Kate Grenville has a winning formula and she’s jolly well going to stick with it.
That formula is to set a story around the early years of the penal colony that has now grown into Sydney; to focus on particular early settlers; their journey to the colony; their work in claiming a life for themselves; and the impact that had on the Indigenous population. Kate Grenville does this very well; her writing is evocative; she creates both the place and the atmosphere of the time. She poses the same difficult questions about the human instinct for survival even at the cost of others – whether that is the crime that resulted in transportation; the exploitation of the convicts by the naval officers – using them essentially as slave labour; or the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal people. There is a sense that it might all have turned out differently with more respect; but equally a sense that people did not (and still do not) want to give up their privilege. Plus, there’s the difficult truth that there was a lot achieved in a very short space of time in those early days when human rights, procedural fairness and accountability did not present obstacles. It is unlikely that modern bureaucracies could achieve so much, so quickly.
In a bit of a departure, A Room Made of Leaves names real people: the Macarthurs – wool barons – after whom many Australian things are named. The premise is that Elizabeth Macarthur left a written account of her life which is now being transcribed. In this account, she focuses on her turbulent but middle-class childhood in Devon, her obligation to marry and follow a rather mediocre Naval Ensign after falling pregnant, and her early experiences in New South Wales. She is a diplomat who seeks to achieve by listening, learning and implementing. Her husband John is a hot-headed, impetuous man with a fondness for duelling – a chancer who will wheedle and blackmail his way to success. Elizabeth’s narrative would have us believe that she created a wool empire in spite of her husband; the reality is that it took the mis-matched pair to achieve success. Elizabeth provided the ideas and sourced the knowledge of sheep-husbandry; John obtained the land and made sure the traditional owners were “dealt with”.
We also meet Lieutenant Dawes, thinly disguised as Daniel Rooke in The Lieutenant, who provides some comfort for Elizabeth in the early years of an unhappy marriage. Dawes was interested in Aboriginal languages and culture, as well as learning more about the land and its plant-life. Through Dawes, Elizabeth came to meet some of the Traditional Owners whose land her husband was intent on acquiring. But when Dawes returned to England, Elizabeth lost both her lover and her moral compass. She understood that the Aboriginal people, just like her slave-convicts, were people too. She just chose to push that to the back of her mind as she amassed her fortune.
Like her previous Thornhill series, A Room Made of Leaves is beautifully done, but it is bleak and the message can seem sometimes to take over the story.
As a footnote, A Room Made of Leaves would have been written before the Black Lives Matter movement started to shine a spotlight onto specific historical figures. As a society, we are starting to question the iconic status that many colonialists have enjoyed; to question the legacy of place names and statues. The use of real names in this fiction may cause too much attention to be focused on the names rather than on the real legacy which is one of enduring privilege that was earned only through exploitation and genocide.
I've come to this quite late, but better late than never.
Boy Swallows Universe is a heavily stylised bildungsroman set in Brisbane in the 1980s - by all accounts quite a sketchy place run by sketchy people. Eli Bell, our hero, has a life that is sketchy with the colour turned full on. He lives with his silent brother August in a house that was home made, room by room, with an depressive mother and a heroin dealing stepfather; his absent biological father is an alcoholic; his only friend is an elderly convicted murderer; and he aspires to work for Bich Dang and her drug cartel.
Each chapter is written - and titled - with a sensationalist three word newspaper headline. Each chapter is a mini-story but they come together to form a narrative arc. Mostly this is Eli staying "one step ahead of the shoe-shine; two steps away from the county line" as Simon and Garfunkel put it. The various adventures are lurid, cartoonish. But despite the schlock-horror, there is always the sense that there's a real story at its heart, with likeable boys who are doing whatever it takes to survive in a world that would eat them for breakfast. There are gangsters, jails, social workers, a prosthetic limb factory and a host of other pitfalls just waiting for them, but we know Eli will win the day.
For much of the novel, the reader wonders how on Earth this can be brought to a resolution. The situations get more and more absurd, and it seems to be impossible for all the ends to be tied up. But they do get tied up with a pretty bow at the end.
And it is so very Australian. From the slang to the mannerisms to the locations. It's all about Indooroopilly, Darra and Boggo Road. It's about the stress of trying to seem casual while worrying that everyone else is trying to screw you (Australia is seriously the most uptight place I can think of). And it's about the truly abysmal standard of journalism we have to ensure.
Boy Swallows Universe is a rollercoaster of a novel, but as if by magic, it stays firmly on the tracks.
There Was Still Love is a fantastic novel about a Czech family broken apart by the Second World War and the subsequent division of Europe by the Iron Curtain.
Mostly set in 1980, the novel revolves around two sisters: Mana who lives in Melbourne and Eva who lives in Prague. Mana and her family are able to save up to visit Prague every three or four years, but these visits are frustratingly short and far enough apart that Mana cannot really be part of her sister's world. And Eva has an opportunity to travel to Melbourne with her theatre company, but if she doesn't return her family back home will suffer.
Both families have young children - in Prague there is Ludek, a day-dreamy boy who likes to hang out with the city's statues and listen to legends. In Melbourne, there is Mala Liska - little fox on account of her red hair - who struggles to reconcile her modern Australian life with her Czech heritage.
There are occasional steps back in time - to the Czech uprising in 1968; to WW2 Britain and pre-war Prague. These steps back allow the reader to piece together the nature of the relationships between the two halves of the family and to see how they came to be living on opposite sides of the world. But the final piece of the puzzle only comes into view right at the end in what readers may mistake as an optional Author's note.
This short novel is devastatingly beautiful and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I think it has a lot to do with the humanity of the characters - good people who made sacrifices for their loved ones and who deserved more happiness in their lives. Partly it is to do with the ordinary details of lives - the wooden sled, the gherkins, the ocarina in the shape of a little bird. Maybe it was the legends and folk tales. And maybe it was the perfection with which each little bit of the picture came into focus at just the right time. There's nothing dramatic or showy, there's no flowery writing, it is just that the novel is able to capture the heart without the text even being noticed.
In amongst the personal story, there are big themes. There is hope and resignation; the passage of time and the fleetingness of a human life; the relentless erosion of one generation by the next; the gaps that are left by absent family members; migration and belonging and assimilation; homesickness; frustrated ambition... The list goes on.
There Was Still Love is so full and achieves so much in so few words. It is as perfect a novel as you could hope to find.
The Bridge is a heartbreaking novel about tragedy and survival; about guilt and forgiveness.
The opening chapter depicts the construction disaster in 1970 when a slab of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge collapsed, killing 35 workers and injuring 18 others. Antonello, an Italian migrant from Footscray was a survivor. Many of his friends, new Australians mostly, were not so lucky. We see the families that were destroyed; the hopes that were dashed. As Antonello attends a succession of funerals over a few days, they blur into one. But some of the dead, now just names on a plaque, were real people who are still missed by the ageing survivors. And Antonello can't help feeling that he knew that corners were being cut. The engineers said it would be OK, but Antonello knew deep down that they were wrong.
Thirty nine years later Antonello's family is doing well. His kids have firmly entered the middle class as the Western suburbs start to gentrify. Antonello's granddaughter Ashleigh is in her final year at school - just the VCE standing between her and a prestigious university place studying law.
Her friend Jo is rather the opposite. Not that academic, a bit plain, living with her mother who works shifts to pay the rent on a house in the shadow of the bridge that defies gentrification.
A night out, a poor decision, and life will never be the same again. The decision is spur of the moment but the consequences unfold piece by piece. Nobody meant anything bad to happen, but there's a price to pay. Just like Antonello so many years beforehand, the survivors have to learn to live with themselves, their guilt and their grief. They have to plan for a future from a suddenly unpromising starting point.
The story shifts points of view several times but manages to carry this off. It gives us an insight into the guilt and grief of two families confronting unwelcome reality. It is painful to read, it feels real and raw. The linking of the past and (almost) present is done so effortlessly, the parallels clear but not laid on too thick.
The sense of place is spot on too. The Bridge is one of those rare books that depicts the scenes so clearly that you want to visit the scene, to pay respects to tragedies both real and imagined.
It is difficult to say more without spoiling the novel - but even a fortnight later, thinking back on this novel is enough to bring on goosebumps.
Scrublands is first rate crime fiction set out in the scrublands north of the Murray river on the NSW/Victoria border.
Martin Scarsden is a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, sent out to Riversend to cover the first anniversary of a mass shooting (pun intended) where the priest had shot five parishioners on a Sunday before being shot himself by the local policeman. Scarsden finds a town with a dwindling population, the pub/hotel shut six months ago, the motel barely surviving and the only coffee in town is served at the second hand book shop. Dust and tumbleweed blow through the town.
And as Scarsden picks at the scabs left by the shooting, he uncovers a plot of intrigue and lies. Nobody is quite who or what they seem. The ripples spread far and wide - down to the Murray, to Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Cambodia and Vietnam. As the stories start to emerge, and as they start to contradict one another, the stakes get higher.
The plotting is tight and relatively easy to follow for a twisty thriller. The characters feel real even if they do labour under Dickensian names (the femme fatale is Mandalay Blonde; the villain is Harley Snoutch; the bombastic TV journalist is Doug Thunkleton. The police investigation is credible; as the body count rises so too does the national attention from both journalists and senior law enforcement. The actions even in this abnormal situation seem rational and proportionate.
The sense of place works well too. Riversend feels real - and reminds me quite a lot of Karakarook in Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection. The searing heat and desiccation, the vast wilderness, the distance.
The only shortcoming was a sense that, just occasionally, the novel was too long and slightly repetitive. But in answer of the criticism, the repetition did a good job of helping the reader keep the many moving parts neatly arranged.
This is an accomplished work and it will be fun to see whether Martin Scarsdale returns.