20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), 2020 Miles Franklin, 2020 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Tara June Winch

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 344 pages; 2019.

If you live in Australia, you would probably have to be living under a rock not to know this novel by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch. The Yield won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, arguably this country’s greatest literary prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It has been shortlisted for numerous others, including the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

It tells the story of August, a young Aboriginal woman, who returns home — after a decade living in London — to help bury her beloved grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi. Poppy was midway through writing a dictionary of his people’s language, but his work has gone missing and August is intent on finding it so that she can finish the task at hand. But back on country, August discovers there are bigger challenges ahead: her grandparents’ house is about to be repossessed by a mining company.

It’s a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but teases out, gently but oh-so surely, what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

I read this rather extraordinary novel earlier this year (as part of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge), but never got around to reviewing it mainly because I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. Since then, I have seen numerous other positive reviews online — Lisa’s from ANZLitLovers, Sue’s from Whispering Gums, Kate’s at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and Brona’s at Brona’s Books — all of which are excellent summations of a truly excellent book.

Rather than repeat what others have said, I thought I would quickly describe three things I loved about this award-winning novel so that you get a flavour of what to expect.

1.The Structure

The book has three main narrative threads, which are told in alternate chapters: the first is August’s tale, told in the third-person, covering her homecoming and the pain and anguish she feels upon Poppy’s death, an event that triggers traumatic memories associated with the disappearance of her sister, Jedda, years earlier; the second is comprised purely of extracts from Poppy’s dictionary (more on this later) written in a conversational first-person voice; while the third is a handful of letters written in the early part of the 20th century by Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a German national who established and ran the mission (upon which the Goondawindi family live) in 1880.

This trio of storylines gives us different perspectives — spanning more than a century — on identity and the Aboriginal “problem”.

2.The Dictionary

Poppy’s dictionary, based on the language of the Wiradjuri people, is completely fascinating for anyone who loves words and language. Each entry reads like the sort of entry you’d expect to see in an established English dictionary, such as the Oxford or Macquarie, with the word bolded up and translated into English.

But the definition is written in a conversationalist tone, with Poppy telling a tale from his past revolving around that word. Through these dictionary entries, he is able to share his life story and the importance of culture and language to his being.

sap of trees — ‘dhalbu’ The dhalbu of the bloodwood tree saved some of the Gondiwindi. When we were being gathered up to be taken away and taught the Bible and be trained as labourers and domestic servants, my great aunties were frightened and ran. Tried to hide their light-skinned babies in the bush. Some did get away and were never seen again. And some couldn’t leave in time and disguised their babies as full-blood by painting them dark with the dhalbu. Some of them were later captured. They wander around the river that appears when I travel with the ancestors, blood and sap soaked, hiding in plain sight now but still frightened.

3.The immersive nature of the story

This probably sounds a bit vague, but reading this novel was a truly immersive experience in a way I have rarely known. It’s like a bit of “magic” happened inside my brain as I read it, because somewhere in my mind I was able to triangulate the three storylines to build up an almost complete picture of not only what had happened to the Gondiwindi family over a century of struggle and dispossession, but I could see how it had come about and how resilient these people had become.

I was able to see how the Reverend’s aims, so easily written off as racist when viewed through modern eyes, came from an essentially good, if seriously misguided, place; I could feel inspired by the ever-optimistic Poppy, who had defied everything that had been thrown at him because of the colour of his skin to lead a fulfilling life full of meaning and harbouring next to no bitterness; and I could empathise with August, who ran away from all she knew because that was the only way she could handle a personal tragedy.

For all these reasons, The Yield really is a triumph of storytelling. I particularly loved and admired the ambition of it.

The cover of the UK / USA edition

The Yield has already been published in the USA; it will be published in the UK next January.

This is my 16th book for #AWW2020 and my 14h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book shop not long after it was first published last year. I hadn’t really heard much about it at the time; I was mainly attracted to the pretty cover adorned with pictures of brolgas. Shallow? Moi? Never!

2020 Miles Franklin, Literary prizes, Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch wins the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Congratulations to Australian writer and Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch who was named winner of the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel The Yield earlier today.

The $60,000 annual prize is designed to recognise a novel of “the highest literary merit” that presents “Australian life in any of its phases”. Winch is the second indigenous writer in a row to win the award, following last year’s winner Melissa Lucashenko for Too Much Lip.

This how the chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, described the winning book:

 “In English ‘yield’ signifies what one takes from the land. In Wiradjuri it is ‘the things you give to, the movement, the space between things: baayanha.’ The Yield explores the legacies of colonial violence, shame, intergenerational trauma and environmental destruction. Winch celebrates and amplifies the contemporary resurgence and relevance of the Wiradjuri language. The Yield, a story of pain, loss, resilience and hope, is a novel where the past is the present is the future.”

Typically, I haven’t read The Yield, although I bought it not long after publication last year. I started it on the weekend and from the first couple of pages I just knew I was going to love it. The prose style, the ideas and themes, and the structure all appeal to me. Stay tuned for a review coming soon.

You can read more about today’s announcement on the official website.

And you can see a list of the shortlisted titles I have read here.

2020 Miles Franklin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘The Returns’ by Philip Salom

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 336 pages; 2019.

Philip Salom’s The Returns is about two middle-aged people in inner-city Melbourne who become housemates and develop an unlikely friendship. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It has everything I could wish for in a literary novel. Eccentric, middle-aged characters with unusual backstories. Geat dialogue and wry, understated jokes. A bookshop setting. A character who is an editor. Another who is a would-be artist. Lots of mentions of food and cooking. References to things — books, films and places — that I know well.

And yet something about this novel just did not gel for me. I struggled to connect with the story.

New beginnings

The Returns revolves around two people whose lives have not panned out the way they might have expected. Both have successfully reinvented themselves after career setbacks, but neither is truly happy.

Elizabeth is a freelance book editor who divides her time between her work in Melbourne and looking after her aged mother in Ballarat. She has an adult daughter she very rarely sees. Most of her spare time is spent obsessing over her diet and what she puts in her mouth. She has prosopagnosia, which means she is  incapable of remembering and recognising people by their faces.

Trevor is a bookshop owner with a penchant for cooking who once longed to be an artist. He survived a nasty car accident and now walks with a limp. His marriage has run its natural course but he is still living with his wife, albeit in separate bedrooms. He is effectively stuck in a rut, going to work every day, dealing with difficult customers, then coming home to cook dinner for his ex-wife.

The pair meet when Elizabeth collapses near Trevor’s bookshop. Her unhealthy obsession with healthy eating means her blood sugar is dangerously low. Trevor rescues her, and later she returns to ask him to put an advertisement in his shop window. She has a spare room in her house she wants to rent out.

Trevor recognises this as an opportunity to move out of the marital home and start afresh. The added bonus is that Elizabeth has a shed in her back garden which would be perfect to use as an art studio, giving him the chance to rekindle his thwarted artistic career. And so Trevor becomes Elizabeth’s lodger.

Getting to know each other

Not much happens plotwise in The Returns. Much of it revolves around two characters getting to know one another, the uneasy tension giving way to trust and friendship. Salom takes his time to flesh this out, using wry humour, well-versed conversations and detailed set pieces to show how each character becomes acquainted with the other.

Their individual perspectives are told in alternate “chunks”, for want of a better word (there are no chapters in this novel), so that the reader gets to know both characters incredibly well.

On the face of it, it would seem neither has much in common. But they are both “the offspring of Narcissists”, as Trevor puts it. His Polish-born father went missing when Trevor was a child and despite been declared legally dead has recently reappeared on the scene making unreasonable demands, while Elizabeth’s mother belonged to the Rajneesh movement, otherwise known as the Orange People, and failed to protect her teenage daughter from the sexual deviants within its midst. Both Trevor and Elizabeth, it would seem, are still grappling with the psychological wounds of their upbringings.

Similarly, they both have an obsession with food — Trevor for cooking it, Elizabeth with being Over The Top about its provenance and nutritional content — and the power of art and literature to transform and giving meaning to their lives.

I particularly loved the little asides about literature, such as this one:

Trevor is standing beside a man who is a big fan of Irish fiction and especially of Dermot Healy and the new star Eimear McBride. ‘A man of good taste,’ says Trevor. They have been discussing linguistic tangles and how and when or if they are appropriate in the novel and how this book by McBride was thrown aside by umpteen publishers, umpteen meaning for nine years, before it was finally taken, sold and immediately made her famous. A very French outcome for an Irish book.

And yet, for all the richly detailed prose and the total immersion in two character’s slowly intertwined lives, I struggled to fully connect with The Returns. Perhaps it was just too slow-moving for me and lacked sufficient drama to make me want to keep turning the pages. Or maybe it was the right book but the wrong time?

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers liked this much more than me.

This my 6th book for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), 2020 Miles Franklin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, John Hughes, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, University of Western Australia Press

‘No One’ by John Hughes

Fiction – paperback; UWA Publishing; 158 pages; 2019.

John Hughes’ No One is a beguiling novel about ghosts, memory and identity. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

One man’s quest to ease his conscience

Set in inner Sydney, it tells the story of one man’s quest to discover the person he believes he may have hit in his car driving home in the early hours of the morning. The only problem is, he didn’t see what he hit, he simply felt a “dull thud, like a roo hitting the side of the car” and later noticed the damage to his beaten-up old Volvo station wagon — a dent on the passenger side near the front bumper.

I looked again at the depression in the front panel. It seemed larger now, and higher on the body. A dog could not have made such a dint, I thought, or only a dog as large as a man or a roo. What I did then I can’t account for. For some reason I looked up, as if I felt I was being watched, though I knew there was no one there. I’ve come to think that everything that followed can be traced back to that sensation, though if someone were to ask me what it was, I would be at a loss to explain. I often feel in any case that language is really no more than a banging of our head against a wall.

Haunted by what he may have done, he returns to the scene of the “crime” near Redfern Sation but cannot find anyone injured nearby. He visits a local hospital to see if any hit-and-run victims have been admitted. His search proves futile.

A crime without a victim

At its most basic level, No One is simply a mystery without a resolution. It’s not even clear whether a crime has been committed — there’s certainly no victim unless we consider that the man himself is the victim of his own paranoia and sense of guilt.

But scratch the surface and there’s a whole lot more going on within this slim novel, so much so that something I thought would take me a few hours to read took a week or more. I wanted to savour the story, to reflect on certain episodes within it, and to enjoy Hughes’ hypnotic prose style and his metaphor-filled narrative.

I particularly admired his playfulness with the themes of memory and time and the strange ways in which our brains process events, and I was occasionally reminded of Gerald Murnane’s work, which often explores similar issues.

A traumatic childhood

Much of the story focuses on the man’s upbringing. A child of Turkish immigrants who abandoned him, he was raised in five different foster homes in various wild and remote places of Australia. These experiences shaped his outlook on life, his separateness from Australian-Anglo culture in general, and his inability to “escape his childhood”.

A transient as an adult, he has lived in a series of boarding houses and prefers those on the outskirts, rather than the city, because it’s quieter and “the sky seems wider and there are paddocks and areas that feel unused”.

He discovers a sense of home when he hooks up with an Aboriginal woman, whom he dubs The Poetess. She helps him on his quest to find the missing victim of his crime, but that, too, proves futile, and their relationship, cemented by mutual loneliness, is put to the test when her violent ex-partner, responsible for her scar-ravaged face, arrives on the scene.

When a shocking real crime is committed, it feels almost as chimeric as the ghostly one that has frustrated the man from the beginning. And while I personally didn’t think this climax was needed to make the story work, it makes an unarguable point: that violence, whether seen or unseen, is often the common thread that binds minorities, whether they be women, immigrants, orphans or indigenous Australians.

There’s much more to unpack in this novel, and I suspect different readers will gain different insights from it. Rich in language, in metaphor and allegories, and told in an episodic, languid and dreamlike fashion, No One is about alienation, belonging and Australian identity.

This is my 5th for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award and my 4th novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I bought it not long after it was longlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award. It was published by University of Western Australia Publishing, which is a 15-minute drive down the road, so it feels local even though the story is set largely on the other side of the country and the author resides in NSW.

2020 Miles Franklin, Literary prizes

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

At last, I appear to be on the right side of the world to hear today’s announcement: who made it on to this year’s shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The nominees are:

As you can see I have already read a couple. I read No One on the weekend (it’s excellent), so plan on reviewing that very soon. The rest, bar Islands, are already on my TBR, so I hope to review them in due course before the prize announcement. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

The winner of the $60,000 prize will be named on 16 July.

You can read the official press release here. And read what the Sydney Morning Herald have to say about it here.