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.
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
Tippy, Uncle Pike and Devon re-form the Nancys when a bomb explosion rocks small town Riverstone.
When a bomb explodes in the small New Zealand town of Riverstone and kills three people, the police think they know who the culprit is. Willem Jansen, also known as “Mr Tulips”, had been having a few financial problems with his farm. He also held a grudge against the local council. When his van is parked early in the morning outside the town hall and explodes, it’s an open and shut case. Or is it? Enter the Nancys – Tippy Chan, her Uncle Pike and his partner Devon. A lot of questions remain unanswered and the trio take it upon themselves to investigate, until they finally crack the case, ruffling more than a few feathers along the way.
Nancy Business is the second book in an intended trilogy of books featuring the crime solving trio. The Nancys introduced the small town of Riverstone and its cast of idiosyncratic, often goofy characters – crappy ex-boyfriends, tough talking teens, dodgy real estate agents and hard boiled journos. The follow-up reprises these characters with some new additions. While the main thrust of the novel is the crime plot, other major storylines involve relationship troubles between Pike and Devon and Tippy’s ongoing questions about the nature of her father's sudden death in a car accident. Was it indeed an accident, or did something more sinister happen? The emotional heart of the story rests with 12-year-old Tippy who is desperately trying to keep her world together. The threat of her beloved Uncle Pike and Devon splitting up is too much to bear, and the nagging questions about her father mean she remains on psychologically uncertain ground. Where does she belong and how does she fit into this world, seems to be the recurring question.
Melbourne based New Zealand author R.W.R McDonald successfully keeps a lot of plates spinning in this warm, hilarious, campy whodunnit. All the different elements – the explosion, Pike and Devon’s troubles and Tippy’s concerns about her father – are beautifully balanced, resulting in a book that rises like a perfect souffle. A sequel that is just as good as its highly entertaining predecessor.
Nancy Business, by R.W.R. McDonald. Published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A stripped back short novel that examines the mystery of existence.
A single woman in her mid-forties lives alone in an Italian city. She works as a teacher, has friends she keeps in regular contact with and and endures a difficult relationship with her mother. Despite all these contacts with the outside world, the woman leads a solitary life. Every encounter she has on her simple daily journeys – to the supermarket, the beautician, a favourite coffee bar – leaves an intense impression. Innocuous interactions with strangers make indelible marks, to be unpacked and pondered in private moments. She describes a mundane, everyday world that is yet surreal and unfathomable.
Readers of Rachel Cusk's famous trilogy of autobiographical novels will lap up this beautifully introspective, elegant short novel. Jhumpa Lahiri divides the book into around 45 short chapters, making its penetrating investigations into the nature of being also a pleasure to read. A book for lovers of immersive literature, with a narrator whose simple day to day concerns and experiences many will identify with.
Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Published by Bloomsbury. $26.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Margaret Thatcher, The Clash and the IRA bombings form a turbulent background to this drama about late 70s England.
It's the late 1970s. The Labour government is on the nose with the British public. There are endless strikes and general industrial trouble. The garbage collectors' strike pushes everyone's patience to the limit, as rubbish piles up on the streets. Even longtime Labour supporters are now willing to give Margaret Thatcher a go. It's also a time of violence, with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) launching terror attacks and assassinations.
Four characters from different walks of life make for a multilayered plot in Anthony Quinn's new novel, London, Burning. Young policewoman Vicky Tress finds herself uncovering corruption in the police force, and manages to help save an innocent man accused of helping the IRA. Journalist Hannah Strode interviews high-level politicians and celebrities alike, often finding herself drawn into tricky situations. Freddie Selves is a theatre director with a high profile and a penchant for affairs on the side. Finally, there is Callum Conlan, an Irish academic suffering writer's block and trying to find a personal direction in life. All these characters throng a busy, turbulent London at a time of critical change.
London, Burning is wide ranging, with a large cast of characters and a story that sprawls in many directions. The novel would easily convert into a television series, with its historical focus and different plot strands. Quinn does tie up a lot of loose ends quite neatly in the end, but the book doesn't have a sharp focus or point of view. It presents more as an ambient piece on late 70s London, with a soundtrack featuring the likes of The Clash, David Bowie and Joni Mitchell. Music lovers of this period will enjoy discussions of their favourite albums and artists. Even Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" makes an appearance.
An enjoyable, page-turning trip through a time that would usher in a new political orthodoxy.
London, Burning, by Anthony Quinn. Published by Little, Brown. $32.99
Geppetto writes his tragic story from the belly of a huge fish.
Geppetto is a simple woodcarver who lives in the small town of Collodi. He decides to carve a puppet, a wooden boy. Having finished his work, Geppetto is satisfied. The puppet is a handsome one, like a real boy. Then soon enough the wooden boy starts to kick his legs. Not only that, he speaks. Pinocchio is a mischievous boy and Geppetto often has to pull him into line. He tells lies and several times runs away. On his last escape, after much searching, Geppetto learns that some men not liking the look of Pinocchio have thrown him into the sea. Distraught, Geppetto wades out into the ocean, only to be swallowed whole by an enormous fish, maybe a shark or a whale, it can't be decided.
Inside the fish, Geppetto discovers the schooner Maria. It's an old, decaying ship, once led by Captain Tugthus. There are crates of candles, dry biscuits and the captain's journal which Geppetto writes in. The swallowed woodcarver spends his day mourning his son and yet hoping for his return. He writes in his journal day after day, re-imagining the past, his dank environment causing him mad hallucinations, the candles running down one by one until there are no more to light the way.
English novelist Edward Carey's The Swallowed Man is highly original and brilliantly imagined. The classic Pinocchio story is re-worked into a dark, brooding, sometimes mad meditation on art, death and parental love. The book's mood is drenched in grotesque intestinal images, of decaying fish, bone and blood. Somewhat like the nautical descriptions of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, only much darker. Like Carey's previous book, Little, based on Madame Tussaud's youth, The Swallowed Man concerns itself with our visceral responses to art, how we create dolls and toys to love, believing them to be almost, if not, human.
An intimate story, seen through a ghoulish lens, about love, loneliness and what we hold dear.
The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey. Published by Gallic Books. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A female robot is recruited to help with a family going through a difficult time
Klara is an artificial friend (AF) that spends her days in a shop window, waiting for someone to buy her. She's a slightly older model, a B2, so she often feels anxious that she will be passed over in favour of the newer B3 models, just being unpacked from their boxes. Klara loves it when she is positioned at the front of the window and can catch the sun's rays, which recharge her batteries and makes her feel wonderful. In fact, she almost worships the Sun, giving him a male gender and an upper case title.
A 13-year-old girl named Josie repeatedly visits the store with her mother and talks to Klara. They are testing the waters to see if Klara would make a good AF. After much deliberation between mother and daughter (Josie's mother is always quite tense, her mind often preoccupied) they decide to take the machine home.
The novel is set in the near future and social divisions have become exacerbated. Josie has been “lifted”, genetically edited for superior intelligence, while her good friend and neigbour, Rick, hasn't. Effectively, they belong to different castes. This causes some fundamental friction within their friendship, and their mothers are at loggerheads on how to manage their aspirations. Added to this list of complications, Josie has some unidentified health problems, potentially life threatening.
Ostensibly this is a science-fiction novel, an exploration of a possible future where AI dominates, yet the character of Klara reads more like a Victorian servant. She is observant, there to meet people's needs and knowing when to hide herself away when delicate social situations require it. Besides her ability as a machine to feel human emotions – anxiety, fear, love – she also experiences naivety, believing in the omnipotent powers of the sun. She prays to “him” and is convinced a pollution sputtering building site contraption is the Sun's implacable enemy.
Kazuo Ishiguru is a supremely skilled storyteller. The novel unfolds with the precision of a Swiss clock, a tantalising suspense built into every page as we slowly learn about Josie's illness, its cause and the mother-daughter tensions that permeate. In many ways, Klara and the Sun is a middle-class drama, soaked in guilt, regret, and failed parental aspirations, observed calmly through the eyes of Klara, the astute yet naïve home help, much loved but ultimately dispensable.
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguru. Published by Faber. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Esteemed Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah shines a light on Germany's violent history in Africa.
German empire building in early 20th century Africa is a subject not commonly addressed in Western literature. In Afterlives, by Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, the ravages of German colonisation are illuminated in violent detail.
The story starts around 1907 and mostly concentrates on the fortunes and misfortunes of a young man named Hamza. Forced to leave his home, he is conscripted into the Schutztruppe Askaris, native African soldiers who fight in the name of the German empire. As the First World War looms, and European powers fight over their African possessions, Hamza experiences the cruelties and racism of the Germans. Exploited and abused by his superiors, one deranged field officers slashes him with a scabbard and he barely survives.
Afterlives is an eye-opener of a novel, giving a detailed account of the brutal conditions of empire, the racism and exploitation. Gurnah writes a neat and compelling narrative, interweaving a complex and broad cast of characters over several decades. The book does get weighed down a bit in the last third, as it describes Hamza's marriage, but speeds up to a dramatic end.
A scrupulous account of the Germans in Africa.
Afterlives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books