Breathing Under Water (2016)

There is something special about how Australian’s approach surfing. Partly,almost by accident,  a lifestyle choice and then as a real choice of a career, a professionalism that has seen surfing as a part of who we are. Many nations surf, but none approach it with a balance of aggression and respect. The early chapters evoke something rare: a novel that does capture the harsh beauty of the Australian surfing culture. With echoes of Winton’s Lockie Leonard and Breath, and even Malcom Knox’s This Life, Sophie Hardcastle has written a new chapter in young adult literature in Australia. 

The twins, Grace and Ben, live and breath the ocean. Their parents both love and respect the power and grace of the ocean. The portrait of their small coastal town is idealic; the school, the home, the shops, the beach all elegantly drawn from the perspective of Grace. 

The final year of school is often a catalyst for change. Decisions about the future, decisions that we were all told will shape the next fifty years. The novel made me yearn for those simple days of my school days, my memory vividly recalling a selfish desire, a time of no responsibility, with risk taking, road trips and house parties getting out of hand. Sophie might as well have had lived on the coast with me. 

The idealic life is perfectly juxtaposed with the under current of the town. Is everyone simply preparing to exit? To the city, to life beyond the simple. Even Ben, seemingly with professional surfing laying before him as a serious career choice, is touched by the drug and alcohol culture that seems intertwined with the coast lifestyle. In this sense, the novel is both a novel for now and one for an Australia that has left us. An Australia that was less consumed with the dollar, a place immune from the corporate, where one lives or where you went to school didn’t matter.

The tragic events and their aftermath will hurt- I’ve seen this, I’ve lived this. I could pick out friends and their character’s. Nearly all had a little piece of me in them. It is more than a story of someone taken too soon and  

 someone left behind. Hardcastle captures the fall and rise with beautiful prose and deeply intelligent characterisation. How one moves on after falling apart has never been perfected with words. But this comes close. 


The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes (2016)

Julian Barnes is one of those story tellers who is able to say so little, yet so much. There are traits of his non-fiction in his latest offering, The Noise of Time,  Barnes captures the life of Russian composer Shostakovich in a slender, tender and vivid novel. The effect of time- on memory, Power and freedom plays out as Russia transcends the Soviet ideals and the contemporary realities. 

This fictional biography – not quite Carey’s True History- seems to be more concerned with what is not immediately present. The ever evolving Power is constantly shadowing Shostakovich. The poignant establishing scenes, with the ‘character’ packing his suit case, standing next to his building, waiting to be arrested is one of the most darkly comical pieces of literature from Barnes.

The internal debates that ravage the composer as he awaits his fate are more than comments on Soviet Russia. They raise questions that the arts face in every society, particularly more so in as extreme capitalism wants to define the economic value of every facet. As Shostakovich faces censorship as Stalin didn’t enjoy his opera of Lady MacBeth, the reality of being a pawn for the regime temps Shostakovich to flee. On the visit to America the darkly comical draws him back to Russia. All through this, he continues to compose, not producing art, but simply being.

The travel through time- every leap year bringing something evil upon our man (as he comes to feel to embody anyone) works brilliantly in the paranoid mind of the brilliant composer. It is those missing pieces, the figures of history, without a voice, marginalised, that makes the novel a special exploration of time and space and the human mind. 

As the novel draws together the events of the past and sweeps into Shostakovich’s mind, the reading does become weighted down with convetion and the scarcity of interaction with over characters. 

It is a stunning novel, one not stagnant or consumed by the contraits of the genre, instead it rejoices in the importance of art, so important that those in Power do their all to wield influence.

The Infinite Sea, Rick Yancey

A thrilling, sophiscated sci-fi, dystopia novel that plunges between the real and the unreal just enough to build a compelling character driven novel. It is Yancey’s follow up to 5th Wave and his style has grown, with flash points of plot and character being built slowly, as if he is more confident with his characters.

The setting is key. This is America. There’s plenty of heavy weapons just laying around for the group of survivors (or are they aliens too? Implanted many decades ago to learn the ways of the humans?) to use against the aliens. There’s a passion and commitment to the American ideal of freedom (though we know there’s 150+ nations with freedom), yet it is that American zeal for Liberty that drives so much of the novel. Freedom American style involves a lot of violent death; perhaps as Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam et al could tell you. 

The interlocking of pre-aliens and post-alien world was hinted at throughout the 5th Wave. Here it confronts Cassie and drives the majority of the narrative. Cassie makes the novel- a young woman, strong, resourceful. Yet, there’s still something immature and unrealistic about Yancey’s representation. In the middle of a war of the worlds, would she be still looking to kiss the boys around her? In contrast, Yancey’s intricate details of the aliens plans, and how embedded they are, drip throughout the novel. 

I’m still not sure about the structure and plays on time and place, or even who the target audience may be- yes, young adult readers would love this, but it is so violent. Though, I’ll grab the third in the series as soon as it is released!

Comfort Zone, Lindsay Tanner

Jack is an Everyman. He drives a cab; lives by himself, from meal to meal, from tv show to tv show, cigarette to cigarette. He’s a man who has been left behind by his world. Melbourne, the most European place in Australia. A place of cultures from around the world. Constant change has a remarkable effect on people- whether that is the weather, or cultures- it can create disenfranchisement, a sense of rejection. 

That’s Jack. On the edge of society, rejecting this new world of people and cultures. A world where everyone isn’t like him. It isn’t that Jack is a bad person; his views of multiculturalism are shard by thousands, it is just that soon the world will come crashing down and Jack will either adapt or get lost.

Lindsay Tanner is one of the more talented politicians of the last twenty years. A member of the left faction, upon the election of the Rudd government in 2007 saw him in a senior role in the first Labor federal government since 1996. He was instrumental in the early period of Rudd’s prime ministership. However, upon Julia Gillard’s ascent to the prime ministership, Tanner elected to return to the backbench. 

Certainly, he can write. His vistas of Melbourne are quirky and heartfelt, a world constantly changing. The astute depictions of Melbourne are measured against some clever positioning of characters. Jack the cab driver, fearful of this new world, is thrown into helping a young Somali woman and her children. Suddenly, after his simple life, he has complications. 

Tanner’s prose is simplistic and cliche in places, something that took away the lovable evolution of Jack into someone more than the Everyman. The message is straight forward: we might hold prejudices, but if we actually spent time with those different to us, we would learn to love the world of many cultures. This is a warm novel, a comfortable novel that never gets the reader out of their comfort zone. 

Rush Oh! By Shirley Barrett 

Traversing the far south coast of NSW, the novel centres on the real-life Davidsons, whalers of Eden. The beautiful coast, the habits of the whalers (and whalers alike) are capture with heart. It is from many years past that Mary Davidson reflects upon life relying upon the whale season. Mary is piecing together the family history, a memoir of a people and time almost forgotten. 

It is obvious that Barrett is a skilled story teller; there’s enough mystery and missing elements to draw the reader through the life of a teenager, de facto mother hen. But. There’s a sense of risk minimisation and the middle ground being taken in Barrett’s first novel. The novel is not profound or compelling. 

The research and recounts of the whale hunts are well paced pieces of prose, but the larrikin characters of the town and of the whalers crew are just bland. The most striking features are when Mary’s voice from the present intersects with events of the past. The death of her brother on the Western Front is a mere footnote, so too her father’s passing or even the gradual economic decrease of the value of the slaughter of whales is passed over. The novel tries to be nostalgic; but who’s nostalgic for Australia’s whale industry? Yes, the whale season is a bad one; that’s because their numbers had been decimated by whaling families like the Davidsons. 

The condescending depiction of the Anoriginal crew members- vauled for the physical capabilities- reminds me of many who worship Aboriginal footballers but happily dismiss questions of legal and symbolic recognition of Aboriginal people. While Barrett notes that they worked under the same conditions for the same pay, rare even today, the fact is they were hunting an animal that many of their people found to be spiritually significant. 

If this is what gets published and wide spread release in the ever decreasing Australians literary field, I am afraid for the future of Australian literature. 

Island Home, Tim Winton

Moated in by oceans, sharing no borders…curious, oppressed by the relentless familiarity of their surroundings.

Tim Winton’s writing has always evoked the landscapes of Australia. It is itched into the skin of his characters, it is dripping from the dialogue. Every part of his writing feels as if it has come from the land, that it is of the land. Winton’s writes of the land as a religious experience. At no point does he fall into cliche; nostalgia is absent. It is a remarkable person who is able to look back, write and make every sentence fresh.

In his non-fiction writing, Winton’s poignant poetic phrases are no less powerful, provoking the inner workings of one of Australia’s most celebrated thinkers. Island Home is a rare piece of non-fiction for Winton. After reading this you will want to know more. He touches on his thoughts of the current fear and loathing political climate, he transcends environmental and green politics. I want to know his thoughts on Australia’s foreign policy; our place on the world stage; his view on what Australia might be like in 20/20.

Island Home travels across various parts of Winton’s life and career. The early days and his warm reflections of a childhood full of freedom and the bush and the sea is most profound. What might come across as self-indulgent by a less person (and writer) is instead evocative and stunning in its pure simplicity. His reflections on his time at WAIT are striking for their honesty. All the way through the land, the sea and that which grows from it, is celebrated. Yet, he never appears to be an expert or didactic. Winton should write more non-fiction, he should write in the first person more.

A piece of art about Australia by an Australian, when it is about the people or the land, is nearly always political. There’s a great fear of artists reaching beyond entertainment into political discourse. The land in Australia has always been political. It has always been about power. But it is the spiritual power that Winton is most concerned about; protecting the land is a spiritual act. It is not solely a political act. Winton’s portrait of the land reaches into the political. This passage from ‘Paying Respect’ was my favourite part of the book:

As a kid from a devout religious family I was always acutely aware of how skittish people could be about anything to do with the sacred. My neighbours and schoolmates did not exactly welcome expressions of spiritual devotion- that sort of thing made them very uncomfortable, even angry – and in this regards, despite two generations of multiculturalism, Australians haven’t changed much. We’re pretty good at maintaining a secular public space, and that’s worth celebrating, but we’re a bit tin-eared about matters of religion and anxious about using terms like ‘sacred’. This strikes me as a bit ironic, for we live on the most spiritually potent continent imaginable. But apart from family, the only thing sacred to most of us is our much-vaunted ‘way of life.’ And what is that but an unspecified mixture of political, financial and spatial liberties enjoyed in sunshine at the island’s margins? Not even the confected sanctification of Anzac Day can rival it. But the recent recommissioning and deliberate sacralization of the Gallipoli myth is telling, because it suggests a spiritual vacuum, a palpable absence at our core, as if deep down, ordinary folks want to submit to something grand and sublime. But Anzac has been coarsened by the politics of nostalgic regression. It’s close to becoming the sort of nationalist death cult we revile when it appears in others places or under a different flag, and I fail to see how such a false sense of the false sense of the scared nourishes the individual or the community, because the only thing it sustains is the security of those who send our young men and women to new wars, some of which have proven every bit as pointless and wasteful as the bungled adventure in the Dardanelles in 1915.

Island Home was a pure joy to read and experience. You will walk away intensely jealous. You will look at the land differently; you will look at yourself and your family and friends and notice how the land has shaped them. Take your time; enjoy it.

its’ palce on