(Note: My rave review blogposts are reserved for the very best novels I read by novelists I don’t know. Just to be clear I do this so I don’t inadvertently offend someone I do know by not including them. I highlight novels by people I know through my plug of the month slots and author reviews.)
A few weeks ago,my lovely editor, Scott, posted on twitter that he had advance copies of the proofs of this novel for anyone who wished to read it in exchange for a review. When I checked out the blurb – a story written in the form of essays about sixteen fictional Australian writers* – I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.
I’m so glad I did. This book is superb on so many levels which makes it a joy to read from start to finish.
First of all, there is the narrator’s style. It is a perfect rendition of literary biography: engaging, understated, curious, and peppered with enough ‘facts’ to give credibility to the fake biographer’s research abilities.
Secondly, there are the ‘authors’ themselves. Each one is vividly drawn, some apparently inspired by real writers. But it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Australian fiction or not, because O’Neill has created such convincing characters that they feel real to the reader. I can totally believe that there’s a school of science fiction led by a racist white supremacist called Rand Washington; that a neglected poet called Matilda Young was treated shamefully by the men in her life, and dismissed until she later received the Nobel Prize; that the ‘Chekhov of Coolabah’ Addison Tiller could churn out his charming bush tales of Pa and Pete. It’s equally believable that an avant-garde movement called Kangaroulipo could led by the seriously untalented Arthur Ruthra; a crime fiction hack, Claudia Gunn, could become well known despite the quality of her writing. and a talented young writer called Rachel Deverell could lose herself in the search for the mythical origins of literature. I suspect if I did some research about Australian literature, I’d appreciate the joke more, but the stories are strong enough to stand alone. (I did pick up on the title was inspired by the great Australian novel ‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin whose own real life story is worthy of inclusion in this collection).
The third thing that makes this book sing for me is the way the stories subtly interconnect. There are the characters real or imagined on the Australian literary scene, who pitch up on the sidelines of many of the chapters, some revealing more of themselves as the novel proceeds. Some, who appear early on, resurface as the star of their own essay, and with an interesting story to tell. Various literary movements are shown from their different perspectives, now in rivalry, now in alliance. There are scandals galore which make and destroy big names, and are seen from different angles as the book progresses. The best writers often fail, the worst succeed, there is human suffering, fallibility and evil (some of which revealed by the things the author carefully doesn’t say). All of which enhances the sense that this is a real essay collection, and these people actually existed.
At the heart of the novel is the idea that the writers of fiction are themselves fictional . Very few of the subjects are as talented as they believe, and most have reinvented themselves to some extent. There’s even a character with literary output who is probably, himself, an invention. While the author inserts himself into the plot as the ex-husband and widower of the Rachel Deverell, the novel’s tragic heroine, and has his ‘fiancee’, Anne Zoellner write the introduction. By this point, I was beginning myself whether O’Neill himself was a fictional creation. He does appear to be real, but in a book that rejoices in fakery, it is just possible to believe he might have created an elaborate back story for himself…
All in all this is a delight, and a book that will definitely yield up more every time you read it. Put it on your pre-order list now.
‘Their Brilliant Careers’ by Ryan O’Neill will be published by Lightning Books in April 2018. You can pre-order here.