Shell by Kristina Olsson
From the very first pages of Shell (Scribner Australia 2018), the new novel by Kris Olsson, you realise you are in the capable hands of a masterful storyteller. Not a word is wasted. Each sentence is crafted with care. Every paragraph sings from the page, like poetry, like prayer. The story is meticulously researched, and that research informs every line of dialogue, every cultural reference, all the minutiae of daily life. The characters are fully formed and multi-faceted; each has a background that is hinted at but never thrust upon us, each is complex and nuanced, never black and white. The themes of the book: family and community; war and service and sacrifice; belonging; guilt and morality; politics; atonement; art and creativity – all are explored with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. This is a rare kind of book, one that is so well written that it is surely destined to become a classic of the Australian literature canon.
The story is set in Sydney in 1965, with two narratives braiding together the lives of Pearl Keogh and Axel Lindquist. Pearl is a young journalist who has been relegated to the ‘Women’s Pages’ because of her anti-war stance. When conscription becomes fact, and 20-year-old boys are being drafted for the Vietnam War, Pearl becomes obsessed with trying to protect her fractured family. Alex Lindquist is a master glassmaker from Sweden, commissioned to create a centrepiece for the new Opera House which is under construction. But with the vision of Danish architect Jorn Utzon clashing with the financial and social restrictions of the government of the day, and Sydneysiders divided over their views of the strange construction as either an ugly eyesore and waste of money or an inspired and magnificent cultural wonder, tensions run high amongst union workers, politicians and artists. It is these two major conflicts – the uproar over the war and the consternation over the Opera House – that mark the times and define the lives of the characters.
As with all of Kris Olsson’s works, Shell was informed by historical aspects of her own life, nuggets of pain or rage or devotion or regret that she has used as the stepping stones on her search for answers. She says in the Author’s Note that ‘Ideas and notions and doubts coalesce into a long and intricate conversation with myself…’ and that ‘The more I write, and read, and the older I get, the more comfortable I am with uncertainty. With being the humble servant of the questions, the story.’ This wise statement comes from a place of deep reflection, from a writer who ceaselessly strives to uncover truth, and who is never complacent about the meaning of what she discovers.
I could quote passages from Shell, luminescent and shimmering words, but there are so many it is difficult to choose. The entire book is poetic, each line lingers so that even after you have read on, you find yourself returning to the previous section, just for the thrill of reading it again, purely for the beauty of the language. The book plunges us into the lives of Pearl and Axel and carries us as their journeys intertwine. We are first intimately engrossed in one and then with the other, and all the while the social and political acts of the time are enshrouding these two people like a caul. There is plot – and it is tense and compelling. There is dialogue – and it is authentic and believable. There is the familiarity of the setting and the majesty of the architectural creation and the despair and fear of the looming war. There is the chaos and the impossible choices and the irresolvable intricacies of family. But above all that, there is the language. The beautiful, lilting, descriptive language that holds us aloft as we progress through the story. Every line I read was magnified in my mind and I could hear it, each line, read by Kris’s careful and steady voice, the novel narrated as a song would be sung, as a mantra would be chanted, as a prayer would be spoken. This story is unforgettable, and this book is a marvel.
Fragments by Toni Jordan
Author Toni Jordan is renowned for giving us stories that are literary and well-researched whilst still being accessible and a joy to read. Her latest novel The Fragments (Text 2018) is no exception, and it is yet another example of her ability to move fluidly between genres, with each of her five published novels different enough to keep us on our toes but with the same high standard of writing.
The Fragments is a literary mystery wrapped up in a story of identity and self-esteem, ambition and greed, wound loosely with tendrils of friendship, passion and desire that grow quietly as the story develops, with the reader always hoping and anticipating that love will flower. The story is told in alternate chapters moving between 1938 New York and 1986 Brisbane, from the perspectives of Rachel Lehrer, a young woman who escapes a violent household in the 30’s seeking a better life, and Caddie Walker, a young bookseller in the 80’s who has almost put her life on hold as she waits for something to happen. The two are linked by a third woman, Inga Karlson, the beautiful, reclusive and talented writer, author of the famous book All Has an End, known the world over. Inga Karlson died in a tragic warehouse fire in 1939, along with her publisher, Charles, and all the copies and printer’s plates of her yet-to-be released second novel. All that remains are seven burnt fragments, preciously preserved and currently on tour at the Brisbane art gallery, along with photos, correspondence and other material about Karlson. The novel opens as Caddie attends the exhibition and has a chance encounter with a stranger who appears to know something more about the fragments than is possible. Disconcerted, Caddie begins to investigate the small clue, and discovers more than she could have ever imagined.
Both the main characters in this novel, Rachel and Caddie, are engaging, empathetic and appealing. Despite living decades apart, as young women they both suffer from a similar crisis of confidence, a yearning for something more than their lot in life. And we find ourselves willing both women the strength to escape from the negative influences in their lives, and for their full potential to bloom. The male characters are no less important, including one endearing bloke who we hope will blossom and shine, and one particularly unpleasant chap who we hope might come to a nasty end. There are darker themes, too, running in a subterraneous way through the narrative, reflective of the post-war sentiment of the 30’s, and the political and social fears of the time. Toni Jordan once again demonstrates her ability to manoeuvre her readers from historical settings to more recent times, seamlessly developing characters that have more in common than their years apart would suggest. We are just as invested in both of the simultaneous narratives, and she has a special skill in pacing and tension – every chapter, particularly in the second half of the book, finishes on a cliff hanger, so that each alternate chapter we are desperate to find out what happens. In addition to all of the sub-plots in the book that gradually develop, uncovering aspects of both Rachel’s and Caddie’s lives, the book finishes with a twist that is completely unexpected and surprising, but which is yet satisfying and entirely makes sense.
And of course, The Fragments is chock full of Toni Jordan’s quick wit and dry humour, delivered by her characters in believable dialogue, and those who know Brisbane will recognise and delight in her authentic descriptions of a Queensland summer: the sounds and smells, the heat and humidity, the wildlife and the parochialisms.
The book opens with the line: ‘When Caddie Walker thinks back to this morning, she will try to remember everything. She will lie in bed and sift the moments for a clue.’ And indeed, this is what readers will do once they reach the end of this story – they will return to the beginning and search for all the hidden clues that now make perfect sense.
The Fragments would make a perfect gift for almost anybody – it’s a story with broad appeal, and a mystery with a deeper message about sacrifice and betrayal that many will appreciate.
Wintering by Krissy Kneen
If Krissy Kneen is not already known as The Literary Chameleon, then she should be. Once again, she has flexed her writing muscle and proven her literary adaptability and diversity with her most recent novel Wintering (Text 2018). As we have come to expect from this author, Wintering is a genre-bending hybrid, but it is a departure from anything I have read from her before – part ghost story, part horror outback noir, part romance, part Twilight Zone, part mystery – and all, of course, bound together with the curiosity, affection and respect for science and nature that all her writing captures.
For those of you unfamiliar with Kneen’s work, she does have a reputation for giving us some of the steamiest and sexiest erotic fiction published in Australia, although she has also written memoir, literary fiction and award-winning poetry (AND was recently shortlisted for the Stella Prize). But if risqué is not your cup of tea, and you’ve been wondering where to start with this author, then this latest – Wintering – is a perfect introduction: gentle, subtle and sensitive, with a conventional narrative that is easy to read and relatable, with the addition of mysterious spine-tingling occurrences and a plot-driven sense of thrill that will have you turning the pages faster and faster as the story develops.
But do not let the gentleness and subtlety fool you. This is a book with a chilling puzzle at its centre, a story with unexplained events and creepy characters. Perhaps it’s a frightening descent into madness, or maybe it’s an insightful perspective on incidents and behaviour we can’t explain. The reader is left to decide which version they believe, which is more plausible, which is the most palatable.
The protagonist Jessica is a glow-worm scientist, and when her partner disappears while driving through the dense Tasmanian forest, Jessica is forced to face uncomfortable rumours, confrontational locals and the fears of her own mind as she sets about to uncover the truth. What she discovers about her missing partner – and about herself, and what she might be capable of – threatens not only her state of mind and her way of life, but also has the potential to unlock long-buried secrets of her past.
The story is full of strong and competent women. The hint of domestic violence and the abuse of power, or power imbalance, runs in an almost subterraneous way throughout the story, much like Jessica’s underground caves where she does her research and feels most at home. This ‘message’ is so subtle, however, that it is not really until you reach the end of the book that you understand the full impact of what has happened, of the tangled relationships of Jessica’s past, and the dangers of her current predicament.
The book features fishing, guns, scientists, widows, rednecks, religious fanatics and Australian native wildlife – both alive and extinct (maybe? …) Also, this book is very COLD. From the first page to the last, we feel immersed in the bone-chilling cold of the Tasmanian forest, where fires must always be lit and coats always worn, and where shelter is essential. Deep in the heart of Tasmanian wilderness, where even the SOS function on your mobile phone fails, where anything could happen and where, if it did, nobody would hear you scream … that is the setting for this gothic tale.
If there’s one thing that the many writings of Krissy Kneen have in common, it is that her words provoke robust discussion about the depth of human emotions, the parameters around human behaviour, and the roles of judgement versus tolerance in society. Kneen is a courageously inquisitive investigator of the human condition and has a keen appreciation of the perplexing and the profound.
We'll Show the World: Expo 88 by Jackie Ryan
It is so rare to find a non-fiction book that delivers everything you want in terms of information, whilst also having an engaging narrative. Debut author Jackie Ryan has given us such a book in We’ll Show the World Expo 88 (UQP 2018). With a subtitle of ‘Brisbane’s Almighty Struggle for a Little Bit of Cred’, the story pulls us along on a journey of discovery every bit as compelling as a page-turning novel. At the same time, it is almost like a text book, forensic in its examination of the 1988 event that changed Brisbane forever.
Expo 88 was a big, brash party, a child of the eighties for the young at heart. When it was first suggested, everyone thought it would be an economic and social disaster, a ‘Joh Show’ representative of the then-Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his bold ambition. Anxieties over land resumption, site proposals, financial predictions and how the people of Brisbane – and of Australia – would respond, along with the demise or failure of previous World Expositions, polarised this expensive and risky venture. But by the time Expo closed its gates for the last time, it had indeed ‘shown the world’, and people’s fond memories of Expo still live on, 30 years later. Ryan dedicates her book to ‘… the people who objected to it, and the people who loved it … You were all right.’ And this is what her book achieves – it interrogates the whole Expo saga, from beginning to end, from idea to planning to execution, and even to what came afterwards, and it shines a light on the good and the bad, the memorable and the dubious.
In just over 300 pages, Ryan devotes more than 60 pages to annotations, references, a bibliography and an index (and also includes 8 pages of photographs). This book is so well-researched, I would challenge anyone to pick an Expo reference and NOT be able to locate it in the book. And yet because of the way the book is structured – with the references tidied away at the end (and often with amusing or interesting anecdotes attached that you might miss if you read only the main body of the book!) – because of this form, it is not dense or heavy-handed. Ryan’s conversational and humorous tone makes for easy reading, and her ability to focus on the small minutiae of details ensures a captivating dissection of the event and everything associated with it. Through hundreds of source documents, and dozens of interviews with the movers and shakers of the time, Ryan has constructed the ultimate Expo guide – not merely a description of Expo but an intimate investigation into how and why it came about.
Ryan introduces her subject by looking at World Fairs or Expositions more generally, and I found this historical part of the book especially interesting as she describes similar events held around the world from the first official Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. She tracks the changes in form and style of World Fairs over time and investigates the success – or failure – of previous events. Then she provides some background on the Australia of the time, and most particularly Queensland. She summarises the social and cultural norms of the fifties, sixties, seventies and early eighties in the lead-up to Expo, and more importantly, she navigates the political climate, made all the more poignant by the fact that Expo occurred simultaneously with the famous Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in this state; the two events could hardly have been more different, and yet both were powerful instruments for change in Queensland, and it could be said that one couldn’t have happened without the other, or at least that they fed off each other in some sort of strange, symbiotic relationship. Certainly, if you speak to a Queenslander who was around in the eighties, those are the two major events that seem to spark significant memories, both good and bad. Ryan goes on to describe the how and why of Expo – how it happened, why it mattered – and finishes with a look at the legacy of Expo, and what it meant for a changing Brisbane.
Expo 88 attracted everyone from celebrities, royalty and politicians to average householders with a season pass. As a Bicentennial event, it drew protests from Indigenous people, and as a huge exercise in inner-city land resumption, it drew the ire of local residents. But it also became ‘A colourful 1980’s amalgam of cultural precinct, theme park, travelogue, shopping mall, and rock concert …’, catering to over 18 million visits during its six-month run. To a Brisbane that closed its doors at noon on Saturdays, Expo offered entertainment, shopping and eating options from 10am to 10pm, seven days a week. ‘Through night parades, the Acquacade, smoke machines, and laser beams, Expo held the people of Brisbane enthralled.’ Anyone who initially feared that Expo would be a parochial and humdrum affair was certainly proved wrong, and despite a rather rocky beginning, some shady dealings and a lot of angst, Expo ‘came to mean so much to so many’.
For all its ambition and showiness, despite all the detractors and obstacles and protestors, Expo 88 was a ‘coming of age’ for Brisbane, a giant party that left lasting memories for those of us who participated, a lasting physical legacy in the form of South Bank Parklands, and lasting socio-political and cultural change for our city. This book pays homage to everything Expo in a remarkable trip down memory lane, and along the way it unearths some fascinating facts and trivia about behind-the-scenes dealings, the people in power, the acts and entertainment and icons we came to love, the near-disasters that almost occurred, and the once-in-a-lifetime surprises that did.