Five books I’m still thinking about (months after reading them)
I am not a fast reader. I’m not able to whizz through hefty novels in a week let alone a night, I struggle to keep up with the new releases, and it takes me a while to get into a new voice, to feel comfortable with a new character. But when something really clicks with me, I obsess – I can’t put the book down, can’t stop talking about the characters to anyone I spend time with, and gift copies to everyone I know so that they’ll be able to participate in the conversations I plan on having with them.
All released in 2016, the following five books (three novels, one short-story collection and a memoir in essays) are the stand outs from my year of reading. All of them still have a hold over me, months after I’ve finished reading them. And I’m pleased to note that they’re all by Australian women, and that three of them are debuts.
Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down
I am completely in love with this book. Intimate, raw and heartbreaking, the story develops out of a triangular relationship between three childhood friends now in their mid-twenties – Audrey, Katy and Adam – and grows in scope to include Audrey’s relationships with her boyfriend, Nick, and her family. Down has real skill in exploring the myriad ways that grief, trauma and mental illness manifest themselves in spaces and gestures between people. Place and dialogue here jump straight off the page, which makes the novel all the more affecting. Our Magic Hour is one of the best debut novel’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It is beautiful, gut-wrenching fiction, and has without doubt launched Down’s career as a major new literary talent.
The Healing Party by Micheline Lee
The Healing Party is unlike anything else I’ve read. While I’m drawn to stories of dysfunctional families (almost everything on this list explored familiar relationships in some way), Lee’s novel is remarkably original. It follows the Chans, originally from Hong Kong, who have migrated to Melbourne and become evangelical Christians. The mother, Irene, is dying from cancer, but her husband Paul, believes he has received a message from God promising that Irene will be healed. He plans to hold a ‘healing party’ so that their community can witness the miracle. This novel is an emotionally honest, often funny portrait of a family grappling with their faith in the face of grief and conflict. Lee is an exceptionally talented writer and demonstrates real empathy for her characters. The Healing Party challenged me to consider issues of faith more deeply than I ever have before, and I highly recommend it.
The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett
The women in Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s assured short-fiction collection are the kind that get under your skin and stay there. As I said in my review, this collection offers readers an unusual and affecting reading experience, coupling true crime with literary fiction. Each story centres on a real-life woman enamoured with a ‘bad man’ – criminals from throughout the 20th century from across the USA, UK and Australia. Woollett’s skill is in seamlessly stringing together an impressive range of voices, and ensuring that all protagonists are relatable (despite the fact that many are complicit in some heinous crimes, which makes for a disturbing reading experience). The Love of a Bad Man is an accomplished and engrossing collection from another young Australian literary talent – absorbing, unsettling and utterly unique.
Wasted by Elspeth Muir
Muir’s memoir was prompted by the death of her brother Alexander. In 2009, after a night out celebrating finishing his final university exam, Alexander’s body was found in the Brisbane River. He had jumped off the Story Bridge, with a blood-alcohol reading of almost 0.3. With a balance of intimate, evocative prose and intelligent analysis, Wasted explores the effect of Alexander’s death on her family, as well as Australia’s drinking culture more broadly. Both personal and journalistic, Muir has written an intensely affecting account of grief and memory, one that really moved me and that I know I’ll refer to for a long time.
Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain
Between a Wolf and a Dog is a beautiful, sensitive gem of a novel, and I completely adore it. The story follows a cast of four characters – estranged sisters Ester (a therapist) and April (a once-famous, now-struggling musician), their mother Hilary (a filmmaker), and Ester’s ex-husband Lawrence (a pollster). Set on one rainy day in Sydney, Blain alternates perspective between the four, including flashbacks to significant events. All members of this complicated family are handled with great care and affection by Blain; they are flawed characters, with full lives and a rich history, never limited by the tight timeframe of the novel. Rather, the day that Blain walks the reader through felt as real to me as a day from my own life. I found myself utterly invested in these characters, moved by both their pain and the moments of joy that seep through.
I have spent the year gifting Between a Wolf and a Dog to so many people, and I doubt I’ll ever stop recommending it. I am so saddened to hear that Blain passed away this week – truly a remarkable writer, one that I feel so lucky to have read and who I’m definitely not going to ever forget.
Stella Charls is the marketing and events coordinator for Readings.