December 2017


A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey book cover

Carey’s Race: A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

A Long Way From Home is a novel that seeks to start a conversation about what Australia stands for—who we are as a nation and what stories we want to retell and remember. It is Carey’s attention to the construction of Australian identity that is both the strength and weakness of this novel. For all its clever metaphors and allegorical flourishes, A Long Way From Home sits somewhere between a meaningful novel about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal identity in Australia and a novel of well-meaning gestures. In writing about the silenced Aboriginal history of this country and appropriating Aboriginal voices and trauma to do so, Carey is wading into an ethically and politically fraught arena.

Fictive Selves: The Life to Come

De Kretser is an ironist without peer in contemporary Australian writing. Her instincts are subversive, her scalpel well-honed. She exposes her characters’ vanities, only to turn our sense of their thoughtlessness and self-regard inside-out so that we might sympathise with their loneliness. Her powers of social observation are as acute as her awareness of the fictions we live by.

The Crazy Games of John Clarke

John Clarke had been in training to write The Tournament his whole life. He was curious about everything. He loved ideas. He was extraordinarily sensitive to language and to effects of style. He was a brilliant mimic and parodist. He had the nerveless approach of the encyclopaedist. And he adored the idiom of sports commentary.

Richard Flanagan First Person cover

The Horror! The Horror!: First Person by Richard Flanagan

At times, when reading this novel, I felt as if I had passed from the realm of colonial romance to that of science fiction, and was learning about a strange society inhabited only by men, in which no women existed except as holographic projections of some masculine need or fear.

November 2017

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Paradise Redux: The Essential Paradise Lost edited by John Carey

Yes, Paradise Lost is still read today. It is the progenitor of the fantasy and science-fiction tradition through the epic tale it tells of the founding Judeo-Christian myth. Tolkien and Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, George RR Martin and the rest are the aftermath. But there is a good chance that Carey's new edition will lead even more readers to its splendours, to wonder at its tragic action, epic music and transcendent strangeness.


In The Estuary: Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats

'In Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats, we are repeatedly reminded that the novel’s locale, Parramatta, marks the shifting aqueous site in Sydney’s Western suburban landscape where ‘saltwater meets fresh’. Historically, this is the place where Australia’s early colonial explorers, travelling up the Parramatta River from Sydney Cove in 1788, could take their boats no further. It is also one of numerous sites of resistance to European invasion by the Aboriginal warrior, Pemulwuy. In Castagna’s hands, this rich and multi-layered history of place is embodied in the topography of the Parramatta River and its intricate estuarine environment, creating a wonderfully nuanced metaphor.'

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Talking to the Dog: The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke

'We may approach Yan Lianke’s 1997 novella The Years, Months, Days through another, perhaps rather unexpected, work — Richard Matheson’s iconic 1954 novel, I Am Legend. The protagonist of the latter work, Robert Neville, finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been ravaged by a virulent bacillus.  Lianke’s novella is set against a similarly apocalyptic landscape. Following a devastating drought, the entire population of a remote Henan village flees, leaving behind only an old man and a stray dog.' 

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt book cover

Forty Whacks: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

'The real discomfort of the novel  is a set of relationships marked by deeply unpleasant entanglements of attachment and disgust. The intensity of familial domesticity is literally inescapable in this house: at one point the family are snowed-in, at others the doors are locked and the heat inside is stifling. The grown sisters’ relationship is a complex and terrible mix of dependence, love, responsibility, sacrifice, jealousy and fear.'


What Lay In The Ashes: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc blends fiction and nonfiction in its reconstruction of Jeanne’s life, not to offer a new conclusion about the warrior, but to urge us to view her otherwise than through the lens of her canonisation. The fictionalised exploration of Jeanne’s homosexuality may raise the ire of those who would consider themselves the guardians of a chaste legend; it is also essential to Alizadeh’s insistence on the maid’s humanity.

Bodies of Water by Astrida Neimanis book cover

All The World’s A Drain

If it is the job of a phenomenologist to describe conscious experience, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology does so in a way that collapses the distinction between one’s psychic life and one’s material situation. Its author, Astrida Neimanis, challenges us to reimagine how individual human bodies—constituted of approximately 70 per cent water—are thoroughly implicated in the planetary hydrocommons.

Lunar Inheritance by Lachlan Brown book cover

Time’s Moebius Strip

I first met Lachlan at Gleebooks in Sydney in 2014, at the launch of Judith Beveridge’s Storm and Honey. I remember speaking with him, and being confounded when he gave me his business card. He didn’t look like a ‘Brown’ – Lachlan is half-Chinese, and I had immediately assumed he would have a Chinese surname. In Lunar Inheritance, he explores the complexities of ethnic origin and identity as sited on his body and in his explorations of suburban Ashfield as well as the city of Guangzhou in China.


The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen book cover

Brown Refo, White Nasho

Last week at Vy Vy Garden Café in Canley Heights, my refugee cousin Tuan and I were watching the news when a segment on the Manus Island crisis came up. ‘Leave those fucken queue jumpers, mang,’ he said. How could Tuan speak against refugees when he himself is a refugee? Moreover, he is Vietnamese-Australian, like me. We were the first non-European people to migrate en masse to settler-colonial Australia. Our appearance, culture, and language were alien and threatening. And then there was the fact of Cabramatta and Bankstown in the nineties, the Sydney suburbs of Vietnamese immigrants where crime rates spiked following the introduction of cheap heroin from Vietnamese gangs. We were boat people, foreigners, gangsters, and ingrates. So how does someone look like Tuan but sound like Pauline Hanson? How do the words of a White nationalist come from a refugee body?

An Embassy for Nowhere

Shaun Prescott’s eminently strange novel, The Town, begins by rejecting outright any ‘sense of place’. The town in this novel is nameless. It is a site that refutes specificity, character, and indeed meaning itself. As a librarian tells its narrator early on: ‘There are no books about this town... Nothing of note has ever happened in this town, and by the time it does, there will no longer be any point in remembering it.’

But who are the actors?

I am writing in response to Ben Etherington’s latest Critic Watch piece.

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky book cover

Becoming Fay Zwicky

For most people, the great adventures of their lives are births, love affairs, illnesses, bereavements, starting businesses or changing jobs. Insights into our selves and our loved ones come through the difficult enough business of living together. Fay Zwicky writes about the way in which daily practices connect with deep struggles, the way culture lives, not in grand gestures and ritualised moments, but in commonplaces and taken for granted ways of thinking about things.

October 2017

Into the Jaws of the Monster: Fromelles and Pozières, 1916

Roger Lee’s The Battle of Fromelles and Meleah Hampton’s Attack on the Somme are part of a relatively recent shift in the focus of Australian military history: they revisit big battles on the Western Front, which few works have done since Charles Bean’s Official History (1921-42). It’s as though, inflated with myths of Gallipoli, our Great War literature has had little use for strategic reality. Perhaps it takes a century to get clear of the revulsion aroused by the killing in that war – which Bean blocked out by writing the original romance of it as heroic achievement.

Craveñho’s Universe

'The performative specialist critic is a particularly rare creature. It is a position that few desire to occupy or are capable of doing so. Over the last twenty-five years, one figure has managed resolutely to make this position his own in Australian literary criticism: Peter Craven. The scale of Craven’s output alone compels awe, even when the inevitable repetitions and shortcuts are taken into consideration.'

In the Breech: Sofie Laguna’s The Choke

'Sofie Laguna was a successful writer of children’s and YA fiction before publishing her first novel for adults, One Foot Wrong, in 2008. Readers of that startling debut, or of her 2015 Miles Franklin Award winner The Eye of the Sheep, will find many familiar themes in her latest novel The Choke. Each is concerned with the struggle of a vulnerable child to define and to protect him- or herself in a grown-up world; each an astute, affecting exploration of the particular pressures that parental neglect and violence place on the children who observe and absorb it.'

Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra book cover

The Pleasure of Hating

It is always a good idea, I think, to resist the temptation to regard the politics of one’s own time as especially awful, but recent history does seem to have provided no shortage of prima facie evidence that there is something a bit unhinged and perhaps even pathological about contemporary conflicts. As Pankaj Mishra and Kenan Malik both argue, the volatility and irrationalism of the present are expressions of widespread feelings of alienation, resentment, anger and hatred. This much, at least, seems obvious enough. The difficult question Mishra and Malik set out to answer is why this should be the case.

Felicity Castagna

Brother to Children: A Case Study

The brothers turned the school into an Elsewhere: a place removed from the rest of the world, stuck in a different time, where the worst of them could behave as they pleased. As a boy I didn’t know what Kostka was doing to other students, couldn’t see the depths of his abuse beyond creepy and menacing displays like the one above. The news stories, the stories shared with friends in bars late at night — all of that came later. Now, when I think of Marist, I can remember the straw-like carpet in the junior school; the pebblecrete floor in the canteen, a surface that the tide of students had worn away here and there: attached to even such innocuous pictures is the presence of the brothers, who seemed to preside over everything in the Elsewhere they’d built.

The Joy of Cyber Sex

Rae Desmond Jones (1941-2017): ‘The fractured poetry / of commerce and power’

'Rae Desmond Jones has stated that for him poetry and politics are mutually contradictory pursuits, yet his poetry, concerned with how people and classes interact, is, like all art, necessarily political.'

Amanda Stewart