Christos Tsiolkas must feel a lot of pressure. The success of The Slap was well documented, with critics hailing him “one of the most astute chroniclers and critics of our age and culture” (Adelaide Advertiser) and stating “there is not a more important writer working in Australia today.” (Australian Bookseller & Publisher). In Barracuda, which I reviewed here, he once again set a critical eye to modern Australia and to Australian identity in one of the best books of 2013. After reading my thoughts both my Mum and my partner’s mother read Barracuda, but neither were quite prepared for the sex and violence in the book. Though they both politely told me they had liked the novel, they were unnerved by it’s intensity. I certainly don’t want to diminish the reading abilities or taste of my mother or mother-in-law, or indeed anyone else who has the courage to pick up a book that they know little about other than the praise it’s received, or that it’s the chosen book for their book club. But I do wonder whether that kind of success limits or stresses an author to reign in their intensity, vier off from some of their usual plot points or calm the intensity of dialogue. For Christos Tsiolkas, it seems to have had the opposite effect. In Merciless Gods he is making a strong statement that he will not be pigeonholed as a book-club novelist. He will not stop writing with fire about politics, identity and sex. The result is a powerful collection of short stories that aim to shock and confront, but that in the end are just as beautiful and reflective as his longer works.
Many of the stories begin with razor-sharp openings. Take the first paragraph of ‘The Hair of the Dog’:
My mother is best known for giving blow jobs to Pete Best and Paul McCartney in the toilets of the Star-Club in Hamburg one night in the early sixties. She said that Best’s penis was thicker, the bigger one, but that McCartney’s was the more beautiful. ‘Paul’s cock was elegant,’ she liked to say. I know too that she had spat both men’s semen into a tissue, and that neither man had looked at the other while she took turns servicing them. Afterwards, she had shared a cigarette with Paul.
This seems to be a familiar pattern within this collection of stories - shock first, and if the reader is strong enough to stay around, they’re rewarded with beautiful, thoughtful writing about family, love, loss, identity and sexuality. Such as in ‘Saturn Returns’, where the explicit sex scenes will scare off the weak, but the faithful readers are rewarded with a beautiful story of love, family, grief and loss.
It often feels like Tsiolkas’ characters have whispered the truth into his trusting ears, and only he has permission to tell their stories to others. In ‘Sticks and Stones’, Tsiolkas uncovers the unspoken feelings of a suburban housewife: the pain, fear and suffocation amongst a strong sense of belonging, joy and pride. This story is followed immediately by ‘Civil War’, where the harshness of our country and it’s people are laid bare. Unapologetic and raw, it’s a stunning contrast to the everyday suburbia that precedes it.
In my review of Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia, I spoke about the worth of short stories. In Smith’s case, I feel like her writing is actually best suited to a shorter format. Her themes are expressed more succinctly, her narrative more structured, her dialogue sharper. In Tsiolkas’ case, my only criticism was that often I wanted more. The complex layers he gives his characters are what make his novels so addictive, and sometimes I felt that this form didn’t give him enough room to grow and build an arch. But there are also some examples of perfection. ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’ is a beautifully told story of family, love and grief with the kind of power that leaves you with an aching heart, but also one perfectly rounded within its limits that it doesn’t leave you wanting more, it just leaves you wanting to read it over and over.
Merciless Gods is a mixed bag, but ultimately I think it is more of a statement to readers than first appears. It shows that Tsiolkas is at his best when raw and untamed, when he is able to hit hard and write with penetrating truth about identity, sexuality and belonging. Merciless Gods tells us that we should expect more of this from his next novel, whether that makes him a hit with the book clubs or not.
Just as Tsiolkas uses every day stories to talk about broader themes of identity, Yotam Ottolenghi, one of my favourite cooks who was recently here in Melbourne, uses his food to tell his story. In the tradition of talking about identity in unexpected ways, Ottolenghi talks passionately talks about what makes a real hummus, taking some adaptations as a personal affront. But let me tell you, once you’ve made hummus this way, there’s no turning back. It is silky smooth, luscious and has so much more raw intensity of flavour that cannot be found even in most store bought versions. Though this slight change to his recipe might be taken the wrong way, I decided to make a vegetarian version of his Hummus Kawarma, taken from his stunning book Jerusalem, and also available here. I substituted the lamb pieces listed in the recipe for a head of broccoli, which were roasted in the marinade instead of fried. It still gave the same crisp texture, but a made for a lighter version and a great meatless alternative. As a man who has championed that vegetables deserve to star in dishes, I hope he would understand.
This is an article I had tucked away in a bookmark for a long time. I both couldn’t wait to read it, but was also sure I was going to cry doing so, so had to wait for the right time. This is the story of how Geoff Beatties has won the prize for the best rich dark fruit cake at the Royal Queensland Show five times, a beautiful love story and a very Australian tale.