Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (4)

The current winners of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists were announced recently. I haven’t seen much publicity, so given I’ve reported on this award for the last two years, I thought I’d do it again this year. It’s a worthwhile award, and one that has seen writers go on to develop good careers.

Just to recap, the award was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. 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 debut novels, though they often are – like this year’s three winners.

The winners, as announced by Robert Moran, a culture reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (winner, $8,000) (see Brona’s review)
  • Ella Baxter’s New animal (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2022 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, and the 2021 Readings Prize ) (see Kim’s review)
  • Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award) (see Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey; critic and poet Thuy On; and a 2011 SMH Best Young Australian Novelist Gretchen Shirm (whom I’ve reviewed). The number of awards used to vary, but in recent years they seem to have settled on three. 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 candidate books:

There were clear recurring thematic interests, including consent, cultural identity and the environment; many were coming-of-age tales; and others experimented with different forms and styles. It was tough selecting the winners and many of the entrants have bright futures.

She also commented on the importance of prizes like this:

It’s tough being a novelist, let alone an emerging one. There are the occasional unicorn stories: novel selected for Oprah’s book club gets adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster and sets author up for life. But these stories are rare. The reality of life as a writer, even more so a new one, is writing around day jobs, trying to flog your manuscript, being at the mercy of publishers, and then releasing your novel and watching this thing that has consumed you disappear into the depths without leaving a ripple.

This is why, she says, this award was created all those years ago.

The winners, briefly

You can find interviews with the three authors in the Robert Moran article linked above.

Diana Reid (26)

According to Kembrey, Love and virtue is “a piercing examination of university campus culture” or, as Brona puts it, “a campus novel about sex, power and consent”. Very today themes, eh? This novel has been making quite a splash amongst bloggers and readers, including Daughter Gums to whom I gave it for Christmas.

Brona said that “It’s an easy, quick read, but layered with oodles of moral grey areas and nuanced, contemporary issues”. She appreciated the way the novel deals with the complexity of consent, and said that Reid “does not shy away from contradictory behaviours or the realities of modern life as seen through the eyes of young adults”, although she did feel it was more a novel for the age-group it’s about than for older readers. Reid wrote this when she was 24, just after she left university.

Ella Baxter (36)

Of New animal, Kembrey says its “caustic tone … will crack you up”. Kim would agree. She loved this book, describing it as “a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally”. Literally, because the protagonist works in a funeral parlour. Kim suggests that the novel is part of the new genre of “Millennial angst” but, she says, it’s not “as navel-gazing as most of those” and is “highly original”. I am tempted.

Michael Burrows (33)

Kembrey describes metafictional Where the line breaks as “a playful take on academia and history”. Lisa found it an absorbing, unconventional novel that “interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend”.  It has, apparently, three narrative threads, which include one focusing on PhD student Matt, and another on his WW1 hero, Alan Lewis. The playful take on academia comes partly through the footnotes which, I’m told, readers should not ignore. It sounds like my sort of book.

These three books appeal to me, as being meaty but not overly earnest. I can’t help noticing, though, that it doesn’t look like a particularly diverse list.

Have you read any of these books?

Stella Prize 2022 Winner announced

The 2022 Stella Prize winner was announced tonight and it’s not a surprise, as several of us in the blogosphere rather thought that

Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear

would be the winner. Indeed, I was so confident I took it with me to Melbourne this month, fully intending to read it. But, there was not much reading time, and it took most of my time there to finally finish 2020’s winner, Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (my review). I only read a couple of pages of Dropbear before I realised that I’d better read my reading group book for this week’s meeting. (It’s the next review you’ll see!) So, Dropbear is still languishing on the TBR, but you may remember from my shortlist announcement that Brona has reviewed it.

The book is a combination of prose and poetry, and the judges described it as:

a breathtaking collection of poetry and short prose which arrests key icons of mainstream Australian culture and turns them inside out, with malice aforethought. Araluen’s brilliance sizzles when she goes on the attack against the kitsch and the cuddly: against Australia’s fantasy of its own racial and environmental innocence.

The panel chair, Melissa Lucashenko, said that it will take you “on a wild ride” that is “simultaneously comical and dangerous”. All this confirms my desire to read it, because I enjoy writers who play with traditions, conventions and myths to encourage us to look again at who we are and what we do.

The quotes above, plus one by Stella’s Executive Director, Jaclyn Booton, can be found on the Stella website (linked below). There is also a quote from Evelyn Araluen’s acceptance. She commented that she’d been following the Stella for the length of her writing aspirations, and had hoped one day to write a novel that would win it. She never dreamed Dropbear would be that winner. She also said:

I’m deeply interested in the lives, histories, and dreams of women and gender diverse writers in Australian publishing, and it’s an honour to be recognised by a prize designed to champion those stories. There aren’t words to explain how thrilled I am to win.

Just to remind you, the judges were author Melissa Lucashenko, as chair, with her co-judges being writer, poet, essayist Declan Fry; author-across-all-forms Cate Kennedy; memoirist and activist Sisonke Msimang; and essayist and screenwriter Oliver Reeson

There’s more on the anouncement on the Stella website.

Any comments?

Jess Hill, See what you made me do (#BookReview)

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do

I took me a long time to read Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella award-winning See what you make me do, partly because I bought the e-book version which I read in fits and starts and partly because of its content. As the Aussies among you will know, Hill’s book is an intense, thorough discussion of domestic abuse. It’s not an easy topic but it is a critical one because if statistics tell us anything it’s that the situation in Australia is not improving.

There’s no way I can share the wealth of information or fully convey the impressive depth of research Hill has done. However, I’ll do my best to give a sense of what this book does, and how Hill does it. She starts on definition, explaining that wherever possible, she replaced the term “domestic violence” with “domestic abuse” because “in some of the worse abusive relationships, physical violence is rare, minor or barely present”. “Domestic abuse” is the term now used by UK police because it undercuts the assumption that abuse is only serious if it’s physical.

Those of you versed in trauma will appreciate a fundamental challenge Hill faced, which, as she describes it, is that “power imbalance built into the journalist–source relationship: the journalist usually has ultimate power over what gets published”. For survivors of abuse, who have suffered at the hands of power, this could effectively mean abusing them all over again. So, Hill “wanted to flip that and give the power back to them. If this process was not a positive experience for them, there was no point in doing it”. So, she gave “them the chance, wherever possible, to review their story, suggest revisions or ask for things to be deleted – especially if there were safety concerns”.

In her Introduction she lays out the road map:

In the chapters that follow, we will travel through an extraordinary landscape, from the confounding psychology of perpetrators and victims to the Kafkaesque absurdity of the family law system.

And so, in eleven chapters, Hill traverses domestic abuse from multiple angles, grounding it in case studies – usually with names changed – which force us to put a face on the accompanying theories and statistics.

Hill starts by establishing coercive control as a fundamental aspect of domestic abuse. Our understanding of its techniques, she writes, come from the Cold War and US Air Force social scientist Albert Biderman’s recognition of how the tools of coercive control had been used on American POWs in North Korean camps. From here she analyses how the same techniques are used by intimate partners – almost always male, though there is a chapter on women who abuse – to create a threatening atmosphere that will convince the victim of the perpetrator’s omnipotence, the futility of resistance, and the necessity of compliance. The aim is total dominion (which is exactly what Wemyss’ wanted over Lucy in the prescient Vera). Hill describes the techniques in detail, and it’s chilling.

The best word for this book is forensic, because Hill burrows deep. She confronts us with our uncertainties – why did she stay, for example – and makes us see just how deep the degradation goes. She explains how a concussed women can look drunk and so be missed by the police as the victim. She shows how a traumatised woman can come across as irrational and erratic in court versus her cool, calm, well-presented abuser. She interrogates the role of patriarchy, and how it damages men, as well as women. Feminists, as many of us know, were the first to recognise this.

She looks at disabled women. She looks at children and the way they are used and treated by abusers in power plays. Indeed, her chapter on children and the courts is horrifying. She details the gradual weakening of the Gough-Whitlam-established family court system through successive, mostly conservative, governments. She shows how some of this weakening has been underpinned by a particularly egregious theory called Parent Alienation Syndrome. She reveals the perfect storm created for children caught up in a family court softened by law and bolstered by such spurious theory.

And, she devotes a chapter to First Nations women, who are at significantly greater risk of abuse than their non-Indigenous peers. The stories just keep on piling up as you read, stories that you can barely countenance, except that anyone with any semblance of awareness will know they are true.

It’s tough going but it’s valuable reading, because for all I thought I knew, there were details I didn’t know or appreciate. Hill asks some pertinent questions, like:

In the years I’ve spent writing this book, I’ve found that it’s the questions we don’t ask that are the most confounding: Why does he stay? Why do these men, who seem to have so much hatred for their partners, not only stay, but do everything they can to stop their partner from leaving? Why do they even do it in the first place? It’s not enough to say that perpetrators abuse because they want power and control. Why do they want that?

Or, as “Survivor Queensland” put it, ‘I want people to stop asking “Why does she stay?” and start asking “Why does he do that?”‘

Some of the answers lie in “traditional notions of masculinity – particularly male entitlement” which are at “the core of men’s violence against women”. But Hill identifies more questions, such as “what are the different reasons men have for needing to dominate their partners?” and what is going on in their minds that makes them “sabotage the lives of their partners and children – to the point where they destroy even their own lives?” These are “critical parts of the puzzle” that are “missing from our public conversations about domestic abuse”. 

Hill titles her final chapter “Fixing it”. She notes Australia’s excellent record in tackling public health problems. “From thwarting the tobacco industry to criminalising drink-driving, Australian governments have shown they are willing to burn political capital to save lives”, she says, and have achieved results. She then shares some of the actions currently being taken – but, of course, this was just before the pandemic so I suspect some of them have fallen by the roadside.

In 2017, she writes, a KPMG report concluded that although “significant progress” had been made against the “National Outcomes”, not only was there no evidence of reduction in “domestic violence”, in fact, the evidence suggested that “the incidence and severity of domestic and family violence” was increasing. However, lest we close the book feeling completely hopeless, Hill concludes with examples of two recent programs that have worked. We just need government will and support to back more such targeted programs. It can be done.

Janine (Resident Judge) also reviewed it.

Jess Hill
See what you made me do: Power, control and domestic abuse
Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc, 2019
416pp.
ISBN: 9781743820865 (eBook)

Stella Prize 2022 Shortlist announced

The 2022 Stella Prize shortlist was announced, yesterday. But, as I had just posted my review of Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, I decided to hold my announcement post over for a day. Those of you keenly interested will have seen it, but at least I will have it for my records.

Just to remind you, the judges are author Melissa Lucashenko, in the chair, with her co-judges being writer, poet, essayist Declan Fry; author-across-all-forms Cate Kennedy; memoirist and activist Sisonke Msimang; and essayist and screenwriter Oliver Reeson

And remember, this year poetry was added as a form eligible for the prize – and, it seems to have been a popular decision because, well, look at the …

The shortlist

  • Eunice Andrada, Take care (poetry)
  • Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (poetry) (TBR, Brona’s review)
  • Anwen Crawford, No document (memoir) (Lisa’s review)
  • Jennifer Down, Bodies of light (novel)
  • Lee Lai, Stone fruit (graphic novel)
  • Elfie Shiosaki, Homecoming (memoir) (Lisa’s review)

So, two books of poetry, two memoirs and two novels (one being a graphic novel.) Three of the four I thought might have made it to the longlist – Araluen, Crawford, and Down – have now made it through to the shortlist. The announcement email I received from Stella said the list spanned “fiction, nonfiction, social history, a book-length essay, a graphic novel, and – eligible for the first time in 2022 – poetry”.  It also noted that “half of the shortlisted books written by debut authors.”

I will try to read at least the one I have on my TBR before the winner is announced, but I’d actually like to read all of these.

Melissa Lucashenko says that the shortlist:

is big on emerging voices writing in unconventional ways –  from regions, positions, and literary forms that transcend the mainstream. These authors are writing back, insisting that ‘other’ lives – First Nations lives, poor women’s lives, queer lives, and Filipina lives – matter on the page just as they do in everyday affairs. Although the shortlisted authors vary widely in location, gender, and culture, they all share two things. First, all six shortlistees undertake the essential work of any artist: paying attention to what is happening around them, and interrogating that experience. Second, the authors have produced powerfully beautiful literature, sacrificing no art in their unflinching focus on justice, inclusion, and truth-telling. It has been a great pleasure as well as an honour, to shine a light on these six brilliant talents.”

There’s more on the shortlist on the Stella website.

The winner on 28 April.

Any comments?

Gabrielle Carey, Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (#BookReview)

I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim (nee Mary Annette Beauchamp, 1866-1941) back in the 1990s when Virago republished her first novel, Elizabeth and her German garden. Published in 1898, this novel, writes Gabrielle Carey, was an immediate hit, turning her, almost overnight, into one of England’s favourite authors. It was certainly a revelation to me.

I went on to read several of her books, including her pseudo-autobiography All the dogs of my life, over the next decade. I was completely charmed by her wit and humour together with her insights into love and marriage, and their impact, in particular, on women’s lives. Anyone who’s a Jane Austen fan couldn’t fail, I’m sure, to see von Arnim’s ancestry. I wrote one of my early Monday musings posts on her.

Book cover

What, a Monday Musings on Australian literature on Elizabeth von Arnim? It was cheeky I know – and I admitted it at the time. Yes, she was born in Australia, but yes, she left here, never to return, when she was three. However, I just wanted to write about her. And so, it seems did Gabrielle Carey, who opens her hybrid memoir-biography with

When I first discovered Elizabeth von Arnim, I found, for the first time, a writer who wrote about being happy. So much of my reading life – which essentially means so much of my actual daily life – had been spent reading miserable literature because, let’s face it, most literature is miserable.

Carey isn’t clear about when she discovered von Arnim in relation to when she started working on this book, but says that once she discovered von Arnim, she became something of a “von Arnim evangelist”. She was “incensed” that von Arnim had been so completely forgotten. I could relate to this, because I felt the same. Unfortunately, my evangelising didn’t go far because no-one in my reading group had heard of her when I recommended that we do one of her novels as our “classic” this year. More on that, then.

If you are among those you don’t know this writer, you might be surprised to hear that several biographies have been written about her, including three in the last decade. I have two of them, Jennifer Walker’s more traditional literary biography, Elizabeth of the German garden: A literary journey, published in 2013, and Gabrielle Carey’s. The third is Joyce Morgan’s The countess from Kirribilli, published in 2021. Just this should tell you something about the fascination with which this woman is held, this woman who published 21 books, whose first cousin was Katherine Mansfield, and who knew EM Forster, had an affair with HG Wells and married (among others) Bertrand Russell’s brother. She had a life – and then some!

OK, so I’ve written quite a bit about Elizabeth von Arnim, but not much about Gabrielle Carey’s book. Only happiness here is the third sort-of literary biography that Carey has written, the other two being Moving among strangers (my review) about Randolph Stow and her family’s connection with him, and Falling out of love with Ivan Southall about her losing faith in this childhood writing idol. Carey, it seems, likes to explore her subject matter through the prism of her own life and experience (a bit like Von Arnim did with her fiction). This is not to everyone’s taste, but when done well, like, for example, Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review), it can be both engaging and effective.

I loved White’s book for the way she explored Maud Praed (daughter of novelist Rosa Praed) through their joint experiences of deafness, neatly marrying information with activism. Carey’s book has a very different driver, one I foreshadowed in the opening quote from her book. A few pages on, Carey makes her goal clear:

What did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?

She wanted to know “the secret to her enviable ability to enjoy life” because it was clear from her novels and journals that she did, despite the many trials she faced. Indeed, the book’s title is the sign von Armin put over the door of her Swiss chalet. Carey argues that von Arnim “was, perhaps unknowingly, one of the earliest proponents of positive psychology”. Carey was so serious about her goal that amongst the end-matter in her book is a page titled “Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles of Happiness”. There are nine, but if you want this bit of therapy you are going to have to read the book yourself! However, to whet your appetite, the first one is “Freedom”.

Carey tells her story – I mean, von Arnim’s story – chronologically, regularly interspersing her own reflections and experiences in relation to von Arnim’s. An early example occurs when she writes about von Arnim’s first marriage to the much older Count von Arnim, and her novel inspired by this, The pastor’s wife (albeit the Count was not a pastor!) In this novel, von Arnim writes that “Ingeborg in her bewilderment let these things happen to her”. Carey immediately follows this with:

How well I understand this experience of letting things happen. All my life I had let things happen to me, often without my consent.

And she then spends nearly two pages exemplifying this from her life. Mostly this approach of Carey’s was interesting, even illuminating, but there were times when it felt a little too self-absorbed. However, this didn’t overly detract from what is a thoughtful introduction to von Arnim and her work. In under 250 pages, Carey manages to tell us something about almost every one of Von Arnim’s books – how each one fit into her life, what aspects of her life it drew from, and how it was received at the time. In that same number of pages, she conveys the richness of von Arnim’s long and event-filled life. I’m impressed by how succinct and yet engaging the book is, and am not surprised that it was shortlisted for the 2021 Nib Literary Award. I should add here that while the book is not foot-noted – its not being a formal “literary biography” – there are two and a half pages of sources at the end.

So, what did I, as a reader of von Arnim, get from this book, besides a useful introduction to her complete oeuvre? Well, firstly, I got a deeper understanding of how much of her oeuvre drew from her own life, and from that I got to better understand her attitude to marriage and to the relationship between men and women, and to her exploration of, as Carey puts it, “the clash between the concept of the ideal and the real”. I also got to understand more about her times, its literary milieu, and her place within it – and to see how we can never really foretell which writers will survive and which won’t. When von Arnim died, obituary writers were sure she’d not be forgotten. They also believed she’d be far more remembered than her shorter-lived cousin, the above-named Katherine Mansfield. But …

… as Carey sums up, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however, rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”, because, wrote English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy”. These, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. We are talking, of course, of Modernism, which, as Carey puts baldly, “didn’t believe in happiness”, a value that has carried through to today.

I will leave this here, because I want to return to it in a separate post. Meanwhile, I’d argue that while von Arnim’s books might be witty, they are not simplistic. They come from an astute and observant mind that was able to comment both on the times and on universalities in human nature. They may not have Modernism’s bleakness, but they aren’t light fluff either. Carey’s simple-sounding quest has, I think, touched on something significant.

Brona (This Reading Life) enjoyed this book, which she ascribes to the bibliomemoir genre.

Gabrielle Carey
Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
249pp.
ISBN: 9780712262975

Stella Prize 2022 Longlist announced

Apologies to those of you who look forward to my Monday Musings post, but I’ve gazumped this week’s edition, because the Stella Prize longlist was announced this evening, and I do like to report on that. I attended the online streamed announcement.

As I say every year, I don’t do well at having read the Stella Prize longlist at the time of its announcement. In recent years the most I’ve read has been two (in 2019). Last year it was none. I don’t expect much better this year.

I was, however, doing better at reading the winners, having read Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds (2013), Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka (2014), Emily Bitto’s The strays (2015), Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (2016), Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love (2017), and Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The erratics (2019). But, that’s slipping too. So far, I’ve missed 2018’s winner, Alexis Wright’s Tracker, am still reading 2020’s winner, Jess Hill’s See what you made me do, and still have last year’s winner, Evie Wyld’s The bass rock on my TBR.

The judges are a complete changeover from last year’s with the excellent, multi-award-winning Melissa Lucashenko taking the role of chair. Her co-judges are writer, poet, essayist Declan Fry; author-across-all-forms Cate Kennedy; memoirist and activist Sisonke Msimang; and essayist and screenwriter Oliver Reeson. As always, attention has been paid to diversity on the panel.

Oh, and I should note that a new form has been added to those eligible for the prize this year, single-author poetry collections. An excellent decision – as it turns out.

The longlist

  • Randa Abdel-Fattah, Coming of age in the War on Terror (nonfiction)
  • Eunice Andrada, Take care (poetry)
  • Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (poetry) (TBR, Brona’s review)
  • Paige Clark, She is haunted (short stories)
  • Anwen Crawford, No document (memoir) (Lisa’s review)
  • Jennifer Down, Bodies of light (novel)
  • Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (novel) (TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Lee Lai, Stone fruit (graphic novel)
  • SJ Norman, Permafrost (short stories)
  • Elfie Shiosaki, Homecoming (memoir) (Lisa’s review)
  • Lucy Van, The Open (poetry) 
  • Chelsea Watego’s Another day in the colony (nonfiction) (Bill’s post)

I didn’t have a strong feel for what might be on the list, but did guess four that ended up there – Araluen, Crawford, Down and Watego. I should have thought of Heiss. On the other hand, although I haven’t read it yet, I was hoping to see Melinda Bobis’ The kindness of birds. However, as I haven’t read any of the longlist, I’m not going to judge. But I will say that the panel discussion that followed the announcement made powerful arguments for their choices. It might be a cliched thing to say, but it looks like a brave list that is likely to challenge readers.

In the lively and very enjoyable online discussion, the panel made some overall comments, as well as discussing individual books. They said that the flavour of the year was poetry. There are, in fact, three on the list. Interestingly, there are only two novels, but there is a graphic novel, and there are two short story collections, so fiction is still well represented. That leaves four works of nonfiction to round out the twelve.

The panel was “excited to have all genres in the list”, and made the strong point that it’s the message that matters more than the medium. It was very clear, as the evening progressed, that message was a critical issue for this panel, that works that interrogate and fiercely tackle the serious matters confronting us, are what most attracted them – whether from a political, or personal point of view, or both. As one who loves “message” in literature, I appreciate this. However, lest all this sound too bleakly serious, they also made the point that although the books are all “quite challenging”, in most there’s also wit, if not, in some, laugh-out-loud humour.

Finally, I’ll close with judging panel chair, Melissa Lucashenko’s opening comments:

In the aftermath of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, Stella writers are not holding back… Australian women and non-binary writers are producing innovative, sophisticated literature in very difficult times. It has been a great privilege to read and assess their work for the 2022 Stella Prize.

To read more, do check out the Stella website.

The shortlist will be announced on 31 March, and the winner on 28 April.

Any comments?

Julie Koh, Portable curiosities: Stories (#BookReview)

I’ve decided to try reading more audiobooks this year, despite not being a big fan of this mode of consuming books. I’m a textual person. I like to see the print on the page, how it is set out. I like to see the words. I like to see how the names are spelt. Given my reservations and the fact that I expect to “read” in short stints, I thought short stories might be the way to go. I think they are, though my overall reservations still stand.

My first book was one that was well-reviewed when it appeared in 2016, Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. It won the SMH Best Young Novelists Awards in 2017, and was shortlisted for several other awards, including the Steele Rudd Award for Short Story Collections (Queensland Literary Awards) and the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards). I checked to see who won the Steele Rudd Award that year, because Koh’s collection is great. It was clearly a strong year. There were co-winners, Elizabeth Harrower’s wonderful A few days in the country, and other stories (my review) and Fiona McFarlane’s High places, which I’ve also been wanting to read.

So, Portable curiosities. I had no idea what this collection was about, and was delighted to find a lively, engaged and engaging interrogation of contemporary Australia, particularly as it intersects with Chinese-Australian experienceIt is highly satirical, penetrating the myths and assumptions that underpin our shaky existence.

The order of stories in a collection is always worth thinking about, and it is notable that this twelve-story collection opens with a story called “Sight” which satirises immigrant Chinese mothers who are so ambitious for their children to fit in and achieve success that they discourage any sort of individuality or creativity. Many of the stories have a surreal or absurdist element. They start realistically but suddenly we find ourselves in another realm or dimension. “Sight”, starting off the collection, is an example. Here, we suddenly find our young narrator having a “third eye” painted on her navel. This eye represents her imaginative self, so her mother organises for it to be removed in an operation.

From here, having satirised Chinese immigrant culture, Koh moves on to critique, with biting clarity, aspects of Australian culture, from misogyny (in “Fantastic breasts” where our male narrator looks for “the perfect set of breasts to have and to hold” at a conference on “The difficulties of an objective existence in a patriarchal world”) to crushing, soulless workplaces that pay lipservice to their employees’ mental health (in “Civility Place”). “Satirist rising” mourns the end of the civilised world, with a bizarre travelling exhibition that aims to ensure the continuation of the “landscapes of our mind”, while the cleverly titled “Cream reaper” (you have to read it to see what I mean) tackles foodie culture, turning foodie-ism into an extreme sport. Along the way, it also skewers multiple aspects of our capitalist culture, like the housing bubble, the commercialism of art, institutional banking, and the plight of the tortured writer.

As a retired film archivist, I loved “The three-dimensional yellow man” which takes to task the stereotyping of Asians on film. There’s “no need for a back story”, our one-dimensional (yellow man) Asian actor is told, “you’re evil”. He belongs, after all, to the “cruel, meek blank-faced race”. Again, the satirical targets are broad-ranging from film festival panels to Pauline Hanson – and embarrassingly close to the bone.

Many of the stories, like “Two” and “Slow death of Cat Cafe”, explore success, materialism and power, while the 2030-set “The Sister Company” exposes a cynically commercial “mental health industry” through the application of androids to the problem. All these stories, despite, or because of, their laugh-out-loud moments and forays into absurdity, hit their mark. A couple, such as “Two” and “Cream reaper”, felt a bit long, even though I thoroughly enjoyed their imagination, but this might have been a product of listening rather than reading, so I’m reserving judgement on this.

My favourite, however, was probably the last, “The fat girl in history”, which opens on a reference to the popular (in Australia) CSIRO Total Well-being Diet. The narrator is Julie, and, although this story also moves into surreal realms, there is a strong sense of autofiction here. Remember, though, that autofiction is still fiction so … Our narrator is a fiction-writer experiencing a crisis of confidence. She has written about a depressed girl, androids and the future – all of which appear in this collection. She’s been told that she writes like Peter Carey, though she admits she’s never read him. She reads an article telling her that contemporary literature is “in the throes of autofiction”, that the “days of pastiche are over”, and then informs us that she’s going to write autofiction titled “The fat girl in history.” Australians will know that Peter Carey has written a short story, “The fat man in history”, and that his debut collection named for this story started his stellar career. I will leave you to think about the portents and threads of meaning Koh is playing with here, but her outright cheekiness in daring us to go with her made me laugh – particularly when I saw where she went.

Portable curiosities deals with serious, on-song subjects, and I so enjoyed seeing her address them through satire, absurdity and surrealism with a healthy dose of black humour. At times the lateral thinking in these stories, not to mention Koh’s interest in satire, reminded me of Carmel Bird. A most enjoyable collection, that was expressively read by Lauren Hamilton Neill.

Julie Koh
Portable curiosities: Stories
(Read by Lauren Hamilton Neill)
Bolinda Audio, 2018 (Orig. pub. 2016)
5hrs 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489440808

Christine Balint, Water music (#BookReview)

Christine Balint’s Water music was a joint winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella Prize with Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day (my review), but they are very different books. Meany’s is contemporary, perhaps even near-future, and tackles some up-to-the-minute issues regarding fact, truth and authenticity, while Balint’s is historical fiction, a coming-of-age story, albeit a very specific one.

Set in 18th century Venice, Water music tells the story of a young orphan, Lucietta, who is raised by a fisherman’s family until she’s 16 years old when she leaves to live in Derelitti Convent, one of Venice’s many musical orphanages for girls. This interested me, because when my children were young we loved listening to an audiocassette telling the story of Vivaldi teaching in a Venetian orphanage for girls, but I’d never researched it further.

Balint explains her inspiration in the Acknowledgements and on her website. The book, she says, draws on “the unique history of the musical orphanages” in Venice, which existed from around 1400 to 1797, and were run by and for women. They took in girls of any class or background, if they passed an audition, and provided them with an opportunity to pursue a professional career when this “was rarely possible elsewhere in the world”. In particular, they gave impoverished girls an opportunity “to earn an income and establish a career or save for a dowry—enabling them to forge a fruitful life”.

The obvious question is, how could impoverished girls learn enough music to pass the audition? There must have been a way, but in our Lucietta’s case, she was born illegitimately and placed in a “foundling home”. From here she was given to a wet-nurse, the woman who became her mother, but her “real” father had left instructions and money for her musical education. This sets her on the course that leads her to auditioning for and being accepted at Derelitti.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Lucietta, who has learnt the violin, is musically talented and that her parents have been conscientious about fulfilling these instructions. Her mother, Lucietta tells us, “believed that if she followed these instructions, my musical and marital future would be assured”. Notwithstanding this, the question the novella poses is, what is her future to be? A few options are available to, or possible for, Lucietta, ranging from the future her mother doesn’t want for her, being a fisherman’s wife, to one dreamed of by the orphanage girls of being married to a nobleman from the “Golden Book“.

The story is told first person by Lucietta, so we see it all through her eyes. She’s a sensitive, intelligent young woman who has loved her fishing family, which includes a brother Lionello, so it’s not surprising that she is initially disconcerted when she leaves her family to live in the convent. However, this seems to be a kind place were the nuns and music teachers are supportive and the other girls are friendly. There’s not a lot of drama here, which is counter to your typical historical fiction. Instead, we travel along with Lucietta as she absorbs the influences, ideas and life around her, as she grows and changes, and as she meets, under the eyes of her mentors Maestra Francesca and the Convent’s priora, her suitor and potential husband, Don Leonardi.

Lucietta has decisions to make … and the good thing is that she is supported in those decisions without pressure. Well, there is a little pressure, including from one of her Convent friends, the sweet but one-armed and therefore in those times unmarriageable Regina. She had been sent to the Convent by her father who didn’t want to waste money on her. This is a world, after all, where “a girl is only as worthwhile as her marriage prospects”. Through Regina, Lucietta sees all the

Unwanted, unmarriageable girls through centuries. Here in this vast echoing building. Creating sublime music, their souls lost to time. Their music remaining.

There is a little political barb here regarding all those women who created and produced in the past – but anonymously. These convent girls may have had more opportunities than many, but they were not individually remembered. Some may see it as anachronistic when Lucietta sees value in “restoring the music, in finding the music, trying to recover their stories”, but then again, why wouldn’t someone back then have thought of doing this?

Balint’s writing is lovely. She brings the settings Lucietta experiences – her fishing home and then her convent one – to life, and creates in Lucietta an engaging, believable character.

Water music didn’t excite me quite so much as Helen Meany’s book did, perhaps because it’s a gentle book that explores a familiar story, albeit in a different and thoroughly interesting historical setting. However, because of that setting, because of its feminist underpinning, and because the writing is sure, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a good – and not bleak – story.

Theresa also enjoyed this book.

Christine Balint
Water music
Lidcombe, NSW: Brio Books, 2021
119pp.
ISBN: 9781922267610

Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (#BookReview)

Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day is the third Viva La Novella winner that I’ve read and posted about on my blog, the other two being Julie Proudfoot’s The neighbour (my review) and Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). All are memorable reads, and do this award proud – and no, I am not being paid to say this.

Announcing Meany’s win, Books and Publishing quoted the prize organisers who said that “at the intersections of art, politics, identity and representation, this darkly funny novella shows us a world that is weird, disturbing and all too familiar”. Previous Viva La Novella winner, Jane Rawson, calls it “a fresh, funny and delightfully weird take on authenticity and the people who manufacture it”.

Both use the word “weird”, but if you don’t normally do “weird” please don’t let that put you off because this novella is just weird enough to jolt us into thinking about its ideas, but it’s not that far-fetched – unfortunately.

Every day is Gertie Day concerns a new small house museum in Sydney commemorating a reclusive woman called Gertrude Thrift who had died and not been found until well decomposed. She had been the subject of a series of paintings by an artist called Hettie P. Clarke. This series, formally called the Girl with Greyhound series, is popularly known as the Elf Ears paintings because Gertie is depicted in them with pointy elf-like ears. This isn’t particularly weird, but what is weird is that there are people who have adopted Gertie as their inspiration, their role-model and have had their ears modified to emulate those in the paintings. The problem is that there is no evidence in the museum that Gertie herself had such ears.

The story is told in the first person voice of Nina, a guide (or Public Education and Engagement Officer) at the Museum. That this book was going to interrogate contemporary cultural and political trends and tensions is clear early on. As a retired librarian-archivist invested in the heritage sector, I was hooked when Nina notes that

getting people through the door of any museum anywhere was enough of a challenge, and the professional consensus, though no one would publicly admit it, was that it didn’t matter how you achieved it.

Nina continues that if anyone voiced “any sort of distaste, or ethical concerns, or accusing State Heritage of cashing in on a tragedy” they were to say that the museum endeavoured “to be as respectful as possible”. Thus the stage is set for conflict between the Gerties (mainly the Truthers but also the Regular Gerties), the museum staff, and State Heritage over the authenticity – the truth – of their displays. What follows is a story about a tussle for the “truth” in which the actual “truth” seems less important than what people want to believe and why, and what State Heritage and the Government think is best to do and say about it.

While Nina’s voice is the prime one, we are also given excerpts from the artist Hettie’s diaries, which may, or may not, be the “truth”, and, as the conflict escalates, we see some transcripts of social media commentary from various Gerties and their opponents. It is all so real, and delicious to read in the wake of contemporary controversies about “truth” and our tendency, desire even, to make it suit our own purposes and world-views. Nina is as reliable a narrator as we could hope for in this environment, but she has her own needs and perspectives. Mainly, she wants a quiet life and a job to support her family.

There is an element of dystopia in all this. A parallel story concerns Nina’s husband Benj, his recyc-u-pay job and the plight of the unemployed Trolley People (Trollos). These Trollos earn a living sorting through other people’s rubbish to feed into recycling machines that may be poisoning the air. Has Benj been affected? Who is caring about the Trollos, while the Gertie business garners all the attention?

And then there’s the State Museum, where Nina had previously worked. It had closed because of the “controversial Hall of Extinction”. The truth, it appears, was unpalatable. People had stopped coming because no one wanted to be reminded of all the lost species that could now only be seen “stuffed and mounted or on large video screens”:

Dwelling on the past was no way to move forward, it only made people unnecessarily depressed and angry. At least they were the government’s main arguments for defunding the museum.

There are many angles from which to explore this book – cult, identity, and politics; who controls the narrative and what can get lost in the melee; not to mention, art, and its creation and meaning. How ever you look at it, in Every day is Gertie Day, Meany has astutely tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that extends where we are now just a little bit into “weird”, but not beyond our ability to accept its – hm – truth or, worse, its inevitability. Have we got to the point where people are simply “allowed to believe what they want” or, where authority is so distrusted that all we have is belief (with or without evidence)? The ending is perfect.

Read for Novellas in November, and AusReading Month.

Challenge logo

Helen Meany
Every day is Gertie Day
Lidcombe: Brio Books, 2021
213pp.
ISBN: 9781922267627

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 6: Novellas

Yes, I know, novellas aren’t really a genre, but when I started this sub-series I couldn’t find one word to cover all the types of literary works I thought I might end up covering, so we are all going to have to live with “genres”. OK? Many of you will know why I’ve chosen novellas as my next in the series: it’s because one of the several blogger memes running this month is Novellas in November.

Regular readers here will know that I love a novella – and it’s not because they are short, per se, but what the shortness implies. You know that I love short stories, so you will probably know what it is that I love about novellas – it is the ability to condense a story to its essence, while still engaging my heart and mind. In an interview post on my blog, author Nigel Featherstone who has a few novellas under his belt said this:

If short stories are about brevity, novels are about complexity. So that’s what I might love about working with the novella: they offer the best of both worlds: succinctness and sophistication. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are cases in point.

Featherstone, Fall on me

Of course, as he goes on to say, definitions like this “are ultimately meaningless: some short stories are about complexity, while some novels use up 200,000 words by saying not much about anything. A story must find its natural length, that’s the beginning and end of it”. True, but I do like the idea that novellas offer “succinctness and sophistication”. Kate Jennings’ Snake, on which I posted last week, is a perfect example.

I should, I suppose, discuss definition. The problem is that novella definitions tend to be based on word count, but we readers have no idea of the number of words in the books we buy. Consequently, we tend to go by number of pages, which has to be rough because the number of words per page can vary significantly from book to book. However, my rule of thumb is the same as that offered by the Novellas in November crew, which is “150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages”.

However, I do want to make the point that for me – and for all serious definitions I’ve read – a novella must be fiction (despite Griffith Review’s including creative nonfiction in its criteria!)

Publishers

There is a sense that publishers are loath to publish novellas because they believe readers equate length with value and feel cheated paying a book price for something that’s 150 pages versus, say, 300 pages. However, some publishers do actively support novellas. They are often the smaller independent publishers. Most of the Australian-published novellas that I’ve reviewed on this blog have come from, in no particular order, Spinifex, Wakefield, Hybrid, Xoum, Scribe, Text, UQP, Blemish (no longer in existence), and Inkerman and Blunt (which published Nick Earls’ acclaimed Wisdom Tree series). Classic novellas, and novellas by “big” names are, of course, published by the big publishers like Penguin.

One publisher which has been actively promoting and supporting novellas is Griffith Review. Primarily a literary journal, Griffith Review has, since issue 38 in 2012, devoted one issue a year to novellas, which they call The Novella Project. Introducing the project, then editor Julianne Schultz discussed the changes that were happening in publishing, and said,

In this context we believe that the time is right for the revival of the novella – of those stories that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.

They have a page on their website titled Notes on the novella. It comprises a collection of “notes” from contemporary Australian novella writers, including those published in the Novella Project editions. If you are interested in what writers think about the form, here is a good place to start. Holden Sheppard, for example, sees it as a “very pure form of storytelling”:

Novellas promise readers a direct flight to their destination – no layovers in Singapore or Dubai. 

Love it …

Competitions

Who would have thought there’d be a prize for novellas but, it seems, where there’s a form or genre, there’s likely to be a prize. Here are three for novellas:

Julie Proudfoot, The neighbour
  • Griffith Review Novella Project is a competition that commenced in 2012, and sees winning entries being published in an edition of the journal. Entries can be fiction or creative non-fiction, ranging between 15,000–25,000 words. Winners have included established writers like Nick Earls, Cate Kennedy, John Kinsella and Stephen Orr. Catherine McKinnon worked her Novella Project III winner, “Will Martin”, into a novel, Storyland (my review).
  • Viva La Novella Prize was also established in 2012 – by Seizure – with the first winner announced in 2013. It’s an annual prize awarded for works of 20,000-50,000 words. Seizure is “a social endeavour which runs under the auspices of Xoum Publishing“. Since the award’s inception, Brio/Xoum has published 20 short novels, meaning there’s been more than one winner per year. I’ve read two, and have a couple more on my TBR. It’s another wonderful initiative.
  • Storyfest National Novella Writing Competition is an annual competition for high school students, that seems to have been running since 2018. The entries have to be between 8,000 and 20,000 words. You can see and read the overall and state winners on the Somerset Storyfest website. Lovely to see such encouragement for student writers.

Lists

Just search “novellas” in your browser and you will find a multitude of lists, but for a useful list of Australian novellas, check out Brona’s blog.

Are you a novella fan? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime.