Post Road Magazine #7

THREE AUSTRALIAN NOVELISTS -Sabina Murray

As of late, I have found myself wanting a book full of outlaws who terrorize the (corrupt/tyrannical/despotic) powers that be. Perhaps I'm not the only reader in this disposition. With this in mind, I have three books to recommend, all Australian. Despite the fact that the population of Australia is composed mostly of twentieth century immigrant waves, most recently the Vietnamese, the Australia that has entered the western consciousness is that of British convict colony. Because of this, the Australian national identity is one that has formed in opposition to authority and that owes much to the rise of the bushranger hero, a frequent figure in traditional Australian narratives, folksongs, and lately some impressive and moving fiction.

The first book I would like to recommend is the True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey. Winner of a Booker prize (Carey's second, his first was for Oscar and Lucinda), The Kelly Gang creates a disturbing reality out of colonial Victoria in the late nineteenth century. Carey treads dangerous territory in a number of ways. Firstly, he writes from the first person point of view of an intelligent man whose education is limited. What could be an annoying, broken narrative becomes–with Carey's fine writing–seductive and convincing. Secondly, by writing the fierce bushranger as a sympathetic character, Ned Kelly could have become victim to the maudlin along with the colonial government. But Ned Kelly comes to us as a complicated, reasonable, brave man, which is just how I like my heroes. As a child, growing up in Australia, my friends and I used to run around with paper bags on our heads (a nod to Kelly's primitive armor) having a go at being Ned Kelly. We terrorized our teachers. Somehow, Carey's book remains loyal to this spirit.

A wonderful read of the last year is Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish. Full of imagery, Flanagan's Sarah Island–a place resounding with the screams of a thousand mistreated convicts and running with their blood–becomes a place of difficult beauty. Once more, we are cheering the convicts and wishing their tormentors all manner of painful ills. And although Book of Fish keeps you in its slippery grasp until the end, the book turns out to be much more than a fish tale. I found myself wondering not only about Australia's convict past, but also about the nature of art, narrative, and history.

I would also like to recommend Thomas (yes, he did write Schindler's List) Keneally's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith of 1972. Jimmie Blacksmith is the son of a white man and an aborigine mother. Based on a true account of one man's murderous rampage in 1900, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a gripping, disturbing read. Although I did not find myself cheering Blacksmith through the various horrors he inflicts, I did understand him to be the product of an oppressive reality, one in which he might have been forgotten had he not written himself–in blood–into history.

Those are my recommendations, but if you find yourself with an extra couple of weeks and some space in your suitcase, I have very much enjoyed reading the books of Tim Winton, a Western Australian writer, and also Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, which might be the perfect gift for that friend of yours with a tree fetish •

Sabina Murray was born in 1968 and grew up in Australia and the Philippines. She is the author of the collection The Caprices (Houghton Mifflin) and the novel Slow Burn. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Ontario Review, New England Review, and other magazines. Her screenplay, Beautiful Country, goes into production this October with Hans Moland directing, Terry Malick producing, and Nick Nolte and Harvey Keitel in major roles. She is a former Bunting Fellow at Harvard University and a recipient of a major grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Murray is currently the Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Academy Andover.

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