Short stories & discussion

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Brona and Whispering Gums have contributed to this Week with reviews of short fiction, and WG further devoted a Monday Musings to discussing Indigenous SFF. I’ll provide links from here so that those (very few) of you who haven’t already seen them might do so. Bron says one of hers isn’t strictly SF but given that we have been discussing that problems we have been putting off dealing with – Climate! – are now upon us, I don’t think that matters.


WG: First Nations Australia Speculative Fiction

I have seen various terms applied to SF, or what I prefer, though Bill doesn’t, to call Speculative Fiction. Introducing their anthology, Unlimited futures, Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail speak of Visionary Fiction. Read on …

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WG: Ambelin Kwaymullina, “Fifteen days on Mars”

In 2014, Ambelin Kwaymullina, whose people are the Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, described herself in a Kill Your Darlings essay as writing “speculative fiction for young adults”. Three years later, in the 2017 Twelfth Planet Press anthology, Mother of invention, she said that she was “a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms”. Read on …

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Brona: Everything Feels Like the End of the World, Else Fitzgerald

[A] speculative fiction short story collection ‘exploring possible futures in an Australia not so different from our present day to one thousands of years into an unrecognisable future.’ The manuscript won the 2019 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. Read on …

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Brona: Before He Left the Family, Carrie Tiffany

[T]he story of a family breakdown told from the perspective of the teenage son, Kevin. Both boys know that their parents only married because their mum got pregnant on the first date. Read on …

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Brona: The Animals in that Country, Laura Jean McKay

What a mad, mad ride Laura Jean McKay takes you on … a flu virus – the ‘zoo flu’ as it becomes known in the book – causes the communication barrier between humans and other animals to disappear. Read on …

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Will there be more? I’m not sure. I was hopeful of another author interview. But, and this is the big but, today is my only day off work, though I may have another forced on me by, you know, 26 Jan and all that goes with it, including not being able to get loaded. We’ll see. Anyway, I hope to be home and unloaded by next Weds latest, when I undertake to take Milly to dinner (and to write up a Summary).

This All Come Back Now

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

It occured to me only at the very last minute that I had had the ideal book in my hands for this Week, and that I had given it to Lou as a present earlier in 2022 and promptly forgotten all about it. The book, This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction is “The first-ever anthology of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander speculative fiction – written, curated, edited and designed by blackfellas, for blackfellas and about blackfellas.”

The editor, Mykaela Saunders has written a comprehensive overview of the book and her selection process in the Sydney Review of Books, 18 July 2022; there was a panel on This All Come Back Now at the Sydney Writers Festival, 21 May 2022; and a Symposium at USyd. 24 Oct 2022 featuring Gina Cole (Fiji), Arlie Alizz (Yugumbeh), Jeanine Leanne (Wiradjuri), Mykaela Saunders (Koori/Goori), Ellen van Neerven (Mununjali), and Karen Wylde (Martu). I can’t see video or audio recordings for these, but I will keep looking.

Louis Holloway is a primary school teacher in Tennant Creek where a large proportion of his class is as you might expect, Indigenous.


It is problematic to talk about ‘Aboriginal writers’ and Aboriginal identities from the critical perspective of a hetero, cisgender white person. But here we are. As a reader, presently your reviewer, it is hard not to try and make sense of the thing as a whole. I found myself listening intently for something that might be construed as common ‘authentic voice’. I also found that to read as an investigator, I wanted an academic framework. My thoughts went to Fannon’s Black Skins White Masks, and to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The first asks about the effect of colonization on the subjective existence of the colonized, and the second about how our identity incorporates governing ideas which subject our choices to the governance of the dominant paradigm.

Mykaela Saunders – Overture

“Short story anthologies are like mixtapes, and I want you to think of this book as a burnt CD from me to you, … and on opportunity to find exciting writers you might not otherwise have come across.”

In introducing the anthology, Saunders invites us to dip our toes in. While the collection is explicitly curated to present the diverse work of a subaltern community, it is not an argument constructed of parts, but rather exactly what it claims to be.

I have picked some examples which might lend to a reading of overarching theme, but the first is just a great piece of writing.

Jasmine McGaughey – Jacaranda Street

The haunting mystery of Jacaranda Street after interrupted roadworks. Short and viscerally compelling. Jacaranda is a superb example of the short story medium- just enough of a taste to realise a vision and leave the reader with an unsettled sense of something that might be possible.

If MacGaughey has only come to my attention as part of TheAustralianLegend’s project including Saunder’s anthology, then there must be a flaw in the mechanism by which I am selecting texts.

Lisa Fuller – Myth This!

A horror story. In this case, the wise local with secret knowledge and dire warnings is the protagonist. The foolish Steve Irwin from the University ignores her at his peril.

In Myth This! There is a clear depiction of an encounter between two world views. I found myself looking for this encounter as I considered what I was reading. Fuller’s protagonist is careful, competent, and essentially suburban character who worries that she has not taught her children enough of the truths she learned from her mother and aunties.

Elizabeth Araluen – Muyum, a Transgression

“When I crossed there was only little light darkly”

This is poetry in the shape of a story. While I pride myself in my vocabulary and ease of assimilation of text, the reading challenges both, demanding the pace of the spoken word as poetry often does. She is talking to someone. ‘Muyum’ might be a sister’s son, but I’m not sure how closely the language of my online dictionary matches the geography of Araluen’s biography. I was also tempted to look up more than one English word.

Araluen’s protagonist encounters a librarian “I ask him for rivers and he tells me of boats … our words for ‘find’ and ‘take’ jar and unsound..”

Introduced with the memory of her father’s lessons about how to view the world, Araluen argues the nature of things with a librarian and a cartographer (sort of), and leaves a trail of released artifacts as she busts up a museum – she contests governmentality in the sort of stream-of-consciousness that only such an accomplished poet could present engagingly.

Alison Whittaker – futures. excellence

“When I walk under it, my eyes trained on it’s looming insignia, my jaw tilts to the sky. I concede that’s probably it’s goal: an Aboriginal woman, proud jawed, looking to the sky. But it’s an earnest and uncomfortable thing to do…”

A meta-mob uploaded to a digital Australia- partly voluntary, and partly forced- where they are building something sovereign, new and common to all the First Nations, away from the influence of the “mission managers”.

Whittaker also references the development of a new governmentality, as something that is harnessed to frame the new consensus.

Mykaela Saunders – Terranora

“We’re symbiotic, not parasitic, like they were from the moment they got here… We’re all guests here, part of a diverse community of life… And as a lucid, powerful mob, we have an obligation to make sure that nobody is taking the piss or is trying to strongarm anyone else out of their fair share.”

In her own contribution to the anthology, Saunders creates a quasi-Utopian commune, somewhere between a vignette and a story, that asserts a distinct pan-(first)national identity. Saunders posits explicitly an underlying common culture for all of the First Nations, that can be realized when the colonial regime is swept away by its own ineptitude.

The texts I’ve sketched here have been reorganized by my own thinking. I’ve only made a line through a group of things by applying my own lens, and I offer nothing definitive. As a teacher, I’d like to share the McGaughey and Fuller stories with my students (and we read some Araluen poems last year which we’ll keep up with), while some of the others should probably wait until they are older.

I’ve been listening to highlights of the Fannon in the car. I can’t tell how much it translates to the Australian context. He does talk about identifying a subjectivity separate from the colonisers, engaging in discourse which recognizes the subaltern perspective as valid, and the assertion of a collective identity. I am not the individual to make any judgement, but I feel like I can see some of these themes within some of the texts I read, and explicit reference was made by some of the writers who have clearly more academic, as well as lived, expertise than me. 

To a reader, I can only recommend that we take Saunders’ offer at face value – to read a selection of writers we might not have encountered and find what is meaningful or beautiful and follow up what catches the eye.  

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Mykaela Saunders ed., This All Come Back Now, UQP, Brisbane, 2022. 314pp

The Inland Sea, Madelaine Watts

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Naomi, Consumed by Ink, from Canada’s Atlantic coast doesn’t get a lot of contemporary Australian books to choose from, but she saw this reviewed by Kim/Reading Matters and was motivated to obtain a copy for herself. Naomi says that this was not as ‘SFF’ as she expected, but it occurs to me that just over the course of this ‘generation’ Cli.Fi has gone from futuristic to the present we must confront and that new fiction must necessarily take account of that.


Naomi, Consumed by Ink

The Inland Sea is a coming-of-age story in the ‘age of anxiety’ and climate crisis. After graduating college, a young woman (the unnamed narrator) feels at loose ends, and–with the idea of saving up some money and getting away–she takes a job as an emergency dispatch operator. She assures friends and family that she’s up for the job, but as we get more information about her past–growing up with divorced parents and a fearful mother–we get the feeling that this is not the job for her. Read on…

From the Wreck, Jane Rawson

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Marcie McCauley, who blogs as Buried in Print, struggles in the wilds of Canada to get hold of Australian books to read. But she did get this one in time to review it for AWW Gen 5 Week and I’m happy that it follows on from my interview with Jane.


bip-colour-2 Marcie McCauley

Bill recommended Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck (2017) and I read it throughout the winter break, so that I met George gnawing on human flesh, while I was crunching through shortbread fingers and thumbprint cookies with red jam filling.

Don’t let the reference to cannibalism put you off: nobody really knows what happened, we only know that the few survivors of the historic 1859 wreck of the Admella (a ship named for its route between the Australian settlements of Adelaide, Melbourne, Launceston) were not rescued for weeks and had no reliable food source. Read on (if you dare) …

Future Girl, Asphyxia

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Apparently, I recommended Future Girl to Melanie/Grab the Lapels a couple of years ago. Perhaps I bought it for my then 17 year old granddaughter. It looks familiar, and I never write down what I buy. Melanie loved it and I have no hesitation reposting her review for this week. As you’ll see, Future Girl was published in the US as The Words in my Hands.

It wasn’t strictly my intention but I think that the SFF/dystopian theme has the potential to direct us towards some of the more leading edge writing of this generation (and I wish more than ever that I had included Grunge within the definition as well).


fbd8238d4fecda17e61d97c950bcafc1 Grab The Lapels

Piper is a deaf girl with hearing aids in a private high school with hearing students. Her best friend, Taylor, often serves as a hearing guide of sorts, which resonated with me. I often ask my spouse what another person said, be it the cashier, the neighbor, or our nieces and nephew. However, while my reliance often occurs when I am not wearing my hearing aids because I didn’t feel like it, Piper is relying on very little hearing and years of speech therapy because to her, deafness is a medical issue. Read on …

Gunk Baby, Jamie Marina Lau

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Welcome to AWW Gen 5-SFF Week! Let the discussion of Australian women’s SF, dystopian and fantasy fiction commence.

And about that ‘Week’. After being on a break, ie. unemployed since Dec. 10, I am now flat out for more or less just this week, so we’d better call it a fortnight (and even then, if all goes well, which it didn’t last time, I will be on the other side of the country looking for a load home) so I can pay some attention at least to your posts and comments.

I didn’t see Gunk Baby come out – at the beginning of 2021 – and I don’t think it was paid much attention, which is odd as Lau’s first novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island (2018) was short-listed for the Stella and it appears Lau’s three-book deal with Brow has been taken over by the multi-national Hachette.

Pink Mountain was a classic debut – a young woman at arts school drawing on her inner suburban adolescence for good/standard grunge autofiction. Gunk Baby is not a sequel, or not the sequel I predicted anyway – “a portrait of the young woman as an art student” – but the story of a short period in the life of 24 year old Leen (Ling) setting up a Chinese ear cleaning/massage business in a suburban shopping centre.

I have squeezed it in under the Gen 5-SFF banner not because it is fantastic or dystopian (except right at the end), but because it has the feel of being set just a few minutes into the future. Of course it doesn’t help that however we might like to think otherwise, we boomers live a few minutes in the past, not fully aware of the present, not as twenty-somethings see it, anyway.

Within the SF tradition, in the 1970s, a number of writers, Sladek, Sheckley, but PK Dick in particular, were able to describe then present-day suburban USA in a way that made it seem slightly unreal, and Lau has that same ability. The ability to make us picture work and living spaces as they might be built tomorrow, sparse and uncluttered, with only the latest gadgets and appliances.

Leen’s father is a “consultant” who has dragged his wife and daughter all round the world. Leen has chosen to settle in the suburb of Par Mars in, let us say, Melbourne. As in Pink Mountain the city is unnamed, but has a Melbourne-ish feel, with occasional references to “Westmeadow” and “Bell St” (an important thoroughfare running east-west across the northern suburbs). Leen’s mother is in Kowloon, and they speak often, in video calls, ‘Face Time’. The father is more distant, wherever he is currently working, but pays Leen’s bills.

Gunk Baby may be a satire on a particular type of consumerism, but it is a consumerism Leen lives with uncomplainingly.

The K.A.G. outlay, for example: so addictive. The genius behind the design of something beautiful is that it can stand alone. We live in an age where we would like things to stand alone, to be one with itself, so that we can, as its consumer, become the one to define it, the one to understand it and its purpose, and curate it alongside other things … we’ve been conditioned to need the product. And a product is rarely ever a product without its brand.

K.A.G. is the principal tenant of the Topic Heights shopping centre where Leen has her ‘Lotus Fusion Studio’. Every few weeks it adds a new product line and forces out a smaller neighbouring store to take over its space. Leen who has been couch surfing ends up sharing a house with Luis who has been made K.A.G. store manager for his total commitment to the job. Everything in the new house is new K.A.G. products being tried out.

I … roll over, pull myself up out of our bed, out of the K.A.G. Elegant Cross-Hatch Sheets in a shade of blue that comforts. The floor is always cold in the mornings. The concrete floor with our Shaggy-Mix Rug in light brown … I look in the big perfect mirror. I’m wearing my K.A.G. Insulating Fleece Pyjamas, white thin stripes and beige everything else. These are not my sexy pyjamas; they’re slightly different. If I’m not in my sexy ones, I’m not in the mood. It’s a silent language… I look at [Luis] in the mirror. I have my K.A.G. Frosted-Glass Toothbrush in my mouth …

Leen’s friends are a wide mixture of East Asians and caucasian, all known to each other, all connected in one way or another through Topic Heights, but she, I guess, compartmentalises. Luis is in one ‘box’; in another are her girlfriend Doms and Doms’ partner Vic, a chemist who has a home lab making artificial urine for faking drug tests; there’s Farah, her receptionist (and budding novelist); and in a fourth are Jean-Paul and Huy. Jean-Paul is gathering followers for ‘acts of resistance’. Leen’s role is to attend meetings where Jean Paul lectures for hours, and to drive Jean Paul and Huy round in her old Saab 9000, leaving while they apparently attack, kidnap, vandalise Topic Heights managers, returning to pick them up, not unaware of what is being done, but also not responsible.

The style of writing is largely emotionless, you have to make your own mind up about the rights and wrongs of what is happening. The end when it comes is inevitable, but still startling. Lau is a fine talent, not mainstream, but well worth following.

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Jamie Marina Lau, Gunk Baby, Hachette, Sydney, 2021. 345pp

see also:
Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (review)
Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything when I do this? (review)

Beau Ideal, PC Wren

12 Books of Boyhood. #1

No, I’m not fortunate enough to have this dustjacket, this is the first edition cover, though I have a similar cover, with the legionnaire seated, for my copy of PC Wren’s The Wages of Virtue (first pub. 1916. 25th reprint 1942). My copy of Beau Ideal is a first reprint of the first edition, 1928, in which year it was a Xmas present “from George”. And for which I paid 10c, probably in 1967 (at which date it was not as old as, for instance Monkey Grip is today, which is an odd thought).

Percival Christopher Wren (1875-1941) was of the lower middle class, a school teacher, the son of a school teacher, who worked to put himself through university, getting an MA from St Catherine’s Society, Oxford University, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. He taught in England and in India.

Wren enlisted for WWI in India but saw no service (he was 40) and may have enlisted after the War in the French Foreign Legion, or may just have knocked around North Africa for a bit. Note that The Wages of Virtue, which was his first collection of stories about the Foreign Legion, was published well before he had any opportunity to be a legionnaire himself.

Beau Ideal was the third of the trilogy, Beau Geste (1924), Beau Sabreur (1926) and Beau Ideal (1928) which sought to highlight the British upper middle class, Boys Own ideals of honour and sacrifice, held firm in a seething cauldron (don’t all cauldrons seethe?) of underclass foreigners, sand and Arabs – Bedouin and Touareg.

Spoilers: I’m going to have to give away some of the ‘surprise’ elements in the stories here, otherwise you won’t make sense of what is going on, not that I remember everything anyway. Let us start at Brandon Abbas, a fine home in rural England. Living there are Lady (Patricia) Brandon, her nephews/wards twins Michael (Beau) and Digby Geste, their younger brother John, Claudia who may be Lady B’s illegitimate daughter, and Isobel (why she lives there, I don’t remember and I haven’t started re-reading at this stage). And maybe also a priest.

At a dinner party the lights go out. When they come back on the Brandon jewels are found to be missing and so also is Beau. Digby disappears soon after. John assumes they have gone to join the French Foreign Legion and goes after them.

They have various adventures in North Africa. Beau dies. Digby, John and two Americans, Hank and Buddy, escape into the desert. Digby dies. John comes home, returns, is imprisoned as a mutineer, abandoned in a grain silo with half a dozen others.

Hank and Buddy are rescued by Bedouin, pretend to be mute, learn Arabic, and end up rulers of their tribe, of all the surrounding tribes.

Mary, an American tourist, is caught up in a Muslim uprising, is rescued by a fakir who turns out to be a French officer in disguise – the “beau sabreur”. They, and Mary’s maid, escape into the desert, meet up with Hank and Buddy’s lot. And it turns out Hank is her brother.

And so we get to Beau Ideal. The scene in the prison/silo, a dying John being saved by a well-spoken American, forms the Prologue. And then we go back a few years (I’ve always assumed the Beau Geste stories were set pre-WWI, but I’m still not sure)

A nice American boy, Otis, is visiting rellos in rural England. Brandon Abbas is just over the hill. The Gestes are still children. He makes friends with them, falls hopelessly in love with Isabel.

Oh, to be seventeen again! Seventeen, on a most glorious English spring day, the day on which you have first encountered the very loveliest thing in all the world ..

We go on for some chapters in this vein. I find it less compelling than I did 55 years ago! Interestingly, Wren’s ideas on men retaining their ‘purity’ are very similar to those of his contemporary, Miles Franklin, though Wren is much more likely to at least mention unmarried sex and illegitimate children.

Otis makes a couple more (brief) trips to England while he’s at Harvard; discovers Isabel and John were engaged, secretly, the day before John took off after Beau and Digby; breaks with his domineering father as his older brother, Noel, had before him; comes into money; travels around Europe with his sister; they’re invited by a Colonel in the Spahis to visit him in North Africa …

As with most boys adventure stories in the time of empire, you have to put up with a lot of racism.

I have no views to offer on the subject of the ethics of the “peaceful penetration” of an uncivilized country by a civilized one. But nobody could travel southward from Bouzen, contrasting the Desert with the Sown, without perceiving that the penetration was for the greatest good of the greatest number, and ultimately for the whole world’s good, inasmuch as cultivation and production succeeded fallow waste; order and peace succeeded lawlessness and war; and the blessings of civilization succeeded the curses of savagery.

He’s talking about North Africa for chrissake the cradle of European civilization, who had maths and literature when the English had animal skins and woad! And of course all Arabs are oily and untrustworthy, town Arabs especially. Desert Arabs, if savage are at least sometimes noble. [The place names Bouzen and Zaguig, in either Algeria or Morocco, are apparently fictional].

A jihad breaks out while Otis is in Zaguig – I am reminded of how familiar Western commentary felt after 9/11, our illegal invasion of Iraq, and the rise of ISIS – and he fears for his life: “The loathsome indignity of it – a white man struggling impotent in the hands of blacks – his clothes torn from his body ..” Otis is wounded, unconscious under piles of Arab bodies; the French garrison falls. He winds up in Kent. in a sanatorium, where also is Isabel.

John has seen his brothers die, escaped, come home, married Isabel. But Buddy and Hank are still in the desert and he must find them. He has returned to Africa, been arrested by the French, and consigned to the penal battalions. Isabel begs Otis to find him, bring him home. So of course he too joins the Legion, is consigned to the penal battalions. And at the very last minute, finds John. But they are delivered into the hands of villains, are rescued by a half English, half Arab dancing girl whom Otis in desperation promises to marry, and so the adventures continue …

Why is all this so important (to me)? Firstly, I was bought up on a diet almost exclusively Boys Own fiction. Indeed, I had a subscription to Boys Own, or a magazine very similar, in primary school. Boys lived in posh houses, went to boarding school, their mothers had at least a cook and a maid, girls were ok, but were to be treated with respect and care, young women were to be adored from afar. And despite the fact I never saw a servant in my life – well, Granddad had a farmhand when I was really young – I bought into all that.

I may well have had Beau Ideal earlier than 1967, because I remember trying out some of Wren’s Foreign Legion French in French essays in third form (1965). I was in the Western District then and the squattocracy really did live in manor houses. I would spend weekends at Moyne Falls station, where my mate’s father was manager, which had a main house with 20 bedrooms, a tennis court, an airstrip, half a dozen subsidiary houses for staff, 12,000 acres of prime grazing, and so on.

And then, I have always had a girl that I was “in love with” for as a long as I could remember. Sometimes they knew, and sometimes they didn’t. The thing was that doing great deeds for a hopeless passion seemed perfectly natural.

By the time I was 16 or 17 and became aware that kids, some kids, the rough ones, around me were having sex, I was both horrified and fascinated. Boy-girl relations were on a pedestal, and I didn’t have any framework that included “bad girls”. I went part of the way, third base!, but never really believed that I might go all the way. Until of course, I did. But that’s another story

You will see that dynamic again, when we get to A Difficult Young Man, which I read for my matric, and which influenced me in the same way. As I remember, The Way of All Flesh, another matric text, was different, but equally important, in that its principal story was the rebellion of son against father (as was this, partly). They’ll be my next two reads, for February and March.

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PC Wren, Beau Ideal, John Murray, London, 1928. 348pp


Potential read-alongers, I started on The Cardboard Crown (# 1 in the Langton tetralogy) last night, and will proceed to #2 A Difficult Young Man asap in order to write it up for Feb. I don’t have 3 & 4, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing and I guess I’m unlikely to come across them.

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante

I read My Brilliant Friend (2011), the first of Ferrante’s quartet, The Neapolitan Novels, on the train from Milan to Naples in 2017. Spent a few hours there with my daughter and grandkids as they waited for the ferry to Ischia, and then by taxi and train continued heading south. But still, I like that I am able to imagine bits of The Story of a New Name (2012), the second in the quartet, in the places they occurred.

Ferrante apparently conceived of L’amica geniale as one novel, but chose to publish in four volumes for ease of reading. Certainly she makes no concessions; vol.2 takes off exactly where vol.1 ends, and if you have forgotten all the names and family relationships in the interval between reading 1 and 2, then you must resort to the look-up tables placed at the beginning of vol.2 for that purpose.

A number of you in the comments to my review of My Brilliant Friend said that you were put off by the hype, and the same was/is often said of Sally Rooney and Normal People. But Ferrante and Rooney are both excellent writers, as thoughtful about writing as they are about relationships, and I think this thing about hype leads to them being underrated (no doubt as they laugh all the way to the bank).

Also, I think being made into popular TV series has done both books/series no favours. Separating the stories from the writing reduces them to their ordinary coming of age and romance elements and leads most readers to overlook the literary elements of the writing – to a large extent the Neapolitan novels are a discussion of what it takes to be a writer. Lila and Lenu are two sides of the same coin, brilliance and hard work.

I can’t see Ferrante’s year of birth anywhere, nor her ‘real’ name. There are a couple of hints early on that the author/narrator, Elena Greco, is now in her 60s looking back, but apart from that the action and Elena’s thoughts are in the novel’s present, the late 1960s.

The ‘new name’ of the title is Lila’s married name, at 16, Signora Carracci, the wife of grocery shop owner Stefano. In my review of My Brilliant Friend I wrote that the final scene, their wedding breakfast, leaves us hanging. Stefano is meant to have broken with the feuding and gangsterism of the neighbourhood’s immediate past, but the presence of the Solaro brothers, Marcello and Michele implies that Stefano is beholden to them. As indeed the early chapters of the new book confirm. More, Stefano has given Michele Solaro the shoes designed for her shoemaker family by Lila.

The gentle Stefano Carracci, the grocer, who out of love had wanted to buy the first pair of shoes she had made, vowing that he would keep them forever. Ah, the wonderful moment when, at fifteen, she had felt herself a rich and elegant lady, on the arm of her fiancé, who, all because he loved her, had invested a lot of money in her father and brother’s shoe business: Cerullo shoes.

At 470pp this is not a small book, and at the story-telling level there is always a lot going on. From the very beginning, Lila is constantly at odds with Stefano, swinging wildly between seducing him and denying him sex, apparently defying both her husband and nature by not getting pregnant, and then when a son finally comes, claiming that Stefano is not the father.

Stefano builds a second, new, grocery within the neighbourhood and gets Lila to manage it, which she does unwillingly but well. And he goes into business with the Solaros, with a smart store in the city, which he largely prevents Lila from being involved in, though it is selling Cerullo shoes.

Lenu meanwhile makes her way through the middle and final years of high school. Though they’re often at odds, still Lila uses Stefano’s money to buy Lenu’s schoolbooks and Lenu is able to get a respite from the dreadful poverty of her own parents and younger siblings, by going each afternoon to study in the backroom of the new grocery.

There are a couple of summer interludes on Ischia, firstly with Lenu working as a governess, and then, later, paid by Lila to be with a party of young married neighbourhood women. On the island she runs into the Sarratore family, formerly from the neighbourhood, who have a small house there. Lenu has always had a crush on Nino Sarratore, a brilliant student, a couple of years ahead of her at school. He, it turns out is dating the daughter of her favourite teacher. Lenu thinks she can win him, but Lila is in the way …

Lenu completes high school so successfully that she is offered a scholarship to university in Genoa, and there she does well, gets herself a nice, upper middle class boyfriend, and writes a novel which may be My Brilliant Friend. (Though, unlike Miles Franklin and My Brilliant Career, the neighbours do not read it and do not get offended).

So, in the first place, all the drama in The Story of a New Name is Lila’s. Which Lenu purports to tell, almost first hand, using the clumsy device of Lila’s diaries which are entrusted to her and which she reads and destroys. The underlying story of course is Lenu’s own growth as a woman, as an educated Italian, and as a writer. Lenu is to some extent an ‘unreliable narrator’, at least of her own story, and it seems to me that she overrates Lila’s flashy brilliance, as she underrates herself, her attractiveness, her intelligence, as of course, most young women do.

The underlying, underlying story is of language. I have been fascinated in the past year or so by the Japanese/American An I-Novel, Minae Mizumura, and Jessica Gaitán Johannesson’s How We Are Translated, both about women moving backwards and forwards between languages. Lenu must do the same, between the dialect of the ‘neighbourhood’ – widely spoken throughout Naples – and the formal Italian of her education. When she goes to Genoa she finds she must navigate a third language, colloquial Italian, with which she has apparently had no prior experience. The translator does not attempt to reproduce this, and I wonder if Ferrante herself does.

I enjoyed this story at the relationship level, though I know a lot of you became exasperated with it, but at another level is a very good writer talking about/showing us developing her craft, and at this level it is fascinating.

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Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, first pub. 2012, this edition: Text, Melbourne, 2015. 470pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.


Coincidentally, as I finished writing this, a review appeared in Inside Story of the HBO series of My Brilliant Friend. Jane Godall writes at length about the fidelity of the filming to the story and to Naples, but of course, all the literary element is lost (here).

Near Believing, Alan Wearne

Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021 is a selection of Wearne’s poetry from over his whole career. I bought a copy when I saw it in my local indie bookshop last year, but apparently the official release is a John Hawke “In Conversation With…” at Readings Carlton, 6.30 pm, Wed. 15 February ’23 (here).

I think it would be fair to say that Wearne’s specialty is the verse narrative – novels and long monologues – and that he has developed a particular and recognisable vernacular voice. Here we have selections from each of his novels – Out Here, The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – from other collections and, he says, some new stuff, presumably the last section, under the heading ‘Metropolitan Poems and other poems’, plus an Introduction by Michelle Borzi.

Borzi writes: “The groundnote of Wearne’s vernacular is the audibility of his words and phrases as a movement of conversational sounds and gestures. A kernel of that narrative voice first appeared in two breakthrough poems in his first book Public Relations (1972): ‘Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete” (written in 1967, when he was eighteen [his first year out of high school]) and ‘Warburton 1910’ (written in 1972). He went on to develop that voice in ‘Out Here’ and it has carried forward into all corners of his subsequent work.”

This too was a feat: running for a month
(as rumour had it).
Sprinting in the temple
was nothing less than perfect. Tables knocked,
whips raised and money lost.
He charged them twice

Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete

Borzi, and Martin Duwell, both of whom I have linked to below, quote Wearne as saying his influences are narrative poets from Chaucer to the Victorians, and especially Browning. I assume they mean Robert, and not Elizabeth. Robert Browning’s wikipedia entry says he “was noted for irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings and challenging vocabulary and syntax.” Very Wearne-ish.

Australian vernacular is difficult to get down on paper without descending into parody, and I would like to add, if not as an influence, then at least as a predecessor, CJ Dennis. It is difficult to tell with both Wearne and Dennis whether the slightly forced nature of their expression comes from finding the right phrase in speech that is not naturally theirs, or from the discipline imposed by their respective poetic structures.

Yeh live, yeh love, yeh learn; an’ when yeh come
To square the ledger in some thortful hour,
The everlastin’ answer to the sum
Must allus be, “Where’s the sense in gittin’ sour?”

CJ Dennis: The Mooch o’ Life

Dennis uses shorter words and has a predictable, staccato rhythm. In all his “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” he is attempting a slum/working class argot for the entertainment of a middle class audience. Wearne is often slangy, but it is middle class, suburban slang. And his words are longer, often fitting only awkwardly into his poetic structures, which vary, I’m sure not haphazardly, but let’s say, unpredictably.

Dennis and Wearne are alike in that (in their long pieces) the protagonist speaks directly to the reader. But Wearne fills out his narrative by having more than one speaker, so that we, in the verse novels, see the story from multiple points of view. There is some argument as to whether Wearne’s protagonists have different voices or just different stories to tell. Wearne’s own voice is so strong and so unique that I probably tend towards the latter view.

Alan grew up in Blackburn, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, in the 1950s and 60s, all apple orchards at the end of the War, then weatherboard housing estates, shading quickly to brick and tile, becoming prosperous as all the middle manager fathers rose through the ranks. He went to uni at Monash, an island in the southeastern suburban sea, but seems mostly to have lived in the then student/bohemian inner suburbs of Fitzroy, St Kilda, Carlton. And these locations are at the centre of all his poetry.

The poems and excerpts in this collection are undated, so it is difficult to tell whether his themes have changed over time, or if, as seems more likely, he returns over and over to this heartland of his teens and early adulthood.

But on this afternoon, in a new year
at a new school, whose tiresome Latin motto
you’d like to think might be interpreted as
Making Do With What We’ve Got (which isn’t much)

some things you’re hoping to commence will commence.
And if outside, starting at Holland Road …

A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers

So, in what is presented as a later poem, here we are back again at Blackie South High (in Holland Rd), in the 1960’s – “if only they’d let us wear slacks!” Which brings up another point: that Wearne is just as likely to take the teachers’ point of view. This is evident too in ‘Out Here’, which he says is based on a story told to him by a teacher who had come to Blackburn South from another high school. You get the impression that by the end of his school years he was already being taken seriously as an adult writer.

Let me end with one other longish (25pp) narrative – because that is what I am more comfortable with – ‘Operation Hendrickson’ in which the protagonist Henn is busted for sex with a minor (Henn seems to be 20 and the girl 15). “… And here’s the real equation/their real equation: either she’s sixteen or isn’t./Sure wasn’t./But moral danger? Behind me she held on and/(anyone thought I might look after her?)/just ride and talk.”

Henn has come from a Kildonan (Presbyterian) home to a foster home in Blackburn, and has been in a youth group with the author

Whilst Wearney you needn’t believe because
he’s just making it up for Proper Gander,
his rag: ‘Hey Wearney, write my memoirs
then put them into your Proper Gander!’
In our concert he plays the butler,
who sees it (and I mean it) all.

Over the course of the poem Henn looks back on his mates – just the one speaker, but a different register for each mate – from the perspective of his thirties: the one that went to nearby Burwood Tech, the one that did nasho, what Wearney knows and doesn’t know, circles back to true love, Kim behind him on the bike, the cop

Here though was a plan: she was going to climb
on my machine and we, the Kim ‘n’ Henn Show
would leave it, all of it: dole, debts, cops, folks
and end where we would end. (That’s what I told him,
Wearney, one evening just across the road.)
Then within a month a week,
a jack is telling me: ‘… think you’re something, son?’

‘Wearney’ writes “this warmish winter day in mid-July,/here at the corner of Orchard Grove and Canterbury Road”, two streets down from my Mum’s retirement unit; or “walking north where Punt Road overpasses/Dandenong Road at St Kilda Junction” where I’d eat my lunch when I was on office boy in Prahran, watching the trucks pass underneath; or “Bowater-Scott’s four-to-midnight shift” whose lane off Middleborough Rd I park my truck in when I stay at Mum’s; and so on and so on. Alan Wearne is writing my life, and his life, and the lives of all us boomers who grew up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

I wish I’d made it clearer: Wearne writes men and women equally, though not in ‘Operation Hendrickson’ and the generation before ours, our mothers particularly. Read him. He’s one of a kind, telling the story of his and our time.

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Alan Wearne, Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021, Puncher & Wattman, Newcastle NSW, 2022. 252pp

Cover: detail from Untitled (girl in the mirror), 1985 by Jenny Watson

Other Alan Wearne works reviewed:
Out Here, 1986 (here)
The Nightmarkets, 1986 (here)

See also (reviews much more informed than mine!):
Martin Duwell, Near Believing, Australian Poetry Review, 1 Oct 2022 (here)
Michelle Borzi, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, Southerly (here)

Voss, Patrick White

Brona’s Books AusReading Month

The 1950s seem to have been a time for introspection about what it means to be an Australian, or rather, how it was that the archetypal Australian had come to be a working man from the bush, independent, resourceful, hard working when necessary, and contemptuous of authority – all attributes which had been freely applied to the soldiers of the Second AIF, now just returned from fighting the Japanese, and before them, to the First AIF, the original ANZACs.

Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties came out in 1954, Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend in 1958 and, between them, Voss, in 1957. Not directly influenced by either, but part of the same discussion and informed by White’s own war service, in the deserts of North Africa.

You can’t write about White without writing about class. White was of the class of whom the working men in the bush were contemptuous, the squattocracy. His family owned large properties throughout NSW; all his adolesence was spent at boarding school and university in England; and during the war he was an intelligence officer in the (British) Royal Air Force.

Yet, it seems his roots as a writer were in Australia and he returned here permanently in 1948. I said in an earlier post that he wrote Voss from his study in inner Sydney, but in fact he and Manoly Laskaris lived on their hobby farm in Castle Hill, on the outskirts of Sydney until 1963 when they moved to, I think, White’s late mother’s house in Centennial Park.

Patrick White was one of the great writers of High Modernism, so Voss is much more about its eponymous hero’s interior, than it is about Australia’s, which in any case White had barely experienced. But I want to write about some other aspects of the novel.

This novel is White’s great contribution to the dominant myth of Australianness, the lone bushman, but he is cognisant also of its limitations. He posits one man against a hostile interior, but that man is a loner only in that he must be the leader; in Voss, crossing Australia is an upper middle class venture, supported by wealthy merchants, with, of the lower classes, only the ex-convict, small-landowner Judd playing an important role; the Australian legend excludes women, the Bulletin‘s version is openly misogynist, yet White has Laura riding alongside Voss, in spirit if not in fact; the mythical Australian bushman of the 1890s on whom all subsequent iterations of the Australian legend are based is white, Anglo. White subverts this by making his hero German, and by making the attempt to include Aboriginal actors and culture.

The bushman of the Australian legend, of say Such is Life, is a complainer, yes, but he is comfortable in the bush, on his own or with companions (‘mates’). Voss is not comfortable, and the bush – often waterless brigalow scrub and desert – sends him mad.

Voss of course is not Ludwig Leichardt and more often during my reading I felt dissonances rather than resonances. So Voss has walked up the NSW North Coast, from Newcastle to Moreton Bay (Brisbane) but Leichardt had also walked (or ridden) from Brisbane to Port Essington (Darwin) which would have revealed to him the nature of much of the country, and in particular that there were no great rivers in the north east quarter of the continent. Leichardt would have been both better prepared than Voss and more competent.

The other aspect of Voss as historical fiction which played on my mind is that White, in the 1950s, knew that the Australian interior was arid and hostile. Even without ever going further north and west, a year as a jackaroo (gentleman station hand) at Walgett would have made that clear! But Leichardt, in the 1840s, would not have known, and may well have believed that around the next corner he would come upon a Lake Baikal, a Great Lakes, or a Mississippi running in some other direction than North East (sailors mapping the mouths of the Ord or Fitzroy Rivers for instance, in the north west, had no reason to believe that they didn’t extend far into the interior).

What I am saying is that White’s description of the geography Voss faced was as accurate as research could make it, but he gives no hint of the beliefs that motivated Voss to set out on a 5,000 km walk into the unkown with a party of just six men (though in the end it is the two Aboriginal men who attach themselves to Voss at the last point of ‘civilisation’, and especially Jackie, who prove themselves the most valuable members of the party).

I have been chatting with Bron about whether Voss is still my number one Great Australian Novel, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not. It is a brilliant novel of its times, and probably still one of the great works of Modernism. But. Early accounts of Australia have Aboriginal people as shadows between the trees, as servants or stockmen (unpaid except for ‘rations’), as missing. Only from the 1920s do writers attempt to bring them into focus – Ion Idriess first, then Xavier Herbert and Eleanor Dark. White does well to treat the Blacks accompanying Voss, Dugald and Jackie, as real people, though of course they are still servants. You might imagine that Thomas Keneally was following on from White in making Jimmie the protagonist of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). White’s accounts of tribal Aboriginal culture are less successful and today wouldn’t be attempted.

Much as I love Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) and the important work of re-imagining first contact in That Deadman Dance (2010), number one must be Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) which is both brilliantly written, and holds the possibility that our acceptance of its truths might lead us forward to a place where we are partners rather than settlers in this country.

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Patrick White, Voss, first pub. 1957. Audiobook from Bolinda, read by Humphrey Bower. 19 hours