‘Border Districts’ by Gerald Murnane

Regarded as something of an Australian national literary treasure, Gerald Murnane is oddly not particularly known or widely read at home: his appreciative audience appears to lie elsewhere. And to be honest, whilst his reported final book of fiction may win him a wider readership than he is used to (shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award), it will win him few new fans. And I would certainly not be one of them.

Border Districts is a nostalgic literary exercise, an indulgent extended monologue as the narrator moves from the capital city to a town to the west, near the state border. Neither are named – nor are suburbs, characters recalled from childhood or later adulthood as fiction blurs (Murnane himself has moved out of Melbourne to the western district of the State of Victoria) into possible reality. In such a short novel, constant references to in the northern suburbs of the capital city or when I first arrived in this township just short of the border basically leave you asking the question ‘why’? Like the author’s personal reluctance to travel, the horizons of Border Districts are very narrow.

As he emotionally and spiritually flits between the today of a small regional town to his city of yesteryear, the reader is left to struggle with the narrator’s constant reflections [sic] on colour (stained or leaded glass of churches and private homes, and marbles in particular) and change accordingly to the fall of light. It’s an essay of a memoir, nothing more. Reflections of a life – of books, of certain moments, of certain events (few and far between) and a commentary on church (not religion). Yet the descriptions – many of memories 30-40 years previously – can be long as well as tedious. Pages of tedium!

Literary with a capital L, Border Districts certainly has its plaudits – as does Murnane himself. There are many a spat to be found on the internet between the two opposing camps for and against this particular short novel. I firmly fall into the latter – and will not be taking the advice of the former and try reading some of his earlier works.

Nominated for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award, Gerald Murnane lost out to Michelle de Kretser and The Life to Come.

‘Circus of Books’

What an amazing story! 1977: three kids and struggling financially, Jewish middle-class couple Karen & Barry Mason respond to an ad in The LA Times. It changes their lives. Thirty three years later, the doors finally close on one of the most iconic LA bookstores.

What makes this particular story so extraordinary is that Circus of Books is iconic in the history of American gay culture. Located on Santa Monica Blvd in the centre of the ‘ghetto’, the bookstore sold literature, sex aids and hardcore gay porn.

Told by daughter Rachel Mason, the film focuses on the couple’s double life in trying to maintain the balance of parenthood and Karen’s faith in tandem with a socially unacceptable profession and secrets kept from family and friends. The film itself struggles with its material – Rachel Mason (The Lives of Hamilton Fish) is arguably too close to the subject to be objective and ask more forthright questions needed. But Circus of Books is an unexpected gem of a story with the seemingly ordinary and conservative Karen and Barry anything but.

A Netflix Original

Rating: 66%

‘The Damned United’

Forthright, arrogant, judgemental he may have been, but Brian Clough was one of the most successful managers in English football, leading two unfashionable teams (Derby County and Nottingham Forest) to glory at home and in Europe. But sandwiched between the two were 44 days in the wilderness.

The sudden departure of Don Revie from Leeds United to manage the national team left the champions without their leader. Unexpectedly, the Leeds board approached and appointed Clough. Bad blood existed between Clough and Revie, and Clough and the Leeds players. They did not take kindly to the new appointment. He lasted just 44 days.

Michael Sheen (The Queen, The Twilight Saga) is astonishing as Clough, likeable, smarmy, arrogant and vulnerable in equal measure. But the telling of the story between 1969 and 1974 is patchy and at times ponderous. As an intimate character study, The Damed United works well, enriched by Clough’s relationship with right-hand man, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall – Harry Potter, Mr Turner). Directed by Tom Hooper prior to his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, it’s less sure of its footing on the field and in the dressing rooms.

Rating: 54%

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

Purportedly the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and set some 15 years after the events of that earlier novel, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments smacks more of the HBO TV series. The result is an engaging soap-opera of a thriller – yet feels as if it is a treatment for the closure of said series, providing answers to questions of the early years of Gilead. Atwood thus avoids some of the psychological horrors of that dystopian misogynistic theocracy: her expansion is more character-based than social commentary and claustrophobic dread. The Testaments is about women (or, more specifically, three) taking back an element of control.

We alternate between the perspectives of three women. Two are in the form of testimony whilst the third, written by Aunt Lydia, is an illicit document and provides the history of Gilead. She has been a central part of the system since its outset – and knows exactly how it works. It’s her story: it’s the story of the Aunts and the women who are entrusted with governing the other women of Gilead. They train and discipline the Handmaids, the Wives and the female children. And to help them keep the peace and the women in line, the Aunts receive special authority. To ensure records of genealogy are kept, the Aunts are allowed to read and write. It’s this that allows Lydia to write her document (in darkest secret and at great risk) and forms the core of The Testaments.

From the TV series, we are familiar with Aunt Lydia and the fact that pre-Gilead she was a divorcee and judge. Not quite the sadistic monster of the early novel, Aunt Lydia had some redeeming factors in the TV series: but she remained something of an evangelist, believing Gilead to be the answer for the sins of an earlier life. Turns out in The Testaments it’s all a bit of a front: Lydia has been compiling the dossier for Gilead’s eventual downfall.

Aunt Lydia is a canny political operator who realised what she would need to do to survive, prosper, and amass some power for herself. Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. She’s made alliances, undermined potential threats and, as head of the Aunts, is arguably one of the most powerful women in Gilead. But she’s ageing and sets in motion the final plans for its downfall.

The other two, much younger, women, Agnes and Daisy, are pawns in Lydia’s sightlines. A privileged life in Gilead for Agnes is about to come to an end as she approaches marriagable age: Daisy is the product of an across-the-border Canadian upbringing. The fate of the three are about to come to a head as the novel opens.

The Testaments is something of a page turner: it’s an aspirational, thrilling ride as Lydia plots in secret, unexpected revelations arise, characters appear who just might give the game away. But it lacks something of the honesty of The Handmaid’s Tale: the power and gravitas is no longer there. More action-driven, more hopeful, and by extension, less realistic results in the ambiguity of The Handmaid’s Tale being replaced by simple and simplistic answers. It’s Agnes and Daisy who are the problem. There’s no mystery about them, no history, no real interest. It’s Lydia who carries The Testaments.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, Margaret Atwood and The Testaments unexpectedly – and controversially – shared the award with Bernadine Evaristo and Girl, Woman, Other.

‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale

A startlingly good debut novel, English Passengers is compassionate yet pointed, laugh-out-loud funny but devastatingly earnest, a yarn of high adventure but faithful, in the appropriate places, to historical accuracy.

It’s 1857 and the pompous, overbearing Reverend Geoffrey Wilson believes he has found the true site of the Garden of Eden: Tasmania, the other side of the world from his quiet English parish. Securing patronage for an expedition, his small team (three) includes Dr Potter, bent on making a name for himself through his (dangerous) racial theories and phrenological studies. Too much in a hurry, the expedition charters the Sincerity, available immediately. Unbeknownst to Wilson, the Sincerity is a Manx (Isle of Man) smuggling boat stashed with brandy and tobacco and, on the run from British customs, is unable to off-load its illegal cargo.

The many months on the high seas aboard the Sincerity provides much adventure for crew and explorers alike. Captain Kewley is desperate to dump his passengers, sell his contraband and return to home port. The original intention was to merely sail from the Isle of Man to Maldon, north east of London, and back – a journey of a week or two. Now, fleeing the British, Cape Colony (modern day Cape Town) turns out to be the first port of call after months at sea before Melbourne and Hobart, their final destination.

Interspersed within the caustic, humourous tale of Kewley, Wilson, Potter et al is the significantly angrier tone of life on Tasmania in the years leading to the arrival of the Sincerity. The indigenous islanders had fought a desperate battle of survival but have been all but wiped out by the British. As the Tasmanian narrator, the mixed-race Peevay guides us through the horrors of the first half of the 19th century.

The result of rape, a blonde-haired Peevay is rejected by his warrior mother but spends most of his life desperate to win her approval – whether through the earlier years of battling the British or, later, resettled on the death trap island colony of Flinders. But Kneale also comments on the bizarre cruelties inflicted upon the convicts sentenced to Port Arthur and other internment centres on the island. And, through inclusion of the occasional letter, diary entry or official report from governors, clerics and wives, he also provides a sense of the official establishment’s perspective at the time.

By the time the expedition arrives, Peevay is an old man. The incompentence of the so-called intrepid explorers is about to be highlighted as Peevay finds himself their guide to the wilds of western Tasmania: the island is far from the envisaged earthly paradise of Wilson’s dreams.

English Passengers is, quite simply, a glorious (and admittedly, unexpected) tale, the mix of humour, pathos, moral purpose, ironic observation and fine storytelling perfectly attuned. Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, it lost out to The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. But it was also shortlisted for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award, losing out to to Frank Moorhouse and Dark Palace. Peter Carey (True History of the Kelly Gang), Tim Winton (Dirt Music), Kate Grenville (The Secret River) and Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) are the only other writers to achieve this.

‘Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J.Walker’

A fascinating story as Madam C.J.Walker rises from rags to become the first female American self-made millionaire. But this palid embarassment of a four-part miniseries does her no credit whatsoever.

A loose (and condensed) focus on the few years before her death, at the age of 51, in 1919 sees Madam Walker (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures) make her fortune from the selling of hair products directly targetted at black women. But underhand competition from a former employer, Carmen Ejogo (Selma, It Comes At Night), along with accusations of stealing formulas and a wayward husband (Blair Underwood – TV’s In Treatment, LA Law) make the route to success less than smooth.

A wholly underdeveloped script, the ignoring of significant events within the decade of its focus and some very shonky acting results in an incompetence of what should have been a showpiece series.

A Netflix original.

Rating: 30%

‘Oryx & Crake’ by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s ‘speculative fiction’ is somewhat uncanny and more than a little unnerving. You’d have been living under a rock if the behemoth that is The Handmaid’s Tale (book and TV series) had passed you by with its prescient content of totalitarian theocratic misogyny. But this later post-apocalyptic novel (2003) has at its core genetic experimentation and pharmaceutical engineering: both very much part of contemporary science.

Through a focus on the character Snowman and a factured narrative of present and past, Atwood’s remarkable and imaginative world is slowly peeled back to reveal its rotten innards.

It’s a world destroyed. Snowman is seemingly the only non-genetically engineered survivor, living from hand-to-mouth foragings and avoiding dangerous hybrids such as wolvogs, snats and pigoons. His only significant contact is with a group of primitive human-like creatures whom he calls Crakers, the product of experiments overseen by Crake at a not-so-distant earlier time. But Snowman’s supplies are dwindling and he needs to get to the old RejoovenEsense compound, the scene of the final confrontation between him, Crake and Oryx (whom they both loved).

Snowman was previously known as Jimmy, Crake as Glenn. They grew up together in one of the privileged, protected, domed compounds. Jimmy was nothing more than an average student whilst Crake was a boy genius who was fast-tracked to the very top in his specialist bioengineering field. With corporations controlling the world and technology exploited purely for profit, catastrophic climate change the norm and inequality, both social and economic, endemic, Crake, given the power to ultimately play God – all in the name of new markets, had dire consequences.

Oryx & Crake is, in part, the mad scientist story, part adventure, part dystopian disaster – with a love interest thrown in for good measure. Crake, in destroying the world as is, is looking to perfect it. He looks at the rampant commercialism, the wealth disparity, the social divides, the effect on the environment: yet it is seemingly only a crime of passion that prevents him following through with his plans to the natural conclusion. Interwoven with sharp wit and dark humour, Oryx & Crake is a less-than-brave new world, a world changed. In April 2020, just how presecient is that?

Shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize (her fifth appearance on the shortlist), Margaret Atwood and Oryx & Crake lost out to DBC Pierre and Vernon Little God.

‘King Jack’

An obscure little indie film found via trawling through Netflix, the main point of interest of King Jack was that it features an earlier starring role from Charlie Plummer, excellent in the film, Lean on Pete.

An American working-class coming-of-age Ken Loach is the best way to describe this authentic but at times grim story. Jack (Plummer) is a lost soul drifting through school and adolescence, boredom and poverty part of the everyday. Something of an outsider among his peers, there’s a pre-film history to the narrative as Jack is the target of some viscious bullying. Things come to a head when his nine-year old cousin, Ben, arrives for the weekend.

King Jack is a seemingly wisp of a film, just 76 minutes long and taking place over a couple of days. Yet as characters dip in and out – whether it’s Jack’s put-upon single mom, his older brother Tom or the other kids – an even, fly-on-the-wall pace unfolds. In guiding the film, debut writer-director Felix Thompson looks to his cast (and particularly Plummer and Cory Nichols as cousin Ben) to evolve the naturalsm of the film’s coming-of-age narrative.

Rating: 64%

‘Dyschronia’ by Jennifer Mills

I’ll state from the onset that I intensely disliked this Australian dystopian novel, a bewildering, slow and utterly unsatisfying commentary on corporate greed and environmental disinterest.

In the small coastal town of Clapstone, the sea has disappeared. Crippled by migraines, the central character, Sam, is a young woman who has been plagued by troubling visions of the event (and others) since she was just seven years old. She is afflicted with a disturbed awareness of time and which is labelled as dyschronia by one of the many doctors her mother consults to understand Sam’s condition. In essence, Ivy’s daughter appears to inhabit several time-frames simultaneously.

Cue the oscillation of narrative between past and present, between prescient forecasts and unravelling present. Is Sam a truth-seer, a prophet – or a freak? She foresaw the suicides of men that lead to the closure of the Aspco Asphalt plant – the only significant employer (and major pollutant) in the town. It’s the arrival of the outsider, Ed, who taps into Sam’s ‘potential’ – and an insurance scam based around foreseen floods changes Sam’s status in the town – and results in the town (via Ed) entering into some kind of commercial relationship with a distant corporation.

The perspective in Mills’ novel shifts between Sam’s third person point of view and the first person plural ‘we’ of the town’s residents. It also shifts, confusingly, with time. The result is an uncertainty whether Sam is seeing the future or, through sharing her visions in real time, actually causing events to happen. Future, present, past – all merge (or not). And time came off its axis and rolled away.

Dyschronia left me confused and wholly unsatisfied. Shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, it lost out to Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko.


A Netflix miniseries (four one hour episodes), Unorthodox provides a rare insight into the Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

Based loosely on a true story, a recently married, pregnant Esther (Israeli actress Shira Haas, Broken Mirrors, Princess) flees the oppressive life style for Berlin. The insular Satmar community dispatch her young, naive husband, Yanky, and a world-wise, mercurial cousin, Moishe, to bring her (and, more importantly, the future baby) back to the fold.

Directed by Maria Schrader (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, The Giraffe), Unorthodox is at its tender best when exploring Esther and Yanky’s struggles as newlyweds and the pressures and interference from his family. The more fictional narrative of Berlin and the city’s impact of the past, whilst engaging, has less focus and less substance: it spreads itself too thinly as Yanky, Moishe and Esther’s new-found friends (a convenient mix of Israelis, Arabs, Germans, gay, straight etc…) all have their ‘moments’.

But all in all, it’s a poignant, well-told story that, in not following a straightforward chronology of time, maintains interest and fascination throughout. (And it’s not everyday that you see a TV miniseries where Yiddish is, along with English, the main language).

A Netflix Original

Rating: 65%