Islands, Peggy Frew

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My purchase and review of Peggy Frew’s recently released Islands are to make up for my blowing off a review of Frew’s “best selling” Hope Farm (2015) (here). I don’t regret it. Frew seems to me an innovative and interesting writer, and a writer who writes out of places and personal situations that she knows – which you know I prefer. The “Islands” of the title refer in the first place to Phillip Island, a semi rural family holiday spot at the mouth of Westernport Bay, an hour or two east of Melbourne. I guess the title also alludes to the separateness of the protagonists, but that sort of thing generally eludes me.

The Age/SMH review I’ve linked to below (if you can access it) seems to refer to Frew’s connections to Phillip Island and to the history of the ms in relation to both her childhood and to her other writing. I didn’t read it all. But going by Hope Farm and Islands, Frew does seem to be working through a problem with distant mothering – a mother, not necessarily her own I hasten to add, who takes frequent, inappropriate lovers, the protagonist/daughter excluded, more or less abandoned.

Islands‘ principle protagonist is Junie Worth but at the core of the novel is the disappearance of Junie’s younger sister Anna when she, Anna is 15. Frew works hard to vary both the points of view and the nature of the excerpts that gradually build up into pictures of first Junie, mostly as she sees herself, and then Anna as others saw her.

In my opinion, the story-telling works best when Frew is closest to her subject matter, ie the details of Junie’s childhood, adolesence and marriage and least well when Frew is more ambitious, for instance when she reports as monologue John Worth’s – the girls’ father’s – therapy.

It’s been three years. There was a police investigation. And they found nothing, they were fucking useless, pardon me. And they just seemed to give up really fast. They were saying things like, If someone doesn’t want to be found there’s not a lot we can do. This is a child we’re talking about!

She was fifteen. I said that; didn’t you scribble it down in your secret little notes?

Okay, maybe I didn’t say it. Sorry. Sorry about that. I just get fired up when I think about the cops. Phew, okay, sorry.

John has married the beautiful Helen at university. He is anal, she is a free spirit. His mother has a house on the island – not named, though the principal town, Cowes is, late in the book – where they spend much of their time. They have two girls. Helen takes a lover. Leaves to live with the lover. Takes the girls. Leaves the lover. Takes a flat, men coming and going.

When Junie’s in year 12 she lives permanently with her father, to do her matric without distractions. Anna dislikes her father, his agonizing over the failed marriage, stays with Helen. We – the reader – know from the beginning that Anna is/goes missing.

You were a girl, thin and young, with veins that showed blue through your pale, pale skin and you hair was reddish-gold and really you were still a kid when we saw you last [opening lines].

The back cover blurb gives away this and more. I resent/resist reading blurbs, all blurbs, but especially those like this one that in summarizing the story release all the early ‘secrets’.

The excerpts, mostly dated, swirl around as the author gradually builds a picture of life for these people – from John’s childhood through to Junie’s children –  on this island, and in their home suburb. An effect which is spoiled to some extent by giving us Helen’s childhood in one big chunk late in the book.

Even as Helen is looking up langorously from the latest lover to wonder lazily where Anna might be; as Junie goes from uni to marriage to motherhood; as John searches dementedly city streets and railway stations; we begin to see more of Anna as teenage schoolgirl. Short skirts, cigarettes, dope, bare scarred legs, missed classes, late nights. Acting out. See her through the eyes of classmates, more distantly through Junie.

Junie can look back on the past, when Anna was there. She can see, behind her, that world, where things were aligned. And then there is a signpost, a marker, which is Anna being gone. And after that the void opens… you wake each day in the world of No Anna.

Slowly, John settles with a new, sensible wife; Helen moves to Noosa with her guru/partner; Junie (now June) stays clear of Helen, her own marriage coming apart.

There are resolutions. In an unfortunate final chapter Frew suggests an ending for Anna, which might have been better left up in the air. I admire Frew, for the risks she has taken in telling the story this way, and yet I believe that if she were to focus on one protagonist – herself of course – and her relationship with her mother, however fictionalised, and were just to write and write her way through that, with the most limited externalities, then she would better achieve her potential as a writer of character-based literary fiction.

But perhaps I’m wrong.  Maybe the mother-daughter stuff’s all done with now and the next book is about something else altogether. We’ll see. You might not think so, but I do understand that novels need ‘stories’ to be saleable, I just, mostly, find stories uninteresting. Meanwhile, read it for yourself. I enjoyed it, and despite the reservations some of you expressed about Hope Farm, I think you will too.

 

Peggy Frew, Islands, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

Age/SMH review, Melanie Kembrey, 22 March 2019 (here)

 

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Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, Tasma

Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 (1788-1890)

Uncle Piper

When Uncle Piper came out, in 1888 it was very well received and writers of the time likened Tasma to George Eliot (1819-1880). My own impression was to note the similarities with Elizabeth Gaskell  (1810-1865), maybe because I have read her more, and more recently (here).

The similarities are in the frequent references to church and religion, a questioning tone, though Tasma seems more Agnostic than Dissenter, the predominance of female over male interests, and a general overall seriousness. Some critics mention Jane Austen, but Tasma does not have the great JA’s lightness of touch, or whimsy.

The novel is set in Melbourne, fictional Piper’s Hill is in South Yarra, a rich Melbourne inner eastern suburb; a ship approaching Melbourne; and in ‘Barnesbury’, Malmsbury, a minor gold mining town on the highway (and railway) from Melbourne to Bendigo.  The period is the 1870s when Melbourne was the richest city in the world, following the gold rushes of the 1850s, and before the land boom and recession of the 1890s. The author mentions in passing Europe preparing for war. It is likely Tasma was in Belgium with her mother during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), so maybe she is referring to this or more generally to German expansionism.

Uncle Piper, now in his sixties, had come out from England as a young man, prospered as a butcher and then as a land speculator, and built himself a mansion in extensive gardens, with a tower from which he is able to see across the intervening suburbs of St Kilda and South Melbourne to discern with his telescope ships coming down the Bay from the Heads (map – Piper’s Hill is between Melbourne and St Kilda, beneath the ‘o’ say).

Piper has a son, George by his first marriage, and step daughter, Laura and much younger daughter, Louey by his second. Laura and Louey also have an older brother, a curate in London. Louey’s mother died in childbirth but Piper has promised to raise Laura as his own. Laura in young womanhood, accepts her step father’s support but not his rules and they are at daggers drawn, so when Piper realises George and Laura are in love he is seriously angry.

The cast is extensive and it is difficult to say if any one person is the protagonist, or even if we get to know any of the characters particularly well, though I like Laura, and it is likely she is the character Tasma has drawn to be most like herself. She and George are free thinkers. She is intensely loyal to George. She infuriates her step father by being beautiful, colourfully dressed, and by showing him the most studied indifference (Daughters! Who’d have them!). Laura and George also believe, theoretically anyway, in Free Love, which they discuss at length when Laura refuses to marry George on the grounds that he is not competent to support her if he is disinherited.

Piper’s sister was left behind in England where she married, above her station, Cavendish, an impoverished aristocrat. They have two daughters, the good, handsome Margaret and the thoughtless, impossibly beautiful Sara. They have lived poorly for many years on gifts to Mrs Cavendish from her brother, and at the beginning of the novel are at sea, outside the Heads, emigrants to Australia where Piper can more easily support them. Also on the ship is a curate, the Rev Mr Lydiat, who is of course Laura’s brother, coming out to minister to the colonies after wearing himself out in the slums of London.

The Cavendishes move into their own wing of the Piper mansion and the girls and their mother are introduced to a life of wealth and ease. Margaret though is insistent on supporting herself, and becomes Louey’s governess; Mrs Cavendish is induced to take over the reins of an extensive household; Sara – who has already rejected Mr Lydiat – keeps one eye George, despite his humble birth, and another on the main chance, a title, a return in triumph to Europe; while Mr Cavendish chafes at being supported by ‘a plebian’, talks vaguely of a government job, and researches fanciful family trees. He is clearly a type Tasma has met and doesn’t like (Notice that she occasionally talks directly to the reader).

Mr Cavendish’s aristocratic nature was not devoid of the commonplace tendency I once heard attributed to husbands in general – [that wives are] to be petted and made much of when things are going well, and to be severely knocked about when anything goes wrong.

The plot is simple enough but what Tasma does, brilliantly and in detail, is describe the fluctuations in mood as the various young people form and reform alliances. Mr Lydiat still has hopes of Sara; George has all his hopes, for rescue from debt and marriage to Laura, riding on a horse he has running in the New Years Cup; Mr Piper has every intention of forcing George to marry Sara; Louey is distraught that her family is coming apart; Margaret is headed for spinsterhood while quietly pining after Mr Lydiat.

On the night before he is to take up a position in Barnesbury, Lydiat makes a fool of himself in the conservatory with Sara. Laura decides to go with him to give George and Sara space. There is a day in the sun at the races …

I won’t give too much away, but Louey takes the train to Barnesbury to be with her brother and sister; there’s an accident; all the family except Sara and her father rush to Barnesbury where they are all crowded into one little cottage. There are happy endings during which Tasma very much enjoys herself giving Sara her comeuppance.

Eastern Hill Charles Troedel

My Thomas Nelson edition has as its front cover a Charles Troedel print of Melbourne in the 1860s. I couldn’t locate a copy so have put up this one of Eastern Hill which includes  St Peters, the highest of high Anglican churches, where Mr Piper maintained a pew “and slumbered therein every successive Sunday.”

And I’ll reinclude a picture from my last post just so I can add Tasma’s description

Carlsruhe Hotel

Hotel Carlsruhe c. 1865. Now Lord Admiral House. “The great bluestone public house, designed for a monster hotel, was completed as far as its first story, but as it was never carried any farther, it naturally possesses at the present time a somewhat squat appearance, with a suggestively make-shift roof, and a general air of having been stopped in its growth.”

 

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, first pub. 1888. My ed. Thomas Nelson, Sydney, 1969. Top picture, reproduction of original frontispiece.

Download pdf version of first ed. (here) The Thos Nelson text is based on the 2nd ed.
Tasma (here)
Whispering Gums’ review (here)

A Season on Earth, Gerald Murnane

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Melanie at Grab The Lapels initiated recently a great debate along the lines of what even IS Literary Fiction. It was fun, and illuminating, to sit in the comment stream as for days the various responses and counter-responses came rolling in. Melanie, and probably the bulk of her readers’ tentative conclusion is, I think, that the Lit.Fic. tag is elitist. Mine is that Lit.Fic is Art, that Lit.Fic writers respond consciously to previous developments in Lit.Fic by expanding what can be said and how it can be said.

However you define it, what Gerald Murnane does is definitely Literary Fiction. I was initially, briefly!, disappointed with A Season on Earth because it starts like, say an Alan Marshall story: I was a boy and this is what I did. I have come to Murnane late and was expecting the deep introspection of his later writing, but A Season on Earth is an early work, only lately – this year – published in full as he wrote it.

What he does is write in intense detail his thoughts and actions as a teenager, at a Catholic boys school in 1950s Melbourne. I was sorry on reading Border Districts that I was unfamiliar with Proust’s Remembrance of Times Lost. I’m sorry now that nor have I read Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Murnane’s protagonist Adrian Sherd gives an almost nightly account of the fantasies – sex with Hollywood film stars – to which he masturbates; his discussions about masturbation with his particular schoolfriends; his fantasy about a girl he travels home on the same train as, without ever speaking to her, which leads to him forsaking masturbation, though not wet dreams, in favour of (imagined) courtship, engagement, marriage and children; the ongoing tension between his sins, actual and imagined, and his commitment to his religion; the problems occasioned by his burgeoning manhood

 Adrian stood for a minute in the middle of his darkened bedroom. He took a few steps forward and then reached down once more to check what was happening beneath his pyjamas. His enemy had consolidated its position still further. Adrian realised he would never escape from the danger of mortal sin. He would always be at the mercy of his own penis …

and finally, by the end of Part 2 (halfway) to his turning his back on his imagined love to begin studying for the priesthood.

The art in Murnane’s writing is that a) you are equally enthralled and amused by Adrian’s convoluted rationalisations; and b) you feel for Adrian as he inches towards understanding in a very Satre-ian way, with each iteration of love-interest/temptation/religious-response.

In Part 3, Adrian spends his matriculation year (year 12) in the junior seminary of the Charleroi order near Blenheim, NSW. Murnane fictionalises all the school, town and suburb names where he lives and studies, but situates them accurately in real locations. So Blenheim is Goulburn – I didn’t try and work out who the ‘Charlerois’ were – his old school was De La Salle in Malvern and so on … Only ‘Accrington’, his home suburb has me beat, though given that it’s south east and not on the Frankston line, I’m guessing Oakleigh or Clayton (map).

This part is a relatively straightforward account of his life and thoughts – he worries that the Charlerois are insufficiently strict or religious – and to be honest I’m not surprised his original publishers, in 1976, cut it out.

He determines to leave the Charlerois and join the Cistercians, a stricter order with a monastery at Yarra Glen, outside Melbourne. But on the train home from Blenheim, he rediscovers and overcomes the temptations of the flesh, and learns this about himself –

He knew now that looking at landscapes and observing their effect on his emotions was what he really wanted for his life’s work … from that moment on he was a poet in search of his ideal landscape.

And so Part 4: Reassured that his new favourite poet, Matthew Arnold had been an inspector of schools he begins employment with the Education Department, in the section reassigning temporary appointments. He’s told, “… we can give them another appointment anywhere in the state. Mind you, we’re supposed to be reasonable. If Ouyen or Sea Lake needs a temp …”. The Holloways by then had put the wilds of Sea Lake, and Underbool, west of Ouyen, three or four years behind them (though we came back, to Murrayville even further west than Underbool).

For a year he dedicates himself to staying aloof from his workmates, to writing an epic poem, first of a hero on imagined distant plains who conquers his desire to commit the solitary sin, which Adrian imagines Catholic women will not understand but will have explained to them by their husbands; then, on the “blissful union of bodies and souls in the sacrament of matrimony”, based entirely on his covert observations of young wives at communion.

Even Adrian realises that this revised epic requires of him some experience of talking to, meeting, courting young women and so he joins the Young Catholics, goes to Cheshire’s bookshop in the city, and generally hangs about looking thoughtful in a way any sensible young woman must notice and appreciate, until at Cheshires he discovers and begins to model himself, on AE Housman, an ascetic, bachelor Don (the inspiration for his later story, A Quieter Place then Clun).

 When the train [to work] reached Flinders Street, Adrian would try to catch the young woman’s eye with a last look full of meaning. It was meant to tell her he was not unappreciative of her interest in him, but he was not free to respond to her as an ordinary young man would have been.

He moves on, toys with nhilism, (imagined) rape in any other language; writing erotic novels (he discovers Henry Miller); monasticism – his ‘cell’ is the shed in his parents’ backyard; and finally, discovers Rimbaud (without I think discovering that Rimbaud was homosexual) and in emulation, at 19, decides to throw over poetry and journey to the ends of the earth somewhere …

 

Gerald Murnane, A Season on Earth, Text, Melbourne, 2019.
Parts 1 and 2 previously published as A Lifetime on Clouds (1976)

Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
Landscape with Landscape (here)
Border Districts (here)
A Million Windows (here)

A Bunch of Ratbags, William Dick

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One of the joys of watching Romper Stomper (Russell Crowe’s first movie), is the locations, around (Melbourne inner suburb) Footscray and particularly the freight rail line that crosses the Maribyrnong River and disappears under Bunbury St by the old Brown & Mitchell Transport depot to come out past Footscray station.

Footscray is a suburb of industry and workers cottages, of football team the doggies and of the big tech now Victoria University of Technology. Over the years I’ve delivered livestock from Newmarket to its various (long-gone) abattoirs, driven backwards and forwards through it when Footscray Road was Melbourne’s main transport hub, had jobs there, walked and eaten and banked there, way back then and more recently during all the years it was son Lou’s home base.

So I was looking forward to this 1965 novel of bodgies and widgies in Melbourne’s western suburbs, a working class bildungsroman, by an author for whom this was lived experience. William Dick (1937- ) grew up in Footscray in real poverty but worked his way out through a trade apprenticeship and a gradually developing career as a writer. By 1985 when this edition was published he had written two more novels and been to Stanford on a writing scholarship. I couldn’t find any more and a blogger I’ve linked to below who went to Footscray Tech in the 1960s concurs, but is able to identify many of the locations, including the protagonist’s (the author’s?) home.

By 1966 when our family moved (temporarily) to Melbourne, Bodgies (and Widgies, their female counterparts) had morphed into Rockers and the rival gangs were Sharpies, Mods and Stylists. Rockers followed Johnny O’Keefe, Mods Normie Rowe, and Stylists the Easybeats. Sharpies, I don’t know. They had short, short hair and wore wide tartan pants. They were rough. Working class kids who spent a fortune on clothes, on looking sharp, according to stories in the Sun. Dick spends a lot of time for a tough guy on descriptions of his clothes, and on the constant subtle changes of fashion. The Sharpies in his day, a decade earlier, were wannabe Bodgies but I think that by class and by attitude they ended up the real heirs of the Bodgies and the Rockers just got the hair and the music.

If an author says a book is a novel, then it’s a novel, and if it seems discontinuous then we look for connections. A Bunch of Ratbags reads as memoir, episodes in the life of, with the names, including the suburb, fictionalized to protect the innocent. The continuity is Terry Cooke growing from 8 to 18 and from petty thief to roughneck to good citizen.

And a warning: his attitude about violence to women is pretty blasé, though he redeems himself a little at the end, in his own eyes anyway, by stopping his mates gang raping a girl (though not till after they’ve bashed her).

The writing itself is disappointing, middlebrow, so that the slang when it’s used sounds false, almost parodic. The only similar book I know, Wild Cat Falling by Mudrooroo, sounds much more authentic. Dick writes like a journalist embedded in a gang, and feels the need to explain everything to us squares.

Cooke lives with his mother and father and younger sister in a falling down 3 BR single story weatherboard backing onto to the rail line. His father is variously a meat worker and an ironworker, doesn’t drink but gambles compulsively, a hoarder of things and animals – chooks, dogs, geese, lambs –  a tyrant in his own little kngdom, a wife beater and a child beater. Cooke hates him and loves him.

– I just had to accept it, that my father liked to belt me up once in a while and that was that. After all, we were only normal people, and if every kid in Goodway murdered his old man after he got belted up, then there would have been no men left in Goodway at all.

As a youngster Terry has a range of little money making schemes, collecting bottles for refunds at the footy, salvaging woodscraps from the rail trucks carting firewood, selling newspapers, stealing.

When he starts at Footscray Goodway Tech he realises he’ll need to join a gang for protection and gradually becomes a little stand-over merchant in his own right. It is typical that when he discovers girls at 13 or 14 his first instinct (and his second and third) is to share, to take her into the toilets and to invite two or three of his mates to follow – he says he only does this with girls who want to “give it away”.

And so he makes his way through school, mostly in with the dumb kids, though sometimes showing enough promise to be put in with kids actually learning stuff; concentrating on his mates, fighting, edging his way into the local Bodgie gang based around the Oasis milk bar (just think Happy Days). At the end of four years, so aged about 16, he leaves, starts at the meatworks on good money but is made to realise that long term he’ll be better off with a trade and so is apprenticed to a furniture maker, alongside some big guys in the Bodgies.

From there it’s vandalism, sex, crime, drinking, gang fights, run-ins with police … and clothes –

The bodgie style had changed from jeans and so on to the new uniform of everything Junior Navy in colour – pants, shirts and socks. Cardigans were still the re-bob style. We now wore one-button, full-drape patch-pocket sports coats, but only the very light colours such as off-white, oatmeal, light blue or powder blue, with black shoes, suede or leather.

He graduates to captain of his own section of the gang. Bill Haley explodes onto the screen and then live at Festival Hall. He begins to get the shakes, headaches and diahorrea. Gets a steady girl who doesn’t do it. Seeks treatment. And slowly gets older and makes his way out of the system.

No, I didn’t like it particularly. Of course I loved that it was (more or less) my time, my home turf, but as a novel it was just a list of events, some of them unintentionally distasteful, with no tension, cardboard cutout supporting characters and very little character development even for Terry.

 

William Dick, A Bunch of Ratbags, first pub. 1965, Penguin 1984. Adapted as a stage musical (here)

Review by Footscray boy, blogger Rob Manderson (here)

 

The Butcherbird Stories, A.S. Patrić

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As a writer I wonder about those of us who have been removed from our places of birth, who leave language, history and ancestry to begin anew somewhere else. We become proud owners of words inherited from parents that are not our own. Our first sentences are composed within a literary history that has given us so few pages we barely exist. (Punctuated Air).

Alex Patrić is an astonishingly good writer. I loved Black Rock White City (2015), his debut, and yet (illogically!) felt betrayed by his next, Atlantic Black (2017), read the reviews but wouldn’t read the book, wanted him back here, back in Australia, Melbourne, dissecting us, himself, Anglos and reffos, with his precis, ‘removed’ prose. And now we have him, in this collection, published by Transit Lounge in hardback. I bought a copy at Christmas, but was unable to give it away, have been reading one story each night I was sufficiently awake.

The collection consists of 11 stories, unrelated (to continue a discussion I’ve been having elsewhere), from a few pages long to sixty, that reflect in different ways Patrić’s heritage as an eastern European (Bosnian Serb) man in Australia. The longest story, Among the Ruins reads as a European fairy tale, of a street-vendor of roasted nuts, bankrupted when his nut wholesaling business burnt down, now supporting himself as a subcontractor employed to play terrifying tricks on others.

Bruna Kramzer had a wife and two children, and in-laws who lived in house, for the most part harmoniously. He lied to them every day when he told them he still ran his business selling nuts … His family came to know he was moonlighting as a professional rogue. They needed Bruno’s earnings so they didn’t speak about it openly.

So you can see the writing is simple, but deceptively simple. With each step forward we learn also a little about the past, as the tricks and tricksters circle round on each other.

In another story the protagonist attempts to stop an old widower from committing suicide. I don’t agree with him. It’s not your business. Walk away. Milly argued with me, each individual has a ‘line’ beyond which some acts, by others, are immoral. Me, I have enough trouble being moral myself without forcing it on others. I divide acts by others into the categories ‘useful’ and ‘harmful’.

Patrić resumes his love affair with his adopted home city, with the bayside suburbs he obviously knows and loves. A taxi driver and his passenger –

… had reached the car park overlooking the bay. The beach ran south for two or three kilometres. Red Bluff was barely visible in the overcast haze. The steep cliffs rose thirty metres into the air all the way out to Black Rock. The bay roiled with shallow surf below them. Hundreds of boats and ships bobbled at their berths …

What are the other stories? And more to the point what do I remember of the earlier ones? Taking notes interferes with the process of reading. Taking notes is studying, not reading. And much as I would love to, I cannot bring myself to underline, let alone to desecrate with marginalia. Ah, Avulsion. I’d forgotten the swimming story. A guy doing laps spots a small shape on the bottom:

I swim up the lane, come back. I really don’t want to see it again. I’d rather it was a hallucination… The lane ropes guide me over and past the finger …

Training is addictive, once you’re in you don’t want to stop. Just follow the line, tumble, follow the line, counting laps. But be careful, especially if you’re sharing the lane, not to drift to the side, not to catch your fingers in the hard, coloured circles that make the lane ropes float.

Dead Sun, a man is in hiding, in the attic room of an old couple’s house, in seemingly the room of their dead son, a longer story, placeless, strange.

Punctuated Air, a boy grows up in working class St Albans:

I was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in a part of the city called Zemun – right at the confluence of the rivers Danube and Sava. There was one small room for the three of us to sleep in… My parents were still driven by new love and talked for months about a long journey that would take us far from our two rivers… Australia was one of the first words I heard, whispered in the darkness of that cold bedroom. A word … filled with the warmth of their love for me and their hopes for the future.

In Black Rock, White City the protagonist comes to Australia as an adult, in Punctuated Air as a child, in The Flood he’s born in Mildura (Australia). The novel, these stories, are informed by his lived experience, I don’t expect, or wish, them to be biographical.

And the title story, Butcherbird. A Melbourne man, on a resort holiday with his family, wonders if butcherbird song is no more than a ringtone, mourns a dead lover, swims late at night with a flirtatious fourteen year old, a few pages, a fragment of a life.

The best story, well my favourite, and they’re all good, is Memories of Jane Doe, the last days of a young woman, told backwards.

I’m not sure how old Patrić is, fortyish I suppose. A bio (here) lists his earlier work. I look forward to reading him well into the future.

 

A.S. Patrić, The Butcherbird Stories, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2018

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) review (here)