Sometimes when I forget to stop working, my body makes an executive decision for me and puts me to bed with an illness. The only positive thing about this state of affairs is that I can lounge about feeling sorry for myself, bake carrot cake and eat it, and read incessantly without guilt. Which is just as well, as 2012 has been designated the National Year of Reading, although our newly elected Queensland premier would appear not to be cognisant of this. In a wonderful initiative, Elizabeth Lheude of Australian Women Writers has set a challenge to read and review books by Australian women. The motivation for this approach is, as she writes, ‘to help counteract the gender bias in reviewing and social media newsfeeds that occurred throughout 2011 by actively promoting the reading and reviewing of a wide range of contemporary Australian women’s writing’. Already 696 links to reviews have been posted on her site, which is a fantastic response, and through this I’ve added another three.
First off the rank is Romy Ash’s Floundering, recently released by Text. A first novel shortlisted for the 2011 Vogel, it follows the journey of two boys picked up by their unstable mother (who has left them, without explanation, with their grandparents for a year), and driven across the country to a caravan park by the sea. The prose is absolutely crystalline and the tension, up until about page 100, is superb. After that it wobbles a bit, but takes off again. The titular scene, in which the boys try to catch flounder in the sea with their mother by the light of a torch, stands as a perfect encapsulation of the story. With ripples of disquiet created by the boys’ interactions with their old neighbour in the caravan park, the hint of prostitution learned from the mother, and a car accident with kangaroos that reminded me of Wake in Fright, the novel was on the cusp of springing into something truly disturbing. Sadly, however, this didn’t happen, as it wrapped up in a somewhat pedestrian way and didn’t leave me with a huge amount to think about.
Alternatively, this might be because this is the fourth in a rash of first novels I’ve read recently about disturbed children, largely written in first person. It began with Jon Bauer’s Rocks in the Belly (recently shortlisted for the IMPAC), which had no lyricism and left me cold. Then there was Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game, which was very well-written and constructed, and finally Favell Parrett’s Past the Shadows, again finely-written (this one in third person), but largely unmemorable aside from the distressing ending. Maybe I’m just a bit over this theme. However, having said all that, I’m looking forward to seeing what Ash does next, as she is clearly a deft and dedicated writer.
On finishing her book, I picked up Kirsten Tranter’s second novel, A Common Loss. I liked Tranter’s first work The Legacy. Although, as with many others in my bookclub at Avid Reader, I felt the ending too convenient and clichéd, I was thoroughly impressed with her ambition in applying James’ The Portrait of a Lady to Sydney and America. A Common Loss, also set in America (and evoking that country so well that I wanted to go back there) follows four college friends who meet annually in Las Vegas. This year is the first without their friend Dylan, who died in a car accident and who, it transpires, holds secrets about them all. While the story had enough intricacy to draw the reader on, and while I liked the setting of Las Vegas and its attendant subtext of the blurring between reality and fiction (although this was too labored at times on account of its filtration through an academic character), the story failed to come to life, remaining stubbornly pinned to the page. It also took me a good twenty pages to work out that the narrator was a man, and I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of masculinity throughout the text, despite all the main characters but one being male. I wonder, too, if anyone can write a college novel these days without being overshadowed by and compared to Tartt’s sublime The Secret History, or if this even matters.
Then I got all hot and bothered and uncomfortable with Krissy Kneen’s Triptych, as it was designed to do. As with Nabokov’s Lolita, referenced several times throughout the novel, Kneen’s skillful writing arouses her readers, despite her rendition of interactions that they may find confrontational (bestiality and incest, for example), making us question our responses and desire. It follows the engagements, virtual and otherwise, between three sets of people: Susanna, daughter of deaf parents (a family setting I found beautifully done), who engages with Aaron online; zoophiles Rachel and Leda, who have couplings with animals and also communicate with Susanna online; and Aaron and Katherine, who are brother and sister. I really enjoyed the novel, not least because it had narrative drive, unlike erotica such as Cleland’s The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was initially entertaining but became tedious through so much repetition. However the strands of the characters’ lives in each of the three stories, which looked as though they would be tied together, were left loose at the end – particularly Susanna’s, which bothered me. If reading is anything like sex, a writer really oughtn’t leave their readers hanging. Alternatively, Susanna’s disappearance might simply be indicative of the internet’s strange conflation of intimacy and distance: you can be close enough to see someone masturbating, but might never be able to connect with them again. I still haven’t read Krissy’s much lauded Affection, which is very poor on my part, but have ordered it to the library. Sometimes I think I’m the only person who keeps Stone’s Corner Library alive, as it’s so small I constantly need to pay to order books they don’t stock. I console myself with the thought that at least every 80c goes to buying new books for other people to read, a concept with which our premier might be unfamiliar.
Beside my bed I still have Brigid Rooney’s Literary Activists, and Melissa Bellanta’s Larrikins. These will have to wait for another day for review, however, as I need to get stuck into Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. And have another cuppa, a couple of paracetamol and piece of cake.