2019 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Bri Lee, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back’ by Bri Lee

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 358 pages; 2018.

Even before I was mid-way through Bri Lee’s debut book, Eggshell Skull, I knew it was going to be the best non-fiction title I’d read all year — and that’s saying something seeing as I’d not long finished Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist, which I thought was extraordinarily good.

A memoir about working in the Australian judicial system for the first time might not sound terribly exciting, but Bri Lee’s narrative is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a really well constructed book that marries the personal with the political.

It not only provides a fierce and unflinching look at how the law, the legal system and society as a whole is biased against women, especially in matters relating to domestic violence and sexual abuse, it also provides a peek into Bri’s battles with body image and eating disorders stemming from her own dark secret.

It’s an amazingly courageous, compelling and eye-opening memoir.

Never look for justice

Bri starts her story with a seemingly innocuous anecdote from her childhood — about going to get a pie for lunch with her policeman dad, when the pair stumble upon a physical fight between a man and a woman — that sets the scene for pretty much the rest of the book. The woman, Bri explains, did not want to press charges even though she’d been brutally shoved, verbally abused and quite clearly terrified.

On another occasion, her father, who spends long hours in court prosecuting domestic violence cases, suggests…

…that I was to ‘get a man drunk’ before I married him because some men ‘become very nasty’, and you wouldn’t be able to tell until they drank.

Later, he advises that Bri should “never look for justice”, a catchphrase he often repeats, and which rubs against her decision to study law.

A bright student, she manages to win herself a coveted first job as a judge’s associate, travelling to towns in regional Queensland and the larger metropolitan area of Brisbane as part of the Queensland District Court circuit. It’s a confronting experience — the legal system is slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic. But it’s also alarmingly predictable.

Back in my office I prepared us for the coming trials. The bulk of the court list was child sex offences, and when I remarked on this to Judge he agreed and we commiserated. “Unfortunately it’s the bread and butter of the District Court”, he said, “but sometimes you get a good bit of old-fashioned violence.”

The sheer number of sexual abuse and rape cases begins to weigh on Bri, as does the difficulty associated with getting guilty verdicts, either because many cases are “he said, she said” scenarios so there’s lack of evidence, or juries are loaded with straight white males who tend to believe what straight white male defendants say.

Eventually all these cases, listening to the victims in court and seeing the alleged perpetrators walk free triggers something that Bri can’t control: her own memory of being sexually molested by a trusted childhood friend a decade earlier.

A case of one’s own

The first half of this book is largely about Bri’s working life on the District Court, the second about the court case she brings against the man who assaulted her when she was a schoolgirl. It’s a compelling account of what it is like to be on both sides of the courtroom and shows how difficult it can be to challenge an accuser, even when you know the law and the legal system inside out — imagine if you’re poorly educated or have never stepped foot in a courtroom.

It’s told with an unflinching honesty, often painful, but there’s humour here, too. And despite the seemingly never-ending examples of misogyny and abhorrent behaviour by men against women littered throughout the book’s 350-plus pages, this isn’t a man-hating story for Bri has strong male role models in her life — a caring father, a devoted boyfriend, a respectful and empathetic boss — whom she champions and adores.

What makes Eggshell Skull — the title comes from a legal “rule” in which a defendant must “take their victim as they find them” (more on that here) — so powerful is the sheer number of examples that Bri outlines of the very real dangers that some men pose to women (and girls of all ages). It’s like a contagion that has spread throughout our society; it’s so ingrained it feels like there’s nothing we can do to change it — except perhaps to educate our sons to respect women, rather than educating our daughters to change their behaviour (wear different clothes, don’t walk home alone, don’t get drunk) to avoid being raped.

Eggshell Skull is both harrowing and hopeful. It made me angry, it made me want to cry. Mostly it unsettled and unnerved me. Reading it was an almost visceral experience, and I am forever changed having turned these pages.

Please note that the book does, at times, provide excruciating, but never gratuitous, detail of some horrendous cases, but Bri holds back on outlining the specifics of her own abuse — probably as an act of self care.

Finally, Eggshell Skull — which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize — does not appear to be published outside of Australia, but UK-based readers can order it from the Book Depository.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: True crime meets memoir in this book in which a law student interning on a death penalty case involving a paedophile is reminded about her own secret past in which she was sexually abused by a family member.

This is my 10th book for #AWW2019, which means I have completed the challenge for this year already! However, I will keep reading books by Australian women writers and tally up my final total at year’s end.

2019 Stella Prize, Literary prizes

Vicki Laveau-Harvie wins the 2019 Stella Prize

Congratulations to Vicki Laveau-Harvie whose extraordinary memoir The Erratics has been named winner of the 2019 Stella Prize.

The Erratics was the first book I read when I embarked on my project to read all the books on the Stella Prize shortlist. It was the kind of memoir I simply couldn’t put down. Fortunately, I was on holiday at the time — in Fremantle, Western Australia — so I have very fond memories of lying on a sofa and later sitting on a sun-washed balcony being completely immersed in this story.

It’s a compelling account of dealing with elderly parents — one of whom is trying to kill the other — from afar.

According to the Stella Prize Twitter account,  it’s a “sharp, darkly funny and powerful book” that “explores the universal themes of family, the pain they can inflict and the legacy they leave”.

You can read my full review here.

The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers, and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published in 2018 were eligible.

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Brow Books, essays, Literary prizes, Maria Tumarkin, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Brow Books; 244 pages; 2018.

Writer and cultural historian Maria Tumarkin claims her latest book, Axiomatic, is NOT a collection of essays. “It is a book with chapters that are just a little unorthodox in the way they are structured and sit next to each other,” she says in an interview with the Stella Prize, for which she has been shortlisted. (You can read that full interview here.)

However you choose to describe Axiomatic, I think it’s fair to say it is not easy to box in: it doesn’t fit a genre, seeing as it’s a heady mix of storytelling and reportage. To my mind, these pieces (or chapters) wouldn’t be out of place in a “high-brow” magazine — for instance, a colour supplement that comes with a weekend broadsheet — and as such I’d class them as journalistic features.

Content-wise, each piece looks at an axiom — an accepted truth — and examines, often in great detail and with much intellectual rigour and anecdotal evidence, as to whether it holds or can be debunked.

These five axioms are:

  • ‘Time Heals All Wounds’;
  • ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’;
  • ‘History Repeats Itself’;
  • Give Me a Child Before the Age of 7 and I’ll Give You the (Wo)Man’; and
  • ‘You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice’

I’m not going to review each chapter other than to say there are common themes running throughout Tumarkin’s work. She is very much focussed on time and how its passing can shape the past, present and future. She looks at its impact on the personal and the political, how it shapes our understanding of ourselves, our families, our popular culture and our institutions.

‘There is chronological time,’ Valent tells me, ‘and there is experiential, cyclical time. This time has an emotional meaning. Existential. It is like the way peasants think about harvest: time to reap and time to sow. Time to live and time to die.’

But she looks at very dark and disturbing subjects to do this — from secondary school students who commit suicide in the brilliant opening chapter, which is one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long while, to a child holocaust survivor accused of abducting her grandson and hiding him in a makeshift dungeon, which reads like something that fell out of a literary crime novel — and always with a keen eye on intergenerational trauma, the moral necessity of protecting children, love, grief and survival.

This is the story sentenced to constant retelling, about how people are born into things, and fate thinks intergenerationally. Parental pain, sadness, abuse (be it suffered or inflicted), indifference, withheld love, riding and exploding over children’s lives, like tanks.

All the while Tumarkin writes in gleaming, silky prose, using a mix of short sentences and longer ones, creating a rhythm that is both hypnotic and alluring. In all cases, she inserts herself in the story, and while she’s clearly her own person, with her own style and her own voice, there are echoes of Janet Malcolm and Helen Garner in her work.

Axiomatic is the kind of book that deserves a wide audience, not only because it deals with challenging subjects in a thoughtful, considered and wholly original way, but also because it is a timely reminder of our own humanity and our own resilience. This is a five-star read for me.

This is my 7th book for #AWW2019  and my 6th for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is currently available as an ebook in the UK.

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Enza Gandolfo, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘The Bridge’ by Enza Gandolfo

The Bridge book cover

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 384 pages; 2018.

At 11:50 am on 15 October 1970 a giant span of Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge fell 50 metres into the water below, killing 35 construction workers and injuring 18 others. It was two years into the construction project designed to provide a road link between Melbourne’s western suburbs and the city.

I was just a baby when Australia’s worst industrial accident occurred, but for many years I would travel under this bridge and see the memorial plaque erected by the bridge workers and be reminded of the tragedy. When I was a university student and living in nearby Williamstown I stopped and read the names on the plaque: most are Italian or Greek.

Melbourne author Enza Gandolfo takes this accident as the starting point for her richly written novel, The Bridge, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

A book of two halves

The book is divided into two main sections: 1970 and 2009.

In the first section we are introduced to young Italian immigrant Antonello, a rigger on the bridge, and his young bride Paolina, a teacher.

Nello, as he is known, is a bit of an introvert. He’s not particularly sociable, but will go for an after-work drink on a Friday, choosing a glass of red instead of a beer, which sets him apart from his work colleagues — even the other immigrants who drink beer to try to fit into Australian society. He also spends his spare time by the river where he draws the landscape and the bridge.

When the bridge collapses on that fateful October day Nello survives, for he’s swapped his shift with another chap, which means he’s not up in the rigging when the accident occurs.

But later, as he comes to terms with the death of so many of his co-workers, including the man who mentored him and gave him his first construction job, Nello becomes even more introverted, plagued by survivor’s guilt and what we now know as PTSD. He does not want to talk about what happened. He does not even want to look at the broken bridge. He wants them to pull the whole thing down.

Living under the bridge’s shadow

In the second section we meet 18-year-old Jo, who lives in a rundown house, between the bridge and the Mobil oil terminal, with her mother, a supermarket worker. It’s her last year of school and everything is changing. Her close relationship with best friend Ashleigh, who is more glamorous (read less working class), feels under threat because Ash is spending more time with a new boyfriend. Ash is also more academically inclined and wants to pursue a law degree; Jo would be happy working as a waitress somewhere. Ultimately, it means when school finishes, the pair will probably go their separate ways.

Jo’s story, of a teenager having to come to terms with growing up and the reality of adulthood, mirrors Nello’s — but with an even darker edge.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so please skip the next paragraph if you plan on reading the book, but Jo makes a bad decision that will have devastating consequences for many people, including Nello. What does she do? She drives her friends, including Ashleigh (who is Nello’s granddaughter), home from a party, crashing the car underneath the bridge. She walks away from the accident, but one of her friends dies. Jo had been drinking and is charged with culpable driving. The rest of the book then charts the repercussions of that wholly avoidable tragedy.

Unrelentingly bleak

I have to admit that I might have abandoned this novel mid-way through were it not for my project to read all the books on the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. I think it was the unrelenting bleakness of it all. There’s so much heartache and suffering in this novel and much of the emotion, so desolate and painful, felt claustrophobic. I wondered if the story was going to go anywhere.

But this is why it pays to never give up on a book, because by the end of this story — which has a hopeful and redemptive ending — I had tears pouring down my cheeks (I still feel upset writing this review several hours later) and I know this story, of two people a generation apart coping with terrible tragedies but doing the best they can, will stay with me for a long time.

I especially like how Gandolfo, who writes in an elegant and restrained manner, explores themes related to class and family, guilt and shame, tragedy and redemption.

She is also wonderful at capturing people’s inner-most thoughts, especially their fears and self-doubt, and showing how the tiniest bit of anxiety can spin out of control to create problems that were never really there in the first place. Her dialogue, whether that be between mothers and daughters, or husbands and wives, or work colleagues, or teenage girls, is spot on: alive and believable and authentic.

In fact, the characterisation is absolutely superb in this novel whether it be a troubled teen (Jo), a guilt-ridden mother (Mandy), an angry but forgiving grandfather (Nello) or a court-appointed lawyer plagued by body image problems (Sarah).

And her descriptions of Melbourne’s western suburbs — of Yarraville and Williamstown (which have both played important parts in my own life) in particular — are pitch perfect. Indeed, it almost feels like these places are characters in their own right, as is the bridge that forms the central focus of this extraordinarily moving novel.

I know that Lisa from ANZLitLovers and Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest admired this novel a lot, too.

Added extras

You can find out more about the bridge collapse via this short news report:

This survivor’s account is also worth watching, because it highlights how the whole tragedy was wholly avoidable and how far the trade union movement has come in terms of worker safety:

This is my 6th book for #AWW2019  and my 5th for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is currently available as an ebook in the UK and will be published in paperback in November.

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Melissa Lucashenko, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko

Fiction – Kindle edition; University of Queensland Press; 303 pages; 2018.

Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip is a brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel about an indigenous (“blackfella”) family, deeply traumatised by past events, which is now grappling with a new challenge: saving their beloved river and Ava’s island from the local mayor’s plans to build a new prison on it.

The story is largely told through the eyes of 30-something Kerry Salter, who arrives back home — the fictional NSW town of Durrongo  — on the back of a stolen Harley Davison motorbike carrying a backpack stuffed with $30,000 cash, the proceeds of a botched armed robbery, which resulted in the imprisonment of her lesbian lover, Allie, who has now broken off their relationship.

Kerry thinks her visit to see her dying grandfather is going to be a fleeting one. She’ll pay her respects, tolerate her mother’s jibes and then return to the city, where she can nurse her broken heart and keep a low profile. But things don’t quite work out that way.

Before she can escape, her grandfather dies, so she stays for the funeral and later, when her family discovers that a place of great importance to them — Granny Ava’s island — has been proposed as the site of a new jail, she decides to stay and help them fight the development. The lure of a potential romance with a white man with whom she went to school acts as a sweetener.

Grunge-style novel

On the surface, this novel could be seen as fairly fickle fair, a kind of grungy chick-lit novel, where the protagonist is seemingly sex obsessed and doesn’t mind speaking her mind, even if it gets her into trouble.

Too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it; the least she could do was raise her voice in anger. Give the arseholes a blast, then stand and defend, or else run like hell.

But Too Much Lip is strangely subversive, for Kerry is on the wrong side of the law — in fact, she’s running from it.

For the straight world, crime was a problem or an abstraction, but for people like her, crime was the solution. Not that she called it crime; she called it reparations.

But it’s also a deeply confronting read for those readers who are not indigenous. In its portrayal of an aboriginal family struggling to keep it together, Lucashenko shows how generations of trauma, from dispossession to massacres, aboriginal missions to the forced removal of children, have played out in all kinds of negative ways, including alcoholism, violence, poverty and social injustice.

Dugais [white people] had no idea. No fucken clue what was at stake when you walked out into the world wrapped in dark skin. And if you told them the truth it was always boo hoo, poor me.

This reality, of what it is to be indigenous living in a deeply prejudiced white society, is reflected throughout the text. I make no apologies for including a whole bunch of quotes to illustrate this point. There are references to poverty…

But the crew in Trinder mostly ate bread and chips when they ate at all. Meat was strictly for pay week, same as shop-bought grog and smokes were. Off-pay week was hungry week, sniffing around friends’ and rellos’ houses for someone who’d scored a food parcel, or a job, or had had a win at bingo. She looked down into her lap. It was a shamejob to go explaining how blackfellas lived. Even if dugais believed you, they were full of useless fucking genius suggestions on how to climb out of poverty. Like it was simple. Like it didn’t suit the powers that be to keep poor people scrabbling in the shit, keep their attention off the rich world’s sparkling goodies in case they got any bright ideas about grabbing some for themselves.

… and dealing with the government department responsible for social security…

‘Centrelink,’ she said sourly. ‘I don’t wanna go see them mob. Standover merchants! On the phone for nearly two blooming hours and then it cuts out! Now I got no pay ’n no credit! Person could starve to death for all they care!’

… and the institutionalised racism in the criminal justice system:

She had no idea how long they would need the QC. Every court case she’d ever seen was done and dusted in under half an hour.

There’s also an interesting twist, a reverse logic if you will, in which white people are seen as the thieves and the barbarians…

The dugai can flap their jangs as much as they like, Pretty Mary had reported him saying, but us mob got the law of the land and that’s that. We’s in everything: the jagun, the trees, the animals, the bulloon. It’s all us, and we’s it too. And don’t ever let the dugai tell ya different. They savages, remember.

An immersive read

I have to admit that I wasn’t too sure about this novel when I first began it (perhaps because it was so confronting and because I didn’t feel much empathy with Kerry), but the further I got into it the more I warmed to it. It’s a truly immersive read, taking you deep into the bosom of a complicated family peopled with highly opinionated, colourful characters, all flawed but oh-so human — and with wonderful names, such as Pretty Mary, Grandad Chinky Joe and Black Superman.

It’s very much a plot-driven story and Lucashenko does an exemplary job of bringing together Kerry’s storyline with a second narrative thread involving greedy developers, including a Sydney real estate agent.

And while the novel deals with big issues, there’s an undercurrent of snarky, but clever humour running throughout to lighten the load.

‘Everyone on the planet’s got a culture, Mum, even if it’s The Footy Show and Southern Cross tats – it’s still a culture. Just a shit one. And anyway, why do that mob any favours now?’

Too Much Lip is definitely the most thought-provoking book I’ve read so far this year presenting as it does a perspective rarely shown in contemporary fiction.

This novel has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize and has been positively reviewed at ANZLitLovers and Whispering Gums.

This is my 5th book for #AWW2019 and my 4th for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is available as an ebook in the UK, though expect to pay a hefty price for the paperback edition.

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Brow Books, Fiction, Jamie Marina Lau, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ by Jamie Marina Lau

Fiction – Kindle edition; Brow Books; 190 pages; 2018.

Jamie Marina Lau’s debut novel Pink Mountain on Lotus Island has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. The judges claim that “this book is like nothing you have ever read before — a kaleidoscope of colours, smells and fragments of life observed by a teenager in a Chinatown somewhere in an unknown city”.

In my case, they are only partly right: I *have* read books like this before, because there is nothing new under the sun and all literature is in some ways influenced by all that has gone before.

Lau’s story of a troubled lonely teen living with a drug-addicted father has echoes of other novels in it — J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, or, more recently, Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God. This, I hasten to add, is not a criticism of the book, just an observation.

A novel of vignettes

Told in a fragmentary style structured around a series of short vignettes — most chapters are no more than two pages long, some contain just a single sentence — the story is about 15-year-old Monk navigating the world largely on her own. Her mother has fled to Shanghai and her father, a washed-up artist, spends his time zoned out on Xanax and alcohol, lying on the couch in front of the TV.

When she introduces her father to Santa Coy, a 19-year-old artist she has befriended, the pair hit it off to the point of excluding Monk. Little does she know they’re passing off Santa’s paintings as her father’s, which will lead, eventually, to a violent reckoning.

Meanwhile Monk, free to do her own thing, gets drawn into a dangerous world of pimps, drug addicts and wild parties. Her naivety is alarming, but not even her well-meaning Aunt can keep her under control.

Admittedly, the chopped-up nature of the story makes it a fast-paced gallop of a read, but I had some issues with it.

What I didn’t like

Some of the writing feels over-worked to the point of being completely nonsensical.

We sit on top of the Commodore and pretend the heatwaves are different types of canine growls.

And:

Just standing in the middle of an orgy of paints and other people’s false brains.

There’s an over-reliance on mentioning people’s mouths, lips, smiles and grins. Once I noticed these constant references I couldn’t help continuing to notice them: they are everywhere — in fact, the word mouth is used 24 times and lips are mentioned 40 times! (The tally for smiles is 19, grins 16.)

  • “pulps his lips until it’s a smile.”
  • “His mouth is a tilted line.”
  • “He smiles with teeth”
  • “mad grins, shallow smirks.”

And finally, some of the editing is a bit messy. Every good editor should know you don’t need a hyphen to describe a “nearly-empty burger” because the “ly” does the job of the hyphen.

Another example of bad editing is the missing comma in the following sentence, which makes it sound like Monk is drinking soda AND batteries:

I’m on my computer, drinking fizzy orange soda and batteries do nothing if you put them in the refrigerator.

And the following doozy, which sounds like Monk’s boobs are about to walk out the door!

My boob top has been tugged down so that I’m popped out on one side and I lie on my stomach until they’ve both gone out the door.

What I did like

Much of the writing is clever and highly original. It makes you sit up and take notice. Her similes, of which there are many, are very good. Here is a selection I highlighted because I thought they were imaginative and unique:

  • “There are canvases everywhere, leaning up against each other, looking like shanties from disaster city.”
  • “The printing machines erupting like cramps.”
  • “I am waving my legs in the air like windshield wipers.”
  • “There are no more canvases in the apartment, only sudokus like leftover hieroglyphics.”

There’s a good sense of humour at work here, too. There’s a laugh-out loud scene where Monk’s dad drops her off at school:

My dad pulls up to the curb. Hurry up, he says. It’s no standing here. He throws himself across the passenger seat and opens the door for me. It dents into the pavement. It’s stuck I tell him, looping the sack around my body. Then get it out! It’s no standing here. It’s a tug of war between the pavement and my underarms. The door making scraping noises. He warns me: don’t break the car. I pull in smaller tugs. He tells me: hurry up, this is no standing. I tell him: maybe drive forward a little. Not with half your body and legs hanging out of the car, I won’t. Pull your legs in, hurry up, this is no standing. I hold my sack tight. This is like a constable’s arrest. The bottom of the door snaps off like a biscuit.

And this scene, in which Monk criticises Santa Coy’s choice of clothing, had me laugh out loud:

I tell him he isn’t on a catwalk in 1994 of the spring season DNKY, you can’t dress like this. His facial expression jumps, wow. He crosses his arms, raising his brows. He asks me, you into fashion? I tell him yes, as a matter of fact fashion is my whole life. His face is a giant ticking smirk. He says: then you’ll know it’s pronounced D.K.N.Y., not ‘dinky’, dinky.

Pink Mountain on Lotus Island is an innovative, unexpected and sometimes surprising novel, but I wasn’t completely convinced by it. That said, the author is only 21, so this definitely marks her as a young talent to watch.

This is my 4th book for #AWW2019 and my 3rd for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is available as an eBook in the UK, though expect to pay a hefty price for the paperback edition.

2019 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Jenny Ackland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Little Gods’ by Jenny Ackland

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 352 pages; 2018.

Even at twelve Olive had known that others thought her family odd. Those Lovelocks, people would say, their looks loaded with meaning. They said it in the butcher, the supermarket and the haberdashery. They said it in the milk bar and in the playground at school.

So begins Jenny Ackland’s Little Gods, an evocative coming of age story set in Victoria’s mallee region during the 1980s.

Told in the third person but largely from Olive’s perspective, we are introduced to that “odd” family: Audra and Rue, two “prickly” sisters from the pioneering Nash family who married two sheep-farming brothers, William and Bruce Lovelock. An older Nash sister, the impossibly named Thistle, never married; and a third Lovelock brother, the not-well-liked Cleg, escaped the farm for life as a lawyer in the city, but returns home occasionally towing a rundown caravan with him.

Olive lives in a small rural town with her parents, Audra and Bruce. On the edge of that town lies the sheep farm where Rue and William live with their three children — Sebastian, Archie and Mandy — and the tiny-bit kooky Thistle. The two families are close and Olive spends a lot of time on the farm with her cousins, climbing trees, riding bikes, swimming in the dam and playing with a tame raven called Grace (hence the image on the cover of the book). She also hangs out with Thistle, who is troubled — for reasons that become clear later in the book — but good fun, one of those rare adults who doesn’t treat her like a baby.

Thistle is the key to the story, for when Olive discovers a photograph of a red-headed baby whom she doesn’t recognise it is her Aunt who reveals the child’s identity when everyone else refuses to engage. This sets into motion a chain of events that will have tragic repercussions on the entire family.

A headstrong girl

From the start we learn that Olive, “caught in the savage act of growing up”, is headstrong, intrepid and occasionally cruel. She’s the ringleader in almost every activity she participates in, whether on the farm with her cousins, or in town with her best friend, Peter, the son of the local policeman. She has absolutely no fear of the town’s bullies, the thug-like Sand brothers, and often stands up to them even though they are much older than herself.

It’s this fierce attitude and a desperate need to figure things out for herself that lands her in trouble. She might only be 12 but Olive thinks she knows best. When she discovers the baby in the photograph is her younger sister who drowned, she’s convinced that the adults in her family are hiding things from her, that “she was at the middle of something, so close to the nucleus she could almost touch it with her tongue”. That “nucleus”, she decides, is murder, and so she plans to find out the culprit and then plots ways to extract her revenge.

But like all good coming-of-age stories, Olive learns that life is not always black and white. She might find childhood frustrating, but she soon discovers that being an adult comes with its own set of complications and that it’s sometimes best not to ask too many questions and to just let things lie…

Australian gothic

I’ll admit that I did not expect to much like this story. Coming-of-age tales and family secrets just don’t do it for me anymore, probably because I’ve just read far too many of them. But I was pleasantly surprised by Little Gods — the title comes from the idea that people are little gods who have power to do things — because it’s told in a refreshingly honest way.

It moves along at an unhurried pace, giving the narrative time to breathe, and the characters, all wonderfully colourful and distinctive (except, perhaps, for the men, who are merely shadows in the background), come to life through snappy dialogue, which includes everything from petty arguments to gossip and back again.

Olive is a revelation. She’s a quintessential rural Australian girl, a wonderful mix of toughness and curiosity.

And I loved the “atmosphere” of the novel, a kind of Australian gothic, not dissimilar to Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. It’s the kind of book you can settle down with for an entire day and get immediately lost in the richly vivid world that Ackland has created.

But don’t just take my word for it. Little Gods has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize and has been positively reviewed at ANZLitLovers and Whispering Gums.

This is my 3rd book for #AWW2019 and my 2nd for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to have been published outside of Australia. I bought my copy when I was in Western Australia last month. 

2019 Stella Prize, Literary prizes

2019 Stella Prize shortlist

Stella Prize badgeIt seems fitting that today, on International Women’s Day, the shortlist for the 2019 Stella Prize has been unveiled.

This relatively new prize, which is worth $50,000 to the winner, was set up in 2013 to champion women writers in Australia. Both fiction and non-fiction is eligible.

I would normally have posted the longlist, but I was travelling (in Australia) at the time of the announcement so never quite got around to it. (But if you are interested you can see it on the official website.)

As usual, I plan on reading everything on the short list (I made sure to buy pretty much the entire longlist when I was home), which comprises the following titles:

Please keep popping back here as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

The winner will be announced in Melbourne on Tuesday 9 April.

* These books are available in the UK as ebooks.