Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 27, 2014

N (2014), by John Alan Scott

N coverI loved this book!  It’s a great big chunkster of almost 600 pages but it is utterly absorbing from beginning to end.

John Alan Scott is the author of The Architect, a small gem of a book that was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2002.  Before that he won the Victorian Premier’s Award twice, in 1986 for his poem St Clair and again in 1994 for his novel What I Have Written (which I’m now going to track down).  He has apparently spent ten years writing N., a different book entirely to The Architect…

N. has been described elsewhere as a political thriller, but it’s not genre fiction.  Far from it.  It’s intellectually sophisticated, enticing the reader with delicious allusions to characters from real life and from literature, and it explores big issues, the most prominent of which is the tension between popular rule and decisive leadership.  This tension occurs in the context of an alternative history of Australia’s WW2…

Phillip Roth explored this idea in The Plot against America which I read some time ago (see my review).  In Scott’s novel, Japan has occupied Australia’s northern states and a fascist regime is running the rest of the country from the tasteful surrounds of Mt Macedon.  This bizarre turn of events comes about because of a hung parliament caused by the unexpected death of Norman Cole, one of two independents supporting Prime Minister Curtin.  The fascists grab power in the vacuum.  From complacent 21st century Australia this looks like a daft plot, but Scott makes it convincing, – and there are, alas, plenty of historical precedents.  (The fact that we’ve just emerged from three years of a minority Federal parliament kept in power by independents, only to have it replaced by a government behaving in wholly unexpected ways is probably too recent to have influenced Scott’s book).

The book is a pastiche of literary styles and forms, with a multitude of characters.  (Though it’s a measure of how well-written N. is that I had to resort only three times to the Dramatis Personae at the front of the book.)  Some of these characters are real people from history, with their own names or invented ones, while other characters are products of Scott’s imagination.   The most compelling of these characters are Missy Cunningham and Robin Telford, both of whom are struggling with the tension between love and duty.  Their narratives feel like diaries or memoirs though never named as such, and they are complemented by documents that Telford unearths in his role as a public servant recruited as private detective: phone transcripts, radio scripts, newspaper reports and articles, and Hansard.  There are also letters, memos, a photograph, scraps of poetry and epigrams.  Missy Cunningham’s son Ross writes his short contribution like the Boys Own books he’s read (Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels), and Telford alternates his much more extensive contributions between dry bureaucratese and his idea of romance.  Missy writes like the poet she might have been had she lived in a different era:

It was the last I saw of David Strachan, that smile.  We embraced, tightly – as if we should never be prised apart – and he was gone.
I imagine this sort of thing was happening everywhere.  The ridding.  The hiding.  As the intimidated ones, or those who refused to be intimidated, the defiant ones, disappeared in different ways and with different ends.
Vale.  Is that the term?  Farewell?
Vale Strachan.  (p. 405)

In a book that documents the evil of the regime –  torture, slavery in the mines, massacres,  genocide and ‘disappearances’ – Scott manages to bring a human face to one of the supporters of fascism.  I  knew a little about Frank Clune – that he was a writer of popular history not taken very seriously, but I did not know that he had a polemicist ghost writer.  In Scott’s novel this ghost-writer, Albie Henningsen, is a rabid nationalist, apparently based on Clune’s real ghost-writer, P. R. Stephenson who began by editing Clune’s unpublishable prose and ended up ghost-writing for him, without acknowledgement until very late in the day [1].  Albie, arrested by one regime and forgotten about by another, is reduced to writing plaintive letters to his wife Elsie, confined by censorship to writing just 22 lines, and never, for reasons I shan’t reveal, receiving a reply.  These poignant letters are, of course, ironic because he is thus the victim of the very evil that he supports, but even evil men love their wives sometimes…

Artists and writers are the flawed heroes of this novel.   The Social Realists of the period were satirists of society under capitalism and any critique is unwelcome during war.   (See here for an event which inspired Scott, an anti-Fascist exhibition that was held in 1942).  From Roy Cunningham whose art is haunted by the rust-bucket shipload of refugees turned away by the Fadden government, to Vic Turner, a war artist who refuses a chance of freedom to accompany his mates to slave labour under the Japanese, these artists speak the truths that the public does not want to hear.    Just as Hitler did, the regime marginalises artists and writers first, and then they ‘disappear’.  The fate of Reginald Thomas, radio dramatist and seer, is most terrible of all.  A latter-day Tiresias, he types up his visions into his popular radio scripts, yet he is quickly forgotten and there is no one to search for him when he ‘vanishes’.

Two love stories thread their way through the novel.  Telford steps outside his comfort zone to investigate Norman Cole’s death when his widow, Esther, approaches him for help.  Her suspicions that Cole was murdered are the catalyst for a series of events that take this mild-mannered and frighteningly naïve man into dangerous waters – all because he believes he will win her heart.  Missy, on the other hand, is torn between a husband who cares only for his art, and a would-be lover who would need to be in it for the long haul because her son Ross needs stability.   Fleshed out more by the author and more sympathetically portrayed, she’s a very interesting contrast to the elegant, Western District Esther.

N. is too new for to have been widely reviewed but there’s a review by Peter Pierce in The Australian’s Review  and another by Belle Place at Readings in which it is obvious that she shares my delight in this novel.  N. is a splendid book.  In scope, wit, and the verve of its storytelling; in its innovative form and its subterranean allusions to contemporary Australia,  it reminds me of Matthew Condon’s The Trout OperaAustralian literature is alive and well when we get marvellous books like this to enjoy!

PS John Scott has a session at the MWF on Friday, see here.

Update 13/3/17 I see from Goodreads that John is now identified as John Alan Scott rather than John A Scott, so I’ve updated things here to reflect that.  But bear in mind if looking for John’s backlist that you may need to search for John A Scott or John Scott.  If in doubt about which works are in his oeuvre, see his Wikipedia page

Author: John Alan Scott
Title: N.
Publisher: Brandl and Schlesinger, 2014
ISBN: 9781921556203
Source: Review copy courtesy of Brandl and Schlesinger


Fishpond: N.

[1] The hagiographic article at Wikipedia should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.  I found a scholarly article about Clune called ‘Digging up the Past’ in History Australia Vol 8 No 1 by B. Griffin-Foley which cites a biography of Stephensen by Craig Munro which ‘examined the role of the writer, polemicist and former Rhodes Scholar as Clune’s ghost-writer from the late 1930s‘.  (p. 1).  I can’t make Google provide the URL of this article because it’s a PDF, but if keen, Google ‘Frank Clune ghostwriter’ and you should be able to find it.


  1. John A Scott is a writer I haven’t heard of. I might start with the small gem from 2002 first.


    • I’ve got the other one coming to my library, what treats in store, eh!


  2. Great review, Lisa. I haven’t heard anything about this book, but it sounds fascinating.


    • Hi Jacqui, your comment has triggered a thought: all the novels I know of that explore the alternative history of WW2 are American: I wonder if this scenario has been used in the UK or Europe? (In literary fiction, that is, not gun-toting thrillers)


      • Ooh, I don’t know – I can’t recall any off the top of my head, but Stu might be able to answer this question. Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ (which you mention) is the one that comes to mind.


  3. I’m so intrigued!


    • Oh, Angela, you must read this! N is a crash course in writing a beaut postmodern novel, and with your interest in dystopia, you would find it fascinating to deconstruct how he’s done it. Not to mention that it’s a jolly good read too, of course!


  4. This sounds bloody excellent, Lisa. Have promptly put it on my wishlist.

    But I do have to take issue with your comment about the present government behaving in wholly unexpected ways: it’s doing exactly what the Tories have been doing for 4 years in the UK (dismantling the welfare state, privatising everything they can get their grubby little & widening the gap between rich and poor!) which I knew would happen as soon as they got voted in. Grrr.


    • LOL Kim, you have to be here to fully understand. The point is that most people were only too well aware of …um… shall we say the ‘general persuasions’ of conservative governments – not to mention their past history in Australia (Gosh, wot a surprise, we did not know that the previous government were irresponsible with taxpayers money but now we do and so we’d better have savage cuts to public services etc., sorry we didn’t tell you this before the election but it’s not our fault, blame the previous government.) Before the election the Libs were specifically asked about key policies and they specifically reassured the public that there would be no cuts to education, health, the ABC etc.
      Now you could well say that people were stupid to believe these reassurances, but they were clear and unequivocal. Even cynics and political experts are surprised that the new government has so quickly squandered its political capital that there is a real prospect that they will be voted out after one term.
      So I stand by my comment. The governments behaviour is unexpected either because people believed the lies, or because it’s astonishing that they could be so stupid as to get into government via a campaign vilifying the previous PM as a liar (over the carbon tax) – and then shamelessly expose themselves as liars. See


  5. […] the beginning of John A. Scott’s brilliant new novel N (see my review) there’s a scene in which the Fadden government turns away a shipload of Jewish refugee […]


  6. […] some fascinating stories about his adventures with research.  Writing his recent splendid novel N (see my review) took him all over Australia, and other books have taken him all over the world.  It’s when […]


  7. I just finished it and loved it too!


    • Yay! I felt confident that others would too, but it’s nice to see that you agree:)
      Will you be reviewing it on your blog? I’ll link to it when/if you do.


  8. […] Sydney Review of Books had some reservations; as did Peter Pierce at the Australian But Lisa at ANZLitLovers loved it and it was her enthusiastic review that launched me into reading […]


  9. […] (Davison lost out to Ilias by Jim Sakkas, a novel which its own author thinks he might have won [the Vogel] because it was the beginning of interest in more diverse novels, the era of multiculturalism. In an interview with an un-named critic at The Australian, for a post-Darville Demidenko article exploring ‘one-hit wonders’, Sakkas – who admits that he was a hobby-author, not someone hoping to make a career of writing – thought that The Velodrome should have won.   (My apologies if the link fails at The Australian’s paywall).  Having now read both novels, (Ilias back in 1997) I certainly agree with Sakkas, whose novel was alas so forgettable that it failed to trigger any memories even with the help of my trusty reading journal.  In the event, Davison went on to become a highly regarded author, winning the National Book Council’s Banjo Award for Fiction in 1993 for Soundings, and shortlisted for literary prizes such as The Age Book of the Year Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.  He was also a recipient of the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, and a Fellowship from the Literature Board of Australia.  I can’t help but wonder if there is another manuscript-in-progress amongst Davison’s effects…  After all, John A Scott took ten years to write his brilliant N, eh? (See my review). […]


  10. Great review. I also loved the book, apart from the magical elements, eg the emptying of port Philip bay. I don’t think they added anything and they detracted from the believability. Interesting about Wikipedia and frank Clune. P r stephenson’s entry refers to him having ghostwritten over 70 books for Clune!


    • Thank you, Rob, nice top meet a fellow enthusiast:)
      I came across Frank Clune and Inky Stephenson again just last week when I was reading the bio of Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira. *Not quoting verbatim* Martin Edmond refers to them both as rogues who caused a lot of trouble for Namatjira.


  11. […] to displace the omissions.  Where is Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders?  Where is N by John Scott, and To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson?  Where is just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth?  […]


  12. […] uninformative.  Titles like John Berger’s G (see my review), John A Scott’s N (see my review), and Thomas Pynchon’s V (on my TBR).  These titles tell you nothing at all about the book […]


  13. […] that matter.  (The only other author with the courage to do this recently that comes to mind is John A Scott in his brilliant novel N.)   And I enjoyed the comic approach to the serious stuff. (Did I mention there are cartoons?) […]


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