‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland

3vm2w2y5-1398227068A fair-dinkum 1970s Aussie bloke’s story – an everyman’s tale of life centred round the pub in an Australia already dying when David Ireland wrote this wry, compelling novel. Away from the glamorous beaches of coastal Sydney, it’s the working class western suburbs, pre-gentrification, pre-multiculturalism and by far pre-2000 Olympic Games.

It’s a vernacular tapestry of life in The Southern Cross, with short one-page observations or three page chapters of events and local characters as they come and go as told by our narrator, Meat Man. (It’s a man’s world, remember – size does matter and Meat has earned his monicker).

The Southern Cross is no welcoming drinking hole as the regulars comfortably spend six days a week looking into their beer. “On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.”

Along with Meat, characters such as Alky Jack, Aussie Bob, Serge, The King and the only woman of significance within the hallowed walls, Sharon the barmaid, populate The Southern Cross. In this territorial world, casual strangers are at best frowned upon, but more usually invited “outside”. Drunken philosophies, pointless arguments, sudden outbursts of extreme violence abound.

Yet, in spite of the violence and the fact there’s an awful lot of deaths (natural and suspicious), there’s also plenty of (laconic) humour on tap. And Ireland never judges his characters – he simply presents them as they are in all their honest rawness and flawed humanity.

It’s a subculture long lost (mostly) within contemporary Australia and few tears are shed for the demise of a brutal, misogynist maledom. Yet Ireland’s vivid characterisation reminds us of something that once was.

The Glass Canoe, David Ireland’s fifth novel, won the 1976 Miles Franklin Award (adding to his 1971 win for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner).

 

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‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar

salt creekLucy Treloar’s debut novel is something of a grower. What starts out seemingly as another Australian novel dealing with European settlement in the mid 1800s and the impact it has on the indigenous population becomes something more – much more.

As seen through the eyes of Hester Finch, a privileged 15 year-old at the onset of Salt Creek, we experience the fall from grace of the Finch family due to her father’s overbearing pride and poor business acumen. After another failed enterprise, rather than accept the support of his wife’s parents, he forces the family to leave their comfortable Adelaide existence and head to the beautiful yet harsh coastal landscape of the remote Coroong, a few days ride to the south.

Just opened up to graziers willing to try their luck, the inhospitable region offers opportunities. But driven by Finch’s inexperienced attempts to tame the land and spread Christian values, so he brings hardship, disease and death not only to his own family, but also the displaced Ngarrindjeri.

Leaving Adelaide society behind is not easy for Hester, her younger sister Addie (Adelaide) or the girls’ mother, “the journey to that place was like moving knowingly, dutifully, towards death.” And the rough hewn home among the sand dunes where “there was no porch at the front, only dirt and crushed grass about the house, growing longer against the walls where feet had not trod” has left them devastated, bringing home to them “just how far we had fallen.”

The Finch sons (Stanton and Hugh in particular) see adventure and triumph in ownership of the land. They care nothing for history and the indigenous community who they believe has no rights of access to the water holes, coastal fishing spots or land upon which they seasonally camp. They care nothing for their father’s colonialist Quakerism in wanting to civilise the “local savages”: the introduction of Tull from the Ngarrindjeri into the household as a “project” instils nothing but suspicion.

Over time and watching her ailing mother, Hester places the blame of the family demise firmly with her father. Not that her opinion counts for much – even though her parents support education for both their sons and daughters, Hester’s duty is determined by her gender.

But in the first instance, she knows the need to support their father. Success in the venture would mean a quicker return to the city and conversation. But, unlike most works of fiction exploring settlement, rather than successes in the face of adversity, Salt Creek offers struggling adaptation and failure instead.

Death and discord within the family changes the dynamics. Outside of polite society, perception of duty shifts. Penury brings with it altered expectations and hopes. And then there’s the evolving relationship between Addie and Tull.

The family’s isolation results in the introduction of few other characters – the recently widowed Mrs Robinson, owner of the Traveller’s Inn a half day’s ride away (Irish and a history of working in service means the Finch womenfolk only call upon her once): Mr Bagshot and his son, Charles, travelling through in the mapping of the area: the occasional constable. Few of the Ngarrindjeri themselves cross paths with the family.

It is the relationship between these few characters that is at the heart of Lucy Treloar’s superb novel. As much a story of family, duty, love and tragedy as commentary on European settlement, Salt Creek questions perceptions and assumptions of the time.

The destruction of indigenous culture by the family percolates throughout yet Salt Creek is as much about European Christian hypocrisy and the position of women in 19th century with its limited choices determined by men. Hester is driven to leave her durance behind at all costs: Addie eventually succumbs to social expectation. Masculinity itself is also touched upon – from the strutting Stanton through to the much gentler third brother, Fred: from the romantic Charles Bagshot to the bible-reading father: from the so-called uncivilised Tull to the inn owner, Mr Martin.

Intertwining the characters and events that befall them with real historical events, Lucy Treloar has produced something of a classic novel of early Australian European history. Shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award, it lost out to A.S.Patric and Black Rock, White City.

 

 

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire

9781743538579-1As the police look to solve the brutal murder of 25 year-old Bella Michaels, so her older sister, Chris, deals with the loss of her closest friend.

But whilst An Isolated Incident is a crime thriller, it’s far from a whodunit. In choosing to focus on the victim and the people affected by Bella’s death, writer Emily Maguire traces the ripple effects in the (fictional) country town of Strathdee, a truck-stop midway between Sydney and Melbourne. And, as the media descend in droves, infatuated not only with violent crime but in unearthing every sordid (or not so sordid) story, so Chris herself becomes thrust into the limelight, along with ex-husband, Nate.

Chris herself is no angel. A big-breasted barmaid, she uses her body to get what she wants. And if that includes a truck driver or two passing through town every couple of months, so be it. That’s how she found Nate. But too much boozing led to his departure – and Nate now lives in Sydney and has a child on the way. News of Bella’s death brings him back to Strathdee to support his ex-wife.

Lonely, Chris had turned more and more to the bottle and truck drivers passing through – and if they left a few $20 notes on the bedside table, even better. Aimless, it was her younger sister who sorted Chris out. But she’s now gone…

It doesn’t take long for the media to dig up the stories and they have a field day when it’s discovered Nate has a record for violence towards women. There are even a few stories about Chris and Nate’s marriage.

Judgements abound about Chris’ lifestyle – yet the casual pickups of young reporters by one of the male townies are smiled upon. Misogyny, double-standards, intimidation is rampant, as is violence towards women. The murder of a young woman by her husband in Strathdee barely receives a mention (it’s solved too quickly to warrant much media attention).

It’s a young female reporter, May, who strikes up a supportive relationship with Chris. Initially suspicious, the barmaid comes to rely upon May, particularly after Nate returns to Sydney. She becomes the new Bella.

It’s a chilling narrative that is compelling in spite of the fact that, as a thriller, the search for the killer takes a back seat. And in Chris Rogers (Bella had a different father), Emily Maguire has created a figure, an ‘everywoman’, who may be riddled with flaws and faults but is still a raw, empathic, humane figure.

An Isolated Incident has been shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award (the announcement of the winner takes place in September).

 

 

‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

landscape-of-farewellA meditative and wholly engaging novel, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell is the story of knowledge and understanding – of oneself, of the past, of the land, of ageing and of friendship.

Recently widowed, German academic Max Otto is looking to end his own life: his valedictory public lecture to be followed by a deadly mix of pills and alcohol in his Hamburg apartment. Only he had not foreseen the presence of Professor Vita McLelland – a feisty visiting Indigenous Australian academic from Sydney. She challenges Max and his less than impressive final words.

Unexpectedly, through an unplanned post-lecture discussion, a level of understanding between them evolves, resulting in an invitation to speak at a conference in Sydney a few months later. Vita also wants Max to spend time with her uncle, Dougald, at his home in the bush.

A deep, understated friendship evolves between Max and Dougald. In simple, rustic surrounds, the two settle into a life of easy domesticity with few words and long periods of silence. But Dougald also draws Max into his own history – and in particular that of Gnapun, his grandfather, a fabled warrior. As we are told the story of Gnapun leading a group of men into massacring Christian settlers a century earlier, so Max finds himself reflecting on his father and the never-asked question of his role in the Second World War.

Memories of his childhood come to the surface – an absent father, the one-legged uncle to whom he was sent off to help on the farm with the advent of the war – providing a suspended sense of time as Miller weaves us between the present and both men’s past. And, as with Max’s uncle, desperate for his nephew to understand “It is the soil of our fathers,” his uncle would rage, shaking his fist at him. “This soil is us! … We are this soil.”, so Dougald talks of the high country where the Old People dwell in the rocks, the soil, the trees of nature. Yet Dougald celebrates that past, whereas Max has long buried it. It is in the writing of Dougald’s story that Max recognises we are all “members of this same murdering species”.

Landscape of Farewell is a haunting novel full of incident yet simultaneously meditative. The two old men move at their own pace, yet still cover a great deal. A large part of the novel may well find Max feeding the hens or goat but then the two octogenarians also clamber steep isolated escarpments in Dougald’s home country, his first visit for decades. It is this journey into country that provides both men their resolution of reconciliation and redemption. Dougald may pass on to join the Old People, but Max is now free, back in Hamburg, to venture into ‘the darkness of his family’s silence.”

Alex Miller’s eighth novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award but he lost out to Steven Carroll and The Time We Have Taken. Miller has won the Miles Franklin on two separate occasions – in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.

 

‘The Mountain’ by Drusilla Modjeska

image24-1There’s a great deal to admire in Drusilla Modjeska’s ambitious, sweeping, multilayered novel that takes us into the heart of colonial change as the fractured island of Papua New Guinea moves towards independence from Australia in the 1970s.

Centred round academia and the new university in Port Moresby, the island’s capital, The Mountain introduces an Australian ex-pat community along with their Papuan contemporaries. It’s a country on the cusp of change but still dictated to by tradition, both colonial and tribal. Into this world arrive Rika and her anthropology documentary film-maker husband, Lawrence.

Several years his wife’s senior, Lawrence resists the idea that anthropology is about simply observing as if under a microscope: change and external influence has validity. He travels to the (fictional) remote mountain and local villages to film, leaving Rika in town to acclimatise to a world very different to her Dutch background.

While Lawrence records and experiences clan relations and rituals, art and ancestor stories and the influences of western teachings and medicines, so Rika herself confronts her own changes and conflicts, falling for Aaron, the young and charismatic local academic and future leader. Friends and colleagues are not overly fazed by this development, but the rarefied air of academia is not representative of colonial society. Some Papuans are disapproving: members of the white community turn to violence.

With one foot in Moresby and one on the mountain, Modjeska’s novel is very much about place and time. Rika’s coming-of-age runs simultaneously with PNG’s introduction to democracy and the position of tribal practices of tradition and superstition in this new world: her exposure to life on the mountain when she eventually joins Lawrence further changes Rika.

The second (and considerably shorter) part of The Mountain is set 30 years later: Rika is a successful artist living in New York while Aaron is long dead. It is Jericho, Rika and Aaron’s adopted son, who returns. A successful art dealer in London, Jericho is mixed race and feels he belongs nowhere. He needs to understand his sense of place – but also needs closure with details about Aaron’s death so soon after Independence.

It’s a dense, luminous work of fiction. Modjeska is a celebrated non-fiction writer and The Mountain is at its brilliant best when it navigates that sense of place and the realities of that world – the politics, its history, its traditions. The complexities of PNG are palpable, particularly in the first half of the book as we journey with Rika and, to her, the newness of the island and its culture.

Less successful, less engaging, are the individual stories and narratives. Jericho arrives too late to hold the sympathies and empathies: his personal journey of identity in part mirrors Riva’s arrival in PNG. But it is too obvious where his questions will be answered – he is, at the end of the day, a mountain man. And his long-held love for Bili, daughter of Riva’s close friend Laedi, is all too neatly wrapped in her activism for PNG’s right to self-determine.

The Mountain is, throughout, full of convenient love affairs, analogies for events – the disintegrating marriage between Laedi and Don; the rocky marriage of Pete and Martha (that at least survives until his death in Sydney many years later); Wana and Sam; the unexpected Lawrence and Janape. And, central, Rika and Aaron.

Through them and their friendships, we gain an insight into the local cultural mix: through them and their children, we experience, when Jericho returns to the island, how independence has impacted and how tradition has withstood the test of time.

It’s a long journey for all concerned – Lawrence and Jericho return from the UK, Martha from Sydney. A bitter Riva will never travel from New York to the island. It’s 30 years since Papua New Guinea gained independence: it’s 30 years since Aaron died. It’s also a long, overly detailed journey for the reader – particularly in the middle where the newness of discovery has worn off.

Drusilla Modjeska’s first book of fiction was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin award but lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

 

 

 

‘The Riders’ by Tim Winton

tim-winton-the-ridersA rare foray away from his native Western Australia results is possibly Tim Winton’s weakest narrative. The Riders is still beautifully written but its breathless storyline where Scully and his traumatised young daughter, Billie, frantically cross Europe searching for wife/mother Jennifer simply grates. And it leaves so many questions unanswered.

Opening in a wet and miserable Ireland, Scully renovates a remote rundown cottage, purchased on a whim. Apprehensive, so far removed from the Western Australian lifestyle of sunshine and beach, Scully works through his loneliness, buoyed by the soon-to-return pregnant Jennifer and young Billie following the sale of their Fremantle home.

The Riders is at its strongest as Winton introduces Scully, a working-class bloke “…with a severely used face”, slaving away in misery and his memories of a recent history – lyrical and supple prose of more than two years in Europe with his family flitting between London, Paris and the Greek islands. But their sojourn was not in the lap of luxury. Instead, Scully had worked like a dog for cash in heavy duty labouring jobs to enable Jennifer to explore her ’artistic potential.’

After several years on the road, the couple plan to settle in Ireland, renovate and raise their family. Jennifer had returned to Australia to sell their house and settle affairs. But Scully’s world falls apart when seven year-old Billie arrives at Dublin airport alone.

Billie, traumatised and unable to talk to her beloved father, cannot explain what has happened. Confirming she had travelled to London with the seven year-old, so begins a frantic odyssey across Europe where Scully, with Billie in tow, retraces the family’s steps. As a creature of habit, Jennifer will return to a place she knows is Scully’s logic.

A wet and cold out-of-season Hydra is the first call, but the Greek island produces no results yet sets the pace for the rest of the book. Tormented by fear, Scully becomes irrational and desperate in his belief that there’s a logical explanation for Jennifer’s disappearance. Florence, Paris, Amsterdam are crazed ships in the night as father and a resilient daughter pass through, more and more desperate as he fails to find any trail and the money begins to run out.

The momentum continues to rise to an almost breathless level as Scully teeters on the edge, losing his grasp on reality and placing Billie in perilous situations. Yet Billie’s understanding compliance facilitates Scully’s continued obsession as he confronts his inner demons.

A rites-of-passage as Scully comes to understand more about himself and the relationships with his wife, The Riders is both captivating and infuriating. What he does to Billie is beyond comprehension. Ditto what Jennifer does to both of them.

The Riders was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize (Winton’s first) but lost out to Pat Barker and The Ghost Road.

 

 

‘Bliss’ by Peter Carey

blissAn acerbic commentary on family, consumerism, advertising and bourgeois avarice, Carey’s debut novel was presented with the 1981 Miles Franklin Award.

As Harry Joy hovers above his prone body in the opening pages, dead for nine minutes before being revived, he looks around his wealthy suburban home of a successful Australian east coast advertising executive. At just 39 years old, he has suffered a massive coronary.

But Harry wakens in the hospital convinced he has died and in Hell, this new world populated by actors playing roles. His beautiful wife Bettina is unfaithful and in the process of leaving Harry for his trusted business partner, Joel. And his teenage children are not the innocents he believes them to be – son Harry a drug dealer dreaming of working for the Colombian cartel; daughter Lucy more than prepared to bestow sexual favours on her brother in return for a hit.

Life at 25 Palm Avenue has definitely changed. Having met with Honey Barbara – part-time dope grower, part-time hooker – and her hippy, pantheistic outlook, Harry is quick to divest clients who do not meet his newly acquired ethical standards. As Harry’s suspicions and paranoia grow, his determination to become a Good Person grows.

The family conspire to have him committed. Not that that’s particularly difficult – along with his convictions and financial suicide, the local mental home is a privatised business and any patient, sane or otherwise, means subsidy dollars for Dr Alice Dalton.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to Bliss. In this unspecified tropical, humid rainforest (likely to be Queensland), everything and everyone is a little strange and more than a little odd.

Harry doesn’t stay in the hospital for very long. Money gets him in, money gets him out. And Honey Barbara is now part of his life in Palm Avenue, in spite of her hatred for all things poisonous (living in a commune in the middle of nowhere, everything about city life is poisonous). But nothing is easily settled in the Joy family –  Joel now lives in the Palm Avenue home, even if Bettina no longer feels any love for him.

Bliss is all a little crazy and anarchic, with pauses to the flow of narrative every few pages that creates a staccato reading. This structure does at times make it difficult to ‘get into’ the swing of the novel, added to which Carey is not adverse to occasionally fast-forwarding 20 years to inform us of the conclusion of a particular event or story. But Carey’s prose is beautifully descriptive and accessible – and the black, black humour is, mostly, captivating.

It’s not my favourite Carey novel – it digresses at times, annoys at others – but there is no doubting its deep humanity and love of its subject and subjects.

 

‘Too Many Men’ by Lily Brett

41h8gacb38l-_sy346_Take every conceivable neurotic stereotype of a 40 year-old Jewish woman, multiply it by five and put it into one individual character. Meet Ruth Rothwax, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. She is obsessed in visiting Poland with her 81 year-old father, Edek, to discover, through his eyes, the country of his (and her deceased mother’s) birth and to try and understand the devastating loss of family and position in the Holocaust.

Ruth is a relatively successful New York businesswoman three times divorced (but one, according to Ruth, does not officially count as the first was a business transaction to enable the Australian obtain a green card to live in the US). Edek lives in Melbourne, the city he and his wife, Rooshka, settled following World War II.

The two meet in Warsaw for a journey through Polish Jewish history – the Warsaw Ghetto, the city of Lodz (her parents’ home city) and Krakow (for the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau from which her parents miraculously survived). It is the first time Edek has been in Poland since the war.

Too Many Men is the fictional story of this journey, a confronting journey for both protagonists as they deal, in their own personal way, with the history of events in the context of the anti-Semitism prevalent in Poland today. Edek is the more sanguine of the two – he is a survivor who will never forget but who knows he cannot change anything that happened. Ruth as a second-generation survivor has not witnessed but learned everything second hand through silences, questions that could never be asked or screams deep in the darkness of night. By confronting her parents past, Ruth can confront her own future.

It’s a long journey. Lily Brett is not an author who uses one word when twenty seems better. It’s also a soapbox from which she can educate and then berate the world. Not only is Ruth a stereotype, but so is every Pole, guilty of anti-Semitism before they have even spoken a word.

Painfully and in detail, events in the Ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow are spelled out. Contemporary Poland and its attitudes are equally presented – Auschwitz Museum rather than Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp, the historic Kazimierz district of Krakow catering for Jewish cultural tourism yet devoid of Jews (even down to the ‘they look Ukrainian’ klezmer musicians playing in the Jewish cabaret). And the bizarre Holocaust denier in Krakow claiming the Jews had fled Poland with all their gold to Russia at the arrival of the Nazis.

Too Many Men is written as a stream of consciousness mixed with a political treatise. From the outset, Ruth is not a particularly likeable character who gets progressively more and more unpleasant. Even Edek challenges her rudeness and confrontational manner. That it is confronting for her, to experience this world so alien, to witness even today the level of anti-Semitism, is unquestionable. Her dealings with the grasping old couple that have lived for 60 years in a subdivided apartment of her grandparents old home, hoarding belongings of the dead Rothwaxes in the hope of a financial visit, is telling and devastating.

But Ruth ultimately becomes too much. Everyone is guilty (and in Too Many Men everyone is. There’s not one empathic Polish character – Ruth sees even Zofia as being on the make). Lily Brett’s novel becomes nothing more than an unpleasant, vitriolic attack on Poland and the Poles rather than a deeply personal, family-oriented perspective of the Holocaust. And the introduction of the spirit of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz, in a post- execution limbo ultimately made little sense other than as another device to educate readers to the horrors of the Holocaust and the inhumane rationalisation of the Final Solution.

The author herself is a Jewish second-generation Holocaust survivor of Polish Jews from the city of Lodz. How much Too Many Men is autobiographical is unclear. Her interest in the legacy of the Holocaust, intergenerational trauma for survivors and the continuance of anti-Semitism is overt and prevalent. However, my personal preference is not to be educated by an overwrought Ruth Rothwax whose answer to emotional biliousness is copious amounts of Mylanta indigestion tablets and whose emotional stability can range from ups to ‘depression’ in minutes. Anger – yes. Disbelief – yes. But the constant use of ‘I was depressed’ is ultimately self-defeating.

Having undertaken a similar journey with a second generation Holocaust survivor (Krakow, Lublin for Majdanek death camp, Warsaw), I can certainly understand many of Lily Brett’s concerns and issues (and like her, welcomed the presence of groups of young Israelis at the camps). But agit-prop stereotypes is counterproductive.

Its premise is a good one (although interestingly, reading the précis on the back cover, it’s interesting that the word ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ does not appear. I’m sure Ruth Rothwax would have something to say about that) but the final delivery is overlong and disappointing.

Too Many Men was shortlisted for the 2000 Miles Franklin award but lost out to the joint winners of Thea Astley’s Drylands and Benang by Kim Scott.

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

9781760111236A dystopian narrative of the future (or possibly the present), an imaginative story of misogyny and internment – Charlotte Wood’s haunting The Natural Way of Things is an Australian answer to Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and with more than a passing reference to the BBC TV series, Tenko.)

A group of 10 young women find themselves imprisoned in a remote, ruinous deserted sheep station somewhere in the Australian outback.

Lorded over by the sadistic Boncer, the camp is surrounded by an unscaleable electric fence. Their captors – Hardings International – represent the corporate moral right, punishing these girls of ‘low moral character’ for their highly public sexual escapades. Their captivity is to teach them ‘what’ they are (what rather than whom. As a discursive parable, The Natural Way of Things highlights that women are generally vilified and blamed rather than seen as victims or part responsible. It is Verla who was at fault in her affair with the politician, Yolanda to blame for being gang-raped).

Each girl is kept in an individual sheep pen, forced into hard labour, issued Hamish-style clothing, shorn of hair and fed starvation rations of dried food. Two males – Boncer and Teddy – are employed to keep them in their place along with the dubious Nancy. But as time passes, the food begins to run out and the Hardings International representative shows no signs of visiting. They are all captives.

The Natural Way of Things is a deeply unsettling yet poetic novel. The title itself raises many questions – is the natural way the survival of the fittest? Is it what has become ‘natural’? (the rampant misogyny in Australian culture?). The girls themselves represent diversity of class, ethnicity, education and personality with each finding their own way (singularly or in groups) to survive their ordeal.

But Woods primarily focuses on the fiercely independent Yolanda and the courageous Verla.

They barely speak to each other yet their bond is deep. In hunting for food, Yolanda keeps captives and captors alike alive. In hunting for mushrooms, Verla keeps herself alive in her determination to kill.

With his baton, Boncer is a vindictive bully, dangerous in his elevation to power: Teddy is a ‘surfer dude’, breezing through yet, less apparent, equally dangerous. As alpha male, Boncer is threatened by Yolanda but, through her hunting prowress, gives her a wide berth. His control slowly breaks down. Now, only the girls can rescue themselves.

With its underlying menace, The Natural Way of Things is bleak. Its starkness, like its landscape, is threatening – in spite of some beautifully poetic prose

‘What? We can’t hear you,’ and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

 Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel has, unsurprisingly, been garlanded with many awards, including the 2016 Stella Prize (best Australian novel written by a woman) and joint-winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature (shared with Lisa Gorton and The Life of Houses). The Natural Way of Things was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric.

‘Water Man’ by Roger McDonald

watermanMy introduction to the writings of Roger McDonald was through his 2010 novel, When Colts Ran. With its immersive sense of place and character in a small Australian outback town over a period of time and history, When Colts Ran is a sweeping paean to rural Australian life. But it’s no easy read.

McDonald’s earlier work, Water Man (published in 1993), also explores similar themes of displacement, disillusionment and uncertainty with its overlapping narratives of characters and events 50 years apart.

Mal Fitch is a successful Sydney theatre director native to Logan’s Reef, a dry, desolate Red Centre settlement. Mal returns every summer to work behind the bar at The Criterion Hotel – the only pub in a town now dying on its feet. His father is the near legendary water diviner Gunner Fitch, long dead, killed in World War II. It is Gunner’s rivalry with wealthy William D’Inglis, owner of the local flourmill, that continues to have repercussions on Logan’s Reef and the Fitch and D’Inglis families.

 More than 50 years earlier, Gunner was contracted to source water on the Croppdale property of the D’Inglis’ family. Instead, he went off to war and was blown up at the Battle of El Alamein. But Fitch knew there was water – and a lot of it – deep below the surface of the local rocky landscape. But now no-one knows where to bore – and the parched land and the few remaining residents are desperate. Like When Colts Ran, Water Man is no easy read. But, unlike the later book, Water Man is not particularly enjoyable. A litany of unpleasant characters with little or no redeeming features populates Logan’s Reef both past and present, with the centenarian William D’Inglis the cohesive element to the storyline. It is he that continues Gunner’s strange legacy.

The characters themselves are undoubtedly affected by the barren, arid landscape, a brutal environment of desperation, meanness and general unpleasantness. It is not just the drought-ridden soil that needs the replenishment of water. And Water Man does elicit change when the waters do eventually arrive. An almost magical change takes place among even the bitterest of men (there’s very few womenfolk), a modern day fable of our time. It’s just a pity that more investment in the fate of the locals had been garnered.

Water Man was one of only three novels shortlisted for the 1994 Miles Franklin award. McDonald, along with David Malouf’s superb Remembering Babylon lost out to Rodney Hall and The Grisly Wife.