Luke Horton (Scribe, available now)
The Fogging is our First Book Club pick for July—Join us on 20 August for a live online conversation event, in partnership with Yarra Libraries!
Tom and Clara have decided to take a break from their crumbling home and difficult academic careers for a trip to Bali. This is their first major holiday together since a months-long backpacking trip at the beginning of their relationship. During that trip, they drifted apart to the point of breaking up, and while their relationship now seems solid, the truth is more complicated. Tom suffers from anxiety—his illness, and his desire to hide it from the world around him, defines every choice he makes. In the opening scene of the novel, Tom has a panic attack on the flight to Bali, sweating through his clothes yet remaining silent next to his partner, too afraid and ashamed to ask for help.
While there are multiple substantial points of discussion to The Fogging, anxiety is the theme that underpins each one. Much like the eponymous fog—a pesticide treatment sprayed in the resort—it creeps into every crevice and is highly toxic. Tom is consumed by anxiety, living in fear and shame—fear that people might see how crushed he is by his state of mind, and shame for simply existing. Here, we see everyone and everything through Tom’s unforgiving eyes. He is such an unlikable protagonist—obsessed with things that irritate him, or why he doesn’t like a person. He’s incredibly passive, too, yet feels wronged when things don’t go his way. Life just happens to him, and he’s seemingly unable to take his fate into his own hands. This unlikability is challenging but deliberate—Horton trusts his readers to follow him through each pessimistic and overly sensitive corner of Tom’s mind, showing the ugliness of unmanaged mental illness, and how anxiety can twist interactions, either actual or perceived.
The Fogging will linger in your brain long after you’ve finished—this is the kind of novel that leaves you with dozens of what-ifs to mull over.
There is quite a bit of hopping between time streams in The Fogging—one minute we’re in Bali in the present day, then we’re transported to a Melbourne sharehouse, or to a work exchange farm in the French countryside. This constant shifting of perspective gives even more insight into Tom’s anxious mind—he struggles to live in the present, always remembering or reflecting on some past occurrence. Horton casts anxiety as an internal time warp, pushing its victim into constant reminiscing or worrying about the future. The vacation setting of the present is especially pertinent in this sense—the endless villas, pools and cocktails make the present feel slightly unreal and hazy. Horton trusts his readers with metaphors, never over-explaining or hammering in one specific image. This approach makes for a plot that is slow-burning, and elegant. With that slow-burn The Fogging will linger in your brain long after you’ve finished—this is the kind of novel that leaves you with dozens of what-ifs to mull over.
Victoria Hannan (Hachette, available now)
In her debut novel Kokomo, which won the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, Victoria Hannan explores how secrets can tie families together, both in their keeping and unravelling. When Mina learns that her mother Elaine has left her house for the first time in twelve years, she leaves London and returns home to Melbourne. But now she’s back, she’s no closer to understanding why Elaine stayed inside all those years, let alone what finally prompted her to leave.
Though she sets in motion the events of the novel, Elaine seems, at first, like more of a presence than an active character, haunting the house, fading into the wallpaper through her evasions. Struggling to connect with Elaine, Mina goes through an odyssey of 30-something malaise. She is both impressed and horrified by the white-picket-fence domesticity of a university friend, with her seemingly perfect twins, house, husband. Her teenage crush has returned home after splitting up with his wife. Her best friend Kira is still a struggling actor, booking ads for period products. For most, life hasn’t matched up to their expectations. In the course of Mina’s wanderings, she explodes many of the relationships and structures of her life, in search of something that might be happiness, realising that the things she’d wanted weren’t what they seemed.
Hannan strikes a delicate balance between deeply felt emotions—the rich, bubbling confusion of interior worlds—and observational humour.
But Mina’s personal reckoning is only half the story. Elaine has also been tempted to blow everything up, has ‘wanted to be taken apart piece by piece, dismantled and put together anew’. Mina left and Elaine stayed, but both wanted more from their lives, and both did what they thought they needed to do to achieve that.
Hannan strikes a delicate balance between deeply felt emotions—the rich, bubbling confusion of interior worlds—and observational humour, opening the novel with a lingering, longing, loving description of a penis; later, the pitch-perfect detail of party guests dressed as complementary Tetris blocks. This humour also arises in the space between the reader and Mina. From our perspective, it seems obvious early on that Mina has set her sights on the wrong target for happiness. Yet despite this early sense that we know more than Mina and have this story all figured out, Hannan’s plotting is far less predictable than that—we’re misled by our own narrative expectations, as secrets, slowly revealed, slot together. Happiness might not look like the tropical idyll of our imaginations, but perhaps a bittersweet version can be found exactly where we are.
— Freya Howarth
Georgina Young (Text, available now)
Lona has dropped out of art school. Lost, alienated and struggling to make art of any kind, she spends her days drifting between home, the suburban roller rink and supermarket where she works part-time, and idling her days away with her best friend Tab, an enigmatic arts student. No one in Lona’s life is quite sure how to deal with her new aimlessness—her brother is preoccupied with a partner, puppy and adulthood; Tab is distracted by her own academic struggles and a new boyfriend; Lona’s grandpa is sick and sad; and her parents are bewildered by her sudden lack of ambition. Lona herself is caught between a crush on dorky, Buffy-loving Sampson and a budding romance with cello-shredding med student George. She’s got no idea how to sort her life out.
Loner won the 2019 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing, and Georgina Young’s debut is a relatable story of the aimlessness and hopelessness of young adulthood, working to bring to life that unknowable, fragile state between adolescence and being grown-up. Reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, Loner articulates the fatigue and fear of trying to work out what kind of person you want to be, how the adolescent you fits into an adult world.
But while Lady Bird is imbued with warmth and optimism, Loner is lonelier. Lona is a self-absorbed protagonist, and crippled by her own self-doubt, she cannot help, connect or reach out to those around her. Lona’s often self-imposed isolation and resistance to inclusion from her peers can read as a little mawkish, and might frustrate older YA fans—Lona’s people and community are certainly out there, but she has to find the will to find them on her own. This is a lesson in navigating adulthood that every young adult goes through, and readers will identify with this uncertainty. But as a result of Lona’s egocentrism and disaffection, secondary characters can at times feel underdeveloped.
Loner unfolds as an exploration in a young person’s developing identity, in finding a place in a world that feels alien and uncertain.
The novel itself is paced slower than most YA, and much like its narrator—and life—it does not always follow a straightforward path. However, Loner unfolds as an exploration in a young person’s developing identity, in finding a place in a world that feels alien and uncertain. Young’s care for her protagonist shines through, and it is this affection that is the heart of the novel. We have all felt these feelings—and yes, we have all come out the other side. Lona might be a loner, but she is not alone, and she will be all right.
— Georgia Brough
Why Visit America
Matthew Baker (Bloomsbury, available now)
In ‘Fighting Words’, the opening story in Matthew Baker’s Why Visit America, two brothers drive around in a pickup truck in their small American town, following the teenage boy who is bullying their niece, waiting for the right moment to rough him up. That one of them is a lecturer in dead languages and the other a lexicographer whose job is to create fake words for a dictionary company to catch any other companies who may have plagiarised their product, speaks to Baker’s intention with the collection as a whole. The town they live in is crippled by the loss of the auto-manufacturing plant, the narrator feels out of step with the locals, his sister who has abandoned her children and his long dead father. Even his brother, who seems as book-obsessed as he, has been divorced multiple times. As the stories in Why Visit America grow increasingly speculative and otherworldly, they still concern themselves with these kinds of characters; those who find themselves out of their depth in their surroundings.
In ‘Life Sentence’, one of the more fully-realised stories, prison has been replaced by memory erasure, and a man named Wash returns home to his wife and children with no memory of his life with them. Baker is less concerned with revealing what crime Wash committed (though a fellow inmate remarks that it must have been bad, since he’d only had a few months taken, rather than his entire life) than how he continues on with his life, how it’s different than before, and how things he has no recollection of nevertheless feel familiar.
As the stories in Why Visit America grow increasingly speculative and otherworldly, they focus on characters who find themselves out of their depth in their surroundings.
As well as moving through different universes, the stories also flirt with other genres. In the spare and tense story ‘Appearance’, a grandson and grandfather round up the ‘Unwanted’, alien-like people who have appeared from out of the blue, and force them into their car. In the dark family-centric comedy ‘Rites’, an aged uncle refuses to take part in the decades long ritual of ending your life in your 70s, and in ‘One Big Happy Family’, a story of a kidnapping unfolds like a police procedural.
Baker is less successful when the setup doesn’t allow for as much movement: a story where everything is obsessively branded by companies, for example, or where all men have been imprisoned and the remaining female population lives in utopia. But even with the less satisfying narratives his maximalist style allows for a rich and detailed world. There is a fondness for lists in the prose that becomes infectious. In the end this is a very satisfying collection, and from its array of imagined Americas, gives us insight into the weirdness around us.
— Chris Somerville
The Most Beautiful Job in the World
Giulia Mensitieri, trans. Natasha Lehrer (MUP, available now)
‘The problem is that if you want to make beautiful things you have to work with psychopaths,’ Marguerite, a French fashion designer, tells anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri.
The Most Beautiful Job in the World, expertly translated from the original French by Natasha Lehrer, is a vivid dissection of the world of fashion—its evolution, its inequality, and the abuses ingrained into its very fabric.
It’s framed by the story of Mia, a thirty-something stylist who wears designer clothes and works in Paris with some of the biggest magazines and fashion houses—and who sleeps in the living room of a shared one-bedroom apartment and is often broke. This juxtaposition of luxury and financial insecurity is rampant throughout the fashion world; social capital is more highly valued than money.
It’s normal, Mensitieri reveals, for everyone from the supermodels to photographers to the interns who work on high fashion shoots for famous magazines to be paid a pittance or nothing at all. She talks to embroiderers who are paid a few hundred euros for round-the-clock work on haute couture garments that retail for tens of thousands. Many models find themselves in debt to the agencies that sign them up. Interns are worked to breaking point, and have their designs stolen.
Nothing escapes Mensitieri’s eye; she notes the use of language to reinforce hierarchies in different workplaces, and doesn’t pull punches when making assessments. After quoting one maker who dreamily recounted the way her jewellery designs were made by families in Indonesia, the anthropologist bluntly explains how racist this woman is. She doesn’t let individuals hold up their facades any more than she allows the fashion world to.
The Most Beautiful Job in the World offers a very specific glimpse into one industry, but will change the way you look at the relationship between capitalism and creativity forever.
In some sections the academic language is a bit of a slog, but it’s always offset with anecdotes and examples. It’s this that makes the book so difficult to put down, so compelling. Mensitieri takes us into the chaos of a fashion shoot, into the normally hidden frenzy in the lead up to a show—we see ideas as well as being told them.
It’s the kind of book that makes you underline quotes and fold down page corners, that at times makes you so angry at the world, at the way passion is weaponised to justify exploitation, that you want to fling it across the room. The Most Beautiful Job in the World offers a very specific glimpse into one industry, but will change the way you look at the relationship between capitalism and creativity forever.
— Elizabeth Flux
Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books, available now)
One of many novels meant to be released earlier this year in a pre-COVID publishing schedule, Brandon Taylor’s debut Real Life has hit shelves already longlisted for the Booker Prize. What seems at first like a college-based coming-of-age story becomes, once it lets down its defences, a novel that dissects racism, homophobia and misogyny as meticulously as protagonist Wallace pulls apart cells for his post-grad research in his dim lab.
Four years into his biochem degree, Wallace still feels at odds with his lakeside Midwestern university town. His father has just died, but Wallace didn’t go home for the funeral, and he hasn’t told his friends. For self-preservation, Wallace has become good at keeping a wary distance, even from those closest to him. Currents of resentment and desire undercut his friendship group’s dynamic, but remain unspoken—if they focus on the science, they don’t have to think about it. But on one of the last hot days of summer by the lake, Wallace’s ‘determination to be unknowable’ slips and exposes his anxieties, his vulnerabilities, the dark shadows of his childhood. His queerness, his blackness, his standoffishness all become weapons of choice in the controlled cruelty we misinterpret as kindness.
In subverting the campus novel by detaching it from the white cis-het male gaze, Real Life takes the twentysomething existential narrative deeper with intimate understanding.
A central image of Taylor’s novel is a dining table surrounded by college students drinking wine from mugs, and on this table, unconscious bias and prejudice are laid out amid gloopy potato salad and dry chicken, all fare for hungry college students to pick apart with their teeth. Real Life pits various circles of the intersectionality Venn-diagram against each other in battle. It is awkward, it is heartbreaking, it is real. It’s easy to identify racism when it is accompanied by a hashtag, but it is the everyday gaslighting, microaggressions, misunderstandings, could you please pass the salt? that are so gutting in this novel.
Real Life’s power lies in its subtlety. If you loved A Secret History by Donna Tartt, you will love Real Life. In subverting the campus novel by detaching it from the white cis-het male gaze, Real Life takes the twentysomething existential narrative deeper with intimate understanding. Taylor’s prose is elegant and simple. It rejects cliches, moving between an internal monologue once removed from the sharp and brutal observations Wallace makes of his peers. The dialogue reads with all the feelings left unspoken. The result is a triumph of feeling seen, feeling guilty, feeling hurt and feeling loved.
So, pull up a chair to the dinner table, bring your baggage, everyone is invited.
Supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants