Australian politics, society & culture


Vintage Australia; $32.99
By Brenda Walker
Penguin; $29.99
By Robyn Annear
Black Inc.; $34.99
By Michael Cooney
NewSouth; $49.99
By Rhys Muldoon
Black Inc.; $29.99
By Peter Christoff
Photo courtesy of Text Publishing.
A long-lost novel sees the light after 40 years
By Geordie Williamson
George Johnston and Charmian Clift in 1948. © Fairfax Syndication
George Johnston’s classic of Australian war literature
By Nadia Wheatley
Trans. Christopher Moncrieff; Alma Classics; $19.99
By Kevin Rabalais
NewSouth Books; $39.99
By Robyn Annear
Hemingway’s passport, 1923. © John F Kennedy Library, Boston
A portrait of Papa as a young man
By Kevin Rabalais
Heart Reef, in the Whitsundays. © Queensland Tourism
Iain McCalman’s ‘The Reef: A passionate history’
By Robyn Annear
Memories of a friend and mentor
By Robyn Davidson
Subtropical beech forest, northern NSW © Paul Curtis
The hero of this story is a tree or rather a species of tree
By Amanda Lohrey
By Peter Pierce
An early book in Margaret Atwood’s prolific and acclaimed career was a guide to Canadian literature called Survival. Implicitly, that notion informs the post-apocalyptic trilogy of novels that concludes with MaddAddam. In this last book, it is less than a year since a human-generated plague (“the Waterless Flood”) destroyed most of mankind. “Gleaning” what they can from the ruined world around them, the few survivors are not given to despair, but feel akin to “the closed circles of the marooned, the shipwrecked, the besieged”. These people (their tale told principally by Toby, one of the Eves among the gentle sect of God’s Gardeners) share the landscape with Crakers, “strange gene-spliced quasi-humans who lived by the sea”, “pigoons – transgenic pigs with human material designed for transplants” and the vicious Painballers, “soul-dead neurotrash”. They are among the denizens of the world – perhaps soon to come – of Atwood’s imagining. She avers that the book includes no “technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory”. The role of the prophet (insofar, and however ironically, Atwood accepts it) and that of the satirist are closely entwined. Prophesying damnation, the former always inveighs against the ills of the present. Depicting its amusements before the pandemic, Atwood is at once bitter and hilarious: “live-streamed suicides or Hott Totts kiddy porn or Hedsoff real-time executions”. The last are for the “truly jaded”. These programs stream into the homes of the corporate powerful and into the Pleeblands. Everywhere, computer hackers and drug peddlers wage vicious civil wars. Inventors of religions that milk their adherents, such as the father of Adam and Zeb, who are focal points of the narrative, are unaware of how near the “end times” they preach really are. Yet Atwood’s daringly confident invention of those times has none of the Beckettian prose economy and gloom of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Rather, MaddAddam has an unexpected but beguiling exuberance. Its characters’ dialogue – even in extremity – is often very funny. There are exciting micro-narratives within the whole, such as the pursuit of Zeb by DORCS, “digital online rapid capture specialists”, and various stories of origins, of how a world on the brink of near-extinction came to be. We are transported to many corners of it: wilderness where the legendary bear monster sasquatch seems to appear; the sex club franchise Scales and Tails, and the Anoo Yoo spa that becomes an unlikely refuge. One of the characters ambiguously declares that “hope can ruin you”, but the novel shows that it is a nearly inexpungable part of humanity. A wise, sometimes beautiful piece of foretelling, MaddAddam is another remarkable turn for Atwood.
By Peter Goldsworthy
Poets, like mathematicians, can burst fully formed into song (or into differential calculus) in late adolescence. Novelists tend to take further study in the school of life. Even coming-of-age novels are often recollected in the tranquillity of middle age; David Malouf’s Johnno, for instance, was published when the author was 40-ish. There are exceptions. DH Lawrence wrote his first novel in his early 20s, roughly the same age at which Kenneth Mackenzie wrote his precocious 1937 masterpiece, The Young Desire It, now reissued in the Text Classics series. Like Lawrence (and Malouf, who contributes an excellent introductory essay to the new edition), Mackenzie was a fine poet. It’s the poetry of his prose that first strikes the reader, although (at least in the early pages) poetry is firmly in the service of character study, as our protagonist, Charles Fox, prepares for boarding school in Perth, leaving his mother back on the farm, if not the colliery. I don’t want to push the Lawrence comparisons too far, but there is an awful lot of the birds and the bees (and the rivers and the rustling trees) in the book, especially when Charles and his girlfriend Margaret rendezvous in their secret forest glade. But for every channelling of Lawrence – “he was frequently aware … of a tightness in his own loins … as though some hot flower were about to break from the green bud” – there are lines of utter freshness: “The heavy drops from the wet leaves above still fell like little animals on the dead leaves beneath.” And while Mackenzie might at times take a thousand words to change one psychological or sexual light-bulb, the accumulating rhythms of those words seldom fail to illuminate. At times I found myself reading the book too impatiently, drawn on by the exquisite sexual tension. There is only one plot, according to Samuel Goldwyn: the delayed fuck. Or perhaps, in the more delicate conventions of earlier times, the delayed kiss. The first meeting of the future lovers takes place in that glade, but unlike Lady Chatterley, the consummation – a delayed moan, barely overheard – must wait another 300 pages.  If Lawrence is the father of this novel, its godfather is Plato. The growing, complex eros of Charles’s relationship with his young Classics teacher, Penforth, who tries to woo him away from the girl of the glade, is handled brilliantly. There is far more interior monologue than exterior dialogue in this novel, much of it astonishing in depth. How did Kid Mackenzie get so wise? Yet remain – at least for narrative purposes – so innocent?  “He’s a bright spark,” a teacher says of Charles. “The others just smoulder and if you don’t keep blowing on ’em they go out.”
By Geordie Williamson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Brides revisited
By Chloe Hooper