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Review

March in fiction

Damascus – Christos Tsiolkas (Allen and Unwin)

Let’s be real; Christos Tsiolkas is a god in whatever it is that we may call ‘Australian fiction’. He has been lauded most notably for his depictions of gritty, contemporary Australian life – depictions that dissect the complexities of our urban landscapes, with their intersecting cultures and classes. What a joy to read, then, this riveting and almost completely unexpected work.

At first, Damascus appears to be a surprising deviation from Tsiolkas’ usual subjects. But in fact, from his debut Loaded to the Commonwealth prize award-winning The Slap – which propelled him into international fame – Tsiolkas has always dealt in polarities: the sacred and the profane, the captivating and the controversial, the attractive and the off-putting. If we read into the deeper undertones which have always existed in Tsiolkas’ novels, this book should not come as such a surprise. But a novel about Saul? A novel about the Christian revolution and the beginnings of the Christian church? Shocking, but not unwelcome.

Here is a work that weaves the spiritual, religious aspects of Tsiolkas’ oeuvre into something that is less of a historical reconstruction and more a violently explosive exploration. Tsiolkas has taken characters from antiquity and made them nuanced, real and fraught. He works his story from Saul, who is in the process of converting, to Lydia, who is also a convert, to Paul’s gaoler, to a slave owner, to Timothy, Paul’s companion. As with all of Tsiolkas’ work, his prose is so immediate and affecting that it swallows you whole.

An adjective that is applicable to Tsiolkas’ other novels applies here: visceral. So brutal in its rendering of details and emotions to be, at times, almost unbearable. It’s a tribute to Tsiolkas as a writer that he can bring 2000-year-old figures to life in this way. This is an author at the peak of his career, doing whatever he wants, and doing it fabulously.

 

The Breeding Season – Amanda Niehaus (Allen and Unwin)

Amanda Neihaus is a scientist and a writer living in Brisbane. This novel originates from her short story ‘The Breeding Season’, which won the VU Short Story prize in 2017, and it’s is no ordinary debut. Neihaus writes of love and sex and death with astonishing assuredness.

Elise and Dan, a scientist and a writer respectively, are dealing with a punishing and relentless grief. How do we process the inevitable vulnerability of living in the world, which is in itself a delicate ecosystem? This book is as much about opposing ways of coping as it is about Elise and Dan’s finely-drawn relationship.

The descriptions in this book are vivid and precise. Neihaus paints with a scientist’s eye. But the emotional clout of this work is extreme. With the same razor-sharp lens she uses on flora and fauna, Neihaus reflects our human emotions, the naked and the ugly, and dares us to look. An excellent novel.

 

The Coconut Children – Vivian Pham (Penguin Books)

The Coconut Children is rich and incredible, and unmistakeably wholly formed. Reading new author Vivian Pham’s work is like discovering a pack of perfectly ripened strawberries and a bottle of beer at the back of the fridge. It’s unlikely, it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, you just have to embrace the whole experience.

Pham’s father escaped from Vietnam on a boat when he was seventeen, and Pham herself moved to Sydney at a very young age. She wrote the first iteration of The Coconut Children at seventeen. Benjamin Law writes that to read her is to be ‘awed’; Dave Eggers describes Pham’s voice as ‘indispensible’ to her generation. High praise, and entirely deserved. Reading Pham is like reading a young Salmon Rushdie or a Zadie Smith. Her inventiveness with language and her keen read on the strata of society make The Coconut Children essential reading.

Pham writes with refreshing exuberance, particularly when depicting scenes of unabashed hardship, urban poverty, cultural alienation, alcoholism and violence. All are explored with a light touch, filtered through Pham’s joyous language and rendered somehow translatable. Sonny is a child of the Vietnamese diaspora; her crush, Vince, is too. But Pham’s story is about trauma, growing up and becoming as much as it is about belonging. Unparalleled, unmooring.  

 

Wild Fearless Chests – Mandy Beaumont (Hachette)

Wild Fearless Chests by first–time author Mandy Beaumont was shortlisted for the 2018 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. Beaumont’s prose has been called brutal and uncompromising, and it is all that. She rips the lid from everyday life, revealing the things we would rather not see: abuse, trauma, rape, manipulation, physical vulnerability. For story upon story in this book, we are hammered with truths about what might be happening in the house next door. In particular, to women.

Just because Beaumont’s female characters are struggling does not mean they are all similar, or helpless. As in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, her characters are stroppy, empowered, smart, or they are oppressed, rendered helpless by circumstance. Beaumont’s dissection of societal constructs around abuse poses a central argument: the denigration of women and the vulnerable is rooted in our systems, and anyone may be the victim at any time. An important book.

 

Cherry Beach – Laura McPhee-Browne (Text Publishing)

Much has been made of Laura McPhee-Browne’s explorations of female relationships in what might be superficially described as a coming-of-age novel. But Cherry Beach is much more complex than it first appears to be. How do you queer fiction without playing into obvious tropes? How do you write about sexualities and relationships without falling into the space prepared for such fictions? McPhee-Browne has provided an answer.

In Cherry Beach, the reader skates over the straightforward prose like on black ice on a pond, unable to comprehend what lies underneath. Ness, the narrator of this work, is at first presented as Hetty’s friend. But, as we progress, we find she loves Hetty, idolises her. Ness and Hetty travel to Toronto, where they live in a share house together. As Hetty becomes distant, Ness is propelled into self-exploration, dating a woman and teetering on the cusp of finding out who she might be.

‘The cusp’ as a concept, is pretty much the location of this novel. The characters, on the cusp of adulthood, of finding themselves, of becoming more self-realised, perform a delicate balancing act to maintain their friendship. But will they fall apart?

McPhee-Browne is an exciting addition to this generation of writers. 

 

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 in 2019 by Mākaro Press. She is currently Overland’s fiction reviewer.

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