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Nina X, Ewan Morrison; From the Wreck, Jane Rawson

Doug Johnstone is gripped by the tale of a young girl’s readjustment after her escape from a communist cult

When you read a lot of fiction you tend to come across the same stories again and again, so when something highly original arrives on the desk it’s a shot of adrenaline to the brain. This week’s books are both fantastic pieces of storytelling that are indefinable but utterly compelling.

First up we have the thrillingly evocative Nina X by Ewan Morrison. This is Morrison’s first novel in seven years, but it’s been worth the wait. The story is told through the journals of Nina, a young woman recently rescued
from a bizarre communist cult based in a London house. The story switches between Nina’s journals post-release and her earlier diaries as a young girl inside the cult from 16 years previously.

What quickly transpires is that Nina was born and raised in the cult, and has been deprived knowledge and access to the outside world almost completely in a misguided effort to make her a more ‘pure’ vessel of communist ideology at the hands of her charismatic male cult leader and his female disciples. We also get comments on those earlier diaries from other cult members, as well as typographical self-edits, as Nina, known as The Project, tries to correct her own ‘faulty’ thinking and language.

At heart, this is an emotional story about trauma and survival, but it’s funny along the way too. Morrison has a lot of fun poking at both the tenets of communism and the appalling brazenness of capitalism and consumerism. On her release, Nina struggles hopelessly to come to terms with the wider world, almost preferring the familiar abuse of her previous life to the uncertainty and confusion that faces her.

The narrative voice in Nina X is an absolute triumph – completely unique and yet empathetic and familiar at the same time. The reader’s heart breaks because of Nina’s situation, both before and after her release, and Morrison expertly crafts an emotional climax that leaves a burning impression on the mind long after the final page is turned. A wonderful, disturbing, brilliant book.

And voice is also key to our second superb novel, From the Wreck by Australian author Jane Rawson. This is Rawson’s third book and is part-historical fiction, part-sci-fi romp that has rightly won a bunch of prizes Down Under.

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The story is set in 1850s Australia and starts with George Hills surviving the wreck of a sunken steamship. George survived many days in the water with the help of a mysterious woman, who it turns out is actually some
form of alien, shape-shifting presence. When the woman mysteriously disappears on rescue, George becomes obsessed with her, as well as struggling with what he had to do to survive.

As the story progresses, we get more of the alien’s point of view, a lonely, abandoned creature searching for more of its kind on a planet that seems bizarre compared to its previous experiences. The story moves forward in time and George’s son becomes involved in both plots, his sense of being an outsider mirroring the other plot strands in what is a highly unconventional book that nevertheless manages to be completely mesmerising.

Rawson uses this set up to examine huge themes – the nature of existence and society, the symbiotic relationships between us all – but it’s also deeply personal and ultimately very moving. Extraordinary work.

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