The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

What isn’t a Tim Winton novel in 21st Australia?

The tags of sentimentality and nostalgia have been used to describe his work since Cloudstreet despite nope of his novels since being set in the same time or place. There’s since vignettes of the WA landscape. The toxicity of the small country town, the hate and violence of a generation of men caught between the ANZAC myth and new reality of a plural Australia that – mostly- doesn’t take their shit anymore. It’s that generation between the Vietnam War era and the globalisation of Hawke and Keating in the 80’s. Instead of war or bar room brawls, it’s the kids that cop it. Or the wife. It’s something that has lingered in Winton’s writing since Breathe a violence of a culture marginalised. It’s as if one gender hasn’t evolved, taking the idolisation of ANZAC and the bronzed Aussie bush man and realising that the only power they may ever have is over their partner or kid.

The vernacular is still there. It’s not an Aussie twang, it’s not an ocker drawl. It’s a boy forced to grow up quickly, his mother suffering a long drawn out illness and his father, taken so suddenly, there’s a single minded response, it’s flight. As Jackson- Jaxie- bolts, he takes us into all the times it wasn’t flight, but there was only fight. In his desire not to be like his old man, he had become him. The school yard violence- the brutal simplicity that hacks back to the primitive is actually so true in 21st century Australia. It’s the lock out laws in response to random violence, it’s skyrocketing suspension numbers for violence. Hit a bully now and you are gone too, by the way.

The prose is electric, the capturing of Fintan simply poetic. Before you know it you are 200 pages in, then it happens. This is better than any film or TV series. This is a novelist who has aged to become even more poignant and powerful.


East West Street, Philippe Sands

The shared humanity that binds us has had a few moments when all hope seems lost. Humanities ability to be inhumane is well documented; none more so than the Nazi era. There is no series of events that have shaped every aspect of culture for so many. It still lingers through art, literature and film. And here Sands passionately and elegantly with how the people and their actions of Nazi Germany helped shape international human rights, international treaties on genocide and set precedents for laws protecting the individual from the state and groups from other groups. The only good thing coming from the close to 20 year period of Nazi influence over Europe? Perhaps. 

Sands maps a personal and professional connection from Polish-German-Ukraianian-Russian city of Lviv through World War I, the Great Depression, through the early days of Hitler and the subsequent human crisis of World War II. The deeply personal connections are so well drawn showcase how we are all interconnected and if only we realised this deep connection could we prevent what was to come. 

This is deeply satisfying and sad addition to the story of  a world where Nazism was dominant. I found the legal evolution of crimes against humanity and genocide profound. There’s so much of the language that the Nazi used still being thrown around today- about refugees, about Muslims, about groups against groups. Is there another period of humanities inability to see their connections? 

Autumn, Ali Smith

Oh wow. What a fresh and refreshing novel. Set in the aftermath of Brexit, but travelling between eras through the perspective of Elisabeth and her friend-neighbour-mentor-father figure Mr Gluck. Smith’s ability to capture Mr Gluck’s – ‘call me Daniel’- comatposed state is a work of art. 

Elisabeth is an art history lecturer, confronting a new Britain. A Britain that for the first time for many centuries is more insular, inward looking, xenophobic, regressing from the world they helped shape and reshape. The way divided Englnd is shown is raw, honest and deeply sad. Is Smith’s Autmun the kind of work we can expert in a post-truth Trump world? It will be the only thing to look forward too.

Daniel is Elisabeth’s neighbour. Reclusive, eccentric, mysterious. His past- European and the dark history of the 20th century s perfectly positioned to the European England Elisabeth grew up with. His first words every time he sees her capture him perfectly: ‘What are you reading?’

The friendship is more mentor/father than any such formal definition. He is the most singular influence on her life. It’s beautiful thing, a true equal, respectful partnership. After a decade a part she discovers he is in care and on his final days. She sits by his bed reading. The intersection of these painfully beautiful memories from Elisabeth and Daniel that are most dreamy and simply stunning. 

Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

There is such breath and humanity to any of Safran Foer’s works. 

There’s a deep sorrow that lingers throughout Here I Am.

There’s deep hope that never faulted throughhout Here I Am.

The Jewish American family slowing falling apart. Sam’s hand injury haunts them. An ageing patriarch, an ever loyal and loved dog dying and the land of the Jews under attack- by nature and by its neighbours. 

There’s so much going on in this novel. The relationship between Julia and Jacob, 16 years of marriage, is seemingly coming to an end. There’s such warmth and authenticity to the dialogue. The discovery of a second phone and explict text messages, Julia’s frank assessment: it would be easier if Jacob actually acted upon his words. She knows he can’t, that he doesn’t, and hasn’t. 

Jacob is a writer. Words mean everything to him. His TV show is watched by millions, but he is pouring his heart into a show about his family. The set pieces of dialogue around the kitchen table, in the car, visiting his grandfather are tight, funny, heartbreaking and endlessly compelling. There’s no one who can write like this. 

The intricatities of being Jewish is something I found to be so important to the novel. How a people after 5000 years of persecution remain so resolutely loyal and spiritually connected to their faith is something I will never fully understand. With each character this history lives. With each intersection in the novel, this past and the potential for the future to be different lives. There is such burden and such hope. 

The novel is a sprawling family saga. The divorce is just one part of the experience. The natural disaster that strikes Israel and the consequent war against the Jews could be straight from next week’s news. There’s no grandstanding. The withholding of medical supplies and food from the West Bank raises the moral dilemmas of the two state solution. But it’s Jacob’s answering of the call to return to Israel and to fight, and his subsequent choice to instead return home to his soon to be ex-wife and his children that is most profound. We do have choices, sometimes not making a choice is harder than making the right choice. 

This is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It will be in my top ten favourite novels. 

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

What an amazing trip; a surreal darkly hilariously vision of US society. Yes, it’s a satire, but there’s always an element of truth to any satirical depiction.

Dickens is a city that used to be. Suddenly wiped from the map for being a place of murder, drugs, gangs and an awful stench, it’s now back on the map. The narrator- a homeschooled, farmer, son, dispossessed, disillusioned and despairing man who is alone in the world. With singularity and wit he decides to return Dickens to his former glory- even though it didn’t have one- and that’s the funny part- making Dickens great again when it never was. Of course, the only way is to re-segregate the community. Whites and Latinos excluded from the school, from the newly painted city limits and of course, getting a slave. 

In the post-truth world of Trump et al, this is even more poignant. The rambling monologue and insane propositions are starkly drawn against a world who on the surface meekly accepts the narrator’s plan for Dickens. 

But it’s more than that. The father-son relationship that sets up the narrative is an intriguing one of love and distaste. 

Yes it won the Booker Prize. But read it anyway.