Andrew Pippos (Picador, available now)
Beginning with a plot to impersonate Benny Goodman in wartime Sydney and ending with a never-to-be-published article in the first years of the new millenium, Lucky’s is an ambitious novel that spans decades, generations, storylines, and the dreams and goals of different characters. To summarise: this novel tells the story of a chain of Greek–Australian diners, established by the eponymous Lucky and his wife Valia after a mysterious fire and an even more mysterious ‘gift’ of money. But after several years, a divorce and a few bad decisions, Lucky sells the business off, retaining a single location—but a horrific shooting at that last diner shortly after seems like the final nail in the coffin. This epic tale unfurls via Emily, a writer who has lost her London copy-editing job but has remarkably had a pitch accepted by the New Yorker to write about the legacy of the restaurants and the massacre. Emily has a personal connection to Lucky’s—her father gave her a painting of the diner’s facade before his death by suicide, and as she teases out Lucky’s story, she is searching for her father’s story too.
A beautiful reminder that lives can be reinvented and that the change we seek could be right around the corner.
Lucky is a wonderful protagonist. Twice a migrant (first Greek–American, then Greek–American–Australian), he is a giver of second chances, and a receiver of them too. He is relentless in his optimism, and so very human in his mistake-making. His life is a series of, yes, lucky circumstances—as a one-time Benny Goodman impersonator, he eventually meets the real Goodman years later, just one example of the many remarkable coincidences that follow him throughout his life. In less capable hands, these repeated scenes of serendipity and chance could err into cheesiness. But Pippos connects and crosses these many storylines with grace and restraint. And while many aspects of this novel are tragic, I felt an immense sense of hope reading Lucky’s. This is a story of starting again, multiple times, for all the right reasons. In Emily’s case, she makes a new start to care for herself; in Lucky’s, even though he is at the end of his life, he seeks a fresh start for the people he cares about.
This is a novel that I’d like everyone to read as 2020 comes to a close—it’s been an unimaginably huge year, filled with tragedy and trauma, but also with the hope that change is coming. Lucky’s is a beautiful reminder that lives can be reinvented, that the bad things will eventually give way to the good ones, and that the change we seek could be right around the corner.
– Ellen Cregan
A Jealous Tide
Anna MacDonald (Splice, available now)
Anna MacDonald’s debut novel reprises some of the themes—travel, the engagement between life and reading—canvassed in her first publication, 2019’s essay collection Between the Word and the World. A Jealous Tide’s narrator is a scholar who flies from Melbourne to London to work on a research project concerning water in the work of Virginia Woolf. There is a sense that the narrator has been traumatised by something—‘I woke trawling behind me a sense of loss onto a foreign shore’—but exactly what is never precisely stated. Gradually, her study gives way to a general obsession with shipwrecks and drowning. The book telegraphs a kind of foreboding, an oncoming macabre revelation; but its omens are implied rather than explicit (and all the more haunting for it).
Like Maggie Nelson’s meditations on colour in Bluets, Gina Apostol’s dueling scriptwriters in 2018’s Insurrecto, or the scholar in William Gass’ The Tunnel (whose own research provides an entry point into explorations of pain), the idea of drowning seems to represent a way for the narrator to work through deeper, subterranean repressions. Encountering the epitaph of Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood, a real figure who died rescuing a woman from drowning in the Thames, the narrator begins to dream or imagine a series of intermittent third person dispatches from these two figures, in shadowy counterpoint to her own reflections.
A novel of interiority, diaristic and narrated primarily through the first person, with all the close-up familiarity this affords.
The book plays out as an extended meditation—a Les reveries du Promeneur Solitaire from a brooding and haunted flâneuse (at one point the narrator references WG Sebald, whose perambulatory meditations feel like a stylistic touchstone). It is a novel of interiority, diaristic and narrated primarily through the first person, with all the close-up familiarity this affords.
MacDonald’s writing glitters with lapidary detail: the seaborne narrator ‘parting the submarine dark with the steeple of my two hands’; the ‘indelible, equatorial mark’ of tea stains in a cup (a recurring image); a plaque ‘with the slightly puckered appearance of a successful skin graft’; the widow angling through a ‘tourniquet of streets’. There is a belief in the transformative power of noticing: the idea that, in registering and writing down what we see, we enliven it.
A Jealous Tide interleaves its references to literary and visual work alongside the narrator’s wandering in a way that suggests something struggling to be said. One is left, finally, with the impression of some secret being whispered in confidence to the reader, just beyond the edge of hearing.
– Declan Fry
Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction.
Arundhati Roy (Penguin, available now)
Reading Azadi is, I imagine, something like following the flickering torch of novelist and essay writer Arundhati Roy, one she holds high as she walks through snarled undergrowth and across uneven ground, shining a careful light on her country’s many, tangled, modern-day problems. Here, she’d say, crouching to brush aside the dirt on the years of violence and trauma endured by the Kashmiri people. This one’s important. And look this way, she’d whisper, pointing to the twin undercurrents of fascism and Hindu nationalism which run through the veins of Indian politics and mainstream media houses. You won’t want to miss this.
The slim volume binds together speeches and essays Roy wrote between 2018 and 2020. ‘Azadi’, meaning ‘freedom’ in Urdu, is often chanted on Kashmir’s streets, but Roy’s title refers to wars beyond the corporeal. She tracks the many kinds of freedoms on which incursions have been made in India’s new order: press freedoms, the liberty to practice religions other than Hinduism, the ability to criticise the BJP, India’s ruling party. She illuminates how this diverse nation, this ‘country that lives in several centuries simultaneously’, has been tugged and pressed and beaten into a new shape by rising fascism, caste divisions and religious supremacy. The Indian prime minister, Modi, hulks like a villain in the background of the essays, rising to the fore and then retreating back below the surface, leaving what feels like ominously still water.
Who better to chart the apocalypse in real time than Roy, with her blistering prose and ability to tell the tales of both quotidian and national tragedies?
Readers who were introduced to Roy through her fiction will recognise more than her lyrical prosaic style. Her imagined characters take on lives in the essays, and familiar ideas recur: ‘Things can change in a day’, she writes in ‘Our Captured, Wounded Hearts’, parroting Estha’s catchphrase from her 1997 Man Booker prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, and showing her ability to parse the beauty and horror of life as evocatively in essay form as she does in fiction. In ‘The Language of Literature’, Roy addresses the lack of differentiation between them, and in a way, gives Azadi its own raison d’etre: ‘Implicit in this categorisation [of essayist and novelist] was that the fiction was not political and the essays were not literary,’ she writes.
Many of Roy’s essays are hinged to temporality or particular events—for example, in the lead-up to the 2019 Indian general election, or after Modi’s airstrike on Balakot, Pakistan—so it’s debatable as to whether bringing them together after the fact erodes their acuity. But who better to chart the apocalypse in real time than Roy, with her blistering prose and ability to tell the tales of both quotidian and national tragedies with the same illuminating clarity and historical vision?
– Divya Venkataraman
Collisions: Fictions of the Future
ed. Leah Jing McIntosh, Cher Tan, Adalya Nash Hussein, Hassan Abul (Pantera Press, available now)
Diversity is not a means to redecorate the Arts: it is a firm and deliberate effort to give voice and space to those who suffer the consequences of colonisation, war, genocide and displacement. The sixteen stories in Collisions, drawn from the 2019 Liminal Fiction Prize longlist, explore race, gender and sexuality, offering a complex image of our identity that sits firmly in contrast to the fantasy of White Australian nationalism.
The anthology has three sections Bodies, Momentum and Contact. Bodies explores personal and social tensions: Claire Cao’s ‘See You Tomorrow’ opens with Li Xuan dressed in a hot pink fanny pack and Uniqlo puffy vest preparing for a date with a long lost companion. The story moves through fragile memories, easily denied or forgotten over time. ‘Bad Weather’ by Bryant Apolonio, the winner of the Liminal Fiction Prize, parallels the story of a child in the Philippines with an adult in Australia; two timelines that collide upon the sweet smells of the Pasig River, hard falling rain, superstition and family. Auburn Heights by Naima Ibrahim imagines the gentrification of Auburn. From a five-way intersection to an Auburn Wholefoods, the suburb is swallowed by outsiders whose interests and economic power displace Auburn’s residents—a reality I see in my own suburb of Fairfield.
Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s ‘Tongue’, for me a true highlight in the anthology, explores the anxiety of adolescence through a character undergoing jaw realignment surgery. The narrator’s fixation on their mouth, a metaphor for voice, mounts to them biting off their tongue. ‘Soft as a mouse, glittery with blood, snowy as brie’; the image is at once beautiful and repulsive, delicate and resonant. Rarely one to mark my books, I found myself underlining this sentence.
The sixteen stories in Collisions offer a complex image of our identity that sits firmly in contrast to the fantasy of White Australian nationalism.
Momentum navigates change and death. In ‘Dried up In Aralkum’, Hannah Wu describes a drying Aral Sea—once the world’s fourth largest lake, now comparable to ‘withered tapioca bread’—its decay a metaphor for the narrator’s loneliness. The work encourages me to view personal loss as an extension of collective loss. Victor Chrisnaa Senthinathan’s ‘Suburban Graveyard’ converges death, dreams and capitalism. Responding to overpopulation, the narrator’s father sells their backyard to be used as a burial site. By the end, ‘the veranda [has] been demolished and replaced by a row of enamel plaques.’
The anthology’s final section, Contact, explores human resilience. ‘The Revolution will be Pirated’ by Bobuq Sayed paints an Australia where Kyle Sandilands is prime minister. Controlled and surveilled, every form of resistance becomes a win. Mykaela Saunders’ ‘Terranora’ tells of an Indigenous community rebuilding the sovereign nation of Terranora in the aftermath of an apocalypse. I so enjoyed the writer’s careful construction of imagery: ‘The scales sprinkle over the water like confetti and float away in a trail of glitter.’
The anthology reconfirms the importance of giving space to voices that often go ignored. Each story in Collisions samples a unique human experience, yet taken as a collective they naturally collide and converge to form a complex and enriching contribution to the canon of contemporary Australian literature.
– Monikka Eliah
Bryan Washington (Atlantic, available now)
The essence of Bryan Washington’s debut novel, Memorial, is the invisible barriers that dictate what we can be, who we can be with and where we will end up. Benson, a Black man and Mike, a Japanese-American man are a young couple living in Boston. They are separated when Mike leaves for Osaka to be with his estranged father dying of cancer, leaving Benson in Texas with his mother Mitsuko. Washington writes spectacularly from the inner perspectives of Benson and Mike, who struggle with the relationships in their lives. Personal history and how it informs identity are a key motif in Washington’s novel. Although it’s not immediately apparent to the protagonists, Benson and Mike go through a transformative awakening of their own desires, capturing the complexities in multiracial and intercultural same-sex relationships.
Unwitting departures, domino effects, revelations, self-discovery, estrangement, and family dynamics are important themes throughout this intricate love story—the exact kind of story that speaks to our current epoch.
Only when a story is extremely specific does it become universal; a concept Washington understands well.
Only when a story is extremely specific does it become universal; a concept Washington understands well. Benson is a self-aware Black man who stands out in his cultural setting as an introvert among a cult of personalities. In contrast, Mike is the son of immigrant parents who desperately seek to reinvent themselves in order to integrate into a new home, a new country, and a new way of life.
Washington’s ability to develop characters who are three dimensional provides a humanising portrayal of culturally diverse voices and identities at a moment when the entire world is wondering, ‘Are we going to be okay?’ Memorial is the book of our times, reassuring us from the very first page, ‘We’ll be fine. Thank you for asking.’
– Bruce Koussaba