A literary thriller, set in India’s slums, with much to tell about the nation’s culture and politics.
Megha Majumdar’s debut novel is built around three main characters. Jivan lives in the slums of Kolabagan with her parents. She is a young Muslim woman and earns a meagre income from her job in retail. Lovely is a hijra, in India known as belonging to a third gender. In the West we’d probably call Lovely a trans woman. She is studying to become an actress and was tutored by Jivan to improve her English. They both lived in the same slum. Lastly, there is PT Sir. He is a gym teacher who once taught Jivan. Morally weak, he has a few encounters with the second in command of the Jana Kalyan Party, a political party on the cusp of seizing government. He is asked to perform innocuous seeming favours for the party, which turn out to be illegal, but as the party keeps sending him “gifts”, envelopes full of money, he finds it hard to refuse them.
When Jivan posts some indignant and inflammatory comments on Facebook after a terrorist attack on a train, she is charged as being an accomplice. In prison, she turns to a journalist, hoping that by getting her life story out, it will become obvious she is innocent. But this only makes things worse as the media twists her words against her. Pretty soon the whole nation is baying for her blood. Being poor and Muslim does not help her case. In fact, it prejudices many against her.
There are two people who can help Jivan. Lovely, whose testimony can prove Jivan is innocent. And PT Sir, who can vouch for her good character. But both Lovely and PT Sir realise that their careers are only hindered by defending Jivan, who has become a scapegoat for all that troubles India.
A Burning reads like a crime thriller, the story propelled along by the terrible fate hanging over Jivan and the realisation that she is innocent. Majumdar plots a neat and precise tale with sharp dialogue and vibrant characters. Lovely’s chapters, narrated in her own poor English, show a brilliant ear for everyday street language. The story focuses on the lot of India’s poor and downtrodden, with palpable descriptions of slums, prisons and bustling markets. It’s a novel that makes you feel empathy for the hopeless fate of so many of the country’s poor and economically trapped.
A thrilling read, expertly told, but also a fascinating, gritty window onto India’s desperately poor.
A Burning, by Megha Majumdar. Scribner. $29.99
A new leftist critique of power and money.
Srećko Horvat is a Croatian philosopher and activist. With Yanis Varoufakis he started the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. In Poetry from the Future, Horvat provides a critique of modern capitalism and the policy trends it has created from a leftist point of view. Most of the world's major ills – the overreach of information technology, increasingly authoritarian governments, climate change, the phenomenon of Donald Trump – all get examined in detail.
While Horvat's style can be dense and wordy at times (he is a philosopher after all, so can be forgiven for the many references to Hegel, Marx, etc.), he still manages to put across his point in a succinct manner. The basic takeaway of the book is that we all need to do our bit in chipping away at the seemingly impenetrable capitalist fortress that keeps our lives in check. Traditional activism, Horvat argues, is tired and isn't working particularly well. More is needed. That means individuals need to take more action in their daily lives if climate change and rampant capitalism is to be successfully tackled.
The sheer power that business and government wields against the everyday citizen, as grimly outlined in the book, can often be daunting. A feeling of helplessness often overtakes the reader. Nevertheless, for those seeking new ways of confronting establishment power, Poetry from the Future is informative and thought provoking.
Poetry from the Future: Why a Global Liberation Movement is our Civilisation's Last Chance, by Srecko Horvat. Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An affable skunk and his many chicken friends create mayhem at a scientist’s house.
Badger is a rock scientist who lives at his aunt Lula’s house. It’s a nice brownstone in the pleasant town of North Twist. Aunt Lula doesn’t live there herself, but allows a generous tenancy to her nephew, so he can pursue his important rock work. Imagine Badger’s surprise one day when there is a knock at the door. He opens it to find Skunk, whose mother is a friend of Aunt Lula’s.
Badger is thrown off course by this interruption to his quiet way of life. Worse still, Skunk says he is moving in. They are to be roommates. Aunt Lula has organised it. Things get chaotic when Skunk invites his many chicken friends – 100 in all – to stay as well. Soon the house is overrun with these feathered friends who repeatedly squark “Bock, Bock”. The stage is set for conflict as the mild-mannered Badger tries to cope with the eccentric and jolly natured Skunk. Feathers are ruffled and regretful remarks are made about Skunk’s personal hygiene. Can they resolve their differences and also keep Aunt Lula happy?
Writer Amy Timberlake doesn’t put a foot wrong in this delightful, zany, surreal and hilarious odd couple story. There are many pleasant digressions, including a discussion of Shakespeare's Henry V, a theory of chickens performing quantum leaps and a nonsense retelling of the story of Chicken Little. The characters are nicely drawn, with Badger the much imposed upon scientist and Skunk the affable guest who doesn’t seem to think his flock of chickens a problem. The novel’s good cheer develops and gains momentum as the story progresses and by the last page, as problems are resolved, the reader feels that all is right with the world.
With gorgeous illustrations by Jon Klassen, this beautifully produced book is destined to be a favourite with all lovers of children’s literature.
COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One, by debora mackenzie
An urgently written explainer on COVID-19 and viral diseases.
Debora Mackenzie has worked as a journalist with New Scientist for 36 years. Having followed viruses and pandemics for decades, she was approached to write a “crash” book on the subject of COVID-19. The result is a punchy and arresting short history of zoonotic pathogens – diseases that have jumped from animals to humans. The scientific community has been on high alert since 2013, when coronaviruses were first discovered. Meanwhile, the human race went about its business blissfully unaware.
What do we know about COVID-19? That it is almost certain we got it from bats. As human populations expand and move into areas rich in wildlife, the risk of transmission increases. Indeed, the history of agriculture is the history of zoonotic disease.
How do we avert further catastrophe? Essentially, money is needed for research and resources (many governments were caught short when it came to medical supplies). Intergovernmental co-operation is also essential. In a globalised world, a pandemic is everyone’s problem. Most importantly, the US and China need to work together, pooling their scientific knowledge.
With better planning and preparedness, Mackenzie maintains this pandemic could have been stopped in its tracks. That costs money. But as the global economy nosedives, prevention would be cheaper than cure. A pithy primer on pandemics.
COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One, by Debora Mackenzie. Bridge Street Press. $32.99
A deeply affecting novel based on the true story of a Syrian refugee.
Eva Nour is a Swedish journalist who writes under a pseudonym. In 2015 she met “Sami”, a Syrian asylum seeker whilst working in Paris. The two became friends and later, more seriously involved. Nour persisted in asking Sami questions about the Syrian civil war that started in 2011, encouraging him to open up about his experiences. The result is the remarkable The Stray Cats of Homs, a novelisation of Sami’s story.
The novel begins with Sami’s childhood. He grows up with three siblings and loving parents. Soon enough, the brutal nature of Bashar al-Assad’s police state starts impinging on Sami’s life. He learns to be careful of what to say and to whom. In 2011, a series of non-violent protests against the Assad regime take place which are brutally repressed. When civil war breaks out, many human rights abuses take place that are impossible to countenance. Surely the rest of the world won’t let such violent injustices take place?
Skillfully constructed to make for engaging reading, The Stray Cats of Homs shows how the Syrian civil war, through Sami’s story, has devastated countless lives. A humbling story delivered with grace and humanity.
The Stray Cats of Homs, by Eva Nour. Doubleday $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A frog story that will delight.
Bibbit is a frog that loves to jump. He has a sister, no longer a tadpole, whom he calls Little Frog. The two go on a picnic and find a banana tree. They pick the juiciest banana and share it with their other frog friends. Bibbit and Little Frog don’t only have friends in the frog world, they are also friendly with rabbits, squirrels, birds – even cats and dogs. They get involved in many adventures in the wild, but soon Little Frog wants to go to the city. Bibbit is not so sure – the city makes him nervous – but eventually he follows her lead. Together they navigate the city’s busy streets, find a lift in a big building, and go to the top floor for a big surprise.
Illustrator and writer Bei Lynn’s quirky story of frogs, tadpoles and other forest creatures is an utter delight from start to finish. Full of surprises and funny incidents (the scene with the balancing tadpoles is a hoot), and featuring beautiful line and watercolour illustrations, Bibbit Jumps will charm emerging readers – and adults too.
For ages 7 – 8 years old
Bibbit Jumps, by Bei Lynn. Gecko Press $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Phosphorescence: On Awe, wonder, and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, by Julia baird
Journalist and writer Julia Baird mixes self-help with memoir in this attractive and very readable guide to life.
Phosphorescence aims to make us appreciate what we have in life and offers strategies to cope with grief, disappointment and tragedy. The book opens with a piece on one of Julia Baird’s favourite hobbies, swimming in the ocean and looking with awe and wonder on the varieties of marine life. This opening sets the scene for a series of essays that discusses subjects such as silence, nature, self-worth, friendship and resilience. A lot of the early pieces in Phosphorescence mix commentary with scientific research and, while pleasant to read, can be a bit uninspired. The book, however, gains strength as it goes along and by the end, when Baird writes very personally about issues of faith and acceptance, it's hard not to be moved by her honesty and vulnerability.
I came away quite humbled by Phosphorescence. In many of the book’s pieces Baird discusses the hard times she’s endured, notably multiple surgeries for a recurring cancer, and what has got her through, how illness has changed her perspective and helped to prioritise what’s important. For anyone who grumbles about life and needs a reality check, Phosphorescence is a gentle reminder of how fragile and amazing life is.
Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder, and the Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark, by Julia Baird. Published by 4th Estate. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A surprising journey into the mouth and nasal passages.
Science writer James Nestor has long suffered breathing related health problems. To try and sort out what was wrong with him, he took a decade long investigation into all things to do with breathing, focusing on the mouth, nasal passages and inhaling and exhaling techniques. Volunteering as a guinea pig in a series of scientific experiments, Nestor found some astonishing results.
The main takeaway from the book is that we need to breathe in a more controlled manner (5.5 seconds in, 5.5 seconds out is optimal) and through our noses. Our nasal passages filter and pressurise air, which has a beneficial effect, helping to us overcome allergies and congestion. Nose breathing also helps fight bacteria. Too much mouth breathing, especially during sleep, results in snoring and sleep apnea.
One of the more fascinating results of Nestor’s research is the development of our mouths. The advent of agriculture has resulted in softer, more processed foods, and as a result, less chewing. Mouth sizes have actually gotten smaller since our hunter-gatherer forbears, resulting in breathing problems. After a year of having endured a mouth brace that forced his jaw to work more, x-ray imaging found Nestor’s air passages had opened more and he’d developed extra bone density on his face. All a result of extra chewing.
This is a fascinating work of science, offering many surprises as to how the respiratory system works. Highly recommended, especially for those with breathing difficulties and ailments.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Published by Penguin Life. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Against the lush backdrop of 1890s Leipzig, two unhappy lovers destroy each other in spectacular fashion. An emotional train wreck that you can't look away from.
Maurice Guest, an aspiring pianist and dissatisfied teacher, leaves his job in England to study music in Leipzig, Germany. It's the 1890s, and Leipzig is a cultural centre, with ambitious students, musicians and artists swirling around its vibrant conservatoriums and teeming streets. In the midst of this heady environment, bursting with dynamic personalities and outsize egos, Maurice catches a glimpse of Louise Dufrayer, an Australian woman several years his senior. She is not your classic beauty, but nonetheless he becomes obsessed with her. His friend, Madeleine Wade, a struggling student with a practical outlook, knows Louise's backstory and warns him to keep a wide berth. Louise has been carrying on an affair with the brilliant violinist, Schilsky. Schilsky is a complete cad, utterly immoral, and when he dumps Louise and bolts, Maurice begs her to allow him to pick up the pieces.
The two enter into a relationship which is doomed from the start. Louise, with her refined taste in men and music, suffers in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. Maurice has his faults too, chiefly an obsessive nature divorced from reality. The two lovers try in their own way to make a go of things, but a sea of personal grievances and dire secrets bubble away underneath, constantly threatening to blow everything up.
Maurice Guest was Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson's first novel, published in 1908. Perhaps its most striking aspect is its modernity. Her frank detailing of the sex lives of Leipzig's cultural elite – the bed hopping, exploitation, sadism and other shennanigans – reads like Freudian case studies. Take away the nineteenth century frocks and furniture and the story could easily take place today. Richardson is a master psychologist and she expertly plays her wide cast of complex characters, elucidating in addictive prose the many troubling layers that make up the human condition. That this drama is sustained so wonderfully for over 600 pages, its interest never flagging, is a testament to Richardson's great powers as a novelist.
With its strong hints of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, Maurice Guest is first class stuff. Surely one of the best novels written by an Australian.
Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson. Published by Text. $12.95
Review by Chris Saliba
Randolph Stow's surreal, nostalgic backward glance at childhood during war.
Merry-Go-Round in the Sea opens in 1941. Six-year-old Rob Coram lives in Geraldton, Western Australia, and spends his young days in the company of his aunts, cousins and other family members. It's quite an idyllic life, one at a far remove from all the political trouble brewing in Europe. Rob especially looks up to his older cousin, Rick, who enlists to go to war.
As the years progress, and the Second World War is fought with greater ferocity, Rob's extended family moves further away from the city and townships, finally to Andarra. When the war ends, Rob looks forward to seeing his cousin Rick again. He expects that life will simply pick up from where it has left off. But the centre of gravity has radically changed. Rick was held as a prisoner of war and saw things he cannot forget. He's a changed man and Rob's idealised cousin is now hollowed out, a broken man who can barely take an interest in his own life. Rob sees him disappearing before his very own eyes.
Australian poet and novelist Randolph Stow first published this now acclaimed classic in 1965. It's an incredibly moody, evocative portrait of Australia during the war years. While the novel's poetic style has a timeless quality, it also contains contemporary descriptions of First Australians and outdated attitudes towards women. The book is not in itself sexist or racist, yet faithfully records conversations that were. Stow highlights the irony of Australia's racism:
"It was funny about black ******. They were Australian. They were more Australian than Rob was, and he was fifth generation. And yet somehow they were not Australian."
There's not much plot to go by in all of this, simply page after page of dreamy, hazy descriptions and bland yet strangely surreal conversations between family members. The whole story – all four hundred pages of it – passes like a beautiful, disturbing dream. Stow's skill is such that it is all seamlessly woven together; it doesn't feel so much like a novel, more an hallucinatory experience.
An Australian classic not to be overlooked.
Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, by Randolph Stow. Published by Penguin. $12.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books