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Posts Tagged ‘Miles Franklin Award’

We are what we hide: Sonya Hartnett, Malcolm Knox & Kari Gislason (and some thoughts on fish)

Golden Boys by Sonya HartnettSonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys was the first book I read this year, and it’s one of her best. Set in 1979 and written for adults, it is a story about children and the dark underbelly of silent suburbia, and the abusive fathers found therein. The ending is scorching and lingering, and I was very happy to see the book shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award.

Malcolm Knox’s latest is The Wonder Lover, the story of John Lover, who has three separate families, with six kids, two in each (a girl and a boy with the same names!).

Kari Gislason’s The Ash Burner is a story of Ted who grew up with his father in a small coastal town after his mother died when he was young.

Their stories are tied together by untold secrets, lies and deception, power and abuse. All use the voice/perspective of children. Jill Edington, chair of the session, asked where did the spark come from?

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm KnoxKnox said he grew up in a family environment with a moral code, defined by church. With every novel you write, he said, you go back to the well in some way. For this novel, he explores the idea of that moment when, as a child, you become aware that the rules imposed on you by adults don’t necessarily apply to them, that adults have a different set of rules by which they live.

Hartnett professed amazement about Knox’s premise, that men get up to these things. She grew up in what is now Box Hill North in Melbourne. These days it’s almost inner city, but in those days it was almost rural. What she loves is walking around suburbs and pondering the silence that often pervades them, asking where is the life?

She recalled the wonder of the moment when someone from a higher bracket of wealth decided to move into the neighbourhood, what that felt like. Why were they moving here? One family arrived and painted their house white, which made it seem ‘like a palace’. In Golden Boys a dentist named Rex and his family, including the kids who have every toy known to humanity, move into a quiet neighbourhood. In an era when fathers were, at best, more absent than today, and at worse drank a lot and didn’t care much about their kids, the arrival of the caring and glowing Rex has a profound impact on the neighbourhood kids, especially siblings Freya and Colt, who have to make do with their drunkard father, Joe.

Echoing Knox, Hartnett said the way children can’t understand the world of adults makes very fertile ground for a story. As noted above, the story is written for adults, and Hartnett said as a writer you can reach across and connect with readers as confederates: you and I, she said, know what’s really going on here, but the children in the story don’t.

On the question of the story being timely, Hartnett said she wrote it before the more recent child abuse scandals and Royall Commission became front page news. All she wanted to do when she set out was to write down some childhood memories before she forgot them.

As noted above, each of the three books use the voice of the child in their narration. Knox’s book is narrated with the unusual first person plural ‘we’, from the point of view of John Wonder’s six children. Knox used Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, which also uses the first-person plural, as inspiration. He felt as though it elevates the story to a kind of myth.

Hartnett spoke about characters, about how she learned long ago not to fall in love with them because it’s too draining when you have to say goodbye to them. All my characters ‘are tools to do what I need and want’ as a writer. People love reading about children, she said, and they’re fun to write. For those of you who have read the book, and I suspect that number will only increase given the Miles Franklin Award shortlist, Hartnett said her long-time editor, after reading the manuscript, said to her, ‘So you want to be Colt but you’re only Freya’, which Hartnett agreed was right!

The Ash Burner by Kari GislasonGislason was born in Iceland. He was unsure why he chose a first-person child narrator, but cited the novel The Fish Can Sing by the Nobel Prize winning Icelandic author Halldor Laxness. Gislason’s child protagonist, Ted, searches for his lost mother by diving into the sea and swimming down to the bottom, because it is where he believes she is. It’s a heart-rending image, and a lovely example of one author’s work inspiring another’s.

It resonated strongly for me because every year at the festival I sit and have lunch overlooking the multi-million dollar units built upon Pier 6/7. But of course I don’t look at the units, or even the luxury yachts moored outside them. No. I look down into the jade waters of the harbour and watch the silver-backed fish mingling. Some of them are a good size too!

Book of Days projectI like the idea of those fish gathering beneath the finger wharves and listening to the things people are saying in the halls above. What things would the fish say, I wonder. What songs would they sing? So I tweeted something for Zoë Sadokierski’s Book of Days project on how to live (see #swfbod). I deviated massively from the sensible stuff most people were saying. My contribution related to those fish! (A faintly absurd idea it might seem, too, but something that connects thematically with the thoughts of Helen Madonald and Jonathan Lethem about our dwindling relationship with nature and wildlife, and, now that I think of it, echoing Ben Okri’s advice on the need to listen. Okri said listening is like suffering, and maybe that’s true, but sometimes it’s a joy and a necessity.)

All this is to say that Gislason, who almost made an art of not talking about his book, had hooked me, so to speak, with that one image of the boy swimming in search of his mum. So now I have to read his book, and I feel compelled to track down Laxness’s novel too!

Sunday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: me!, for not sticking around to go to the closing address by Helen Macdonald. I had already spent a fair few dollars on the events I attended, but I would have loved to hear Macdonald again, and am looking forward to hearing the podcast of her speech when it becomes available.

Even hand for: more sessions were ticketed this year than in previous years in order to, as one volunteer said to me, ‘assist crowd control’. This is good in some ways, as it allows organised attendees to guarantee a seat at the events they want to attend and thus not have to queue for everything. But it does mean paying more. I definitely spent more money. So long as there’s always some free stuff, and the chance to see some of the bigger names on free panel sessions, I think I can live with that. The festival has become a victim of its own success. Which brings me to…:

Thumbs up for: to the Walsh Bay redevelopment plans announced in the Sydney Morning Herald here, which will see the transformation of the waterfront precinct between the Harbour Bridge and Barangaroo into a dedicated Arts precinct. On the cards are more theatres, better facilities for existing arts bodies such as the Bangarra Dance Company & Bell Shakespeare Company, a new concert hall for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and other works, including additional restaurants.

Of specific relevance to the Sydney Writers’ Festival is the reworking of the Pier 2/3 interior, which will hopefully increase the number of areas available for SWF sessions, as well as the reworking of the area between Pier 2/3 and Pier 4/5, which appears likely to improve the festival experience for everyone even further. The festival has become a victim of its own success in the last few years, with bumper crowds, so hopefully these developments will take it to another level again.

SWF LogoThat’s it for SWF 2015. Well done to everyone who worked on the festival: the volunteers, management team led by Artistic Director Jemma Birrell, corporate partners, and of course all the speakers from Australia and overseas. I’ve many great memories. I hope sharing them has given you a flavour of another fine festival. Now I’m off to listen to the fish sing…

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I came across something very interesting the other day: a collaborative project between Anna Funder and Australian Pearl company Paspaley.

Winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for All that I Am (my review here)Funder has written a short story entitled Everything Precious, which you receive in seven daily instalments after signing up (it’s free) here. (All they ask for is a name and an email address.)

There is a little ‘book’ trailer on the site, which admittedly is more of an ad for Paspaley, but the interesting thing is that here is an Aussie company paying an Aussie author to write a story for them. I have no idea how much Funder was paid, but kudos to Paspaley.

No doubt there’ll be some product placement, most likely in the final instalment. The question is, will it be a roll-the-eyes moment, or a gee-that’s-sweet moment? Given Funder’s the author, I expect the latter. I’ve received four instalments so far and am enjoying my daily dose.

Could this become a model for other corporations to support Australian writing as part of their marketing? Most of us are used to some product placement in films these days. Perhaps we should expect some more of it in fiction.

UPDATE: I was wrong: there was no product placement. (I knew I should have waited to read it all before I posted! Sigh.) And the story was excellent. I dip my lid to all parties.

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Journey to the Stone Country by Alex MillerWhy did I wait so long to get to Alex Miller’s beautiful, Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Journey to the Stone Country? Set in the famed ‘stone country’ of the interior of far north Queensland, Miller explores themes of possession, preservation, ancestral sins, redemption, love across racial boundaries, as well as Indigenous politics and reconciliation. He does this with the tender lyricism, earthy characters and delicate plotting that are the hallmarks of his stone country works. Journey possesses a sort of mystic gravitas that is hard to pin down, but is bound up in the rugged landscape and its Jangga people. It is a landscape not for the faint-hearted, and yet entering into it with Miller as your guide you feel completely safe, free to become as spellbound to its powers as its protagonists are.

Annabelle Beck, a university lecturer in Melbourne, is the grand-daughter of cattle station owners in far north Queensland. She returns home one day to find her husband Steven, also a university lecturer, has run off with one of his attractive honours students. She retreats to Townsville where she meets Bo Rennie while doing some work for her friend Sue in the area of Aboriginal cultural assessment.

The laconic, wise, chain-smoking Bo is the grandson of Grandma Rennie, a Murri Aboriginal woman who married Iain Rennie, a white stockman, even when such a marriage was outlawed by the ludicrously named ‘Protection Act’. Bo reminds ‘Annabellebeck’ they have met before—they used to swim naked as little kids in one of the old inland waterholes. He says to her he always thought she’d come back. She is intrigued by Bo and this cryptic message. Is he saying to her he has waited for her to come back? One of the delights of the novel’s progression is the way Annabelle has to throw off the part of herself that was raised and schooled to inquire into the reasons for everything.

Together they begin a journey that takes them through landscapes of their families’ joint pasts. They navigate the fractious relationships in modern Aboriginal politics and come to learn of past brutalities that threaten their growing bond. Bo seeks to recover Verbena Station, the land Grandma Rennie inherited when Iain died, which she was swindled out of by a white relation.

Grandma Rennie was ‘one of the last to give birth to up there in that stone country’. Bo educates Annabelle about this tough scrub country, which he and Dougald Gnapun used to muster cattle through as ‘boys’. Bo describes how Grandma took him and some other children into the stone country of the Old People when he was a boy:

And when Grandma seen that we was ready she rose from the fire and led us out of the silverleafed wattle into a great wide clearing. I’ll never forget it. And there was the labyrinth of stones lying there on the bare ground, polished by the wind and gleaming in the moonlight like rows of skulls laid out in a secret pattern. And we knew we was looking on our old people. We never spoke but stood and gazed on them ancient circles and paths and patterns on the ground and we seen it was the playground of life and death and we knew them old people was little children just like we was and they had gone on before us and left us their dreams and their sweet lives. Grandma never needed to say nothing to us about having something to live for. We seen it ourselves.

In one of their first joint work efforts, assessing country that a company wants to mine for coal, Annabelle finds a ‘cylcon’, a ‘cylindro-conical stone artefact of unknown purpose’, which she takes with her, but when she shows it to Dougald he almost recoils from it; he doesn’t know its original purpose or whether he should even be looking at it. Annabelle’s faux-pas stings her, makes her reassess her sense of the need to preserve artefacts. Indeed, one of many wonderful things in Journey is the way Annabelle realises there are some things in Indigenous culture she should not know.

When Bo invites her to go with him to the Stone Country of the Old People, she is wary. I love the way Miller handles this, both Bo’s invite, the way it meant he was offering her everything without declaring it overtly; the way she receives it with a ‘yes’ that sounded like a no. The subtlety is lovely.

Bo and Annabelle are shadowed by one of the most interesting secondary characters I’ve come across: Arner, Douglad’s son, who is almost Buddha-like, contemplative, someone with ‘the gift’ of being able to talk to the ‘Old People’. And yet he and his sister Trace often stay inside his ute, playing modern dance music with throbbing base at high volume, as if they don’t want any part of the landscape that is theirs by rights. He provides a wonderful counterpoint to Annabelle’s yearning for connection. (Trace provides a lovely counterpoint of her own as she finds an interesting and unexpected love match on their journey.)

I recall Kim Scott’s masterful Miles Franklin-winning novel That Deadman Dance (my review here) being described as a ‘post-reconciliation’ work, one that showed the terrible things of the past while offering an olive branch, a way forward. Of Noongar descent, Scott writes from a place of authority on the vexed issue of reconciliation. Miller is not Indigenous, and yet he too writes from a place of authority. He knows these people. In a way he is these people.

There are lovely touches throughout, such as the meta-fictional title for Annabelle’s husband’s conference paper – ‘Biography as Fiction’ – biography being the basis of much of Miller’s fiction.

And consider this for a sentence, Bo talking to one family of recent settlers about the old scrubber bulls eating poisonous zamia nuts and dying out in the scrub:

They laughed uneasily and reached for their tea, sipping from their mugs, picturing the doomed bull trapped among the tumbled rocks, the dingoes eating into his quivering flesh while he yet lived and suffered; a transformation scarcely to be imagined, a brutality that must surely leave its ghostly impress on this country, an imprint for them to encounter in their quest to live among these stony ridges and ravines of the escarpment, the history they must adopt if they were to prevail in this place.

There is a dual use of ‘zamia’: both poisonous nuts and the name of the street on which Annabelle’s parents’ house stands in Townsville. It’s a nice echo, and underpins the sort of poisonous thinking from one Indigenous elder Bo and Annabelle must overcome. Some relics, such as the stone cylcon deserve to be left to past times and past landscapes. Other things, such as the love Grandma Rennie shared with her husband Iain, should be resurrected.

Lovers of Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country must read its ‘cousin’, Landscape of Farewell, which also features Dougald Gnapun, this time in a central role. It is a fine work, covering similar themes from a slightly different angle, as is Miller’s more recent return to stone country territory in Coal Creek (my review here). Many things tie these novels together: mystical landscape, laconic characters and beautiful, thoughtful writing from one of our best. Journey to the Stone Country was worth the wait and then some.

Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller

2002

Allen & Unwin

364 pages

ISBN: 978174141467

Source: purchased

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SWF 2014 logoI am a dilly-dallier aren’t I? I’m still catching up on my SWF posts. Apologies for the delay, but sometimes life gets in the way.

On SWF Friday I went to a panel session entitled ‘Judging Women’, sponsored by the Stella Prize. Chaired by Aviva Tuffield, Executor Director of the Stella Prize; Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries (my review here); Clare Wright, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her non-fiction history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (see Lisa’s review at ANZ Litlovers); and Tony Birch, one of the Stella Prize’s judges, historian and novelist, who was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for his novel Blood.

Tuffield opened the session with a history of why the Stella Prize was created, listing the statistics in key areas which indicates the bias shown toward male authors: the way males dominated literary award shortlists and winner-lists (both in the Miles Franklin (the much publicised ‘sausage fest’ year was noted) and also in State Premier’s Awards, as well as overseas awards such as the Booker Prize; the bias toward male authors in reviews in literary journals and newspapers; and the higher proportion of male reviewers of said works. Women writers are also under-represented in school reading lists. The statistics on the Booker Prize are worth highlighting, with men accounting for circa 90% of shortlist nominees. Hence the setting up of the Stella Prize. Tuffield noted wryly that in the two years after the creation of the Stella Prize, two women have won the Miles Franklin, and she noted the all-women shortlist of last year. Coincidence? She suspects not.

Opening up the discussion to the panel, Tuffield asked Catton about the furore she created in the wake of winning the Booker when in an interview she said male authors get asked what they think, whereas female authors get asked what they feel. Catton said her experience was that it was not men ‘keeping women down’, and most often the stereotyping interview questions she was asked came from women. To her, feminism is being aware of the statistics. And being self-aware, too, because she went on to note that she had to catch herself sometimes, for when she thought about philosophers she always pictured or thought of men rather than women, as if men were the only ones capable of being thinkers. So we’re all complicit in the way women are thought of, but, she felt, ‘feminism goes wrong in laying blame’.

There was a huge difference, Catton said, between sexism and misogyny. She believes there is sexism in the publishing industry, but not misogyny. She felt there is a problematic expectation that as a woman author her writing must speak to feminist issues. Briefly outlining the way her novel is structured around twelve men who represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, she noted that had sheused twelve women the story would have been about women; using men allowed the story to be about other things, such as astrology and determination.

Tuffield turned to Wright who, when she announced to her male academic colleagues she was going to write a book about the Eureka Stockade, they said ‘what can you possibly add to the story?’ It had been done, they said. Unless she could unearth new primary sources, the subject had been exhausted. Her approach was to go back to the same archives with different questions. As a result, she came back with different answers. Women were in the records, they just hadn’t been written about before. Indeed, the book took ten years to write not because she was off searching for needles in the haystack, but because there was so much material.

Wright made fun of the fact that she is rarely asked what she feels – perhaps, she said, academics don’t have feelings?! But she is asked about gender often.

Her book is about democracy, one of the ‘big’ topics. She talked about previous experience in trying to make the documentary Utopia Girls, learning that you cannot pitch to broadcasters that you want to make a doco about women: you have to say the doco is about ‘a great Australian story’. That is the approach that opens doors.

She went on to talk about the presentation of her book in bookstores, particularly in airports, with her off-handed social media comment about tables in airport bookstores being ‘dick tables’. She would go and re-arrange the books in the stores so hers, which was usually buried somewhere in the back, had more prominence! Now, after winning the Stella Prize, her book was front and centre, so the prize is definitely working.

Tuffield noted the reaction to the second year of the prize was much different than the first. In the first year it was all about the gender question. This year the focus was on great books. This was a great time to bring Birch into the discussion. He outlined the very deliberate and considered approach to judging that chair of judges, Kerryn Goldsworthy, demanded. He said she had scheduled a full day for the final discussion of the shortlist in the choosing of the winner. Birch said he had judged other prizes but none had the same passion in organisation that the Stella Prize has.  As a result, he himself felt even more committed to the process.

Birch made the comment that the body of work read this year – 160 books! – was more complex and enlightening that he had read before. Echoing Tuffield’s need for the prize, he gave his own experience, recalling the time he had read a tiny review of Meme McDonald’s Love Like Water, which he considers a great Australian novel, and next to it was a huge two-page spread on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is all about the tragedy of male premature ejaculation!

He felt women give more to their work, and young aspiring female writers need more role models, especially as women don’t put themselves forward in the same way men do. Catton echoed the need for role models, underlining the importance of the confidence to take risks as a writer. And having read The Luminaries, and heard Catton talk about that book in another session at SWF, it is clear she does not lack in confidence (in a good way).

Tuffield asked Birch what it was like to judge fiction versus non-fiction. Was it challenging? Not in a negative sense, no, he said. Birch himself has been a historian, as well as a fiction writer, so he quite enjoyed reading across genres and forms. The judges never judged one genre against the other. It was all about the quality of the work. Someone had come up to him this year and said a non-fiction work would have to win because fiction won in the first year, but there was never any question of that. The three criterions used in judging were: originality, engagement, and excellence.

I must admit it did make me wonder: if the Stella Prize had the funds to award both a fiction and a non-fiction prize, would they do so? On the evidence of this discussion, they would not.

Tuffield noted the coincidental links between Catton and Wright’s works: 19th Century goldfields. Catton said she read a lot of 19th Century literature in preparation for writing The Luminaries, including a period in which she read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, House of Mirth, and Portrait of a Lady in succession, all novels that end in much the same way. It was both a great and heart-wrenching period, and she asked herself why women protagonists had to die at the end of such great works. She suspected it was because in those days the notion of women with eyes wide open was too threatening for society. She was, as a result, conscious when in writing a book in that style, to have women end in a position of some power, although Wright picked Catton up on the type of characters Catton chose for her women: a prostitute and a madam, arguing that in the goldfields women were a much more varied lot than these two stereotypes(!)

Overall, a very interesting discussion. Yes, it was run by the Stella Prize and tilted towards its message, but it’s a good message. A little rebalancing in those statistics is a good thing. Each on the panel had something important to add to the question of how we judge women authors. My own view is that much of the exciting writing in fiction right is coming from women. Eleanor Catton is one, to whom you can add Eimear McBride (thoughts on her SWF session coming soon), Jennifer Egan, and our own Alexis Wright. They are experimenting with all manner of things: form, style, genre, myth. (And before you jump on me, yes there are many others, and yes there are exciting male writers doing experimenting too, like Knausgard (a 2013 SWF guest) and Houellebecq, et al. To start a list like this is always doom to failure! The point is women deserve their place in our literary consciousness.

I was going to publish reflections on Alexis Wright in discussion with Geordie Williamson, but you can listen to the full podcast here.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard FlanaganRichard Flanagan’s powerful The Narrow Road to the Deep North is in many ways an immense achievement. It took some twelve years to write, during which time he tried a number of different forms for the story, realising each time he had failed, before he settled on the one that appears in the published novel. It was a very personal journey, because his father was one of Weary Dunlop’s POWs on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. For Flanagan, this was a book he always knew he would write. It was the advancing age of his father that finally got it finished; his father survived the war (as well as the cholera he had during his internment), passing away at the age of nearly 99 just after Flanagan had told him he had given the manuscript to his publishers. That this man passed with such poetic timing should perhaps come as no surprise because poetry is one of the foundation stones upon which this fine novel is built.

The title of the novel is the same as haiku master Basho’s epic haibun, and each of the five sections of chapters is proceeded by an epigrammatic haiku that reflects the chapters to come. And those chapters are the prose equivalent of haiku, compact things that generally run for no more than four or so pages, many shorter. Like haiku, they contain multitudes of understanding, depicting human nature at its most loving, needy, compassionate and diabolical.

The story centres on the deeply flawed but magnetic Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian surgeon, although it fans out to encompass the experiences of other captives as well as their captors, both during their time building ‘the Line’ and after the war. I suspect another author would have told the story of the many solely through one central character’s experience, but Flanagan chooses to branch out beyond the story of Dorrigo. Some readers might find this a little discombobulating, others will appreciate the linking of disparate lives on both sides of the war with the themes of poetry, survival, and what it means to love.

The story opens with Dorrigo as a boy, growing up in Tasmania, his earliest memory of a light-filled church hall. Already we have hints of salvation and its twin: suffering. We also have poetry, for Dorrigo grows up as a bookish lad, and often quotes from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’:

My purpose holds,

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars until I die.’

Like Odysseus, Dorrigo will be held captive in a distant land, unable to return to the woman he loves.

The narrative structure is fractured, which seems an apt approach given the way war fractures the lives of its participants and their families. Although generally progressing from Dorrigo’s childhood to old age, there are numerous time slips, with Flanagan taking us forward and back to key moments. One of the early moves is forward, to Dorrigo with his lover Amy, where we get an early reference to Basho’s haibun. Dorrigo recites ‘Ulysses’ to her as he looks ‘to where, beyond the weathered French doors with their flaking white paint, the moonlight formed a narrow road on the sea …’. It’s a perfect image, and deeply resonant, for that is the road he must travel.

I mentioned survival above, and it is one of the great underlying themes of the novel. As a younger man, Dorrigo goes to the mainland, to Melbourne University, where he studies medicine. Surrounded by the elite, he finds that while he loves his family, he is not proud of them. Their ‘principal achievement was survival. It would take him a lifetime to appreciate what an achievement that was.’

For all his flaws, Dorrigo is at his best as the commanding officer of the POWs in the camp. At one point, when desperately hungry, he’s presented with a (contraband) steak by the cook, and although his mouth is flooding with saliva, he refuses to eat it, telling the man to feed it to the sick men in the hospital. He laments the way he is failing his men, as a doctor and a leader. His love for them is absolute.

There are some wonderful characters amongst Dorrigo’s men, including the artist Rabbit Hendricks, Lizard Brancussi, Jimmy Bigelow, Jack Rainbow, the outcast Rooster MacNeice, and Darky Gardener aka the ‘Black Prince’, a man who could got things by trading the black market, even when he’s on the Line.

The horrors are endless, gut-wrenching. Dorrigo ‘persuaded, cajoled and insisted on the officers working, as the ceaseless green horror pressed every harder on their scabies-ridden bodies and groggy guts, on their fevered heads and foul, ulcerated legs, on their perennially shitting arses.’ And these were the officers – the rest suffer even more.

When these horrors have been indelibly inked into our minds, Dorrigo is faced with an impossible dilemma, forced to choose one hundred emaciated souls to march one hundred miles through the jungle to another camp, knowing most will die along the way. Does he send the very sick, or ‘just’ the sick? It’s heartbreaking stuff.

It is here Flanagan does something brave: he makes the leap into the Japanese mindset as an attempt to understand how men can treat other men with such barbarity. We see into the lives of two Japanese commanders, the amphetamine-addicted Nakamura and his evil superior Colonel Kota. To them, the POWs are less than men, had they been Japanese they would have killed themselves because of the shame of being captured. Their purpose now is to serve the Emperor.

It is not just Dorrigo who is placed in impossible situations. Nakamura is placed in one by Kota, who demands more be done in less time. Despite Kota rebuffing Nakamura’s entreaties for more men and machinery, the two bond over Japan’s great destiny, and also over the haiku that reflects the Japanese spirit:

They grew sentimental as they talked of the earthy wisdom of Issa’s haiku, the greatness of Buson, the wonder of Basho’s great haibun, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which, Colonel Kota said, summed up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.

In lesser hands, the post-war tracing of the captors could have been a mistake. In Flanagan’s hands we get to see the great weight carried by survivors and perpetrators, as well as more disturbing truths, such as that of one Japanese engineer-cum-guard, who says the time he had spent building the railway was the happiest of his life. Such is human nature, sadly.

But it’s not all about the war. It’s also about love in all its guises, be it the love Dorrigo has for his men, the men who he believes he is failing, and the love that burns between Dorrigo and Amy. It also explores love’s darker obsessiveness, ownership, the lies people tell out of spite.

The second section of chapters starts with a haiku from Issa:

From that woman

on the beach, dusk pours out

across the evening waves.

For Dorrigo, everything pours out of Amy, light, love, a hopeless inviolable need. It is a lovely linking of Amy and the waves that carry the narrow road of moonlight across the seas that are calling him. Held while he waits to be shipped off to war, their affair is brief but all consuming.

They meet by chance in Adelaide in late 1940 at a book store (where Max Harris is launching Angry Penguins!). They are instantly, magnetically, attracted to each other. The meeting is brief, a few minutes of talking about poetry (and penguins), with no names exchanged. But he meets her again at his uncle Keith’s pub. For yes, Amy is married to Dorrigo’s uncle, many years her senior. And while nothing happened in this next meeting, ‘everything had changed.’

The same is true for Amy. She seems to seek oblivion in it, in them. For her, love ‘is not goodness, and nor is it happiness. … It was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe. It was annihilation, the destroyer of worlds.”

In an interview with Philip Adams, Flanagan said we intone ‘lest we forget’, but we do forget, and quickly. As a counter to this, there are two indelible truths I hold after reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. First, the novel is an unforgettable testament to Weary Dunlop’s men and the other countless thousands who lost their lives in the name of the Emperor’s madness. The second is, while built, the railway was soon swallowed by the jungle, whereas the poetry of Basho lives on hundreds of years after his death. As Dorrigo learns, survival is the incredible achievement. (I’ve already dusted off my Basho and dived back into the world of haiku.) Ah, if only there were more poets and fewer warmongers. If only there were more Richard Flanagans.

The only lingering doubt is whether the story could have been even more powerful had it possessed a tighter focus on the one POW rather than fanning out as it does. Some will like it, some will have misgivings. I suspect that as much as Flanagan tried to write a fictional character who was not his father, he could not help but explore how war affects all its participants, not just its famous leaders. In some ways they all travelled on that narrow road together.

It’s hard to believe he has not won the Miles Franklin Award. While Alexis Wright would also be a worthy winner for The Swan Book (my review), this just might be his year.

Flanagan is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, which starts next week. I’ve got my ticket, so expect some additional musings on The Narrow Road over the coming weeks. You can also listen to that discussion between Flanagan and Philip Adams here (about 52 minutes from memory, and well worth it).

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

2013

Vintage

467 pages

ISBN: 9781741666700

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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The Swan Book by Alexis WrightWell! What to say about Alexis Wright’s teeming The Swan Book? How about some history? While reading a little (more) about Sydney’s early colonial history recently, I learned black swans lived in and around Sydney waterways, including Sydney Harbour, when the English landed in 1788. Journals written at that time spoke of twenty to thirty black swans flying regularly over Sydney Cove until, presumably, they were shot for food or, in some cases, sent back to England as natural curiosities. Swans were also seen in numbers in both coastal and inland lagoons, as well as along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River at foot of the Blue Mountains.

Sadly, you won’t see them in these places today; you need to go west of the ranges to find any. It is a reminder that the natural imbalance for Aboriginal people is no future dystopia at all—things have been out of whack for over two hundred years already, since the first settlement at Sydney Cove. Driven out of their natural habitats, it was the Sydney Cove swans I pictured when reading about the giant flock that follows the protagonist Oblivia around in wildly imaginative The Swan Book.

And what a wild ride itis! The ‘story’, such as it is, is centred on Oblivia, a mute young woman pulled out of the hollow of a tree after being gang-raped by a group of Aboriginal ‘boys’ who are high on the sniffing of petrol and glue. It is no coincidence she cannot speak; she is another Aboriginal voice silenced. It is Bella Donna of the Champions, the European climate-change refugee (‘invader’), who finds her. Together they live on a rusty old hulk located in the swamp that was once a lake in the far north of Australia. The army has control, and Aborigines have been rounded up and moved in.

This post climate change dystopia is a disturbing future world in which weather events are wild and about-face. Cities are prone to flooding; cyclones regularly occur at southern latitudes; in short, the old balance has been thrown out, and there’s no doubt who is at fault:

Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.

Bella Donna brings to Oblivia stories of European swans, and soon a flock of black swans arrive at the swamp and become Oblivia’s totem. They follow her south when she is taken by the flashy Warren Finch, the half-caste Aboriginal ‘saviour’ who has risen to become the vice-President of the Republic of Australia, and who needs a wife to take the step up to President. He grew up in the nearby Brolga Nation, and Oblivia is his promised wife. As soon as they depart south, he has her homeland swamp demolished.

Bella Donna also brought the story of her voyage from European wastelands, comparing it to Icarus’s flight. Icarus’s feathers melted because he did not heed the warnings of his father. And this ‘dreaming’ is a forewarning of what is to come in The Swan Book, the sense of people not listening to their elders. In describing myna birds, Wright laments:

From a safe distance, you could hear these birds swearing at the grass in throwback words of the traditional language for the country that was no longer spoken by any living human being on the Earth. … You had to hear these sooth-saying creatures creating glimpses of a new internationally dimensional language about global warming and changing climates for this land. Really listen hard to what they were saying.

The myna birds spew up some English that ‘you would have heard used to try to defeat lies in this part of the world. Just short words like Not true.

There is a loose electricity in Wright’s story-telling, fusing styles, tenses, high and low registers, first and third-person points-of-view with varying degrees of ‘closeness’, left-field similes/metaphors, and numerous references to swans from other works. And it’s all underpinned by the Aboriginal belief system. Here’s an example:

Somebody had eye-witnessed the lake bubbling from tug boats mix-mastering the water with their propellers, whisking it like a spritzer and putrefying all the dead ancient things rising to the surface, spraying it around like the smell of eternity. No wonder the local people, the traditional owners and all that, were too frightened to go back to the lake anymore. They had heard stories – bad stories about what happened to anyone who went back there.

For the most part this energy is infectious, although I was occasionally somewhat bemused/lost, particularly in the overly long opening chapter (70-odd pages), in which I sometimes felt like a mouse spinning in the loop of Wright’s wheel but not going anywhere. Maybe this was maybe intentional on her part; maybe faced with the so-called greatest moral challenge of our time we are all, at the moment, spinning our wheels. In any event, after this chapter, when Warren Finch appears on the scene, the prose gains traction, repetition dissolves, and the bight of Wright’s razor-sharp teeth digs in.

It is a very political book. Wright skewers all sorts, such as the canaries repeating what they hear on talk-balk radio, and the many policies and practices aimed at ‘improving’ Aborigines. The ‘closing the gap’ mantra is given short-shrift, as is the policy of intervention in remote Aboriginal communities, and ‘moving forward’ as part of Aboriginal empowerment. The satire at times is very black, the rage seething. Although necessary, it is uncomfortable. Rich non-Indigenous Australians  learn ‘about poverty by not being poor themselves’, and are oppressors ‘capable of slipping down to the bottom of a fetid well to destroy whoever got in the way of their success.’

Wright also points to difficulty of singling out one Aboriginal person to speak for all Aboriginal peoples. This is what she says of Bella Donna’s arrival into the swamp land:

… she came to live out her last days among the poorest people in a rich land. … Another Eden. A place where hunger and death were commonplace to its elders, the landowners who knew that they were a social-science experiment with a very big cemetery. A small place where sometimes things got so bad when the swamp’s little gang of brain-damaged, toxic-fume-sniffing addicted kids ruled, that parents asked only for one moment of peace. … People were … gambling about the Messiah. … Messiahs come and go, usually in the form of academic researchers, or a few chosen blacks and one-hit wonders pretending to speak for Aboriginal people and sucking-dry government money bureaucrats.

I love the way Wright inserts traditional language words into the text when we’re in the swamp, but removes them when we get to the southern city, as if it has no place there. And how could it when buildings reach into the sky like giant fingers ‘that had come out of the ground to orchestrate the heavens’? Indeed, so out of place does Oblivia feel that when she sees people lay on the concrete paths with their ears to the ground, she assumes they are listening for the stories underneath, but they are actually listening for the tidal surges coming in through the sewer system below the city.

For all this, there are moments of great humour (the fitting of Oblivia’s wedding dress is a hoot), and great beauty, even in the swamp, where a crescent moon’s light ‘rode silver saddles on the backs of hundreds of black swans huddling around the hull with necks tucked under their wings…’

The sense of the magical is never far away. At one point Oblivia ‘thought that she was in the sky, flying, … she and the swans were caught in the winds of a ghost net dragged forward by the spirits of the country.’  Elsewhere, the ‘Harbour Master’, a larger-than-life guru of the swamp, comes and goes like a ghost. There is a lot of talk about ghosts in the novel, about spirits. Some people have used the term ‘Aboriginal Realism’ rather than ‘Magical Realism’ to describe Wright’s style, because they feel the former reflects the realism inherent in Aboriginal belief systems. While that is true, saying Magical Realism lacks grounding in reality misunderstands its use of magic in much the same way. Nevertheless, I quite like Aboriginal Realism as a term. It feels right (perhaps Wright?) to describe Wright’s story telling.

In statistics a ‘black swan event’ is something so outside our experience or comprehension it is impossible to believe (and therefore predict). The terms was coined for the surprise of finding black swans in New Holland (Australia) by the Dutch, an event depicted in the novel, because it was assumed prior to that that all swans must be white. (As a fan of the Sydney Swans AFL team, I’ve always found it curious the team’s swan is white rather than black. And yes, I know our colours are red and white, but this is an Australian team not an English one, and I’d very much like to see a black swan appear on the team’s outfits in future. It’s perhaps a measure of how European views persist. Maybe I should start a petition!)

Anyway, what is of no surprise, and in no way a black swan event, is The Swan Book. We shouldawwbadge_2014 have expected such a thing to spring from the mind of one of our very best story tellers. Possessing old wisdom, and rife with global resonance, it may well see Wright add a second Miles Franklin Award to her list of accolades. I just wish some of those old-soul black swans could once again fly over the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour (and maybe roost on the Swannies’ jersey!). Both would be a welcome sight.

Alexis Wright is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). The talk she is giving on The Swan Book is free, so I better get there early!

If you would like to read more erudite thoughts on The Swan Book than mine, see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers, and Jane Gleeson-White’s at the Sydney Review of Books.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

2013

Giramondo

334 pages

ISBN: 9781922146410

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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Coal Creek by Alex MillerCoal Creek sees Alex Miller, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin Award, return to his ‘stone country’ roots. Set mostly in the aftermath of WWII, it’s the story of Bobby Blue (Blewit), told in a distinctive first person voice that is suffused with the simple yet wise lyricism of the people of the scrub country that comprises the Queensland ranges inland from Townsville.

Uneducated, innocent and warm-hearted, Bobby works as a stockman with his father until his father dies (his loving mother having died earlier), at which point Bobby, aged 20, gets a job working as a deputy offsider to Mount Hay’s new policeman, Daniel Collins.

Collins is an educated man who served in New Guinea during the war. He has moved up from the coast with his wife Esme and their two girls, Irie and Miriam. He does not understand the people of the ranges, nor its country. He has brought with him books on geology, as if they might offer a way of comprehending this unfamiliar landscape. But its secrets will not come to him that way. When Bobby is out riding with him, Bobby ‘soon seen he never knew he was being watched. I knew from that he was not the man for that country.’ Bobby thinks his father would have taken one look at Collins and walked the other way.

Daniel puts the locals offside, and Esme’s ‘high morals’ prove problematic. She has very strong ideas on how Daniel should police, and her suffocating parenting alienates her daughters (they start to go off into the unforgiving scrubs to get away from her).

Bobby’s lifelong friend is Ben, a volatile man who lives out by Coal Creek with Deeds, an Aboriginal girl in her mid-teens. Bobby and Ben grew up together, the pair of them going out with their fathers and working for the stockholders in the region. Bobby holds a strong plutonic love for Ben. And “Love is faith. It does you good to have it, but it usually has a price to it.” If it all comes down to it, Bobby knows he will be on Ben’s side.

Bobby is looking back on events and regularly foreshadows some sort of trouble to come. ‘I did not expect things to work out the way they did’, he writes, and thinks this of his dead mother’s gift of foresight thus: “… I seen that far-off knowing look in her eyes. Which she only had for me, like she sensed the terrible thing that was to happen lying out there waiting in the path of my future…” She tells him: ‘We all hang on the cross, Bobby Blue.’

Bobby had a loving and close relationship with his mother, and a deep respect of his father who could always see trouble coming and who didn’t suffer fools. Bobby suffers Daniel and Esme because of his friendship with Irie. Going on thirteen, she teaches Bobby how to read and a strong bond is formed between them, a bond that proves disastrous. He doesn’t see anything untoward in his relationship with her. He says he will wait for her to ‘come into her womanhood’. Not surprisingly, her parents think otherwise, and things spiral out of control for the lot of them as suspicions turn into mistrust and misunderstanding.

Miller evokes the landscape beautifully. It underpins every passage, and Bobby’s love of it is pervasive:

…them long rolling ridges of scrub, one after the other as far as the eye can see, going on into the haze of the day like a dream till you forget where you are. Just played-out mining and poor scrub country, that is all it is, fit only for them half-wild cattle and that was all the good it ever was. My country. I have no other.

It is tough country, a place where clouds run elsewhere. It is the country of the Old People, the local Murri Aborigines:

Them Old People knows things we whitefellers can never know. They are the dust of them worn-down mountains themselves and the knowledge is in them like the marrow of their souls. Which it will never be in us.

One can’t help but feel as though some of that dust has gotten under the skin of Miller too, for the landscape he so lovingly paints seems an inseparable part of him.

Coal Creek delves into the nature of friendship amidst competing loyalties; it’s about betrayal and how love endures. It shows us yet again how suspicion breeds misunderstanding. It is a wise hymn to the stone country and the Old People. Winner of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction, it is a very satisfying read.

Miller will talk about Coal Creek at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and I’ve already got my ticket.

Coal Creek by Alex Miller

2013

Text

291 pages

ISBN: 9781743316986

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

 

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