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.
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.
I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog. As soon as I saw the title, and read the blurb, I was sold.
“The Lucky Galah” by Tracy Sorensen is a historical novel set in Western Australia that is partly told from the perspective of a galah called Lucky. In 1964, a man called Evan Johnson drives across Australia with his wife Linda and daughter Johanna to work on a coastal tracking station ahead of the 1969 moon landing. They move into a new purpose-built house next to the Kelly family, a seamstress and fisherman with plenty of daughters. Marjorie and Linda become friends after the birth of Marjorie’s fifth child, and Johanna finds herself with an instant pack of friends. However, through the eyes of the Kellys’ pet galah, things aren’t as hunky dory in the Johnson family as they may seem.
This is a pretty delightful debut novel and I have to say, I was absolutely in love with Lucky the galah as a narrator. I adored Lucky’s perspective of the world, the way that Sorensen wove in facts about birds through Lucky and the relationship between Lucky and Lizzie. I really enjoyed the balance between bird behaviour and a knowledgeable narrator, and I thought it was a great way to foster empathy for a non-human narrator. I also really liked Lizzie, and I think my favourite parts of the books were the interactions between this unlikely pair. Lizzie was a great example of how an Aboriginal character can be depicted in a respectful and interesting way, and I would have liked a lot more Lizzie airtime. Essentially though, there are a lot of similarities between this book and the great classic Aussie film “The Dish” so if you enjoyed that take on a very particular time in Australia’s history and the interaction between scientists and the salt of the earth.
However, there were a couple of things that I wasn’t quite as enamoured with. I wasn’t particularly interested in Evan and Linda’s story, and the ending in that regard was ambiguous where I felt like Sorensen could have taken a bit of a stronger stance either way and made a bit more of a point. I also felt like the relationship between Marjorie and Linda could have been hashed out a bit more. Sorensen did explore some issues around class difference, but this again felt unresolved at the end and I thought there was scope for Linda to have reconciled those differences. Finally, the transmissions from the dish to Lucky I found to be maybe a little too experimental. I can see how they were a useful mechanism for keeping Lucky as the narrator but keeping the story focused on the Johnsons and the Kellys. However, I think I would have almost preferred a more linear narrative but all just through Lucky’s eyes. Maybe there were just a few too many things vying for attention.
To be honest, I think Lucky was a brilliant character and I would have loved an entire book from Lucky’s perspective. As it is, this was still a strong and interesting novel that wove in many different issues around an exciting part of Australia’s history and I think most people will enjoy this quirky debut.
This is the perfect spring book. I hadn’t heard of Dr Anita Heiss or her books before I saw she was coming to speak at Muse. I’ve been really enjoying their author discussions that I’ve been going along to this year and I’m always looking to try new, local writers. However, although I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more diversely this year, I’m very ashamed to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever read any books by Aboriginal authors. Heiss was a very engaging speaker, and talked a lot about the research that went into her latest book and the importance of getting diverse books, authors and stories into the mainstream. She also very kindly signed a copy of her book for me at the end, which has a classic Aussie landscape on the front decorated with shiny gold lettering and beautiful blossoms.
“Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” by Anita Heiss is a historical novel set in Cowra, NSW during World War II. A large number of Japanese soldiers are being kept prisoner at a POW camp, and one night they all manage to break out. With some soldiers killed, some recaptured and some who committed suicide, Heiss’ novel explores the idea of what could have happened if one soldier, Hiroshi, managed to seek refuge at the nearby Aboriginal mission called Erambie Station. Banjo Williams discovers Hiroshi under his family’s hut and decides to help him, enlisting his eldest daughter Mary to sneak Hiroshi food. Part romance, part spotlight on the discrimination experienced by Aboriginal people subject to the oppressive Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), this book uncovers a piece of Australia’s history that is not often discussed.
This is an important book. As my lamentable reading record shows, Aboriginal stories are not told nearly as often as they should be in Australia. While Aboriginal film and television has been slowly gaining traction over the years, Aboriginal writing is still very much behind where it should be. Heiss’ story cleverly uses the perspective of an outsider, Japanese man Hiroshi, as a critical lens through which the reader can look at the past (and present) treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. By drawing comparisons between the Aboriginal mission, the Japanese POW camp and the Italian POW camp it swiftly becomes clear how much of a factor race was in how well people were treated in 1940s Australia. This book is set in a time before Aboriginal people were allowed to vote and when Aboriginal identity was mutually exclusive to civil rights. Heiss’ novel is very well-researched and draws on academic, community and family resources to paint a vivid picture of 1940s country Australia and how different kinds of people lived there. Heiss has an open, honest style which makes this book accessible to all readers.
Whether you’re a history buff, a romance fan, a lover of Australiana or interested in books about war, I think most people will get something out of this book.
I didn’t have high expectations for this book. Yet another immigration-themed novel, but this time set in Australia, “The Harp in the South” by Ruth Park is one of the Penguin Australia Classics and is a gorgeous-looking hardcover with bright red pages.
“The Harp in the South” is about Irish immigrant family, the Darcys. In the poverty-stricken area of Sydney known as Shanty Town (Surry Hills), pious Mumma, drunk Hughie and their daughters Roie and Dolour live at number Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street. They share their rather squalid home with tenants, but things get even more crowded when Grandma moves in.
When I first started reading this book, it was with the critical eye of someone living in 2015 and I found myself cringing often, particularly at some of the racial descriptions of the characters such as Lick Jimmy. However, if you take into account that it was originally published in 1948, “The Harp in the South” is actually a pioneer of social justice for its time. It shows multiculturalism in a positive light while the White Australia Policy was still in full swing. It contains positive depictions of an Aboriginal character when Aboriginal people were largely absent from mainstream literature. There are progressive and honest attitudes about sex including suggestions about the importance of consent and that sex work (and the people in the industry) is not necessarily immoral.
There is no question that Park, a professional journalist, had a keen eye for observation. Through her writing, she encourages the reader to look past poverty and see humanity; see exactly the same trials and tribulations we all face as people, regardless of our background. However she also makes it impossible to dismiss the characters because of their socio-economic status, and forces the reader to acknowledge the complexity of factors that cause and maintain poverty.
While an impressive novel for its time, this book isn’t perfect. Although complex, the characters at times do seem a bit like caricatures. Although progressive, there are still some things in there that are pretty cringeworthy by today’s standards. Finally, while it is a fantastic insight into poor Australian life in the 1940s, the attention to detail and day-to-day conversation does sometimes get a bit monotonous. Nevertheless, “The Harp in the South” is a great piece of Australian literature and a fantastic insight into the post-war immigration boom.