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John A. Scott

The accidental death of MP Norman Cole precipitates a hung parliament allowing a core of extreme right-wing politicians to seize power. Telford, a high-ranking but unworldly public servant, is approached by Cole’s wife who believes her husband was murdered and asks him to investigate on her behalf. The reward for this, he hopes, will be her love. Despite the bizarre and threatening nature of his investigations, he remains convinced that the ‘scribbled note’ about the meeting with ‘N’ holds the key to what he seeks.

Meanwhile in an increasingly nightmarish city, in a countryside owing more to the Middle Ages than to the 1940s, or in two distant prison camps, a range of Australians struggle to find their own truths, a way back to love, and a means of survival - be it Roy and Vic, each struggling to validate and empower their painting; be it the artist’s model Missy, torn between passion and fidelity; or the writer Henningsen and Head of the Emergency Government Warren Mahony, each battling with their tenuous sanities.

Told in a wide range of styles, N is a remarkable work of imagination woven about two unforgettable love stories.


John A. Scott’s long-awaited novel, his first in over a decade, is set in an imagined, though frighteningly familiar, Australia. It is the early 1940s and Melbourne is a fractious city. A corrupt right-wing government has recently seized a balance of power and the country is at war against a southward-moving Japanese army.

N is both a brilliant political thriller and the telling of two different, but equally affecting, love stories. The alternating narratives – of modern artists, implicated public servants and defective soldiers – spread and intersect like secret underground tunnels, carefully mapped by Scott. Navigating these, it’s impossible to ignore Scott’s contemporary subtext. In this, N compares to the work of Alexis Wright, for its play with genre and strange, folkloric landscapes, and also to Peter Carey, with its mischievous narrative underpinning. Scott writes from a multitude of characters’ perspectives and in changing narrative styles, adopting the techniques of documentary realism through to prose poetry. The novel is richer, and clearer, for these shifts.

N is particularly animated by its surreal moments; for one example, the hallucinations of war artist, Vic Turner, are visceral and unsettling in their force. Though, equally elegant are Scott’s descriptions of the every day – the changing weather, a child playing with his toy soldiers as his mother watches on.

Scott has crafted a book of grand scope and meticulous intricacies, a weighty, significant contribution to the catalogue of Australian literature. Simply put, this novel is a tour de force. The work commands a careful reading – those who ride with the twisting furrows will find that N is nothing short of superb.

Belle Place is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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