acquaintance Tobias refers to the racist segregation of black American soldiers during the war years, and sees a wider relevance:

“A place has got to come to terms with its ugly history, is what I think. Otherwise it metastasises like a cancer cell. And from what I understand, ugly history goes back a lot further here than just the war.” (p. 10)

In the end though, it’s the lives of women which are the central concern of this novel. The final chapter commences with a letter written by Rhia (Gloria Graham) in 1975. She admits that she had hoped to “undo” what had been done to Olive, the River Girl. However, she comes to realise that “there are some evils that no art form can make better, fix or even soothe”. Perhaps she’s right, but novels like this can keep the important issues front and centre – and there’s value in that.

Theresa Smith also appreciated this novel.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMelanie Myers
Meet me at Lennon’s
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
265pp.
ISBN: 9780702262616

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Elizabeth Kuiper, Little stones (#BookReview)

Book coverAnnouncing their 2019 longlist back in February (see my post), the Stella Prize judges said that they “wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference”. Elizabeth Kuiper’s debut novel, Little stones, may not exactly fulfil this wish for subversion and difference, but it is set in Zimbabwe, and that’s certainly a start.

The main story concerns 11-year-old Hannah’s life as the daughter of divorced parents – and what ensues when her mother decides to leave Zimbabwe, wanting to take her daughter with her. Her father’s up till then somewhat controlled anger against her mother intensifies, and he does all he can to prevent this happening, despite the fact that he has shown little commitment to the real business of loving and rearing a child.

It’s not a particularly new story, but this one has an added layer; it’s the early 2000s and Hannah and her parents are middle-class white Zimbabweans living under Robert Mugabe’s increasingly violent regime. Life is not easy for her family, which includes her tobacco-farmer grandparents, with African nationalism ramping up against what Hannah comes to recognise as “crushing colonisation”.

The story is told first person by Hannah, and this is both its strength and weakness. Strength because Hannah, though intelligent and observant for her age, is a naive narrator. She can only see through an 11-year-old’s eyes, while we, of course, know or can guess what is really happening, whether this is the political violence and corruption happening in the background (and sometimes even closer) or the more personal conflict happening between her parents. So, for example, early in the novel she hears her mother and grandparents talking, yet again, about the Warvets, whom she understands to be “a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe”. Finally, she insists on being heard:

Mum,’ I insisted. ‘I don’t want us to give our farm away to another family.’
‘Another family?’ Mum sought clarification.
‘The Warvets.”
Mum looked around the room, first at Nana, then Grandpa, and let out a sigh. She explained to me that the War Vets were not an extended family. They are a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.

The naive narrator voice achieves a few things. It conveys how unsettling it is for children to be living under stresses that they don’t fully understand, but it can also keep the tension down a little because the full horrors are not made explicit to us (albeit we can guess them.) Hannah is a lovely character, whose special and sustaining relationships with her best friend Diana Chigumba and the family’s Shona housekeeper (not “maid” says her mother) Gogo, are delightfully conveyed. She can, being 11, be naughty, but she’s at heart a sensitive, loving, well-adjusted child.

However, this voice can be a weakness too. It’s difficult to sustain the voice of a child – and unfortunately, perhaps, I’ve just read Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut which does it extremely well. Here, I felt that at times Kuiper’s Hannah used language and concepts that an 11-year-old would not use. We are told she’s intelligent, and good with language, but still I wasn’t always convinced. Here, for example, she talks about the guardianship court case her mother is fighting:

In the past, I would have tried to offer whatever morsel of advice I could manage, but as the court case progressed I came to realise that most of the time she was talking about herself, and so I absorbed her rhetorical questions as a necessary and cathartic part of the process for her.

This, and examples like it, seem rather sophisticated to me in both expression and idea. The question is, are we supposed to believe that this is 11-year-old Hannah telling the story as it happened or older Hannah telling the story? I’m not sure it’s always completely clear, but I felt it was intended to be the former.

All this brings me to the question of whether Kuiper’s story would have been better told as a memoir, because I understand that the novel is, like most debut novels, autobiographical. Of course, I don’t know where the facts of her life end and the fiction begins, but it’s a question that I pondered as I read. And, also of course, memoir would bring its own challenges for Kuiper that she may not have wanted to confront. I don’t blame her for that.

Anyhow, this is a minor quibble if you are prepared to go with the flow, which I decided to do. Kuiper handles well the challenge of conveying the difficulty of the situation for Hannah’s family as white Zimbabweans in an increasingly tense and dangerous atmosphere. She shows that it’s not all about race, or simply about race. There’s the issue of different races – Shona versus Matabele – and there’s class. Hannah’s best friend Diana, for example, comes from a well-to-do black family. Kuiper also handles convincingly the parallel, and perhaps most significant for Hannah, issue of separated parents wrangling over their daughter. The descriptions of Hannah’s father’s increasing manipulation of the system to get his way are infuriating if not chilling – but oh so real. Hannah, in fact, has to grow up fast if she is to survive this dual personal and political unrest she finds herself in.

Little stones is, then, essentially, a coming-of-age story, which also works as a Young Adult-Adult crossover novel. It offers something special to readers in both these areas because its perspective is a rare one for us to read here; because it is told with a lovely vitality and attention to the details of a life lived under complex political and personal circumstances; and because it manages to tread that fine line that shows rather than judges. And that, I think, is impressive.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeElizabeth Kuiper
Little stones
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
264pp.
ISBN: 9780702262548

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Angela Meyer, A superior spectre (#BookReview)

Angela Meyer, A superior spectreA superior spectre may be Angela Meyer’s first novel, but her already significant writing credentials, including being the author of the short/flash style fiction collection Captives (my review), and the editor of the anthology The great unknown (my review), ensure this is a confident debut. And it needed to be, because Meyer took big risks in this book – structurally, genre-wise, and with her characters.

Let’s start, however, with the title. It hints at genre, doesn’t it? And yes, this book does owe much to genre, but more to genre-bending than to simple genre. It has two storylines – which is part of the risky structure – one set in mid 19th-century Scotland, drawing on historical fiction, and the other also set in Scotland, but in 2024, making it more speculative fiction. There is also a touch of the Gothic here, with visitations, hidden rooms and madhouses, with dark thoughts and hints of perversion. But, the novel is more complex, more sophisticated than that suggested by this idea of two interwoven storylines from the past and the future. The two epigraphs that introduce the novel clue us into this complexity. The first epigraph is from Emily Dickinson and suggests that the “superior spectre” is not “external”, or “material”, but something “interior”, or “more near”, while the second, from Kafka, hints at the dark side of love and human nature.

These ideas are explored through the two main characters: Leonora, a young farm girl from the Scottish Highlands, and Jeff, a dying man who has “escaped” Australia (something that is difficult to do in his chip-controlled futuristic world) to die alone in Scotland. Leonora is poor, but well-read and resourceful; she’s a hard-worker and loves her father; she’s sensual, sexual, but not afraid to express it; and she has a mind of her own, but is independent rather than wilful. She is, in other words, easy to like and wish well for. Jeff, on the other hand, is more ambiguous, and thus a challenge for us readers. Not only does he admit to some questionable sexual proclivities, but his behaviour in Scotland, particularly towards Leonora, becomes increasingly selfish. He knows it, but in the end puts his needs and desires ahead of hers. How, though, given their different eras?

Well, let’s now turn to the structure. Meyer sets us up at the beginning with a comfortable, predictable structure in which third-person Leonora’s story alternates with first-person Jeff’s. There’s nothing particularly remarkable in this, but it doesn’t last. In Part 2 (of this four-part novel), Leonora’s story also becomes first-person. It happens because, as the back cover blurb has told us, Jeff is using some experimental technology (a “tab”) that enables him to inhabit Leonora’s mind, and at the end of Part 1 he decides to change how he brings her to us. His aim, he says, is to enable us to “partly inhabit her as well” though in so doing, he warns us, our thoughts too, like Leonora’s, may be “infected” by him. I like books in which the structure itself underpins the meaning of the work. In this case, the structure unsettles us – as in, where are we now, who are we with – and mirrors the discord being experienced by Leonora, who wonders

about how powerful our thoughts can be. We might think we are sick when we truly have no ailment. But if we present the symptoms, and believe them, are we not sick anyway? . . . I wonder if a person could learn to be aware of when the mind is influencing a bodily reaction, and also when an instinct is overruling the mind.

So, in A superior spectre, we have a destabilising structure, a slippery character in Jeff who knows he doesn’t deserve our sympathy but wants to justify himself nonetheless, and a creative intertwining of genres – but to what purpose? There are several, I think, some personal, some sociopolitical. The latter is obvious. For Leonora there are the gender expectations which limit what a young girl of her class and background can do: she cannot study at university as some young women she meets are doing; she cannot marry the Laird for whom she falls; and she cannot protect herself from being deemed mad when she admits to strange visions of flying machines and horseless carriages. For Jeff, whether we like him or not, there is the lack of personal freedom that comes with living in a so-called technologically-advanced (dystopian) society. It’s not completely coincidental that Meyer wrote her final draft of this book on Jura, where George Orwell finished 1984.

But, it’s the personal – particularly the grappling with one’s inner demons or “spectres” – that gives the book its greatest power. Jeff’s selfishness, his poor self-control and yet desire to explain himself to us, recall characters like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. It’s hard to completely hate a character who is so open about his self-disgust even while he does nothing about it, and who engenders at least some sympathy from his Scottish landlady. She doesn’t approve, but she doesn’t reject either. In the end, Jeff is more pathetic than hateful, partly because his “spectres” are plain to see.

Leonora’s “spectres” come from her challenge in matching her sensual nature with the life she finds herself in, from her desire to find that freedom espoused by John Stuart Mill:

It is difficult for me to read about freedom and tyranny without relating these words to my own situation. Mill’s number one basic liberty is a freedom of thought and emotion. The individual being sovereign over his own body and mind. But what if your thoughts are being suppressed not just from the outside, but from some inner tyrant also?

She knows her aunt wants the best for her, a “good” marriage, but fears this would mean

suppressing the thoughts and emotions I have? It is the opposite of liberty; it is to put myself potentially in the hands of another tyrant. I feel I am pressing at walls all around.

Jeff’s “infection” of her (his tyranny), then, can have multiple readings: not only is it a manifestation of his selfish disregard of others, but it represents her own inner spectres, and symbolises the male control she rejects.

A suitable spectre is not an easy book to pin down, but this just makes it more enjoyable. And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, how about that it offers an intelligent interrogation of past and future, of inner conflicts and outer challenges, through two vividly drawn, not-easy-to-forget characters?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAngela Meyer
A superior spectre
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2018
270pp.
ISBN: 9781925183917

(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe (#BookReview)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeTwo books came to mind as I was reading Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy swallows universe. One was Steve Toltz’s out-there book about fathers and sons, A fraction of the whole (my review), and the other was Tim Winton’s Breath (my post), which explores what it is to be a good man, but more on these anon.

I had three reasons for wanting to read the book. Firstly, it was my reading group’s first book of the year, and secondly, it was recommended by two people whose literary tastes often match mine, my brother and an ex-reading group friend. Finally, there was its Brisbane setting. I spent six special years of my childhood in the Sandgate area of Brisbane, where, I’d read, Dalton had also lived while growing up. Fortunately, all these reasons were justified as this novel is an excellent read – engrossing in content and intriguing in style.

Boy swallows universe covers around six years of its protagonist Eli Bell’s life, starting in 1985 when he is 12 years old and living with his mother, Frankie Bell, and stepfather Lyle. He and his mute older brother August are regularly babysat by Slim (based on the real criminal, convicted murderer Arthur Ernest Halliday) while Frankie and Lyle are out dealing drugs. Slim, for all his apparent criminality, turns out to be one of the most important wise people in Eli’s life – and, while he isn’t always around as Eli grows older, it is to Slim that Eli often speaks, consciously or subconsciously, drawing on his ideas and advice, as he faces life’s challenges. Eli’s relationship with Slim is just one of the threads and refrains that hold this big book together.

a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic

Terrible things happen in the book – and Eli and August are pushed around, buffeted by the things that happen in the adult world and over which they have little or no control. Part way through the book, having lived most of their lives with Frankie and Lyle in Darra (Brisbane’s southwest), they find themselves dumped with their damaged alcoholic father Robert Bell, whom they don’t know, and who lives in Bracken Ridge (Brisbane’s north in the Sandgate electorate). While Frankie and Lyle, for all their illegal doings, provide a generally stable home-life, the one provided by Robert is erratic, affected by his alcoholic binges. And yet, here too, the two resourceful boys find love – and more, support.

All this probably suggests to you a straightforward book about dysfunctional families, of which there are many these days. But, you would be wrong, because wrapped around the domestic is a story of drug dealing, drug double-dealing and violence, that takes this book into a whole other realm. In fact, the best way to describe it is as a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic. You with me?

Now, I’m going to shift gear a bit and return to those two books I mentioned in my opening paragraph. The book’s opening line is “Your end is a dead blue wren”, and we soon discover that these words have been written in air by August, who is sitting on their brown brick fence while Eli is being taught to drive by Slim. There’s a bizarre edge to all this which, in addition to the fact that the book is mostly about men and boys, fathers and sons, made me think of Toltz’s A fraction of the whole. However, while Toltz’s “bizarre” lies more in the absurd area, Dalton’s is more magical. There’s a red telephone in a secret room, for example, that always seems to ring when Eli is around. Who is at the other end? August at one point says it is he, but is it really? It doesn’t really matter, in fact, because the phone seems to be more about deflecting or, perhaps, relocating fear and trauma than about reality. It works because Eli’s voice and the sort of jaunty in-the-moment tone make it work.

More interesting to me, though, is the link with Winton’s Breath. They are very different books. For a start, Breath is more novella, while Boy swallows universe verges on the big, baggy monster. But, both books are fundamentally about what makes a good man – and, in neither case is the answer simple. In fact, it comes more often than not from flawed, if not sometimes bad, men. From early on in Dalton’s novel, Eli asks various men – family, friends, criminals, strangers – “are you a good man?” Many are surprised and know not what to answer. Gradually though Eli puts together his own picture from their answers and bevaviours, until, near the end, he says (addressing Slim in his mind):

This is what a good man does, Slim. Good men are brash and brave and fly by the seat of their pants that are held up by suspenders made of choice. This is my choice, Slim. Do what is right, not what is easy … Do what is human.

Now, before I get onto the writing, a bit about this genre-bending novel’s plot. As I mentioned above, the novel’s plot-line relates to drug double-dealing. This results, at the end, in quite a suspenseful, page-turning adventure that was much enjoyed by many in my reading group. But, not so much by me who finds reading action pretty boring. Indeed, if I have one question about the book, it’s whether it really needs the final chase. I think the point would have been made had the novel concluded just before it – but that final adventure will help the novel adapt well to film, and to a film that many will want to see, so I won’t be too churlish about it.

And, anyhow, it’s a small criticism because I greatly enjoyed the book. It is so well constructed. Little details dropped in one place are picked up in another; little verbal refrains recur adding both poetry and meaning without being heavy-handed. Even the curious, often cryptic, three-word chapter headings, like “Boy writes words”, “Boy steals ocean”, and “Boy masters time”, are explained late in the book when the Courier Mail editor asks Eli to tell his life in three words.

There’s also lovely descriptive, sometimes lightly satirical writing, such as this from the Vietnamese restaurant scene:

There’s two more tanks dedicated to the crayfish and mud crabs who always seem to resigned to the fact they’ll form tonight’s signature dish. They sit beneath their tank rocks and their cheap stone underwater novelty castle decorations, so breezy bayou casual all they’re missing is a harmonica and a piece of straw to chew on. They’re so unaware of their importance, so oblivious to the fact they are the reason people drive from as far away as the Sunshine Coast to come taste their insides baked in salt and pepper and chill paste.

Then, of course there’s the characterisation, and the first person voice. Eli is such a kind and likeable character. His coming-of-age is a tough one, but he’s positive, loving, open-minded and willing to learn. He’s also courageous. It could almost be schmaltzy except that you see the grit and know that he has been tested. More cynical readers might think Eli is too good to be true, but the book’s light tone and touch of magic remind us that this is not social realism. It’s “true” to the heart of what Eli (and I believe Dalton) experienced, but it’s not fact. It’s about surviving trauma. Dalton has, I’d say, found a perfect recipe for conveying dysfunction and accompanying trauma while also showing how it can be mentally and spiritually survived.

A good read, and a meaningful book that got my reading group off to a rip-roaring start for 2019.

Trent Dalton
Boy swallows universe
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2018
474pp.
ISBN: 9781460753897