It sometimes feels as if the myth-kitty belonging to Europeans in Australia has been exhausted. Not that there was much in it to start with. What little remains seems dusty and out-of-date, a clutch of bush narratives no longer fit for 21st century purpose.
Then comes Fiona McFarlane’s latest novel, The Sun Walks Down (Allen & Unwin, 416pp, $32.99), an astute and morally freighted retelling of the traditional Australian tale of the lost child that makes the old trope glow with contemporary implication. Readers will learn that the anxieties underlying colonial presence on this continent have only intensified over time. McFarlane’s argument is stern, though often ravishing in its unfolding: Europeans remain in exile from the country they claimed in 1788.
Beejay Silcox is a critic whose taste I trust implicitly. So when she sent me an extended quotation from the opening pages of Yiyun Li’s The Book of Goose (4th Estate, 368pp, $12.99), I had no choice but to grab a copy of my own. And how right Silcox was. The Book of Goose tells the story of a pair of village girls from the French provinces who, in the lean years after World War II, decide to write a book together, a naively compelling work that gains notoriety in Paris on publication.
The first thing that strikes is the curious choice of setting. This is a novel, after all, written by a Chinese-born, Mandarin-speaking woman who moved to America as a trainee immunologist. Yet the tale of Agnés and Fabienne – their friendship, unlikely success and ultimate estrangement – feels intimate and confessional. Li’s language is plain as bread, but the story she tells is beguiling and richly complex.
There must be a German compound word that describes the frustration you feel when a writer you admire does not achieve the widespread acknowledgement they deserve. For decades, Gail Jones has been writing with more intelligence, verve and sensuous delight in the world than most of her peers.
Her latest, Salonika Burning (Text Publishing, 256pp, $34.99), imagines the moment in 1918 when the ancient Greek city of Salonika burned, part of the broader conflagration of the Great War. This act of ruination is braided with the presumed experience of four real people who were proximate to events: future writer Miles Franklin, Australian adventurer Olive King and English painters Grace Pailthorpe and Stanley Spencer. This quartet of remarkable lives provides a frame for Jones’s meditation – couched in prose at once lavish and rigorously controlled – on the ways in which conflict can unmake the world and leave us scattered and cruelly isolated from one another.
Sophie Cunningham may be a less prolific author than Jones but her new novel proves more than worth the wait. This Devastating Fever (Ultimo Press, 320pp, $32.99), two decades in the writing, emerges from Cunningham’s enduring obsession with Leonard Woolf, husband and intellectual co-conspirator to Virginia Woolf, and his early life a colonial administrator in Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka.
This Devastating Fever unfolds as a metafiction masquerading as pure novelistic invention. Its narrator, Alice, shares many struggles with her creator. She cannot find a way into her creative re-examination of Leonard Woolf’s biography, even as the rhymes between the earlier writer’s experience and thought and her own continue to sound. Where Woolf knew first-hand the dark side of colonialism, the destructive potential of modern war, the terrible pain of losing his wife to suicide and his own perennial sense of failure as a man, Alice sees looming ecological apocalypse and a dangerous warping of politics and culture in her own era. She feels his tendency to self-laceration as her own.
Cunningham’s solution, to make the difficulty of writing such a book part of its plot – to allow the ghosts of Bloomsbury’s past to commune with Alice in the present – is pulled off with a deftness and wit that go some way to ameliorating the dismal future it intuits. This is a story readers will feel buoyed by, even as it leads them from Woolf’s own despairing situation into the heart of our contemporary darkness.
Chutzpah: that’s the only word adequate to describe American author Barbara Kingsolver’s decision to reimagine Charles Dickens’ most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, as the story of a boy born to a single mother at a trailer park in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. One who will grow up amid an opioid epidemic that will decimate a generation of Americans.
The mark of the success of Demon Copperhead (Faber Fiction, 560pp, $32.99) is how swiftly it shrugs off the echoes of its source text and takes on a vivid life of its own. Demon’s voice is singular from the get-go: antic, determined and hilarious in relating the most awful circumstances into which our hero is plunged. Demon Copperhead shares something of the charming, Garp-like whimsy of early John Irving, but the novel’s sharp sociological eye – the righteous fury it directs at a nation that destroys its most vulnerable citizens for profit – is Kingsolver’s alone. Dickens would be proud.
Finally, the revival of HEAT journal (Giramondo, $22.95) has been one of the high points of the year. In the 1990s and 2000s, HEAT was the most exciting, forward-looking literary magazine in the country. After more than a decade on ice, this new series – under the editorship of Alexandra Christie – has raised the bar once again. Elegantly designed and thoughtfully curated, and including work from canonical Australian writers to emerging voices to authors in translation, the journal reminds us how crucial such organs are to the vigour and health of our literary ecosystem.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "The best books of 2022".
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