I couldn’t stop reading these two novels. Here’s why

Do you sometimes read a book and want it to never end? Sometimes I fear that I’ll never find a novel as keep-me-up-all-night good as the one I’m currently reading. It feels like nothing I pick off the shelf will be as absorbing, as transporting. In the last few weeks I’ve had that feeling twice, in one novel after another. The first one was The Rip by Mark Brandi. The second was The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. I tried to work out why.

What these two magnificent novels have in common (besides being Australian and about characters pushed to extremes) is a first person narrator – the voice of the story is ‘I’. This isn’t uncommon in literature, but both of these novels do it so well.

So how did they keep me hooked?

Neither has a complex plot or a huge cast of characters, but both were irresistible. If I wrote a novel, I thought, this is what I would want to do. So how? How could I possibly draw the reader in so intensely, keep them there, right inside the head of a complex and damaged main character?

It’s all about narrative point of view

In The Rip, the protagonist and narrator is a homeless, drug-addicted young woman, name unknown, living in the parks and streets of inner-city Melbourne. Mark Brandi has used the present tense as well as the first person, making the reading experience both immediate and personal. The Shepherd’s Hut is narrated by Jaxie Clackton, the ‘hardarse the kids run clear of all over the shire’. Tim Winton writes the young man’s voice absolutely authentically, bad grammar and all. So we see the world and hear the story totally from their point of view. They are the main character as well as the narrator. Logically, it may seem that a first-person narrator would be the least engaging, and an omniscient or third-person narrator would add more nuance to the story. In the hands of these first-class writers, the first-person point of view puts us inside the world and the mind of the main character but leaves room for us to wonder how reliable they are. We see what they see, experience their world with them, but also bring to the story our doubts about if the world really is as the character experiences it. Our own imaginations fill in some of the shadows, and foresee where the character is going to end up. Until we don’t.

In the hands of lesser writers first-person narration can be limited and self-indulgent. Both these recent Australian novels are well worth examining for lessons in first-person point of view. But read them first as wonderful stories, masterfully told.

Read more about Mark Brandi in 8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer.

Fifty Typefaces That Changed the World

By John L Walters/Design Museum

This is one I snapped up in the marked-down basket at my local bookshop, The Turning Page in Springwood, that little shiver of excitement running through my middle as I found my cut-price treasure. For a long time back in my teens and 20s, I secretly wanted to be a typographer. Lining up each Letraset letter before rubbing the black letter onto the white paper, slowly forming a heading, was how I found my ‘flow’. I used to buy The Face magazine to see what typographer Neville Brody was up to as much as for its cool content.

And then desktop publishing, and the internet. Anybody could be a typographer. We all know how to deride Comic Sans. I stuck with writing and editing. Nothing could every disrupt those, right?

I still keep my love of a good font, and this book runs through most of them, from the Gutenberg Bible’s blackletter in the mid-1400s to Ubuntu in 2011, an open-source typeface available to anybody in the world, in over 200 languages, in and for free. As the designers say, ‘The way typography is used says as much about our brand as the words themselves’.

I have more comprehensive and detailed books about typography, but recommend this one as a heavily visual introduction to the art, with an incidental history lesson attached.

When ‘giving’ isn’t really giving at all

Recently I attended three local events at which I learnt important things from three passionate people.

The first was Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk. I first read about her book in the New Yorker, and added it to my absolutely must-read pile. So when I saw that she was talking about her book in Katoomba, I reserved my spot in the front row. To say that Helen’s memoir is about how she trained a goshawk is to ignore that it is also a treatise on grief, literature of immense poeticism and an intense meditation on being human. The New Yorker called H is for Hawk ‘an improbable and hybrid creature’, as well as ‘coherent, complete, and riveting, perhaps the finest nonfiction I read in the past year.’

The second was Simon Cherriman, West Australian environmental biologist, who answered questions after a screening of his documentary about fitting GPS trackers to wedge-tailed eagles, Where do Eagles Dare? While Simon’s documentary is less perfectly formed than H is for Hawk – he is young, give him time ­- it is beautiful, absorbing and worth watching for the six-foot-eight naturalist’s extraordinary tree climbing ability alone.

The third was Anne Manne, who spoke eloquently about the culture of narcissism as written about in her book The Life of I at an event hosted by Korowal School in the Blue Mountains. Anne spoke about narcissism at both individual and societal levels, and, based on solid research, argued that self-absorption is on the increase in western culture. The antidote lies in changing both the way we rear and nurture children and in ending our worship of neoliberal economics and the culture it engenders.

Wedge tail eagle

The parallels between Helen Macdonald and Simon Cherriman’s work are obvious. Both have presented work about birds of prey in creative form. Both have held on to and nurtured, and finally shared, a passion for huge and magnificent raptors.  But if they are just two lovely people (and they are) who are passionate about birds, why did their ideas and their work leave my brain zinging? Why did what they shared make me want to grab every passer-by, maniac-like, and tell them ‘Read this book. Watch this film. You have to.’?

Both have made something of immense beauty. Both made me more aware of the magnificence and slight ridiculousness of these two giant birds of prey, with their unthinkably powerful wings grounded by legs that appear to be dressed in feathered pyjamas.

What captivated me was that each had had a very specific passion since childhood, and pursued it. Macdonald started her self-education in the art of falconry aged six. By her own admission, she was ‘the most appalling falconry bore’ before she hit adolescence. Lucky for us. Cherriman grew up with a love of the West Australian bush, and was only 15 when he found an eagle’s nest that began his passion for them. He describes wedge-tailed eagles as gentle and nurturing parents, despite their immense strength and predilection for a fresh kill.

And that’s where Anne Manne comes into the picture. She described parenting that combines strength and gentleness as one way to step back from raising another generation of the self-obsessed. Her work highlighted for me that I had loved those two incursions into the world of raptors not because of some latent ambition to be an ornithologist (although, in another life…) or because I realised I should follow my childhood passion (I don’t think I had one, unless you count reading).

It was because for an hour or two I listened to somebody with complete mastery of both their subject and its expression talk about it without any narcissism. Their subject was bigger than their ego. They were there to give and to share. Promoting their book and DVD sales was incidental.

It struck me that so much of the ‘giving’ we do in the course of our work and on social media is not really giving at all. That many of the ‘8 great free tips’ and ‘download my free guide’ gifts are only thinly disguised and often rather grandiose marketing. Of course we need to market our skills and to reach out to new customers. But let’s be more real in our giving, more altruistic and less narcissistic in our sharing, liking and linking.

Anne Manne said this that really resonated with me: the assertion that we don’t need things from others is narcissistic in itself.  We are social creatures, and none us can go it alone. Whether it is help at work or support in our private lives, we benefit from connectedness.

Manne’s book ends with the argument that society’s collective narcissism is affecting our ability to take care of the very earth we live on. We need to turn our attention away from ourselves and towards caring for our environment; to stop believing that we are entitled to all the earth’s resources and to start sharing the commons. Just ask the eagles.