Friday, September 19, 2008

New books

Amanda Lohrey's Vertigo, newly out, is one of those beautiful little hardback novellas where the design of the book-as-object seems entirely of a piece with the writing. Lohrey seems more and more to be formally separating out the writing of fiction and non-fiction, and finely negotiating the nature of ideology and its manifestations in each.

Like her two previous novels, this one is about a couple: here it's a pair of relatively young tree-changers (tree and sea, actually), both with the kind of working life you can pack up with your laptop as long as you're going somewhere that has broadband. They quickly realise that they need to change the shape of their own sense-of-self to adapt to a different kind of place: the house, the landscape, the geography, the town and the dangers are all different. I've reviewed this for the October issue of Australian Book Review.

Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant comes out in October and I'm halfway through it for a review for the Age. Like her last, The Secret River, it's set in the early years of the settlement of New South Wales and it revisits the subject of contact history and conflict. Grenville found the material for this one while researching The Secret River and in some ways it seems like a part of the same project, material not so much rehashed as approached from a different set of angles.

This historical novel is based on a number of real people and its climactic episode is an unspeakable punitive expedition -- also historically documented; it took place in 1790 -- on which the men in the party are given hatchets to remove the heads of Aboriginal 'offenders' and sacks in which to bring back the heads. There's an easily recognisable fictional portrait of Watkin Tench, and the main character is also based on a real person, a mathematician and astronomer called Lieutenant William Dawes, whose diaries Grenville discovered in her research for The Secret River.

(Five-Greats Grandpa Marine Private Thomas Chipp, who arrived in the First Fleet and served in Tench's company, appears to have gone to Norfolk Island in October and thus been spared the possibility of being ordered to go on this murderous expedition, but it's not beyond doubt.)

Although I haven't yet read them, I've also been intrigued by descriptions of the two books that won the inaugural Prime Minister's Literary Awards, The Zookeeper's War by Stephen Conte and Ochre and Rust: artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers by Philip Jones. Intrigued enough, in fact, to plan to go out and buy them both; it would be particularly interesting to read the Jones in tandem with the Grenville. From all accounts, the judges seem to have made a couple of inspired choices; among other things there's a lovely balance, no doubt serendipitous, between an anthropologist examining the very objects that symbolise the complex beginnings of post-settlement Australia, relics at the heart of contact, and a novelist with the confidence to branch out beyond the 'Australianness' boundaries that for various reasons still make themselves felt in the writing of Australian fiction.

1 comment:

Chiara said...

I hope you won't find this rude. I run a website, that is looking for positive reviews. Linked back to the original blog of course. Would you be willing to submit (or let me submit, just tell me which one) a review to something that you liked?