Miles Franklin longlisted author Stephen Orr delivers a surreal, dryly funny fictional take on the infamous Ern Malley affair – perhaps Australia’s most infamous literary hoax – in a novel that expertly blends fact and fiction, and questions the very nature of authenticity and creativity.
‘The poet who never lived is fated to live forever in Australia’s literary imagination. For my father Max Harris, he was a genius provoking a detective story, a tabloid sensation, and a public humiliation. But, until his death, Max stood behind the view that Ern Malley’s hoax poems were brilliant, whatever their genesis. Stephen Orr re- contextualises these poems and revivi es a 1940s world whence they came, fleshing out a life for Ern’s sister, Ethel, and another version of Max in those fecund bohemian years. A new world springs from the old in a vivid reimagining. I was simply enthralled.’ – Samela Harris (Max Harris’s daughter, and former arts editor of the Advertiser)
In the darkest days of World War II, Ethel Malley lives a quiet life on Dalmar Street, Croydon. One day she finds a collection of poems written by her late (and secretive) brother, Ern. She sends them to Max Harris, co-editor of modernist magazine Angry Penguins. He reads them and declares Ern an undiscovered genius. Determined to help publish the poems, Ethel moves in with Max and soon becomes a presence he can’t understand, or control. He gets the feeling something’s not quite right. About Ethel. About Ern. Then two poets come forward claiming they wrote Ern’s poems.
What follows is part-truth, part-hoax, a dark mystery as surreal as any of Ern’s poems. Max wants to believe in Ern, but to do this he has to believe in Ethel, and attempt to understand her increasingly unpredictable behaviour. Then he’s charged with publishing Ern’s ‘pornographic’ poems. The questions of truth and lies, freedom of speech, and tradition versus modernism play out in a stifling Adelaide courtroom, around the nation’s wirelesses, and in Max’s head.
Based on Australia’s greatest literary hoax, Yours Sincerely, Ethel Malley explores the nature of creativity, and human frailty. It drips with the anaemic blood of Australian literature, the gristle of a culture we’ve never really trusted.
Praise for Stephen Orr
‘Astonishingly vivid ... It is Orr’s cleaving of the ordinary to the unspeakable that gives the novel its potency.’ Hannah Kent (on Time’s Long Ruin)
‘A haunting novel of quiet power, with strikingly etched dialogue ... the work of a literary craftsman at the top of his game.’ Cameron Woodhead, Sydney Morning Herald (on Incredible Floridas)
‘When Orr nails it, his writing is piercing, brutal, powerful, both in respect to his unflinching gaze and his wielding of plain English like a weapon. You as a reader will survive, but not without blunt force trauma to show for it.’ The Australian (on Datsunland)
‘Savour the vernacular. Read slowly. The life of the novel turns repeatedly on a scant sentence and a half, a muttered aside, a quick flip of perspective; read too fast and you’ll miss it.’ Katharine England, Advertiser (on This Excellent Machine)