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Review

February in fiction

Black Rock White City – A.S. Patric (Transit Lounge)

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Gritty, agonising, and brilliant, A.S. Patric’s Black Rock White City was the winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. A story about immigrants living in Melbourne’s suburbs, this book examines the effects of war, trauma and loss on the individual with excruciating deftness. Patric’s book is a tale with an agenda: to recentre forgotten people, and to voice what they cannot forget.

Jovan and Suzana, an academic and a poet, live in 90’s Australia after their escape from war-torn Yugoslavia. Both work as cleaners. At Jovan’s hospital, a graffiti artist creates increasingly disturbing displays, some involving human bodies. We don’t know who ‘Dr Graffito’ is, and neither does Jovan, though at times we suspect Jovan himself.

This is a novel unafraid to take on the big issues. A psychologist character pops in frequently to make telling statements:

‘… two thousand years of social evolution and generations of civilization is a layer as thin across the psyche as the skin on boiled milk.’

This is the novel’s central thesis: violence lurks underneath our narratives of tolerance, and in a moment it may burst out, destroying everything. Jovan and Suzana skate across the surface of middle-class Australia, listening to complaints about migrants and the weather, unable to enter into it. Patric’s story of subsumed rage, misogyny and racism is thematically current, reminding us how quickly hatred can take over a society, rendering any notions about the universal nature of human decency useless.

Mansfield and Me: A Graphic Memoir – Sarah Laing (Victoria University Press)

Mansfield_and_Me.1280Sarah Laing is a fiction writer, graphic artist, and a champion of women’s comic art. Part memoir, part re-imagining of the life of early modernist writer Katherine Mansfield, this work follows in the footsteps of graphic novelists like Alison Bechdel. In Mansfield and Me you will find many pretty things: landscapes and flowers and historical literary figures. You will also find birth, sex, blood, rock and punk, artistic rejection, motherhood and mercilessly real depictions of relationships.

Mansfield was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf and a ground-breaking short story writer who died tragically young. Laing contrasts her journey to authorhood with Katherine’s, to great effect. Regard this work as a kind of raucous mapping out of selfhood, in which the artist, through a series of forays into places, sexualities, and selves, re-draws herself, coming up in the end with a bunch of hard-won roses.

Tail of the Taniwha – Courtney Sina Meredith (Beatnik Press)

Tail-of-the-Taniwha_Cover-max-800Courtney Sina Meredith sings stories from the heart of New Zealand Pasifika. Playwright, performance poet, musician and fiction writer, Meredith has just held a residency at the University of Iowa.

A fluid, balletic articulation of racial, social and cultural tensions, Meredith’s Tail of the Taniwha leaps off the page with its humour and directness. She mixes invocations to Samoan goddesses with street talk, spiritual subjects with a joyful obsession with the material world. A key to the collection may be found in the first story, ‘Great Works,’ in which the narrator muses:

One tutor made us all wear masks down the main road to see how it felt to be different. It didn’t feel any different to walking down the street with my own face.

The book is experimental, ranging from prose poetry to monologue to interview to prose, as if Meredith’s material is so vast it can barely be contained in a single vessel. Agile, irreverent, and ruthlessly confrontational, Meredith deserves her status as one of the most exciting new voices in Pacific literatures.

Skylarking – Kate Mildenhall (Black Inc.)

skylarking-online1Skylarking is Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel. Published by Melbourne publisher Black Inc., it is currently longlisted for the 2017 Indie Book Awards. Mildenhall’s writing is smooth and lyrical, with an ear for the musicality of words and a delicate rendering of small moments.

Kate and Harriet are growing up together in the 1880s. Both lighthouse keepers’ daughters, the two are best friends. But into the friendship comes a fisherman, McPhail, and all the confusion brought on by puberty, sex, and desire. Skylarking is also a vivid re-imagining of a true historical story.

But this is more than a coming of age story. Skylarking is an anatomy of a particular kind of love: that fragile and passionate adolescent love that exists between friends, that can remain true and influential, and unforgettable.

Black Ice Matter – Gina Cole (Huia Publishers)

CroppedImage256372-Black-Ice-TGNew author Gina Cole bursts onto the Pacific writing scene with this absurdly good collection of short stories. Cole’s work has been described as Fijian infused, queer-inflected, and part of the Pasifika diaspora. But here is an author who refuses to be pigeonholed. Nuanced and sophisticated, Cole’s book challenges the idea that a cultural ‘other’ may only be one thing.

Here we have a range of characters: a woman struggling with Fijian tradition, researchers of glaciers, parents in abusive situations, drug-taking students, child factory workers, earthquake victims. Death, tragedy and sudden trauma are frequent themes. In the context of a traditionally understated style of Pacific postcolonial fiction, Cole’s work is unafraid of everyday urban drama.

This collection complicates any easy binaries the reader might be drawn towards. Her characters might be queer and having relationship issues, or Fijian and experiencing identity problems not related to race, or ethnically ‘other’ for no special reason. Students Carmichael and Karunatilaka happen to be best friends. Fijian Litia’s return to Fiji is disrupted not by feelings of displacement but by unexpected tragedy. German Stig is trying to accept his wife’s apparent suicide. Complicated and multi-layered, the collective text is like her characters. Ideational links tie seemingly discrete stories together. If intersectionality had a literary work as a banner, this would be it.

Which is not to say these tales are didactic: they are instead, emotionally affecting and sometimes shocking. Cole is as unafraid of delving into indigenous and Pacific spirituality, as she is the issues of prisons, historical violence, drug addiction, or abuse. A stunning debut collection.

 

Image: Tyto alba – Carlos Delgado / Wikipedia

Michalia Arathimos has published work in publications including Westerly, Landfall, Headland, JAAM, Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 4Lost in Translation: New Zealand Short StoriesSport, and Turbine. She won the Sunday Star Times Short Story Prize in 2016 and has been shortlisted for the Overland VU Short Story Prize for the past two years. Her debut novel, Aukati / Boundary Line, will be published by Mākaro Press in May 2017.

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