Dry Milk – Huo Yan (Giramondo)
Huo Yan was born in 1987 and has already published eight books. She holds a Doctorate in Contemporary Literature, and in 2013 held a fellowship at the Michael King Writer’s Centre in Auckland, New Zealand, where she wrote this book. She has been called one of the strongest voices of China’s post 1980s literary generation. She writes fluidly, sweetly and naturally, and this work in particular will usher you in and buoy you along, then sink you into absolute horror.
John Lee is a migrant from Beijing who lives in Auckland with a wife he doesn’t love. Compelled by a hopeless infatuation, he agrees to house a young female student. Literature which examines cultural encounters often has certain tropes; dislocation, conflict, grief, placelessness. These tropes are cleverly, almost entirely subsumed here, existent but as placeholders. John Lee’s loneliness is cultural, sure, but it’s also universal. Yan’s writing is reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s in its relentless presentness. The narrative, and John Lee’s interior life, are so dynamic that the character doesn’t seem placeless at all. Instead, the drama Yan quickly sets up and the interior tensions in this story act as a location so tangible you’d like to escape it.
Not for the soft-hearted, Yan’s Dry Milk is another searingly good work published by Giramondo.
Act of Grace – Anna Krien (Black Inc.)
Anna Krien is a journalist and the author of Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, also published by Black Inc. She has been described alongside Helen Garner as a writer who explodes the definition of what non-fiction can be. Night Games focussed on a real life rape trial and walked the fine line between thoughtful journalism and gratuitousness. In this, her debut novel, Krien again walks that line, but unfortunately falters. Who has the right to write as ‘Other’? These judgments are always subjective but, we might suggest, perhaps Krien does not.
The cultures featured here are multitudinous: we go from Iraq to Perth to Melbourne, we touch on Saddam Hussien and the Iraq War and army violence towards children, we have characters from many cultural backgrounds, and a racist protagonist, Toohey, a former soldier. All of which is not damning in itself. But the bare reiterations of a kind of fashionable cultural consciousness in the novel read as overly muscularly voiced:
‘It was horrible. The woman, she was wearing the whole bit, you know, black gown, veil, covering everything […]’
Again Bron interrupted. ‘I think you’ve made some fairly big assumptions here, Jean. Who are you to say what she should be wearing? […] Maybe it was her choice to wear the niqab? Was it a niqab, Jean? Or a chador? A hijab?’
Act of Grace, is touted by Black Inc. as ‘in the tradition of The Slap’. However, it can be argued that Christos Tsiolkas is always located in the communities he writes about. Act of Grace, by contrast, leaps between a plethora of characters of varying ethnicities and through various landscape and cultures, but the authorial voice seems too removed from the cultures traversed.
Attraction – Ruby Porter (Text Publishing)
There’s something hideously compelling about Ruby Porter’s Attraction, and I say this in the most flattering way. Winner of the Michael Gifkins Prize in 2018, Attraction is New Zealand writer Porter’s debut novel. Three girls go on a road trip and stay in a bach/crib/beach house. Are they friends? Are they lovers? If they are lovers, are the relationships real or superficial? Porter’s style is spare, immediate and pared back. The cumulative effect is one of painful directness. The reader is pulled from moment to moment into the main characters’ inner life. The overwhelming feeling of this inner life is of a kind of miasma. But as far as depictions of miasmas go, this is a beautifully articulated one.
Despite the constant invocations of place throughout this novel, through language (te reo Māori), placenames and the tracing of physical transitions, this is an oddly placeless book. The characters exist in their own emotional landscapes, performing feedback loops through jealousy, compulsive eating habits (or non-eating habits), almost casual mortifications of the female body, meaningless sexual encounters, and grief. Even though places are named the main character floats, as if carried above the landscape. The central character’s obsession with place serves to highlight her own rootlessness and confusion in the face of broader and personal inheritances of violence. Porter is an intriguing new voice.
Imminence – Mariana Dimópulos; trans. by Alice Whitmore (Giramondo)
Mariana Dimópulos’ has written three novels, including All My Goodbyes. Her latest offering, Imminence, has been published by Giramondo, and it’s so good it deserves to be read all in one sitting. Dimópulos’ prose is the kind of writing that will distract you from your everyday life, as you rush through tasks in order to get back to her odd, skewed, compelling world. Dimópulos’ was born in Beunos Aires, where she studied philosophy. She works as a translator.
And translation is a theme of this book, or rather, her main character Irina’s attempt to translate the human behaviours she sees around her into something understandable. Irina is awash in the first days of early motherhood, bemused by the new language she is required to learn: that of the baby’s cries, the baby’s innumerable needs. What is not clear is whether Irina, with her need to transform everyday interactions into mathematical, logical equations, is somewhere on a behavioural spectrum, or if she is suffering postnatal distress. The baby is a fascinating object, one she regards from a distance, with interest.
In her overturning of the script of new motherhood, which dictates immediate and complete adoration from the birthing parent, Dimópulos raises questions about what it is to be feminine, or to be read as feminine. ‘I’m not a lady,’ Irina explains. And again: ‘I’m not a woman, either.’
The Lifted Brow describes Dimópulos’ prose as ‘stark and poetic’. She has been called ‘icy’. These descriptions are accurate, but might not adequately convey the true gut-punching impact of Dimópulos’ work. And at the heart of the text a wry humour is maintained, interlaced throughout everything, and making the novel all the more dark. Unreservedly recommended.
Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines – Gay’Wu Group of Women (Allen & Unwin)
The Gay’Wu Group of Women is a collaboration between five Yolnu women and three non-aboriginal women over a decade. Songspirals are songs sung by Aboriginal people to awaken country, described here as ‘radically different ways of understanding the relationship people can have with the landscape.’ This book offers women’s voices in a field traditionally dominated by accounts of men singing songlines. Journalist Kerry O’Brien described this book as a ‘generous invitation for the rest of us.’ Yolnu women from North East Arnem Land keen Milkarri, variously described as poems, maps, guides, or chants. But, the women say, ‘it is hard to translate the concept of Milkarri into English so we are writing this book to explain it to you.’
From the beginning of the book:
When the British came they didn’t see, or they ignored or refused to see, the songspirals, the Law, the culture that is here. And they claimed the land. […] But the land was already claimed.
The book opens with a dedication to a grandfather of the women. Their dedication highlights the grandfather’s yumalil – harmony or voice. The women continue: ‘Now it is our responsibility to share.’ In this way the whole of Songspirals is contextualised in an ongoing narrative of creation, in which the handing down of story is accompanied by the responsibility of sharing it. The picture offered is a network of narratives which we are invited to enter. This book is a gift, offered in the hope of creating new understandings.
The clouds gather, the place is waiting in calmness.
[…] I turn, pointing towards my homeland; the clouds are there at Rurruwuy for me, for I am of that place.