I’ve been powering through my reading list of late and I wanted to share some gems with you. This list has a distinctly Australian feel to it but I promise these books have appeal beyond these shores – I found them life-changing. You might find them life-enhancing at the very least.
So many guides to writing tell you to write as only you can and, at the moment, I'm reading as a writer in search of herself. These books have been so life-changing for me because each author has their own unusual, incredibly unique voice. In a sense, they've given me permission to experiment further with the use of my own voice and I'm excited and grateful about that.
So, these writers are my heroes of the Australian literary scene right now. They’re all from Naarm (Melbourne), and I’ve had the blessing of either meeting them in person or connecting on Twitter. Jennifer Down signed my copy of her book and, now that I’ve finally read it, I treasure her inscription so much more.
Even if you’re not an aspiring writer, I promise that these books offer enormous reading pleasure and, at the very least, a memorable experience.
If you do go and pick up one of these books, I hope you’ll tell me if you enjoyed the experience.
Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down
This book is captivating and I read it greedily. Luckily for me, I was on holiday and I could take big blocks of time to just read. I was nervous setting out because I’d heard that it was a traumatic book. And – I won’t lie – it is. Maggie, the main character, does not have the best start in life, and her adulthood is harrowing as well. Sometimes, I felt that Ms. Down was cruel to this vulnerable character who was trying so desperately to make her way in the world. But I believed in Maggie fully and I think that’s why I was so compelled to read her story.
The world that Down has created resonated with me – the first part of the book is set in the 1970s and 80s Melbourne that I grew up in. I felt like I was there. I did wonder whether someone who’d come of age in another part of Australia or another part of the world would have found Maggie’s journey so gripping. I think so. Down has so accurately recreated the milieu that the book is solid and easy to believe. At one point Maggie sprays her can of Impulse in front of her and walks into its hazy cloud – that could have been me in 1980-something, getting ready for a night on the town.
This book stayed with me for days and days after I’d finished reading it and I pity the book I picked up afterward, for it didn’t come close (and hasn’t made it onto this list). Bodies of Light has changed the way I think about the word ‘Chook’, which will forever remind me of the lovely, decent man Jeff who only wants to love Maggie but will never know who she really is.
Read this book. It’s so good. If it’s on your list, bump it up. With all its potentially triggering portrayals of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, as well as of death-related trauma, it's not a picnic. But it’s worth it. Maggie’s heart is one to know.
Bodies of Light won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2022 and was on the Stella Prize shortlist as well.
Grimmish by Michael Winkler
So, this book is about a boxer called Grim who can withstand extreme pain. I’d put off reading this one because I generally shy away from violence. But this book is also about someone else – that enigmatic figure, Michael Winkler, whom now I only want to know better. Winkler calls this book ‘exploding non-fiction’ and it does explode – right there in your mind, especially when you meet the goat.
The goat baffled me. Why was he there? What did he represent? Was he really a goat? This book explores personal tragedy, and the goat’s story broke me. Strangely, I was there with that goat more than I was with Grim in the ring. Maybe because Grim lets himself be inflicted with pain and puts himself back into the ring, time and again. The goat is a victim of circumstance and of his place in the tale. Perhaps it is some sort of representation of the ego or a repressed part of Winkler’s psyche that is simultaneously his inner critic but also just wants to have a fucken good time.
The violence gripped me in the end. I’m trying to avoid revealing too much, so all I’ll say is that there is a head-butting contest that had me on the edge of my seat.
At first, I struggled with the footnotes. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t fiction and that it was ok to interrupt my flow. Somewhere along the way I followed a footnote through to Winkler’s essay ‘The Great Red Whale’ and I forgave him every footnote after that. The essay is marvellous and profound. Essentially, it’s about Australia’s famous rock, Uluru, but – like Grimmish – it’s about so much more than its central topic. Even though it was written in 2016, before the climb at Uluru closed, it’s still relevant, important and definitely worth a read.
Michael Winkler is clever, thoughtful and incredibly well-read. The allegory of this story is subtle, even while Grim is getting slammed in the head. This reader would like to know so much more about Winkler’s pain, his depression and his writing career. I want to keep reading his work, that’s for sure. I hope he’s got some other project underway and that the publishers are chasing him.
Grimmish was shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin Literary Award. There’s a great background story about the publication of Grimmish that you can read here. And there’s a terrific review to read here.
big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills
This book stirred my empathy. Eloise Grills tells an incredibly personal tale and it’s hard not to empathise with her. As a reader, I admit I was confronted by how much she was willing to share. But I’m a lot older than her and I think I might have become quite a lot more conservative as I’ve aged. I loved her youth though. I loved that she’d learned all this stuff about the world and herself at such a young age. She’s grappling with stuff that I’m still tackling at 50, like feminism and body image and working out what the hell my place is in the world. And she’ll make a better go of it than me –heck, she already has. She’s carved out a unique space where she can tell it like it is, for her, yet for so many other women as well. It’s impressive. It’s clever. It’s funny. It’s glorious.
This book is an illustrated memoir and Grills’ storytelling is only enhanced by this approach. There’s pleasure in following the line between the narrative and the art, in learning how her mind works and identifying with her. I also saw many reflections of myself.
The part I enjoyed most was ‘The Fat Bitch in Art’, an exposé of misogyny. Grills tells the story with drawings of classic paintings and acerbic commentary that must make Reubens turn in his grave.
This book is equally depressing and fun. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting. Imaginary and real. Heavy and light. It’s been shortlisted for the Stella Prize this year and I hope it wins. Imagine a young woman with so much potential, talent and nerve cutting through the literary scene, making a big, beautiful splash. Yeah, let’s imagine that.