An experimental and thought-provoking essay collection that stays with the reader well past the final page.
Book cover image: Blueberries by Ellena Savage. Author image photo credit: Leah Jing.
It’s hard to review a work as thought-provoking and expansive as Blueberries. The feeling that Ellena Savage has already expressed her strongest ideas better than any reviewer ever could is hard to shake off. This means that in writing a review, there’s significant temptation to either quote vast swathes of the text or simply abandon the review altogether, opting instead to shove the book into people’s hands while hissing 'Just read it!'
Blueberries can be loosely described as experimental nonfiction, being a collection of essays that cross genres and subvert stylistic conventions. In Savage’s work, an essay might blend true-crime journalism, prose poetry, critical theory, memoir, and interrogation of memoir. It can be witty and acerbic one moment and quiet and reflective the next. In this sense, reading this collection feels almost like a literal exploration of thought and memory: the boundaries between ideas and images are porous, meaning the concepts on the page often interrelate in surprising as well as illuminating ways.
The topics covered in Blueberries are wide-ranging, current, and engaging. Savage moves with ease between personal anecdotes and discussions of issues including class, love, art, teen pregnancy, identity, sexual assault, property, academia, and what it means to make a living today as a writer. In this sense, Blueberries is noteworthy for the fact each essay feels fresh and brings new style and ideas to the collection. Indeed, a particularly successful feature of the collection is the fact it isn’t bound too strictly by convention or ideas of consistency. The essays are stylistically varied without coming across as disjointed, offering a good example of how the risk of experimentation in essay collections can well be worth it.
While each essay had something to offer and merits revisiting, a few stood out. ‘Unwed Teen Mum Mary’ raises questions around choice, pregnancy, autonomy, and the 'ideal of sexless maternity'. ‘Houses’ explores the particularly Australian passion that is housing. ‘Notes to Unlived Time’ unpacks memory, productivity, and record-keeping through wildly distinct anecdotes that somehow all manage to work together. The titular ‘Blueberries’ is a playful and incisive look at academia, gender, and writing, offering cackle-worthy sentences like 'I was in America at a very expensive writers’ workshop, working on my writing by working on my cultural capital'. And ‘Portrait of the Writer as Worker (after Dieter Lesage)’ is painfully accurate, sardonic, and raw as it examines the nature of the hustle that is working as a writer in this day and age. 'You are an investor,' deadpans Savage. 'You are building a diverse portfolio.'
Blueberries does not always offer answers to the questions raised in its essays. In this way, however, it manages to be an endlessly curious and intriguing collection of work. What’s more, Blueberries is elevated by the fact that while Savage’s experiences and personal anecdotes inform her work and add flavour to it, she consistently uses her personal experiences to help interrogate broader concepts and debates.
Blueberries is clever, candid, and thoroughly fresh. Just read it.
5 stars out of 5
BLUEBERRIES by Ellena Savage
Publisher: Text Publishing
Categories: Non-Fiction, Australian
Release Date: 3 March 2020