March 2015 highlights
I must say I’ve been having a good run of late with the first book I read in any given year. Last year, for instance, I was gushing about Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil – so it’s been gratifying to see the reception it’s had since, including most recently her Stella Prize longlisting.
This year it’s a memoir that’s totally seduced me: Rebecca Starford’s Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School. Starford is already highly regarded on the Australian literary scene: she co-founded the Kill Your Darlings literary journal, and is an editor at Text Publishing – but I had never expected a tale quite so compelling and affecting as this one. It looks back at the year Starford spent in her schooldays at the bush campus of a well-known school in the Victorian Alps – partly with fondness for the encounter with nature it afforded, but overwhelmingly with horror at the various forms of bullying and aggression that went on between the 14-year-old girls, under minimal staff supervision. There is grief and guilt over her own behaviour, but Starford also finds a key here to how some of her later adult relationships were sabotaged by the feelings of isolation – and the craving for love and acceptance – that so marked that year. Her memories spurred by a return visit to the school, Bad Behaviour soon has you in its grip (as our review attests), but it’s also beautifully told, with moments of particular lyricism, and structured too with particular finesse (another strand of the book is an account of her life thereafter, focusing on her coming out in her late teens and all the highs and lows that entailed).
This was by no means easy material for Starford to grapple with, but her desire for truth and self-knowledge burns strong, and the result is an extraordinary debut. There was so much to talk about when I interviewed Starford recently about the book – you’ll find our Q&A here.
Turning to the rest of the month’s releases now, and it’s clear that Kazuo Ishiguro’s first book in ten years is a big deal. The Buried Giant seems to be dividing early readers, in that it doesn’t appear to have a natural affinity with some of his earlier, immensely popular novels, but I think that’s a good thing: here’s an author attempting to plough new ground. Here he takes us to Dark Age Britain – with dragons, ogres, giants, and an elderly Sir Gawain – and a mystical take on the meaning of life.
Readers of this column will be accustomed to hear me raving about each successive Karl Ove Knausgaard volume, and readers with the first three volumes behind them will need little spurring to embark on his fourth, Dancing in the Dark. Our reviewer Gerard Elson is spot-on when he says: ‘(Knausgaard is) relentless in airing his most honest, and therefore often least admirable, self. I think it’s precisely this that makes My Struggle such a generous, dealienating and necessary endeavour’.
I do love the look of Catherine Lacey’s debut Nobody is Ever Missing as well – and not just because it’s set in my home country of New Zealand!
In terms of Australian fiction, it’s a rich month, with strong debuts from Robyn Cadwallader, Alice Robinson, Ilka Tampke and Abigail Ulman. There is also a second novel from S.J. Finn, whose theme of paedophilia, our reviewer notes, makes it ‘an incredibly uncomfortable book to read, but good fiction should be challenging and thankfully there are still small publishers willing to take risks and bring important books like this to light’. We were also rather taken by a new book from Amanda Lohrey, A Short History of Richard Kline.
Finally, the world was stunned back in 2011 by the actions of Norwegian fanaticist Anders Breivek, who planted a bomb outside the Norwegian PM’s office before travelling to the island of Utoya and massacring scores of children. One of Us by Anne Seierstad is a chilling investigation into a childhood scarred early, and Breivik’s increasing obsession with extreme right wing views.
Martin Shaw is Readings’ Books Division Manager.