Tag Archives: Book Review

Stroke of brilliance behind Aussie crawl

“There are not enough great international novels about failure. This is one of them.”

A Writer’s review of Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda.

AN Australian book tackling the mask of bravado worn by the successful Aussie sportsman was well overdue by the time Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda was published in 2013.

The author could have chosen from a multitude of codes and team pursuits, but focussing on competitive swimming was an exquisite selection. An individual pastime that traps the practitioner in a world broken down into opposing elemental forces – wet and dry, fast and slow, breath and suffocation, diving in and getting out – it also polarises the story’s hero into a gripping battle between himself and others.

barracudaYoung Danny’s wilful ascent to the pinnacle, assisted by the affirmation of a scholarship to a sports-connected Melbourne private school, is told with relentless energy. While he is an outwardly defiant creature who carries important secrets, Danny’s inner voice reveals truths he cannot escape from. Tsiolkas lets us see him within and without, a technique that breaks all the rules yet rounds-out his hero’s lies and hidden pain so effectively.

With his quick, sharp stabs, Tsiolkas is a writer who gets under the skin, but his blade is just in this ripping tale of ambition and competition and their devastating impact on families.

The way the author toys with time challenges the reader’s sense of hope for Danny. Swapping between future, past and present events always gave me hope – too much of it – that somehow Danny would find redemption in his climb to the heights of Olympic fame.

But Tsiolkas’ montage style does a lot more than that. His frenzied, fast-moving juxtapositions underpin the speed at which I was able to read this work. I have not felt so enlivened by a book since Tim Winton’s page-turning, problematic work of genius, The Riders.

In the late 1990s, when Tsiolkas’ first book Loaded was filmed as Head On, I read an interview with Tsiolkas in which he challenged the very idea of the ‘Aussie Battler’, and my life being what it was at that time – in a process of great upheaval as I was coming out – I could do nothing but cheer for his indictment of old-fashioned notions of what constitutes an Australian family.

Barracuda is a deeper exploration of similar territory, although since Head On, Tsiolkas’ work has become far more expansive, taking more prisoners along the way.

In The Slap he was accused of padding out a powerful if repetitive story, but Barracuda pulls off this style in a more life-enlarging way, as Danny’s journey plays out unexpectedly well beyond school and the swimming pool.

His journey back from the brink charts classic recovery territory, but it also breaks new ground.

BIG FISH Australian author Christos Tsiolkas.
BIG FISH Australian author Christos Tsiolkas.

Danny is another of Tsiolkas’ living, breathing gay protagonists, and the choices he faces about loving relationships are written with a resounding ring of truth. The visceral sex scenes, underpinned by gripping descriptions of the desires behind the mechanics, speak to much more than the act itself. They go to the heart of identity, just another tool in Danny’s arsenal of choices, like winning races, remaining his family’s hero, and the role of men in society.

In the dénouement, I wondered whether the amount of expression Danny and his family achieve was realistic – it’s the kind of resolution many yearn for in real life, particularly those who have not lived up to the expectations they’ve put on themselves, or had placed on them by others.

But Tsiolkas’ fractured style allows us to see the untruths and the emotional shortcomings his protagonist does not see in himself. In some ways this puts us, and Danny, back at square one, but it feels apt.


With Danny’s second chance, Tsiolkas is asking the reader to wonder if life is possible without some degree of lying to oneself.

There are not enough great international novels about failure. This is one of them.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Clive’s reliable boy’s-own tales

A Writer’s review of Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs.

“Insights into the raw appetites that drove an Aussie boy.”

CLIVE James’ first memoir is a time capsule bursting with relics from a suburban Australian childhood. Thirty-five years after its first publication,  it sits uneasily in a culture that may have evolved around it, yet it contains the seeds of our time in the author’s ‘bloggy’ voice.

Clive James is an icon and a cliché. The person who remains most shocked about the ease of his advancement into the box seat of popular culture is him, although Unreliable Memoirs gives several insights into the raw appetites that drove an Aussie boy who was always hungry for something tastier than he was getting.

9780330264631The classic first edition cover image (which places Clive and his mother right within the typography of the title) hints at storylines that James avoids, and which would be far more interesting to this reader than most of his ‘boy scout’ adventures.

I wanted to know a lot more about the ongoing emotional tussle he and his mother had in the wake of the untimely death of his father in the first chapter, at a time when Clive was a young child. I believe this conflict would shed light on the journey all Australian creatives take.

But to chart those waters would lead to very little of the schtick we have come to expect from Clive James, although he acknowledges that the reason he does not is because he didn’t pay much attention to the single parent who protected him through the years this first volume of his memoirs covers.

Very few young Aussie boys do, busy as they are seeking validation within the dominant male culture.

“Confessions of a same-sex ‘phase’ for young men would have been considered scandalous.”

James got a lot of critical flack for focussing on the sex lives of young teenagers, but these are the most honest passages of this book. At the time it was published, confessions of a same-sex ‘phase’ for young men would have been considered scandalous, yet even now this element of Unreliable Memoirs admit truths our culture does not want to.

James’ book recalls childhood freedoms, but it feels cloistered, and that quality is just right for evoking the sheltered culture he (and most of us) grew up in during the second half of the 20th century in Australia.

By the time the closing chapters see him off to England, his adopted ‘Mother Country’, James is busy evoking some kind of abortive ‘mother’ whose birth canal he escapes by emerging from Sydney Heads; and it’s not until visiting the Changi POW camp, where his father was imprisoned, that James engages in any kind of humour-free introspection.


The last page is the most powerful writing in this book, refreshingly devoid of James’ stock-in-trade send-ups.

I suspect he may have learned something of this emotional connection from his mother, if only he’d recalled that in as much detail as the boy’s own yarns.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Garner giving us grief

A writer’s review of Helen Garner’s This House of Grief.

HOW can an average Aussie bloke be present at one of the worst deaths imaginable – the swift drowning of his three sons inside his car in a deep, dark dam – without managing to recall a single coherent fact or memory about how or why it took place?

“Like a mirage that turns out to be drinkable water, Garner eventually notices something in the relentless evidence of the second trial.”

With unassailable courtroom credentials loaded into her knitting bag, Helen Garner took on the unenviable role of witnessing both Robert Farquharson’s trials and extracting answers from the experience.

As the resulting book opens, we know as little as she does about the case, having switched off to the patently horrific outcome; but almost immediately we’re right within the inevitable tug-of-war between the prosecution and defence teams, privy to every piece of evidence that will decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

this-house-of-griefThere is no observing from the edges for anyone, and Garner leads us through plenty of opportunities to make early judgements. 

Farquharson’s past paints him first as a pitiable sook, a man who’s missed out, been hard done by, and Garner runs with this thread to the point of describing the crime as having been caused by “the car that went into the dam”, completely disassociating it from the man, the father, the one in control of the vehicle.

This segues into gripping sections where even the water in the dam takes form as a character in the drama, separate to and more powerful than the man who put his children in the path of a swift, liquid death.

But soon after, shocked by her need to imagine an alternate, mythical survival for the three boys, Garner shakes herself out of a funk and asks: Am I stupid?

Presenting herself as nothing more than a type of ‘everywoman’ observer is her greatest power as a writer, yet she reveals frailties and hypocrisies the whole way, which only adds to the transparency.

Sifting through the clarity of crime-scene photographs, dramatic recreations of the car’s sinking, and striking word-portraits of key witnesses, Garner admits that something as ephemeral as a trick of light is capable of swaying a profoundly rigid courtroom. 

But nothing definitive can be found in the evidence to leave the reader convinced about Farquharson’s role in the crime. As a way to ground herself, Garner recounts knitting one red stitch into a green scarf – opposite colours representing forces of guilt and innocence that need to be reconciled.

Between trials, Garner goes on a fruitless search for a motive, within her vast experience of legal processes, her family and her heart, but it leads her right back to where she started, observing that Farquharson is nothing more than a “wretched man” who took the cruellest revenge imaginable on his estranged wife.

Wretched by default, or by design? That’s the question the book asks at its very core.

TRIED AGAIN Robert Farquharson arriving for court at his 2010 retrial. (Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui)

Like a mirage that turns out to be drinkable water, Garner eventually notices something in the relentless evidence of the second trial and clings to the angle of the road, follows the slope of the field, and sniffs closely at the need for what the police label “steering inputs” as a way to comprehend the car’s journey from the road to the bottom of the dam.

This is the “brutal simplicity” of archival police photographs that Garner admitted she was aiming for, in a later essay about This House of Grief – ‘On Darkness’ – published this year in Everywhere I Look (Text).

“What people find really hard to bear is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls,” she wrote in The Monthly in 2015, counterpointing any simplification with one of the greatest human blind spots.

While reading this book I found myself unconsciously responding to some of Garner’s descriptions with an old actors’ trick – taking the language the writer uses literally, particularly facial expressions, and using my own face to portray them, particularly when she writes about Farquharson.

9781925355369.jpgThe feeling I got was instant horror and actors’ sympathy, evenly blended. This is the kind of place performers need to find to avoid playing arch villains. When you get the chance to play Hitler, you look this deeply, because such men never get close to thinking they deserve no empathy or understanding for their issues.

Garner came to regret taking on a book about this trial. She tried to avoid writing it, finishing and publishing it at all. Yet it represents seven years of her life and she is honest enough to include her affront at the defence team threatening to hold her in contempt of court for publicly speaking about the case.

We owe a great debt to the courageous witnesses to our high-profile criminal stories, most notably the likes of John Bryson for his account of the Chamberlain case in Evil Angels.

Without them, we are left to our own assumptions, prejudices and shortcomings. The innocent would languish in jail, or lie in graves without justice.

In this country, you’ve got to be aware enough about the worst reckoning life ever puts in your pathway, or you’re guilty as hell for manifesting your amnesia. When the case is about the death of innocent children, you’re either a hero, or a monster.


This House of Grief is a knockout journey into this human paradox, and the flawed court system we have allowed to grow around us.

It will bring out your most judgemental self, and ask you to raise your most forgiving, all at once.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.