2017 Stella Prize

The 2017 Stella Prize longlist

stella-prize-2017I’m a bit late with this, but last week the longlist for the 2017 Stella Prize was unveiled. (Hat tip to Sue at Whispering Gums whose post alerted me to the announcement.)

The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published in 2016 were eligible

I had so much fun following this prize last year (all my posts about it are here) that I thought I might do the same again this year. It helps that I’ve already read a couple off the list thanks to my year-long project of reading books from Australia in 2016. I don’t plan on reading everything from the longlist, but will do my best to read everything that is shortlisted.

The dozen titles on the list include reportage, a biography, several memoirs, a handful of novels, a collection of short stories — and two by authors who have since died.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, which includes a brief description (taken from the judges’ report) and their current availability in the UK. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird
Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (HarperCollins)
“Victoria: The Queen brings into vivid focus a woman whose inner life was intense, sometimes volatile, and inseparable from the strategic exercise of European and colonial power. In Baird’s biography we meet a very young queen, faced with the challenge of guiding her nation at a moment in history that didn’t readily accommodate powerful women. We witness her, throughout her long reign, negotiating individual, national and colonial authority. As depicted by Baird, Victoria was a clever, ambitious woman who took advice from mentors, yet was also an emotional and controlling mother and a passionate wife. This is a rich and compelling biography, based on exhaustive archival research and replete with vibrant prose.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

Between a wolf and a dog
Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain (Scribe)
“Between a Wolf and a Dog is an accomplished and sympathetic novel about love and motherhood, therapy, the impact of betrayal, and the choices that arise from acts of irresponsibility, or from careful deliberation. Ester is a therapist, advising her clients on the options available to them that they can’t always see for themselves. Her ex-husband, Lawrence, is a pollster who manipulates his data for the thrill of transgression, but who is ultimately required to perform an unselfish and difficult act. Between a Wolf and a Dog is Georgia Blain’s final novel, and it is a triumph: finely structured, suspenseful and morally acute.”
Published in the UK in paperback and ebook.

The Hate Race
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette)
“The Hate Race is an important account of growing up in suburban Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the routines of a suburban childhood will be immediately recognisable to readers, except that the colour of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s skin makes her the target for an astonishing level of discrimination. The combination of a recognisable Australian childhood and a world of bullying, ostracism and casual racism is necessarily shocking, transforming this memoir into a significant indictment of national complacency. The Hate Race is a moving memoir of national significance, grounded in a tradition of Afro-Caribbean storytelling that recognises the importance of the personal account: ‘This is how I tell it, or else what’s a story for.'”
Not currently available in the UK; it will be published in hardcover and ebook on 8 June.

Poum and Alexandre
Poum and Alexandre by Catherine de Sainte Phalle (Transit Lounge)
“Catherine de Saint Phalle’s tender portrait of a lifelong partnership deserves to be an instant classic of the biography genre. De Saint Phalle grew up in Paris, the only child of charming but damaged parents: fragile, death-obsessed Poum and ebullient, older Alexandre, whose lives were ruled by their “sin” of being unmarried. De Saint Phalle’s narrative of an unusual childhood with this haunted, sometimes childlike and deeply bonded couple is remarkable for its lack of self-pity and its depth of recollection. The reader is treated to a study of two wonderfully flawed people, meeting in the aftermath of war and negotiating a peculiar union of love and eccentricity. Always seeing Poum and Alexandre as people first, then parents, her book is both funny and tragic at the same time. De Saint Phalle writes with a clear-eyed humanity and wisdom about human nature that is reminiscent of Nabokov’s account of memory and childhood.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

Offshore by Madeline Gleeson
Offshore: Behind the Wire at Manus and Nauru by Madeline Gleeson (NewSouth)
“Offshore is a rigorous and comprehensive narrative on one of the central challenges of our times: the care of those who seek asylum in Australia when life in their own countries becomes untenable. The book is an extended exposé of the machinery of offshore processing in a context that does not always encourage visibility or, indeed, community confidence. The Regional Processing Units on Nauru and Manus Island are revealed as places of desperation, enabled by impersonal international agreements over the disposition of displaced adults and children. This book offers a potent challenge to Australia’s asylum-seeker policy by detailing the locations and procedures of offshore processing of asylum seekers, and the desperation experienced by those who seek safe haven in Australia.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

Avalanche by Julia Leigh (WW Norton)
“In her first work of nonfiction, novelist and filmmaker Julia Leigh tells the story of what would become a gruelling series of IVF attempts in her late thirties: ‘I did this knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I’d never have a child’. The attempt to become a mother outlasts her marriage and governs a great deal of her life. Subtitled ‘A Love Story’, Avalanche is as much about the desire to be a mother and maternal love as it is a clear-eyed account of a love affair gone wrong and an investigation of a medical industry that trades on hope. Leigh is just as scrupulous about holding her own feelings and choices up to the light as she is in raising questions about the gulf between the promises and hard data of the for-profit IVF industry. In writing one of the first literary treatments of IVF, Leigh creates a lyrical, clear-eyed account that cuts through to the core of an emotionally complex, sometimes obscured subject that is of great significance today.”
Published in the UK by Faber and Faber in hardcover and ebook.

An Isolated Incident
An Isolated Incident
 by Emily Maguire (Picador)

An Isolated Incident is a compelling story that considers the part the media plays in sensationalising crime, the plight of those whose lives are forever changed by an act of violence, and community acceptance of violence against women. It is also a murder mystery that deftly transforms the genre, focusing on the family and friends of the victim rather than the crime itself, and tactically diminishing the perpetrator in a careful withdrawal from the sensational. The novel is a celebration of sisters: Bella, the murder victim, and her sister Chris are very different women, but they have a convincing and touching affinity. May, a crime reporter, is also absorbed by the events surrounding Bella’s death and begins to question the limitations of her profession. Emily Maguire cleverly ties together the experiences of Chris and May, bringing into play the impact of Bella’s murder on other members of the community. Australian society’s attitudes towards violence against women are inevitably at the heart of this topical and accomplished novel.”
Not available in the UK.

The High Places
The High Places: Stories
 by Fiona McFarlane (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Fiona McFarlane’s collection of stories, The High Places, is consistently brilliant, inventive and memorable. Representing a decade of work, the stories confidently span different eras and geographies – Sydney; Athens; an unnamed island in the Pacific – and seem to effortlessly represent the inner terrain of people’s secrets and regrets with rich emotional acuity and insight, while also managing to find the black comedy in odd encounters, strange situations and awful reunions. Animals appear throughout: dogs at races; animals in zoos; birds attached to humans. McFarlane uses this motif to show humans acting against their better instincts, often trapping themselves or others in circumstances that should have been avoidable. These are richly observed stories about complex people and situations, told by a gifted writer.”
Published in the UK by Sceptre in hardcover, paperback and ebook.

Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane by Elspeth Muir (Text)
“Elspeth Muir writes, with measured eloquence, of a devastating event: the death of her cherished younger brother who drowned during an alcohol-fuelled celebration of his final university exams. Her family is suspended in a state of painful loss and self-examination. From the particulars of this bereavement, Muir offers an unsparing consideration of the place of alcohol and recklessness in young people’s lives, including her own. If alcohol use is a rite of passage, so is travel, and one of the most engaging aspects of the book is the author’s journey through South America and her keen observations of cultural comparisons. Questions about celebration, bravado and the mitigation of intoxication from within and outside the family are raised in this engaging, generous and multifaceted book.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose
The Museum of Modern Love
 by Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin)

The Museum of Modern Love is narrated by an intriguing unseen presence: an otherworldly companion to artists. This presence describes the intersecting lives of characters who form part of the audience for Marina Abramovic’s remarkable re-enacted retrospective and performance, The Artist Is Present, in 2010 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Marina Abramovic’s confronting and highly disciplined artwork invited members of the public to sit facing her in the gallery, and the experience provides some of the characters in The Museum of Modern Love with an almost hallucinatory insight into their own lives. The characters are finely developed, and the question of what constitutes art is refracted through their experiences in ways that never seem contrived. This is an ambitious novel that demonstrates the value of art as a catalyst for love, connection, and an apprehension of mystery.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor
Dying: A Memoir
 by Cory Taylor (Text)

“Brisbane writer Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir, written in her final weeks of life, is a slim but remarkable book. Taylor’s tone is conversational, but her questions and insights are profound. In this most lonely of situations, what possible comfort can we get from others? Why are doctors, who have the task of keeping people alive, so ill-equipped to help us through death? When we’ve witnessed bad deaths, how do we equip ourselves to die well? Armed with reserves of anger, good humour and curiosity, Taylor doesn’t offer easy answers or sentimental stories. What she does offer the reader is a sense of solidarity. This is a rare book about dying that could be given to someone who is seriously ill, confident in its capacity to provide solace and comfort in shared recognition. It is also a book about the gift of writing and reading. In Dying: A Memoir, Taylor has made the concept of dying bearable, and given us something life-affirming.”
Published in the UK by Canongate in hardcover and ebook.

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard
The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 
by Sonya Voumard (Transit Lounge)

“Twenty years after the Port Arthur shootings, Sonya Voumard returns to this catastrophe and the way it was reported. A journalist herself, Voumard takes the reader through what it is like on the ground, and the decisions that are involved, in reporting from a major event as it unfolds; she also focuses her attentive eye on the relationship between Carleen Bryant, the mother of the murderer, and the two journalists who used her personal manuscript in a bestselling book about the perpetrator, an action that would result in a legal settlement. The Media and the Massacre interrogates both the practice of journalism and the effects on those who are the focus of journalistic attention. It is a searching inquiry into the ownership of stories that also charts significant changes in newspapers and the journalistic profession over the last decade. It’s both a compelling story and a humane and scrupulous investigation into the responsibilities of journalists.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

The shortlist will be announced on Thursday 8 March and the winner named on Tuesday 18 April.

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

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Fiona McFarlane

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is Australian writer Fiona McFarlane, whose debut novel, The Night Guest, has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Fiona was born in Sydney, and has degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University, and an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Michener Fellow.

Her work has been published in Zoetrope: All-StorySoutherly, the Best Australian Stories and the New Yorker, and she has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Phillips Exeter Academy and the Australia Council for the Arts.

Without further ado, here are Fiona’s choices:

A-Good-man-is-hard-to-findA favourite book: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Really, I could have just chosen O’Connor’s Complete Stories, but A Good Man is such an extraordinary collection all on its own, from the title story – oh, the Misfit and the grandmother and that final line of dialogue – to the first sentence of ‘Good Country People’: “Beside the neutral expression she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reversed, that she used for all her human dealings.” O’Connor writes with such precision, lucidity and insight, she’s almost terrifying, and she’s a writer I always turn to if I feel stalled in my own work.

Rings-of-saturnA book that changed my life: The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

I lived in East Anglia for four years, and Sebald’s Rings of Saturn altered the landscape for me completely: invested it with such significance, memory, and connection to histories of all kinds. It’s such a personal book and yet so astonishingly generous, and the measured beauty and authority of Sebald’s prose has the wonderful quality of being both lulling and exhilarating at the same time. The Rings of Saturn changed my understanding of what a book could do, what a walk could mean, and how an encounter with the world in a state of curiosity and receptivity might change everything.

FutilityA book that deserves a wider audience: Futility by William Gerhardie

Futility is such a bleak title for a very, very funny book about pre-revolutionary and Bolshevik Russia, love, bureaucracy, conversation, and the interminable act of waiting. Gerhardie, an Anglo-Russian, was born in 1895, and Futility was his first novel, written while he was still a student and published in that Year of Literary Years, 1922. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, H.G. Wells, Katherine Mansfield and Edith Wharton (quite a lovely, eclectic list, isn’t it?) thought he was a fabulous writer, but 60 years later, few people have heard of him. What a shame!

Futility is the brilliant, inventive, absurd account of Andrei Andreiech’s hopeless infatuation with the beautiful Nina and all that it leads to – heartache, train journeys and a lot of complicated scheduling – as Russia changes forever. I was lucky enough to find a copy in an Oxfam bookshop, and now I recommend it to everyone I know.

Thank you, Fiona, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I’ve not read any of these books, although I have read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and enjoyed them enough to want to explore the rest of their work. I’ve not heard of Futility, which sounds rather intriguing!

What do you think of Fiona’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fiona McFarlane, literary fiction, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane


Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 276 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is an extraordinarily accomplished novel, one that is hard to categorise but easy to enjoy. I’ve seen it described as a “psychological thriller” but I think that does the book a disservice. While it is suspenseful and brims with tension — making it a sure-fire page-turner — it’s also full of poignant moments and laugh-out-loud black humour. I hungrily ate it up in the space of a weekend and absolutely loved it.

Life alone

Ruth, an Australian woman in her 70s, is readjusting to life alone as a widow following the death of her husband. She lives in a secluded house by the beach and has lately come to believe there is a tiger living in her house: she has never seen it but hears it “panting and snorting” in the hallway outside her bedroom of a night.

When she rings her son, who lives in New Zealand, to tell him about it, he placates her by saying it is “either a cat, or a dream”.

His voice conveyed a serene weariness; Ruth suspected he was reassuring his wife with an eyes-closed shake of the head that everything was all right, that his mother was just having one of her moments. When he’d visited a few weeks ago, at Easter, Ruth has noticed a new watchful patience in him, and a tendency to purse his lips whenever she said something he considered unusual. So she knew, from the funny mirror of Jeffrey’s face, that she had reached the stage where her sons would be worried about her.

As if to allay her fears, one morning a woman dressed in white arrives on her doorstep. Her name is Frida and she is a carer “sent by the government”. But for all her good intentions, Frida is not quite what she seems.

A symbiotic relationship

It’s hard to write the rest of this review without giving away crucial plot spoilers, but it’s fair to say the central focus of this novel is the relationship between these two very different women, which develops and changes over time. Occasionally, it feels a bit like a marriage — they even have their little squabbles but quickly move on as if nothing has happened — but as it progresses, you begin to question the health of their partnership.

I found my allegiance swinging widely between the two: one minute thinking Ruth was just being kooky and forgetful, the other wondering if Frida’s intentions might be nefarious. This, I think, is testament to McFarlane’s skillful handling of her characters — never making Ruth a batty old woman, not turning Frida into an obvious villain — so that they always remain very human and believable.

Indeed, this is a very human and believable story. It covers many important themes — how we care for the elderly, how their vulnerabilities can be exploited and the ways in which our memories can play tricks or deteriorate through dementia or trauma — and yet it’s also a book full of surreal moments. While it never strays into magic realism territory, the roaming, unseen tiger serves to make the reader a little unsure of Ruth’s sanity.

Suspenseful read

Aside from the tiger, what makes The Night Guest a wonderfully suspenseful read is the way that McFarlane holds back information and then reveals little nuggets that make the reader reassess all that has gone before. It’s a novel full of what I call “oh-oh” moments — little bombshells that make you fearful on Ruth’s behalf — but it never feels as if you are being manipulated or taken for a ride.

It has a lovely back story, too, of Ruth’s childhood growing up in Fiji, the only child of Australian missionaries. Her unrequited love for Richard, a young doctor who worked with her parents, still haunts her and when she manages to track him down and invite him to visit, their fledgling romance is sweetly told.

My only quibble is the final chapter which ties up many of the loose endings so that the reader is no longer left wondering about the way events played out. I would have preferred to have figured it out myself, and I rather suspect it was probably added in to keep a publisher happy because it feels rather different in style and viewpoint to the rest of the novel.

All in all, The Night Guest is an enthralling read, one that is both deeply disturbing and yet full of comic moments and tender insight. It is wise and funny and heartfelt. And it reminded me very much of that great dame of Australian letters Elizabeth Jolley, because it so expertly weaves the slightly surreal with the very human.

And finally…

I was very fortunate to be asked to chair the UK launch of the book at Sceptre’s offices last week. I had been told the event would be “very informal and relaxed”, so imagine my surprise (or should I say shock?) when I turned up to find the event was ticketed and that there were more than 60 people in attendance! Thank goodness for the giant glass of “Dutch courage” I was given by Fiona’s publicist beforehand and the fact that Fiona herself was so delightful and charming.

You can read a write up about the launch on the website of the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts, which sponsored the event together with the Australian Women’s Club.