16 October 201816 November 2018 Reviews October in fiction Michalia Arathimos Trick of the Light – Laura Elvery (UQP) Laura Elvery has been shortlisted for a number of Overland’s prizes (Fair Australia, Victoria University Short Story), and recently won the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize for ‘Unspooling’, in addition to being awarded a Queensland Writing Fellowship. Her debut collection of short stories, Trick of the Light, is anything but light, despite its readability. Brooke Davis writes that this collection is ‘playful’ and ‘hopeful’. It is inventive, but certainly not hopeful. Elvery has a talent for portraying the minutiae of characters’ lives and then suddenly stripping the banal away, so that we are left staring at the bare bones of a life. Hope is not on offer here, but characters drawn with an unbearable realism are, if you can bear to look. Australian letters is like a microcosm of Australia itself: culturally diverse, politically varied across different states, tense and conflicted or humorous or affecting in turn. If there is one thing we may say about our literatures it is that there is a common thread of darkness underneath. Whether that thread references an unvoiced violence or subsumed toxic masculinities, or a wilfully forgotten colonial past, it is traceable in much of our writing, especially in the short story form. In this context Elvery’s debut reads like a triumph of excavation – a collection in which dark matter is exposed and subsequently transformed. Sarah Jane Barnett, a poet from Aotearoa, wrote a poem called ‘The Drop Distance’, in which the ‘drop’ describes the gap between the top of a hangman’s rope and the bottom, an interminable but wrenchingly finite space. Elvery’s stories inhabit the drop distance between everyday life and our fragile inner worlds. Ranging in subject from factory workers to hospo staff to reincarnated schoolkids to shoplifting children, each story is crafted with an unflinching sunniness. But the drop inevitably occurs. An intriguing and powerful new writer. Saudade – Suneeta Peres da Costa (Giramondo) Suneeta Peres da Costa was born in Australia and has received various honours since the publication of her debut novel, Homework, in 1999, including a Fullbright Scholarship. Suadade (‘melancholy’ in Portugese) is a treasure of a novella, a vivid throaty shout in which settings and sounds and the physical world work tangibly together. Of Goan origin, Peres da Costa writes of a Goan immigrant family both labouring and profiting under Portugese rule in Angola. Narrated from the perspective of a young girl, political realities are framed within a fraught family life, realised in relationship to the girls’ hyperreal mother figure. Piquant and atmospheric, this work is internationally relevant. Aside from the subject matter, which is variously violence, colonial fallout, and relationships, there’s a lushness in this work that evokes the writing of Elena Ferrante. Wintering – Krissy Kneen (Text Publishing) From the author of the spectacular novel An Uncertain Grace and many others comes this latest offering, Wintering, a compressed and fiercely located thriller. Kneen leaps between genres, including erotica, speculative fiction and fiction, so ‘thriller’ here might be better understood as a broadly applicable term. But this is a magnetic and oddly compulsive read. Set in a shack on the edge of the water in Tasmania, Wintering is about Jessica, a woman whose partner mysteriously disappears into the Tasmanian forest. From there on it’s all weird animal tracks, glow worm caves and a fraught devolving journey of grief, along with some surprising sex scenes. Both Jessica’s PhD (nearly done!) and the natural landscape of Tasmania muscle their way into the story like unwelcome guests at a party. Wintering is a dark and anarchic thing, ready to attack, like the many different kinds of wildlife Jessica encounters along the way: Something bigger and rounder than the squid, all dark tentacles reaching up – as if to snap the line or perhaps scale it, climbing murderously towards her. Wintering also asks the question: How deeply do we know the people we love? It does not attempt to answer this, but as far as hanging ellipses go, it’s a highly entertaining one. The Helpline – Katherine Collette (Text Publishing) This is an unlikely book on an uncommon subject with a captivating, but unlikeable narrator that turns out to be a satisfying read. Katherine Collette is a writer and environmental engineer who lives in Melbourne. This, her debut, is assured, addictive, and absurd. Once you get into it you won’t even want to look glance at your social media feeds. Witty, and unexpectedly charming, The Helpline is genuinely hilarious. Germaine Johnson, our protagonist, is interpersonally challenged, a qualified mathematician who ends up working as a receptionist for the Senior Citizens Helpline. But Germaine, seemingly, has no empathy. Her observations of the world are based on logic, sometimes even on mathematical equations. Collette’s main character is reminiscent of the lead protagonist in Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patti Yumi Cottrell, whose impaired connection with those around her results in a darkly comedic book. But The Helpline goes in the opposite direction. Contrary to her own intentions, Germaine becomes emotionally invested in the plight of a Senior Citizens’ Centre. What follows is a circumlocutory tale about Sudoku championships, goldfish rescue, political corruption, and people who turn out to be really hot when you get to know them. Germaine’s observations are free of social niceties and she is apparently entirely self-interested, which is extremely refreshing in a female main character. Our Life in the Forest – Marie Darrieuseccq (Transl. by Penny Hueston) (Text Publishing) Marie Darrieuseccq is a French writer who has written fifteen books for adults. She has won many awards, including the Prix Médicis in her native France. JM Coetzee writes of the ‘burning intelligence’ of her work, and he’s not easily impressed. But can Our Life in the Forest live up to the rest of Text Publishing’s recent series of carefully selected translations? It can. Darrieuseccq writes with a kind of truncated brevity that is stark, muscular and direct. The effect is immediately arresting. We are drawn into a time-based tension, where it is revealed that the narrator is handwriting this story, while hiding underground. A former psychologist, she has escaped the nightmare dystopian future she inhabits, with her ‘half’, a clone called Marie whose purpose for existence is ostensibly to provide her with organs, should hers fail. With her we flit back and forth across the path of a life: … in my poor head it’s like a leafy landscape with lots of valleys and alternative paths and people waiting, all half-dead, for me to speak, lickety-split. They’re all speaking at the same time, and everything connects with everything else: the past with the present and with the future, what’s happened with what’s going to happen. The resulting novel is Atwoodesque, melding some of the brutal and unpleasant aspects of our current moment into a plausible but avoidable future. If reading an established writer’s latest work is a flirtation with their oeuvre, then the question that arises after reading it is: are you ready for a committed relationship? Should you, on the basis of reading Our Life in the Forest, enter into a more devoted partnership, one in which you track down the rest of this author’s work, and read all of it? This flirtation might prove to be a significant relationship. Darrieuseccq will challenge you and carry you into other worlds, ones which bear a threatening resemblance to our own. And if in carrying you she ‘burns’ you with the intelligence of her prose, it’s completely worth it. Michalia Arathimos 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. More by Michalia Arathimos Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. 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