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.

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.

Almost Moon, Alice Sebold

Middle America, that sparse space between New York and LA, is one of dysfunctional and endless intriguing families. Alice Sebold is a highly talented writer. Perhaps only Franzen can claim to portray Middle America as horribly beautiful as Sebold. 

This novel begins with our narrative killing her mother. How else to begin a novel? But it not what it seems. Painstakingly Helen moves between the past and the present; something about the hurt in her voice transcends the obvious relief and pain that comes with loss.

” “Bitch,” she said. 

The thing about dementia is that sometimes you feel like the afflicted person has a trip wire to the truth, as if they they can see beneath the skin you hide in.”

There’s a pattern to my reading; that is they question memory, I read books that explore the plasticity of memory, they position memory as something to be revered and feared. With memory comes loss. Helen we learn has been divorced for many years; her children have left the suburban town of their childhood, the twin their mother has always called home. Her beloved father. A tragic figure that is always at the edge of every thought and action of Helen’s has also opted out. We soon learn that her mother, unlike every other family member can’t leave, instead she experiences (suffers from?) agoraphobia. She can’t leave. As Helen reflects, after her father’s sucicide, she replaced her father at her mother’s side. 

This is an interesting novel. There’s moments that are irrelevant to the wider plot- Helen’s affair with her best friend’s son and the painful portrayal of an intelligent, strong woman with a career as a life model. But those moments are nothing on the greater examination of Middle America. I wouldn’t hesitate to read more Sebold.

A Fortuate Life, AB Facey

First published in 1981, it would be easy to right this autobiography off as a piece of sentimental indulgence. It would be too easy to consider its publication simply due to its affirmation of all things Australians are often told to love about the nation. But while it is quite easy to read (the exposition almost void of any dialogue, the descriptions a matter of fact), the novel doesn’t simply act as a embodiment of nationalistic nostalgia.

Beginging with blunt and a drawn out recount of his early years, you immediately, (no matter your, ok my preconceived conclusions) feel for this man. As my brain kept telling me that the cliche tough life wasn’t fair from Lawson or Paterson, I couldn’t stop reading. I wanted to appreciate this epic life journey. And I did. His grandmother is an inspiring image, one that clearly shaped Albert’s attitudes and desire to help throughout his life. His promise to his grandmother to never touch a drink is heartfelt and shows a strength of character more than any of the war time heroics. 

Facey’s recount of his war experience is profound. While it may be unAustralian to question the heroic ANZAC (and I did wonder if this was published now if it would ever be published!), Facey’s ability to unwrap all the propaganda is his greatest power. Wounded, profoundly effected by death and destruction on both sides, he returns home to marry and settle down. He raises sons. He builds up farms. He works hard, he lives the Australian dream. With a heavy heart his recount of his sons war time experiences are short and to the point. His son pays the ultimate price, yet it barely rates more than a sentence. 

One of the lines around this work is that in no other country could an uneducated man, who writes in a folksy simple way, have his autobiography published, let alone the crucial acclaim. Yet the idea that Facey was uneducated is simplistic. Here is a man born into poverty. Here is a man who does everything to remain true to the values of his grandmother. His honesty, love and resilience through war, depression and the death of his beloved wife means he is far from uneducated. I believe such a life, in the hands of an educated writer would turn out to be lifeless and bland. Instead, it is full of life and love.

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. 

Book 4 – Power Without Glory

There is a constant stream of conflict in Frank Hardy’s part history, part fiction ‘Power Without Glory’. This is a story of a man, John West, and of a town turning into a city, a colony turning into a state and a nation. He is an everyman, more Victorian than Australia, he rebuts the ideals that are often misrepresented in the history of the colonial period: this is not the man of the bush, this is not the bronzed Aussie or even the tragi-hero of the ANZAC. Hardy’s Australia is no white mans utopia. Instead the conflict that appeals is seen in every facet of social and cultural life.

He would confess only trivial transgressions: impure thoughts, swearing,missing Mass and eating meat on Friday. He never confessed of his bribery, his violence, or his business trickery; somehow he could not view these things as sins.

Beginning in the depression of the 1890’s, the immediate impression of West is one of mere circumstances. He needs a way to make money, having been laid off from the shoe factory. Sometimes Hardy goes into such detail about the inner workings of the first tote that the human element is lost. The mood of the clear and reflective prose matches the historical or social situation. With the improvements in the economy, with the easing of strikes and social unease, West’s plans for wealth, influence and to place enough space between himself and poverty is told without arrogance.

The controversial background to Hardy’s publication could hide the quality of the story. You can find plenty of information on the basis of Hardy’s characters elsewhere. Instead, look into the story. The use of ‘real’ characters as the models for fiction allows Hardy space for the irony surrounding the last colonial period and the historical events that are the backdrop to the West character. European Australia was founded with crime and conflict, with men that revered crime and conflict. The conflict between the classes- something often glossed over in the myth making of an egalitarian Australia- is matched between the political and religious conflict. West wants to consolidate his influence. The Labor party is his machine, the Catholic church, when needed is respected. This is central to the saga: the conflict is personal, about class, religious and political. In the turbulence comes a man made to weld influence.

Power becomes more mighty and satisfying when exercised by remote control. He did not want glory, he wanted power- power without glory.

Like Australian history, West is a contradiction. A family man, a recruit for World War One who never fires a weapon and is never fired upon, a man who makes money from the poor, a man in mansion. He is at once a family man and a manipulator. The ultimate irony being that his children regress from the family business and regret his actions. Many of us, having gained from the original illegal dispossession of the land have much to learn from Hardy’s historical saga.