A review of Ninety 9 by Vanessa Berry

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Ninety 9
By Vanessa Berry
ISBN: 9781922146328, 9 Aug 2013, 160pp, 19.95aud

I’m old enough to think that the 90s was a fairly recent time periods. However, Vanessa Berry’s Ninety 9, which is indeed a recollection of the 90s seen through the eyes of subterranean cultural influences – music, books, films, is so warm, familiar and quirky, that it makes perfect sense.  Ninety 9 isn’t quite a memoir.  Instead it’s a series of essays grouped around specific topics, structured in more or less sequential order. Music is certainly the primary focus, with bands like The Smiths, Ratcat, The Cure, Mudhoney, The Meanies, and later dark gothic style music like Alien Sex Fiend (don’t worry if you missed that one), Bauhaus, and Nick Cave.  Berry attends concerts, listens endlessly to music, hunts down records, dresses up, makes cassette compilations (remember those?) and stays up late in her bedroom alone listening to the radio and phoning up the DJ, but she also begins to collect paraphernalia, muse, observe, and chronicle her experiences, which ultimately leads to her becoming the Sydney ‘zine queen – a title she still holds.

There’s a real beauty to this little book, from the attractive matt finish, small, square format that characterises all of the Giramondo shorts, to Berry’s own hand-drawn illustrations, which give the book a slightly rogue, zine feel.  The book is written in light, clear prose, using a confessional first person form, which begins with Berry at the age of eleven. This style invites the reader in immediately, as we share both her family life – including her gifted sister’s music lessons and the tension between Berry and her mother, as well as her secret and later, not so secret, yearnings. Though this is a very personal and selective type of essay/memoir, it becomes universal in the way it clarifies the awkward sensations and pain of adolescence: : “I started high school with the knowledge that I would forever be too weird to be popular”.

I think most of us can relate to Berry’s sense of isolation and feeling of being ‘odd’ mingling with the ascerbic wittiness of her insight. I found myself identifying with with her musical tastes and obsessive interest in those bands that aligned with her sense of self. Ninety 9 is a charming and very enjoyable book. Berry invites the reader in, conjures the insecurities and excitement of youth, and opens up Sydney with the insight of time, the poignancy of nostalgia, and the intimacy of shared memory.


About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks and Paul W Newman is her next guest. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.