Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2013, Round 1

Hmm, when I announced this year’s Meanjin Tournament of Books over three weeks ago, I thought I’d be back before now with an update. However, the last match in Round 1 was only posted a couple of days ago, and I wanted to wait until the Round was finished before reporting back. So, here I am now, with Round 1’s results …

Round 1 Match 1: Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts defeated Favel Parrett’s Past the shallows

Now this is a round between books I haven’t read, so I have no vested interest here. The judge Laura Jean McKay is a writer-performer who has been published in places like Best Australian stories and The Big Issue. She had a hard job – though what Meanjin Tournament judging isn’t hard, do I hear you say? – as both books have received significant critical acclaim since their publication. Sea hearts was shortlisted for this year’s inaugural Stella Prize, while Past the shallows was shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award. Meanjin showed their strategic hand when pitting these two against each other! McKay observes that both “are told through very similar landscapes and lifestyles—though the first is Australian and the latter presumably Scottish. As well as the motifs of island and fishing life, both books are a comment on effects of these lives on women and their sons”. Parrett’s book she says is a “desperately sad and realist story of a rural Tasmanian fishing family torn apart by jealousy and death” while Lanagan draws on the selkie myth to tell her story of women, men and fishing. McKay doesn’t want to make a decision but, she says, “our relationship with the sea is unfair” and so she makes a choice. Lanagan wins by a seal’s whisker for coaxing McKay under to a place from which she never wants to emerge. Hmm!

Round 1 Match 2: Kim Scott’s That deadman dance defeated Kathryn Heynman’s Floodline

Now, I admit that I don’t know Heynman or Floodline, but I reckon it would have taken a super-extraordinary book to beat Kim Scott. Heynman should take comfort from that. She could have lost to way lesser mortals! Judge Peter Taggart is a Queensland-based writer and theatre critic. Unlike McKay, he is very clear about which book is the winner and why. He appreciates much of what Heynman does but says that Floodline, a novel that explores the hypocrisy of Christina morality, recedes from memory while That deadman dance, with its powerful protagonist in Bobby, “lingers, which is why That Deadman Dance must take out this round”. Can’t argue with that. Scott’s wonderful book (my review) is not easy to forget, and will, I suspect, be a hard one to beat.

Photo of Jaya Savige

Jaya Savige, 2009 (Released not the Public Domain by Emma Cox, via Wikipedia)

Round 1 Match 3: Jaya Savige’s Surface to air defeated Nevil Shute’s On the beach

I must say that, while I haven’t read Savige’s book and I loved Nevil Shute as a teen, I’m not surprised by this result. The mysterious judge, First Dog on the Moon, and I are in agreement. However, why First Dog chose Savige is not exactly clear – you can read the adjudication yourself at the link above – so I will just say that while I loved Shute’s dystopian novel when I was 15, I was disappointed when I read it a decade or so ago. Shute is a good story-teller – his books make great movies – but the characters were too stereotyped and the writing a little too prosaic to engage me beyond the basic story. Enough said. So, I must check out Surface to air which is, apparently, a collection of poetry.

(PS First Dog on the Moon is Walkley award-winning cartoonist Andrew Marlton)

Round 1 Match 4: Tim Winton’s Breath defeated Kate Grenville’s The secret river

What a shame that these two books met in the first round – particularly since they are two of the four books I’ve read! Judge Tseen Khoo, a senior adviser in Research Development at RMIT University, had a hard job having to choose between these two great books, but I think, given the “sea” theme, that Tim Winton had to win. How could we not have Winton, our most famous chronicler of things oceanic, in the next round? Seriously, though, Khoo goes into some detail to explain her adjudication. Her decision, rightly or wrongly, comes down to the fact that she’s uncertain whether The secret river “changes conversations in Australia’s present about its past” – and she’d like it to. On the other hand, while she feels that Winton’s protagonist “never grows into measures of self-confidence and joy in life”, the book “left me haunted in an enduring way”. Grenville’s book, she said, felt like a book she’d read before, while Winton’s was unfamiliar and “not comfortable”. Much as I love both books, I think that’s a very good reason for choosing one work of art over another.


And so, we have 4 books – three novels and one book of poetry – going into Round 2:

  • Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts
  • Kim Scott’s That deadman dance
  • Jaya Savige’s Surface to air
  • Tim Winton’s Breath

OK, so I’ve read two of these – Scott and Winton. Watch this space, to find out which two books will be in the finals …

4 thoughts on “Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2013, Round 1

  1. I hadn’t read ‘Surface to Air’ or ‘Floodline’. Like you, I wonder how anything could knock off That Deadman Dance. I would have gone for ‘Sea Hearts’ and ‘Breath’ as well.

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