What to read: A rollicking feminist romp and essays on abortion

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The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies
Alison Goodman, HarperCollins, $32.99


Twin sisters in Regency England become action heroines in this trio of short adventures. Lady Augusta (Gussie) is a determined spinster, her sister Lady Julia in mourning for her betrothed. They’re two intelligent, capable women living independently – a rarity for the time – and bored by society life, but they soon find cause for distraction in rescuing women and girls from the villainy of men. First, there’s Caroline, reportedly imprisoned in an unknown location by her husband; then Marie-Jean, a 12-year-old forced into prostitution; and finally, the Lady Hester, sister of their dashing friend Lord Evan (sentenced to transportation as a youth and newly returned from Australia), who has been committed against her will to an asylum. It’s a rollicking feminist romp – think Jane Austen meets James Bond – that breaks the shackles of period genre fiction and liberates women from the forces arrayed against them.


The Watchful Wife
Suzanne Leal, Allen & Unwin, $32.99

From the author of The Teacher’s Secret and The Deceptions comes a courtroom drama that draws upon educational and religious aspects of those two previous novels. A sexual assault case unfolds from the perspective of an accused man’s wife. Ellen escaped the repressive religious community in which she was raised, becoming a teacher and falling in love with an outgoing colleague, Gordon. Years later police knock at their door and accuse Gordon, now Ellen’s husband, of sexually assaulting one of his students. Suzanne Leal builds another psychologically intricate portrayal. Ellen’s experience blends her backstory with her stoicism during the trial and its aftermath. She is absolutely convinced of her husband’s innocence and stands staunchly beside him while acknowledging the complainant has no reason to bear false witness. Both seem plausible, until the conflict is reconciled in a twist you won’t see coming.

The Escapades of Tribulation Johnson
Karen Brooks, HQ, $32.99


The protagonist of the title happens to be the cousin of Restoration playwright (and former spy) Aphra Behn and spends time under her tutelage. Tribulation Johnson gets banished for outspokenness to Aphra’s by her father. Luckily for her, he is unaware of Mrs Behn’s exploits and career. Pretty soon Tribulation dons breeches and, guided by her cousin, becomes heavily involved in Restoration theatre, collaborating with Aphra on a play so bold the authors choose to remain anonymous. Espionage rears its head, too, as a spy charged with rooting out Catholic conspirators against the King infiltrates their theatre company, and Tribulation is drawn into the intrigue. Karen Brooks’ deeply researched evocation of Restoration London – in all its tumult – is a bustling canvas for a historical novel that should delight anyone interested in the enigmatic life of Aphra Behn.

Michael Buxton, Hardie Grant, $26.99


Well-known expert on urban and regional affairs Michael Buxton fares better at journalistic than novelistic craft. I suppose it’s fortunate, then, that 1964 follows a young journalist. Michael is a cadet reporter whose taste for hunting down local news runs up against larger narratives of a world on the cusp of momentous changes. It begins in the morgue, where each corpse has a hyper-local story behind it and spirals into something akin to fictionalised memoir, as social certainties loosen, the city of his youth is radically reshaped, and Michael is sent to fight in South-East Asia. 1964 has interesting things to say about the relationship between truth as it is reported (and remembered) and truth sought through philosophical and intellectual inquiry. As a novel, though, the merciless staccato of the prose style often interferes with its more meditative ambit and makes it difficult to sustain immersion in the emerging narrative.

Madison Griffiths, Ultimo Press, $34.99


In 2021, in the midst of Melbourne’s lockdown, writer Madison Griffiths discovered she was pregnant. Not long after she “placed four powder-coated pills in [her] mouth” and swallowed. These essays, meditations and reflections on her abortion and the whole notion of abortion itself amount to a kind of discontinuous narrative – the subject seen through the lens of her experience. But there’s nothing self-indulgent here, for in language both tender and raw she imaginatively examines herself, the complexity of her responses (at times personifying abortion and entering into dialogue with it), society, sexuality, family and gender with remarkable honesty. It’s not a harrowing tale, for it also amounts to a statement of beliefs and her right to decide how to live and love.

Bhutan to Blacktown
Om Dhungel with James Button, Newsouth, $32.99


It’s not simply the epic nature of this refugee tale that is impressive, but also the grace and poise of the storyteller. He creates a vivid portrait of village life in southern Bhutan, growing up in a large family and coming up against the caste system when he married, and the persecution that led him to flee when, in the late 1980s, the government began a ruthless campaign to ethnically cleanse the country of southern Bhutanese. His father was routinely arrested and beaten and with his arrest imminent, Dhungel was forced to make the harrowing decision to leave his wife and daughter. Via Kathmandu, he eventually fetched up in Blacktown and the family was reunited a few years later. There are some deeply moving passages, but overall, it’s a tale of coming through against the odds.

War and Punishment
Mikhail Zygar, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $34.99


In 1670, a German monk, a historian, wrote a book proclaiming the existence of a “pan-Russian orthodox people”, including Ukraine. Russian historian Mikhail Zygar takes this as his starting point in examining the complex and troubled relationship between Russia and Ukraine, “a chronicle of how Russia has oppressed Ukraine for the last five centuries”. It is a history of the myths that sanction this oppression, the central one being that Ukraine has long been part of the Russian Empire and that Putin’s war is effectively saving the Ukrainian people from their own government. His aim in this timely, entertaining, forthright and angry study is to deconstruct these myths, taking in pivotal events such as the emergence of the USSR up to Putin’s invasion, contextualising the war and seeing it in the light of centuries of myth-making.

A Real Piece of Work
Erin Riley, Viking, $22.99

In this crisp and lively collection of essays-cum-memoir, social worker Erin Riley writes about being at 12 “a prodigious basketballer and an embryonic queer”. It captures that sense of the conventional (father driving Riley to the match) rubbing up against the unconventional that is a constant throughout the book, of creating one’s identity in the context of socially received binary constructions of gender and the movement towards authentic, non-binary living – becoming “a real piece of work”. This might sound heavy going, but these tales (often depicting people living on the margins) have an admirably light touch, are witty, sharply observed and can be moving, as in the poignant portrait of an elderly man feeding a stray cat. Woven into this are reflections on family, love, sex and work.

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