Michelle de Kretser has won the Commonwealth prize, the Miles Franklin Award, the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction, and been nominated for the Booker Prize. To say this, her fifth novel, is her best so far seems risky, given the quality of her other books. But this book is a glowing accomplishment, scathing and funny and apt in its lambasting of well-meaning Australians, so good it is atrocious. We can’t help but laugh along with de Kretser, just like we can’t help but ugly-sob when she rips her character’s lives apart at the seams. You might feel uncomfortably implicated somewhere along the line, but soon you realise the joke is not only on the tolerant, but on everyone. The lightness of De Kretser’s prose carries us into desolate landscapes, but in her hands we are never dismayed, only moved.
The epigraph at the start of The Life to Come is from Samuel Beckett:
CLOV: Do you believe in the life to come?
HAMM: Mine was always that.
And chapter one is called ‘The Fictive Self’. Such references and metafictional signalling are clear markers of ambition, and might strike scepticism into the reader’s heart. But de Kretser earns every literary reference.
This book, set variously in Sydney and Paris, and following a diverse range of characters, is both a brazen dissection of an elusive Australian identity and an internationally relevant tale. Sydney Morning Herald calls it ‘grand and intellectual’. Scotland on Sunday calls it ‘sprawlingly assured’ and ‘witty.’ It is all that. It’s also beautifully observed and engrossing. The five interlinked parts circle back on themselves, journeying through seemingly barely connected lives. When the circle completes itself, it’s a punch to the gut.
The Guardian quotes the translator, Celeste, in the novel:
‘Celeste asks her mother, “Why do Australians always go on about food?”
“Because they live in a country of no importance.”
‘Ouch!’ responds The Guardian. But for those willing to have a chuckle at our own excessive quinoa consumption, our dedication to ethical meat, and our support of ‘good causes’, The Life to Come might be your favourite read so far this year.
Lloyd Jones is also a past winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and a Man Booker shortlistee. He is most noted for his 2006 novel Mister Pip. The Cage has all the themes and the set-up of an internationally significant book. In an unnamed town, in an unnamed country, the townspeople receive two refugees, fleeing an unknown catastrophe. What follows is a study of human nature, which (spoiler alert!) turns out to be quite cruel. Helen Garner has called this work ‘shocking and profound’. But The Cage is a little too shocking, a little too literal, and cuts too close to the bone.
J.M.Coetzee did something similar in The Life and Times of Michael K, a claustrophobic novel in which Michael K stumbles about the countryside, unable to attain the correct documents for travel. But The Cage is from the point of view of the refugee’s oppressors, while the oppressed remain a cipher. Ágota Kristóf accomplished something similar too with The Notebook Trilogy, a fable-like tale that will make your heart clench in your chest. Jones’ The Cage may be read as a re-imagining of the circumstances currently being endured by those on Manus Island, or by refugees in Europe. But what aims at sensitive satirisation reads instead as a too-straightforward reproduction. This book may be important, but we do not come away with anything new to justify all the brutality.
Black Inc.’s Best Australian Stories series established itself a kind of signpost pointing toward what Australian literature is, or what it might be. In 2016’s collection, editor Charlotte Wood selected works that conveyed ‘messages from another realm’. This year’s collection, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, has starker aims: ‘This is how we wrote Australia,’ Clarke writes.
So what does Australia look like? According to these pages it’s a place of tangible but unvoiced losses, where both landscape and people pose constant, sickening threats. The ‘who’ that is lost in these stories are those most easily lost in real life: the Indigenous, women, children. Tony Birch provides a striking opening story that sets the tone for the collection. Jennifer Mills contributes a haunting parable, John Kinsella a disturbing tale about crimes kept hidden. Julie Koh provides satirical relief. Other standouts include Dominic Amerena and Elizabeth Flux’s stories, both about what it is like to be outside Aussie culture. Best Australian Stories 2017 conveys an Australian literature less concerned with decoration and more with going straight for the throat.
The Fish Girl won the 2017 Siezure Viva la Novella Prize, last earned by Stephen Wright’s moving A Second Life. Evocative and thoughtful, this novella is no less moving. Riwoe is an exciting author who has already attracted attention; her work also appears here in The Best Australian Stories 2017. The best novellas compress novel-worthy narratives into the scant space of a novella. Riwoe performs a trick here: her measured prose builds a distinctive world within the strictures of this form, creating a space that isn’t there. And we are left gasping at the end.
This story is framed within quotes from W. Somerset Maugham’s story ‘The Four Dutchmen.’ But The Fish Girl is told from the perspective of Maugham’s ‘Malay trollope.’ Mina is taken from her parents’ village to be a servant girl for a Dutchman. As Riwoe weaves details into this portrait of colonial inequality, we are carried along with Mina, involved in the sights and smells of Indonesia. When the blow comes like an axe-fall at the end it is like a scab has been picked from the colonial wound. Here is the truth in all its ugliness: hurtful and tragic. This is an author to watch.
Domenico Starnone is the author of thirteen works of fiction and one of Italy’s foremost writers. He has been described as a ‘postmodernist in the Italo Calvino vein’, ‘with a penchant for meta-narrative’ (The New York Times). For lovers, then, of Calvino and the more recently prominent Elena Ferrante, an exploration into Starnone is a must. You won’t be disappointed.
Starnone’s Trick is about about a marriage coming unstuck, and a dissection of the uneasy ways in which we inhabit familial roles (‘grandpa’, ‘grandson’). From the point of view of the elderly Daniele, the novel details a short stay with his grandson; hardly the material for a blockbuster. But in Starnone’s hands the hauntings and ghosts experienced by Daniele lead to an unbearable tension, creating a driving force that catapults you through the book.
In The Lifted Brow Review of Books, Rachel Wilson writes that ‘Translation should be invisible – if it doesn’t read as such, it hasn’t been translated well.’ This translation, and this translator, are not invisible, because Starnone’s work is translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, an author very visible in her own right. In the foreword Lahiri highlights issues of translation, drawing to attention what is also one of the themes of the novel: language and the slipperiness of representation. ‘Translation,’ she writes, ‘is an act of doubling and converting’, one with a ‘precarious’ outcome. The precariousness of the act of translation aside, this book is an astounding read, and Starnone is someone to add to your list of ‘essential authors to read.’