Complication by Fikret Pajalic

This is a compilation of 16 stories from a writer who came to Australia in his 20s as a refugee from the Balkans. Bosnia and Melbourne feature heavily. The subject matter won’t suit all readers: there’s a content warning on the title page. The stories are raw and uncompromising and the interactions between characters often end in violence. Within the stories is a mix of ingrained racism, casual misogyny, criminality and simmering anger which sits either just below or well above boiling point.

Animals, especially dogs, are a consistent story companion – not always in a good way, unfortunately.

There is a point of difference in each of the stories, whether it’s as a migrant in an homogenous setting, or – as in ‘Dinosaur’ – working as a forklift driver, but having creative talents explored in a sculpting course at night school. These points of difference are exploited, sometimes vocally, sometimes physically, but always with the intention of humiliation.

Thankfully, there are occasional glimpses of humanity. In ‘Names of Wildflowers’, the narrator is called Jim by his boss, although that’s nowhere close to his actual name. (The Anglicising of names is also a recurrent theme.) As the two men work together, barriers are eventually removed and Faruk is given his real name. As Faruk reflects on his journey from war-torn Sarajevo, a quote from his mother perfectly encapsulates Australia from a refugee’s point of view: ‘Is anyone even sure this place is real?’.

I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ these stories (I found the subject matter unsettling and disturbing), but I could appreciate the skill of the writing. In Complication Pajalic uses his talents to explore the limits of everyday humanity, or the lack thereof.

Reviewed by Bob Moore


Fikret Pajalic authorFikret Pajalic came to Melbourne as a refugee, learnt English in his mid-twenties and started writing years later. He has won and placed in competitions, published in anthologies and literary magazines. His fiction has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Etchings, Sleepers, Antipodes, The Big Issue, Hotel Amerika, Wisconsin Review, The Minnesota Review, Fjords Review, Sheepshead Review, Bop Dead City, Structo, Paper and Ink, JAAM and elsewhere.

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The Only Girl in Town by Ally Condie    

In the small US town of Lithia, a group of girls run in the cross-country team for their local high school. July Fielding – not the fastest runner, but one of the mainstays – narrates this wonderfully eerie, surrealist story of teenage isolation. The team has a Friday run to Falls Creek, where the extra challenge is the jump from the cliff into the creek. This jump is central to the storyline.

July is walking back from the water when she realises all the townspeople have disappeared. She is mystifyingly alone. There’s no one around – no friends, no family. The school’s marquee display then shows, ‘GET TH3M BACK’ (there’s only one ‘E’ in the notice board box). She wishes she had her cat, Yolo, with her, and he wanders back into her life. Could she just wish for the others?

The narrative is in prose, but some chapters read as poetry. She feels there’s a person directing her, but they’re elusive: ‘flickering like a candle, like stars behind clouds’. Clues as to July’s isolation are drip-fed to the reader in short alternating chapters relating to both the present and the previous summer, along with a transcript of July’s session with her therapist. The clues feel like bricks to be laid by the reader with no idea of what the final shape of the building will be. Items associated with her friends and family appear, directing her to different locations. She eventually realises that the jump is where she will find the answers.

Condie’s writing is crystal clear in The Only Girl in Town. July needs to find the others in her life but, more importantly, she needs to find herself. Only then will life return to normal.

Reviewed by Bob Moore



Ally Condie authorAlly Condie is the author of the #1 New York Times-bestselling Matched trilogy and its companion novel, The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe. She is also the author of Summerlost, an Edgar Award winner. A former English teacher, Ally lives with her family outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. She loves hiking, skiing, and being outside with people she loves. Ally has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is the founder and director of the nonprofit WriteOut Foundation.

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Day by Michael Cunningham

Observation is an essential skill for writers, but observation without incisiveness is just a laundry list. Cunningham has the skill, the incisiveness and the passion to turn observation into profundity.

This is not a plot-based novel. It’s a quiet, compelling narrative in which, by going through the mundanities of daily living, characters are revealed (to others and the readers, rather than to themselves).

Isabel lives with husband, Dan, and kids, Nathan and Violet. Her brother, Robbie, lives upstairs in their New York apartment for the moment, but Nathan is getting older and will need his own room. Dan’s brother, Garth, has fathered a child with Chess. She needed his sperm to produce her son, Odin; she doesn’t want to share her life with him. This is the ensemble cast whose lives are dissected on separate days one year apart.

The morning of 5 April 2019 has an air of possibility. Robbie will find a new apartment. Isabel and Dan will find a way to work through their marriage. Garth will mature. Chess might let him into her life. Nathan will be the cool kid. Violet will astound her parents as much as she already does Robbie.

In the bright afternoon light of 5 April 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, possible roads to the future become dead ends. Then, in the evening of 5 April 2021 it’s a time for reflection on yesterdays and the expectation of tomorrows.

Cunningham’s characters live in an ‘intricate mix of concurrence and opposition’, where life is ultimately unknowable. His writing echoes the ‘tunnelling’ literary device of Virginia Woolf, where the narrative voice moves from one character’s consciousness to another. Utterly brilliant writing.

Reviewed by Bob Moore



Michael Cunningham author

Rarely missing a telling detail or a larger emotional truth, Michael Cunningham masterfully explores the quiet, private moments of a life. Crediting Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway with allowing him to entertain “the wild hope” of being a writer, Cunningham deftly evokes fleeting thoughts and states of consciousness in his books.

Michael Cunningham was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1952 and grew up in La Cañada, California. He received his B.A. in English Literature from Stanford University and his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. His novel A Home at the End of the World was published in 1990 to wide acclaim.

Flesh and Blood, another novel, followed in 1995. He received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel, The Hours.  He has written one nonfiction book, Land’s End: A Walk Through Provincetown. He is the author of Specimen Days, and By Nightfall which has been optioned for the movies.

Michael Cunningham is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award (1995), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1993), a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1988), and a Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa (1982). He is currently a senior lecturer in the English department at Yale University.

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Late by Michael Fitzgerald

What if Hollywood’s quintessential blond bombshell didn’t die from an overdose, but staged her death and moved to Australia? Fitzgerald has a penchant for weaving an imaginative narrative around historical figures. This novel is set in the late 1980s in Sydney’s coastal periphery of The Gap at Watsons Bay, and sees Zelda Zonk – alliterative initials moving from the middle of the alphabet to the end – living a quiet, Jewish life in an apartment designed by Australia’s foremost modernist architect. (You’ll note that names are alluded to, and this sense of mystery continues throughout the narrative.)

Zelda meets Daniel after he’s locked out of the nearby apartment he’s housesitting. She finds the pair have much in common. Daniel reveals he’s adopted, so both have had ‘before and after’ lives. His birth mother’s surname is Davenport, so the alliteration continues too. The setting and time are vital: Daniel is gay; 1980s Watsons Bay was the site of gay-hate murders disguised as suicides. Zelda and Daniel cross the harbour to find his mother and on return are confronted by a violent man intent on causing Daniel harm.

Repeated alliteration, assonance and synaesthetic imagery imbue the narrative with poetic lyricism. This is deliberate, as Zelda’s previous incarnation demands to be seen as a ‘writer and a student of literature’. To this end, the novel has plentiful literary references, particularly from that most difficult text, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Late is a beautifully written paean to both the actress and to Sydney. Her life is remembered in scenes (rather than chapters), and Sydney’s landscape is rendered majestically, despite the horrors perpetrated there.

Reviewed by Bob Moore



Michael Fitzgerald author Michael Fitzgerald grew up in Melbourne and moved to Sydney in the early 1990s to work on Time Warner Inc.’s launch of the celebrity magazine Who. He later became the South Pacific arts editor of Time, and for the past two decades has been an art magazine editor, most recently with Art Monthly Australasia.

He made his literary debut in 2017 with The Pacific Room, a fictional speculation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s travels through Oceania, followed by Pietà (2021), inspired by the restoration of Michelangelo’s sculpture. Late is his third novel.

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The Conversion by Amanda Lohrey

To pick up an Amanda Lohrey novel is to be drawn in from the first page. A subtext of underlying themes however inevitably enriches the experience and prompts reflections that endure beyond the end of the book. This is very much the case with her latest novel, The Conversion.

The story begins with a middle-aged couple who decide to sell their suburban Federation villa and buy a deconsecrated church in the country. As events unfold the bricks and mortar conversion is echoed in the self-renovation of Zoe, the protagonist. When calamitous events leave her grappling with grief, disorientation, betrayal and shattered self-belief, moving forward becomes as much of a dilemma as integrating stained glass windows, altars, fonts, and other ecclesiastical effects within a conventional home.

As she discovers, heavenward aspiring church architecture with its insistence on the vertical is unsuited to the domestic space, and the quandary of how to reframe the original purpose of the building without desecrating it provokes anxieties on unexpected levels.

Perfect harmony in the material sense proves as illusory an aspiration for Zoe as reconstructing a future without rationalising past losses. Disconcerting visitations of a ghost from her recent past not only keep her awake at night but threaten to topple the fragile identity she’s striving to build.

The Conversion is a quieter book than Lohrey’s Miles Franklin Literary Award winner The Labyrinth and as such may attract less acclaim, however as an incisive commentary on contemporary material, social and cultural values it’s startlingly revealing.

Reviewed by Anne Green



Amanda Lohrey authorAmanda Lohrey lives in Tasmania and writes fiction and non-fiction. She has taught at the University of Tasmania, the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Queensland. Amanda is a regular contributor to the Monthly magazine and a former senior fellow of the Australia Council’s Literature Board.

She received the 2012 Patrick White Award. The Labyrinth (2021), her eighth work of fiction, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, a Prime Minister’s Literary Award, a Tasmanian Literary Award and the Voss Literary Prize.

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