For my final book post for the year, I have chosen recent local fiction (plus one non-local interloper) to present. These are all VERY exciting novels, especially for this reader who usually sticks to The Real.
Annabel Smith’s THE ARK
Paddy O’Reilly’s THE WONDERS
Jane Rawson’s A WRONG TURN AT THE OFFICE OF UNMADE LISTS
Michel Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS
I can’t tell you how refreshing and exciting it was to read this clutch of books that are all different, all new and all strange (in the best sense of the word). All these books are pushing against the norm, and their authors are ambitious and gutsy. These are people who have written books that they wanted to write, in the way they wanted to, and for one of them (Smith) it meant making the decision to self publish to get it out there. These are not books that play it safe, and tick along tired old lines (lines that in this country tend to include at-risk children; dead or absent or bad mothers and/or fathers; some large body of water or inner country, dry and rural; illness; child protagonist; gnarly old reclusive man. Disclosure: my first book is riddled with these elements, FFS, so I’m not being necessarily critical of those books, they just seem to be a little bit the default.)
No, these writers have gone to places and created characters that in a way that is imaginative, fresh, and original. From working with a form that is out of the realist norm, to devising worlds that are out-of-this-world, to populating those worlds with unforgettable characters who continue to live off the page, after the book is closed, well, what feats of brilliance, and ones that need acknowledgement, admiration and applause.
Annabel Smith’s THE ARK
This is a story told through a series of written documents: email-like messages, transcriptions of meetings and videos, and a few news articles. It’s a challenging form to work with, as a reader and, I imagine, as a writer, but Smith has done a fine job of managing to convey character and plot using a medium that in other books might be flat on the page, with tone issues (or lack of tone issues) detracting from the story. It’s intelligent writing, and cleverly creates conflict through dialogue, and there are delicious hints of religious themes, with the mention of the Covenant, that the facility is called the ark, how the residents are very diverse (for a time I had a small fantasy that they were paired a la the animals in Noah’s ark; I also wondered early on whether the name of Ava’s child – Isa – was to be some Jesus-reference; Jesus in Turkish is isa) Smith has created different types of documents (and must have had lots of fun coming up with the names of them: dailEmail, gopher, parlez-vite, Articulate (the meeting transcriptions), Blipps, Headless Horsemen and something called ‘blasts’ which are very subterranean hackery-type communications, used by teenager Roscoe and his mates.) There is terrific humour in the missives between Ava and her sister, [edit: some text has dropped off here, don’t know what I was going to write, perhaps some egs of the humour. Apologies.]
The premise of the story is a great one (and I’m glad Annabel has ‘gotten in first’ because I’ve come across two other writers playing with this idea. In both cases I pointed out a little proprietorially that ‘Annabel Smith’s new book covers that.’) Ahem. But the premise. The Chaos has happened and a group of people are locked into a bunker-style facility, built into a mountain… oh, it’s best if I just copy out the blurb:
The year is 2041. As rapidly dwindling oil supplies wreak havoc worldwide, a team of scientists and their families abandon their homes and retreat into a bunker known as the Ark, alongside five billion plant seeds that hold the key to the future of life on Earth.
But the Ark’s sanctuary comes at a price. When their charismatic leader’s hidden agenda is revealed it becomes impossible to know who to trust. Those locked out of the Ark become increasingly desperate to enter, while those within begin to yearn for escape.
When I read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (earlier this year? Last year?) I found I had to learn how to read the book and it took a while (not as long as you might expect) for my brain to settle to the prose. It was a similar feeling with THE ARK, but once I was in the swing, I was looking forward to the next page, as enamoured with the way Smith had written the book as I was with the story, and what would happen. I admired the new language, especially when reading Roscoe’s section. Teenagers have different vocabularies in the real world, and in 2041, this hasn’t changed. As a woman who lives with three teenagers, Smith’s writing of their speech, their banter and cadence is impressively spot on.
This is the type of book I “don’t usually read”, but reading it made me realise that I will miss out if I apply blanket dos and don’ts to my reading. And it also made me realise what a power-house of a writer Annabel Smith is. THE ARK is such a strange new thing. In one way it’s a shame traditional publishers did not come at this book, but at the same time, if they had, Annabel may not have been able to produce exactly this book, using exactly this form. There may have been pressure for changes, for gaps to be filled. As it is, the book treats its reader with respect, expecting the reader will be able to follow and enjoy without having everything explained. Smith is not to be underestimated and her next book projects sound as original and thrilling as THE ARK.
Paddy O’Reilly’s THE WONDERS.
Paddy O’Reilly is another local author (from Melbourne) who isn’t afraid to strike out on her own path with her fiction. I haven’t read any of O’Reilly’s previous works, but from what I can glean, THE WONDERS is as different from the previous book, as that one was to the first.
THE WONDERS deals with contemporary themes, such as celebrity (you can’t get more contemporary than that) but in an otherworldly way. O’Reilly’s characters are realistically drawn, and the dialogue is natural, but the people (especially the three wonders at the centre of the novel) are different in that they have either deliberately enhanced their bodies, or as a result of treatment or illness, had parts of their bodies changed. And the world they move through at times is surreal, and while years are never established (not in my memory) this only added to the floaty dreamy nature of the book, allowing this reader to just go with it, read and accept without questioning. I think a big part of this is O’Reilly’s skill; you feel you are in the hands of a confident writer and you don’t need to worry.
What happens when three ordinary people undergo radical medical treatments that make them international curiosities? They become wonders.
Leon has a small visible mechanical heart; Kathryn has been cured of a rare genetic disorder but is now covered in curly black wool; while performance artist Christos has metal wings implanted into his back. Brought together by a canny entrepreneur, the Wonders are transformed into a glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first century freak show. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger.
Reading THE WONDERS is an adventure. Again, this book is never predictable (something this jaded reader appreciated) and again, it is wonderfully (sorry) original and daring. Dealing with the themes that it does – celebrity and disability, and the animal versus the human – it is a modern look at the social questions that concern us right in this moment, and in a new way. O’Reilly also trusts her readers to not require a completely filled-in narrative. The pace moves quickly, we travel the globe, following the wonders on tour.
I knew from the first knowing of it that this was a book I would read. I have for thirty years nursed my own obsession with all things circus and ‘freak-show’ and reading Katherine Dunn’s extraordinary GEEK LOVE about twenty years ago only fed that interest. THE WONDERS appeals to the common human desire to look and assess, it asks questions and encourages us to ask them too (to wonder about things: what would sex be like with a woman whose body is covered in thick black wool? To me, Kathryn is a tragic character, sexual and then sexualised; how she becomes objectified and hunted continues to haunt me.) It puts us, as reader, in the role of observer but we don’t get to see it all, much like in life, when we observe celebrity, it’s through the lens of a camera or on the pages of a magazine. We see bits, the carefully-managed bits, but we don’t see behind the scenes, and so it is in THE WONDERS at times. We aren’t privy to all that is happening in their lives, and that way, the characters Leon, Christos and Kathryn, keep their privacy. We don’t get to know them fully, in the same way that we don’t get to know celebrities, even though we might think we do.
Paddy O’Reilly is a writer who isn’t scared to step out of a ‘writing pattern’ and do things differently. I admire that so much.
Jane Rawson’s A WRONG TURN AT THE OFFICE OF UNMADE LISTS
I’ve just realised I meant to mention the covers of all these books. THE ARK, THE WONDERS (both the local version and the US version, above right) and this book, WRONG TURN: all the covers are fascinating and deserve mention. They’re all different and, thank god, not a photograph in sight; no back view of a woman’s head; or a woman in the distance; or some scenic view of landscape or desolation. They are all smart covers, and non-gendered, and let you know you’re going to read something that hasn’t been branded as ‘women’s fiction’ (“not that there’s anything wrong with that…”)
Jane Rawson’s book recently won the Most Underrated Book Award, and I read it after it won. It’s been really satisfying to see the flurry of attention generated by that award, and also to see some industry-heavyweights mentioning it on twitter and in the mainstream press. Local bookshops have ordered in more stock, Jane has popped around to sign copies, and it’s these things that make me feel really pleased (and a bit smug) to be a part of such a vibrant local writing community. It’s kind of like: take that, Manhattan, ner ner London. I reckon it’s easier to be here than in those places, where new people are trying to scratch out some mad scrabbling purchase on the cliffs of impossibility; here it’s smaller, coherent and welcoming. You can stick your head up on twitter, over time, in a (hopefully) non-annoying way, and make friends.)
I started reading WRONG TURN, and very quickly was in the world. The first two pages, the prose reassures you, draws you in.
It is 1997 in San Francisco and Simon and Sarah have been sent on a quest to see America: they must stand at least once in every 25-foot square of the country. Decades later, in an Australian city that has fallen on hard times, Caddy is camped by the Maribyrnong Rover, living on small change from odd jobs, ersatz vodka and memories. She’s sick of being hot, dirty, broke and alone.
Caddy’s future changes shape when her friend, Ray, stumbles across some well-worn maps, including one of San Francisco, and their lives connect with those of teenagers Simon and Sarah in ways that are unexpected and profound.
Let me say up front: I suspect this book is very smart – which means Rawson is very smart – and I do wonder whether I missed things. I had the sense that things were circling me, and that there are deeper layers of meaning that I could almost touch but not quite. There is the feeling of a mis-en abyme device, or things occurring in early pages, that are picked up later, like an echo. I want to be clear, though: this lack of putting everything together is entirely on my part, and thinking about it, I have to ask myself, do I really need to have everything tied together. Like in THE WONDERS, where there are gaps for us as reader to bring our own imagination to the story (something as a reader I always appreciate and as a writer I try to do), WRONG TURN can leave you with questions, similar to the ones Caddy probably has. And, as in life, we don’t always get answers, we often have to live with ambiguity. I have lots of lingering musings about what’s real and what isn’t within the world of the novel.
The book, as written, delivers such a great story (plot-wise, and character-wise) and thematically too, being concerned with memory and imagination. It feels like there is a profundity that can be explored to whatever depth the reader can penetrate. This is a clumsy way of saying that I think this book is smarter than I am, and the world it contains (one where shadows of body’s lie sticky on the ground; people who resemble or are doubles of other people; people who move through time; dreams (usually a bad idea in fiction, but here, perfect)) feels filled with meaning, and has left me with theories about things. I would need to read it again and then sit down with Rawson over some drinks; I’d love to ask her privately about the meaning, the symbolism.
The first hundred pages are so dense. We are in the world. We have part-time sex work, floods, extreme heat, new systems of transportation, recognisable parts of Melbourne overlaid with new, strange elements. This sense of familiarity (to a Melburnian) is disconcerting, almost-disguised by an imagined Melbourne of the not-too-distant future. A place where water costs more than [fake] vodka; where Dengue fever is a problem. Shifts in points of view, an author who breaks the ‘fourth wall’, time travel, a romance possibilities for the protagonist Caddy, and the sadness of a woman missing a much-loved husband. Not far past those hundred pages we are in a ‘suspended imaginum’ which reminded me of the magic Faraway tree that swung between different worlds; here you can walk through a door and see an incompleted thought or imagining, being played out around you.
During my reading, I made a note:
We don’t get the wife’s story in Faber’s book (we don’t need to) but Caddy’s story could be hers by proxy. What’s happening on Oasis, what’s happening on earth, and then Smith’s completes a picture: what’s happening in a seed bunker.
Which brings me to the other book, the one by Michel Faber, THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS.
I read this before THE ARK and WRONG TURN. (And after THE WONDERS.) Faber’s book is a wonderful imagining of a story where a man leaves earth, and his wife, to go and work as a missionary on another planet, Oasis. There he finds strange new things, and preaches from the bible, called The Book of Strange New Things by the Oaseans. Like Rawson’s book, I feel that there is a lot of meaning in between the words and action in this book, and that a re-reading might shed light, if I feel I need to try to close some gaps. However it’s thrilling to leave it all well alone and continue to ponder and think, using my own imagination. Sometimes I wonder where the line of ownership is, between author and reader. Don’t they know how we hijack their stories and make them live on in our own minds?
The cover of STRANGE NEW THINGS is so gorgeous. I have it beside my bed and sometimes the light catches the gold foiling and refracts around the room, casting a glow across me as I lie reading another book, usually with a substandard cover. Everything comes up a little short compared to that one, and will for ever more I think. But it’s okay. There’s this cover and then all the other excellent amazing ones. It is glorious. I don’t think I’ve owned a book with a more luxurious cover that compels a close studying of it, as if it is in a frame in a gallery.
Any my hyperbole doesn’t stop there. My only note for this book (and I apologise in advance, for the spew-making nature of it):
Oh how good it is to be alive and able to read.
(At least I didn’t say ‘grand’.)
Faber’s book is interesting and wildly weird, but also really sad. The reader is made even sadder if she knows that while Faber was finishing the book, his wife died. It’s impossible not to hold that in mind while reading the anguished email-type communications that flit between Oasis and Earth, between Faber’s protagonist Peter and his wife, Bea, left behind on an Earth that is imploding apocalyptically.
Two more books I’m sneaking in here. DEMONS by Wayne Macauley kind of fits in this group. A local author who has written a book that’s different, Macauley’s novel plays with form and content, and ‘explores the line between life and art, truth and lies’ (from the blurb).
It’s the middle of winter. Seven friends leave their ordinary lives behind to travel to a remote beach house off the Great Ocean Road.
The stories they tell, turn by turn, are the beginning of a puzzle, each exposing the foibles or humankind.
But what do these disturbing tales reveal – or conceal – about each of them? Where does fact finish and fiction begin?
As a storm rolls in and torrential rain cuts the party off from the outside world, it becomes clear that some secrets are best kept hidden.
I enjoyed reading this book, again because it was different, and I’d never read Macauley before. (Notably, Macauley won the MUBA in its inaugural year, for THE COOK, a couple of years ago.) So, he is another author doing something different.
And finally, a book I haven’t read, but will shortly. It caught my eye in the paper a few weeks ago, in a review. It’s Anson Cameron’s THE LAST PULSE, and I got it cause it sounded unusual and original. I’m hoping it’ll be another strange, new type of book.