Hope Farm, A Guide to Berlin, Between a Wolf and a Dog and other awarded lit fiction

hope-farmAward long and short lists continue to showcase our excellent Australian contemporary literature, much of which is written by female authors. Peggy Frew’s superlative Hope Farm (Scribe) has just been longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin Literary award and this year has already been longlisted for the Indie Book award and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Stella Prize, Australian Book Designers’ award and won the Barbara Jefferis award.

Hope Farm is narrated by thirteen-year old Silver who lives a peripatetic life, moving each time her mother Ishtar’s relationship breaks down. They follow Miller from warm Queensland to freezing Victoria but the situation becomes inflammatory.

An unnamed character’s point of view is revealed in notebooks. These entries describe a naïve, poorly educated young woman who falls pregnant and is cast out of her family, taking refuge in an ashram.

The descriptions of the Australian bush are tactile and inspired. The sense of dread is perfectly crafted. The character of Silver is portrayed as longing, awkward and yet knowing, as befits a girl with vulnerable and disrupted life experiences.

berlinAnother outstanding work of literary fiction still being nominated for awards this year is A Guide to Berlin (Penguin Random House Australia) by Gail Jones.

Protagonist Cass meets regularly with five other foreigners in Berlin who share their lives through story. The writing is exquisite. There are references throughout to the work of Vladimir Nabokov who “likened the bishop’s move (in chess) to a torchlight, scanning in the dark, swinging into angles”. There are butterfly motifs and exploration of rich words used by Nabokov such as “lemniscate” – the shape of infinity; “conchometrist” – one who measures the curves of seashells and “drisk” – a drizzly European rain. The novel’s title also comes from a short story by Nabokov. The beautifully crafted insights remind me that I need to re-read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game.

A Guide to Berlin has been shortlisted for the 2016 NSW Premier’s awards, longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, ABIA awards and the Sisters in Crime 2016 Davitt award. In October it won the 2016 Colin Roderick Award.

housesTwo other acclaimed books, which I applaud for their fine writing, are The Life of Houses (Giramondo) by Lisa Gorton (which jointly won the 2016 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction with Charlotte’s Woods’ The Natural Way of Things – reviewed here), and Between a Wolf and a Dog (Scribe) by Georgia Blain (which has just been shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction and won the 2016 Qld Literary Award for Fiction).

Like Hope Farm, The Life of Houses is a dual narrative, one strand of which is from the viewpoint of a teenage girl, Kit. Her mother, Anna, is a most unlikeable character.

Georgia Blain’s writing in Between a Wolf and a Dog has a sparkling clarity and beauty. It addresses euthanasia. It is devastating that this gifted writer has just been felled by cancer. wolf

Between them these books have won and been long and shortlisted for many awards. We no doubt have a surfeit of fine Australian contemporary female writers of literary fiction.

Who are The Good People?

Hannah Kent is a master of atmosphere and of extracting her characters’ souls. Her new novel The Good People (Picador, Pan Macmillan Australia) is set in 1825, in a dark and dank Irish valley where, “Mushrooms scalloped out from rotting wood in the undergrowth. The smell of damp soil was everywhere”. The community has a peasant culture of simple rituals governed by the seasons, alliances and health. The effects of petty, and more serious, quarrels are balanced by small daily kindnesses.

good-peopleCould The Good People be shadowing the author’s Burial Rites as the second in a possible trilogy based on true stories about women living in wretched poverty whose fates are controlled by powerful men and others?

In The Good People, Nóra’s husband Martin has died inexplicably at the crossroads. The tale opens with his wake. Nance Roche comes to keen and wail for Martin. She is a “handy woman”, the gatekeeper of the thresholds between the known and unknown who lives in an isolated mossy cabin dug into the mud. She keeps it as clean as she is able, cares for her goat and collects healing herbs. She has inherited “the knowledge” of the Good People, fairy knowledge that cures people from the folk whose lights are seen near the whitehorn trees by Piper’s Grove.

With both her husband and daughter Johanna dead, Nóra is left alone with Micheál, an ill-formed child who can’t speak or walk and continually soils himself. She employs red-haired Mary Clifford from the north to help her care for Micheál. The gossips believe that someone with red hair has the evil eye. Nóra’s daughter also had red hair and some insist she was “swept”, taken by the Good People.

Mary cares for Micheál selflessly but Nóra and Nance believe he is a changeling, a fairy child who has been exchanged for a human child, bringing bad luck on the village. They resolve to “put the fairy out of him”, taking him to be dunked in the river three times.

Superstition escalates when a cow is found dead, chickens are left headless and an egg is filled with blood. Nance is accused of making piseóg, curses, and of poisoning people with her treatments of “bittersweet” and foxglove. And yet she describes the dying year as, “The night was falling holy, as though the glory of God was in the changing of the light”.

Former priest Father O’Reilly protected Nance but the new priest Father Healy preaches against her.

burial-ritesWhose viewpoint is right? Hannah Kent makes us believe in the veracity of the superstitious Nance and Nóra because she has plunged us into their lives and thoughts. But if we extricate ourselves from their powerfully constructed beliefs and peer through the eyes of their opponents, could the latters’ views be equally valid? One of the author’s gifts is to coax us into relinquishing our, perhaps more reasoned, views and to accept those of her protagonists.

The Good People of the title are alluded to but never seen. But are they more or less integral to the story than the human good people we meet: kind neighbour Peg O’Shea and steadfast Peter, as well as the multifaceted major characters? Goodness, grief, mercy and truth are wound with verisimilitude into The Good People.

The Other Side of the World to the World Without Us

Place is conjured in recent Australian literary fiction by Mireille Juchau in The World Without Us (Bloomsbury) and by Stephanie Bishop in The Other Side of the World (Hachette). Australia, in particular, is a land of contrasts with searing heat and cold, and fire and flood. Both these novels establish the effect of place on families and their impact of family and community on each other in these settings. Both these novels paint the major female character as artists having affairs.

Other side of the worldThe Other Side of the World is an assured second novel by Stephanie Bishop, gripping and authentic until perhaps the final coincidence. But England is likened to a ‘land of fairytales … of Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm… A land of fairies and witches, hedgerows and secret gardens, goblins and magical woods’, so perhaps coincidence here becomes a master-stroke.

When Henry arrives from India (a place also coloured with very different sights and sounds) he is surprised to find that England looks the way it is portrayed in stories. However, he feels displaced, unlike his English wife Charlotte who can’t withstand their transplant to Australia.

Charlotte craves the damp earth, cuckoo calls, foxgloves and hollyhocks of her homeland but finds comfort in Ajax, Kellog’s cornflakes and the Penguin books that she also discovers in Western Australia. Soon she responds to trees: the ‘marbled skin … and the limbs, the branches, all twisted and wrung … [as] the residue of something ancient and explosive and long gone’. She also responds to Englishman, Nicholas, who seems to listen to her and understand her longing.

Stephanie Bishop writes with insight and clarity. Like Mireille Juchau, she references poetry (Henry lectures in it; Juchau’s Jim shares it with his primary school students) and memory and time. Charlotte muses, ‘Events are compressed, days forgotten. In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost’.

World without usPainter Evangeline in Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us, tells her schoolteacher lover Jim, ‘Time isn’t real, only change is’. Her unconventional lifestyle and actions partly spring from her upbringing on a commune, the Hive, but she and her daughters have also been torn adrift by the death of the youngest, Pip. Pip lingered at home after the doctors exhausted treatments, playing truth or dare with her older siblings. Tess always chose ‘dare’, putting herself at risk and finally becoming mute.

Adults and children are lost in The World Without Us. There are unanswered mysteries about fathers and fatherhood and also about the bees whose humming acts as a countermelody to the flitting missteps of the characters. Juchau’s imagery is earthy and often opaque. Writing from multiple viewpoints may cloud the impact of her truths.

Seek out our thriving Australian literary fiction by female authors. It will take you to other worlds.

Blistering Australian Literary Fiction

Some Australian female authors are writing blistering literary fiction. Two recent standouts are The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (A&U) and Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (Picador).

Natural Way of ThingsI was fortunate to hear Charlotte Wood in conversation with Ailsa Piper just after I finished reading The Natural Way of Things. This is a searing story about a small group of women who have been incarcerated in the Australian desert. All these women have suffered sexual assault.

Charlotte Wood explained that she had to air the outrage from situations where women have experienced this abuse and spoken out. In many cases they have been left to languish while the male perpetrators have not been penalised or only received the equivalent of a rap over the knuckles. This reminds me of a well-known footballer who admitted to witnessing the group molestation of a young woman and did nothing about it and was later reinstated as a darling of the rugby league fraternity and media. It is beyond belief. Wood has spoken widely about cases she particularly draws on, such as the girls from Parramatta Girls Home who were sent to the Hay Institute in country NSW.

The Natural Way of Things is an extraordinary novel. I have never read anything like it and will remember it always. If you are avoiding it because of the dark content, you may be surprised that it may not be as black as expected. Beauty is threaded throughout the writing. Although harrowing, the book is ultimately empowering of women.

Rush OhKnowing that Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! is about whaling in Twofold Bay, out of Eden in NSW, didn’t endear me to reading this novel but a trusted bookseller was so enthusiastic about the book that I plunged in. The novel is absolutely fascinating. It is told from Mary’s point of view. She is the eldest daughter of head whaler, George Davidson (based on a real man) and seems to be falling for new rower and former preacher, the mysterious John Beck.

Much of the story is based on fact, including the pod of Killer whales, led by Tom, who round up humpbank whales to help the men hunt them. The Killers are regarded with respect and affection and are believed to be the reincarnated spirits of Aboriginal whale men.

There’s lots of tension, superb storytelling and an engaging voice.

Either of these novels would make a thought-provoking Christmas gift for discerning readers.