Urban isolation, in sickness and health
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.