In Leah Kaminsky’s The Waiting Room, we encounter contemporary Israel through the eyes of Dina, a Jewish-Australian family doctor who moved there after marrying a local. She is finely attuned to the fierce beauty of the place, its many paradoxes and the terrors of living in a country perpetually torn by conflict. The complexities of the Israeli society become particularly apparent in the microcosm of her practice’s waiting room where native and migrant Jews, Arabs and the Druze congregate.
Ben Lerner’s tragicomic novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is set around the 2004 Madrid train bombings and explores not so much the city’s hallmarks as its side streets, with dark hilarity. Our “tour guide” is a Woody Allen-style neurotic American poet staying there on a writing fellowship and immersed in the intense milieu of local young artists, particularly of the female kind.
Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage is a story about international surrogacy, and its insight into today’s Thailand comes to us via both foreigners and locals. The novel is narrated by an Australian aid worker with vast experience in Southeast Asia and her sister who is suffering infertility, as well as by the Thai surrogate mother they engage. These different perspectives conjures up a more authentic Thailand than the one we often encounter in western literature.
I like a good road trip, and The Motel Life by American writer and musician Willy Vlautin fits the bill. Set in Nevada, the story follows two brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee, as they embark on an ill-fated journey toward Montana in a 1974 Dodge. Sweet, melancholy, and very funny, Vlautin’s inimitable characters traverse the backroads and dingy motel rooms of an America rarely seen in popular culture.
Closer to home, I enjoyed Favel Parrett’s latest, There Was Still Love. At its heart, it’s a homage to family, and (most especially) grandparents. But what Parrett does particularly well are the scenes in Prague – you can feel the cobblestones beneath your feet as young Luděk races through the laneways, his imagination set alight by this ancient city.
I’d also recommend The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. While it depicts the pull of religious fanaticism, it’s also a vivid tale of unrequited love on an elite US college campus. Kwon was born in South Korea, and I think migrant writers often have unique perspective on place and social class – like Parrett’s, her careful observation of the small details is superb.
For inspiration in the years writing my latest novel, I wanted to immerse myself in dark humour that dealt with people trying to survive an oppressive system that required one face for one’s work life and another for home, a system that instilled fear into hearts yet demanded protestations of loyalty and apparent commitment to a common institution. So I turned to Russian literature. People are used to thinking of Russian books as vast cauldrons of thick dark soup. While there are certainly Russian classics that satisfy those demands, there are many examples of Russian literature that are incredibly sustaining, life-affirming “fingers to the system” which are also terribly funny. Starting way back in the 1840s with Nikolai Gogol’s fabulous short story The Overcoat, you have a piece of writing that is all at once very funny, very sad, social commentary that remains as pertinent to the world today as it was to its time. Moving forward we have the work of the magnificent Vladimir Voinovich (including Monumental Propaganda and The Fur Hat) as well as that of the wonderful Sergei Dovlatov (The Zone, The Suitcase and Pushkin Hills). Very dry and guaranteed to keep you cool.
MAXINE BENEBA CLARKE
For an old guilty-favourite holiday escape read, you can’t go past Terry MacMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Set in Montego Bay in Jamaica, the novel follows 40-year-old stockbroker Stella as she unexpectedly finds younger love and a new lease on life, under the Caribbean sun. What’s not to love? Favel Parrett’s newly-released third novel, There Was Still Love, is set in Melbourne and Prague, among other places. It’s a sad, beautiful and exquisitely tender work of historical fiction. It definitely made me want to visit more of Europe.
When I heard Sia Figiel speak at Sydney Writers Festival in 1998, I realised she was offering a window not just to Samoan society but to a way of storytelling that was new to me. Where We Once Belonged is written using su’ifefiloi, which is sometimes described as the threading of many songs together to make one. As Figiel tells and retells, layers and complexity reveal themselves, as do humour, poetry and violence. The book explores the development of identity in a culture in which identity is more plural than singular, and that’s its extra dimension as story of place. Figiel writes in a way that lets you see, hear and smell Samoa, but it’s the insights into the culture that stick.
Bad Blood isn’t one of Colm Toibin’s best known works, but it’s rarely been more topical. It charts his walk along the length of the Irish border in the mid ’80s, a time when conflict was commonplace there. It tells of new violence and old animosities in a place which permits you only to be on one side or the other. Despite this, he is able to approach it as a listener, a recorder. Read it to see why the prospect of a hard border strikes such fear now.
Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian is an ambitious epic that follows its Nablus-born, Europe-affected protagonist, Midhat, through his education – formal and sentimental – between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Zionist enterprise. Like the best works of historical fiction, it stages collisions of personal and political: clashing Midhat’s crises of identity and allegiance against those of his native Palestine. The result is engrossing.
Christos Tsiolkas’s latest novel, Damascus, stomps the same Levantine soil – albeit a couple of millennia earlier. Our protagonist is St Paul, also caught at a cultural crossroads. Where Hammad depicts the birth of Palestinian nationalism, Tsiolkas takes on nothing less than the birth of Christianity – and does so with rigour and grit. This is as-it-happens history, deeply immersive, yet alive to hindsight irony. It’s a brave book, and sincerely spiritual.
The Alaskan landscape of Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing is all mudflats and permafrost, bluffs and beached whales. Nineteen-hour nights and nightless days. But the landscape’s beauty is tincted with immigrant suffering: the “endless white spruces … released a scent like damp cleaning rags”. There’s bleakness here, but it’s told in prose of astonishing lucidity and lyricism.
I got this majestic book in a garage sale, and although it evokes a time and place in vivid colour and visceral detail, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is not the sort of book you read for blissful escapism. It is Dickensian, it plods along at the pace of a turtle stuck in a drain, it concerns itself with pedestrian lives, and yet it achieves the remarkable – it is a real page-turner.
Set in the 20-month period (June 1975 to January 1977) when India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency across the country, the book is about the intertwined lives of four people – a student, a widow, and two impoverished tailors from a small village. Eight years later, I still think about the characters. I also learned about the Zoroastrians in India, a group of people whom I knew nothing about before. A Fine Balance is one of the best contemporary books I’ve ever read.
Despite the title, Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne, is a forgotten Kiwi treasure. Written in 1968, and set “on the edge of the world” a coastal New Zealand town, during the summer holidays – the novel is narrated by Harry, a young boy who may not be quite what he seems. Following Harry from sun-drenched sand dunes to a derelict local abattoir, we sense things won’t end well. Original and unsettling, it’s a gothic tale of lost innocence, dark doings and small-town weirdness.
Bloody Scotland (Historic Environment Scotland, 2017) is brilliant idea and a great read: 12 short crime stories, with historic Scottish landmarks providing the settings – ruined castles, Neolithic tombs, abandoned mills and old lighthouses. Steeped in sense of place, it’s an anthology that mingles murder, architecture, history, humour and chills.
Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Underground Railroad knocked the wind out of me. Cora, a teenage slave, flees a Georgia tobacco plantation with her friend Caesar, heading north via a secret subterranean escape route. In prose that flows like water, Whitehead unflinchingly lays bare the horror and brutality of slavery, racism and eugenics in a gripping and disturbing tale, infused with surreal twists.
ELLEN VAN NEERVEN
The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor begins in an island called Pate, off the coast of Kenya. It then moves through the sea to the continent of Asia, to China. It is a gorgeously-written novel by the author of Dust. Kirkus Reviews describes it as being “about everything the war on terror cannot register: the vastness, complexity, and richness of East Africa’s cultural world. She represents it as a stunning mélange of Islamic and African cultural traditions that are woven together via the motif of the sea”.
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich is a well-thumbed favourite. I love how this book gives a deep and compelling insight to Erdrich’s ancestral country. She travels to the lakes and islands of her Ojibwe ancestors in Southern Ontario and Minnesota by car, boat, and foot, to gather stories. “You could think of the lakes as libraries,” she notes.