Each month the NSW Writers’ Centre staff share what we’ve been reading. This month includes confronting but important stories of war by two Australian war-survivors, with Noël Zihabamwe’s One Thousand Hills and Deng Adut’s story, Songs of a War Boy. Stories of dealing with cancer has also been a theme, with Luke Ryan’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo and Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. On a lighter note, we’ve found gentle advice in Ruth Quibell’s The Promise of Things, and Kiwi werewolves in Maria Lewis’ fun fantasy, Who’s Afraid?
I’ve been reading Who’s Afraid? by Maria Lewis, an urban fantasy novel that I’ve been churning through the last couple of days. The story follows Tommi Grayson, a buff Scottish art grad who goes searching for her estranged father after her mother dies. Travelling to New Zealand and tracking down the other side of her family Tommi realises there’s something not quite normal about them, or her. She’s a werewolf. This is a fast-paced, fun read, which I’d definitely recommend to lovers of the genre. The sequel came out earlier this year, so I’m excited to get to that next!
Jane McCredie, Executive Director
Noël Zihabamwe’s One Thousand Hills is a moving and confronting YA novel based on the author’s childhood experience of the Rwandan genocide. Co-written with James Roy, the novel tells the story of Pascal, a young boy living in the village of Agabande with his two siblings, their Hutu father and Tutsi mother. Suspense builds as neighbours inexplicably flee and Pascal overhears bewildering references to ‘cockroaches’ on the radio and from local men carrying machetes. This heart-rending book is about hatred, violence and betrayal by church leaders and others the young Pascal believes he can trust. It is a relief to learn from the acknowledgments that Zihabamwe is now safely settled in Sydney with his own family.
In The Promise of Things, Ruth Quibell writes, ‘We’re struggling to keep on top of the things we’ve bought. Beyond blithe indifference or cynical acceptance, how might we do things differently? How can we respond to the failure of materialism’s promise?’ Blending memoir with journalism and her insight as a sociologist, Quibell’s first book is a collection of short essays addressing these questions. This isn’t a call to minimalism or a guide to decluttering, however. Instead, The Promise of Things is a meditation on our relationships with the things that surround us, filled with useful but gentle advice.
I also read Luke Ryan’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo. I’d been avoiding this book for a while because I am, frankly, terrified of cancer. In fact, the detailed descriptions of life post-diagnosis were surprisingly readable — what I should have been afraid of was the explicit reference to Bryan Adams lyrics. Ryan’s memoir is full of genuinely humorous jokes about both his experiences with cancer, first as an 11-year-old and then as an adult, and his experience of putting on a comedy show about having cancer. Spoiler alert: though many funny things happen, none of them are specifically on the way to chemo. Still, I recommend it.
Sherry Landow, Membership and Development Officer
I made my Helen Garner debut this month with her 2008 novel, The Spare Room, a touching story about caring for someone in the final stages of their life. The story begins with Helen preparing a room for her temporary houseguest, Nicola: a vibrant, optimistic and strong-headed friend who is currently undergoing treatment for Stage IV cancer. This ‘treatment’, however, is conducted by a dodgy alternative medicine practice that largely involves repeated vitamin C injections. Helen must decide whether to support her friend as she goes through these treatments or to crush her last glimmer of hope.
Garner’s concise and spare use of language is both beautiful and unflinching, with hard-hitting sentences such as ‘The train station is a seven-minute walk from my house, twenty if you have cancer’. Like Garner’s sentences, The Spare Room is slim, powerful and captivating in its brevity.
Eliza Auld, Program Intern
This month I’ve been reading Songs of a War Boy, written by Ben Mckelvey in collaboration with the book’s subject, Deng Adut. Deng narrates the true story of the horrific war in South Sudan over the later decades of last century, and his experiences of being taken from his family to become a soldier at the age of six. The story is constantly shocking and saddening, and didn’t only offer me a painful understanding of the effect of the Sudanese war on individuals, but educated me about the war itself, which I feel has been largely overlooked in the Western consciousness. Despite the constant and serious odds stacked against him, a glimmer of hope shines throughout the book in that Deng is now alive and safe in Australia to tell his story. And what’s more, he has completed a law degree and opened his own practice in Western Sydney.
Despite its heavy subject matter, this book is accessible and easy to read, and hugely important in bringing awareness to the plight of so many – who from the distance and safety of Australia may be easy to overlook – and giving a voice to those who have made it to Australia.
Compiled by Eliza Auld