Kerryn Goldsworthy and Fiona Capp have looked at a batch of recently released fiction and non-fiction books. Here are their verdicts.
NON-FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
The Arbornaut, Meg Lowman, Allen & Unwin, $32.99
This is an ideal book for city-bound nature lovers suffering withdrawal during lockdown. When US botanist Meg Lowman was a girl, she spent her summers at a cabin built around a centenarian elm. It’s a perfect metaphor for a life dedicated to trees as one of the original “arbornauts” – botanist explorers of the canopy.
Postgraduate studies brought her to Australia where she helped discover the underlying causes of dieback in New England eucalypts and married a local grazier. She writes with wry affection about this period, even though she was considered an oddity as a farmer’s wife moonlighting as a scientist. After the marriage ended, she forged a remarkable career researching canopies all over the world and educating the public on the wonders of this “eighth continent” in the tree tops.
Where We Swim, Ingrid Horrocks, UQP, $32.99
Ingrid Horrocks longed to write about the “pleasures of immersing in an element other than air” but swimming solo started to feel wrong. These adventures were too separate from the rest of her life and from her ecological concerns. And they followed the masculine model of the “self-directed voyage” of exploration.
She wanted to do it differently. The result is an episodic narrative that is as much about her bonds with her parents, siblings, partner and children, as it is about her relationship with water. Whether she is at her local beach in Wellington, New Zealand, or in a pool in an apartment complex in the Arizona desert, her story is never just her own.
Ripples radiate in many directions as she frets over the future of the planet and grapples with the great and the small, with “family and world”.
Late Bloomer, Clem Bastow, Hardie Grant, $34.99
At the age of 36, when writer Clem Bastow was diagnosed as autistic, so much about herself began to make sense.
While she mourned the interventions and therapies she’d missed, she wished that all autistic children “be allowed to simply be” – as she had been. But her story makes plain that this undiagnosed form of being was shot through with the pain and confusion of being different, misunderstood and mystified by the unwritten rules of human interaction.
Now she has a community with its own unique culture in which she feels at home, and her relief and joy is palpable. Sharp, perceptive and alive to the many ways of being in the world, Late Bloomer sheds light on the wild and wonderful colours on the spectrum that are, all too often, invisible to or misread by the neurotypical eye.
The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing, Ed., Hannah Dawson, Penguin Classics, $55
Think of a collective noun for dynamite – a powder keg? That’s this anthology. There’s no safe ground for readers here. Any page could explode in your face. And that’s what makes it so exhilarating.
Yes, there’s red-hot rage, but there is also searing analysis and sly wit. When a man claimed women couldn’t have the same rights as men because Christ wasn’t a woman, Black activist Sojourner Truth asked her mid-19th-century audience, “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
In Freedom or Death, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst lays down what “civil war is like when civil war is waged by women”. It might be a description of this collection, as generation after generation of women refuse to be silenced, their voices building to a roar.
FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Giramondo, $19.95
An unnamed young woman in her late twenties, stuck at home with a chronic illness and no job, is musing on the enforced anomie and aimlessness of her life. She sees no future and therefore finds it hard to formulate goals, much less act on them.
This doesn’t sound very engaging but it is actually quite riveting, since it is so cleverly crafted and so many of her reflections are recognisable and sometimes very funny: “I’m trying to have fun but it’s very stressful.” Novella-length, this intriguing book feels more like a long, experimental short story, made up of reflections on a difficult life that are discontinuous not only from fragment to fragment but even from sentence to sentence.
The narrator is living a life uncomfortably close in its mundane detail and lack of purpose to the life so many Australians are currently living as we go in and out of lockdown.
Girls in Boys’ Cars, Felicity Castagna, Pan, $18.99
Felicity Castagna won a Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her previous YA novel, The Incredible Here and Now, and although this isn’t a sequel it focuses on the same urban and sociological territory.
In a McDonald’s car park in North Parramatta, Rosa and her friend Asheeka are hanging out with boys who see them only as accessories, less important and more expendable than their cars. Asheeka is the cool girl with attitude, while Rosa, formerly a chubby nerd with good grades, is her sidekick and to some extent her creation, but Rosa is the one who ends up in juvenile detention.
Like a teenage Thelma and Louise, the girls take off in Asheeka’s boyfriend’s car, heading towards the inland where the summer bushfires are raging. As Rosa tries to tell their story, the inner life of adolescent girls is cleverly and disconcertingly revealed, piece by piece.
People Like Them, Samira Sedira; trans., Lara Vergnaud, Raven Books, $29.99
When a well-heeled family moves into a small French village, the neighbours are cautious about these flamboyant and exuberant newcomers. The father, Bakary Langlois, befriends his neighbour Constant Guillot, but doubts creep into the friendship and end in violence.
The story is told by Constant’s wife Anne, a clever technique that complicates the novel’s moral centre and puts the focus on truth rather than judgment. This stark and chilling novel is based on a true crime story from 2003, when a family of five was murdered in France.
Samira Sedira, an author and actor born in Algeria, explains in an afterword that no mention was made in news reports that the main victim was a black man, whereas to her mind the elements of race and class were central to the motivation of the killer, and she brings these things to the fore in her re-imagining.
New Australian Fiction 2021, Ed., Rebecca Starford, Kill Your Darlings, $24.95
The 16 stories in this year’s New Australian Fiction anthology differ in subject matter, form and style, but what they have in common is the sense of apprehension and uncertainty produced by the pandemic and by the threat to the environment and to humanity posed by the effects of climate change.
As editor Rebecca Starford points out in her thoughtful introduction, even when the stories are ostensibly about such things as family, isolation, travel, or sexual uncertainty and adventure, the fragile mood of our times underlies them.
It makes for introspective and vulnerable voices and characters, and often for memorable stories that linger in the mind. The collection is bookended by two strong, strange stories, Lauren Aimee Curtis’ No French Oyster and Brooke Dunnell’s Departures, that ask more questions than they answer.
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