We head first to Brisbane, the capital city of the northern state of Queensland, to enjoy a book by Nick Earls. I've read a fair few of his early books which could be categorised as lad-lit, albeit of a high calibre (more Nick Hornby than Mike Gayle), and usually contained a fair amount of slapstick moments (a date, a need to urinate, an unalert cat - let's just leave it at that). However, his previous novel, The Thompson Gunner, marked a move away from his usual style into a more adult, dare I say literary, genre, and his latest book, The True Story of Butterfish, continues that trend.
Curtis Holland, a member of the incredibly successful (and now imploded) group Butterfish, has come home to Brisbane to get away from it all and get on with a second career as a small-time producer. He buys a house next door to the Winter family: single mum Kate, Lolita-esque sixteen-year-old Anneliese and grungy teenager Mark. Throw in his (gay) brother Patrick and a surprise visit from Derek, the off-the-rails lead singer of his band, and you have the mixture of characters around whom Curtis' new life will form.
However, it's a bit more subtle than that, and the story is just as much about people who are no longer around as it is about those who are. All of the characters are making new starts, attempting to move on after losing, or being rejected by, someone special in their life. Patrick has accepted the end of his long-term relationship, and the Winter children attempt to balance their new life with occasional visits to their father. And Curtis? Well, he has more than his fair share of ghosts to deal with on his return Down Under.
It's a bittersweet story, and Earls handles it skilfully, avoiding the slapstick and forced happy endings of his early work in favour of a snapshot of a life most ordinary (if you ignore the fact that Butterfish sold twenty million records in the US). Does Curtis manage to create an ordinary life in the Brisbane suburbs, or does he, like many an Earls protagonist, manage to mess things up in a spectacular way? It's worth finding out...
Our next book also takes us off to sunny Queensland (after a short detour via North America). Australian superstar writer Peter Carey's His Illegal Self is centred around Che, a young boy from a rich American family. One minute he is off to see his long-absent mother, the next he is hitchhiking along unpaved roads in the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Australia. As you can imagine, this causes poor Che (and the reader) a fair amount of confusion.
Set in the early 1970s, a time when the Vietnam war was raging and young men from both the States and Australia were being sent off to the slaughter, His Illegal Self touches on the political counter culture of the time and brings Che (or Jay, as his East Coast grandmother prefers to call him) into contact with a group of society drop-outs in the Queensland bush, on the run just as much from the brutal police state of Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen as from the threat of the draft.
The book's blurb concentrates on Carey's depiction of the innocent child, stolen from his home environment and forced to make sense of the exotic, alien Queensland landscape, but I didn't think that Che actually stood out much. For me, the character of Dial, the academic with the hidden past, was much more interesting. Once this highly educated working-class girl found herself in the jungle setting, her carefully-constructed persona (an image built to distance herself from her humble beginnings) slowly starts to crumble. The contrast with the enigmatic hippie Trevor, illiterate but street smart (or should that be bush savvy?!) is fascinating: Dial finds herself manipulated by the community she has landed in and is frustrated at her inability to outwit a bunch of stinking drop-outs.
I found it hard to get into this book; the first few chapters were good, but then it slowed down with a burst of flashbacks and multiple perspectives. It wasn't until Dial and Che were established in their new (temporary) home that the novel came to life again and Carey was able to show us the effect of a change of environment on our hapless American protagonists. In a book that ponders the meaning of family and strangers (and where we're not always on the side of the family) and takes the main characters half way across the world, Dial (which, of course, is a nickname) is very aptly named: Anna Xenos - in Greek, the stranger or foreigner...
Our third slice of Australiana comes courtesy of Greek Melbourne writer Christos Tsiolkas, and I have a warning for the delicately formed among you: if you are offended by homosexuality, sleeping around, drug use, bodily fluids and functions, blasphemy and anti-Semitism, it's time to go and do something else - your time here today is done. If however, you are still curious, let's continue, and I'll do my best to make sense of Tsiolkas' novel Dead Europe. No promises, though.
The writer divides his story into two strands: one follows young Greek-Australian Isaac on a trip around Europe, starting in Athens and moving on to Venice, Prague, Berlin, Paris and London; the second starts in Greece in the 1930s and is part folklore, part horror story. The reader suspects that the two parts will intersect, but the way they eventually do is as fascinating as it is horrific. Tsiolkas combines casual sex, fantasy, horror, violence and racial tension in a novel which starts slowly and gently increases the pressure until something has to explode. And does.
The genesis of the story is when a Greek couple agree to hide the son of a Jew from the invading German forces in return for a box full of jewels; however, the wife (after certain illicit nocturnal activities) persuades the husband to kill the man in order to avoid the risk of retaliation from the Germans. This act of brutality and betrayal has far-reaching consequences - both in time and space. As Isaac goes about his merry way on the old continent, he begins to experience strange sensations, feeling out of sorts, physically and mentally. And then he starts to get strange cravings...
To be honest, I struggled, initially, to identify with Isaac. Not particularly because he is gay, more because of the way he seemed to be screwing and snorting his way across Europe. We are expected to believe that he loves his partner, Colin, who is the breadwinner of the pair and stuck in Melbourne, while Isaac behaves like a gap-year student on a twisted Kontiki tour. Later, it becomes clear that this behaviour is actually suggestive of events which will happen towards the end of the book; Isaac is, almost from the start, unable to control his desires, be they for sex, drugs, alcohol or blood.
I am a little squeamish at times (definitely not a big fan of slasher films), and there were times, standing and reading on my commute home, where I visibly flinched at some of the events of the later stages (probably making other passengers edge carefully towards the other end of the carriage). It was hard reading; there was some powerful and disturbing stuff to take in. It is, though, precisely this which makes the book a success; its ability to shock the reader and make them consider Isaac's situation and how they would act in that position. Tsiolkas also plays a little with the reader as we are never completely convinced that we understand what is real and what is imagined; as you may have gathered from what I've already said about Isaac, he is far from being a trustworthy narrator by the end of his travels.
What's it all about? The new world (Australia) versus the old; the curse and strength of the Jew; racial and ethnic tension; sexual freedom and exploitation. And blood. The blood of your ancestors running through your veins, and the blood keeping you alive. A thirst for blood.
You'll love this book. You may not enjoy it.