So now we are getting to the business end of Meanjin‘s tournament of books … and it’s getting exciting. Since I’ve been posting a little more frequently lately, I’ll keep this one short and, hopefully, sweet … after all, there’s still more to come.
It is at this point in the tournament that you start to feel really sorry for the losing book (and author). These are both contemporary authors, and both deserving of accolades, but if we are talking specific book and not body of work (as indeed we are) then I agree with the judge. The secret river is a brave book, and a well-written one. Kate Grenville is an excellent writer. But, London’s Gilgamesh has something special – a tone, a conception, a je ne sais quoi – that gives it the edge in this pairing. This seems to be what the judge, Robyn Annear, thinks too:
If Joan London sketches with a few bent lines and the suggestion of shade, Kate Grenville colours-in right to the edge of the page. Coming to The Secret River after Gilgamesh’s shrugged conclusion is startling, like plunging from sepia into vivid 3-D technicolour.
Semifinal 2: Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career defeated Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony
Well, if Semifinal 1 was a battle between two living writers, the second semifinal was between two dead ones! I’m a little surprised by the result, mainly because Career is generally regarded as the less “polished” of the two, but it was judged by none other than Hilary McPhee so who am I to argue? McPhee recognises Richardson’s achievement and, like the judges before her, finds the judging hard, but in the end she goes for the visceral. And I see no reason to argue against a reader judging on the basis of passion and feeling!
As always, the critical and the visceral response to powerful writing are in play — the tournament is located in my head. Right now, I’m with Sybylla, full of life, bouncing along in her boots made for sparring, outrageous, curmudgeonly, railing against fate. Fortunes is a masterpiece which has had its day and will have it again and again. My Brilliant Career might just be having it now. Go Miles.