Tentative steps into an ocean of pain
IN James P. Othmer’s The Futurist ( Alma Books, 287pp, $ 32.95), his hero manages on one lecture circuit to give a speech to the Organic Farmers of America and a leading pesticide manufacturer and receive standing ovations at both. Such is the cynical world of the futurist J. P. Yates, who is paid vast sums by big corporations to detect the international mood and trends. This debut novel has a skittering kind of brilliance, the kind that comes from conspiracy theories, thickly layered characters and an intricate web of cross- referencing.
Another first novel, Blood Kin ( Atlantic Books, 185pp, $ 29.95), by South African- born Ceridwen Dovey, comes with the endorsement of J. M. Coetzee. It has about it the pale echo of one of Coetzee’s early works, as people in an unnamed, timeless country experience a coup and then dance like puppets in a miserable and often masochistic pattern of complicity, betrayal and sad, defeated lust.
Dovey’s characters are finely drawn in spare prose and are sometimes quite shocking: ‘‘ There is a calm that comes from thinking only about oneself; I would venture to say it is the only true freedom. Self- devotion — and by that I mean devotion to oneself — takes time to perfect, like all skills worth developing, and requires extreme discipline,’’ thinks one of her characters.
While Othmer and Dovey break the mould to create imagined worlds, first novels seem more commonly to be a blood- letting, an airing of the personal issues their authors have to get out of their systems before moving on. The Australian novels under review, both by young women, are, predictably, about murky family stuff and grappling for identity and meaning.
Karen Foxlee’s ( University of Queensland Press, 281pp, $ 32.95), which won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for best emerging author, is set in a mining town, again not surprising, as Foxlee grew up in Mt Isa. It’s about grieving as a 10- year- old girl struggles to come to terms with the death, possibly by suicide, of her wayward, beautiful and promiscuous teenage sister.
Jennifer and her friends try to piece together what led to the tragedy. It’s probably too drawn out, too specific, but anyone who has had to deal with a sudden death will recognise the authenticity in the picking and unpicking of the life of the deceased and, finally, understanding that result.
In Nine Parts Water ( UQP, 296pp, $ 23.95), Emma Hardman, who grew up in Byron Bay and has set her story in a surfing town, casts the net of troubles wider and manages to weave together fairly coherently Australia’s two worst national sore spots, the treatment of Aborigines and refugees, plus, for good measure, cancer, drugs and other issues. A bit of overload again, as if she has had to cast around to gain depth, but the descriptions of the trials of young Woomera escapee Hassan are heartfelt and heart- rending.
The Triple Point of Water ( Polygon, 288pp, $ 24.95) is by Fiona Dunscombe, a young English writer who trawls, in a matter- of- fact but affecting style, through a cold, dysfunctional childhood that leads to her heroine becoming a stripper in a Soho nightclub. When things get too bad and the pain too much to bear, she cuts her arms, usually just a little, to ease the pressure inside. It’s set against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s nasty, small- minded England and the sleaze of Soho. Dunscombe, who won the Dundee International book prize for this novel, writes well enough to make you care for her strangely sweet narrator and hope that she’s exorcised whatever it is she needed to with this book. Anne Susskind is a Sydney journalist and reviewer .