Book reviews

Book Review: Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport by Anna Krien

In the drunken early hours after Collingwood’s 2011 AFL grand final win, celebrations took a dark turn for Melbourne student Sarah. She had ended up at a house party where she had consensual sex with one man she had recently met at a nightclub, and then “felt compelled” to have sex with Collingwood player Dayne Beams. Another player, John McCarthy, was amongst a group of others also in the room, where Sarah felt “trapped”. After she left the house, she was allegedly raped in the alley next to the townhouse by Justin Dyer, a former VFL player.

By the time the matter went to trial, Dyer (fictitious names are used for both the defendant and complainant in Night Games), already a marginal figure in the Melbourne football world, was further isolated from the players he orbited around. Most of the media scrum materialised when the two Magpies players made fleeting appearances at the directions hearing and then at the trial as witnesses and disappeared when they left.

Krien stays, however, and doggedly follows the story, initially feeling discomfort that the events in the townhouse were not pursued and formed only a peripheral part of the trial. She finds herself surprised by Justin’s “gentle demeanour” and passivity and sees him as an outsider abandoned by the football fraternity. She also worries that she is getting too close to the family of the defendant, that her objectivity is destroyed by the defendant’s grandmother hugs her. As it it becomes clear the story won’t conform to any recognisable narrative about rape, she admits to wishing she had chosen to write about an “easier” rape trial instead.

Also troubling is the absence of Sarah from the trial. Like many jurisdictions, Victoria enables complainants to avoid the trauma of facing the accused in court. This rule, known as the ‘rape shield’, is an important protection for women who lodge complaints but Krien fears her absence means she will project her own experiences onto the complainant.

With skill and borderline cruelty, the defence lawyer has the evidence of a neighbour who possibly heard Sarah’s protests discounted, instead focusing attention on how after the contested incident, Dyer kissed the complainant and sat close with her in a taxi to her house, playing on meaningless but well-entrenched notions of how a rapist would act.

While the trial forms the backbone of Night Games, the story branches off into related tangents like the accusations of gang rape by rugby league players at Coffs Harbour, the St. Kilda schoolgirl scandal and the discrimination and vilification female journalists have faced when venturing into the post-game locker room for their work.

As dark as much of the material is, Night Games is far more complex and probing than a wholesale dismissal of football culture. Krien finds a lot to like in the AFL and there are surprising observations at every turn: “One of the reasons…that so many people watch football is not just for the athleticism and the biffo, but also for the tenderness”. In many ways, the sport is making a concerted effort to turn away from elements once accepted as commonplace, with a stand being taken against unacceptable sledging and racism and education initiatives being put in place to avoid some of the ugly excesses of the recent past.

A darker underside persists however, with a “macho culture of humiliation” regularly raring its head, with ex-player Tony Wilson filling the author in on an alcohol-fuelled culture of pranks, youthful bravado, and forms of humour and acceptance rituals that often seem baffling to an outsider.

The narrative always circles back to the trial though and it speaks volumes of the book’s ability to uncover unexpected nuance that it remains gripping even we know though the result. As the verdict draws near, Krien continues to feel haunted by Dyer’s persistence in following Sarah, instinctively sensing that even in his version of events, there is something “off” and disrespectful about his behaviour that night.

This lingering unease is the enduring feeling from Night Games,which is being promoted as a literary hand-grenade, but often settles into a tone more often thoughtful than incendiary. There are few easy answers here, no redemptive sense of any lesson that has been learned.

Whatever the truth about that party and whatever actually happened in the bedroom crowded with footballers and later in a dark, urine-soaked alley, it seems clear that this incident forms just part of a disturbing broader culture, and that much of what took place probably falls in a large grey area between what is against the law and what should be acceptable behaviour.

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man is an obvious antecedent, but this also brings to mind Michelle Schwarz’s undervalued One Split Second, which similarly used a high profile incident (in that case, the death of cricketer David Hookes) as a starting point to explore themes of masculinity, alcohol and violence and the role they play in Australian society.

Krien has a real feel for the tough, scrappy charm of Australian Rules Football, but seems on less certain territory in discussing other codes. Confusing Rugby League and Rugby Union and referring to the NRL as the A-league are simple mistakes that should have been edited out of an otherwise carefully written book.

Minor quibbles aside, the disquieting, fiercely intelligent Night Games instantly feels like an important work, and is certainly a difficult one to shake.

Book reviews

Book review: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever by Dave Eggers

The most formally inventive work in his shape-shifting, defiantly postmodern oeuvre, Dave Eggers’ Your Fathers… is a claustrophobic, experimental affair composed entirely of dialogue and nondescript location titles.

Having made his name with the unforgettable, genre-crossing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers has remained one of literature’s leading lights both as a publisher (he founded the consistently excellent niche publisher McSweeney’s) and with an unpredictable string of novels and fiction/non-fiction hybrids.

Read the full review at The Sydney Morning Herald.

Book reviews

Book Review: The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham (2014)


Michael Cunningham

HarperCollins, $27.99

Acute observations: US author Michael Cunningham.

Acute observations: US author Michael Cunningham.Photo: Richard Phibbs


You could call it a fairytale of New York, but think the Pogues rather than Hans Christian Andersen. Cunningham’s seventh novel could also be described as the story of the intertwined lives of a handful of Brooklyn hipsters, but written for those who hate the way the word ‘’hipster’’ has devolved into one of the English language’s most meaningless epithets.

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Book reviews Film reviews

Book Review: The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Sietz (2013)

Unfairly maligned by some as a grown man playing with dolls houses, this makes the case for Anderson as a distinctive filmmaker of depth and genius, one whose vision of adult life as painful and chaotic is cloaked in meticulously curated detail. Featuring admiring though insightful interviews with Anderson and a wealth of storyboards, artwork and preparatory material for all his films (including last year’s brilliant Moonrise Kingdom, bittersweet gem The Royal Tennenbaums and the still bracingly strange Rushmore), this is one of the most visually sumptuous and satisfying books about film in years. Michael Chabon adds a typically stylish and smart foreword.

Book reviews

Book Review – ‘Transatlantic’ by Colum McCann

Spanning three centuries and two continents, Colum McCann’s latest work is a dazzling meditation on the links across time and place, a series of interwoven stories on how people influence and inspire strangers they only meet fleetingly, the enduring pull of his Irish homeland, and the continuing fallout of the Northern Ireland conflict and peace process.

The first and most action-packed vignette is a vivid imagining of the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919. With the lyricism and economy of a poet, McCann sketches out the personalities of the two men: Jack Alcock, a dashing and fearless figure who craves anonymity, and the more reserved Teddy Brown, who enjoys quantifying things and sees the world in scientific terms. Alcock was a prisoner of war and Brown walks with a stick and ”already seemed old at 32”. Both are aching for a new start and find it in the flight to Ireland.

Full review:

Book reviews Uncategorized

Book Review – The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)

“A happy man has no past” Dorrigo Evans thinks, ”while an unhappy man has nothing else.” The Narrow Road to the Deep North moves like liquid back and forth through his past and present, both of which are dominated by his experience as a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma Death Railway.

In his youth in Tasmania, he plays Australian Rules football, and he finds something transcendent in its mixture of toughness and grace: ”All his life had been journeying to this point when he had for a moment flown into the sun”.

Read the full review:

Book reviews

Book Review – ‘Welcome to Your New Life’ by Anna Goldsworthy (2013)


Having written one of the most affecting and beautifully composed memoirs of recent years in Piano Lessons, Anna Goldsworthy established herself as one of the very best young non-fiction writers in Australia. An exquisite phrase-turner, her second autobiographical work is an account of the pains and pleasures of parenthood.


Navigating the endless discomfort, invasions of privacy and falsehoods of pregnancy (the pregnant glow is but a “chivalrous fiction”, apparently), she encounters well-meaning, but misguided, advice from friends and acquaintances, and has to make choices about how to approach the pregnancy and the child’s formative years.

Read the full review at The Age.

Book reviews

Book review – ‘City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s’ by Edmund White

Edmund White says he doesn’t believe in writer’s block, but at one point he was moved to see a shrink about the issue. It is New York after all, where everyone seems to be writing a novel and seeing a shrink. He is told that the first thing he is doing wrong is getting out of bed. Instead, he is advised to linger in that haze “where your inhibitions will still be low and you’ll be closer to your dreams”.

In the late 1960s, White was a starry-eyed newcomer to New York, drawn to the city that never sleeps by dreams and mythology, yearning to find a niche in its famed literary circles and its thriving but covert gay scene. His descriptions of the area surrounding the “fairy palace” he called home zing with life; it was a place where “everyone slept till noon…a grungy, dangerous, bankrupt city”. A metropolis positively coursing with lust is recaptured vividly: “When you French-kissed someone, it was like rubbing one ashtray against another”.

In an era where writers and artists still clung to the notion of noble poverty, White should have fitted right in. But instead he initially struggled for recognition, this self-styled “idolator of beauty” forced to idolise from afar, the high brow cliques remaining closed to him, his work largely unpublished save for a few reviews championing the overlooked and underrated and sometimes attacking peers out of pure jealousy. He continued to read voraciously, becoming a fixture at the Gotham Book Mart and devouring favourites like Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Green over and over.

Most of all, he yearned to find a way to make his mark as a writer, endlessly musing on literary technique and how he could harness it to forge a way into the literati. Some of the most fascinating passages here concern the torturous self-doubt he endured, the immense difficulty behind his seemingly effortless phrase-turning. At one point, he comes across a Russian psychologist who believes the most successful literature thrives on some kind of disconnect between style and subject. City Boy lends some credence to this theory with White’s prose style – uncluttered, polished and classical, finding an ideal counterpoint in a city that is manic, challenging and violent.

Yet for all his stylistic excellence, the narrative dips when he attains fame. A career breakthrough came when his hero Nabokov began to champion his work, yet the moment is not quite the revelation you expect and at some point his story becomes more about fame than friendship, more concerned with the spoils of fame than the pursuit of great art. Celebrity cameos begin to dominate; in quick succession he encounters Michel Foucault, with whom he argues about gay identity, William S. Burroughs (who seems “too cool and totemic to be alive”) and hears stories of Somerset Maugham, who was gripped by Alzheimer’s in his later years and took to cheerfully greeting visitors with a handful of his own faeces.

The real star, however, is of course the city of New York, a fascinating, contradictory mess of energy and life. But it is the likes of White’s friend David Kalstone, a poignant figure with his fading eyesight and quiet loyalty, rather than his A-list coterie that maintain interest. The young, yearning author proves more interesting than the latter, famous one, a reminder that straying from your dreams can have unexpected consequences. The city can be corrupting. Fame can breed complacency. This, more than anything, is what you hope an aspiring young writer would take out of this exquisitely written but frustrating and uneven memoir: Never give up on your dreams. Never get out of bed.

Book reviews

Book Review – Me and Rory Macbeath by Richard Beasley (2013)

Growing up in the suburbs in the 1970s, young Jake’s concerns are touchingly ordinary, extending little further than wondering how he’ll fit in at his new school and whether he’ll ever get to play cricket for Australia. His summer days are spent at the pool and footy field with dependable mate Robbie and spirited neighbour Lucy.

Their group dynamic is slightly thrown when a new boy arrives in Rose Street, a skinny Scottish kid called Rory. Despite Rory being rubbish at cricket and football, Jake and Robbie soon decide he is all right, swayed by his excellent slingshot and fishing skills and willingness to give bullies a taste of their own medicine.

The biggest presence in Jake’s young life though is Harry, his chain-smoking, hard-drinking single mother, a hard-bitten criminal barrister who admits she doesn’t hang out with anyone respectable. She is by far the story’s most vivid and interesting character, with a wry sense of humour and a soft spot for underdogs and battlers.

Full review at: The Sydney Morning Herald

Book reviews Music

Book review – ‘Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream’ by Neil Young (2013)

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Rock’n’roll was supposed to be a young person’s game. Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse, and all that. But with some of the best recent records being produced by elder statesmen such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and the author of this remarkable tome, it’s clear that old theory is in need of revising. It may be better to burn out than fade away, but better still to just keep the fire raging

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald (click for full review)