What to read: Japanese magical realism and the question of justice

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Before We Say Goodbye
Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Picador, $19.99


A magical café in the heart of Tokyo allows its customers to travel briefly back in time in the bestselling series (which began with Before the Coffee Gets Cold) from Japanese playwright Toshikazu Kawaguchi. In this the fourth instalment, another selection of regulars gets drawn to the café to confront the past and amend a regret. A man wants to visit his wife, having left something important unsaid. A woman returns to say a final goodbye to her treasured dog. A lover feels the urge to clear the air with her ex. And a daughter seeks the chance to remedy an unkindness to her dad. Elaborate terms and conditions are attached to the time-travel deal. You can’t stay longer than it takes for your coffee to go cold, for instance, or you remain trapped as a ghost forever. It’s a rather cute magical realist frame for an interlocking suite of tender-hearted, melancholy tales.

Beyond Berggasse
Joe Reich, Hybrid, $35


Joe Reich’s Beyond Berggasse follows the fortunes of a Jewish family living in Vienna in the late 19th century. We first meet Moritz von Ofner as a boy. His prominent birthmark sees him bullied by his elder brother Emil, and ill-favoured by his tailor father. Moritz grows into a bookish type, determined to be a writer; he revels in Vienna’s status as a cultural capital, frequenting a salon where artists such as Klimt and Schiele and Mahler gather. He also meets Theodor Herzl, founder of the political Zionist movement, a connection that resonates through Moritz’s later career in military intelligence. Romance, espionage, artistic ferment, domestic tragedy all enliven a saga that spans the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the cataclysm of World War I. Its female characters may be comparatively underdrawn, and there’s some stilted dialogue, but the storytelling flows effortlessly, and an important chapter in Jewish history receives well-researched imaginative treatment.


After the Forest
Kell Woods, Harper Voyager, $32.99

“Happily ever after” is a calculated evasion, and if details ever emerge of events occurring after the fairytale ends, they tend to tell a more complicated story. So it is with Kell Woods’ After the Forest, a continuation of Hansel and Gretel set in the Black Forest in 1650. In this telling, the orphans who escaped a witch are now young adults as the Thirty Years War comes to an end. Their village was spared most of the pillaging and violence, but Hans has drinking and gambling problems, and Greta spends her life batch-baking irresistible gingerbread (the witch’s recipe, naturally) to keep the wolf from the door. As taxation doubles, mercenaries descend and hardships intensify, Greta’s red hair and tasty treats attract the superstition of the villagers. Kell Woods enfolds a fairy tale within a fairytale and sets them against a socially realistic portrayal of early modern Germany, in a clever merger of fantasy and historical fiction.


The Disorganisation of Celia Stone
Emma Young, Fremantle, $32.99

Celia Stone’s a hyper-organised thirtysomething who seems to be kicking goals in the game of life: good marriage, good job and a publishing deal. But as her journal reveals, she’s a control-freak with serious anxiety issues. When her husband Jes asks if they should try for a baby, Celia spirals into crisis at the thought of something for which no one can adequately prepare. Scattered, often telegraphic diary entries make The Disorganisation of Celia Stone a tedious read. Hot-mess millennial fiction tends to be at least marginally funnier and more charming than this sort of unfiltered blather, and although the writing illustrates mental illness in an unvarnished fashion, authenticity in life and art are not the same thing. Young women may identify with the pressures covered here, though they might be turned off by a text that has used “actionable” three times by the top of the second page.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Dan Box, Ultimo Press, $36.99


At its most ordinary, the true-crime genre can be morbid, exploitative, voyeuristic. But this isn’t your average true-crime story. Zak Grieve was part of a plot to kill a man who was abusing his good friend’s mother. When it came to the crunch, he backed out, but still found himself serving a long prison sentence. The case raises so many urgent questions about Indigenous incarceration in the Northern Territory, about domestic violence, about the human spirit in extremis and the power of the written word to provide refuge and hope. It also embraces the growing friendship between Grieve and the author despite his uncertainty about the truth of Grieve’s claims, along with Dan Box’s own struggles as his daughter undergoes treatment for cancer. Ultimately, it’s about justice and the absence of it. While the style is hard-boiled, there’s no tough-guy posturing or authorial overreach. Just a riveting story well told.

Divine Might
Natalie Haynes, Picador, $36.99

The ancient Greek gods and goddesses can all too easily seem like a bunch of amoral brats. While their capricious and destructive behaviour is a reflection of the natural world, says Natalie Haynes, it is also a mirror for human society and open to reinterpretation.


In this playful and sophisticated work, we see the goddesses wrangling with the patriarchy on Mount Olympus and get a fresh take on what drives them. The Muses are not handmaidens, as is commonly assumed, but goddesses who make poetry, song and music possible. Hera, wife of Zeus, might have been vengeful and jealous, but she was seriously provoked by her shamelessly philandering husband. Good-natured Hestia, goddess of home and hearth, has been rendered invisible over time even though she was once revered. Haynes brings these heroines alive in all their contradictions to reveal what makes them tick.

Silk & Venom
James O’Hanlon, NewSouth, $32.99


James O’Hanlon is on a mission to give the spider’s image a makeover. Armed with his passion for these maligned critters, plenty of fun facts and a snappy turn of phrase, his aim is to turn our fear into love. Cannily, he launches his campaign with the charismatic, social media sensation of dancing peacock spiders that are both eye-catching and endearing. Then there’s the super-smart, puzzle-solving Portia spider and the ant-mimicking spider that masquerades as a fierce green tree ant to keep predators at bay. While the positive properties of spider silk and the aesthetic beauty of webs are easily spruiked, O’Hanlon is also keen to point out the pharmaceutical possibilities of spider venom for attacking cancer cells and treating chronic pain. We don’t have to be the land of deadly arachnids, he says. It’s time to ditch the creepy crawly narrative and embrace our inner dancing spider.

Consent Laid Bare
Chanel Contos, Macmillan, $36.99


What does it say about a society when young women on dates with young men are made to feel that they ″⁣owe them their body″⁣? Given how deep this male sense of entitlement runs, Chanel Contos’ determination to confront it and advocate for consent in sexual relationships between young people is truly awe-inspiring. It started with a dawning awareness during her school years that sexual assault had been normalised in her cohort. Later, she put out a call for testimonies from her peers and was swamped. So began the Teach Us Consent movement, which resulted in state education ministers unanimously agreeing to make it part of the school curriculum. Contos speaks directly and honestly to young people, drawing on her own experiences to help them examine their own lives and the cultural norms that not only oppress them but take the joy and intimacy out of sex.

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