Nell Pierce, A place near Eden (#BookReview)

Nell Pierce’s debut novel, A place near Eden, won the 2022 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It was my reading group’s last book of the year, and it engendered a lively discussion, partly because our response was mixed and partly because its setting on the south coast of New South Wales is well-known to us.

Part coming-of-age novel, part mystery, part family drama, A place near Eden is told first person in the voice of Tilly who is around 20 years old when she is telling her story to a mysterious “you” – at least, “you” is not revealed to the reader until around half-way through the novel, so I won’t reveal it now. I can reveal however, that Tilly is trying to tell her side of a story to this “you”, and slowly, what this story is comes out of the murky recesses of her memory.

My reading group’s practice is to start with each of us briefly sharing our first impressions before we settle into deeper discussion. My first impressions for A place near Eden were that I loved its exploration of how truth can be manipulated or twisted, of different versions and perspectives of the same experience, and of the difference between facts and truths, in personal lives, in law, in art, but that I found the tone a bit heavy-handed, with little respite. Respite in tone – as Shakespeare knew – is good. A place near Eden is a reflective novel in which Tilly reviews the events that had happened to her, trying to make sense of them, so its tone is peppered throughout with “perhaps”, “maybe”, “looking back”, “in retrospect”, “now”, “still” and so on. It was a little unremitting. However, A place near Eden is a first novel so can be forgiven some flaws.

As you will have guessed, the title has both literal and metaphorical meanings: it is set near Eden in southern New South Wales, and the characters may be “near” but they don’t achieve being “in” Eden (paradise). Their own flaws prevent it.

The story starts with a prologue which looks back to halcyon days in the life of Tilly, then 13 years old, and her foster brother Sem and friend Celeste who were 14, almost 15 years old. The dynamic is set between them, one in which the younger Tilly is seen by the other two as “just a kid”. There is a bit of an experience gap between them – as can happen at the time of early puberty. An incident happens at the local pool that sets us up for the tone of the book, though it’s not “the” incident on which the book centres. In this incident, a small child falls – or is knocked – and hurts his head. Who did it? Tilly blames Celeste, though she herself “might” have done it. Writing later, she says:

The more I think on things, one way or the other, the more real they seem. That I was afraid of getting in trouble. Or that I wanted to punish Celeste. That it was her fault, or mine. I can believe it either way.

Throughout the novel, which primarily takes place when Tilly and Celeste are around 19 to 21 years old, the story is told in this maybe-this-maybe-that sort of tone. It is, essentially, a story about finding one’s self, one’s identity. In this case, it’s Tilly’s, so we see it all through her eyes, as she struggles to keep up with the just-a-bit-older, just-a-bit more experienced, just-a-bit more confident Celeste. This sort of uneven friendship is difficult to maintain.

“it could play either way” (Tilly)

So we come to the critical incident. Tilly and Celeste have been living at a holiday shack near Eden, while Sem – who is in a relationship with Celeste – comes and goes at will. One night, however, he disappears, and Tilly, who was drunk at the time, is blamed for it. Did she cause it or didn’t she? This is what she is trying to comprehend and explain to “you”.

Tilly is a character who likes facts – her preferred reading is the encyclopaedia – but she is aware that there is often a gap between facts and the truth (which she describes as “something that hissed out”). She is aware that “even when people try to tell the truth about something as mundane as a tomato, they couldn’t help but betray other things about themselves”. So, what are we to believe from this self-consciously unreliable narrator, from this narrator who says to us “saying something with confidence … can make a story real” and that “maybe we all embroider the truth sometimes”? Late in the novel, when she writes about telling her story to her lawyer, she says “I could feel stories emerging in my mind, ways of presenting things that I knew would please her”. She admits to lying to both the police and the lawyer, but that doesn’t, in fact, mean she is guilty of what she is accused of.

Alongside Tilly telling her story is her description of the documentary film being made about the case by her erstwhile boyfriend, Peter, who tells the story from three angles – the lost, troubled boy (Sem); a revenge story (Tilly); the manipulator (Celeste). In each version, different pieces of information are omitted to construct a specific viewpoint about what happened. It’s a clever portrayal of the “art” of the documentary. Tilly sees how “controlled” it is, and admits that she had “thought in art there might be truth”. Not here … though she had seen “truth” in Celeste’s portraits.

The book’s tagline on the cover is, “who do you trust when you can’t trust yourself?” This personal story is part of it, and reminds me of the recent conversation I attended with Heather Rose. She commented that “life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves”. This could easily describe Tilly’s situation, as she struggles to come to terms with what she did – or what she may have done – in that tortuous process of becoming herself.

However, Nell Pierce also has a bigger story to tell, I believe. Late in the novel, Tilly comes to realise that, like her Mum, she is “sceptical of these neat stories we tell about people”. By concluding her book without a neat resolution, Pierce suggests to us that we too should beware of “neat stories”, that we should take nothing at face value. Question everything, just as Tilly seems to do.

Lisa also found this an intriguing book.

Nell Pierce
A place near Eden
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781761066177

Monday musings on Australian literature: No Vogel prize in 2019

For those of us who follow the major Australian literary awards, The Australian/Vogel is one we like to keep an eye out for, because it has launched a number of significant careers during its nearly 40-year history. For those who don’t know it, the award is for an unpublished manuscript, which can be “a work of fiction, Australian history or biography”, by a writer under 35 years old.

It currently offers a $20,000 cash prize and, most importantly, publication by Allen & Unwin. It is usually announced early-ish in the year, with the book’s publication occurring at the time. (The entries for the 2020 award closed on 31 May, which gives time for the judge’s decision and for the publication process to be set in train.)

Authors who have won and gone on to publish more books – and whom I’ve posted on here – include:

Emily O'Grady, The yellow house(Of the above, only Document Z is the actual Vogel winner.

Others who have established ongoing careers, and whom I’m still to review, include Brian Castro (1982), Mandy Sayer (1989), and Rohan Wilson (2011). Last year’s (2018) winner was Emily O’Grady, with The yellow house (my review). Some of the prize’s past winners have gone on to win, or be shortlisted for, the Miles Franklin and other major Australian awards.

However, Ben Walter, discussing the Vogel (and to some degree literary prizes in general), on the Overland website, argues that while the money is nice, these awards are not, as the Vogel itself shows, a guaranteed path – or necessary even – to establishing a literary career. He has a point, I’m sure. (He also refers to an article on the writing life, including a survey of Vogel winners in Meanjin by Frank Moorhouse, in 2017. This is well-worth reading, and possibly worthy of a separate post!)

Anyhow, back to 2019 …  Books + Publishing, which reported the news in May, quoted Allen & Unwin’s publisher, Annette Barlow, as saying:

This is an award that has literally launched the careers of over 100 authors. But this year, in 2019, there is no winner and—although we’re disappointed, of course—I feel the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.

They also quote Stephen Romei, literary editor of the Australian and one of the Vogel judges. He said:

I will be on the judging panel again this year, for the 2020 Vogel, and am optimistic we will find manuscripts that stand up and be counted.

It’s always disappointing when an award is not granted. This is the third time that this prize has not been awarded, the others being 1985 and 2013. Were there really no good manuscripts out there?

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade listsAuthor of the innovative A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson, wrote a post, “Just award the Vogel’s already”, on the Overland website, teasing out some of the pros and cons of this sort of award and of awards in general, not to mention the challenge of carving out a writer’s life. She says:

Not awarding the Vogel’s this year is downright cruel. Mediocre books get published all the time, and some of them even win multiple awards: who cares if you give the Vogel’s to a manuscript that isn’t a work of utter genius? The people who’ve submitted manuscripts have found a way to carve out time and space to write. They’ve dedicated themselves to a craft that has almost no financial or social reward. They’ve put their hopes on the line. Choose the best of the bunch and shortlist them: give one of them a prize. Maybe it will be the only money and recognition that writer ever gets, or maybe it will be the encouragement they need to go on to write better books. Either way, who cares: anything is better than the big plate of nothing most writers are served.

Her comments are both informative and provocative, but of course they are just another person’s opinion. If you are interested in the issue, do read her article and the comments on it. One interesting response came from someone called Adam Ford:

My first thought was that it wasn’t the prize committee, but the publishers themselves (more specifically the publishers’ marketing department) who decided they didn’t want to publish any of the manuscripts bc none of them fit with existing publishing success trends. Just another encroachment of commerce onto publishing. No idea if that’s true, of course. You’ve got to wonder what the conversation was like when they decided that THIS was the way to go.

I can see both sides of the argument but, in the end given the challenges of the writing life, I’m with Rawson. Why not reward the best of the bunch – and, if necessary, help that author create a “worthy” book? Then again, should we worry, or just accept Ben Walter’s argument (see above) that these awards are not the be-all and end-all – and get over it?

Emily O’Grady, The yellow house (#BookReview)

Emily O'Grady, The yellow house

Although Emily O’Grady’s debut novel The yellow house won this year’s prestigious The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by authors under 35, I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to like it. I think this was because I was feeling I’d read a surfeit of books this year about young people living challenging lives in rural settings – Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review), Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (my review) and Sofie Laguna’s The choke (my review). I wasn’t sure this was going to have anything new to offer.

However, it wasn’t long before ten-year-old Cub’s voice got me in and I realised that this book had a different spin again, which is that it explores how families of violent or sociopathic criminals, like serial killers, cope in the long years after it all comes to light. It’s a coming-of-age story, in a way, but a very different one. Cub, then, is our narrator. She lives on a “lonely property bordering an abandoned cattle farm and knackery” (back blurb) with her twin bother Wally, her 17-year-old brother Cassie whom she adores, and her parents, Colin and Christine. Within sight of their home is “the yellow house” in which her maternal grandfather, Les, had lived. He had died two years before the Cub and Wally were born – and in the prologue we learn that he had been a serial murderer of young women. The prologue closes with a now wiser Cub telling us:

Now, I know everything he did trickled down and created us all, because it turned out he was the god of all our lives.

So we know at the beginning something that Cub doesn’t know when the narrative “really” starts. Why does O’Grady take this approach? I’m guessing it’s to focus us less on that plot. We know what Cub doesn’t know – or at least enough of it. We can therefore focus on how a family lives with this knowledge rather than on trying to work out, as Cub has to do, what the secret is. It makes Cub a perfect naive narrator: she has the curiosity and loyalty of a child but lacks the wisdom necessary to make the right calls. There’s an added complexity to Cub’s situation which increases her isolation: everyone else in the family knows, including her twin brother. Cub wasn’t told because she’s a girl. It’s no coincidence that she, Coralie, has a baby-ish nickname, while her twin brother doesn’t.

The novel proper starts when Cub is approaching 11 years old, and her aunt, Helena, and 11-and-a-half-year-old cousin, Tilly, move into the yellow house. Tilly’s father, Dermott, we’ve already been told, had driven his car into the dam some time ago and died. It is Helena and Tilly’s appearance which sparks the events that play out in the rest of the novel, events that are “driven” by that violent forbear whose “rotten blood” is in their veins, whose legacy they struggle to shake off.

It’s a horrifying novel. We realise early on that the family is ostracised by the community in which they live, and is struggling emotionally. Cub’s Dad does his best to keep them together but is ill-equipped for the challenge he faces, while her Mum also does her best in her own way, but regularly takes to her bed, with various malaises, many depression-based presumably. Cub and Wally have no other friends at school, something Cub doesn’t fully cotton on to, but we do:

The kids at school were strange; Wally and I played by ourselves at lunchtime, always paired up when we did partner work.

Cub is consequently desperate to make Tilly, so close in age, her friend:

I tried to think of something else to say. I knew we had one chance to make a good impression and I didn’t want to waste it. But the silence felt as deep as the dam, impossible to swim out of. I was annoyed at myself for not practising with the girls at school. I should’ve been prepared.

But, it never quite works. Tilly, dangerously – she’s too much like her mother, Cub’s Mum hints at one stage – is more interested in boys. And, there are boys – besides Wally. There’s Cassie, and his creepy friend Ian. Tilly, like Cub, doesn’t know the story of the “yellow house” and her mother is determined to keep it that way.

The story develops slowly, chillingly, and, it feels, inevitably, as the secrets, parental inadequacy, community prejudice and cold opportunism combine to result in … I’d like to say more, but perhaps should not spoil the plot.

This is not a novel in which everything is explained – as can be typical of naive narrator stories – but there seems to be a specific intention here. At least, I’d say that O’Grady’s aim is not to tease out all the possibilities and permutations of the situation, nor to follow the more usual crime fiction path of restoring order out of chaos. Instead, it’s to encourages us, at each point, to consider what might be happening, why it might be happening, and what might make (or have made) it happen differently. That gives the book a power that those more traditional crime novels don’t have.

Besides this open-endedness which kept me engaged and pondering throughout, there’s O’Grady’s writing. It’s not tricky. There’s quite a bit of dialogue and simple description of what’s going on, as you’d expect, rather than a lot of reflection, but O’Grady has some lovely turns of phrase. At one point Cub is near Cassie’s friend Ian:

Now that I was right up close to him I didn’t know what to do; it was like my brain was wrapped in sticky tape and I couldn’t think properly.

The language and imagery, as this example shows, are appropriate for Cub’s age. And there’s the “yellow house” itself. Yellow has so many connotations. It can suggest something warm, bright, cheery, hopeful, but is also the colour of cowardice and deceit, and can convey sickness. The contrast between these positive and negative meanings of the title underpin the novel’s horror.

Why read this novel? There’s the obvious reason that it explores a subject that many of us must wonder about when we hear of violent crimes – how does the wider family cope, what happens to them? And there’s the associated reason that in so doing it might encourage us to think more empathetically if we found such a family in our midst. But, besides that, it’s an engaging debut novel by a new young writer from whom we will hopefully hear more. It’s always exciting to be in there at the start.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Badge 2018

Emily O’Grady
The yellow house
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760632854

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Andrew Croome, Document Z

Truth, according to the dictionary, can mean several things including:

  • the state of being the case, fact or actuality; and
  • a transcendent or spiritual reality.

Document Z bookcover

Document Z cover image (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Truth in all its variety and slipperiness is, I think, the fundamental theme of Andrew Croome’s Document Z which won the 2008 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. This book, which chronicles the famous-in-Australia Petrov Affair about the defection of Vladimir (familiarly, Volodya) and Evdokia Petrov in 1954, began as a PhD Creative Writing thesis. Who needs a PhD in Creative Writing, though, when you have a publication offer instead?

At the end of the novel is a reference to an oral history that was conducted with Evdokia by the National Library:

This historian’s questions give her the space to betray Volodya, to admit his faults, to commit herself finally, to the truth. She doesn’t. The record is no all-important thing, and what exactly would be the point?

What indeed? After all, duplicity is what the book is about. Vladimir and Evdokia are MVD agents at the Soviet Embassy. This is their secret role, in addition to their formal embassy roles, and it puts them in conflict with the ambassador since, in effect, they work for two masters, the ambassador and the MVD headquarters in Moscow. Not an easy position to be in, particularly in a regime that thrived on suspicion.

Croome nicely structures the book, commencing with the dramatic attempt on 19 April 1954 by the Soviet authorities to return Evdokia to Russia. The book’s narrative form is multiple third person subjective, and this opening scene is viewed through Evdokia’s eyes: “Evdokia knew this crowd was for her. They were hunting her…”. She was wrong though. The crowd was with her and were “hunting” those who seemed to be taking her away. This opening chapter ends with the words, “Everything he had betrayed”. The scene is set to tell their story, and the book flips back to 1951 and their arrival in Canberra. From this point on the story is told through several eyes, particularly Evdokia’s, Vladimir/Volodya’s (who, Moscow thought, “could be well and truly trusted [my stress]”) and Dr Bialoguski’s (the man who worked for ASIO and who, through cultivating Petrov’s friendship, engineered the defection).

I enjoyed the book – partly because it was set in familiar territory, which is a bit of a rarity for we Canberrans, and partly because I was interested in the Petrov Affair. Croome seems, to the best of my knowledge, to have captured the era well. I loved the description of the Soviet Embassy wives going shopping…and he nicely evokes the polarisation of views between East and West/Communism and Capitalism that characterised the Cold War period. However, the book was a little unsatisfying too. I think it’s because Croome focusses a little too much on plot machinations for me – and yet the plot is not dramatic enough to support this. He does try to get “into” the characters but, for all his sound characterisation of the Petrovs, they are, at the end, pretty much as shadowy in terms of their “true” natures/desires/motivations as they were at the beginning. In the end, there’s not much drama in either the political or the personal story. It feels, almost, as though they were victims of circumstance – and perhaps they largely were.

And what were these circumstances? Well, they were largely the duplicitous – and fear-ridden – situation they lived and worked in. I had to laugh, early in the book, at the description of the embassy’s secret (MVD) section: “Somewhere, the roof leaked“. The book has many little ironies and paradoxes mostly playing on notions of secrets, lies, deception and betrayals, playing, that is, on a world in which truth is treated with rather careless abandon. By the end of the book we are, I think, no nearer the truth. We perhaps know some of the “facts” (albeit this is fiction!), but we do not “really” know the “spiritual reality” of these two people whose marriage seemed weak and who apparently lived a pretty sad life in exile.

I’d certainly recommend the book … it’s well written, and is a genuinely interesting portrayal of the case. But if you are looking for insights into the affair, I’m not sure you’ll find them here.

Andrew Croome
Document Z
Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2008
ISBN: 9781741757439