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A Room Called Earth
Madeleine Ryan (Scribe, available now)

A Room Called Earth is our First Book Club pick for April—stay tuned to the KYD website and Podcast for more throughout the month.

The premise of A Room Called Earth is simple: a young unnamed woman goes to a house party in Melbourne’s inner north. There, she has conversations with people she knows, and people she doesn’t. She meets a man and they decide to go home together. While the plot is about as minimal as it could possibly be, Madeleine Ryan takes her reader on a journey into the psyche of this protagonist—and it’s here that this novel gains its wonderful richness.

Madeleine Ryan takes her reader on a journey into the psyche of this protagonist—and it’s here that this novel gains its wonderful richness.

Taking place over the course of a night out, A Room Called Earth makes masterful use of pacing. Ryan expertly leads her readers through each hour of the evening, revealing details about her protagonist’s life as she goes. As the novel begins, and the young woman prepares for and arrives at the party, her narration flits between what is going on around her and her reflections on what she’s seeing. Ryan’s protagonist is a person who believes in the power of ritual. She believes that magic is everywhere, even for those who don’t see it; that humans are ‘all saying prayers and casting spells around the clock with our words, and our thoughts, and where we point our fingers’. From the time spent preparing herself in front of the mirror to her decadent post-party sandwiches, she finds a great deal of comfort in intention. Much of her inner-monologue hovers around the social rituals being performed at the party around her, and those she is performing herself. When she meets and connects with a man at the party, the focus of the novel shifts slightly beyond the mind of our protagonist. It goes from being immersive to completely captivating, building up to a gloriously expressive conclusion.

Ryan’s protagonist never falls into the manic-pixie-dream-girl zone, despite many of the markers of that trope being present. There are quirks, but there’s a rawness to this character too—the way she unintentionally derails conversations with other people, her visceral descriptions of her own body in the heat of this sweaty summer night, the range of emotions she feels about the party going on around her. At the core of Ryan’s depiction of this character is the notion that she is purely herself, and doesn’t let other people’s opinions change the way she views herself. She reflects that this free and expressive outer-self is a product of how she cares for her inner-self: ‘when I treat my inner world as sacred, every interaction I have with the outside world becomes sacred, too’. As a neurodiverse writer, Ryan brings a unique voice and refreshing perspective to a character who thinks and lives so differently to others. Being so fully immersed in the mind of this character is a liberating reading experience, and one unlike any other I’ve had in the past. I felt very connected to this book, and was reminded of how moving it can be to find that deep resonance in a work of fiction.

– Ellen Cregan

The Committed
Viet Thanh Nguyen (Hachette, available now)

As a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian, the Vietnam War has always been a complex topic for me. From my maternal side of the family, I heard of post-war property redistribution. From both sides, I heard of ex-military uncles suffering through re-education camps. And from history class, I learned of atrocities perpetrated by Western troops and the injustice of conscription. Due to these multi-faceted perspectives, I tend to stay away from texts about the topic, knowing that any account would be rife with bias.

So, it seems apt that The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s sequel to his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathiser, is equally complex. In this novel, the protagonist-narrator, Vo Danh (literally ‘No Name’ in Vietnamese), arrives in early-eighties Paris as a refugee with his ‘blood brother’ Bon, a staunch anti-communist. The narrator himself was a communist spy in the United States, a role he took on so well he was captured by communists in Vietnam and sent to re-education camp. Hence, he calls himself ‘the man of two faces and two minds’. In Paris, he and Bon initially board with his French-Vietnamese socialist ‘Aunt’ and find nefarious jobs in the burgeoning Asian-French underworld, led by the Chinese-Vietnamese ‘Boss’, a drug-dealing, pimping entrepreneur. This set-up is told through the narrator’s flippant, wry tone and makes The Committed seem like an absurdist noir-thriller, which it is, but it is also much more.

The Committed is an entertaining yet intelligent treatise on race, oppression and the ongoing effects of colonisation.

The Committed meditates on war, revolution, identity and colonisation. When attending a Parisian Vietnamese Union meeting, the narrator ponders, ‘staging a cultural show is really an acknowledgement of one’s cultural inferiority. The truly powerful… their culture was always everywhere’. The White Saviour Complex is addressed: ‘We must help you… How could I say that the so-called boat people had already helped themselves by getting on their boats in the first place?’

Yet, the violence of post-colonial peoples towards each other is also noted. While torturing the narrator, Algerian gang members argue their war is ‘worse’. Reference is made to Vietnam’s oppression of the native Cham people and their invasion of Cambodia during Pol Pot’s regime. Howling with laughter, the narrator quotes his re-education torturer, once a childhood friend, ‘“Now that we are the powerful, we don’t need the French or the Americans to fuck us over.”’ His aunt replies, ‘We can fuck ourselves just fine.’ In this setting of racial tension and betrayed ideals, the narrator struggles with his own identity and purpose:

You used to believe in the revolution, [Aunt] said. What do you believe in now?

Nothing, I said. But isn’t that something?

Nguyen’s novel is hard work—it is dense, political and appeals to thought rather than emotion to the point where characters are rendered as literary devices. Its reference to and engagement with twentieth century philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon may be lost on some readers as the frequent discussions between characters on their theories often assume prior knowledge. Regardless, The Committed is an entertaining yet intelligent treatise on race, oppression and the ongoing effects of colonisation, particularly in the Western world.

– Lieu-Chi Nguyen

Black and Blue
Veronica Gorrie (Scribe, available now)

Veronica Gorrie is a Gunai/Kurnai woman, with grandparents of the Stolen Generation. Her childhood was characterised by exposure to domestic violence and frequent moves between the care of family members. The first half of her memoir recounts traumatic childhood events, touching on childhood sexual assault, her mother’s suicide attempts and racial profiling of the family by authorities. After her cousin died in a stolen car, crashed by her younger brother, Gorrie became determined to complete high school (unlike others in her family). The second half of the book is dedicated to the consequences of her decision to join the Queensland Police, hoping to help improve relations between police and Aboriginal people.

Gorrie’s account of her time in the police force includes details of misconduct that are rarely written about by former insiders.

The importance of Aboriginal memoir to counter official history has been much theorised, notably by Anita Heiss and Helen Fordham. Writing memoir, Heiss argues, ‘is a way of retrieving and reclaiming a past that in many ways has not been either written down or recorded accurately’. Gorrie’s story bears witness to the harmful legacy of colonial and patriarchal practices. Her grandmother, an unmarried mother, was sterilised without her consent after giving birth to Gorrie’s father. The baby was removed from her care and subsequently returned at the age of four on a ‘probationary’ basis (because a white lady connected to the orphanage was interested in getting custody of him). She was later put to work as a domestic servant in white households in a form of slave labour. The brutality of colonisation reverberates in the intergenerational trauma and marginalisation experienced by Gorrie and her siblings. These are historic experiences that must not be erased from our collective memory.

Gorrie’s account of her time in the police force includes details of police misconduct that are rarely written about by former insiders—the questioning of highly intoxicated suspects, officers plagiarising assignments to advance in rank, drinking on the job, and her experience of being stalked by a fellow officer. The job plunged her into a world of corruption, racism and double standards, and left her with OCD and PTSD. Deeper reflections on policing, though, can feel underdeveloped. ‘I knew a lot of cops didn’t like me because I was black, and truth be told, I didn’t like them either’, she recalls. Rather than providing a systemic analysis, Gorrie tells her story as raw, unfiltered recollection. On the final page, she reveals that she now believes in abolitionism—‘not only of the police but also of prisons and youth detention’—and confesses to feeling complicit for having been part of the police force, without feeling defined by the experience. Greater exploration of how she came to abolitionism, and some signposting of where the story was going, would have strengthened this account of her struggle with racism and disadvantage from both sides of the law.

– Fernanda Dahlstrom

The Believer
Sarah Krasnostein (Text Publishing, available now)

Recently, I spent a humid night sitting around a dusty glass-topped table having a late-night discussion with some friends about religion. There was a lawyer, a doctor and me—an arts graduate who is qualified to do not much but have late-night discussions over questions of the universe, and interrogate why, and to what extent do I still believe in Jesus Christ, who I was raised to devote my life? While Sarah Krasnostein’s The Believer is a significantly more in-depth exploration than my musings, it does raise many of the same questions. What exactly do we believe, and why, and how, and to what end?

This book is a tender observation of humanity and the unanswerable questions we ask.

Broken into two parts, ‘Below’ and ‘Above’, and with an addendum of sorts titled ‘Coda’, The Believer explores death, love, and the things we can and can’t see that shape our lives. A Buddhist death doula, Christian Creationists and paranormal enthusiasts fill the world of the below. Above us hovers a formerly incarcerated and church-attending domestic violence survivor, Mennonites and UFO witnesses—evangelists of their own kind. Krasnostein’s gift for depicting her subjects in their complex humanity is weaved throughout the book, along with her keen eye for detail. She describes a Mennonite woman as having as many different kinds of laughter as rain; she describes a death doula’s diaper-wearing dog; she describes a grieving husband’s handkerchief. These are things that make up a person, a life—the material and immaterial, the mundane and the divine—and the author pairs these observations with reflections on her own beliefs and family history. While the personal explorations sometimes feel extraneous in a book that is already assembled in a way that can be disorienting (six stories are told in short, alternating chapters across two parts of the book), they do anchor us in an unsentimental but glowing warmth that welcomes uncertainty and curiosity.

This book is a tender observation of humanity and the unanswerable questions we ask. It does not wade into a scientific or moral debate about absolute truth, nor does it make a mockery of those whose beliefs we may find hard to understand. Rather, it’s a bit like sitting around a table with questions circulating: Who are you? Why? Why does this specific thing resonate with you? What makes your heart, your brain and your unquantifiable, indescribable and debatably existent soul feel this way? I am not sure you will find those answers in this—or any—book. That’s not the point. The joy and discovery of this book, and in life, is in the asking.

– Rebecca Varcoe