More like this

Smashing Serendipity 
Louise K. Hansen (Fremantle Press, available now)

Smashing Serendipity is our Debut Spotlight for March! Sadly, Louise passed away just two days after the memoir went to print. Read an interview with her daughter Alice Kearing about Louise’s intentions for the book. 

Smashing Serendipity begins on the banks of a river outside the country town of Pinjarra. Lavinia Kate Connell (the pseudonym chosen by the author) begins her story with a tender appeal:

‘I reckon you all need to know about the past…At least some of the things I have experienced in my lifetime. Also what my Elders, your ancestors, have been through. It is only some of what our Nyoongar families have had to endure, just to survive.’

In this moment she is talking to her family, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. But it felt just as important to hear these stories myself as a non-Indigenous settler in this country.

In many ways this is a classic memoir; the writing is straightforward and conversational. But it is the stories themselves where we find the book’s importance. In these personal narratives, Hansen gives a frank account of a nation so obsessed with violence and control that resilience becomes not a choice but the only means of survival.

We begin with her childhood. It’s 1950s Western Australia and systemic racism is set against a suburban backdrop. The threat of the state has removed any childish naivety. As Lavinia states, ‘It was like all Nyoongar families had to walk on tenterhooks in case it even seemed we broke some law related to us.’

A frank account of a nation so obsessed with violence and control.

The reader watches as for almost every decision made and every step taken in Lavinia’s life, the government is there like a shadow in the background. Public policy acts as a vehicle of subjugation, enforced by the paternalistic eyes of ‘Native Welfare’ officers or the state-sanctioned violence of the police.

As we follow Lavinia into adulthood, motherhood, through relationships and careers, we witness as she is made to answer for the choices and mistakes of the men around her (as so many women are). But as she leans on her culture and the support of her ancestors, Lavinia builds a life for herself where, as she states in the author’s note, ‘she not only survived but came out on top’.

There is a weaponised ignorance of the colonial oppression of First Nations peoples in so-called Australia. Facts are obscured or buried, and accounts are often strategically missing from publishing cycles and subsequently the overarching narrative of this nation. Memoirs like Smashing Serendipity are working to dispel this obscuration, giving us access to a lived experience we rarely see in print.

The author Louise K Hansen sadly passed away two days after this memoir went to print. This loss happened at the painfully apt moment her dream was realised: to have her story preserved, to be passed on to family, future generations, and also to readers like you and me.

—Rosie Ofori Ward

Funny Ethnics
Shirley Le (Affirm Press, available now)

Ten years ago, when I went to a selective all-girls’ school (aka ‘nerd factory’), there was a cluster of subjects that most girls chose to take dubbed The Asian Five. This was a quintet of mostly maths and science subjects, ones that would set you on the well-manicured path to becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer (and if all else failed, an accountant). 

It is this worldview that Sylvia Nguyen, the protagonist of Shirley Le’s debut novel, Funny Ethnics, grapples with. The child of Vietnamese refugees living in Australia, Sylvia disappoints her family and herself: she struggles academically, lacks direction and enjoys creative writing (the ultimate death knell!). The book charts her adolescence in the grey Australian outer suburbs as she becomes increasingly paralysed by an absence of will. 

Le conjures a delightful time capsule of the 2000s…But the book’s main preoccupations carry the timeless plangencies of growing up. 

Le conjures a delightful time capsule of the 2000s. There are appearances by Justin Bobby, the haunting 40 Winks 40-hour sale chant, Photoshop’s Gaussian blur filter, AZN pride, ripping your friend’s internet to torrent something on Pirate Bay, all followed by the long, saccharine shadow of Impulse deodorant. But the book’s main preoccupations carry the timeless plangencies of growing up. Sylvia’s self-hatred bubbles up into self-erasure. She carries a fixation with what goes into her body and what comes out, skips classes, even decides to Lean In for a hot second. She is always going elsewhere, reaching. In writing, there is brief respite. She can purge the ‘Asian nerd who had no life outside of studying’ and become ‘honey-blonde horse girl’ instead. 

The prose is immersive. Vietnamese phrases are left untranslated on the page, alongside the poetically crass vernacular of those who grew up online in Australian suburbia (soz, try-hard, spenno, pass-agg). When Sylvia prepares to tell her family she’s dropping out of her law degree, she drags her speech through Google Translate to find the Vietnamese words for what she wants to say. The loveliest moments are small knots like this, that reveal the elliptical uncertainty of not knowing who you are or who you want to be. 

It is an earnest truth that there is a sharpened joy at seeing parts of yourself inside someone else’s imagination. That is what reading this book felt like—bearing witness to a past self, turned inside out on the page. In turn, it invites a provocation: to imagine the world could expand for you and your inconclusive future.

—Whitney Chen

Birnam Wood
Eleanor Catton (Granta, available now)

From Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton comes an eco-thriller set in New Zealand that delivers a sardonic analysis of politics and human psychology in the age of surveillance. Birnam Wood concerns an activist collective of guerrilla gardeners, planting crops in secret on underutilised or abandoned land.

The story opens with a landslide that has cut off the Korowai Pass, enclosing the rural town of Thorndike in a kind of cul-de-sac, accessible via only one access route. As the small town is drained of its residents whose livelihoods cannot survive without visitors, the interest of the group’s founder, twenty-nine-year-old Mira, is piqued: a large property in Thorndike that was due for subdivision has been quietly withdrawn from sale and seemingly abandoned. Could this be the next location for Birnam Wood?

Once you dive in there is no turning back. In a series of engaging plot twists and action scenes, you’re soon pulled forward at rapid speed.

Mira, however, is not the only person interested in the town’s ‘greatest-ever subdivision prospect’. American billionaire Robert Lemoine—owner of a surveillance drone company—has, so he says, purchased part of the property and plans to build a survivalist bunker; all of which he alludes to when he catches Mira scouting out the land. Quickly intrigued by Mira and—for reasons you’ll discover upon reading—wanting to irk the owner, Sir Owen Darvish, he offers Birnam Wood a sizeable donation to continue their work: ‘Nothing would irritate a guy like this more than being left in the dust by some twenty-something anarchist planting vegetables behind his back, and I find that prospect incredibly amusing.’ What sacrifices would a group of environmental activists have to make to partner with a techno-futurist billionaire?

The book is presented in three acts, each one laden with rich and quick-witted prose and intentionally long-winded millennial tropes about capitalism, morality and privilege:

‘God forbid that you should have an actual human experience of frailty, or morality, or limitation, or humanity, or of the fucking onward march of time—those are just distractions, those are obstacles, they’re defects, they’re inconveniences in the face of our curated, bespoke, freely fucking chosen authentic existence…’

Early on we meet Mira’s friends and fellow Birnam Wood members; housemate Shelley Noakes, and Tony Gallo, a former lover and quasi-blogger-cum-journalist who is vehemently opposed to the association with Lemoine. ‘Drones are weapons of terror,’ says Tony when Mira brings the idea of collaboration to the Birnam Wood group. ‘Mass surveillance is totalitarian and oppressive. The billionaire class undermines solidarity by its very existence; it’s fundamentally unsustainable, it’s regressive, and it’s unjust… Protest action should not be able to be commissioned. Jesus, do I have to go on?’

Reading Catton’s satirical and searing exposé of modern-day archetypes, I find her style dense, her sentences and paragraphs long and, at times, heavy. But once you dive in there is no turning back. In a series of engaging plot twists and action scenes, you’re soon pulled forward at rapid speed by her elaborate sentence sequences and tongue-twisting monologues before landing, suddenly, at the crescendo ending that perhaps, in hindsight, I should have predicted (but, I will admit, alas, did not).

Some four hundred-odd years ago, Shakespeare’s Macbeth found confidence in the knowledge that he ‘…shall never vanquish’d be / until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him.’

But in Catton’s Birnam Wood, who will play Macbeth? All shall be revealed in the third act.

—Lucinda Bain