Summer hols are just around the corner. If you're trying to figure out which books to pick up, and which to avoid, we at TLB Online might be able to help.
We've compiled a list of the most exciting, memorable and contentious pieces from the TLB Review of Books in 2017. This year has seen an exciting array of reviews, across a bunch of innovative genres. (Shout out to Jini Maxwell for writing our first review in hypertext; the future is here and it contains drawings of bin chickens.)
Narrowing these incomparable reviews down to a shortlist was challenging. We've picked the ten that we think best represent the huge stylistic and formal range we've seen this year in our reviews.
Take a look! It's not like you're getting anything done at work anyway.
‘Giving Up the Ghosts: a Review of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo’, by Dominic Amerena
The conceit is audacious and dangerous, total high-wire act stuff. In books like this there’s the potential for the writer to put on a great spectacle, or to fall flat on his face, and Saunders manages to do both at the same time. Lincoln in the Bardo is pure voice, comprised of little more than the ghosts (with their names transcribed, almost like a film script) narrating their interactions with Willie, and the pitiable back stories which have led them to be trapped in “this place of great sadness.” Woven throughout are excerpts from real primary documents (meticulously cited by Saunders), describing the historical circumstances surrounding Willie’s death. In a sense Saunders feels like a kind of curator, blending the real world with the one he has invented.
When I was maybe sixteen my father sticky-taped an A4 print-out of Dylan Thomas’ villanelle ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ on the toilet wall. The famous poem’s two refrains are its title, and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The rage, of course, is directed at the poet’s father’s mortality. At the time, it just seemed cool that Dad liked Dylan Thomas. Now, I wonder if he was trying to instil filial loyalty in my brothers and me. Like, You’ll regret your disobedience when I’m dead, children. As though children don’t constantly dream up the nightmare of their parents’ inevitable departure. As if their lives are not shaped in denial of its truth.
‘Pink Horror: The Violent Feminine in Nicola Maye Goldberg’s Other Women’, by Mikaella Clements
We know tragic women. The well-loved trope of doomed women, fictional or historical, is both overused and comforting in literature; immediately recognisable, somehow soothing. In Nicola Maye Goldberg’s debut novel Other Women the unnamed narrator nods to the “pantheon of dead girls: Ophelia, Sylvia Plath, Emma Bovary, Laura Palmer, Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette.” The girls lost to men and violence and history. A long line of women who deserved better. A group of bitter ghosts.
Initially it seems Other Women’s fraught, depressed narrator might join them, but instead, “Sometime shortly after I dropped out,” she explains, “I gave up on being a Sad Girl and got used to being a Sick Girl instead.”
‘Now What? A Review of They Cannot Take the Sky’, by Shirley Le
Collected and edited by oral history organisation Behind the Wire, They Cannot Take the Sky posits itself as a crucial voice amid the catchy tweets of the right’s elite and the armchair activism of those who kind-of-care-but-not-really. This is a collection of stories that demands readers examine the part that they play in the human rights crisis created by successive governments’ infamously cruel refugee policies.
‘We Become Deserters: a Review of Wayne Macauley’s Some Tests’, by Jennifer Mills
Another writer might be satisfied by filling out the premise of Some Tests, but not Macauley. As with his previous novel, The Cook, reading Some Tests is rather like being the proverbial frog in the saucepan. The turning points are incremental, the rules obscure; the reader and Beth are in this pot together. Like The Cook, this is a book that takes an issue and, by following a single character’s journey, explores it at length. I’ll avoid spoilers, but there’s a different kind of key change here. Some Tests becomes an extraordinary treatise on the autonomy of the sick, a meditation on mortality, and an exploration of the nature of acceptance that is at once sinister and spiritual.
I don’t know how Anna Krien would relate to this, but from where I stand, her essay on the Adani mine, the Great Barrier Reef and Australian politics looks like nothing less than an impossible feat – the result of a powerful mind, a resilient spirit and a natural ease with narrative. In this moment of political madness, linguistic manipulation, continuing colonial violence, environmental degradation and erosion of democracy, here is a writer who is able to use words to help us relate to the fact of our existence, rather than fling us further into the kind of confused darkness I’ve been fumbling in.
'A Question of Literary Value: A Review of Conversations with Friends', by Cosima McGrath
As dull-eyed morning commuters pushed past me and the tram jolted left onto Spring Street, one thing became clear to me as I read: this story was still giving me an intense case of ~feelings~. Later I told my psychologist about a line I had read that seemed to capture my mood: “I looked like something that had dropped off a spoon too quickly, before it had time to set.” Spoon-goo. While I struggled to articulate my own emotional life, the story once again offered me a glimpse into the emotional life of Frances and thoughtfully sketched the profound interiority of desire. Free from embellishment or garnish, her raw desires were alarming and immediate. The central characters were as bewitching as ever and I was hooked and devastated all over again.
That’s why I think this book often punches hardest when it’s set to ‘hallucinogenic political satire’ mode. There’s a whole section called ‘Cathy Industries’ about a woman who’s clinging to her stake in the prison business (or ‘prisuisness’ as they’re thinking of calling it). She ends up manufacturing a news story and the whole thing plays out like a particularly dark and unhinged episode of The Thick of It, complete with escalating ineptness and rapid-fire insults (for the record “his face looked like a cubist had gone at him with more than just a paintbrush” is my favourite Malcolmism). And, just like with The Thick of It, the true achievement is that you actually grow to kind of love all the awful, conniving characters doing duplicitous things.