This month I've been reading some of the more established names in Australian literature including Thea Astley (her Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Drylands is astonishingly good but appears to be out of print), David Malouf (I adored Harland’s Half-Acre and have promptly added more of his extensive back catalogue to my wishlist) and Tim Winton (I found the Booker shortlisted Dirt Music to be both beautiful and bonkers by turn). But it was Thomas Keneally who captured my heart with The Daughters of Mars, a powerful novel about two sisters from rural NSW who are nurses during the Great War.
This is one of those proper epics that traverses continents, hemispheres and world history, and tells the story, not only of sibling rivalries, family obligations and small-town jealousies, but of what it was to go to the other side of the earth to nurse the men so horribly maimed and injured, first in the Dardanelles, then on the Western Front. Keneally brings to life so much of that brutal conflict, I found myself grimacing in places, wiping tears away at others. Yet this book is never soppy or sentimental.
I loved reading a wide-ranging story that took me to the Egyptian training camps, put me firmly on board a hospital ship, had me working in an emergency hospital in war-torn France and showed me what it was like to be a working woman far from home during a conflict we only ever seem to read about from a man’s perspective. It’s warm and intimate, and the female voices ring true at every turn. The medical procedures and treatments are described in exacting — and visceral — detail, which helps to make the carnage, the turmoil and the trauma so vivid. It's definitely a worthy addition to that great canon of literature about the First World War.
Indeed it is testament to Keneally’s talent that he kept me entertained for more than 500 pages of densely packed prose. Do pack this one in your suitcase if you’re planning a trip away: it will keep you wholly absorbed for your entire holiday!
M.R Carey’s first book was the phenomenally successful The Girl with All the Gifts, which centred on Melanie and her very special gift. In Carey’s next book we follow Jess Moulson as she finds herself inside the titular Fellside, a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. While there she makes a decision that takes her close to death and as a consequence meet a ghost as her life once again changes.
To say much more about the plot would reveal surprises that are best left to be discovered. I will say that the cast of characters around Jess does make it feel likes she’s in a working private prison; one that is suffering from a high degree of corruption. The atmosphere within the walls of Fellside that the prisoners endure through only intensifies their suffering.
Apart from a prison drama and ghost story it is also a mystery yet Carey does not shy away from the raw realities of prison life. One particualar scene will make you look at hammers a little differently... Due to the corrosive environment any salvation that Jess does find is short lived as those around her drag her into their own plans. It is a journey that will have you the reader saying, ‘Poor, poor, Jess’ at the novel’s conclusion.
Not Working appeared on my desk - at work - a few months ago, accompanied by a little pot of bright red paperclips and a note from its editor to say she hoped I would enjoy it. Was she hinting I needed to be more organised? It all started to make sense as soon as I started reading. In this debut novel, written in a first person diary-like series of vignettes, Lisa Owens charts the progress of Claire Flannery, who has chosen to leave her career in PR to pursue her dream of…what was it again?
Except that dream has turned into quite a lot of wearing pyjamas, or sweat pants, eating crisps and watching daytime TV, doing small odd jobs and making lists in the flat she shares with her patient tongue-biting neurosurgeon partner, and taking stock of her life. As she compares herself to her relatives, friends and colleagues, the pressure and self-doubt builds, and Claire’s plans start to crumble.
Claire is brutally honest about herself, inviting us to laugh and wince at her faux-pas, celebrate her triumphs - admittedly few and far between - and perhaps even shed tears at moments which are painfully real and awkward. Owens presents choices and situations that will be all too familiar to women-who-work - compromising, feeling duty-bound to family, measuring up to friends, occasionally being hamstrung by your own lack of confidence - and writes them without judgement and with an engaging character and fantastic style that you’ll love. I found it a refreshing and empowering read from a clearly talented first-time writer.
Not Working is perfect for fans of Bridget Jones Diary, Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ TV series and is out now.