It’s that time of year again, where I look back and try to remember what I actually read.
Some books become impressionistic blurs, others are wholly forgotten. But the best books are the ones that have stayed with me, and become part of the way I process the world. They’re the books that become my reference points, whose ideas and images materialise as I walk, or do the dishes, or fall asleep at night. The books I recommend to friends and family – and now, to you.
Cold Enough for Snow, Jessica Au (Giramondo)
I inhaled this slender, bewitching novel last summer, while drinking cider in a spa (my recommended mode of consumption). A young woman takes her mother on a carefully planned trip to Japan, hoping to forge a deeper connection as they visit museums and galleries, and walk the streets. But it doesn’t go to plan, simply because of the impossibilities of planning moments of connection – they come, but unexpectedly.
Cold Enough for Snow is a meditation on being in between, about belonging and unbelonging, and the limits of self-creation, and about transformation through art and culture. But it’s also about transformation and connection through paying attention: whether to each other’s stories, or to our surrounds.
It’s no surprise that Helen Garner, the queen of crisp observational prose, has endorsed this meticulously observed novel, which manages to be both concrete and ethereal. It’s also no surprise this manuscript (by a Melbourne author) was the inaugural winner of new international award The Novel Prize, was reviewed in The New Yorker, and continues to be shortlisted for and win prizes since publication.
This Devastating Fever, Sophie Cunningham (Ultimo)
Sophie Cunningham’s kaleidoscopic novel, This Devastating Fever, was 15 years in the making – and it shows, in the novel’s craft, complexity and confidence. It’s also deeply ambitious.
Narrator Alice is a writer living in locked-down inner-city Melbourne, in 2020. She’s been working on a novel about Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s publisher husband, for well over a decade – a decade in which she’s alternated researching, writing and rewriting this book with closely observing the deleterious effects of climate change. She’s also caring for an elderly family friend who was once a parental figure: the roles have become reversed.
Interspersed with Alice’s wry, passionate and melancholically hopeful voice, over the years, are slivers of Leonard Woolf’s life in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as a colonial administrator, and his better-known time as a writer, publisher and husband of Virginia Woolf. Alice is visited by the ghosts of Leonard and Virginia as she writes; her material companions include a pragmatic literary agent, whose drily hilarious commentary on the publishing industry is one of the novel’s great joys.
The result is an absorbing, beautiful novel with powerful cycles at its centre: of life, love and caring, of the natural world, of history (including the Spanish flu of the Woolfs’ time and the pandemic of Alice’s), and of publishing and writing. They all matter, deeply.
All That’s Left Unsaid, Tracey Lien (HQ)
This literary crime novel set in Cabramatta during the heroin epidemic of the 1990s is a stunningly good deep-dive into a family and a community, investigated via a terrible crime. Like David Simon’s The Wire, the crime is a vehicle for exploring the intricacies and injustices of a community, shaped by wider societal problems and made unique by the nuanced humans who live in it.
When model student Denny Tran is murdered in a restaurant while celebrating his Year 12 graduation, his big sister Ky returns from her newspaper internship in Melbourne to attend the funeral – and stays to investigate her brother’s murder. No one is talking to the police, so she uses her journalism skills to access the police notes and a list of witnesses. The novel is haunted by the shadow of Minnie, Ky’s childhood best friend, whose acerbic voice in her head drives her to push harder, to question, to challenge. The novel is braided with layered detail: about mothers and daughters, about second-generation refugee families in Australia, about intense female friendship, and about racism – both overt and implicit.
All That’s Left Unsaid combines so much that I love in a book (or film): intricate social observation, the trope of journalist as investigator, vivid characterisation and complex relationships. It’s a cracking good read that is also an immersive pleasure – and it leaves the reader with as many questions as answers.
Trust, Hernan Diaz (Pan Macmillan)
Trust is an extremely clever novel in four distinct parts, told from four perspectives: a novel (within the novel) about a 1920s New York financier and his wife; the unfinished authorised biography of that financier, responding to the novel; the biographer’s story; and the wife’s story.
Myriad contradictions exist between the four parts – which are both interconnected and entirely separate, and are told in completely different narrative styles. Who was the financier? What was the truth behind his marriage? What was fiction in the novel, and what was based on fact?
What we know is that the financier came from wealth, which he managed to rapidly expand into a legendary fortune, at the time that the rest of the stockmarket was crashing. How it happened and whether he’s a genius or a lucky rich boy (or something else?) is a mystery.
I don’t always like experimental novels – I’m allergic to the sense of experimentation for its own sake, with nothing to actually say. But this novel is rich in purpose: it comments acidly on capitalist America, and forces the reader to think about how stories are made, and how much we can trust them.
Childhood, Shannon Burns (Text Publishing)
This eviscerating memoir about growing up in Adelaide’s northern and western suburbs, with parents who were unreliable in every sense (and finding hard-won salvation in books and literature), is among the most impressive I’ve read in the genre – and I read a lot of memoirs. Shannon Burns excels at channelling a savage, tender, idiosyncratic narratorial voice – one that at once embodies and eviscerates toxic masculinity.
Childhood details a life moving between precarious, unsafe households, often unwanted and rarely adequately cared for. His father leaves his wildly unreliable mother for the first time when he’s two; he moves in with his alternately distant and cruel father and stepmother aged six. Unsurprisingly, he escapes home as a teenager, getting a physically and mentally crushing job at a recycling factory, before finishing high school. We learn near the beginning of the book that he’ll become a literature professor – a member of the upper middle class. The tension lies not in what he will become, but how he will become it.
Fathoms-deep hurt and anger seethe beneath the surface of meticulously controlled, forensically observed prose. Literature, he writes, is an escape, a chance to immerse himself in other lives. But it’s more than that. “Maybe I found it easier being the person I was, someone who seemed to be one kind of thing but was another thing entirely, because literature made it seem ordinary.”
Tell Me Again, Amy Thunig (UQP)
Gomeroi/Gamilaroi/Kamilaroi woman Amy Thunig was raised in a family “ancient and filled with love, even amidst brokenness”. Her parents were caught in a cycle of addiction throughout her childhood and adolescence; their chaos and intermittent neglect were balanced by fierce love, authentic connection and shared stories.
The structure of her memoir mirrors an Indigenous understanding of time, as circular. Thunig writes that she moves through life in layers of time, always aware of “past-me” and “future-me”. And so, a chapter might begin in the present, plunge into childhood or adolescence, then circle back to now. The effect is to welcome complexity. Thunig doesn’t manufacture a linear trajectory – of trauma and recovery, privilege and disadvantage, grief and joy, love and resentment – but reflects the way they all exist together, as the past and present inform each other. I absolutely love this.
Tell Me Again is a beautifully told, expertly calibrated challenge – and correction – to prejudice and judgment. It’s an act of love and fierce acceptance. And it’s an embrace of complex truths that recognises how the best of intentions can be compromised by the worst of circumstances.
Root and Branch, Eda Gunaydin (New South)
Eda Gunaydin’s essays are incisive, blazingly honest explorations of identity and inheritance: her own, as a second-generation Turkish Australian with a difficult relationship with her mother; and Australia’s, as a primarily migrant country settled on occupied land, badly dealing with the inherent insecurity, rightful guilt and legacy of that configuration.
Explorations of place, class, race, identity and family trauma are woven with intricate character details and personal reflections. Writing about her complex relationship with her mother, who overfeeds the whole family, even the dog, she writes: “Television tells us she is a whimsical ethnic mother, trying to plug a hole in us through our mouths.” This kind of sharp wryness is seeded throughout.
Her parents, she says, in one of many essays that attempts to understand who they are and how they became that way (without idealising or blaming them), are “two people who just got their arses fucking kicked and battered by life, and it’s sort of their fault and sort of not, and it’s not mine”.
In Root and Branch, the reader is invited on an intellectual journey with a forensically socially observant, reflexively analytical tour guide – the kind of journey I relish when I read Maria Tumarkin and Fiona Wright.
Strangers to Ourselves: Stories of Unsettled Minds, Rachel Aviv (Vintage)
In an extraordinary book I just (impatiently) finished and plan to re-read soon, New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv explores experiences of “extreme mental distress” through six stories, starting with her own, when she was hospitalised with anorexia, aged six. The hospital’s youngest patient, she was housed with teenage anorexic patients, and learned from then how to intensify the rules and rituals that were making her ill.
The stories deliberately range over very different experiences and identities. Ray, a wealthy kidney specialist diagnosed with schizophrenia, sued the institution that first treated him for refusing to use medication (and won), after his condition improved at the second institution. Bapu, a well-off Indian woman, descended deep into mysticism and religion as a schizophrenic – a presentation common in India. Aviv charts her varying treatments, from forced restraint and institutionalisation, to escape and destitution, to living at home with family caretakers.
Naomi, a Black American single mother living in intergenerational poverty, with an untreated mental health condition, throws her twin toddlers off a bridge into a river during a psychotic episode, and is jailed. A descendant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is diagnosed with bipolar and then borderline personality disorder and is heavily medicated from childhood. In her thirties, she decides to stop medication because she doesn’t know who she is without it. And Aviv reconnects with the family of one of her teenage friends on the anorexia ward, who struggled all her life, and recently died.
Aviv draws connections between the diagnoses these patients were given (their official story), their social and environmental circumstances, the stories they tell themselves, and their outcomes. She’s an impressive thinker and storyteller, and this book should be widely read.
Jo Case is a monthly columnist for InReview and deputy editor, books & ideas, at The Conversation. She is an occasional bookseller at Imprints on Hindley Street and former associate publisher of Wakefield Press.
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