20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Eva Hornung, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Last Garden’ by Eva Hornung

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 237 pages; 2017.

Eva Hornung’s novel The Last Garden begins in dramatic fashion.

On a mild Nebelung’s afternoon, Matthias Orion, having lived as an exclamation mark in the Wahrheit settlement and as the capital letter at home, killed himself.

Matthias has already shot dead his wife, Ada, and destroyed many of the animals on the Orion’s farm. He commits these violent acts before his 15-year-old son, Benedict, arrives home from boarding school.

The novel charts what happens to Benedict in the year after the murder-suicide of his parents.

Living in isolation

The first thing Benedict does is move into the barn because he can no longer face living in the house where he found the bodies. He withdraws into a world of silence, communicating only with the animals he loves — an assorted collection of chooks, a cat and two horses.

But things go awry pretty early on. The farm falls into neglect, he runs out of food, the chickens get eaten by a fox.

The only kindly face is Pastor Helfgott, the local preacher, who visits often to keep an eye on the boy. The pair develop an odd relationship, dancing around one another and never quite becoming friends.

Over the course of the year Benedict grows up, takes on new responsibilities and faces his demons. The mental trauma of his parents’ deaths begins to play havoc with his mind. The fox that hunts his chickens becomes a metaphor for the ghost of his father: always there and with a whiff of menace about him.

Otherworldly feel

The setting and sombre atmosphere of The Last Garden give it an otherworldly feel. Wahrheit is an isolated settlement of German immigrants who live by a strict moral code which casts out sinners. The community is hard-working and self-sustaining, but their faith is waning because the promised arrival of the Messiah has not yet occurred. Pastor Helfgott is losing control of his flock.

The time period is not specified — it could be the 19th century, it could be sometime in the distant future when fossil fuels have run out and everyone gets around by horse and cart — which adds to the almost dystopian feel of the story.

The structure — 12 chapters, one for each month and with a religious tenet as a preface to each — lends itself well to the novel’s focus on the rhythm of the working day and the passing seasons, drawing on the connections between people, animals (both wild and domesticated) and the power and beauty of nature.

It’s a slow, evocative read, rich in symbolism and brim full of melancholy and restlessness, but ends on a hopeful note. It’s certainly one of the more unusual — and original — novels I’ve read this year.

This is my 6th (and final) book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018, my 16th book for #AWW2018 and my 14th for #20booksofsummer. Technically, I’m not sure this one counts as 20 books of summer because it hasn’t been lingering in my TBR: I ordered it specially when the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced (it had to be shipped from Australia) and began reading it the day it arrived. But… if you don’t tell anyone, then I won’t tell anyone…

2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

Michelle de Kretser wins the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Congratulations to Australian writer Michelle de Kretser who was named winner of the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel The Life to Come earlier today.

This is the second time de Kretser has won the award — she won it in 2013 for Questions of Travel.

This how chair of the judging panel Richard Neville described The Life to Come:

Sentence-by-sentence, it is elegant, full of life and funny. With her characteristic wit and style, Michelle de Kretser dissects the way Australians see ourselves, and reflects on the ways other parts of the world see us.

I wholly concur. I loved this novel when I read it earlier in the year and I think it’s a worthy winner. Mind you, it was an incredibly strong shortlist and I would have been happy to see almost any of the six novels take out the prize.

You can read all my reviews here.

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

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.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Felicity Castagna, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘No More Boats’ by Felicity Castagna

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna

Fiction – Kindle edition; Giramondo; 264 pages; 2017.

Immigration, including how we deal with refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants, is arguably the issue of our times. Felicity Castagna explores this often controversial subject in her novel No More Boats, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

In Australia, the slogan “no more boats” is shorthand for anti-refugee sentiment, which has latterly become (shameful) Government policy designed to stop asylum seekers arriving illegally by sea. Most of these refugees come via Indonesia on flimsy, overcrowded boats, risking everything for a chance at a new life. (This article on the BBC News website explains why this policy is so controversial; and this memoir, by Dr Munjed Al Muderis, provides a shocking first-hand account of what it is like to be one of those refugees.)

Castagna’s novel looks at the thorny issue of what happens when a postwar Italian migrant rails against 21st century newcomers arriving in the country.

Making a statement

Antonio Martone has made a successful career in the construction industry but a workplace accident, which killed his friend, has left him badly injured and now, with too much time on his hands, his life — and his mental state — is slowly beginning to unravel.

The story, which is set in Sydney’s ethnically diverse Parramatta, takes a while to get going. Castagna takes her time introducing us to a wide cast of characters, including Antonio’s downtrodden wife, Rose, and the couple’s two adult children, Clare and Francis, and weaves their individual stories into a wider narrative that also takes in the 2001 Tampa crisis, in which a Norwegian ship carrying 433 rescued refugees was forbidden from entering Australian waters. (You can read about this incident on the National Museum of Australia website.)

The pivotal moment occurs when Antonio, inspired by the ghost of his dead friend, paints a political slogan in his front garden of the family’s suburban home. Here’s how Francis, coming upon it for the first time, describes it:

Now he was turning the corner. Now he was looking towards his home from across the street. Now he was noticing that a large piece of the white picket fence had fallen down and was lying on the pavement. Now he was slapped in the face by that giant image in blue paint that took up every inch of the concrete lawn in front of his house. No More Boats. It was written in shaky letters in the middle of a circle with a slash through it. On further inspection Francis saw that a little sail boat was drawn in there too underneath the lettering, in case someone didn’t get the message.

Of course, this attracts all kinds of unwanted attention — from the neighbours, stickybeaks, the media and political campaigners on both sides of the argument — and puts Antonio’s family in a difficult, and precarious, situation.

Contemporary Australian life

No More Boats is an illuminating, fast-paced read, very much focused on contemporary life in Australia and its uneasy relationship with its migrant past.

It feels like a “light” read but it has a surprising resonance and plangency.

The urban setting, together with its exploration of the complicated relationships between generations and the cultural baggage carried by the children of immigrants, brings to mind the best of Christos Tsiolkas’ work.

I found it a compelling yet thoughtful look at our sense of home, belonging, what it means to assimilate and how the deeds and words of politicians can have a dramatic, long-lasting impact on the views of the populace. But having raced through it back in early July, I found writing this review — some six weeks later — a bit of a struggle because not very much of the storyline stuck.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2018, my 12th  for #20booksofsummer and my 4th for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018. I bought it after it made the Miles Franklin longlist in late May because it sounded like something I’d be interested in and I was delighted when it made the shortlist, if only because I planned to read everything on it this year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott

Taboo by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Picador Australia; 276 pages; 2017.

Kim Scott is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award and his latest novel, Taboo, has been shortlisted for this year’s prize.

A descendant of the Noongar people of Western Australia, he is an indigenous writer whose work tends to focus on Aboriginal identity and the sometimes strained relations between black and white Australians.

Taboo is no exception. Set in Noongar country, it examines the thorny issue of reconciliation: after so much bloody and violent history, how can white Australians and indigenous Australians make their peace?

This dilemma is neatly summed up in the book’s opening paragraph:

Our hometown was a massacre place. People called it taboo. They said it is haunted and you will get sick if you go there. Others just bragged: we shot you and poisoned the waterholes so you never come back.

Told in the third person, but largely through the eyes of a teenage girl, Tilly, the book focuses on plans to open a Peace Park in the Western Australian (fictional) town of Kepalup as a form of reconciliation. Just outside the town lies a farm, owned by widower Dan Horton, where Dan’s ancestors murdered Tilly’s in the late 19th century.  (By a stroke of coincidence — and there are many in this novel, it has to be said — Tilly was fostered by the Hortons when she was a young child.)

Dan, a devout Christian, wants to pursue his late wife’s dream to invite the Noongar onto the farm, to “reconcile themselves to what happened here”. He is more dismissive, thinking it was a long time ago and “there was no real evidence of any more than a few Aborigines being killed”.

A haunting tale

It’s fair to say that this massacre haunts the pages of this novel; a ghostly spectre that reminds us that modern Australia is built on horrific foundations. The story is also haunted by the long arm of dispossession, and the devastating impact on people when their cultural identity has been stripped from them.

In places, it makes for depressing reading. Pretty much every indigenous character in this novel is struggling with an addiction, whether drugs or alcohol, and many have been in prison for violence and petty thievery.

Tilly’s back story is particularly horrific. Raised by a white mother, when she’s a teenager she learns that her father is an Aboriginal, the legendary Jim Coolman, who’s serving time in prison. Drawn into the orbit of her new family, Tilly falls prey to a (white) violent sexual predator who feeds her drugs, ties her to a leash and treats her like a dog.

But there is hope here, too, for when Tilly eventually escapes she grabs a rare chance to make something of herself: she wins a scholarship to a boarding school, settles down to a life of some normality and is welcomed into the arms of her (extended) Aboriginal family.

A trippy novel

In his afterword, Scott describes Taboo as a “trippy, stumbling sort of genre-hop that I think features a trace of Fairy Tale, a touch of Gothic, a sufficiency of the ubiquitous Social Realism and perhaps a touch of Creation Story”. And he’s right: at times it does feel “trippy” and, I’d argue, slightly patchy and uneven in places. The second third of the novel feels a bit baggy and seems to lose direction after a solid, intriguing and page-turning first third.

That said, this is by far Scott’s most accessible novel — the language is slightly pared back compared with the complex Benang, for instance — and it feels particularly modern and relevant.

Despite the sometimes oppressive nature of the story, it brims with optimism. Scott is careful not to make this a revenge story — “Our people gave up on that Payback stuff a long time ago” — and instead chooses to focus on how it is possible for people to “claim back” their identity, largely through the use of the Noongar language (see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers for her excellent dissection of this issue).

He’s also not afraid to highlight, tongue-in-cheek style, the ignorance of some white Australians about Aboriginal culture. For instance, when Tilly meets her Aboriginal Support Officer for the first time, the officer is shocked that Tilly is Aboriginal. “Gee, with some of you it’s hard to tell,” she says. And later when Tilly tells her that the Noongar don’t play didgeridoo, the officer is dismissive: “Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely.”

For another take on this novel, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This is my 3rd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 4th for #20booksofsummer. It also qualifies for ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week(July 8-15 2018). I bought this one from Readings.com.au last year because I suspected it would never be published here in the UK and, having read Scott’s earlier work, I wanted to read it as soon as I could. Alas… it took me eight months to get around to it.

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.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Peter Carey, Publisher, Setting

‘A Long Way from Home’ by Peter Carey

A Long Way from Home

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 336 pages; 2018.

Earlier this year, in the depths of winter, I went to Dublin for a long weekend, specifically to see Peter Carey in conversation with Joseph O’Connorat the “Pepper Cannister Church” on Upper Mount Street. It was essentially the Irish launch of his latest novel, A Long Way from Home, which has since been longlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It was an entertaining evening — albeit very, very cold (even with the heating on, the church was akin to sitting in a giant refrigerator and after an hour in the pews I could barely feel my feet because they’d turned numb with the cold). He largely spoke about the background behind the novel, which is based on the Redex Australia Trial, a road rally dating from 1953 that circumnavigated Australia and was open to pro and amateur drivers in unmodified cars unsuited to the tough terrain.

Carey’s own family ran a Holden car dealership in Bacchus Marsh, the country town where he is from, so he shared a lot of funny tales about cars and this particular rally, which he followed obsessively as a young boy — among other topics, including politics, travel, writing and why he’d waited so long to write about Australia’s indigenous history.

This novel — his 14th — is based very much on the Redex Trial and focuses on a trio of eccentric characters that enter the event, before it morphs into an intriguing exploration of a different kind of race — that of white Australia’s crimes against its indigenous population.

Eccentric characters

The story, set in the early 1950s, is told in the first person from two different character’s points of view in alternating chapters. (Occasionally, it has to be said, this is confusing, especially if you’ve put the book down and then come back to it and can’t remember which character is telling their side of the story; their voices don’t feel sufficiently different to be able to distinguish them easily.)

Those characters are Irene Bobs, a headstrong woman who is married to the best car salesman (a short man called Titch) in the whole of south-eastern Australia, and Willie Bachhuber, a tall, lanky teacher who’s ruling the airwaves as a quiz show king on a national radio programme. The pair are neighbours and strike up an unlikely friendship.

When the Bobs enter the Redex Trial — in a bid to become famous and boost car sales — they convince Bachhuber, who has been fired from his job after an unfortunate incident with a student, to join them as their navigator. It’s a perfect match, given Bachhuber’s love of maps, but the stresses and strain of the race, puts stresses and strains on the ability of everyone to get along.

But before things go completely pear-shaped, Carey does an expert job of conveying the thrill — and danger — of the race, yet he also scatters enough clues to suggest the novel — when it truly hits its stride about two-thirds of the way in — is more than just an adventurous tale about fast driving.

For instance, early on in the race, Irene takes a roadside toilet break and stumbles upon an unmarked graveyard of exposed bones crumbling to dust (“There were so many, they must be blacks”) and, out of shock, returns to the vehicle with  the bullet-ridden skull of a young boy. In another example, blonde-haired Bachhuber, raised by a Lutheran pastor, recalls the shame of discovering that his wife had given birth to a black baby — and then abandoned both.

Mixed feelings

Did I like this book? I’m not too sure. In its immediate afterglow, I’m feeling slightly ambivalent about it, but perhaps it will grow on me?

I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well. His characters are so strong and I love his feminist slant in this one (Irene is as good, if not better, at rally driving than all the male competitors but is constantly mocked and put down by them; even the media, which sees her as their darling to begin with, fall out of love with her and start questioning who’s looking after her children while she’s in the race.)

But the pacing, I think, is slightly odd. When Bachhuber finds himself stuck in the outback, the energy of the narrative seems to dissipate. (I appreciate that I’m being a bit vague here, but I don’t want to give away plot spoilers.) It doesn’t really pick up again and I could find my own interest waning. Yet, for what it’s worth, I very much liked this section of the novel — Bachhuber’s inward spiritual journey, for want of a better description — but felt the change in pace jarring from everything that had gone before.

I think a good way to describe my feelings about A Long Way from Home is this: I appreciate the elements that make it up (the characters, the prose, the setting, the issues), but I’m not sure everything gelled together as one seamless whole. Perhaps it’s a case of the novel simply being less than the sum of its parts…

This is my 3rd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 2nd for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in January at the Peter Carey literary event in Dublin and then queued up in a freezing-cold church to have it signed. When I got to the signing table I made the mistake of telling him he wasn’t the only Australian in the room (cos, you know, the event was in Dublin and full of Irish people). He gave a wry smile and his publicist, standing beside him, said in an oh-so condescending voice “he never is”.

2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Catherine McKinnon, dystopian, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Storyland’ by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I read Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland about a month before it was longlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award. I’ve been in two minds about reviewing it, because it’s not available outside of Australia*  — which makes it frustrating for those of you in the rest of the world who’d actually like to read it — but I’m hoping the prize listing might change that situation, for this is a superb book deserving of a wide (international) audience.

Set on the banks of Lake Illawarra in New South Wales, Storyland is essentially a fictionalised history of Australia, spanning four centuries. Its focus is very much on how people are shaped by the environments in which they live and vice versa — or, as one of the characters explains in the first chapter, “The land is a book waiting to be read. Learn to read it and you will never go hungry”.

It’s also a timely warning about how we treat the land and the indigenous people who know it best.

‘See that lake there,’ Uncle Ray says, looking along the side of his house to the water. ‘That was here before any of us, and the creek that runs down from the mountain into the lake, that was here too, and the mountain, and the trees, and the birds. We’re part of their story, not the other way around.’ ‘Like they were here first,’ I say. ‘You got it, like they were here first,’ Uncle Ray says. ‘But it’s our job to look after all this land around here. If we don’t, bad things can happen.’

Unusual structure

Many of the reviews I have read online compare it to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — a novel I thought showy and pretentious — but the only real similarity is the structure, for McKinnon’s tale weaves together five interlinking stories, from the late 18th century through to 2717 and then goes backwards in time to the beginning.

All the characters live on the same tract of land but at different time periods, a clever device that allows the author to show how development and progress changes a place, not always for the better.

The time periods and characters are:

  • 1796: Will Martin, a 15-year-old cabin boy, onboard the Tom Thumb with real life explorers Matthew Flinders and George Bass when they discover Lake Illawarra, a large coastal lagoon, about 100km south of Sydney, which forms the setting for the rest of the novel.
  • 1822, Hawker: a desperate ex-convict, who commits a horrendous crime against a local indigenous woman.
  • 1900, Lola: a headstrong young woman who runs a dairy farm with her brother and sister, both of whom have indigenous blood and are subjected to horrific racist abuse and violence when a local girl goes missing.
  • 1998, Bel: a 10-year-old girl, who spends one carefree summer rafting on the lagoon with two neighbourhood boys and then gets caught up in a dispute between a violent man and his girlfriend.
  • 2033 & 2717, Nada: a woman whose world begins to crumble apart in a chilling — but believable — dystopian view of the future.

Recurring themes

Throughout each of the five narrative threads, there are recurring motifs and landmarks — the lake, the shoreline, an ancient fig tree and a stone axe — which helps tie the stories together, and many of the characters are related across the generations. It’s fun trying to spot the connections.

But what really marks this novel as an exceptional one is McKinnon’s eloquent and haunting prose. She’s at her best when she describes landscapes and our connection to particular places, as the following quote demonstrates:

Darkness settles on the forest that runs alongside the field. Cornhusks quiver in the cooling breeze. In this place the heat of the day runs into a noisy night full of jumping beasts with luminous eyes. Here, the night does not entomb the earth, instead it breathes alive ghostly shadows, as if the buried are rising up.

Thematically, there’s a lot going on, including environmental destruction, racism and fear of the Other — just to name a few. I loved its subtle exploration of these issues and its examination of the stories that tie us to the land. The message, it would seem, is that the land (and nature) will outlive us all, but we need to learn to live according to its rules. It will always be here, even if we are not. We mistreat it at our peril.

Down through the trees I see the roof of our home. But what makes a home? Not wood, not bricks; safety, surely. The year that has just passed, all the news reports, protests, referendums, were about national security, or about individual safety, but as if the threat was elsewhere. Yet the biggest danger came from our home itself, only we didn’t know what our home was. We thought it was bricks and mortar, but a home is more than that, it is land and sea and sky.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Bill’s at The Australian LegendLisa’s at ANZ LitLovers and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.

This is my 2nd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 12th for #AWW2018

* I scored my copy from the publisher who pitched it to me when it was released last year. I was sent an e-copy but this got lost somehow when I switched to a new Kindle in the summer and I only rediscovered it lurking in the Cloud quite recently. Apologies to the publisher for my tardiness in reviewing!

2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

The 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

The longlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, arguably Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, has been unveiled.

  • A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey (Penguin Random House)
  • No More Boats by Felicity Castagna (Giramondo Publishing)
  • The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Crying Place by Lia Hills (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Last Garden by Eva Hornung (Text Publishing)
  • Some Tests by Wayne Macauley (Text Publishing)
  • Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (HarperCollins)
  • Border District by Gerald Murnane (Giramondo)
  • From the Wreck by Jane Rawson (Transit Lounge)
  • The Restorer by Michael Sala (Text Publishing)
  • Taboo by Kim Scott (Picador Australia)

The shortlist will be announced on 18 June and the winner named on 26 August. The prize is worth $60,000 to the winner.

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

‘The Life to Come’ by Michelle de Kretser

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

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

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

A story in five parts

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

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

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

A laugh-out-loud funny satire

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

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

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

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

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