Stephen Wright’s novella A Second Life is riveting, drawing the reader into the dreamscape of the book from the first few lines and releasing us only when we are wrung out and beautifully ravaged. Wright has previously won both the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award. This book won the Viva La Novella Prize in 2016.
This book is a kaleidoscope that will break up your notions about it, then break them again. Our heroine is Acker, who is tattooed, shaven-headed, a dissector of old books (literally – she chops them up). At first we take her for an advocate for victims of domestic violence, but nothing in this text is that straightforward. How, Wright asks, could we ever resolve the debt we all owe to the unfairly dead? Perhaps with art like this, which unfolds on the page like an act of expiation.
In the first few pages Acker thinks: ‘You have to be someone who thinks of what has been done to Australia and wants to vomit to be able to write of Australia, to understand what kind of writers it needs.’ Wright, absolutely, is a writer we need.
The more restrictive the word limit on a text, the more challenging it is to fit in all the best of storytelling – good characterisation, original language, and unexpected dialogue. Hailing from the US, this collection encompasses 55 small fictions that ‘glow like islands and allow us to land’, according to editor Tara L Masih. If you read this you will land in many interesting places.
The best of this collection of ‘best’ small fictions really are what they claim to be: astounding examples of what writers can do. There are prose poems, flashes, and ekphrastic haibuns – this last of which means a vivid description in a combination of prose and haiku. Editor Amy Hempel writes that her favorite definition of a short-short story is that it is ‘like most ordinary short stories, only more so’. What, then, is a short story like? Judging by these shorts, they are succinct, impactful and muscular.
A sample of first lines:
‘Mother teaches us how to steal.’ (Len Kuntz).
‘My parents are in the backyard, digging their graves.’ (Allegra Hyde).
‘Grandmother kept a diver’s knife strapped to her thigh.’ (Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello)
I will be keeping this book on my shelf as reminder of what is achievable in this form.
Hot on the heels of his fascinating and harrowing debut, Black Rock White City, AS Patric has released his second novel and his fifth book, Atlantic Black. Black Rock White City won the Miles Franklin Award in 2016. Another novel, another use of the word ‘black’ in the title … does Patric have the flair to pull this off? How good is the follow-up to one of the most critically acclaimed books of last season?
Second albums sometimes bomb. Atlantic Black does not. But it takes us in a radically different direction to what we might expect. We are on board an ocean liner in 1939, with Katerina Klova, a young woman of 17. The details of the ship and the other passengers are rendered with a Kafkaesque lucidity as we are led moment by moment through a day and a night of Katerina’s life. Katerina’s mother suffers a break down, and Katerina is left to manage things on her own. Her stifling lack of agency, and her determination not to be dictated to by this lack, are palpable, as is a pervading sense of sexual threat. We are left with an uncomfortable claustrophobia and a book with all the trappings of a period drama but the immediacy of contemporary fiction. Atlantic Black is an unexpected and impressive second novel.
Damien Wilkins is a prominent New Zealand writer, author of nine novels and the director of the International Institute of Modern Letters. Wilkins’ writing has been lauded within New Zealand and internationally. Wilkins once said that because he wrote his first novel in the deep heat of an American summer he’d convinced himself he couldn’t write well in winter. His latest offering, Lifting, proves that even in the cooler environs of New Zealand, Wilkins can indeed write well. His writing is sneaky, intelligent, and full of surprises.
‘The cock years were okay but I love bush-walking too much,’ one of the characters tells another in the novel. ‘Bush-walking’, in translation, is ‘hiking’, but in this non-hetero normative context it means … I’m sure you can figure it out.
Though Wilkin’s prose can seem flippant, his subjects (in this case, the closure of a department store, a new mother, store employees) are not. Underneath the banal and the ordinary is a realm of repressed desires that lead his characters to act in ways that are inexplicable even to themselves. Read by some as New Zealand noir, this novel is not quite that. But Lifting, under the cleverness that forms its surface, is a beautifully realised study of the way human endeavours, and humans themselves, fail and change.
Alex Miller is one of Australia’s most prolific writers. He has published eleven novels, won the Miles Franklin award twice, and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize as well as many other awards. Miller migrated alone to Australia at the age of 16 and worked as a farm labourer before attending university. One of his most celebrated works, The Ancestor Game, was republished in 2016, to mark 25 years since its publication, and to honour its author’s 80th birthday.
The Passage of Love recounts Miller’s own history, and is a pleasure to read, from beginning to end. ‘How else are we to address the past, except to frame it as our legend?’ Miller asks. But here he does not frame the past: he presents it, and himself as a character in it, as a creative story, blending fiction and memoir together. There’s a knife-sharp presence in this prose that conveys the acuteness of Miller’s eye. This is a long story, perfect to take with you to the beach, if you are in favour of being in the hands of a skilled narrator, who knows how much to reveal, and how much not to.