Each month the NSW Writers’ Centre staff share what we’ve been reading. In August, we’ve been reading Jessica Anderson (Tirra Lirra by the River), Shaun Prescott (The Town), and Cecelia Ahern (One Hundred Names). We’ve also been delving into non-fiction, including Norman Naimark’s account of the history of genocide, and Antonia Hayes’ collection of essays A Universe of One’s Own.
This month, I read Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River in the lead-up to our Honouring event featuring her. When I picked the book up, I thought I’d be re-reading it, but soon discovered that my belief I’d read it a long time ago was completely wrong! In many ways, it’s a quiet book, one that tells the story of “ordinary” lives with masterful restraint. The protagonist, Nora, has grown up in Australia between the wars, making her of a similar age to my grandmother. It’s always a shock to realise, again, how constrained women’s lives were in a past that is still within living memory. When Nora marries, she is unable to use her talents as a dressmaker because her husband would be shamed by his wife working. When the marriage collapses in a mess of hostility and apathy, she is required to obtain her estranged husband’s permission before she can board a boat to Europe. In London, there is the humiliation and shame of an illegal abortion, an experience that leads Nora to permanently renounce sex and all its complications. The novel beautifully captures the claustrophobia of suburbia and what Anderson calls “the compression of a secret life”.
As I’m likely to tell anyone within the first five minutes of meeting them, I’ve long been fascinated by the dark history of genocide. One key realisation I’ve had over seven years of studying the Armenian genocide is that such events can’t be studied in isolation — they form part of an historical continuum. In the recently released Genocide: A World History, Norman Naimark succinctly traces instances of genocide back to biblical times, demonstrating that this crime has been present throughout human history. Considering that history in the context of recent advances in digital capability, and today’s geopolitics, such as the recent events in Charlottesville, should prompt a sense of urgency. I’ve written a full review of this important book for the Sydney Review of Books.
I’ve just finished reading A Universe of One’s Own by Antonia Hayes. This pocket-sized Penguin Specials book is a collection of three essays that explores this Australian writer’s relationship with all things words, language and literature. The first essay, ‘Mother Tongue’, traces the fluidity of language in Hayes’ family, from inherited to claimed and created. In the second essay, ‘Super Special #1’, we learn of Antonia’s real first book love: Ann M. Martin’s The Babysitters’ Club. The book ends with the title essay of the collection, ‘A Universe of One’s Own’, a speech delivered by Hayes at the 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Through the lens of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Hayes considers how far gender equality in the literary community has come and assesses what more needs to be done.
Along with some fundamental history books that I’ve been devouring in the hope of educating myself a bit further, I managed to pick up One Hundred Names by Cecelia Ahern. Set in Ireland, it recounts the journey of Kitty Logan – a journalist whose flourishing career had been derailed by a scandal in which she accidentally defamed a man – to track down and learn about one hundred very ordinary people, and subsequently, about herself. The names were on a list given to Kitty by Constance, her mentor who was fading, as an answer when Kitty asked her about the one story she had been wanting to write. Filled with surprises, and saturated with rich description and emotions, the story is a subtle yet moving reminder of what journalism and, essentially, story-telling should be – “[It] is not going to a mission all guns blazing to reveal a lie,” Constance said, “It is simply to get to the heart of what is real.”
Shaun Prescott’s debut novel The Town was released this month, a book I’d been anticipating since reading a particularly grabbing excerpt earlier in the year. Set in the Central West of NSW, the story follows a man struggling to complete a book about disappearing towns in the region. He encounters a mysterious cast of characters; among them a radio host who broadcasts ‘strange keyboard music’ to noone, and a man who spends whole days wandering the aisles of Woolworths to avoid the drudgery of adult life. Soon enough, holes begin to mysterious appear in the town – endless voids of blankness where the earth once stood. The Town doesn’t desire to specify meaning to these strange occurrences, nor does it try to ascribe any answers at all. Prescott writes with a certain detachment that makes the weird seem incredibly banal, evoking the stasis of boredom within Australia’s rural countryside to engrossing effect.
Compiled by Amelia Zhou.