Review: State Highway One by Sam Coley

After the sudden death of his parents, Alex returns home from Dubai to New Zealand, where he and his twin sister Amy set off on a road trip down State Highway 1, which runs the length of both main islands. They hope to heal old wounds and revive their familial bond. Alex also hopes to reconnect with his home.

“State Highway One” settles into the rhythms of the road trip novel, with lots of beautifully-evocated drive-by-scenery, soul-search talks during long stretches across the blacktop, and unpredictable encounters with locals and fellow road warriors.

The narrative regularly cuts back in time to present readers with glimpses of the Alex’s adolescence. As the queer son of famous film directors, Alex never wanted for anything tangible; but Alex and Amy’s was a youth deprived of paternal love, and their unconventional upbringing, which saw them basically raise themselves, has warped their relationship; twisted it into something possibly unsalvageable.

The moment he could, Alex fled New Zealand for Dubai, taking up an internship and cutting all ties with his family. His specific reason for this, the catalyst for his departure, is hinted at but never explicitly stated until the novel’s climax, which adds an unexpected layer of suspense. But what ultimately elevates “State Highway One” above the cascade of fiction about homecomings is Sam Coley’s handling of repressed grief and trauma; an undercurrent that spills over into Alex’s every day. It’s a poignant, powerful excavation and Coley belies his status as a debut novelist by not providing an easy, aesthetic resolution. Real life doesn’t work that way.

ISBN: 9781869714260
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Hachette
Publish Date: 25-Aug-2020
Country of Publication: New Zealand

Review: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys

9780733640940In her virtuosic debut novel, Julie Keys masterfully renders the lives of two women — one (purportedly) Muriel Kemp, an infamous artist from Sydney in the 1920s, now in her eighties, living out her twilight years in isolation, prone to severe irascibility; the other, Jane Cooper, a young nurse and aspiring writer — whose unlikely friendship is tested by the potential falsehood of Muriel’s claims, not least of which is the fact that according to official history, and the foundation dedicated to (and named) in her honour, Muriel Kemp died in 1936. 

The true brilliance of The Artist’s Portrait is its architecture. Readers follow two narrative threads: one from the perspective of a young Muriel Kemp as she clashes with the conservatism of the 1920s Australian art world, and the disgusting trivialisation and outright dismissal of women artists; while the second thread transplants us 70 years into the future, 1992, when a chance encounter with her neighbour leads to Jane Cooper taking on the role of Muriel’s biographer, and attempting to make sense of the tapes Muriel has recorded for her, which don’t match up with established facts.

What’s undeniable, Jane quickly comes to realise, is that Muriel’s history is complicated and tempestuous, littered with mystery, murder and disappearances. Unravelling the truth serves as a perfect distraction for Jane, as she deals with tensions and secrets within her own family, and faces up to her pregnancy; not just reality of caring for a child as a single mother, but the echo of Muriel’s words: “If you were serious about being a writer, you’d get rid of that baby.” Is Muriel’s adamancy of this point simply a reflection of her upbringing, and the abhorrent patriarchy she spent years confronting? Or is tied to something far more personal and heartbreaking?

Some novels are such good company that you don’t want them to end. The Artist’s Portrait is one such novel. Engrossing and compelling in equal measure; a tale about long-buried secrets and the revelations that change everything.

ISBN: 9780733640940
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publication Date: March 2019