‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton

cloudstreetAn iconic modern Australian classic, Cloudstreet is a sweeping saga of twenty years in the lives of two neighbouring families living in Perth, Western Australia from post World War II until the late 1960s. It’s a broadchurch narrative of the large, boisterous Lamb family and their landlord neighbours, the uptight Pickles.

Down on his luck, losing four fingers in a foolish accident and a love of spending as much of his money as he can at the racetrack, Sam Pickles and family (Dolly, an unfaithful wife, and three kids) unexpectedly inherit a house plus a lump sum of cash. The house is enormous for their needs – the emptiness highlighted by the prompt loss of the cash at the local bookies. Unable to sell the house for 20 years (a wise provision in the will of a now deceased cousin), the Pickles build a makeshift division inside and out – and rent one half to the almost destitute Lamb family. Two dysfunctional families come together under one roof.

So begins this rollicking sprawl of a novel as the two families collide, bickering, judging, ignoring, laughing, mourning, crying, fighting a way through their everyday lives.

It’s the Lambs who look to make the most of their opportunities – a distinct work ethic overseen by Ma (Sergeant-Major) Lamb that sees the front room converted into a (successful) shop serving the neighbourhood, children (mostly) married off and the eldest son, Quick, finally coming good after a mid-novel waywardness. It’s a boisterous, energetic household with much laughter, hard work and some sadness (their son, Fish, a handsome, once-popular larrikin, is brain-damaged due to a fishing accident witnessed early in the narrative).

All is very different next door. A wayward Sam; an unimpressed Dolly who steadfastly ignores her neighbours; a bookish Rose who takes on the household duties as her mother spends more and more time at the local boozer (the two boys rarely feature). Unlike the religious, hardworking Lambs, the Pickles look to luck (lady luck provided the house, after all) and a minimum of graft to get by.

Full of heart, Tim Winton’s ambitious novel may pall towards the end, but in the interim we witness two families coming together during a period of comfortable, conservative Australian history. Global events (Bay of Pigs, Korean war, assassination of John F Kennedy) have little impact on the daily lives: Australian economic and social policies mentioned only in passing. Only the Nedlands Monster – a Perth serial killer who terrorised the city over a four-year period in the early 60s – is given any significant scope of the outside world. Instead, Cloudstreet is a celebration of community and is the story of the everyday – domesticity, the struggle for survival, births, marriages, deaths – and the dogged endurance of both families. It’s an honest portrayal, full of humour and fulsome characters but devoid of overt sentimentality or melodrama.

Constantly seen as the most important Australian novel ever written (by critics and readers’ polls alike), Cloudstreet was the recipient of the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

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‘History of Wolves’ by Emily Fridlund

wolvesWhilst a beautifully written novel, no matter how much I appreciated Emily Fridlund’s prose and her vivid sense of place, History of Wolves failed to emotionally engage me.

It’s an austere novel of northern Minnesota and its long, harsh winters and equally brutal, short summers where fourteen year-old Linda lives with her ex-commune parents on the shores of a network of lakes. Isolated, Linda is something of an outsider. With no friends to speak of, her life revolves around domesticity; the family dogs and long hikes between home, school and the nearby town.

Into her life come Patra and precocious young son, Paul, who move into the luxurious cabin across the lake. But as early as page four, we know the child is doomed. It simply takes most of the novel to find out just how.

With Paul’s controlling and overbearing father Leo mostly absent, Linda’s narration meanders through babysitting duties; encounters with her teacher, Mr Grierson; home life and a teenage crush on Patra. It’s a time-fractured narrative: Linda as a teenager is interspersed with an older, but not necessarily wiser, Linda reflecting on events she is only now able to come to terms with.

History of Wolves is a transformative coming-of-age tale, its central character a narcissistic teenager blind to events around her, subject to bouts of meanness verging on cruelty. But Linda is also something of a victim – regarded as a freak at school with parents who barely acknowledge her. An adult Linda says of herself  I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister…I made people feel judged.

Time with Paul and, in particular, with Patra offers the young girl a sense of being needed for the first time. But the arrival of Leo sees all that unravel. Linda knows something is wrong but cannot see what secrets she is being drawn into, what is yet to unfold. It is the older version that drip-feeds us insight and knowledge, creating a sense of foreboding and uncertainty without giving the whole game away.

But when the whole is revealed, it’s a crashing disappointment, an almost throwaway reveal. That whole lacks any real urgency – a thriller without any sense of thrill. The beauty and strength of History of Wolves is in its original and haunting prose – not its storytelling.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel lost out to George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

 

‘Of a Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett

Of_A_Boy_(Sonya_Hartnett)_CoverA short, seemingly meandering story, Sonya Hartnett leaves you wondering just where the narrative is taking you. And when it gets there, you wish it hadn’t!

Evocative of youth and innocence with more than a hint of vulnerability, Of a Boy steers clear of overt sentiment in its telling of childhood and mother/child relationships – and that of nine year-old Adrian in particular. A boy on the sidelines – living with his Gran in a street where there’s no other kids, one particular friend at school. Lonely he may be, but Adrian is a survivor, having experienced the emotional deterioration of his mother following a divorce.

As Adrian befriends Nicole, the new girl across the road, the story of three missing children (the prologue of Of a Boy and likely based on the true story of the missing Beaumont children, who disappeared from an Adelaide beach) gradually moves off the front pages of the newspapers. And whilst children may not understand, they do not so readily forget.

Sparse language, evocative setting (the innocence of 1977 where the purchase of a slinky could create so much interest and joy) and a mood of cold, damp winter months with morning mists and the early onset of nighttime darkness add to the sense of foreboding of Hartnett’s haunting and deeply moving novel.

Of a Boy was the recipient of The Age Book of the Year as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for South East Asia and South Pacific Region but lost out to Alex Miller and Journey to the Stone Country for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash

flounderingA convincing, tough, unsentimental yet moving storyline more than smacks of truth as brothers Tom and Jordy come to terms with an unstable, broken mum who, having abandoned them on the doorstep of their gran twelve months earlier, has turned up again. Without a word, she whisks them off on a road trip the boys will never forget.

Loretta seemingly has no plan – and very little money – other than to head west. Days of sleeping in an old rust bucket of a car with the boys still in their school uniforms and surviving predominantly on chocolate and soda shoplifted along the way follow.

Eleven year-old Tom is our narrator, a boy who sees a lot but understands little. Loretta is slowly falling apart, fragments of a desperate woman experienced on the periphery of Tom’s vision. When the three find shelter in an old caravan park on the west coast, the sense of menace is just out of view as the slightly older, surly Jordy attempts to protect his brother.

Floundering is a grim, anxiety-ridden experience. Yet its vivid language and powerful sense of character, presented by the author without any judgement, drags us into the  squalor of the road trip and the inhospitable dereliction of the coastal campsite. As Tom says of his brother when they realise they have been abandoned once more, “there’s a little piece of string connecting us, and I got no choice but to go with the pull of it.” And that describes the effect Romy Ash’s debut novel has on its readers. And I, for one, am glad to have done so.

Shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, Romy Ash lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

besidesReadable it may be, interspersed with the occasional provocative wit, but overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves left me cold and unengaged.

Rosemary Cooke (our narrator) has a sister. Or did. Fern disappeared from the family around Rosemary’s fifth birthday. And to add to the childhood trauma of loss, her older brother Lowell walked out of the family home in Indiana seven years later – and hasn’t been seen since (although news of his whereabouts occasionally filters through). Now a college student in Davis, California (the place of Lowell’s last reported sighting), a lonely Rosemary grieves for her lost siblings. Only it transpires that Fern was a chimpanzee (apologies for the spoiler).

Inspired by real-life experiments dating from the 1930s onwards, the family ‘twin‑sisterhood’ was part of an experiment conducted  by her psychologist father for five years before being abruptly terminated. Just why never becomes completely clear until towards the end of Fowler’s novel. It’s Rosemary’s culpability (or at least her belief of it) that forms the core – a motormouth child who now prefers silence as an adult and who remembers only snatches of her earlier formative years. But then a simian upbringing is likely to silence most discussions with peers!

Psychology theories abound in Fowler’s book (transpires her father was a professor of psychology in Indiana) as Rosemary looks to justifications and answers. And she is constantly looking for answers. But those answers are in her past.

What starts out as a traditional family narrative soon becomes anything but. And whilst the dysfunctional family is well written, it soon becomes overanalysed – as does the message regarding animal lab testing. Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a labouredrepetitive story as Rosemary looks to understand just what happened when she was five years old.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize (the first year where American authors qualified for consideration), Karen Joy Fowler lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘Our Fathers’ by Andrew O’Hagan

ourfathersA controlled, assured first novel, Our Fathers is an elegiac yet dark stroll down a Scottish memory lane. It’s 1960s Glasgow and the time of social reform and urban renewal. Out with the slums and in with the new – clean, modern, light-filled high rise tower blocks.

But 30 years later, the legendary Hugh Bawn is dying from cancer on the 18th floor of one of those same tower blocks he helped create. His grandson Jamie returns from England to watch over him  – and it is he who is Our Fathers narrator.

It’s a story of nationalism, socialism, alcoholism, pride and hopes – of three lives dictated and determined by the values and drive of one: Hugh ‘Mr Housing’ Bawn. He may be frail and dying in a flat where the lifts are constantly vandalised, but Hugh Bawn’s history is one of municipal principles and righteous politics. But it came at a cost – an alcoholic son who could never live up to expectations and who, in return, deeply traumatised and rejected his own son, Jamie. Even those same tower blocks, standing ‘proud as a Soviet gymnast’ are now being demolished, built as they were with substandard materials. And with them go the idealism and aspirations of the old working class socialist values.

Andrew O’Hagan is in the territory of writers such as Jack London and Robert Tressell,  with its overt celebration of social (socialist) working class realism. In writing almost a century later, however, Hagan records the loss of much of its associated idealism (it’s no coincidence that Jamie has moved to England and is a demolitions expert – both anathema to his grandfather).

But in looking to that recording of social realism, O’Hagan misses a crucial element to his narrative – emotional empathy. Consequently, whilst Our Fathers is an informative construction with rich prose and savvy dialogue, the heart yearned for a little more emotion and less emotional detachment.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, Our Fathers lost out to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

 

‘Disgrace’ by J. M. Coetzee

JMCoetzee_DisgraceA compelling, multilayered exploration of the dilemma of South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid years, Disgrace is a beautifully written story of power, sexuality and redemption.

Twice-divorced David Lurie, a middle-aged lecturer of Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, has an ill-advised short-lived affair with one of his students. When a complaint is filed against him, an arrogant and dismissive Lurie refuses to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his behaviour and, as a result, is forced to resign. Retreating to his daughter’s isolated smallholding in the Eastern Cape, Lurie is forced to confront his values, opinions and position as a privileged white male in the new South Africa.

More anti-hero than Byronic, Lurie’s complex emotions to his situation – a man seeming without purpose – is heightened by the attack on his daughter Lucie and himself by three young black men in their own home. Lucie refuses to file a complaint, much to the distress of her father.

Roles and position have changed, inevitable but, in some instances, sudden. Lurie is no longer the man he once was – no job, little influence on his daughter, ageing. But there is hope for him – the sexual relationship with Bev, a woman he finds physically unattractive, is an act that is a step towards “annihilating his sexual vanity and his sense of superiority.”

A lyrical, riveting metaphor, Disgrace was the winner of the 1999 Booker Prize – and possibly one of the best books I have ever read.

 

‘Bring Larks and Heroes’ by Thomas Keneally

larksLaying bare the horrors of the Australian convict era, Keneally’s Miles Franklin Award winning Bring Larks and Heroes was one of the earliest fictions exploring the period. Seen from the witty, irreverent perspective of Corporal Phelim Halloran, the Irish Marine, the fictional penal colony in the South Pacific is a mirror of the settlement of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) with key dates shuffled to be suitably non-specific.

A man destined originally to be of the (Catholic) cloth, Halloran instead joined the Marines to avoid his fate as an Irish nationalist arrested at an illegal gathering. Intelligent and idealist, it is Halloran’s love for the young serving girl, Anne, that drives him to take risks. But it is also his witnessing the inhumanity of the so-called civilising society, where dissent is crushed (400 lashes), simply ended (the hanging of an accused rapist in spite of the man being a eunuch) or, in the case of the indigenous population, simply left to die from smallpox. The worst excesses of English society and an unjust system have been transported thousands of miles to the other side of the world.

It is the injustices that ultimately lead to the eventual downfall of the honest Halloran (and Anne) and his conscience as he is called to task by Hearn, the clerk and political prisoner who has come about a tract reporting the French Revolution (Keneally has altered dates, remember). Choose your side, demands Hearn, knowing where the young Catholic Irishman’s sympathies lie.

Bring Larks and Heroes is an early work by one of Australia’s foremost novelistsHimself an outspoken Australian Republican and former seminarian, Keneally explores the individual’s commitment to faith and personal morality without being overly doctrinaire. But his style is slight and erring towards obscure; language overbearing; narrative non-compelling.

It’s a subject Keneally was to revisit in the 1987 novel, The Playmaker – to my mind a much more successful and significant narrative and which was later adapted for the stage by playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, as Our Country’s Good for the Royal Court Theatre in London. Bring Larks and Heroes was awarded the 1967 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Sorry’ by Gail Jones

sorryAn elegant, elegiac tale of childhood, memory, friendship and love, Jones’ deft narrative and luminous prose creates a compelling and compassionate story.

Sorry is set in the remote town of Broome in northern Western Australia in the late 1930s/early 1940s and the onset of war. A young English anthropologist and his wife, Stella, struggle with the harsh conditions of their new surrounds, living in little more than a shack several miles from town. Their lonely daughter, Perdita, makes friends with a deaf mute boy, Billy, and an Aboriginal girl, Mary. The trio develop a deep and profound bond until tragedy strikes. Their lives are torn apart and, coinciding with Japanese bombardment of the northern Australian coastline, are forced, for different reasons, to travel south to Perth.

Written in a mix of first and third person, Sorry is essentially a memory of an older Perdita looking back on events, the fractured chronology providing a level of objectivity and evaluation for the adult Perdita.

Deeply traumatised by events, dealing with a profound stutter and an unstable, Shakespeare quoting mother, Perdita is an isolated and bullied teenager. It is only with foster parents, Flora and Ted Ramsay, that she is introduced to stability and a sense of normality. But, in reconnecting with Mary and Billy in Perth, Perdita’s perception of ‘normal’ is at odds with the White European values of 1940s Australia.

The word ‘sorry’ has complicated meanings in Australia insofar that it took an Australian government until 2008 to apologise to the Stolen Generations and formally acknowledge the suffering caused by decades of mistreatment of Indigenous Australians. Gail Jones’ Sorry is a personal testament in the spirit of reconciliation, a novel of sacrifice and loyalty, of childhood and innocence with its hopes, its aspirations and, devastatingly, its lost opportunities.

And only then, turning the pages, peering at what Mary had read, did she begin to know, did she begin to open and grieve. There was a flood of hot tears, and a sudden heart breaking.

 I should have said sorry to my sister, Mary. Sorry, my sister, oh my sister, sorry.

Gail Jones’ fourth novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award (her third time on the shortlist in four years) but lost out to Steven Carroll and The Time We
Have Taken
.

‘Their Brilliant Careers’ by Ryan O’Neill

their_brilliant_careersA bravura hotchpotch of the lives of 16 (fictional) Australian writers from inveterate racist through to manipulating blackmailer, from overbearing bully to a fiction within her own fiction, Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers is a satirical swipe at the literary establishment.

Sixteen people, sixteen stories, sixteen histories. Ranging over approximately one hundred years, inevitably there are numerous overlaps – the biographer of one, the child of another, the editor of many.

Satire abounds in the short biographies (an average of 15-20 pages per person) and Their Brilliant Careers builds towards a crescendo as it looks to its last exposé. The construct of O’Neill’s Australian literary world is a wholly believable one. It’s detailed and intricate, with each writer provided with a distinctive idiosyncrasy. Absurd but rarely dull, ironic without being monotonous, O’Neill instils a sense of a fun, light read. It’s a commanding insight into that literary world. That’s the positive side of Their Brilliant Careers.

But it also becomes a little too formulaic, a little too much misery with early deaths in miserable circumstances. Satire becomes spoof – and not always successfully, slipping into the very self-aggrandisement it’s mirroring and commenting upon. The result is that the joke wears thin.

At its best, Their Brilliant Careers is certainly entertaining (personal favourites were the lives of editor, Robert Bush, whose favourite copyediting symbol was ‘delete’ and used only purple ink; the reclusive, forgotten Helen Harkaway) but Their Brilliant Careers cried out for more than its lightweight content. Pastiche can carry only so much. A slightly longer, ‘ordinary’ story of a writer/historian/publisher would have provided the balance.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, Ryan O’Neill lost out to Josephine Wilson and her Extractions.