This year’s theme is the sea. With their tongue surely planted firmly in cheek they announced the theme few months ago:
As the Meanjin Tournament of Books becomes increasingly influential in the Australian literary landscape, we’ve decided to raise the stakes even further by turning our critical gaze on that most tempestuous of subjects, the sea.
“Increasingly influential on the Australian literary landscape”? Not that I’ve noticed! But I do enjoy following it. I love the sense of fun that accompanies an also serious attempt to shine a light on an eclectic selection of works related to a theme. For this year’s challenge, framed as “Who writes the best books about the sea and/or rivers?”, the works selected for the shortlist are:
- Breath, Tim Winton (my review)
- The Secret River, Kate Grenville
- Floodline, Kathryn Heyman
- That Deadman Dance, Kim Scott (my review)
- Sea Hearts, Margo Lanagan
- Past the Shallows, Favel Parrett
- Surface to Air, Jaya Savige
- On the Beach, Nevil Shute
An interesting selection (presented in Meanjin’s rather random looking order) of which I’ve read half (Winton, Grenville, Scott and Shute).
Ours is an island continent, so it’s not hard for us to find literature dealing with the sea – from the early days of the convicts (who arrived by sea and many of whom, depending on where they were, tried to escape incarceration by sea) to the present with our world-famous beach culture. The sea both isolates and protects us. It is rarely absent from our news, in one form or another – in politics through issues like asylum-seekers arriving by boat; regarding environmental issues like whaling; or in sports like surfing and the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Ours is also a dry continent, so our need for water has always been a priority issue for us – from the first explorers who searched for inland lakes or seas to modern controversies about the management of our major rivers.
Consequently, pretty well any reading Australian looking at the shortlist is likely to have a favourite book missing from it. What about Marcus Clarke’s convict classic For the term of his natural life? Or Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (a story of immigrants which ends with an astonishing river scene)? Or Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria set in the Gulf Country? Or one of Richard Flanagan’s books? But, let’s not be churlish. Their selection is as good as any if you have to limit it to eight and you want to be a bit diverse – and, in the end, it’s all about having some fun and raising awareness.
Watch this space, as in previous years, for reports on the match as it progresses.
In the meantime, and despite my comment above, is there a sea-or-river-themed book you would love to have seen in the tournament? (Or, if you’re not Australian, a book on the theme from your literature that you’d recommend to the rest of us?). Here’s mine:
Picture the creative serpent, scoring deep into – scouring down through – the slippery underground of the mudflats, leaving in its wake the thunder of tunnels collapsing to form deep sunken valleys. The sea water following in the serpent’s wake, swarming in a frenzy of tidal waves, soon changed colour from ocean blue to the yellow of mud. The water filled the swirling tracks to form the mighty bending rivers spread across the vast plains of the Gulf country. The serpent travelled over the marine plains, over the salt flats, through the salt dunes, past the mangrove forests and crawled inland. Then it went back to the sea. And it came out at another spot along the coastline … (from the first chapter of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria in which she describes the creation of country and the law that goes with it)