Monday, May 19, 2008

Australian novelists are finally gaining the recognition they deserve

Caroline Baum, writing in The Sunday Times, 18 May surveys the country’s literary landscape
British readers have come to know only a handful of writers from down under: Peter Carey, David Malouf, Shirley Hazzard, Thomas Keneally and Geraldine Brooks, who win important international awards.

Yet there is a vast continent of other voices crowding the landscape.
The two bestsellers of literary fiction currently walking off the shelves of Australian bookshops represent the contrasting facets of contemporary Oz lit. First, there’s the latest from Tim Winton, who is now regarded as the preeminent voice of Australia’s coastal communities. Riding a wave of publicity, Breath is a rites-of-passage story set on the deserted beaches of Western Australia. It explores the theme of mateship at the heart of Australian literature through the macho combination of surfing and sexual danger, and ticks every box in terms of what readers have come to expect from Oz writing: a unique sense of place, where nature is a threatening force, combined with language that is visual and rich in metaphor.

Australian writers don’t do magical realism (Richard Flanagan’s gothic historical fantasy, Gould’s Book of Fish, is a notable exception), but they do imbue the real world with heightened sensations - a natural reaction to the harshness of the light and the vastness of the empty landscape.

The other hit novel, Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, is an unflinching, searingly honest and sparse urban tale of friendship tested by illness. It could be set in London as easily as Melbourne. Unlike Winton, its author, widely esteemed as one of the country’s finest in both fiction and nonfiction, has no international profile. Part Didion, part Drabble, Garner has a spiky yet vulnerable sensibility, and her writing often tackles tricky, uncomfortable areas of personal morality. She enjoys cult status and has inspired a younger generation to tackle the same terrain of inner-city blues.

Read the fulkl story - The Sunday Times online.

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