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. 

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. 

Nutshell, Ian McEwan (2016)

A story narrated from the perspective of a child in utereo. We have all been there. A place where you are totally at the mercy of those around you, essentially useless. It is the one passage of time that each human experiences: being carried, birth. It is different to that other experience we will all experience: death. 

There is no need for an introduction to Ian McEwan. He is one of the greatest novelists; there’s no ‘in our time’ required. He is the novels’ Bob Dylan, a writer of profound simplicity and style. There’s no reinvention required. It is about character.

My favourite line: memories are poor for past failures. 

A soon to be first time mother. A husband- a poet, a man who wants to be loved. And a brother, successful, secure and loyal to his brother’s wife. And we learn this from the baby who is privy to every conversation, the ultimate omnipresent narrator.

The tingle you get from reading McEwan comes from how thoughts and feelings are captured. Here the unborn feels it’s mother’s heart beat increase; it feels stress; it changes moods with a glass of wine. It worries when it hears of a plot to kill it’s father. 

A life ends, a life begins. The only compliant? Like life, it’s too short. 

The Mandibles (2016)

It’s the administration of America’s first Spanish speaking President; the US dollar has been replaced as the world’s most dominant currency; it’s not just the economy- political, military and cultural influence has shifted from the US to Asia.

That’s the picture Lionel Shriver paints of America in 2029. It reads like a Tea Party manifesto or a speech by Donald Trump. It is the nightmare of every pure-breed, white American. When so many American’s believe that their ‘way of life’ is under attack, it is a very provocative literary picture.

The Mandibles are an all American family. They have worked hard, they have been successful in their fields of study, but as their world falls a part, none of that matters. All the qualifications and bank accounts matter for nothing.

The thread that keeps the family together is the resourceful realist Willing. How else to survive the end of the American way but by adapting to the new status quo. It is now survival of the fittest, not the survival of the richest.

After the fall- the absence of the rule of law, the absence of any governmental structure, the republic is restored. The pendulum swings back; the new America is controlled by the government and corporations- mostly out of India and China- every movement, every purchase, every moment is tracked by the mammoth SCAB.

Only Nollie, Willing and Goog of the Mandibles survive the dark days. Nollie, the former famous writer, is one of Shriver’s most compelling characters. Willing is working in a local nursing home and Goog is a member of the entity of nightmares, SCAB. After another mass shooting, this time at Willing’s nursing home, Nollie and Willing decide to head for the free state of Nevada.

“Across the nation, Americans’ mental and physical health had vastly improved. Hardly anyone was fact. Allergies were rare, and these days if people did mention they avoided gluten, a piece of bread would probably kill them. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia had disappeared. Should a friend say they are depressed, something sad had happened. After a cascade of terrors on a life-or-death scale, nobody had the energy to be afraid of spiders, or confined spaces, or leaving the house. In the thirties, the wholesale bankruptcies of looted pharmacies, as well as a broad inability to cadge the readies for street drugs, had sent addicts into a countrywide cold turkey. Gyms shut, and personal trainers went the way of the incandescent light bulb. But repairing their own properties, tilling gardens, walking to save fuel, and beating intruders with baseball bats had rendered Americans impressively fit…

…It wasn’t that Americans had turned on oddity; they simply didn’t feel driven to fix it anymore.”

This Shriver’s best novel since We Need to Talk About Kevin. It is so because of the deeply flawed characters; her ability to vividly, but effortlessly see into the nightmare’s of the world’s greatest ever empire.



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.