Have you read…? This new Australian fiction

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Gosh, it’s been a while since a book post made it to the blog! The last one was focussed on some US titles so this time around – and thanks to my Melbourne Writers Festival book discount – I thought I’d go for some of our home grown authors!

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose Set in New York, Heather Rose was awarded this year’s Stella Prize for her novel about art and love. Centred by the work of performance artist, Marina Ambromović and her work,  The Artist is Present which was staged in 2010 at MoMA, it tells the story of a number of visitors who come to the gallery to view her work, in addition to giving voice to Marina’s own thoughts about her work and her history. The gallery visitor whose storyline we are most concerned with is Arky Levin. Arky is a film composer and lives alone as his wife, who is ill, has requested he no longer see her. During one of his visits he strikes up a conversation with Jane Miller, an art teacher who is recently widowed, and is visiting from Georgia. Other gallery visitors with whom Arky and Jane cross paths are a doctoral student, a sometime-lover of Arky’s, and an art critic. We also hear the voice from the grave of Marina’s mother. Whilst the novel could be read through the lens of ‘what is art?’ given the quite confronting pieces of performance art Ambromović has created, for me, the novel was much more about love, grief and endurance. How could Arky endure the loss of his relationship with his wife whilst she was still living, still his wife? How could Jane come to terms with the loss of her husband and move on into a world with her own identity? How did Ambromović’s parents survive war and each other? How did Ambromović endure the demands her work placed upon her, physically, and the loss of her own relationship? I wanted to love this novel, and whilst it was beautifully written and the premise was interesting, it fell a little bit short of ‘five stars’ for me. Perhaps there were a few too many characters. I enjoyed Arky’s story, and Jane’s, but I didn’t feel a great deal of affection, or interest, in the storyline of the other characters. And if I can be a bit nit-picky, I had to remind myself on a few occasions that this book was set in New York, and the characters were American. If I think back to the session at the Melbourne Writers Festival where Hannah Kent and Tracy Chevalier spoke about how they set about writing in the voice of a place and time, for me, Rose fell short. There were references to streets in Harlem that don’t exist, Americans wouldn’t offer to give their ‘mobile’ phone number, talk about ‘shareholders’, or ‘primary’ school,  and Jane’s voice failed to sing with a southern twang. The book may have been set in New York, but I didn’t entirely feel like I was there. So, verdict? It was interesting, and well-written but I enjoyed previous Stella winners, The Natural Way of Things and The Strays more.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna This one I loved wholeheartedly! Nine-year-old Justine lives with her grandfather, a survivor of the Thai-Burma railway, on three acres near the banks of the Murray River. Her mother is no longer on the scene and her father comes and goes. Her two half-brothers live with their mother nearby. Justine has few allies in her life, and those she does have – her Aunty Rita, her friend, Michael, and a teacher, Miss Frost – lack permanence. As in her previous novel, The Eye of the Sheep, Laguna explores themes of violence, misogyny, and the innocence and incomprehension of the child. There is a lot happening in this novel, and Laguna captures beautifully how Justine, who is dyslexic, senses that there is more to her family’s life than she can understand. Justine says ,”I knew shadows of things; I could see the letters but I didn’t know the order. I stole a look at Dad’s face as he drove; it was a door that wouldn’t open.” Swirling in Justine’s shadows are the circumstances of her grandmother’s death and how it changed her father; the darkness of his behaviour and activities; the scars her pop carries with him from his time in the war; why her pop shuns her Aunty Rita for being “unnatural”; and the consequences of her association with a local family, the Worlleys, with whom her own family has fallen out. She desperately needs someone to care for her, and that someone is just not there. As her ignorance determined her fate, my heart ached for her, and as she learned to stand up for herself, I cheered for her. A highly recommended read.

Ache by Eliza Henry Jones I first came across Henry Jones’ s work in an article she wrote for The Sunday Age. I can’t recall what it was about but I remember I enjoyed her writing and so was keen to read this, her new novel. Bushfires have raged through the mountains where Annie grew up. At the time of the fires, Annie was visiting home with her daughter, Pip, and became ‘the face’ of the fires as a photograph of her and Pip felling the fires on horseback was plastered across the media. In addition, her beloved nana, Gladys, died in the fires, although not as a result of the fires but because she was crushed by a falling tree. Annie and Pip are both scarred by the fires, as are all members of the Quilly community, and in an effort to heal, Annie decides that she and Pip must return to the mountain from their suburban home. In doing so, Annie is faced with issues of belonging. Does she belong “to a place, or a person”, as her friend, Rose, articulates. Does she belong on the mountain, or with her husband, Tom, in their city home? Mother-daughter relationships are also explored as she returns to stay with her mother, Susan, who is almost Annie’s contemporary, having given birth to her at the age of fifteen, and as she reflects on the relationship she and her mother both had with Gladys, and Susan’s relationship with Pip. Henry Jones is a grief counsellor and so I trust her portrayals of the grief and trauma displayed by her characters. Aside from that, I wasn’t completely sold on this book. For me, I found the writing to be a little forced: the many references to “up the mountain’, “back on the mountain”, “down the mountain”; the “small circles” of city life compared with the “big circles’ of mountain life; broken people living in a “broken house”. I felt a little “yep, I get it!” I was also perplexed as to why Annie had left “the mountain” when it was clear that this was the environment she loved to live in, and, as a vet, work in? Yes, Tom was from “the flatlands” but how and why had they made the decision to settle there? Perhaps a little exploration of this would have added depth to the “belonging” theme. And, although it was eventually explained, I wasn’t convinced as to why the town displayed such animosity towards Annie? She was a local girl, after all, not a tree changer. I would like to read Henry Jones’s first novel, In the Quiet to see how it compares. If you’d like to read an interview with Henry Jones, pop over to Karen’s blog.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

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