Controversy surrounded the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist. Only three of the nine novels long listed made the cut. Such a decision was a real slap in the face to the six ‘failures’, the judges implying they were not ready for publication and more editing was required. Question would be why longlist them in the first place.
But the three that did make the cut were judged to have a distinctive, indelible Australian voice [and] are like barometers of the state of our culture. It’s interesting that all three were male and were essentially steeped in the history of the country rather than the contemporary zeitgeist (unlike the longlisted novels from Honey Brown, Jon Bauer or Patrick Holland, for example).
The three that made the shortlist:
Roger McDonald, When Colts Ran
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance
Chris Wormersley, Bereft
The winning novel was Scott’s That Deadmen Dance, making him the first indigenous author to win the award twice. Was it the right call?
Historical novels all three may be, but each are firmly set in different time periods and landscapes. Scott looks to first contact in the south of Western Australia in the 1830s, Wormersley’s narrative is post World War I in agricultural New South Wales whilst McDonald’s sweeping epic spans half a century post the Second World War and tells its story predominantly in the outback of central Australia.
Each of the three are enjoyable in their own way.
When Colts Ran is an epic of masculine friendship and a paean to rural Australian life. But it is not an easy read. Kingsley Colt may be steadfast and ever present, but McDonald’s novel is a series of interrelated stories and overlapping characters that tell the story of not one man but of a time, a place and friendships in a tough, rural environment.
Chris Wormersley’s Bereft is seemingly the polar opposite, compelling, moving and eloquent. Quinn Walker returns to his home town of Flint during the influenza pandemic that sweept the globe. A decade earlier Walker had fled his home, caught with the battered dead body of his younger sister and a knife in his hand. In returning, he needs to confront the deep scars of his past.
But the 2011 award went to Kim Scott and That Deadman Dance, a bold, poetic narrative of a fledgling Western Australian community in the 1830s. It’s the friendly frontier where the indigenous Noongar and European pale horizon people initially lived side by side, until European’s greed and lack of cultural sensitivities drove a deep wedge between the two communities.
To my mind, awarding Scott the Miles Franklin was the right call, although Bereft would have been a worthy runner-up. It was the short, all-male shortlist that’s the issue, something that seems to be have been a watershed for the award. Since 2012, eight of the nine winners have been women novelists with 2015 seeing an all-female shortlist for the first time. The interpretation of a prize for a novel that presents Australian life in any of its phases has also been widened, resulting in much more diverse shortlist.