March in fiction

Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter
Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein), Text Publishing

days of abandonmentConsidering the international fervor that has met the translation of Elena Ferrante’s novels from Italian to English, it would be easy to discredit the author as being overhyped. That her name is a pseudonym and her real identity famously guarded are intriguing, but on reading her work it becomes quickly apparent that we are in expert hands. This trio of novels that predates her more famous Neapolitan series recommends Ferrante for inclusion in some sort of hall of literary masters. Ferrante deploys words mercilessly, creating a hallucinatory intensity with her prose that borders on the brutal. Violating sexual and gender taboos, her narratives are relentless, addictive and transportational.

Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter are short, lurid works with the concentrated feel of novellas. The details are visceral and cinematic; women bleed and bodily fluids are painstakingly described, and the settings (Naples, Turin, an Italian coastal town) are almost fully realised characters. The effect is striking and repelling, as is the language used to describe trauma, sex and infidelity. Here in The Days of Abandonment, is an estranged father:

Rough with the women’s bodies he happened to encounter, hurried, dirty, certainly his only objective was to score points, as in a rifle range, to sink into a red pussy as into a fixed thought surrounded by concentric circles […] such were the thoughts I attributed to him, I was shaken by vivid electric shocks of rage.

Vivid, electric and enraged; in these three works Ferrante absolutely lives up to her reputation.


Best Australian Stories 2015
Edited by Amanda Lohrey, Black Inc.

Acclaimed author Amanda Lohrey brings us this incisive collection of Australian short stories. In her introduction she writes of magic, alchemy and danger as being key ingredients of the genre, positing these writers as magicians of the word. But what the collection also reveals is the high level of craftsmanship and dexterity present in Australian writing today. Varied, affecting, and always containing some unexpected twist, many of these stories explore dark subject matter without being overwhelmed by it. Standouts include Cate Kennedy’s ‘Puppet Show,’ Jo Case’s ‘Something Wild,’ and Melissa Beit’s condensed and wonderful ‘The Three Treasures.’


Fever of Animals
Miles Allison, Scribe

fever of animalsWinner of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2014 and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s 2016 Prize for Fiction, Miles Allison’s debut novel Fever of Animals has received much recognition. Miles, the novel’s protagonist (who also resembles the author) undertakes a quest to research Romanian surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu. But is the quest simply a way of sublimating Miles’ grief about his father’s death and the end of his relationship with his partner Alice? Self-referential, philosophical and metafictional, Fever of Animals veers dangerously close to crossing the line into being self-indulgent. But the narrative is rescued by Allison’s fine management of a self-deprecating main character and his impulse for good old-fashioned storytelling. If it is true that the beginning of this book may be over-wrought, it is also true that it is worth trusting Allison in the end.


The Chimes
Anna Smaill, Sceptre

The ChimesUntil last year Anna Smaill was known mainly in New Zealand Aotearoa as a writer of poetry and a violinist. Then she was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize for her startling debut novel The Chimes. Depicting a dystopian post-apocalyptic London with poetic elegance, The Chimes is most notable for its convincing internal logic and Smaill’s deft command of language. In the book the masses are controlled by music issued at certain times of day from The Carillon, which keeps individuals from developing memories. In the absence of memory, the music acts as a language through which the individual understands the world, and the ruling body that controls the music has ultimate control.

This project’s only flaw is dictated by the premise of the novel itself. It is difficult to be truly engrossed by the main character, Simon. But the drawing of a character who may only infrequently remember his own experiences is difficult, as the character is almost completely inaccessible to himself.

This book may be enjoyed as a kind of beautiful artifact. Saturated with musical terminology, finely drawn, and remarkably original, The Chimes is like some kind of mirror ball: reflective, a little bit tricky perhaps, but ultimately impressive.


The World Without Us
Mireille Juchau, Bloomsbury

World without usSydney-based writer Mireille Juchau’s third novel The World Without Us has just won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2016, as well as being longlisted for the Stella Prize. Linguistically innovative and also compelling, The World Without Us draws the reader almost helplessly onwards, caught up in the palpable grief of the main characters and the volatility of their environment.

The Müllers are a family in the process of not coping with an almost inconceivable loss. The elder daughter Tess declines to speak, Meg, the younger daughter, draws innumerable trees, and Evangeline, their mother, goes walking down lanes with a pram full of paint. Their father resorts to drink and beekeeping. Tess’s teacher Jim is a new, also grieving, addition to the community. Out of this almost unbearable portrait of collective internal grief comes several questions: How do we escape the damage done to us as children? What forms of grief are acceptable? How do we pass on beauty and art, and can these things help us to survive? Surprisingly, one finishes the novel with a sense that these questions have, in some allusive way, been answered.

Like the book itself, Juchau’s prose is both poetic and economical. Her grasp of the colloquial voice is keen, and she depicts characters precisely, often in a few sparse words. This book leaves the reader shocked at having been so fully immersed, and grasping after the characters after the book has ended.


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Michalia Arathimos has published work in Westerly, Landfall, Headland, JAAM, Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 4, Sport and Turbine. Her debut novel, Aukati / Boundary Line, was published in 2019 by Mākaro Press. She is currently Overland’s fiction reviewer.

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