Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (5)

Okay, so last week I said that post would be the end of the current little run of awards posts – but then I saw the announcement of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists award, and decided we could cope with just one more. I really will try to offer something new (or, do I mean old – time will tell) next week.

This award, as I have explained before, was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. This year is, thus, its 27th. It’s an emerging writers’ award, open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book (novel or short story collection) is published. They don’t have to be debuts, though they often are. Last year’s winner was Diana Reid’s Love and virtue, with Ella Baxter’s New animal and Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks being runners-up.

This year we seem to have three equal winners, with each receiving $5,000:

  • Katerina Gibson’s Women I know (debut short story collection)
  • George Haddad’s Losing face (second novel, just longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award)
  • Jay Carmichael’s Marlo (second novel) (Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey (who also judged last year’s award), plus writers Bram Presser (whose The book of dirt won several prizes including the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction) and Fiona Kelly McGregor (whose Iris was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award). The prize money comes from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

The Herald‘s Melanie Kembrey, writing in the emailed newsletter I receive, said of the winners:

If these books haven’t already found a place on your reading list, they should. Gibson’s short story collection − clever, hilarious and inventive − will have you returning for rereads. Carmichael’s Marlo, the story of a love affair between two men in conservative 1950s Melbourne, will heal and break your heart in equal measure. It’s a slight novel that packs a big punch. Haddad’s Losing Face is alive with the sights and sounds of western Sydney, and deftly tackles the subjects of masculinity, misogyny and sexual violence

The winners, briefly

Most of the information below comes from the announcement in The Sydney Morning Herald (and, presumably, The Age).

Katerina Gibson

Women I know is a debut collection of short stories from an author whose work has appeared in such well-established literary journals as Granta, Kill your darlings, and Overland. She was also the Pacific regional winner of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

The SMH reported that the judges described this collection as showing “astonishing skill with the form – moving easily from actual to fantastical worlds, from sharp, straightforward prose to concrete poetry.”

Gibson herself is reported as saying that she loves the short story form, that “there’s something you can do with a short story that isn’t possible in longer writing. You can take more stylistic risks or try bolder concepts”.

George Haddad

Haddad’s first novel was, in fact, the novella, Populate and perish, which won the 2016 Viva La Novella competition. According to Star Observer, his second novel, Losing face, grew out of his doctoral studies at Western Sydney University “where he was researching the representation of masculinity in contemporary Australian literature, looking to authors like Christos Tsiolkas and Peter Polites for inspiration”. 

The SMH reported Haddad as saying that “It was really important for me to contribute to the conversation and to snapshot characters and situations that reflected contemporary Australian society as accurately as I knew it. The novel was always in me, but it was particularly sparked by my doctoral research on the intersection of masculinities, shame and suburbia.”

Jay Carmichael

Carmichael’s second novel, Marlo, follows his first novel Ironbark. It was about a young gay man coming of age in a small country town, and was, says The Guardian, “so deftly written it made Christos Tsiolkas jealous”. Lisa, in her review of Marlo linked above, writes that it “reveals the hostile environment of 1950s Melbourne for a young man discovering his sexuality when the laws of the land denied him the right to be.  It’s a very powerful, moving novella, tracing the coming-of-age of Christopher, a young gay man escaping the constrictions of the small Gippsland town of Marlo”. 

According to the SMH, Marlo is “a perfectly crafted story” and quotes the judges as saying that it “makes history immediate, every page pulsing with heart and sensuality”.

Have you read any of these books?

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (5)

  1. I was so annoyed Marlo wasn’t on the Miles Franklin long list but no sooner was I bemoaning it than I saw on Instagram that the author had received this accolade and I was absolutely delighted for them! Marlo is an amazing book!

  2. No, but they look fascinating. Thank you for sharing this! I know I’ve not commented much on your posts recently – I’ve got horribly behind on my blog reading and have had to trim it right down (I’m doing a five new ones – five old ones approach at the moment). So sorry about that.

    • Understand completely Liz … I’m not taking on any new blogs as with my downsizing I’m not keeping up with the existing ones. I’m just trying to rotate through those!

  3. I’ve read Marlo, as you know, but I also tackled Losing Face, and abandoned it at page 50 because it seemed to be about Lebanese drug takers written in incomprehensible Western Sydney slang. Grim Australia 101…

      • Oh sure, I don’t argue with that. It’s just I don’t want to read it. (I don’t *yawn* care for middle-class angst either). I read plenty of stuff outside my comfort zone, maybe too much sometimes and I have to read something less confronting to regain my equanimity, but especially with identity politics and resentment, once I’ve got the picture I don’t need to go there again.

      • On a tangent. I read Felicity Castagna’s YA ‘Girls in Boy’s Cars’ based around two girls who grew up in Parramatta. I wasn’t the target audience and didn’t find it gripping – but it was sooo interesting to see the culture change in the area in which I was raised from mid 50s-mid70s. It was tough then, “Westie country” but with a vastly different demographic and lifestyle. A completely changed urban culture to what I knew.

        • I’ve read Castagna’s 2017 novel No More Boats which was really interesting because it tackled the post Tampa hostility of migrants towards refugees which drives the ranting of shock jocks and makes politicians wary of risking the seats in Sydney’s west. (The book was the winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award in the Young Adult Fiction category). It was confronting because the main character’s father mounted a No More Boats protest in his front yard, and then there’s a pile on.
          A YA book well worth reading by adults, I thought.

        • Thanks very much for this insight Gwendoline. I started my life in Queensland but spent most of my teens from the mid-60s to early 70s in north shore Sydney. My government high school’s demographic there too – so I presume the suburban make-up has changed dramatically but it still I’d say upwardly mobile middle class.

        • Oh yes. The North Shore was another world to us Westies. Old money. Wasn’t till I grew up that I realised some of the long-established families were asset rich but cash poor 🙂

        • We ended up there sort of by accident. My father who grew up in Hurstville was posted to Sydney and given a short term house in Roseville so they ended up looking for houses in that region. Then Dad got posted to Bondi Junction but we stayed put and he commuted until he was then moved to the city.

        • I really don’t “know” Hurstville well, as soon after we moved to Sydney and bought on the North Shore my grandparents moved to the North Shore too! I remember their home well, but not the suburb. I could;t tell you a think about it.. Hmmm … how many suburbs are not transformed? (BTW my unmarried aunt who lived with my grandparents hated their decision to move as she loved Cronulla Beach, but she came to love the northern beaches just as well.)

  4. Lol, don’t forget about the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards which were announced last night! It’s a busy time for book awards ATM though. The Australian Book Design Awards (ABDA) winners are being announced Friday, and looking overseas, there’s the International Booker Prize winner early tomorrow Aust time, followed by the Dublin Literary award a day or so later 🙂

    • Thanks Jay … yes, I was out last night so had scheduled this earlier in the day then discovered that its announcement would be on. Can’t do ‘‘em all and it does get more media! As you say this middle of the year period does tend to be busy for awards.

  5. I don’t read enough new fiction to comment on awards. New stuff I only read what I buy, though the library gets in middle of the road new releases as audiobooks sometimes. Jaime Marina Lau (2021), Madelaine Ryan (2021) and Asphyxia (2020) are as close as I get to this award.

  6. Hi Sue, I have read Women I Know and Marlo, and enjoyed both. The short stories in Women I know, were different to the norm and fascinating reading. Marlo, was a sad story, and revealing of the gay life in Melbourne, in the 50s. As you say, there are many awards being given out, and it is good to see that different genres are being considered.

  7. I enjoyed Marlo but it did have some technical flaws I thought. I just read one of Gibson’s short stories online at Meanjin – it was one of the ones where she took some stylistic risks – I’d be tempted to read more.

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