Ronnie Scott (Hamish Hamilton, available 15 April)
In the stuffy heat of a Melbourne summer, our unnamed protagonist lives a slightly rudderless existence. Fuelled by Centrelink payments and cleanskin wine, he spends his days leaving the house as little as possible. His housemate, good friend, and the subject of his unrequited love, Dan, seems ready and willing to start an adult life—he’s got a 9-5 job, a boyfriend, a domestic routine. Things start to change for our protagonist: Dan wants him to meet new people, go places that aren’t the inside of their Brunswick sharehouse. Then Dan announces that he will be moving in with his boyfriend Lachlan, and our protagonist is pushed even further beyond his comfort zone.
This is such a clever, funny novel; Scott writes his protagonist’s self-observations in a way that had me regularly laughing out loud. Thinking back to when he first met Dan, and how he felt about romance at the time, he reflects:
I knew that I was basically a sexual being; I kept coming across boys I almost, almost wanted. I just knew people were gross, and preferred them to keep their distance, leaving space between us, preferably also walls.
The Adversary perfectly articulates the feeling of doing nothing while everyone around you seems to be moving on with their lives.
At the centre of The Adversary is a warm, honest depiction of gay male friendship. The relationship between our protagonist and Dan is, in many ways, quite messy, but also so wholesome. After a big night, our protagonist recuperates not in his own room, but Dan’s: ‘I knew I was in Dan’s bed when I woke up; the linen sheets, the sense of safety; no strange smells, just comfort.’ This scene exemplifies the (mostly) platonic intimacy between our protagonist and his housemate—they are living in each other’s pockets, but the product of this is comfort rather than tension.
There are scenes here that act almost like in-jokes for inner-northern millennial Melburnians: the pageantry of the Fitzroy pool, navigating inevitable supermarket run-ins at Barkly Square, and just how annoying it is to get to Richmond without a car. But more universal is the endlessness and aimlessness of the days post-uni and pre-career; The Adversary perfectly articulates the feeling of doing nothing while everyone around you seems to be moving on with their lives. Lovers of plot-heavy fiction beware: this is not the book for you. But if you’re looking for a novel that is wonderfully written and paints measured, realistic portraits of its characters, look no further. The moments of listlessness and melancholy make this humour all the more sharp. This is Australian literary fiction at its absolute best, and a wonderful book to cure the self-isolation blues.
– Ellen Cregan
The Animals In That Country
Laura Jean McKay (Scribe, available now)
Read an extract from the novel on our website.
What if, alongside the sore throat, dry cough and fever brought on by COVID-19, this bat-borne coronavirus also resulted in sufferers being able to understand the languages of animals? What if the chaos of flailing health systems, garbled press conferences and sick cruise ships lolling in harbours was exacerbated by mobs of people setting zoo animals loose, babbling to fruit flies, being lured off sandbars by the godly call of whales?
So goes the unnervingly timely premise of Laura Jean McKay’s debut novel, The Animals in That Country.
Jean is a rough-as-guts granny who works as a guide at a bushland wildlife park and has a special bond with a mongrel dingo named Sue. Jean only resists the booze on the nights her young granddaughter, Kimberly, comes to stay.
As a flu pandemic flares, turning the eyes of the city-slickers down south conjunctivitis pink, the infected start gathering at the zoo’s bolted front gate, begging to chat with the park’s inhabitants. The park stays quarantined but Jean’s estranged son, Lee—Kimberly’s dad—sneaks through the wire, eyes glowing, and vanishes with Kim in the direction of the coast. Jean tears off after them in her campervan, Sue in tow. When the whites of Jean’s eyes flush red, every inch of the dingo begins to shimmer with meaning.
On this unhinged road trip, McKay rejects anthropomorphism and reminds us sharply of the alien wildness of animals.
In imagining how a human brain might render an influx of information gleaned from snarls, spiked hackles and the stench of scent glands, McKay steers clear of Dr Dolittle fairy tales in favour of something nightmarish and real. A nonsensical chorus of terror and hunger consumes Jean’s senses; mice reek of fear, and fleas scream for blood. In an intensely moving scene, battery pigs freed from a truck discover grass and mud, dumb questions quivering from their infected snouts.
In literature and life, we simplify animals and their languages. We imagine a smile in the resting faces of labradors, confuse the scent-marking of cats as affection, fawn as David Attenborough croons invented albatross love stories. Anthropomorphism is a necessary and useful tool in connecting people to the non-human world. But on this unhinged road trip, McKay rejects anthropomorphism and reminds us sharply of the alien wildness of animals, the primordial and hot-blooded parts of them we will never comprehend.
In this pandemic-stricken world of paranoia, fierce food aisle spats and fugitive baboons fleeing down Sydney streets, McKay’s hallucinogenic dystopia doesn’t feel so outlandish. Reading this novel is like suddenly becoming privy to the calls of wild creatures: disorienting, frightening, maddening, and utterly enthralling.
– Angus Dalton
Naoise Dolan (W&N, available 14 April)
Ava is 22, from Dublin, and new to Hong Kong. Julian is 28, from London, and works as a banker. He has money, she doesn’t. He leads the conversation, she follows. He sets the agenda, she complies.
Their dynamic is unbalanced from the beginning. While Ava and Julian enjoy verbal sparring, he is seemingly the one who calls all the shots. They rapidly go from occasional after work catch-ups to her spending most nights at his apartment—and soon she moves from her cockroach-infested Airbnb into his spare room. She interrogates it as a feminist experiment, as a form of flipping class warfare. After all, she is benefitting from the arrangement. And, as she keeps telling the reader, or perhaps herself, she’s ‘good at men’. Moving in is her choice. Sleeping together is her choice. Their dynamic is off—but who holds the power? Then, when work calls Julian back to London for an open-ended trip, Ava is left alone in the apartment. That’s when she meets Edith. 22. Hong Kong-born, Cambridge-educated, high-flying lawyer, who quickly becomes a close friend, then something more.
Exciting Times is Ava’s story, but we only ever really know her as she exists in relation to others. The novel is divided into 3 parts, titled ‘Julian’, ‘Edith’, and ‘Edith and Julian’. There is no space for Ava beyond her all-consuming relationships.
Any contemporary literary novel from a young female Irish writer is inevitably going to be compared to Sally Rooney—both a compliment and a burden. However, Dolan’s voice is confident and distinct, and the novel’s intelligence and quiet power lies not in its plot but in Dolan’s clear love of language.
Exciting Times’ intelligence and quiet power lies not in its plot but in Dolan’s clear love of language.
Ava works as an English teacher, the classroom scenes allowing Dolan to dissect perfect vs conversational language, and highlight how words define and separate us culturally. Conversations between characters highlight the quirks of language around the world. Does ‘quite’ diminish a compliment or enhance it? How can ‘after’ mean vastly different things in different English-speaking countries? Ava is an Irish woman teaching British English to Hong Kong Chinese children; each lesson highlights how her own way of speaking is ‘incorrect’; the fact that the lessons are happening at all demonstrate Hong Kong’s status as an in-between place. Knowing the language of your own country isn’t enough to exist in the world.
Dolan weaves the joy and weight of language skilfully into the narrative—it never feels like a tangent, or the author’s own fascinations intruding on the fiction. Similarly, a book that could have been a light and still highly enjoyable read about modern love packs in a hefty undercurrent of political and social commentary. Abortion rights. Assault. Wealth gaps. Hypocritical allyship.
Exciting Times is a deceptively simple yet impactful book, and a reminder that the things that separate us run deeper than language and borders.
– Elizabeth Flux
Only Mostly Devastated
Sophie Gonzales (Hodder, available now)
The much-loved premise of Grease is familiar to all. Those endless days of summer, then the snap back to reality is ripe ground for adaptation, and while Only Mostly Devastated certainly has the feel of Grease—from the reimagined ‘Pink Ladies’ to the too-cool reimagined ‘T-birds’—there’s enough freshness brought to the storyline through quips, developed characters, varied representation and adorkable disasters, that it doesn’t feel stale (even if, like me, your recall of Grease is bare-bones at best).
In Sophie Gonzales’ adaptation, Sandy and Danny become Ollie and Will, two teenagers who hook up over the summer, falling for each other hard. Ollie’s family are new to North Carolina, there to help out Ollie’s Aunt Linda, who is struggling with cancer. As his aunt takes a turn for the worse, Ollie begins his senior year, navigating new peers, the role of the ‘gay kid’—and perhaps most awkwardly, discovering Will (who has been ghosting him since the summer ended) is more basketball jerk than the sweet guy he fell for.
Although determined to not out Will, Ollie struggles with his residual feelings and the lengths Will goes to to denounce their relationship. Unlike Grease, there’s no sexy makeover to save the day, just the pain of two boys actually trying to show some vulnerability and be honest with one another as they each navigate their own personal difficulties. Both boys are justified in their feelings, and the crux of the story comes in the strength of both their arguments around being out or not.
A coming-out story that is less about the in-or-outness of being, and more about internal and external devastation of being.
Yes, Only Mostly Devastated is a coming-out story, but one that is less about the in-or-outness of being, and more about internal and external devastation of being. There is a lot of heavy subject matter in the novel—it doesn’t shy away from exploring fat shaming, queerphobia, family grief or the weighted everyday anxieties of watching a loved one dying. Yet Gonzales’ simplicity of prose and quintessential YA humour prevent the novel from sliding into overdramatics. Updating and complicating both the original Grease inspiration, as well as the common YA coming-out narrative, Only Mostly Devastated is easily consumable, contemporary and at its most passionate when we, and Ollie, gain glimpses into the lives and motivations of those around him.
Both introspective and emotional, Only Mostly Devastated is about learning from one’s mistakes, learning patience and valuing the boundaries of others. And, much to my joy, it’s about shaping up and being a man.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain
Mirandi Riwoe (UQP, available now)
Ying and Lai Yue, young siblings who have fled poverty in China, are lured by tales of the endless riches to be found in the Australian goldfields.
Once in Australia, Ying masquerades as a young man to avoid the dangers of being female and unmarried in a harsh and violent world. She befriends Meriem, a white woman who has been cast out from her family. Their relationship enables Riwoe to explore not only female friendship, but also the crushing weight of societal expectations and the pull of different loyalties. Meriem works for Sophie, a local sex worker, and through their story we witness the gritty timelessness of violence against women—on the street, in the workplace, and always, in the home. Violence in the town abounds, and those without power—notably the Chinese immigrant community and the few women in town—are the first to be blamed.
Set in 1887 at the end of the Gold Rush, Stone Sky Gold Mountain is exceptionally well-researched. Riwoe, whose novella The Fish Girl was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and the Queensland Literary Awards Fiction Prize, completed a residency in Shanghai and undertook research in Cooktown, Queensland, which served as a supply stop on the way to the Victorian Goldfields. She has also said that the character of Sophie is based on a real person brought to life in Claire Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain is a cross-cultural story that directly challenges the notion that Australian colonisation and settlement was entirely white. The novel illuminates nuggets of settler Australian history that rarely make it to the school curriculum, including the intricacies of race and class on the Goldfields. Chinese immigrants, for instance, paid more tax than white immigrants, and only white settlers were allowed to carry guns.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain is a stunning reclamation of the standard (and inadequate) Gold Rush and white settler narratives.
But Riwoe goes further. Not only does she highlight the systemic and institutionalised racism against Chinese immigrants, she confronts the fact that Chinese settlers were just as capable of racism and violence as European ones. In key scenes in the novel, we see Chinese settlers being actively complicit in the displacement of and violence against Aboriginal people. History is nuanced, and Riwoe conveys this expertly.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain is a stunning contribution to contemporary Australian literature, and a reclamation of the standard (and inadequate) Gold Rush and white settler narratives.
Almost A Mirror
Kirsten Krauth (Transit Lounge, available now)
Mona and Jimmy are inseparable; growing up in regional Victoria in the 1980s, the two explore their burgeoning sexuality and freedom together amid the sweat and booze of the Melbourne new wave and post-punk music scene. But by their 30s the high has well and truly worn off, and the heavily pregnant Mona is left reeling by Jimmy’s sudden death by suicide.
Returning to her hometown in the aftermath, Mona meets Beñat, himself a survivor of a moderately successful Melbourne post-punk band, who easily slides into the role of father to Mona’s son Ro. Throughout the first half of the novel (‘side A’), this trajectory is interspersed with flashback scenes from Mona and Beñat’s formative years; Mona’s tryst with a musician in a train station photobooth; Beñat watching on as his bandmate and brother Guy succumbs to punk’s nihilistic hedonism; Jimmy’s embrace of oblivion as Mona scrapes him off bathroom floors for the umpteenth time. The novel’s ‘side B’ settles into an exploration of parenthood, as Mona both marvels at the intimacy of her relationship with Ro and worries over its fragility.
This is a novel less about reliving Gen X glory days than about the months and years after the house lights come back on.
This is a novel that asks a lot of the reader; Krauth’s language is poetic and characters are often inscrutable, as much to us as to themselves. Themes and subplots fade in and out of focus: Mona’s repressed trauma around a childhood photo shoot with a local photographer colours her own relationship with her Polaroid camera and her child; the bittersweet taste of an 80s revival gig; a long-running game of ‘what artwork would you be’; the ultimate unknowability of Jimmy’s final moments.
Almost A Mirror is an experiment in structure and language as much as a narrative. Each vignette-style chapter is named, shaped or otherwise inspired by a song from the era—the book even has an accompanying playlist. But while Krauth’s prose and narrative are infused with the agony and ecstasy of the Crystal Ballroom (with the odd cameo from Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard), this is a novel less about reliving the Gen X glory days than about what happens in the months and years after the pills wear off and the house lights come back on. Krauth explores how memories are shaped by their soundtracks, and how we pass on the things that form us to future generations.
Readers looking for a wild ride through the underbelly of Melbourne’s music scene will likely find the novel’s non-linear structure and contemplative prose frustrating, but as a complex, challenging work of literary art, Almost A Mirror is an impressive and powerful accomplishment.