#17: Will Martin, by Catherine McKinnon

Catherine McKinnon’s Will Martin, another novella from Griffith Review 50: The Novella Project III, is an immersive historical fiction based on the 1796 mission by George Bass and Matthew Flinders to explore the coastline of the Illawarra region south of Sydney, in the small boat Tom Thumb.

I read this 25,000-word novella in a single sitting and found it captivating from the first page. The story is told from the perspective of the titular character, Will Martin, a young naval servant who accompanies Bass and Flinders on the journey. By focalising through this lowly character who remains a bit of a historical void (little is known of his life), McKinnon is able to explore the thoughts and concerns of colonial settlers and explorers, particularly with respect to the cross-cultural complications of first contact. This is, inevitably, still the perspective of the colonisers, who view the Aboriginal people—’Indians’—on a spectrum from childlike innocents to savage cannibals, but the narration of Will Martin’s interiority provides valuable nuance.

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#8: Whale Station, by Megan McGrath

They said there were no more whales but I’d caught one.

Megan McGrath’s Whale Station, published in Griffith Review 46: The Novella Project II, opens with the protagonist Rick chasing down and harpooning a whale off the coast of Brisbane. The novella takes us back to Tangalooma’s history as a whaling station that operated from 1952-1962, a history that I was only dimly aware of as someone who grew up in Brisbane. Located on Moreton Island, Tangalooma is now a tourist resort known for offering hand-feeding of dolphins and whale watching. I’ve been there just once, when work took me there for a social outing; it’s clear from McGrath’s evocative prose that her personal connection to and sense of this beautiful place is stronger than mine.

Whale Station is available to read online, but please do buy either the print or ebook version of Griffith Review 46. Reading from websites doesn’t work so well at a length of nearly 22,000 words.

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#6: Former Glory, by Cate Kennedy

What are Australia’s forgotten stories, those tales from history that don’t get enough of an airing? This 17,000-word novella by Cate Kennedy is the first of five that were selected for Griffith Review 46: Forgotten Stories (The Novella Project II). The subtitle promises fiction with a historical bent, but also something that strays from the well-worn beaten paths that Australian history tends to tread.

Former Glory is a quick read that felt shorter than it actually is, almost like a long short story, and it can definitely be read in a single sitting. It’s told from the present by Ed, a first-person narrator, so it doesn’t have the dusty texture that some might expect from historical fiction. Instead, it’s about an attempt by two artsy out-of-towners to restore the pub in a dying country town, with Ed’s reluctant help.

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