Books

Cover of book: The 17 best books of 2023

Geordie Williamson and Justine Hyde
The 17 best books of 2023

Marie-Hortense Cézanne sat for 29 portraits by her husband, Paul, the revered French post-impressionist painter. These were Marina Abramović-level feats of perseverance on her part, as well as testimony to the importance she held for Paul. And yet, despite being the most significant presence in his life, Madame Cézanne has generally been effaced from accounts of Cézanne’s life and work.

The Sitter (UQP, 180pp, $29.99), Angela O’Keeffe’s second novel, seeks to remedy this diminishment. She inhabits the woman with necromantic verve – a ghost speaking into the present with unillusioned wisdom, humour and grace – and makes her story dovetail with a contemporary account by a narrator not wholly unlike O’Keeffe. Politically charged but undoctrinaire, technically complex but never tricksy, O’Keeffe’s novel is evidence of a real new talent meeting an ideal subject.

Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting (Penguin, 400pp, $22.99) just missed out on winning this year’s Booker Prize, which is a pity because it is a gloriously sprawling and ingeniously structured epic that deserves the broadest possible readership. Beginning as a resolutely domestic account of one dysfunctional Irish family before expanding outwards to ask the largest questions, The Bee Sting manages to be laugh-out-loud funny and unbearably sad at once. It’s the novel W. H. Auden might have been anticipating when he wrote that “we must love one another and die” – one that looks backwards, to a folkloric Celtic past, while scrying a future of ecological collapse.

M. John Harrison is not, perhaps, a name familiar to many Australian readers. But with publication this year of his “anti-memoir” Wish I Was Here (Serpent’s Tail, 224pp [hardback], $36.99) he continues to prove himself one of the unignorable English writers of his generation. Though Harrison started out in science fiction during the 1960s, where he absorbed the freak-flag imagination of Michael Moorcock and hard-edged alienation of J. G. Ballard, he is not a genre novelist; rather, he uses genre as a means to interrogate and undermine our settled reality.

In this spirit, Harrison’s memoir is perversely evacuated of most biographical data. It consists instead of a series of meditations or notes – intellectually bracing, slyly comic, metaphysically weird – on the difficulties and dangers of presenting a self on the page. But this man, revered by authors as diverse as Robert Macfarlane and Angela Carter, is more vivid in his absence than most are in their presence. The result is unnerving and melancholy yet also exhilarating. It’s one of those rare moments when you sense a writer pushing into territory wholly new.

A similar disquiet attends David Marr’s Killing for Country (Black Inc, 432pp, $39.99). Not because the journalist and biographer is playing with form – this is an impeccably researched, expansively detailed, clearly written work of colonial history – but because the subject matter Marr explores is so distressing.

The story Marr has to tell is couched in the broader story of Indigenous dispossession in the decades after the Rum Rebellion, when the entrepreneurial class of colonial New South Wales grew into power and invaded the east coast of the continent using vast mobs of sheep as their vanguard. It is the account of two of the author’s forebears – well-born adventurers who led native police units on exterminatory forays, primarily at Queensland’s colonial frontier – that brings the past into queasy proximity with the present. It is to Marr’s immense credit that he should devote such energy and care to exposing aspects of history long buried, using his own family’s culpability as a lever.

For more than 40 years, Amanda Lohrey has been writing fictions whose excellence is matched only by their unruliness. Each work by the Tasmanian author has been original in approach, cerebral and spiky, and often defiantly unfashionable in terms of subject matter – none more so than her past three books, all of which have been dedicated, albeit from differing angles, to matters spiritual.

The most recent of these is The Conversion (Text Publishing, 240pp, $32.99), the account of a grieving widow’s efforts to transform a country church in rural NSW into a habitable home. As always, Lohrey’s sense of people and place is acute, a kind of poetic sociology. But running beneath the sharp comedy of manners and mores are deeper currents. What does it mean that this modest church should so resist her efforts to transform the space into a domestic one? “A serious house on serious earth it is,” wrote Larkin of another church, far away – and in testing the truth of this claim, Lohrey’s protagonist shows how durable is the longing for sacred order in an age of secular disarray.

Finally, please indulge a personal celebration. One of my Pan Macmillan authors, Tracy Sorensen – whose much-loved debut, The Lucky Galah, was narrated by, well, a galah – published her second novel this year. When she delivered the manuscript of The Vitals (Picador, 304pp, $34.99), an antic, unassumingly clever, joyously fabulist account of the experience of surviving peritoneal cancer – a story narrated by her internal organs – she was seven years cancer-free.

Then it returned with a vengeance. It was as much as Tracy could do to time her chemo so she could attend her own book launch. Fingers crossed, Tracy seems to have responded well to her treatment – though the real-world grimness of the past months for her have lent the comic sheen of The Vitals darker shading. I want to salute Tracy’s personal bravery and her unfailing good cheer, and commend The Vitals to anyone who wants to know what grace under pressure looks like on the page. 

– Geordie Williamson

 

In a year of global conflict, a mounting climate crisis and the shameful “No” vote, Aboriginal writers kept telling us stories that we ought to listen to more attentively. Tyson Yunkaporta’s second book, Right Story, Wrong Story: Adventures in Indigenous Thinking (Text Publishing, 288pp, $35), explores how we can learn from Indigenous knowledge and ways of thinking and particularly our inseparable relationship with Country and the power of collective thought.

Alexis Wright’s epic novel Praiseworthy (Giramondo Publishing, 736pp, $39.95) is a multi-voiced tale of colonisation – that is, violence and cruelty – and the ongoing struggle for Aboriginal sovereignty and identity. In this speculative dystopia of economic and environmental collapse told in nonlinear time, Wright mixes the personal and political, twisting genres to give us a novel that is at once of its time and timeless.

Another novel with a sharp lens on Aboriginal resistance and the struggle for recognition, Melissa Lucashenko’s Edenglassie (UQP, 320pp, $32.99) weaves together the lives of colonial-era and present-day Meanjin/Brisbane, telling the stories of Indigenous people separated by five generations. Lucashenko skewers white guilt and blows up colonial myths with a good dose of dark humour. She challenges us to not look away from the violence of the past while inviting us to imagine a better future.

Meanwhile, Tony Birch’s Women & Children (UQP, 328pp [hardback], $34.99) centres on the experience of Aboriginal women. Set in working-class Melbourne in the 1960s, it is the story of two sisters, Marion and Oona, told through the eyes of Marion’s 11-year-old son, Joe. Domestic violence, the inheritance of the Stolen Generations, class and justice are all concerns of Birch in this tender novel about families, their refusal to accept silence, and their resistance against the systems that oppress them.

Two novels released this year consider women artists/subjects who were defined against and sidelined by their husbands. As well as The Sitter by Angela O’Keeffe, Rachael Mead’s novel The Art of Breaking Ice (Affirm Press, 320pp, $34.99) tells the fictionalised story of Nel Law, the first Australian woman to visit Antarctica; her husband is head of Australia’s Antarctic program. Relegated to the position of “explorer’s wife”, Nel is also a talented artist. The two roles inevitably come into conflict at the dual frontiers of patriarchy and polar exploration. This novel gets a special mention for having a menopausal woman as its central character.

This year, we were treated to some excellent nonfiction from small presses. Robert Skinner’s series of autobiographical essays, I’d Rather Not (Black Inc, 176pp, $29.99), is an assemblage of wryly funny misadventures. Skinner dips in and out of locked-down Melbourne between road trips to his home state of South Australia, while reflecting on gigs as an outback tour guide, bookseller and dish pig. His account of running a moderately successful lit mag while being homeless is funnier than it ought to be, while Skinner’s doggedness battling robodebt is a stark lesson in the insidiousness of bureaucracy. I inhaled this in one sitting, reading passages out loud to my partner.

A tonally contrasting collection of personal essays, Gemma Nisbet’s The Things We Live With: Essays on Uncertainty (Upswell Publishing, 220pp, $29.99), draws on inherited keepsakes and everyday objects, weaving together memory and grief to tell the story of the men in her family, alongside tender reflections on the legacy of intergenerational mental health. Nisbet interrogates the meaning of “stuff”: the hold that faded photos, worn clothes and yellowed papers have over us, and the role the material things that outlast us play in invoking the past. An intelligent collection that will appeal to the bowerbirds and scavengers.

History buffs, lovers of a good yarn and archive fans will enjoy Robyn Annear’s latest meander down the bluestone, Corners of Melbourne: The great orange-peel panic and other stories from the streets (Text Publishing, 336pp, $35). In her signature delightful style, Annear brings pre-1899 Melbourne to life by recounting the mishaps, collisions and encounters she extracts from Trove, the National Library of Australia’s newspaper database, using the search term “at the corner of”, proving street corners are hotbeds of possibility.

Another book that draws on the archive, this time State Library Victoria’s copy of Ned Kelly’s “Jerilderie Letter”, is Sarah Krasnostein’s On Peter Carey: Writers on Writers (Black Inc, 112pp, $17.99), the 12th instalment in the series collaboration between the publisher, SLV and the University of Melbourne. In her extended devotional essay, Krasnostein uses Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang as a springboard to explore ideas of home, exile and identity. The result is both intimate and erudite.

Finally, a couple of anthologies worth getting your eyes on over the summer: the always brilliant New Australian Fiction 2023 (Kill Your Darlings, 192pp, $27.95), edited by Suzy Garcia, which serves up an annual survey of adventurous short fiction. This year it features stories from Julie Koh, Chris Flynn and André Dao, among others. Critic Swallows Book: Ten Years of the Sydney Review of Books (Giramondo, 368pp, $34.95), edited by Catriona Menzies-Pike, showcases a collection of the best of the country’s long-form critical reviews of Australian and international literature from writers such as Timmah Ball, James Ley, Yumna Kassab and Oliver Reeson, and celebrates a decade of online publishing for the journal.

– Justine Hyde

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "The best books of 2023".

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