Welcome to ABC Arts’ new monthly book column. Each month, we’ll present a shortlist of new releases read and recommended by The Bookshelf’s Kate Evans and The Book Show’s Claire Nichols and Sarah L’Estrange — alongside freelance writers and book reviewers. This month, we’re thrilled to present recommendations from Declan Fry and Khalid Warsame.
All five read voraciously and widely, and the only guidelines we gave them were: make it a new release; make it something you think is great.
The result includes a cross-generational family saga of mothers and daughters, art and addiction; a tale of twins and trauma, wild-ness and wolves; a criticism of liberal democracy’s tendency to lionise ‘compromise’ as an ends rather than merely a means; a collection of short stories from a master of the form; and a magical-realist contemporary fable about the dangers of repressed memory.
I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud
Mothers, daughters, art, addiction and failure are recurring themes in this beautiful and heartbreaking new family saga by the British writer Esther Freud – which, like her semi-autobiographical debut Hideous Kinky, takes inspiration from her life.
Freud boasts an impressive family tree: she’s the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud and the daughter of British painter Lucian Freud. But in this novel she turns her attention to her mother, Bernardine Coverley, and asks a powerful ‘what if’ question.
What if Bernardine, who found herself unmarried and pregnant at 18, had asked the wrong people for help?
The novel transforms Bernardine into the fictional Rosaleen: an Irish teenager living alone in London and having an affair with a much older artist, when she discovers she’s pregnant. Poor and desperate, she turns to the Catholic Church for help.
She is sent to a church-run home in Ireland – a grotesque institution for ‘problematic women’ – where inmates endure horrific labours (including cutting grass with nail scissors) and are forced to give up their names – and eventually, their children. The scenes within the institution are all the more distressing because they are based on fact – earlier this year the Irish government published the final report in its investigation into the horrors of these homes (which continued to operate well into the 90s).
We don’t just follow Rosaleen – the book also introduces us to her mother Aoife, an Irish woman hemmed in by her time and an overbearing husband; and Kate, an artist and mother living in London in the 90s, who is desperate to find her birth mother.
All three women are compelling – Kate and Rosaleen particularly so. Freud paints her protagonists, and the people around them, in beautiful, complex detail. These characters are real, romantic and oh-so-flawed. Is it cheesy to say that I couldn’t love this book more? CN
Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? An awful lot of people, it turns out: a mythical, lupine, fanged, gleaming-eyed, visceral fear. But these apex predators have their defenders — like Inti and her team, who’ve come to Scotland on a rewilding project, arguing that the reintroduction of these beautiful beasts will help reset the environmental balance.
Inti Flynn is a transnational character. She’s Australian but grew up part of the time in Canada with her wilderness-attuned father, while back in Sydney her mother was a homicide detective who saw the very worst of the world. As an adult she spent years working in Alaska, side by side with her clever, wordy twin Aggie (who, as a kid, thumped bullies with her poetry book in defense of her sister: as properly poetic as retribution could be). But by the time we properly meet Aggie, she has been silenced, damaged, almost erased by something that has happened to her. There’s a deep and fascinating mystery connected to her very existence.
There’s something else about Inti though: she feels the world’s pain, and does so in an unusually literal, nerve-tingling way. She has a condition called ‘mirror touch synaesthesia’, which means whatever sensation she sees, she feels in her own body, whether sensuous or violent. She flinches with pain but has worked out how to turn some of that into anger and action. Hence the wolves.
When she and her team turn up in the Scottish Highlands with the wolves, they are met with suspicion, anger and aggression. Farmers worry for their sheep, their land, their economy — while others are simply consumed by growl-inducing fear.
There will be violence and rage.
There’s a dead body, a local cop with secrets of his own, a horse rescue, a hidden twin, a heroic journey or two, and a delicately woven argument about our relationship to the environment. Well worth reading. KE
On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal by Rachel Greenwald Smith
On Compromise is intoxicating. It asks big questions: how do revolutionary rejections of hierarchy take on the form of a wan, liberal individualism? What caused “the impassioned celebration of compromise that allowed for an abdication of politics at the turn of the twenty-first century, the effects of which we are now seeing in the inequality, violence, and democratic erosion of the 2010s and 2020s”? Smith, a critic, finds herself cheerfully “engaging in the national pastime of my people: ruining everyone’s good time”.
Rather than working within the familiar accommodations of a more conventionally journalistic/political account, Smith examines notions of compromise in unexpected contexts: her time playing bass in a female-fronted post-punk band; the Riot Grrrl movement; Foucault and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Beyoncé’s Formation, the sonnet form, and what it means to be a “Black Bill Gates in the making”; the Obama presidency and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue; the desire to be seen as ‘good’, explored via Orange Is the New Black, Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Kavanaugh hearings; novels and Netflix shows whose visibility is indexed to algorithmic indications of audience popularity and the size of their creator’s advance (Ben Lerner, Jennifer Egan, Percival Everett’s brilliant Erasure, which is being reprinted this September with a new foreword from Brandon Taylor, all feature, along with the ‘re-segregation’ project in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout).
On Compromise reminds us that illiberalism is not inherently restrictive; liberalism provides cover for much degradation and injustice. As Smith writes, “deeply entrenched power hierarchies backed by force are a lot like viruses. There is no need for them to compromise, because they have the power to kill”. Countercultures morph into neoliberalism; hipsters and trucker hats into tiki torches and facism.
Forget compromise: with this book, Smith has crafted a win-win proposition. DF
Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch
University of Queensland Press
Since Shadowboxing, a collection of interlinked stories from 2006, Birch has published poetry, novels and short stories that explore themes of family, violence, love and Indigenous history. He obviously revels in telling stories that matter with clear, precise writing. Just don’t mistake the simplicity of language with easy reading; the stories can make for very uneasy reading — particularly when Birch writes about children in peril or addresses Australia’s colonial legacy.
If Birch’s novels are plot-driven page-turners, then his short stories demonstrate his mastery of character development. Take Bicycle Thieves, a story in the latest collection: Birch deftly evokes the unbreakable bond between two brothers taking on the neighbourhood bullies who have the audacity to steal the younger boy’s prized bicycle. From the outset, the reader is barracking for the brothers to defeat the bullies.
Stoic, worn-out mothers, violent fathers, worldly children and lost souls populate this collection. There are also tender and humorous encounters between young people flirting with new desire. The story Starman opens with this unforgettable line: “I fell in love with Marnie Smith the day her father bought a European stereo system.” The conclusion is unexpected and amusing.
One of the most personal and affecting entries is After Life. When the narrator and his sister are cleaning up their deceased brother Billy’s apartment in a government housing estate, they meet Billy’s friends from the men’s shed. These encounters broaden their view of their quiet brother’s life, and they make the reassuring discovery that he had more connections with the local community than expected. This story is all the more poignant because in 2019, Birch wrote about his own experience of grief after his brother Wayne’s unexpected death.
Birch is such a skilled writer, I always know I’m assured of a riveting story with each new book — and this collection does not disappoint. SL
The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer
The Liquid Land is a remarkable debut novel by Austrian writer Raphaela Edelbauer, translated from German by Jen Calleja (who also translates the fascinating and idiosyncratic work of Michelle Steinbeck). The story opens in modern-day Austria, where physicist Ruth Schwarz is struggling to finish a PhD that proposes a radically different interpretation of space-time.
When Ruth’s parents die suddenly in a car accident, she puts aside her studies to return to the town where they were born, Gross-Einland, to arrange their burial. Her plan is immediately derailed as she realises that the town does not exist on any maps, nor does it seem to have any roads leading in or out.
After a chance encounter leads to her finally locating the town, she finds a place where the rules of physics and geography seem to have been filtered through a Kafkaesque lens. Gross-Einland is built on a hollow hill, and a giant hole in its centre seems to be both an existential threat and, at times, a bizarre blind spot for the residents, who live under the rule of a mysterious Countess.
For a novel meticulously built on a series of familiar, strange, and compelling conceptual metaphors, The Liquid Land isn’t a dense or overly taxing read—just the opposite, in fact.
Ruth’s brief meditations on the nature of time and space at the beginning of the novel become our entry-point into the first of many motifs Edelbauer spends the rest of the book unpicking: the fluidity of time and space in our social lives, the implications of ecological collapse, the permeability of natural and built worlds, and our attempt to make sense of the past, and more importantly, come to terms with it.
With The Liquid Land, Raphaela Edelbauer has written a book that is oblique, familiar, and completely new. It’s a fascinating, heady combination. KW