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Witches: What Women Do Together
Sam George-Allen (Vintage, available now)

Witches is our First Book Club pick for March – read an extract from the book, and join us on 27 March for an in-conversation event with the author at Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library.

From cliques to covens, any group consisting of women is often depicted by pop culture as something destined to collapse in on itself. In Witches: What Women Do Together, Sam George-Allen takes an in-depth look at the strengths women gain when they join forces, and how society reacts. Split into thirteen chapters, Witches describes and explores the many different communities women form. These groups are incredibly diverse – sportswomen, farmers, sex workers, and nuns – representing a broad range of human experiences.

A very endearing aspect of this book is George-Allen’s curiosity, and willingness to try things outside her comfort zone. After interviewing weightlifters, she goes along to a training session with them. She interviews a dance teacher, then participates in a dance class. She spends hours interviewing one subject, Aunty Dawn Daylight; together, they walk around Brisbane city, chatting to Aunty Dawn’s friends, visiting the places she frequents, stopping at a supermarket to buy batteries. Early on in the book, George-Allen identifies herself as a former ‘I don’t get along with other girls’ type of girl. She laments this period of her life, where she eschewed building female friendships to instead spend hours watching male friends play video games, never being invited to participate. There is a sense that, in the process of writing about women being together and supporting each other, George-Allen is forming and fortifying bonds with the women she knows already, and expressing renewed respect for women across all walks of life.

It’s this emphasis on the lived experiences and words of her subjects, above her own authorial interpretation, that makes Witches such an honest and considered collection.

History and critical theory do occasionally come into Witches, but it is primarily a book that centres itself on contemporary, everyday experiences, and each chapter is structured around interviews with women and girls who live the lives George-Allen is examining. George-Allen makes it clear throughout the book that she is highly aware of her own privilege as a white, middle class, cisgendered person, and acknowledges the arbitrary structures that allow her to succeed more easily than women of colour, trans women and other marginalised women. She does not try to speak on behalf of other women, even bringing in a trans co-writer for the chapter on trans women, and an Indigenous elder (the aforementioned Aunty Dawn) for the chapter on the experiences and resilience of First Australian women.

It’s this emphasis on the lived experiences and words of her subjects, above her authorial interpretation of their lives, that makes Witches such an honest and considered collection of thoughts on girl- and womanhood. While it takes into account the lived experiences of many kinds of women, it never offers one fixed definition of what it is to be a woman. Instead, it highlights the endless possibilities of what women can achieve by boosting each other up.

– Ellen Cregan

This Young Monster
Charlie Fox (Brow Books, available now)

The lurid green cover and bared canine teeth on the Brow Books edition of Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster is a portentous precursor to the nine essays contained within the collection – each of them fixated with the idea of ‘monsters’ in reality and fiction. ‘Monsters,’ writes Fox, ‘cause trouble, they disturb definitions, they discombobulate what we think we mean.’ First published in the UK in 2017, This Young Monster is dedicated to the exploration of unruly and disobedient people and characters who violate repressive societal norms, seek catharsis in transformation and the obliteration of self, and defy death by nevertheless hurtling across at breakneck speed towards it.

Fox experiments with form, style and voice in his essays – in ‘Transformer’, he inhabits the voice of Alice from Alice in Wonderland to paint a picture of isolated youth, while ‘Spook House’ is a fan fiction-esque screenplay between incarnates of Klaus Kinski and Hermione Granger. The frequent change in tack is intentionally jolting and discomfiting, much like Fox’s mile-a-minute cultural references which span two centuries – Fox is always outpacing his readers, demanding they catch up to him. The wealth of research underpinning This Young Monster is impressive, and Fox arms his readers with enough information without assuming too little of them.

The collection’s first essay, ‘Self-Portrait as a Werewolf’, sets the tone immediately; framed as a letter to the beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Fox expertly intersperses pop culture artefacts between the early 1900s and present to examine the collective imagination’s current obsession with monstrous entertainment. The essay explores how identifying with monsters offers reprieve for queer and disabled people, whose existence contravene conventional ideas about sexuality and able-bodiedness. Through this essay and others, Fox centres that which deviates from what is considered ‘normal’ – in particular, queerness.

Fox expertly intersperses pop culture artefacts to examine the collective imagination’s current obsession with monstrous entertainment.

Fox probes ‘beyond the misanthropic fiend of legend’ surrounding famed figures like German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery and ‘New York’s great freak photographer’ Diane Arbus – among others – to explore provocative and shocking art-making as a political response to being othered. As unputdownable as these immersive accounts are, Fox’s reconstructed world is a terrifying place to inhabit, ​so abject are the haunting descriptions of substance abuse, mental illness and lives inevitably cut short. A sinister undertone characterises many of the essays that serve to act as cautionary tales, particularly ‘The Dead-End Kids’ where Fox focuses on the frightening and repressive spectre of adolescence.

Much as Fassbinder’s cinematic work interpreted the past to illuminate the present, Fox breathes new life into age-old trajectories to ask: what does it mean to live a monstrous life of transcendence and transgression, and what does this say about society at large?

– Sonia Nair

The Glad Shout
Alice Robinson (Affirm Press, available now)

With a few exceptions, post-disaster survival narratives in popular culture tend to focus on solitary individuals – the lone wolf in a disintegrating world who resists making connections in case it slows them down. In her impressive second novel, Alice Robinson turns that trope on its head, explicitly asking: what would it be like to be a young mother responsible for a child while the world as you know it crumbles?

In The Glad Shout, the Doomsday Clock has well and truly struck midnight: devastating floods and storms are ravaging Melbourne, and there are rumours of chaos raging across the country’s eastern seaboard. Isobel, her three-year-old daughter Matilda and husband Shaun flee to higher ground, taking shelter in a sports stadium turned makeshift emergency relief camp. Isobel spends her days trying to maintain some semblance of order, shielding her daughter as best as she can from the grinding squalor of camp life – the unbearable heat, the undercurrent of suppressed panic and ‘the stench of the ruined city beyond the stadium walls’. ​

Though the situation it depicts is grim, The Glad Shout isn’t a bleak novel. It’s thrilling and visceral in the way of the best survival stories.

Amid the white-knuckled tension of these survival scenes are chapters that dive into Isobel’s childhood and life before the disaster. In these flashbacks, we witness Isobel’s complex relationships with her business-minded mother, Luna, and her bohemian grandmother, Karen, and we start to understand how this future came to be. Robinson’s world-building here is brilliant but never showy, using spare and precise prose to drive home how families can break under the relentless advance of climate change. The book hums with stomach-churning plausibility, as housing, food and water become increasingly difficult to access, and the government cracks down on ‘illegal domestic migrants’ – people trying to move to the city as resources dry up in regional areas.

Robinson’s portrayal of her characters’ emotional lives is sensitive and authentic, particularly in the way she gestures to the power dynamics of Isobel’s family. Luna and Karen both have complicated feelings about motherhood, which affects Isobel’s own priorities as a mother to Matilda. In the camp, Robinson doesn’t shy away from Isobel’s desire for Matilda to be silent, or the debilitating weight of responsibility that is ‘so heavy…Isobel feels hollowed by their burden’. The disaster exacerbates the feelings, but they will be familiar to anyone who has had a child.

Though the situation it depicts is grim, The Glad Shout isn’t a bleak novel. It’s thrilling and visceral in the way of the best survival stories, helped along by Robinson’s cinematic and visual language. Above all, this story is a sympathetic and moving portrait of motherhood as a heroic act equal to that of surviving the apocalypse.

– Jackie Tang