The second novel in A.E. Cochrane's Streetwise Series set in Melbourne.
A young, chronically depressed man, mourning the loss of his girlfriend Chloe, a barmaid at the Young and Jackson, wanders the streets of Melbourne's Docklands. At Flinders Wharf the navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders approaches him. Flinders is in a predicament and the one man whom he believes can save him is the French explorer Nicolas Baudin. Could the young man keep an eye out for Baudin on his wanderings through Docklands? So begins a hopeless yet fascinating search for the elusive French explorer. Along the way, the young man meets many historical figures, the namesakes of Docklands' streets and bridges. Through their stories he learns, among other things, of the poor treatment of women in the early days of the colony. The example of the fifteen-year old servant, Margaret Howard, repeatedly raped by her rich boss, is particularly harrowing.
Encounters is the second in the Streetwise Series by self-published author A.E. Cochrane, following on from Three Thousand. Cochrane's lapidary prose brings to life a lost world of early Melbourne, with this volume concentrating on how women were often exploited and held back. Philosophical and witty, Encounters provides an innovative approach to the historical novel.
Encounters, by A.E. Cochrane. Decision Press. $25
When a childhood friend dies, a reckoning with the past must be confronted.
Ali is a middle-aged mother and teacher, living with her partner Ed and young daughter Tess in Melbourne. When news arrives that her childhood friend Jessie has died, scenes from the past come crowding back. Ali and Jessie grew up in the New South Wales town of Bega. They kept a “Golden Book” of their adventures and dares, a written record of their experiences. Jessie was the risk taker, a free spirit but prone to recklessness. Then one day a terrible accident at a forbidden watering hole changed their lives forever.
Skillfully slipping between 1980s Bega and contemporary Melbourne, The Golden Book evokes the liminal space between past and present, grief and healing, guilt and self-forgiveness. It’s a book that tries to make sense of the people left behind, what they meant, how they leave their indelible marks, even after they are gone.
Kate Ryan has constructed a superb literary novel, but one that is also written in an absorbing, immersive prose. The storytelling is direct and often visceral, concerned with telling the truth of the human condition. Readers will easily identify themselves in many of the book’s realistic scenes and situations – the dread of attending a funeral, a lost child at a park, an uncomfortable confrontation at a reunion.
An assured debut from a writer who has honed her craft and written something genuine and true.
The Golden Book, by Kate Ryan. Published by Scribe. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Publication date: August 3, 2021.
A breezy yet well informed journey through the Australian landscape.
Academic and writer Belinda Probert moved from the UK to Australia in the late 1970s. She travelled around the country taking up various teaching posts, mainly between Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria, finally settling in Melbourne.
Imaginative Possession describes Probert's decision to buy a property in the Otways, rural Victoria. Her aim was to get a better grip on the Australian landscape by studying and living with it at close quarters. Taking inspiration from writers such as Don Watson (The Bush), Charles Massy (Call of the Reed Warbler), Kim Mahood (Position Doubtful), Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) and Tim Winton, Probert explores notions of belonging and meaning. How do Australians of European ancestry relate to the land, if at all? Why do First Australians have such strong ties to Country?
Part memoir, part essay, part literary appreciation, Imaginative Possession is a fascinating and thought provoking book that will get you thinking about what the Australian environment means to you.
Imaginative Possession: Learning to Live in the Antipodes, by Belinda Probert. Published by Upswell. $26.99
New boy George is not all he seems in this sweet and funny story about what it means to be human.
George is the new boy at Darwin Avenue Primary Academy. Everyone is eager for him to fit in and regular boy Daniel is picked out as a good candidate to show George the ropes. Things are progressing swimmingly, but then the students start to notice weird things about George. Firstly, did fellow classmate Louise really see George’s ear drop off? Why does a school visitor named Miss Crystal continually follow George around with a clipboard writing notes? Events take a sinister turn when the smug Mr Eden Marsh turns up in a big, black van. He seems to be George’s minder. Suddenly it’s announced George will no longer be attending Darwin Avenue Primary Academy. What could have happened? Daniel and his school mates decide that enough is enough and take drastic measures to save George
Brand New Boy is a warm, funny and sweet story about belonging and what it means to be human. As George slips from the children’s grasp, the values of friendship and togetherness come to the fore. A quirky tale, expertly told, with an eclectic and realistically drawn cast. This is crowd-pleasing children's fiction at its best.
8+ years old
Brand New Boy, by David Almond. Published by Walker Books. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Five stories and a novella from an undisputed Russian master.
Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) was a Russian writer of novels, short stories, poems and plays. He is best known in the West for his novel Fathers and Sons.
Love and Youth is a new translation of Turgenev's stories by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater. The collection opens with First Love, a 100 page novella about a sixteen-year-old youth, Vladimir, who falls in love with his neigbour, a princess named Zinaida. She is some six years older than Vladimir and is playing a group of male admirers off each other. Vladimir is clearly out of his depth, but desperately clings to Zinaida, futilely hoping to win a first place in her affections. First Love perfectly captures the tremulous quality of naive, youthful desire.
In "Bezhin Meadow" a group of superstitious youths talk of frightening supernatural occurrences, all happening in a transcendentally beautiful Russian meadow; "The District Doctor" describes how a local doctor falls in love with his dying patient; the often humorous "Rattling Wheels" features a frightening coach journey taken on Russia's backroads by two men trying to avoid a group of drunken bandits; and finally, ending the collection, a story about a young woman who implores her listless, indifferent boyfriend to at least show her some affection.
Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater's translation is sublime, capturing Turgenev's simple, naturalistic style. For example, the descriptions of the landscape and wildlife in “Bezhin Meadow” is breathtakingly beautiful. Turgenev also draws wonderfully humane and sympathetic characters that are easily recognisable today. A dreamy, realistic, deceptively simple collection that highlights what a master Turgenev was.
Love and Youth: Essential Stories, by Ivan Turgenev. Published by Pushkin Press. $24.99
Reviewed by Chris Saliba
Classic tales of madness and obsession
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) was a Japanese writer, considered a master of the short story, writing over 150 of them. He suffered mental health issues throughout his life, was haunted by hallucinations and experienced a deep seated fear that he had inherited his mother's madness. At the age of 35 he committed suicide, taking an overdose of barbital. In this short collection translator Bryan Karetnyk picks out some of Akutagawa's best.
As one may expect with a writer so tortured, Akutagawa's stories feature suicide, madness, obsession, murder and violence. They are seductive, mesmerisingly beautiful and sophisticated, but with a unsettling atmosphere running throughout. In the opening story, “The Spider's Thread”, a man trapped in hell at the bottom of a lotus-filled pond tries to drag his way out; “In a Grove” gives multiple perspectives on a murder; the sumptuous and frightening “Hell Screen” describes an artist so obsessed that he is willing to sacrifice that which he most loves; the title story “Murder in the Age of Enlightenment” chronicles a doomed love triangle that ends in murder and suicide; and finally “Cogwheels” is an autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness riff on the disturbing visions and anxieties that harass the author.
Some readers may find Akutagawa's portrayal of women outdated, but that aside these are original and disturbing works of literature, concentrating on the darker recesses of the psyche. Stories of murder, mayhem and madness, all beautifully written, sticking in the mind like horrible nightmares.
Murder in the Age of Enlightenment: Essential Stories, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Published by Pushkin Press. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
From street hustler and jailbird to powerful Black leader, the story of Malcolm X has a lot to teach about race in America.
Born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm Little grew up rough. His mother, while pregnant with the future leader, would find herself harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, knocking on her door one night searching for her husband. It was an era where lynchings were almost routine and segregation was law. Malcolm's parents Earl and Louise were both supporters of the activist, Marcus Garvey, who promoted Black separatism and Pan Africanism. Earl Little would die relatively young, run over by a tram car, and Malcolm would forever maintain he was murdered by white supremacists. Louise Little, left without a husband and seven children to look after, couldn't cope and was institutionalised. Malcolm grew up hustling on the streets, got involved in petty crime and ended up in prison.
In prison, Malcolm became a voracious reader and autodidact. At this time his brothers introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI), nominally a Muslim organisation, but in reality a Black nationalist group that espoused Black separtism. With a changed name Malcolm was soon a prominent and charismatic leader, a much sought after speaker and interview subject. Despite this success, the contradictions of Nation of Islam chipped away at his conscience, especially its separatist stance. In 1961, Malcolm attended a secret meeting with members of the Ku Klux Klan. The two groups believed in keeping the races separate, a key point they agreed on, although for different reasons. The contradictions came brutally to the fore when the KKK members wanted information on Dr. Martin Luther King, so they could assassinate him. King being an integrationist made him an anathema to both parties. Malcolm X withdrew from the meeting, deeply shaken. It remained harder and harder to maintain ideological purity, faced with so many wild contradictions.
Malcolm X would leave Nation of Islam when it was proven without a doubt that its leader, Elijah Muhammad, was a fraud and hypocrite, siring half a dozen children with different women and using his position to accumulate obscene levels of wealth. The break with NOI would make Malcolm an enemy and target for assassination, from his own people.
Journalist Les Payne has conducted hundreds of interviews with friends, relatives and colleagues of Malcolm X, giving an extraordinarily well researched portrait of a complex, evolving figure. Against the background of a racist America, with white supremacist terror groups making daily life a nightmare for African-Americans, it is easy to see the appeal of a philosophically bankrupt group like NOI. What makes Malcolm X such a compelling character is how a man with little education and fewer prospects could transform himself into a thought provoking leader on the question of race, but also one who was willing to admit when he had got it wrong. He could remake himself. Unfortunately, that remaking resulted in his death, helped along by police and spy agencies turning a blind eye and not marshaling enough resources for his protection.
The Dead Are Arising helps explain so much, particularly to a white or non-American audience. The harrowing, detailed descriptions of the lynchings of Black men are a horror to read. The blood is soaked on the pages. Les Payne doesn't hold back on illustrating the many contradictions of Black politics and race – the prejudice within the community against darker skin, the bizarre fact that NOI was started by a white man named Wallace D. Fard, a convicted felon who posed as mixed race and mysteriously disappeared in 1934.
An elegantly written book, one that strives for truth and moral clarity.
The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Published by Vintage. $65
Review by Chris Saliba
Historian Henry Reynolds examines the legal underpinnings of Australia.
What are the legal foundations for Australia? How was a whole continent simply claimed by the British Crown? Was such a move even legal under international law? And what of the estimated original five hundred nations that lived on the landmass, ruled by their own laws and customs? Did they even exist, or were they no more than the flora and fauna covering the land? These and many other fundamental legal questions historian Henry Reynolds addresses in Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement.
What we learn is that the British were on shaky legal ground when Australia was claimed. It was more a massive land grab than a legally binding property transfer. International law and thinking at the time bears this out. Land that was already inhabited by indigenous peoples could not be appropriated. The only option was treaty making, a practice that was already happening in America with its First Nations.
The total absence of treaty making in Australia, along with the shaky legal foundations of claiming a continent as uninhabited (terra nullius), meant there was no clear pathway to negotiating with the First Nations. Official word from England was to treat the indigenous population with respect and to avoid violence. But this authority was too far away to enforce its directives and soon settlers were pushing out into First Nation territories. Violence ensued, with no legal foundation to mediate the conflict. Were Indigenous people now subjects of the British Crown, with a right to its legal protections, or could they simply be killed? (The euphemism was “disperse”, that is, groups of Indigenous people could be “dispersed” by shooting.) Media reporting and letters at the time refers to the progress of this frontier as warfare. As Henry Reynolds maintains, no one at the time was under any illusion as to what was happening.
Fast forward to the National Constitutional Convention in 2017 and its landmark Uluru Statement from the Heart, which declares sovereignty has never been ceded or extinguished. Truth-Telling demonstrates that so much more work needs to be done, on treaty making and the recognition of Australia's frontier wars, among other things.
Henry Reynolds must surely be one of Australia's most penetrating historians, with his deep reading of the contemporary literature on our country's early years. His writing is intellectually honest and brave. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Truth-Telling is deeply considered and researched, presenting some of the most serious issues facing Australia today.
Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, by Henry Reynolds. Published by New South. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An unforgettable memoir of growing up in Nazi Germany.
First published in Germany in 1966, The Broken House is a memoir of growing up in Nazi Germany. Born in 1919, novelist and journalist Horst Kruger was fourteen when Hitler came to power. He was part of a resistance movement, escaped serious punishment and eventually was conscripted into the German army. When all was lost, he surrendered prematurely to the Americans and gave them vital coordinates, helping close down a battlefront early.
Kruger looks back to his youth in Eichkamp, Berlin, to try and figure out what the appeal of Hitler was. The enigma of the century, why was Hitler so popular, how did he get away with the murder of six million Jews? The irony, as he writes it, is that the sentimental, suburban, middle-class Germans who adored Hitler were not paid up Nazi members. Although in one passage Kruger describes his mother buying him a “pretty” swastika to put on his bicycle. It was this broad cohort of non-political Germans, Kruger maintains, who created Hitler. Without them Hitler couldn’t have existed. Indeed, it’s easy to see how respectable middle-class Germans turned a blind eye to the looming Holocaust. Jewish neighbours were disappearing left, right and centre, yet no alarm bells went off. People merely shrugged their shoulders.
In other chapters Kruger describes the strange middle class preoccupation with respectability. When his sister commits suicide, what seems more important, to his mother at least, is that appearances are kept up. They lie to the neighbours about her sudden and dramatic ambulance journey and Mrs Kruger is relieved that she died a virgin, her sacredness intact.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing and compelling chapters is the description of the trials for war crimes. A parade of unremarkable men – doctors, academics, public servants – are assembled in court. A seemingly innocuous bunch. It’s hard to put these respectable images next to the hideous crimes they performed. A perfect example of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil.
For anyone trying to understand this incomprehensible period of history, The Broken House offers the feel, smell and mood of a Germany that thinks itself innocent, having emerged from the humiliations of the 1918 Versaille Treaty. Hitler offers the country self-esteem, hope and a bright future. But anti-semitism is everywhere around these simple German folk. It’s essential to Hitler’s madness. Failure to see these wrongs will form a large part of Germany’s downfall.
For some reason this fascinating time capsule has only recently been re-discovered in Germany, republished in 2019. It appears now in English for the first time. With the novelist’s gift for narrative, lyrical description and compelling character studies, Horst Kruger’s memoir is both aesthetically pleasing and of deep historical value.
The Broken House: Growing Up Under Hitler, by Horst Kruger. Published by Jonathan Cape. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A series of essays that look examines how Australia could improve its current policy settings by following the example of progressive Nordic countries.
What can Australia learn from Nordic countries Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland? Quite a lot, according to editors Andrew Scott and Rod Campbell. Marshalling an array of Australian and Nordic writers and thinkers, The Nordic Edge examines the most pressing policy questions confronting Australia today.
There is much received economic wisdom that Australians swallow without demur. Politicians especially like to tell us that low taxes equal a strong economy, but the authors demonstrate that high taxing Nordic countries have strong economies and their populations experience high levels of well-being. Norway's sovereign wealth fund is a particular cause for envy, having generated an enormous national nest egg by investing ethically and with great transparency.
Sweden leads the way in making foreign policy from a feminist perspective, calling for gender equity and combating violence against women, with research showing that more women involved in peace processes leads to more positive outcomes. In another essay concentrating on gendered accounting (considering how policy impacts women) it is shown that more equal societies have better economies and health outcomes. Other essays concentrate on global warming, media and the prison system.
Progressives will shake their heads that we don't have these policies in place already; sceptics may find some of the research presented here nudges their thinking. An urgently needed re-evaluation of Australia's policy direction that deserves a broad audience.
The Nordic Edge: Policy Possibilities for Australia, edited by Andrew Scott and Rod Campbell. Published by Melbourne University Press. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
First published at Books + Publishing.
North Melbourne Books