The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker came to prominence in the 1990s with her trilogy of novels set in the First World War (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), the third of which took out the Booker Prize. In The Silence of the Girls she goes much further back in time, to the Trojan Wars. This story, told in The Iliad, has been reinterpreted and retold many times. Barker takes a new tack, telling the story not from the perspective of the soldiers but the women who were their chattels and their prizes and their slaves. The Iliad opens with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over a woman. That woman is Briseis, a prize of war claimed by Achilles earlier in the campaign. Barker opens her book earlier in time, with Briseis watching as Achilles and his troops sack her city and kill her family. She and the other women are taken back to the Greek camp and distributed as prizes. Briseis, the biggest prize, is ‘awarded’ to Achilles. Through Briseis’s story, Barker explores how women are used, abused, marginalised, ignored and blamed. Early in the book,  Briseis is brought as a child bride to King Mynes and ends up…

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Crime , Literature , Review / 28/11/2018

Award winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk follows up her first novel Flights (which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018) with something completely different. While that book concerned itself with travel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is located in one small village in Poland near the border with the Czech Republic. The main character and narrator, an old woman named Mrs Duszejko, seems to have lived in that location her whole life and has a deep connection to the place and its wildlife. When the book opens Duszejko and her neighbour Oddball (she gives everyone nicknames, trusting them more than their real names) discover a third neighbour Bigfoot dead in his cabin. When they arrive there are deer outside his cabin and when they find that Bigfoot died by choking on a deer bone Duszejko comes up with a theory that he was killed by the deer as revenge for his hunting of them. Duszejko herself has been waging a campaign against the local hunters (a group which involves all of the high and mighty in the town) so this fits with her own view of the practice. Bigfoot is only the first death and…

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has spent a bit of time recently in the Second World War. While researching her previous book A God in Ruins she came across the story of Jack King, a bank clerk who helped in the early days of the war to entrap Nazi sympathisers in Britain. This true story became the inspiration for her latest novel, Transcription, which has the feel of a spy novel although one that is on occasion slyly winking at its audience. Transcription opens in 1981, ageing Juliet Armstrong is knocked over while crossing the road. Nesting backwards, the accident sends her memory back to 1950 when she worked at the BBC and then, remembering how she caught site of someone she worked with during the war, back further to 1940. In 1940, Juliette was recruited by MI5 to help them with a sting operation. Godfrey Toby has been cultivating local fascists and Nazi sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to sit in the flat next door and transcribe the conversations between Toby and his marks. Later she is also recruited to go undercover and infiltrate a circle of sympathisers. Neither job ends quite the way Juliet expects and she is concerned that the repercussions…

Wintering by Krissy Kneen
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 13/11/2018

People have been disappearing in the Australian fictional landscape for years. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the disappearance and of a group of girls is seen through the eyes of those left behind, having to deal with the “menace” of the unknowable bush. Wintering starts with a similar premise. Jessica is a PhD student researching glowworms in the far south of Tasmania. She lives with Matthew, a local who, it emerges fairly quickly, completely dominates her life. But then Matthew disappears in mysterious circumstances, his car abandoned by the side of the road, impenetrable forest on either side and a strange video on his phone. With his disappearance, Jessica finds herself both trapped by grief and free at the same time. Krissy Kneen sets the creepy tone of this book early with Jessica’s discovery of a possum corpse impaled on a stalagmite in a tourist cave. After Matthew’s disappearance the creepiness ratchets up as Jessica finds herself isolated in her shack, unable to shake the feeling that she is being watched by something malevolent. Once she starts to establish a connection with the local townsfolk she also learns that she is the thirteenth “widow” whose husband or boyfriend has vanished…

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall, the sixth book by British author Sarah Moss, is as short and sharp as a flint knife. The book is a coming-of-age tale that explores the power of the past to inform and drive action. Along the way, Moss deeply questions the Brexit movement and gender power dynamics. Ghost Wall opens in prehistoric times, with the death of an Iron Age woman at the hands of her tribe. Cut to almost modern day, sometime not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and teenage Sylvie and her parents have joined a university project conducting an experiment in living archaeology in the Northumbrian countryside. The aim of the project is for the family, along with the professor and his three young adult students, to live as far as possible as people did in the Iron Age. As Sylvie observes: … that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves become the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do…

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Literature , Review / 31/10/2018

Washington Black is the second book for Esi Edugyan to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It mixes brutal realism and social commentary with a quixotic fantasy with steampunk trimmings that takes its protagonist across the globe. Washington Black is a young slave on a Barbados sugar plantation called Faith in 1830. The reader finds out that he is soon to be free but the sting is in the journey that gets him there and the way he is treated once he attains that status. Life on Faith is hard and becomes harder when the plantation owner dies and the running is taken over by the violent Erasmus Wilde, a man who sees the slave population as inhuman and expendable. Erasmus arrives with his brother Christopher, a dreamer and scientists who is building a flying machine that he calls the Cloud Cutter. Christopher, aka Titch, asks for and is given the young Black as a servant and goes to work making his dreams a reality. When the brothers learn that their father has died, Titch flees with Black in tow beginning a years-long odyssey. Black’s journeying takes him to Virginia, the arctic where he is abandoned by Titch, Newfoundland, England,…

Severance by Ling Ma

When Severance opens the apocalypse is underway and people are madly googling survival tips before the internet ‘cave[s] into a sinkhole’ and the electrical grid shuts down. Yes, it is another post-apocalyptic survival tale. But like many recent post-apocalypses, the humanity-ending event is kind of beside the point. Instead, in Severance Ling Ma has written an ode to the Millennial generation and the intensely, insanely capitalist world in which they live, but with zombies … sort of. When the book goes back to the beginning of its tale, Candace is contemplating her future. She is in a fading relationship with Jonathan. Disillusioned with life in New York, he wants to leave the rat race and move to the country. He wants to avoid the future, which he sees as: … more exponentially exploding rents. The future is more condo buildings, more luxury housing bought by shell companies of the globally wealthy. The future is more Whole Foods, aisles of refrigerated cut fruit packaged in plastic containers. The future is more Urban Outfitters, more Sephoras, more Chipotles. The future just wants more consumers. The future is more newly arrived grads and tourists in some fruitless search for authenticity … But their…

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong
Literature , Recommended , Review / 10/10/2018

In At Dusk, award winning Korean author Hwang Sok-Yong delivers another beautifully observed tale of lives impacted by the developments that have swept his country in the last fifty years. The book opens with Park Minwoo, a successful architect receiving more than one call from the past, forcing him to revisit and reconsider the path he has taken to success and what it has cost him. At the same time, a young, struggling playwright Jung Woohee lives a hand to mouth existence in the pursuit of her craft and slowly gets drawn into Park’s story. At Dusk is a book about memory – how we remember things and the spin we put on those events. Park Minwoo, on the way to visit an old friend from the village where he was born considers this on the way: … I’d long ago resolved not to care too much about a world that didn’t care about me in return, and had therefore distanced myself from him aswell… After a while, being ambitious means having to sift out the few values we feel like keeping and toss out the rest, or twist them to suit ourselves. Even the tiny handful of values that…

Under Your Wings by Tiffany Tsao
Literature , Review , Thriller / 24/09/2018

In her first “literary fiction” novel, Australian author Tiffany Tsao angles for the most shocking and engaging opening line this year: When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why – especially if you were one of the intended victims. Told from her comatose state after barely surviving the poisoning, Gwendolyn delves into the past to try and unravel why her sister Estella would commit such a heinous act. And so begins an exploration of the lives of the super wealthy Chinese in modern day Indonesia, a society in which the two were deeply embedded. Under Your Wings is a generational family saga told from the perspective of the extremely privileged third generation. While there may have been some hard work and grind for their grandparents, Gwendolyn and Estella and their peers live the high life while being expected to keep the family businesses going. So that when Gwendolyn wants to start her own business she is bankrolled by the family and when Estella is looking for work she is put in charge of one of the family subsidiaries. A marriage between Estella and Leonard is seen a dynastic union of two powerful families but for…

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 04/09/2018

Move over Scandi-crime and possibly even Aussie-crime – the next wave of page-turning, gut wrenching, crime fiction might well be coming out of Korea. Although this is probably something the Koreans already knew given that Un Su Kim’s novel The Plotters, his first to be translated into English, was released in Korea in 2010. The Plotters is a pitch black look at a world of assassins and assassinations but it is much more than this, as Kim delves into the lives of not only the main character but those around them. Kim’s text has been skilfully translated by Sora Kim-Russell who has also translated the works of celebrated Korean author Hwang Sok-yong. When the book opens assassin Reseng is on a mountainside, watching his next victim through the scope on his rifle, deciding whether or not to pull the trigger. He doesn’t and ends up spending the night drinking with the old ex-general, hearing a long, shaggy story about a whale hunter. This opening sets the tone for the whole book, bleakly fatalistic leavened with moments of profound character revelations. Reseng, it turns out was abandoned as a baby and raised in an old library by an assassin runner called Old…

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

The Seventh Cross is not a new book, at least not in the usual sense. It is a new translation of a book written by Anna Seghers, an author from a Jewish family that had fled Germany and was living in Paris in the late 1930s. The book itself, written before the start of the Second World War is not about that war or the Holocaust. But Seghers could see all of these coming and her novel allows readers to trace a line from the totalitarian, anti-semitic, fascist attitudes of the mid-1930s to the Germany that plunged the world into war less than five years later. The Seventh Cross is set in 1935 and centres around an escape from the concentration camp. The camp had been established to punish political prisoners. Although it turns out that the definition of a political prisoner is anyone who the local authorities don’t particularly like. Seven men escape and, as they are recaptured they are strung up against a row of trees at the entrance to the camp as punishment and warning to others. These are crosses of the title. The seventh cross is reserves for George Heisler, the escapee that Seghers spends the most…

A Sand Archive by Gregory Day
Literature , Review / 30/07/2018

Gregory Day, award winning Australian poet and author, has returned to a theme that underpinned his 2005 musical CD The Flash Road: Scenes from the Building of the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road is the scenic tourist trail that runs along the Southern Victorian coast between Torquay and Allansford. Originally built by returned servicemen from the First World War, the road is now considered one of the great scenic drives of the world. But this is not really the story of the road or its construction, it the story of one man, FB Herschell, and his relationship with the shifting sand dunes that made construction of the road a challenge for engineers. Narrated by an anonymous bookshop employee, A Sand Archive relates the story of Herschell, jumping off from a small self-published volume of his unexcitingly entitled The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties. This book, written late in Herschell’s life, is one in which the narrator believes “all of the most important things have been left unsaid”. A Sand Archive reveals all of those important things by charting the important, personal aspects of Herschell’s life. This includes his fascination with early Mondrian paintings of…

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo
Historical , Literature , Review / 29/06/2018

Enza Gandolfo’s new novel takes as its centerpiece the 1970 collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. This tragedy resonates through the lives of the people involved and the people who continue to live in the shadow of the Bridge. Most of the narrative is set forty years later and centres around another tragedy, one that is much more intimate and unfortunately common than the collapse of a major engineering work.  Antonello is a 22 year old rigger working on the Westgate Bridge in 1970. An immigrant from Italy, he has found his place in the multicultural melting pot that was the construction crew. When the unfinished bridge collapses, killing many of his workmates Antonello retreats into a shell. Forty years later, Antonello’s teenage granddaughter is killed in a car accident, the driver Jo was her best friend and all four teenagers in the car had been drinking. The accident itself happened in the shadow of the Westgate Bridge.  The Bridge is heavy going for most of its length as it delves deeply into the psychology of Jo in the aftermath of the accident and Antonello, still suffering forty years on but slowly finding a way to deal with his pain. Thrown into the mix is Jo’s lawyer Sarah who…

Chemistry by Weike Wang
Literature , Review / 28/06/2018

Chemistry is the debut novel by author Weike Wang. This first novel was recently acknowledged by the National Book Foundation who recognised Wang as one of its ‘5 under 35’ honourees. Wang, who herself has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a doctorate in public health had some experience to draw from in this first novel. When the book opens her main character, never named, is in the third year of a chemistry doctorate program. But fairly soon she is questioning all of her life choices.  A child of Chinese immigrants, the narrator finds herself caught up in the immigrant dream – to study hard and excel beyond her parent’s achievements. So that when she has a crisis of confidence, stops going to the lab and eventually drops out of her PhD program, she does not tell her parents, choosing instead to maintain a fiction that she is continuing. At the same time her long term boyfriend has proposed and she does not know how to deal with the proposal. And so the narrative becomes an exploration of almost crippling indecision. Caught knowing what the “right” thing but unwilling to commit to any of it.  The narrator of Chemistry is not an easy character to like but one that over the course of the novel readers come to understand. She is, like…