An Unflinching & Nuanced Portrayal of Australian Masculinity: Daniel Young Reviews ‘We. Are. Family.’ by Paul Mitchell

We. Are. Family. by Paul Mitchell Midnight Sun Publishing 2016

we-are-familyEach unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and it seems that unhappiness is passed down from each generation to the next. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger wrote that “the evidence that the effects of trauma can reverberate through generations—that history can be ‘embodied’—has steadily mounted” and that “a study at the University of Zurich has shown that stress in a male mouse can alter the RNA in his sperm, causing depression and behavioural changes that persist in his progeny”. Whether such inheritance really is physical, encoded in RNA, or cultural, passed down through the behaviour of one’s parents—or both—there’s certainly truth to the idea that family trauma can be difficult to escape from. In Australia, is toxic masculinity also passed down in a similar way through the inescapable expectations of the culture at large?

In Paul Mitchell’s debut novel We. Are. Family., familial trauma meshes with toxic masculinity to reverberate through multiple generations of the Stevenson family. The non-linear episodic structure of the novel—with a number of these episodes having appeared previously as standalone short stories—allows the novel to cross perspectives and generations as it tells the story of Peter Stevenson, his brothers Simon and Terry, their parents, grandparents and extended family.

The book opens with Ron Stevenson driving his family home, and some disconcerting perspective switches between Ron and his son Peter provide a picture of a working-class family, a troubled marriage, and confusion from Peter about why his Aunt has been put into “some kind of hospital”—a mental institution. Ron is straitjacketed by his masculinity: he observes his children sleeping as he drives and “wanted to reach over and touch them, but that was Julie’s job”. Peter, meanwhile struggles to understand the day’s events and is dealt a line that is all-too-familiar from my own upbringing: “Good boys should be seen and not heard”. And so from here, at the centre of this family tree, the story begins.

Shifting times and perspectives are often signalled through language and cultural references, both of which can feel overdone at times. Aussie lingo can come to sound like a caricature on the page, but it is being rendered realistically, so this complaint seems unfair. References to the zeitgeist—both the X-Files and the Three Colours films within a short passage—are sometimes dropped in purely as signposts, but at other times, such as in a reference to the recession “that goose Keating reckoned they had to have”, we see not just the events of the time but how they’ve impacted the lives of these characters. Among the lingo and sometimes frustratingly short, stilted sentences, there is also room for great humour and Aussie irony, poetic symbolism, and the healing power of art, drawing from Mitchell’s varied background as a published poet, playwright, screenwriter and essayist.

The non-linear structure is an effective device, allowing details to emerge throughout the book, though the chopping and changing of perspectives in short chapters makes for a stop/start beginning that takes some persistence. It’s worth persisting until the depth of each character grows and we’re treated to longer chapters in the book’s midsection, particularly those dealing with Peter, Terry and Simon as adults, and come to see how they’ve all been influenced by their childhood and coped with events in their own ways.

This is a very ‘male’ book in a number of ways, and privileges this perspective without letting the reader forget the lives of the women who are undoubtedly also key to this family saga. Paul Mitchell does well to capture the constraints, the humour, the vernacular and the ideas of family that come with Australian masculinity, while providing a clear-eyed view of the darkness that can result. We. Are. Family. is an unflinching and nuanced portrayal of Australian masculinity, mental illness and domestic violence, one that will resonate in an unsettling way with the upbringings of many Australians.

 – Daniel Young


Daniel Young is the founder and editor of Tincture Journal and has had short fiction published in Hello Mr. Magazine, Verity La, Mascara Literary Review, Seizure, The Suburban Review and Antithesis Journal. He is (slowly) reviewing all the novellas at and can be found on Twitter @jazir1979.

We. Are. Family. is available at

Where Ugliness Bides its Time: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘Breaking Beauty’ edited by Lynette Washington

Breaking Beauty edited by Lynette Washington MidnightSun Publishing 2014

breaking beauty.
The presentation and elucidation of beauty ceased being a primary aim of literature and visual art over one hundred years ago. This dismissal of beauty as a subject worthy of serious aesthetic consideration was new for visual artists, but not so new for writers, who always have peered deeply into the more unpleasant aspect of live, those areas, in fact, where ugliness bides its time.

In her introduction to the collection, Washington wrote that beauty is everywhere, but added the caveat that

Dualities allow us to understand things that are otherwise meaningless. There is no beauty without ugliness. We need to crack beauty open, we need to break it, to really understand it.

It may be true that there is no beauty without ugliness, but this seems to me to be erroneous, to be an attempt to state a matter of fact when no such statement is possible. Beauty, as with so many aspects of our experience of life, is relative to everything which surrounds it, and to the person experiencing it; but in these stories there is precious little beauty or understanding of what is beautiful within the ugliness. Unfortunately, Washington’s proposition appears to be a justification of the presentation of unpleasant stories which focus on relationships which haven’t worked, dead babies and school friends, the somewhat tedious mini-drama of demanding that a builder live up to the conditions in his contract, and more. The result is a collection of stories which verge on the pathological in their almost overwhelming negativity.

Amy Matthews, for example, in ‘This is the Body of Wonderful Jones’, presents us with a first person narrative about the narrator’s porn star twin sister, and the effect her existence has, especially when a man calls out wonderful during sex. Wonderful Jones’ body is watched, desired and surgically manipulated into a big breasted fantasy of beauty against which the narrator feels compared, against which she cannot compete. Moreover, at the end of the story, I had no sense about whether the narrator actually had a porn star sister called “Wonderful”, or if she suffered from a psychiatric problem, a delusion about a fantasy woman.

In Stefan Laszczuk’s ‘The Window Winder’ the narrator reflects on a fatal accident caused by his attempts to pick up the window winder handle of the car he was driving. The difficulty in doing this caused him to ram into the side of another car, and the impossibly sharp ladder he was transporting flew from the top of his car, through the open window of the other car, and decapitated the driver and passenger. What bothered the narrator still was the way the heads, rolling in the rear seat, came together and kissed, and how their hands were clasping each other when dead, but not prior to death. In the final paragraph Laszczuk writes:

Sometimes you just have to take what life gives you and try to remember that it is possible to find beauty in the worst tragedy.

Social platitude says that he is correct, but the story said nothing about beauty, nor was beauty his subject. Rather it conveyed a sense of somewhat flattened horror throughout, a sense that was not relieved by the simplistic, platitudinous comment at the end of the story. The subject, love and the presumption that it survives even the most tragic of deaths, was poorly developed in terms of the overall theme and provided no sense of satisfaction or narrative resolution.

Many of the stories in Breaking Beauty are the same: their subject is love, relationships and sex, with the unspoken presumption that beauty is lurking in the shadows of the situations presented, that they should be beautiful but in fact are not. In itself this isn’t a problem except that the book’s title, introduction and editor’s comments have led me to look for insights into beauty, for conceptual cracks, affirmations and evocations of both. Unfortunately these rarely appear in the stories, but when they do, the result can be quite chilling.

One such story is ‘O Lucky Man’ by Lesley Beasley. Richard, an apparently ill man, has driven to the beach for what may be the last time, and sits leaning against a child’s sand castle, trying to enjoy himself despite his pain and the rain coming down. From her beach house, Liliana is Listening to Chopin while thinking about her life—how long it has been since she played golf, why she had sold her husband’s business, her irritation with a new age spot. When she sees Richard watching the waves from the old hut, she makes a grand gesture:

A lucky man, she said to herself, no arthritis, no heart attacks. I spare you them all, she pronounced grandly, waving an imaginary wand. I give you wealth and health and a happy life. I give you love. And with a final theatrical flourish—I give you eternal youth.

We don’t know what is wrong with Richard, but we know enough to be certain that this blessing already is meaningless.

More directly focused on beauty is ‘The Beholders’, by Sean Williams. This story takes place in “the early days of d-mat,” when people were concerned that matter transmission would result in “a world of freaks and giant flies, or whatever.” At this time there was a system hack that, when installed in one’s home d-mat booth, slowly made the user more beautiful. In the year after Art had installed the hack, he noted that none of his friends complimented him on his increasing good looks. It was only when he confronted his friends directly that he discovered that they perceived none of his good looks, but thought he was aging and shabby. On investigating, he discovered that the d-mat hack produced an alteration in the brain which caused a change in self-perception so that the user thought they were beautiful, irrespective of their actual appearance. Art found others who had been tricked, forming a group called “The Beholders”, who found the man, and hacked him in return, so that he could see himself only as a “hideous freak.” Williams ends the story with a moral, which is a dangerous thing to do these days:

…in the time The Beholders had taken to catch the hacker, they had realised something very important. They were all getting older, like everyone else, no matter how they try to cheat. We all sag and lose our looks. We all shrink and fade away. But The Beholders will never stop thinking they’re beautiful.

This, to my mind, is the best of the stories which deal directly with beauty, if only because of the shock I experience when I look in a mirror and see just how far my experience of myself veers from the exterior. It also is one of the few stories which completely fulfils the editorial brief in a direct manner.

Equally compelling is ‘Thank you, Jean Harley’, in which Heather Johnson writes a sixty-one year old woman talking to her husband, Stompy, about their daughter while sitting at his grave. Pearl, the old woman, remembers the first time their daughter left home “for real”, how she had left Pearl a note saying Find love with Dad again. Let it in. Hold onto it. At the end of the story, Pearl acknowledges life itself, the life she lived with her husband, the life she is living as she talks to his absence:

This was her life, troublesome as it was, but here on this picnic blanket, talking with Stompy and remembering Jean, she knew it to be a beautiful thing. ‘Let’s both thank her, Stompy.’

The story conveys the sense of a satisfied, if not entirely fulfilled life, and provides the reader with a similar feeling, an understanding which the phrase “she knew it to be a beautiful thing” almost succeeds in destroying simply by being an unnecessary statement of what should have been obvious from the story, had it been developed a little more carefully.

More than anything else, the stories in this collection display an urge to see and experience unpleasantness and despair in the mundane, without taking the extra step that would bring beauty out of the background and into some focus. At the same time, and somewhat irritatingly, most of the stories are well enough written, in a technical sense, that they all are readable. Where they fail, and many of them do fail, is in the development of the ideas, in relating these to beauty and its failings in a satisfying manner. For this reason, the collection is less compelling and enjoyable than it should have been.

 – B. J. Muirhead


 B.J. Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at   and

Breaking Beauty is available from

A Deeply Personal Experience: Kate Pardey reviews ‘Peace, Love and Khaki Socks’ by Kim Lock

Peace, Love and Khaki Socks by Kim Lock. MidnightSun Publishing. 2013

peace love and Khaki socksIt is possible this is a timely book. It certainly is a well-written one, and the voice of protagonist, Amy Silva, is immediately likeable. Such is Kim Lock’s skill as a writer it is wonderfully easy to move into Amy’s world. But is what she is saying timely? Do young women today need to be encouraged to take control of one of the most important events of their lives? Do young women today even see childbirth as one of the most important events of their lives? And if they don’t, why should they?

I’m not spoiling anything by telling you this is a story of a woman’s efforts to take control of her life after she discovers she is pregnant. I am perhaps spoiling the review to say just by writing this I immediately have visions of John Belushi singing the lyric – ‘… sometimes it’s hard to be a woman….’ There were times when I sided with Amy’s friend and thought Amy spent a little too much time thinking about herself.

Well, now that I have declared myself to be the type of woman whose given birth under the desk at work I can say I enjoyed reading Peace, Love and Khaki Socks – mainly because it was amusing. Amy’s voice is distinctly Australian – there are plenty of words which would not be found in novels written by authors in other countries – which for me added to the humour. There is a vast array of characters, but given the subtext it’s not surprising to discover the best are women, girls especially. Whilst Amy’s husband is occasionally allowed to voice an opinion, and does tear his hair quite a bit, there’s, no doubting this is a woman’s journey and whilst for the most part ably supported, it’s a journey she mostly goes on alone. And this is where Kim Lock’s excels with her clear, telling evocations of what pregnancy is like for some women or how young girls feel when they get their first period or when they discover sex.

Kim Lock also writes evocatively of place. She is able to convey deftly in a few words not just what a place looks like but also, more importantly, how it feels. Darwin truly comes alive under Lock’s colourful description of energy sapping heat and the torturous wait for the dry to break. Her best writing is the writing of the quotidian. This is an important detail given Lock has decided to write a novel where on the surface seemingly little happens. But of course Lock’s cleverness lies in the fact that a huge amount does happen and that she can make the reader care is the mark of a good writer.

Given the propensity of today’s young women to take for granted the fact that their opportunities were hard fought for by the women who came before them, perhaps does make this a timely book. As does the inescapable reality that childbirth and motherhood will always be a deeply personal experience. Kim Lock has written an entertaining story and one that is reassuring for those embarking motherhood – far better I’m sure than my approach which was simply to let someone else do the worrying…..and then I was left – holding the baby.

– Kate Pardey


Kate Pardey is a Sydney based fiction critic.

Peace Love and Khaki Socks is available from

Risk Taking and Fast-paced Comedy: Heather Taylor Johnson reviews ‘Pangamonium’ by Zanesh Catkin

Pangamonium by Zanesh Catkin. MidnightSun Publishing 2012

Let’s begin with the cover: it’s shocking pink with black silhouettes of an inverted man, gun and elephant, and there is a dildo in place of the ‘i’ in its title, Pangamonium. Seriously a standout at any bookstore. Now, for the farce that lay inside….

Francis Germaine is a freelance writer whose occupation just took a very wrong turn in Africa to a culturally arid country, shaped like a kidney with a central question mark, called Panga. It is here, while in jail for a mismatched suitcase full of dildos, he meets Easter, an African who is in search of pirate treasure in the form of his grandfather’s own booty. While Germaine agrees to join Easter, for purely financial gains, the two become enmeshed in taking down a dodgy sex toy factory (what other type of sex toy factory would one expect?) which literally chains its underage workers to the job. Joining them is a Amila – a librarian who really needed to get out – and her destined lover Daeid – a Bollywood fanatic.

Though Pangamonium deals with major post colonial issues of capitalism in a third world country and child slavery, debut author Zanesh Catkin has written a fast-paced comedy. The narrative lends itself to many laugh-out-loud moments, and though I wanted to, and felt I needed to, I failed to fall prey to 90% of the jokes. But I don’t think it is reason enough for me to say the book isn’t funny. The book is very funny. It’s funny in its premise, it’s funny in its structure (the indexes, especially), it’s funny in its literary quirks (particularly the bastardised intertextuality) and it’s funny all the way back to the author’s imaginary origin we have no choice but to call his ‘bio’. There were times I began thinking that the book could be so much more if only there was more genuine tragedy, but that is pure bullocks on my part. There is plenty of tragedy in this book, only it is paraded around in near slapstick drag. If the tragedy of this book is that the tragedy isn’t tragic enough, then that is a tragic assessment, because to say this book should be or could be anything other than what it is – a political spoof, and a literary one, at that – really points to the pretenses of the critic, and if that were the case I would have to come back with, ‘then you write the book it should’ve / could’ve been; see if you can do something better’.

This is an adventure story, no doubt, and though I found it initially difficult to get into (there were days at a time when I didn’t pick it up, proving it to be a chore rather than a joy), something happened, and I’m not sure where it happened exactly, but something happened that made it ultimately difficult to put down. Either I had caught on or it had caught on or everything had simply fallen into place, but reading the book became an adventure in itself. And speaking of adventure, this is MidnightSun’s second book in its first year of publishing. Publisher Anna Solding has made a bold choice with Pangamonium as a follow up to her own ethereal very-literary The Hum of Concrete. It leads us to question what will come next. But for now it is Catkin’s turn, whose literary prowess particularly shines in Francis Germaine’s incidental, penned-along-the-way articles, and in Easter’s enormous and disarming character. Truly one can see the risk taker that Catkin is when, like a ray of sunlight in a boarded up cave, he gives us something spiritual in a corporal way. Rather than spoil the plot, I’ll just say the ending takes the book to an inspired level.

–  Heather Taylor Johnson


Heather Taylor Johnson is the author of two poetry books, Exit Wounds and Letters to my Lover from a Small Mountain Town. Her third collection will be out in February from IP. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and occasionally teaches it at Flinders University. Her first novel, Pursuing Love and Death, will be published by HarperCollins.

Pangamonium is available from MidnightSun Publishing:

A Sparkling Constellation: Kate Pardey reviews The Hum of Concrete by Anna Solding

The Hum of Concrete by Anna Solding. MidnightSun Publishing. 2012

There should be a rule against acknowledgements at the end of a novel. How can readers be expected not to keep on reading? As I blithely turned the pages at the end of Anna Solding’s excellent novel The Hum of Concrete I was confronted with some details about its inner workings that I would rather not have known. It was similar to watching a woman being sawn in half and then being taken back stage to be shown how the woman contorts herself into small boxes while the saw cuts through only a hair’s breadth away from her toes.

Spoiler alert, spoiler alert …. We’re told in the acknowledgements how some of the stories which make up this novel existed independently and then how good friends, and there seems an army of them, helped Solding in those last intense months when she ‘frantically tied all the strings together’. To her credit Solding does tie those strings together beautifully; the ending of The Hum of Concrete is as satisfying as the ending of any good novel and her friends deserve their acknowledgements.

There are many novels which are a combination of short stories, deftly woven together, think Julian Barnes, David Mitchell or Gail Jones but perhaps there could be a new name for this kind of novel? A decameron novel perhaps?

The Hum of Concrete is called ‘a novel constellation’ which is as good a name as any. Is this a confession that the author does not see this as a novel at all but rather a collection of short stories, which like a group of stars, will eventually, form a recognizable pattern. This is not a criticism of the Solding’s work just a perspective of a reader who likes to know what kind of book she’s buying or borrowing before she commits.

Interspersed amongst Solding’s intriguing stories of five main characters are wonderful evocations of what life is like in the  Swedish city of Malmo. We’re given vivid descriptions of Malmo in the quiet of winter, lively markets in summer, picnics in parks and feeding the ducks all of which work to give greater depth to her stories. Sometimes these places seem incongruous with her characters’ lives although perhaps that is what Solding is trying to tell us; that lives can get too caught up with people and rather we should spend more time enjoying the beauty of what is around us, the seasons, ripening fruit and even hissing geese.

This wariness of people is a theme also played out in Solding’s clear and deep appreciation of children. All five women are mothers and whilst their children have the capacity to bring worry and fear into mothers’ lives they also have a capacity to bring love and to help adults make sense of the world around them. The trajectory of these women’s lives seems solely propelled by their relationship with their children. Perhaps on a second reading partners will appear more centre stage or better still this will happen in Solding’s next novel; her ability to deal with the complexities of relationships would work well on a bigger canvas.

A secondary theme, which reinforces her main message, is the idea of gender. Solding looks at people’s ability to cope with what is different, the failures and successes of acceptance. This aspect of the novel is thought-provoking and is too large an issue to be left on the periphery. These are small criticisms of what fundamentally is a very good  ….. decameron novel/novel constellation.

MidnightSun is committed to an honourable cause; in these troubled times they are prepared to take risks but, I would suggest,  their publication of Anna Solding’s The Hum of Concrete was never a risk but rather a guaranteed success.

-Kate Pardey


Kate Pardey is a Sydney based fiction critic.

The Hum of Concrete is available from MidnightSun Publishing: