Domestic noir novel about the aftermath of an abusive relationship
Content warning: domestic violence
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“A Perfect Marriage” by Alison Booth is a domestic noir novel about a woman called Sally whose secret is preventing her from moving on from her dark past. Busy with her teenage daughter Charlie and her career as a geneticist, Sally decides to attend a conference in Spain. After a chance meeting on the flight over promises something more than just a professional relationship, Sally finds herself forced to confront her previous marriage and come clean with everyone she loves about how it really ended.
This is a subtle novel that delicately and sensitively explores the issue of domestic violence. A lot of stories explore the trauma of living through domestic violence, but I feel that far fewer examine the aftermath and the impact felt many years afterwards. Sally is a relatable character who really brings the truth that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence to the forefront. As a reader, you find yourself cheering for Sally and celebrating each little win.
I think the only thing that some people may have difficulty with in reading this novel is that it is a quiet book. It’s a slow burn that doesn’t have a lot of highs and lows, but rather matches the more ordinary rhythms of real life.
A very honest interpretation of a serious and sadly all too common scenario, this is a thoughtful and easy-to-read book.
Award-winning modern horror on everyday evil
Although this might not seem like a Christmas book, I first bought it from the author when she was selling her books at the Beyond Q Christmas book sale that they held a couple of years ago when they were based in Curtin. I bought a copy of this book from the author, which came with a super cute little handmade Christmas cracker and a bookmark made out of stamps, and it sat on my shelf for far too long before I finally read it. Just this year though, I interviewed the author about writing horror for a Halloween special episode of my podcast, and so it was definitely time for me to give this book a read.
“The Grief Hole” by Kaaron Warren is a horror novel about a young woman called Theresa who works as a domestic violence social worker. Theresa has a special but macabre ability: she can tell how you will most likely die. Increasingly haunted by the spirits of future death that surround her clients, she decides to start taking fate into her own hands with disastrous consequences. Traumatised, she moves away and takes up a job offer from an estranged relative whose daughter recently committed suicide. When the talented young artist’s death begin to emerge, Theresa is determined to prevent history repeating itself. However, when she discovers who exactly she is up against, Theresa is forced to examine her own motives.
This is an eerie and disturbing story that uses a thin overlay of the supernatural to explore good and evil, selfishness and selflessness in an otherwise very realistic world. Warren turns the themes of power and control inside out to examine questions of how much we determine our own futures and how much we must passively accept. She also asks whether our intentions can ever truly be pure, and whether we can ever truly know what the impact of our actions will be. Warren has a real knack for dialogue and for taking the everyday and making it horrifying. She maintains a palpable sense of unease throughout the entire book.
However, this book won’t be for everyone. Although it’s not blood-spattered, stereotypical horror it is very disturbing in its own way. I found quite a few parts of the book confronting and uncomfortable, and this is a book that lingers after you have read it. It is intentionally ambiguous and the reader will often feel like they are walking through a heavily rainy landscape unable to clearly see where they have been or where they are going.
A unique and unsettling take on the horror genre by a local Canberra author, it is not surprising why this book won so many awards and if you’re looking for something a little darker than normal, this would be a great book to check out.
The Grief Hole
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“Surrogate: A Novel” by Tracy Crisp is a story about a young nurse called Rachael who is asked to house-sit by a doctor from her hospital that she is loosely acquainted with. Dr Cate and her handsome husband Drum have plans to adopt a baby overseas. However when things don’t work out and they return home early, they first ask Rachael to stay and then the ask her to consider a much, much bigger proposition.
This is an evocative and unsettling story that explores the issue of surrogacy by pushing the boundaries of relationships. Crisp is a thoughtful writer who captures the day to day lives of Rachael, who is going through the confusing process of surrogacy, and her mother Mary, who went through something similar as a young woman. I thought Crisp’s real strength was exploring imperfect relationships and the reasons why people keep secrets from one another. The interplay between Cate, Rachael and Drum was particularly engaging.
I think probably the only thing I struggled with in this story was the role of Mick. Mick is Rachael’s father’s best friend, and Rachael is infatuated with him, but I just didn’t quite see how this part fit into the rest of the story. Mick seems to be a bit of a bridge between Mary’s past and Rachael’s present, but I’m not sure the foundations are quite strong enough to hold up that particular plot-line.
Anyway, this is an interesting novel that deeply explores the theme of giving up a child through the lens of ordinary people.
Literary fiction about an ordinary yet dysfunctional family told from the perspective of a differently-abled boy.
Content warning: disability, chronic illness, domestic violence
Last year I saw Sofie Laguna speak about her new book “The Choke”, and it was one of the most fast-paced and scintillating author talks I’ve ever been to. Although I was really interested in buying a copy of her newer book, I really wanted to get my hands on a copy of her previous novel that won the Miles Franklin Award in 2015. In the end, that was the one I bought and got signed.
“The Eye of the Sheep” by Sofie Laguna is a literary novel told from the perspective of a neurodiverse young boy. Jimmy’s family are like other families. He has a mum, a dad and a brother. His dad works in a refinery, his mum stays home and looks after the family. However, Jimmy isn’t like other children. His mind is too quick in some ways and too slow in others, and he sees the world in a very unique way. As his family’s limited emotional and financial resources are stretched to the limit, the tension threatens to tear Jimmy’s life apart.
This is a spectacular novel that you need to throw yourself into headlong and let it cover you completely. Laguna takes the banal and makes it mesmirising. Writing a story through the eyes of Jimmy was ambitious, but Laguna does so convincingly and evocatively. I really liked how Jimmy ages through the story and finds that the world beyond his mother’s cloying arms is neither as understanding nor as undemanding.
Laguna also uses Jimmy’s observations to tackle some very difficult themes. I think one of the most challenging parts of this book is Paula, Jimmy’s mother, and the increasing toll her weight, her asthma and domestic violence takes on her. Jimmy’s naive understanding of what is happening in his family is contrasted against his brother’s increasingly verbal and violent protests against his father’s violence. Where Jimmy thinks about the things his mother could do to mitigate his father’s anger, I found myself wondering at why this family that does so much better apart tries so hard to stay together. Laguna explores the theme of fighting to breathe over and over again, throwing each family member’s sense of being trapped in stark relief.
I could go into more detail about this book but I think this is the kind of story you just have to wade into and experience for yourself. It was definitely no mistake this book won the Miles Franklin, and I am very eager to read more of Laguna’s work.
The Eye of the Sheep
Young adult fiction set in rural Australia
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“Malley Boys” by Charlie Archbold is a young adult novel set in the Mallee. The story is told from the alternating perspective of two brothers, dreamy intellectual Sandy who is 15 years old and rambunctious 18 year old Red. Both brothers are reeling from their mother’s recent death, and their dad has his hands full with the farm. As both boys face their first year without their mum, they also face some big decisions about their futures.
This is an engaging and well-written book that I think will definitely appeal to country teenagers. Archbold has an engaging style of writing and captures the inner voice of two very different young men. In a time where people are talking a lot about things like toxic masculinity, the interplay between Sandy, Red and their dad is a really interesting way to explore different kinds of masculinity – even within a single family. Sandy is one of those quintessential non-blokey characters who is a little bit older than Charlie from “Jasper Jones”, and who I think I liked a bit better. Sandy has a quiet, gentle confidence about him that I think a lot of teens would relate to. I also think that this book handles the issue of grief and the diverse ways that people experience grief really well.
However, diversity generally was something that I would have liked to have seen a little more of in this story. Rural kids are not homogeneous kids, and I think that Archbold missed the opportunity to include some ethnically-diverse characters, including Aboriginal characters, as well as some LGBTIQ characters. The book is set more or less in present time, the kids all have phones, and it would have been good to see a bit more of a modern Australian demographic reflected in the story. I think this would make the story even more appealing to a broader audience. As someone who went to school in a rural town 20 years ago, it was definitely filled with more than just blonde kids.
Nevertheless, this is a very readable story that tackles some tricky themes. I think that if the aim is to both challenge ideas of masculinity and get young men to read, this book definitely achieves that.
Another brilliant and poignant short graphic novel by leading Australian illustrator
I think that it’s fair to say that this author and illustrator was a huge driver behind my love of graphic novels. I absolutely adored “Tales from Outer Suburbia”, and he has had a few new books out this year. When I saw this one in store, I absolutely had to have it.
“Cicada” by Shaun Tan is a very short, very touching graphic novel about a cicada who works in a big corporate office. I really can’t tell you much more than that, I’m afraid. Tan’s work really just needs to be experienced first hand.
This is really an excellent example of Tan’s excellent illustration skills and succinct and subtle storytelling. Tan is constantly shining new light on the migrant experience in Australia and is master of the allegory.
If you’re a bit new to graphic novels as a medium, or if you haven’t had the opportunity to read Tan before, this is an excellent place to start and you won’t be disappointed.
Post-apocalyptic Australian fiction
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“The Rain Never Came” by Lachlan Walter is post-apocalyptic fiction set in a not-too-distant future Australia plagued by drought. Bill and Tobe are best mates who live in a derelict town that has been all but abandoned. They spend their empty days drinking at the local pub. However, when the pub’s bore runs out and they see some mysterious lights on the horizon, Bill agrees to leave town with Tobe.
Australia really lends itself to desert dystopian stories and the premise of this one was interesting. Set around Western Victoria, I enjoyed imagining the hot Victorian summers I grew up with taken to their extreme. I was intrigued by the mysterious ruling entity that decreed that everyone had to be moved to northern regions where there was still rain. This is an action-packed book and once Bill and Tobe are on the road, the action is non-stop.
There were some things that were a bit difficult about this book though. Walters writing style is very active and his characters are constantly doing things like walking, looking, smiling and laughing. Although as the story progresses, we learn a little more about Bill and Tobe’s past, what I really wanted to learn more about was the world they lived in. It wasn’t completely clear why people were being forced to leave the towns, and I would have liked to have had some more reveals about what led to this situation and what the purpose of the mass removal was.
A compelling idea, but I would have liked more world-building and character development.