Monday Musings on Australian literature: ABR’s 2020 Books of the Year

The Australian Book Review (ABR) recently published its annual books of the year as selected by 34 of its contributing critics and reviewers, who include novelists, poets, historians and literary critics. Most are known to me, but there are a few newbies too.

I know we discussed the pros and cons of lists in my last Monday Musings post but I want to share this because of the variety and for the value-add of the comments made. I am not going to share every “pick” but just a selection of the Australian ones. Most of the contributors named both Australian and non-Australian books in their mix but two deserve a shout-out, says parochial me, for choosing only Australian books: poet John Kinsella (whose memoir, Displaced, I recently reviewed) and new-to-me historian Yves Rees.

ABR presented its list, logically, by contributor, but for us here, I’m going to organise the Aussie picks by form, starting with novels. Here goes …


Book cover

Only one novel was mentioned more than once, Amanda Lohrey’s The labrynth. Literary editor and critic, Susan Wyndham said Lohrey “shows how art can both destroy and heal”. Poet and critic Felicity Plunkett agreed, saying it “examines the trace and wrack of violence and the counterbalancing creativity that might transmute it”. Historian Judith Brett, describing it as being “about suffering and redemption”, writes that “Lohrey’s social observation is acute and the writing is superb, spare, and filled with light and wisdom.” Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loves this book.

The other novels named are:

  • Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron, which historian Billy Griffiths says “conjures the magic of a Studio Ghibli production”.
  • Garry Disher’s three novels set in South Australia’s dry farming country, Bitter Wash RoadPeace and Consolation. Judith Brett loves the plots, and that Disher’s policeman is “warmer and less troubled than the average fictional copper”, but says “the richest pleasure is Disher’s superb evocation of place”.
  • Gabrielle Everall’s Dona Juanita and the Love of Boys is, says poet and academic, John Kinsella, a “unique, ironic, confronting, frequently traumatic, and dissecting verse novel of sexuality and desire, passion but also abusive invasiveness”.
  • Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is, says academic Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, a “slow-burning, eerie tour de force”. Again, Lisa liked this too.
  • Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendours , is “a brilliant, heartbreaking portrait of a damaged but resilient soul” says Susan Wyndham.
  • Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach, “pulled” writer Sarah Walker “into a house vibrating with the rumblings of things going wrong”. “The dreamy, slightly dissociative quality of the writing felt right for this year: hovering above a life that is slipping between our fingers”.
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain offers, says historian Yves Rees, “a refreshing counter-narrative of the goldfields” from Chinese miners’ perspectives.
  • Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, of which the third of nine, Hollowpox: The hunt for Morrigan Crow, has just been published, “balances”, according to author and critic Beejay Silcox, “sophisticated menace, gleeful morbidity, and guileless wonder”.
  • Tara June Winch’s The Yield was part of Yves Rees’ plan to decentre “whiteness in her reading diet”. Winch’s book made her feel “frontier violence … like never before”. It’s a “reminder that stories trump facts when truth-telling about Australia’s past”. Yes!
  • Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world is, writes, academic and critic, Kerryn Goldsworthy, “a detailed study in grief and empathy” and is “utterly original”.

And, for something a little different, author, poet and academic Ali Alizadeh named My favourite work novelist Elizabeth Bryer’s “eloquent translation” of José Luis de Juan’s Napoleon’s Beekeeper, as his favourite work by an Australian author.

Short stories

Book cover

Just one Australian short story collection was mentioned, but it was mentioned four times, Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People. Essayist-critic Declan Fry “liked it even more than Robbie liked Cecilia in Atonement“! Kerryn Goldsworthy liked that its “witty stories are set in a futuristic yet easily recognisable world where the human relationship with technology becomes ever closer and more anxiety-inducing while creating some laugh-out-loud scenarios and lines”. Yves Rees calls it “a romp of dazzling imagination that injected whimsy into my lockdown” and Tony Hughes-d’Aeth liked its “blend of Vonnegut surrealism and Carveresque suburbia”, believing it “is already destined to be a classic”.


Book cover

Poetry was very popular with this set of contributors, with a few collections mentioned more than once. Ellen van Neerven’s Throat, says novelist and academic Tony Birch, shows “yet again, that van Neerven is an important and gifted poet”. Tony Hughes d’Aeth says it’s “the poetry book that spoke most directly” to him in 2020, calling it “wickedly sharp”. Yves Rees admits that “poetry has never been my tipple, but Ellen van Neerven’s Throat converted me. Each line lands like a punch, the whole book an assault on settler complacency”.

Two collections were mentioned twice:

  • Felicity Plunkett’s A kinder sea was named by John Kinsella who described it as “a sinewy book of survival with a deceptive tautness beneath its flows” and poet, critic and musician David McCooey called it “a necessary rejoinder in a year of unkindness, illustrating Plunkett’s ability to write poetry that is both deeply intelligent and profoundly moving”.
  • Jaya Savige’s Change machine is described by poet Sarah Holland-Batt as “an intoxicatingly inventive and erudite collection rife with anagrams, puns, and mondegreens that ricochets from Westminster to Los Angeles to Marrakesh”. John Kinsella calls it “a work of razor-sharp verbal plays and passion for detail shimmering on international wavelengths. It disputes colonial usurpings of language by breaking them down and playing them back in confronting, ironic, and liberated ways. It’s a book of social critique and family, and an incisive investigation of the estrangement and bewilderment many of us feel”. Sounds like it speaks to some of the issues Kinsella cares about in Displaced.

Ten other collections were mentioned but I can’t let this be a tome, so if you are interested, please check the link in the opening paragraph. However, I will share one more, the Indigenous Australian poetry anthology edited by Alison Whittaker, Fire Front: First Nations poetry and power today. Writer and artist A Frances Johnson says the book “dynamically situates seminal poets alongside ascendant talents (e.g. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Lionel Fogarty, Raelee Lancaster, Baker Boy)” and notes the value added by the essays introducing each section.

But now, non-fiction, which, interestingly, formed the bulk of the named books.


Book cover

Of the many many non-fiction books named, only one received multiple mentions and it’s a surprising one because, although by an Australian historian, the subject is the Fens of England. The book is James Boyce’s Imperial mud: The fight for the Fens. Tony Birch calls it “a wonderful example of history writing embedded in the narratives of place”. Novelist, poet and musician describes it as “a surprising and wonderfully slushy next layer in the ecological oeuvre of my favourite Australian historian”, while historian Billy Griffiths, says it “offers a lively and refreshingly antipodean history of the Fens in eastern England”. Fascinating.

Now what to do? There are far too many books for me to mention here, so I’ll have to be selective. Several of course deal with our colonial history and Indigenous issues in general. Billy Griffiths named other histories besides Boyce’s. He liked Grace Karskens’s People of the river: Lost worlds of early Australia about the “lives, cultures, and histories along the ancient waterway of Dyarubbin”, and Tiffany Shellam’s 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award winning book, Meeting the Waylo: Aboriginal encounters in the archipelago, which “searches the silences of colonial archives”.

Meanwhile, the ever-political John Kinsella named Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on stolen land as “an essential and clear statement” that “confronts colonial injustice and decisively shows why Australians should understand and address the history of dispossession, the fact of Aboriginal sovereignty, and continuing connection to country”.

There were some books of more literary subject matter which of course interest me. One is on my TBR, Brenda Niall’s Friends and Rivals. Writer Jacqueline Kent suggests that “this study of four Australian women writers working against the grain of their literary times, accomplishes a great deal”, adding that “her sometimes mordant commentary is particularly enjoyable”. Lisa calls it a must-read for Aussie literature fans.

I could go on. There’s so much – on contemporary politics in this oh-so-political year, on environment and climate change issues, on more esoteric topics like the history of Australia’s bad language, and so on. If you are looking for great reads on contemporary subjects, here is a great place to start. I feel like the proverbial child in the lolly shop, so I’ll end with one that sounds quite out there, Ellena Savage’s Blueberries. It apparently defies description but is, basically, an essay collection. Declan Fry says it:

stole my heart. Not surprising, either, given all the larceny it contains: the theft of land that birthed settler-colonial Australia; the theft of time as one’s twenties make way for their thirties; the cruel coercion and theft of self that marks sexual violence.

I do love a challenging essay collection.

Do let me know if anything grabs you from their selections.

24 thoughts on “Monday Musings on Australian literature: ABR’s 2020 Books of the Year

  1. This is the book I just ordered…..still trying to discover the joy of poetry!
    A poem works like a well oiled machine and we shouldn’t throw in sand to gum up the gears with too much analysis….just enjoy the emotions it awakens in you!
    Indigenous Australian poetry anthology edited by Alison Whittaker, Fire Front: First Nations poetry and power today. Thanks for this lovely pre-holiday post!

  2. I am wary of gushing too much about The Labyrinth because my praise tends to be the Kiss of Death in the Miles Franklin but I was so very pleased to see that Geordie Williamson chose it as his novel of the year.
    I would hate to be on the judging panel that had to choose between Flanagan and Lohrey.

    BTW I have Living on Stolen Land on the TBR but will probably save it for ILW 2021 because at this stage I have only two, that and Miranda Riwoe’s.

  3. For me the grabber is Disher’s trio and its evocation of place in the dry-farming area of SA.
    This instantly summons to mind the ABC’s series called “Rain Shadow” – a drama whereof neither plot nor performance was brilliant, but which caught and held me for the same reason. I’ve not forgotten it and will not do so ..

  4. I went to the launch of Imperial Mud by James Boyce this year through Fullers book store. It was a fascinating topic and the irony of the history of the draining of the Fells coming full circle now with global warming filling them with water again was interesting. I found it interesting that someone chose this topic then wrote about it with such depth. The other two from this list of books on my shelf waiting for 2021 is The Rain Heron and The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. 🐧🎄🎁 All the best for 2021!

  5. I did enjoy most of the stores in Smart Ovens. I found Blueberries unbearable however! So much for lists…
    And best wishes for Christmas Sue to you and your family and everyone else here! May next year be a better one for us all. 2020 has been a horror year hasn’t it!

      • I found it too narcissistic Sue – put it back down the library returns chute ASAP. I’m sure others will like it, but it definitely wasn’t my thing – I didn’t last long with it. The stories in Smart Ovens were genuinely original and I thought several of them were delightful!

        I didn’t last long with the Flanagan either – maybe it’s this year – I’m reading Steven Carroll instead – I feel a need for something more positive!

        • Thanks Sue. I’m not sure it will come my way given all I’ve got here to read and want to read, but it’s interesting to know (just in case.) I do have Smart ovens here, though, and want to read it. (I have her earlier one here too, waiting to read). Wah! Steven Carroll is good – I’ve only read one of his but liked it and would like to read more.

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