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Tell Me Again
Amy Thunig (UQP, available now)

Tell Me Again is our First Book Club pick for November—Stay tuned for features on our website and join us for an Instagram Live interview with Amy at 7pm (AEDT) on Wednesday 23 November. 

As the child of criminalised parents who struggled with heroin addiction, Amy Thunig has lived through periods of familial conflict and abuse, homelessness and trauma. But Tell Me Again is not a misery memoir. Thunig details how she grew up to be an intelligent and successful academic, parent and activist not despite her younger years, but because of them; her empathy, strength and connection to community are all traits that she attributes to her family. Thunig sees her parents as people who are deserving of love even in their worst moments, and remarks that they ‘have supported me to the best of their abilities—through the highs and lows.’

Tell Me Again is not a book about forgiveness, it’s about healing through understanding.

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Thunig’s father is repeatedly incarcerated. Thunig’s mother explains his absence to young Amy by saying her father is ‘at work’. Years later, Thunig makes small talk at an academic conference, telling a colleague their family lived in Yatala. At the mention of this, ‘The energy of the small group shifts. I can tell in their faces and in my belly that I have erred, that I am erring, and I am not sure how.’ Thunig realises afterwards that this is the name not of a suburb, but of a high security prison. With this one word, this group of middle-class academics cease to see her in an equal light—she is no longer one of them. This kind of othering has stalked Thunig from the very beginning:

The hardest part of a childhood with parents who have these struggles and are criminalised isn’t necessarily life inside your home—it’s how you are treated and mistreated by those outside your home. It’s the ways in which people with authority disrespect, demean and dehumanise your whole family.

As a child, Thunig is followed through the supermarket, verbally abused by teachers and discriminated against because of other people’s assumptions about her family. As an adult in a white-collar industry, despite years of hard work, those opinions still linger. And while the venom of those childhood experiences isn’t replicated here, the othering still stands. At the conference, another Indigenous person comes to Thunig’s rescue, assuring the room she’s misremembered this name, disarming the tension. These moments of warmth and solidarity crop up several times throughout Thunig’s life, and they are just as affecting as the negative ones. 

In the years that she attends high school and university, Thunig doesn’t have the capacity to maintain a positive relationship with her parents. And it’s easy to imagine turning bitter and resentful after some of the incidents of her childhood. But Thunig reflects that her parents ‘weren’t choosing heroin over me; they were choosing quiet over the overwhelming noise. It was then that I moved towards understanding, and my resentment began to ease a little.’ This family has been fractured by addiction, trauma and loss. But Thunig also shares so many wonderful moments—family gathering on country and sharing stories, her mother painstakingly op-shopping for businesswear for Thunig to wear at a new job, her parents whooping and cheering in the crowd at a tightly laced university graduation ceremony. These are things that would have never happened if that resentment had won. Tell Me Again is not a book about forgiveness, it’s about healing through understanding the many harsh realities and intergenerational traumas that might damage someone. And, most importantly, that someone who is struggling is just as human as the rest of us.

– Ellen Cregan

Men I Trust
Tommi Parrish (Scribe, available now)

I want to start by saying that, most importantly, Tommi Parrish’s second graphic novel, Men I Trust, is a beautiful art object. And I say art object, not comic book, for a reason: Parrish’s work is painstakingly hand-painted and alive with colour. The book is reminiscent of fauvist/post-impressionistic artists, including Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch, rather than contemporary graphic novelists. There is just so much effort here, a real sense of dimension and light in the bodies, buildings, cars. Each panel is a piece of art in its own right. Men I Trust is, stylistically, pure Parrish. Poring over their pages feels like peering through a window at a hand-made diorama, populated with a kaleidoscopically-coloured cast of characters—their singular and consistent world-building lending a sense of comics verité.

I’m just so over reviews of comics that don’t talk about the art!

And you may be asking who those characters are! (Sorry, I’m just so over reviews of comics that don’t talk about the art!) Eliza is a single mother and poet, writing depressing stuff about, well, depression, looking after her son Justin, working at a butcher (I absolutely loved Parrish’s glistening meat-paintings throughout), attending AA meetings, and dealing with her irresponsible ex-partner (Justin’s father). Sasha is flailing. She’s moved back in with her mum and dad, is doing sex work for a sugar daddy, and dealing with an inability to connect with others.

Men I Trust emphasises awkward moments and gestures like its predecessor, The Lie and How We Told It (2017). But where the previous book felt a little too aimless, in Men I Trust Parrish’s storytelling capabilities have matured. As they present the parallel narratives and interactions of Sasha and Eliza, Parrish assuredly develops the story of their friendship. There are affecting moments throughout, particularly between Sasha and her mother (one argument in particular will trigger mothers and daughters everywhere).

Parrish’s novel is unapologetically bereft of narration, or conclusiveness. This is emphasised by the ending, where the panels empty of colour, then of pencil, then are suddenly blank. Though I respect their approach, I felt that the graphic novel ended too abruptly, after an unexpected and uncomfortable encounter between the two characters. This may have been intended to colour our interpretation of preceding events, but to me it raised too many questions and left too few answers. I wanted to understand why Parrish chose to look at this moment in their lives, and not others. What emotional effects have these events wrought? While Parrish is, perhaps, encouraging the reader to draw their own conclusions, I wanted more satisfaction from the narrative denouement.

Fans of Parrish’s work, and those who are yet to encounter it, will still find plenty here to love. The evolution of the US-based Australian artist in the last ten years has been thrilling to watch and I’m excited to see what they create next. Till then, we have this to sink into—a sometimes narratively murky portal into Parrish’s sumptuous artistic vision.

– Eloise Grills

The Glass House
Brooke Dunnell (Fremantle Press, available now)

When we think of glass houses, we think of transparency, microscopic voyeurism and even the adage ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ In Brooke Dunnell’s debut novel The Glass House, which was awarded the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by a WA author between the ages of 18 and 35, the ‘glass house’ is the suburban home of an idealised nuclear family whose stones are buried deep.

The Glass House follows Julia, the grown-up daughter who has returned to relocate her 92-year-old widower father into assisted care. The house, decorated by Julia’s late mother, is a time capsule to the family whose lives are imbedded ‘in all the systems: the brickwork, the water, the soil.’ In the bathroom there are orange floor tiles and porridge-coloured wall tiles with brown and orange flowers. The tapware is plastic. This is 1980s fashion: ‘Brown. Browns and oranges and mustard yellows. The inside of her father’s house was like being trapped in an old beer bottle.’ And trapped they are, as he resists change.

Like history books of the 1980s, The Glass House keeps secrets by omission.

When Julia re-unites with childhood friend Davina over too many wines, the ‘old beer bottle’ becomes metaphorical. Her beer goggles give access to a dreamscape that reveals suppressed memories and a family secret. As Julia wades through the fuzzy-head hangover of childhood memories, we learn how deceptions and delusions have impacted her life. She lives in a time-warp of idealised relationships, and lives vicariously through others—her husband-boss, her ‘cheerful and efficient’ stepdaughter and even the ex-wife who is described as ‘impeccable’.

This is an underlying frustration of The Glass House—that the characters exist in a carefully curated display cabinet behind the toxic positivity of squeaky-clean glass. The only character who has experienced trauma and presents as a flawed, complex persona is Davina. When Julia confronts Davina about the family secret, no great resolution arises—just Julia feeling empowered at the woman’s shame.

I wanted to smash open the story and look between the cracks—to find out what Julia’s family were really like. Her father married a woman thirty years his junior, his children live over 3,000 kilometres away, and he watches seven hours of TV a day. In this time of widespread media scrutiny, Donnell’s decision not to name any shows that he watches raises questions. This tiny shard of information could reveal foundational politics and his susceptibility to keeping secrets or maintaining propaganda-driven status quo. So even though he becomes Julia’s heroic, quiet achiever, this reader is left feeling undernourished. Like history books of the 1980s, The Glass House keeps secrets by omission.

– Monique Grbec

The Lovers
Yumna Kassab (Ultimo Press, available now)

Yumna Kassab is writing a canon. Her first book chronicled the western suburbs of Sydney, her second this whole sunburnt country—and now, with The Lovers, Kassab pens the universal.

The novel follows closely, and almost exclusively, the lives of two romantics, Amir and Jamila, against the folkloric backdrop of a mountainside village. Amir, meaning ‘Prince’, is a poor local with an amorous imagination fit for his name. Subjected to his delusions of love as ‘paradise’ and ‘[smelling] of money’ is Jamila (‘Beauty’), a Western-diaspora drop-in with a romantic imagination of her own, albeit one directed at the common people’s homely charms (read: poverty). Naming her romantic protagonists ‘Beauty’ and ‘The Prince’ is of course a cliché, but Kassab, who has framed the novel as a fable, embraces archetype; she is aiming for a tale as old as time.

In she draws us, around her hearth, with the wise, suspenseful lilt of a tale well told.

At its best, The Lovers leans fully into fantastical allegory. In the tradition of master folklorists like the Brothers Grimm and Angela Carter, Kassab cloaks social realities of poverty, violence against women and familial duties in vibrant and original parable, suffused with subtle inquiries into Arab culture and Islamic etymology. Some chapters are presented as stories-within-a-story, like ‘Feathers’, a highlight, narrated by Amir’s friend and personal Aesop, Samir. His tale of a rainbow bird starved to death seeps into reality when Amir discovers the wife of a friend has been found beaten and emaciated. In a flash of dark vitality, Kassab allows Jamila to subvert the ending of this typically anti-woman fairy-tale by ensuring the culprit husband receives his just desserts.

Sometimes universality comes at the cost of specificity, which might have added more depth to the love-drugged narrative. A few chapters are written as first-person outpourings of devotion that coalesce into faux-poignancy—it can be unclear who is talking or why they are in love. Then Kassab switches back into third-person restraint with ease, so one might assume the maudlin excesses are deliberate. She even titles one chapter ‘The Cliché’. Another two chapters are titled ‘Inertia’, and indeed inertia threatens the story, but Kassab’s point may be that although love occasionally spurs life into action, it often falters indefinitely. Her prose fittingly spirals into neurotic, rhetorical questioning. Thankfully, the lovers’ self-indulgences are punctuated by deft reality checks, such as when Amir stamps out Jamila’s rose-tinted cultural nostalgia: ‘People here stay together because they have no choice … [the] other option is the streets.’

Though there be platitudes aplenty, overall the swathes of cliché simulate a love story of the ages. Elevating the simple narrative is Kassab’s authoritative warmth. Didacticism works well in fable, and Kassab has a lesson to impart, but purpose alone would fall short without her handle on the craft. Once, she coos, ‘but come now, the mind is tired and the fire burns low so let us turn to our own lives…’ In she draws us, around her hearth, with the wise, suspenseful lilt of a tale well told.

– Jumaana Abdu