SOMETHING GENTLE

Comfort reading. Like comfort eating, it can be addictive and feel a little shameful. Shouldn’t I be reading the latest, grimmest memoir or book on current affairs? What about that great tome of literary fiction that’s been on my shelf for months?
I know I’m not alone in this, but sometimes I just need to read something gentle and undemanding. At the suggestion of a friend, I’ve been devouring the Isabel Dalhousie novels of Alexander McCall Smith. They’ve proved both soothing and charming, though after five in a row I realise you can have too much of a good thing. And though perhaps it’s a stretch to classify books containing brutal and premeditated murders as ‘kind and gentle’, the Sarah Kelling mysteries of Charlotte McLeod are obviously meant to be parodies and I’ve found 1980s Boston just as cosy as any village in Midsomer.

Beloved books from childhood sometimes hit the spot, too. I had a credit from a wonderful local antiquarian and second-hand book shop, Mount of Alex, so I bought a few old favourites.The first of these is The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright.

It’s 1941 in New York, and the motherless Melendy children – Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver – decide to pool their weekly allowance money so that each Saturday, one of them can afford a really special treat. Randy chooses an exhibition of French paintings at an art gallery; Rush goes to a matinee at the opera; Mona has a haircut and manicure at a beauty salon, and Oliver, the youngest, sneaks off to the circus and is brought home by a policeman on a horse.  On each expedition the children have a mild adventure, make a friend or learn something about another person’s life and they get to explore their home city of New York. There’s always their father and the wonderful housekeeper/cook/nanny Cuffy to come home to. And like many of these older children’s books, it’s really beautifully written.

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NOTHING NEW

Nothing New: A History of Second Hand is light and cheerful reading,  full of Robyn Annear’s usual sparkling anecdotes. But there is also enough substance to get me thinking very seriously and personally about waste.
Robyn makes it clear that there used to be almost no such thing. Clothes were passed on, repaired, re-cut and re-styled, used as rags, and the rags used to make paper. Food was rarely thrown away, but even bones were valuable for use as buttons and to make glue. Broken and unwanted household items of all kinds found repairers or homes or were stripped down into useful parts.
The ingenuity, thrift and hard work of those recycling folks in the past wasn’t motivated by virtue, by saving the planet or detoxing from plastic. It was just plain good economic sense.

Here’s the list of ‘wanted items’ from a London Rag, Bottle and Kitchen Stuff Warehouse in the 1850s:

‘Furniture and Lumber of every description’, bones, and bottles of all kinds (‘Eau de Cologne, Soda Water, Doctor’s Bottles, Phials & Broken Flint Glass’) as well as – 
Old Copper, Brass, Pewter, etc
Lead, Iron, Zinc, Steel, etc etc
Old Horse Hair, Mattresses, etc
Old Books, Waste Paper, etc
White Linen Rags
All Kinds of Coloured Rags.

These second-hand dealers, she writes, ‘were everywhere in an age when necessity, more than virtue, dictated there there was ‘no such thing as waste’. Lately there have been stories in the news about hazardous waste stockpiles, unusable mountains of paper and glass in recycling facilities, containers of commingled recycling turned back from their destinations in Asia because they’re disgustingly contaminated. These stories make me wonder – why haven’t we had the intelligence and imagination to see the whole life cycle of our plastic drink bottle, our cheap plastic toy, our polyester T-shirt? Where was all this disposable stuff going to go? Because it’s not going to go away on its own, given that it takes hundreds or thousands of years to break down, and even then it remains in the soil and the water. So – what were we all thinking?
I lazily thought my household was doing very well. Only one small bin for landfill rubbish, and that not filled each fortnight. A large one for virtuous recyling, mostly glass, tin and paper/cardboard. That one is rarely full, too. But with the recycling crisis in this country, I think we’d better do better. Olives in glass jars rather than plastic tubs? But what’s happening to those carefully washed and re-cycled jars? No olives? Less olives? I don’t know!

On a much cheerier note, Robyn talks about bazaars, jumble, rummage and white elephant sales, and one of my great loves –  the Australian Op Shop. Here’s how it began. In 1925, the St Vincent’s Hospital was raising funds for expansion. A soon-to-be-demolished building called the Cyclorama stood on the proposed building site. On the committee was one Lady Tallis.  Just returned from overseas travel in France and the US, she’d seen the popularity of second-hand shops run for charity. Why not try this idea in Melbourne?
Lady Tallis took charge and, in christening the enterprise, paid a nod to its continental progenitor, le magasin d’occasion. But while the French occasion here signifies ‘bargain’, it can also be used to mean ‘opportunity’.
Thus, in the Cyclorama, for three months straddling Christmas 1925, the first ever opportunity shop was born.
And hooray for that!

Robyn’s account brought back so many happy memories of triumphant Op Shop forays and adventures. I still have some of my finds from the early 1980s and the fantastic Oppies of Hawthorn and Richmond. These were part of my regular beat, but any country trip was sure to unearth treasures by the carload. And cheaper than city Op Shops, too. I once bought a complete, unused Fowler’s Vacola kit in Echuca. The kind old lady asked me if $11 was too much? Not at all, I said.
The best Op Shops were always staffed by these fantastic old ladies. Full of really old stuff. The spaces were crowded and even cluttered. Sometimes the shops had been organised into categories (up to a point) but lack of room usually made them somewhat chaotic. What a good sign!  Because in amongst the clutter and chaos lurked buried treasure. Like Kath (of Kath and Kim) I could feel it in my waters. Cocktail shakers, vases shaped like shells, actual shells (once, a large plastic bag full of money cowries), lamps and lampshades, costume jewellery, printed 1940’s housecoats, stilettos, smart and unworn brogues, 1930’s silk step-in undies, knitting patterns, camera cases, leather handbags, printed headscarves made of French silk with hand-stitched edging, beaded cardigans made in Hong Kong…
My trip to Daylesford last week took in a back appointment, the Vinnies and the Salvos. These Oppies now have merchandisers, who style the shops to look like boutiques. Displays of accessories and racks of clothes are often colour coded, with lots of synthetics and fast fashion items.  The crockery and homewares are all newish, often those white, made-in-China basics. Ugly (but not in a good way) decorative items abound. Nothing ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ or even a bit old is on show. Do they hive those items off to dealers? I’m old school, I know, but I miss the Oppies of my past. Today’s can be good for utilitarian finds (a pair of never-worn runners, a rain jacket, sturdy tumblers) and also for books, though no longer for really old books and magazines. But increasingly rare is the old-style thrill of the chase.
But I keep dropping in, flipping through the hangers, fingering the material, cruising the racks and displays and shelves and bins, hoping – yes, I’m a gambler at heart! – for that  real, heart-stopping, amazing and magical find.

Thanks to Robyn Annear for this funny, informative, thought-provoking and for me, nostalgic, history.

Nothing New: A History of Second-Hand by Robyn Annear, Text, 2019

 

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WARLIGHT

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals…

I read the whole of Warlight over one day on a visit to Melbourne, on V-line country trains and on city trams, in a shopping centre food courts and a little cafe and my practitioner’s waiting room, sunk deep into the book but with my experience oddly enhanced by what was going on around me.

I can’t remember when I’ve been sunk so deeply into a novel. Usually I’ll finish one book and go on to the next, but so far I haven’t been able to start any more adult fiction. I could describe Warlight as my perfect book. Note ‘my’ not ‘the’. I read a review by Andrew Motion in The Guardian (16/6/18) in which he basically said that it wasn’t the book he thought Ondaatje should have written. Too imprecise, too slow, too “shrouded in mystery”. Its beauty, for this reader, was in just those things. The pace, the indirection, the mystery didn’t detract from the ripping yarn of a 14-year old innocent caught up in a post-war shadow life he can’t comprehend or explain. Another review, again in The Guardian (Alex Preston 5/6/18) described it this way: “It’s as if GW Sebald wrote a Bond novel”.

Please note: there are spoilers ahead!
Effectively abandoned by his parents, the narrator Nathaniel and his sister Rachel are cared for by an enigmatic man they call The Moth and his colleague the Darter. Through these two, a whole cast of eccentric and slightly shady characters, men and women, become involved in Nathaniel’s life. At school by day (though less and less frequently), he develops a compelling nocturnal life. Moonlit, candle-lit, shadowy, dingy, dark – adventures and escapades follow as he works in kitchens and banqueting halls of grand hotels, smuggles greyhounds by barge, discovers passion and sensuality with the daring and vulnerable Agnes in empty flats and houses. But then Nathaniel and Rachel discover that their mother Rose has not gone to the Far East, as they supposed, to join their father. Her double life – she’s a spy –  is gradually revealed and so their life with The Moth and The Darter takes on a new and even darker perspective, culminating in a terrifying attack on the two children.
This is, after all, post-war Europe. Peace didn’t magically break out; there’s an underworld where hatred, revenge and reprisals fester on. Partisans, communists, fascists? Right or wrong? Everything is murky, including Rose’s role. As an adult, after his mother’s death, Nathaniel continues to try to piece together her story. And his own.

As ever, Ondaatje’s writing is beautiful, luminous, poetic and arresting, full of a deep understanding of the sheer mysteriousness of being a person. Of knowing, or trying to know, another person. Of trying to enter or understand a life other than your own.
And wonderful characters. Olive Lawrence, ethnographer, meteorologist and – yes – spy, takes Nathaniel and Agnes walking at night. The air is full of the sound of mating crickets, loud and insistent. Olive says,
Their cries seem to fall on you from above, don’t they? It feels like an important night for them. Remember that. Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Cape, 2018.

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SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL

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NEW YEAR

It’s a new year – it has been for a couple of weeks now – but with the pall of smoke reaching here all the way from the fire grounds in Victoria and New South Wales, thousands of homes lost, people injured and dead, animal and plant life devastated…well, I haven’t felt that “Happy New Year” is the appropriate greeting.

I was back at work this week. One of the new releases was a thing called Stop Reading the News: a Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life by Rolf Dobelli. Maybe I should read it. Actually, I’m thinking of another short news detox (I do this from time to time). Not just the stories and images of destruction, but the responses of our inadequate Prime Minister and the idiot commentators from the Murdoch press have me in a state of mixed sadness and simmering rage. My inbox this morning contained an email from Environment Victoria about dealing with climate anxiety!  Not that I was reading to a theme, but this end-of-year book neatly fits with current conversations around fire and land and our nation’s desperate need to learn from Indigenous wisdom.

I think that every Australian should read Dark Emu. At school! Because when I think back to my own education, I could weep.  In 1966, at Campbell’s Creek PS, with members of a local Aboriginal family in the school community and with one of them actually sitting next to me, I was told by the teacher that “Aborigines are primitive stone age people”. We copied pictures of boomerangs and bark shelters and got the idea that Aboriginal people just wandered haplessly about, spear or dilly-bag in hand, waiting for something (a kangaroo, a tuber) to turn up. Luckily, white people came along!

Bruce Pascoe has done something very clever. He’s studied the records of explorers and colonists at the time of first contact and shown what was in plain sight but scarcely acknowledged – there are numerous first-hand accounts that give the lie to the colonial view that Aboriginal people lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers.
What my primary school teachers did not tell me – because they did not know – was that in some areas the earliest explorers and colonists saw large Aboriginal populations (into the thousands) living in permanent villages and settlements. Agriculture thrived. They witnessed cultivation of grasses and roots, the harvesting and storage of foodstuffs, the diverting and damming of rivers for extensive fish traps and weirs. Pascoe’s explorers admired the ‘park-like’ appearance of the country. While some colonists wanted to think this landscape was natural, others witnessed the Aboriginal people burning (“fire-stick farming”) to maintain a mosaic of alternate lightly and densely wooded terrain. Temporary barriers (‘battues’) were at times erected to keep animals encircled, but there was no permanent fencing. Within a few decades of colonization, what these earliest white people saw was forgotten, perhaps deliberately.  Aboriginal people were killed, denied access or moved from their lands. Then the introduction of hoofed animals, along with farming practices such as fencing, land clearing and ploughing, changed everything.

That precis is my understanding of Pascoe’s story. The revelation for me is that a larger population than I’d known existed here for tens of thousands of years, with a kind of pan-Australian peaceful and co-operative management of land and resources. None of our huge dams for cotton-growing in Queensland and no flow down into South Australia. Each group knew what they needed to do to maintain the health of the entire system for their own benefit and the benefit of all the other groups. There were meetings for great sharing of resources – an example is the Bogong moth celebrations in the high plains of Victoria – which strengthened ties and kept the systems coherent. Through stories and above all law, these disparate groups of people did their smaller parts to keep the whole well.

The other revelation is about progress. Truly, I’ve heard people say that Aboriginal people should have no rights to the land (or even, ‘don’t deserve to have rights’) because they did nothing with it. That’s been the rationale for dispossession. In the West we tend to think that all people should be on the same trajectory as us. Progress is civilization. It is ploughs, wheels, machines, foundries, quarries, roads, cities, factories, armies. It is warfare and conquest and an ever growing desire for more and more and more stuff.
To many of us here and around the world, this Australian bush-fire summer demonstrates the utter madness of this growth and progress mindset. We are destroying our own home. Pascoe’s book asks us to think another way. Aboriginal societies did change, but slowly and in ways suited to the land. We can’t reverse completely, but we can learn to be content with what we have and to live within our means.

Also read in January:

 

 

Field of Poppies by Carmel Bird
In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers
Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively
Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend

 

 

 

 

 

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THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE

Often in bookselling there are titles that come to my attention not because of advertising and promotion or the fame of the author, but via the good old word of mouth. This year, with so many customers ordering this book, I gradually became intrigued. I thought I’d better see what all the fuss was about.

In a case of serendipity, it’s turned out that this was exactly the book I needed to read. I’m working on a new novel, and as research The Body Keeps the Score is brilliant, backing up some of my writerly intuitions with science, and correcting others.

But it’s also an important book for the general reader – anyone, everyone. It’s not just for people who’ve experienced trauma. Or for those who love, live and work with them. I don’t think the author, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, is overstating things when he writes that trauma is one of the Western world’s most urgent issues.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) doesn’t just effect soldiers and veterans, police, fire fighters and ambulance crew. Abused and neglected children, people who’ve been raped, accident or disaster victims – anyone who’s experienced a deeply distressing and disturbing event can have their ability to cope completely overwhelmed.  This is millions of people. Our health and justice systems systems are overloaded and reeling from its effects.

Van der Kolk shows how a cascade of harm – mental and physical health problems, unemployment, crime, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, not to mention heart-breaking human suffering – follow from unaddressed trauma. The physiological changes are real and measurable. Trauma will always find a way to manifest in the body.

The Body Keeps the Score is a fascinating and troubling book. It’s distressing to think that – a bit like climate change – the science is there, the research is there but we continue to sit on our hands. Our governments would rather build more gaols than invest in early intervention programs with new parents and young children. Van der Kolk writes, “If your parents’ faces never lit up when they looked at you, it’s hard to know what it feels like to be loved and cherished,” he says. I read in the news this week of a young father who shook his 5-month-old baby son so hard that the child now has debilitating brain damage. Why? Apparently, because his own father had told him that ‘men don’t cry’.
And so the bitter cycle continues into another generation.

Highly recommended; moving and – yes – very disturbing. Lots of science, some gut-wrenching personal histories but also some inspiring and hopeful stories of change and recovery.

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THE HOUSE IN NORHAM GARDENS

In the midst of some dark and heavy adult reading’- ‘Dark Emu’, ‘Too Much Lip’, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ – I decided to browse my shelves for a children’s book and came up with ‘The House in Norham Gardens’ by Penelope Lively.
14-year-old Clare Mayfield lives with her two great-aunts in a huge Victorian house in Oxford. The old family home is cluttered with possessions; old clothes, kitchenware, papers, books, photographs, furniture…and a shield that her anthropologist great-grandfather brought back from New Guinea in the early 1900s.

The discovery of the ceremonial shield affects Clare strangely. She begins to dream about tribesmen; they seem to be asking her for something. Her ordinary life of school, friends, her aunts and the two lodgers becomes increasingly unreal as she drifts and dreams. Is the encounter between the tribe and the anthropologist haunting her?

‘The House in Norham Gardens’ was obviously written and marketed as a book for children, but I found myself reading it as a novel which just happened to have a teen aged protagonist. I found something similar last year when I re-read ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ by Philippa Pearce. And similarly, I wondered if it would find a publisher today. Not just because in this book the prologue to each chapter, giving the viewpoint of the New Guinean tribesmen, would be problematic. ‘The House in Norham Gardens’ is slow. The writing, while artful and sharply observant, is heavy with description. The whole story is saturated with meditations on time and memory. Basically, nothing much happens.

Which is fine by me, in such a beautifully written, intriguing, absorbing book. But I’m not so sure about today’s reader.

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BIG SKY

Right there on the cover it says ‘A Jackson Brodie novel”.

But Jackson Brodie is just one circle in an intricate Venn diagram of characters. From the first page, the diagram is proliferating and intersecting wildly. Private investigator Brodie (ex-army, ex-police) is bruised but not beaten by life. He’s moved to a small seaside town in North Yorkshire. His days are spent in undemanding snooping – such as keeping an eye on an unfaithful husband. There’s his teenage son Nathan and elderly Labrador Dido, visiting courtesy of ex-girlfriend Julia. Then there are golfing chums Tommy, Andy and Vince and their wives Crystal, Rhoda and Wendy. Their lawyer mate Steven. Police officers Reggie and Ronnie. Tommy’s son Harry. Drag queen Bunny. Russian sisters Katja and Nadja. Washed-up comedian Barclay Jack. Undercover operative Tatiana. And more.

Big Sky is fast, surprising and amazingly, all the separate threads (different metaphor now, sorry) link these diverse characters. It’s also at times almost comical in its plot contrivances and coincidences. Often it’s just plain funny. All this, in a novel that involves child sexual abuse and sexual trafficking.

I raced through Big Sky. Now I’m determined read back through the Jackson Brodies – Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News and Started Early, Took My Dog. By the way, isn’t Kate Atkinson great with titles?

Also read: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
Three women, friends since early womanhood, gather to clean out the house of their dead friend Sylvie. They share a long history because they’re all in their seventies.  Jude, now retired, ran a famous restaurant; Wendy is a renowned writer and academic: Adele is an actor, once sought after, now past her prime. It’s a familiar set-up for movies and popular fiction but don’t expect an uplifting Big Chill vibe. It’s not that kind of book.
Wood is a skillful and perceptive writer; her powers of observation are acute and often hilarious; she’s able to skewer pretensions and self-delusions with steely accuracy. There were also a couple of set pieces that had me in awe of Wood’s skill and perception. The hellish drinks party had me squirming but the scene where actor Adele re-experiences the rush – the ultimate high – of access to the spiritual, universal, creative power at the centre of her art is an amazing piece of writing.

I’ve read reviews that praised this novel for its compassion but I have to say I couldn’t find much. Maybe as an older woman (and I must say, one who is delighted to be alive, upright and have a Senior’s Card) I baulked at the many descriptions of the female body in decline. Crepey necks, bulging flesh, aches and pains and weak bladders… However, I suppose the tone of repulsed fascination is an accurate reflection of the way, in our society, we fetishise the young and the beautiful and reject the old.
My colleague at the bookshop loved this novel; I said I found it cruel. I told her, “I just wanted to save the characters from their creator!”
And she pointed out that meant Wood had succeeded at the highest level; I thought Jude, Wendy and Adele were real.

 

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BRUNY

A Tasmanian political thriller?
How unexpected. And not what I would have predicted as a follow-up from Heather Rose, who was awarded the 2017 Stella for Museum of Modern Love. Bruny is a gripping novel about corruption and influence and dirty deals of world-shaking importance set – I have to say this again – in Tasmania. Who would have thought?

A massive bridge, costing billions, is being built to connect the mainland of Tasmania to Bruny Island, using Commonwealth funding and Chinese steel.  The local community is divided. Various protest groups have formed to protect the beautiful, isolated island and its picture-postcard lifestyle from change. Other groups and individuals in this most impoverished state are pro-development. State and federal politicans are also predictably divided along party lines. As the novel begins, an explosion destroys part of the bridge – and no-one claims responsibility.

This is where the narrator, Astrid Coleman (“Ace”) returns to Tasmania from New York, where she’s lived for many years. She’s a UN mediator, called in to “manage” the situation. She’s also the daughter of an ex-Tasmanian Labour premier, and the sister of the current Liberal premier. She steps into a tangled web of political corruption and intrigue and family drama.

I won’t give spoilers. This was perfect rainy weekend reading, with fast moving plot, uncomplicated and easy-to-read prose and a real currency in the central issues. Astrid is a compelling narrator;  professional, intelligent, world-weary  – but still optimistic – and her family complications add a touch of humanity to the political sleaze and slime. Some of the plot did, on reflection, strain credibility but then I sometimes have a great sense of unreality when I read the news. Bruny is fun and thought-provoking, a good mix.

Bruny by Heather Rose, Allen&Unwin 2019 $32.95

 

 

 


 


 

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ISLAND STORY

I’ve vowed to read more. All of this (cold, cold) winter and now into spring, I’ve spent many hours in the comfy chair knitting and watching British crime. Enough. I’ve made a decision; it’s time to read. I mean, really read, consistently. More new releases, more Australian writers. And more women. Thus Wolfe Island, the second novel by award-winning Melbourne writer Lucy Treloar.

Salt Creek, Treloar’s debut, was a historical novel set in the first half of the 19th century in the Coorong of South Australia. Wolfe Island is set a few years into the future, when low-lying land is being lost to the rising seas of the anthropocene.  The island is an imaginary place set in the real Chesapeake Bay in the US. Kitty Hawke, the last resident, lives a solitary life with her wolfdog Girl, patrolling the edges of her shrinking, sinking realm of marsh, shore and derelict houses. She’s fiercely independent, solitary, taciturn. A difficult woman? She’s also an artist, and her  sculptures – made from natural and found objects – she retrieves on her daily walks – are sought after by collectors.
Kitty wasn’t always alone. She maintains tenuous links with her husband Hart and daughter Claudie, with a couple of friends. Like all the other islanders, these people live on ‘the main’. Her son Tobe is dead.

One night her solitary life is disturbed.  A small boat arrives. It contains her teenage grand-daughter Cat, Cat’s handsome boyfriend Josh, and two strangers, Luis and his little sister Alejandra. It doesn’t take Kitty long to realise that Cat is pregnant: that Luis and Alejandra are ‘runners’, hunted by sinister law enforcement agents: and that they are all in big trouble. With the violent, unstable world outside Wolfe Island coming closer, it’s time to leave. They make the perilous journey to a border station so that Cat and her new baby, with Luis and Alejandra, can begin their a new life, in freedom.
But then, after Kitty’s done all she can for the young people, she has to get home. And it’s winter…

This novel is currently my top pick for customers looking for a literary novel. I tell them, think of Emily St John Mandel’s Station 11 or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only different. Lucy Treloar’s writing is precise, poetic and intensely lyrical. I lingered over her descriptions – the island world of marsh, shore, sea and marginal land; the badlands of ruined houses and farms; the scary little towns and settlements – all beautifully realised. But not slow or indulgent; the writing turns sharp and powerful it needs to, to show brutality, menace and danger. Suspense and action are layered with memory and history and meditation.  Wolfe Island is beautifully told, utterly believable, moving, memorable, profound. There’s so much here to think about. What kind of future are we sleepwalking into? Read it!

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, Picador, 2019, RRP $29.99

 

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