A genuinely compelling novel like Idaho is a rare beast. There is good storytelling and interesting writing and keenly observed characters, but when they’re all strengths of a good work of fiction it’s so enthralling. Idaho moves back and forth in time and is (mostly) through the eyes of Ann, a music teacher in the small town who becomes almost obsessed with knowing the family and their tragedy, and in a way, adopting the event and maintaining it. It reminded me of Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The Girls. Both Idaho and The Girls feature a violent act and its repercussions, and both are fascinating insights into human character when it is subject to trauma. One of the most memorable novels I’ve read in months.
Known and Strange Things is a collection of essays and articles that continue Teju Cole’s preoccupations with place and identity. The book looks broadly at three themes: literature, photography and travel. As with Cole’s previous novels, Open City and Every Day is for the Thief, the writing here is perceptive and considered, sending the reader off to exploring other areas. In this case to writers such as Derek Walcott, or reassessing Virginia Woolf, to photographers such as Saul Leiter and the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. In more autobiographical essays he recounts the night of Obama’s election, his life split between Lagos and the US, his various travels and his interest in photography. Known and Strange Things is excellent collection of thoughts and meditations.
The latest issue of Westerly, guest edited by Steve Kinnane, reminds readers of the power and importance of stories in maintaining and renewing culture. A celebration of Indigenous writing, 61.1 includes new writing across all genres and from a variety of known and little-known writers. Proud in its cover art by Bella Kelly, Westerly 61.1 asserts its place in Western Australian literary culture.
Notable contributions include Tara June Winch’s story ‘The Yield’, Kim Scott’s non-fiction piece ‘Both Hands Full’ and the poem ‘Sap Clot’ by Alison Whittaker ( Tender! Horror! // Thrice upon the shore comes the violence ). The Katinka Smit’s debut story ‘Behind the Line’ is similarly impressive in its portrayal of cultural ambivalence.
But in a way it is the personal stories of less well-known writers that point up the strengths of Indigenous voices and the personal challenges that have been surmounted. Two joyous vignettes by young boys from Mulan in the Tanami desert, Bella Kelly’s daughters recounting their mother’s life and art, and Doris Eaton’s ‘Giveaway’ story are three such examples.
Now in its 60th year, this latest Westerly must be among its most notable. A collection of stories, reviews and essays that reminds all readers that the west of Australia has a long indigenous past, a continuing present, and a future.
Patrick Holland is the critically acclaimed author of The Mary Smokes Boys and Riding Trains in Japan.
One is a cold, grim novel based on the true story of the Kenniff gang – Australia’s ‘last bushrangers’ – as they are pursued on horseback by trooper Sergeant Nixon. Set at the beginning of the 20th century, the novel also documents a point of change in the country’s psyche as it grapples with notions of nationhood and increasing modernisation.
Narrated largely through the perspective of Sergeant Nixon, the trooper’s moral compass begins to waver the longer the chase continues. Kenniff’s legendary decisiveness also begins to crumble as the novel moves toward its final throes. Often compared to Cormac McCarthy’s westerns, one of the pleasures of One is the muscularity and sparseness of Holland’s prose.
I finished Inga Simpson’s latest novel over the weekend in about three absorbed sittings. Evocative of childhood summers, Where the Trees Were is a beautifully written coming-of-age story. A friend suggested it may be the next Great Australian Novel, and he may be right.
Jay grows up on a farm, her world shaped by her landscape and her family. Languorous days spent swimming and climbing trees with her three close friends unwind on the river. When they find a grove of trees decorated with arborglyphs (pictures carved into the bark; I love a book which teaches me new words) the group decide it will be their secret, sacred place.
Years later, Jay works in the National Museum, and is unable to shake her preoccupation with her own past. The parallel narratives of Jay’s child and adulthood help to build the tension in the story, and the artful management of the main characters day to day activities with the reflections on the past is really well done. I loved Simpson’s descriptions of the birds and animals in Jay’s part of the world, and I loved seeing how her problems resolved.