2020 Miles Franklin

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that the Miles Franklin Literary Award was on my mind at the start of the month.

Imagine my surprise today to discover the longlist had been unexpectedly dropped via the Miles Franklin Instagram account. (See here.) Of course, I then visited Lisa Hill’s blog to check whether she had any additional news (and to see how many books she had read) and read the official announcement on Perpetual’s website.

There are 10 books on the list and I’ve read three. I have a handful more on my TBR. I’m not sure I will read all the books on the longlist, but will wait for the shortlist to be announced on 17 June and try to read everything on that.

The winner of the $60,0000 prize will be announced on 16 July 2020.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The White Girl by Tony Birch
“Odette Brown has lived her whole life on the fringes of a small country town. After her daughter disappeared and left her with her granddaughter Sissy to raise on her own, Odette has managed to stay under the radar of the welfare authorities who are removing fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families.”

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng
“Since her sister died, Meg has been on her own. She doesn’t mind, not really—not with Atticus, her African grey parrot, to keep her company—but after her house is broken into by a knife-wielding intruder, she decides it might be good to have some company after all. Andy’s father has lost his job, and his parents’ savings are barely enough to cover his tuition. If he wants to graduate, he’ll have to give up his student flat and find a homeshare. Living with an elderly Australian woman is harder than he’d expected, though, and soon he’s struggling with more than his studies.”

Islands by Peggy Frew
“Helen and John are too preoccupied with making a mess of their marriage to notice the quiet ways in which their daughters are suffering. Junie grows up brittle and defensive, Anna difficult and rebellious. When fifteen-year-old Anna fails to come home one night, her mother’s not too worried; Anna’s taken off before but always returned. Helen waits three days to report her disappearance. But this time Anna doesn’t come back …”

No One by John Hughes
“In the ghost hours of a Monday morning a man feels a dull thud against the side of his car near the entrance to Redfern Station. He doesn’t stop immediately. By the time he returns to the scene, the road is empty, but there is a dent in the car, high up on the passenger door, and what looks like blood. Only a man could have made such a dent, he thinks. For some reason he looks up, though he knows no one is there. Has he hit someone, and if so, where is the victim? So begins a story that takes us to the heart of contemporary Australia’s festering relationship to its indigenous past. A story about guilt for acts which precede us, crimes we are not sure we have committed, crimes gone on so long they now seem criminal- less.”

Act of Grace by Anna Krien
“Iraqi aspiring pianist Nasim falls from favour with Saddam Hussein and his psychopathic son, triggering a perilous search for safety. In Australia, decades later, Gerry is in fear of his tyrannical father, Toohey, who has returned from the Iraq War bearing the physical and psychological scars of conflict. Meanwhile, Robbie is dealing with her own father’s dementia when the past enters the present. These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant narrative of guilt and reckoning, trauma and survival. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and reconciliation, Act of Grace is a meditation on inheritance: the damage that one generation passes on to the next, and the potential for transformation.”

A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane
“Lost to the world for more than four decades, A Season on Earth is the essential link between two acknowledged masterpieces by Gerald Murnane: the lyrical account of boyhood in his debut novel, Tamarisk Row, and the revolutionary prose of The Plains. A Season on Earth is Murnane’s second novel as it was intended to be, bringing together all of its four sections – the first two of which were published as A Lifetime on Clouds in 1976 and the last two of which have never been in print. A hilarious tale of a lustful teenager in 1950s Melbourne, A Lifetime on Clouds has been considered an outlier in Murnane’s fiction. That is because, as Murnane writes in his foreword, it is ‘only half a book and Adrian Sherd only half a character.’ Here, at last, is sixteen-year-old Adrian’s journey in full, from fantasies about orgies with American film stars and idealised visions of suburban marital bliss to his struggles as a Catholic novice, and finally a burgeoning sense of the boundless imaginative possibilities to be found in literature and landscapes. Adrian Sherd is one of the great comic creations in Australian writing, and A Season on Earth is a revelatory portrait of the artist as a young man.”

The Returns by Philip Salom
“Elizabeth posts a ‘room for rent’ notice in Trevor’s bookshop and is caught off-guard when Trevor answers the advertisement himself. She expected a young student, not a middle-aged bookseller whose marriage has fallen apart. But Trevor is attracted to Elizabeth’s house because of the empty shed in her backyard, the perfect space for him to revive the artistic career he abandoned years earlier. The face-blind, EH Holden-driving Elizabeth is a solitary and feisty book editor, and she accepts him, on probation … In this poignant yet upbeat novel, the past keeps returning in the most unexpected ways. Elizabeth is at the beck and call of her ageing mother, and the associated memories of her childhood in a Rajneesh community. Trevor’s Polish father disappeared when Trevor was fifteen, and his mother died not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The authorities have declared him dead, but is he?”

Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany
“In the late 1970s, in the forgotten outer suburbs, a girl has her hands in the engine of a Holden. A sinister new man has joined the family. He works as a mechanic and operates an unlicensed repair shop at the back of their block. The family is under threat. The girl reads the Holden workshop manual for guidance. She resists the man with silence, then with sabotage. She fights him at the place where she believes his heart lives – in the engine of the car.”

The Yield by Tara June Winch
“Knowing that he will soon die, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi takes pen to paper. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. Albert is determined to pass on the language of his people and everything that was ever remembered. He finds the words on the wind. August Gondiwindi has been living on the other side of the world for ten years when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened with all she tried to leave behind. Her homecoming is bittersweet as she confronts the love of her kin and news that Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. Determined to make amends she endeavours to save their land – a quest that leads her to the voice of her grandfather and into the past, the stories of her people, the secrets of the river.”

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
“Four older women have a lifelong friendship of the best kind: loving, practical, frank and steadfast. But when Sylvie dies, the ground shifts dangerously for the remaining three. Can they survive together without her? They are Jude, a once-famous restaurateur, Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, and Adele, a renowned actress now mostly out of work. Struggling to recall exactly why they’ve remained close all these years, the grieving women gather for Christmas at Sylvie’s old beach house – not for festivities, but to clean the place out before it is sold. Without Sylvie to maintain the group’s delicate equilibrium, frustrations build and painful memories press in. Fraying tempers, an elderly dog, unwelcome guests and too much wine collide in a storm that brings long-buried hurts to the surface – and threatens to sweep away their friendship for good.”

I reckon this is a really interesting list — there are only two new names to me (John Hughes and Philip Salom) — with a mix of men and women and diverse subject matter. I’m looking forward to reading the books already on my TBR. Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Fiction, Gerald Murnane, literary fiction, Literary prizes, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘Border Districts: A Fiction’ by Gerald Murnane

Border Districts
US Edition (available in UK)

Fiction – hardcover; Farrar Straus and Giroux; 134 pages; 2018.

For a slight book, Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts: A Fiction packs a very large punch. Well, not so much a punch, but a tickling of the grey matter, for this is a novel — supposedly Murnane’s last (he’s 79) — that makes you see the world in new ways and makes you reflect on concepts you may never have thought of before.

Billed as fiction, the story mirrors Murnane’s real life move from Melbourne to a provincial town on the border between Victoria and South Australia and the impact of that shift on his interior life.

Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.

Written stream-of-consciousness style and employing some of the devices of meta-fiction, Border Districts is the type of novel that could be labelled “experimental” — it certainly doesn’t comply with the normal conventions of the literary novel, blurring the lines between fiction, non-fiction and reportage. Indeed, the story is written as if it is a report and the (nameless) author of the report keeps reminding us of this fact.

Border districts Australian edition
Australian edition (published by Giramondo)

The story is essentially about memory or, more accurately, the landscape of the mind. It explores how recall and imagery works, how sights and smells and music and words and even the way the light falls can trigger the mind to remember things from the past, taking the narrator on tangential journeys through back history, and how our experience shapes what we reminisce about.

It begins with the narrator noticing how the colour of the translucent glass in a local church window changes from day-to-day depending on the light (hence the pieces of coloured glass that adorn the American edition of the book), which reminds him of the glass in the chapel at the Catholic school he attended. From there his mind spirals into all kinds of memories — from his childhood education to his thoughts on Catholicism to his life in the capital city and his love of horse racing — before returning to where it started, trying to “recall the details of the windows of the chapel in the grounds of my secondary school”.

It is, to be perfectly frank (and please excuse the language), a bit of a mind fuck.

The writing is eloquent and full of astonishing detail and insight. Stylistically, each paragraph begins with short, taut sentences that later become elongated, stretched to breaking point and turning back on themselves. We are constantly reminded this is a book being written, with phrases such as “while I was writing the previous paragraph” dotted throughout the text and which, for this reader at least, soon began to wear very thin.

This is definitely not a book to race through despite its novella-like length. It took me more than a week because it was mentally exhausting to digest and I needed time to savour it in small chunks. Admittedly, I was relieved when I got to the end, but I did appreciate the way it made me reflect on things. This is the kind of writing that is focused on ideas and concepts rather than on plots and action and character, so you really need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it.

I have read Gerald Murnane before — I described The Plains, arguably his most famous novel, as “surreal” and thought his style was very Kafka-like — so it wasn’t a complete surprise to find this book cut from similar cloth. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the first time Murnane has been nominated in a career spanning almost 50 years. We will find out tomorrow (August 26) whether he has won it.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer and my 5th for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018. I bought it in April (before the longlist announcement) because it had attracted a bit of publicity  — probably because Murnane said it was the last book he would ever write and there was a rumour going round that he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature — and Lisa at ANZ LitLovers reviewed it very favourably, which piqued my interest even further.

2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

The 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

Miles Franklin Literary Award logo SHORTLISTIt seems strange to announce a shortlist for a prestigious literary prize on a Sunday, but the organisers of this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award have done just that. I’m not complaining… it gives me plenty of time to compile this post on a lazy Sunday afternoon, instead of writing it after work, probably while half-watching terrible Monday night telly.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the shortlist:

I plan on reviewing all the titles (provided I can get hold of Eva Hornung’s novel, which doesn’t seem to have been made available on this side of the planet). 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 26 August so there’s plenty of time to read the entire shortlist if you so desire — and can source the books without too much bother.

You can read the official press release here.

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

Author, Fiction, Gerald Murnane, literary fiction, Publisher, Text Classics

‘The Plains’ by Gerald Murnane

The Plains by Gerald Murane

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 192 pages; 2013.

When I first embarked on my project to read exclusively Australian literature for a year, I was excited by the prospect of discovering some intriguing — and perhaps unusual — titles lurking in my tottering TBR pile. What I hadn’t expected, when I picked up Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, was to find the Australian equivalent of Kafka on my shelf. Indeed, this novel, which was first published in 1982, took me on such a surreal journey I’m still not quite sure if I fully “got” what it was about. And I suspect each person who reads it comes to a different interpretation of events.

An unusual story

The Plains was Murnane’s third novel — he’s written eight more since then and has recently published his memoir — but this was the first of his that I had read, so I have no idea if this story is typical of his style or subject. It’s essentially an allegory, which is neatly summed up by the opening lines:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

In it, the unnamed narrator ventures to inland Australia, where he plans to make a film about the people who live there. He stays in a hotel in a remote town and spends most of his time drinking with the locals as part of his research. He does not tell them his real reason for visiting because he doesn’t want to scare them off or to prejudice their behaviour towards him: he wants to study the “real” plainsmen and find out about their cultures and customs.

When he discovers that there is a chance to petition some of the richest landowners in the region for patronage, he throws his name in the hat and wins funding from a wealthy plainsman. And then he spends the next two decades living on his property without once filming a single frame…

A curious and playful novel

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this curious novel is the playful way in which Murnane turns many ideas about Australia on their head. I don’t think you have to be Australian to appreciate that most of the population lives on the coastal fringes and rarely, if ever, ventures into the interior (or outback), which is regarded as a cultural wasteland. But in The Plains, Murnane suggests that the reverse is true: the fringe-dwellers live on the “sterile margins of the continent”, where the culture of the capital cities is “despised”, while the plainsmen comprise a varied assortment of intellectuals, artists, musicians, poets and writers who lead rich and stimulating lives, not without their own cultural “spats” and feuds.

Murnane also challenges the notion of the “cultural cringe” — where Australians dismiss their own culture in the belief that it is inferior to the Old Country — by portraying the culture of the plainsmen as being just as sophisticated, if not more so, than anything Britain could offer. And he plays with the idea of high culture influencing the nation’s politics and sense of self:

The Brotherhood of the Endless Plain devoted themselves to an elaborate scheme for transforming Australia into a Union of States whose seat of government was far inland and whose culture welled up from its plains and spilled outwards. The coastal districts would then be seen as a mere borderland where truly Australian customs were debased by contact with the Old World. The League of Heartlanders wanted nothing less than a separate Republic of the Plains with manned frontier-posts on every road and railway line that crossed the Great Dividing Range.

And, of course, he also debunks the myth that the great open spaces of the landscape are empty: if you look closer “what had at first seemed utterly flat and featureless eventually disclosed countless subtle variations of landscape and an abundance of wildlife”.

Languid prose style

This might make the book sound a bit “stuffy” and “intellectual” and hard work, but it’s not. It’s playful and often humorous — there’s certainly a lot of poking fun at the pomposity of Australian cultural snobbery — and it’s written in such a languid, almost limpid style, that it feels effortless to read.

Admittedly I was about a quarter-way through the book before I clocked it was a fable, and then I suddenly began to see the metaphors and little digs at preconceived notions of how landscape and location marks out certain Australians from other Australians. I can’t pretend I understood everything Murnane was alluding to, but it certainly tickled my brain matter in a way I hadn’t expected when I plucked it from the shelf.

It felt like something Kafka might have cooked up with Magnus Mills if the two of them spent some time Down Under.

For other takes on this novel, please visit Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List. Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed it.

This is my ninth book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

This book is published in both ebook and paperback format and is available in the UK, US and Canada.