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Fed to Red Birds
Rijn Collins
(Simon & Schuster, available now)

Fed to Red Birds is our Debut Spotlight for April! Read an interview with first-time author Rijn Collins here, plus watch an exclusive reading on our Instagram!

Fed to Red Birds is one of those stories that lingers in the reader’s memory as a lived experience. This is thanks in no small part to Rijn Collins’s exquisite evocation of Iceland, her portrayal of a young woman struggling with her dangerous compulsions and the loneliness inherent in transplanting oneself to the other side of the world.

There are almost 17,000 kilometres between Melbourne and Reykjavík, and the difference in landscape, language and lifestyle is extreme. Iceland requires determination to integrate and a willingness to learn its customs in order to avoid alienation. Otherwise it would be easy to let the isolation overcome you, to let the feeling of otherness define you. For Elva, the 20-something narrator of Fed to Red Birds, that solitude is precisely what she craves. Her desire for insulation, and the rationale behind it, is one of the key drivers of Collins’s narrative.

Elva’s life in Reykjavík is one of structure and safety, intentionally designed to offer few opportunities for human connection. She is ashamed of her greatest compulsions and anxious at the possibility of losing control. Collins conceals the specificity of Elva’s condition throughout the novel’s opening salvo, which bestows on it a mysticism congruent with a country steeped in folklore. Elva’s gothic and fae-like persona is also enhanced by her penchant for the peculiar: taxidermy, fairytales and idiosyncratic collectibles others would deem worthless or vile.

It is the ease of her storytelling that is truly marvellous.

She is certain this fascination originated at birth when she was named after a character in her Icelandic grandfather’s famous children’s book. But Elva’s interest is enabled by her employment at a shop of curiosities, where she has formed a close friendship with the owner, Grace, a surrogate mother of sorts—and a replacement for Elva’s Icelandic mother who disappeared when she was a child. It’s in this setting that she finds she cannot escape her desire for community and her need to understand the past.

If all of these pieces sound disconsonant, rest assured. Rijn Collins is a writer of great humanity and intelligence who has fashioned a vividly realised portrait of a young woman trying to make a life for herself in the shadow of familial trauma and dysfunction. Fed to Red Birds reads like a story Collins has been longing to tell, the culmination of long-lasting, deep-rooted interests. The geography and landscape of Iceland are palpable and vital; authoritatively traversed due to her research. But it is the ease of her storytelling that is truly marvellous—fiercely honed by years as a practitioner of short stories.

—Simon McDonald

This is Not Miami
Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes 
(Text Publishing, available now)

Acclaimed essayist and novelist Juan Villoro describes the Latin American genre of crónica as the ‘ornitorrinco de la prosa’ (prose’s platypus) because it mixes reportage, short story dramatism, interviews, theatre, essay and memoir techniques. In This is Not Miami, Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor uses this form to present her first collection of twelve sobering, sometimes heartbreaking crónicas of the coastal city of Veracruz and its surroundings.

You won’t find stories celebrating the city’s rich history or tourist attractions here. In these stories, we discover how the veracruzanos survived the years of the allegedly corrupt governor Fidel Herrera Beltrán and the belligerent, far-right president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa. During their regimes, the Mexican government launched its ill-fated war against the drug cartels. Given its strategic location, Veracruz, whose port connects the Gulf of Mexico to the rest of the country, was one of the first states to see a rise in violence.

The stories are acts of rebelliousness and bravery.

Despite the breadth of this journalistic genre, Melchor’s crónicas defy easy categorisation. In the author’s note, she tells us that she prefers to call most of the stories in this book relatos, which roughly translates into English as accounts. These narratives are often anecdotal, sometimes personal—‘they don’t include accurate dates, hard facts’—and are made up of testimonies about everyday occurrences. Melchor, born in 1982, was a child when cartel-related violence became more evident in the streets of Veracruz. The book—divided into three sections: Lights, Fire and Shadows—explores the complexities of what it means to live in and be shaped by such conditions, from the absurd and eerie (think UFOs and haunted houses) to the heartbreaking.

Because of the spiralling violence, Veracruz (and Mexico at large) has seen an increase in assassinations. On average ten women and girls are murdered every day in Mexico, and in 2022 at least nineteen journalists were killed. Why do these numbers matter here? As a woman and a journalist writing about cartels, Melchor could put the people she interviews, and her own personal safety, at risk if she presented these stories as investigative journalism. That is why her stylistic choices matter: the fiction narrative tropes of crónica allow her to analyse narco-violence and government corruption in an exploratory and compelling way that resists sensationalism or exposing vulnerable people. However, there is no melodrama or excess in her prose, not even when describing a lynching or the gruesome way a former beauty queen killed her sons. Understood like this, the stories are acts of rebelliousness and bravery.

Melchor has won numerous awards for her novels Hurricane Season and Paradais. With the translation of This is Not Miami, originally published in Spanish in 2013, the author continues to establish herself internationally as one of the strongest new voices in Mexican literature, sitting alongside writers such as Yuri Herrera and Valeria Luiselli.

—Gabriella Munoz

The Anniversary
Stephanie Bishop (Hachette Australia, available now)

In The Anniversary, a husband and wife set sail on a cruise. It is a self-contained and neatly packaged holiday. The sort where everything is orderly, predictable and polished. They are celebrating their fourteenth wedding anniversary, ‘the year of ivory: patience and stability’.

They eat and drink. They lay about reading or pleasuring one another. And, after several days at sea, a storm strikes. The husband goes overboard. ‘The language of the search changed accordingly: they were no longer looking for a man, for my husband, for Patrick, but for a body.’

The Anniversary is Stephanie Bishop’s fourth novel. It is structured like a chatterbox, the childhood game of fortune-telling. The protagonist—the bestselling novelist JB Blackwood—holds the tightly folded story in her hands. Memories are revealed, then concealed, and revisited again with the opening and closing of each chapter.

Bishop’s sentences deserve to be boldly underlined and accompanied by joyous exclamation marks in the margins.

We are told that ‘there is never only one version’ of a story. There is the sensational version: ‘The mention of Russian waters, the Japanese coast, the Norwegian ship—it was made to sound like an international heist.’ The mysterious or perplexing version: ‘He didn’t know, the captain told me, how such a thing was possible.’ The clichéd version: ‘the beautiful young wife of the rich white man who drowned.’ And a version of domestic tedium, equally familiar and sinister: ‘I mean they seemed to bicker, at breakfast anyway.’

At first, residing inside JB’s head is pleasurable. Even in moments of utter distress and turmoil, her mind lightly transverses from poetry to film, literary gossip to writing craft. Clever, quick-witted, and deeply felt revelations are threaded throughout the novel. And yet at some point, without warning, the narration tips towards nauseating, JB’s mind becoming ‘loose and tidal’. We learn that any tenor of stability is an illusion. The reader is pushed into a place of active inquiry, without easy answers or assurance. It is Bishop’s skill as a writer that grants the reader a sense of intrigue as the story begins to meander, languid and unresolved, until the final heart-quickening pages.

Bishop’s sentences deserve to be boldly underlined and accompanied by joyous exclamation marks in the margins. Their architecture is astonishing—altering from a luxurious sprawl of clauses to lean, clipped paranoia—without ever feeling predictable or overworked. The Anniversary—with its delicate, dangerous precision—reveals the mastery of Bishop’s craft.

—Fiona Murphy