Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Symbolic and devastating: Rain Birds, by Harriet McKnight

'Symphonic' is a good word for this novel, which begins with a leaden calm like that before a summer storm, slowing building in intensity until it roars to a final crushing crescendo and then settles into silence.

But if it is a symphony, it is also a fugue. Two voices begin alone, dance around one another in solitary parallel narratives, then criss-cross and finally unite before falling apart again. The voices belong to two women, both of whom are deeply isolated in their own ways, alone against the world and in an environment which they both love and fear.

Arianna is lost in grief and trauma, trapped by anxiety (and possibly obsessive-compulsive disorder) that is vivid and painfully visceral. Her only refuge is in her work, monitoring a flock of at-risk glossy black cockatoos in Murrungowar National Park. To Arianna, these birds are not merely symbolic harbingers of doom; they are literal, insistent signs of a climate in crisis, and the burden of that knowledge is a breathless weight on her lungs.

Pina is grappling with her own form of complex grief, as she watches her husband's rapid deterioration through early-onset dementia. Her role as carer is an ongoing conflict as Alan slowly becomes a man she cannot recognise and, in turn, Pina becomes a stranger to him. Alan wanders off without warning, lashes out at Pina irrationally, is at once aggressive and paranoid.

There is a quiet, almost gentle horror to Alan's unbecoming, which depicts the true brutality of Alzheimer's. Pina must walk side-by-side with the loss of who her husband once was as well as the loss of who they are together. Her days are a recurring cycle through sorrow to resentment, then guilt and finally shame. While Arianna is trying to escape her past, Pina is unwillingly losing sight of hers.

A third voice, hiding under the layers of the others but bursting forth irrepressibly in the final act, is that of the Australian bush. The bush is quiet and beautiful, yet menacing and powerful. It lingers as a backdrop to Pina and Arianna's stories but its presence is palpable, tied up with Pina's life and Arianna's life work. Like Pina and Arianna themselves, the bush carries with it a deep sense of solitude, at times forbidding and foreboding.

McKnight's writing is spare and understated, managing to be at once unflinching and empathetic. The story is bleak in parts, evoking a crystalline sense of mystery as in the film Jindabyne. It is symbolic and devastating, yet never beyond redemption.

If I were cooler, I'd predict that this one will be popping up on awards shortlists soon. Instead, I'll just clap my hands quietly when it does.

Rain Birds
Harriet McKnight
Published September 2017 by Black Inc.
288 pages

Saturday, August 19, 2017

It's hard to talk about the ones we love the most: Exchange of Heart by Darren Groth

It seems as though the books that grab hold of us the tightest are the ones that are the hardest to write about. This is certainly true of Exchange of Heart, Darren Groth's newest novel for young adults. Even though I'm just a plain old adult, without the blissful 'young' prefixed to the front, this book sits with me in a way few contemporary books have. And I've wrestled for some time with how to write about it because it just feels so much, and it's hard to disentangle myself from the story.

To begin with, Exchange of Heart is set predominantly in Brisbane, and books populated by familiar places and landmarks and journeys are like new friends who instantly become old friends. Then, too, its main character, Munro, is wrestling with an anxiety that is hard to name and, although my experience is different to Munro's, I know this battlefield all too well. Most heart-squeezing of all, though, is the fact that Munro is mired in grief after the death of his younger sister Evie, who has Down Syndrome.

My youngest brother has Down Syndrome, and, ever since he joined our family, I have had these occasional dreams of terrible natural disasters threatening him: volcanoes spewing lava, tsunamis sweeping over everything, earthquakes upending the ground we're struggling to walk on. Always I find myself urgently reaching out to keep hold of his hand, to grab on to him and not let go. Even in my subconscious mind, losing my little brother is one of the most incomprehensibly awful things that could ever happen.

So to see a character grappling with this reality was like a beautiful, heartbreaking kick to the stomach. Munro's grief and confusion is tangible, a living thing that haunts him, taunts him, and threatens to overwhelm him, to rob him of the people who love him best and to sabotage any attempt to begin again. Blessedly, these people also refuse to let him stand alone in the depths of his grief, and it is through their love -- faithful, hard love that patiently makes its way through the walls of trauma Munro has built up around him -- that Munro can begin to see the possibility of healing.

Of course, it takes an international journey and a rag-tag gang of Australians to begin dismantling those walls, and each fresh character bursts into the story like a happy surprise. These are not perfect characters, but they are good ones, drawn in a way that doesn't make a novelty of their personalities or disabilities but, rather, honours them. This book is disability-positive in a very joyful, honest way. It's also therapy-positive and family-positive. In fact, even though it will make your heart squeeze up inside your rib cage, reading this book is a positive experience in itself. And now, after all my wrestling, this isn't even a real review -- just a slightly frantic whirl of feelings -- but I'm glad this book exists and I hope you read it.

Exchange of Heart
Darren Groth
Published July 31, 2017 by Random House Australia
288 pages

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dark stories to make you brave: That Stubborn Seed of Hope

The short stories that have stayed with me over time are the ones that make me gasp at an unexpected revelation, or sigh when two essentially disparate things (people or ideas or beliefs or understandings or accidents) come together in a way that is both surprising and just right. But my absolute favourite stories are the ones that manage to plumb the depths of human brokenness and this dark world yet still point to a shining glimmer of grace in the midst of it.

So I was a little bit in love with That Stubborn Seed of Hope before I even started reading. The title, pulled from a quote from Bridge to Terabithia (again: LOVE), encapsulates my philosophy of story, and speaks to one of the things I treasure most in children’s and YA fiction. It might stem from the fact that I dined quite heavily on Anne of Green Gables growing up, but I firmly believe that while children and teenagers are forced to look tragedy and heartache and confusion squarely in the face just as frequently as adults, there is often also a beautiful spark of hope intrinsic within youth that promises something more. The best children’s and YA fiction reflects that. While not shying away from grief and grit, it also promises, sometimes in just a whisper, that the story doesn’t end here, that it’s possible to get knocked down and get up again.

That Stubborn Seed of Hope does this admirably. While the stories are unconnected in terms of characters, voice, setting, genre, and events, they are linked in that they stare roundly at something frightening – disease, death, shame, loss – while also offering up a kernel of hope. The voices of Brian Falkner’s characters are alternately cynical, wistful, angry, insecure, bewildered, and even sinister, but there is a warmth to these characters that’s endearing and compelling. "I Am 17" is something like Gregor Samsa meeting Benjamin Button. "The Kiss" reveals a post-apocalyptic Australia -- life, but not as we know it. "Strawberry Lou" is a tiny tale that packs an emotional whallop. "Sins and Griefs" explores blossoming sexuality, otherness, and the longing for belonging. The rest I’ll leave you to discover on your own. I loved each one, but I particularly enjoyed the stories that focus on sibling relationships. There just aren’t enough love stories about families.

In this collection, some of the pieces are funny, others deeply sad. Regardless of outcome, each story offers an emotional gut punch and the reassurance that life is rarely all good or all bad, but usually a little of both at once. The author declares in his introduction that “[w]e can endure almost anything in our lives as long as there remains that stubborn seed of hope.” These stories are a compelling, readable, deliciously-written and ultimately courage-giving testament to that.

That Stubborn Seed of Hope
Brian Falkner
Published July 2017 by UQP
214 pages

Monday, July 3, 2017

Grief, gladness, and a worthy heroine: The Elephant, by Peter Carnavas

As I read Peter Carnavas's The Elephant last month, I constantly caught myself flickering forward in my imagination to a time when I'd share this book with my nieces. Honestly, I can't think of higher praise to offer a book than this.

 Olive, the star of the story, is a true heroine. She's bright, intelligent, and thoughtful, and she just knows that if she works hard enough and finds the right spark of joy, she can scare away the lumbering grey elephant that follows her father around, weighing him down and making him too heavy to see the wonder of the world around him -- or, indeed, the wonder of the tiny world in front of him in his daughter.

Olive explains it to her friend Arthur, whom she likes "most of all because she [can] tell him anything":

"See, my dad has this really big sadness. He's had it for a long time. And I imagine the sadness is like a big grey elephant following him around. That's what I see."

 "Like an imaginary friend?" Arthur asks.

No, Olive tells him, "Like an imaginary enemy."

Arthur is intrigued, and offers Olive a glimmer of hope: if she can fix her dad, he'll be really her dad again. So that's what Olive sets out to do. She's helped in her efforts by her Grandad, who lives with Olive and her father, and helps fill some of the hug-holes in Olive's life. But he's not her dad, and he can't see the elephant. Only Olive can.

Olive's attempts to make her dad happy are told in exquisite phrases, the kind you want to roll around and taste on your tongue. Olive's imagination is vividly alive; she sees "milkshake clouds", a bike that "must have been something wonderful when it was young, when it was alive." Her grandad looks like "a skinny scarecrow, his old straw hat full of holes." Alongside the word-pictures are joyful, beautiful line drawings that add a further layer to the story and help build towards a final gentle surprise.

Olive's story offers a hopeful ending, but it also paves the way for discussions about the loved ones who may not find easy answers for the elephant that dogs them, people who cannot be made happy again. While never using the words "depression" or "grief", The Elephant nevertheless manages to explore these concepts through a story that is beautiful in its simplicity yet never dumbed down. It depicts self-comfort and a believable coping mechanism in a way that's full of gentle revelations. It manages to be childlike but never cloying or saccharine, full of Australian sensibility but universal themes. This book is a rare treasure.

The Elephant 
Peter Carnavas
Published July 2017 by UQP
180 pages
Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Belonging and bravery: The Boy and the Spy by Felice Arena

From its first lines, The Boy and the Spy drops readers right into the action. We're swept along with the story's young protaganist, Antonio, as he leaps to outrun a German soldier. The spare, present-tense narration clips along at a rollicking pace that is at once urgent, exciting, and readable.

Antonio is a rota -- an unwanted baby deposited in a wooden wheel tied to the wall of the convent in his Sicilian hometown. The name is a slur that Antonio just can't seem to shrug off; it carries with it the constant reminder of rejection. Antonio's only family is Mamma Nina, a widow who took him into her home. But Mamma Nina is sick, and Antonio worries for her. However, his everyday battles get thrust to the background when Antonio discovers an injured American soldier hiding out in a sea cave. If the soldier is found by the Italian army, he'll be shot. But if Antonio keeps the soldier a secret, is he a traitor to his country?

Inspired by author Felice Arena's family connection to Sicily, the story evokes a rich sense of place. Words in Italian and German, sprinkled judiciously throughout the text but never so much as to slow down a voracious young reader, help build a sense of a multilingual Europe, huddled together in wartime yet separated into allies and enemies. The Sicilian coastline, finely drawn, is almost its own character -- rich and wild and very clearly beloved.

Honest about the darkness, grief, and complexities of war, yet never too gritty or raw for young readers, The Boy and the Spy manages to hit the magical sweet spot of middle grade fiction. It asks thoughtful questions -- Is it okay to lie to save someone's life? -- and deals with ideas of loss and belonging in a way that is warm, kind, and engaging.

It's lively historical fiction with all the charm and adventure of The Secret Seven. What more could a kid want? And it's the perfect jumping-off point for incorporating WWII history into a vivid and compelling English unit. The teacher in me is delighted.

The Boy and the Spy
Felice Arena
Published April 2017 by Puffin Books
164 pages

Monday, October 24, 2016

Understood backwards: Everything Is Changed by Nova Weetman

Can there be any drama to a story when you know the ending right from the beginning?

Everything Is Changed answers this question with a resounding YES. When I closed the book after the final page, I had to pause and catch my breath. My delirious review on Goodreads: "Cinematic and devastating."

Everything Is Changed is told in reverse, chapter about, as Alex and Jake (and occasionally Alex's girlfriend Ellie) move backwards from the moment when everything truly does change finally and forever towards the place where the changes began. The story navigates the near past to the seemingly insignificant, thoughtless moment that sets in process an avalanche of shame, clumsy grief, and regret. It's a chronicle of choices both careful and careless, the unravelling of a friendship and the loss of first love.

And yet, much like Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, this is a story which appears to put back together the lives of its characters, to make whole the brokenness which becomes clearer just as it dissolves, chapter by chapter.

It is gripping and compelling and acutely painful because, in spite of their choices, Jake and Alex are good boys, beautiful boys who love their families and each other. Jake is the sort of kid who watches crime shows just so he can chat to his single mum about the plot. Alex cares about his sister and his education. 'Jake and I are the good kids,' Alex says. 'We get mostly okay marks. We're involved in extra-curricular activities. Last night was a mistake. And now I'm not sure what to do with that.' Both of them are fiercely loyal to one another, a best-friendship for the ages. Until there is no friendship left to speak of.

Because of the format -- the reversed timeline, the alternating voices -- Everything Is Changed should be confusing. But Nova Weetman is a masterful writer and, instead, the story is simply powerful and unsettling. Alex's and Jake's voices are distinct and finely drawn. There is drama, pathos, and suspense. It is beautiful and it is terrible, a powerful fictional exposition on Kierkegaard's belief that life can only be understood backwards.

Everything Is Changed
Nova Weetman
Published October 2016 by UQP Books
262 pages 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

For the love of short stories -- and bad men.

I first encountered the power of the short form during high school. The curriculum covered a cross-section of English literature from Shakespeare through to Dickens, George Eliot and beyond. It also dipped into the short fiction of some truly great writers, and I was captivated. Something-something years later, I can still remember the feeling those stories left me with, even when the details of the narrative are fuzzy. It’s a sense of deep satisfaction at an arc of discovery perfectly executed. It’s that little gasp at the twist I didn’t see coming. It’s the unsettledness of a non-resolution that is somehow more right than a happy ending. It’s Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace. O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party. Tolstoy’s Where Love is, There God is Also. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. These stories cling to me even now, bearing a sense of wonder and breathless appreciation.

Yet, in spite of their power, I often forget to read short stories. I think, perhaps, that the form is not as appreciated now as it once was, and certainly not as celebrated and honoured as longer fiction. Which means that it’s not as much in conversation, even though the writing of short fiction requires an entirely different element of mastery than the writing of longer forms. So I’m grateful for anything that pushes me back into the biting embrace of short fiction and reminds me anew of how fantastic it is.

The last few months have done exactly that for me as I’ve dipped into short stories both new and old. Over the next little while I’ll be telling you about the short story collections I’ve encountered. This week, it’s The Love of a Bad Man, an August release from Scribe Publications by ridiculously-talented author, Laura Elizabeth Woollett.

The Love of a Bad Man is a collection of twelve short stories, each of which focusses on a woman in love with one of history’s notoriously “bad” men. There's Eva Braun, Hitler’s young wife; Blanche Barrow, a “fringe member” of Bonnie and Clyde’s gang and married to Clyde’s brother Buck; Charles Manson’s sister-wives. The stories of these and nine other women cross countries, generations, and settings to tell their tales in a blend of true crime and literary fiction.

The voices are flawless, each one unique yet linked by a sense of destructive destiny as each woman surrenders her morality for the love of a man. These women follow their men willingly because they genuinely believe they must; it’s their allotted path.

Sometimes deceptively sweet, these stories place softness and hardness side by side. The muted horror underplays the moral black holes these characters have stepped through and the focus is, instead, on the ordinariness of love and the magnetism of woman to man. It reveals the deceptions these women don’t even realise they’re believing -- or choosing not to examine -- coupled with woman’s capacity to love even the most undeserving of creatures."Ray always had a plum way of mixing his lies up with something like truth," Martha says, at once acknowledging and pardoning.

There's a chilling normalcy to the crimes that offers insight into the question, "But how could anybody do that?"  For better or for worse, these stories bring out the person within the monster, and not the other way around. In other moments, evil lies right there on the surface, provoking revulsion and despair. Sometimes the darkness was so black I had to turn away and look at the sun for a moment – which says as much about the impact of these stories as it does about my own squeamishness.

It is not surprising, then, that these stories will not be for everyone. What is surprising is how much empathy Woollett draws from these characters, showing how the women rewrite the meaning and significance of their actions to shape the narrative through the lens of their relationship.

For the women of these stories, theirs are not acts of moral degradation but of love. Their crimes are not the taking of something from a victim but the giving of something to a lover. There’s a sense of sacrifice here which makes the stories and their characters at once disturbing and compelling. In The Love of A Bad Man, love is truly blind.

The Love of a Bad Man
Laura Elizabeth Woollett 
Published August 2016 by Scribe Publications
240 pages