Meet Madelaine…

Meet Madelaine Dickie: a young writer who has just received a scholarship to finish her debut novel overseas. I spoke with Madelaine about her novel, her interest in writing, and how being Australian influences her writing.


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Telling You How It Feels

Author: Brendan Cowell

Publisher: Pan Macmillian Australia

Year: 2010

RRP: $26.95

How It Feels is a good title for Brendan Cowell’s debut novel, because you’ll seldom find another book that so meticulously, brashly tracks how it feels to grow up.

The novel is told from the perspective of Neil Cronk: a shy, artsy boy in Cronulla who is itching, scratching, dying to get right back out of it, in that idealistic way that kids think they are bigger than the place they come from- in this case, Sydney.  However, Neil has more ties to Cronulla than he can count: his equally outcasted best friend Gordon, his other best friend, popular and attractive surf head Stuart and his beautiful, smart girlfriend Courtney, whose brother Tommy killed himself a few years earlier, and whose family is all but destroyed over it.

The novel returns at regular flag posts in Neil’s life, between him finishing his HSC, his move away from Sydney and his return to Cronulla ten years later. And in that time a lot has changed. One of the gang is famous, two of them are getting married, and one of them is dead (and not to spoil anything but it’s not who you think).

To talk about the tone of the novel is mighty difficult without giving too  much of the plot away because it is so nostalgic- but for a reason. It’s equally as difficult to not give away the ending of the book and almost stupid not to, considering that anyone who picks it up will have pretty well figured it out about halfway in. Not that it matters, because even without a surprise ending its still really compelling stuff. Cowell finishes each of his chapters by introducing a new twist or new idea, which is a kind of cheap theatric in novel writing, but since How It Feels already is based on this reflective kind of confessional, it works as a technique in pulling you through his massive novel.

Furthermore it all works because the book is so damn well clever- and even more so, the more you think about it. The reason for Neil’s inability to get his act together and make things work with Courtney is foreshadowed so many times you couldn’t count it, but Cowell masterfully cloaks these admissions in Aussie vernacular, so they are dismissed rather than given the weight they deserve. Even when, rather obviously, Courtney’s badly traumatized mother refers to Neil as a son, or mentions how much he looks like Tommy, the significance of this to his relationship with Courtney is not realised until the book is well and truly finished (or given a second read).

As a thematic, Tommy’s suicide, along with all the others in the book, is never truly discussed, never addressed, and like in life hangs as a ghost over Cowell’s sea of characters. Whether or not suicide is as frequent in ‘The Shire’ as the book represents is unknown, but the resonation of each individual death, and the eventual blasé attitude in which the subject is broached, stands true and pure like gospel.

The only real criticism would be how much the book relies on sex to be titillating. It could very well be called How It Feels Between his Legs because hardly a page goes by without the work ‘fuck’, especially in reference to Courtney. While this is somewhat addressed by the ending it’s a little tiring, and if the main plotline wasn’t so meaty, you’d probably close the book during one of the very mundane orgies Neil experiences.

It also becomes tiring because, while troubled, Neil is not a very likeable person. He is arrogant and brash, rude and self-centred, which leads to the downfall of so many of the characters in the novel. But depression is, afterall, the selfish disease and in this way Cowell presents a very realistic picture indeed.

And indeed the whole book is. It’s hard not to find Cowell’s novel extremely uncomfortable, just because of how emotionally true to life it is. As someone from Sydney longing to get out of the place and find something else, a lot of what Cowell’s narrator was saying resonated in an eerie way, almost as if it were my own thoughts printed on that page. This is where the book’s core and the book’s hearts lies: because who among us hasn’t wished to just hop on a plane or a bus or a train and never ever come back? Well if you have then this is How It Feels.

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A Love Story

Genre: Historical/Romantic Fiction

Author: Mardi McConnochie

Publisher: Viking Adult

Year: 2011

RRP: $29.95

A love story was exactly Mardi McConnochie’s premise for her latest novel The Voyagers. The Sydney writer was sitting in her book club and was told to think of a really good love story- to no avail. So McConnochie decided to write one herself.

The fruits of this labour are as romantic as they come. Set in Sydney in 1943 The Voyagers is about the romance of Stead and Marina. Stead, an American solider, met Marina when he was stationed in Sydney and the two spent 3 glorious days together before Stead was shipped out. Now that he is returning to Sydney 5 years later he decides to pay his former love a visit- only to learn that Marina has been missing for most of that time.

Stead resolves to find the missing Marina, taking him across the globe from London to Singapore.  What grows from this is a romantic retelling of their former romance and an exploration of the enduring love of Stead for the woman he knew so briefly.

The novel is the fourth from McConnochie who burst onto the literary scene in 2001 with Coldwater, a story about the ‘what ifs’ of transplanting the Bronte sisters into a penal colony in NSW, and won McConnochie one of the Washington Post‘s books of the year. Before that, McConnochie was a play writer and her novels resound with the benefits of this experience: full of dense characterization, attentive detail to plot and impossibly resolute themes.

The Voyagers, with it’s romantic heroes and whimsical storyline looks set to follow in this trend.

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Sydney Writer’s Festival

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It’s that glorious time of year again for bookworms and budding authors alike: the start of the Sydney Writer’s Festival.

The festival has big shoes to fill after last years effort, which blew box office records away by earning more than $700,000 through the duration of the event.

The event will open with an address from Fatima Bhutto, author of Songs of Blood and Sword, about the dangers and corruptions in her home country in Pakistan.

Another highlight of the festival is an exclusive book signing with former imate at Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks. The festival will be his first public appearence since the book, Guantanamo: My Journey was released late last year.

The festival also features an appearence from Ingrid Betancourt, who surived six years in the Columbian jungle as a hostage and Téa Obreht, a rising literary star who was recently named on the The New Yorkers ‘Top 20 Under 40’ list.

A panel discussion with Australian and International authors on the nature of the WikiLeaks controversy as both a media outlet and a political effort is also set to draw crowds to festival.

The annual event will run for a week, from May 16 -22, and takes place in Sydney CBD and it’s suburban surrounds.

For more information on the festival and other events, please visit the Sydney Writer’s Festival’s website 

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Meet Kaitlyn…

Image Sources: Image provided by Kaitlyn Carlia.

Meet Kaitlyn Carlia: she is a mere month away from finishing her bachelor’s degree in creative writing. I spoke with Kaitlyn about her writing, her inspirations, and what her degree has done for her creative pursuits.

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China Bans Writer From Traveling to Sydney

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Chinese writer Liao Yiwu has been forced to cancel his appearence at the Sydney Writer’s Festival after the Chinese Government banned him from traveling outside his home country.

The move comes after an earlier decision by Chinese officials to prevent Mr Liao attending to New York to speak at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

Mr Liao, is a poet and author, who had been jailed for 4 years composing poetry on the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

He had been due to come to Sydney to discuss his new book The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China and to peform some of his controversial poetry. He was also to speak on China’s increasingly political influence in Australia.

Liao told the New York Times that officials had invited him to a teahouse in his hometown of Chengdu and told him that he was not to travel internationally.

The ban comes after the Chinese government canceled several cultural forums planned by western embassies and intensified bans on social media use.

Artistic Director for the Sydney Writer’s Festival Chip Rolley has said, in a statement on the festival’s homepage that, the “Sydney Writers’ Festival is deeply disappointed by this decision… Our primary concern is for Liao Yiwu who has been denied the fundamental right to express his views freely. We are astonished by the Chinese government’s additional demand that he not publish his works internationally.”

The Sydney Writer’s Festival will be held from the 16-22 of May in locations around the CBD and surrounding suburbs.

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Paradise or Something Similar

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Author: Helen Dinmore

Published In: Overland

Date: Autumn 2011

Have you ever felt alone? Have you ever felt like you were the only person who could see outside the box, through the glass to what the world was really like? Have you ever felt unplugged?

These are the questions presented in Helen Dinmore’s Unplugged, a short story featured in the March edition of Overland.

It tells the story of a jaded traveller who seeks more in her travels but has reached the grim realization that more, or even a genuinely foreign experience is impossible. The unnamed traveller begins the story with her boyfriend Adam as the pair spend their time in Thailand watching Hollywood movies, in particular The Matrix. As the piece moves on the unnamed traveller has left her boyfriend but is still in Thailand: bored with her experience, but too apathetic to leave, too resigned to the fact she has seen it all and gotten nothing real in return.

It is impossible not to draw comparisons between Unplugged and Alex Garland’s The Beach. Both are set in Thailand and both involved a weary traveller seeking genuine, out of the ordinary experience. The difference is that Dinmore’s piece is more sardonic and more apathetic. Her narrator craves the authentic Thailand but is too weary to find it. If Richard had ever met Dinmore’s unnamed traveller chances are he would never have gone to the beach; he would have packed his things and travelled right on home to England.

Dinmore’s presentation of this apathy is what makes the short story so captivating. For a running inner commentary the piece is seamless, as time and thoughts run from one bland experience to the next.  It’s paints a startlingly realistic picture of the drawbacks of experience and the limitations of expecting to buy it, in such a spoilt, western fashion. Even more clever are the segue of The Matrix films which bonds different times of experience together and links it cleverly to reality or being ‘unplugged’ in the movie.  It is this ironic idea, of a movie presenting the metaphor for reality, that makes Dinmore’s unnamed traveller so realistic, so like us and her disappointment in her travels so familiar.

Unplugged is not really a haunting story. And at the end of it there is no resounding message to take from it, much like the travels that the narrator has been taking. All that is left is the vague  realisation that in this kind of spoilt malaise, you, weary traveller, are not alone.

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