When we left Australia I carefully packed my suitcase so that I’d have room to bring a few nostalgic things from home. A packet of T2 Melbourne Breakfast Tea. The stuffed animal I sleep with every night (because I’m a super grown up 33-year-old). And of course, books. I knew I wasn’t going to have enough weight in my luggage to bring my favourite novels with me, but I was set on bringing some new Australian releases with me, thinking they would be more difficult to buy here. That was true, to an extent. I’m thrilled I brought Murray Middleton’s When There’s Nowhere Else To Run with me. I’ve not seen it anywhere here or in the UK and I know I’ll come back to it to sneak little glimpses of home during dark and gloomy German winter days.
Another book that took up precious weight and space in my solitary piece of checked baggage was Steve Toltz’s highly anticipated second novel, Quicksand. Like every other Australian I completely adored A Fraction of a Whole and was so excited at the thought of reading this new novel. So I saved it, treasured it, waited for the right occasion. In the week of my visa appointment here in Berlin, I thought I would get homesick. I thought the process would be long and complicated, that I’d struggle with the foreign and unknown. In actual fact, it was a breeze. I felt luckier than ever to be in Berlin and wasn’t homesick at all. If anything, I was thrilled that my visa meant I didn’t need to go back to Australia just yet. Then I realised my well-traveled copy of Quicksand had been a little beaten up in my suitcase. Then I saw a brand new copy of it available — complete with much nicer European cover — at a bookshop here in Berlin. Then I started reading it and wished I had spent those precious 434 pages of baggage weight on something else.
But here I was, with my half-read copy of Quicksand, struggling through it. Sure, it was a little nostalgic reminder of Australia, but it also reminded me of some the things that drive me crazy about Australia. Quicksand is littered with casual — and in my mind, completely unnecessary — references to rape, symbolic of Australia’s complete failure to deal with violence and abuse towards women, and of the frankly skin-crawling über-masculine culture that reinforces it. In fact the book is incredibly masculine. There are underlying themes of mateship, larrikin culture, the underdog — mirrors to Australian culture, sure, but a very male-centric one. Quicksand is a buddy-comedy about two horrible dudes who take the term anti-hero to new heights. But I’m not going to write too much about what I didn’t like about this book. Firstly, because I think this review in the Guardian sums up my feelings very well. Secondly, I don’t have it in me right now to write about why I found much of this book frankly offensive. Thirdly, I’ve tried to keep book-plate a safe place for writers. Writing is difficult and emotional and requires putting your whole self into each and every thing you write. I don’t want to sit here and pull apart the bits I didn’t like while feeling like a traitor to the cause.
Sometimes a book is easier to write about, sometimes it’s more difficult. Quicksand is difficult. I didn’t enjoy it, but there was enough in it to keep me reading to the end. Just. I’ve always found myself writing quite emotional reviews here but as I write this one I just don’t have it in me to do it. So here’s what I will say: it’s no A Fraction of a Whole. It’s a difficult second novel in every respect, in that it is under a major spotlight but doesn’t feel right. If you are after a more enthusiastic review, read this one in the Australian Book Review where Chris Flynn remarks, ‘This could be the funniest book ever to win the Miles Franklin, although it might equally win nothing.’ And then for balance read this review in the Telegraph, which is accused of being ‘too pleased with itself to be properly satisfying’.
But what Toltz does achieve in Quicksand is his ability to pepper the narrative with caustic one-liners. On setting the scene of Aldo and Liam’s school-yard friendship: ‘We were young and there were no unpleasant surprises waiting for us in bathroom mirrors. We did things we wouldn’t feel guilty about for literally years. Nobody was on a diet.’ On seeing the Australian flag in public: ‘Why bother with flags? We know what country this is: it’s the stupid place where twenty-plus million people boast about being ordinary.’ And this: ‘Walking into a nest of teachers in a staffroom is like stumbling backstage at a theatre: everyone half in makeup, half costumed.’ We need more comedy in Australian literature (my friend Sam wrote about this for the Guardian just recently), and Toltz writes one-liners with the skill and jagged blade of the likes of The Thick of It and Veep’s Armando Iannucci. But what lacks here is a broader narrative that works. One that won’t alienate female readers. One that has been heavily edited. One that is consistent. Because there’s no doubting that Toltz is an extraordinarily talented writer. Let’s just hope that Quicksand is just a case of second-book blues.
In my nostalgia I’ve also been thinking about Australian foods that I miss from home. The funny thing is, there’s not a whole lot. I definitely miss the the prevalence of excellent gluten-free pizza, and what I’d give for a pint of Pink Lady Cider on tap at Raccoon hoo boy. But other than weird cravings for vegemite, there’s not a lot that I can’t make here compared to home. Sometimes though, we all need a little something sweet to get us through the afternoon, and now that I’m writing from home every day, I thought I’d treat myself to some afternoon tea supplies. These Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies felt like the right fit. Easily digested, a little sweet and a little salty — perfect. I used crunchy peanut butter instead of smooth just for the extra texture, though it did make the baked cookies look a little gnarly and not as smooth as the recipe, but the little bursts of chopped peanut make for really satisfying bites. I also used raw sugar instead of white because I prefer it in almost everything, and I like the nice caramel-like texture it gives the centre of the cookies. I had a bit of trouble with the cooking time though. After ten minutes my cookies were still very raw, after five they still didn’t look right. I put them back in the oven for another five minutes, but as they cooled they firmed up a lot, so next time I’d keep it to fifteen minutes and hope for a little extra gooeyness in the middle.
Some things here are still an adjustment, and it will always be that way. A dear friend said to me recently that culture shock means you’re taking time to observe what’s around you, not just marching in feeling entitled to be there. I loved this. Some days I breeze through life here. Some days still feel incredibly difficult. But the latter are diminishing. There are still plenty of challenges to come — the impending Northern European winter is hanging over me like the six month grey cloud it promises to be — but right now I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. On days like these, were the sun streams through the window mid-afternoon, I make myself a cup of tea, pick out a cookie from the tin, and open out the window to reveal the full spring sunshine. I pause to take a moment to watch people riding past on bicycles, the men chatting and smoking outside the convenience store, the children walking home from school, and the bus tumbling along the cobblestones, and I’m happy.
I thought for a long time about not writing anything about Quicksand. My indecision made me question my ability to write a fair account. But I’ve always thought it’s important to write about books you didn’t enjoy as well as books you do. For a start, I think it gives balance to what I write here, and it gives you as a reader a better sense of what I’ve enjoyed and what I haven’t. It adds more conviction and more emphasis to those books that really do resonate with me, when I’m honest about the ones that haven’t. So I was interested to see this piece on the blog Books For Women, Leave E. L. James Alone Already, which puts forward the idea that as women reviewers, if we don’t like a book by a woman we should simply not say anything at all. With such a strong bias against women in the publishing world we should work to create a supportive and encouraging environment for fellow female writers, not use our platforms to bring them down. While I agree with this in principle, I also think we do a disservice by not engaging in critical dialogue about books. Part of the issue of literature written by women not receiving the support it deserves is that it has to fight for legitimacy, it has to fight to be taken seriously. In my opinion, choosing not to engage in literary criticism only harms that argument. Having said that, we need to ensure that that criticism is well-thought-out, well-researched criticism that speaks of the book and the technique of the author, that it doesn’t go into whether she is married or single, has children or not, how old she is and what she’s wearing to the interview. Adding to the literary discussion and offering considered criticism is one thing. Attacking an author in a thinly-disguised piece of sexism and hatred is another.