2016 Stella Prize

Charlotte Wood wins the 2016 Stella Prize

Stella Prize winner logoCongratulations to Charlotte Wood, whose book The Natural Way of Things has been named winner of the 2016 Stella Prize.

The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published between 1 January 2015 and 31 December 2015 were eligible.

I’m a long-time fan of Wood’s work (you can see all my reviews here) and am delighted to see her talent rewarded in this manner.

The book will be published here in the UK by Allen & Unwin on 2 June.

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, essays, Fiona Wright, Giramondo Publishing, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Small Acts of Disappearance’ by Fiona Wright

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Giramondo Publishing; 188 pages; 2015.

It seemed slightly uncanny that in the week I finished reading Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger that anorexia was suddenly splashed all over the media here in the UK. That’s because Dame Joan Bakewell, a respected veteran broadcaster and this year’s judge of the Wellcome Book Prize, was reported as saying that eating disorders are due to narcissism.

She was rightly called out about this and then she issued an apology. It was clear that her views were outdated and I wanted to hand her a copy of this book to bring her up to speed. Wright’s collection of 10 essays, about her own struggle with an eating disorder, explodes a lot of the myths surrounding the disease. But this isn’t a dry text-book examination of anorexia; it’s an enlightening, easy-to-read memoir, filled with beautiful language and turns of phrase (as well as being a journalist, Wright is a celebrated poet), which puts the disease into a social, cultural, historical and medical context.

I admit to being rather reluctant to pick this one up when it was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. I expected a maudlin, introspective, self-indulgent set of essays. What I got was something entirely different. It’s totally free of self-pity. It’s informative, without being academic, and it’s unflinching in its honesty. There’s a raw power at its heart, which belies the eloquence and beauty of the prose. Indeed, I was so enamoured of the text that my Kindle indicates I highlighted more than 2,100 words of it.

Frank and brutally honest account

Perhaps the greatest strength of Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger is Wright’s ability to talk about the disease in frank, brutally honest terms. That’s because, for so many years, she did not feel she was the same as other anorexic patients, for her condition developed not from a set of psychological issues but physical ones. Like Dame Joan Bakewell, this initially made her look down on other people with eating disorders — she thought it only happened to “women who are vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid”. But over time (the essays span a decade of Wright’s battle with the disease) she comes to realise she is no different:

I was nineteen years old, and suddenly I was vomiting without any volition after most of my meals. It took almost eighteen months for my specialists to find a diagnosis, the weight dropping off a body that rapidly came to alarm me. I was advised to cut out of my diet the foods that I thought triggered the vomiting, and I did, by ever-increasing increments, until the ground shifted somewhere, and hunger became my safest state. Because my illness started with a physical condition, because I recognised, and didn’t want and didn’t like my too-thin body, because I didn’t purge by conscious choice, because I was still eating, however limitedly, I thought that I was different. I realise now that this was partly because of my own misconceptions about the nature of anorexia, and the people who fall victim to it, but this is also the way the illness operates, by deception, by a long series of constraints that tighten so slowly that they’re barely noticeable at all. I thought, for so long, that I didn’t have anything in common with these women, and I sometimes think that’s the biggest tragedy of all. Because if I’d only recognised this earlier, before eight entire years of illness had gone by, I may have found the help I needed sooner. I may have been able to stave off my hunger before it managed to establish itself so fully and firmly in my life. I might, by now, be well.

As well as examining the physical impact of the disease on her body — and the psychological pursuit of “perfection” in which “anorexia is driven, at least in part, by a desire for control or predictability”— Wright also examines how hunger is politicised when it is abnormal, unusual and strange, and how it marked her out as “wasteful” and “distasteful”.

My hunger, singular and self-circling, was a crisis in my hometown. It marked me out. […] A car with wound-down windows once shot past me on the street, someone shouting from the backseat: ‘Eat a hamburger, you bitch!’

In Colombo, where she lived for a short stint as a fledgling newspaper reporter, her hunger was “obscene”.

It was not predicated on need, on poverty or parentlessness or war, corruption or greed. It was something feeding on and off itself, something always leading back into itself – the starving brain turned inwards to survive. My hunger was not, and could not, be equated with the hunger that I saw around me. Amongst so much need, my own denial was something as incomprehensible to my local friends as the hunger they lived alongside was to me. Something irreconcilable here made my world grow bigger and more disparate, and all the while, I shrank. And I shrank away as well.

Studies in starvation

Perhaps my favourite essay in the collection is In Berlin, in which Wright writes about her love affair with Germany (she was an exchange student there and speaks the language). But, interestingly, the country has an indirect connection with what we know medically about hunger. That’s because “the two most notorious – and most thorough – studies of hunger came about because of the Second World War”.

The first was the study of the starving population living in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland:

In the two years that the studies ran, before the final liquidation of the Ghetto, almost thirty malnourished Jewish doctors living within its limits studied growth rate, weight, organ size, dermatology, immunology, circulation, fluid retention, bone density, body temperature, vitamin retention, the functioning of the senses, of hormones, of digestion. In two years, they conducted 3658 autopsies. Only seven of the doctors survived the war. One, a pathologist, Theodosia Goliborska, emigrated to Australia in 1946, and continued to practise at least until the 1980s, in this country that has never had to understand such desperate, widespread hunger.

The second was the Minnesota Experiment, in which healthy volunteers were deliberately starved so that scientists could determine the best way to rehabilitate them, the idea being that they could use what was learned to help civilians who had endured famine-like conditions during the war (this was before the Nazi concentration camps were known about). As it turns out:

The Minnesota Experiment was less successful around the question of rehabilitation – it wasn’t until the sweeping crises across Africa in the 1980s and 90s that scientists finally got a handle on the delicate processes of refeeding the starving body without causing it to shut down completely in shock.

The language of anorexia

Another couple of essays I particularly liked was In Books I and In Books II, both of which look at the language of anorexia and the way the disease is depicted in certain novels. Wright once studied Australian literature, so her insights are based on Australian novels. The first essay largely looks at Christina Stead’s For Love Alone in which the heroine, Teresa, starves herself to save money so that she can travel abroad; the second analyses Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, in which 16-yer-old Rose Pickles starts vomiting after meals, and Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Cafe, which features a character who is a recovered anorexic.

In reading about these literary characters, Wright comes to realise that hunger can have many faces: it can be wielded like a weapon; it can perversely provide comfort and succour; it can only thrive in secret; and that it is possible to recover.

It also shows her that writing about hunger can be healing in itself:

I know that writing has always been the only thing, besides my hunger, that helps me make sense of the world, to find patterns and connections and with them, some kind of solidity or definition; it is also a kind of striving, a reaching for something more. Writing has always been the thing that allows me to voice what is too difficult to speak. But even so, I resisted, for a very long time, ever writing about my illness – although my doctors had been encouraging me to do so, even from the outset of my treatment. I didn’t want to write about myself, least of all about my vulnerabilities, I didn’t want to be exposed or to expose the thing I thought was ugliest within me, I didn’t want to show it to myself. Even the poems I wrote while I was ill are sometimes strangely disembodied – my writing group often pointed out that there was no self within them, but I didn’t know how to do things otherwise, didn’t want to show too much. What there was, instead, was detail, and other peoples’ voices, a focus on the world around me, but never my place within it.

Profound and intriguing read

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger is not a collection of essays simply thrown together: there’s a subtle story being played out as the reader works through them in chronological order. And that makes it such a profound and intriguing read. In treading a fine balance between the analysis of an illness and its emotional impact on its victim, Wright has crafted a vital, gently nuanced read on the nature of a disease so often dismissed as narcissistic or psychosomatic.

For another take on this book, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

Please note that in the UK, US and Canada, Small Acts of Disappearance is only available to download in Kindle format.

This is my 20th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 16th for #AWW2016.

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, short stories, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Vintage Australia

‘Six Bedrooms’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight

Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 215 pages; 2015.

Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms is the second collection of short stories on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist. (The first, is Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories which I’ve already reviewed.)

According to the author’s biography, she’s written several books for children and teenagers — and I think it shows. Without wishing to sound snobby about it, this volume feels like young adult fiction rather than literary fiction per se. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not a genre I seek out. That means this review reflects my personal reading tastes; I’m sure there will be other people out there who will love and adore these stories — they just weren’t for me.

Teenage angst in the 1980s

Funnily enough, because most of the 10 stories are set in the 1980s — the era in which I grew up — I had expected the tales to resonate. There are certainly enough music references — the first story, for instance, is called Like a Virgin, after the song by Madonna — to transport me back to those (horrible) high school days, when teenage life revolved around which bands were in fashion, who was going out with who, and which person had got drunk at the last party.

But each story is written in such a flat way and is so devoid of emotion that I lost interest very quickly. They’re not poorly written by any stretch of the imagination — they’re easy to read, have well-developed settings and characters, and there’s always some kind of conflict at the heart of them which the central character is trying to resolve  — they just lack “punch”.

They feel aimed at teenagers, not just in the language that is used, but in the subject matter, too. They are mostly coming-of-age stories (a genre I do like) featuring teenagers getting drunk, discovering sex and developing alliances with school friends. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of hatred for parents and school teachers, and a lot of daydreaming about sex and escape. Many of the characters are grappling with peer pressure and the need to fit in. (Subjects, I admit, that I lived through once and don’t really want to live through again!)

Adult life

Two of the stories are more adult orientated: Chemotherapy Bay is about a young man with cancer whose girlfriend is sleeping with someone else, Together Alone is about a 30-something woman dealing with the palliative care of her mother. A third story, the titular Six Bedrooms, straddles that time between teenagehood and adulthood, showing what it is like to live in a shared household with people you don’t know very well and how easy it can be to “read” someone wrongly because you’re naive and lack life experience.

Perhaps, for that reason, these are the stories I enjoyed most — and they were the ones that had an emotional depth to them. Every now and then, a little pearl of a sentence would pop up, such as this paragraph from Chemotherapy Bay:

She kissed him before he got out of the car. His breath was starting to smell like the hospital; his kiss was a cold, chemical little offering, like a mollusc after the tide has gone out.

And this one, from Together Alone:

Jimmy and I sat on the sea wall with our feet in the water and watched a school of zebra fish speed past, propping and changing directions like sheep being herded by a helicopter.

Interestingly, while each story in the collection is self-contained, there is one character, Tasha, who grows up with an absent father, an alcoholic mother and a missing brother — how’s that for a set of issues to deal with? — who flits in and out of them. Indeed, Tasha “bookends” the collection by appearing in the first story as a young teen stealing her mother’s wine and the last story in which she is a single mother having to deal with her own mother’s impending death. She appears in two others in the middle. This technique does add some narrative structure to the collection, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t save it.

For other takes on Six Bedrooms, please see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.

Note, there doesn’t seem to be a UK publication date for this one. I ordered my copy from the Book Depository and waited several weeks for it to arrive.

This is my 18th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 14th for #AWW2016.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2016 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Charlotte Wood, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 315 pages; 2015.

Like the beautiful image on the cover in which gorgeous flora and fauna hide the objects of captivity  — chains, locks, a knife and barbed wire — Charlotte Wood‘s The Natural Way of Things reveals the darker elements of society which are often obscured by our shallow obsessions with, for instance, sex, glamour and celebrity.

In a narrative that is both gripping and illuminating, Wood creates a dystopian world that doesn’t actually look much different to the current one. Here, women are punished for involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours in which they have been publicly shamed and their male perpetrators have got away scot-free.

When the story opens, we meet two women, Yolanda and Verla, who have awoken after a drugged sleep. They find themselves in an unfamiliar room and they are both wearing “stupid Amish clothes”. They are guarded by two men in boiler suits. Where are they? What have they done to be imprisoned in this manner? What can they do to escape?

What would people in their old lives be saying about the girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they would be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.

The answers to those questions are revealed slowly as we follow Yolanda and Verla (and the other women held captive with them) over the course of a year. It’s a brutal, often harsh existence, but there are chinks of light as the women reconnect with nature (Wood writes eloquently of the quintessential Australian landscape and the wildlife, birds in particular) and learn to forget their external appearance and focus on their inner strength instead.

Their back stories are nicely fleshed out, showing how each character came to be in her current situation — and highlighting how varied their sex “crimes” had been. It’s a powerful, often terrifying, read, one that alters your perspective and leaves the reader changed in some indelible way.

A story of sexual shaming

The book is clearly an intelligent and highly original response to our modern, switched-on digital lives, where sexual shaming, particularly via social media, has become normalised. This is how one character puts it:

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

But for all its exposé of misogyny, where there’s one rule for men and one for women, The Natural Way of Things is not a feminist rant. Yes, it bubbles with a slow-burning anger and it highlights the duplicity and hypocrisy of our society and shows how victims are often blamed for the horrible things that happen to them, but Wood is careful not to tar all men with the same brush.

The women in this story don’t come off lightly either. Some alliances are formed, but generally they compete against one another, and there’s a memorable scene near the end in which they all go crazy for goody bags (“they cry out and unscrew bottles and squish creams into their hands and press sticky gloss to their flaking lips with their dirty fingers”) that reveals shallow obsessions — with appearance, with shopping, with material possessions.

But the story is just as much about power and survival than anything else, and it should appeal to both male and female readers.

Visual novel with tightly controlled language

The novel is very visual (it’s no surprise that the feature film rights have been acquired by independent producers Katia Nizic and Emma Dockery) and the language, sometimes searing and blasphemous, is always tightly controlled, eloquent and delicious to read. Indeed, Wood is one of my favourite authors — I’ve reviewed  The Submerged Cathedral (2004),  The Children (2008) and Animal People (2011) — but this new novel is a sharp and unexpected change in direction for her, and I’m hoping that its popularity and critical acclaim will bring her earlier work to a much wider audience. She deserves it.

In Australia, The Natural Way of Things has already won the 2016 Indie Book of the Year. It has been shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, to be announced on 12 April, and longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It has been widely reviewed by Australian bloggers (see the Australian Women Writers Challenge website for links) as well as Simon Savidge here in the UK.

It will be published in the UK by Allen & Unwin on 2 June, and in Canada/USA by Europa on 28 June.

This is my 17th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 13th for #AWW2016.

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, England, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Stephanie Bishop, Tinder Press

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 304 pages; 2015.

Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World is a deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood. It was recently longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, but did not make the cut, yet I found it a deeply moving story and one that I’m sure I will remember for a long time.

Looking for a new life

The story begins in England. It’s 1963, and Charlotte lives with her Anglo-Indian husband Henry and their two young daughters  in a cute, but damp, cottage in rural Cambridgeshire. But all is not well. Henry is restless — he’s sick of the endlessly wet English weather and their too-small home — while Charlotte is grieving for the loss of her earlier life as a painter now that she’s a new, energy-deprived mother.

So when a brochure arrives through the letterbox offering assisted passage for those seeking a new life in Australia (what are known as “£10 poms”), it looks like an opportunity to grab with both hands. Yet Charlotte takes a lot of convincing — she’s deeply connected to the countryside around her and doesn’t mind the damp — but eventually, in a kind of relentless wearing down of wills, agrees to go.

But their new life in Perth isn’t all it is cracked up to be. It’s hot. It’s lonely. There’s latent racism as the locals struggle to place Henry because his accent doesn’t match his skin colour. But in the initial few months they both make an effort to “give it a go”:

Habit is the only thing that can travel from one side of the world to the other and remain intact. He makes her morning cup of tea. She brings him her dinner. She lets him wash her back because he’s always washed her back, because such gestures involve a complex system of kindness and gratitude, assumed even when not deserved.

But as time moves on and nothing much changes, Charlotte makes it clear that she wants to return to England. She feels absolutely no affection for Australia:

It would make life easier to feel this — to feel real affection for this new place. It would make Henry happy. But she is afraid —without clear reason — that it would necessarily lessen her feelings for home. As if there were only so much affection,so much loyalty, to be portioned out. It is the same kind of fear, she realises, that she felt when pregnant with May. Would she have enough love for a second child? Would it mean giving up some of the love for her first? How mad that seems now — the foolishness of not seeing, not knowing, that such love simply doubles, triples, quadruples as required. Unless one refuses, of course — unless one resists.

But this is 1963. International travel of any kind is expensive and the couple cannot afford the boat ticket home. And Henry doesn’t want to go anyway: he likes the heat and the light, which reminds him of his childhood in India, and he’s relishing the chance to make his mark as a professor of literature. This creates new tensions in their marriage, for what Henry wants and what Charlotte wants are two entirely different things.

Evocative descriptions

This is very much a character driven novel rather than a plot-based one, but perhaps the best bit about it is the languid, sensual prose and the evocative descriptions of the natural world — whether of the fens of East Anglia, the rural fringes of Western Australia or the jungles of India. Bishop is very good at metaphor, too, and I loved this small passage which can only be a metaphor for Charlotte losing her husband:

That evening she watches Henry tend the roses. He has cured them of rust and mite and now they flourish and grow up past his waist. There is a breeze and the flowers sway. Henry is tall, his long arms reaching over to check the buds. In his blue shirt he is the same colour as the dusk. She watches him fade.

The emotions of a young woman wrestling with motherhood are beautifully evoked — and heartbreaking to read — and one can’t help but wonder whether Charlotte’s situation could be alleviated by a visit to her GP.  She’s clearly homesick, but she’s also raising two children without a support network upon which to fall and seems unable shake off her melancholy mood. She’s a little cold and stand offish, and isn’t the kind of character to which a reader warms, but her pain and anguish seem all too real. I couldn’t help but wonder whether her emotional distress was heightened by her inability to express herself in her usual way — through painting. When she does, eventually, take up the brush again it opens up a whole new world — and one that is not necessarily compatible with the one Henry has carved out for her.

It’s hard to say much more without ruining the plot, but there are some aspects of the novel towards the later stage that felt slightly implausible to me. Yet The Other Side of the World is a rather brilliant book that captures that sense of nostalgia and homesickness that every emigrant feels. It’s a quietly devastating read about a young married couple trying to find their way in the world, and is as much a portrait of misguided love and thwarted dreams than anything else.

This is my 16th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 12th for #AWW2016.

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Peggy Frew, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scribe, Setting

‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

Fiction – Kindle edition; Scribe; 262 pages; 2015.

In 2011, I read Peggy Frew’s debut novel, House of Sticks, and very much enjoyed the tale of a young woman juggling motherhood and a messy domestic life with her return to the music business. Her second novel, Hope Farm, published in Australia last year, looks at parenthood from a different angle: that of a 13-year-old girl being brought up in the 1980s by a single mother living in a hippy commune.

Two lives, two stories intertwined

The tale is told from two perspectives: Silver, who is an intelligent child in awe of her beautiful mother, and Ishtar, who fell pregnant as a teenager at a time when having children out of wedlock was frowned upon. Their narratives are intertwined but begin at completely different times: Silver is now an adult looking back on her life; Ishtar’s story comes in the form of “diary entries” which date from the 1970s and move forward.

The story, however, is largely about Silver, who moves from place to place with her mother, as the pair seek shelter in a variety of ashrams and communes, mainly in Queensland. When Ishtar falls in love with an enigmatic man called Miller, the trio move to a commune in rural Victoria. Here, Silver goes to a local high school, where she is picked on for being a “hippy”, and befriends another bullied teenager, the old-before-his-time Ian, whom she secretly hangs out with after hours.

Life in the commune, which is named Hope Farm, is relatively stable (despite the drug-taking and the alcohol consumption), but there are domestic complications when Miller’s ill wife moves in. For the first time, Silver must confront the idea that her mother is far from perfect and does not always have her daughter’s best interests at heart. When she begins to see the adults around her behaving badly, Silver realises that her once safe, if slightly unconventional world, could potentially come crashing down around her…

Great characters, detail and pacing

Admittedly, as much as I enjoyed this novel, I’m struggling to say much about it in this review. Yes, the characterisation is very good — Silver feels very much like a child on the cusp of adulthood whom you want to protect and Ishtar is annoyingly selfish but “lost” in a way that she doesn’t even seem to understand — and the narrative is a good balance of evocative detail (capturing both the period and the setting), pace and dialogue. The voices of the two lead characters are also strong and distinctive (I particularly liked the way in which Ishar’s lack of education is reflected in her grammatical errors and often stilted English).

But there’s something about the story that never quite rings true — perhaps it’s Ishtar’s family, who so cruelly cut her off when she has her baby and never reveal her secret to Ishtar’s younger sibling, or maybe it’s the way in which Miller is written out of the story in a way that seems false? Whatever the case, and as much as I got caught up in the relationship between mother and daughter, and had my heart-strings pulled by both characters for different reasons, Hope Farm left me with a so what? feeling at the end.

It has been shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, so it will be interesting to see if the judges see more to this book than I did. It’s a good read — about motherhood, childhood bonds, alternative lifestyles, societal expectations and sexual relationships — but it’s not an exceptional one.

In 2012, Peggy Frew was kind enough to participate in Triple Choice Tuesday on this blog. You can read her choices here.

This is my 15th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 11th for #AWW2016.

This book will published in paperback in the UK on 9 June. If you can’t wait that long, the Kindle edition is already available in both the UK and US.

2016 Stella Prize

The 2016 Stella Prize shortlist

In the early hours of the morning London time, the shortlist for the 2016 Stella Prize was announced in Australia. I made a stab at guessing what would be on it beforehand — on the Reading Matters Facebook page — but I only guessed three out of the six.

2016 Stella Prize shortlisted titles

Stella Prize shortlistThe shortlisted titles are:

  1. Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight (Random House)
  2. Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Scribe)
  3. A Few Days in the Country And Other Stories by Elizabeth Harrower (Text)
  4. The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury)
  5. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
  6. Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright (Giramondo)

On first impressions, it looks like a relatively mixed list, but actually two books are about hippy communes (The World Without Us and Hope Farm) and two are short story collections (Six Bedrooms and A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories). The fifth book is a dystopian novel, the sixth a collection of essays. It seems to me that the judges will have their work cut out from them, because how do you compare oranges to apples?

The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published between 1 January 2015 and 31 December 2015 were eligible. You can read the full announcement on the official website.

The winner will be announced on 19 April.

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Mireille Juchau, Publisher, Setting

‘The World Without Us’ by Mireille Juchau

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us is a prize-winning novel* from Australia, which has just been published in the UK and has recently been long listed for the 2016 Stella Prize.

It’s a multi-layered story set in a rural community in northern New South Wales, where farms and forests exist side by side, the kind of place where people go to escape the Big Smoke and start their lives afresh. It could be described an environmental novel, or perhaps even a cli-fi one, because the effect of industry — specifically fracking and logging — on nature is a central theme, but above all it’s a beautifully constructed tale about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community.

Twin narratives — and a mystery

The main narrative focuses around the Müller family: Evangeline, an artist, and her German-born husband Stefan, both former residents at a local hippy commune known as “The Hive”, and their two daughters, Tess and Meg. A younger daughter, Pip, has recently died of leukaemia, and everyone in this fragile family is grappling with grief in different ways: Evangeline has taken to wandering the forest pushing an empty pram and skinny dipping in a local creek; Stefan, who has a fondness for alcohol, is obsessed with his colony of bees, which are all dying of some mysterious illness; and Meg has stopped speaking altogether, preferring to let her little sister do the talking for her.

A second storyline follows Jim, a school teacher, who has fled Sydney and the woman he once loved. He’s now living a frugal life in a cottage next to the Müller’s farm, trying his best to ignore the postcards that arrive from his ex-girlfriend reminding him of the troubled life he left behind. As Meg’s teacher, he helps her to find her voice through writing (extracts from Meg’s exercise journal are dotted throughout the narrative), but he also crosses a line by entering into an adulterous relationship with Meg’s mother, Evangeline.

Into this mix is the shocking discovery of an old car wreck and a human skeleton on the Müller’s farm, which adds some suspense to an otherwise finely nuanced novel.

Timeless quality

There’s a timeless quality to Juchau’s prose, which is richly evocative and poetical, yet it’s also balanced by restraint and poise, making it effortless — and engaging — to read.

She has an extraordinary ability to demonstrate complex human emotions through her characters’ behaviour, too, so that you come to know, through a kind of osmosis, how everyone is feeling about certain situations, without the author having to spell everything out. There are times when you want to cry for the characters — Evangeline’s distress at the loss of her child, for instance — while at other times you fear for them — such as when 13-year-old Tess accepts a dare to go hitch-hiking.

The natural world is beautifully depicted, too, almost to the point of becoming a character in its own right. This is not the Australia that many readers from abroad will recognise: this is a proper rural community, in the forested hills north of Sydney, which attracts those looking for an alternative lifestyle and a sense of community. And yet the very thing that attracts them — the tall trees, the fresh air, the wildlife, the scenery — is under threat from mining companies and forestry operations. No surprise, then, that the dying bees which so perplex Stefan, are a metaphor for death of the natural world.

Rich, complex novel

Did I like this book? Very much so. It’s a rich, complex and wholly engaging story, the only bum note being the discovery of the body early on, which doesn’t feel particularly authentic.  It’s merely there as a plot device to provide a “solution” to one of the secrets at the heart of this story.

But that’s a minor quibble, because this is a wonderfully vivid novel peopled by a cast of intriguing, well-drawn characters. I’d like to see it make the Stella Prize shortlist, which will be unveiled next week.

* The World Without Us won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in January.

This is my 13th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 9th for #AWW2016.

This book has been published in the UK and US.

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Elizabeth Harrower, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, short stories, Text

‘A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories’ by Elizabeth Harrower

A few days in the country and other stories by Elizabeth Harrower

Fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 256 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Elizabeth Harrower is an Australian writer whose work — four novels written between 1957 and 1966 — had fallen into obscurity until Text Classics republished her 1966 novel The Watch Tower in 2012. Text has since republished her three earlier novels — Down in the City, The Long Prospect, and The Catherine Wheel — as well as a fifth novel, In Certain Circles, penned in 1971, which Harrower had “withdrawn from publication”. (This went on to be nominated for almost every Australian literary award going and won the Voss Literary Prize in 2015.)

A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories, which was published in Australia last year and has just been long listed for the 2016 Stella Prize, is her first collection of short stories. There are 12 stories altogether. These include stories originally published in Australian journals in the 1960s and 1970s, a couple of unpublished ones from her archives, and one published for the first time last year in the New Yorker. (You can read that story in full here.)

The collection is billed as “essential reading for Harrower fans”, but given I’ve not read Harrower before I think it works just as well as an introduction to her work: having read this volume I’m now keen to explore her novels.

Tales about women

The stories, mostly about women trying to find their place in the world, whether leaving home for the first time or having lived more than half their lives in domestic servitude, are exquisitely written. The prose is polished and restrained and yet there is emotion — sadness, grief, excitement, vitality and vulnerability — on almost every page.

At times I was reminded of Harrower’s compatriot, Madeleine St John, and the great English writer Elizabeth Taylor, all of whom so expertly dissect morals, manners and human behaviour. But perhaps it’s also because all three writers explore a world, now outdated, in which women were subservient to men and expected to lead genteel, quiet lives. In many ways, Harrower’s stories are throwbacks to a different era.

This is exemplified in my favourite story in the collection — The Beautiful Climate — in which a man called Hector Shaw buys a decrepit holiday cottage on an island off the coast of Sydney and then forces his wife and 18-year-old daughter to help him do it up every weekend for the next two years:

As Mr Shaw had foretold, they were constantly occupied putting the house in order, but now and then he would buy some green prawns, collect the lines from the spare-bedroom cupboard, and take his family into the middle of the bay to fish. While he made it obligatory to assume that this was a treat, he performed every action with his customary air of silent, smouldering violence, as if to punish misdemeanours, alarming his wife and daughter greatly.

As time progresses, it becomes clear that Mr Shaw is a domestic tyrant who doesn’t even realise how his behaviour scares his loved ones. He breaks off a friendship with his neighbours because he doesn’t like the fact their son asked their daughter out on a date. And no sooner has the cottage been fixed up than he decides to sell it, depriving his wife and daughter from enjoying the fruits of their labour.

Not very nice people behaving badly

There are other “Mr Shaws” dotted throughout the collection — indeed, men don’t come off very well at all, though Harrower refrains from casting judgement on any of her characters. But, equally, some of the women in these stories aren’t particularly nice either, such as  the rich and snobbish Julia Holt, in Cornucopia, who ranks her friends into grades (Grade I friends are “notable people”, Grade II are “hoity-toity daughters of earthy butchers or pretty secretaries living in two-bedroomed bungalows”).

Trials of the heart also feature strongly — in The North Sea the first-person female narrator flees to rural Scotland to come to terms with her divorce; in A Few Days in the Country the depressed Sophie contemplates suicide, presumably because she’s been hurt in love — but Harrower’s stories are never mawkish or sentimental; they’re melancholy, and often sad, but there’s also a sense of hope, too…

A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories will be published in the UK on 31 March, and the US & Canada in April.

This is my 12th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 8th for #AWW2016.

2016 Stella Prize

The 2016 Stella Prize longlist

The Stella PrizeEarlier today (or evening Australian time) the longlist for the 2016 Stella Prize was announced. The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published between 1 January 2015 and 31 December 2015 were eligible

The dozen varied titles on it are as follows:

The Women's Pages by Debra Adelaide
The Women’s Page
s by Debra Adelaide (Pan Macmillan)
Ellis, an ordinary suburban young woman of the 1960s, is troubled by secrets and gaps in her past that become more puzzling as her creator, Dove, writes her story fifty years later. Having read Wuthering Heights to her dying mother, Dove finds she cannot shake off the influence of that singular novel: it has infected her like a disease. Instead of returning to her normal life she follows the story it has inspired to discover more about Ellis, who has emerged from the pages of fiction herself — or has she? — to become a modern successful career woman.
Unfortunately, this one doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia.

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop
The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop (Hachette)
Cambridge 1963. Charlotte struggles to reconnect with the woman she was before children, and to find the time and energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, cannot face the thought of another English winter. A brochure slipped through the letterbox gives him the answer: ‘Australia brings out the best in you’. Charlotte is too worn out to resist, and before she knows it is travelling to the other side of the world. But on their arrival in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light on both Henry and Charlotte and slowly reveals that their new life is not the answer either was hoping for. Charlotte is left wondering if there is anywhere she belongs, and how far she’ll go to find her way home…
Published in the UK by Tinder in hardcover and ebook.

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig
Panthers and the Museum of Fire
by Jen Craig (Spineless Wonders)
Complex, urgent, and fascinating, this novella about walking, memory, and writing has earned comparisons from Woolf to Knausgaard. The narrator walks from Glebe to a central Sydney café to return a manuscript by a recently dead writer. While she walks, the reader enters the narrator’s entire world: life with family and neighbors, narrow misses with cars, her singular friendships, dinner conversations, and work. We learn of her adolescent desire for maturity and acceptance through a brush with religion, her anorexia, the exercise of that power when she was powerless in every other aspect of her life.
Published in the UK  in paperback and ebook.

Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Six Bedrooms
by Tegan Bennett Daylight (Random House)
Six Bedrooms is about growing up; about discovering sex; and about coming of age. Full of glorious angst, embarrassment and small achievements. Hot afternoons on school ovals, the terrifying promise of losing your virginity, sneaking booze from your mother’s pantry, the painful sophistication and squalor of your first share house, cancer, losing a parent. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s powerful collection captures the dangerous, tilting terrain of becoming adult. Over these ten stories, we find acute portrayals of loss and risk, of sexual longing and wreckage, blunders and betrayals. Threaded through the collection is the experience of troubled, destructive Tasha, whose life unravels in unexpected ways, and who we come to love for her defiance, her wit and her vulnerability.
Unfortunately, this one doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew
Hope Farm
by Peggy Frew (Scribe)
It is the winter of 1985. Hope Farm sticks out of the ragged landscape like a decaying tooth, its weatherboard walls sagging into the undergrowth. Silver’s mother, Ishtar, has fallen for the charismatic Miller, and the three of them have moved to the rural hippie commune to make a new start. At Hope, Silver finds unexpected friendship and, at last, a place to call home. But it is also here that, at just thirteen, she is thrust into an unrelenting adult world — and the walls begin to come tumbling down, with deadly consequences.
Published in the UK  in ebook and audio book.

A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Harrower
A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories
by Elizabeth Harrower (Text)
Internationally acclaimed for her five brilliant novels, Elizabeth Harrower is also the author of a small body of short fiction. A Few Days in the Country brings together for the first time her stories published in Australian journals in the 1960s and 1970s, along with those from her archives—including ‘Alice’, published for the first time earlier this year in the New Yorker. Essential reading for Harrower fans, these finely turned pieces show a broader range than the novels, ranging from caustic satires to gentler explorations of friendship.
Published in the UK in ebook format. The hardcover will be published on 31 March.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones
A Guide to Berlin
by Gail Jones (Random House)
A group of six international travellers, two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian, meet in empty apartments in Berlin to share stories and memories. Each is enthralled in some way to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and each is finding their way in deep winter in a haunted city. A moment of devastating violence shatters the group, and changes the direction of everyone’s story. Brave and brilliant, A Guide to Berlin traces the strength and fragility of our connections through biographies and secrets.
Published in the UK in paperback and ebook.

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau
The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury)
It has been six months since Tess Müller stopped speaking. Her silence is baffling to her parents, her teachers and her younger sister Meg, but the more urgent mystery for both girls is where their mother, Evangeline, goes each day, pushing an empty pram and returning home wet, muddy and dishevelled. Their father, Stefan, struggling with his own losses, tends to his apiary and tries to understand why his bees are disappearing. But after he discovers a car wreck and human remains on their farm, old secrets emerge to threaten the fragile family.
Published in the UK in hardcover and ebook.

A Short History of Richard Kline by Amanda Lohrey
A Short History of Richard Kline
by Amanda Lohrey (Black Inc)
All his life, Richard Kline has been haunted by a sense that something is lacking. He envies the ease with which some people slip – seemingly unquestioningly – into contented suburban life or the pursuit of wealth. As he moves into middle age, Richard grows increasingly angry. But then a strange event awakens him to a different way of living. He finds himself on a quest, almost against his own will, to resolve the ‘divine discontent’ he has suffered since childhood. From pharmaceuticals to new age therapies and finding a guru, Richard’s journey dramatises the search for meaning in today’s world.
Published in the UK in paperback and ebook.

Anchor Point by Alice Robinson
Anchor Point
by Alice Robinson (Affirm Press)
When her mother disappears into the bush, 10-year-old Laura makes an impulsive decision that will haunt her for decades. Despite her anger and grief, she sets about running the house, taking care of her younger sister, and helping her father clear their wild acreage to carve out a farm. But gradually they realise that while they may own the land, they cannot tame it – nor can they escape their past.
Published in the UK in ebook.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
The Natural Way of Things
by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue, but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.
Only published in Australia; due to be published in the UK in June.

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright
Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger
by Fiona Wright (Giramondo)
Small Acts of Disappearance is a collection of ten essays that describes the author’s affliction with an eating disorder which begins in high school, and escalates into life-threatening anorexia over the next ten years. Fiona Wright is a highly regarded poet and critic, and her account of her illness is informed by a keen sense of its contradictions and deceptions, and by an awareness of the empowering effects of hunger, which is unsparing in its consideration of the author’s own actions and motivations. The essays offer perspectives on the eating disorder at different stages in Wright’s life, at university, where she finds herself in a radically different social world to the one she grew up in, in Sri Lanka as a fledgling journalist, in Germany as a young writer, in her hospital treatments back in Sydney. They combine research, travel writing, memoir, and literary discussions of how writers like Christina Stead, Carmel Bird, Tim Winton, John Berryman and Louise Glück deal with anorexia and addiction; together with accounts of family life, and detailed and humorous views of hunger-induced situations of the kind that are so compelling in Wright’s poetry.
Published in the UK in ebook.

The shortlist will be announced at 12 noon AEDT on Thursday 10 March and the winner named on Tuesday 19 April.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?