2018 Stella Prize, Literary prizes

Alexis Wright wins the 2018 Stella Prize

I’m a little bit late with this, so belated congratulations to Alexis Wright, whose book Tracker — a collective biography of Aboriginal leader, political thinker and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth — has been named winner of the 2018 Stella Prize.

Sadly, this is one of the books on the shortlist that I ran out of time to read, but it’s sitting on my Kindle waiting for the right time and place for me to delve into.

From what I gather it not only requires a certain commitment to tackle, not many people expected it to win, with most money on Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius or Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come.

This is what the chair of judges, Fiona Steger, said about the book:

The winning book is unique in the history of Australian letters and it artfully fulfils all the Stella Prize’s criteria: it is excellent, engaging and original. We invite all readers to immerse themselves in a history, a landscape, a time and a story that is heartbreaking, poignant and humorous.


[…] In awarding the 2018 Stella Prize to Alexis Wright for Tracker the judges wish to acknowledge the craft of the author and pay tribute to the richness of the memories shared by the many people she interviewed. This book will enrich and change the understanding of readers. A man like Tracker Tilmouth could change our world. It takes a writer like Alexis Wright to change the world of Australian letters.

You can read Alexis Wright’s acceptance speech on the Stella Prize website.

The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published in 2017 were eligible.

2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2018 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Michelle de Kretser, Paris, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka

‘The Life to Come’ by Michelle de Kretser

Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 384 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I realise we’re only a quarter of the way through 2018 but I think it’s safe to say that Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come is going to be in my top 10 at the end of the year.

There’s something about de Kretser’s silky prose combined with her superbly drawn characters and her forensic eye for detail that makes this novel — her first since winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award with Questions of Travelin 2013 — truly sing. Throw in fierce intelligence and sparkling wit and you have an absorbing book that I raced through — all 384 pages of it — in a matter of days.

A story in five parts

The Life to Come isn’t a conventional novel. It is divided into five parts, each of which could be read as a standalone novella or (quite long) short story. Some characters flit between parts, but on the whole, these are separate (and richly vivid) character studies about people living in contemporary Australia who have found their lives play out in ways they didn’t expect.

There is Ash, a British academic now living in Sydney, whose girlfriend Cassie is bewitched by his exotic Sri Lankan heritage; Pippa, a Sydney-based writer, who longs for success and struggles to like her well-to-do in-laws; her old friend Celeste, a Perth-born translator now residing in Paris, who has taken a younger lover who doesn’t quite love her back; and Christabel, another Sri Lankan, who has reunited with her childhood friend Bunty and is growing old with her in a house next door to Pippa.

There’s no central plot and yet each part thrusts you into the stimulating and fascinating inner — and outer — worlds of interesting and complex people, all striving to live authentic, successful and happy lives and sometimes falling, failing or following unexpected tangents. It’s very much about finding small pleasures in our day to day existence and there’s much subtle commentary about the struggles of leading a creative life and of finding your place in the world if you (or your parents) come from somewhere else.

A laugh-out-loud funny satire

The blurb on the back of the UK edition calls The Life To Come a “delicious satire on the way we live now and a moving examination of the true nature of friendship”. I would entirely agree.

Not only does this novel feel immediate and of the moment, layered with meaning and insight into modern living in one of the world’s most affluent countries, it’s also laugh out loud funny in places. I particularly love the way in which de Kretser skewers the complacency (and bullshit) of contemporary Australian life on almost every page. Nothing escapes her barbed wit, her uncanny ability to show the preposterous nature of so many “first world problems” and the naivitey of people who don’t realise how good they have it.

For instance, in one scene, a character asks why Australians are so obsessed with food. The response goes something along the lines of “there’s nothing else of importance in the country” (I’m paraphrasing because I read an advanced proof that I’m not supposed to quote from). In another scene, a character dismisses someone for liking latte coffee when flat whites are now all the rage.

To be honest, I feel I’m going to have to read The Life to Come again because it’s so richly detailed I’m sure I’d discover things I missed first time round. It’s such a warm and wise novel,  I would love to see it take home the Stella Prize, for which it has been shortlisted, when the winner is announced tomorrow (12 April).

This is my 7th book for #AWW2018, my 3rd for the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist and my 1st for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018

2018 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Claire G. Coleman, dystopian, Fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘Terra Nullius’ by Claire G. Coleman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Australia; 304 pages; 2017.

Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius is a damning portrait of colonial settlement in Australia.

Told through a series of intertwined narratives, it seems to mimic the history of aboriginal dispossession at the hands of white settlers, but a clever twist about a third of the way through indicates the story is about something else entirely — and the revelation is unsettling if you’re not expecting it.

(I’m not going to be more specific than that; I already fear I’ve given too much of the plot away.)

Shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, this novel gets full marks for originality, but I’m afraid I didn’t really warm to the story. Whenever I put it down, I was loath to pick it up again. And yet I so wanted to love this book. I bought it long before its prize listing because it had received such great reviews and I had saved it up for months, waiting for the right time and place to begin reading it.

Why I didn’t love this book

I think my main issue is that I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, even those I liked and would normally want to cheer on, such as Jacky Jerramungup, the fugitive on the run from the homestead where he’d been held as a slave. Perhaps it’s because all the characters were poorly drawn; they lacked depth and had little to no interior life, making it hard to understand their motivations or beliefs. Some were even horrendously clichéd, such as the horrid bad nun, Sister Bagra, who treats the stolen children in her care with cruelty and inhumanity.

And for a book that has an important message to impart — about “otherness” and subjugation of indigenous peoples — a message that needs to be told, it just felt too heavy-handed, too obvious. I suspect that was deliberate because the author thought there was no room for nuance in the story she wanted to tell.

I also thought the novel was too long, too repetitive and the pacing was too slow. The bulk of the narrative is a chase story — a man on the run from the law — but it seems to take forever to get to the climax. The editor in me reckons it could easily have been told in half the number of pages and perhaps it might have been even better as a short story.

What I did appreciate

But what I did like was Coleman’s writing, which is stripped back and almost devoid of adjectives unless they’re absolutely necessary. Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, and the Australian climate are vivid and wonderfully alive. She describes dawn as “tentative tendrils of light”, rugged woodland as full of “dripping trees and scratching, tangling, grabbing bushes”, the heat as being strong enough to “melt the new paint off your walls”.

And I appreciate the way she takes history — including all the ugly bits that have shaped white and black relations in Australia — and presents it as something new, as something revelatory, as something that should make all of us sit up and listen: what if this had happened to us and not them?

So yes, there’s no doubting that Terra Nullius is a powerful book and an important one, but while I appreciate the author’s aims and her motivations, it just didn’t work for me.

This is my 6th book for #AWW2018 and my 2nd for the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist.

2018 Stella Prize, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Fiction, Indonesia, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Mirandi Riwoe, Publisher, Seizure, Setting

‘The Fish Girl’ by Mirandi Riwoe

The Fish Girl

Fiction – Kindle edition; Seizure; 110 pages; 2017.

Winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize and shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, Mirandi Riwoe’s The Fish Girl is a lush, fable-like novella set in Indonesia.

It tells the coming of age story of Mina, a young village girl whose life is changed forever when her fisherman father sends her away to become a servant for a Dutch merchant. Sent to work in the kitchen under the bold and fierce tutelage of head cook Ibu Tana — a woman so large she has to come down the staircase sideways — Mina finds herself learning new dishes and discovering new tastes: her sense of wonder is palpable.

[…] in the Dutch house Mina eats well, tastes sauces and sweets she never knew existed. She wishes her mother could try these wonderments, and vows to take her some food wrapped in banana leaves when she returns to the village for a visit, even if she has to steal morsels from behind Ibu Tana’s back. One of the first things she learns to cook is pisang epe. Ibu Tana teaches her to fry the banana with palm sugar until it is brittle and sweet, how to recognise when to take it from the pan. Mina learns to knead dough for Dutch desserts and Chinese dumplings, how to slice the shallots and garlic so finely that, when fried, they become as wispy as wood shavings.

Slim and pretty, she is soon promoted to serving the food to the Master and his regular guests, one of whom — a fat, jolly sea captain — takes a shine to her. Before long she is asked to give him Malay language lessons and he bestows her with lavish gifts, including  a wooden box filled with frangipani flowers and a delicate gold anklet.

But Mina, who is young and naive, is unaware that this attention might come at a price: she is more interested in Ajat, the beautiful boy who drives the horse and cart when she is sent to buy goods from the Chinese produce store.

They’re quiet on the short drive to the produce store. Her arm rubs against his as they sway along the dirt road and she watches for finches in the trees, on the curiously shaped roofs of the Dutch houses. Sometimes she glances down at Ajat’s fingers, dark and tapered, controlling the reins. She peers at the vein that ropes up from the heel of his hand and across his forearm. He doesn’t smell of the sea anymore. His scent is sweeter, of sweat and horse. His knee bumps against hers once in a while. They trundle down the road towards the beach and she leans forward, yearning for a touch of the salt water on her toes. Ajat presses her back.

The course of true love never did run smooth, though, and Mina is betrayed in a brutal, devastating way, leaving this reader somewhat shell-shocked.

Many of you might know that The Fish Girl was inspired by Somerset Maugham’s short story The Four Dutchmen, which is about a native girl who breaks up the lifelong friendship between a ship’s captain and his three companions. I’ve not read that story myself, so it certainly didn’t hinder my enjoyment of Riwoe’s novella, but I suspect it might enrich or enhance the reading experience if I had. (Sue, at Whispering Gums, has reviewed both and this seems to confirm my theory.)

What I loved about The Fish Girl, aside from the lush descriptions of food and landscapes and the achingly beautiful way Riwoe writes about life through Mina’s eyes, is that it perfectly encapsulates worlds colliding, whether that be Mina’s traditional upbringing coming up against colonialism or the Dutch sea captain’s love of a Javanese girl coming into conflict with his companion’s lowly view of native women.

The story is tender and sweet, brutal and charming. I read it in one sitting and was bereft when I came to the end. It is a worthy contender of the Stella Prize.

This is my 4th book for #AWW2018 and my 1st for the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist.

2018 Stella Prize

The 2018 Stella Prize longlist

Stella Prize badgeOnce again, I’m slightly late to the party with this, but the longlist for the 2018 Stella Prize was unveiled in Australia last week.

The list of 12 titles is a fascinating mix of fiction and non-fiction, including a couple of biographies and a collection of short stories. But the thing that stands out most is the fact that small presses dominate — just one title is published by a big, mainstream publisher.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t read any on the list, because, with the exception of just a couple of titles, they haven’t been available in the UK. (Pleasingly, I see they are all now available in Kindle format.)

As ever, I plan on reading the entire shortlist when it is announced on Thursday 8 March. In the meantime, here is the longlist in full, arranged in alphabetical order by author name with a brief description (taken from the judges’ report) of the title.

The enlightenment of the greengage tree

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar and translated from the Farsi by Adrien Kijek (Fiction; Wild Dingo Press)
“Set in Iran, the story is narrated by thirteen-year-old Bahar as she follows the fortunes of her family in the violent aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The novel presents a richly woven magical reality: Bahar’s mother attains enlightenment atop a greengage tree at the moment her son is executed; the ghosts of five thousand prisoners march down the streets of Tehran, preceded by a river of their own tears; and a fictional Ayatollah Khomeini finds himself lost underground in his own labyrinthine palace of mirrors.”

A Writing Life

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan (Non-fiction; Text Publishing)
“This is a literary portrait of one our most important living writers. Bernadette Brennan has had access to previously unavailable papers, as well as to Helen Garner’s journals and correspondence. Various family, friends and colleagues shared their insights with Bernadette to create a vibrant picture of a woman working and struggling to be a writer and, more importantly, to be true to herself.”

Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness by Kate Cole-Adams (Non-fiction; Text Publishing)
“The result of years of painstaking research, Kate Cole-Adams’s Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness is a work of memoir, philosophy, science, and cultural essay, a personal story that weaves anecdotes and statistics. Cole-Adams focuses on general anaesthetic, and in doing so shows how surprisingly little we know about what happens when we go under. She examines case studies, listens to myriad surgical stories and interviews experts in the field, in the hope of shedding light on the very nature of consciousness itself.”

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (Fiction; Hachette Australia)
“An arresting and original novel that addresses the legacy of Australia’s violent colonial history. It begins with a breathless account of a young man running away from a remote missionary outpost overseen by the domineering Sister Bagra. The dramatic tale of flight and pursuit that unfolds across the book’s early chapters develops into a scathing commentary on the systemic depredations and injustices that are consequences of the archetypal conflict that inevitably arises between Natives and Settlers. Later, the novel shifts into the realm of science fiction, which is used to grant what initially appears to be a straightforward if slightly allegorised story of colonial opppression, dehumanisation and resistance an additional scourging layer of dramatic irony.”

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (Fiction; Allen & Unwin)
“A novel that explores vast and varied terrain, both physical and psychological, examining many places – Sydney, Paris, Sri Lanka – and the people who move within them. The central character, Pippa, is a shamelessly ambitious young writer, who influences the lives of others through her words; the novel plays out in five parts that sweep through themes of loneliness, vanity and apathy. De Kretser asks deep questions about responsibility: to ourselves, to each other, and to our national identity.”

This Water: Five Tales by Beverley Farmer (Fiction; Giramondo)
“The five stories that make up This Water draw on familiar tropes from fairy tales and classical mythology, but fashion them into distinct and evocative fictional worlds. Beverley Farmer’s protagonists confront the universal problems of love, desire, loyalty and loss; but the contexts in which they face these problems also compel us to consider the ways in which the constraints imposed upon them by virtue of their social positions as women have conspired to shape their experiences, conflicts and sufferings.”

The Green Bell: A Memoir of Love, Madness and Poetry by Paula Keogh (Non-fiction; Affirm Press)
Set in Canberra in 1972–73, The Green Bell is centered around the time Paula shared with the poet Michael Dransfield, following their meeting in the psychiatric ward of Canberra Hospital. It is also an important illustration of the social and cultural changes of the times, and a recent history of psychiatric care in Australia and controversial DST and ECT treatment.

An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen (Fiction; Text Publishing)
An Uncertain Grace is a formally ingenious and often amusing novel that combines eroticism and science fiction with a playful spirit of intellectual inquisitiveness. Its imaginative conceits and clever manipulations of point of view are used to explore the themes of mismatched desires, mortality, the looming prospect of environmental disaster, and the post-human implications of technological advances.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna (Fiction; Allen & Unwin)
“The Choke is a compassionate work of fiction focusing on the plight of a disadvantaged child finding her way in the world despite poverty, absent parents and a dysfunctional family. Sofie Laguna writes evocatively of the Australian landscape, and paints an isolated, desperate world with much clarity and sensitivity.”

Martin Sharp: His Life and Times by Joyce Morgan (Non-fiction; Allen & Unwin)
Martin Sharp was an unusual character who lived an uncommon life. The only son of a wealthy Sydney family, he became immersed in the great social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s by virtue of his calling as an artist. His irreverent cartooning prompted the notorious obscenity trials over Oz Magazine, which became a flashpoint in the generational conflict between a conservative and censorious establishment and the era’s burgeoning spirit of creativity, liberation and openness. Joyce Morgan has written an exemplary cradle-to-grave biography of her intriguing subject, one that takes stock of his flaws and idiosyncrasies as well as his talents.

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe (Fiction; Seizure)
Compelling and evocative, The Fish Girl follows Mina, a shy Indonesian village girl who commences work in the kitchen of a Dutch merchant, only to discover her life continuing to unfold at the mercy of men who do not necessarily have her best interests in mind. The story draws on Sundanese mythology, with Mina finding solace in visiting a nearby beach at night, where she communes with the Ocean Queen, Nyai Loro Kidul, a goddess of the sea.

Tracker by Alexis Wright (Non-fiction; Giramondo)
“In this remarkable biography, Alexis Wright follows an Aboriginal tradition of storytelling that she describes as a ‘practice for crossing landscapes and boundaries, giving many voices a part in the story’. Tracker is a collective memoir of Tracker Tilmouth, charismatic Aboriginal leader, thinker, entrepreneur, visionary and provocateur. Tilmouth worked tirelessly for Aboriginal self-determination, creating opportunities for land use and economic development in his many roles including Director of the Central Land Council.”

The winner of the $50,000 prize will be named on Tuesday 12 April.

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