Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Ellen van Neerven takes her readers on a journey that is mythical, mystical, and still achingly real. Over three parts, she takes traditional storytelling and gives it a unique, contemporary twist. In “Heat,” we meet several generations of the Kresinger family and the legacy left by the mysterious Pearl. In “Water,” a futuristic world is imagined and the fate of a people threatened. In “Light,” familial ties are challenged and characters are caught between a desire for freedom and a sense of belonging. “Heat and Light” presents an intriguing collection while heralding the arrival of an exciting new talent in Australian writing.
First Impressions: Wow. What an amazing and innovative writing style!
Highlights: In addition to getting a small thrill from all the references to place locations in Brisbane and South East QLD…
I loved the originality in the first section Heat. The author has really taken traditional indigenous story telling and turned it on its head. If you made a list of everything you would expect to find in a multi-generational indigenous story, I can assure you that you won’t find any of that here. Leave you preconceptions behind and slam the door on them! The problems and issues faced by the characters are clearly real but not not what I was expecting which made it a refreshing read. To transform a genre so much really should open it up to a wider audience (I hope, anyway). One one final note, telling the stories out of chronological order added to the reading experience.
I really admired the innovate middle section Water. Again, highly original and with the added bonus of human-plant gay sex which has been mentioned on other blogs (it shouldn’t be sexy or graphic enough to alarm). This story in a way reminds me of a zany cross between Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (establishing the anthropology of the Plant People) and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (for the tone and work of the narrator). The sheer creativeness of the story compounded my enjoyment. I particularly liked the background of the Plant People’s existance – so fitting for such a work.
In the final section Light I loved the very first and very brief short story (the name of which I don’t have with me now). One word: atmosphere. I wanted to learn more.
If I was an editor: This collection would confirm my opinion that there are many brilliant undiscovered writers out there. One niggle I had with Water were the few paragraphs early on providing the a political and cultural overview of Australia in the future; in my opinion, not really needed as the story immerses you in this world. The final section Light was a great collection of short stories but I don’t think they really added to the effect of final product which is unfortunate to say as van Neerven’s talent shines through. These stories did start to feel a bit similar after a while and I would have loved this section of stories to be linked too, ideally beginning with the first story I loved for the atmosphere! I guess I was anticipating a more profound conclusion to the collection but it’s hard to be disappointed with such innovative writing.
Overall: Cutting edge – and it works!
Heat and Light: 5 Stars
Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke
A desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s’ Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way.
First Impressions: The first story, David, had me hooked. I kept turning the pages just knowing it was going to be an upsetting (I have a son) yet worthwhile read. I liked the juxtoposition between the two characters’ stories too. I didn’t realise this was a technique the author excelled in.
Highlights: There is no weak story in this collectioin. All of the stories were thought provoking and I was always torn between pausing for a while after each story to reflecct, and charging on to the next story. Some stories like Hope were excellent but I wasn’t necessarily moved by the ending, and the tititular story, Foreign Soil, was not necessarily moving until the end. However, in all situations the stories were brilliant. Do I have a favourite story? Maybe Foreign Soil but I did enjoy the 90s pop culture references in Shu Yi.
What I loved most about this collection is that the stories are ordered like this for a reason. I have assumed this about other collections in the past but this collection just works so well. One example is that the patois in some stories increases in complexity as the stories progress. It seemed to me that the slang in each story is particular to the context. I may be wrong about this as I kept moving to the next story and didn’t have time to think about it further but from what I could gather, this really added to my enjoyment.
If I was an editor: I would want to know when the author can have her next short story collection ready to publish?
Overall: I never thought a short story collection could be such a page turner. Oh so compelling!
Foreign Soil: 5 Stars
Laurinda by Alice Pung
Laurinda is an exclusive school for girls and it is dominated by three perfect specimens who go by the name of the Cabinet. Lucy Lam wins an inaugural academic scholarship. She is the daugter of immigrants anad lives in a working class suburb. Much to her surprise she becomes privy to the Cabinet’s secrets.
First Impressions: This is very readable and I regretted starting it late in the evening. Although it is a book for young adults there is much appeal to adults in the author’s mature writing style. It also means she is not patronising her target audience.
Highlights: I enjoyed the descriptions of Lucy’s suburb and home life. It’s like looking in a secret door to a part of Australia not everyone sees. The Laurinda mother ‘adopting’ Lucy as a sort of exotic Eliza Doolittle was a little uncomfortable at times but it never became too much; it no doubt shadows some common assumptions. Overall Laurinda is a really good story and it doesn’t feel like a YA novel, particularly as it isn’t marred by dramatic romance! This means the story stays true to the characters as I can’t imagine Lucy’s parents agreeing to her dating! The way the students interact with their teachers is unpleasant yet accurate.
If I was an editor: I would wonder at Lucy being offered a scholarship based only on an exam with no preliminary interview. I doubt the offer would come via a letter as surely there’d be a phone call for something so prestigious to the school? Also, Lucy not turning up to weekend sport would surely be taken more seriously as she is a scholarship student. However, I am sure most people would not be alarmed by these points and to elaborate on all of this would no doubt hinder the flow of the story!
Overall: The current generation’s Alibrandi.
Laurinda: 5 stars
The Strays by Emily Bitto
On her first day at a new school, Lily meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife try to avoid the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia and seek to turn their house into an artistic colony, inviting lots of ‘strays’ to join them. Lily becomes one of these strays and through her eyes we see the the Trenthams begin to struggle with the same dark ideas that Evan flaunts in his paintings.
First Impressions: I don’t always enjoy novels told from the perspective of children, nor do I always believe in the adult still affected by long ago childhood friendships but Bitto keeps a sensible and balanced voice for her narrator and I enjoyed the story from the start.
Highlights: The story from the 1930s is framed by the present, with events transpiring so that Lily begins to reflect on her friendship with Eva. The tone and hints indicate something went awry (and why wouldn’t it!) and this creates the tension in the story. Bitto has created a story that is compulsive reading – not only is the life of the Trenthams and their fellow artists interesting but I kept wanting to find out what happened. It was sort of predictable but not all of it! As a narrator Lily is quite mature and sensible for her age and this is no doubt a legacy of being an only child and having conservative home life. Later in the novel her nature is referred to by other characters who tell her she is a goody two shoes. Her foray into the art world as an adult also adds depth to her character. Essentially, Bitto has created fully believable and well rounded characters, with Lily being the shining example. I felt like punching Evan when he had dinner with Lily’s family. Finally, after reading the novel I now appreciate the cover art more.
If I was an editor: At first I thought it was a bit of an awkward plot development that Lily’s conservative parents would let her spend so much time with the Trenthams. Sure, her mother admired the sort of people they represented and coming out of the depression she wanted more for her daughter, but still. However, as the novel progressed and Lily’s relationship with her parents developed, the time spend ‘running wild’ at the Trentham’s was believable.
Overall: A lovely and accessible literary novel that perfectly captures a moment in time. Should at least make a few shortlists this year.
The Strays: 5 stars
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
I had been wanting to read this novel for a while and inadvertently began it the morning the longlist for The Stella Prize was announced. It seems I have rather intuitive timing!
Jake Whyte lives as a recluse on a sheep farm on a remote British Island. A mysterious animal or force is destroying her flock at night. Told in alternating chapters is the story of her earlier life in Australia where a devastating secret from her past chases her to this isolated destination. She is still marked by the brutal scars that prove the reality of her past experiences.
First Impressions: I though this novel was incredibly well written and I was enjoying how the narrative was chugging along. Different people from Jake’s past were mentioned and while no explanation was given as to who they were I felt confident all would be explained in due course. When a single, alarming sentence provided an insight into her relationship with the mysterious Otto, I was hooked.
Highlights: Jake’s character was superbly created. No specific physical description of Jake is included but the tiny snippets provided along the way made me want to know more. By the end it is clear that her physical appearance added complexity to everything she experienced and you are left wishing more detail was provided yet the novel does work better without any background expository. The flashback chapters that spun in reverse chronological order were highly addictive to read. Just when you thought you were getting close to finding out about Jake’s secret and her scars, the author takes you back even further in time. The final revelation isn’t what I expected either and I liked the fact it wasn’t predictable.
If I was an editor: I would comment that the constant references to birds provided all the events in the novel with cohesiveness but by the end I wasn’t necessarily concerned about the meaning or metaphor behind these references as it was the story itself that hooked me. The events in the present provided good balance with the events of the past but weren’t quite as gripping.
Overall: A short, almost perfect novel. The descriptions of both the setting and characters in both countries are authentic, just as I assume the references to sheep rearing are!
All the Birds, Singing: 4 stars
Thank you to Random House for a copy of the ARC to review.