Reviewers' picks from the year in print. Best New Talent, Guilty Pleasure, Most Overrated, Most Disappointing.
Books 2015 #1
Force-feed the geese that lay the golden eggs: that could be the motto of big publishing today. An industry full of smart, thoughtful people is increasingly obliged into methods that work for visual and digital media but are the opposite of literature’s slowness: its entangled historical roots, its stuttering progress, its value built over time through accretion.
In the era of blockbuster hyperinflation – a huge advance and marketing push for a brick-sized novel by the next Bright New Thing, say, or the relabelling of offcuts as a new work by some irreproachable eminence of 20th-century letters – it is a tonic to encounter three mid-career authors who have devoted themselves to proving that literature is a long game necessarily disobedient to market demands.
Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms is the fruit of long, considered silence. After early acclaim as a novelist she stepped back, took stock, and narrowed her frame. The result is a suite of short stories in which high ironic intelligence is applied to childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Drawing obliquely on the author’s biography – growing up in Sydney’s prosperous, sleepy suburbia during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – the experiences she describes are nonetheless universal. All of them are written in a mixture of vinegar and heart’s blood.
Malcolm Knox’s latest novel The Wonder Lover was met with admiring perplexity when it first appeared in April, and fairly enough. The book takes the form of late-modernist fairytale in which a man finds himself married to three women who know nothing of each other’s existence. He keeps up this trigamist’s charade for years – until he meets a beautiful young woman and falls in love for the first time. The novel, narrated by the wounded yet loving chorus of his six children, each pair named Adam and Evie, is a strange and beautiful creation. It reveals Knox to be an author of a controlled virtuosity with few peers in this country. Indeed, along with 2011’s The Life, it marks a considerable leap in Knox’s formal ambition: an evolution thrilling to watch unfold.
I have not had enough time to properly take in Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things. It’s like digesting a living creature, one with claws still intact. In its pages a group of women are abducted and held captive in a remote rural setting, there subjected to hard labour and threats of rape and violence. Each has been implicated in various different sexual scandals back in the real world, yet the connecting thread is that all of them are blamed for the actions and appetites of men. Their crime is to be female and desirable.
It is ironic that David Ireland, an author often accused of misogyny in his works, may have provided the stylistic scaffolding for Wood’s Grand Guignol. But if Wood is concerned with investigating and condemning masculine violence, both in its overt manifestations and those encoded in the structure of contemporary culture, she is too much of an artist to reduce her critique to a simple binary. Whether consciously or not, she retools Ireland’s wild allegories for her own, feminist purposes. The final effect is stunning. As Wood herself admitted in this newspaper’s pages, “I’ve written a sledgehammer.”
In some fairly dark days for literature in this country, Wood, Knox and Daylight have in different ways proved there is still merit in producing difficult, intricate or experimental fiction in Australia – that it is worth plugging away at the lonely craft of writing. They have led by example, and along the way created substantial or significant bodies of work, of which this latest batch of titles is hopefully the crest of a continuing wave. So forget for a moment the constitutional philistinism of our politicians, forget the fierce strictures under which our publishers toil: read these books and remember how the making of culture is properly done. AF
Best New Talent
Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose is a Beckettian investigation of the legal language of property and ownership set in Sydney. The most exciting new fiction by a young Australian in years.
I picked up Alex Gilly’s Devil’s Harbour from a holiday rental bookshelf. It reminded me of an old-fashioned Jack London sailing novel hijacked by Walter White.
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
The reading experience was, as Patrick White once said, like getting into someone else’s dirty bathwater. Too long, too weird, too cruel.
Nabokov, Letters to Vera
I preferred the distant genius in his “enigmatic empyrean” to the dreary, self-obsessed, sometime philanderer here.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Books 2015 #1".
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