What to read next: A sinister psychothriller and an epiphany in a park08/30/2023
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FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Catherine Chidgey, Europa, $32.99
Writing the young is hard, and worst when they are in an abusive situation. Catherine Chidgey’s novel tells of innocence becoming experience, gradually, and her form is the psychothriller. Justine is 12, and has a crush on her charismatic teacher, Mrs Price. What anchors the book is the precise details of a New Zealand childhood from late last century, the games, lessons and lolly cigarettes. Sinister is a constant undertone, from petty thefts and casual racism to the school’s Catholic doctrines. Mrs Price has more than her class in thrall, for Justine’s widowed father has also fallen in love with her. The tension rises, page by page, with abortion clinic picketing and finally murder. Chidgey maintains momentum, her narrative hooking the reader’s attention. It should make one hell of a movie.
Strangers at the Port
Lauren Aimee Curtis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $29.99
Sydney-born Lauren Aimee Curtis has already been named as a Best Young British novelist in Granta this year, so this second novel comes with expectations. It consists of three parts: the narrations of Giulia and Giovanna, two peasant sisters born on an island off Sicily, and that of a tourist, an Austrian Archduke. In the late 19th century the island follows immemorial rhythms, but change arrives. First come convicts, then the devastating phylloxera virus. It will force emigration, ending in Australia as an academic seeks the elderly Giovanna’s first-hand testimony. The parallels between modern eco-disaster and dislocation are clear, if not belaboured. The difficulty is that the pacing is languid, the lissom prose somehow lacking the urgency of what it describes. And quick Googling establishes that Archduke Ludwig Salvador, a “loose” model for Curtis, was rather more interesting than his fictionalisation, being a travel writer and early ecologist.
The Invisible Hour
Alice Hoffman, Scribner, $32.99
American writer Alice Hoffman has a long and successful career of bending genres. This novel uses the trope of travel into the past, not as young adult fare, but as high literary fandom. Teenage Mia has been reared in a patriarchal cult, where what is verboten for women includes libraries. Of course she disobeys, and discovers Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. She sees the parallels with her life; it radicalises her. That is one half of The Invisible Hour, the other being struggling writer Hawthorne himself. That Mia should enter the past, his present, is dandy; less is their affair, which pushes the book into historical romance territory. Hawthorne was a Victorian male, who memorably complained of “damned scribbling women”, authors of trash that prevented his literary success. Despite the evocative writing, the two halves of the book work against each other.
Yomi Adegoke, Fourth Estate, $32.99
It’s rare that a modern novel is bang up-to-date. The List comes with maximum hype and a television series in production. Its angle? How cancel culture affects a relationship. Michael and Ola are a young power couple in London, scaling the internet to success. What is different is that both are African. The novel begins with them engaged, out on the town drunk and happy. Next comes crisis, when Michael is named on an e-list of abusive males. At stake is their planned wedding, an extravaganza costing thousands of pounds, and also their love. The book adroitly details consumer and pop culture, gender and racial identity. Nothing is simple, least of all self-examination and remaking a life. Yet despite the book’s craft, the vitality of Bernardine Evaristo or Nnedi Okorafor seems missing: it becomes a bit of a slog.
NON-FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Better Than Happiness
Gregory P. Smith, Penguin, $35
After 10 years living alone in a rainforest in northern NSW, Gregory Smith was sitting on a park bench longing for a friend when he experienced a “full-blown vision”. Suddenly, he was in the middle of a smouldering battlefield surrounded by the ruins of his life. Sword in hand he stood ready for attack – only to realise that he was the enemy. He had been fighting himself for too long. In that moment of grace, he swore off the alcohol, drugs and cigarettes he’d used to dull the pain of his traumatic childhood. It was the beginning of a remarkable journey of transformation and acceptance that lead him from homelessness to a fulfilling job as an academic, from emotional isolation to unconditional love. The epiphanies that allowed him to turn his life around make this wise and self-searching memoir an invaluable handbook for those looking for a path out of their own dark forest.
Close to the Subject
Daniel Browning, Magabala Books, $34.99
“I am a storyteller – nothing more,” says Daniel Browning. He might well have said “nothing less”, as the pieces in this collection from his three decades of work as a Bundjalung and Kullilli journalist, radio broadcaster and writer reveal storytelling to be the most expansive, all-embracing of forms. This understanding of storytelling coheres around the presence of the storyteller as interpreter, medium, editor, critic, commentator and showcaser of Indigenous voices, whether he is talking to Doris Pilkington, author of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, teasing out the tale behind the plaster cast found in Lyon of an Aboriginal man from Fraser Island, reflecting on Warwick Thornton’s documentary about the uses and abuses of the Southern Cross or offering his own forceful critique of nationhood. “Australia is a shadow … It plays out like an in-joke; no one is quite sure when to laugh.”
A Clear Flowing Yarra
Harry Saddler, Affirm Press, $29.99
So accustomed have Melburnians become to disparaging the Yarra that a joyful book about this waterway would have seemed, not long ago, to be a contradiction in terms. Then came the COVID lockdowns and we started to see the river and its tributaries in a different light. Harry Saddler takes this new appreciation to even greater heights in a book that exudes an infectious and giddy delight for its subject. There are encounters with platypuses from the riverbank in a suburban park. There are evenings spent listening to and eyeballing powerful owls. There are sightings of Salvatore, the adventurous seal. As he immerses himself in the river and its environs, he also gets to know the human creatures – from the Yarra River keeper to the community groups – who share his love of it, swim in it and care for it. If you thought you knew the Yarra, Saddler will make you think again.
Laurie Steed, Fremantle Press, $32.99
Of the trials that heroes undergo in classical mythology, becoming a dad tends not to be one of them – which says a lot about traditional notions of masculinity. Laurie Steed believed he’d fashioned a workable “warrior-self” along the lines of the “tough, silent kind of manliness [that] was sold to us as boys”. Until fatherhood exposed his fault lines. As he stares into the eyes of his newborn son, he is struck by the fact that although he’s now a dad, he has not yet worked out how to be a man. Love, Dad is an open letter of gratitude to his sons for initiating him into a richer, more emotionally attuned version of manhood that fits his particular circumstances and deepens his relationship with his own father. This more nuanced self is not afraid to acknowledge his struggles, shortcomings and anxieties as a dad and a writer, while lovingly celebrating the wild ride of parenthood.
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