March 201722-Feb-2017 A (very) belated new year’s welcome from me. My absence on holiday, catching up with family and meeting a new granddaughter in Tasmania, meant I was too late for a February column. Back at work, and sweltering through leisure time, hardly ideal reading conditions, but here’s a snapshot of books read, including a couple to look forward to.
Victoria by Julia Baird ($44.99). Yes, you would need a holiday break to read this, it’s a brick of a book, but well worth the effort—it’s terrific.The subject, a queen of such enormous significance in the public life of a country at its imperial zenith that the age is named after her, has of course had many biographers before. But Baird’s is an original and rewarding review of the life, and the century in which it was lived. She is particularly impressive on the emancipatory significance of a woman on the throne at a time of such power. And of course, on the life of a woman dealing with life as a mother of many children, with an ambitious husband, and decades of tricky and powerful prime ministers.
The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar ($25) came out mid year 2016, and I’d been anxious to catch up with it, as I was big fan of his first novel In the Country of Young Men, shortlisted for the Booker ten years ago. The Return is a very beautifully written memoir, infused with great intelligence and tenderness, and a novelist’s narrative skill. Matar is of Libyan parentage, and his father, a prominent dissident opposed to Gaddafi’s regime, was kidnapped from his exile in Cairo in 1989—ten years after he fled Libya. It is understood he was murdered in a mass execution seven years later in a Tripoli prison, after years of torture and solitary confinement. Hisham is the son in search of the unattainable, the truth about his father’s fate (unknown) and a wounded and vulnerable soul. This is a great book to help to understand Gaddafi’s despotic regime, the utter idiocy of nation-making in post imperial Africa, and the sad course of the Arab spring. But it’s also a tender and brave attempt by the author to come to terms with the prospect of life after hope. If Matar makes it to any Australian literary festivals this year, do your best to listen to him. You’ll be deeply impressed, I’m sure.
The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong ($33) I was late getting to this, despite urgings from the publisher (‘I know you don’t read much crime fiction, but this is different’) and from my formidably well-read colleague, Morgan Smith. It’s true what they said (‘you don’t need to know anything about cricket to love it’), as this is a riveting, genre-bending bit of crime noir writing. It’s a family saga, an intelligent look at corruption in sport and the perils of celebrity culture—the ruthlessness of competition in professional cricket, and a well-plotted and paced thriller. Can’t recommend it highly enough (and, yes, if you do know a lot about cricket, it’s even better, as a crucial point in the plot turns on a wrong’un that goes wrong).
After by Nikki Gemmell ($30) is an April release. I read the advance copy in one sitting. It is a very fine, deeply personal attempt to come to terms, on her own and her family’s behalf, with the death of her mother, who took her own life in 2015. It a brave, raw, and brutally honest account. Gemmell looks back through her grief at her mother’s life, at the relationship between mother and daughter, at the awful course of circumstance which determined her choice (a botched foot operation which effectively immobilised her). This is a book, full of anguish and care, which will touch any reader. (Nikki is going to be at Gleebooks on the 2nd of April to talk about her book).
A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work by Bernadette Brennan (April, $33): I don’t think there has been a more significant writer in my bookselling life than Helen Garner (her debut novel, Monkey Grip, was published in 1977, the year I began selling books). Every work of hers, fiction and non fiction, published over those forty years, has had a significant and lasting impact on the Australian literary and cultural landscape. So Bernadette Brennan’s splendid book is timely and important. It’s a critical biography, with a deft and intelligent focus on the whole body of Garner’s work, but rich in biographical detail to situate the course of a writing life in the lived experience which produced it. The works are analysed meticulously, sensitively, carefully, and the reader’s reward is to be granted access to a biographical context for each book which richly enhances your understanding of and appreciation of Garner’s long and wonderful career. The book is all the better for its in-depth analysis of the three major non-fiction books since 2000. Brennan’s depiction of the arduousness and audacity of Garner’s fearless approach to the very difficult subject of The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief is beautifully modulated—a real triumph. She has captured and interpreted an important writer and her work beautifully.