Johnno by David Malouf

How did I get almost a quarter of a century into my life and only just become acquainted with such an important, talented Australian writer as David Malouf? I suppose I shouldn’t let it concern me too much, rather excite me with the promise of similar surprises in store.

Often described as semi-autobiographical, this was Malouf’s first novel – published in 1975 (during a six-month sabbatical in Florence, Italy). It begins with the narrator (who remains unnamed throughout the book, except for the nickname ‘Dante’) returning to Brisbane from London with the death of his father. Sorting through things in the family home, he happens across an old school photo and thus begins his reminiscence of his old friend, Johnno.

The book follows the complex relationship of the two and was, I felt – particularly towards the end – a story of unrequited love.

Johnno could be said to have three central characters – Johnno, Dante and the city of Brisbane. The shadowy damp of the Queenslander homes and the idiosyncracies of  wartime Brisbane of Malouf’s 1940s childhood are palpable throughout the novel. In fact, I finished the book feeling as though I’d got to know the otherwise unfamiliar city more than the mysterious human characters themselves.

Calling this book semi-autobiographical seems ironic to me. It is in fact a fictionalised biography of Johnno (based on Malouf’s real-life friend John Milliner who died in similar circumstances to the fictional Johnno in 1962, as revealed in the epilogue), but little is revealed about the first-person Malouf character, Dante – except as he relates to Johnno. The fact he is only known by the name given to him by Johnno is testament to that. If this book is autobiographical, it is only in the sense that it is the story of the part of his life that was touched by his friend.

This is a short book and therefore a relatively quick – but extremely rewarding – read. It’s the type of book you could easily pick up again and again, and take more from it with each reading. Johnno is poetic but unrestrained. Funny, but heartbreaking. I highly recommend it.


Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

I can’t say why I chose to pick this dusty, dog-eared second-hand book off the shelf when I did, one clear morning at a café in the New South Wales southern highlands. I’d never previously had any interest in its principle subject: the tragic, beautiful Marilyn Monroe. Something in the news or popular media may have spiked my interest, or the book may have simply beckoned more interest than it’s shelved neighbours.

Prior to even the book’s dedication page comes a disclaimer from Oates herself that “Blonde should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a biography of Marilyn Monroe.” So it is testament to Oates’ writing that I turned the final page feeling as though I’d intimately known the woman, and was more intrigued to learn about her life and work than I imagine any factual biography could have left me.

Oates is obviously a feminist writer, and she delved into scenes and aspects of Marilyn’s life that she clearly can’t have known: her first menstrual period, her various sexual encounters – desires, even – her dreams and nightmares about pregnancy, her fears and countless self-doubts. And yet are those accounts any less true as a result? Oates was clearly well-read on the known facts of Marilyn’s life story, which she pieced together without sacrificing the intimacies of her humanity – a humanity which author and subject and reader alike share and which makes this book all the truer, if strictly fictional.

While written in the third person, it feels almost as though Oates’ decision to do so was to suggest a confused, troubled Marilyn speaking of herself in that manner – perplexed by her constructed identity: Norma Jeane; Marilyn; She; Her. And then there’s the sections separating the book’s chapters: The Child; The Girl; The Woman; Marilyn; (and lastly, The Afterlife).

This book will leave you feeling not just like you know Marilyn, but that in many ways you are her. It also takes a clear side on the controversy of her death, and again, while Oates can’t have known whose (if any) hand really took Marilyn’s life, the truth of her demise and the reasons for it almost render that one detail inconsequential, at least in Oates’ expression of it. Read it, and see if you agree.