Book lists, Book review

7 books for NAIDOC week

In Australia it is currently NAIDOC^ Week, where we celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Normally the week is held in July, but this year, because of Covid-19 it has been moved to November (8-15).

To mark the occasion, I thought I would put together a list of books I’ve read by Aboriginal writers. As ever, links take you to my review in full.

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch (novel, 2019)
Set in the 1960s, this easy-to-read novel tells the story of Odette, an Aboriginal woman, who is trying to protect her light-skinned granddaughter from being stolen by authorities to be raised by a white family.

Too Afraid to Cry

‘Too Afraid to Cry’ by Ali Cobby Eckermann (memoir, 2012)
A brilliantly evocative and heart-rending memoir, told in verse, by a poet of indigenous heritage who was taken from her Aboriginal family and raised by a white one.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant (memoir, 2016)
A heartfelt and deeply personal memoir by one of Australia’s most respected journalists and broadcasters. about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko (novel, 2018)
An award-winning brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel about an indigenous family that has been deeply traumatised by past events and is now grappling with a new challenge: saving their beloved river and Ava’s island from the local mayor’s plans to build a new prison on it.


‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards (autobiography, 2016)
A gorgeous autobiography of two Aboriginal sisters, this short book is also a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of the desert people’s way of life in the 1950s and early 60s and how the coming of the vast cattle stations changed everything.

Taboo by Kim Scott

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott (novel, 2017)
Told in the third person, but largely through the eyes of a teenage girl, this novel focuses on plans to open a modern-day Peace Park, not far from the site of a brutal massacre of Aboriginal people in the late 19th century, as a form of reconciliation.

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch (novel, 2020)
This year’s Miles Franklin winner is a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but also gently examines what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

^ NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’ but it’s now just the name of the week itself. The ‘always was, always will be’ strapline refers to land – ie. that Australia always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

This post nicely ties in with Australian Literature Month hosted by Brona at Brona’s Books.

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? 

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 263 pages; 2019.

Tony Birch is an award-winning indigenous writer with several novels and a handful of short story collections to his name. The White Girl is his latest.

It’s set in the fictional rural town of Deane in an unspecified state of Australia. (The capital city is always referred to as “the capital city”, perhaps in an effort to make this story a federal / universal one.)  It’s the 1960s, the height of the Menzie’s era, when Aboriginal Australians are not regarded as citizens.

Under the 1905 Aborigines Act, their freedom of movement is curtailed and they must apply for a travel licence if they wish to leave their local area. Every Aboriginal child up to the age of 16  is under the legal guardianship of the state (represented, for instance, by the Chief Protector of Aborigines) and authorities are permitted to forcibly remove indigenous children away from their families, a devastating government policy we now refer to as the Stolen Generations.

Living under this Act is Odette Brown, whose own daughter did a runner more than a decade ago, leaving her to bring up her granddaughter Sissy single-handedly. Sissy is now on the cusp of becoming a teenager and is attracting the unwanted attention of the local hoodlums. Odette fears for her safety.

Odette also fears that the new overzealous policeman in town, Sergeant Lowe, is going to take Sissy away on the basis that she’s legally under his guardianship and is fair-skinned (therefore making her easier to adopt out to a white family). Keeping Sissy safe becomes Odette’s one abiding objective, but she finds this difficult because she’s struggling with an ongoing health issue that she’s hiding from everyone. That’s because she knows that if she is hospitalised, Sergeant Lowe will step in and remove Sissy from her care.

This story of an older Aboriginal woman doing everything she can to keep the authorities away from her granddaughter is essentially the entire basis of the plot. Will she succeed or won’t she?

Commercial fiction

I must admit that I was disappointed by this book. I had pigeon-holed Birch as a literary writer (this is the first book by him that I have read), but what I got here was commercial fiction. It’s a very linear story, told in a simple manner, and did not tell me anything I don’t already know about the Stolen Generations. Its simplicity and the easy going entertaining nature of the storytelling brought to mind Bryce Courtenay on more than one occasion.

The Australian literary critic Geordie Williamson apparently labelled the characterisation of this novel as “easy binaries”, for which Lisa of ANZLitLovers took him to task in her excellent review. I haven’t read Williamson’s review (because it is behind a paywall), so I can’t say whether his criticism is fair or not. But what I can say is that the story did feel a bit — no pun intended — black and white to me. It felt too simplified and some of the characters, especially Sergeant Lowe, too caricatured.

But I’ve come to the realisation that I am perhaps not the target audience for this book. It’s the kind of story that anyone could pick up, perhaps people who read infrequently or think books are a waste of time, and they would find it enjoyable and easy to read.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I actually think that it’s vital that this novel attracts as wide an audience as possible because this story, which is rooted in reality and all-too recent (and shameful) Australian history, is an important one to tell. Sue, at Whispering Gums, says it better than me in her review, claiming that “we need more novels like this [… that] are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience”.

So while The White Girl didn’t set my world on fire, I truly hope it’s a commercial success. The more readers who learn about the shocking ways in which Aboriginal Australians were treated by their colonial oppressors for nearly 60 years the better.

I read this book as part of ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, which coincides nicely with NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) here in Australia.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award

The 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

Miles Franklin Literary AwardEarlier today the longlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced. The prize is awarded each year to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.

Unfortunately, because the new official website is so badly designed and so lacking in content I can’t tell you when the shortlist will be announced nor when the winner will be named. I can’t even tell you how much money the prize is worth to the winning author. I can, however, tell you who the sponsor* is, but I’ll be blowed if I’m going to give them a plug when the website doesn’t appear to have us readers in mind — it seems more concerned with promoting itself rather than the award and doesn’t even bother to name the publishers of each longlisted title.

Anyway, now that my rant is over, here are the books on the list in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my review in full and I’ve included availability information for UK readers:

Ghost River by Tony Birch

Ghost River by Tony Birch (UQP)
‘You find yourself down at the bottom of the river, for some it’s time to give into her. But other times, young fellas like you two, you got to fight your way back. Show the river you got courage and is ready to live.’ The river is a place of history and secrets. For Ren and Sonny, two unlikely friends, it’s a place of freedom and adventure. For a group of storytelling vagrants, it’s a refuge. And for the isolated daughter of a cult reverend, it’s an escape. Each time they visit, another secret slips into its ancient waters. But change and trouble are coming — to the river and to the lives of those who love it. Who will have the courage to fight and survive and what will be the cost?
This book is available in the UK in paperback and ebook editions.

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text)
Western Australia, the wheatbelt. Lew McLeod has been travelling and working with Painter Hayes since he was a boy. Shearing, charcoal burning — whatever comes. Painter made him his first pair of shoes. It’s a hard and uncertain life but it’s the only one he knows. But Lew’s a grown man now. And with this latest job, shearing for John Drysdale and his daughter Clara, everything will change.
This book is available in the UK in paperback and ebook editions.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Scribe)
It is the winter of 1985. Hope Farm sticks out of the ragged landscape like a decaying tooth, its weatherboard walls sagging into the undergrowth. Silver’s mother, Ishtar, has fallen for the charismatic Miller, and the three of them have moved to the rural hippie commune to make a new start. At Hope, Silver finds unexpected friendship and, at last, a place to call home. But it is also here that, at just thirteen, she is thrust into an unrelenting adult world — and the walls begin to come tumbling down, with deadly consequences.
Published in the UK  in ebook and audio book. The paperback will be published on 9 June.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

Leap by Myfanwy Jones (Allen & Unwin)
Joe lives-despite himself. Driven by the need to atone for the neglect of a single tragic summer’s night, he works at nothing jobs and, in his spare time, trains his body and mind to conquer the hostile environment that took his love and smashed up his future. So when a breathless girl turns up on the doorstep, why does he let her in? Isn’t he done with love and hope? On the other side of the city, graphic designer Elise is watching her marriage bleed out. She retreats to the only place that holds any meaning for her-the tiger enclosure at the zoo-where, for reasons she barely understands, she starts to sketch the beautiful killers.
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury)
It has been six months since Tess Müller stopped speaking. Her silence is baffling to her parents, her teachers and her younger sister Meg, but the more urgent mystery for both girls is where their mother, Evangeline, goes each day, pushing an empty pram and returning home wet, muddy and dishevelled. Their father, Stefan, struggling with his own losses, tends to his apiary and tries to understand why his bees are disappearing. But after he discovers a car wreck and human remains on their farm, old secrets emerge to threaten the fragile family.
Published in the UK in hardcover and ebook.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr
On a cattle station that stretches beyond the horizon, seven people are trapped by their history and the need to make a living. Trevor Wilkie, the good father, holds it all together, promising his sons a future he no longer believes in himself. The boys, free to roam the world’s biggest backyard, have nowhere to go. Trevor’s father, Murray, is the keeper of stories and the holder of the deed. Murray has no intention of giving up what his forefathers created. But the drought is winning. The cattle are ribs. The bills keep coming. And one day, on the way to town, an accident changes everything.
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.

black-rock-white-city

Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić (Transit Lounge)
During a hot Melbourne summer Jovan’s cleaning work at a bayside hospital is disrupted by acts of graffiti and violence becoming increasingly malevolent. For Jovan the mysterious words that must be cleaned away dislodge the poetry of the past. He and his wife Suzana were forced to flee Sarajevo and the death of their children. Intensely human, yet majestic in its moral vision, Black Rock White City is an essential story of Australia’s suburbs now, of displacement and immediate threat, and the unexpected responses of two refugees as they try to reclaim their dreams. It is a breathtaking roar of energy that explores the immigrant experience with ferocity, beauty and humour.
This book is available in the UK in ebook; the paperback edition can be purchased direct from the publisher.

Salt-creek

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Pan MacMillan Australia)
Salt Creek, 1855, lies at the far reaches of the remote, beautiful and inhospitable coastal region, the Coorong, in the new province of South Australia. The area, just opened to graziers willing to chance their luck, becomes home to Stanton Finch and his large family, including fifteen-year-old Hester Finch. Once wealthy political activists, the Finch family has fallen on hard times. Cut adrift from the polite society they were raised to be part of, Hester and her siblings make connections where they can: with the few travellers that pass along the nearby stock route – among them a young artist, Charles – and the Ngarrindjeri people they have dispossessed. Over the years that pass, and Aboriginal boy, Tully, at first a friend, becomes part of the family. Stanton’s attempts to tame the harsh landscape bring ruin to the Ngarrindjeri people’s homes and livelihoods, and unleash a chain of events that will tear the family asunder. As Hester witnesses the destruction of the Ngarrindjeri’s subtle culture and the ideals that her family once held so close, she begins to wonder what civilization is. Was it for this life and this world that she was educated?
Not available in the UK, but you can buy direct from the publisher.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue, but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.
Only published in Australia; due to be published in the UK on 2 June.

Note that Lisa Hill has a round-up post, including links to reviews, on her blog AnzLitLovers.

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

* Update on 6 April: I now realise this isn’t the sponsor, but the trustee of the award, but my point about self-promotion still stands.