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A Constant Hum
Alice Bishop (Text, available now)

A Constant Hum is our First Book Club pick for July – Join us at Readings State Library Victoria on 18 July for a free in-conversation event with the author.

Natural disasters often place a marker in our collective memories. Black Saturday is a day that is remembered vividly by many Victorians – most people can tell you what they were doing on that terrifyingly hot day, where they were when they heard of the fire’s destruction, whether they could see the smoke. It is a day that has fuelled conversation, investigation and the creation of art. In the ten years since those fires decimated patches of Victoria, killed 173 people and injured hundreds more, numerous books inspired by the horror of that day have been published. Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum is a collection of short fiction that deals with the wake of this disaster, drawing together numerous vantage points – those of survivors, healthcare and emergency workers, children, adults, the mourning and the shellshocked.

These short fictions range from a few sentences long to a few pages. As such, it’s difficult to become immersed in any one character’s reality; all are fleeting, and there’s a sense of shattering to the collection. In one story, a couple spend their insurance payout on fancy dinners, uncomfortable with what the large sum in their account represents. In another, a nurse struggles to think of anything but the burns victims she cares for all day. Some contain just a moment – a memory of the way someone lost to the fire used to walk through town, or a fragment of a survivor’s dream. None of these characters are explicitly connected, or move between stories. But while Bishop’s ultra-short tales are not immersive, they are extremely well measured. Collectively, these stories are reminiscent of the media coverage in the aftermath of Black Saturday (or any disaster for that matter): there are so many tragedies that there’s no possibility of honing in on them all.

This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book that is both uncomfortable and essential reading.

Bishop, whose home town of Christmas Hills was devastated by the Black Saturday fires, interrogates what it is that connects those who were impacted. Those connections are varied – there are the lost houses, injuries, and deaths, but also the smaller, yet just as unforgettable aspects of the fire: the smells, melted rubber shoe soles, friends and loved ones not knowing what to say in the wake of such a trauma. Bishop’s approach is holistic – she writes simultaneously of community spirit and the awkwardness of being pressed into a new, uncomfortable spaces, wearing donated clothes that don’t quite fit. Her prose never strays too far from the smells and sensations of the fire – the colours of the smoke, the burning rubber and burning flesh, the sounds of exploding gas tanks or of gunshots putting down animals before the blaze could get them. Reading this book projected my mind back to the days following the fires, when I heard anecdotes like these from what felt like just about everyone I knew.

This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book that is both uncomfortable and essential reading.

– Ellen Cregan

The White Girl
Tony Birch (UQP, available now)

Odette Brown lives to protect her granddaughter, Sissy. They live together in Quarrytown, a rundown collection of shacks on the edge of the small country town of Deane. Quarrytown is separated from Deane by Deane’s Line – a track which ‘had been drawn a century earlier to separate the Aboriginal people incarcerated on the nearby mission from the good white settlers of Deane’. Set in the 1960s, the mission where Odette grew up is no longer in operation, but removal of Aboriginal children from their families is still very much a reality, and her granddaughter Sissy’s fair skin makes her a particular target. When a new police sergeant arrives in Deane, the threat of Sissy’s removal forces Odette to make difficult decisions to protect her granddaughter.

The White Girl’s lead characters are strong Indigenous women, trying to feel their way forward together, through layers of intergenerational trauma and unspoken pain. Odette carries her own mission upbringing and the loss of her husband and father in a mining accident. Sissy carries the pain of her mother’s abandonment. Lila, Sissy’s mother, carried the trauma of rape at the hands of a white man – her absence hangs heavily over the difficulties of both Odette and Sissy. Their bond is an intimate one, and this is demonstrated through tender scenes of closeness – washing one another’s hair, conspiring in lies to protect their relationship, sharing a bed. Odette teaches Sissy about ‘the old people’, passing down her ​knowledge so that it might be kept. Throughout the story, we see Odette and Sissy make sacrifices for one another’s wellbeing. The fierceness of their love is the glue that holds this novel together.

Birch provides a solid fictional setting that illuminates the horror of a period of Australian history that’s been swept under the rug.

History, right now, is increasingly imparted through TV, novels, and podcasts. These media seem to allow the facts of history to feel more immediate through their animation, conveying more of the nuance of lived experience than a straightforward history book would for most readers. In The White Girl, Tony Birch provides a solid fictional setting that illuminates the horror of the Stolen Generations, a period of Australian history that’s been swept under the rug. The ‘Aborigines Protection Act’ was in place, but it provided nothing that looked much like protection – rather, it existed to legislate the violence of white dominance and control. Sissy and Odette’s stories are set against the backdrop of changing attitudes, but their lives are still defined by the pervasive, disgusting treatment of First Nations people at the hands of ongoing colonisation. Birch’s accessible style and impressive communication of the nuance and difficulty of Aboriginal history shine through in The White Girl, providing readers an opportunity for education and understanding.

– Sam van Zweden

Dry Milk
Huo Yan, trans. Duncan M. Campbell (Giramondo, available to order now, in bookstores mid-July)

At the start of Huo Yan’s Dry Milk, John Lee is marking 30 years of living in Auckland. What had seemed in the 1970s like a glorious new start away from China’s Cultural Revolution has since dulled into a listless life of repetition and smallness. John Lee is a misanthrope, frequently sitting in silent, petty judgement of all those around him: the supermarket shoppers who beat him to the daily discounted cuts of meat; the status-seeking members of the Chinese Community Hope Association, whose meetings he nevertheless frequently attends; and his mute and tragically traumatised wife – referred to as ‘the woman’ – whom he regards with revulsion and embarrassment.

When a business acquaintance asks John to invest his life savings into a scheme to export powdered milk to China, he is initially hesitant. But when an attractive, young international student starts lodging with him and his wife, John’s sense of pride starts him down a road that threatens to unravel everything.

Huo is a young writer with a keen eye for psychological drama and hypocrisy – the author of eight books in Chinese, Giramondo is the first publisher to bring her work to an English-language audience. John Lee is a man for whom the nourishing promise of emigration to the ‘West’ has resulted in a mouthful of disappointment, made even harder to swallow by the recent economic boom of his homeland and its increasingly wealthy middle class. Underneath the tense and clipped repression of this character surges a riptide of rage and entitlement that is deeply unpleasant to experience. Equally discomforting is the luscious, descriptive prose that Huo strategically employs only to describe John’s infatuation with the student, Jiang Xiaoyu. It’s not a warm and compassionate light Huo shines on these issues of migration, class disparity, emasculation and sexism, but the unforgiving fluorescence of a surgeon’s theatre.

Dry Milk may be a bitter draught, but it’s full of complex ideas that will linger on the palate.

There are some glimmers of compassion, however. Following the death of a mutual acquaintance, one of the community members reflects: ‘In China, he was an engineer of bridges. I think if he hadn’t left, his life would be easier.’ The ongoing reverberations of China’s modern history haunts every aspect of this book, and it is not by coincidence that the character who utters the most empathetic thought is a former opera singer whose broken connection to this now wildly different country lies in his love of its culture, rather than its capital.

There is no denying that Dry Milk is a disturbing and tough read – not least due to several moments of visceral sexual assault. In a story where the two main female characters feel more like symbols than real people, these scenes stick out. And yet, it is remarkable that a 112-page novella should contain so much to discuss. Dry Milk may be a bitter draught, but it’s full of complex ideas that will linger on the palate.

– Jackie Tang