Fathoms: The World in the Whale
Rebecca Giggs (Scribe, available now)
In her debut book Fathoms, Rebecca Giggs takes a dive as deep as that of the sperm whale into the topic of Cetaceans. Categorically working her way through different subspecies of whales, she also considers the relationship of humankind to the natural world through the lens of our interactions with the oceanic giants.
Several years ago, Giggs helped push a beached humpback whale back into the water. The whale returned to shore, beached itself again, and eventually perished there in front of its would-be rescuers. It’s with this scene that Giggs begins her book, and her personal connection to whales is woven throughout; a chapter focusing on blue whales is framed by Giggs’ childhood memories of awe at the blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of the WA Museum. Fathoms is a perfect example of blending the personal with more formal research in narrative nonfiction; Giggs’ authorial presence in the text is never over-wrought, and always functions to highlight a central aspect of the chapter. In the case of the museum skeleton, Giggs uses her memory as the first step in an exploration of animal as artifact: how the science around these animals changed, how humans began to understand more about them, and how this increased understanding laid a foundation for the way we relate to whales today. Another chapter looks at the changes in whale song in the past century and how, due to changed population numbers and ever-increasing noise pollution from shipping, the songs of humpback whales today sound very different. Giggs not only looks at how this change occurred, but also what it might mean socially, and by extension culturally, for whales themselves.
Giggs melds the information-rich style of popular science writing with complex and descriptive prose one might expect to find in a literary collection.
Here we see whales in so many guises: as creatures that support entire ecosystems, historical artefacts, cultural symbols, vessels for toxic waste dumped in the ocean by humans, and more. Giggs’ writing melds the information-rich style of popular science writing with complex and descriptive prose one might expect to find in a literary collection of personal essays. Combining these two styles, and the intensity of the subject matter, makes for an emotionally intense reading experience—this isn’t a book to breeze through. One of the primary focuses of this book is the erosion of the whales’ world—and wilderness in general—by humankind, which is never an easy subject to read about. Although it may be necessary to come up for air now and then, Fathoms is absolutely worth it. This is a heavy read, but a fascinating and vital one.
Smart Ovens for Lonely People
Elizabeth Tan (Brio Books, available now)
Perth writer Elizabeth Tan’s 2017 debut, Rubik, was a clever interlocking novel-in-stories that experimented with perspectives, timelines, and alternate realities. Her new book, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, continues to defy easy categorisation. The 20 short stories in the collection—some new, some previously published—range in style, tone and length, but all are connected by Tan’s keen exploration of desire, grief and loneliness, as well as our fast-evolving relationship to nature and technology.
The collection opens with ‘Night of the Fish’: a fish-shaped playground slide lurches to life in the dimming light of a Perth evening, as two children watch in awe from their window. In just two pages, Tan sets the tone with a nostalgic vision of suburban childhood mixed with a bone-deep sense of the otherworldly. The next story, ‘Our Sleeping Lungs Opened to the Cold’, is a standout—a beguiling tale about a school of mermaids on display in a fine-dining restaurant that’s reminiscent of the stories of Margo Lanagan. This wild and ferocious study of autonomy, strength and the monstrous feminine is lush with lines like ‘our bodies thickened in glory. Collarbones sank beneath the luxurious swell of flesh’.
Reading Smart Ovens feels like slipping through the membranes of different worlds, each one a surreal and skewed distortion of our own.
Other stories deftly spin out modern technological trends into situations that feel both delightfully unhinged but also strangely plausible: a global conspiracy within the shadowy world of ASMR videos, a cheery karaoke castle in the near future where patrons come to cry over music videos that show a prelapsarian Australia, or a corporate morale-boosting pigeon cooing aphorisms derived from popular nineties songs. (‘You must be cool, you must remain calm, you must stay together.’) Many of these stories are sharply satirical, but Tan has a compassionate understanding of how people turn to technology to mediate strong undercurrents of human feeling: whether it’s to excise grief, stamp out isolation, confront our regrets. The titular story is a particularly poignant example of this, as a woman attempts to navigate life after her suicide attempt with the therapeutic help of a talking cat-shaped smart oven.
There is a point in one story in which the narrator thinks of some approaching children, ‘I do not quite see them properly, as if they inhabit a slanted universe, only slightly intersecting the one that I live in’. That ‘slanted universe’ could easily describe each of the short stories in this exhilarating sophomore book. Reading Smart Ovens feels like slipping through the membranes of different worlds, each one a surreal and skewed distortion of our own. This is a truly knock-out collection that sits easily next to the likes of Carmen Maria Machado or Kelly Link and I can’t wait to read what Tan writes next.
The Rain Heron
Robbie Arnott (Text, available now)
The Rain Heron, Robbie Arnott’s follow-up to his celebrated 2018 debut Flames, is a searing exploration of the entanglement of internal and external nature, and the human mind’s unconscious pull towards dominating the natural world. As an imagined continent experiences a military coup in response to climate change, three stories converge: Ren, a hermit woman who has exiled herself to the mountains, Lieutenant Harker, a soldier in charge of capturing the mythical Rain Heron for unknown purposes, and Daniel, who left his family’s farm only to be plucked out of medical school and handpicked by Harker to serve as medic in her troop.
Life forces drain and well in The Rain Heron. Blood runs heavy throughout, mixing with rain, with earth, with pus, vomit, and sweat; characters dehydrate and ‘drench their throats’. Arnott’s visceral writing relates deeply to the senses which characters often find themselves repulsed by: the stench of rotting wounds, the taste of blood. Through Arnott’s prose we see them consistently humbled by their own vulnerability to nature. The interesting push and pull of the book is whether these characters see themselves as part of, or superior to, the natural world. Is their physicality an extension of nature or is nature something they can intellectually transcend? While Arnott carries over Flames’ influence of mystical realism, The Rain Heron doesn’t have the same sense of fun—it’s a more serious consideration of the ways our self-constructed societies collapse when we do not allow ourselves to be a part of the flow of nature but instead try to exploit it.
Arnott’s visceral writing relates deeply to the senses…we see characters consistently humbled by their own vulnerability to nature.
Where Flames benefited from jumping perspectives often, The Rain Heron stays with three main characters but does lose some momentum in each. I’m sure it will be described by many that the natural world becomes its own character in the book, and as a character it is dynamic and engaging. But the human characters themselves, their interiority, never feels completely realised or explored. In this way they fall slightly short as an engaging scene partner. At one point, after a long period without touch, Harker finds someone she truly desires. From Ren and Daniel’s perspective Harker is a commanding, graceful presence, with strong and beautiful movements. But when she has sex, the writing is disembodied and lacks any real charge. When the rest of the writing is so attuned to the senses, restraint here feels frustrating and out of character. Arnott is brilliant at writing the natural world, but I was left wanting to know, just a little better, the complicated minds that swirl within it.
Imbi Neeme (Viking, available now)
In her debut novel, which won the 2019 Penguin Literary Prize, Imbi Neeme examines the complexities of love and family, and asks whether one moment in time can determine our fates.
Sisters Nicole and Samantha are only children when the car their mother, Tina, is driving overturns on a remote road in Western Australia. All three leave the scene with only minor injuries, but the accident sets off a chain of events that alters the course of their lives. Tina, a free spirit with a serious drinking problem, is widely blamed for the accident and her alcoholism is pushed vehemently to the forefront of both the accident and the story each sister holds onto about their childhoods.
Soon, the family breaks apart with a messy divorce that finds each sister living with a different parent. Nicole stays with their mother and spends her life aimlessly drifting between jobs and bad relationships, while Samantha moves in with their father and his new wife, finds love, starts a family, and lives her life by a strict set of rules. Neither fully understands the other and it is slowly revealed that every member of the family has a secret that they hold close out of the fear of judgement. But it is these secrets which link them together in ways they could never have imagined. It is not until Tina’s death, almost forty years later, that the sisters are forced to confront the decisions that led them to this point.
Neeme examines the fickleness of memory and illustrates how fear of past mistakes can actually lead you to repeating them.
The story moves backwards and forwards in time, switching between third-person and first-person perspectives. In this way, the same events and small moments in time are recounted by each sister as they re-examine incidents and remember details once thought forgotten. There are moments of tenderness and comedy, with a charming recurrence of a Pritikin scone, as the family try to find a way back into each other’s lives.
The Spill explores the dangers of silence, secrets, and loneliness. Each significant moment in the sisters’ lives is traced back to a decision, and each decision traced back to a past, often seemingly insignificant, trauma. By deftly dissecting the sisters’ recollections, Neeme examines the fickleness of memory and illustrates how the intense fear of past mistakes can actually lead you down the path to repeating them.
Rise and Shine
Patrick Allington (Scribe, available now)
For the 33rd year in a row, two city-states, Rise and neighbouring Shine, are holding peace talks. Crowds cheer and wave flags, motivational music plays, and, at the centre of it all, two identically-dressed puppet presidents stand beneath a banner that reads ‘DAY 2: NO MEANINGFUL PROGRESS’. It’s a cause for celebration. Because that’s the thing—no one actually wants the war to end. In fact, if it did, everyone would die.
Patrick Allington’s Rise & Shine is set during the aftermath of a catastrophic event—or perhaps series of events—that has seen 8 billion of the world’s inhabitants die. Rain is now poisonous. Plants don’t grow. Animals are pretty much a vague memory. Tumours are a normal part of life, and a mysterious illness is affecting more and more of the population. What remains of the human race form the inhabitants of Rise and Shine, two city-states perpetually at war.
It’s not the kind of war we knew in the Old Times however—weapons are designed to wound, but not kill. The whole thing is filmed, carefully edited, and then televised. It’s all part of a genius plan by Walker and Barton, the founders of Rise and Shine respectively, to keep their people alive. With physical food no longer viable, they’ve found a new way to nourish and sustain the population: they fill up on compassion and feeling the pain of others, prompted by mealtime screenings of that day’s fighting.
An astonishingly imaginative work of speculative fiction that uses the loss of a universal physical act to explore the intangible things that connect us to one another.
The concept of a world without food could be a difficult one to swallow, but Allington delicately lays out the history of the key players, giving just enough information about the fall of the old world without spelling things out, so that suspension of disbelief is never an issue.
Allington, whose first novel Figurehead was longlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award, packs a lot into a short space. There is a lot to keep track of, but things never feel rushed, or cramped. He gives us a glimpse into a society that runs on politeness and compassion; where declaring and continuing war is a magnanimous act; where the line between empathy and finding pleasure in the suffering of others is delicate and flimsy.
This isn’t a book about the evolution of human biology—it’s an astonishingly imaginative work of speculative fiction that swings between optimism and a darker look at the human psyche, using the loss of a universal physical act to explore the intangible things that connect us to one another, and probe deeper, more uncomfortable questions.
Sweatshop Women Volume 2
ed. Winnie Dunn (Sweatshop, available now)
The first volume of Sweatshop Women introduced us to an Australia where if whiteness was the default—as Elizabeth Flux wrote—then ‘being a person of colour, a migrant, or culturally and linguistically diverse…is like being an oyster’. A year later, the release of this second volume, showcasing more than twenty works by culturally diverse women from Western Sydney recognises BIPOC voices as rainbow-slicked gemstones catching the sunlight: here, we see their grit, generosity, and gift for dismantling the narrative legacy of whiteness as they space for the next generation of storytellers.
Journalist and author Ruby Hamad points out in her foreword to the anthology, ‘They asked us where we were from but perhaps they would have done a lot better to ask us who we were from, who we were, and indeed who we are now. But then again, how were we supposed to know?’ And this bearing of carrying knowledge that wrestles with a constant knowing-and-not-knowing or learning-and-unlearning ripples throughout the entire collection of short stories, essays, artwork and poetry.
Editor Winnie Dunn’s introduction describes the collection as ‘a communion with our stories’, and speaks to the history of Sweatshop Women as an ongoing collective and publishing project that pushes for critical, intercultural dialogue between women of colour as ‘the foundation of healing action’. The work here will be revelatory to young people stuck in institutional settings who are searching for stories that reflect their inner realities and conflicts, very rarely broadcast with nuance or depth in the Australian media.
The collection brings to the forefront not only history and context, but a vision for the future and a blueprint for all the work that will be heard, and become possible, because of it.
Accompanied by centrefold portraits of all the contributors by Lebanese–Australian Muslim artist Amani Haydar, the stories themselves are moving, at times laugh-out-loud funny and quietly confident for having the power to draw a reader in but refuse to do the work for you: no translations, no footnotes, no dictionary definitions, no overwrought explanations or caveats. But still, each narrative is an act of boundlessness, asking us to reconsider how we judge those whose stories and experiences we don’t yet fully know.
It is difficult to choose or spotlight one particular piece here: there’s Phoebe Grainer’s ‘Gnum Gnum’, a powerful short story about intergenerational trauma; Shirley Le’s slice-of-life account about an American preacher who takes a Bankstown-bound train hostage with God-talk; Sheree Joseph’s sly ‘Siti Meet Baby’, written from the perspective of a Lebanese grandmother; Ferdous Bahar’s ‘Hijabi Brace Face’ which details the indignities of working for corporate Australia. The collection brings to the forefront not only history and context, but a vision for the future and a blueprint that encourages an ongoing, defiant redesign—rather than a set of instructions to follow—for all the work that will be heard, and become possible, because of it.
Supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants