Tag Archives: Australian fiction

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas

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Merciless Gods is a collection of short stories by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, who is best known for writing The Slap. I read and enjoyed both The Slap and Barracuda, which although occasionally brutal, are well written contemporary stories which are set in my home town of Melbourne.

I finished reading Merciless Gods some time ago, and have been dithering about whether to post a review or not. The writing in Merciless Gods is up to the author’s usual high standards, but this book did not leave me feeling good about myself. I felt squeamish and anxious reading most of these stories, many of which depict physically and emotionally violent exchanges between characters, as well as graphic (and again, sometimes violent) sex between gay men. The characters in this collection are absolutely brutal to each other.

The first story in the collection is the title story and tells of a group of friends telling each other true stories. One of the characters tells a story of revenge which left me and the other characters feeling emotionally shattered. Merciless Gods is an amazing story, but had I realised each story in the collection was more confronting than the last, I probably would have stopped reading after the second story.

Reading so many stories about unhappy, sometimes unpleasant people behaving viciously towards each other flattened me. I wish this author would show people at their best more often, rather than always at their worst.

I’ll continue reading books by Christos Tsiolkas for the quality of the writing and for my enjoyment of the familiar locations and times, but this confronting collection of stories is not for everyone. I’m prudish at the best of times and if you are too, then give this collection a miss.

 

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Of a Boy by Sonia Hartnett

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Of a Boy (published as What the Birds See outside of Australia) is one of prolific Australian author Sonya Hartnett’s earlier stories. Sonya Hartnett is best known for her books for young adults, although she also writes for children and adults. I’m a latecomer to her work having only read Golden Boys previously, but am a fan and intend to make my way through her work.

Of a Boy brought back every terrible memory from childhood, from being unhappy because of bullying, worrying about not fitting in, to thinking I was unloved and feeling frightened of being abandoned.

Sonya Hartnett’s writing is clear and simple and very, very good. Of a Boy won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Age Book of the Year in 2003.

The story is set in an Australian suburb in the 1970’s, where three small children set off to their local milkbar to buy ice-creams one day and were never seen again. The children’s disappearance shocked and frightened their community, including a nine-year old boy, Adrian, who was dumped on his grandmother after his mother was deemed unfit to look after him. Adrian is the loneliest, saddest little boy around. He is in trouble all the time with his grandmother, who seems to be unable to show Adrian that she loves him. My heart went out to this poor little character.

In Adrian’s grandmother’s defense, she was grieving her husband when Adrian came to live with her. She was also looking forward to a retirement free of obligations, after looking after her sick husband for many years, so resented Adrian for tying her down again even though she knew he is not to blame for their family’s circumstances.

Adrian suffers horribly at school. He lacks confidence and struggles to find friends. Children in this story are just as cruel as children are in real life, and being different to the other children is a licence to be picked on.

Eventually Adrian makes friends with the girl who lives across the road. She has her own cross to bear in the form of a mother who is dying. The story ends with Adrian and Nicole searching for the three missing children, when things comes to a shocking and tragic end. I had to read the last pages twice, because on my first read I couldn’t take in what happened to Adrian at the conclusion of the story.

In Of a Boy Sonya Hartnett tells exactly how it is to be a lonely, frightened and sad child. This story may not be for everyone, but it is exceptionally well told.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

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The Dressmaker by Australian author Rosalie Ham was made into a wonderful movie starring Kate Winslet and a mob of Australia’s best actors last year. Since watching the movie I had been looking forward to reading the book, especially since having read There Should be More Dancing by Rosalie Ham.

The Dressmaker is set in a fictional Australian country town called Dungatar, and with a name like that, you just know it is probably out on the far side of Woop-Woop. Dungatar comprises of a railway station, a pub, general store, a police station, pharmacy and a Post Office. Everyone in town knows everybody else’s business, and ignore most of each other’s dirty little secrets, unless they can use them to their advantage. Most of the townspeople are either victims or bullies, with only a handful of genuinely kind-hearted people amongst them.

Dungatar gets the shake-up it needs when Tilly Dunnage arrives to look after her mother, Mad Molly. Molly, who lives in poverty and squalor, is suffering from dementia and neglect. Most of the townspeople have ignored Molly, who gave birth to Tilly out of wedlock, leaving her to rot in her falling down house which sits on the hill above Dungatar. Sergeant Farrar, Dungatar’s cross-dressing policeman, and the town’s poorest family, the McSwineys, were the only people who cared for Molly until Tilly’s return.

Tilly was sent away from Dungatar as a child, after the mysterious death of another child. She became a dressmaker, studying with the most famous names in couture, Dior, Balmain and Balenciaga. When Tilly returned to Dungatar, it didn’t take long for the local women to employ her skills. Very soon, most of the women are swanning around town in outfits that the rest of us could only dream of wearing. (If you are at all interested in clothes, watch the movie, The Dressmaker. The costumes are a joy to look at, glamourous and beautiful, and totally out of reach in real life. I was lucky enough to see a display of the costumes from the movie and have been dreaming about them ever since).

On returning to Dungatar, Tilly fell in love with Teddy McSwiney, and for a little while, it looked as if she had a chance of being happy, but unfortunately, this was not to be. (In the movie, Teddy is played by a Hemsworth brother, not sure which one, but they are all lovely to look at).

Eventually, Tilly decides to get her revenge, and wreaks havoc on the whole town and everyone in it, which in my opinion; served them right.

I liked The Dressmaker, with a few reservations. I’m not sure that readers from other countries would enjoy this story quite as much as an Australian reader, as a lot of the humour and descriptions are probably better suited to local tastes. The story got a bit complicated towards the end, too. My biggest complaint about the writing was how often the author mentions scrotums. Yuck. There are things I don’t need to know about, or have described to me. The mental image of a withered, dangling, tomato-like scrotum will probably stay with me longer than I would have liked.

The best things about The Dressmaker were that it doesn’t showcase Australia in the best possible light, as the plot is dark, most of the characters are nasty and the town itself is unpleasant. Mad Molly is a scream. She cuts everyone down to size in a few sarcastic words, and generally gets away with behaving as badly as she likes. (In the movie, Molly is played by the great Australian actress Judy Davis, who stole the whole show). Then, there are the clothes… (sigh of happiness). Reading about beautiful clothes is up there with reading about chocolate, or baking…

So, my advice to non-Australians would be to watch the movie, The Dressmaker, and if you really love it, follow up by reading the book.

 

 

 

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Sarah Thornhill (Sequel to The Secret River) by Kate Grenville

sarahSarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville is the sequel to The Secret River, which I read earlier this year and enjoyed. I liked the story of Sarah Thornhill too, although at times I did feel as if the author was trying to force some points a little too hard.

The Secret River is the story of an English convict who made a success of his life in Australia after being freed. The Secret River highlighted the mass murders of Aboriginal people by the English colonists, which until recently, was not openly spoken of or acknowledged.

Sarah Thornhill, the character who the book is named for, is the child of the English convict and his wife from The Secret River. As the child of a convict, Sarah is known as a ‘currency lass’, and the story is told in her uneducated dialect, which are often fragmented pieces of sentences. Her voice is truthful though, and without artifice.

Sarah grew up on her father’s property, Thornhill’s Point on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, with her older brothers, a handful of distant neighbours and a few Aboriginal servants. From a very early age Sarah’s heart belonged to Jack, Sarah’s brother Will’s best friend. Jack and Sarah’s relationship was complicated because Jack’s mother was Aboriginal, however he also loved her and they planned a future together. Eventually, for reasons which no one would tell Sarah, Jack abruptly ended their relationship.

Will and Jack had long been travelling to New Zealand to work in the sealing trade, and after Jack broke off the relationship with Sarah, he and Will returned to New Zealand. Tragically, Will drowned in New Zealand, and Jack returned to Australia to tell the Thornhill family of Will’s death. Jack also told the Thornhills that Will had a child in New Zealand from his long term liaison with a Maori woman. Sarah’s father insisted that Jack bring Will’s child to him, to be brought up as a Thornhill and Jack obliged, although against his better judgement.

Will’s child, who is renamed Rachel because the Thornhill’s were unable to pronounce her name, was desperately homesick for her family in New Zealand. She never settled in Australia and after having been desperately unhappy and homesick for several years, died tragically. By this time Sarah had married another man and had a child. Jack returned to Australia after learning of Rachel’s death and insisted that Sarah return with him to New Zealand, to explain to Rachel’s family how and why she died, as a mark of respect and to take responsibility for the wrong which was done to Rachel.

I felt that Jack and Sarah gave up on each other too easily. The reason they parted became known and it was a strong reason for them to part, but after this event, the story felt as if it got lost.

Rachel’s story could have become the focus when the romance between Sarah and Jack ended, but unfortunately Rachel seemed only to exist in order for the author to make a point about the difference between the experience of the Aboriginals and the Maoris. The respect shown to Maoris in New Zealand and to Aboriginals in Australia at a time when both countries were being colonised by the English was in stark contrast.

I believe there is a third book by Kate Grenville called The Lieutenant, which concludes this story. I expect I will read it at some time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

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The author of Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas, wrote the bestselling Australian novel of the last few years, The Slap. For a little while, it seemed as if everyone I knew was talking about the book (in particular the rights and wrongs of hitting children, as The Slap is about what happened after a child was slapped by an adult who was not their parent at a BBQ). The story was eventually made into a drama for Australian television, and then re-made for the American market.

While I didn’t like any of the characters in The Slap, I did enjoy the story and author’s style. I absolutely loved the experience of reading a contemporary novel set in Melbourne, where I live.

As a writer, Chris Tsiolkas doesn’t seem to be afraid of much in the way of topics. Barracuda has a crack at race, religion, politics and class, sexuality, bullying, violence, family relations and friendship, and the importance of sport in modern Australia, particularly in Melbourne. I can verify this. Melbourne is considered the sporting capital of Australia. To justify this title, I can advise we’ve just been given a public holiday for the AFL Grand Final in September. (Go Cats!) We already have a public holiday for the Melbourne Cup, (a horse race), and on our most special day as Australians, ANZAC Day, when we celebrate those who have fought for our country, we have a game of football which has somehow become iconic, which sporting commentators call a ‘battle.’

Barracuda is the story of Dan Kelly, a young swimmer who hates himself.

Dan, who comes from a working class family, won a scholarship to a private boy’s school on the strength of his talent as a swimmer. Faster, stronger, better, is the mantra which constantly runs through his head. Dan’s dream is to win a gold medal swimming at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Dan’s time at school is difficult, where he is surrounded by rich boys whose fathers rule Melbourne business and politics. Despite Dan’s ‘Skippy’ name, he is a ‘wog’ – half Greek on his mother’s side. To further add to the drama of his family, Dan’s mother was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness. She is now considered to be dead by her family after marrying out of her religion. Dan feels unable to win the respect of his father, who is a truck driving, Labor voting, blue collar union man.

Dan is gay and although he doesn’t seem to recognise this while he is at school, he is in love with one of his schoolmates.

Dan’s biggest champions are his younger brother and sister, to whom he is a hero, his mother, who loves him unconditionally and his coach, Frank Torma, a Hungarian man who tells Dan to always have an answer to a bully’s insult.

The story jumps back and forwards through time, with Dan sometimes being tormented and at other times being the aggressor, from behaving so badly that he feels he will never live down the shame, to being a generous and loving man. At times this story made me cringe. The sex in the novel is graphic and on occasion, violent.

As expected, I enjoyed the familiarity of this story being set in Melbourne.

I enjoyed Barracuda and expect it will be a story I think about in years to come, as was The Slap.

 

 

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Laurinda by Alice Pung

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Australia has some really good writers of Young Adult fiction; John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy and, drum roll please, Alice Pung, who wrote Laurinda.

The heroine of Laurinda, is Lucy Lam, a teenager whose family were refugees from China, via Vietnam. Lucy and her family live in a low socio-economic area, (if anyone else who has read this book is from Melbourne, do you think Lucy’s fictional suburb is modelled on Sunshine?), where Lucy attends the local Catholic school. Lucy’s life changed completely when she won a scholarship to an exclusive girls’ school called Laurinda.

Lucy’s education quickly extended to dealing with privileged school girls, the worst of whom is a social group is known as ‘The Cabinet.’ The trio of girls who make up The Cabinet rule their classmates and horrifyingly, some of their teachers, with some very nasty antics.

Lucy is a great heroine, whose greatest strength is that she is able to see straight to the heart of an issue. Lucy is not indulged in any way at home, instead her parents rely on her assistance to look after her younger brother, to interpret bills and official correspondence and to contribute to the running of their household in a great many other ways. Lucy is portrayed as a respectful and dutiful member of her family and community, although sometimes her values and behaviour become confused when another side of Lucy tries to assert itself.

The contrast between Lucy’s parents, (her mother sews clothing in the garage for below the minimum wage and her father works in a factory) and the parents of other Laurinda girls is extreme. The author gives a lesson about valuing things you work for, in comparison to not appreciating that which you are undeservingly given.

Laurinda is set in the 1990’s, and some of the references to popular culture may seem out-dated eventually, but on the whole, people were the same then as they are now, which is probably not that much different to people at any other time during history.

The lack of understanding of character’s class and race differences is interesting, and is shown when Lucy’s teachers and the parents of her schoolmates fail to appreciate the differences between Lucy’s background and that of other Laurinda students. The reverse is also true, as Lucy’s father thinks a meal of McDonald’s is a wonderful treat for Lucy’s rich schoolmates. Racism is also treated with humour.

In my experience the world is divided up between people who would rather drink rat poison than relive high school and those who remember high school as the high point of their lives. Kurt Vonnegut is quoted in Laurinda saying, “Life is nothing but high school,” but Lucy definitely shows that even if this is all we have to look forward to, she has managed her school experience and prepared for a glorious future by working hard and remaining true to herself.

Laurinda may be aimed at Young Adult readers but I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it as a thought provoking read.

 

 

 

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Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey

pubertyLike most Australian teenager girls growing up in the 1980’s, I hid my copy of Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey from my parents, because they definitely would not have approved of me reading this book.

I think I saw the movie Puberty Blues long before I read the book, and I do remember being horrified at the time, because I was far too young for the movie. I was too young for the book too, but I was fascinated by the story of two thirteen year old girls, Sue and Debbie, growing up in the beachside suburbs of Sydney during the 1970s.

The story is told by Debbie, who along with her best friend Sue, desperately wants to be in the popular group at school. The very first paragraph tells the reader that the popular girls, “have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-in, take drugs and go to the beach.” At thirteen, I also desperately wanted to be popular but had no clue what sex was, hated the smell of cigarettes, was too afraid of my Dad to risk wagging school, lived in the country far, far away from a drive in and had no idea what drugs were. I might have been a dag, but at least I lived near the beach.

Part of the shock value of Puberty Blues originally was because it was written by teenagers. Kathy Lette is still writing books today and is quite well known. Gabrielle Carey has a much lower profile, although I believe she also continues to write.

Re-reading this as an adult, I found the story to be incredibly harsh. Debbie and Sue do what they have to do to join the popular group. In doing so, they risk becoming pregnant, their health and even their futures with the choices they made. So do most of the other girls. The boys seemingly get to have all of the fun, because they do all of the above but instead of being branded with the sort of reputation which stay with a girl forever, (yes, even in this day and age), the boy’s reputations are enhanced.

All of the girls are incredibly critical of each other. They call girls who have sex with boys other than their boyfriends names such as “slack-arsed molls,” (I remember these words still being used when I was at school) and these girls are treated terribly by boys and girls, although for all of the girls, whether they are molls or Top Chicks, there are frequent rapes and abortions, girls who end up as single mothers. All of the girls seemingly have no value other than as the girlfriend of some boy or other.

The story races through Debbie and Sue’s experiences as they edge their way in with the popular girls, get themselves some surfer boyfriends and ‘earn’ their friendship rings. The beach and surfie lifestyle is the perfect setting for this book, which has become a cult classic. The book is actually quite funny, despite how horrendous the subject matter is and how callous these teenagers are. The story ends on a really good note, but even so, I’m grateful that my teenage years were much more innocent than those depicted in Puberty Blues.

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The Secret River by Kate Grenville

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Kate Grenville, who wrote The Secret River, is one of Australia’s best known writers. She won the Orange Prize and has won or been short-listed for a great many other prestigious writing awards. I’ve read several of her previous books, but thought The Secret River was particularly good.

While I was reading this book, I thought the secret river in the title referred to the Hawkesbury River, where much of the story is set. Later, digging a little deeper, I learned that the name came from an anthropologist called W E H Stanner, who was referring to a secret river of blood, which flows through Australia’s history. This blood, to the collective shame of Australians, is that of the Aboriginal people, at the hands of the early settlers from England.

The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their family. William grew up in a very poor family in London in the late 1700’s, escaping the slums for a very short while when he was taken on as an apprentice waterman with Sal’s father. When Sal’s parents fell ill and died, William and Sal found themselves starving in London’s slums. When William was caught stealing from his employer, he was saved from hanging, but transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life.

Sal was able to sail to Sydney on the same ship as William and on arrival, he was assigned to her as a convict. The government gave them a hut and a week’s supply of food to start them off in the new colony.

At first, the family found Sydney to be frightening and foreign in every possible way. William quickly found work transporting stores between the shore and visiting ships, while Sal opened a sly grog shop. They quickly made enough money for William to buy a boat of his own and started a business transporting stores up the Hawkesbury River to settlers. Both William and Sal are at first frightened of the Aboriginal people who they occasionally see around their hut.

William eventually received his pardon and although Sal was homesick for England and wanted to return, William realised that as a convict living in England again would be impossible, because of the taint that would follow the family for generations to come. These days, having a convict in the family give an Australian bragging rights, but in my grandmother’s time, to be the descendant of a convict was shameful and never to be spoken of.

On one trip up the Hawkesbury, William spied a piece of land which he became obsessed with. Other pardoned convicts had become landowners simply by squatting on a piece of land, building a hut and planting a crop. William convinced Sal to bring their family to live on this land for five years, promising her that in that time they will make enough money to return to England. They plant corn, although William continues to work the river trade. Eventually, the Thornhills are assigned two convicts of their own, and put them to work.

There are Aboriginal people living in a camp very close to where William and Sal build their hut. The Thornhills are at first frightened by the Aboriginals, who clearly want them to leave, but William refuses to leave and they uneasily co-exist for some time. The Aboriginals are naked, carry spears and have extraordinary bush skills. They have no common language with the settlers. Sometimes the Thornhills and the Aboriginals amuse each other and sometimes there are moments of misunderstanding which could turn violent but don’t. The rights of the Aboriginal people to the land were ignored, by the Thornhills and their neighbours. The primary reason is because the settlers believe that the land is to be owned and farmed, neither of which the Aboriginal people do, although they certainly manage the land using fire.

When the Aboriginal people pick William’s ripe corn, William is furious, seeing this action as theft, but for the Aboriginal people, this is exactly how they had always lived, taking and eating food as they need. The Thornhills and the Aboriginal people settle again into a lifestyle of uneasily co-existing, although one of their younger sons is friends with Aboriginal children and joins in their play and also their learning from the camp’s elders.

The cultural differences between the settlers and the Aboriginals are impossible to overcome, and although William had earlier promised Sal never to harm an Aboriginal person, their friends and neighbours take some terrible actions, to which William is a party to. The Aboriginal people fight back and a great many of the English people are killed or hurt also.

Kate Grenville certainly doesn’t shy away from putting the settlers in the wrong, clearly showing the terrible ways the Aboriginal people were treated. This is very unusual in Australian fiction, as in a lot of it the reader wouldn’t even realise that anyone else even lived in Australia when the English arrived. I grew up less than a kilometre from a beach called Massacre Bay, and until I was an adult, did not learn that this name was given because (allegedly),  the Aboriginal men living in the area had been driven off the cliffs near this beach, while the women and children had been drowned in a nearby swamp. There was only one Aboriginal family attending the school I went to and they were treated terribly by the other children. To be an Aboriginal person when I was growing up was even worse than having a convict in the family.

The story of The Secret River is sad and depressing, but also fascinating because somehow, from all of the horror and violence during those early times, that is where the Australia that we have now came from.

The Secret River is to be made into a television miniseries. I don’t usually watch tv, but I will watch this when it comes.

 

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Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood

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Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood is a Phryne Fisher Mystery. For the uninitiated, Miss Fisher, or Phryne (which rhymes with brine-y), is an impossibly wonderful heroine who works as a private detective, solving murders and mysteries, taking lovers, flying planes and glamorously tooling around 1920’s Melbourne in her sports car.

She even has her own television show, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which seems to be on the ABC every single time I turn the tv on. I’ve never watched the show, but my mother does, and she loves it. (My mother also loves Murder She Wrote, Agatha Christie’s Marple, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, etc – I’m sure you recognise the genre. According to Mum, Miss Fisher blows them all out of the water).

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Flying Too High was the second in the series of books featuring this character, but the impression I got from reading this story is that I could pick up any of the twenty or so books Phryne features in and jump straight in to the middle of the action.

There is plenty of action too. Phryne jumps in and out of bed with whoever she fancies, takes a wing walk on a Tiger Moth, solves a murder, rescues a kidnapped child, arranges prostitutes for men on death row and more. There is incest, rape and violence, which is almost glossed over. It all sounds quite sordid when I tell the story, but I didn’t even realise while I was reading this how awful some of the themes were. I just went along for the ride and found the story to be very enjoyable. Phryne is enormously charismatic and the supporting characters did their thing entertainingly too.

I live in Melbourne, so absolutely loved the historical references to places I know. At the start of the book, Phryne is living at the Windsor Hotel, which everyone in Melbourne knows was the best hotel in its time. (Mum likes to stay there when she gets the chance, but Dad says the Hotel is run down. Regardless of the state of the bedrooms these days though, High Tea at the Windsor is legendary. Trust me, I’ve been twice).

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Phryne even eats the way I would if I were a character in a book. The food descriptions are sensational. Picnics, intimate dinners for two, hearty breakfasts… I admit it, I’m jealous. If I were a book character, she is who I want to be.

Flying Too High is quite a slim book and I read it very quickly, but felt satisfied when I finished. I will read more of this author’s Phryne Fisher stories, for the familiarity of the location, the enjoyment of the heroine and for the pleasure of feeling as if I had been on a bit of an adventure in Melbourne with Miss Fisher.

 

 

 

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