Being Black ‘n Chicken, & Chips
Matt Okine (Hachette, available now)
Being Black ‘N Chicken, & Chips is our First Book Club pick for November – stay tuned for more across our website and podcast throughout the month!
Mike Amon has just started high school, and everything is pretty awkward. His divorced parents don’t get along, he feels like he’s never going to be one of the cool kids, and has no idea how to talk to the girl he likes. When Mike’s mum is diagnosed with cancer, he is just as clueless about how to handle her illness as he is in every other aspect of his life.
While this is a work of fiction, Being Black ‘n Chicken, & Chips has parallels to the author’s life. Like Mike, Matt Okine is the son of an African father and an Anglo-Australian mother who passed away when he was a teenager, and anyone who has seen Okine’s stand-up or listened to him on the radio will be familiar with the upfront, slightly self deprecating tone that underpins Mike’s inner monologue. Knowing the similarities between the lives of author and character, there’s a sense that the book is perhaps a letter from Okine to his younger self – Mike makes many a cringeworthy faux pas, but Okine portrays his protagonist affectionately.
This warm-hearted and funny novel should be read by anyone who remembers the strangeness of growing up, and navigating the emotions that come with it.
Many of the circumstances in Mike’s life are quite tragic: on top of having a sick mum, he is crushing on a girl who has just lost her little sister to drowning, and his best friend has an alcoholic parent. But even in its darkest moments, this is a very funny book – there’s inevitably some horribly, hilariously awkward scenario around the corner. Mike’s teenage experience feels so genuine – he is afraid to engage with the problems he is facing, or to acknowledge the more difficult parts of his reality. When his mum first gets sick, Mike doesn’t want to visit her in hospital – he can’t even bring himself to look at the other sick people as he walks through the ward. At times he’s more fixated on the school athletics carnival, or getting his first kiss, than he is on his ‘real problems’. These are the moments that ring most true in Being Black ‘n Chicken, & Chips.
This novel might be about a twelve-year-old boy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is for twelve-year-olds – there’s a great deal here for adult readers to enjoy (particularly the delightful and frequent doses of late ’90s nostalgia). But there’s also a great deal it could do for teens – this is the kind of book that could have a significant impact on younger readers experiencing grief, feeling awkward and out of place, or facing the twin horrors of puberty and first love. That being said, grief, love and awkwardness are ageless themes. This warm-hearted and funny novel should be read by anyone who remembers the strangeness of growing up, and navigating the adult world and the emotions that come with it.
– Ellen Cregan
Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, available now)
Australian author Charlotte Wood won the Stella Prize in 2016 for the blistering The Natural Way of Things, a disturbing and evocative account of a group of women held against their will in the middle of the desert. With an impressive nine books to her name, Wood is a master of her craft, and an expert on the intricacies of relationship dynamics. In her latest, The Weekend, she drops us into a suffocating, boiling hot Christmas weekend, where three friends in their seventies are clearing out the home of a beloved, deceased friend for resale. Exacerbated by emotional exhaustion and the overpowering heat, long-buried strains and hurts bubble to the surface. It’s an atmosphere fraught with smothering tension, and an examination of the anxieties of friendship, ageing and death.
Wood’s characters are intimately familiar: There’s Jude, a well-known restaurateur and the quiet mistress of an absent man; Adele, an actress once beloved and acclaimed, now out of work and penniless; and Wendy, an academic and intellectual loath to euthanise her struggling, elderly dog. There is also Sylvie, a year gone and missed, whose absence looms over the women’s work. Sylvie was the glue that held this group together, and without her, the friendships that have endured for forty years begin to spiral.
The Weekend is timeless…These are the intricacies of friendship and unity studied beyond the power ballads and catchy slogans.
Despite a slightly meandering third quarter, The Weekend – its stories, its feelings – is timeless. In anyone else’s hands, the slow pace and story could be a chore, but with Wood, every sentence feels like a gift. There’s wisdom here – sweet, bitter, nostalgic – Wood is looking both ahead and back. Through these women, through their relationships to one another and the house that they are ripping apart at the seams and dismantling, piece by piece, she nimbly examines fear – not just of the loss of youth and looks, although the embarrassments of vanities small and large are scrutinised too – but of ageing, of death, of seeming alien to one’s own self. This is selfhood explored in a crumbling house, a potentially clunky metaphor here made subtle and elegant, and achingly sad. How do you define yourself when that same self is now unrecognisable? These are the intricacies of friendship and unity studied beyond the power ballads and catchy slogans; yes, these are real women.
– Georgia Brough
In This Desert, There Were Seeds
ed. Elizabeth Tan & Jon Gresham (Margaret River Press, available now)
In an era where our sense of identity and community is constantly shape-shifting, what sort of legacy will we leave in the future? A collaboration between Writing WA, Singapore’s Ethos Books and Margaret River Press, this anthology of fiction contains twenty short stories written by both new and established voices from Singapore or Western Australia. Co-editors Tan and Gresham have selected stories that not only offer comfort and recognition to those who wish to see themselves on the page, but to also challenge readers to imagine experiences outside their own communities.
In its most thrilling moments, the collection glimmers with heady, poetic metaphors, irreverent pop culture references, syntax that rebels against meek Western stereotypes, steeped in a healthy amount of magical realism. Chen Cuifen’s ‘Reunion Dinner’ is an endearing story of what happens when a family is scattered around the world, displaced over Chinese New Year, a vivid tapestry of siblings whose dialogue is fuelled by an are-we-fighting-or-just-chatting energy, and rich imagery: gooey takeaway noodles, sour plums, fresh mandarins, fireworks on the Singapore River. Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes’ ‘Maqdala 1868/London 2018’ is a stunning piece, told from the perspective of a security guard who walks out of a job at a famous British museum, rebelling against the arrogance of imperial colonialism. ‘A Minor Kalahari’ by Diana Rahim – a line from which the anthology takes its title – considers the politics of a watermelon appearing unannounced in the neighbourhood.
In these stories, anything can happen…multilingual strings of speech and firecrackers of imagery pricking the memory long after the last sentence has settled.
In these stories, anything can happen, buoyed by the belief that ‘if you dreamt hard enough, repeated an image or desire with enough intensity, things could be willed into existence’. Some stories will quickly disappear like fleeting impressions, whereas others will grab you by the neck and announce their arrival, multilingual strings of speech and firecrackers of imagery pricking the memory long after the last sentence has settled. For readers who enjoy Scribe’s cross-cultural The Near and the Far collections, or the short fiction of Melanie Cheng and Julie Koh, there’s lots to look forward to here.
– Nathania Gilson