I "accidentally" read two Australian novels in a row this weekend. I'm embarrassed to say I don't think I've ever read any Australian literature! I have some Oz authors on my TBR shelves (two or three Peter Carey books and a couple of Kate Grenville's) but until yesterday, they remained TBR. (OK, I just realized I read The Thorn Birds, but that was oh so many lifetimes ago.)
For Orange July I'd picked out a Grenville (The Idea of Perfection - 2001 Orange Prize winner) and a new book by Gail Jones, Sorry, from the 2008 long list. These books are quite different from each other but both excellent reads and worthy of recognition.
The Idea of Perfection is filled with quirky characters, mostly people who are uncomfortable in their own skin and who question their own every move and every word that comes out of their mouth (or not, as the case may be). Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman both end up in "the bush," in the small town of Karakarook, NSW, pop 1374. They are there for very different reasons: she, to set up a heritage museum and he, to help destroy the town's most prominent heritage icon, Bent Bridge. Conflict ensues.
One of the lesser characters was my favorite: Felicity Porcelline is obsessed (putting it mildly) with her looks and youth, so obsessed that she constantly thinks about how she is holding her face or her neck so as not to cause a line or, God forbid, a wrinkle.
If she did not smile between now and when he came home, she could afford to give him two smiles tonight. And after each smile she could just pop into the bathroom for a moment to undo the damage by smoothing a little dab of moisturiser around the corners of the mouth.I found her character incredibly sad and, though Grenville draws Felicity a bit over the top, it's not that far a stretch when we see almost global obsession with youth and beauty.
She would listen very attentively as he told her about his day, and after the second smile there would probably be no need to smile again for the rest of the evening.
The book is humorous and poignant, with characters who struggle to find their place in the world. There's so much discomfort in the characters that I often found myself squirming for them. It's a coming-of-middle-age story.
Grenville makes wonderful use of italics. She doesn't use quotation marks in dialogue, which I thought would make me crazy, but it's quite seamless and effective. Highly recommend.
Sorry is set in western Australia beginning in 1930. It alternates seamlessly between the first and third person narrative of Perdita, the only - and unexpected - child of Nicholas and Stella Keene, recent immigrants from England. Nicholas is cruel and abusive; Stella is mentally ill and is forever quoting Shakespeare soliloquys and sonnets. Perdita, partly out of survival, easily befriends Aborigines and outcasts (such as Billy, a deaf mute neighbor boy).
Perdita's life is filled with loss - of family, caregivers, friends, home. They are evacuated when the Japanese attack Broome. She must start over numerous times. She is sad but strong. When she develops a debilitating stutter after witnessing her father's murder (opening scene, not a spoiler!), she gains a deep understanding of others who struggle to fit in where no one wants them.
This is a tender book, the relationships between Perdita and Billy, Mary, Flora, Stella and the doctor who ultimately helps her discover her truth are beautifully drawn. Highly recommend.
I found an online Australian slang dictionary to be quite helpful while reading these books, for words like chook (chicken), ute (utility vehicle), barbie (barbeque) and billy (container for boiling water). The language is colorful and the landscape lends a unique feel to the stories.
I'm looking forward to reading more by these fine authors --and finally getting to those Peter Carey books too!