The best new books released in May, as selected by avid readers and critics

The best new books released in May, as selected by avid readers and critics
  • PublishedJune 4, 2024

Another month, another slew of incredible books that take us from Noongar country to Ireland and South Africa, from behind the bars of a detention centre to a suburban cul-de-sac.

Our trusted gang of avid readers — The Book Show’s Claire Nichols and Sarah L’Estrange, ABC Arts’ Nicola Heath, and critics Declan Fry and Rosie Ofori Ward — have picked their favourites for you.

All read voraciously and widely, and the only guidelines we give them are: make it a new release; make it something you think is great.

Safe Haven by Shankari Chandran

Ultimo Press

A graphic, almost cartoony cover of a small boat on blue waves, coral and fish surrounding it, plus barbed wire and handcuffs
“Storytelling is really powerful, particularly in the context of communities, cultures and peoples whose capacity to tell the truth has been limited, if not erased, by oppressive regimes, war, displacement and genocide,” Chandran told the Sydney Writers Festival.(Supplied: Ultimo Press)

Writing the follow-up to an award-winning novel is notoriously difficult. But it would seem that’s not so for Shankari Chandran, who has published her third novel, Safe Haven, 12 months after winning the 2023 Miles Franklin for Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens.

With its twee title and cover, Chai Time surprised some readers with its often graphic descriptions of atrocities committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war and an unforgiving depiction of racism in Australia. Safe Haven covers similar territory.

The book opens with a transcript of an emergency call made by a Tamil Sri Lankan nun, Sister Serafina Daniels, to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). The boat she is aboard is sinking, and AMSA alerts the nearest vessel to go to the aid of the ‘suspected illegal entry vessel’.

If this episode sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on real life. In 2009, Tamil asylum seeker Para Paheer called Australian authorities for help when the boat he was on began sinking in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Paheer was one of 27 asylum seekers rescued from the water by a passing tanker; 12 more tragically died.

Chandran draws directly from this story, as well as the Biloela community’s high-profile campaign to save the Nadesalingam family from deportation.

Safe Haven’s narrative picks up four years after the dramatic ocean rescue. Sister Fina is at Port Camden, a stand-in for the real-life detention centre on Christmas Island. But she’s there as a visitor, not as a detainee.

After she arrived in Australia as an asylum seeker, she was granted a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa and has made a new life in the rural town of Hastings, in far-western New South Wales. She visits Port Camden every three months to administer pastoral care to detainees — some of whom were her fellow passengers.

When she is the first responder to a horrific suicide at the detention centre, Fina goes to the media. The repercussions are swift, and she soon finds herself facing imminent deportation. Meanwhile, clues that Fina’s past is not all as it seems pepper the text — her ability to hot-wire an army-issue generator, for example.

Adding to the intrigue is the death of a Port Camden security guard, the subject of a government investigation led by former AFP officer Lakshmi Dharman. As she races to reveal the truth behind the case — often having to resort to hand-to-hand combat — Safe Haven reads more like a page-turning mystery than literary fiction.

Chandran takes care to illustrate the inhospitable conditions in which detainees are kept. More unbearable, however, is the indefinite nature of their detention, which the women detainees share:

“Stories of endless months and years trapped on this island, unable to find out if the loved ones they’d left behind were alive, or in prison, or drowned; the despair of Not Knowing if they’d ever find out. The despair of Not Knowing if they would ever leave this place or if their children would grow old and die here instead of dying in a war zone, refugee camp, prison, or sinking boat.”

That Safe Haven is so obviously based on real life makes these scenes all the more powerful. It might sometimes feel rushed, but this is a book with a fierce political message — and one that will find a large audience thanks to Chandran’s Miles Franklin win.

— Nicola Heath

Exhibit: A Novel by R.O. Kwon

Hachette

A mostly black, abstract cover with swishes that look a bit like hair and one crooked arm across the front
R.O. Kwon was also a co-editor of Kink, an anthology of literary short fiction exploring love and desire, BDSM, and interests across the sexual spectrum.(Supplied: Hachette)

I have been awaiting R.O. Kwon’s second novel since her painful and rousing debut, The Incendiaries. When Exhibit, an “exhilarating story of queer desire”, was announced, my excitement peaked. Thankfully, upon reading, my staggeringly high expectations were met. Exhibit has all the maturity and measure of a writer coming into their craft.

Jin Han, a photographer living in San Francisco, believes her family has been struck by a “curse of longing” by a kisaeng, or Korean courtesan, which dooms all Hans to risk their lives for love.

We are introduced to our protagonist on the intense and electric night she meets Lidija Jung, an ethereal, world-renowned, but injured ballerina. Jin is overcome by her, and relays the story of this curse, something she has never told anyone — including her college sweetheart husband, Philip .

Jin is then forced to investigate her desires, and what it is about Lidija that makes her want to defy the confines of her life.

R.O. Kwon writes in short, rich sentences. Each is a lyrical punch in the gut. Both Jin and Lidija are artists who (perhaps like Kwon) pour their feelings into their art. Having left religion behind, Jin fills this hole with photography, referring to it as “the temple I’d built of image”.

As Philip pulls her towards motherhood and a heteronormative family model, Jin is pulled through her art and Lidija towards the subversive and stirring kink scene. Kwon plays beautifully with the idea of freedom — the more Jin is tied up or forced to obey, the more she feels free to explore her truest desires.

Woven throughout Jin’s story, we begin to hear the cheeky and brazen voice of the kisaeng, who, sick of the Han telling her story, is determined for her truth to be heard.

Exhibit is a novel ablaze with possibility and longing that I’m glad to have waited for.

— Rosie Ofori Ward

Shakespeare on the Noongar Stage: Language Revival and Hecate by Kylie and Clint Bracknell

Upswell Publishing

A man jumps up high above a dimly lit stage
“In a world where English is incredibly dominant in every aspect of our lives, we are clinging to this piece of identity in the way that we speak,” Kylie Bracknell told SBS News.(Supplied: Upswell )

The first complete adaptation of Shakespeare in an Aboriginal language, Shakespeare on the Noongar Stage focuses on Hecate, queen of the witches. Hecate embodies Country, surviving “the consequences of Macbeth’s descent into moral corruption”.

With its witches and mischief makers, Kylie Bracknell’s adaptation of Macbeth offers an enchanting amalgam: Country, language, Noongar worlds and Shakespeare.

Taking one of the foremost representatives of a civilisation that still neglects those cultures predating it, Hecate puts the two in creative dialogue, in a way that helps us reappreciate both.

In his thoughtful introduction, Clint Bracknell writes:

“Although the English language certainly does not belong to Australia, it dominates social, cultural, and civic life […] settler-colonists have imposed words like ‘Australia’, ‘Aboriginal’, and ‘nomadic’ to codify Country and its peoples within a narrow and limiting worldview. ‘Aboriginal’ denies cultural and linguistic diversity. ‘Nomadic’ undermines regionally specific Indigenous systems of land management and ownership. ‘Australia’ accomplishes both.”

This book includes the complete play of Hecate in Noongar language, alongside a literal English translation and Shakespeare’s original. The authors remind the reader that transcribing the play in language means “all the old people who decided on that spelling system have had a hand in the [play’s] creation”. Elder and senior language consultant Roma Yibiyung Winmar recalls “tears […] inside the room”. 

We do not have to reimagine the country, find language or culture; it is all here.

Kylie Bracknell’s first name translates in Noongar to “boomerang”, an apt description of how Shakeapearean and Noongar worlds collide here. Also known for her Noongar dub of Bruce Lee’s film Fist of Fury, she reflects in the opening chapters on the awed and emotional reactions of Noongar audiences.

We are lucky to live during a time when a book like this is around. It is a revelation, reminding us that there is another world, and that it is this one.

— Declan Fry

Long Island by Colm Tóibín

Simon & Schuster

A woman in an older style red dress stands looking out a window with a gauzy curtain, the sea behind it
Colm Tóibín told NPR that he doesn’t usually like sequels and never wanted to do one for Brooklyn. But then inspiration struck.(Supplied: Simon & Schuster)

It’s a case of history repeating for Eilis Lacey in this much-anticipated sequel to Colm Tóibín’s beloved novel, Brooklyn.

Once again, she’s taking a trip back to Ireland, after building a life in America. Once again, she has secrets to keep. And once again, there’s Jim Farrell, steady and waiting.

It’s the 1970s, and Eilis is now a mother of two teenage children. She, her husband Tony and their kids live on a Long Island cul-de-sac, with Tony’s parents, brothers and their families in the neighbouring houses. The in-laws can be stifling, but Eilis has learned how to survive the onslaught.

The book opens with a knock at the door. A stranger — an Irishman — tells Eilis that his wife is pregnant, and that Tony is the father. The man insists he will not raise another man’s baby. Instead, when the child is born, the Irishman will deliver it to Eilis and Tony to deal with.

Eilis, refusing to mother this child, flees to Ireland, with the unspoken demand that Tony will have found a solution before she returns home.

Back in Enniscorthy (which also happens to be Tóibín’s hometown), Eilis finds a place seemingly set in amber, with little changed in the 20 years since she’s last been home. Even Jim Farrell — the man she fell in love with in the last novel — is still there, running the pub, and still unmarried.

What Eilis doesn’t know is that Jim is now in a relationship with Nancy, her old (and now widowed) best friend. Jim and Nancy haven’t told people about the relationship, for reasons of their own. But once again, the layers of secrets everyone is keeping could be the source of their undoing.

Colm Tóibín is wonderful at exploring everything that is unsaid — and in a character like Eilis Lacey, a woman constantly on her guard, and seemingly incapable of saying what she wants, he has the perfect subject. This is a rich and quietly devastating novel, written by an author at his peak.

— Claire Nichols

Crooked Seeds by Karen Jennings

A bright red book cover with flames that look a bit like flowers on it
Karen Jennings’s latest novel, Crooked Seeds.(Supplied: Text Publishing)

Text Publishing 

South African author Karen Jennings’ novel An Island was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021. It’s an allegorical tale about migration, complicity and violence, focusing on the life of a lighthouse keeper grappling with his responsibility to a refugee who’s washed ashore.

Naturally, An Island — set on the secluded outcrop of an unnamed African country — is surrounded by water. In contrast, Jennings’ seventh book, Crooked Seeds, is notable for the absence of water. It’s set in a parched contemporary South Africa, with Cape Town beset by water shortages, drought and bushfires.

Like An Island, it is a slender book with big themes. This time Jennings is exploring post-Apartheid South Africa, but again narrows in on a singular character to do the heavy lifting of the novel’s message.

I’ll be up front — the main protagonist Deidre van Deventer, is a deeply unappealing character, and the opening pages paint — in visceral detail — just how flawed she is, but the writing is so propulsive you’re drawn to find out why she is so embittered.

Deidre is white, in her 50s and we learn that she lost one of her legs in an explosion when she was 18 (you need to read the book to find out what happened). She doesn’t work, doesn’t wash, never has any money, scrounges for cigarettes, spends her days drinking and sponging off other people (while never returning the favour), and is resentful of the hand life has dealt her.

As becomes clear, she’s repellent for a reason. Like South Africa, Deidre is broken and can only heal if she confronts the country’s tragic past.

Deidre is presented with a critical choice on this point — to aid the police investigating the mystery of human remains found in the garden of her former home, or to continue her narrative of victimhood.

Crooked Seeds is masterful in its intent and execution and with it, Karen Jennings joins the ranks of South Africa’s great writers.

— Sarah L’Estrange

Because I’m Not Myself, You See by Ariane Beeston

Black Inc.

A mostly black cover with bright coloured lily flowers, a falling woman in the middle of them all
“My son had developed a nappy rash and I became convinced that child protection were aware, and that they would remove him from my care,” Beeston told the ABC of her time with postpartum psychosis.(Supplied: Black Inc.)

Because I’m Not Myself, You See is not your typical motherhood memoir. When Ariane Beeston holds her son Henry for the first time, she feels indifference, not love — a common enough experience, as she later learns, but one that leaves her alarmed.

Henry is an unsettled baby and, as Beeston battles with sleep deprivation, problems breastfeeding and loneliness, her mental health declines. Night and day blur and she becomes “dizzy with exhaustion” to the point that when she looks at Henry, she sometimes sees a baby dragon.

Her GP treats her for depression, but her condition worsens, and when Henry is nine months old, she’s admitted to the St John of God Mother and Baby Unit. At the time, it was the only facility in NSW allowing mothers to keep their babies with them while seeking perinatal mental health care.

Beeston is diagnosed with postpartum psychosis, a condition affecting around 600 new mothers in Australia each year, which can lead to suicide and infanticide if left untreated. While Beeston and her fellow patients have different stories, backgrounds and symptoms, all share a sense of shame that they ended up in a psychiatric ward.

For Beeston this shame is compounded by the fact she’s a psychologist — “a mental health professional with a mental illness”. For years, she worked in child protection, which left her severely burnt out.

In recounting her experiences at the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS), she exposes a system defined by underfunding, racism and a lack of compassion for mothers who are often the victims of abuse themselves.

Looking back, she regrets her part in the removal of some babies from mothers who were not even six months postpartum:

“How could it be that we didn’t understand that asking new mothers to jump through often increasingly difficult hoops while recovering from birth, adjusting to motherhood and facing numerous social challenges was setting them up to fail? That having their child taken from them was only going to make their existing mental health issues worse?”

Today, Beeston shares a strong bond with her teenage son. Her memoir shows how society places enormous pressure on new mothers to feel and behave in prescribed ways without providing them with the support they need.

But it also shows that, with the proper treatment and care, recovery is possible.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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