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.

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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. 

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. 

Dexter Is Dead, Jeff Lindsey

This is the final in the series that inspired the TV series Dexter. Having read all the books and been an avid fan of the TV series, it is how the books were vastly different in their characters and plot that made them so intriguing. While Lindsey’s style- often full of recount and the mundane- is less than appealing, the characters gain much more depth in this final installment.

In the final novel of the Dexter series we meet the Devil Dexter in jail. He has been framed for murders he hasn’t committed. Nothing worries Dexter more than this label of murder when he actually hasn’t been the one to do the said murdering. We are given what feels like minute by minute details of his solitary confinement. Lindsey, much more than the TV series, gives us a Dexter that is uniquely selfish and self-centred.

Dexter waits. Deborah, his sister, of course will come and save him, right? The interplay between the adopted pair is the most interesting in this bland novel. Deborah soon disowns her ‘brother’ and takes on his three children.

Instead of Deborah saving him, it is his real brother, Brian who arrives. Suddenly full of cash and time for Dexter, Brian arrives with a lawyer who has a reputation of getting the most heinous criminals off their charges. Before Dexter can start to enjoy what feels like an endless foodies trip around Miami, Brian has some bad news. There’s a drug gang that he may or may not have ripped off and they might be trying to come after him. What else are brothers for, other than to help the other kill some unwanted scum? Instead of enjoying his freedom, Dexter joins his brother in a series of set pieces against some of the dumbest drug lords ever.

When the anti-climax of the Detective allegedly framing Dexter is killed, Dexter is once again called into action to save Deborah. This is something that has recurred throughout the Dexter novels: Deborah is the one to be saved, she is the true to his evil and must be saved at all costs.

The novel ends suddenly and obliviously. By the end it feels as if Lindsey’s heart isn’t truly into the characters; that’s a sad end to a fun series. While the novel wasn’t going to be a literary tour de force, some level of respect for the reader who has taken the ride through all the series may have helped. The endless internal monologues and the countless breakfasts, lunches and pointless meals recounted in such a repetitive way tarnishes the flowing and compelling plot line.

Eleven Seasons, Paul D. Carter

This is a rare rare novel. A novel that perfectly balances plot, character and beautiful prose. 

Jason is an only child, living with his work obsessed mother. They live together in a flat, outside the city. We first meet him at the start of high school. He is already bored with school, day dreaming. His world is his friend Hayden, his football cards and being there for his mother. 

Set in the 1980’s Carter’s novel has the right amount of cultural references and tight plot lines to startle and provoke. The sweeping football scenes are expertly seen through the young man’s eye. Descriptive sport scenes are not easily done, particularly something so unique as AFL. Carter’s scenes are concise, understated and real. The Hawks come alive and the Demi-God figures are symbols of our societies obsession with all things sport. The contrast between Jason’s obsession with the backline of the Hawks and his workshop of the silky skills and his mother working double shifts to make ends meet is a biting critique. While set in the 80’s not much has changed. Sure we might be instantly connected to the world around us, but the Australia of drunks, sport and women as objects is seen through the prism of Melbourne in the 1980’s. 

Jason trains and trains and trains. His body responds, he plays hard and fair. He stands out from the crowd. You can’t but help love this kid. For all his talent on the football field, he still vacuums for his mother, he still shakes the oppositions hands. But there’s something under the skin; the constantly knocking of being accepted for more than sporting potential. We all know someone, talented, beyond belief, yet d rugs, girls, parties take over. They think they can combine the two. They change.

There’s gaps in Carter’s narrative. The dark secret of Jason’s father, his mother’s escape from the bush town of her youth, Jason’s disappearance, the missing years on the Gold Coast. The male dominated world of football is presented stunningly against Jason’s relationships with his mother, Zoe and Erin. There’s just feeling that everything is going to end up alright.

Jason’s return to Melbourne and the relationships he has with Erin and Zoe are painful real; he gets back into football, he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. I felt I know this man. 

The last scene is one of the warmest and most simple scenes in recent Australian literature. 

A beautifully constructed novel that will be another modern Melbourne classic. Read Monkey Grip, then read this, while listening to Paul Kelly. Read this, love it.

Amnesia, Peter Carey

The premise is brilliant. A disgraced journalist is transcribing audio tapes from a wanted cyber-terrorist. If caught, she will extradited to the US. The eccentric Peter Carey, of his short stories and characters like Tristian Smith, is in beautiful form. As always, a brash confidence. As always, a pure unadulterated joyful novel. As always, characters you hate and love.

I remained a socialist and a servant of the truth. I had been sued ninety-eight times before they brought me down with this one…

Felix Moore is an old style journalist. He knows where the bodies are buried. He knows how to tell as a story. He knows the importance of the truth. But is this a story that is bigger than him? Is the story worth his life?

The wind at this hour was cold and the passenger wrapped his op-shop wardrobe tight around him, the old grey trousers, red checked work shirt, green tweed jacket, not nearly thick enough to keep him warm. There was a light chop and the boat rose and slammed and he was frightened that it would become rougher.

The story reaches into Australia’s recent past. The trip into Brisbane during the American occupation in world war 2 is startling and could be an entire novel. Always, Carey plays with time and place, moving between the past and Felix, typing away in a little shack on the Hawkesbury.

Thus had his days passed, like writers’ days have passed, in solitary labour, and just as housemaid, nuns, priests and religious devotees of all kinds are known to form their bodies to the shape of their trade, producing lasting physical distort actions once recognised as distinct surgical conditions, Felix Moore hunched his wide shoulders around his machine.

There is so much going on in this novel. There is a fog of characters and dramatic triangles of characters. I can’t imagine Carey’s editor advising him to break the story. The story of Brisbane, of the pair of star crossed hackers and their expose of environmental destruction, the alleged American coup of Whitlam. Some writers could rely on one thread of those lines and still not be anywhere near Carey’s handle on such a range of narrative lines.

Human Capital, Stephen Amidon

A sprawling character assessment that takes place in wealthy north east America over a spring, prior to September 11.

There is Shannon; 17; bright, introspective, estranged from her mother; ex-girlfriend to Jamie (a wealthy, popular drunk); current girl friend (in secret) to Ian (a dark artist with mysterious past).

Her father, Drew, having been bestowed Shannon after his first wife had left, is on the edge of a cliff. His wife, Ronnie, is pregnant with twins; his father’s business, Hagel and Son, is being eaten alive by the capitalism programmed into normally mild mannered Americans. He is a small fish in a pond of hedge funds and SUVs.

Thought out the two families intersect, ambition on the part of Drew and the longing for Shannon by Jamie means the two worlds do cross paths, if only fleetingly and with lies on the side.

If there is a likeable character in the novel, perhaps it is Ian. With his long flowing hair, his artistic hopes and his devotion to Shannon, he is Othello is this tale of money and status. The absence of his mother-cancer- draws comparison with Shannon; though Shannon, via her attendance at Country Day (think the publicly funded private schools of Sydney) and romance with Jamie, is part of the majority.

In return, the other family at the centre of this Franzen-lite story, is the Mannings. From the outside, headed by Quint; the embodiment of American inventiveness and capitalism. This all American father, with quiet stares and rages at his less than perfect son, is a perfectly constructed anti-hero. His own absence, in the name of mysterious hedge funds and invisible riches is masked by his his inability to connect with his wife and three children.

When, half way through the novel an accident of randomness brings together the circling worlds of the Hagels and Mannings, the true nature of each parent is seen. Drew doesn’t believe Shannon; Quint can’t bring himself to believe his son. It is Ronnie and Carrie, imperfect females along side jealous, overly ambitious men, that draw together the truth. Of course, the truth always does hurt and in this America, those with the most money are insulated from any perceived pain.

None know of the existence of Ian until it is too late; he acts as a metaphor of that vast majority forgotten by politicians and the elite of America.

This is a very good novel that has a flowing, natural prose style; it is a study of society that should look inward and consider its contradictions and inequalities.