Striking queer literary fiction and a take down of postmodernism

A Terrible Kindness
Jo Browning Wroe, Faber & Faber, $29.99


The 1966 Aberfan disaster was horrific. Coal slurry caused a landslide that engulfed and destroyed a Welsh primary school, killing 144 people, most of them children. In A Terrible Kindness, a young, newly qualified undertaker and embalmer, William Lavery, responds to the town’s call for help and is shaken by what he sees in the aftermath. Intrusive recollections of the event persist, and the novel follows a skein of traumatic experience that leads, through a memory of humiliation, back to the death of William’s father, and an ensuing rift between his gay uncle and his mum. It’s a novel about the double-edged nature of compassion that takes in the stiff camaraderie of the world of undertakers, an unlikely love story, and some surprising (though not unearned) uplift emerging from great suffering.

Everything, All the Time, Everywhere
Stuart Jeffries, Verse, $39.99


While it can be said that postmodernism at its worst played cultural handmaiden to neo-liberal capitalism, it can also be said that modernism represented a calcified, Eurocentric, patriarchal elitism and was ripe for deconstructive demolition. English journalist and cultural critic Stuart Jeffries takes us on a fun, but ultimately serious roller-coaster ride into what he sees as the dark heart of postmodernism – its complicity with manipulative, capitalist consumerism. But this is also the movement that rightly dethroned the god-like authority of the author and recast modernist ideas of Progress in a colonialist context. To an extent he’s not saying anything that he hasn’t been said before, but he is alive to the complexities and paradoxes of the movement and avoids the reductiveness of many commentators.

Deadly Quiet City
Murong Xuecun, Hardie Grant, $29.99


The eponymous city is Wuhan, China, which writer Murong Xuecun went to during lockdown, a dangerous journey taken in defiance of the state. Not that he had n’t already fallen foul of them – the best-selling author had seen his books by him banned and had undergone brutal interrogation. He was in fear, he says, when he arrived in Wuhan to uncover the truth of what was happening there by interviewing a range of residents in his hotel room. One, a doctor in a small hospital who has hit the “jackpot” himself (contracted COVID) bravely and heart-wrenchingly describes the desperation of the city’s doctors, while a lawyer and Christian activist goes to Wuhan as a part of her anti-communist her crusade These, and others, Murong says, are the voices of the officially silenced and his book reads like a message in a bottle from a secret state.

Mary Ann & Captain Piper
Jessica North, Allen & Unwin, $34.99


One day in 1805 when the 14-year-old Mary Ann Sheers (daughter of convicts) was running barefoot around Norfolk Island a storm broke and a tidal wave, more or less, swept her into the arms of captain John Piper, the island’s commandant . At least, that’s the way Jessica North imagines it in this inventive, dramatized rags-to-riches story. Not long after, Piper “bedded” her (as he had numerous girls on the island) and by 15 she was a mother of her. What followed was a grand tale in the best of romantic traditions. They moved to Sydney, traveled to London, returned to the colony, held lavish parties, mixed in Macquarie’s circle, had 14 children and eventually married in secret in 1816. The focus is on Mary Ann, but it’s also a keyhole onto the times, figures such as Francis Greenway having cameo roles. Entertaining popular history.

A Football Genius: The Peter Hudson Story
Dan Eddy, Hardie Grant, $34.99


Such was the Hawthorn great’s fame in the ’60s and ’70s that when a priest posted a notice outside his church, saying “What would you do if Christ came to Hawthorn?”, one wit replied, “Move Peter Hudson to centre-half forward”. Dan Eddy’s study of Hudson is not so much a biography as a chronologically arranged compendium of interviews with about 150 commentators and family members contributing – all glued together with Eddy’s observations and comments from him. A bit like a TV doco, the result is an engaging portrait of Hudson seen from varying perspectives. One of the most fascinating is team-mate Ian Bremner’s observation that at first, “… he didn’t look like a champion. He had this ungainly gait, but we soon realized he was a bloody freak.” One for all footy fans.

Murong Xuecan is a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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