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BOOK REVIEW: Griffith Review 'The Light Ascending' — room for many tastes

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Writer Michael R Williams discusses the "break-out" and "the work in progress" stories from the most recent Griffith Review, a journal known for its highbrow story telling. 

The Griffith Review has cemented itself as Australia’s academic literary journal. Attracting voices from all walks of life. While it does not have the same fire in the belly as Meanjin or The Lifted Brow, its links to the university system and strong ties to publishers has made it a sluice for aspiring writers.

The style of the publication is unarguably intellectual, but this can be a double-edged sword. The Griffith Review is a jungle-gym cum safe-space for their writer’s more experimental work, but for readers it can become a pain when it sometimes gets bogged down in the abstract and unconventional.

For those who love unexcavated literature, this is your version of pop music's So Fresh.

Issue 66 celebrates the novella and no doubt there were some stunners. Viva la Novella winner Miranda Riwoe’s 'Annah the Javanese' is found at the back and they surely saved the best for last. Riwoe’s prose flows like the wails of a violin. The imagery in the first scene is of a young girl on a boat who is being given away to a strange man and the nature of the prose creates an ekphrastic moment — invoking 'Ocean Songs' by Dirty Three.

The theme for this issue is “The Light Ascending”. When compared to Meanjin’s satirical, pointed and apocalyptic “That’s all Folks!”, it initially comes off as nebulous — but there is also a literary quality to vagueness. It allows the writer to express their more intuitive qualities. The issue’s editorial describes the theme as 'a transcending from the darkness', which is an image that holds a lot of power and allows the writers wiggle room to write about a variety of topics. 

The first story, 'Instructions for a steep decline', by Julienne van Loon is an imbroglio. A clear amount of creativity has gone into the inception of this story. It weaves narratives and themes of time, Eastern philosophy and modern stress and relationships, but there is a real lack of discipline in her line. Many of the sentences are bloated and pretentious, and an eye rolling number of clichés – such as using multiple questions and short action sentences – just make the piece too jarring to read.—

There are still highlights in the poetry, though. 'The Morning Fog', a poem by Stuart Barnes has a janky rhythm and is laced with the imagination of Robert Adamson. 'Q&A' by Shastra Deo is an intriguing discussion with an AI and Sarah Holland-Batt’s 'Pursuit Music' is drenched with atmosphere.

Allanah Hunt is a young voice that readers should look out for. While her sentence by sentence work could use tidying, the vision and emotionality that went into her piece 'Spectrums' was undeniably moving. A main character in the story is colour blind, and Hunt uses this character to explore themes of race, violence and sexuality. Without crossing into cliché territory, she is able to find her own voice using imagery that is almost cartoonish and artificial. Through this device she is able to describe the textures of blood people and other startling imagery in the process.

In a slowly growing industry, literary journals are important steppingstones. This is both for writers looking for a leg-up and readers looking for new talent. The Griffith Review has room for many reader's tastes.

Griffith Review: Issue 66: "The Light Ascending" is published by Griffth Review;  271 pages; RRP $18.50.

You can follow IA intern Michael R Williams on Twitter and Instagram @editorscribble.

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