review: Foreign Soil

For easy reference, I've been saving reviews and other pieces under PUBLISHED on the right.

Today I want to share one of the best books I've read this year.

Foreign Soil – winner of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award 2013 – damn well deserves every bit of praise received. It slams readers like a Molotov cocktail, casting a harsh light on what it means to be human. Featuring all manners of violence and questions of race, Clarke’s debut story collection is an uncomfortable read. Visceral yet tender, it dares you to look away. My advice: don’t try reading it in one sitting.

Sucker-punch ‘David’ leaves readers reeling but with a glimmer of hope through the tears. It transitions seamlessly between the voice of a young Sudanese-Australian mother and her elder, brought together by a sleek, new cherry-red pushbike. Clarke uses multiple narrators to similar chilling effect in ‘Gaps in the Hickory’. Another recurring feature is her meticulous attention to accents. Down by the port of Kingston, Nathanial watches “small air bubble travellin slowly up out de water, as dem fast-tail fishie flit jus below de surface.” As a slam poetry champion, Clarke has an ear for the lyrical and stretching out the suspense.

The stories span continents – Australia, Africa, Europe and North America – and decades. ‘Railton Road’ tails protagonist Solomon through the rebel squats of 1960s Brixton and the Black Panthers movement while its modern-day echo hones in on the eponymous ‘Harlem Jones’ and the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011. There is a cold, burning emptiness to both that is difficult to understand. To her credit, Clarke neither moralises nor makes excuses for the shocking crimes and betrayals portrayed. Readers are left to come to their own conclusions. And yes, the decisions of some characters disappoint.

The two longer pieces ‘Gaps in the Hickory’ and ‘The stilt fishermen of Kathaluwa’ give Clarke space to experiment with a larger cast and more details. The former keeps readers guessing at the link between elderly Dolores in New Orleans and a seemingly ordinary family in backwater Mississippi. The latter strikes closer to home, switching between the perspective of Asanka, a young Tamil boy counting the seconds in Villawood detention centre and Loretta, a lawyer who used to advocate for asylum seekers.

Dreams of a brighter future in ‘Hope’ and ‘Big Islan’ offer needed respite. Closer ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’ is a semi-autobiographical story recalling the rejection letters from a publisher: “Unfortunately, we feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these.” Clarke has gone where few have dared and Australian literature is richer for it. Defiant in the face of despair and injustice, these are characters and stories we should be ready for.

Dedicated to Australian fiction writers of colour – Clarke is of Afro-Caribbean descent – Foreign Soil will challenge the way you see the world. In a word: stunning.

This review appeared in Issue 472 of BMA Magazine.

(P.S. I never thought I'd feel so emotional reading a story that features Footscray train station.)


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