Stella Prize and Christina Stead Prize for Fiction 2021 Shortlists announced

With two shortlists being announced on the heels of each other, I thought I would combine them into one post, so here goes …

Stella Prize Shortlist

The Stella Prize shortlist was announced this morning and is, I suppose, a bit of a surprise for me – though I haven’t read the books so I have nothing to base that on. I was hoping Ellen Savage’s Blueberries, Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile and Elizabeth Savage’s Smart ovens for lonely people would be in the list as they are on my TBR or I’m keen to read them. However, besides the Stella judges, I have it on good authority from other bloggers that many of the books below are excellent reads, so … on with the show … and I’ll see what I can read!

The shortlist

Book cover

Stella’s Executive Director, Jaclyn Booton makes a political point – which is very Stella!:

As recent events have shown, there’s significant cultural change needed in this country to ensure women’s voices are heard. Books can be a tool for positive social change – I encourage everyone to seek out these books and delve into the stories and perspectives within.

The judge’s chair, Zoya Patel, says:

“The 2021 Stella Prize shortlist truly demonstrates the immensity of talent in Australian women and non-binary authors. This shortlist is varied, diverse, and reflects on urgent themes across the gamut of human experience.

To read the judges on each of the shortlisted books, do check out the Stella website.

The winner will be announced on April 22.

NSW Premiers Literary Awards

Unlike the Stella, these awards comprise several categories, but I’m just going to share the two fiction ones.

Book cover

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

  • Kate Grenville’s A room made of leaves
  • Carol LeFevre’s Murmurations (my review)
  • Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach
  • Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words
  • Charlotte Wood’s The weekend (my review)
  • Evie Wyld’s The bass rock

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

  • Erin Hortle’s The octopus and I
  • Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach
  • Sean O’Beirne’s A couple of things before the end
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile
  • Madeleine Watts’ The Inland Sea

For more categories in these awards, and links to her own and other bloggers’ reviews, please see Lisa’s post on them.

Any comments?

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2019 Winners; and Vale Les Murray AO (1939-2019)

I decided to replace today’s Monday Musings with an awards announcement, because the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were being announced tonight, and they comprise a swag of prizes, many being of particular interest to me. But, then I was shocked to hear that Australian poet Les Murray had died, and I couldn’t let that pass either, so you have a double-barrelled post tonight!

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards

I will only report on a selection of the winners, but here is a link to the full suite. And, if you are interested to know who the judges were, they are all listed on the award’s webpage.

Michelle de Kretser, The life to comeBook of the Year: Billy Griffiths’ Deep time dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (my review).

People’s Choice Award for Fiction: Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (my review)

The Douglas Stewart prize for Non-Fiction: shared between Billy Griffiths’ Deep time dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia and Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeThe UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (my review). I love that in his thank you speech, he spoke about the time he spent with Les Murray in 2014. Murray, he said, shared his poem Home Suite, telling Dalton not to be afraid to go home. Going home, he said, is exactly which he did in his novel.

Multicultural NSW Award: Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs.

Translator’s Prize (presented every two years, and about which I posted recently): Alison Entrekin.

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsSpecial Award: Bherouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains (translated by Omid Tofighian). This award is not made every year, and is often made to a person, but this year it went to a work “that is not readily covered by the existing Awards categories”. The judges stated that it

demonstrates the power of literature in the face of tremendous adversity. It adds a vital voice to Australian social and political consciousness, and deserves to be recognised for its contribution to Australian cultural life.

Some of you may remember that I recently wrote about taking part in a reading marathon of this book.

Congratulations to all the winners – and their publishers – not to mention the short- and long-listees. We readers love that you are out there writing away, and sharing your hearts and thoughts with us. Keep it up!

Vale Les Murray

As I said in my intro to this post, I was shocked to hear this evening that one of Australia’s greatest contemporary poets, Les Murray, aka the “Bard of Bunyah”, had died. He was only 80.

His agent of 30 years, Margaret Connolly, confirmed the news, saying that

The body of work that he’s left is just one of the great glories of Australian writing.

Les Murray, Best 100 poemsI don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

Black Inc, released a statement saying

Les was frequently hilarious and always his own man.

We mourn his bundles of creativity, as well as his original vision – he would talk with anyone, was endlessly curious and a figure of immense integrity and intelligence.

Although I don’t write a lot about poetry, Les Murray has appeared in this blog before, most particularly when Mr Gums and I attended a poetry reading featuring him. What a thrill that was. He was 75 years old then, and the suggestion was that these readings were probably coming to an end due to his health. I have just two of his around 30 volumes of poetry – The best 100 poems of Les Murray and an author-signed edition of Selected poems, both published by Black Inc – and dip into them every now and then.

His poetry was diverse in form, tone, subject-matter. He could be serious, fun, obscure, accessible. You name it, he wrote it. He was often controversial, being, as Black Inc said, “his own man”! In other words, he was hard to pin down, not easy to put in any box. David Malouf, interviewed for tonight’s news, said that he could be “funny”, he could be “harsh”, but that he said things “we needed to hear”. And that, wouldn’t you say, is the role of a poet, particularly one considered by some to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature?

If you would like to find out more about him, do check out his website, and if you’d like to read some of his poetry (though it would be better to buy a book!), you can check out the Australian Poetry Library. Lisa ANZLitLovers) has also written a post marking his death.

Meanwhile, I’m going to close with the last lines of a poem called “The dark” in his Selected poems (which he chose in 2017 as his “most successfully realised poems”):

… Dark is like that: all productions.
Almost nothing there is caused, or has results. Dark is all one interior
permitting only inner life. Concealing what will seize it.

Seems appropriate for today.

Bruce Pascoe, Dark emu, black seeds: Agriculture or accident? (Review)

Bruce Pasco, Dark emuIndigenous author Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu, black seeds: Agriculture or accident? was my reading group’s October book, and a very interesting read and discussion it turned out to be. It’s not a simple book to discuss and really got us thinking, eliciting a variety of responses, though we all agreed with Pascoe’s basic premise that we Australians need to revise our understanding of, and beliefs about, Australia’s history. How could we not?

Publisher Magabala’s website says Dark emu

argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession.

Pascoe, they continue, contends that indigenous “systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history”.

A case to be argued

Dark emu is, then, a book that is determined to argue a case – and herein lies its challenge. In his Introduction, Pascoe sets out his main thesis which is that Aboriginal economy was “much more complicated … than the primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle we had been told was the simple lot of Australia’s First People”. He asks:

Could it be that the accepted view of Indigenous Australians simply wandering from plant to plant, kangaroo to kangaroo in hapless opportunism was incorrect? (p.12)

Now, there are a couple of things here that disconcerted me. Firstly, emotive language like “hapless” doesn’t help when you want to present a logically argued case. And, anyhow, “hapless” is not a word I would ever apply to hunter-gatherer societies. Being hunter-gatherers doesn’t, to my mind, mean they don’t know their environment and don’t use this sense and knowledge in their hunting and gathering. But secondly, I didn’t comprehend his argument that the early settlers had no legitimate right to seize the land because Aboriginal Australians were practising agriculture:

In denying the existence of the economy they were denying the right of the people their land and fabricating the excuse that is at the heart of Australia’s claim to legitimacy today. (p.17)

Arguing this seemed to me to imply the corollary that if indigenous Australians did not have this economy, if they were indeed simply hunter-gatherers, then taking the land would be legitimate? But surely the fundamental truth is that, regardless of how indigenous people were living and using the land, it was their home and they had a right to be treated as the owners? Being on the path to sedentism, practising agriculture and aquaculture, didn’t, in my mind, make their ownership of the land more legitimate. Did it? I needed to understand this a bit more so, unusually for me, I set off looking for discussions of the book before completing my review, and I found the answer.

It was in a discussion of the book by Amy McQuire at NewMatilda.com. McQuire wanted to know why Australia had “so readily embraced” Dark emu, and whether it meant Australians must now “embrace the issue of sovereignty and treaty”. She quotes Professor of Law Megan Davis (from It’s our country: Indigenous arguments for meaningful constitutional recognition and reform):

“It mattered whether claiming a territory was done by settlement or whether by conquest and cession, because each had differing implications for the reception or not of British law.

“Settlement occurs when the land is desert and uncultivated and it is inhabited by backward people.

“Conquest means that it is a forcible invasion of occupied land and cession means that there is a treaty over occupied land. In the case of conquest, the laws of people conquered apply until the Crown or other foreign power laws apply, and in regard to cession, a treaty is entered into but the Crown or foreign power abrogates it.”

She writes “When lands are cultivated, then they are gained through conquest or they are ceded by a treaty”. And when lands are conquered or ceded, it still has laws of its own.

“Until the Crown asserts sovereignty and actually changes them ‘the ancient laws of the country remain’.”

Ah, so now the penny dropped. It’s all about the “law” (European law, that is), not about “reason” or “logic”. Pascoe makes reference to “Australia’s claim to legitimacy”. He discusses the way colonisers can fabricate history and be reluctant to credit colonised peoples (e.g.. p.61) for their achievements, and in so doing underrate sovereignty. But it didn’t properly click with me. I consequently didn’t see why he was arguing so forcefully for this “new” vision of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australian life. I was reading it more as an interesting, and yes very important, contribution to our understanding of Australian history, and I was seeing it as a way of correcting the historical record, and therefore of restoring the “truth” and, critically, “Aboriginal pride in the past”. But I didn’t fully grasp the import of the distinction he was making (and why, accordingly, the odd emotive word or long bow crept in.)

Convincing the doubters

However, this little niggle didn’t stop my being thoroughly engaged by the book. I loved the way Pascoe interrogates records from the past, particularly the journals of explorers such as Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell, to prove that Aboriginal Australians* were developing a sedentary culture based on intensification of agriculture and aquaculture. They managed the land, “manipulating the landscape” to produce crops for harvesting, corral animals for hunting, and trap fish for capturing and spearing. They irrigated, they built wells and dams, they stored food for future use. They built dwellings and lived in village groups. And they had been doing so for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years making them among the world’s earliest, if not the first, agriculturalists (depending on whose “dating” you believe).

Pascoe, however, doesn’t stop at his argument that they practised agriculture. He also contends that they practised it sustainably, using a variety of techniques, including what archaeologist Rhys Jones called “firestick farming”. He argues that there’s much about Aboriginal practices that we could learn and use today, and that modern Australian agriculture could be more sustainable, particularly in our environmentally-uncertain-climate-changing world, if we focused our efforts on Australian plants and animals.

The depth of Pascoe’s research is mind-boggling, and is perhaps partly explained by his comment in that NewMatilda.com article that academics had criticised his previous writing, which apparently used his own words. He decided “to use an authority that they respected … the explorers and the settlers… you know the ‘heroic’ first settlers.” (Oh dear!) But he also draws on a wealth of other research from anthropologists (like WEH Stanner), archaeologists (like Rhys Jones), historians (like Gill Gammage and Rupert Gerritsen), and others. The book is heavily but not intrusively footnoted (I do like a footnote!), and contains an extensive bibliography.

While I would never have called myself a doubter needing to be convinced, it is true that, for all my interest in the subject, my knowledge of indigenous history and culture was rather out of date. Dark emu should, really, be read by all Australians, and at 156 pages of text, it is not a big ask.

Several of my blogger friends have reviewed this book, including historians Janine (Resident Judge of Port Phillip) and Yvonne (Stumbling Through the Past), as well as teacher-librarian Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and biographer Michelle (Adventures in Biography).

* Terminology, terminology! I note that Pascoe mostly uses the term Aboriginals.

Bruce Pascoe
Dark emu, black seeds: Agriculture or accident?
Broome: Magabala Books, 2014
175pp.
ISBN: 9781922142436

My literary week (1), in a sense

I say “in a sense” because my reading has been slow this week as Mr Gums and I have been getting back up to speed after our Lake Eyre trip. However, in terms of the literary world, much has been happening and I thought I’d share some with you, documenting it at the same time for my own future benefit.

Gillian  Mears

I’ll start with the sad news, the death of the wonderful Australian writer, Gillian Mears, who had suffered from multiple sclerosis for over 20 years. Her disease was so debilitating that she appeared in 2011 before state (NSW) hearing on the Rights of the Terminally Ill. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted from her submission in 2013. Here is part of that submission:

Not a day goes by that I don’t wish that I were dead. It would be so much easier than living in a body beleaguered now by advanced multiple sclerosis. I’m in my 17th year of living with this disease [she was diagnosed at the age of 30] and I’ve very nearly had enough.

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

Foals’ bread cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

I had not been aware of her condition until she won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012 for Foal’s Bread and was unable to take part in the post-announcement panel, which I attended, because she needed to conserve her energy for other commitments. I first read her (The Mint Lawn) with my reading group, and we loved it, but that was way before blogging. However, I did review Foal’s bread, which also won the Miles Franklin award, here. She was a fine writer, and this book, in particular, is one you don’t easily forget.

Her death represents a tragic sad loss for Australian literature, because it was too early – she was only 51. But, given the situation she found herself in, it was clearly for her, in the end, a release. Vale Gillian Mears.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards

The annual NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced earlier this week, as it usually is, to coincide with the Sydney Writers Festival Week. You can read all the winners on the State Library of NSW’s site, so I’ll just share the few that are particularly relevant to my blog’s interests:

  • Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: Melinda Bobis’ Locust girl: A love song (I have reviewed her Fish-hair woman, which I loved, but for a review of this novel you can check out Lisa’s of ANZLitLovers)
  • UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (Adams being another of our writers who died too young): Sonja Dechian’s An astronaut’s life (also longlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award)
  • Indigenous Writer’s (biennial) Prize: Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu (which is on my radar, but has also been read by that voracious reader, Lisa! as well as by Michelle at Adventures in Biography)
  • Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction: Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning (which I really MUST read). (Interesting that poet Douglas Stewart’s name is used for the non-fiction prize. He did write some criticism and autobiography too but they’re not what he’s known for.)

There are also awards for Poetry, Scriptwriting, Multicultural writing, among others, but I’ll just leave it at these for today.

Sydney Writers Festival

I’d love one day to get to the Sydney Writers Festival, but its timing in May is always tricky for me, so I end up relying on ABC RN and bloggers for my fix. I’ll share just two examples for you to check out if you are interested:

  • Jonathan Shaw of Me fail, I fly has written multiple posts, one for each day, of his experience of the Festival. Start at Day 1, and work your way through from there. I have quickly scanned his posts but will be adding my comments later. Thanks as always, Jonathan, for helping me enjoy this festival vicariously.
  • ABC RN’s Books and Arts Daily program usually broadcasts – live or later on – several events from the Festival, but I’ll just share the link for their live panel session which I listened to live. The topic was to discuss the “pleasure and challenges of writing and reading in a globalised world”. The panelists were Australian comedian Magda Szubanski (author of Reckoning), Dutch author Herman Koch (whose upcoming novel is Dear Mr M), and French writer Marie Darrieussecq (whose latest novel is Men: A novel of cinema and desire). It was a fascinating discussion in which the writers teased out a range of issues. To give one example: they discussed Herman Koch’s The dinner and the idea that even where a book’s themes may seem universal – such as parental love for children – reactions/responses can vary greatly depending on the culture of the reader.

The scandalous Lady W

Joshua Reynolds painting of Lady Worsley

Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To end on something completely different and not entirely literary is the story of Lady Worsley (born Seymour Dorothy Fleming, 1758-1818) as told in the BBC telemovie The scandalous Lady W, which my local Jane Austen group viewed this weekend. She was apparently the inspiration for Sheridan’s play School for Scandal and was painted by Joshua Reynolds.

Lady Worsley was involved in a high profile adultery (“criminal conversation”) trial brought by her husband against her lover. However, the story was far from straightforward, her adultery being “commanded” by this very husband who turned out to be a voyeur who preferred to watch his wife have sex with others than do so himself. The inevitable happened and she eloped with one of these lovers. This is a story of women-as-property, of women-not-having-access-to-their-own-propety, and of a woman who was brave enough to stand up for herself. She didn’t win, entirely, but my, did she make her point, as the film shows. The story reminded me that although women – western ones anyhow – have more legal rights now, this idea of “you are mine” is surely behind much of the domestic violence that still occurs.

The main reason my group watched this movie was because Lady Worsley lived during Austen’s time (Austen’s dates being 1775-1817) and lived part of her life near Austen’s home. What, we wondered, did our Jane, a keen reader, know of Lady Worsley? It was the talk of the town.

Kate Jennings, Moral hazard (Review)

Kate Jennings, Moral HazardHow often do you read a book that connects in some ways with something you’ve recently read or thought about? Kate Jennings’ award-winning Moral hazard, my latest read, links pretty directly to our discussion about autobiographical fiction in my Monday Musings post on Robert Dessaix two weeks ago. Dessaix, you may remember, criticised Garner’s The spare room (and other works) arguing she was just writing her life, but defended his own autobiographical fiction because he changed things around. Garner, though, argues that in her novels she shapes and orders, plays with time, examines motives etc. What is all this about? Why does it matter? The reverse – calling something non-fiction that is in fact fiction – does matter, I think. You all know the cases, I’m sure. But, if a writer draws from his or her life and calls it fiction, does it matter? Really, does it matter? Well, in this case it does matter, because, while Jennings is another of those writers who draws closely from her life, there are parts of the story that could be very tricky, legally, if they were, in fact, “fact”.

I’ve reviewed two of her works here before – Snake, her first work of autobiographical fiction, and Trouble: The evolution of a radical, which she describes as her “fragmented autobiography”. Jennings, like Helen Garner, is a fearless writer, and I love her for it, so when Text Classics published Moral hazard, her second novel, I was ready and waiting.

Moral hazard is about a woman whose husband is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and who, to obtain the money needed for his care in health-care expensive USA, gets a job as speechwriter for a mid-level investment bank on Wall Street. The wife’s name is Cath (not Kate) and the husband’s name is Bailey (not Bob Cato, the name of Jennings’ husband). Kate Jennings, though, did work as a speechwriter on Wall Street. Fictional Bailey and real Bob are both artists/designers, and both men were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but Bailey’s end has a particular drama to suit Jennings’ purpose.

From its very start, in fact, it’s clear that Moral hazard has been carefully written and structured, despite its closeness to Jennings’ life. Take the title, for example, and its pointed word play. Economically, “moral hazard occurs when one person [or organisation] takes more risks because someone else bears the cost of those risks”. Jennings, in the Wall Street component of her novel, explores this very condition with great – should I say scary – clarity. It is particularly interesting to read her description and analysis of escalating greed, because it is set nearly a decade pre-GFC. It’s all there, though, and the cracks were showing even then. For Cath the moral dilemmas are real. Not only does she need to rationalise her personal moral values as a lefty feminist against her financial district job, but she has to be the carer (also decision maker) for her increasingly ill husband. This is complicated care that encompasses not only economic and physical demands, but also emotional, mental and philosophical. And this care also has, not surprisingly, a moral dimension.

The novel (a novella, really) is told in short chapters that alternate, though not rigidly so, between Cath’s life with Bailey and her work life. It is told first person, and Cath tells us, on the first page:

I will tell my story straight as I can, as straight as anyone’s crooked recollections allow. I will tell it in my own voice, although treating myself as another, observed, appeals.

In other words, it’s from life, but there is artifice. The novel opens with this brief introductory chapter, which is followed by a chapter describing her first meeting Mike. He also works at Niedecker Benecke investment bank, and also, like her, is a square peg in a round hole, though he’s been doing it for longer! He becomes somewhat of a teacher to her, as well as a sounding board, and a welcome like-mind.

From this set up, we flash back to Cath, her husband Bailey and his diagnosis, and we don’t return to the bank until Chapter 6. The story continues chronologically following Cath. We watch her work out how to work within the company, and we feel her pain as she tries to manage Bailey as he becomes less and less stable and predictable. Cath chronicles the hedge-fund crisis – the increasing greed, the living on (the belief in) “zero capital and infinite leverage” – in parallel with Bailey’s decline. A true coincidence, perhaps, but a writing choice too.

I loved Jennings’ writing. It’s clear and direct, but has a poetic sensibility. She describes the bank as:

a firm whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA and Las Vegas. A firm where women were about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag.

She describes the financial district, New York’s skyscrapers:

I looked at them and didn’t see architecture. I saw infestations of middle managers, tortuous chains of command, stupor-inducing meetings, ever-widening gyres of e-mail. I saw people scratching up dust like chickens and calling it work. I saw the devil whooping it up.

She sees the New York Fed, after bailing out hedge-funds, behaving “as if afflicted with Alzheimers” sticking with deregulation, letting the industry police itself, despite evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s decline is inexorable, he moves from home to an institution. He has a “living will” but it is ignored, so, she writes:

Scar on my soul be damned. He’d asked me to take care of it when the time came. Now I would. Mrs Death.

But far be it from me to spoil Cath’s story – except to say that as well as tackling Wall Street, Jennings also quietly buys into the euthanasia debate.

The good thing about Text Classics, besides their existence and excellent price, is that each classic is accompanied by a commissioned introduction. For Moral hazard it is by sport and business journalist Gideon Haigh. He concludes his introduction, which focuses on the financial aspect of the novel, with the statement that “Modern working life is replete with unpalatable compromises and perverse incentives”. Cath would probably say that this is true of life too. Moral hazard is a rare book in the way it looks not just at our contemporary globalised financial world, but more widely at work, our relationship to it, and the moral choices we make in work and in life. Drawn from life, yes, but a very worthy winner of the 2003 Christina Stead Award for Fiction!

awwchallenge2016Kate Jennings
Moral Hazard
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2015 (orig. pub. 2002)
155pp.
ISBN: 9781922182159

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Mark Henshaw, The snow kimono (Review)

Mark Henshaw, The snow kimonoI wasn’t far into Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono before I started to sense some similarities to Kazuo Ishiguro. I was consequently tickled when, about halfway through, up popped a secondary character named Mr Ishiguro. Coincidental? I can’t help thinking it’s not – but I haven’t investigated whether Henshaw has said anything about this. I’m not at all suggesting, however, that The snow kimono is derivative. It’s certainly not. It’s very much its own book, one that manages to somehow marry an Ishiguro-like “floating” and rather melancholic pace with a page-turning one. On the surface it’s a mystery story, but in reality is something far more complex. Interested? Read on …

Before I discuss the novel, though, I do want to say a little about the author who is not well known. The snow kimono is Henshaw’s second novel. His first, Out of the line of fire, was published in 1988, and was well-received critically, garnering a couple of awards. The snow kimono won this year’s New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for fiction. Henshaw has worked as a translator, but retired in 2012 as a curator at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which is where I attended the launch of this book late last year. (PS I lied a bit about this being Henshaw’s second novel. He has also written two collaborative crime fiction novels, under the name J M Calder, with another local writer, John Clanchy, whose Six I’ve reviewed here)

And now, back to The snow kimono. It is set in Paris and Japan, with a brief foray to Algeria, and spans the late 1950s to the late 1980s. It concerns the lives of a Frenchman, the retired Inspector Jovert, and two Japanese men, a former Professor of Law, Tadashi Omura, and his old schoolfriend, the writer Katsuo Ikeda. The novel has a complex structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, and between the two main storytellers, Jovert and Omura.

The story commences in Paris, 1989, with the recently retired Jovert receiving a letter from a woman claiming to be a daughter he didn’t know he had (from a relationship in Algeria some thirty years previously). Coincidentally – or is it? – he is confronted by Omura, who has his own tortuous daughter-who-is-not-really-my-daughter story. The novel comprises the stories told by these two men: Omura of his life in Osaka and friendship with the narcissistic Katsuo, and Jovert of his experience in Algeria as a French “interrogator” and of his wife and son. Early on we discover that Omura is the guardian of Katsuo’s daughter because Katsuo is in gaol for an undisclosed (until much later) crime. Complex “truths” about parents and children, and about about who is really whom, underpin the plot’s narrative. There are lies galore …

“the future changes everything”

This novel is a captivating read – for its language, story and ideas – but it demands concentration. There are many characters, and relationships can be obscure or seemingly convoluted. However, as the two men talk, we realise that, while on the surface a plot is slowly being unravelled, Henshaw’s real interests are deeper. How do you live with the lies you have kept, or told yourself? What is memory, and how does it relate to truth? How meaningful is truth at any one time when “the future changes everything”. What does this mean?

Two-thirds though the novel, Jovert reflects

that he had spent most of his life listening to people, sifting through what they said, weighing, assessing. Trying to fit things together. But life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve. What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together. And sometimes not even then.

This is a clue to the paradoxical nature of this novel, and to one of the reasons why it reminds me of Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s books, like Henshaw’s novel, tend to be about memory, its reliability and what it does or doesn’t tell us about who we are. Of course, memory is not an unusual theme for novelists, but it’s the tone, the use of foreshadowing, and the ground-shifting, the pulling of the rug from under us one way and then another, that connected these two authors for me.

So, in The snow kimono, it’s not only Omura and Katsuo who have been living on secrets and lies, but also Jovert. Confronted by the letter and by Omura’s challenge to him that he should meet his daughter, he starts the process of forcing “his memory to surrender what he has spent decades trying to forget”. He had seen memory as a “sanctuary” that can bind people together, but he now sees this is “an illusion”. Memories can in fact “change, be destroyed, be rewritten”, they can be “shuffled, reshuffled”. And so, the man who, during the Algerian War of Independence, had coldly and brutally encouraged others “to recall things they might have otherwise forgotten. Or said they had” now has to confront the “truth”.

The problem is that:

Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time’s throat. It concertinas life’s slow unfolding into time-less event, sifting the significant from the insignificant in a heartless, hurried way. It unlinks the chain. But how did you know what counted unless you let time pass?

Memory is not absolute. It’s mutable, shifting with time, with perspective, with maturity.

I found The snow kimono a deeply satisfying book for this very reason. It suggests that nothing is fixed and that, moreover, as Katsuo cynically says to Omura, there is no “completion”. What does all this say, though, about how we are to live, because surely, this is what the book is about.

The novel’s opening paragraph states that “there is no going back”. This idea is repeated in the narrative: Jovert states after a brutal time in Algeria that “truth can’t be undone”, and Katsuo says after other brutality that “you can’t undo what you’ve done”. However, Jovert does come to believe that “perhaps it was not too late to atone”. What do you think?

There is so much more to this book that I might be driven to write another post …

Mark Henshaw
The snow kimono
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
396pp.
ISBN: 9781922182340

Carrie Tiffany, Mateship with birds (Review)

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Book Cover (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Carrie Tiffany is on a roll. Last month her second novel, Mateship with birds, won the inaugural Stella Prize, and this month it won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It has also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Many bloggers* have already read and reviewed it so, once again, I’m the last kid on the block, but I have finally got there.

Like her gorgeous first novel, Everyman’s rules for scientific living, Mateship with birds is set in rural Victoria in the past, this time, the early 1950s. Its central characters are the lonely, gentle dairy farmer, Harry, whose wife has left him, and his also lonely neighbour, Betty, who has brought her fatherless children to the country and who works in the local aged care home. The novel takes place over a year, a year that is paced by the life-cycle of a kookaburra family which Harry watches and documents in the spare righthand column of his old milk ledger. These notes, which are interspersed throughout the novel, are delightful and poetic, albeit brutal at times:

They work in pairs
against a fairy wren.
Dad buzzes the nest,
the wren throws herself on the ground
to draw him away.
She pluckily performs her decoy
– holding out her wing as if it is broken.
A small bird on the ground
is easy picking.
Club-Toe finishes her off.

They also provide commentary on the main story which is, as you’ve probably guessed, a love story. It is, however, no traditional romance. The boy and girl, Harry and Betty, are well past their youth and are cautious, given their previous experiences of love and relationships. They reminded me a little of Kate Grenville‘s rather dowdy protagonists in The idea of perfection. They care for each other in all sorts of practical ways: Betty cooks meals for Harry and tends his health, and Harry looks out for Betty and her children, fixing things when he can. A sexual tension underlies all their interactions – over many years – but it’s not openly expressed.  (“When he’s invited to tea he leaves immediately the meal is finished, as if unsure of what happens next”). Harry gradually takes on the role of “father figure” for Michael. However, when Michael becomes interested in a girl and Harry decides to pass on some “father-son” knowledge (“an explanation of things – of things with girls? Of … details of the workings”), including some rather specific physical advice regarding women, Betty is not impressed.

It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it, but there’s something about Tiffany’s writing that makes it feel fresh, original. Part of it stems from her particular background as a scientist and agricultural journalist. Again, like her first novel, she grounds the story in her knowledge of farming life, but not in so much detail as to be boring. Rather, her descriptions give the novel its underlying rhythm – the landscape and the creatures inhabiting it (the kookaburras, owls, magpies, and so on); the milking; the driving into town; the way country neighbours help each other out; the sense of life going on regardless of the little dramas, the kindnesses and the cruelties, that occur. The writing is evocative but has a resigned and rather laconic tone that fits the rural setting.

Although a short book – a novella, really – it’s richly textured. There’s the main narrative drive which flips between Harry and Betty and includes flashbacks to their past, occasional dialogue, gorgeous descriptions (“The eucalypts’ thin leaves are painterly on the background of mauve sky – like black lace on pale skin”), and lists of plants, animals, medications, and so on. Interspersed with this main narrative are Harry’s kookaburra log, Betty’s notebook, Little Hazel’s nature diary, and Harry’s letters to Michael. And all this is layered with imagery involving mating, mateship, birds and humans. You can imagine the possibilities that Tiffany teases out from these. It’s all carefully constructed but doesn’t feel forced. It just flows.

In other words, this is a clever book, but not inaccessibly so. It’s generous, not judgemental. It’s also pretty earthy, with regular allusions to and descriptions of sex. If I have any criticism, it’s  in the persistent references to sexuality. At times, I wanted to say, “ok, I get it, sex – in its beauty, carnality, and sometimes cruelty and brutality – is integral to life” but I kept on reading because … of the writing. I love Tiffany’s writing. I mean, how can you not like writing like this description in which Harry compares Betty to Michael’s girlfriend Dora:

Not like Betty. His Betty is heavier, more complicated. Betty meanders within herself; she’s full of quiet pockets. The girl Dora might be water, but his Betty is oil. You can’t take oil lightly. It seeps into your skin. It marks you.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeI also kept reading because I wanted to know what it was all about. Why was Tiffany writing this particular story, I kept thinking. For some reviewers (see the links at the end), it is primarily about family, for others it is about the relationship between men and women, but for Tiffany it’s about desire. I can see that it is about all these things, but here’s the thing, the book starts with the description of four attacks by birds on humans followed by a description of cockatoos damaging crops. This, together with the sexual imagery, the frequent references to animal behaviour and to humans’ relationships with animals, suggests to me another theme to do with the nature of life, with the nature of our relationships with animals, and with how we accommodate the animal versus the human within ourselves. I’ll give the final word to the birds:

Mum, Dad, Club-Toe
break off their
preening,
squabbling,
loafing,
to attack.
They lose themselves in the doing.
I struggle to tell them apart.
Knife-beaked,
cruel-eyed,
vicious;
there is no question
they would die for the family
– that violence is a family act.

This book packs a punch!

* You may like to read the reviews written by Lisa (ANZLitLovers), John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante), Matt (A Novel Approach) and Kim (Reading Matters).

Carrie Tiffany
Mateship with birds
Sydney: Picador, 2012
208pp.
ISBN: 9781742610764

Stop Press: New writer Gretchen Shirm shortlisted

Having cried wolf, book cover

Bookcover (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

I haven’t been reporting all the various Australian literary awards announcements here since Lisa at ANZLitLovers has been doing that so ably, but I have just noticed that Gretchen Shirm’s collection of short stories, Having cried wolf, has been shortlisted for this year’s UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

I reviewed this a few months ago and was mightily impressed. I wish Shirm the best of luck but, whatever happens, it’s a great achievement to have been listed. Meanwhile, I suggest you check it out…

JM Coetzee wins the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award

The Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were announced last night, on the eve of the Brisbane Writers’ Festival.

The main award was won by JM Coetzee with Summertime, the third book in his fictionalised memoirs. The first two were Boyhood and Youth. I have this in my TBR but it has yet to arrive at the top! However, since it also won this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Award, I clearly need to start levitating it.

As with the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Age Book of the Year awards, these awards comprise a whole swag of prizes. I won’t list them all here but, given recent posts on this blog, I would like to mention the David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Writer. This year’s was won by Jeanine Leane with a book called Purple Threads which is apparently a funny and sad tale of a household of indigenous women. I look forward to seeing it in print.

And, on a personal front, my Kindle landed today. I have downloaded Ford Madox Ford‘s The good soldier (because that’s the next classic I want to read) and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (because a Jane Austen has to be among the first). More anon …

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2010

Document Z bookcover

Document Z cover image (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

The literary awards season is well and truly here downunder … and last night, just before the opening of this year’s Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for 2010 were announced.

The  full list of winners can be found here, so I’ll just name the critical ones, from my point of view (with links to relevant posts of mine):

  • Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: J.M. Coetzee, Summertime
  • Script writing award: Jane Campion, Bright Star & Aviva Ziegler, Fairweather Man
  • UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing for Fiction: Andrew Croome, Document Z
  • The People’s Choice Award: Cate Kennedy, The World Beneath
  • Special Award: The Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature

Not a bad result from my point of view. I have been meaning for some time to dip into the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature properly. I wonder at myself sometimes really. What have I been doing posting on various offerings of the Library of America, when I could (should) in fact be choosing some choice items from this volume to share with you. I really must (want to) rectify this. (That said, another Library of America offering will be winging its way to you soon!)

Anyhow, I’m not going to ramble on about the Awards, but I would like to make one comment, and that is that the People of NSW seem to like what our judges tend to dismiss! Last year, they voted for Steve Toltz’s wonderful A fraction of the whole and this year they’ve gone for Cate Kennedy’s The world beneath. Both these books were longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in their years, and were well reviewed around the traps, but both were not shortlisted. An interesting state of affairs, n’est-ce pas?