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Reading

July in fiction

Yeh. Hell. Ow. – Judyth Emanuel (Adelaide Books)

YEH. HELL. OW_COVER_new_FRONT200Judyth Emanuel’s short fiction has been broadly embraced by Australian journals, and she was runner-up for the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize. Yeh. Hell. Ow. is her first published novel, and it is both confronting and spectacular. Writer Marcia Butler calls it ‘thoroughly imaginative’ and ‘miraculous’. The novel’s Amazon reviews, perhaps more tellingly, range from ‘I am in love with it,’ to ‘This is a difficult book’. Perhaps the most apt Amazon review reads: ‘Like nothing you’ve read before.’

As wild and genre-bending and hellacious as her prose is, though, Emanuel’s novel can be placed alongside things we have read: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Samuel Beckett’s body of work, and, more locally, Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose. But while Cox’s debut was lauded in the Guardian and the Saturday Paper, described variously as exciting, original, and brilliant, critical responses to Emanuel seem strangely subdued. This might be due to the book being published offshore, in New York and Lisbon. It might also be due to what is arguably one of the most striking elements of her work: it’s Joycean, Beckettian, sure, but with an irreverent, disenchanted, sexual, female protagonist.

Shipley marries young in 1970s Australia. She is unprepared for married life, or life in general. But there the easy summaries end. Read this excerpt to understand what critics might shy away from:

Him crouching down, eyes on cunt, my nightmare, hold yourself together, quit licking, the housework mops another nightmare, same again the next spitted and polish fuck me, fucked in the.

Emanuel’s novel is a long, articulate, syntax-melding howl. But it’s a howl from a specifically female-gendered place. I don’t know that we’ve been waiting for Emanuel to write this, but we should have been.

 

A mistake – Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press)

Shuker coverIn 2005 New Zealand-born Carl Shuker published his first novel, The method actors. Nearly five hundred pages long and spanning multiple timescapes, characters and countries, this novel was something of an experimental triumph, one that, after being reviewed favourably in New York and in the UK, won him accolades at home. Since then Shuker has published novels exploring such varied topics as toxic masculinity in student culture, vampires in Beirut and horror stories in Tokyo. This latest offering, A Mistake, is set in a recognisable Wellington hospital, and revolves around, well, a mistake. Shuker is known for his nuanced prose. If he came out with a manual describing how to manufacture the sole of a shoe, I would order a copy.

Which is lucky, because there is something of the technical manual about this book, which ushers us fairly directly into a surgical suite. Shuker, having worked as an editor at the British Medical Journal, writes with an insider’s view of medicine; we have forceps, we have laparoscopic techniques, we have peritoneal sheaths and abdominal cavities. We also have a main character called Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs, to denote her status as a surgeon. Elizabeth also likes DIY home renovation, drinking, women, and concerts (kind of), and turns out to be a surprisingly relatable character.

When a complaint is made about the ‘mistake’, Elizabeth is thrust into an ethical crisis. But this book isn’t really about ethics or the morality of practicing medicine. It’s more just closely observed human experience, masterfully related. Shuker lays traps for the reader, threads he refuses to neatly tie up. Taylor, who presents as a hard arse, has ambiguous motivations. Shuker resists the trope of ambitious driven women turned soft-hearted by events. A Mistake is the best kind of contemporary fiction, similar to that coming from other New Zealand authors like Pip Adam. It’s modern, it circumvents the obvious, it’s pared back, and it’s wholly compelling.

 

Severance – Ling Ma (Text Publishing)

SeveranceSeverance, by Chinese-born American Ling Ma, is a pleasure to summarise because it dances across several genres. What is it? It’s a story about the millennial coming-of-age experience in a present-day capitalist New York. Also, it’s the story of a second-generation immigrant to the US who, in returning to her parents’ native China, must confront her inherited identity. Also, it’s a love story set in our age, where commitment feels concurrent to risk. Also, it’s a post-apocalyptic narrative where nearly everyone gets a virus and turns into a zombie. What’s not to love?

Ma’s prose is simple and clear, and the narrative catapults us forwards through the book.  The way the apocalypse happens is meticulously depicted and true to life. When reports come into Candace’s office, where she is mired in the minutiae of an obscure branch of the book industry, at first people aren’t concerned. Then slowly, people get sick. Some consider leaving; then some leave. Then more. Candace, inexplicably, survives, and then has to decide what to do about this. Consider Severance a neatly wrapped collection of the barely subsumed anxieties we currently live with, written as an entertaining adventure story.

 

Animalia – Jean-Baptiste Del Amo (Translated from the French by Frank Wynne) (Text Publishing)

AnimaliaAnimalia, published first in France in Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s native French, is possibly Delo Amo’s magnum opus. It’s luminous and visceral and well-written, but the style verges on excessive and overall the characters are too melancholic, too uniform and too one-dimensional to enjoy. Animalia is the kind of literary novel you wish to find impressive, but is actually depressing to read. Christos Tsiolkas favoured it; he writes that Del Amo has ‘thrown down a gauntlet’ with this work, which is accurate. The question of whether we take it up or not however is up to us.

The timescape here includes 1898 to 1981, a period spanning two wars for France and the onset of industrialisation. Animalia follows the fortunes of a single French family, who start out subsistence farming on a small rented farm and end up running a sow factory. The erosion of an arguably more respectful relationship between animals and humans occurs incrementally over time. Del Amo is active in the animal rights movement in France, but this novel avoids pushing an agenda. It does effectively illustrate the peculiar brutality of our treatment of animals in this moment.

The novel loses me however in its relentless grimness. The first section is called ‘The Filthy Earth’. The famers scrape and squeeze and eek out a living from a barren, tormented land; they are taciturn and barren and tormented themselves. The fierce toil and the mud and blood and viscera and the dust and pox and pustulence everywhere and the many, violated, vulvas throughout, make for a violently masculine read, one that tries a little too hard to be clever.

 

Room for a stranger – Melanie Cheng (Text Publishing)

Cheng coverRoom for a stranger is Melanie Cheng’s eagerly awaited first novel. In 2018 Cheng won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction with her excellent collection of stories, Australia Day. The collection was a triumph of tact and diplomacy in storytelling that indirectly posited the question: Who do we think we are? Cheng’s answer was: certainly not only Anglo, and certainly not just white, not anymore. Christos Tsiolkas call Cheng’s writing ‘astonishingly deft and incisive.’ And it is, but it’s also astonishingly hopeful, a quality that Cheng has brought into her first novel.

In Room for a Stranger Meg, a woman in her seventies, who lives with her parrot, Atticus, invites a young student from Hong Kong into her home. Andy is a medical student and is going through a study related crisis. In adverse circumstances, the two draw closer together. But Cheng’s great triumph here is that aside from the satisfying humorous moments (we see Meg’s meat and three veg cooking through Andy’s horrified eyes) there are no easy answers or charming moral lessons to be learned here. There are only complex and multifaceted human relationships, which are the most interesting kind.

 

 

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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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 by Mākaro Press in September. She is currently Overland’s fiction reviewer.

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