I missed my last quarter of a book: I was in iso, of course. What was once an unusual story in Adelaide – now it’s commonplace. The only good thing about being stuck in the house as the autumn sky beckoned golden blue outside (and since we were low on cooking oil, so I served toast to my husband with Covid for dinner) was that I caught up on my reading.
The first book I devoured was the one I had wanted to read for months, but had put off because of its size: Andrea Elliottit’s Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York (Hutchinson), a gripping work of narrative journalism that follows a black family in Brooklyn for eight years, focusing on the charismatic elder, Dasani. We first meet Dasani aged 11, sharing a decrepit room in a homeless shelter with her family of 10 – her mother Chanel, her stepfather Supreme and her seven younger siblings – and on about to start college, where she will meet teachers who I will see something special in her, despite her fierce fighting surface. Yes invisible child were a movie, it would be a path to redemption.
And at first the miracle redemption seems to be on offer (perhaps due, at least in part, to the author’s front page in 2013 New York Times series about Dasani and his family), with Dasani’s admission to the Hershey School for Children in Need. Founded by American chocolate tycoon Milton Hershey, who grew up in poverty and left most of his fortune in school, it provides students with generous housing, clothing, food and even college funds. if they graduate. But while Dasani initially thrives at home, her family crumbles under the pressures of chronic generational poverty, including drug addiction, slum inadequacy, mental health pressures and accusations of neglect that stem primarily from Chanel and Supreme’s inability (as opposed to unwillingness) to provide for their children’s basic needs.
invisible childpublished here in February, got little attention in Australia, but in the US it was selected as one of New York Times‘ best books of 2021, and it was one of Barack Obama’s books of the year. I’ll be shocked if it’s not at least shortlisted for the US National Book Awards this year. Not only does this book have the narrative dynamism and intricate, authentic character detail of a novel, it brilliantly details the often hidden complexities of breaking cycles of disadvantage – most powerfully, the problems inherent in offering solutions. that deal with intersecting issues (such as addiction) individually, do not value community and culture, and separate families. I haven’t read such a captivating and wise book since Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize Expelled: poverty and profit in the American city.
In another effort to better understand the world, I re-read a much-loved book, Otherland: A trip with my daughter (Vintage, 2010) by Ukrainian-Jewish-Australian author Maria Tumarkinbest known for Axiomatic, his internationally acclaimed 2018 book that explores how the past shapes the present. (It was one of New Yorker top 10 books of 2019, among other accolades.) Maria was born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city: the ferocity of her attack by Russia is currently compared to Aleppo in Syria and Stalingrad. She is currently fundraising for Ukrainian crisis appeal.
In Other country, Maria returns to Russia and Ukraine, which she and her family left in 1989, when she was 15 (when Ukraine was still part of the USSR), with her 13-year-old daughter, Billie. In this book, she grapples with the gaps between Russia and Ukraine in which she grew up and became herself, how those places evolved after 1989 and shaped the people who remained, and how she changed over time. during those years, influenced by a mixture of her USSR roots and her new Australian home. A crucial element is its mission to immerse Billie in her past before it’s too late – for her to understand where she came from. Of course, willful teenager Billie has her own answers along the way, some gratifying, some surprising, and some extremely frustrating. So this book is also about mothers and daughters, and how our children are intrinsically part of us and their own people.
Because Maria is a cultural historian, as well as a surprisingly original writer and thinker, it’s not “just” memoir or “just” a journey – it’s also interspersed with deep dives into history and culture, from a visit to the site of the horrific 1941 Babi Yar Massacre in kyiv, one of the largest massacres of Jews in occupied Europe, to the tribal call of musician Boris Grebenshikov (described as Leonard Cohen, Elvis and Jesse Helms in one) for his generation of teenagers in 1989. It is a book rich in cultural references: poets, novelists, historians and philosophers. This is a book I sought out, wanting to better understand the context of what is happening now. Reading Other countryI feel like I connect with the Ukrainian soul.
The last part of Axiomaticalso, is interested in Ukraine and how a place shapes its people – it’s a parallel story between Maria and her childhood friend Alexandra (named Sasha in Other country), beginning with them both in Kharkiv as teenagers, and evolving alongside Alexandra’s stay, and Maria’s life elsewhere, in Melbourne.
I admit that it was sometimes difficult to read Deadly Quiet City: Stories from Wuhan, Ground Zero (Hardie Grant), by the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun, while my husband was coughing and wheezing next to me in bed, with Covid. But it was also illuminating – not just about what happened in the early days of Covid, but how the Chinese government’s actions exacerbated the problem by trying to pretend it didn’t exist. Murong Xuecun visited Wuhan in April 2020, just a few months after Wuhan was officially closed in January of the same year, and interviewed everyday people to collect their stories. Here he profiles eight ordinary citizens, a doctor, Lin Quiangchan, forced to work while contagious with Covid, and a hospital housekeeper Jin Feng, whose husband was denied transport to hospital when he vomited blood because he did not have the proper documents, to an illegal taxi driver and a journalist citizen.
Strangely, the suffering of helpless ordinary people due to bureaucratic inaction that defies both logic and empathy in contemporary China of Calm and deadly city echoes some of the hardships faced by Dasani’s family in invisible child. (For example, the children go hungry when their mother is legally banished from the house because of drug use, but the government takes four months to transfer the family’s food stamps to their father – a major contribution to a charge of negligence.)
The disadvantage trap is also central to At Paddy O’Reilly’s beautifully designed Other houses (Affirm Press), a finely observed, often dryly funny, deeply moving novel with searing momentum. Cleaner Lily and her working-class partner Janks live on paycheck in wealthy bohemian Northcote, migrants from Broadmeadows in search of a better life (and a good school) for Lily’s teenage daughter Jewlee. They’re grateful for their steady jobs, happy with each other, and proud of how Jewlee went from a deliberately tough wildcat to a quiet (if nonchalantly allowed) girl who learned manners and did her homework. But as we reunite with Lily and Jewlee at home watching television at the start of the book, former drug addict Janks is lured into an impossible affair by old acquaintances, after a false move – and parallel narratives are set in motion, Janks having some struggling to make his way home while his family wonders where he is… and what he’s involved in.
This is Paddy O’Reilly’s sixth book, and his experience shines through in its assured polish, layered emotional texture, and quietly acerbic social commentary. Sharp-eyed Lily’s portraits of the houses she cleans up, and the (mostly well-to-do) lives she discerns there are fascinating and contrast with her own life and that of her best friend and colleague Shannon, in sometimes unexpected ways. Privilege, this book expertly suggests, doesn’t always make life better – there’s a single mother with a horrifying tribe of children and a miserable teenager in another house who acts out for attention – but it does increase chances are it’s easy to navigate. Money isn’t everything, but it certainly isn’t nothing either. O’Reilly invites the reader to ponder what these characters gain and lose as they leave the community they once belonged to become outliers in a more privileged place. And, this novel asks, is there somewhere to draw the line?
Ultimately, Tony Jordanit’s Dinner with the Schnabels (Hachette) is a bubbly, smart novel about love, family and (again) class and money, set in post-lockdown Melbourne. We open with Tansy Larsen, a middle-aged, married mother of two, who is talking to a lawyer about the possibility of a divorce. And then we meet her adoring husband Simon, an unemployed former workaholic who lost his business – and the family home – during Covid, as they sit at the train station waiting to catch a glimpse of the half-sister that Tansy never met, in town for their father’s memorial service. Add Tansy’s terrifying Type-A mother and service in seven days, with Simon in charge of transform the venue (Tansy’s best friend’s back garden – currently a disaster) in time for the big event, and we have a plot! The heart of this charismatic novel, however, is the relationship between Simon and Tansy, and the workings of their family unit, now squished into a two-bedroom unit in an apartment building, with Tansy working and Simon parenting (somewhat inept) so that he fights ashamed of their situation. Nothing is quite what it seems, however.
Toni Jordan is at his best here, rivaling Liane Moriarty (a fan) with his comedic skewer of social mores, pacy plot, sharp characterization and sly questioning of contemporary values.
Jo Case is Bookseller at Imprints on Hindley Street and Associate Editor, Books and Ideas, at The Conversation. She is a former associate editor of Wakefield Press.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.