The Shining Wall
Melissa Ferguson (Transit Lounge, available now)
The world of Melissa Ferguson’s The Shining Wall is one of extremes. The rich live, practically ageless, within the titular shining metal walls of the city. The poor live outside those walls, in distressing poverty, and are divided: there are the demi-citizens, who live their daily lives with the use of the technological cast-offs from the city, and the ‘anti-tekkers’, who reject that technology entirely and attack anyone who does use it. Then there are the Neos – cloned Neanderthals, brought back to life from ancient DNA and used for unskilled labour. Intentionally infertile, the Neos are indoctrinated from birth into a system that places little to no value on them; should they step out of line, they risk being sent away to be experimented on for medical research.
Alida, a poor demi-citizen, has just lost her mother to preventable disease. She’s guardian to her five-year-old adopted sister Graycie, and must take any job she can in order to support the household. Employed by a local gangster as a sex worker, she is smuggled into the city to give rich citizens a ‘Cinderella experience’. At the same time, Neo-Neanderthal Shuqba is learning that the rules of the world within the wall are not as clear-cut as she’s been raised to believe. By chance, Alida and Shuqba become friends, despite Homo sapiens being culturally conditioned to look down upon their Neo-Neanderthal counterparts. As well as creating a world where gene science has warped racism into speciesism, Ferguson considers the potential horrors of gene selection. Wealthy citizens living within the safety and privilege of the wall are plagued by reproductive issues, and are forced by the government to terminate any ‘imperfect’ pregnancies; anyone not able-bodied, neurotypical, beautiful and complacent is banished from society and cast out into the demi-settlements. Each side of the wall is harrowing in its own way.
This is a novel that poses itself to be about origins and secret histories, but is actually about the way one can define and shape their present despite their past.
Like many other science fiction novels, The Shining Wall provides a different lens with which to look at the inequality we already facing today: racism, speciesism, the unequal distribution of wealth, and environmental catastrophe. But the plot of this book goes to unexpected places. Storylines that you think will be followed aren’t, and parts of the world that seemed to hold the greatest importance to the novel gradually fall away. Without spoiling anything, I can say that this is a novel that poses itself to be about origins and secret histories, but is actually about the way one can define and shape their present despite their past.
– Ellen Cregan
Max Porter (Faber, available now)
Max Porter’s debut, a slim novel called Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, was the kind of book people passed around and talked about with a kind of reverence. It was the kind of book you’d finish in one sitting, not just because of its short length. Told in short, titled sections, the narrative shifts between the perspectives of a father, his two sons, and a giant crow who visits to help them after the mother’s passing.
Reading it was a reminder that a novel can almost be anything written – letters, dialogue, essays mixed with fiction – and with his debut Porter had etched out his own style, somewhere between prose, a play and a poem.
For his second novel he’s returned to this style, although here it feels much more organic. Lanny is told through the perspectives of four characters who all orbit around Lanny, a precocious and weird (but thankfully un-annoying) child.
The novel’s first section moves between Lanny’s Mum, a failed actress turned crime writer, to Lanny’s Dad, who works in the city in finance, a famous and semi-retired artist named Pete who takes on Lanny as a student, and Dead Papa Toothwort, a figure somewhere between a folkloric bogeyman and a ghost, who wildly morphs into different forms and subsists on the garbage, grime and overheard conversations from the village where the characters reside.
Lanny gives us a portrait of village life, of how people can misunderstand art, and the horrible sense that something is about to go wrong.
As well as these snippets of village-speech that Toothwort sucks out of the air, Porter writes again in short titled sections from each character, presented in half-thought half-monologue. For example:
I sit at work in the city and the thought of him existing a sixty-minute train ride from me, going about his day in the village, carrying his strange brain around, seems completely impossible. It seems unlikely, when I’m at work, that we had a child and it is Lanny. If my parents were here they’d surely say, No Robert, you’ve dreamt him. Children aren’t like that. Go back to sleep. Go back to work.
The book’s form progresses at the same time as its narrative. We’re given a portrait of village life, of how people can misunderstand art, and the horrible sense that something is about to go wrong. Lanny’s second section is made up entirely of unattributed speech from both the main characters and an array of others and it’s incredible here how in such a short space Porter manages to illustrate an entire village without letting it become too confusing. You always have at least a general idea of who, or who isn’t, talking.
Though it’s only a short book, by the end Lanny has a lot to say about perception – if not for art or those who create it, than for those living within a community and those trying to join one. With an emotional conclusion that thankfully manages to avoid sentimentality, Lanny becomes an engrossing tale about what we go through when our childhoods come to an end.
– Chris Somerville
City of Trees
Sophie Cunningham (Text, available now)
Sophie Cunningham’s collection of essays, City of Trees, has been broadly classified as ‘travel writing’ – but if we are to attach this moniker to it, we must also acknowledge that Cunningham has dramatically recast the meaning of travel writing and redefined her terms of engagement with places, people and the act of travelling. Travellers and tourists (the only apparent difference between them being that of class) often assume they have the right to be somewhere, anywhere, but Cunningham sits with the privilege and unease of being able to move through the world with ease – indeed, she writes that until recently, it never occurred to her not to travel. Cunningham journeys outwards as much as she stays grounded – lying under the full boughs of olive trees in Puglia and standing beneath shafts of sunlight cutting through the yellowwood in Indiana, while closer to home, she interrogates the political context of the river red gums which sit on contested Yorta Yorta land in the Barmah Forest.
Cunningham is always careful to situate herself among the movements that are hastening the degradation of the planet – whether it’s as an agent of gentrification in San Francisco, a tourist among the throngs who descend upon Barcelona, or a regular passenger on aeroplanes, one of the largest emitters of carbon.
City of Trees is a sorrowful meditation on the effects of climate change and time, but it is also full of wonder, of hope.
City of Trees is a sorrowful meditation on the effects of climate change and time, but it is also full of wonder, of hope. It’s a grandiose and expansive book that charts changes in geology and shifts in climate as far back as 2.5 million years ago, but it’s also an immensely personal one; Cunningham considers the meaning of trees while fighting for marriage equality, caring for a father with Alzheimer’s and grappling with personal changes to her body as she ages.
It’s impossible to talk about trees without talking about the weight of history that these trees have bore witness to, whether it’s the nuclear blast of Hiroshima that failed to decimate the ginkgo survivor trees or the drawing of arbitrary state boundaries that the sequoias in California paid heed to. But it’s the Indigenous people who have lived for millennia on land that has since been stolen from them to whom Cunningham returns again and again, reminding us that the relationship between human custodians and land is as old as the trees we walk among.
– Sonia Nair
Sophie Cunningham will be appearing at Sydney Writers’ Festival from 2–4 May.