More like this

Kirsty Jagger 
(UQP, available now)

Roseghetto is our Debut Spotlight for July! Read an interview with first-time author Kirsty Jagger here, plus watch an exclusive reading on our Instagram!

Earlier this year, census data revealed one million people, including one in seven children, are living below the poverty line in New South Wales. We hear a lot about the causation—rising interest rates, inflation and the spiralling cost of living—but among the public discourse, as we examine the crisis from a macro level, we can forget about the human impact of deepening inequality. For the privileged, the thought of living perpetually on the precipice of doom is unfathomable. It is up to storytellers like Kirsty Jagger to elucidate such desperate and pitiable existences; to transpose flesh and bone onto the economic reality.

Roseghetto is a coming-of-age story that chronicles a young woman’s efforts to study her way out of a tough childhood in Rosemeadow, Western Sydney. It is a wrenching account of poverty, confusion, survival and, ultimately, success. It’s also evidently inspired somewhat by Jagger’s own life; in 2019, she won the inaugural Heyman Mentorship Award for a writer from a background of social or economic disadvantage.

It is up to storytellers like Kirsty Jagger to elucidate such desperate and pitiable existences.

The novel traces Shayla’s childhood. She was born into hardship and her life is shaped by factors completely beyond her control. Shalya’s mother is well intentioned (thus earning Shalya’s eternal loyalty), but lacks financial independence and attaches herself to abusive men. Shayla’s father was a man of boundless depravity. Her mother’s new partner, Rob, is barely an improvement. ‘Being less bad doesn’t make him any good!’ Shalya bemoans. Not long after, Rob will call her ‘a leftover from a life [her mother] never wanted […] a constant rotten reminder of a time she wishes she could forget.’ Jagger subtly evolves Shayla’s syntax as she grows older, and her impressions and observations of her circumstances become more acute.

In a world of pain, Shayla’s only escape is in the books she reads and the stories she hopes to tell one day. The prologue, which is set in the present day, indicates this is the path that will set her free. As she stands among the bulldozed remains of the house that was the centrepiece of so much childhood trauma, we learn she is one week into a cadetship with the ABC. She has made it out. The rest of Roseghetto is the harrowing journey that got Shayla to this juncture.

By embracing melodrama and condensing key characters into clear heroes and villains, Roseghetto suffuses the story with heightened emotional intensity. As a result, the dialogue can sometimes feel contrived: ‘He’s ruined her. He’s damaged her for life. She’ll never get to be the person she was meant to be because of him.’ And yet, these are artistic choices that are in line with the book’s tone and structure, which skews away from the bleakness of misery-lit by signalling from the very start, as Jagger says in her preface, that this is a story about ‘breaking the cycle, not being broken by it’. This compelling story of a young woman dragging herself from the depths of despair and overcoming the trauma of her childhood celebrates a hard-won understanding of the human capacity for endurance and the regenerative power of literature.

—Simon McDonald

The Scope of Permissibility
Zeynab Gamieldien (Ultimo Press, available now)

Zeynab Gamieldien’s debut novel, The Scope of Permissibility, delicately weaves the perspectives of three university students who are members of the Muslim Students Association (MSA). Each character has a distinct cultural context, economic status and relationship with Allah, and their ambitions and views converge and conflict.

With great tenderness, Gamieldien allows us to slip into the intimate lives of her protagonists. Sara and Naeem are drawn to one another romantically and desperately negotiate personal desire with devotion to their faith. This clash is captured perfectly when Naeem teases ‘since only the first look is within the scope of permissibility, it was best to use it up on a nice long stare’. Abida, Sara’s best friend, is committed to social justice, believing that in life ‘it [is] essential to possess a cause’. She diligently campaigns to become the next president of the MSA. As each character tests the boundaries of their independence, we see how they are weighed down by the expectations of their family and friends.

Gamieldien captures the complexity of her characters beautifully, building tension without compromising compassion.

Far from the individualism of Western thinking, the novel sets up a wonderful sense of community. The permissibility in question is what we owe to one another and the cost of our choices. Gamieldien captures the complexity of her characters beautifully, building tension without compromising compassion towards them and their actions. As their inner worlds are unpacked, each character identifies their shortcomings. Sara worries that she is ‘not the daughter she ought to be’. Naeem recognises that ‘his faith [is] resolute but untested’. Abida, who hides her vulnerabilities behind her activism, is concerned that ‘her wide sweeps of judgment would be her undoing’.

The humanity given to these characters and their faults is incredibly valuable, as people from migrant and refugee diaspora communities are often judged harshly within their own cultural contexts, and also by those in positions of privilege, existing ‘to prove a point, or disprove one, chafing against impressions that [have] been long solidified’. There are moments in the novel when the characters’ seemingly sheltered world is pierced by the shards of racism and xenophobia. In an instance where Naeem and Sara gather to pray, their peace is interrupted by a stranger: ‘You and your terrorist slut girlfriend aren’t welcome here.’ Gamieldien does an excellent job of allowing the reader to bear witness to these violent intrusions without giving them space to overshadow the central narrative.

The Scope of Permissibility is a careful exploration of the ways in which we balance our personal values with the greater values of our community or our faith. It lovingly exposes the fragile threads that separate who we are, how we present ourselves to others and who we aspire to be. The novel showcases Gamieldien’s brilliant capacity for storytelling that is brimming with empathy and insight.

—Monikka Eliah

Pip Adam (Giramondo, available now)

Three giants—Alba, Stanley and Drew—are in cramped darkness on board the spaceship Audition. We are told again and again that the spaceship’s builders ‘made a beautiful job’ of the craft, built ‘especially for’ the giants when they ‘got too big for Earth’. It is ‘lovely’ and ‘magnificent’, but crucially, it is powered by sound. As it hurtles towards its unknown destination its passengers must continue to speak. We know that at some point they went on a silence strike, and that the loss of power caused them to resume their unwieldy growth. Now they have regrets because, in their own words, if they hadn’t been so stupid they never would have found themselves in this predicament, too big for even the ship’s basketball court.

The pure imagination and the craft that have gone into producing this work are truly awe-inspiring.

This book is about bodies and the spaces they occupy. We sense the constraint of the giants, who experience not only the claustrophobia of the Audition but the legacy of their incarceration on Earth. The narration is bodily and visceral, we feel the giants’ bones break. We understand that they will lose limbs that have been cut off from the flow of blood.

But this is not body horror without purpose. The confinement of the giants is allegorical and serves New Zealand author Pip Adam’s core message, an argument for the abolition of prisons and radical justice system reform. As she reflects in a note on her publisher’s website:

I have tried to imagine a new way of dealing with the harm we do each other. To do this, I needed to escape the power structures that are at play in our contemporary lives.

Audition is not an easy read. Adam challenges her readers to consider an experience far beyond the comfort of the couch from which they are entering her world. But the pure imagination and craft that have gone into producing this work are truly awe-inspiring. The discomfort I felt as a reader was balanced by my joy as a writer. I found myself in admiration of the authorial voice and the care that must have gone into shaping every sentence.

From the sing-song repetitions of the giants as they greet us, to the novel’s surreal final pages, that care defines the experience of Audition. It is a journey that leads the reader to an understanding of the social critique at the crux of Adam’s work, a destination that reflects the realities of our own world in a way that is impossible to ignore.

—Seth Robinson