‘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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‘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.

 

‘Black Rock White City’ by A S Patric

black_rock_white_cityLoss, loneliness and dislocation are prevalent throughout Melbourne writer A S Patric’s debut novel.

As refugees from the Balkan wars, Jovan Brakocevic and his wife Suzanna are at a loss in their new Melbourne home. A former university lecturer and published poet in Sarajevo, Jovan is a cleaner at a local hospital; Suzanna cleans private homes. Their loss of a former life is palpable, the deaths of their two young children haunting their every move. Both are struggling to adapt – with their surroundings and with each other. A silence pervades.

Patric mixes his chronologies, slowly revealing the horrors of a country torn apart by religious and social wars, centuries in the making. Juxtaposed is the new everyday, where Jovan needs to concern himself with new brake pads or Suzanna leaving the lights on in their rented home. The couple are now in a country where a local Australian co-worker “… thinks he hates a boss or a politician or someone at his local pub,” Jovan observes, “but he hasn’t seen hate turn to fire, free-floating and exploding throughout a city, and then materialising again into a blistered red monster more real than any creature children imagine in night-time terrors.”

Black Rock White City is the story of trauma and the extent people can recover from tragedy and what happens to them in the process. It is told against the backdrop of an anonymous graffiti artist (labelled Dr Graffitio) vandalising the hospital and specialised equipment. It is this storyline that initially dominates, but slowly its prevalence becomes secondary. The real horrors are Balkan-related.

It’s bleak, challenging and deeply impressive. Yet I did not like Black Rock White City. Suzanna is the more interesting of the two central characters, but she only comes into any significant focus at the halfway stage. The novel’s slow beginnings centred on Dr Graffitio and Jovan’s sexual tryst with a dentist. The stark relationship between Jovan and Suzanna is beautifully realised: life in Sarajevo and Belgrade (White City) stunningly portrayed in its inhumanity and incomprehension. Yet the vandalism subplot gets in the way of this exploration, with its denouement a seemingly clumsy and abrupt afterthought.

Black Rock White City was presented with the 2016 Miles Franklin Award.

 

‘Highways to a War’ by Christopher Koch

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707An absorbing tale of courage in the face of adversity and, unusually, a war story set in Indochina where the emphasis is on the war as fought by local, as opposed to foreign, troops.

Australian photojournalist Mike Langford is an enigmatic but hugely popular Tasmanian farmboy who finds himself, almost by default, in the centre of the action in the mid 1960s. It is his disappearance years later inside the Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia and the search for him by his friends that is at the heart of Highways to a War.

Mike’s boyhood friend and executor of his estate, Ray, travels to Thailand on learning of the disappearance of a man he has not seen for many years. With cassette tapes left by Mike, photographs by the thousands (published or simply stored in boxes), a few accompanying notes and the stories of his friends and colleagues, Ray pieces together the extraordinary story of the boy who ran away from home in rural Tasmania to become a legendary war photojournalist.

But Mike was much more. He recorded not the US offensives: instead, he chose to focus on local Vietnamese (and later Cambodian) troops, recording the war from their perspectives. Less equipped than the Americans, involved in more of the hand-to-hand skirmishes, the risk was much higher for the troops and western media representatives. In telling the world their story, the unassuming photographer is elevated to mythic status in Saigon and (later) Phnom Penh.

But Highways to a War is also a love story. For Mike, there’s the businesswoman, Claudine Phan in Saigon followed by the true love of his life, the feisty Cambodian, Ly Keang. Core to the novel is the friendship of the three photojournalists, Langford, Jim Feng and Dmitri ‘Count’ Volkov: only one will survive. But overarching all is the love for country.

The result is a haunting novel that follows Mike’s own personal highways to war and a world of lives lived on the edge. Packed with compelling characters both inside the press circle and out, Highways to a War is a story of place and time vividly realised by Koch’s powerful but empathic writing.

Christopher Koch (1932-2013) is best known for his novel The Year of Living Dangerously, adapted for the screen in 1984 and starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, with Linda Hunt picking up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Yet Highways to a War is one of two Koch novels to win the Miles Franklin Award (the other being The Doubleman in 1985).

‘The Eye of the Sheep’ by Sofie Laguna

9781743319598Winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, Sofie Laguna’s bittersweet novel is imbued with a magical sense of ‘other’ but which is also firmly grounded in the daily lives of a working-class Melbourne family.

Six year-old Jimmy Flick is certainly different. And not everyone knows how to take him – including his dad. Yet the boy and his voice are exceptional and unique, a larrikin character somewhere on the (unspecified) autism/Asperger scale. His precocious insight and intelligence is beyond his years (and most of the adult characters around him).

It’s only his mother who understands Jimmy and connects with the boy whose excess energy seems out of control. School has given up on him, resulting in more and more indulged time with his mother and her love for cake. Ma is certainly struggling – overweight and asthmatic, she is surviving an abusive and violent marriage and finds solace in Agatha Christie murder mysteries and eating. A victim of an abusive father himself, Gav blames Jimmy for driving him to drink.

The Flick family world spirals even more out of control when Gav is laid off from the refinery and Robby, Jimmy’s elder brother, takes off for work on the fishing boats off the West Australian coast. Jimmy must now come to terms with change.

In Jimmy Flick, author Sofie Laguna has created a memorable, loveable yet incredibly astute child. The Eye of the Sheep is narrated through his voice and observations and comments are peppered with humour, pathos and child logic. But there is also an unexpected steely-edged determination to Jimmy as he is forced into a different world to the (ironically) safe haven of home and its known sense of order.

Considering its subject matter, The Eye of the Sheep is a surprisingly uplifting novel, in spite of the horrors Jimmy has to survive. In reality, the ending is a little too upbeat – whilst welcoming redemption, at the end of the day it comes across as a little too pat and contrived. Which is a pity as it undoes, to some extent, the impact of everything that had come before it.

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

9780143009580On the surface, Breath is a seemingly slight coming-of-age story set (as are many of Winton’s novels) in Western Australia and the world of beaches, surfers and fishing communities. But it is also an evocation of the memory of adolescence, friendship, endurance and taking risks.

Called out to deal with the death of a young teenage boy, paramedic Bruce Pike looks back 30 years to events as a 13 year-old when he and best mate Loonie fell into the thrall of guru surfing legend Sando. Making an unlikely trio, the older man introduces the two young teenagers to the extremities of the sport, pushing them to prepare for the ultimate challenge and the riding of monster waves.

Introducing an almost Spartan regime to their training, Sando encourages the two to vie against each other for accolades and affection. They look to outdo each other, pushing themselves to their own personal limits and, in looking to be extraordinary in the eyes of their teacher, take more and more risks.

For a while, it is Pikelet (Bruce) who is in the ascendancy. But, seemingly without fear, it is Loonie who claims the ultimate accolade, disappearing with Sando to the waves and challenges of Indonesia. Abandoned, with no warning, a bitter Pikelet finds solace with Sando’s (younger) wife, Eva. A strange, dope-fuelled sexual relationship develops between the two. He never sees his best friend again.

It’s a beautifully written story – as one would expect from Winton, who is nothing if not poetic. His vivid descriptions of the environment and the challenges of the surfing itself are perfectly crafted and without unnecessary detail. As a result, Breath is a relatively short novel (260 or so pages) and a must read. It was awarded the 2009 Miles Franklin Award (Winton’s fourth), beating out, among others, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap.

‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld

9781742757308It just goes to show there is no formula for an award-winning novel. Evie Wyld’s second book, All the Birds, Singing, collected the 2015 Miles Franklin Award yet only managed the long-list for The Stella Award (the Australian prize presented exclusively to women novelists). The relatively short novel also picked up the European Union Prize for Literature yet failed to feature in the shortlists of the prestigious Victoria and NSW Premier’s Literary Prizes.

But there again, All the Birds, Singing is something of a polarising novel. Some have loved it, some hated it (“…more like a cacophony than singing” is a personal favourite). That it elicits a response, there is no doubt. Personally, I sit somewhere in the middle.

Living alone on an unnamed island off the coast of England constantly battered by wind and rain, Jake Whyte has isolated herself from the local farming community. Emotionally and physically scarred, Jake is on the run from her past. And now, someone or something is killing her sheep.

Like the wild, untamed landscape of the island, All the Birds, Singing is a bleak, unsettling story with a fractured narrative. As Jake battles her present day demons of traumatised loneliness, haunted by that past, so the unreliable narrator (Jake herself) slowly reveals her dark history. ‘Told’ in reverse chronology, Jake’s Australian origins slowly build. Yet, dark though that story may be, forcing her to flee her homeland, it is the present day narrative that has a pervasive sense of foreboding and threat.

With, initially, only her dog, Dog, for company, Jake is undoubtedly struggling. A wet, cold English farm is very different to a vast Australian sheep station. And there’s no sense of homeliness to her homestead. Even the wholly impractical Lloyd, an ageing drifter on his own melancholic mission who takes up residence on her couch, offers little respite from the drudgery of the farm and the slaughter of the sheep. Is it kids, foxes or what?

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.”

With such brooding imagery and its menacing characters, suspense is the greatest strength of All the Birds, Singing. No matter how unrelenting the bleakness (whether in the cold, wet English countryside or the sun-scorched heat of northern Western Australia), the mystery of events in both locations remains paramount. What happened to Jake? What are the scars are her back? Who, and what, is Otto? And who (or what) is killing the sheep?

And it is this mystery that ultimately retains interest in a fractured novel that is simultaneously hypnotic and frustrating.

As with her first book, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, Evie Wyld can certainly write beautifully and build a plethora of fascinating characters. Yet, ultimately All the Birds, Singing does not ring true.

Aside from the pedantic questions of just how did Jake migrate from Australia, settle and purchase a farm, there is little conviction of Jake in Australia being the same Jake currently on a farm on a cold, wet island in the UK. The novelist has, to my mind, failed to tie the two stories and characterisation together.

Beautifully written it may be (and definitely holds promise for the future), but All the Birds, Singing sadly does not come close to her wonderful debut novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.

‘Jack Maggs’ by Peter Carey

JackMaggsEssentially a reworking of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and set in the middle of 19th century London, Peter Carey was surprisingly awarded the 1998 Miles Franklin Literary Prize for Jack Maggs.

Not that there is anything wrong with the novel – many critics believe it is the author’s finest hour.

It is simply the fact that the Miles Franklin, at the time, was awarded to novels that promote Australian literature and Australian sensibilities. Jack Maggs is wholly set in London (although Maggs himself has travelled from Sydney) and Carey was, at the time, living in New York.

But regardless of the decision, Jack Maggs not only collected the Miles Franklin (Carey’s third), but also went on to pick up the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and The Age Book of the Year Award.

A compulsive tale of a society on the cusp of change, Jack Maggs returns to London in utmost secret and in the gravest of danger should he be found to be walking the very soil of his home city. Deported for life at a young age to New South Wales, he has made an about turn in his fortunes and is a wealthy man from the honest craft of brickmaking.

Arriving in London with particular interest in a young gentleman, Henry Phipps, Maggs becomes involved in the household of a Great Queen Street residence, initially taking service as a disguised footman. It is the very next door to Phipps, who is living in the house Maggs himself purchased years previously. Only the young man has done a bolt, likely to be in connection with Maggs’ arrival.

Attempting to discover his whereabouts is the basis of Jack Maggs and, as a result, Maggs finds himself embroiled in affairs of the heart, illicit love, dangerous double-dealings, the occasional murder and mesmerism as emerging novelist Tobias Oates strikes a bargain with the former convict.

Looking for material for new bestseller, Oates has tricked Maggs into agreeing to be hypnotised, ostensibly to help cure a terrible facial tic. The reality is something very different as Oates plunders the unsuspecting mind for a vast wealth of material for his next book – desperately needed as the writer’s fortunes dwindle and his love for his young sister-in-law results in a socially awkward pregnancy.

This Faustian pact is at the heart of the novel as the two men battle for supremacy over each other – the battle of Goliath and David where both men play the part of David and Goliath. Wit, repartee, social standing and new science are all at hand for Oates, whereas brute strength and cunning are at the service of the colonial as Maggs discovers the games the novelist has been playing. Instead of crushing him, Maggs forces Oates to help him find Phipps.

The twentieth century ‘reply’ by Carey to Dickens’ novel is gripping, totally engaging and something of a page-turner as, in parts, Maggs’ history is revealed alongside the determination of the man to achieve his objectives.

Maggs is very obviously the Magwitch of the original, whilst Pip becomes Phipps. But there are considerable differences. The story of the young orphan boy made into a gentleman by a returned convict as a result of a kindness long ago remains. But where Pip is central in Great Expectations, the cowardly Phipps is noticeable by his absence. Unlike Magwitch, Maggs does not die a tragic death – instead he returns to his own family and grows ever wealthier no longer able to help the foolish and vain young man.

But Jack Maggs is not simply a pastiche of Dickens. It is its own story, its own novel.

Oates is loosely based on Dickens himself – in 1837 the novelist had gained a small degree of fame with the publication a year earlier of The Pickwick Papers and Dickens is known to have been attracted to his sister-in-law (although the sexual liaison and pregnancy is a myth on Carey’s part).

And twentieth century sensibilities allow more revelation and social commentary than the England of Dickens and Queen Victoria. Abortion, homosexuality, child rape, sexual passions, descriptive murders and ill-treatment of prisoners all feature in detail.

The result is a powerful novel about the displaced and the dispossessed and a tale of murder, mayhem, lust and painful lives.

‘Truth’ by Peter Temple

9781921656620Winner of the 2010 Miles Franklin Award, Truth is a multi-layered crime novel, a psychological mapping and a fine yarn rolled into its 387 pages.

Head of Victorian Homicide, Inspector Stephen Villani, is confronted with the highly sensitive murder of a young woman in the new state-of-the-art Prosilio apartment building in Central Melbourne. So new, few residents have moved in to the exclusive block.

Pressure is immediately placed on Villani to keep the death quiet – the conglomerate of owners has direct access to the very top of state politics. There’s millions of dollars involved and scandal must be avoided at all cost, especially in the election year.

But Villani is not simply a yes man. Whilst he can initially prevent the media from talking ‘murder’, he has no intention of lying low simply because a promotion carrot has been dangled – or the inverse threat to his position should he ignore ‘friendly advice’ from his superiors.

As the state burns, taking place as it does during the sweltering heat and 2009 bushfires of Black Saturday, Villani is determined to discover the truth and discover the connection (if any) with the recent gruesome deaths of the violent Ribaric brothers.

Truth is no simple crime novel with a linear narrative dotted with black and white characters. Multi-layered, it is as much the story of Villani attempting to understand his failure as a husband, father and family man. His relationship with his wife is virtually non-existent; his youngest daughter is a drug addict. But his present family life is balanced by Villani’s family history as a child – a missing mother and a constantly absent father resulted in Stephen, as the eldest, raising his two brothers.

But Truth is also about political games as colleagues both above and below jostle and manoeuvre as Election Day looms.

It’s fast-paced as Villani pushes his team to discover the truth. Mistakes are made, lucky breaks are few and far between – but certainly grabbed with both hands when they present themselves. But it’s never too long before someone further up the food chain summarily summons the inspector to give an update. And they’re not always happy with the direction the investigation is going.

Truth is not an easy read. It’s a cracking story with sparkling, gritty dialogue. But, with the plethora of present and former colleagues, superiors, politicians and journalists, it can become increasingly confusing as to just who is who.

It is, however, the character of Stephen Villani who is most memorable. He is everyman, not infallible but certainly fair, a dedication and love for justice and his job that has cost him (like most of his colleagues) his family.

South African-born, Victoria-based, former journalist Peter Temple was presented with the 2010 Miles Franklin Award for Truth. He is no stranger to prizes, having collected five Ned Kelly awards since his first novel, Bad Debts, was published in 1997 alongside the Duncan Lowrie Dagger and Colin Roderick Award for The Broken Shore.

‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser

9781743317334“It’s not a page-turner” was the comment I received from a friend on noticing I was reading Michelle de Kretser’s 2013 Miles Franklin Award winning novel Questions of Travel. That was approximately 15 months ago. A few days later, only a few pages in and admitting defeat, it went back on the shelf.

With more time on my hands over Christmas and a planned few days away, a second attempt was in order. I made it to the end: some 515 pages. It took nearly three weeks. Questions of Travel is certainly not a page-turner. And nor is it a book that needs time and concentration. It’s simply tedious and lugubrious.

“All through the drab season, she was granted intervals of grace.” The writer may have been talking of Laura and her time at Ramsey’s, the fictional Sydney-based travel-book publishing company, but it’s a summation of Questions of Travel. Only the intervals of grace are short, the drab season extended.

The novel has certainly polarised opinion – some have called it ‘masterful’, ‘brave’, ‘thought-provoking’. Others have been less than kind. I fall into the second camp.

Through two separate characters, Laura and Ravi, and 40 years of separate narratives, de Kretser explores/questions travel and tourism, work and leisure, friendship, family, the ties that bind.

Sydney-born, Laura is an outsider, blamed by her father and older twin brothers for the death of her mother (who died 2 years after the birth of her daughter from breast cancer). At the earliest opportunity, Laura, like so many Australians, escapes to London and so begins some 20 years of peripatetic existence. Years of house-sitting and travel writing result in an ever moving lifestyle with few roots – it’s only after glimpsing the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games on TV that Laura realises she is home-sick. She returns home.

Her’s is a story of loneliness, isolation and the search for a sense of belonging. It’s a fractured, frustrating story that, certainly prior to her return to Australia, is aimless, judgemental, cynical: a stream of consciousness from a person who, in herself, is not very interesting.

Running concurrently to Laura’s dull judgemental life is that of Ravi, a Sri Lankan living through the island’s civil war. Initially, his is the more interesting story as he navigates his way through schooling, family life, poverty. Yet, in spite of the tragedy that forces him to flee his home, even Ravi’s story ultimately lacks any real depth.

It is in Sydney in 2004 that Laura and Ravi’s paths cross. But (in a nice touch), there’s no fireworks or life-changing relationship. Laura is a copy-writer at Ramsey’s – Ravi, seeking political asylum, an intern. They share an occasional cigarette together in the staff carpark.

Michelle de Kretser undoubtedly writes beautifully – her lyrical prose and occasional turns of phrase the highlight of Questions of Travel. But all too often it slipped into self-indulgent rambling by characters we cared little about. At its core, de Kretser is exploring the emotions around the subject of travel, migration and human movement. Ravi’s perspective of Sydney, the occasional comment from Laura about Naples, Prague, London are seen through the eyes of outsiders, visitors. But all too often the narrative is hollow, distant, ringing of judgement rather than being insightful. The result is Questions of Travel is a major disappointment.