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Category Archive for 'Australia'

I am especially fond of Japanese novels for their quiet power, restraint, and careful structure, and I was looking forward to this one, written by a Japanese woman but focusing on characters who have immigrated to Australia, with its totally different culture and completely different language. Iwaki Kei, the Japanese author, knows all about this, having first gone to Australia herself twenty years ago when she was a recent college graduate. She has stayed there with her expatriate Japanese husband ever since, an eventuality which I expected would give much added insight into cultural adaptation, perhaps also including an overlay of analysis into how the differences between cultures affect every aspect of the lives of immigrants. What I found was completely different – surprising, even shocking at first, but which made this, ultimately one of the most intriguing and original debut novels I have read in years, as a Nigerian war refugee and a Japanese scholar both find themselves together in an ESL class in Australia, where they both learn more about life than pronunciation and grammar.

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In a novel widely regarded as the high point of his work to date, Australian author Tim Winton expands his view of the world and his ability to create fascinating, even symbolic, characters, placing them in circumstances in which they must take actions for which they may not be prepared. Set in the remote wilds of western Australia, where life is often raw and behavior sometimes lacks the constraints which “civilization,” by definition, requires, Winton creates two characters on their own, each one abused, and both trying to escape the events which have marked them for life. Jaxie Clackton, a seventeen-year-old whose family life has been significant primarily for his beatings, has lived through the lingering death of his mother. His father, a man who seemingly obeys no laws and feels no sense of love for anyone, takes his own frustrations out on Jaxie, beating him mercilessly, sometimes for no apparent reason. When he finds his father dead in an accident, Jaxie takes off into the outback, determined to walk almost two hundred miles to see the one person who had been kind to him in recent years. On the way he meets a former priest living alone in a hut, a man who also is rejected by his society but helps Jaxie for many days.

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The latest winner of the Jolley Prize, Australian author Josephine Rowe creates a character novel driven by a father’s inability to deal with the horrors of the Vietnam War and the effects his traumas have on his abused family. In A LOVING, FAITHFUL ANIMAL, she presents the action in six chapters featuring five different members of the same family – the father, the mother, a twelve-year-old daughter, her elder sister, and her father’s brother, each of whom reveals his/her story in a separate chapter. In prose that often feels like poetry, Rowe creates lives for these characters, and the reader comes to know and empathize with them. They are what matter here, as there is little overriding plot, which the reader puts together from the many flashbacks and flash-forwards. Throughout, Rowe uses a series of animals to convey her characters’ connections to the wider world, avoiding the kind of sentimentality that a novel so emotional might suggest. Beautifully constructed, filled with original description and characters connected by vibrant themes, this debut novel establishes Josephine Rowe as a writer to watch for, one whose talents and accomplishments to date belie her thirty-three years. A new author to watch!

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In 1874, the island of Tasmania, one hundred fifty miles off the southeast coast of Australia, is boiling with rage. Once a penal colony filled with the hardest criminals, and the site of almost total genocide of the original aboriginal inhabitants by the British, Tasmania, in 1874, is a seething cauldron of hungry men and the toughest of women, many of them homeless, trying to survive the only way they know – by using whatever weapons they have at hand to gain what they need to stay alive. The action and points of view alternate among William Toosey, age twelve, and the life he is leading after his mother’s death; Thomas Toosey, his estranged father, who is trying to reach his son William from another part of the island so he can help him; Fitheal Flynn and a “hooded man” who are trying to get back the money that Toosey has stolen from them; and Beatty and Webster, the local constables who are trying to capture any and all of them. Additional connections between Toosey and Fitheal Flynn and his hooded accomplice explain why Flynn’s hatred of Toosey is so visceral and unyielding and why he is willing to fight Toosey to the death. One more character, Jane Eleanor Hall, whose head is shaved and is thought, at first, to be a man, adds to the complexities and mysterious identities when she finds Flynn and his companion hiding in her house and offers to help them find Toosey if they pay her for her help. As in other gothic novels, the action here comes fast and furious, with elaborate descriptions bringing it alive, and violence the usual result of interactions of characters. Interestingly, the “hero” here, young William Toosey, and the anti-hero, Thomas Toosey, are from the same family and have some love for each other, adding a humanizing, if not sentimental, touch.

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In 2012 Australian author Thomas Keneally’s prodigious imagination was captured by a special exhibition of “Napoleon’s garments, uniforms, furniture, china, paintings, snuffboxes, military decorations, and memorabilia” on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The exhibition catalogue featured the name of Betsy Balcombe, age thirteen, and information about her family, people Napoleon knew during his exile on the tiny island of St. Helena (1815 – 1821), halfway between South America and Africa. Betsy’s journal of her experiences with Napoleon inspired Thomas Keneally to write his own “journal” modeled on Betsy’s – this novel. Thirteen-year-old Betsy, as she emerges in Keneally’s captivating novel, is a perfect foil for Napoleon Bonaparte, who has brought with him all his war-time memories, a few furnishings, some assistants, two French ladies (the owners of the clothes on display in the Melbourne museum), and a strong need to adapt to a new life. Betsy, energetic and uninhibited, has no awe of Napoleon, a characteristic which charms him – she talks back, argues with him, and acts without fear as his life plays out in exile. Though the novel is character-based, rather than action-filled, an intense and dramatic conclusion occurs after Betsy creates a social disaster which permanently affects the lives of everyone she knows. Keneally never says whether the dramas of this conclusion are real or fiction. By the time the novel ends, the reader is so charmed that he does not have to. Elegantly written and old-fashioned in the best possible ways, this novel is my favorite so far this year.

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