David Malouf’s The Complete Short Stories may have been published in 2008 (Vintage) but I’m including it in my favourite Australian fiction picks for 2011 because it’s one of my best literary investments this year. (That and Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but that book is so far from ‘2011’ and ‘Australian fiction’ that I don’t think I can get away with it.) My favourite Malouf short, ‘Every Breath You Take’, is the title piece from one of his earlier collections. I’ve been back to the story a few times to try and sort out the uncomfortable feeling that Malouf is reading me and not the other way around. How does a seventy-something man know anything about my disintegration during that love affair? The Complete Short Stories is a slow feast of pretty-close-to-perfect craft by a master.
N.A. Bourke’s story, ‘The Wine-Dark Sea’ is a piece worth waiting for a bit of time to immerse yourself in. Published in volume 3 of that great little Australian lit journal Kurungabaa, ‘The Wine-Dark Sea’ is an extract from her novel Dying in the First Person. Bourke’s story about fishing and fathers and brothers resonated with me for my own work on the sea, for the tragedies and silences within families, for the old men down the pub talking about the weather. It’s beautiful as a stand-alone piece of work.
‘You don’t belong here,’ he said. ‘There’s no shame in it. Plenty of men have no seawater in their blood. Plenty of fine men. Now go home boy and tell your mother not to wait up for me.’
‘Rush’, a story in Amanda Curtin’s tightly crafted collection Inherited, is another cracking short story. A minor whinge: at the end of Inherited a relentless reference list dismantled my suspension of disbelief. I want my fiction sewn with invisible stitching: a magical ‘how did they do that?’ moment, not with an assembly manual at the conclusion. Gripes aside, the story ‘Rush’ still makes me goosy just thinking of it. It’s fraught with ghostly 1890s echoes of Japanese gold rush prostitutes and their callous treatment by mobs of men; mine shafts that still echo with voices of the dead after the miners of the ghost town had burrowed for gold through the local graveyard; and the unsettling feeling that, like victims, killers’ spirits stay wedged in the landscape, to return and kill again (this time during schoolies week).
Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance is set on the so-called friendly frontier of King George Sound in the 1830’s. This book excites me with its potential to further discussion on Australian history and fiction. The fact that it is set in my home town, (I’ll state my biases nice and early here) in south coast country that I know and love, only delivers me more joy. Kim Scott’s love of language makes for a tactile reading experience. That Deadman Dance is like a lyrical song describing those sometimes irascible lovers; landscape and memory. The story depicts Bobby Wabalanginy as a Noongar whaler of Doubtful Island Bay, and King George Sound in its halcyon days as a relatively peaceful military outpost. The settlers moved in to ‘take up land’, and Bobby’s dance that emulated the ‘ghosts’ took on new meanings. An elegant, beautiful book.
Rohan Wilson’s book The Roving Party, described more than once as ‘blood spattered’, was one of my favourite reads this year and I reviewed it here. Perhaps I was still thirsty after a recent Cormac McCarthy binge. But really, I’m just a sucker for great Tasmanian literature. Wilson turns his native grounds of Tasmania back into Van Diemen’s Land in The Roving Party and he tells a chilling rendition of John Batman’s role in the Black Line. Whichever way this history is told it’s going to be a nasty business but in The Roving Party there is a strange magic and beauty to Wilson’s prose, his rugged country, his painted dogs, his fearsome witch Mannalargenna, his reconstruction of a language long gone:
Ellen looked around at the men. She’s nothin but a child.
Batman grimaced. I don’t care what she is.
Aye, she said. God’s mill may grind slowly, John, but it grinds finely. You won’t be forgot when he tallies what’s owin.
Curiosities and Desirables
I’m not sure if the first of a series of books by the Wirlomen Noongar Language and Stories Project, Mamang, could really be called fiction. Perhaps, like Hansel and Gretel and other Grimm tales, Mamang would be better described as a meta grand narrative: stories about stories. Mamang is inspired by a story that Noongar Elder Freddie Winmer told to the linguist Gerhardt Laves in Albany c. 1931. As Kim Scott, who was involved in the process of recreating the ‘old story, retold’ wrote, ‘It’s a creation story in which the protagonist trusts his heritage sufficiently to risk his life and undertake a journey beyond his known world.’
Mamang feels like a universal tale of all people’s need for stories, a quintessential hero quest. It reminds me of the Joseph Campbell quote, that the beauty of myths is that they are ladies with portable roots. Whale dreaming is powerful stuff … the Jonahs, Maori Whaleriders and other of the Earth’s whale dreamers all have resonances in this book.
Deep down there in the dark inside the whale the man sang to the rhythm of the whale’s big slow heartbeat until, slowly, the light came back. The man saw ocean all around him, birds in the sky, but no sign of land.
Finally, a piece of Australian fiction from 2011 that I would love to read but haven’t managed yet is Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing. Desirable Autumn Laing, her of the pearly thighs and lust for life and art, is loosely based on Sunday Reed of Heide fame, Sidney Nolan’s mentor and lover. I can’t wait to read it.
David Malouf, The Complete Short Stories, Random House, 2008.
N.A. Bourke, ‘The Wine-Dark Sea’ in Kurungabaa,a journal of literature, history and ideas from the sea, No. 2, Vol. 3, 2011.
Amanda Curtin, Inherited, UWA Publishing, 2011.
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador, 2010.
Rohan Wilson, The Roving Party, Allen and Unwin, 2011.
Kim Scott, Iris Woods, Jeffrey Farmer, Helen Nelly, Romar Winmar (Yibiyung), Wirlomen Noongar Language and Stories Project, Mamang, UWA Publishing, 2011.