Having completed reading all the books on the shortlist for 2016 my question is did the judges, in my opinion, get it right in presenting the 2016 Miles Franklin Award to Black Rock, White City by A S Patric. The year was far from classic but it did have two stand out novels – neither, sadly, being the winner.
Hope Farm by Peggy Frew
Leap by Myfanwy Jones
Black Rock, White City by A S Patric
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
The weakest on the list was none other than Black Rock, White City by A S Patric. Loss, loneliness and dislocation are prevalent throughout the Melbourne writer’s debut novel. It’s bleak, challenging and deeply impressive – in part. Yet I did not like it – whilst the exploration of the relationship between Jovan and Suzanna is beautifully realised and life in Sarajevo and Belgrade (White City) stunningly portrayed in its inhumanity and incomprehension, the main focus of the narrative with its denouement is a seemingly clumsy and abrupt afterthought. (50%)
A slow-burn of a tale, Hope Farm sees thirteen year-old Silver come of age as, thrust into an adult world, she watches her mother disintegrate at the very time she needs solidity. Peggy Frew perfectly captures the sense of place in her writings – the stale dope smoke and damp, rotting weatherboard farm buildings pervade her narrative. And in Silver, she has created a lost but determined adolescent. But Hope Farm, like the smoke, drifts and wafts, like Ishtar, without any engaging foundation. Silver may need solidity from her mother, but so does the mother. It is lifestyle without structure, it is a narrative without structure. (54%)
Two lives grieving, two lives struggling to move on from events three years earlier. In her second novel, Myfanwy Jones teases out the character of her two leads both of whom are fairly ordinary Melbournians, united in principle in ther grief for the loss of Jen – although, in Leap, their paths never cross. It’s an engaging enough dual narrative as the two come to terms with their grief but it lacks grit. Events wash over with a sense of distance that never draws the reader into the unfolding storylines. (58%)
The Natural Way of Things is a dystopian narrative of the future (or possibly the present), an imaginative story of misogyny and internment – the haunting novel by Charlotte Wood is an Australian answer to Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Deeply unsettling yet poetic, a group of 10 young women find themselves imprisoned in a remote, ruinous deserted sheep station somewhere in the Australian outback. With its underlying menace, The Natural Way of Things is bleak. Its starkness, like its landscape, is threatening – in spite of that beautifully poetic prose. Wood won the 2016 Stella Prize and was the joint-winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature. At 74%, it would have bettered most winning novels over the last decade or so. But, by a whisker, in my opinion, it was bettered by another novel in the shortlist.
Lucy Treloar’s debut novel is something of a grower. What starts out seemingly as another Australian novel dealing with European settlement in the mid 1800s and the impact it has on the indigenous population becomes something more – much more.
Seen through the eyes of Hester Finch, a privileged 15 year-old at the onset of Salt Creek, we experience the fall from grace of the Finch family due to her father’s overbearing pride and poor business acumen. After another failed enterprise, he forces the family to leave their comfortable Adelaide existence and head to the beautiful yet harsh coastal landscape of the remote Coroong, a few days ride to the south.
As the family settle, so Hester’s brothers follow the standard European belief of ownership of the land and reject the rights of access to the local indigenous communities. It the relationships within the family, the limited contact with European settlers further down the coast along with the inevitable clashes with indigenous culture that form the basis of Treloar’s superb novel. But what sets it apart is the book’s exploration of European Christian hypocrisy and the position of women in 19th century Australia as written and experienced by a woman. It’s a world where the female voice is so rarely heard. (78%)
Based on the above, in my opinion the judges of the 2016 Miles Franklin Award got it very, very wrong.