Subscriberthon guest post: Sophie Cunningham on lost children, literary hauntings and Melbourne’s underground

Sophie Cunninghan is the editor of Meanjin and the author of the novels Geography and Bird. In Overland 197, she contributes a photo essay about following Melbourne’s Cave Clan into the drains below the city. You can read that piece here. She’s also written a special post to encourage potential subscribers. Remember, you can subscribe to Meanjin and Overland simultaneously, thus saving money (fifteen per cent!) and making a double-barrelled contribution to literary culture.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to join  a panel discussing the current state of Australian fiction by looking at the literary journey over the last thirty years. My co-panellists were Paul Salzman and Dmetri Kakmi.  Paul (well, a channelled version of him – he was actually sick on the day) summarised some of the ground covered in his book After the Celebration and discussed the response to its publication. Dmetri discussed the influence (on him, and the broader culture) of the work of Sonia Hartnett and Christos Tsiolkas.

Like Salzman, I did a bit of a survey of recent (i.e. post 2000) fiction that struck me as interesting. I tend to do that – read several titles close together, and then become fascinated by the ‘conversation’ that takes place between them. Indeed, I’m as interested in the relationship between books as the individual titles themselves. It was only after I’d jotted down my titles that I realised they shared several things in common.

Anyway, here is my list.

Gilgamesh by Joan London

Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings

Disquiet by Julia Leigh

The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser

Vertigo by Amanda Lohrey

Burning In by Mireille Juchau

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Things I Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

The Boat by Nam Le

Diary of a Bad Year by J M Coetzee

Once I’d made the list several things leapt out at me. Eight of the novels were set, in whole or in part, overseas (Coetzee, Sth African by birth, did set his book in Australia, as did Amanda Lohrey), perhaps representing a move towards more ‘global’ viewpoints in Australian fiction.

Seven (out of ten) of the books were by women – which probably says more about my reading tastes than about Australian fiction (indeed, in the recent Spike poll on Australian fiction, six of the seven of the most mentioned titles were written by men).

Seven out of the books experimented with form – that is, they were short novels (even novellas) or short stories or (in the case of Coetzee and Amsterdam) something in between. Are people moving towards shorter literary fictions, as has been much mooted? If so, I don’t think this can just be put down to the whole ‘loss of attention span’ issue – well, not for me anyway. There is a distillation and compression in the shorter forms that I find very enticing.

Most surprisingly, five of the books I’d picked featured a missing or lost child at their centre: Disquiet, Vertigo, Burning In, Dog Boy and ‘The Boat’ in The Boat. In the case of a sixth, the Amsterdam novel, the characters simply couldn’t have children at all. It is, in fact, an ongoing meme in Australian fiction – indeed, Peter Pierce wrote a book in 1999 called The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety.

This led me to ask a few people what came to mind on the subject of lost and dead children. Here’s an ad hoc list: Dot and the Kangaroo, Hartnett’s Of a Boy, Lawson’s short story ‘Babies in the Bush’, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Seven Little Australians, Norah of the Billabong, Playing Beatie Bow, Walkabout, Closed for Winter, the film One Night the Moon, Malouf’s Remembering Babylon and most traditional indigenous children’s stories. Then, of course, there are the ‘real life’ lost children who haunt us – Azaria, for instance, and the Beaumont children.

In earlier books by whites there is clearly a fear of the (new) Australian landscape and pain of separation from Europe. In more recent books (such as Disquiet or Burning In) the European legacy is a burden – causing a kind of haunting, an inability to let go. In the futuristic Things We Didn’t See Coming, it’s a kind of future shock (sperm counts are down by fifty percent from earlier this century), so Amsterdam’s take on a childless future isn’t totally outlandish.

Anyway, I’d be interested to know what readers think – why is Australian fiction so haunted?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays