Three books we’ve read and loved recently

Michelle de Kretser is one of the best writers on Australian culture (especially our fears and our fault-lines). She has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice and any new novel is cause for excitement, but Scary Monsters is one to look out for.
This novel is actually two novellas, ingeniously joined together in a sort of flip-book. One side titled Lili and the other Lyle. You can start with whichever story you please; we started with Lili, the 1980s story of an Asian Australian girl who moves to the South of France to teach English. We then moved on to the futuristic story of Lyle, an Asian Australian man working in a mysterious and menacing government department. The publishers say the reversible format ‘enacts the disorientation that migrants experience when changing countries changes the story of their lives.’ We found it led to unexpected parallels we may otherwise have missed with just the single setting and story.

Both parts have a murky undercurrent which makes for a gripping, nervous reading experience.  You feel shadowed (and then blatantly confronted) by racism, misogyny and ageism.  Monsters that are much scarier than your usual Halloween fare.

Wild Abandon Emily Bitto

It may sound improbable, but we’d describe Stella Prize winner Emily Bitto’s stunning new novel as The Great Gatsby meets Tiger King. It has all the outsider yearning and even the Americana of a Great American Novel.  It has the most sumptuous literary prose, a journey of failed dreams, a complicated hero and yes, it has an eccentric and unstable man with a personal exotic animal farm.

Will, a twenty-two-year-old from small-town Australia, travels to America after a break-up. He is embarrassed by his parochial family, his small-town upbringing and is desperate to prove something about himself. His trip shapes the novel into two parts. The first half is his arrival in New York City, where he is thrown into the ultra-cool and drug-filled world of fine art.  The second half takes place in rural Ohio on the Tiger King-esque exotic animal farm. 

Just like in her debut The Strays, Emily Bitto has used a real-life scenario as her inspiration. Perhaps keeping the details of the actual events a secret till the end is the best approach.  We had no idea what was coming and let’s just say the closing act is flawlessly written and we simply could not look away.

Look, if 2021 didn't pan out to be such an emotionally fraught year, this book would have been in your brown paper bags this month. But don't let that intro put you off, Laura read Bodies of Light in the literal and metaphorical depths of lockdown and it consumed her entirely - she adored it. It's just that it has many trigger warnings and we felt that might not be suitable for a catch-all audience in a rather traumatic year. So do take care reading it, but also, do absolutely read it!

Jennifer Down, author of One Magic Hour and Pulse Points, has written a novel about vulnerability and trauma, tragedy and heartbreak - the story of a life in full. It's being compared to the likes of A Little Life and Shuggie Bain, such is the involvement and investment you have in its protagonist. In Bodies of Light, Maggie is our protagonist. The book begins in the US when Maggie is nearing 50 and has become a "new person", and then retraces her life to that point, beginning with her childhood spent in the Australian foster care system. Down is interested in trauma, in the limits of psychological pain, and the pursuit of living despite it (you can read more about what Down's interested in in this Lit Hub article). The detail and unassuming tone of Down's writing make this epic novel read like a memoir. Overwhelmingly affecting and empathic, at times surprisingly hopeful, this is a remarkable read and one of our favourite books of the year. 

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