Tag Archives: Jane Rawson

Severed limbs and fresh air: Formaldehyde by Jane Rawson

formaldehyde-coverSo when the streetcar slammed hard into something and the people were screaming and there was the falling and more of the screaming and copies of The Idiot were drifting in a pretentious snow around him, he was kind of relieved. What with everyone falling to the floor and the tumbling out the gaping hole where the front of the car used to be, he seemed to be the only one left holding on to the pole. He took a second to savour his victory. The Chinese guy was nowhere to be seen. He looked out at the park and saw that the deformed dog had escaped and was chasing cats, while rabbit girl had come to rest in a furry, flopsy lump on the floor. The nurse – Derek – reached down to give the bunny a hand to get to her feet, but the hand pulled right away from her little bunny sleeve in a gush of blood. Despite both his medical training and his loathing of the stereotypes of 19th Century Russian literature, he followed a brief spate of vomiting with some serious falling down.

I’m not sure it says good things about me that I found this novella hilarious. It is dark, absurd and very, very strange. Apparently that’s just my cup of tea. Several different story arcs, in two different times, somehow weave themselves around each other until they’re braided in a nice, satisfying rope connecting this nightmare world to some kind of recognisable reality.

Here’s a thing. I love novellas. I think they’re so underrated. This one is a complicated tale, at a satisfying lazy Sunday type length. This year’s Seizure Viva La Novella winners – Formaldehyde, Marlee Jane Ward’s Welcome to Orphancorp and Christy Collins’ The End of Seeing – are the first novellas I’ve bought in hard copy and it’s even more satisfying just because of their slender, put in your back pocket size.

Rawson’s winning novella is funny in the darkest, driest way possible. I laughed out loud and I was confused and I was shocked and a little bit sad. It’s surprising, quietly political and has a freshness that I enjoyed so much. I don’t know what it says about me that I have on occasion considered walking into another room and lopping a limb off, because damn everybody, but you know, that kind of thing is only for fiction. I’m glad Rawson gave voice to this kind of absurdism because she did a great job.

Formaldehyde, Jane Rawson: 5 stars.

Read it: on your commute. And pray for no severed limbs.


Five star reads of 2014

I’ve probably read more this year than any other year since I finished uni. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog, I find I’m able to keep track of what I’m reading and I’m more inclined to try new genres and authors. It’s been a spectacular year for Australian literature, and, thanks to the almighty power of the internets, I’m more knowledgeable about Western Australian authors who are doing great things. Here’s my five star reads of 2014, according to my Goodreads account, posted in no particular order.

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Obviously not written in 2014 but one I finally got around to reading this year and spent some time carrying around with me even after I’d finished it, so much did I enjoy it.

The Ark, Annabel Smith

Inventive, chilling and entirely believable, this is science fiction at its very best. I’m interested in seeing if other authors follow Smith’s lead by embracing online content as an addition to their work, rather than a duplication.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North

Every time I think of this novel I’m reminded of the Time Traveller’s Wife but without the romance (which generally makes me cringe). It helps that this one hasn’t been made into a disappointing film as well. I and saw the world a little differently after I’d read North’s novel, which is exactly the point of art, right?

Frog Music, Emma Donoghue

I’m interested in this rating because I only gave Donoghue’s wildly celebrated Room, which I also read this year, three stars. I’m not sure if I’m being harsh on Room or generous with Frog Music but I definitely enjoyed the latter more. It got off to a shaky start but the sense of place, use of language and portrayal of gender in this historical novel was so satisfying, all the more so because of its factual basis.

A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, Eimear McBride

This is a hard read, both because of McBride’s original stream of consciousness style and because of her subject matter, which follows a young girl through a violent and sexual coming of age as she deals with her brother’s cancer. Disturbing, powerful and moving this is one I won’t forget for a long time.

A Wrong Turn At The Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

Rawson’s thoroughly enjoyable, heartbreaking, story of a climate changed world and the power of invention is probably one of my favourite reads ever. Combining a bleak vision of a Melbourne of the future with talented story telling and emotional depth, the novel recently won the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award and deservedly so.

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

Part verse novel, part memoir, this slender work punches well above its weight. Offill’s gift with words made the isolation, loneliness and breakdown of her character so, so real. I wanted to give her a hug.

Letters to the End of Love, Yvette Walker

Speaking of hugs, Walker’s first novel is an absolute stunner, heart breaking, honest and beautifully written. You will probably cry in public and that’s okay. If anyone bumps into Walker in Perth tell her thank you from me. Thank you for writing this.

Only after compiling this list do I realise that it’s almost exclusively comprised of women. There’s three Australian authors and two of them are from WA. I hope this means I’m holding up my end of my commitment to read more Australian women writers. But it also means I could have missed something awesome. So it’s your turn. What are your five star reads from this year? Tell me why I should give them a go.

Maze of the bizarre: Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, by Jane Rawson

a-wrong-turn-at-the-office-of-unmade-listsThis is the fourth in my quick summer series of Australian novels. It’s potentially a controversial addition when placed alongside Jasper Jones, The Submerged Cathedral and All That I Am. And yet. I love the bizzare. I’m a sucker for a novel that plays with form and concepts. I really, really loved this book.

It’s a wonderfully inventive dystopia, told with a light heartedness and a dark, tongue in cheek sense of humour that reminded me of Will Self. It is the “near future” 2030ish and Melbourne is a tropical ruin. Displaced people camp on the bank of the river, scrounging for what they can get to eat and drink, water is precious and expensive. But there are some good days – when the 11.30am Flinders Street train arrives at 2.45pm as promised let no-one say the trains don’t run on time. Caddy is writing a story. She’s faring no better, or worse, than most. At least she has a friend. Ray.

Ray is a wheeler and dealer. He always has a business scheme in the works. He’s stumbled on some maps that are, well, a bit different. Via them he finds his way to Sarah and Simon in San Fransisco. In 1997. Sarah and Simon are on a quest. To stand in every 25 foot square in the US. They also have a map but it’s just a regular one.

Rawson’s writing is down to earth, funny, conversational. She focuses on the minutia of Caddy’s life and hints that the rest of the world isn’t faring any better. And so running through the novel’s desperate half-smile is a thick seam of individual loss; the grief that Caddy suffers is being experienced a billion times over in a pieced together, ongoing series of personal and global catastrophes. It is a post-climate-change future with a very real and enduring human spirit. It is nostalgic, romantic and political in the most off-hand way. Above all it elevates imagination, with the power comfort, strengthen and to create new worlds and whole personalities. Sometimes those “imaginums” are abandoned and sometimes all it takes is an idea to change reality. Maybe it’s the only thing that ever has.

On July 16, 1945, the edges of the world blurred. Atoms spilled their guts and burst the limits of their size, swelled with their new limitless, ate everything around them in a fraction of a second then everything around that and around that until they realised that, wait a moment, there were still limits after all. Collapsing in upon themselves, the atoms gripped and fell, tearing the seams of the world as they tumbled back into gravity. Things shifted. Ideas fell through the rents.
In Boston, a printing press caught for an eternal second, feeling the thoughtquake. Time paused, thinking it was dead, then felt its heart remember how to beat. The press shook itself awake then continued on in the remade world.[…]
Maps fell from the presses, were folded and tied, marked SECRET when they were and sometimes when they weren’t, put in boxes, sent by rail and boat to the fronts.
Meanwhile the fronts had felt that sliding, felt the word “front” lose it’s precision, smear over everything, and the lines sagged a little knowing it was time to give up the glory.

There was a moment in the last third that hit me like a punch in the stomach and I had to reread that line several times before I could move on. I still don’t quite know why. I’m really surprised I was so affected by this novel. I hadn’t considered it high literature, whatever that may be, nor a tear-jerker when I picked it up. But it moved me. It’s one that I’d like to reread and I don’t do that often. More importantly, I’m really looking forward to what Rawson comes out with next.

Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists by Jane Rawson: Five stars.

Read it if: you’re willing to suspend disbelief, you love the conceptual, just give it a go.

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