Answers Just Beyond Our Grasp: Colleen Keating launches ‘Black Mountain’ by Carol Chandler

Black Mountain by Carol Chandler, Ginninderra Press 2017, was launched by Colleen Keating at Better Read Than Dead Bookshop, Newtown, on 6 August

Carol Chandler, (left) and Colleen Keating at the launch of Black Mountain

Firstly I invite a pause for us to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, on which we gather and   to pay respect for Elders past and present.

What a gathering in this wonderful environment of books and music and art, and what a great honour for Carol that you have taken the time to be with her to celebrate.

Most of you would be aware writing is a lonely trek, a long haul,  a footslog, an odyssey. Sometimes lost in the bush,  sometimes all at sea, sometimes desert-dry, sometimes energising but mostly a solitary and gruelling task. As a writing community we appreciate that, and we are here to honour the loneliness of the long distance writer and to celebrate Carol’s successful outcome. And what an outcome.

Black Mountain is a psychological thriller –  and what a thriller. What a journey!  We are taken by the narrator, Sarah, into the back waters of a country area, a place up in the hills not far from the coast in a lonely desolate ‘neck of the woods’.  Sarah, a teacher  has escaped from this town and this life, but on, page one, she is drawn back into its eerie world  trying to make sense of the past and find out what really happened to her brother Liam who died in a house fire.  By page eight we are woven into the mystery and, for us, there is no return .

You and I know how easy it is to get caught back into the dark web of our past,  –   into the tangle of relatives, families , friends. . . where there are all the hurts and intrigues, suicide, murders, lovers, drugs  and especially secrets, lies and cover ups.

People are watching …..the threat of dogs always in the background..… the sharpness of the knife edge that glints in the moon light…….   that scary feeling you are being followed and  that strand of foreshadowing…. and  of course the world of gossip.

Even when we escape to the coast, the ocean doesn’t give us reprieve, not even a breather. We are kept in the dark web of intrigue.

Carol has given us a thriller. Everyone loves a good mystery……  but here there is the added complexity of human psychology,   what’s beneath the surface in human action and reaction .

The pivotal characters Freya and Tyler and the mystery of Lola a young girl who has disappeared, gives us a sense of place and how that connects with identity.

And with  the pains of the past that hold their secrets and hold us in their mystery, we become caught in the struggle and search for meaning.

What is it all about? ……. We are immersed in a thriller . . . a metaphor for life, where the questions materialise at every turn, but the answers are just beyond our grasp.

The many characters, that fill this small world of intrigue, even Aden and Radic and the dogs Nero and Jet and the mountain all are colourful and well formed. One could possibility recognise archetypes from Carl Jung’s  collective unconscious but this is held lightly,  This is not a philosophy book, it is a short psychological thriller to take to bed,  or curl up one rainy afternoon and enjoy an escape for a few hours.

Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter says: “Words are in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic” and Black Mountain has the magic of a good read.

I  congratulate Carol and proudly declare Black Mountain launched.


Black Mountain is available from https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/store.php?product/page/1373/%2A+Carol+Chandler+%2F+Black+Mountain

Colleen Keating. belongs to the Women Writers Network that meets every Wednesday at the NSW Writers Centre in Roselle .  Her collection of poetry, A Call to Listen is available from Grinninderra Press and her second collection, Fire on Water, is forthcoming from the same publisher. Colleen can be found at http://colleenkeatingpoet.com.au/

Intensity and Focus: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV’

Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV, edited by Julianne Schultz, Text Publishing


gr54-novellaAs the subtitle suggests, this is the fourth year in which Griffith Review has dedicated its annual fiction edition to the novella, ‘those stories’, as editor Julianne Schultz put it in her introduction to the first edition in 2012, ‘that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.’ By undertaking its novella project, Griffith Review has made a significant contribution to the revival of the novella form. Seizure runs an annual Viva La Novella competition, publishing its first winner in 2013 and some individual short fiction collections now include novellas, such as Here where we live by Cassie Flanagan Willanski and Australia Day by one of the contributors to Earthly Delights, Melanie Cheng, which won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

From its inception, Griffith Review’s novella project has presented a mix of contemporary and historical fiction, of well-known and emerging authors. It has delighted readers especially with its novellas’ intensity, achieved in part as a result of their strong focus on character. It is that intensity and focus, I suggest, which makes these novellas linger in the mind long after they have been read the first time.

This year’s edition, entitled Earthly Delights, features five novellas selected from 177 entries, and all are contemporary.

In her novella ‘Muse’, Melanie Cheng focuses on an elderly man who grieves for his late wife Lola. Cheng hooks the reader in her first lines by displaying her skill at detail, simile and alliteration:

I’ve neglected her. Her ceilings are soft with cobwebs. Her garden is choked with weeds. Her fence leans, like buckteeth, out onto the footpath. She is getting old, and noisy. Like me, with my snorts and grunts and farts that catch even me by surprise. Her doors creak, her heating claps itself to life, and her pipes splutter up their rusty sputum.

The first person narrator is somewhat estranged from his daughter Bea. One night Bea brings her lover Edwina for dinner, and Edwina, an artist, sparks in him a renewed interest in creativity, and he joins a life drawing class. His focus on the model in turn propels his reflections about his late wife and his former lover. A moving story about family and an elderly man’s life and memories.

Graham Lang is a writer and visual artist who grew up in South Africa and Zimbabwe. His novella ‘A fulcrum of infinites’ explores the meaning of home, ownership and belonging. A terminally ill Aboriginal man, Saul, travels to the Australian outback to die on the land of his ancestors. He settles on the ground under the only tree he can find, close to the house of an elderly farmer who wants him to leave, especially after Saul explains that his ancestors once roamed this land. Lang’s story focuses on the changing nature of the relationship between these two men.

In its focus on an Aboriginal man, ‘A fulcrum of infinites’ does, however, raise the issue of cultural appropriation (http://www.annettemarfording.com/cultural-approriation/) which raged recently in response to Lionel Shriver’s opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of whether authors should be free to write from any perspective and point of view, for those who create an Aboriginal protagonist it is crucial to make him or her authentic, and I’m not sure whether Saul fulfils that criterion. Apart from that reservation, this novella is haunting and well written. Lang’s skills as a writer are particularly evident in his creation of a strong sense of place and in his development of the two characters through their dialogue.

Interestingly, Daniel Jenkins’ novella ‘Those boys from Jalaan’ gives rise to a related issue of authorial freedom. This is not because his novella is set in rural Oman – Jenkins uses his own teaching experience there to good effect, and his main characters are Australian and American teachers –, but because his two protagonists are women, one of whom is sexually assaulted. Despite a small niggle in that respect, ‘Those boys from Jalaan’ gives a good insight into the lives of expatriate women working in an Islamic country.

Although the quality of the writing is high in all these novellas, it jumps to another level with the utterly compelling novellas by Suzanne McCourt, ‘The last taboo: A love story’, and Stephen Orr, ‘Datsunland’, which at more than 100 pages is the length of a short novel. Both McCourt’s and Orr’s latest novels were longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and both were on the respective lists of my top ten reads in 2014 and 2015 (www.rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/12/12/annette-marfordings-best-reads-of-2015/) respectively.

In Suzanne McCourt’s case that novel was her 2014 debut The Lost Child, in which McCourt excelled at creating the voice, world and wonder of a young child growing up in an environment of fear, poverty and her mother’s mental breakdown in the aftermath of domestic violence. In her novella ‘The last taboo: A love story’ McCourt shows herself to be equally masterful in immersing the reader in the inner and outer life of a woman in search for – and eventually reunited with – the son she gave up for adoption at birth. Her use of the rarely used second person point of view is wonderfully suitable because the directly addressed reader is pulled even more strongly inside the narrator’s emotional turmoil of grief, guilt, fear, joy and love.

How does a mother greet a son she has not seen for twenty-three years? Are there rules for such occasions? Accepted etiquette? There is a moment after he closes the door when you’re both standing in the entry hall with barely room to move, and neither of you knows what to do. Your face feels tight with shyness, your mouth dry. But there is a strange recognition pushing into your brain: you are looking at yourself; you are looking at Jim; why hadn’t you expected this? And suddenly you are in each other’s arms.

You can feel the focus, the intensity. And in terms of where she takes this mother’s love, McCourt shows herself to be as fearless as Peter Goldsworthy in his novel Wish in creating an utterly plausible result of overwhelming love.

Stephen Orr’s latest novel was The Hands: An Australian Pastoral (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/05/19/the-politics-of-the-australian-pastoral-jonathan-dunk-reviews-the-hands-by-stephen-orr/). In that poignant and haunting novel Orr explored the impact of the drought on the family of a cattle farmer. His accomplishments as a writer were evident in his psychological insight into his characters, the sparkling dialogue between them, and the spare, vivid detail he brought to conveying the dusty, barren landscape. He displays the same skills in his novella ‘Datsunland’. This time the setting is urban and the relationships he explores are those between a teenaged boy and his father and especially between the boy and his guitar teacher at the private Catholic school which both of them loathe. Orr cleverly makes use of the ongoing child sexual abuse scandals, especially at private schools, to make the reader worry for the teenager’s safety as the relationship between him and the guitar teacher grows ever closer.

Earthly Delights finishes with a special gift to the reader: an extract of the novel The White Experiment which Cory Taylor was writing when she became too ill from her melanoma-related brain cancer to continue. The book Dying: A Memoir she wrote instead – in a few weeks – was published six weeks before her death and gained international acclaim for its power, courage and clarity. The novel extract is bittersweet because every reader will mourn the loss of this immensely talented writer even more while reading it.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, blogger and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors http://www.annettemarfording.com/celebrating-australian-writing/ features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV is available from https://griffithreview.com/

A Slightly Frustrating Novel : Mark Roberts Reviews ‘Black Mountain’ by Venero Armanno

Black Mountain by Venero Armanno UQP 2012

black mountainI have a pile of books on desk waiting to be reviewed or to be more correct, waiting for me to have the time to review them. Black Mountain by Venero Armanno has been waiting longer than most. Published in 2012 it was one of those books that intrigued me with its back cover blurb about a boy being sold into slavery to work in the sulphur mines of Sicily over a century ago. Finally, four years late, I finally picked it up.

Interestingly, after finally reading it I had to wait a few weeks before putting pen to paper. The novel itself was relatively easy to read once you get into it and has a strong central narrative that drives the reader forward. But it is also working on a number of different levels, and not all of them are successful.

Black Mountain opens with a man dreaming of a creature with no face. The man and the creature are in a bare room and the creature begs for the man to strangle him one senses to put him out of his misery. As he chokes the creature the blank face takes on the form of the man strangling him. The dream belongs to Mark Alter, a twenty two year old university drop out living alone outside a small coastal town in Australia. He has been having the dream about the creature for as long as he can remember. One night after watching a movie in the town cinema he decides to write a film script featuring the creature and then sends it off to a well known film producer. A few weeks later the producer contacts him and accuses him of plagiarising the creature from a novel called Black Mountain by a writer called Cesare Montenero.

Alter finds a copy of the book and finds that his creature really does feature in Montenero’s novel. He then attempts to track down the elderly and reclusive Montenero in an attempt to understand how they can share the same creatue. When he finally does tracks him down he finds that Montenero has fled and that his home, or more accurately a mansion, is empty. But he also finds a metal box with a manuscript inside and it is this manuscript which provides the bulk of Armanno’s novel . The manuscript is split up into a number of books (Black Book, Blue Book, Green Book etc) and details Montenero’s life from his days as a young slave working in the sulphur mines of Sicily to old age in Australia.

It does, however, takes 30 pages to get to the beginning of Montenero’s manuscript and I had rapidly become tired of the story of Mark Alter by that point. Alter is a very one dimensional character and his story so unlikely that it was only my interest in how we would get to the sulphur mines of Sicily that kept me going.  But the manuscript is a different matter. The character of the young Montenero is richly drawn and the dissolution and hopelessness of the sulphur mines, and the child slaves that are forced to work there, stands out. This is powerful narrative writing which continues through much of the rest of the novel as the young Montenero escapes and is rescued almost on the point of death.

As the story unfolds, however, we begin to learn more about Montenero’s background. He was not, as he thought, sold into slavery as a young boy by his family, rather he was the result of a long running experiment to ‘clone’ humans, an experiment which was shut down during WW1. As Montenero learns more about his background the narrative again starts to break down as the fantasy element of the novel, a sort of Victorian genetic enginering, begins to assert itself.

Black Mountain is for me a slightly frustrating novel and I sense that Armanno is trying to do a little too much in it. I did note that he has written a number of young adult novels (along with another 9 novels) and I did feel at times, particularly during the Prologue, that there elements of a YA novel close to the surface. Perhaps as a result I felt Black Mountain to be a uneven novel, which is ashame because when it is good, such as in the large section revolving around the young Montenero’s life in Sicily, his escape from from the sulphur mines and his rise and fall as a writer, it is very very good. There is just too much getting in the way of the core narrative. As an editor I would have perhaps suggested ditching the Mark Alter character completely and concentrating purely on the life story of Montenero. The novel may have been slightly shorter but you would be thrust into the drama of the sulphur mines almost from page one.

So in the end Black Mountain didn’t quite live up my expectations, which were perhaps a little high given how long I had waited before reading the novel. I felt a little like finally drinking a wine that had been cellared for years only to find that it had just past its peak.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and publisher of Rochford Street Press. His collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February 2016.

Black Mountain is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1205/Black%20Mountain

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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

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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 allthenovellas.com and can be found on Twitter @jazir1979.

We. Are. Family. is available at http://midnightsunpublishing.com/shop/books/we-are-family/

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: ‘Traitor’ by Stephen Daisley

Chris Palazzolo reads Traitor by Stephen Daisley, Text, 2011

TraitorSome national mythologies cry out for re-examination, especially after they’ve been around for 100 years. One such myth is that of ANZAC, which last year marked its 100th anniversary. I can think of no better re-interpretation of the ANZAC myth than Stephen Daisley’s novel Traitor.

Time in this novel is very complex, but can be reduced to two absolute pasts; the closer, but still closed off past of 1940s rural New Zealand, and another, further back past of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Each of these pasts slip and shift into the foreground of the narration like shifting plates of memory and presence. The lapidary style of the novel gives a pebbly consistency to these plates, as if a life consists of tiny stones of poetic events and recollections that together in the course of growth and change begin to look fluid, like tectonic movements make solid rock look fluid. The big guns of Gallipoli set the plates in motion; their sound reverberates through the novel’s thirty year time span.

If one lays these pebbled plates out flat one can see that the presence is that of a farmer in New Zealand working his cold paddocks. Solitary, largely avoided by his neighbours, he is harassed by military police because he was court martialled for desertion in the First World War and so is seen as a security risk during the Second. The memory is of the circumstances that led to his desertion 30 years prior; as a young soldier in the ANZAC – a shepherd boy in uniform and with a gun fighting in a war he knew nothing about – he befriended, while on sentry duty, a maimed Turkish doctor who was a POW and tried to set him free, but was captured, court martialled and instead of being shot sent to the next worst thing, bomb disposal in no man’s land on the Western Front.

The memories of what he did, and what he lost, are what sustained him in the terrible decades of loneliness and ostracism that followed. These memories go to his motives. This is the central mystery of the novel; why did he set the enemy doctor free. I would summarise it this way – moved to pity by the doctor’s suffering, enchanted by the doctor’s Sufi words, his mind pummelled to a perpetual present by non-stop bombardment, the young shepherd soldier turned to god. His foolish act on this conversion meant surrendering himself to the harshest judgement of the world of nations – treason. The nation brought the full weight of this judgement to bear on him and crushed his sovereign subjectivity, but in the process saved his soul which, freed by the act of love (setting the doctor free) was purified by the abnegation that followed. The love meant more than just treason. It was also a breach of faith which can only be described as apostasy; the act and the love which motivated it effectively amounted to a conversion from one native faith of nation and people to a higher faith of God of all humanity (conversion is always to a higher faith).

From the perspective of a military mythology, the soldier is a weak-minded fool, and the non-military purity of his motives count for nothing in that judgement. But the ANZAC myth is unique among military myths in that, despite attempts to jingoise it, it remains a negative military myth; first of all, it commemorates a defeat; and second, it honours the Turkish defenders. But this is because ANZAC is not a military myth at all. It is, in fact, a tragic strophe in a pastoral epic. The Gallipoli campaign echoes deeply in the Australian and New Zealand psyches because it melded so poetically into the long pastoral eras of those countries; geopolitical events as mysterious to the Australasian mind as the inner workings of the seasons suddenly causing the deaths of thousands of young men; an event so inexplicable it seemed like a catastrophe of nature. The mythology is wide open to metaphysics. Traitor subverts many received notions of ANZAC, but without ever diverting from a logic intrinsic to it; mateship elevated to the love of an enemy soldier, not out of a desire to see that soldier’s country win, but out of love of his godliness. Where in the myth of Agincourt for instance would there be room for an English soldier to desert with a Frenchman? No matter how pure his motives might be, Agincourt is a glorious myth of victory for the English, so his actions could only ever be conceived of as treasonous. By following rigorously the trajectory that the ANZAC myth points towards (and which no other novel has ever done) Traitor moves us beyond nations and peoples and even histories to an event of cosmic significance; the making of a Holy Idiot.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

Traitor is available from https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/traitor

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Vale Gillian Mears

meares meanjin

Gillian Mears cracking stock whips against a Grafton storm, 2002. Photograph by Peter Mears. Published in Meanjin in 2012.

Gillian Mears died on Monday on her family’s property near Grafton. She had been suffering from multiple sclerosis for almost 20 years.  Her collection of short stories, Ride a Cock Horse (1988) and her novel The Grass Sister (1995) were both short listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes, and her novel The Mint Lawn won the Vogel Literary Award in 1990. In 2012, her first novel in 16 years, Foal’s Bread, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and won the fiction prize in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards – it was also reviewed by Kate Pardey in Rochford Street Review Issue 3.

Mears has been remembered by many at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this week as a great and courageous writer.

“The real extent of Mears achievement is, as with all good books, only fully understood after the last page is read”.  Kate Pardey, Rochford Street Review.

The Politics of the Australian Pastoral: Jonathan Dunk Reviews ‘The Hands’ by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr Wakefield Press 2015

The HandsPastoral’, from the Latin word for shepherd, denotes a form of verse composed in praise of rural and bucolic life against the urban and mercantile. It was inaugurated by Theocritus in third century B.C.E Sicily, but typified by Virgil’s Eclogues composed between 44 and 39 B.C.E. Classical poets often associated rural life with Hesiod’s Golden Age, and the form rapidly evolved into an idealized and loftily conventional aristocratic parlour-game divorced the actualities of agricultural conditions; like a farm themed costume party thrown for the privileged kids at St. Paul’s. Ironically enough the genre was moved closer to realism by John Gay’s extravagant parody The Shepherd’s Week in 1714 which juxtaposed the elegant formulas of pastoral poetry with the crude realities of rustic life. Virgil’s fourth eclogue, ‘Pollio’, proclaimed the Golden Age inaugurated by Augustus, and constituted an extremely potent political mythology, later fulsomely exploited by the Christian allegorists as Frank Kermode writes in The Classic (1975). Even at its most idealized and nostalgic, the pastoral form is intricately dialectical, and keenly political.

In the colonial era the pastoral, like many forms of landscape writing, was pressed into the service of what Paul Carter calls the “fabric of self reinforcing illusions” of colonial discourse which Edward Said defines as “the ideas, forms, and imaginings” that legitimate(d) imperium. In Australia the most potent article of this process was the doctrine of Terra Nullius in which the continent was imagined as a tabula rasa ripe for European settlement and cultivation. Of course, the land wasn’t, and isn’t empty, but inhabited by a pre-existent and sophisticated culture of land-management, one albeit, profoundly antithetical to European systems of cultivation. In these forms of colonial contexts, landscape genres like the picturesque and the pastoral acquire a particularly poignant ideological freight as mechanisms by which “colonial space is rendered familiar and manageable according to western schemes of representation, as Jeanne van Eeden writes in a study of South African architectural politics.

In his 1993 article ‘Pastoral and Priority: The Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral’ Ivor Indyk traces representations of the antithetical other through a genre which he understands as haunted by “a sense of violation, caused by an upheaval… the displacement of an Indigenous population by the settlers of a colonizing power.” Indyk considers the idealized Rousseaian representations of the Aboriginal-as-noble-savage in Australian colonial poetry a presence which “unsettles the affirmations of the pastoral song” and therefore argues that the success of this genre in effacing the prior claim of Aboriginal custodians is at most “limited and partial”.

Writing, perhaps, in a more cynical time I’d argue that the claim to “a deeper and more basic” connection to country which Indyk finds articulated in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo (1929), in which Aboriginal people are figured as the simpler children of an essential ‘life force’, merely constitutes a more sophisticated, and therefore more insidious, form of colonial discourse.

From the current vantage, Coonardoo reads as heavy-handed, and paternalistic novel which rehearses Daisy Bates’ disingenuous ‘smooth the pillow of a dying race’ dictum rather than critically engage the material conditions of Australian colonialism. A disappointing turn, given Prichard’s Marxist inclinations.

Stephen Orr’s new novel The Hands was published in late 2015, and is currently under consideration for the 2016 Miles Franklin prize. The Hands is a cyclical, familial pastoral circling the red soil of the Australian interior. ‘Bundeena’, the farm worked by six generations of the Wilkie family, straddles the territorial edge of the Modern Project, on the lip of the Nullabor desert, where the east-west rail corridor thunders by, and where “man” according to Trevor Wilkie, “had given up agriculture”. Already, on it’s fourth page, you’ll note that the text denies Aboriginal land management practises the dignity of cultivation. ‘Bundeena’ is a Dharawal word meaning ‘like thunder’, which in Sydney is traditionally associated with the waves. In Orr’s arid setting, four hundred miles from the coast, the etymon acquires more ominous connotations. The name is one of the text’s notably scarce allusions to Indigenous culture, a fact to which I will return.

The novel’s dust-jacket wears the subtitle ‘An Australian Pastoral’ above the poignant image of a small homestead with corrugated iron roof, clinging to the face of a parched country beneath a vast celestial geography. The ironic structure looks fragile, already historical. Thus self-proclaimed, The Hands plants crooked fences across a nebulous territory.

Orr takes one epigraph from Eliot’s ‘The Dry Salvages’ in which the recurrent hauntings of history are tremulously elevated to a profession of religious faith, and another from James Agee and Walker Evans’ elegiac documentary of Depression era sharecroppers Let us Now Praise Famous Men. Both texts were first published in 1941, and this duality expresses the fundamental tonal and stylistic ambivalence of the text’s moment. It aspires both to tragedy and reportage.

Firstly, Orr’s novel liberally avails itself of tragic structures and iconography: the action set in the early 2000’s is haunted by an ancestor’s desertion in the First World War, and the resulting ignominy which precipitates his father’s suicide. A miasma of past wrongs and suppressed guilt palls the station’s air, and inflects the drought with the weight of an ancestral curse. The supposedly firm roots of the Wilkie patrimony, extolled so inflexibly by the patriarch Murray, are gradually excavated by the narrative arc, and revealed as a fragile honeycomb of lies.

If The Hands is a tragedy, however, it conspicuously lacks a hamartia. John Wilkie’s shell-shocked desertion, and his father’s subsequent suicide are resonant indictments of the inflexible axioms of rural masculinity, but these events seem a symptom rather than a first cause for the historical despair threatening to engulf the Wilkies. In his 1968 Boyer Lectures the anthropologist Bill Stanner argued that the Australian false historical consciousness comprised “a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale”. In an exchange dismally familiar Trevor Wilkie derides his son Harry’s history curriculum for including abstractions like Ancient Egypt alongside ‘real’ history like the explorers. Further, when Harry does study the explorers he learns to Trevor’s chagrin that: “they only survived because of the blackfellas”, a reflection which prompts one of the many reveries through Trevor’s mind which ventriloquise the brittle, contorted melancholies of white Australia: “Trevor was tired of songlines, and explorers. They weren’t real – anymore, at least. .”

If we combine Stanner’s historical diagnosis with the psychoanalytic approach to Australian literary culture in Jennifer Rutherford’s Lacanian study The Gauche Intruder (2000) Orr’s novel can be observed writing into an Australian settler fantasy obsessively overwriting the forcible dispossession of the Aboriginals with anxious eulogies to masculine prowess. The guilt of which, naturally, always returns, displaced into the body of the text.

Trevor’s blithe dismissal of history is bitterly ironic, as the belief structures that keep him locked in a struggle of diminishing returns against a sere landscape is constructed and not given. That is, to paraphrase Coetzee in Dusklands (1974), history is whose fault he is, and the truth of that history might set him free from a despairing obligation to a failed and misbegotten estate.

Like many novelists straddling that much disputed category, the middle-brow, Orr is playing a double-game. His other, and contradictory ambition in this novel is foregrounded by the other epigraph. That is, to record in detail the conditions of the rural poor. Subsequently the texture of the novel’s language ripples with barbed wire and sighs with gidgee and bluebush, mallee and bloodwood. The minutiae of country life, like the pedagogic rituals of the School of the Air, and the intricate dignities of labour involved in the muster, say, are recorded with a precision that will, I imagine, divide readers.

To some, the mechanical litany of ‘authentic’ detail characterising much of this novel will be an asset. Readers like Stella Clarke who reviewed Orr’s earlier novel Dissonance for The Australian: “Orr is a no-nonsense, vivid storyteller” Clarke writes, who “punches out exchanges… in a pragmatic way… without sentiment.” Perhaps for some there’s a pleasing and steadying representative frisson to be found in this kind of fiction. For me though, this is where the pastoral merges with the Wintonesque suburban narrative; it becomes a fleetingly examined self-consciously masculine realism; predictably solid fare for that mythical tribe: ‘Middle Australia’. This kind of book is a perspiring VB in a Carlton FC neoprene sock. It’s quartered oranges at half-time, unveiled like corpus Christi in a Tupperware coffin by someone’s cardiganed mum. It’s double-brick and a Hills Hoyst, Winfield Blues and Wonder White, Menzies’ forgetting people, and Howard’s perpetual battlers: a mirage of diesel-slick wilting up from an endless stretch of bitumen into a blizzard of midday sun. A tedious rehearsal of threadbare clichés.

Perhaps I’m just disappointed. There are moments early in The Hands that promise much more than they deliver. A few pages in, following a dog-chewed akubra, some lyrically parched soil, and the usual nonsense about ‘taming the country’ there follows a more interesting passage:

“As they drove the clock rattled in its too-big receptacle. His eyes settled on a pocket of of ground peeling away from the earth in the mid-distance. He felt himself falling, until he wasn’t in his ute. This place – the fences, the cattle, their hunger, their thirst – seemed to have nothing to do with him. All he had to do was keep his foot on the accelerator. That would lead to arrival, eating, sleeping, vaccinating, ranting about government and stock agents driving jaguars. But beyond all this he felt smaller than a spider.” (p6.)

This is plangent stuff. The bumbling chronometer of metropolitan time, the standardized currency of western linear history, rattles in the wide socket of the Australian continent, its most resistant soil. The time, as Slessor writes in Five Bells “that is moved by little fidget wheels/ Is not my time”, the temps of Modernity is not the durée of individual, affective experience, to adapt Bergson’s model. In the third vision of his earlier poem Five Visions of Captain Cook Slessor artfully situates a similar temporal schism between the two quarrelling time pieces kept by Captain Cook on the Endeavour, “choked with appetite to wolf up time”. Stretching the cross-reference a little further; the temporal narrative of modernity arrives on these shores already broken, and in the echo of this crooked narratival space the Wilkies and their ilk attempt to live. The soil itself, to which the frantic nostalgia of the Australian pastoral enacts a constant Pochvennichestvo-esque return, shrugs off the settler’s gaze, and refuses to contain his presence. The untethered repetitions of eating, sleeping, ranting, getting and spending, form the tenuous thread of his dissociative desire. Most of the depiction of Trevor’s interiority in The Hands is keenly aware that this cultural configuration is a cul-de-sac.
At one point in novel, traumatized by a car accident, another subverted trope of masculine autonomy, Trevor’s oldest son Aidan deliberately rides down a kangaroo on his quadbike:

“He took a deep breath, found his knife in his pocket and opened it. Then he knelt down beside the animal, grabbed its scrotum and cut into it. The roo struggled and made a series of low, guttural moans. Only wanting to finish the job, he castrated it, stood up and threw the warm, bloodied sac onto its body.” (p104-105).

This act is a cruel parody of the Wilkies’ method of bull-catching during muster, the text’s supreme embodiment of the “will” and “bloody mindedness” of rural masculinity. At this, and many similar points in the novel, the critique of the text’s ideological material is incisive and visceral: Australian masculinity performs its brokenness violently upon the body of the other, the animal, the earth.

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However this promise is not pursued to its full potential, like the Wilkie family, the text is divided against itself, fundamentally ambivalent about the future. It yearns to burn the crumbling estate of the Australian pastoral to the ground, but remains wedded to it like Murray, the family patriarch, and a miserable old bastard incapable of imagining another way of being. Although the text stages and performs the Australian settlement’s ubiquitous denial of frontier violence, it shirks from articulately disrupting or subverting this silence, and so risks replicating it.

In a comparable vein, The Hands takes pains to illustrate how the roaring days of masculine prowess abused the unrecompensed emotional and material labour of women, but remains incapable of furnishing its female characters with agency or interiority. Again, this boundary is dismally appropriate to the tradition into which Orr writes. Kay Schaffer and others have shown in their critical reinterpretation of the hallowed ‘Bulletin years’ of the 1890s, that the putative golden age of Australian literary nationalism, perpetrated a forcible overwriting of the lives and work of women. In one scene towards the novel’s conclusion Trevor and Murray watch “a mother in frayed track pants and an old boob-tube, a cellulite midriff and pierced belly button” and conclude that “it could be worse”, referring to her as a “bush pig” and a “fuckin’ disgrace”. The stark limits of their empathy might be ‘authentic’, and the boundary of the novel’s attention to women might be historically appropriate, but in the ethical contexts of Australian history, silence is an insidious form of assent and approval. These elisions blunt the novel’s critique, and render its gestures towards a gentler future, in Brecht’s terms, less convincing than they might otherwise be. As the novel rambles away from its tragic, metafictional beginnings, I often wondered why any of these characters merit attention or sympathy.

In the way it seeks to elegize the transplanted topoi of European culture The Hands recalls Prichard’s social-Darwinist pastoral, discussed earlier, and Patrick White’s eschatological masterpiece Riders in the Chariot. The application of tragic structures and symbols to contemporary realities and problems is a fraught business however. It risks the vague, roseate, and politically enervating ‘transcendence’ of which the New Critics were so fond. Riders in the Chariot abounds with White’s magnificent difficulties; both numinous and ironic. It also typifies the complex problems of White’s political ethics. On the one hand the novel constituted a progressive expansion of White Australian consciousness. Written in 1961, it was one of the first imaginative texts in the Anglosphere to engage with the reality of the holocaust. Similarly, one of the text’s four elect, and the artist moreover, is an Aboriginal man. His characterisation, however, is at times clumsy, and as Michael Wilding argues in his Lukácsian essay ‘Patrick White and The Politics of Modernism’, its searing critique of violent masculinity may also be a a pejorative presentation of the working class, verging on a patrician reactionism.
My context in this reading is not inert. As a twenty-something academic residing in the fertile bottle-cap of urban Australia, the pastoral and suburban iconography that Orr eulogizes is at best a melancholy curiosity. These are the artefacts of the horizon-pressed lives of many of my male relatives, practical, laconic, miserable men, marooned in language and away from it.

As Brigid Rooney’s various work on the representation of suburbia has shown, the rebarbative rejection of the suburban trope, and its ancestor, the pastoral, performed by so much Modernist literature, and Patrick White particularly, can be read as an oppositional gesture. In this figuration the ideal space of ‘Middle Australia’ is a fictive other, simultaneously too empty and too cluttered, demarcated by passive, stultifying, ‘feminine’ forms of cultural consumption, readily opposed to active, intellectual, ‘masculine’ forms of cultural labour. While he wasn’t much of a Modernist, Phillip Larkin’s poem Vers de Société illustrates this conflictual model perfectly; juxtaposing the solitary hermeticism of male art against the plural tedium of that suburban communion, the dinner party:

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.
And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I’m afraid –

Funny how hard it is to be alone.
I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who’s read nothing but Which;
Just think of all the spare time that has flown…”

To acknowledge that critiques of the pastoral and the suburban are mired in their own politics is not, however, to consider all politics relative. The topoi of Middle Australia are certainly cultural constructs that can be fluidly plied, but they also remain fairly unironic aspirational models for a politically powerful cross-section of Australian society. As the pastoral overwrites the violence of the frontier the suburban idyll consolidates and polices that suppression beneath a fictive consensus. In the same year that Simon During proclaimed White’s patrician critique of White Australia irrelevant to Keating’s new multicultural society, Howard swept to power on a resurgent tide of White Australian conservatism to which the current government remains hostage, despite its leader’s avowed liberal principles.

A few nights ago I was fortunate to attend the launch of the Free University of Western Sydney at Bankstown Art Centre. The event consisted of a panel of Aboriginal elders, activists, and academics hosted by an initiative and an audience overwhelmingly composed of non Anglo-Celtic migrants. The discussion was various, fierce, and proffered no easy solutions to the problems of Australian polity. It did however, constitute a genuine attempt at equable, progressive discourse, and a genuinely empathetic forum to air grievance. It drew a stark contrast to the attention given these problems by mainstream Australian discourse which ranges from tired and tokenistic sufferance to scornful cant about remote ‘lifestyles’.

I generally try to avoid criticism’s normative fallacy of baldly wishing for a different book, but given the essentially divided nature of Orr’s book, and the complexity of its cultural contexts I feel justified in this case. Returning to the politics of the pastoral with Bankstown and Bundeena to mind, I wished that the Wilkies had left Bundeena in the novel’s first chapter, and had gone somewhere more interesting and more hopeful.
If the cultural fabric is so tortuously stitched that we can’t depict the plight of the rural white poor without occluding the violence of colonialisms past and present, that we can’t critique the brazen cupidity of the powerful without slighting the disadvantaged and under-educated, perhaps we should abandon the genre. Perhaps it’s time to do what this novel yearns to but cannot. To lift our hand from the plough, and let the scythe lie in the field where it falls by the rusting hulls of the FJ and the John Deere. Leave the sheets to swing on the line, open the sash-windows for the leaves, and up stumps for good.

In abandoning the conventions of middle Australia we might enrich our cultural discourse, and liberate that of those whose misfortune it has been to cohabit history with us, whose lives and languages and graves the canards of Middle Australia still obscure. Perhaps, to paraphrase Midnight Oil’s immortal Beds are Burning, it’s time to pay the rent, to see what other stories we can tell.

** ** **

References

Carter, Paul. The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Coetzee, J.M. Dusklands. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982.

During, Simon. Patrick White. Melbourne: Oxford University Press 1996.

Eeden, Jeanne van. ‘Theming Mythical Africa at the Lost City’ in The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. Edited by Scott A. Lukas. 113-135. London: Lexington Books, 2007.

Larkin, Phillip. The Complete Poems. London: Faber, 2012.

Kermode, Frank. The Classic. London: Faber & Faber, 1975.

Orr, Stephen. The Hands: An Australian Pastoral. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2015.

Prichard, Katharine Susannah. Coonardoo: The Well in the Shadow. Sydney: Harper Collins, 2013.

Rutherford, Jennifer. The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Slessor, Kenneth. Selected Poems. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1993.

Stanner, W.E.H. The Boyer Lectures 1968 – After the Dreaming. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Comission, 1969.

Indyk, Ivor. ‘Pastoral and Priority: The Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral.’ New Literary History, vol. 24 no. 4 1993 pg. 835-855

White, Patrick. Riders in the Chariot. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1961.

Wilding, Michael. ‘Patrick White: The Politics of Modernism’ in Studies in Classic Australian Fiction. Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, 1997.

 – Jonathan Dunk

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Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review, Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

The Hands is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1238

Great Humanity and Human Decency: Annette Marfording reviews ‘The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey’ by Alex Miller

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey (selected and arranged by his wife Stephanie Miller) by Alex Miller,  Allen & Unwin 2015.

simplest wordsThere are many Australian authors who are good writers, but there are few who, in addition to bringing the reader enjoyment – and incidentally – teach the reader something about how to be a good person, show the reader the impact of racism and other injustices, and thus demonstrate their deep humanity. In America, one of the most famous authors to do so is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird through her character Atticus Finch, teaches her readers the meaning of empathy and the injustice of racism. In Australia, that author is Alex Miller. And for those who are not familiar with all of his work and especially his most award-winning novels The Ancestor Game, Journey to the Stone Country, and Landscape of Farewell, in which those teachings of his are the strongest, his deep humanity is starkly illuminated in this book The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey.

Although Alex Miller has written short stories and essays, some included in past editions of The Best Australian Essays and The Best Australian Stories, he is best known for his novels, for which he won multiple literary awards, including the Miles Franklin award for The Ancestor Game and for Journey to the Stone Country. Apart from the Miles Franklin, his most prestigious literary awards are the Commonwealth Writers Prize (for The Ancestor Game) and the Annual Foreign Novels 21st Century Award from the People’s Literature Publishing House in China (for Landscape of Farewell). He has also been awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature and the Manning Clark Cultural Award for his outstanding contribution to the quality of Australian cultural life.

In individual pieces, written mostly for newspapers – especially the Melbourne Age – and in short stories, selected and arranged for this book by the author’s wife Stephanie, and with the addition of significant photographs with family and friends, The Simplest Words presents a kind of autobiographical journey of the author in chronological order, which ends with a surprise poem. That the book emerges as an autobiographical journey is interesting in itself, because at the symposium on his novels, organised by Professor Robert Dixon at Sydney University in 2011, he began his own contribution by saying, “I’ve been asked for a memoir for this occasion yet I am uncomfortable writing directly about myself. I prefer the mask of fiction. In this preference it is self-deception I fear most, for who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?” The last sentence is, of course, an immediate demonstration of his deep humanity, his morality, his modesty: “who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?”

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey begins with the desire for storytelling in his childhood, takes the reader through the impetus for each of his novels and shows their profound link to his own life, includes brief extracts of each of those novels, and introduces the reader to his special friends, his thoughts about writing and issues he feels passionate about. For those who are new to Alex Miller’s work, this book is thus the ideal introduction to, and overview of, his body of work.

For this reviewer, who is intensely familiar with his novels, has reread most of them, some more than once, who was one of the only non-university people to attend the above mentioned symposium on his novels, and who learned yet more about him in her in-depth interview with him for her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, there were several highlights in this collection. The first, the ability to read ‘Comrade Pawel’, the story that was his first publication in Meanjin in 1975. The story is based on an incident that happened to his friend Max Blatt in the Second World War. Reading the story as written by Alex prompted Max to say, “You could have been there,” and with those words launched his writing life and career.

A second highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is a previously unpublished novella, ‘The Rule of the First Prelude’, in which Alex Miller imagines the life of the child of his protagonist Emily in his novel Conditions of Faith as an adult, and her grief at her mother’s absence. It is an eloquent and extremely powerful story, though written, indeed, in the simplest words.

A third highlight of this book are the essays on issues the author feels passionate about; foremost ‘Australia Today’, in which he writes in disbelief about the Australian government’s shocking turn-away from asylum seekers, and yet, remains hopeful that Australia will return to humane refugee policies. Another is ‘Chasing My Tale’ on the labelling – such as revisionist historian – that he has received by academics following his novels and his resulting bewilderment, causing him to say, “I believe a novel is like a painting or a piece of music, at least in the sense that it cannot be explained but can only be experienced.” Another is ‘Sweet Water’, an outstanding essay on the need to preserve the Urannah Valley, and thus the land and pristine wilderness of the Birriguba people of North Queensland, from damming and consequential destruction. The Urannah Valley is part of the landscape in his novel Journey to the Stone Country and in this essay Alex Miller explains the significance of this land to its original owners, and makes a passionate argument against the focus of Western culture on acquisition: of land, of knowledge, of consumer goods, and in favour of preserving the sacred. And, while in the interview with me he stated that his novels Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell were not written as books about Aborigines and the issues they face, but were the stories of his personal friends, which they had asked him to write, towards the end of ‘Sweet Water’ he nevertheless points to the importance of writing about things affecting Aboriginal people: “Some critics assure us that our novels are irrelevant to the important issues facing our society. I don’t share that view. As well as entertaining us, our novels have always explored the individual’s relationship to the great moral questions of the day. Not answers, but an awareness of the questions we need to face. Something, dare I say it, such as an image of the Urannah Valley…., intact as yet and just as filled with mystery as the deepest and most hidden part of the great Amazonian forest. A fragile and precious reality of ours that we are about to destroy in order to provide water for coal mines and crop irrigation.”

A fourth highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is the inclusion of ‘The Writer’s Secret’, a piece on parental love and advice and writing, which he read at the 2014 Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival and which held the entire audience in a suspended hush for the duration.

A final highlight of this book are Alex Miller’s pieces about his friends, including the aforementioned Max Blatt, the late Frank Budby, elder of the Barada Barna people, who became his protagonist Dougald Gnapun in Landscape of Farewell, Col McLennan, elder of the Jangga people, and his wife Liz Hatte, who became his protagonists Bo and Annabelle in Journey to the Stone Country, biographer Hazel Rowley who became his soul mate by daily email correspondence, and philosopher and author of Romulus, My Father and After Romulus, Raimond Gaita. And in words I would use about Alex Miller, he finishes the Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ as follows: “Rereading her books these last few weeks I have known myself to be in the presence of Hazel Rowley’s great humanity… Her great books are for life. To read a great book for a second time, just as to listen to a great piece of music for the hundredth time, is to be in the presence of a new creation.” Gerard Windsor, in his review of The Simplest Words for The Australian refers to this praise as “quite starstruck admiration” for Hazel Rowley, and the same might be said of this review for Alex Miller, but I see it as simple gratitude for those people in our lives, be it primarily only through the written word, who remind us of the existence of such great humanity and human decency in this increasingly self-centred world.

Buy The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey, buy Alex Miller’s novels, and reread each of his books for perpetual new pleasure, awe and gratitude. It’s no surprise that this book was my book of the year 2015. It was published by Allen & Unwin in a sturdy hardback edition with a hauntingly beautiful cover image designed by Lisa White, which you will enjoy looking at for years to come.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is available from  https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/literature-literary-studies/The-Simplest-Words-Alex-Miller-9781743313572

A Slow Dance: Shane Strange Reviews ‘Moments’ by Subhash Jaireth

Moments by Subhash Jaireth Puncher and Wattman, 2015

MomentsSubhash Jaireth has produced an increasingly rare thing in Australian prose fiction: a book that is both unashamedly intellectual and international in scope without succumbing to the awkward reverence that sometimes mars Australian writing. This is not to say that Moments is impenetrable or experimental (gasp!). On the contrary, it is a seductively written collection of stories that reimagines the lives of (mostly 20th century) prominent thinkers and artists through a series of vignettes. These are equally at home on a train to Leningrad as a rock formation in the Kimberley—equally up to the task of retelling the tragedy of an indigenous massacre as the horrors of Pinochet’s Chile. And yet the stories are subtle enough to make each tragic moment (and there are many, of varying degrees) uniquely felt. But this isn’t a book of sturm und drang. It’s a quiet book: a whisper; a slow dance; a growing realisation.

The success of these stories relies not on a pyrotechnic style, or what Raymond Carver called ‘cheap tricks’, but on a deft focalisation technique that takes the glare away from a story’s  central subject (and their often well-rehearsed biographies) to rest upon tangential characters who have a certain connection, or particular way of seeing the subject. This in turn reveals that subject as an effect on someone else— a ripple in time and place if you like.

Take, for example, the wonderful pair of stories that form the central part of the collection. In ‘The Electric Dress’ conceptual performance artist, Atsuko Tanaka, is portrayed in her older years,  living out her days in the Japanese countryside far from her beloved Osaka.  Her health (mental and physical) is strained. She is tended by her husband Akira, and sometimes a young relative, Hiroshi. Into this mix comes a conceptual artist from India, Amrita, on a pilgrimage to meet the creator of the seminal performance  piece: ‘Electric Dress’. What we learn through this encounter is not only the tenderness of the relationship of the older couple, or —in reflective passages —Tanaka’s ground-breaking work, but also a rumination on ageing and the artist, the capacity of performance art to incorporate the body in its expression, and for that expression to be truly novel.

It’s companion story, ‘Dance is like water’, is also of the body, and puts its central figure, Merce Cunningham, even further into the background. Here the narrator is Visnu, an Indian mathematician estranged from his despotic  father, who runs a traditional dance studio in Madras. Visnu reflects on his enduring love for Lara, a young South American dancer who he meets in 1972 in New York. She is studying with Merce Cunningham. Visnu visits Lara at one of Cunningham’s classes and becomes entranced by the older dancer:

He was wound up like a spring ready to uncoil at any moment. When it came, the moment was utterly magical. I have never seen anyone so wonderfully animal-like: the sheer agility, the ability to turn unexpectedly, to leap high and float in the air as if he had wings and then land with immaculate ease, precision and grace.

This is all we see of Cunningham, whose impression Visnu carries with him through his love for Lara as they tour with her political dance troupe through Chile and the tumult of General Pinochet’s coup.

These echoes and reflections form a prismatic structure that seed impressions throughout the collection as characters appear and reappear.  However, the central concern of the collection seems to me to be a fascination with the making and effect of art in its various forms.  The technique of the stories seems to undermine the idea of the ‘great people’ of art (these are after all ‘fictional autobiographies’), while refocusing on their work and its influence. And this influence is often surprising.

In the penultimate story, ‘Quartz Hill’, a fictional Chinese photographer, Li, is taking photos of Alice, a young Australian dancer. In these opening passages, the story lingers on the fragile, but deep, collaborative bond between photographer and subject. Later, Li writes to Alice to tell of the deep significance of a painting by Paddy Bedford she has come across on the internet. Li decides to use this as an excuse to visit ‘the land of her grandmother’: Hall’s Creek in the Kimberley, also the home of Bedford, where she visits the site that is the subject of the painting to uncover its brutal history. Here, Jaireth is able to weave an indigenous massacre; the art of Paddy Bedford; the ephemeral nature of photography, and family, and history, and truth, into a satisfying, understated grandeur that easily inserts Australia and Australian culture into a broader global narrative without appearing deferential. The book is filled with these moments, and it left me very glad to have read it.

 – Shane Strange

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Shane Strange lives in Canberra. His writing has appeared in various print and on line journals, including Overland, Griffith Review, Burley and Verity La.   He is currently studying at the University of Canberra, where he also tutors and lectures in Creative Writing.

Moments in available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/moments

Professor Jen Webb’s launch speech for Moments was previously published in Rochford Street Review https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/11/06/depth-surface-jen-webb-launches-moments-by-subhash-jaireth/

 

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A Mirror of Ourselves: Heather Taylor Johnson Reviews ‘An Astronaut’s Life’ by Sonja Dechian

An Astronaut’s Life by Sonja Dechian Text 2015

astronauts lifeIs anyone else sick of hearing that the short story is a dying form when it seems like it’s never been more popular? Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut collection Foreign Soil was one of last year’s most talked about books, and hasn’t Cate Kennedy been busy on the festival circuit talking about the power of the genre? I’m giving the negativity toward short stories a very big pshaw because it’s all a bunch of dribble as far as I’m concerned. I suggest we all buy Sonja Dechian’s debut collection An Astronaut’s Life and debunk the tired theory. It’d do wonders for small and independent publishers, and then we’d have something engaging and intelligent to read at night in snippets of ten to twenty pages.
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With a steady, no-nonsense prose style, peculiar scenarios and subtle turns in plot, An Astronaut’s Life reflects our messy world, or shows us what it could become if we keep messing with it. It’s a confronting view, however familiar. Dechian’s characters trudge their way through the modern muck of climate change and human indifference, and I’ve been asking myself for the last few days if it’s escape they are ultimately seeking or connection. Being unable to decipher between the two motifs or even confusing one for the other mightn’t be such a bad thing, though; it might be a suggestion that there is balance between our own narcissistic need to feel loneliness and our staunch rejection of it, and that the meeting point of escape and connection is what makes Dechian’s characters into mirrors of ourselves.

It’s a chaotic world the author has dreamed up, and it is our world, too, though slightly off kilter. Themes the author’s world shares with mine: cyber bullying, refugees drowning in water, the threat of extinction, disease, crime, flooding, and all the while babies being born. These are pressing issues and the sharpest of our writers are tackling them as we speak, Dechian now edging in and joining the race to get people to think about what the finish line might mean. With a wry sensibility and stark prose style, Dechian uses literary fiction to hand us the nanobots of sci-fi writers and the complete absence of birds from writers of an apocalyptic stream. This is not new – we’ve all read Orwell and Cormac McCarthy – but it’s fashionable and attention-grabbing because now more than ever the worlds of these writers and the worlds of their readers seem to be closing in on one another.

The book begins with ‘After Francis Crick’, where a man who has just re-entered consciousness finds himself nostalgic for the days of his coma. Now he has a baby on the way and a wife who is too structured; then, while he was comatose, he spent his days with Francis Crick, discussing and theorising genetics over glasses of juice with umbrellas in them. Crick, the father of genetics, of course is dead, while the baby, obviously, is coming. The birth of another child foregrounds ‘The Foreman’, a story of a zoo /  museum for endangered and extinct species, where Dechian paints a picture of the last living whale trapped in a sixty-million litre tank so deftly that you’ll see it in your dreams after you’ve closed the book. While in one story the baby’s life force is thriving, in the other it is vulnerable, paired with annihilation. Perhaps the balance between the two (indeed perhaps between all of the stories) can be found in the final story, ‘The Astronaut’s Life’. Here, father and child bond over the threat of natural disaster and the fragile but enduring beauty of what the after-effects might mean for a devastated planet.

My personal favourites centre on the celebrity of crime. In ‘Nights in at the House’, a near-novella, two women and their son navigate home and their relationship while police dig up their backyard looking for corpses. In one of the shortest stories, ‘Incurable’, parents of the children who have succumbed to a new and deadly virus caused by a classroom owl vie for bragging rights to memorial tributes. In one story the community strength is almost shockingly overwhelming while in the other empathy stems from a wicked display egotism.

Each story in An Astronaut’s Life really is worth a mention because though there are stand-outs, they all share a unique quirk-quality that mixes with profound compassion, so nothing is ever twee or too dramatic and they all project themselves as tiny gems. The collection seems to be founded on Dechian asking ‘what if’ and the most enjoyable part about the reading experience is getting to ‘and then’. There are no answers; she cleverly leaves them up to the reader. Most significant in this collection, though, is the calmness to Dechian’s writing, ensuring that the crazed set-ups and the characters’ desire for and move toward either disconnection and escape or connection and embrace feel rational. Like something we would do. And that’s the most frightening thing about this provoking collection.

 – Heather Taylor Johnson

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Heather Taylor Johnson is the author of three books of poetry and one novel. Her fourth book of poetry will be published by Five Islands Press. She is the poetry editor of Transnational Literature and is currently editing The Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. She recently gave a paper in Oxford discussing why poetry is the genre best suited to illness narratives.

An Astronaut’s Life is available at https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/an-astronaut-s-life

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