Ur­ban iso­la­tion, in sick­ness and health

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Some books are des­tined to be ec­cen­tric gems and Jen Craig’s Pan­thers and the Mu­seum of Fire (Spine­less Won­ders, 120pp, $22.99) is one. It’s the sec­ond novel for Craig, who also re­searches sub­jects such as the gothic ex­pe­ri­ence of eat­ing dis­or­ders as a doc­toral can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Western Syd­ney.

The story ex­ists al­most en­tirely in sus­pen­sion. The nar­ra­tor, who iden­ti­fies with the au­thor’s name, is a frus­trated writer, who has been toil­ing for years with­out mak­ing head­way.

She is in­vited to the fu­neral of Sarah, a friend from school, bril­liant but de­fined by her obe­sity. Be­cause Sarah’s sis­ter re­mem­bers Jen as a literary type who has gone on to work in ra­dio, she gives her a man­u­script writ­ten by her dead sis­ter, which Jen doesn’t want to read.

The present frame of the nar­ra­tive con­sists of Jen’s walk from her apart­ment in Syd­ney’s Glebe to a cafe in Surry Hills, where she has ar­ranged to hand back the man­u­script to Sarah’s sis­ter. The walk be­comes a frame for in­tense re­flec­tion: an ex­am­i­na­tion of Jen’s re­la­tion­ship with Sarah, a med­i­ta­tion on her failed ca­reer as a writer, and the delec­ta­tion of her con­fes­sional din­ners with her one close friend, Raf, where the Sarah story is played out over prawns and wine.

As Jen walks through some of Syd­ney’s busiest streets, the reader is struck by her iso­la­tion: it’s one of the great para­doxes of the me­trop­o­lis: peo­ple stacked to­gether, robbed of time, their de­fault re­la­tions, in the ab­sence of the ne­ces­sity of ex­change, de­fen­sive. Although it’s just 120 pages,

is dense and deeply thought. Elu­sive, acute and some­times en­er­vat­ing, it re­minds at times of early 20th-cen­tury mod­ernist au­thors such as Gertrude Stein or Djuna Barnes. The writ­ing is bril­liant, the sen­tences sur­round the sub­ject mat­ter like a maze.

For those who like fic­tion that forces them into thought, this short work is one of the most un­com­pro­mis­ing works of new literature you are likely to find this year.

Guilt (Vik­ing, 272pp, $32.99) is the third novel from ac­tor, screen­writer and for­mer pro­fes­sional rugby league player Matt Nable. It’s a tale of a group of ado­les­cents grow­ing up near the beach and how the con­se­quences of a sin­gle night come to haunt their adult lives.

Nable grew up on Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches and suc­ceeds in im­part­ing the flavour of an Aus­tralian coastal ado­les­cence. In this it’s rem­i­nis­cent of Jack El­lis’s re­cent

which was also set on the north­ern beaches. It’s a world where wealth clashes with or­di­nary sub­ur­ban ex­is­tence and where the body and its he­do­nis­tic im­pulses con­stantly threaten the idea of build­ing a life from ef­fort.

The ado­les­cent por­trai­ture here is su­perb, no­tably in the way the in­di­vid­ual sub­jec­tiv­ity of the char­ac­ters is strongly reg­u­lated by the struc­tures of sex­ual hi­er­ar­chy. Tommy, Chris, Ju­lia, Paul and Lani are sharply drawn. They’re on the cusp of fin­ish­ing school and Nable re­ally gets their os­cil­la­tion be­tween know­ing and not know­ing, the way that what they re­ally want is still only at the fringes of their aware­ness.

is less con­vinc­ing, how­ever, when it moves to adult­hood. There are sev­eral rea­sons for this. First, the char­ac­ters are less at­trac­tive once age robs them of their po­ten­tial. There’s a plot-driven rea­son, too. The event that gives rise to the ti­tle of the book is held back un­til the end of the novel, pre­sum­ably to help main­tain an el­e­ment of sus­pense. How­ever in the read­ing this feels con­trived, and the hing­ing event be­tween ado­les­cence and adult­hood comes out as some­thing of a fizzer.

It also seems im­plau­si­ble that one event should so thor­oughly de­ter­mine the kinds of lives the char­ac­ters have. It’s a kind of nov­el­is­tic de­ter­min­ism that fails to take into ac­count the ero­sion by time of mem­ory, the sheer ac­cu­mu­la­tion of events in a life and the in­con­stant re­la­tion­ship be­tween cur­rent and prior selves.

Oth­er­wise, is worth the read be­cause of its psy­cho­log­i­cally acute and res­o­nant por­trayal beach­side ado­les­cence in the late 1980s.

With Ebola, SARS, su­per­bugs and the an­tic­i­pated ex­haus­tion of an­tibi­otics, the ques­tion of how Aus­tralians might be­have if a deadly pan­demic hit our shores is an in­ter­est­ing one. We are, de­spite our vast ex­panses, one of the most ur­banised na­tions in the world, ideal per­haps as a des­ti­na­tion for dis­eases.

An Or­di­nary Epi­demic (Mid­nightSun, 400pp, $28.99) ex­plores these is­sues in a tight nar­ra­tive that views the event from the per­spec­tive of a mid­dle-class Syd­ney fam­ily. It’s the sec­ond novel from Syd­ney au­thor Amanda Hickie, fol­low­ing her reimag­in­ing of heaven in

The story be­gins with the Manba virus mov­ing south from New­cas­tle, and in­fect­ing Syd­ney’s north shore. Ef­forts to re­strict its progress prove fu­tile as iso­lated cases be­gin to pop up through­out the city, but for­tu­nately not yet where Han­nah and her fam­ily live.

She is con­cerned, while her hus­band Sean is more re­laxed, ar­gu­ing against the fear that they will be in­fected. Against her in­stincts he in­sists their son be al­lowed to go on a school camp to Can­berra.

In many ways this is a sim­ple spec­u­la­tive tale, but its tight lines of logic and sharp in­ter­ro­ga­tion of the lim­its of com­pas­sion when com­mu­nity it­self be­comes a risk, as well as our de­pen­dency on the state for things such as power and wa­ter, makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing read. Hickie has cre­ated con­vinc­ing char­ac­ters and mines the rifts in eth­i­cal po­si­tions be­tween avert­ing death and help­ing oth­ers to do the same so well that it leaves you think­ing twice about shak­ing hands with strangers.

Robin Barker is the au­thor of the early par­ent­ing guide one of the most use­ful books this re­viewer has ever en­coun­tered. Close to Home (Xoum, 304pp, $24.99) is her de­but col­lec­tion of short sto­ries and ben­e­fits from some of the no-non­sense open-mind­ed­ness she uses to such great ef­fect in her non­fic­tion.

The col­lec­tion is chrono­log­i­cally or­dered and the ear­li­est sto­ries are pithy vi­gnettes from an idea of Aus­tralia that has van­ished into history. There are sto­ries of un­gen­tri­fied in­ner-city Syd­ney in the post­war era, and of the so­cial skeins where most city peo­ple still had a rel­a­tive liv­ing in the coun­try.

Barker evokes this with great at­mos­phere and with­out nos­tal­gia; the warts and wrong think­ing re­main on view. The high­light of these is per­haps

the story of a young house­wife mar­ried to a po­lice­man, who makes friends via a pet with her Abo­rig­i­nal neigh­bour in in­ner-Syd­ney Chip­pen­dale. It cap­tures beau­ti­fully her iso­la­tion, and the in­tense friend­ship be­tween neigh­bours that is nonethe­less de­pen­dent on prox­im­ity for its sur­vival.

Barker loses her way some­times when forced to rely on more com­plex fic­tional fram­ing to make her sto­ries work. The story, for in­stance, about a daugh­ter giv­ing her fa­ther’s medal to a Ja­panese fam­ily whose un­cle he had killed in World War II feels a lit­tle con­trived.

Bet­ter is a beau­ti­fully threaded story of a sur­ro­gate preg­nancy. Her style bears some re­sem­blance to Alice Munro in that it doesn’t ap­pear as style at all; the best of these sto­ries seem to fall out in frag­ments or as wholes and the af­ter-im­age they leave is mostly strong.

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