More from Marvellous Melbourne

You may have noticed a lot of Aussie books in my reading list this year, and the responsibility for that can be placed firmly on the shoulders of two places: firstly, Joanne of Booklover Book Reviews, whose Aussie Author Challenge has got me hooked on local literature; and secondly, the fine people of the Casey-Cardinia Library Corporation, whose excellent system enables me to read these wonderful books without having to actually buy them at the extortionate prices charged Down Under.

This post will have mini-reviews of three wonderful books by three great writers, all of them from my adopted home town of Melbourne, and it was actually going to be a celebratory finishing post for the Aussie Author Challenge.  Today’s offerings brought me up to thirteen for the year to date (!), but just as I was getting ready to pop the (metaphorical) champagne cork, I noticed the small print.  You see, the twelve required books had to be by a minimum of nine different authors, and my thirteen were the work of just eight…  Back to the drawing board, or, as I like to call it, the library web-site.  In the meantime, enjoy these short reviews anyway 🙂

*****
The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming is a collection of short stories by Elliot Perlman, the author of the wonderful Three Dollars and Seven Types of Ambiguity.  It’s an interesting collection of short stories (mostly) set in Melbourne, with a fascinating use of voice and perspective to hook you in to the stories.  They often start very abruptly, some with the protagonist talking to the reader as if in a monologue in a play, eventually widening the scope of events to reveal the full story.

Not all the stories are a total success (a point Perlman probably knows already, but which I’d like to point out anyway, is that readers are not prone to sympathising with lawyers who have been dumped by their married mistress after getting her pregnant…), and some do take a while to get going.  However, on the whole, they do eventually suck you in and make you think – which is always good in a short story.

One of the most interesting stories is Manslaughter, the story of a trial from start to finish, told through the voices of just about everyone involved – judge, jurors, accused, bailiff, lawyer, widow.  In a matter of a few dozen pages, the writer successfully conveys the complexities of a seemingly open-and-shut case, letting the reader in on what really happens in a high-profile court case and leaving them to make their own judgement as to how fair it all is.
The news on the grapevine is that Mr. Perlman has a new book coming out later this year, and all I can say is that it’s about time.  While you’re waiting though, why not give this little collection a go?  It’s not as if there’s any hurry…
*****
A slightly more prolific writer (although not by much) is Helen Garner, author of the notorious Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach is another tale from a slightly-left-of-centre (in many ways) Melbourne family.  Dexter and Athena’s comfortable life is disrupted by a chance encounter at Melbourne airport, where Dexter spots an old friend, the rather icy Elizabeth.  While Elizabeth herself causes few problems, it is the people she brings with her – little sister Vicki and Elizabeth’s occasional lover Phillip – who turn the married couple’s life upside down.

The Children’s Bach is a very slender book, but it is beautifully written, and the central question of casual sex versus comfortable monogamy works well.  Athena is jolted out of a rut by her new acquaintances, and the question is whether this is a welcome break or a wake-up call.  Meanwhile, Dexter has to decide how he will handle Athena’s behaviour and balance her (and his) behaviour against his principles.

The book is short, elegant and witty, but while it’s a nice read, it’s hard to avoid thinking that it’s a little underwritten.  I found it hard to engage with the characters over such a short journey, with a lot of gaps where the narrative jumps to the next crisis.  I found myself wondering whether another writer could (and would) have made a longer, more detailed book from this…

*****

…a writer, for example, like the extremely talented Steven Carroll.  Having read, and loved, his wonderful Melbourne Trilogy books earlier this year, I picked up his most recent novel The Lost Life from the library shelves with great anticipation.  It’s a very different book in some ways, set in England in 1934 and based around a chance encounter with the famous poet T.S. Eliot.  However, once past the initial set up, The Lost Life slips into the mesmerising style that made Carroll’s other novels such successes.

The central figure of the novel is Catherine, a young woman in the centre of the golden summer of her youth, enjoying the first flushes of love with Daniel, a recently graduated university student.  When they accidentally spy on Eliot and his ‘special friend’ Emily Hale during a walk around the parks of a local stately home, they become unwillingly mixed up in his tangled relationships.  As Catherine gets to know Emily better, she realises that there are parallels between their situations, which the older woman, an accomplished actress who seems to be playing roles rather than acting naturally, is determined to exploit for her own purposes.

Although the phrase Carpe Diem isn’t actually mentioned in the book, it’s one that instantly springs to mindCatherine gradually becomes aware that her love, an awkward affair devoid of any real privacy, may be more fleeting than she imagined.  Unless she takes her opportunity for a brief moment of intimacy, she may end up regretting it for the rest of her life.  Just as Emily Hale has her own, lingering regrets…
Carroll’s usual time-jumping style lets us know in advance a lot of information while concealing the important, emotional events.  He also gets inside the characters’ heads, describing matters from several viewpoints, emphasising both the similarities and the subtle differences between opinions on the same event.  As you can tell, I think he’s great 🙂
All in all, another well-crafted story from my big discovery of 2011.  And the best bit?  He’s also got a new novel due out later this year.  Marvellous Melbourne indeed 😉
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3 thoughts on “More from Marvellous Melbourne

  1. I hadn't come across that short story collection by Perlman – I'll look out for it next time I'm at the library. His writing certainly does make you think – he's good at making his audience have strong feelings about his characters, good or bad.

    Noticed you've put Seven Types of Ambiguity on your re-reading list too – enjoy!

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  2. Love Garner's writing, except The First Stone. Not read either of the other authors. I don't really like most Australian fiction. Not sure why. Maybe I prefer books that are windows rather than mirrors, to steal a gorgeous phrase I read somewhere.

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  3. Booklover – I love 'Seven Types of Ambiguity', almost Victorian in its scope and size.

    Although, being set in Melbourne, it is Victorian anyway 😉

    Violet – I like her writing, but I'm not sure about her books (if you see what I mean!).

    For me, Oz-Lit is more of a window than a mirror as I only got here in 2002, and I've been stuck in the burbs for most of that time! I've really enjoyed most of the local books I've read this year…

    …just don't expect me to buy any of them 😦

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