My review of The Place on Dalhousie, MELINA MARCHETTA

First published in the Newtown Review of Books.

Melina Marchetta has written a story about home in The Place on Dalhousie. Home is both a place — where you live, the geography, the cityscape, the country — and a state of mind, the comfort and familiarity of having people around you ¬who know you and care for you. Home is support in its different guises.

Rosie Gennaro has lost the most important people in her life — her mother when she was 14, and now her father — and she feels she has lost her home, the house her father built for her and her mother. She has moved in with a boyfriend, then out again, and she has taken off travelling, working odd jobs, moving on when it suits. The book opens with Rosie in a regional town where she has found work as a carer. She seems drawn to other people’s homes.

The town floods and she stays on to help, working alongside Jim, an SES volunteer:

It’s rained for forty days and forty nights, so when a guy who looks like Jesus in orange SES overalls comes to stand next to her, Rosie thinks it’s all a bit biblical.

Marchetta’s few words bring us the familiar orange uniform we associate with tension, disaster and recovery, a bearded young man and Rosie’s weary fatefulness. The story’s timeline moves back and forth among an ensemble of characters and piecing it together is part of the enjoyment. This is a book to reread.

Rosie and Jim have a brief relationship, seeking comfort in one another, but then lose contact, travelling in different directions. It is only the beginning of their story, though. When they meet up again in Sydney several years later, the landscape has shifted. Rosie has returned to what was her home, her father’s house in Haberfield in Sydney’s inner-west, the place on Dalhousie, with her new baby. Also living there is Martha, her father Seb’s second wife, and both women lay claim to the house.

Martha and Seb had met in the cancer ward where they were caring for dying loved ones. Marchetta handles weighty themes with a light touch. Death, and the search for solace by those left behind, rears up often. Seb has also died prematurely and we see the repercussions of loss. Marchetta’s strong women show us that death is a part of life. Though it is one end, it is not the end.

Marchetta’s characters find support in different forms. Jim is searching for his parents, but his close-knit group of friends from school, and their parents, brothers and sisters are his family:

He’s home, and he knows he’s home because they’re here and that’s the way it is, just the certainty that one of them will always be around, and it feels like everything’s going to be okay …

Martha’s school friendships, reforming around an adult netball team, are another source of support with a shared history. The pokes at netball prima donnas are laugh-out-loud funny for any woman who remembers school teams. In another forum, the bitchy competitiveness of a mothers’ group is shown to be a veneer: underneath is solid, practical support.

Responsibility is a constant theme — responsibility to one’s children and one’s parents, financially and emotionally. Rosie’s Italian grandmother comes back to the house on Dalhousie, worried for her granddaughter. Of Jimmy’s job as a fly-in fly-out worker in the mines, Martha says, ‘You need to make this work, Jimmy.’ Frankie, Jimmy’s best friend, who knows his patterns and his history, says to him, ‘That little boy needs you, no matter what.’

And the migrant experience is here. When family is on the other side of the world, the neighbourhood becomes de facto family:

Martha had never sensed Loredana in this house before, but she’s imagined her languorous walk down Dalhousie chatting to every second person outside their home … That husky strong accent attracting the foreigners, the rapid musical dialect comforting the old-timers.

Martha’s responsibility, too, becomes clear in the end, and the place on Dalhousie becomes home again.

Melina Marchetta The Place on Dalhousie Viking 2019 PB 288pp $32.99

Dying in the first person, Nike Sulway

First published in the Newtown Review of Books (18 July 2017), my review of Nike Sulway’s luminous novel, Dying in the first person.

This is a powerful and extraordinarily beautiful story of family, love and sacrifice. Sulway has created a world we enter slowly, uncovering the past and its hurts in small steps. It draws the reader into a place of mystery and wonder as Samuel is brought face to face with an emissary, Ana, who brings news of his long-estranged twin brother.

We learn of Morgan’s death in the canal near their home in Amsterdam in the opening lines —‘A woman came across the field, carrying the body of my brother, who had drowned.’ Ana’s first contact is through letters, then telephone calls. Samuel and his mother, Solange, have had no first-hand contact with Morgan for many years but on accompanying Morgan’s body back to be buried, Ana stays, allowing herself to rest, to be loved. In Sulway’s depiction of her growing relationships with Samuel and Solange, there is a longing and vulnerability that all readers will recognise.

Sulway explores ideas of sacrifice and the accompanying notions of obligation, commitment and entitlement; these are part of loving somebody. Her characters’ offerings to those they love are almost biblical in their scope—life, freedom, memory and voice—but we can see echoes of them in our own lives. We all make huge, yet unrecognised, sacrifices every day, for love.

It is through the book’s gradual unfolding that we learn of Morgan’s life, his self-imposed isolation from his family and why and how he died. Ana’s complicated relationship with Morgan is teased out. Ultimately, she has wanted to save him: ‘I believed I could rescue him, restore him to himself, simply by being patient and kind.’ Sulway’s examination of Morgan’s mental state reminded me of Jeffrey Euginides in his 2011 book The Marriage Plot where Madeleine, who wants to save Leonard, is told: ‘But you can only save yourself.’ Sulway is acutely aware of our limitations in treating emotional pain.

The book’s central theme is the power of language. Sulway portrays its role, through narrative, in recording truth, or lack of truth, which then, in turn, allows us to see reality and change and grow. As children, the boys develop a secret language, sophisticated and complex. As adults, Morgan writes books in this language and becomes famous; the language has taken on a life of its own, studied by linguists, the focus of international conference. His books are translated by Samuel who is conflicted about his role in appropriating words not his own. Who owns these stories?

As boys, they had developed an entire world in this secret language—the island of Nahum—inhabited by men only. Sulway’s examination of the roles of men and women, their strictures and freedoms, is light and deft. She never hammers home a message, leaving nuance and murkiness to allow us to reach our own conclusions. While her attachment to her women characters is evident—Solange, in particular, her talents, intellect, resourcefulness, independence—she tells her story through men and their agency. Women’s stories and powers, the influence of a mother in shaping her children, is always present but in the background.

One spring morning,’ my brother would intone, holding his tiny craft aloft in this wide, pale hands, ‘the father leaves his son sleeping and goes to the sea. He does not know, when he steps onto the deck, whether he will return, whether it will be a good day, or a bad day, but he goes down to the sea, because that is what men do.

And at the end, we are left with Ana’s sacrifice, her selflessness as she, too, goes into the storm.

Sulway’s writing is beautiful and evocative. She forces her readers to slow their pace, to absorb every detail through her recreation of scenes in real time precision: the trappings and formalities of a funeral, the basting of a turkey.

In the kitchen, our mother laid out her ingredients, as well as her needles, skewers, scissors and string, her long-handled, flat-faced spoons and glass bowls. She had taken out her recipe form its hiding place, where it lay folded all year, cheek-to-cheek with a page clipped from the newspaper in 1949, which had detailed instructions on how to truss a turkey. Once everything was in place, she opened a bottle of dry Semillon, poured herself a shallow, golden glassful and began.


In many ways, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships and the little that children ever really know of their parents’ lives.

Sulway, Nike, Dying in the first person, Transit Lounge Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, ebook and paperback (304 pages), RRP $29.99

Sunshine, Kim Kelly

The lives of three men and a women, returned from the front after World War I, intersect in a new offering from Kim Kelly – an historical novella set in the fictional hamlet of Sunshine in far north-western New South Wales, ‘out the back of Bourke’.

Snow, Grace and Art are each looking for something real in their lives to fill the holes left by war. Snow blames himself for the death of a dear friends, Art’s trauma left him hospitalised and shamed by a nervous paralysis, and Grace, a ‘surgical nurse and do-it-yourself butcher’ has seen too much.  A fresh start is offered by the Australian Government’s Solider Settlement scheme—a well-meaning though ill-considered plan to give returned soldiers parcels of land on which to farm.  Many divisions were worthless, unable to yield a decent crop and the scheme was eventually abandoned. Kelly’s gentle examination of a nascent modern Australia reminds us also of its founding on theft through the Scheme’s dispossession of the Indigenous population. These intertwined stories about citrus crops along the Darling River illustrate some of its hopes and successes.

After serving Australia in a foreign war, Aboriginal horseman Jack Bell returns to a nation which has broken his family and removed his livelihood. On five shillings a day, signing up was a leap into riches, and respect, impossible at home. He muses, ‘No such distinction as black of white but yes sir and no sir, get on with the friggen job. Why did it have to take the insanity of war to make things so equal and reasonable as that? Stupid friggen question.’ Now, the Government wants him ‘looked after’ on a mission. Bucking at that, he returns to the land of his birth and finds it divided and apportioned to other returned soldiers. White soldiers.

Snow McGlynn receives such an allocation. He has retreated within himself, wants no company, and needs to throw himself into his farm to forget the pain of war and loss. Snow muses early on, ‘He didn’t have anything against blacks, not really, but they always made a mess and had their hand out … ‘  Through his developing relationship with Jack, Kelly opens our eyes to Australia’s rank hypocrisy as Snow becomes alive to Jack’s knowledge of and connection with the land, and the racism underpinning Snow’s own good fortune. Both returned soldiers—one rewarded, the other stripped of his dignity and self-determination.

Art Lovelee has been hospitalised with a  phantom paralysis. Shamed and infantilised, the prevailing medical view was to ignore their symptoms and jolly them along, like children. Through Art, Kelly quietly reminds us that the ‘deranged’ have forever been feared, their illness taboo. ReadingSunshinebrought back Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy(Penguin 1996) which powerfully evokes soldiers’ trauma in the First World War and Kelly includes in her epigraph a verse from Siegfried Sassoon, the wartime poet who features so strongly in Barker’s work.

Art finds himself in the care of Grace who coaxes him back to health, then follows him to Australia. She has her own demons. She remembers too well the screams of the boy whose eyes she had to wash of poison gas from ‘the green cloud, from the devil’s very breath that swept across Flanders Fields.’ She remembers the amputees and the men carrying metal bullets in their bodies.

Kelly’s writing is clear and joyous. While she writes of dispossession and death, her message is hopeful. There is beauty all around—Grace, transplanted from cold, damp England to a parched and hot land looks to the future. Bending down to pick up a scrap she thinks has come from her washing, she sees it is a daisy,

… a little blue daisy, sitting in a sparse and thirsty-looking clump of grass. She crouched down to peer at it: a baby-blue wheel, so stark, so fabulous, here upon the rich red timeless soil: and such a surprise: she reminded herself all joy was surprising, never coming as dreamed or planned.

Kim Kelly Sunshine Jazz Monkey Publications 2019 PB 222pp $20.53

First published by the Newtown Review of Books  on 5 March 2019

Shell, Kristina Olsson

Find my review of Kristina Olsson’s Shell at the Newtown Review of Books,   published this week.

Its piercing look at consequences of Australia’s inability to understand itself, and reconcile, stood out for me

Through Pearl and Axel, Olsson brings the reader to mid-1960s Sydney. The visionary awarding of the design to Utzon —  the result of an international competition — is accompanied by a stultifying timidity from a culture still making undrinkable coffee. The social changes brought by the waves of European immigration are yet to take hold:

He picked at the slices of bread in his hand, the odd contents of his sandwich. There was something yellow and viscous on the cheese that didn’t look or smell right. Jago leaned towards him. Corn relish, he said quietly. It makes me cry also.

Read more at Newtown Review of Books.

 

The Museum of Modern Love, reviewed in Newtown Review of Books

I was late to this party. I’d heard about this novel, and when I finally found time for fiction this year, I lost myself in it immediately. Heather Rose has written a masterpiece of introspection. The reader pauses to look up from the page and reflect, to remember a passage over the course of the day and stop for a moment, or longer, to ask us why? What would I do?

Wrapping her stories around the work of a living artist—Rose sought, and was granted approval—is a gift. To read is to learn, and the book is set around the life and work of the performance artist Marina Abramović, specifically her performance ‘The Artist is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. Over 75 days, she sat in a simple wooden chair. When a visitor took the seat opposite, she would lift her head, open her eyes as a veil lifting, and sit in that stance for as long as her counterpart stayed. ‘Is it a staring competition?’ ask visitors to the Museum.

What is art? A question surely as old as art itself. Abramović suggests that art is life. And just as the artists invited those who sat with her to participatein the art, Heather Rose asks us to turn inwards. We are not observers. We are participants who need to reconcile with life. The Museum of Modern Loveasks us, How do we learn to see what is before us?

Rose invites the reader into the life of Arky Levin, a famous NY composer. Arky’s perspective guides us though the exhibition and he forms a companionable, though disinterested bond with Jane Miller, a tourist and fellow gallery visitor. They are both distracted, lost andcontemplating uncertainty.  Jane’s husband has died, too young; her grief, one year on, still palpable. Jane ‘has always liked certainty. It was one of the pleasure of being a teacher…’ She wants more time: time with her husband, time for her own life.

Levin is flailing. His wife, suffering an inherited degenerative condition has removed herself from his life,  admitting herself to fulltime care in an institution.  ‘She had been certainty. When everything fell apart, she would be there. It was partly why he always felt so angry when she got sick. He didn’t like that the whole world wobbled when that happened, and he felt small. Small and alone.’

There were questions that terrified his sense of order. His deepest sense of how life should be lived. Ought to be lived. But should and ought were words for certainty. What words belonged to uncertainty?

Abramović, their mirror, faces uncertainty each time she takes up her position in the performance, opening the door to new knowledge. The intensity of their Museum experience forces both Jane and Levin to focus their gaze, to see what cannot be avoided. And finally, Levin understands, ‘with vivid clarity that the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know…’

In a further twist on the role of observer and the observed, occasionally Rose draws back and follows the participants going about their day through different narrators, hovering on the edges. One is perhaps the muse, or a higher consciousness. ‘I drew Levin’s attention to the day outside … For all he wasn’t listening to my musical suggestions, he was amendable to an interruption…I watched him. There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work….’  Yet another is from Marina’s past who shows us how a childhood of physical and emotional deprivation in times of war shaped her performance art. We are reminded of the power that the dead have over us.

Other characters, students and commentators seamlessly integrate the artist’s background and body of work into the story taking the reader on a journey through her life. And Rose has held a mirror to us, the reader, through the very ordinariness of those who sit opposite. A young man slumping, ‘[Jane] wanted to tell him to sit up straight’, ‘a young woman with a tiny pair of shoulders and long lank hair…she appeared to be bowed under the weight of a short and exhausting life….’, those frail, and others defiant.

This is also a New York story. For those who love the city, from the residents’ style and beauty —‘three-day growth on his perfect jawline’—to the  food—onion bagels get more than one mention, to the buildings, streets and avenues, every page is a delight. Levin knows that New York’s light obliterates a darkness, a void that is both the universe and his own sense of aloneness. For Jane, the visitor, it is a temporary haven.

Rose has written a powerful story of lives interrupted and of seeking, and finding and learning. The Museum of Modern Love is about both understanding our choices and finding the strength to make them.

First published in The Newtown Review of Books.

The Museum of  Modern Love, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin 2016 RRP $27.99)

 

Pre-release review of The Rosie Result – the final in the Don Tillman trilogy

The Rosie Result, Graeme Simsion, 2019, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.

It’s been four years since The Rosie Effect(Text 2014) and it’s a joy meeting up again with Don Tillman in this third and final instalment. The Rosie Result is Graeme Simsion’s clever way of bringing us a young Don Tillman, in today’s world. After 12 years in New York, Don and Rosie have returned to Melbourne where Rosie has landed a plum role. Unhappily uprooted from his childhood home and friends, Hudson, their ten year old son, is having ‘issues’ at his new school. Showing many of the same characteristics Don had in his childhood, the reader gets to delve into Don’s past as he and Rosie are torn between different ways to help.

Seeing social isolation and possibly depression in Hudson’s future, Don wants to find better ‘solutions’ to those that well-meaning but ignorant adults foisted on him in his youth.  His plan is to engineer a different outcome through a series of targeted interventions to give Hudson necessary life skills. He is going to bring all his science acumen to The Hudson Project.

Don’s foibles and idiosyncrasies – so familiar to those who have read the first two in the series – charm and infuriate from the first page. Shucking oysters, in pjamas, while pondering a neglected performance review, his rampant overthinking leads him to discard ‘objectivity and intelligence’ as key strengths. He fears this might imply that his colleagues were lacking, which would be tactless and best avoided. Oh, the excruciating and endless squeezing ourselves into acceptable boxes to tick. Been there. Rosie counsels, ‘“Just say problem-solving.”’ Problem-solving is to become a key theme in The Rosie Result.

To spend more time with Hudson, Don’s plan includes temporarily ceasing his work in genetic research – where he has swum into difficult waters – and opening a uniquely themed bar (solving the income and availability problems in one hit). Then he brings Dave, a friend and refrigeration mechanic, over from New York, solving another few. Getting inside Don’s head, working through his stages of problem-identification, analysis, options and resolution, we see the world the way Don might. Simsion’s adroit use of language, especially in dialogue, dislocates the reader as characters spar on issues. When Don and Rosie go to an autism awareness evening, the sudden dissonance between the two presenters is unexpected – the language suddenly forceful – and we sit up, as indeed Don does.

Simsion has written a book about belonging. In following Don and Rosie’s exploration of whether Hudson is a boy ‘with autism’ (person-first language), or not – and whether it matters – Simsion asks us, how much of our individuality is erased by society’s demands that we fit in? While they love him as he is, Don says that is not going to be enough. He knows that his natural traits of practicality and forthrightness are valued less than the social lubricant of empathy, compromise and conformity. The escalating tensions of parenting self-doubt, bureaucratic rules and ethical dilemmas converge at meetings with the school, bringing home the irrationality, the absurdity of inflexible institutions.

Readers are given the premises of different arguments and we are asked to make a logical deduction, to find the right solution. Rosie and Don are every parent. The self-doubt is endless, as are the surprises, as they discover more about this person they are raising.  Simsion pushes our buttons on anti-vaxxers, alternative therapies, truth-telling, choice and ethics. Don and Rosie want to raise Hudson without stigma and labelling. Yet…they want the best for him too. The parents of Hudson’s new friend, Blanche who has a medical condition, are hostile to conventional treatment. Yet at what cost? Simsion asks us to think about what is ‘good’ behaviour and when is deviating from accepted norms and standards acceptable, or necessary? Simsion is asking us, is there a ‘right’ way to live?

In amongst the problem-solving, we are treated to Don’s gorgeous ability to render the bleeding obvious in new ways. When a bird is stunned flying into a window, he notes to himself, ‘ ‘birds cannot afford to carry much natural armour due to the flying requirement.’

The Rosie Result is a funny, generous and thoughtful trip through finding fulfilment and living with the choices we make. This reader found it impossible not to calculate her own BMI again, just quietly… and the many references to cocktails throughout had her looking wistfully at her watch, willing it to be that hour.

Cheers.

#TheRosieResult

#GraemeSimsion

How do you read?

Reading a book seems a straightforward thing. Be it on a page, an e-reader, on your phone, even listening to an audio recording, we’re all in the author’s hands, following the same path on this journey. Interactive multi-media books might be coming, but they’ve not taken hold of us yet.

But I’ve recently been struck by the differences in how we carry out this simple act, how we engage with this experience. Readers have favourite ways to read. And like the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who recently wrote about her book addiction, it might be an experience so intense that it takes over your life.

Making space and time

Me? I’ve learnt to slow down. I read for the beauty of language, the clever construction of words as they create meaning and bring forth worlds.

I like to read uninterrupted—by kids, partner, fellow commuters, schedules. While I appreciate Danny Katz’s observation that the toilet provides just such a space, a numb bum takes away from the pleasure somewhat…

I won’t read until I have dedicated time to wholly engage, and in a comfortable spot. During the day, a Protestant work ethic kicks in and I feel I should be doing something else, but after dinner is perfect—on the couch, with good light and a glass of wine. Bedtime is good. Holidays and plane trips are good.

I won’t read on public transport because it’s just too bitty. Too fraught with having to engage with other people, or watch out for my stop. I worked for a man once who would read on the train to work, then along the footpath, and in the lift, only closing the book when he reached his office.

But me? I like to hold a finger in my page—or look up from an e-reader—and drift off into my own thoughts; I love the freedom of having nothing to keep pace with, nothing to miss if I wander away for a moment. And I love to reread a sentence over again, just to take in its wonder (and which is why I’m not remotely interested in audio books).

Respect!

I won’t read into the night when tiredness swamps comprehension and I find I am rereading a line three times. And I’ll stop when I start skating through, only reading for plot. Writing, good writing, is the hardest thing. When authors put their soul into each word, each sentence, to skim is to do them a disservice. That said, sometimes you just have to find out!

To share, and with whom…?

For me, reading is a solitary thing, an intensely private pastime. I’ve never wanted to join a book club. That kind of parallel reading, and sharing, leaves me cold. My own response to the author, what I take away, feels like my journey alone; other people’s responses are theirs.

But sometimes, of fellow readers, I will ask—‘What are you reading?’ It’s a shared understanding that one is always reading. I’ll ask because my kind of book club is between two only so when I find a reading soulmate, I ask. Like catching sunlight falling across a room, it won’t be there for long. A reader always moves on.

The sense of an ending

Do you pause between books? I recently read Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series straight through (thank you, digital age). But series aside, when I’m between books, I’m in one world and not ready to move into another. I’m a bit antsy in those few days, a bit disconsolate.

But there’s always another. I can turn to my bookshelf that holds just those I’ve not read yet. And it’s hard to resist the lure of an e-book, always available, just one click… (I’ve heard that Amazon patented that technology and can see why).

My own reading addiction ended with a mid-career change that took a second Master’s degree, and a steep drop in income. I became a professional editor when I realised that I cared more about the words in the documents than I did about the policy, or the politics.

When I have a fresh manuscript to get on with, I couldn’t be happier.

How do you read?

 

Dymphna Cusack

Such a joy to discover a new/old writer! I am now reading everything by Dymphna Cusack (1902–1981) whose writing life was brilliantly recreated by Marilla North (Yarn Spinners, UQP 2001) at a recent Jessie Street National Women’s Library Lunch Hour Talk.

Cusack infused her literature with her passion for social justice. Women’s rights to control their bodies and their destinies was a recurring theme. Writing about poverty and power, she illuminated women’s lives in Australian society, their places taken, their freedoms ceded. Though now fifty years old, her satire and commentary on class, power and privilege remains fiercely observant and intelligent.

In The Bloody Traffic, Cusack took on the arms industry and her play, Pacific Paradise protested nuclear weapons. Though she was a well-known and popular writer internationally, Cusack had been hurt by her own country’s lack of recognition. Perhaps it is not hard to see why. She was a thorn in the side of many bastions of power.

 

If you haven’t yet read Cusack, start with Come in Spinner, co-authored with Florence James. The sheer pace of its plot, driven by a host of compelling characters, was a revelation. I recommend it highly.

For anyone who knows Newcastle, like I do, there is another reason I was intrigued. Dymphna Cusack lived in that port city for several years, literally around the corner from where my parents live today. Her books describe the parks and beaches I remember from holidays with my grandparents and she recreates them vividly.

Seeing the whole city spread out below him, he was filled with a sense of exaltation: the harbour sparkling between the winding shores of the estuary, its waters streaked with the purplish line of the river, the twin arms of Nobbys and Stockton enclosing it like the pincers of a giant crab; the huddle of buildings along the water-front; the scatter of suburbs, thinning out between coast and timbered heights; the innumerable factory chimneys, and, towering above them all, sign and seal of Newcastle’s existence, the smoke-stacks of Southern Steel and Broken Hill Proprietary under their perpetual silver-black clouds.” (Southern Steel (1953)

 

Adrian McKinty and James Lee Burke

Over the last weeks, I’ve been reading Irish-Australian writer Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series and am entranced by the acuity of his observations; the blinking humanity revealed when the lights go up. The feeling was similar over ten years ago when I first read James Lee Burke. With more than twenty so far in his Robicheaux series, Burke’s lyrical prose continues to distil what it is to be human—the flaws and vanities, petty obsessions and manifestations of love. In these writers’ hands, crime lies where the fragile membrane between coping and not breaks; where a civilisation’s codes of behaviour constructed and defended to protect both the weak and the powerful are breached. Crime is in the cracks. But that’s how the light gets in, too.

It is a seductive paradox. Both Dave Robicheaux and Sean Duffy embody the complexity of a life as the individual wrestles with themselves and their place in the world. McKinty and Burke are both skilled in revealing the overlap, the imprecision in the reckoning of good and bad. Robicheaux and Duffy are both burdened by a sense of responsibility that they find overwhelming at times. Both break sometimes and lash out. They know they’ve lost it but containing the accumulated rage and frustration becomes impossible. If they see themselves as some force for good, standing between the players and the victims, it is not hubris but rather a weary reckoning that they might have held off the chaos for just another day.

With an intelligence that precludes more than a nod to conformity, neither holds protocols in high regard. Working in rule-bound bureaucracies that snuff out distinguishing behaviour, no matter what it yields, this can be risky. Both serve petty masters: Dave Robicheaux as a sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia parish, Louisiana and Sean Duffy as a detective inspector at Carrick Police Station, Northern Ireland. The local station, the parish office is their domain, for better or worse. The FBI (Fart, Barf and Itch) and MI5 are staffed by political operatives whose chief concern is fallout for stakeholders in the bigger picture. Where they collide, Robicheaux and Duffy are warned off: their cases mere distraction, resolution neither here nor there. Pity about the dead, the preyed upon. Though both men know they are worth more, they despise the kowtowing, the mediocrity, the concessions that are requisite for promotion.

Robicheaux’s eternal struggle is with corrupt power and the damage wrought by blinkered excess and privilege. Whether they be mobsters, or corporates, or old money, these interchangeable rich, white folk exploit and discard Louisiana’s Cajun, black and Catholic minorities. Burke writes of the fruit pickers, the wheat harvesters, and the unrepentant IWW unionists who try to organise them and who are crucified for their efforts. McKinty’s Duffy is a Catholic, serving in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force with the highest mortality rate of any in the Western world. In a prod world, being a Catholic peeler is a death sentence. Yet he stays.

‘Maybe I’m not a great detective, maybe I’m not even a good detective, but I am fucking persistent. And I am going to find out how Ek did it and I’m going to bring the bastard down for it. The UK government might not like it, the Irish government might not like it, but if I can make a case, the RUC will support me…Cops everywhere love nicking villains’. (Rain Dogs, 2015).

While Burke’s novels have few markers linking events to their time, McKinty’s 1980s Northern Ireland evokes my teens in a different British outpost: I remember the Falk Off t-shirts, the miners’ strike on the BBC World Service, the Royal Family being so modern with the redheaded commoner, and the music: ‘The driver had on Radio 1, which was giving us Kylie Minogue’’ ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. Within a few seconds Miss Minogue’s sunny Antipodean vocals and the chirpy lyrics had brought out my dark, misanthropic side…’

History is a restive participant in both series. Reminders of slavery’s dehumanising effects are throughout Burke’s Louisiana—that slaves dug and fired the clay bricks of a plantation home, the rage and madness of their descendants whose lives are blighted by alcoholism and violence. In Ireland in 1985, the riots, roadblocks, burning buses, fires mark just another day in the sectarian war (McKinty, Gun Street Girl, 2015). The bitterness of this centuries-old dispute has dug so deep, there is no turning. When the Anglo–Irish Agreement is struck, the extremists go to town: “‘In a normal country this bold attempt to seize the middle ground would be met with polite agreement by all sides of the political divide… ‘But not here’” (Rain Dogs, 2015). Less poetic than Burke, McKinty’s writing is bleakly funny.

Black humour to go with Duffy’s black jeans and DMs.

That other signpost, the environment, is rendered with extraordinary deftness by both writers. The rain, the snow, fog and wind are more than mere weather—they become characters. Half-frozen Atlantic rainlashes Ireland’s citizens with apocalyptic fury. It is ‘cold cleansing,’ ‘elemental’, ‘a biblical scourge’. Louisiana’s sky sheds fat drops, the heat intense then ‘suddenly cool and thick with the sulphurous smell of ozone.’ The ground barely contains the rising, swelling mass; the waters of the Atchafalaya Basin and its marshes and swamps encroach on the towns; the dead are buried above ground in stone vaults to not be washed away. The transience of humanity, when all’s said and done.

But Dave Robicheaux believes in love, in redemption, a time ‘where we would witness once again the unfinished story of ourselves.’ (Cadillac Jukebox, 1996). Sean Duffy is less optimistic. ‘I thought I could make a difference… Ten years ago … Now I realise that one man can do very little.’ On riot duty, the ‘weens’ throw stones and half-bricks but Duffy anticipates the day when they are making Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs. Still, his very presence, albeit reluctant and dour, is hopeful. What else is there?

‘Crime writing’ is never about the crime. Not the good stuff anyway. There is such a thing as society (sorry, Margaret Thatcher) and though broken, it is not beyond repair. Read McKinty and Burke for the elegance of their prose and the light that filters through the cracks.

First published in Newtown Review of Books