I loved A Long Way From Home, which takes us, very literally, around Australia in a madcap road race on dubious roads and in standard cars. We all root for a couple who wants the recognition to start a dealership, assisted by a fired schoolteacher who will discover his roots, very unexpectedly, during the trip. It’s the 1950s and the brutal treatment of Aborigines is just coming to be known, if still tolerated, and the second part of the story dwells heavily on that topic.
Written in alternate chapters penned by the wife, a fast and fearless driver battling the usual sexist strictures of the time and the navigator, the schoolteacher, the book is full of well-observed details of daily life even as the competitors race around Australia (and you will be sorely tempted to follow along on your favorite maps app). I could have done without some of the more elegiac chapters at the end of the book but I still warmly recommend it.
Want a little melancholy with your summer? Try The Other Side of the World, in which an overwhelmed mother follows her husband from England to Perth, Australia — where she finds that she is just as overwhelmed and frustrated by not being able to find time for her art. Her husband, meanwhile, finds that racism (he is part Indian) may be fiercer than back home. The story perfectly the feeling of utter exhaustion of raising small children along with the isolation of emigration, and is full of well-observed details about little kids.
In The Dry, an Australian federal agent is called back to his rural hometown to investigate a murder-suicide apparently committed by his childhood best friend. It turns out that his father and he were very literally run out of town years ago following another death and he is not welcome back. We follow his difficult investigation amongst hostile residents and thick secrets, while the earlier death is also revisited by him and the long-term residents, which means everyone except a handful of newcomers. It’s wonderfully grim and the long-term drought that is ruining the farmers adds to the gloom.
The Strays paints a brilliant picture of a willfully bohemian family that draws in the best friend of the middle sister, who is dazzled by the unlikely goings-on of artists, so different from her own poor and conventional family. Of course, not all is well in bohemia and the family (and the girls’ friendship) will eventually explode and destroy some of the players. The separate world of children and teenagers is perfectly captured. The part of the book that does not work is the present day musings of the main character, which read like a cheap novel with canned feelings. Fortunately it’s a small portion of the story.
The author of Ugly was born with a large amor on his face and deformed legs — and parents who were initially overwhelmed (understandably) but quickly rallied to navigate multiple surgeries and the delicate business of raising a child who looked obviously different. The story is told in the matter-of-fact tone we can imagine his parents used with him, and while it talks about bullying and violence, there are also funny and kind moments, including the author’s successful quest for a sport he could play. An inspiring, candid story.
The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer starts with a brutal matricide, which the author meticulously reconstructs from archives, followed by the dispatch of the murderer, aged 13, to an insane asylum, and eventually his immigration to Australia, proud service during WW1, and life as a peaceful and kind man. The detailed reconstruction of events can get a little tedious, but the book nicely recreates transatlantic voyages (with live cattle imported from the US), the uproar at how cheap crime novels may have fostered the crime (which sounds exactly like today’s apocalyptic descriptions of the internet), and the primitive state of psychiatry, pre-drugs of any kind. It also show how important it is to be able to recreate oneself. In those days, moving to Australia seemed to do it. Today, not so easy…
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos starts brilliantly, with an audacious (and never fully explained) heist of a Dutch painting right from the bedroom of a wealthy lawyer who is bored with his job and his wife. In an effort to recover the piece, he gets into an ambiguous relationship with the woman who created the copy that was substituted for the original, and the story bounces from the present to the time of the theft, all the way to 1637, when the painting was created, between New York, place of the theft, Sydney, where the forger now lives, and the Netherlands. Alas, the wonderful setup runs out of spunk and the bizarre relationship between the forger and the collector could not convince me. Enjoy the beginning!