Katerina Bryant (NewSouth, available now)
In Hysteria, Katerina Bryant guides her reader through a history of women’s mental illness, interweaving her own account of a ‘hysterical’ mind. As the book opens, Bryant has just started to experience debilitating seizures—she is drawn out of her body, losing her sense of self and observing the episodes as if from above. After a series of medical tests, Bryant is eventually diagnosed with Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES). Ironically, getting to this point in her diagnosis, being able to name what is happening to her, means that her future treatment becomes murkier: as the book closes, she is working with a new psychologist who buys a book on PNES because Bryant is the first patient he’s ever had with that condition.
Hysteria is a stunning work of narrative non-fiction, an honest account of personal strife perfectly balanced out with insightful research.
We see Bryant’s illness, and her desperation to understand what was happening to her mind, through the lens of several famous historical cases of that anachronistic, seemingly catch-all diagnosis: hysteria. Each chapter is structured around an account of a famous hysterical woman: Edith, Mary, Katharina, Blanche, before finally coming back to Katerina. Bryant’s journey through the archives becomes part of her search for clarity about her illness—she seeks to understand herself in relation to the women who came before her, and writing about her subjects also serves as a distraction from the restrictive life she must lead because of her symptoms. Each chapter is underpinned by the process of writing (and reading) about illness, and the act of writing is both cathartic and clarifying for Bryant. She is a person who takes comfort in reading, who reads to feel prepared for her medical appointments—this is something I think many life-long readers, ill or well, can relate to.
One interesting thing that Bryant explores with this book is the distinction between the mind and the brain. As she moves through the offices of GPs, therapists, psychiatrists and more, she attempts to discover whether there is a way of telling where the psychology ends and neurology begins, or if they are just too closely intertwined for that change to be observable. Mind-body dualism, she discovers, underpins a sizeable portion of psychiatric thought and research, yet functionally ignores the reality of many people’s symptoms. Bryant’s personal experience alone demonstrates that disorders without a medical explanation are no less debilitating than those which can be confirmed by CT scans and electrodes to the forehead.
This is a stunning work of narrative non-fiction. It’s an honest account of personal strife, perfectly balanced out with insightful research. While this book deals in medicine, illness and affliction, it is above all the story of a lived experience, and the scientific and academic aspects of the writing never obscure this. Bryant is an extremely talented writer, and I will be eagerly awaiting whatever it is she writes next.
Song of the Crocodile
Nardi Simpson (Hachette, available now)
In Song of the Crocodile, Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson makes a lightning debut. Weaving strands from multiple First Nations perspectives that speak to family, sovereignty and sacrifice, Simpson’s novel asks us what it means to be a good ancestor. A good ancestor, as best-selling East African, Arab and British author Layla F. Saad defines, is a person who makes conscious and constant action to create a legacy of healing and liberation for those who are here in this lifetime and for those who will come after.
Simpson’s novel opens with a detailed mapping of the fictional regional town of Darnmoor, ironically known as ‘The Gateway to Happiness.’ However, Darnmoor is anything but. Through the ‘hash of ordered streets and neat houses’, separated by a rubbish tip at the town’s edge that was once used for sacred ceremonies, are the Campgrounds—a place where the Indigenous community have been forced to survive since the establishment of White settler colonisation. With no access to running water and electricity, while being forced to work hard labour and caretaker jobs, the original custodians of this country live in an unspoken state of apartheid.
Weaving strands from multiple First Nations perspectives that speak to family, sovereignty and sacrifice, Simpson’s novel asks us what it means to be a good ancestor.
Ancestors are constantly referred to throughout Song of the Crocodile. Matriarch of the Billymill family, Maragret Lightning, uses songs of healing embedded within the waters of the Mangamanga river. Mayor Murphy keeps a portrait of fourteen British men who, as he describes, ‘braved open seas and hostile wilderness’ to ‘discover’ and ‘tirelessly’ build Darnmoor into a ‘great’ town. Jakybird ‘began existence as a piece of his mother’s hair’. Tom Billymilly’s spirit, with legs of ‘flatten ribbon’, watches over with the Ancients from a star known as Murrudhi Gindamalaa. Wil Willarda discovers the country his great-grandfather was boss of.
What I deeply appreciated most about Simpson’s writing is that she was able to demonstrate her own act of good ancestry. By using Yuwaalaraay language throughout the novel, Simpson was able to carry on her ancestral history within literature. My own ancestors are from Tonga and we too have cultivated rich oral storytelling traditions. I recognise how liberating and healing it must have been to transfer language and stories into the written word and onto the page.
By the novel’s end, the violent divide between First Nations people and White settlers is clear, and each reader is asked an all-important and all-encompassing question: Do you come from good ancestors?
Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, available now)
Vic and Sam first meet on an overpass, on the night they both have decided to end their lives. For Vic, the things keeping him tethered to the world have disappeared. He explains how his beloved wife, Edie, died a few years earlier, and that the dog he promised to look after is now gone too. Haunted by his time in the Vietnam war, the balance of good and bad in his life has firmly tipped towards the latter.
Sam is less forthcoming about her reasons for being on the overpass—what could have brought a 14-year-old to the point of suicide is slowly teased out over the first act. It’s a grim start to a book with an overall positive core.
Honeybee is Craig Silvey’s first novel since the phenomenal success of Jasper Jones. As he proved ten years ago, Silvey has a great sense of pacing and emotion; the book, while hefty, never lags. It follows the blooming friendship between Sam and Vic, showing the ways the two save each other at a time when they were otherwise at their most isolated. The plot swings from a drag show to a bank robbery to a quiet ode to Dungeons and Dragons, and yet somehow never feels far-fetched. As a reader you rapidly invest in the core characters, which makes the undercurrent of violence and injustice they experience hit home even more.
There are quiet, deep parallels to Jasper Jones: The pall of the Vietnam war hanging over both; the resentful, abusive mother who feels trapped by her role; the saviour father figure; the driving theme of unjust treatment of people deemed as outsiders.
Honeybee is a book that’s hard to put down, [and] has a clear message to deliver: that the way society treats outsiders is cruel and problematic.
This theme is explored through Vic, who was denigrated by pacifists for fighting in the Vietnam war. It’s explored through Sam’s mother, who was shunned for getting pregnant at 19. And it’s explored through Sam herself, who is transgender.
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of what is otherwise a pensive and engrossing book is that the ‘reveal’ of Sam being assigned male at birth is so transparently a plot device. This ‘surprise’ extends beyond the pages of the book itself and into its marketing—Sam being transgender was mentioned nowhere in the lead up to its release or on the blurb. While using a character’s gender as a plot twist is fraught in and of itself, keeping it secret has also meant that trans perspectives on the book haven’t been heard as prominently or early as they might otherwise have been. There’s a lot in this book cis reviewers, like me, cannot speak to.
Honeybee is a book that’s hard to put down. Silvey is a skilled writer whose empathy comes through in the stories he writes and the complex web of relationships that populate his books. His characters very quickly become real to the reader, and though complex and individual, they fall down two clear lines—good and bad—a judgement that hinges on how they treat the outsiders of the story. Honeybee, like Jasper Jones, has a clear message to deliver: that the way society treats outsiders is cruel and problematic.
Everything in its Right Place
Tobias McCorkell (Transit Lounge, available now)
Sixteen-year-old Ford McCullen is growing up in a cramped and flimsy compound in Coburg, Melbourne, with his despondent mother Deidre and strong-willed maternal grandparents Noonie and Pop. Despite the fact that Ford’s father Robert left them to start a relationship with a man over ten years ago, Robert and Deidre’s wedding photo takes pride of place on the living room wall, a daily reminder of what their family has endured and lost.
When his paternal grandmother Queenie comes into a small fortune, Ford is sent to a prestigious Catholic private school in Toorak. Footy training and boozing with his mates now coexists with violin lessons and Altar boy duties. Ford spends his free time being shuffled between the compound, his father’s apartment in the city, and Queenie’s country property in Seymour. As his schooling starts to draw to a close, Ford struggles to keep his identities separate and finds himself floundering under the weight of expectations, family issues, and past traumas.
Everything in its Right Place is a coming of age story that feels distinctly Australian and incredibly relatable. McCorkell delicately balances black humour with warmth, grit, and poignancy and explores the many facets of growing up in a working-class family along with the complexities of separating and coming to terms with who you are, who you want to be, and who you are expected to be.
Everything in its Right Place is a coming of age story that feels distinctly Australian and incredibly relatable.
Each character is beautifully drawn and flawed in ways that will break your heart: Ford is insightful and loyal to his mother, but has a self-sabotaging streak of seeking distraction through drink and drugs, and makes impulsive decisions he knows he will regret; Deidre loves her son deeply, but refuses to let go of past wrongs and is teetering on the brink of a mental collapse; and Robert is coming to terms with being an openly gay man, but is neglectful of his son and bound by the ties of toxic masculinity.
It would be remiss to discuss this book without mentioning how wonderfully McCorkell draws a scene. From parting plastic fly strips in a local corner shop to watching lino bubble and swell with the heat of a summer’s day, McCorkell has an incredible talent for taking an ordinary scene and making it just a little bit extraordinary.
Everything in its Right Place is exhilarating and profound, and may just be Melbourne’s grittier answer to Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton.
— Chloë Cooper
Lana Guineay (Seizure, available now)
Bryan Walpert (Seizure, available now)
In 2020, Seizure’s Viva La Novella competition (now in its eighth year) has been awarded to co-winners Lana Guineay and Bryan Walpert. The winning works have been published, linked by exceptionally striking cover design by Mudgee artist Sam Paine. The two books feel leagues apart at face value, perhaps tied together only by the matching oil painting covers. However, read as an unlikely pair, these two books have comments to make about one another—there are concerns in common across the two.
Lana Guineay’s Dark Wave is a crime novella written in impressionistic prose that captures fleeting experience beautifully, in the unfamiliar territory of a crime plot. ‘Legendary’ George Green is a retired surfer-turned-private investigator. Now ‘a copy of a copy of his past self,’ George’s bygone fame and fortune as a professional surfer has lost its sheen—he returns to the sea for solace now, nothing more. An unexpected call from his ex-girlfriend Paloma sends George into his next case. Paloma—a photographer from an exceedingly wealthy family—is back on Songbird Island, a family-owned resort. Recently receiving an anonymous tip-off letter accusing her brother-in-law of embezzlement of family business funds, George makes his way to the island to investigate. The story carries all the hallmarks of a rollicking crime read: chapter-ending cliffhangers, red herring questions, lies, affairs, mounting tensions. Trapped on an island, in a family mansion, the cast is laid out as though the reader is entering a murder mystery party. All of this, of course, wrapped up in Guineay’s delightfully surprising prose style.
Both Dark Wave and Late Sonata explore the depths of regret and desire. When love is stretched across time, they ask, how do relationships endure changing selves?
In Bryan Walpert’s Late Sonata we follow protagonist Stephen as he edits his wife’s manuscript about a Beethoven sonata, as she deteriorates due to Alzheimer’s, forcing him also to grieve the death of their son alone. Structured in movements that mirror the sonata’s composition, the story broadly follows three movements, but these are more to do with mood than chronology. The main story contains another: that being composed in Stephen’s own novel-in-progress, of a man undergoing experimental treatment to reverse the effects of ageing. The book-within-the-book reaches toward the past, while Stephen’s narrative reaches both forward (through his care and attention to his wife’s condition) and backward (into past infidelities and their son’s passing, searching for reason in unreasonable experience).
Where Dark Wave moves quickly and builds tension, Late Sonata is composed of three long, languorous movements. Both maintain tight control over the release of detail. Both Dark Wave and Late Sonata explore the depths of regret and desire. When love is stretched across time, they ask, how do relationships endure changing selves? Both novellas are interested in the ways that we tie ourselves (and self-knowledge) to others, and the obstacles we place in our own paths when faced with the vulnerability of love and commitment. These texts also lend to one another: there’s something tidal about Late Sonata, something metronomic and time-fucking about Dark Wave.
With many readers’ attention spans and experiences of time disrupted by the pandemic, high-quality short reads feel well timed. Both these novellas come in under 200 pages, offering tightly crafted and economical narrative precisely when readers need them most.
—Sam van Zweden