Tag Archives: Australian fiction

There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett: A poignant tribute

Cover imageAustralian writer Favel Parrett’s beautifully expressed When the Night Come  made quite an impression on me when it was published in the UK back in 2014. It was its Antarctica setting that first attracted me but it was Parrett’s gorgeous writing that left me wanting more. It’s clear from its dedication that There Was Still Love is a tribute to her beloved grandparents, borne out by her note at the end of this lovely novel that takes us back and forth from Prague to Melbourne in the early ‘80s, following two sisters separated in 1938 at the beginning of the German occupation.

In 1980, Ludĕk runs up and down the streets of Prague before flying home to his grandmother’s tiny flat. It’s just the two of them. Ludĕk’s mother is a dancer, on tour with the Black Theatre, only allowed out of the country if her son stays at home, and his father is dead. Meanwhile, his cousin Malá Liška lives with her grandparents in a Melbourne apartment decorated as if it’s been transported from Prague. Once an engineer, her grandfather works as a night watchman. He and her grandmother cut every corner so that Máňa can visit her sister Eva and their grandnephew, Ludĕk, every four years. Malá Liška has never met her cousin, staying with her uncle for six weeks while her adored grandparents are away. The sisters’ reunions are full of reminiscence. Eva and Máňa talk while Ludĕk and Bill walk the city, often revisiting the house that Bill lived in when he was called Vilém. Ludĕk doesn’t know his Aunty Máňa and Uncle Bill’s story but he knows not to mention the war. When his mother returns with her partner and a baby, the new family moves away leaving Ludĕk’s whole world behind. One day, Malá Liška will see pictures of this cousin she’s never met when his grandmother comes to Australia.

Parrett unfolds her story in impressionistic episodes, much of it from Ludĕk’s perspective, punctuated with snapshots of the family’s history reflecting the cataclysmic events that overtook Czechoslovakia. Ludĕk’s sections are fresh and immediate, the language clear and bright as he seizes his freedom, making Prague his own running through its streets when his grandmother thinks he’s playing in the park. There’s an aching homesickness underpinning the novel with its recurrent motif of suitcases. Máňa and Bill still live like exiles, recreating Prague in their tiny Melbourne flat, each forced to leave the country they loved through circumstance. While Bill is more pragmatic, Máňa yearns for her sister. Parrett’s tender portrayal of this couple who love each other and their granddaughter dearly is beautifully executed. Such a touching novel, a work of fiction as Parrett makes clear in her author’s note, but undoubtedly a testament to the lives of the grandparents she adored.

Sceptre Books: London 2020 9781529343557 224 pages Hardback

The Spare Room by Helen Garner: Stretched to the limits

Cover imageI’m sure this isn’t the first reread I’ve reviewed here but aside from Amy Bloom’s Rowing to Eden, which turned out to be made up of several collections of short stories, nothing comes to mind. Australian writer Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was published in 2008 and has recently been reissued. I remember reading it in proof and being impressed with it then and it’s lost none of its power in just over a decade since. Our narrator, Helen, has been asked by a much-loved friend if she can stay for three weeks while she undergoes treatment for cancer. What ensues will test the bounds of friendship to its limits.

Helen met Nicola fifteen years ago, becoming firm friends despite the distance between Nicola’s home in Sydney and Helen’s in Melbourne. Impressed by Nicola’s casual grace, bohemian life and independence, Helen tries not to appear shocked when she arrives, much diminished, or to seem astonished at her faith in the Theodore Institute which claims to cure cancer by administering large doses of vitamin C. Nicola breezily insists she can fend for herself but Helen is having none of it, sizing up the Institute as a bunch of charlatans while trying to keep an open mind for Nicola. As the weeks wear on, Helen becomes exhausted by the night sweats and bouts of pain that summon her to Nicola’s room, increasingly appalled by the wackiness of the Institute’s treatments, their prohibition of strong painkillers and her own mounting fury, both with the so-called doctors and with Nicola’s resolute belief in a cure. When Nicola’s niece, Iris, visits, Helen finds an ally. Between them, they convince Nicola to see an oncologist who advises surgery. At the end of the three weeks, their friendship has been strained but not yet snapped.

That night we took the bottle of Stoly down the rough path to the landing where, sitting on our jackets in the dark, we launched the long conversation that would become our friendship.

Garner’s sharp novella weighs in at just under 200 pages, drawing on her own experience of nursing a close friend to explore friendship, dying and the pernicious hope engendered by desperation. Helen’s anger rings out loud and clear against the cynical exploitation of the terminally ill and against Nicola’s insane optimism, a mask behind which she hides her terror. Glimmers of gallows humour lighten the subject’s grimness as Iris, Gab and Helen dissolve into hysteria, diffusing their fury at Nicola’s doggedly contrary attitude. Nicola is entirely believable: either monumentally selfish or brave in her determination – take your choice – but wholly human in her desperate need to hope. Helen counterbalances her beautifully, all practicality and organisation but helpless in the face of such need. Throughout it all flows compassion and love. Just as powerful the second time around, this is a clear-eyed view of death and our responses to it, explored through both the dying and the rest of us who must do what we can for them knowing that our turn will come.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786896087 195 pages Paperback

The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones: Love, death and art

Cover imageI was a little wary of Gail Jones’ new novel, having been somewhat disappointed by A Guide to Berlin a few years back. All the poetic elegance of Sorry and Sixty Lights was present and correct but it felt a bit strained to me. The Death of Noah Glass flows much more smoothly. When the eponymous art historian is found drowned, his children find their own ways of coping – or not coping – with a grief complicated by the suggestion that their father may have been involved in something nefarious. Encompassing a multitude of themes, Jones’ novel explores the circumstances that led up to Noah’s death.

Martin and Evie rarely see each other. They have little in common besides their father. After his wife died in the early years of their marriage, Noah had taken his children to live close to her family. They became the centre of his life, yet they never knew it. Stunned by his death, each tries to find a way to the other, yearning for the connection they shared in their childhood. Evie moves into Noah’s flat ostensibly to clear it but hoping to find the essence of him there. Martin takes off for Sicily where Noah had spent three months shortly before his death, apparently to investigate the implication of Noah’s involvement in an art theft but desperate to try to understand the man he feels he hardly knew. There he meets Dora with whom Noah had fallen deeply in love and with whom he became embroiled in a scheme to wreak revenge on the criminals who murdered her father.

These are the bare bones of this beautifully wrought, erudite novel which encompasses themes of art, love, grief and family with a slim thread of suspense running through it. Noah’s story is woven through Evie’s and Martin’s, slotting them into the context of their motherless childhoods and his own difficulties as the son of missionaries while disclosing details of his time in Sicily to which his children will never be privy. It’s a complex piece of fiction, carefully assembled and exquisitely executed. Jones’ descriptions of Sicily, seen through Martin’s painterly eye, are particularly vivid and her evocation of the loneliness and dislocation of grief eloquent:

Goats’ heads hung suspended above huge trays of offal. Swordfish were displayed in an arc, balanced among gigantic pink octopuses and rows of lustrous fish. Blood oranges, cut open, forests of emerald broccoli.

 And so Evie and Benjamin, both reticent and private, both wretched, in some ways, with the experience of loss, began to speak to each other.

I was reminded a little of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved which, coming from me, is high praise indeed.

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire: A crime novel for those who don’t read crime

Cover imageI spotted An Isolated Incident on Twitter and liked the look of it but thought it might be too much of a crime novel for me. My appetite for crime fiction is more than sated by TV. Then it turned up in the post, sent by Eye Books the tiny publisher who’ve released it here in the UK, which sealed the reviewing deal for me. Set in smalltown Australia, Emily Maguire’s Stella Prize shortlisted novel begins with the discovery of a body but it’s about very much more than that.

Chris’ beloved sister Bella has been missing for almost two days when she opens the door to a young policeman, confirming her worst fears. Both sisters were brought up by their drunken mother with a string of violent boyfriends, a grim childhood from which Bella emerged unscathed. Whereas Chris earns a little on the side, taking truckers home from the pub where she works, Bella’s reputation is pristine. Chris is soon besieged by media and rubberneckers, held at arms’ length by her protective ex-husband. One young crime reporter arrives ahead of the media posse, desperate to flee an unhappy break-up. May sniffs around Strathdee, picking up snippets of gossip and weaving them into a narrative that fits her angle. As the month between the discovery of Bella’s corpse and the trial of her murderer wears on, May becomes closely involved with Chris, at first determined to nail an exclusive interview then offering support as Chris’ fragile mental state unravels. By the time the novel ends, May will have understood that what may have been one case amongst many for her has devastated Chris’ life.

Set against the backdrop of a misogynistic society in which violence against women is almost routinely perpetrated, Maguire’s novel explores the effects of a murder on the family of the victim and the community in which they live, and it’s riveting. Both Chris and May are strong, expertly drawn characters. Intense pressure from the media, opportunists keen to exploit Bella’s case as part of their cause and plain old smalltown gossip is stitched through Chris’ first-person narrative balanced by May’s investigations and examination of her own motives. Maguire neatly avoids the prurient, reflecting what’s happened to Bella through Chris’ shock and grief rather than feeding her readers graphic details. Apparently, An Isolated Incident was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Prize for Best Crime Novel in Maguire’s native Australia but it seems to me to be much more than a crime novel, putting a mirror up to society and finding it sadly lacking rather than simply solving a murder. Come to think of it that’s what the best TV crime drama does. Maybe I should explore the genre a little more.

A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey: Finding your place in the world

Cover imageI can’t say that I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Peter Carey but a new novel by him is always worth investigating. My absolute favourite is Oscar and Lucinda, so much so that I’ve read it three times. I can’t quite put my finger on why but there’s something about the tone of A Long Way From Home that reminded me of it despite their very different subject matters. Carey’s new novel follows the Bobs family, who have moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953.

Irene Bobs has gritted her teeth for years, putting up with Dan Bobs’ constant humiliation of the son she fell in love with when he was charged with giving her mother driving lessons. A champion car salesman, Titch has finally been persuaded to get himself out from under his father’s influence. Irene is convinced the future lies with Australian Holdens and thinks she’s found a way to secure a dealership but Titch is a Ford man through and through. When she finds that Titch has used her inheritance to enter the Redex Trial, Irene is determined to be his co-driver. Titch approaches their neighbour, a ‘chalker and talker’, to be their navigator. Willie’s star as king of the local radio quiz show has waned thanks to an unwise dalliance with his female competitor. Having recently and uncharacteristically hung one of his students out of a window by his ankles, he’s at a loose end. This unlikely trio sets off on one of the toughest rally routes in the world only to find that Dan Bobs has also entered, determined to humiliate his son yet again. What ensues is a challenge in which the Bobs’ marriage will be tested to the limits and Willie will be forced to question everything he knows about himself.

Carey tackles themes of identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it. The novel is narrated alternately by Irene and Willie whose voices ring out loud and clear: Irene the determined woman, resourceful and capable; Willie, the schoolteacher, head crammed with trivia whose world is turned upside down.  Executed with all the deft skill you’d expect from a mature and seasoned author, it’s a novel that seems to come from the heart. The casual prejudice apparently endemic in 1950s Australia runs through the novel culminating in an exploration of the heart-wrenching tragedy of ethnic cleansing and its consequences – tough territory for a white Australian who has not lived in his native country for some time. For me, the balance between the cheerful if challenged Bobs and the revelations which call Willie’s identity and world view into question is well judged. Australians, indigenous or otherwise, may feel differently.

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser: The way we live now

Cover imageLast year’s reading got off to a very satisfying start with a book by an Australian author – Jennifer Down’s compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely debut, Our Magic Hour. Coincidentally, this year’s has also begun with a beautifully crafted, thoroughly engaging Australian novel. I’d read and enjoyed Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel a few years ago but The Life to Come feels like a much more ambitious novel to me, managing to be both funny and poignant as it examines the state of modern Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one woman.

The novel opens in the 1990s with George, an aspiring novelist, taking over a house left empty by an elderly cousin. When he bumps into an old student from his tutoring days in need of somewhere to live, he offers her a room. Pippa espouses all the right ideas but seems incapable of living by them, constantly spouting earnest platitudes. When she declares an ambition to become a novelist, George can barely conceal his sneer. Several years later, Cassie unburdens herself to Pippa over coffee. Cassie has fallen in love with Ash – half-Scottish, half Sri Lankan – but it’s clear that she wants a very different relationship from the one he’s prepared to offer. Pippa seems too caught up in her own annoyance at finding only one copy of her novel in a bookshop to offer much consolation. Soon she will be in Paris, awarded a residency to work on her next novel, where she becomes friends with Céleste who grew up in Australia and now works as a translator when not yearning after her married lover, Sabine. Céleste finds herself unexpectedly missing Pippa when she goes home, despite worrying that she might make an appearance as one of Pippa’s characters. Pippa’s novels continue to be relentlessly autobiographical, her husband’s imagined affair and its consequences offering material for the next one. In the book’s final section, Pippa befriends her elderly Sri Lankan neighbour, inviting her to tea with every appearance of solicitude beneath which lurks an ulterior motive. The novel ends with a literary festival which hosts both Pippa and George.

Pippa is the glue that holds the novel’s episodic structure together. Through the stories of Pippa’s friends and acquaintances, de Kretser deftly explores modern life with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour. Barbs are tossed at a multitude of modern obsessions, from social media – which often felt like reading my own Twitter timeline – to faddish food. Frantic virtue signalling in the shape of Eva who never misses the chance to parade her support for ethnic diversity is neatly counterbalanced by the casual racism that her husband demonstrates, a theme which runs through the novel. The literary festival scenes towards the end are particularly amusing, and perhaps heartfelt. Throughout it all, de Kretser’s penetrating observation and mordant humour is underpinned with compassion, most movingly so in the final section which explores the loneliness of old age. This is a fine novel: perceptive and intelligent, sharp yet humane. I’ll be astonished if it’s not on my books of the year list next December.

Five Australian Novels I’ve Read

Given that I nicked this idea from Kim over at Reading Matters, an Australian blogger, albeit one living in the UK, it seems Cover imageonly fair to round up five books I’ve read by Australians. I should say I’ve read considerably more Australian fiction than that but these are five novels I’ve particularly enjoyed. The last three are linked to a full review.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon begins on a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century with a strange and ragged figure dancing out of the bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with indigenous Australians. At first his eccentricities are greeted with amusement but as the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment they see as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aboriginal people, lie? Every word counts in this slim, dazzlingly vivid novella.

Most British readers would probably name Peter Carey if pushed to come up with an Australian author. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed all Carey’s novels but one stands out for me, so good I’ve read it three times: the 1988 Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda. The gawky, misfit, son of a preacher, Oscar Hopkins stumbles upon a method of paying his way through his theology studies, becoming an obsessive but successful gambler, convinced that he’s following God’s will. Equally the misfit, Lucinda Leplastrier, unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune and the proprietor of a glassworks, is well aware of the scandalous nature of her gambling addiction. When these two meet on board a ship bound for Australia, they form an unlikely bond which results in a calamitous misunderstanding as both wager their futures on a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism Oscar and Lucinda is a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

Romy Ash’s Floundering begins with Loretta swinging by her parents’ home to pick up her twoCover image sons who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. He and his older brother bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hungover, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse. Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next.

Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: the titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have the de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner is delivering the work himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner.

Cover imageI’ll end this with a novel that I hope grabbed more attention in Australia that it seemed to here in the UK. Jennifer Down’s debut, Our Magic Hour, follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else while her partner tries to take care of her. Down’s novel is a masterclass in elegant understatement. Her writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into her circle making the loneliness of her life all the more wrenching but it can also be very funny: This could easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak book but Down steers it neatly clear of that. The result is a very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Any Australian novels you’d like to recommend?

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Art and fakery

Cover image I’m not sure how I managed to miss Dominic Smith’s novel last year, although the hardback edition’s jacket is somewhat off-putting. In his author’s note Smith tells his readers that the eponymous Sara is loosely based on one of the first women to be admitted to St Luke’s Guild in the 17th-century Netherlands, explaining that he wanted to explore the life of female artists whose work is so often unsung. The result is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000.

‘At the Edge of a Wood’ is Sara de Vos’ only known extant painting. It’s been owned by the de Groot family for centuries but never exhibited. In 1957, while Marty and Rachel host a charity fundraiser, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the original. It takes Marty some time to realise what’s happened and when he does his investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student stalled in her research who has become an expert conservator. Posing as someone else, Marty engages Ellie as an advisor, helping him to put together a collection. He can’t help but admire her passion for art and soon their relationship takes a turn which may be revenge or the beginning of something else. Decades later, Ellie has become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career about to be celebrated in an exhibition which will have ‘At the Edge of a Wood’ as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner has decided to bring the painting from New York to Sydney himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. At the peak of her career, Ellie has been brought face-to face with her past. The story of the painting and its creator is woven through Ellie and Marty’s narratives.

Juggling three narrative strands, each of which inhabits very different periods, is a tricky structure to pull off but Smith manages it with sure-footed deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted, the descriptions of the 17th-century Netherlands particularly evocative and appropriately painterly. There’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel as we wonder how Ellie will resolve the dilemma her youthful indiscretion presents decades later. Beautiful writing, expert storytelling and erudition lightly worn combine to make Smith’s novel that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos  was a particularly timely read for me given the exhibition running at the Holburne Museum in my home town this year. It’s about the Bruegels whose peasant scenes are instantly familiar to anyone with the slightest interest in the art of that period. Pieter the Elder died when both his sons – Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder – were children suggesting that his mother-in-law, Mayken Verlhust, known for her miniatures and watercolours, had been their teacher rather than their father. The exhibition celebrates ‘The Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ from the Holburne’s collection which was previously thought to be a copy but has now been expertly verified as the work of Pieter the Younger. Flemish painting combined with unsung female influence – albeit a century earlier – you can see why Smith’s novel seemed so apt for me.

Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down: Learning to look after yourself

Cover imageThis book was actually published here in the UK at the very tail end of 2016 – I hope that won’t mean that it falls through the Christmas/New Year coverage cracks because it deserves attention. Our Magic Hour is Jennifer Down’s debut and comes from Australian publishers Text Publishing whose books I’ve learnt to look out for. Someone there has a sharp eye for talent as Down’s novel amply demonstrates. It follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability.

Audrey and Katy have been best friends since school, part of a tight-knit circle who prop each other up at parties, dry each others’ tears and share each others’ good and bad times. Audrey has always been the responsible one; a violent alcoholic father, remembered fondly by her bipolar mother, and a younger brother who seems in danger of going off the rails have made sure of that. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else, listening patiently to Adam’s distressed middle-of-the-night calls and visiting Katy’s parents, while her partner Nick tries to take care of her. Unnoticed by herself, Audrey slowly falls apart while trying to keep everyone else from doing the same. When the crisis finally comes, she decides to strike out on her own, leaving her job as a social worker in Melbourne and finding one in Sydney on a paediatric cancer ward. Audrey is determined to try to make a life for herself but it’s hard, lonely work with missteps along the way.

Written from Audrey’s point of view, Our Magic Hour is a masterclass in elegant understatement. There are no histrionics here: Audrey quietly descends into a black depression as Nick looks helplessly on. Down’s writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into Audrey’s circle making the loneliness of her life in Sydney all the more wrenching but it can also be wonderfully vivid: the exuberant Adam has ‘lungfuls of stories to tell’; Emy is ‘just on the safe side of a really lavish vomit’ at her leaving party and Claire describes making scones as ‘just flour and milk and sugar and cream. You chuck it all in there, and beat it like it owes you money’. Our Magic Hour could very easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak novel but Down steers it neatly clear of that. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely. I’m looking forward to seeing what Down comes up with next.

Blasts from the Past: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (1993)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

David Malouf is one of those writers who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything: fiction, poetry, libretti – he’s mastered them all. My favourite novel by him – so far – is the Booker Prize shortlisted, IMPAC Award-winning Remembering Babylon. It’s both an examination of the arrival of an outsider in a small, close-knit but barely established community and a commentary on colonialism, filled with vibrantly poetic images.

On a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century, a strange and ragged figure dances out of the Australian bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with aborigines. At first his eccentricities are greeted with the amusement of novelty but in time the settlement becomes riven with suspicion. As the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment which they perceive as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aborigines, lie? As Gemmy tries to find a place for himself in the community, friendships are strained to breaking point, brutality begins to surface but one family finds a new way to look at the world.

Gemmy’s arrival threatens the settlers’ fragile identities who Malouf has described as ‘a community that wouldn’t otherwise have held together but for their whiteness and Europeanness’. Strangers as they are in a strange land, they are faced with a man who seems to be is neither truly British nor Australian but a disturbing amalgamation of the two, a worrying prospect of what might become of them and their children. Every word counts in this slim dazzlingly vivid, novella. It’s a superb book, as novels by poets so often are, and it seems particularly apt right now.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?