Each month, the Writing NSW staff share what we’ve been reading. On our bookshelves this month are Taboo by Kim Scott, The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, and Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee.
I saw Kim Scott speak at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, not long after reading his extraordinary, rule-breaking novel, Taboo. It was wonderful to hear him read the opening pages of the book, with their disorienting blend of realism and magical elements. Scott himself describes the book as “a trippy, stumbling sort of genre-hop”. It’s that and more. Set against the historical background of massacre and dispossession in Scott’s own Noongar country of south-western WA, Taboo brings an unflinching gaze to the fraught process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It is a truly original, transformative work from one of our leading writers.
Much like alcohol, bacon and sitting, loneliness is bad for our health. Research is revealing that loneliness raises our cortisol level, causes tumours to grow faster, raises our blood pressure and increases our risk of death, among other nasty things. Australian author Kate Leaver urges us to recognise loneliness as a pressing health threat. But she also reassures us. There’s an antidote to loneliness, as her debut book, The Friendship Cure, shows. Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise. Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. In her chatty, personable style, Leaver provides valuable insight into the meaning of friendship, how it functions in our social lives, at work, and online, and why it’s so good for us.
I’ve been reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, an epic historical novel set during the 1860s New Zealand goldrush. Walter Moody, a respectable young man who has left England to pursue the digger’s life, walks into a shady pub’s parlor to find an odd assortment of twelve men, each with a curious connection to the recent death of a hermit. The chapters that follow offer a character study of each man, and new mysteries unfold: a corpse in a shipping crate, a misfiring gun, and five dresses with a thousand pounds’ worth of gold stitched into the seams. Each man’s connection to the mystery – and to one another – is explored through use of an astrological chart, which might sound odd, but really just helps to paint psychologically vivid portraits of each of the characters. It has the tone of a Victorian gothic novel, full of mystery and mysticism – when it won the Man Booker in 2013, the judges described is as ‘a Kiwi Twin Peaks’. The biggest drawback is that it’s too heavy to lug around and read on trains, but it absolutely perfect for that hot-chocolate-drinking, freezing-outside kind of winter weather we’ve been having.
Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society tells the story of a group of friends who formed a literary society as a cover-up for breaking curfew during the Nazi occupation of Guernsey. Juliet, a writer in London, strikes up a friendship with the group when one of the members writes her a letter out of the blue. There’s currently a film adaptation in the cinemas, so my firm book-before-movie policy meant I needed to polish off the novel in just a few days. Turns out I couldn’t put it down! I thought the epistolary format would make it slow to get into the story, but I was immediately drawn in by the wit and charm of the characters. There are moments of grief, but overall this book leaves you feeling good. Shaffer captures the magic of reading and friendship and beauty amidst deep pain. It’s the perfect companion to a sunny afternoon and pot of tea. If you can manage it, reading while lounging on a haystack would complete the experience.
I have been reading The Fifth Season by American author N. K. Jemisin, the first installment in the science fantasy series, The Broken Earth. In the high-octane world that Jemisin has crafted, catastrophic natural events occur every few centuries on the volatile supercontinent called the Stillness. The story begins on the eve of another such event, a ‘fifth season’, and continues to trace the chaos that unfolds across this world. We follow the story of three ‘orogenes’, individuals who have the power to control the earth—the child Damaya, the young woman Syenite, and an older mother Essun. Jemisin expertly weaves together multiple stories and voices to create a deeply layered novel that is unique in its structure. The story is nuanced and original in its portrayal of unconventional characters and non-traditional relationships. With thorough, large-scale world-building, Jemisin’s story is one of oppression, power, and broken systems, with characters pushing back against a world that was not made for them. Please note this book contains heavy themes of trauma and abuse.
I managed to acquire a copy of Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull ahead of its release on Wednesday, and I immediately found myself incapable of putting it down. Eggshell Skull is named after the common law principle that you are to take your victim as you find them; if you push someone over and they crack their skull because it’s thin (like an eggshell), you can’t argue that their frailty is the reason for their injury. The first half of the book focuses on Bri’s experiences as a judge’s associate in Brisbane, and the second focuses on her own search for justice within that same legal system. Seeing both sides of the justice system through Bri’s eyes is enlightening and informative, and the quality of the writing and honesty with which Bri writes mean this memoir is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in what justice for women looks like in Australia.