Out of Africa: Two brilliant but very different novels

By Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll

Books to read this week include new titles from C.J. Hauser, Wanjiku Wa Ngugi and Kgshak Akec.

Book critics Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll cast their eyes over recent fiction and non-fiction titles. Here are their reviews.

Fiction pick of the week

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Seasons in Hippoland
Wanjiku Wa Ngugi, Gazebo Books, $22.99

Magical realism spirals into political resistance in Seasons in Hippoland, a clever and charming novel from Kenyan author Wanjiku Wa Ngugi, the daughter of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.

We follow Mumbi, a rebel teen who lives in Victoriana. A dying Emperor for Life rules the nation, not that anyone can acknowledge he’s dying. Supported by men in colourful berets and served by a corrupt elite, the Emperor possesses an absolute power to make truth into fiction and fiction into truth. Caught smoking at school, Mumbi is exiled to Hippoland with her brother, yet what was intended as punishment proves a blessing in disguise – a chance to discover the magic of the land and hear stories from Mumbi’s Aunt Sara.

One such tale, about a porcelain bowl with healing powers, transforms Mumbi’s adult life. She becomes a lawyer and is persecuted by the state, but her talent for storytelling may help to wrest control of the narrative from authoritarian hands.

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Hopeless Kingdom
Kgshak Akec, UWAP, $32.95

The African experience also powers Kgshak Akec’s debut novel, though its literary technique is far removed from magical realism. It’s a work of sensitive, psychologically sharp realism, tracing the migration of a Sudanese family to Australia via Cairo.

Their experience is turbulent. Eight-year-old Akita and her family (parents Taresai and Santino, and troubled older brother Santo) have already moved from Sudan to Egypt, but a bigger relocation is in store. When they come to live in Australia – first Sydney, then Geelong – the pressures of migration threaten to splinter the family. Santino leaves Taresai, to her fury, to raise the children as a single mother, Santo’s reckless behaviour worsens, and Akita, despite having the least difficulty adjusting, must navigate quotidian racism.

Winner of the Dorothy Hewett Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript, Hopeless Kingdom is an impressive and mature novel featuring two strong female narrators.

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The Night Tide
Di Morrissey, Macmillan, $39.99

Prolific Australian author Di Morrissey has written many more than 20 books, and her latest, The Night Tide, is commercial mystery fiction set in the tranquil backwater bay of WestWater in Sydney (based on Pittwater, where Morrissey lived as a child).

Long-time political staffer Dominic Cochrane has decided to make a career exit after an election blow-out. He moves into a friend’s waterside conversion, but rest doesn’t find him. As he settles in, he discovers a local missing persons case, never solved, from a quarter of a century ago. A much-loved schoolteacher and family man vanished without a trace, and Dom is drawn to uncover the truth of what happened to him, in the process unravelling a web of threats and secrets in the close-knit town.

Morrissey has an effortless talent for dialogue, and lulls you with the kind of engaging, easeful style that has won her a wide readership.

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The Invisible
Peter Papathanasiou, Maclehose, $32.99

On the strength of his “outback noir” debut The Stoning, Australian crime writer Peter Papathanasiou scored a two-book deal with Maclehose. In the second of these, The Invisible, the Greek-Australian detective George Manolis tries to take time out from policework, flying to the Prespes region of Greece.

It isn’t simply a holiday. Still raw from his divorce and the death of his father, George hopes to reconnect with his Greek roots. But crime has a habit of finding him out, and before long he’s moonlighting as an undercover investigator. His old friend Lefty – an “invisible” who lives completely off-the-grid, without any paper trail at all – has vanished, and the local cops want George’s assistance to find him. Did Lefty concoct his own disappearance, or was he the victim of foul play?

It’s a question George doubts he’ll be able to answer, as he insinuates himself into a small village, where emotions run high and feuds run deep. The Invisible continues an assured, propulsive and atmospheric new series that crime fiction fans will devour.

Non-fiction pick of the week

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The Crane Wife
C.J. Hauser, Viking, $35

Although this collection of essays is subtitled “a memoir in essays”, they could often enough pass for “dirty realist” short stories.

The opening offering Blood is a case in point. Epigrammatic in form, it charts C.J. Hauser’s own history of love and that of her family, pondering the question of blood and fate. The Crane Wife is a meditation on calling off her wedding, then joining a scientific excursion that reveals to her the perils of low expectations. Other times the essays are more straightforward, as in her dissection of the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story, which she seesas a case study in how people choose partners.

Sometimes these pieces can read like slight creative writing exercises, but her observations of her relationships and affairs with men and women or dating on Tinder and much more, bounce off the page with vibrancy, humour, polish and humanity.

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The War Game
David Horner, Allen & Unwin, $45

As a former infantry commander in Vietnam and now an ANU professor, David Horner is more than well qualified to examine Australia’s involvement in nine wars over the past 90 years.

His focus is not on the battles but war leadership, inevitably involving tension between politicians and the military. And controversy. Perhaps the most controversial was Vietnam. On committing a battalion to Vietnam in 1965, Prime Minister Menzies told parliament it was in response to a South Vietnamese “request”. But was South Vietnam pressured?

Horner says the “criticism is not valid”. Another interpretation is that the request was requested, a pressured “request” that would not pass the pub test. Grand in sweep, measured in assessment, whether you agree or not, this is authoritative stuff and relevant.

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The Shipwreck
Larry Writer, Allen & Unwin, $34.99

On the night in August 1857 that the British passenger clipper Dunbar was sent crashing into the rocks at The Gap, Sydney’s South Head, by 100-kilometre gale-force winds, Jane Graham, wife of a signal station superintendent, woke from a dream telling her husband there was a sailor lying on a rock ledge in the storm. No one believed her. The next day, there were debris and bodies everywhere, and a crowd of about 20,000 watched as the sole survivor, able seaman James Johnson, was hoisted from the ledge.

Larry Writer has reconstructed not only the events of that night (mistakes and miscalculations) but also gives us a vivid portrait of the Sydney that the ship crashed into, how the wreck shook the residents, accentuating the European colonialist sense of far-flung vulnerability. This is often gripping, engaging popular history.

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Smart, Stupid & Sixty
Nigel Marsh, William Heinemann, $34.99

Nigel Marsh got off what he calls the corporate “hamster wheel” in Britain when he turned 40 and wrote Fat, Forty & Fired. It was an admirable quest to live a more meaningful life. Now he’s 60 and his latest, a follow on, is a sort of fact-check on the things that matter, and those that don’t, upon entering your seventh decade.

It’s engagingly light, conversational in dealing with such themes as parenting after the children have fled the nest, setting up a podcast, or conflicting reactions to the self-help genre where, it seems, his book often winds up in shops. But it’s also poignant in dealing with the death of parents – Marsh’s father and his wife’s father both died in the same week, necessitating flights from Australia back to Britain.

Not so much self-help as a statement: I think this matters and this doesn’t, what about you?

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