Tag Archives: Rohan Wilson

Slice and dice: a stylistic fad?

800px-Old_carving_knife_and_forksAn irritating feature of a few contemporary Australian novels is their fondness for repeatedly chopping up sentences into separate fragments. It’s as if the authors (or editors) think that readers generally have such a severe Attention Deficit Disorder that prose must be doled out in very small pieces.

A recent post of mine about books set in the World War 2 period gave one example. Although Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People is impressive in some respects, I remarked that “in paragraph after paragraph nearly all the sentences are so short that the result can look like a kind of stylistic stammer, awkward and unproductive, yet with a portentous air.” I quoted a passage to illustrate this.

Since then I’ve read Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono, in which many pages are full of staccato phrases. Here’s a random sample – the opening paragraphs of one chapter:

In those four months: the village census complete. The families’ names on each house. In white paint. The number of occupants. Here, what’s this? Your identity papers. Keep them on you. Then the random late-night checks. Come with me. No, not you – you. Take the youngest son. Next day, show the father what’s in the lattice-covered ditch. Trussed, bent over. Returned to him the following evening. The curfew unbreakable. The cost too great. A sheep. Two. From someone else. It helped them think.

The schoolhouse built. Attendance compulsory. Ages six to twelve. Including girls. The notices distributed. For each class, a morning roll. No exemptions Every school day. Otherwise they risked a soldier’s heavy rap. A lesser fine. But still too much Where’s Fatima? She’s sick. Let me see.

And so. It goes. On… Presumably the aim is to create suspense, but the continual slicing and dicing can seem gratuitous and tedious.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with an occasional use of stand-alone short phrases when they plainly serve a narrative or descriptive function and are handled with restraint. Stephen Daisley’s Coming Rain interrupts or curtails the ordinary structure of sentences from time to time  in order to convey hesitant movement within a tense build-up towards action – as on the first page of the novel, where a dingo is stalking a mob of roos:

The last of the day’s sun and the first of the four moons rising above the bloodwoods. The grey kangaroo, upwind of her, grazing quietly across a long, flat valley fringed with desert oak. They were deliberate, selecting and nibbling the beardy grasses. Their slow, graceful feeding in the twilight. They moved through saltbush and into a grove of long-leaf paperbarks.

That kind of writing may sometimes risk seeming mannered, but in the quoted paragraph it has an imagistic quality, purposeful and skilful.

Similarly Rohan Wilson’s writing in To Name Those Lost, a story of 19th-century rural Tasmania, makes selective use of abrupt impressionistic phrasing to vary the rhythms of his prose. For instance, this is Thomas Toosey, tied up in a barn during the night, watching for the first light of dawn and trying to devise some way of escaping:

In the quiet the cows called and Toosey waited to where the light shot through the wall like sheets of silk, to where he could see by it. Bailed hay mouldering in the stall. Articles strung on nails. Piled by the wall were tools for working the soil and tools for working wood. He stood awkwardly by snaking up the post and shuffling his feet closer. Once he was upright he could circle around the post in his tethers. His eyes jumped about for something of use. He would not be kept here. His boy needed him.

And again in the midst of the following passage from Wilson’s novel there’s a simple truncated phrase, which is all the more striking because it stands on its own in contrast to the longer descriptive sentences that precede and follow it:

They descended out of gum forest, Flynn and his daughter, and followed the rails across the flatlands west of Longford. In the late dark the stars hung like points of ice, looking singularly cold and distant. The whole moon steam-white. They walked and Fitheal Flynn sang along a few bars of a taverner’s ballad he knew from the old country, tapping his stick to keep time.

If, as in these examples from Wilson’s and Daisley’s novels, the departure from standard syntax occurs within a context of stylistic variation, the effect can be powerful. If it’s unduly obtrusive and repetitive, as in parts of Henshaw’s and Carroll’s novels, I find it tiresome.

Are only male writers drawn to this practice? And is it just a recent thing in Australian prose, or does it stem from the experimental style of Patrick White? He used disruptive syntax in a judicious way, I think, and can hardly be held responsible for any excesses of latter-day practitioners.

What’s in a name?

Aspiring to literary stardom? Look at the program for next month’s Perth Writers Festival, and you may well feel an envious twinge when you see what a head start some writers seem to have in attracting attention: their radiant surnames are a publicist’s dream.


In a couple of cases there’s an aura of inherited prestige. How wonderfully lucky, for instance, to be able to put ‘Nicholas Shakespeare’ on the cover of one’s books! Although his illustrious namesake’s character Juliet asks rhetorically ‘What’s in a name?’ and declares that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, Nicholas S. must be well aware that his fragrant patronymic is something to conjure with. Fortunate fellow! Yet he has also earned a stellar reputation in his own right.

A recurrent theme in this latter-day Shakespeare’s work is the intersection of passion with politics. His best-known novels are probably Snowleg and The Dancer Upstairs, where the action takes place in (respectively) cold-war Germany and 1980s Peru, but three of his books have an Australian setting. The latest of these is a novella called Oddfellows.


It’s based on a bizarre incident that occurred in Broken Hill exactly a century ago, when two local Muslims, raising a homemade Ottoman flag above their ice-cream cart, gunned down several picnickers before being killed themselves. Critics are likely to ask whether Shakespeare’s imagined version of an already well-documented tragic-comic episode adds much insight to what can readily be gleaned from the historical record. It’s a question any of us who write historical fiction should expect to face, accentuated in this case by the fact that Oddfellows is a very short book, less complex than this author’s fully-fledged novels in its plotting and characterisation.

Few literary names approach the luminosity of Shakespeare’s. One such is Wordsworth, partly because its assonantal syllables join language with value in a way that invites incantatory repetition. (How much less evocative is the name of the village, Wadsworth, from which the famous poet’s family line derived!)


Alas, no Wordsworths figure on the program for next month’s PWF event, but among those scheduled to appear is John Marsden, one of Australia’s leading writers of fiction for adolescents, and the origins of his latest novel – his first for adult readers – surely have something to do with his resonant surname. The main character in South of Darkness, narrating his own story, is transported to Botany Bay as a young convict, and the author’s family tree includes a great-great-great-great uncle well known to colonial historians. Rev Samuel Marsden arrived in New South Wales as a passenger on a convict ship at about the same time as John Marden’s fictional character. It’s said that this notoriously harsh clergyman sentenced people to death on Friday, gave them communion at church on Sunday, and supervised their execution on Monday. Part of the impulse behind South of Darkness, I’d wager, is an authorial inquiry into – and exorcism of – that murky period in his family’s past, a bit like a fictionalised episode of the TV program Who Do You Think You Are?

If you don’t happen to inherit a notable name, it’s possible to invent a pseudonym. One of this year’s Festival guests, an expatriate Australian, devised for himself a quirky brand, a brand-new name: ‘DBC Pierre’ is more eye-catching than his given label, Peter Finlay. Or, like another writer featured on the Perth program (a virtual visitor, to appear by videolink), you can adopt a moniker from someone you know: Hilary Thompson chose to replace her unremarkable surname with something more distinctive, cloaking herself in the Mantel of her unofficial stepfather. Pierre’s most recent books are Petit Mal, a strange glossy-format jumble of fictional and nonfictional pieces along with cartoons and photographs, and a creepy novella called Breakfast with the Borgias. Mantel is best known for her whopping historical novels, but her latest book is a short-story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, its title piece being inspired by what the author calls her ‘boiling detestation’ of the former British PM. As that title reminds us, certain names on book covers and in other cultural productions can be arresting even when they don’t belong to an author. Margaret Thatcher’s ghost wanders across the titles of various books, plays, songs and television dramas, and references to her are continuing to haunt dozens more.


On the list of writers coming to Perth are other Big Names from overseas along with a number of Australian writers making a name for themselves internationally.

This latter group includes the best-selling crime writer Michael Robotham, whose latest release is the thriller Life or Death. It also includes Rohan Wilson, who won The Australian-Vogel award for his first novel, set in early 19th-century Tasmania, and has now produced a sequel, To Name Those Lost, in  which the squalid, brutish world of Launceston and its surrounding district in the 1870s bristles with menace.


And of course there are also New Names, such as the euphonious Miranda Richmond Mouillot, whose A Fifty-Year Silence relates how the author’s grandparents escaped from Nazi-occupied France but later came to grief, and reveals their story by tracing the author’s own quest to uncover the elusive truth of it.

Yet literary festivals, after all, are much more than celebrations of ‘name’ writers. As my former colleague Wenche Ommundsen observed some years ago in one of the few serious analyses of Australian literary festivals, what they really celebrate is a set of symbiotic relationships: between writing and reading, between aesthetic and commercial ways of framing literature, between the privacy of creative effort and the spotlight of public performance, between the culture of refined criticism and the arena of popular consumption.

The readers who attend in droves may be nameless, but they are not homogeneous. To each session they bring diverse tastes and motives. Some of them may be future writers; some may remain mute inglorious Miltons. But in any case there could be no literary events of this kind without them. As the chair for two of the sessions in Perth next month (one featuring Nicholas Shakespeare and Miranda Richmond Mouillot, the other John Marsden and Rohan Wilson), I’ll be keeping in mind the simple fact that it’s as much a Readers Festival as a Writers Festival.