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Wayne Marshall (Affirm Press, available now)

Shirl is our First Book Club pick for March—stay tuned to the KYD website and Podcast throughout the month!

Shirl is a wild ride through Australiana. A mermaid appears on a fishing trip; lonely men receive mail-order brides from recently colonised planets; the famous proprietor of a sports-themed amusement park reimagines his venue as an avant-garde object of social commentary; and, as the brilliantly disturbing cover of this book depicts, one average Aussie bloke finds the love of his life to be a kangaroo. Wayne Marshall has a great talent for using these colourful plot devices to both criticise and flesh out his protagonists. In Geoff, for instance, the man who has fallen in love with a kangaroo (named Shirl), Marshall is definitely poking fun at the archetypal bloke’s bloke—his grubby clothes, untidy house, and rough way of speaking are all portrayed in a humorous light—but at the same time, letting love back into his life has made Geoff a more tender and emotionally aware person. He is genuinely excited about the flowers his friend has brought along, and later calls his mate out for hurting the kangaroo’s feelings. This is not a side of Australian masculinity that we often see in fiction.

As well as using surreal and speculative elements in these stories, Marshall also plays with memoir and autobiography. In ‘Levitation’, the protagonist—a man named Tom—is diagnosed with bowel cancer just after the birth of his first child. The very same thing happened to Marshall. Tom is a writer too, and observes: ‘More than anyone I’m guilty of cannibalising experience for the sake of story, slanting it until it becomes something that satisfies my imagination’. This moment, as well as several others in Shirl, has a feeling of being lifted from real life, sharpening the emotional impact of the piece. Then there is the final story, ‘Weekend in Albury’, which begins: ‘You were excited—over the moon—when a few months ago, after being shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, you signed with Melbourne’s Affirm Press to publish your story collection Shirl (then Frontier Sport).’ This story mashes up Marshall’s parents’ divorce and a biography of a fictional Australian author named Wendy Alice Thompson; there’s even a fake press release at the end of the book which advertises an Affirm Press reissue of Thompson’s work. This metafictional blurring of the lines makes ‘Weekend in Albury’ an immersive reading experience—I found myself briefly wondering why I didn’t know who Wendy Alice Thompson was, before realising she never actually existed.

These are all ‘big’ short stories—they pitch a whole world to their reader, rather than a moment.

These are all ‘big’ short stories—they pitch a whole world to their reader, rather than a moment. Whether through surreal plots, recognisable settings or breaking of the fourth wall, in Shirl Marshall immerses his readers in stories that balance the average with the extraordinary.

Ellena Savage (Text Publishing, available now)

Ellena Savage’s debut book Blueberries unapologetically refuses to be categorised. In fifteen works, Savage blends memoir, personal essay, stream of consciousness, journalism, and prose poetry to interrogate the messy and fragmented life of a writer, a woman, and a body. In abandoned warehouses and dingy apartments, grungy cities and elite university campuses, Savage questions the self and its place in the world. The result is a masterclass in experimental non-fiction.

The collection opens with ‘Yellow City’, an essay recounting an ‘almost-rape’ in Lisbon. Savage recounts her experience of travelling abroad at age eighteen and her encounter with the two young men who attempted to sexually assault her. She revisits the city in an attempt to define what happened to her and to find out what became of the perpetrators. As her memories collide and her thoughts interrupt her consciousness, Savage asks, ‘what does a man become in the eleven years since he threw a girl’s sense of being into chaos?’

In the collection’s titular essay, Savage uses repetition and stream of consciousness to depict the multitudinous conflicting thoughts and feelings about a writer’s workshop in America and the ideas of class, privilege, and sexism that the placement evokes. Savage contemplates love, sadness, and the intersection of the two in ‘The Literature of Sadness’ and asks, ‘why is it that the closer we get to sadness the realer we feel?’ In ‘Unwed Teen Mum Mary’, Savage reflects on abortion, minimum wage jobs, and being broke, while in ‘Satellite’ she discusses colonialism, family history, and gentrification.

By questioning the very nature of memoir itself, Savage breathes new life into the non-fiction form.

One of the collection’s strongest themes is that of the labour of an artistic lifestyle, particularly in relation to writing. Interspersing thoughts from writers such as Kathy Acker, Annie Dillard, and Jamaica Kincaid, Savage uses intertextuality to reflect on the uncontainable urge to write mixed with the insecurity that such a career inevitably leads to; the desire to be seen mixed ​with ‘the sense that This Is Your Life and it’s small and trivial and it’s going to stay that way.’

Savage is fiercely intelligent and manages to inject dry humour into even the most serious topics, creating a delicate balance between dire existentialism and life-affirming joy. By questioning the very nature of memoir itself, Savage breathes new life into the non-fiction form and considers what it means to be alive in today’s uncertain world.

– Chloë Cooper

The Wandering
Intan Paramaditha, trans. Stephen J Epstein (Harvill Secker, available now)

Remember the feeling you had as a child reading a choose-your-own-adventure novel? Your future felt near, your options seemed endless. In The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red Shoes Adventure, Intan Paramaditha attempts to create this same feeling in adults.

Stephen J Epstein translated Paramaditha’s fist work, Apple and Knife, a short story collection reframing traditional fairy tales, and he is back for a second time translating The Wandering from the original Indonesian. Like in her previous work, familiar folktale elements appear throughout: Pacts with the devil, magic mirrors, witches and gnomes, the Wizard of Oz and Rumpelstiltskin. But this is more than a short story collection. Paramaditha uses the choose-your-own-adventure format to ask the reader to reflect on the choices we have, as well as the choices we don’t.

The Wandering is written in the second person and addresses ‘you’, the reader. But the ‘you’ in question is also the protagonist—an Indonesian woman in her 20s who is from Jakarta and, at the start of the work, working as an English teacher. She makes a Faustian pact with a devil, who also happens to be her lover. He gifts her with a pair of Dorothy-like red shoes with the power to take her wherever she wants to go…and so starts the adventure. The Wandering takes the reader from Jakarta to New York to Amsterdam, and each choice reveals another meeting ​or relationship (or returns to a previous one). 

Paramaditha uses the choose-your-own-adventure format to ask the reader to reflect on the choices we have, as well as the choices we don’t.

As with any choose-your-own-adventure, when the reader finishes one thread there is an impetus to flip back to the previous one and take the other option—to experiment, to explore, to take the path not chosen. But this means the choose-your-own-adventure novel format will not satisfy all readers. The fractured structure means there is no driving narrative, which in turn means there is little character development. The impetus must come from the reader, not from the force of the writing itself. 

That said, Paramaditha is known for her research on transnationalism and cosmopolitanism (she has a PhD from New York University and teaches at Macquarie University), and watching her explore those themes in this work about travel, migration and globalisation is fascinating. The repetitiveness and circularity are the point: sometimes no matter how far we wander, we end up back where we started.

– Astrid Edwards