Eight books to read: A powerful novel from Africa and living with John Clarke

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Lucy Mushita, Spinifex, $29.95


Some of the best current writing comes from Africa and its diaspora. Lucy Mushita lives in France and Australia, but in her first novel looks back at her birthplace, Zimbabwe. In the last century, the white colonisers, called kneeless (vasinamabvi), ruled. They impoverished the country, and traditional patriarchy meant the women suffered most. Chinongwa was only nine, but her family had little choice but to sell her into marriage. She was walked between villages, fruitlessly, until an act of calculating pity made her a secondary wife. The husband and his child-bride both bitterly resented their union. It produced 10 children but no happiness. The story may be grim, but it has a compelling power. Chinongwa may have been a chattel, but she still had agency and voice. And at the end of the novel she achieved her personal independence, though not that of her nation.

Orphan Road
Andrew Nette, Down & Out, $31.99

The hard-boiled genre novel in Australia is as old as A. E. Martin’s 1944 The Misplaced Corpse, with splendid PI Rosie Bosanky. Peter Corris followed, but the tradition is intermittent.


The latest carrier of the baton is Andrew Nette, with his series detective, the colourful Chance. More Garry Disher’s Wyatt than investigator, trouble follows Chance like a drover’s dog. Here a modern crime, real estate extortion, links to the famed Great Bookie Robbery, and a fortune in hot diamonds. Into the mix is thrown the Vietnam War, skullduggery from police and the CIA, even the mob. The crime arises organically from its surroundings, ever-seedy Melbourne. The motion is frenetic, alliances made and broken, with doses of violence. To my mind it needed another chapter or so, but that might have lost the narrative completely.


Melanie Saward, Affirm, $34.99

Writing adolescent boys is difficult. When they are also Indigenous, marginalised and with psychological problems, the debut novelist should surely beware. Yet Melanie Saward admirably creates a credible central character in Andrew. Against his background, a boy’s view of Tasmania and Brisbane, he struggles to survive socially and emotionally. The book could be aimed at the young adult market, but school libraries would object to the realism of bongs and teen sex. Rather it is pitched as a psychological thriller, Andrew being also a firebug. What triggers him is complex, the author’s research propelling rather than slowing the narrative. Where the book seems less assured is in the use of thriller techniques, particularly in the latter stages. These are tricky even for seasoned authors. Overall Burn is far more than promising, and the reader awaits the next book along.

The Seventh Son
Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson Heinemann, $34.99


Fiction about Neanderthals ranges from Isaac Asimov, William Golding to James Bradley, and now Sebastian Faulks. His topic is in constant flux, with amazing discoveries. It risks a novel’s sudden obsolescence. Moreover, he is out of his usual historical territory. Conveying complex science is also tricky, though Faulks has a red-hot go with making synthetic sperm. Here, mad scientists do not figure, rather an eccentric billionaire. Resurrection Biology using IVF produces Seth, 51 per cent Neanderthal. He is hybrid enough to attend Oxford, but not enough to integrate fully into modern society. Or could he? Neanderthals left descendants via Homo sapiens, suggesting affinity. Horses and donkeys are similar equines, but their offspring are sterile. Faulks avoids idealising Seth as wild man or savant Other, but he does not engage as a character. Choice of nitpick: Seth’s inability to swim is blamed on Neanderthals, but in 2019 they were proved to have suffered more surfer’s ear than modern humans.

Would that be Funny?
Lorin Clarke, Text, $34.99


When Lorin Clarke was growing up, it was not uncommon for strangers to ask if her father, the beloved satirist John Clarke, was “funny at home”. Her answer, in this memoir, is emphatic. “He was outrageously, consistently, shockingly, will-I-ever-breathe-again hilarious’.′ Having an argument with him as a teenager was infuriating. On one occasion, she found herself laughing and stomping her foot at the same time. Fittingly oblique and conversational in style, Lorin’s narrative builds a kaleidoscopic picture of her childhood and her father, interspersed with key words from the Clarke/English dictionary and other snippets of family lore. Full of tender and wacky anecdotes, Would that be Funny? also subtly teases out John’s fraught relationship with his father, how it shaped his comedy and outlook, and pays tribute to the transformative and anchoring influence of his wife, Helen.

21st-Century Virtues: How They Are Failing Our Democracy
Lucinda Holdforth, Monash University Publishing, $19.95


True to her name, Lucinda Holdforth doesn’t hold back and Hallelujah for that. Right-wing extremism is on the rise, democracy is in peril. But are the lauded virtues of our time, authenticity, empathy, humility and vulnerability, up to the task? What bothers Holdforth about the modern iteration of these virtues is that they are self-referential, and that this cult of self is being monetised by neo-liberalism. When those in the public eye talk about authenticity, they are often referring to their “personal brand”. Humility has become similarly performative. Take Rupert Murdoch’s carefully crafted confession that being grilled by British MPs over the News of the World phone-hacking scandal was “the most humble day of my life”. This invigorating essay shows how these virtues have been emptied and exploited, and makes a plea for shared strengths and communal courage.

Wandering Through Life
Donna Leon, Hutchinson Heinemann, $35

Readers familiar with Donna Leon’s popular crime novels set in Venice – there are more than 30 of them so far – may be surprised to hear that she regards herself as almost completely lacking in ambition.


Now in her early 80s, she says she’s simply doing what gives her the greatest joy: spending time with her characters and immersing herself in opera. This is not a conventional memoir so much as a series of droll, discreet and affectionate reflections on people and incidents in her life from her childhood in the US to her time in Italy. Not inclined to self-revelation or to taking herself too seriously, the closest she gets to hinting at a philosophy of life is when she’s talking about her great musical love, Handel. “He was a popular entertainer. He had no great theories, no great life concepts … He was a workman who wanted to give endless pleasure to his public.” The same could be said about Leon.

Back Up
Liam Mannix, NewSouth, $34.99

Back Up, by national science reporter Liam Mannix.

There’s something liberating about having everything you thought you knew about a subject – in this case, back pain – upended. And then to find that these very assumptions are part of the problem. “To get a spinal image is to open a Pandora’s box,” says Liam Mannix, a journalist on this masthead. Plenty of people have all sorts of back degeneration and no pain. Conversely, an image of disc bulge, bone spurs or other signs of deterioration can “worm its way inside your brain” and prime it to sense pain. Other myths about back pain include the belief that there is “good posture” and “bad posture”, that our backs are fragile and must not be stressed, and the doozy of them all, that ergonomics makes any difference. On top of this, there’s rampant over-servicing in the form of spinal surgery and steroid injections. This is an empowering deconstruction of the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies and our pain.

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