Review: The Windy Season

The Windy Season
The Windy Season by Sam Carmody
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sam Carmody’s debut novel is incredibly, almost painfully Australian, and an excellent book that pulled me down into the quiet fury of its current.

The setting here is wonderfully realised, its harshness and stark (no pun intended) beauty moulding the damaged, scraped-together characters that persist in it. The scenes on the cray boat are particularly evocative, and just as raw and nauseating in their own way as the prickle of latent violence in the local pub.

It took me a few chapters to get into the rhythm of Paul’s character. At first he seems flat and a little empty, wafting about without much purpose or emotion. But this is part of his character arc, and he quietly grows as the novel progresses. His silences and awkwardness, at first simply irritating, become the symptom of a broader exploration of masculinity in Aussie culture. Carmody is never didactic or heavy-handed with this, and it always comes across as genuine and understated.

The book has the faint marbling of a thriller, but where it really works, and where the prose shines the brightest, is with the character interactions and relationships. Even incidental characters feel real; there’s sense of grit and sweat here that’s so tactile you almost recoil from the prose. Carmody is deft at creating tension, terror, awkwardness and delicacy, and he weaves the characters’ emotional complexity into their physical interactions with an excellent rhythm and contrast, creating a kind of universal vernacular for humanity. This is especially effective with Paul and Kasia’s relationship, which I found one of the most moving aspects of the book. There are so many small moments for the reader to relate to, moments where thought stretches deep and our (or the characters’) words or actions contradict, or fail to encapsulate, the complexity of what’s going on beneath the surface.

Some of the dialogue felt a little clunky in its formality and might have benefited from more contractions, and the earlier first person interludes could have had some of their eloquence cut back, if only because it didn’t seem to gel so much with the character. I’m not sure how I feel about these interludes, which seem a little listless and tacked on at times, their presence seeming only to serve a particular purpose. At the same time I wonder if the book might have worked better if these were much more fleshed out, but then the focus would have been too broad perhaps, and the book’s tone entirely different. What I do like about it is that kind of messiness, the lack of a neat narrative which is more evocative of real life than the careful plotting of fiction. Which isn’t to say that this book hasn’t been painstakingly crafted – it undeniably has, and Carmody’s attention to detail is a beautiful thing. The messiness comes from the characters and situations, the lack of closure that so often frustrates us about reality.

Overall, though, The Windy Season is a strong debut novel. This is a book about damage and silence, and Carmody portrays these things with a truth you can almost taste.

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Review: North American Lake Monsters: Stories

North American Lake Monsters: Stories
North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Over the past few years, weird fiction has seen such a flood of enormously talented writers that it can be a procrastinator’s nightmare choosing which novel or collection to pick up next. One of the standouts in this renaissance we’re lucky enough to be in the midst of – seriously, what a time to be alive – is Nathan Ballingrud. You don’t have to take my word for it that his debut collection, North American Lake Monsters should be at the top of your to-read pile; go get it and see for yourself.

And what a mindblowing collection this is. Every one of the nine stories on display here beautifully juxtaposes the terror/beauty of its monster with a nuanced portrayal of humanity in microcosm.

“You Go Where It Takes You” is a short piece, its most searing moment not the supernatural element but the choice a character makes, the off-page consequences that spiral through the reader’s head long after the story itself ends.

“Wild Acre” has to be one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, in any genre or length. The marriage at the story’s core is portrayed with so much brittle, honest fallibility it’s almost painful to read, its characters’ actions and interactions more disturbing than the monster that serves as the catalyst for the couple’s downfall – and that’s definitely saying something.

“S.S.” has a breathless tone that exacerbates the sweaty, confusing aggression of adolescence at its heart, and an ending that surprises as much as it delights.

“The Crevasse” is probably the closest Ballingrud gets to cosmic horror, and the terror he builds here is unbearably tantalising. The imagery he evokes can be felt like an iceberg, all that we can’t see looming vast and unknowable in the darkness.

Another beached relationship is at the core of “The Monsters of Heaven,” exploring the fallout of a couple’s missing child. This is one of the more chilling stories in the collection, both in its portrayal of a crumbling marriage, and the creepily passive ‘angels’ that start appearing all over the world.

“Sunbleached” is a beautifully claustrophobic take on both the vampire myth (and probably one of the best I’ve read in that genre) and the domestic family drama, that starts dark and only gets darker.

In the title story, “North American Lake Monsters,” a man just out of jail tries to reconnect with his wife and daughter at a lakeside cabin, while on the periphery looms the carcass of a strange, beached leviathan. As in a lot of the stories here, Ballingrud explores masculinity in some dark and understated ways.

“The Way Station” takes a slightly different approach, skirting horror and the monstrous in favour of something much more surreal and poetic; a story of the haunted unlike any I’ve read.

“The Good Husband” will break your heart with its exploration of suicide and mental illness, and how those close to someone suffering from such things cope with the fallout. Like every story here, it’s both beautiful and more than a little gruesome, its broken characters teetering on the threshold of a whole new world.

The control that Ballingrud wields in each of these stories is almost agonising to witness; he pulls back at just the right moment every time, the pacing and detail perfectly honed, but also ambiguous when it needs to be. That said, I never felt cheated at any point here, and Ballingrud is certainly not afraid of getting his hands into the viscera of a story when it’s called for.

His prose is economic, needle-sharp, and painfully beautiful. Painful is an adjective I find myself returning to again and again with Ballingrud’s work. Pain suffuses so much of these stories: physical pain, mortal, the pain of existence, of guilt and anger and loss.

So often in these stories the anguish and conflict between people underscores, even overwhelms the supernatural. The latter is almost supporting character, a thing that moves through the story like a shark, hungry and without exposition. What the shark’s trajectory affects, what Ballingrud’s work really hones in on, is the bite marks and the blood left behind, the lingering human consequences and whatever form they take.

He does human interaction like nobody I’ve ever read. There’s so much tangible, tactile pain (that word again) here, and every moment of every story left deep cuts that I won’t soon forget. Every piece here has the sickening intimacy of a found-footage film, and it’s a film I just want to keep watching.

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Goldstone (Film Review)

When I saw Ivan Sen’s 2013 Aussie neo-noir thriller Mystery Road, starring knockout indigenous actor Aaron Pederson as Detective Jay Swan, I thought it was fantastic, and I wanted more films like it. My expectations for its sequel, Goldstone, were pretty damn high, not only due to previous credentials, and the quality of the cast and crew, but because I hoped this might be an opportunity to improve on some of its predecessor’s flaws.

Now that I’ve finally seen it, I can share my thoughts.

It’s not necessary to have seen Mystery Road prior to watching this; there are a handful of references to the previous film’s events and a tragic through-line that connects both thrillers, but Goldstone works as a standalone film too. Having said that, I’d still highly recommend watching them both in order; there’s a sense of existential pain in Goldstone that a bit of context from the previous film clarifies.

The story, which combines elements of the Noir and western genres, revolves around a missing persons case in the mining town of the title, and addresses the likes of sex trafficking, corruption, and the tribulations of a remote community. The plotting isn’t intricate, but a complex whodunit is not what we’re here for. Goldstone’s narrative coherence improves upon some of its predecessor’s problems (a confusing narrative and climax), and while it’s not exactly wrinkle-free, the kinks are minor, and what we see is still a very powerful film.

Goldstone seems a more melancholy film than Mystery Road, which wasn’t exactly a light comedic affair itself. We’re introduced to Pederson’s rugged detective as he blows into town drunk and gets himself locked up overnight by the fresh local cop, Josh (Chronicle’s Alex Russell). Jay is in a much darker place than when we saw him last, the reasons for which are not immediately apparent. It’s an interesting angle to introduce, and just gets better the more we learn about his circumstances, which is executed in a very sparing and effective way.

Russell and Pederson’s are beautifully drawn characters, and wonderfully inhabited by the actors. This is a little more Josh’s film than Jay’s, however, at least in terms of a character arc; we see a lot from his perspective as he struggles with the town’s elastic morals and temptations. These come in the form of Jacki Weaver’s Mayor, Maureen, and David Wenham’s mine manager, Johnny. Weaver’s performance is reminiscent of her work in the excellent Animal Kingdom, her menace hiding behind the sickly-sweet pink frosting of her smile.

I’ve never seen David Wenham look greasier than he does here. It’s a credit to his performance that I wanted much more of his character than the film delivered, although it still works very well with the less-is-more approach.

Michelle Lim Davidson brings a quiet perspective to one of the group of Asian girls flown into town (read: trafficked) to satisfy the men’s needs, and her interactions with Josh build a kind of brittle authenticity between the two of them without falling into the hole of clichéd romance.

David Gulpilil has a pivotal, haunting role as a local man fighting against the town’s corruption. Tommy Lewis is also fantastic as the conflicted chairman of the Land Council; he shares with Jacki Weaver one of the film’s most powerful and understated scenes that hits at the divide between the white and indigenous communities with a single line of dialogue and some brilliant acting.

Perhaps the most wasted here, though, is Michael Dorman’s biker villain, Patch, who seems to serve as the film’s primary physical threat but has virtually nothing to do until the climax. Sadly, the script doesn’t cash in on the actor’s talent.

Goldstone’s is a slow build, taking its time to add layer upon layer of tension and conflict until it explodes in one of the most intense and expertly staged gunfights I’ve seen in a film.

As in Mystery Road, Sen rarely lets Goldstone fall into generic thriller territory; it so often focuses on human fallibility and that frustrating ambiguousness of reality that doesn’t stick to common narrative patterns. Some threads are left loose by the end, simply because the characters here are normal people rather than action heroes, and can’t always achieve every outcome or get every answer.

It’s a thriller but also a human drama, a tragedy that reaches back into history with one hand and scratches at the present with the other, linking the two in a meditation on the long-reaching consequences of human cruelty and oppression.

Ultimately this is a film about loss: loss of family and freedom and history, loss of dignity, and country, and life. Goldstone’s final shot captures this beautifully – it’s heart-wrenching, but manages a kind of bittersweet realisation at the same time. This is a haunting, exhilarating film that stayed in my head well after the credits have rolled.

Sen is an excellent writer and director, but his talents don’t stop there. He’s also the editor, cinematographer, and composed the music for the film, all of which help Goldstone transcend its conventions and surface simplicity.

The score is languid and melancholy, its slow strings following the contours of the narrative without overwhelming them, drawing out the emotion in each shot and scene beautifully.

Speaking of beautiful, the cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking. Every aerial shot – on which the film, to its credit, doesn’t skimp – made me gasp at both the Australian landscape’s desolate beauty and the dark geometries of human encroachment, rendered here like the busy progress of ants.

I often forgot to breathe while I watched Goldstone, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a film.