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.

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. 

Purity, Jonathan Franzen

I first met Franzen at the time of The Corrections. I can vividly recall reading his first fiction release Twenty- Seventh City in the south of France. Freedom was a pure joy to read; by then Franzen was an iconic figure in American literature. While all his works are uniquely American, the sparse range of characters and Franzen’s flowing narrative, have a universal appeal. With Purity, Franzen is now in that position of being very much a part of popular culture and the literary establishment. 

Purity is Pip Tyler, an only child to a single mother with a variety of personality disorders. They have grown up together, at times in poverty and with a healthy disillusionment with the American Dream. There’s a beautiful simplicity to their relationship. As a college educated female, Pip sees the world starting to engulf her. With her college fees being a constant reminder that capitalism contains every fibre of America and the world. 

The rambling share house brings Pip in contact with the lonely, the ill, the 99%. Pip is in love with an unattainable man. This isn’t the first unrequited love strand of the novel. Despite her external confidence and her wit and humour, Pip needs to know who her father is. An increasing perspective is that this confident young woman needs to know this man. For the entire novel, Pip is continually played at needing to fill this void in her life with a man.

As with all his work, there’s an underlining realism with the prose. Coming with a history in writing non-fiction, Franzen’s meandering realism is easy and complex. You will be convinced you are in a story that has happened. That’s been the beauty of Franzen’s other works; brutal, painful depictions of the real America. Something akin to American Beauty; yet as much as I loved Pip, this grand story of family has more in common with the Bold and The Beautiful. 

The novel is brilliant. I doubt that there will be a better novel released this year. The time Franzen takes to draw the reader into dark past of Pip’s family is a stunning example of his skill. The intricate portraits of people from across the social spectrum, retracing their steps from Europe is vivid, compelling reading. There’s light and dark in every cause, in every family. 

The vast array of characters and cultural connections are mere side shows to Franzen’s ability to build character. The underworld of hackers (some darkly comic elements featuring Assange and Franzen’s creation, Andras) trying to save the world is just a bridge to Pip locating who she is and where she comes from. 

Station Eleven, Emily St.John Mandel

The greatest dystopian novels (Brave New World, 1984, Children of Men, The Road, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and  Madd Adam series) are timeless as they have a realistic underlining current. They resemble our world. The people in them could easily be us. Station Eleven (2014) is another novel to add to that list of novels that turn the mirror on humanity.

It is Year 20.

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more orchestra lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years.

This is a novel that gives us the end of the world as we know it. In this world a small band of artists-singers, musicians, actors- have banded together to travel a route through the desolate remains of civilisation. Each settlement- hamlets of people thrown together after the plague- is granted an audience with the troupe. On the bill, only Shakespeare. 

No more countries, all borders unmanned. 

The novel is deeply moving. The years of memories laying wasted. The small traces of hate and ignorance driving some of the survivors. But there is light here. One of the layers of stories takes us into the world of three time divorced actor, Arthur. The night before the beginning of the end, he dies on stage. As King Lear he falls to the stage, dead. A man in the audience rises and attempts CPR. One man dies; another gets to see the end of the world. In the cast, a child actor. Now twenty years later, she is one of the players in the Travelling Symphony. She does not remember how she got the scar across her face, but she does remember Arthur’s body limp on stage. This is a novel of memories. Some to be forgotten, others to be treasured. 

No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pick up. 

Arthur’s only true friend hears the news of the death, he moves quickly and heads to Toronto. He is on the last flight out of New York. As the world collapses, a giant black hole consuming itself, he is locked in an airport. Stuck, he begins collating a museum of useless items. This Museum of Civilisation, in this second dark age, a darkly comic feature of the novel. He sends his days curating and providing tours. Drivers licences, credit cards, passports, iPads, iPhones, laptops, all on display. He becomes know around the survivors and stories filter through the trade routes of this museum of the useless.

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expression of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

The group travels the same route, performing to people that they get to know. Each ‘year’ returning, changes, dramatic and otherwise are noted. In one place the people are particularly toxic. A prophet proclaims he is the light. As noted by Jeevan (one of six characters entwined), there’s been a few people call themselves that. The prophet claims he has been wronged by the group. He hunts them down until a final confrontation. 

This is a richly textured novel. The heart and warmth of the novel is profound, so to its hurt and pain. Every character has lost something. Whether it is social media, or a family and friends, the question of what to remember and teach to the young survivors is a compelling element of the novel. The style flows so easily; time and place are important as Mandel takes you into Arthur’s world. As someone who dies on the night the plague is released on North America, his influence is one of the striking features. The Hollywood bubble shown is darkly contrasted with the post-plague world. One of the questions is, which world would you prefer?

I read this in just three days. I wish I had written this. While comparing novels is not my way, and perhaps this won’t be a 1984 or Brave New World, maybe no one else in the world will ever read (much like the graphic novel that recurs throughout the novel) this; perhaps the novel will be forgotten in years to come. None of that matters, as I got to read this and love it. I will remember this novel. 

How I live now – Meg Rosoff

This is a frantic and chaotic novel. Daisy, the savvy New Yorker narrator comes across as an honest and witty host. Rosoff’s use of the diary form allows for drifting sentences, often with three or more ideas. This could grate, if you are looking for a literary classic. This is a character and plot driven novel. The pace is so rapid, there is no time to saviour the drama. Over the few hours it took me to read the novella (the novel being just 200 or so pages) the voice of Daisy makes up for the teenager angst.

The change in Daisy is intimate. The sudden departure from her father and step-mother (is an evil step-mother too cliche?), from New York to pristine English countryside with long lost cousins is only the beginning of her changes. The over-dramatic reflections on her previous life is balanced with her heartfelt reflection on her mother’s death. I am not sure who could make childbirth death darkly funny, but Rosoff’s does it with ease and heart.

The world is not unlike ours. The Internet, mobile phones, the constant connection to ‘news’. For months there is news of a world simmering with tension. War is afoot. The older generation are caught in the mystic haze of World War Two; one that comes across mythical to the teenagers. War isn’t glorified or sanitised. Invasion comes, oppression and tyranny is placed against the summer in which Daisy falls in love and we can’t help but love how she grows into a mother figure for Piper.

Daisy’s relationship with her aunt is beautifully controlled. Aunt Penn works as part of the peace process; when she leaves to be part of peace talks in Oslo and the children are left with a country side in full bloom. The beautiful house and cycle of life bring the cousins together; they naively believe the talk of war will not affect them. When bombs begin to destroy London and the east coast of America, the farm is an utopian retreat.

There is much discussion around the Internet about the relationship between Daisy and her cousin Edmond. Aside from a few brief references the physical attraction is not a major feature of the novel. Instead, it is that intellectual connection between humans thrown together in a world of chaos that is more important. Edmond is a stunning character, almost silent, relying on actions rather than words to show his genuinely exceptional abilities.

The tragic elements of the novel-there are many- are so subtle that the dramatic effect is profound. While I know this novel has been made into a film, I can only imagine the edges being reproduced on film. The dialogue is sparse and there are not the cinematic descriptions common to novel written with the sole purpose of selling off the film rights. This isn’t the diary of Anne Frank; it is a diary of what war would do to western civilisation in the 21st century.

Book 65 – The Outcast


There is a simple misconception about the immediate post war period. The last half of the 1940s and the 1950s are often characterised as a time of conservative nation building, of stability after two world wars. Of course, for every label is the contradiction. Heroes returned to rationing, to wives that had experienced personal liberty, much like their mothers in the first war, and there was a constant layer of generational conflict. Sadie Jones’ 2008 novel The Outcast enthrals and leaves many questions unanswered.

He wrote long stories and poems about sea battles in classical settings or doomed cavalry charges- not to show people- just because they were fun to do and he cold travel in his mind when he wrote them, and make the world just

Young Lewis, The Outcast.

I have no problem with strong female writers building male characters that are flawed. I can’t say I enjoy male writers constructing female perspectives though. With Jones, the clarity and tenderness of her exploration of the father-son relationship at the core. Lewis’ father, Gilbert is an absent father. Whether away in London with work or away at war, there is an absent father syndrome at play. There are questions about the incidents that act as the catalysts for conflict and if the father-son relationship is the fault of the physical acts.

‘You’re nothing but chaos and disgusting…’

Lewis is a tragic-hero. The events (handled with care, the reactions being observed with a humanism often lost, I won’t tell you the event though!) that shape him are obtained in a prologue that doesn’t have much of a role. At the end of the prologue, the event that is secondary to Lewis’ future is described and some of the tension is released. We know from early on what Lewis does to confirm his life as an outcast. There are only pieces of why Lewis does as he does.

The world had exploded, but Sunday lunch would go ahead usual.

There is no melodrama in Jones’ work. There is an honest and very 1950s English feel to it. These are wealthy people with homes in Surrey and apartments in London. They have maids and gardeners and dine at each other’s home without a care. You will feel for Lewis and the young women having to confront a generation of men who could fight wars but could not love.

He didn’t think about it, he went straight to a seat facing forwards, so that he could not see where he was going.

Older Lewis, The Outcast.