‘Gilgamesh’ by Joan London

An acclaimed and award-winning short story writer, Joan London’s storytelling and spare, concise language comes to the fore in her first novel, published in 2001.

Two young teenage sisters, Edith and Frances, struggle to survive on a small, isolated farm in the south-west of Australia. Their father recently died, their mother drifts in and out of reality (or creates her own). It’s 1937 when, out of the blue, cousin Leopold appears along with Aram, his Armenian friend.

For the unworldly Edith, their arrival shakes the very foundations of her everyday. Conversation and laughter arrives in the decrepit shack the women call home. She is swept away as Aram tells his story of the Armenian massacre in 1915 and the murder of his parents, the orphanage in Aleppo, his homeland. But mythical tales of adventures are also told – including that of Gilgamesh, the legendary King of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. It is his journey of mourning, a journey undertaken with his friend Enkedu, that resonates with Edith.

Two years later, with Europe on the brink of war, Edith sets off with her young son, Jim, to find the two men, with London her first stop.

Spanning continents and generations, Joan London’s Gilgamesh is a modern day exploration of the epic poem – or a quest as Edith follows her own journey in search of Aram, the father of her child. From London, it takes her to Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Syria before finally returning to Australia. On her way, she meets some extraordinarily strong women (particularly in Armenia) and dodgy men and, whilst occasionally Gilgamesh turns into something of an episodic soap opera, it’s a compelling tale.

Shortlisted for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award, Joan London and Gilgamesh lost out to Tim Winton and Dirt Music.

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‘Under the Silver Lake’

An odd, overlong, meandering thriller as Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman, Hackshaw Ridge) searches LA for the woman living in the same apartment building who suddenly disappears.

It’s all a little too contrived and self-conscious to hit the neo noir bizarre button writer/director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover, It Follows) is searching for as the ordinary but likeable Garfield finds himself way out of his depth. It always looks good but even the occasional inspirational moment fails to lift Under the Silver Lake above boring.

Rating: 40%

‘Happy as Lazzaro’

Reminiscent of the Italian social realist films of the 1960s (and Pasolini in particular), Happy as Lazzaro is a beautiful yet odd allegory as the saintlike innocence of the young farmworker (debutant Adriano Tardiolo) – as with the film itself – initially charms but slowly grates.

An isolated tobacco estate (possibly in the 1970s/80s) sees the wealthy landowning family exploit its workers to levels of (illegal) feudalism, keeping them in permanent debt and ignorance of the world outside. Lazzaro forms an unlikely bond with the landowning son, Tancredi.

But a sudden shift by director Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders, Corpo Celeste) sees her film head in a very different and unexpected direction. Lazzaro remains essentially unchanged – but the world around him is very different (to say more would give too much away).

The first half of an overlong film is gorgeously shot and socially real (the opening scene of virtual darkness with voices negotiating the use of the only electric lightbulb followed by an extraordinarily subdued wedding ceremony is stunning) that slips sadly into mundane obscurity.

Rating: 54%

‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is based loosely on the true story of the remote Derbyshire village of Eyam. In 1665, as plague swept the country, the villagers, persuaded by their young minister, Michael Mompesson, chose to isolate themselves. But this was not fear of the plague reaching them. An infected bolt of cloth sent from London had already seen to that. The villagers voluntarily cut themselves off to prevent the disease being carried further. It’s an astonishing story of a community, of survival, of death, of faith, of sacrifice packed with historical detail.

Brooks chooses to tell her tale through the voice of Anna Frith, a young widow and housemaid to Mompellion (the fictional minister). Right from the off, we know some great tragedy has occurred.

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and signs and sounds that said this year it would be all alright: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came….This year the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

Anna is a survivor from, it is revealed, a disease that wiped out more than half of the village in less than a year. It is her lodger, a young Mr Viccars, who, as a travelling tailor, is the first victim. It is he who has ordered the death-carrying cloth. Anna’s two young sons soon join him. The plague seeds spread quickly, regardless of age, gender and wealth. Every household is affected. Whole families are wiped out: parents die, their children survive: parents survive, their children die. As the community diminishes, faith frays, blame apportioned.

A relatively peaceful homogenous village disintegrates: the self-sufficiency of rural life is decimated. It is Anna and Elinor Mompellion who look to maintain the spirits of the locals – and help care for those stuck down by the virulent disease. But they are also the voice of reason – commentators on the small minority who take advantage of the situation, including Anna’s own father, for personal gain.

In spite of the knowledge from the very beginning that tragedy strikes and a vast percentage of the village will be wiped out, Brooks still manages to create a surprising level of suspense in Year of Wonders. It’s a deeply moving and affecting story as seen through the young Anna’s eyes. Knowing she survives to recount the story allows the reader to grow with her as she moves from a tongue-tied housemaid to a vocal critic of Mompellion and other men of the village. She is a woman who takes charge in cases of need.

It’s only the somewhat contrived ending of Brooks novel that denies its classic status. When the plague seems to be finally dying out, events unfold and secrets revealed that are wholly unexpected and, in reality, unnecessary. The result, to my mind, is that the last 20 pages or so undermine all that has gone before it. Which is a pity, as Year of Wonders is an eminently readable and laudable debut novel.

‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe

As his troubled family life collapses around him, young Francie Brady retreats into a world of make-belief and violent fantasy.

Set in small-town Ireland in the 1960s, Patrick McCabe’s grim tragicomedy of madness and abuse sees the emotional breakdown of a young boy as he struggles to differentiate between fact and fiction. With an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother committed to an institution, home life is violent, abusive and unstable. His friendship with Joe is the only stabilising part of his life. But as Francie becomes more and more unhinged, even Joe disowns him.

The focus for Francie’s violent and crazed fantasies is Mrs Nugent, the posh, judgmental, recently-arrived-from-England neighbour. A brash and defiant Francie stands up to her – leading to an institution for himself, where one of the priests abuses him but where he is also befriended by the ex-IRA gardener.

The Butcher Boy is a rollercoaster ride, ultimately unpleasant as Francie slips more and more into crazed madness. From the outset, we have an indication of what we’re in for – the opening page sees Francie in hiding on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent. All is revealed over the course of the relatively short but dense novel.

It’s Francie himself who is the narrator of what is essentially an allegory for the relationship between Ireland and England and the effects of the long colonial history between the two countries. But this is no agit-prop prophesising tome – The Butcher Boy is a deeply personal, surprisingly compassionate tale of madness, violence and loyalty. It’s just not a very pleasant or easy read.

Shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize, Patrick McCabe’s Irish Times-Aer Lingus Prize for fiction winning novel lost out to the joint winning The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje) and Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth.

‘Parasite’

Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2019 (as well as best film at the Sydney Film Festival), Parasite is a splendidly anarchic dark comedy about social divides and love of money.

As dirt-poor Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song – Snowpiercer, The Age of Shadows) and his family struggle to survive, an opportunity for his son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi – Okja, Train to Busan), to teach English at the wealthy Parks’ home leads to a scam that goes tragically wrong.

Director Joon-ho Bong (Okja, Snowpiercer) mixes humour, slapstick, drama, gore and suspense to masterful effect in his love of sociopolitical commentaries (Snowpiercer, anyone?) ably supported by a cast that excels.

Rating: 80%

‘Never Look Away’

A rambling, occasionally insightful and thoughtful but ultimately superficial exploration of art and life, Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author, a much more appropriate title) follows artist Kurt Barnert (loosely based on Gerhard Richter) from his Dresden childhood at the end of World War II, the social realism of the GDR to free expression in the west via the Dusseldorf Academy.

Haunted by the loss of his beloved young aunt under the Nazis, frustrated by the artistic restrictions of the east, confused in 1960s West Germany under the tutelage of a modernist professor (a thinly veiled fictional Joseph Beuys) and a bullying, interfering father-in-law, Barnert (Tom Schilling – Oh Boy, Crazy) plods on regardless. It’s all a bit of a slog (188 minutes!) that lacks the magic of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s superb Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. But, having said that, Never Look Away remains readily watchable.

Rating: 54%

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller

Narrated by ex-stockman Bobby Blue, Coal Creek is a rich, evocative novel on the nature of loyalty, friendship and love. Tough yet poetic, hard yet delicate, Alex Miller’s eleventh novel is a powerful, simply told tale. 

An account of events some 15 years earlier when Bobby was just twenty years old, and conveyed in an ungrammatical local vernacular, his is a convincing voice, finding himself caught between loyalty towards his childhood friend, Ben Tobin, and his new boss.

Set in early 1950s Queensland and the isolated highlands of the hinterland, Mount Hay is cattle country with a small, residential population set in its ways. The arrival from the coast of the new constable, Daniel Collins, and his family leads to a simmering tension that ultimately ends in tragedy. 

With ideas and values learnt mainly from books and a war spent in a kill-or-be-killed New Guinea, Collins is a man who notes down everything, but, to the likes of Bobby and the other Mount Hay residents, ultimately sees nothing. 

“People like the Collins knew the city and the coast and they have another way of seeing things that was not our way of seeing things. The Collins wanted to know what they had no need to know…They was not bad people, just ignorant.”

Collins’ inability to read and understand his new environment results in three dead and lives changed forever. 

Having left the cattle station on the death of his father and the only way of life he knows, a laconic Bobby decides to try his luck as the off-sider to the new police constable. But Collins is the total opposite to his laidback predecessor. Struggling to understand the ways of the town, Collins invites Bobby to stay in a hut in the police compound. But the constable is not a man to listen or take guidance – and Bobby soon falls into a habit of silence. This lack of local knowledge leads to initial misunderstandings and, along with well-meaning but misplaced interventions by his ambitious wife, Esme, mistrust. Bobby Blue’s friend, Ben Tobin, becomes the focus of this mistrust.

Living a few miles out of Mount Hay in the isolated Coal Creek with a young aboriginal woman, Ben is ‘not a big man but he was strong and quick as a snake. He had his own breed of pony that was just like him, stocky and reliable on his feet.’ The victim of gossip led to the initial crossing of paths for Tobin and Collins. Convinced that revenge is on Tobin’s mind, goaded by Esme, Collins looks to deal with the ex-stockman. But, with the revelation of Bobby’s reciprocated interest in the Collins’ elder daughter, Irie, an abrupt and ruthless change in attitude from her parents towards Bobby results. It’s at this point Miller skilfully increases the tension. We already know things will take a turn for the worse – Bobby has throughout his tale told us. But we just do not know in what way.

On migrating to Australia in the 1950s as a 16 year-old, Miller himself settled in Queensland and worked as a farmhand and stockman. It’s a country he knows well – and it’s a country he beautifully captures in Coal Creek. Bobby’s knowledge is such that he can navigate the bush in the dark – there’s a personal, learnt knowledge sitting alongside an almost spiritual connection to the land. Collins cannot come anywhere near close: the difference between him and Bobby is as much the difference, as he recognises himself, between Bobby and the local indigenous population in terms of an intimate connection to the land.

Coal Creek is a lucid, haunting, tragic tale that was awarded the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Award for Literature – but which inexplicably failed to even make the Miles Franklin Award shortlist.

‘Wild Rose’

A raw, uncompromising performance by Jessie Buckley (Beast, TV’s Taboo) as wannabe successful country singer Rose-Lynn is the reason to see Wild Rose. Her attitude sucks but her voice soars as, fresh out of prison, she looks to her career rather than her two kids housed with gran (Julie Waters – Mamma Mia, Harry Potter) in a Glasgow council house.

It’s a feel-good movie as Rose-Lynn ultimately finds herself via a few home truths, the wealthy home of Sophie Okonedo (The Secret Life of Bees, Hotel Rwanda) and Nashville – but director Tom Harper (War Book, The Scouting Book for Boys) offers a mostly contrived little story of tearful redemption.

Great soundtrack though!

Rating: 60%

‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’

A confusingly claimed final instalment of the two-decade franchise, Dark Phoenix is something of a boring, anticlimactic mess.

The end of the prequels (set in the 1990s where the original X-Men first stepped in) sees a few changes to the storylines of future and past as Jean Grey (Sophie Turner – X-Men: Apocalypse, TV’s Game of Thrones) comes to terms with her mutation and a corrupting power that turns her into a Dark Phoenix. The rest of the team need to reach her before the alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain – The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) taps into that power and brings destruction to mankind.

James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult et al are all ever present as our favourite mutants – but in writer/director Simon Kinberg’s directorial debut, all have little input as Jean goes on the rampage, angered as she is by McAvoy and his blocking of her truth of the car-accident that killed her parents.

Rating: 40%