Book critics Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll cast their eyes over recently released fiction and non-fiction. Here are their reviews.
Fiction pick of the week
The Furphy Anthology 2021
Hardie Grant, $35
“Unemployed at last!” So begins Joseph Furphy’s classic, Such is Life, and if that was your response to the pandemic lockdowns, good on you. It certainly wasn’t the case for some of our short-story writers. Their industry and inventiveness suffuse the 2021 edition of The Furphy Anthology – a collection drawn from winners and short-listed entrants of the national literary prize, named after Furphy, that was revived by his descendants in 2020.
I suspect Furphy would’ve liked the winner, Thomas Alan’s oranges. It’s an inherent of his pioneering style, with an organic command of Aussie vernacular and an atmosphere of brutality lurking under the mateyness and the comically well-observed small-town “characters” it sketches.
In a moment of inattention, a teenage misfit fails to assist a drowning woman and becomes a pariah. Meanwhile, he resentfully observes the local footy culture, and the sheer ugliness faced (and perpetrated) by the young men who do fit into his town. The rest of the anthology is diverse, the literary standard impressively high.
Michael Trant, Bantam, $32.99
This hard-bitten action novel reads like an Aussie Western, and it’s set, fittingly enough, in the drought-stricken rangelands of WA. The hero? Gabe Ahern, a bushman who knows the isolated and arid landscape well. He’s been a loner since his wife died, and he makes ends meet by moving from homestead to homestead trapping wild dogs for station owners.
When he saves a young Afghan, Amin, from certain death, Gabe stumbles into the sights of a people-smuggling ring and with their lives and the lives of Amin’s family on the line, they find themselves running from roo-hunter Chase Fowler – a crack shot and a nasty piece of work whose bush skills match Gabe’s own.
Michael Trant has a way to go to be as taut and austere as Lee Child (who gives a cover quote), but the book’s setting is atmospheric; its action sequences surge with adrenaline and suspense as a deadly game of cat and mouse unfolds.
Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter
Lizzie Pook, Viking, $32.99
Another book set in WA – which could seem as distant as the moon to outsiders, even before the pandemic hermit kingdom it has lately been – takes us back to the late 19th-century and the first years of the pearling industry around Broome.
Eliza Brightwell is 20 years old. She sailed to New Holland with her father de Ella Charles a decade before, the family seeking fortune. Since then, Charles has made his name of him as a master pearler and when he goes missing – presumed lost at sea – at the tail end of a diving season, Ella Eliza refuses to believe him dead. There are whispers the captain fell victim to mutiny or murder, and as Eliza investigates his disappearance of him, she is drawn into a whirl of lawlessness and corruption, just below the surface of the exotic melting pot she calls home.
The novel has a whiff of Robert Louis Stevenson about it. With a dauntless heroine, a vivid portrayal of a multi-racial community and its cruel underside, and captivating descriptions of uniquely beautiful and perilous tropical environments, it’s an unusually lush historical adventure.
The Stars Are Not Yet Bells
Hannah Lillith Assadi, Sceptre, $32.99
As Elle Rainier succumbs to dementia, she tries to puzzle together memories that haunt her. She was born poor and married into money in New York just after the Great Depression, before following her new husband Simon (along with her de ella “cousin” Gabriel) to the remote island of Lyra off the coast of Georgia.
Legends of undersea jewels lure the quixotic Simon, the depth of Elle and Gabriel’s connection is revealed, and decades of regrets and compromises are glimpsed as long-submerged desire resurfaces. Hannah Lillith Assadi’s novel is formally elegiac with slightly gothic undertones.
Every love story is a ghost story, sure, but while the exploration of memory and love here isn’t entirely confined to the shallows, its psychological mysteries aren’t that difficult to predict. And the irritation of imprecise “lyricism” sometimes breaks the spell: “A Renaissance painter had been revived to dramatize the secular sky.” Oh right. Which one? Well, then.
Non-fiction pick of the week
No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy
Mark Hodkinson, Canongate, $32.99
At high school in Manchester in the 1970s Mark Hodkinson was dispatched to the “E” stream with the rest of the “thick” kids (I empathize, as a survivor of 1E). He went on to become a novelist, journalist and publisher, and this simply written, absorbing memoir charts his life with books.
There are different kinds of working class, mine was largely made up of readers who saw literature as the way “up”, but there were virtually no books in Hodkinson’s house. No wonder he identified with such novels as Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knaveas well as a truly impressive range of other writers including DH Lawrence and Somerset Maugham.
Along the way he gives a vivid picture of life in a dump like Rochdale. Books – he has more than 3000 in his collection from him – emerge as his friends from him, his comfort from him and a window onto a wider world.
Katy Barnett & Jeremy Gans, La Trobe/Black Inc., $34.99
Picture the scene. A small village in Normandy in 1386. A murder trial. A pig in the dock – a real pig – being tried for the murder of a child as any human might be. The pig was found guilty and hung. At the time pigs often roamed free, sometimes killed and trials such as this were not uncommon.
It’s one of the most bizarre examples of animals and the law in this engaging history of the subject. It’s also an entertaining primer on the law – especially torts and common law – that, occasionally, as in the pig trial, is told with under-stated relish.
It ranges over the centuries, but one case, in suburban Melbourne involving escaped dogs, attacks and owner liability provides a contemporary focus. Katy Barnett and Jeremy Gans (both law professors) also examine such matters as the law and animal rights.
Qian Julie Wang, Viking, $32.99
The title of this migrant memoir is deeply ironic. Mei Guo, in Mandarin, translates as “beautiful country”: America. Qian Julie Wang’s parents – mother a maths teacher, father English Literature – grew up during the lethal insanity of the cultural revolution.
Her father was the first to leave for Mei Guo, Qian followed two years later with her mother in 1994. But the New York they landed in was anything but beautiful: their room was dark; her mother de ella worked in a sweatshop, they were outsiders and often hungry. And even a Cantonese-speaking school provided a disturbing challenge.
Much of this touching tale is told as though through the eyes of a child, but the observations are also sharp and astute. And even though it’s a success story – Qian graduated from Yale, the ghost of that child, she notes at the end, is always there.
Mike Sielski, Macmillan, $34.99
One day when former NBA player Joe Bryant was a contracted player in Italy in the `90s he remarked to a friend on a bus journey that someone would come along who would change the course of family history. It isn’t me, but it might be him, he said, looking at his four-year-old son Kobe, running amok on the bus.
History, of course, proved him right, and Kobe Bryant (named after a Japanese restaurant) went on to become a basketball legend. Mike Sielski’s biography (he’s a renowned journalist) has an epic sweep – with occasional hyperbolic flourishes – that takes in Bryant’s Philadelphia origins, the importance of growing up partly in Italy, being recognized early on as possessing something special, fame with the LA Lakers, injury, retirement and the tragedy of his early death in a helicopter crash in 2020.
Steven Carroll’s new novel, Goodnight, Vivienne, Goodnightis published by Fourth Estate.
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