‘More a hand grenade than a book’

Review by Rohan Wilson in The Australian‘s Review magazine Saturday November 9, 2019.

Chafing satire and explosive views

  • By ROHAN WILSON
Heather Rose – Bruny Island – photography Peter Mathew

For the most part, Australian literature in the 21st century is fairly toothless.

On a good day, our writers can muster up some anger at the appalling treatment of our First ­Nations people or for the equally appalling treatment the LGBTI community suffers.

But outside of these worthy causes it seems as if our writers enjoy a middle-class contentment that turns their gaze inward to domestic life, rather than outward to civic life.

Meanwhile, the world is going through an economic revolution. The billionaire class and their neoliberal political attack dogs have convinced us that competition is the defining characteristic of human ­relations.

Wealth inequality is causing epidemics of depression, suicide and obesity. Property ownership has become an impossible dream for whole swaths of the community. A handful of powerful corporations are busy ­destroying our climate. Are our best writers asleep to what’s going on around them? ­­Or worse, are they happy with the status quo?

Heather Rose is perhaps the last writer I would have expected to come out swinging. Her previous novel, The Museum of Modern Love, won a swag of awards for its depiction of performance artist Marina Abramovic and her piece, The Artist is Present. It was a quiet, contemplative novel about the way art can bring people together and give us hope.

Now we have Bruny, which is more like a hand grenade than a book, with its excoriating satire and explosive views on our political and economic trajectory. It’s the best evidence we have yet that Australian writers are finally waking up to the unfolding crisis.

It begins with an explosion on the newly built Bruny Island bridge in the south of Tasmania. The bridge is meant to connect Bruny to the mainland, making life easier for the locals and boosting tourism.

Bruny Book
Bruny launched October 2019

The explosion has the hallmarks of a terrorist plot and it quickly becomes a central issue in the looming state election. Enter ­Astrid Coleman. Astrid is called in by her brother, JC, the premier of Tasmania and Liberal Party strongman. He wants a speedy resolution and thinks Astrid, who is an ­expert in conflict resolution based in New York, can bring together the various factions fighting over Tasmania’s future. But as Astrid starts to dig, she soon learns that JC’s motives are more nefarious than she first ­assumed.

Rose takes an episodic approach to her story, with Astrid in the field gathering information from bridge workers, restaurant owners, greenies, and anyone who might have reason to blow up the bridge.

A picture of contemporary Tasmania begins to emerge. We see how the politics of austerity have impoverished the community, we see how privatisation has given more and more power to unaccountable private tyrannies, and see, perhaps most frightening of all, that China has moved in to take advantage of Tasmania’s clean, green potential.

Astrid is not without her own problems, too. We learn that her parents’ marriage wasn’t as happy as it seemed and that it has left her with some anxieties to work through. Her own marriage fell apart after her husband revealed himself as a ­misogynist.

While she is world weary and somewhat cynical about her brother’s agenda, she maintains an optimistic outlook and a deep love for the island of her childhood. But her optimism is seriously challenged by the conspiracy she uncovers as the facts behind the destruction of the Bruny Island bridge come to light.

This is where the satire in the novel really starts to bite. The Chinese Communist Party views Tasmania as yet another Third World location where it might win some influence through investment in infrastructure. It ­insists that Chinese workers be shipped in to complete the repairs to the bridge and the Liberal government enthusiastically agrees.

Astrid starts to think that the bomb plot may have been staged in order to win support for a change in local employment laws to allow foreign workers to be shipped in wholesale. In fact, the truth is much, much worse.

As I read on and the scale of the conspiracy became clear, I had to put the book aside because I was laughing so hard.

This is audacious writing. It exposes the lies at the heart of neoliberal economics more clearly than any book in recent memory, and it does so with a vicious sense of irony.

And there’s something here for everyone. Whether it’s Astrid’s rule-breaking romantic interest in Dan, the manager of the bridge workers, or the family drama between Astrid and JC, or the political commentary and piss-taking, there are moments on every page that keep narrative tension bubbling away.

I certainly expect to see this book feature in major prize shortlists over the next 12 months. It’s the wake-up call we needed.

Bruny

By Heather Rose. Allen & Unwin, 424pp, $32.99

Rohan Wilson‘s most recent novel is Daughter of Bad Times.

From Heather: Rohan’s wonderful novel The Daughter of Bad Times shares many of the same concerns as Bruny – but is set in 2074 … do go seek it out!

Tasmania – creative paradise


 

Apple Isle
Apple Isle

 

So this is edition #151 of Island Magazine!

Managing Editor Vern Field thought it was time to concentrate on the wealth of Tasmanian writing talent – and came up with the apple idea. So together with the wonderful Island General Manager Kate Harrison and photographer Jack Robert-Tissot we trucked off to the apple orchards of the Huon to Willie Smith’s great venue. The brilliant Sophia Pafitis helped me look glamorous, and Jack did the rest. There was also some brilliant post-production work done by Malcolm Proctor. (Thank you Mal!).

But it’s what’s within the pages of this edition that surpasses the cover entirely! So many great words, ideas and writers – James Dryburgh, Melanie Tait, Carmel Bird and many more – and there’s also the transcript of the conversation the gorgeous Benjamin Law and I had in Hobart following the Stella Prize.

If you’re not a subscriber, it’s time you were! And at the very least, run out and get a copy and support Tasmania’s brilliant literary journal and all it’s writers and creators.

 

 

Why falling in love with great literature matters …


The Mercury published an edited version of a speech I recently gave to The Friends School. If you have a budding (or languishing) reader, this might prove useful. The whole speech appears in a previous blog below. Happy reading.  screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-5-07-53-pmThis lovely image with thanks: http://thats-normal.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/book-623163_1280.jpg

The Museum of Modern Love – almost published


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To anyone who wonders how long novels take to write … well, sometimes they take a very long time. Here is the cover art of my new novel –  The Museum of Modern Love – about to be published in Australia September 2016. It’s taken 11 years. I did write 4 other novels in the meantime – but it’s been a lesson in endurance. As the cover suggests, it’s about art – and also marriage. And Marina Abramovic is a character in the novel. I hope you enjoy it.

Elizabeth Gilbert comes to Hobart


Ok this is pretty exciting. Elizabeth Gilbert will be here in 10 days.

If you haven’t read Big Magic yet, please do. It’s a brilliant book on creativity. If you are an artist of any sort, or if you have friends who are trying to write their first novel, or are anywhere along the journey of the creative life, (or if you secretly think you might be more creative than you’ve ever allowed yourself to be) this is a boon companion.

I’ll have the pleasure of being in conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert at the Theatre Royal on February 18th. Apart from the wonderful Big Magic, we’ll be talking about The Signature of All Things – one of my favourite novels of all time (yes, I do mean that). And we might touch on that other (international mega-hit) book she wrote Eat, Pray, Love – and possibly the fascinating The Last American Man. We may even get to Stern Men. In short, Elizabeth Gilbert is a diverse and immensely talented writer who has so much to share about writing, commitment, creativity, productivity and courage.  And if you want to hear her, it’s a one-night-only-in-Hobart opportunity. Bless the Tasmanian Writers centre for making it happen.

Tickets are selling fast so please don’t miss out. Theatre Royal Box Office

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Writing retreats


One of the secrets of getting books done is sometimes to run away to some secluded little spot that allows complete, uninterrupted writing time. This month I’ve been lucky enough to find a house in the perfect location for my next novel. Where it is will remain a mystery until that novel is done. Some of you might recognise it. Others will wonder where to find that magnificent sunset… or that brilliant cloudscape … ah the wonders of Tasmania.

Bruny large 2

 

Bruny 3

 

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The exquisite Islington Hotel in Hobart asked me if I’d like to write about books. So here is the first in a new monthly review of a book I’ve recently discovered and enjoyed. And stay tuned for more about books and writing at the Islington through winter …

The Burgess Boys – by Elizabeth Strout

My grandfather was a Burgess – the youngest of many brothers – so the title of this novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout – felt warmly familiar.

In the novel, the lives of the three Burgess children are shaped by a freak accident. Now grown-up, the Burgess boys have settled in New York – both are lawyers, one famous with a rich wife from Connecticut, the other divorced and working for Legal Aid. The brothers are called back home to Shirley Falls in Maine where their frosty sister, Susan, still lives. Their nephew has just committed a hate crime.

BURGESS BOYS 1This is a novel of its time – yet without a moment of preaching or misplaced passion. Strout has a crisp, vivid style and evokes a range of classes and political views in this extraordinary novel of connection and dislocation. Like J.K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, Strout is fearless in her evocation of character, and it’s the characters that will hold you until the beautifully woven end. (How rare to find a satisfying end to a novel these days – but The Burgess Boys is flawless.)

Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge, a collection of connected short stories. One of these stories becomes a chapter in The Burgess Boys. I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge yet, but now it’s waiting on the To Read shelf.

Heather Rose

PS. The Islington is Hobart’s (and one of Australia’s) most beautiful and elegant places to stay. Perfect for couples wanting the ultimate retreat.  For more about the luxurious accommodation at The Islington visit: www.islingtonhotel.com

 And for the most beautiful place for groups to stay in Hobart (especially those who love to read) discover our own Library House – www.libraryhouse.com.au