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

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

Room for Reflection: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Here Where We Live’ by Cassie Flanagan Willanski

Here Where We Live by Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Wakefield Press 2016

here where we liveWillanski has extensive experience as an environmental volunteer and campaigner as well as a degree in environmental studies from the University of Adelaide, and this collection of short stories, which won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript award in 2014, reflects this interest. The collection includes eight short stories and one novella. Rather than falling within the traditional short story genre, however, her stories are offerings of moments of life, often those where mostly female characters face uncertainty, are at a turning point and come to a realisation about what it is that they desire from their lives and how that may affect their relationships. In addition to these environmental and human concerns – which ground the title of the book –, many of the stories are linked to Willanski’s research for her Master of Arts degree ‘about the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people’ and her discoveries about white people’s attitudes to Indigenous people, as she explains in her author’s note. As a result, in several stories characters ask each other or themselves whether they are racist, in others, white characters learn about Indigenous history or historical events affecting Aboriginal people.

In ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the narrator, an elderly white woman, is the only white woman attending an international women’s conference against radioactive racism with many indigenous delegates. The story addresses the universal problems of uranium and nuclear testing and is the most political. At the end of the conference the narrator has enough courage to disclose that her late husband worked at Maralinga. In ‘Karko’, children on a school excursion learn about the Ibis man who carried his nephew’s body down the coast, his tears creating a series of fresh water springs in the sand. In ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, a young man tells his girlfriend about the Maria shipwreck and the subsequent massacre of the surviving white colonists by local Aborigines.

All stories are set in South Australia – where the author lives and grew up –, mostly in remote places near the coast or in the country and she evokes the landscape very skilfully. All are written in spare prose, often with poetic and rhythmic elements, contemplative in nature, which contributes to giving them a haunting quality, as her creative writing mentor Brian Castro says in comments quoted on the book cover.

The first story in the collection, ‘My Good Thing’, illustrates these elements strongly. This is how it begins:

This is my daughter’s country. That mallee sea with the undulating dunes and the rockholes where we take her back to camp. Twice a year at least, but sometimes more. This is her house, hear near the sea where the bay sparkles beside one window and the mallee grows straight up to the back door. This is the yard where she plays. These are the dogs, her friends and guardians. These are her dark brown eyes, her chubby bronze hand on my pink freckled arm. These are her father’s eyes, her grandmother’s eyes, back to the Dreaming, looking out of a face just like mine. Her expressions are my expressions. I carried her, but she comes from this land.

The final story in the collection, ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, is the novella and requires a patient reader to solve the puzzle as to who is who. It interweaves two couples whose paths intersect: one elderly with a first-person narrator addressing their beloved, one young who have to decide whether to marry, written in third-person. Those who persevere with the puzzle will be rewarded with an emotionally affecting story about the meaning of love and the potential conflict between love and individual freedom. It hones in on the author’s preoccupation with the theme of women’s lives and how to resolve that tension between love and individual freedom, especially if there are children – or potential children – in the picture.

With the exception of ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the story about the international women’s conference against radioactive racism, which reads in part like a list of biographies of the delegates, each story in Here Where We Live provides much room for reflection about our own lives and our reactions to climate change and – for those who are white – our attitudes to Aboriginal people. Equally importantly, each is beautifully written.

To keep readers engaged, single-author collections mostly vary in voice, theme, setting, character preoccupations, etc, but Willanski’s Here Where We Live does not. So while I recommend the book, it is best not read sequentially.

  – Annette Marfording


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 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 or All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Here Where We Live is available from



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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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


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 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 or 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

Weaving an Eerie Tale: Victoria Nugent reviews ‘Juno & Hannah’ by Beryl Fletcher

Juno & Hannah by Beryl Fletcher. Spinifex Press 2013

junoBooks that unsettle and unnerve the reader have a tendency to be more memorable than light, frothy stories that amuse and delight. Juno & Hannah falls firmly into the first category, weaving an eerie tale set, for the most part, in the New Zealand wilderness.

This dark and powerful book touches upon a number of serious issues in a high gothic style. Even in its simplest, more straight-forward scenes there is a sense of the eerie permeating the novella.

When Hannah decides it’s time to flee a Christian community for the sake of her mentally disabled sister Juno, it’s hard to predict where their journey will take them. The chain of events is set in motion after Hannah helps a stranger on the riverbank. Her actions to save his life are considered necromancy and she is punished through seclusion. In her absence, Juno’s quirks draw less tolerance and moves are made to take the 14-year-old girl from the community.

The two quickly make their escape through dense bushland and the wildness of nature becomes a metaphor for the chaotic forces at play in their own lives. The bush is almost a character in itself and is portrayed in a high gothic style. Its treatment is vaguely reminiscent of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, where nature becomes a dangerous element, lush and exotic but unpredictable. Nature cannot be restrained or made to conform to society’s wishes, mirroring Juno’s own struggles with the world.

The tale is set in 1920 but in a way it’s oddly timeless. With most of the action occurring in the deepest bush, the narrative could take place in a range of time streams. The use of the Christian fundamentalist society means Juno and Hannah’s lifestyle in anachronistic in its nature, regardless of the actual time period. While Fletcher does not delve too far into the Christian community, the hints at their lifestyle are enough to be chilling. This adds to the gothic feel of the novella, heightening tension.

Beryl Fletcher won a Commonwealth Writers Prize for her first book in 1992 and Juno & Hannah provides further proof of her skill as a writer. Despite its gothic style, the novella never slips so far into melodrama as to become farcical. Fletcher retains a careful balance throughout the tale in a way that evokes both the uncertainty of the bush and its unnerving stillness. Even in moments of inertness, there’s a feeling that things could spiral out of control at any moment. Characters are multi-faceted and the reader, much like Hannah herself, finds it hard to figure out who can be trusted as the story progresses.

The difficult issue of eugenics becomes a key part of the story in a stunning way. The novella paints an uncomfortable picture of attitudes towards people with mental disabilities which rings true even in today’s society. Characters in the story aren’t entirely sure how to treat Juno and her lack of comprehension of many things leads to infantilising treatment by the people in her community. It is only Hannah that takes a deeper interest in Juno. For most other characters, Juno is more seen as a problem than a person and steps are taken to come up with a solution. Importantly, Fletcher imbues Juno with a distinctive personality, preventing her from falling into a stereotype of otherness. While childlike in many ways, Juno is also capable of playing a role in plans regarding her own destiny and her emotions are written in a way that is raw and real.

The novella is told through the eyes of Hannah but yet she also remains fairly enigmatic. Although she is the real protagonist of the novel, the bulk of the action directly relates to Juno. Almost all of Hannah’s actions stem from her desire to help her sister.

It’s not a book that paints an easy picture of life as a woman and it’s hard to imagine what kinds of lives Hannah and Juno will go on to lead. Apart from Hannah’s decision to leave their community, the girls appear to have little say in their own destinies. In fact, in many ways the narrative is about Hannah’s struggle to take charge of their lives in the face of many parties who believe they know best, including their own father.

This is not a story that neatly ties up all the loose ends into one happy little bundle and for that I profoundly thank Fletcher. It would have been a disservice to the complexity of the tale to provide a bland and simple ending. As it was, the questions raised by the narrative linger long after the book has been put down.

– Victoria Nugent


Victoria Nugent is a journalist and an avid reader. Her to read pile is continually growing and she has given up hope on finding a bookshelf that will fit her collection.

Juno & Hannah is available from


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Intellectual Exuberance and Dark Irony: Tina Giannoukos Reviews ‘Street to Street’ by Brian Castro

Street to Street by Brian Castro Giramondo Publishing 2012

castro-cover-a4-264x300The intellectual exuberance and dark ironies of Brian Castro’s Street to Street make this another Castro extravaganza in story-telling. Street to Street is the unfolding of two lives gradually intertwining, the unfortunate biographer, Brendan Costa, and his difficult subject, the poet-scholar Christopher Brennan. In its disconsolate exhilaration and poetic melancholia, Street to Street is an ode to creativity and its spectacular and not-so spectacular fulfilment.

Brennan’s language, his metaphysical concerns, his difficult life, and the aleatory location of his poems in an unreal zone of abstracted time and space make him a liminal and challenging figure. He is the sort of hybrid writer that Castro is naturally drawn to — what he has called “writers who do not conform, either generically or canonically”. Such writers “trouble rather than entertain”. These “‘non-national writers’” are not necessarily celebrated: “they are suspect and ‘illegal’” (Castro, Brian. “Arrested Motion and Future-mourning: Hybridity and Creativity.” Southerly. 2008 68 3. Page 119). Brennan is a threshold figure of Australian poetry whose individual poetics and bohemian life remain sources of interest and discussion.

The narrator of Street to Street is Costa’s friend and colleague, known as The Labrador. He informs us that Costa, in his sixties and working on Brennan for over a decade, “was not offering a biography of Brennan, not even a minor, muddy one, pickling the stones of false memory” (17). This is familiar Castro territory of the hopelessness of auto/biography as testamentary evidence, a terrain explored so extravagantly but differently in Shanghai Dancing. Instead, Costa “was thinking of one loose thread: the way a life unravels, falls apart, becomes dissolute, not for all of the obvious reasons like alcohol or disastrous relationships or depressive illness, but through mood” (17). Life in Street to Street is a disappearing act, a dissolving reality, a matter of spectral possibilities.

To highlight the Labrador as narrator of Street to Street is to join in the exquisite play of Castro’s narrative hand. He so skilfully merges the identity of Costa, Brennan and the Labrador that the novella becomes another Castro sleight of hand. We might ask who is really telling the story, and it is sometimes impossible to tell. The merging of narrative identities raises the question of whose creativity is at stake: Brennan’s, his biographer’s, the Labrador’s or Castro’s own as the ghost behind all three, the phantom hand that elegantly traces the lines of fate that seemingly converge in the body of the Labrador, the storyteller who appropriates Costa’s life and his narrative.

Street to Street carries the sense of some primal scene of emasculation: Brennan stands utterly denuded before his wife and his mother-in-law while his biographer, Costa, is stripped bare by the female Head of Department. For both men, their lovers are a salvation of sorts, but what salvation can there really be? Brennan tears himself up in bed lying next to his young lover while Costa makes desperate preparations for the arrival of his. Castro may enshroud Brennan in the familiar fog of alcohol, but his triumph is to enter into Brennan’s despair in such a way that we begin to wonder what is the meaning of creativity.

A project within Street to Street is the dual critique of the university in the powerful interrogation of Brennan’s unhappy experience in his own time and Costa’s own scathing treatment in an increasingly commercialised academy. Castro himself is critical of the contemporary university, arguing that “deep thinkers and critics … have been turned into marketeers and petty bureaucrats” (119). Costa’s own unravelling is as devastatingly imagined as Brennan’s, undone by the academy and his own subject. Is the biographer morally responsible for his subject’s failings? Costa’s statement that “I am not defending the man … but I do stand for his contradictions” (137) suggests the moral conundrum of biography. To take on the life of another as biographer is to be implicated in that life.

Some of the most superbly imagined passages in Street to Street are those dealing with Brennan’s decay. In its compression, Street to Street is like a beautiful long prose poem whose jagged edge is a wider critique of what a literary and intellectual culture might be. The novella is part of Giramondo’s series of Shorts. Those familiar with Castro’s writing know already of his intense compressions and his paradoxical expansions. At its exhilarating best, Street to Street has the mesmerising power of Shanghai Dancing. Of course, Street to Street carries its own incandescent weight. It breathes the darkness of Brennan’s life, its highs and lows, its own iridescent hopes and shadowy despairs, with an ironic compassion for the domesticity the poet is enjoying with his young mistress, Violet Singer, before her terrible death. In the intensely imagined bond, Castro gives us the claustrophobic closing in of life on Brennan himself, a tragic-comic figure of his own poetic making: “Nobody noticed his muttering that he had finally found the Absolute” (139) which once was “the absolute imagination, placeless, unsullied by distraction” (84).

In the unravelling lives of Brennan and his biographer, Castro has perhaps too ready a subject for his own themes, the interrogation of writing and of the academy, but if that is the case, Street to Street is a disquieting reflection on our literary and intellectual culture. Brennan is no mere cipher for the interrogation of writing and its discontents, and Costa is not his straightforward double. Without sentimentality but much dark humour, Street to Street evokes the creative dangers of Brennan’s life and the philistine narrowness of his era as much as the creative dangers of his biographer’s life and the philistine afflictions of the contemporary era.

Castro imagines a life of Christopher Brennan and gives us a haunting narrative. His imaginative rendering of Brennan’s life and the biographer’s own reality, and the wider cultural forces in which they’re enmeshed, prises open the subject of what it means to possess an enriching intellectual culture. In its vertigo-like effect, Street to Street holds us in its dizzying grip.

-Tina Giannoukos


Tina Giannoukos is a poet, fiction writer and reviewer. Her first book of poetry is In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry is anthologised in Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek Australians (Arcadia, 2011). Her most recent poetry publication is the sonnet sequence in Border-Crossings: Narrative and Demarcation in Postcolonial Literatures and Media (Winter, 2012). She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. She has been a recipient of a Varuna Writers Fellowship, and has read her poetry in Greece and China.

Street to street is available from