August is a wicked month.
I’ve always liked the phrase “August is a wicked month”, although I know it only as the title of an early Edna O’Brien novel. And that novel from the ’60s (banned in some countries when published) I found completely underwhelming when I read it 50 years ago. So it must have been something to do with the forbidden magic of those long northern hemisphere summer holidays.
Anyway, for me it’s wicked because the year catches up and threatens to run away from me. Not least because we find ourselves juggling normal life and duties with the complexities of major renovation (and thanks to all those who’ve asked, we expect to be back “home” in the early new year).
But also, the rush of seasonal publishing schedules means that a small avalanche of books has taken over my office and bedside table, daring me with their “read me next” demands. (There is lots of multitasking in bookselling, especially the capacity to read more than a book at a time.) Here’s a small taste of what I’ve read and what I am reading.
Jane Harrison’s The Visitors is an adaptation from the stage by the Muruwari playwright (The Stolen). It’s an audacious and moving reimagining of that pivotal moment in Australian history when the first fleet arrived in 1788. Audacious because it’s seen entirely through the eyes of the Indigenous Elders confronted by the sight and forced to make decisions that will determine the fate of their peoples. And audacious because the language of their interactions is that of contemporary white Australia, blended with fragments of their own language. There’s a lot of ironic inversion at work. This makes for a witty (if at first, disconcerting), way of presenting what we know will be a deeply tragic transformative moment in time. Original, meaningful, distressing.
Kate Grenville’s 2015 novel One Life: My Mother’s Story was a work of delicacy and insight and in Restless Dolly Maunder, she mines the rich territory of her family’s past once again. She has imagined and fictionally refashioned the life of her grandmother, Dolly (the great granddaughter of Solomon Wiseman, who was at the centre of The Secret River). Beautifully written, thoughtprovoking and moving.
It seems amazing that two prominent, and remarkably different, women novelists, might be working on fictions incorporating Charles Dickens at the same time. Yet less than a year after Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer-winning Demon Copperhead, a grim but uplifting contemporary version of David Copperfield set in Virginia, we have The Fraud, the first historical fiction from Zadie Smith, which goes the whole hog and brings Dickens in as a character. Alongside the great writer is a now forgotten but once enormously popular novelist, William Ainsworth, and Smith has pointed fun and satire at their expense. But this long and intricately plotted novel is so much more. It’s about race and class, authenticity and truth, colonialism and imperial crime, love and loyalty, and it’s a rich social history. I’m a more enthusiastic admirer of Smith’s awesome critical intelligence in her razor sharp contemporary writing, but this is brilliantly conceived and written. Next month, I will talk about Charlotte Wood’s much anticipated Stone Yard Devotional (October), and pay my devoted respects to the much-loved Richard Ford, as he (finally) farewells that most iconic of American characters, Frank Bascombe in Be Mine
Last, but certainly not least, David Marr’s, Killing for Country, a Family Story (October). I am part way through what the publisher overview summarises astutely as a “ gripping personal reckoning with the bloody history of Australia’s frontier war”. That it is, it’s a work of great insight and forensic investigation. David is coming to talk about it in October for us, so keep an eye out, and come along if you can.