Update: Catriona Menzies-Pikeon the year in review

This Year on the Sydney Review of Books

Dear readers,

Last week marked the close of the 2021 Sydney Review of Books publishing program.

We could begin a retrospective with the marvellous essay that launched our 2021 program, Probably Not Tomorrow, Drusilla Modjeska’s review of Diary of a Detour by Lesley Stern, a book about dying and the ‘dizzying journey of life’, about ‘dread made manifest’. Modjeska grapples, as so many SRB critics and essayists have this year, with how to live and write in the tenebrous present. Witness Suneeta Peres da Costa’s dexterity with distraction in The Ten Thousand Things: ‘I am supposed to be writing this essay, ostensibly on technology, but the rooms of the house become a labyrinth, a game of snakes and ladders, a ten thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in which I am apt to forget my task or purpose.’ Mid-lockdown, Fiona McGregor documented her writing week in Acts of Avoidance: ‘No artist who lasts into their forties is driven by delusions of fame: we just want to work. Is this why it’s so hard to get a holiday? Barthes’s infamous claim that writing was as involuntary as shitting and holidays an invention of the bourgeoisie, compels me.’

It’s been a tough year for writers. It’s been six months at least since an SRB essay has been submitted on deadline. The cynics can line up their hopeless writer gags, sure, but I’m inclined to see the exhaustion of a cohort of committed writers as a sign of the times. Through the long lockdown season, my inbox brimmed with reports of care responsibilities, precarious work, loneliness, anxiety, screen fatigue and distraction. And so I’m deeply grateful to all the writers who summoned the energy, the critical nous and tenacity, to write reviews and essays for the SRB in 2021, and to the readers who stayed with us through the year in spite of their own weariness and preoccupations.

We’ll launch our 2022 program in February – and in the meantime, we’ll share highlights from 2021 and the SRB archive via our newsletter.

Warm wishes,

Catriona and the SRB team

Books of the year

This is the season that critics traditionally nominate their books of the year. We have left this task to the prize committees, and so we direct you instead to critical essays on some of the books that won major literary prizes in 2021. This week, the novels: Roslyn Jolly wrote about The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, which won the Stella Prize; Julianne Lamond wrote about The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey, which won the Miles Franklin; Sophia Barnes wrote about The Animals in that Country, which won the prize for fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and the Arthur C. Clarke Award; Fiona Wright wrote about Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee Brown, which won the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing; and Timmah Ball wrote about Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson, which won the University of Queensland Fiction Book Award. Further afield, Meg Samuelson wrote about Abdulrazak Gurnah, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last month. (And if all this talk of prizes is too much, we refer you to Ivor Indyk’s 2015 essay on the topic.)

Dive into the archive

Water will be a preoccupation of our 2022 program, and there’s plenty of it in our archive too. This year, James Bradley authored a global history of swimming, Full Body Immersion, a piece of writing that is at once deeply researched and highly personal. Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen wrote about water and swimming too, in A Pond of Likenesses, her review of Nina Mingya Powles’ Small Bodies of Water; Bastian Phelan reflected on documenting rockpools through lockdown in ‘I Know Such A Hidden Pool’, an essay that takes its title from Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea. If you’re new to the SRB, you might not have read Peter Minter’s ravishing 2016 essay on water and the precipitous atmospheres of the Blue Mountains, The Suspended Image. In 2018 Luke Carman wrote A Drenched Texture about Avi Duckor-Jones’ Swim, a novella whose narrator is more at home in water than on land; Julieanne Lamond’s 2013 essay, The Australian Face, deals with Christos Tsiolkas’ great novel of the pool, Barracuda. And finally, it’s a pleasure to resurface Elemental Mysteries, Susan Lever’s 2017 essay on Beverley Farmer’s This Water: Five Tales.

Second City: essays from Western Sydney

One of our proudest 2021 achievements was the publication of Second City, an anthology of essays from Western Sydney. We launched the anthology just before Sydney sank into months of lockdown, and we continue to be invigorated by the conversations it’s prompted, both about the essay, and about the utility of ‘Western Sydney writing’ as a category. Order Second City here.

We’ll be sending regular updates over the publishing break. If you don’t already receive the SRB’s free weekly newsletter, you can sign up here.