Literary Criticism & Cultural Commentary
From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan detonated so many bombs in Birmingham, Alabama – a pyromaniacal campaign of hatred against black churches, homes, and businesses – that the city earned itself the ignominious nickname “Bombingham”.
Review of Bending Toward Justice by Doug Jones (with Greg Truman), in The Weekend Australian, Saturday 14th September 2019.
“Why did Saul Adler cross the road?”
Review of Deborah Levy’s “fastidiously-crafted (and crafty)” new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, in The TLS, Friday, 13th September, 2019.
“There is an allegorical hunger to our literary age – this age of dystopias – a yearning to devise some sort of explanatory myth to give shape to our multifarious fears (and tentative hopes).”
A plague on both your novels - double review of James Meek’s gorgeous new book, To Calais, in Ordinary Time, and Oisín Fagan’s fanged and feral debut, Nobber, in The TLS, Friday, September 6th, 2019.
“Cynthia, the simpering, scheming, covetous emotional sinkhole of New Zealander Annaleese Jochems’s assured debut novel, Baby, is alive and squirming; a memorable addition to the growing coterie of unapologetic antiheroines (dis)gracing the pages of contemporary fiction.”
Review of a fellow antipodean in The Guardian, Thursday 15th August, 2019.
“Both David Leser and Stephanie Wood are senior Australian journalists – professional critical thinkers and inveterate story hunters – yet they were soul-rattled by information hiding in plain sight. They didn’t ask the questions they were trained to ask. They’re asking them now.”
Double review of Stephanie Wood’s courageously graceful Fake, and David Leser’s Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing, in The Weekend Australian, Saturday August 10th, 2019.
“The story we tell about Vivian Maier usually begins at the end. The gifted American photographer took more than 150,000 pictures in her eight-decade lifetime: achingly human street scenes in Chicago and New York, where she worked as a nanny, never leaving the house without her Rolleiflex camera…”
Review of Vivian, Christina Hesselholdt’s collage portrait of the elusive photographer, Vivian Maier. The TLS, Friday July 26, 2019.
“Two decades of left-wing derision and contempt have done nothing to dent the power and influence of the Fox News network. Quite the opposite: such reactions have merely served to insulate it from sustained and thoughtful scrutiny…”
Triple Review of Fox Populism, by Reece Peck; The Branding of Right Wing Activism by Khadijah Costley-White; and The Revolution that Wasn’t by Jen Schradie - TLS, Friday July 5th, 2019.
“How better to mock the idiots who take Twitter too seriously than by forensically relitigating a sexist joke you posted during the first Obama administration.”
Review of White, Bret Easton Ellis’s honey trap for outrage, in The Australian, Saturday 15th June, 2019.
“Ernest Hemingway’s fish wrangler, John Updike’s Rabbit, John Williams’s Stoner: 20th-century literature is a diligent and exhaustive catalogue of male senescence raging against the dying of the light. It’s hard to get excited about another eulogy to virility.”
Review of Thomas Keneally’s 33rd novel, The Book of Science and Antiquities (Two Old Men Dying in Australia) - Book of the Day in The Guardian, Friday 31st May, 2019.
“When truth is stranger than fiction, fiction is a potent source of truth. In the first week of the Trump administration, sales of 1984 increased by 9,500 per cent, catapulting George Orwell’s sexagenarian novel to the top of global bestseller charts. As Kellyanne Conway recast White House lies as ‘alternative facts’, Orwell’s tale of doublespeak read like a manual. Welcome to the land of the free and the home of the brave new world.”
Is there a future for dystopian fiction, when the real world feels so absurd? Find out in the final essay of my ABR fellowship series - a double review of Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha and John Lanchester’s The Wall. Available in Issue 411 of ABR, May 2019.
“There are writers who lead their readers into the fantastical with the reassuring equanimity of a tour guide. Helen Oyeyemi is not one of them. In her latest novel, a young girl leaps into a well and emerges – inexplicably – with two pupils in each eye. “What were you doing down there, anyway?” a friend asks. “I thought there might be a point of view down there”, she responds. It’s hard to conjure a better description of the bedevilled logic of the author’s fiction: you don’t walk into an Oyeyemi novel, you plummet and emerge transfigured, bleary-eyed.”
Review of Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel, Gingerbread, in The TLS, Friday 5th April, 2019 (paywalled).
“Etaf Rum’s debut novel is a dauntless exploration of the pathology of silence, an attempt to unsnarl the dark knot of history, culture, fear and trauma that can render conservative Arab-American women so visibly invisible.”
Review of A Woman is No Man, by Etaf Rum, in The New York Times, Friday 29th March, 2019.
“The southern border of the United States is many things: political battleground; vigilante magnet; graveyard; strip of historical scar tissue.”
Review of Lost Children Archive, Valeria Lusielli’s ferociously human new novel, in The Times Literary Supplement (paywalled), Friday 22nd March, 2019.
“As an (elder) millennial, there is nothing more tedious than the inter-generational blame game; and nothing more disheartening than watching your heroes play it. So it is with a weary heart that I write of Merchants of Truth, veteran reporter, Jill Abramson’s, necessary, yet flawed, chronicle of the decline of American journalism in the smartphone era. “
Review of Merchants of Truth, by Jill Abramson, in the Weekend Australian (paywalled), Saturday March 16th, 2019.
“For women, as with so many of our desires, the desire to be taken seriously is ignored, ridiculed or thwarted. Two new volumes of cultural critique, Accidental Feminists, by ebullient social commentator, Jane Caro, and The Thinking Woman, by Vogel-Award winning novelist, Julienne van Loon, strive to redress the balance. Twin accounts of unsung women, these books accord their subjects the dignity of visibility.”
Double review of Accidental Feminists, by Jane Caro and The Thinking Woman, by Julienne van Loon, in the Weekend Australian (paywalled), Saturday March 9th, 2019.
“In the final years of the Spanish Inquisition, Franciscó Goya produced a series of disquieting etchings, “Los Caprichos” (“The Caprices”), each a scathing critique of the “common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual”. Goya’s sepia-inked world is a compendium of everyday horrors: the socially monstrous rendered as monsters. He depicts a world of cruelties, humiliations and fears; bat-winged, ass-headed, owl-beaked…”
Review of Layla AlAmmar’s debut dazzler, The Pact We Made, in The TLS (paywalled), Friday March 8th, 2019.
“Arriving now, at a time of insular nationalism, of Brexit and the migrant crisis, it’s hard not to read Boyd’s new novel as more elegy than a love story – an elegy to the grand dream of Europe, borderless and polyglot. There is a terrible poignancy to watching our past imagining its future, a future that we know will not – did not – arrive.”
Review of William Boyd’s 15th novel, Love is Blind, in the Weekend Australian (paywalled), Saturday January 5th, 2019.
“Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Unsheltered, is a novel of ideas. It has questions to ask and arguments to make, and is valiantly unashamed of those ambitions – urgent and raw; the vanguard of American fiction’s impending reckoning with the Trump era. It’s also an object lesson in how difficult it is to pen idea-driven fiction that transcends the polemic.”
Review in the Weekend Australian (paywalled), December 14th, 2018.
“Summers’ book is fearlessly unapologetic, but why do we still measure a woman’s bravery against the yardstick of contrition? Summers should not need to apologise for her reproductive choices, her fashion choices, or her honesty about the cruelties (and crudities) of powerful men. She should not need to apologise for being proud of her successes and candid about her failures. It should not be remarkable that she doesn’t. It’s a testament to the circularity of progress that it is.”
Reckoning with the legacy of Australian second-wave feminism in a double review of Anne Summers’ new memoir, Unfettered and Alive, and Germaine, Elizabeth Kleinhenz’s biography of Germaine Greer in the Weekend Australian (paywalled), Saturday November 30th, 2018.
“How did we get here? How did trauma become our literary watchword? How did staring down (or at) suffering become synonymous with authorial heroism, and a cultural virtue? And what does it mean to read – to simultaneously consume and bear witness – in an era of beautiful (or beautified) pain? Many of these questions are unanswerable. They should still be asked.”
Wrestling with the ethics of readership and the literature of ornate pain, in my penultimate piece for ABR’s Fortieth Birthday Fellowship. Australian Book Review, cover essay November 2018, Issue 408.
“As a reader, opening an anthology is akin to entering a room of strangers; we arrive hopeful but nervous, ears pricked for conversation, camaraderie and conflict.”
Review of UTS Writers’ Anthology, in Mascara Literary Review, Wednesday November 7, 2018.
“For millennia, reactionary political groups have laid claim to ancient Greece and Rome to imbue their agenda with the heft of antiquity. But when we look to history for validation, we find mirrors.”
Review of Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, in the Weekend Australian, Saturday October 27, 2018.
"The problem with On Rape is not that it aspires to provoke, it’s that it doesn’t seem to care to do much else; it’s not a catalyst, it’s an echo chamber."
The painful, provocative conversation about sexual violence is one we have to have, but is Germaine Greer the one to lead it?
Review of On Rape, by Germaine Greer and Not That Bad (ed) Roxane Gay, in the Weekend Australian, Saturday September 1, 2018.
"Michael Ondaatje’s effulgent new novel is a story of half-lights and half-truths – a novel of matchlight, gaslight, limelight and moonlight, sodium light and storm light, bonfires and bomb-fires. A novel in chiaroscuro."
Review of Michael Ondaatje's Warlight in Australian Book Review: September 2018, Issue 404 ($).
"Like all nations, America is built on fictions: from its founding fathers to its middle-class dreams. Some would argue that is all the country has even been: a stars-and-bars fiction wrapped around fifty separate countries, wearing ever more threadbare. How these fictions work – how they are made, and for (and by) whom – is a potent reflection of how the country works.
From my long-form essay on the rise and rise of American creative writing programs - the cover essay of ABR's August 2018 issue (403).
"Stories heal and nourish, kindle hope and bind us to one another. They are portals of escape and of empathy. In a time of unprecedented human displacement, when more than half of the world’s 25.4 million refugees are younger than 18, we need stories like Juba’s more than ever."
Review of Majok Tulba's When Elephants Fight - the Weekend Australian, July 21, 2018 (paywalled)
"He has the wits of an action hero, the liberal heart of an Aaron Sorkin daydream and the hardboiled vocab of a Raymond Chandler detective ... He prays when he needs to, and shoots when he must."
Review of The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson - the Weekend Australian: July 7, 2018 (paywalled)
"The terrain of this strange country is surreal and somnambulant, as if imagined by Dr Seuss and populated by David Lynch – a Vaseline-lensed kingdom of convivial menace."
Australian Book Review: May 2018, Issue 402
"The Civil War is in no danger of being forgotten; some would argue it never truly ended. As the contemporary arguments about its statues and symbols demonstrate, there is scope — need — to look beyond the brass-buttoned generals and big speeches on small hills."
Review of Kevin Powers' A Shout in the Ruins - the Weekend Australian, May 18, 2018 (paywalled).
"Trauma is alchemical. The changes it wreaks in us are not well understood, nor — we are learning — generationally containable. There is growing evidence that trauma creates an inheritable echo that can sound in those who never knew it: an epigenetic haunting. When we tell stories of trauma, we are telling ghost stories."
Combined review of Anne Connor's Two Generations, and Cynthia Banham's A Certain Light - the Weekend Australian, April 21, 2018 (paywalled)
"When talking about the future of Australian magazines, it is too easy to get caught in the narrow furrows of old debates: print versus digital, public versus reader-funding, emerging versus established writers, fiction versus non-fiction. These are unanswerable questions, because their dichotomies are lazy … What’s more vital is a conversation about how the minds behind our cultural magazines approach their evolving role in a national conversation that is fractured, fickle, and fractious."
Read the first of my ABR Fellowship essays on Australian magazine culture in the magazine's 40th birthday issue - it's 400th! Featuring interviews with the editors of some of the country's most vital and respected cultural magazines: The Monthly, Meanjin, ABR, Overland, Archer, Kill Your Darlings and Peril.
You can hear me talk about the essay, and my fellowship, with Peter Rose in the ABR Podcast.
"It’s not often that Australia’s public thinkers — its commentators, experts and politicians — admit to changing their minds. In a political climate where the accusation ‘‘flip-flopper’’ is potent and damaging, it’s not surprising."
Review of On Borrowed Time by Robert Manne - the Weekend Australian, March 3rd, 2018 (paywalled)
I am delighted and honoured to have been selected as ABR’s Fortieth Birthday Fellow.
As an ex-pat Australian writer, who has spent the last four years in the United States, and will spend the next four in the Middle East, I am particularly excited at the prospect of working with Peter Rose and the ABR team to tell responsive, international stories.
On accepting the fellowship, I explained:
"‘The faults and fault-lines of our political moment offer profound opportunities for literary and critical insight. Below the dysfunction and rage, a new generation of authors is writing the stories that will come to define our time, and us. They’re writing to make sense of the tumult, to unmask dark grievances, lurking cruelties, and wellsprings of change. ABR has an increasingly global reach; it showcases Australian culture to the world, and brings the world back home. The magazine is also a powerful moral compass in Australia’s cultural landscape, from environmental conservation to same-sex marriage to its ongoing support of young writers. It is a privilege to be involved with ABR as it enters its fifth decade, eyes to the future.’
I'll be publishing a number of literary essays and reviews across the year - the first of which is due to appear in ABR's 400th issue.
"The watchword of the collection is dread. Something dark slouches across these pages; the air is heavy with menace. Uninvited strangers knock at doors. Indignant birds peck each other to death. Symptoms appear for un-diagnosable illnesses. Student debt looms. The voices of long-dead girls whisper. Friendships are rice-paper thin."
Review of Granta's Best of Young American Novelists 3 - the Weekend Australian, December 28th, 2017 (paywalled)
"Had I not been asked to review Sarah Sentilles’ Draw Your Weapons for these pages, I wouldn’t have read it; I would have skimmed the blurb and scoffed at its idealism..."
A pleasure to be included, once again, in the 2017 reading round-up in the Weekend Australian, December 22, 2017 (paywalled)
" My literary heart belongs to the rule breakers – to the form smashers and narrative knotters..."
See my picks for this wonderful reading year, along with almost 40 Australian writers and critics in Australian Book Review's survey of 2017's finest - December 2017, Issue 397
"Australians often struggle with strangeness: we do not easily surrender to the unconventional, the wilfully eccentric, or the unapologetically clever. It’s hard to know what to do with a writer who is all three."
Australian Book Review - December 2017, Issue 397
" There are books that capture their readers slowly, like stepping into the quiet pull of quicksand. Sing, Unburied, Sing is not one of them. Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, which won the US National Book Award a week ago, opens with the inescapable force of a bear trap."
Review of Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing - the Weekend Australian, November 25th, 2017 (paywalled)
"As has been often said, history is not the past, it is the story we tell about the past. As these novels show, fiction provides the freedom, and power, to tell that story in profoundly human terms."
Double review of Sara Dowse' As the Lonely Fly, and Bram Presser's The Book of Dirt - the Weekend Australian, November 18th, 2017 (paywalled).
"Readers who adore Dan Brown’s books will buy it; readers who despise them will not. Both sides will sneer at each other. Nobody will change their mind. In the face of such trenchant thinking, it is tempting to leave it at that."
Review of Dan Brown's Origin - the Weekend Australian, October 28th, 2017 (paywalled)
"Humans are narrative creatures. We tell stories to make sense of ourselves, but our stories – be they historical, political, fictional, or personal – shape us as much as we shape them. In the service of narrative expediency, we often sacrifice nuance. We turn chance to prophecy, and accidents into choices. We justify and excuse ourselves. We anoint heroes and villains. As novelist Michelle de Kretser warns, it is ‘frighteningly easy’ to turn the people around us into characters and to forget that: ‘The only life in which you play a leading role is your own.'"
Australian Book Review, October 2017 - Issue 395.
"In this era of insular nativism, [James] Baldwin’s words seem to carry the terrible weight of prophecy: ‘I’m terrified at the moral apathy, at the death of the heart that is happening in my country,’ he lamented more than thirty years ago; he could have been speaking yesterday."
Review of Madman Film's I Am Not Your Negro, Directed by Raoul Peck and Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Australian Book Review - online September 11, 2017 and in print, Issue 396.
"Racism is a word held behind glass: we won’t break it out in Australian public discourse unless there is an unambiguous emergency, unless there can be no other explanation but wilful bigotry."
Double review of Toni Morrison's The Origin of Others, and Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race - the Weekend Australian, September 9th, 2017 (paywalled)
"Photographs can be engines of empathy and apathy. They can exploit and protect, illuminate and obscure, criticise and valorise. They can break stereotypes and entrench them. They can tell the truth and they can lie. What is clear is that photographs “generate a new kind of citizenship”.
Review of Sarah Sentilles's Draw Your Weapons - the Weekend Australian, July 8th 2017.
"There are few writers who are as able (and willing) to empathetically portray the American underclass as Sedaris. And while he largely ignores major world events and geopolitics, the politics of the everyday is here, with all of its monstrous hilarity. Sedaris is an eavesdropper, not a commentator."
Review of Volume One of David Sedaris's Diaries Theft by Finding - the Weekend Australian, July 1st 2017.
"Email is a chimeric beast, an uneasy mix of intimacy and distance – unlimited time and space to say precisely what we mean, coupled with the unnerving promise of instant delivery. When it first arrived, email seemed to invite a new kind of writing – deliberate, earnest, vulnerable. We tried to sound smarter and wittier than we were, and it showed."
Review of Elif Batuman's debut novel, The Idiot - Australian Book Review - May 2017, Issue 391
"Talese is a poet of the periphery; he specialises in minor characters and hidden quirks."
Review of High Notes, by Gay Talese - the Weekend Australian, April 29th 2017.
"When a novel is as thick as it is tall, size is assumed to be a corollary for ambition. The question is whether 4321, seven years in the making, is excellent or simply enormous."
Australian Book Review - April 2017, Issue 390
"From the outside, America seems defined by its brutal polarities – political, racial, moral, economic, geographic. The Disunited States of America. From the inside, the picture is more complex; American life is not lived at these extremes, but in the murky, transitional spaces between them."
Review of Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders: Australian Book Review - March 2017, Issue 389.
"In this global climate of division and populism it is vital to be clear-eyed about the faults and fault lines of our own nation."
Review of Still Lucky, by Rebecca Huntley - the Weekend Australian, February 4th 2017
"In a year bursting with vibrant new fiction, I almost feel guilty admitting my top pick is five decades old: this year’s reissue of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog..."
An honour to contribute to The Australian's annual round-up of the year's literary delights - the Weekend Australian, December 25th 2016.
"Politics is personal in the United States, far more private than it appears from outside. When political allegiance becomes tied to character, revealing one reveals the other. More importantly, if you critique the former, you impugn the latter."
A dispatch from Trumpland - Australian Book Review September 2016, Issue 384
"Stories are custodians of history and incubators of hope. It is the act of storytelling that makes it possible for families to look forwards and backwards at the same time, to keep both their traditions and aspirations alive."
Review of Freeman's: Family - the Weekend Australian, August 27th 2016
"Abbott stands out because she does not prettify or sanctify girlhood, her characters are forceful, sexual, and capable. Their bodies may be battlegrounds, but their minds are knives."
Review of You Will Know Me, by Megan Abbott - the Weekend Australian, August 20th 2016
"It is not easy to talk about racism in Australia. As a nation we tend to talk around it, or behind it, or shout it down. Mostly we don’t talk about it at all, for there are few words in the national lexicon as loaded as 'racist'."
Review of The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke - the Weekend Australian, August 6th 2016
"As the Obama presidency winds down, the machinery of legacy building is winding up. Legacies demand narratives, stories that are simple, smooth and easily passed from one hand to another."
Review of The Killing of Osama bin Laden, by Seymour Hersh - the Weekend Australian, June 18th 2016
"Arrival is not a gimmick; it’s a heartbeat. Listening for its pulse from one page to the next encourages dual enjoyment, first with each individual piece, and then the pieces in conversation."
Review of Freeman's: Arrival - the Weekend Australian, November 7th 2015