Jun 22

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

I loved Eileen and I loved this collection but it’s not going to be for everyone. The stories all – with the possible exception of the last one which is tonally very different – deal with similar themes and fascinations. Social awkwardness, being the outsider, an obsessive interest in the human body (a couple of stories make a great deal of oily pimples). It’s all very visceral and sweaty and horribly intimate. It’s makes for uneasy reading. But I loved every word. Loved how the stories got under my skin (which is a cliche but apt when talking about these pieces). There’s no gore or overt violence just the uncomfortableness of life. It’s some time since I’ve read these stories and I’m still deeply affected by one story (“The Beach Boy”) about a man whose wife suddenly, unexpectedly dies.

So not for everyone but highly recommended.

Jun 20

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

A tweet from the critic – and my favourite tastemaker – John Self sent me in the direction of this slim collection of stories by Kathleen Collins. I’d never heard of Collins, not particularly surprising given she died in 1988 (from breast cancer at the age of 46) and was best known for the movie Losing Ground (1982) which, until recently was out of circulation. Having now read this amuse bouche of a collection, I’m keen to check out her film.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is slim and so are the stories. Vignettes about family, about love, about intense relationships, about being a single woman and still desiring a fuck now and again. And race. It’s not an overt aspect of every story but it’s certainly a consistent theme. It’s race in the context of being a black woman, of having a white boyfriend, of coming to terms with black culture and identity. The title piece – Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”” – one of the longest stories in the book is an almost fable about integration and segregation. The story pinpoints 1963 as a year where, in the bohemian nooks and crannies of New York, ‘race was not a factor’ where love was colour blind. But as young black women introduce their white boyfriends to parents who only remember discrimination and racial violence integration feels like a betrayal. In a manner that’s almost prophetic, or inevitable, it highlights the tension between identity and culture over assimilation. It’s an incredible powerful and relevant story.

And it’s not alone. Whether exploring what it was to be a black woman in the 1960s or one very funny and razor-sharp piece about love, infidelity and commitment this collection is filled with magnificent writing, powerful moments and muted tragedy (suicide, in particular, features in a few of the stories). Collins is also playful and inventive in how she presents her fiction, borrowing from her experience as a playwright but also marrying together prose with epistolary. In such a small collection the breadth of styles and storytelling is a little bit amazing.

Not every story wowed me, but what became clear is that Kathleen Collins was a major talent. The tragedy of coming across a writer this good is knowing there’s nothing else to look forward to (at least in terms of prose). And yet the existence of this collection is important in not just reminding us or making us aware of a unique talent but also in promoting powerful, female black voices.

Jun 16

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

I really liked The Grace of Kings when I read it last year and said as much on my blog. In my review back then I noted the criticism levelled at the novel in regard to limited female representation – especially in the first half of the book. I was OK with it because when women do play a role in the novel – in the second half – it’s significant. Still it was a valid criticism. As important as the female characters are, having them barely say a word in the first half of the book while the men battle and strategise and angst and quip does seem lopsided. And it invites the question as to why women are marginalised until the plot needs them.

But that was The Grace of Kings. In The Wall of Storms Ken Liu doesn’t just address this gender problem he takes it outside and gives it a good thrashing. Of course the vagaries of publishing means that Ken Liu, who would have been near finished, if not revising the edits of the second novel when The Grace of Kings came out, isn’t truly reacting to the criticism. He’d already considered the role of women in the series and The Wall of Storms rather than rectify a problem is simply implementing a plan. Women are front and centre in this book. From the first page to the last it’s women who chart the destiny of the people of Dara.

I’m not going to summarise the plot. If you haven’t read the first book – and you should – it will make little sense. If you have read the first novel then all you really need to know is that The Wall of Storms takes place a decade or so after The Grace of Kings and sees Emperor Kuni attempting to implement his progressive agenda. One aspect of this, that explains the strong role of women in the novel, is providing women avenues to higher education and the public service, a move that has received its fair share of criticism. In amongst all this shenanigans are afoot as the question of which son will replace Kuni becomes a hot topic of debate and court politics. Machiavellian manipulations and betrayals ensue and that’s just the first half of this very long novel.

What’s wonderful about this book and the series in general is Liu’s devotion to philosophy. We get a great deal of information about the different schools of thought that form the foundation of Daran society. There are the Moralists, the Incentivists, the Fluxists and the Patternists and like all philosophy they provide guidance on how to live your life and how to govern by drawing examples from the natural world. The book is steeped in conversations about which movement / ideology best suits a society that’s hoping to break clear of its violent, oppressive past. And when Dara is invaded, that debate shifts to a discussion that attempts to distinguish colonialisation from invasion. I haven’t read a huge chunk of epic fantasy, but this deep dive into the mechanics of a just, well governed society feels like something different and new.

But the novel isn’t just high quality navel gazing. There’s plenty of battles, graphic violence, death and awful tragedy. The second half of The Wall of Storms has a body count that would make GRRM rather proud.

And while The Wall of Storms is about three hundred pages too long – I hold the view that nothing needs to be longer than 90,000 words, but that’s a discussion for another – for the most part you don’t notice the length. This is immersive fiction at its most entertaining with a beautifully rendered world and characters who begin life as broad archetypes but develop into complex people. If you are looking for some top drawer big fat fantasy with a strong philosophical bent then I heartily recommend the Dandelion Dynasty.

Jun 15

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

It’s been four years since Michael Chabon published a novel. That was Telegraph Avenue which I never got around to reading (and may have dodged a bullet based on the reviews). It’s been seven years since I’ve read a novel by Michael Chabon. That was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union which was a fantastic read (and still the only book I know of that has the Parah Adoomah, the Red Hefier, as a key plot point). And it’s been two weeks since I’ve finished Michael Chabon’s latest novel. That would be Moonglow and it’s very good indeed (though not as good as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union).

Moonglow is a memoir, the deathbed memories of a man who fought in WW2, who married a Jewish refugee with secrets and demons of her own, who became fascinated with rockets to the point that he devoted his later years to building miniatures of aircraft and space shuttles and lunar modules and who once nearly strangled to death his boss with a telephone cord after being fired from his job to be replaced by Alger Hiss. This man is also the grandfather of a Mike Chabon, a young writer with a familiar sounding name who on a tour for his first novel visits his terminally ill grandfather in Florida. It’s Mike who records his grandfather’s recollections – stories that have never been told – and who presents them as a memoir.

This book is not a true account of Michael Chabon’s grandfather. He did have bone cancer and he did narrate his life to his grandson in the months before he died. But the memories that were told to Michael are not the same as those related to Mike. This is a revisionist memoir, a historical account steeped in lies. Just like most fiction.

To be fair, Chabon makes it clear from the outset – in a glib but revealing author’s note – that this is a fictional account, with a small dollop of truth. If you’re like me you spent most of the novel wondering which bits of Mike’s grandfather’s life and for that matter Mike’s grandmother, his mother and Mike himself were based on a true story – like the best Hollywood biopics – or were imagined from whole cloth. This metafictional game, while key to the book’s theme of truth and history, is the least interesting aspect of the book. It’s the storytelling that sings, that takes centre stage. Yeah we’ve all read narratives about veterans recalling their wartime memories (especially WW2), but I found something a little bit awesome about Mike’s grandfather’s search for Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun and his secrets of the V2 rocket. And yes, we’ve all read books about how war leaves scars on those that survive. That’s certainly the case for Mike’s grandfather and his wife, a Belgium Jew who intimately experienced the horrors of Nazism, but these scars result in some of the books most powerful, tragic and human moments.

But put all that aside. What I truly loved about Moonglow was it’s Jewishness and how Chabon avoids all the usual ‘oy vey’, Matzah ball stereotypes and treats Judaism as a cultural identity, a state of mind that’s nearly impossible to avoid even if you have no faith in God and care little for rituals (Mike’s grandfather in a nutshell). My Jewish upbringing doesn’t match that of Mike or his grandfather and yet it somehow resonates – flash and you’ll miss them moments, maybe only recognisable to someone who was brought up as a Jew. It’s rare to see my culture presented with such matter of fact honesty.

This isn’t a perfect book. The revelation about Mike’s mother and her Uncle left a bad taste, mostly because it felt out of place, gratuitous. And Mike’s grandfather’s desire to kill a snake hunting the pets of Floridian retirees did very little for me. But other than that I certainly bonded with Moonglow.

Jun 14

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Swing Time is my first taste of Zadie Smith’s work and I feel like I might have got on the wrong bus. It’s not that the book is awful or even average. In fact a good deal of the novel is funny and smart and incredibly well written. But it’s funny how one thing, a character, a plot beat, a narrative tic, can upset everything, undermine all the good work. In the case of Swing Time I simply couldn’t get past the character of Aimee.

Thankfully Aimee isn’t our protagonist or narrator. That task goes to an unnamed character – is it me or is there this increasing literary trend of not naming first person narrators? – who, when the book opens, is running away from a scandal, the media on her heels. The rest of the novel essentially explains how our narrator reached this point in her life. She skips between her childhood in London living on a housing estate and her adult life where she becomes an assistant for an Australian pop diva. This would be Aimee.

Those early sections dealing with her childhood and her friendship with Tracey, a girl she meets at a community dance class, is where the book sings. They both dream of being dancers, captivated by the dancing moves of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and then later – and more importantly – Jeni LeGon, a black dancer of the 1930s whose skin colour and dancing chops mesmerise the girls, especially Tracey. Smith’s writing here is just stunning. Capturing the movement of dance in prose while also conveying the sheer joy of the two girls.

The story isn’t told chronologically and at first it’s interesting to compare our narrator in her youth to the woman in her early 20s now working for a pop-star (after a short stint at an MTV clone). She’s smart, aware that the colour of her skin means she’s a novelty even amongst progressive media-types (I should note these scenes are set in the late 90s) and still not entirely sure what she should be doing with her life. It also becomes immediately clear that she’s estranged from her best friend who seems to be posting David Icke like conspiracy theories on bulletin boards. How it got this way is one of the questions the rest of the novel addresses. But between those scenes where we flashback to our narrator’s youth, in steps Aimee.

She’s a pop-star. A diva. And after an awkward first meeting, our narrator has been tasked to shadow Aimee when she visits the office of the MTV clone, Aimee decides she wants our narrator to stay as her assistant. Having always been a fan of Aimee’s work our narrator say yes.

Aimee is a cliché, a strawman, an anvil around the neck of the novel. She’s Australian, born in Bendigo which is described as “sleepy”. (Has Bendigo ever been mentioned so often in a literary novel?). It’s not that Aimee is an awful Australian stereotype, dropping words like drongo and you beaut at random moments (no that role goes to her best friend Judy who says the word bogan maybe fifty times). In fact our narrator makes the point that Aimee has deliberately shaved away anything Australian, including her accent, from her character. No, what bugged me about Aimee is that in a book that features this complex relationship between two best friends Aimee’s lack of depth stands out like a sore thumb.

You can check off the clichés. Aimee is self obsessed and egotistical, only interested in her brand. She is temperamental, treating her assistants like close friends one day and then ignoring them for weeks after. She’s also naïve, especially in a broader political sense, made clear when she decides to build a school in Africa. I know Smith is deliberately tapping into a specific “pop-diva” stereotype. It’s just not clear to me why, or, more importantly, why our narrator stays with Aimee for so many years? The impression is that our narrator, never sure what to do with her life, is willing to be a passive actor in Aimee’s over the top life. Our narrator does eventually rebel, shagging one of the teachers they meet in Africa, a man Aimee is fond of. But it all feels orchestrated, it lacks the natural momentum of our narrator’s relationship with Tracey.

It’s the stuff with Tracey that I wanted to go back to. While the activities in West Africa are interesting from a cultural relativist perspective, I felt that novel truly only shined when we flashed back to our narrators early years with Tracey and our narrators almost reluctant relationship with her mother (another strong aspect of the book which deserves more attention than I’ve given it). But then Bendigo born Aimee appears and the clichés are trotted out and it all feels off kilter, like two novels trying to exist in the same space.

I know this isn’t Smith at her best. And given there’s some incredibly good prose on display I’ll definitely read her next book. (Obviously I should read her back catalogue but we know that’s not going to happen). Even if I got on the wrong bus I wasn’t totally disappointed with the journey.

Apr 26

The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge

There are times when Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean reads like a very well written article for a fanzine. The novels numerous forays into the personal lives and political attitudes of the Futurians, the gossip surrounding Lovecraft’s sexuality and the speculation around Richard Barlow’s suicide are obsessively researched and replete with multiple footnotes. Taken like this it’s the sort of book that would sit comfortably in the Best Related Work category of the Hugo Awards. Except, of course, The Night Ocean is so much more than that. What starts as an investigation into whether Lovecraft was gay becomes an intriguing discourse in revisionist history. By the sheer coincidence of being published in a post-fact world of fake news and tribal epistemology, LaFarge’s nested story-telling and unreliable narration has resonance beyond the novel’s subject matter.

Our primary narrator for the course of the book is Marina Willet, a psychiatrist who is coming to terms with the disappearance, or suicide, of Charlie her husband. Charlie made a career from profiling the lives of people who might have been famous if not for a flaw in their character or fate playing them a rough hand. His search for subjects leads him to the story of Robert Barlow* and the speculation and gossip that Barlow, in the summer of 1934, had an affair with H. P. Lovecraft. Barlow, who co-wrote The Night Ocean with Lovecraft and was known (at least at the time) for his expertise in Mexican culture, sadly took his own life after being blackmailed for his homosexuality. Or did he? Because it would appear that Charlie has found Barlow living in Canada under the assumed name of L. C. Spinks.

Ostensibly Willet is attempting to come to terms / understand why her husband vanished. However her narration never focuses on that one subject but rather shifts, constantly, making the reader wonder whether this is a book about –
• Lovecraft’s secret gay love affairs?… or,
• A man who escaped to Mexico to free himself of the salacious gossip, innuendo and hate only to fake his death when Mexico wasn’t far enough?… or
• A journalist whose unwillingness to question the veracity of the story he’s uncovered sets him up for a fall?… or
• A plaintive cry for attention from an old man?

– and that’s without mentioning LaFarge’s take on the Futurians – Pohl, Kornbluth, Wollheim and especially Doris Piserchia – or brief but lovely guest appearances from S. T. Joshi and a young Ursula K Le Guin. This lack of focus though plays to the novel’s themes about how historical truth is only as good as the memories of those relating the past. Like the reader Willet is piecing together what’s true, what’s a lie and what’s irrelevant in real time. It makes for an exciting, slightly insane, but always fascinating journey.

As clever as the novel is, its true strength isn’t its Russian doll structure but how almost hidden amongst the fact (and fiction) about these people who formed the bedrock of science fiction and dark fantasy, LaFarge is chipping away at a story of loneliness and unrequited love, of a desire to be noticed, to be significant, to leave a legacy of sorts, even if it’s a tissue of half-truths and lies. I don’t want to say much more – I know, I know, it’s a poor effort when a reviewer does a runner before getting his hands bloody with the innards of a novel – but in this instance the joy is unpeeling the novel’s many layers. While it might not always seems clear for all the footnotes and factoids, The Night Ocean is always leading the reader to a specific end-point, one that’s revelatory and shattering and like all good fiction exposes our human frailties.

* I’ll be honest here and say that I thought Barlow was a fiction of the novel. And in a sense he is… but in a more concrete sense he was a real person and much of what’s related in the book about his life is true… except for the important bits that aren’t.

Apr 20

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

Daniel Magariel’s debut novel*, One of the Boys, is not a happy clappy book. It features child abuse (physical, rather than sexual), drug addiction and parental betrayal. It’s grim, confronting and tragic. If escapist fiction lives on one side of the spectrum than One of the Boys owns a hovel on the opposite end of spectrum-town. As dark as this book it avoids becoming misery porn by providing a raw but compassionate portrayal of a man, a father, in decline.

Following a bitter divorce a father – no character is named – decides to take custody (legal or otherwise) of his two teenage sons. Leaving Kansas they drive, almost non-stop, to Albuquerque. If the father is to be believed this mad rush embodies a desire to press a reset button on their lives without the interference of their weak-willed mother. On arrival in Albuquerque the boys go to the local public school, make friends and show off their prodigious basketball talents. Dad, on the other hand, never seems to leave the house or for that matter his room. He says it’s because he’s taking care of an important client but his moods – manic and joyous, dark and violent – tell another story.

A clear focus of the novel is how the brothers deal with their father’s mood and increasing paranoia. It’s harrowing stuff, especially when the father attempts to turn the brothers against each other. But as much as this is a book about survival in impossible circumstances, it’s also about a son trying to understand why and how his father became this drug addicted, violent, woman-hating human being. The novel generates it’s power and depth not from scenes of horrible abuse – though they are certainly present and difficult to read – but by refusing to cast the father – and to a lesser extent the mother – as villains. The picture that is ultimately drawn with great care by Magariel is of a man who dearly loves his children but whose love has been twisted and distorted by the burden of responsibility and drugs. This is evidenced in the father’s misguided attempts to justify his actions and engender loyalty in his youngest boy:

“You were my decision,” he started. “Did you know that? Your brother was an accident. He wasn’t planned like you. To be honest I didn’t even want him. I should have guessed how he’d turn out. But as soon as he was born, I knew we needed a second child.” He looked up at me. “Do you understand what I’m driving at? You wouldn’t exist without me. I thought you up. Trippy, right? Far out. That’s what bonds us together. That’s the glue, boy. Some cultures might even believe that you owe me your life, wouldn’t you say?””

More than the physical abuse it’s moments like these that I found the most gut-wrenching.

Thematically this is a novel that questions whether some people are not suited to be parents, highlights the toxic nature of certain types of masculinity and reinforces our view that society needs a better way of dealing with drug addiction. But for me One of the Boys derives its power and depth from its honest exploration of corrupted parental love that never points a finger of blame.

* It’s technically a novella but who am I to quibble over a few thousand words.

Apr 18

A Natural by Ross Raisin

I remember having doubts about Stephen King’s long essay, “Head Down”, the penultimate story in his 1993 collection Nightmare & Dreamscapes. The piece, which was originally published in the New Yorker, chronicles the 1989 Little League baseball season for Owen King’s team, Bangor West. Surprisingly, it happens to be the most compelling work in the entire collection as King adroitly combines the rats and mice of baseball with a funny and heartfelt profile of a group of young boys struggling with the troughs and peaks of competitive sport.

At the time I decided two things (a) Stephen King has the writerly chops to make any subject fascinating and (b) baseball, while a sport that rivals cricket in the boredom stakes,* lends itself to high drama as evidenced by the following classics of cinema – “Field of Dreams”, “Bull Durham”, “A League of Their Own”, “Major League”, “Moneyball”, that George Herman Ruth biopic where John Goodman played the eponymous “Babe” and “The Natural.” In comparison American Football has “Remember the Titans” and not much else, and the less said about basketball or ice hockey films the better.**

Coincidentally Ross Raisin’s third novel is titled A Natural. It has nothing to do with baseball but if you follow the same critics I do then you’ll have seen a great deal of hype for the book earlier in the year. To say it’s been well reviewed would be like saying that Donald Trump sometimes uses Twitter inappropriately. All the plaudits and backslaps are well deserved because A Natural proves wrong my second assumption, that when it comes to sports and great story-telling baseball has a monopoly. The novel, which is all about soccer – a pastime I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about… well, unless it’s Australia playing in the World Cup – is as enthralling as Stephen King’s “Head Down”, except in the case of Raisin’s book it’s 100,000 words longer, deals with the professional side of the sport (not Little League) and happens to be fiction.

The main focus of Ross Raisin’s novel is Tom, a 19 year-old who, when the book opens, has just been released from his contact with a local Premier League club. This is a body blow for the young man who always believed he was bound for the English Premier League. Tom is forced to move to a town he’s never heard of, hundreds of miles away from his family, to play for a Division Two team. The club – aptly named “The Town” – is coached by an arsehole, is comprised of a mix of also rans and coulda beens and is facing relegation after an awful start to the season. With the coach unwilling to give Tom game-time, he starts to doubt his ability. In addition he fears the day when a long-held secret becomes known.

While the novel starts with Tom, and while most of the page count is devoted to his ongoing challenge of trying to fit into his new environment while also being true to himself, A Natural isn’t just Tom’s story. Raisin also focuses on the team’s Captain, Chris, a bitter man, who like Tom nearly reached the big-leagues, but was never good enough, and who spends his free time surfing online forums (Raisin nails these forums… sometimes it felt like I was reading about my Aussie Rules football club). More importantly, we also get the perspective from the Captain’s wife, Leah, who worries about her recalcitrant husband – especially after he suffers a horrible injury – while also juggling a toddler and thoughts of a career in textile design.

I was aware of Tom’s secret before I read the novel and it didn’t impact on my enjoyment. This is a book that expertly explores the pressures that come with the expectation of others while also deconstructing the blokey world of professional male sports. Raisin clearly has a deep love for football, and his descriptions of play, especially for a hater like me, were lovingly realised. But he’s also aware that masculinity, mixed with disillusionment and cynicism and a fear that you’ll end your career as a footnote in the history of a club that no-one has heard of, creates an environment where prejudice and insularity – euphemistically described as closing ranks – can destroy a person.

I often see a divide between people who read and enjoy books and people who are passionate about sport. But as Raisin and Stephen King highlight this binary is false. The competitive nature of sport and the personalities involved drive the narrative as much as any literary or genre novel. It’s even possible for a person who is ambivalent or hates a particular game to, for a brief moment, suspend their judgement and become as fanatical as the supporters screaming from the stands. That’s the atmosphere Raisin creates in this superb novel. I’ll be stunned if A Natural isn’t long-listed for the Man Booker.

* And I say that as a cricket tragic who will happily watch all five days of a Test series.

** I am clearly trolling here: The Waterboy is a fantastic film unfairly shunned by the Academy.***

*** Also, please note that as an Australian the only sports I’m referring to are those played by Americans. Because other than “Bodyline” and “The Club” (which came out in 1980… my God, I feel old) you ain’t gonna find many films about cricket or Aussie Rules.

Apr 17

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

In Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West doors begin to appear across the planet connecting countries around the world. Whether the actions of a cheeky God, or the activation of a network of wormholes, Hamid never provides a reason as to why these doors exist. They simply do. For the alt-right supporter or ethno-nationalist, who for sado-masochistic reasons is reading a book by Mohsin Hamid, this premise is a nightmare scenario. How do you defend national borders when a magic door can abruptly appear in someone’s living room? But for those of us who are sympathetic to migrants and especially refugees fleeing violence and persecution, just like our two protagonists Nadia and Saeed, Exit West is a bitter-sweet but ultimately optimistic novel about the inevitability of change.

Initially, Nadia and Saeed don’t want to leave their home. They’ve just met, discovering a commonality in the fact that they are two very different people – Nadia independent and agnostic, Saeed thoughtful and religious. But as their unnamed Middle Eastern country tips into all out civil war they recognise that running away is a matter of survival. Cue those magic doors.

Hamid’s Narnia inspired McGuffins are an agent of change (or chaos for our alt-right readers). For all the recent anti-globalist talk which has less to do with people and more to do with the greedy elite*, Hamid argues that whether we like it or not technology and progress has tied us together. Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation in the 90s that history was done and dusted is dismissed together with whatever purity we associate with our own cultures. There’s no need to worry about Caliphates because as Hamid shows we’ve passed the point where any mono-culture will be able to stand alone.

If that all sounds a bit dry, fear not. Hamid’s writing is lovely and accessible, the relationship between Nadia and Saeed is portrayed with depth and realism and the novel is elevated by these lovely vignettes scattered throughout as people across the world consider and experiment and deal with the doors. The most profound observation in the novel comes from one of these brief side-steps. We are introduced to a woman who has lived her entire life in California and is ruminating about the changing nature of her neighborhood. How once she had known the names of everyone on her street but how over time, as people sold their homes, as people died, as new people moved in she found herself to be a foreigner in her own suburb:

When she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it.

We are all migrants through time.

*AKA the (((greedy elite))).

Apr 14

From the Wreck by Jane Rawson

If the world was fair and just Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck would win numerous awards, both literary and genre. Not that shiny trophies are the arbiter of great fiction, but they do draw attention to the nominees and this a novel that’s worthy of the hype and buzz regularly applied to lesser works. From the Wreck is an extraordinary piece of writing, in the way it blends genres, in the way its ambitions are matched by sublime prose, in the way it explores and questions life in all its varied states.

At first From the Wreck reads like a traditional historical novel. George Hills, a steward on the steamship Admella, is one of a handful of survivors when the hapless boat sinks off the South Australian coast in 1859*. A second survivor, who plays a significant hand in keeping George alive while they’re lost at sea for eight days, is Bridget Ledwith**. Years later and George who is married with children is haunted by what he and Bridget did to survive (which given they had no food or water should have been impossible). Bridget vanishes soon after reaching shore and George spends his free time trying to find her, hoping she will explain his fractured memories of those eight days at sea.

I’d rather not mention the primary genre element – though for your own safety KEEP AWAY FROM THE BLURB – not because it’s a twist, it’s introduced in the second chapter, but because the novel’s lens, so focussed on this one tragic sinking, abruptly widens its gaze, reminiscent of that famous final shot of “Men In Black” as the camera zooms out, in all its CGI glory, from a street on Earth to the Universe at large. And that abrupt shift generates a giddy sensation, an indication that this intimate story about a man dealing with post traumatic stress is something so much stranger and transcendent.

While the novel is always wonderful, it somehow finds another gear when Rawson’s discussion of the natural world bleeds into a meditation on mortality and the bounty of life. George’s son, Henry, is endlessly fascinated with the skeletons of dead animals, a collection of which he keeps hidden in the house. This fascination with death isn’t expressed in a dark or creepy manner, but as something complex and layered – inevitable and joyful and frightening and numinous. Or as Rawson beautifully puts it:

[Henry] plunged into the swarming ocean, felt its wriggling abundance. […] Henry felt his place in it – just to be this boy and never wonder why or who or how to be better, braver, otherwise. Just to be and to love. To notice it fresh every day. Not to fear it leaving; to know it always was and always will be, and that when this body stops and rots and makes itself food that still it will all go on just like this, just like always. Tiny tragedies, tiny triumphs and none of it meaning a thing against the great still monstrousness of forever and always. This always ocean, this always world, these always stars, this stretching, boundless, eternal universe. This quiet space.

The ease in which Rawson articulates complex thoughts around mortality and eternity, the way she seamlessly slides the narrative between historical and science fiction and how her characters – especially George – are as complex and flawed and brilliant as the themes Rawson’s tackling is, simply put, a master-class of storytelling.

I’m not saying that reading From The Wreck was a spiritual experience – because there’s only so much hype and I can slather on one book. But I truly doubt I’m going to read anything this year that as rich and deep and intelligent as this tremendous novel. And if I do it will be one helluva year.

* There was an Admella. It did sink in 1859. Of the 113 on the ship 24 survived.

** Also a real person and the only woman to survive the wreck. She even wrote a book about it.

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