Following is the second of Angela Long’s book reviews from the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist. Follow Angela on Twitter as she tweets her reading progress! See the full longlist here.

  • Title: Foreign Soil
  • Author: Maxine Beneba Clarke
  • Category: Adult Fiction
  • Publisher: 2014 Hachette Australia 
    Review by Angela Long for Welcome to my Library

Summary: In this collection of award-winning stories, Melbourne writer Maxine Beneba Clarke has given a voice to the disenfranchised, the lost, the downtrodden and the mistreated. It will challenge you, it will have you by the heartstrings. This is contemporary fiction at its finest.

In Melbourne’s Western Suburbs, in a dilapidated block of flats overhanging the rattling Footscray train-lines, a young black mother is working on a collection of stories Inside its covers, a desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s’ Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way. The young mother keeps writing, the rejection letters keep arriving…

Review: To read is to explore the unknown, places, people, and emotions, outside of our day-to-day existence. Through this we build understanding and empathy, compassion and humanity.

In Foreign Soil Maxine Beneba Clarke presents a collection of ten short stories that examines the displaced and marginalised of the melting pot called civilisation, and begs us to explore what we often find so hard to understand. Some of the characters watch from the fringes longing to get in, others belong but need to escape. Can worlds collide without fallout? Can someone be anyone other than who they truly are?

In the story ‘Shu Yi’, the young Ava with the ‘springy black afro’ lives the Australian dream in ‘blond-brick suburbia’ and yet doesn’t ‘want a bar of ….. any of their black-as-me friends.’ She needs to be less ‘her’; she needs to fit in. To fit in or find your place there comes a price, a reshaping. Give up your identity, beliefs and morals in the hope that you will be accepted; cling together like droplets of water hoping that by sheer mass you will be recognised; or stand up and fight to be heard, making a stand against the ignorance and bigotry of yourself and others.

This is at times a dark and brutal novel that makes no apologies for who the characters are and their individual choices. The need for Harlem Jones to be relevant and respected sits simmering below his skin ready to explode in the same manner as the Molotov cocktail he holds in his hand. While Asanka in ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’ silently counts down his life, haunted by the memories of his violent past and trapped in a system continuing to punish him for his need to escape.

Using strong and unique voices Clarke plays with language and the ability of her characters to communicate, exploiting their nuances to disturb and confront us, challenging us with a new framework when we have just adjusted to the old. Each change highlights the natural rhythm of the protagonist. For the reader there are moments when this can distract, removing you from the story and suspending your belief. The challenge for the character to communicate is transferred to the reader to understand. In ‘Big Islan’ the use of Jamaican English vernacular has a poetic, rhythmic quality ‘de ocean bin callin, nyah calmin, de young man. Sun seem shifted somehow’ but it took two restarts for me to find that rhythm and some may not be so patient.

Each of these stories is perfectly structured and presents an opportunity to explore the struggles; political, social and historical, that confronts our society. It is said that nothing worthwhile comes easy, and Foreign Soil is not an easy novel to read but once done, it is definitely worth your while.

Buy this book: HachetteBooktopia, Bookworld or download from iBooks or Amazon.

Read all Welcome To My Library Book Reviews HERE


Author Bio:Maxine Beneba Clarke is a widely published Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent and the author of the poetry collections GIL SCOTT HERON IS ON PAROLE (Picaro Press, 2009) and NOTHING HERE NEEDS FIXING (Picaro Press, 2013). As a spoken word performer, Maxine’s work has been delivered on stages and airways, and in festivals across the country. Her short fiction, essays and poetry have been published in numerous publications including The Saturday Paper, Overland, The Age, Big Issue, Cordite Poetry Review, Harvest, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging, Unusual Work and Peril. FOREIGN SOIL, Maxine’s debut collection of short stories, was the winner of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award. She is currently working on a memoir and was awarded the 2014 Hazel Rowley fellowship to research her family history. Maxine lives in Melbourne, Victoria. For more information regarding Foreign Soil please see Hachette Australia 

aww-badge-2015This book has been read and reviewed by Angela Long for WTML for the 2015 Australian Women Writers challenge. To read more about the challenge see their website

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