Recommended October reads

From Brandon Taylor’s Booker Prize–shortlisted exploration of sexuality and sociability Real Life to Meg Mason’s funny and devastating novel about marriage and motherhood Sorrow and Bliss, our programming team share the Australian and international titles they’ve enjoyed this month.

Michaela, Artistic Director

The New WildernessDiane Cook

The end is not near, the end is already here, in the form of ecological ruin which has left all except one vast expanse of the natural world intact. In a desperate bid to save her daughter Agnes’ failing lungs from the toxic city air, Bea and her partner Glen join a group of survivors/science project experiments, who are dropped in the middle of The New Wilderness with only the supplies they can carry, a map, and a manual that sets out the rules for their new existence. The lives of the Community are surveilled and governed by a group of Rangers who meet them periodically at different checkpoints, which the Community are required to travel to as part of their strict nomadic existence. Of course, the Community must survive both the inhospitable wilderness as well as each other, and the politics of the band of misfits becomes increasingly dangerous and desperate, and their shifting allegiances and motivations propel the plot. Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, this scorching lament for humankind’s abuse of the planet is brutal and beautiful but surprisingly, rarely bleak, and made for a welcome and transportive pandemic read.

Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason

The sad, angry, clever and unknowable narrator of this marriage novel is Martha, a woman who doesn’t particularly like anything, including her husband Patrick, who has loved her since they first met as teenagers up until possibly the evening of Martha’s fortieth birthday, when she prevents him from making a speech because she can no longer bear to hear what he has to say. Martha has talent as a writer but is periodically completely overcome by dark and melancholy mental weather, for which she has been medicated on and off for most of her life, and has never been able to advance her career. Patrick just wants her to be happy, and does his best to facilitate that. Meg Mason’s debut belongs to a lineage of intelligent, witty and inventive novels that interrogate the problem of whether selfhood can survive motherhood, including Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. This all sounds incredibly bleak, but Martha’s sharpness is acerbically funny and compellingly direct and worthy of the frequent comparisons to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Ottessa Moshfegh’s works.

Gene, Associate Director

Song of the Crocodile, Nardi Simpson

Propulsive and lyrical, Song of the Crocodile is a multigenerational epic from Yuwaalaraay writer Nardi Simpson. In Darnmoor, a well-to-do country town dubbed ‘The Gateway to Happiness’, change is afoot, driven—as is most change—by the need for survival. The Billymil family know this all too well. Unfurling over three generations, the Billymil’s story is punctuated by violence of several varieties, with the rigid status quo that defines the relationship between Indigenous and settler communities chillingly upheld by stubborn prejudice and soft power. What really defines this novel, however, are the quiet, joyful moments speckled throughout its pages, observing the generosity and spirit of the Billymil family and the community that surrounds them. This is a remarkable debut from a formidably talented storyteller, whose energetic prose commands your attention from beginning to end.

Real Life, Brandon Taylor

Brandon Taylor’s debut is a moody, sweaty college novel, reminding me somewhat of Ronnie Scott’s The Adversary in its exploration of sexuality and sociability. Unfolding over a heated summer weekend near the end of a four-year biochemistry degree, the novel’s Black protagonist, Wallace, reckons with childhood trauma, the recent death of his father, an unexpected and explosive sexual relationship with a ‘friend’, and the sabotage of his laboratory work, all the while traversing the wrought environment that is his circle of white friends. Peril is in every turn of the page as Wallace navigates both their racial sensitivities and insensitivities. At one point in the story, he is beholden to a dinner-party conversation where a friend tries to dissuade him from dropping out of his degree due to the ‘prospects for Black people’. Taylor deftly and effortlessly bundles so much into the pages of this book, counterbalancing its thematic heaviness with sardonic wit; it is no wonder Real Life is shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. A 2020 must-read.

Sonia, Program Manager

Show Me Where It Hurts, Kylie Maslen

In her debut collection of essays Show Me Where It Hurts, Kylie Maslen blends memoir and cultural commentary to paint a picture of what it’s like to live with chronic, invisible illnesses as a woman whose pain is minimised or dismissed by an inhumane, often misogynistic medical establishment. ‘To be a woman in pain’, Kylie writes, ‘is to be vulnerable in a society that erases us even when we are well’. Signposted by key cultural moments—such as the release of Beyoncé’s album Lemonade—and peppered with references to TV shows, movies, books and memes that depict chronic illness and disability with a complexity and nuance that is otherwise rare in mainstream depictions, Maslen situates her experiences across a broad frame of reference, one that arms her with the language to depict something that is often inscrutable and unmeasurable. Maslen’s writing is always frank, accessible and generous as she writes both for those who live with chronic pain and the ‘normies’ who don’t. Traversing topics as varied as family, friendship, sex, housing affordability and tattoos, Show Me Where It Hurts can be read side-by-side with Katerina Bryant’s recently published Hysteria and is the latest addition to an exciting wave of Australian non-fiction works like Jenny Valentish’s Woman of Substances and Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance—books that foreground women’s experiences of pain, illness and trauma by delving both into the personal as well as the historical, socioeconomic and cultural forces that shaped them.

Weather, Jenny Offill

At 207 pages and consisting of short, pithy vignettes, Jenny Offill’s Weather is the perfect read for an iso-addled brain. Set against the worsening climate crisis, it’s about things both related and unrelated to our planet’s demise—what it means to be a good person, ageing, generational disconnect—narrated from the perspective of Lizzie Benson, a librarian, PA, daughter, mother, wife and sister. If this sounds bleak, it’s anything but—moments of dark humour and surprise imbue the book with levity. Like Dept. of Speculation, one-liner profundities and startling moments of clarity force you to slow down and reread them, imbibing them at a pace that stops you from finishing this book too quickly despite its brevity. Towards the end, the breakdown of certain relationships and the narrator’s escalating anxiety about the political and physical weather mirrors the rapidity of climate change itself, forcing us to look outward instead of inward. While apocalyptic climate fiction and dystopian novels are de rigueur at this time, Offill is more concerned with how we live through a climate crisis; how we continue going to work, feeding ourselves and our family, being there for the people we love. It is in her examination of the smallness of our daily lives where Offill truly excels, extrapolating our interior worlds into a larger statement of where we are as a society facing one of our most pressing challenges.

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