As our circadian rhythms bend to cooler mornings and shorter evenings, our programming team shares the Australian and international titles—contemplating motherhood, memory, relationships and our interior lives—they recommend adding to your autumn reading stacks.
Michaela, Artistic Director
The Performance, Claire Thomas
Claire Thomas’ new novel is tightly structured, unfolding over the course of an evening performance of a Samuel Beckett play, and told from the perspective of three women in attendance. It’s the height of Melbourne summer, and outside the cool interior of the theatre, bushfires are encroaching on the edge of the city. The three women’s stories intertwine and are interrupted, with each chapter cutting off the preceding character’s thoughts. A young usher’s girlfriend is on her way to the fire zone to help her parents, and she is consumed by her dread for their safety. An elderly professor is preoccupied with her husband’s illness and violent deterioration. An influential philanthropist worries about the trappings of extreme wealth and that she was a ‘colonial fuckwit’ for asking the young usher about the Aboriginal art in the foyer. The tension escalates on the stage and the page, with the threads of the play—Happy Days—carefully referenced in each woman’s interior narrative. Impressively economic, The Performance touches on class, privilege, capitalism, climate change, gender, violence, racism and colonialism with deft strokes and is a thoughtful, confident, affecting reminder that art is always political.
Asylum Road, Olivia Sudjic
Shortly after publishing her first novel, Sympathy, Olivia Sudjic spiralled into anxiety so intense that it left her unable to write. She ultimately recovered and recorded her observations on the ‘anxiety epidemic’, the havoc that social media wreaks on our lives, and the acute pressures experienced by young female writers in the astonishingly good pocket essay book, Exposure. I provide this background in an attempt to explain why I felt like I was going to have an anxiety attack while reading Sudjic’s new novel, Asylum Road. Sudjic is a master of creating acute tension on the page that slowly ratchets up with the intensity of a thriller. The narrator, Anya, is a young PhD student in London who grew up in Sarajevo during the deadly siege in the 1990s. Memories of this trauma come to Anya as raw, flashing fragments; sly, lurking shadows around every corner of her mind that she doesn’t dare look at look directly. She’s terrified of tunnels, and the fleshy, pungent scent of soft fruit makes her gag. Anya’s deep psychological trauma infects her studies, and when she travels with her new fiancé back to Sarajevo to meet her family, she disintegrates further. Sudjic has a dark sense of humour, and this is a smart, unsettling and unforgettable novel for fans of Rachel Cusk and Deborah Levy.
Gene, Associate Director
Monsters, Alison Croggon
What I find endlessly fascinating about the act of expository writing is how it forces a person to order their thoughts and commit them to an existence, creating a timestamp of their consciousness that reflects the way they negotiate and reckon with the world they inhabit. And perhaps, if done right, at the end of this process of ordering and committing their thoughts, a person will come to the point of enlightenment on the topic about which they’re writing. The finished product becomes an artefact of their clarified thinking to which they can point and say, this is how I evaluate the world.
In Monsters, Alison Croggon orders and commits her thoughts to tackle such subjects as patriarchy, imperialism, whiteness, religion, and more, while also tackling herself—her own and her ancestors’ association to colonisation, her fraught relationship with her sister, and the lessons learnt from being a lifelong reader and writer. Acerbic and, at times, enigmatic in its jump from one topic to the next, this book is filled with evaluations that are wise and unsparing, self-critical and critical of a world which produces the need to be so self-critical in the first place. Well worth the dive.
Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu
I try to steer clear of reading scripts (sorry, Shakespeare!). I find it hard to engage with a narrative when it’s written as: SETTING, STAGE DIRECTIONS, CHARACTER ONE dialogue, CHARACTER TWO dialogue, STAGE DIRECTIONS, FADE TO BLACK. And so when Charles Yu won the 2020 United States’ National Book Award for Fiction, and I read that his novel was almost 300 pages of screenplay-esque formatting complete with Courier font, I baulked. But I needn’t have.
In addition to being wickedly funny and original, Interior Chinatown is a project of immense heart and acute analysis, training a sharp eye on racism and how it’s manifested in Western storytelling and pop culture. Willis Wu, who begins as ‘Background Oriental Male’ and strives towards becoming the exalted ‘Kung Fu Guy’, becomes a vehicle through which all the entertainment industry’s myopia is funnelled. He needs to fake an accent to get parts—parts in which he’s killed, then required to wait a mandatory 45 days so as not to confuse the viewers at home when he reappears in the same show as ‘Background Oriental Male’ for the umpteenth time. Despite these indignities, Willis perseveres, but the more he does and the more attention he eventually garners, the more he realises what success means in an industry that relies on stereotypes to build a narrative prioritising the white experience.
Which takes me back to why I needn’t have baulked at the screenplay-esque formatting: it is vital and natural to the metafictional execution of Willis’s story and the themes explored, and Yu’s skill as a writer makes it absorbingly readable. I loved it.
Sonia, Program Manager
Friends & Dark Shapes, Kavita Bedford
Centred on a ragtag group of friends living in Redfern and narrated from the perspective of an unnamed young woman wrestling with the grief of losing her father, Kavita Bedford’s debut novel evokes the topography, climate and inhabitants of Sydney in the same way Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour brought Melbourne to life. Bedford expertly inhabits what it’s like being a middle-class millennial, with observations of overcluttered mailboxes, weevil-infested share house kitchens, and exhibition openings with free wine peppered amongst meandering, unpunctuated dialogue and a steadily rotating cast of sharply realised characters. Bedford’s characters grapple with having more privileges than any generation before them, but none of the optimism, power or agency—’Surely, I say, with all this education, all this opportunity we’re told we have, we are meant to burn brighter than this?’ Stunning writing on selfhood, place and being a settler on stolen land—’how can we learn to grief for ourselves if our country doesn’t know how to grieve its own history?’—is interspersed with explorations of memory, loss, gentrification, race, ennui, and the shifting goalposts of adulthood.
The Push, Ashley Audrain
Ashley Audrain’s The Push, another impressive debut, is a sinister snapshot of motherhood gone wrong—wading into the murky waters of abusive families, the absence of love, the inheritance of trauma, and the inevitability of one’s generational legacy. Calling to mind recent books like Megan Hunter’s The Harpy and Jacqueline Maley’s The Truth About Her where so-called ‘bad’ mothers are punished by the weight of societal expectations on the public front and absent partners on the private front, the most obvious comparison one can draw with The Push is We Need To Talk about Kevin, where the classic unreliable narrator is resurrected, a seemingly malevolent child’s motivations are questioned, and the age-old nature versus nurture argument is relentlessly invoked. Audrain writes incisively about the unrealistic expectations of motherhood and how isolating it can be, so much so that when her main character Blythe finally cracks under the weight of her grief and escalating suspicions, her increasingly mercurial behaviour seems like the most normal reaction to an impossible situation. Deliciously unpredictable until the very final explosive line, The Push is a page-turning, pulsating thriller.
Image: © Chris Woe
To purchase the books above, visit a Readings store near you or browse online