Sarah Hopkins The Subjects

The first page of Sarah Hopkins’ fourth novel contains a diagram of the brain – the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala and the rest all neatly labelled. So, yes, this is a novel about brains – specifically about brainwaves, what they can reveal and how they might be influenced – but it’s also about young offenders, outsourcing correctional services to private providers, the ethics of research, and how we shape the stories we tell ourselves.

Narrated by Daniel G, now 47, who was diagnosed with PTSD at the age of 10, The Subjects largely focuses on when he was 16 and convicted of trafficking prescription drugs to his classmates. With a history of ‘going berserko’, as his mother puts it, he is ordered by the judge to attend a ‘‘residential program to address the issues underlying your behaviour’’ in a remote part of the Australian countryside. There he joins 11 other adolescents who have all had some kind of run-in with the law.

There are echoes of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Robert Lukins’ Everlasting Sunday in this throwing-together of perceived troublemakers in a remote location. However, unlike Wood’s and Lukins’ cohorts, Hopkins’ teenagers live in comfort, their needs given considerable attention.

This review appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 June 2019. You can read the full review here.

Belinda Castles Bluebottle

Bluebottles are common on Australian beaches, their attractive hue concealing the painful poison within. Belinda Castles’ new novel (she previously won the Vogel for The River Baptists and published a historical novel, Hannah and Emil, in 2012) opens at the beach on Christmas Day, 1994. It is an iconic Australian scene, with people ‘wandering between the baking orange sand and the cool, invigorating surf’. Among them, one figure draws the eye:

… a small pink-shouldered man leaping about at the water’s edge. He galloped one way and then the other along a five-metre stretch of sand, like a coach on the touchline, raising his fist to the sky, calling out to the sea. He jumped in the air. He leaned on his knees and shook his head. … Some [of the others on the beach] … kept half an eye on him as he called out to his children from the shore … oblivious as he was to the atmosphere of the beach, its softness, its air of gentle pleasure … feelings surging through him like a heavy swell pushing towards the shore.

There is an effortless sensuality in Castles’ writing, here contrasting the languor of a hot afternoon with the frenetic activity of the man, who, we come to learn, is Charlie Bright.

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books. You can read the full review here

Fatima Bhutto The Runaways

What makes a jihadi? The three runaways of Fatima Bhutto’s second novel are all young, educated and determined to flee their old lives for the Iraqi desert. The Runaways opens with Anita slipping into Karachi’s airport very early one morning. As she shows her passport to a ranger, she keeps her dupatta over her face, hoping no one will recognise her.

Anita has been raised a Christian in a Karachi slum. Her mother earns a living massaging the bodies of wealthy women, and the limit of her ambition for her daughter is for her to become a servant in one of their houses. Anita, however, wants to continue her education, which occurs both at school and at the feet of their neighbour, Osama, who introduces her to Urdu poetry and ideas of resistance: Rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number.

This review was first published on 3 May 2019 in the  Sydney Morning Herald. You can read the full review here.