‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

Longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, After Story is a tale of family, healing and personal atonement as an indigenous mother and daughter travel together to the UK.

A recent law graduate, Jasmine has long moved away from her home and community. Hers is now a Sydney life with a small group of professional indigenous women as friends. The youngest daughter of three, twenty-five years earlier the disappearance of Jasmine’s older sister Brittany devastated their tight-knit community – and put both of her parents firmly in the media spotlight. When Jasmine finds herself with two places on an organised literary trip touring some of England’s most revered literary sites, inexplicably she decides to take Della with her. It’s the first time her mother has travelled overseas.

With the disappearance of Brittany, family life fell apart with the parents under suspicion. At less than three years old at the time, Jasmine barely remembers her sister. Her parents split up and, with Della drunk more often than sober, Jasmine was raised by Aunty Elaine. Not a blood relative, it was she who embodied the power of women and keepers of tradition as well as introducing Jasmine to reading of the English novels of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Relations between mother and daughter have long been strained but in travelling together, Jasmine hopes that time away from the everyday reminders will bring them closer together and help them reconcile the past. But just days into their trip, a young girl goes missing from Hampstead Heath and their personal memories come back to haunt them. As Jasmine immerses herself in the world of the Brontes and Jane Austen, making friends with members of the small travelling group, so Della disappears into her own memories and wisdom of her own culture and storytelling.

At its best, After Story is a powerful novel of mothers and daughters, of shared memories and experiences. But sadly, the narrative too frequently slips into academia as the pompous American professor of literature clashes with feminist thought in dismissing Virginia Woolf or Emily Bronte as secondary writers. Jasmine may love her books but Larissa Behrendt lives and breathes academic study and this is reflected in her writing. Too frequently, parts of After Story read like a short paper to be submitted for assessment.

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts

A disquieting Sydney-set tale as the unnamed narrator spends her last year in the city dealing (or not) with her self-destructive obsessions against a backdrop of ecological crisis.

Two centuries earlier, British explorer John Oxley, her great-great-great-great grandfather, travelled into the centre of Australia convinced the unmapped area would reveal a vast, inland sea. He may never found it, but he never ceased to believe that it was out there. The unobtained and the unobtainable drove him ever onwards.

Our narrator also appears to be driven by the inexplicable and the elusive. She works part-time as an emergency dispatch operator and finds it difficult at times to distance herself from desperate calls of fires ravaging homes, threats of domestic violence. She drinks heavily and involves herself with excessive casual consensual sex. Adrift, she works the graveyard shift, wandering the threatening streets of the city late at night or in the early hours of the morning. And then there’s wannabe writer Lachlan, her ex who, a few days after she had an abortion, left her for Cate, a fellow student on their literature honours seminar. But they remain sexually attracted to each other. All this with bushfires surrounding the city raging out of control and other ecological disasters ever threatening.

Madeleine Watts debut novel attempts to take on more than she ultimately delivers as the mundane of inner-city living is interspersed with recollections of a younger self fleeing with her mother from an abusive father along with the occasional thought thrown to Oxley searching in vain for the elusive target. It all feels somewhat diluted, lacking in the frisson Watts’ subject demands. There are some great turns of restrained phrase and lyrical beauty – but the sum of its parts fail to live up to expectations. The result in a sufficiently engaging but hardly memorable first novel.

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones

Two lives grieving, two lives struggling to move on from events three years earlier. Joe, broken, is stuck in dead-end but enjoyable hospitality jobs: Elise, unable to voice her innermost thoughts, has seen her husband walk out the door. Two lives grieving.

Yet in spite of its central premise, Mfanwy Jones’ novel is one of hope. Life goes on around the two – and slowly the outside world forces itself into the lives of Elise and Joe. A nurse, working nightshifts, takes on the spare bedroom in Joe’s shared house and with it a sexual attraction evolves. And there’s also workmate Lena. Graphic designer Elise becomes obsessed with the tigers at Melbourne Zoo.

For Joe, life is about marking time. He’s given up on the idea of teaching sports (although he spends time perfecting parkour moves) but mentors a surly teenager. With flatmates Sanjay and Jack, Joe contemplates lives, loves and ambitions. And remembers Jen.

In her forties, Elise’s life seems to be crumbling – husband Adam has left, her work is little more than filling time. But it’s the tigers that draw her – every Tuesday rain or shine she is to be found at Melbourne Zoo in front of the enclosure. Drawing, sketching, painting, it becomes a ritual. And, slowly, it helps in her grief of losing daughter, Jen.

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.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award, Leap lost out to Black Rock White City by A.S.Patric.

‘True Country’ by Kim Scott

The debut novel from Kim Scott, two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award, True Country sees Billy, a young idealist school teacher arrive in the isolated and remote settlement Karnama in the far north of Australia. Searching for a past through his distant Aboriginal roots, Billy is exposed to historical and present day dislocation and dispossession.

With his wife Liz, Billy is thrust into a community of disarray and uncertainty – an understaffed and under resourced school, a struggling government administrative outpost and a once grand Christian mission in serious decline and which represents the horrors of the past.

We flew over a large curved pool in the river, and saw the mission with its lawns and buildings and plantation. There were small huts and large trees, and a scratch of track that dipped through creeks. It scratched past the powerhouse and the school, turned the corner of the basketball court near the mission gates and continued, lined with coconut palms, past corrugated iron huts to a gravel airstrip in the shape of a cross. Not far from the airstrip the river flows through a gorge before widening to a mangrove-lined mouth and into the sea.

The idyll of arrival is soon dispelled. The newly arrived head teacher and his family obviously do not want to be in Karnama, locals are suspicious and school attendance is sporadic at best. In spite of the beauty surrounding the settlement, hope is in short supply. Yet Billy is drawn to the people and the landscape in which they (and now he) live. There is a history not told, not relayed even to the kids in the settlement. He befriends Fatima, one of the oldest Aboriginal women living in Karnama and, sitting at the kitchen table, she tells him stories of the past. Recording on tape, Billy intends to transcribe them for his students.

Slowly, the idealism within Billy is replaced by the realities of the immediacy of place. A negativity pervades. Alcohol is banned in the settlement but it flows fairly freely at the mission: the white staff live in air-conditioning and have access to vehicles – the locals sweat it out in hot corrugated iron huts and travel everywhere by foot. But through place, True Country is ultimately a powerful portrayal of the discovery of self and, with it, a sensitive exploration of race and culture. Billy comes to recognise the stories Fatima tells him can never be transcribed into the written word – they form part of the tradition of oral history. Any editing for transcription is not his right: these are not his stories to tell.

True Country is a gentle, nuanced novel of much beauty yet, as Billy explores his own roots that have remained dormant and unknowable, so we are exposed to some of the more personal horrors of past colonisation. Scott’s big-hearted first novel paves the way for the likes of That Deadman Dance in his poetic use of language with its mix of humour, empathy and hard-hitting judgements.

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy

The ordinariness of 1960s Australian suburban life searching for something extraordinary is Peter Goldsworthy’s deceptively simple tale.

Transferred to the distant tropical Darwin from Adelaide, the close knit Crabbe family look to establish a life worth living, removed as they are from their passion of music. Dad (a work promotion resulting in his transfer to the Darwin hospital) is the piano player, mom is the font of knowledge as they look to teenage son Paul to make the grade. So much so Paul finds himself the reluctant student of Eduard Keller, a hard-drinking Austrian with a boozers incandescent glow and of whom little in known.

Narrated from the perspective of an adult Paul, more than a tinge of remorse and regret underpins Maestro as the now underachieving recital pianist reflects on the opportunities once offered by Keller. Whilst his parents trade music-related witticisms and help establish the likes of the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Paul suffers for his art. A hard-task master, the exercising of fingers forming weeks of lessons before any piano key is touched, Keller demands focus and commitment. Blunt and devoid of any social skills, the man’s history is, in part, slowly revealed. But to a teenage boy in the early 1960s, much to the regret of an older Paul, recent European history is a distant fug. The respect deserved for a musician of the Vienna Opera House, widowed Holocaust survivor and renowned teacher was neither forthcoming nor understood.

Maestro is a gentle, compassionate coming-of-age where childhood and Paul’s teenage years are one of looking to be accepted with Keller and piano lessons a chore. It’s only as a less-than-successful adult can he reflect on missed opportunities and the reality of a lonely, ageing old man a long way from his former sophisticated world.

An Australian Society of Authors Top 40 Australian Books of All Time, Maestro was shortlisted for the 1990 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Tom Flood and Oceana Fine.

‘An Open Swimmer’ by Tim Winton

A confident debut novel from the then 21 year old Tim Winton, An Open Swimmer, in its West Australian coastal setting, lays the foundations of many themes Winton continued to explore in his later books with his remarkable descriptive style and sense of place readily apparent.

Best mates Jerra and Sean hit the road in the beat-up old VW Combi van as they take time out off the beaten track surfing, diving and fishing. Friends since schooldays, the two are like brothers. But, having finished university, expectations are different as Sean looks to return to respectability and a well paid corporate position with his dad. Jerra is more of a drifter, uncertain about futures – and confused about a past (so typical of future Winton characters) which includes a questionable relationship with his Aunt Jewel.

Time-frame drifting sees past and present interwoven into a tightly-knit narrative as Winton beautifully, and seemingly inexhaustibly going by future writings, immerses the reader in the oceanside world of the two as they celebrate this apparent carefree freedom. But, as with the ocean they find themselves beside, surface appearance masks the depths of the deep. Jerra struggles with his disappointments in Sean and his ‘selling-out’ – but he has his own concerns, his own futures and expectations to deal with. Bad weather compounds the uncertainties of this seeming idyll along with the meeting of an old man living rough in a decrepit beach shack.

Winton’s command of language along with the presence of heavy symbolism creates an intensity and richness of place and time in this coming-of-age, relatively brief, tale. An Open Swimmer is far from perfect, however, with the storyline itself occasionally and unnecessarily obscure along with language guilty occasionally of being too sparse and eliptical. But for a first novel, it’s a extraordinary foundation for a novelist that, to date, has won the Miles Franklin Award a record four times and been shortlisted on two occasions for the Booker Prize.

‘100 Days’ by Alice Pung

A story of mothers and daughters, rebellious sixteen year-old Karuna falls pregnant to a nineteen year-old she barely knows. It wasn’t planned – but then there was little attempt to prevent it. It’s all about her mother as Karuna battles for some kind of independence. Beloved dad walked out years ago, leaving Karuna’s Filipino mother to fend for herself and daughter, forced to move into a two bedroomed housing-commission flat.

At times fierce and intense but full of humour, 100 Days walks the thin line between love and control as mom dismisses virtually all contemporary medical care in favour of traditional ways and superstitions passed down through the matriarchal bloodlines. Only those legally required are reluctantly agreed to as Karuna is locked away in the flat to keep her safe – and prevent her getting into more trouble.

It’s a battle of wills as the over-protective mother takes on two jobs to help pay their way – a once self-employed beautician must now work for another in a local hair salon before seeing the nights out as a waitress in the near-by Chinese restaurant. A sense of control over her own life (and that of her future child) becomes the battleground when Karuna realises mother intends to raise the baby as her child so that the young mother can go back to school and get on with her own life.

It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions as the two women lock horns with only the occasional interjection from the outside as Karuna’s pregnancy inches towards completion. One hundred days. It’s no time at all, she tells me. But she’s not the one waiting states Karuna, the part-time narrator as she writes for her child.

Warm yet incisive, 100 Days is brimming with love and rebellion as the mother supports her daughter in the only way she knows, even if neither Karuna nor the authorities always appreciate or agree.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin Award, Alice Pung and her 100 Days lost out to Bodies of Light by Jennifer Downs.

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

All Danny has wanted is to win a swimming Olympic gold medal. His precocious talent has won him a scholarship at an elite private Melbourne school, entering the hallowed grounds of privilege. But his working-class, mixed Greek-Australian background creates a tension as competition proves to be fierce, both at school and beyond.

Author of best-selling The Slap, a similar tale of failed suburban living, Christos Tsiolkas tenderly explores obsession, ambition, privilege and sense of belonging in a novel that pits Danny against friends, family, lovers as his self-focussed determination puts him at odds with the world around him.

A young adult with a lover living in Glasgow, a teenage boy obsessed with the pool and the transcendence it offers him, an adult refusing to swim, an idolised son and older brother, Danny has obviously won and lost. But to what extent and why? With its fractured time narrative, Tsiolkas unfolds and peels back Danny’s story, a tale of psychotic ambition and bad behaviour that leads to a demise in everything held dear by family and friends. Whether it’s his selfish abuse of his mother, disregard of long-standing friendship or behaviour that ends in physical violence, Danny’s is a total downward spiral.

Through a long and painful journey, Dan eventually comes to a sense of redemption (ironically, in part through the reading of Dostoyevsky). As a care worker for men with brain-acquired injuries, he has dependents: a reconnection with family along with a distancing of the painful memories as Danny on a private education scholarship facilitates an acceptance of the past and present. But Tsiolkas is also questioning the price paid for a win-at-all-costs culture. A young Danny’s obsession is stoked by the adults around him; the psycho swimming champ at school earns the nickname ‘barracuda’.

It’s a powerful and thought-provoking novel. Admittedly, Danny’s behaviour at times slips into boorishness as Tsiolkas’ repetition of tale grates. But an adult Dan reflects on his own behaviour and earlier drive, looking for that redemption of disappointment, anger and violence. It’s a tale of identity politics – sexual, social, financial, cultural, personal: through Danny/Dan, Tsiolkas tells it masterfully.

‘Wolfe Island’ by Lucy Treloar

Slowly sinking in a rising ocean, (a fictional) Wolfe Island has long been abandoned as a habitable place. Except, that is, by artist Kitty Hawke and her wolfdog companion, Girl. It’s a desolate place, but she is content in her isolation away from the politics of the mainland and its increasing lawlessness and surveillance. With more than a nod towards Gilaed and The Handmaid’s Tale, refugees are being imprisoned or making a run for the border to the north with the very real threat of being shot by authorities or vigilantes.

Kitty is only too aware that time is not on her side. What was once a bustling little community of permanent residents and tourists is now a place being eaten by the sea as rising salt, violent storms and water levels eat away at the island. As she picks her way across the increasingly sodden land and its memories, making sculptures from the flotsam and jetsam that have made a name for her on the mainland, so Kitty maintains, as best she can, the island that she cannot abandon. The pull of the island has already proven to be too strong, breaking up her family with husband Hart and daughter Claudie unable to continue living in so remote a place. Only son Tobe understood the pull, but he too eventually left, only to be killed in an accident.

But Wolfe Island is not ‘simply’ an environmental polemic. There’s so much more to Australian author Lucy Treloar’s wholly engrossing second novel, set in a factionalised Chesapeake Bay on the American east coast and a place of hundreds of small islands. Many have been submerged by the rising tides as Treloar speaks of climate change. But the narrative is much broader. One dark and stormy night, approximately one third into the book, her estranged granddaugher Cat and friends are blown ashore, fearful for their lives and obviously in need of hiding. Kitty’s life of isolation will forever change.

Cat and Theo are activists but Luis and his younger sister Alejandra are refugees, in need of refuge.

From protecting the four on Wolfe Island to eventually travelling north and the safe haven hopefully offered, Kitty and her band of misfits pull together (or not) as they navigate a hostile environment, natural and manmade, in order to find some semblance of order, safety and security. Once they have left the island, every interaction with a stranger is fraught with suspicion, questions hovering, left unasked. 

It is Kitty who is, years after the events, our narrator. Time and distance has allowed a level of normalcy to return to her everyday, even though Wolfe Island itself has all but disappeared. It’s that distance that’s allowed the shock of its unravelling be put into perspective and the frontier mentality they faced in their desperate bid in this no-so-distant future dystopia. It’s a powerful thrill of a narrative.

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2017

A shortlist consisting of five first-time nominees, the 2017 Miles Franklin was wide-open in terms of the winning novel. It was not a classic year, there was no single stand out in the shortlist or overlooked in the longlist. Instead, the five were solid, predominantly urban, tales.

Emily Maguire: An Isolated Incident
Mark O’Flynn: The Last Days of Ava Langdon
Ryan O’Neill: Their Brilliant Careers
Philip Salom: Waiting
Josephine Wilson: Extinctions

The winning author, for only her second novel, was Josephine Wilson and Extinctions. But was that the right call?

To be honest, none of the five were particularly memorable.

Crime thriller – a rarely shortlisted genre – An Isolated Incident saw the older sister of the victim of a brutal murder come to terms with the loss of her closest friend. Set in a fictional small town midway between Melbourne and Sydney, the search for the killer of 25 year-old Bella is not the focus of the novel. That belongs to sister Chris as the less-that-angelic barmaid deals with the media attention that’s thrown her way. It’s a chilling narrative as Maguire comments on the role the media plays in our lives.

On the outskirts of the Blue Mountains settlement of Leura, eccentric Ava Langdon lives in a small run down shack with two rats for company, her manual typewriter and personal memories. Poet Mark O’Flynn, in his short novel, presents a precise and poignant tale that is also occasionally very funny. But The Last Days of Ava Langdon felt too much like a literary exercise – style before content.

Literary in subject, literary in presentation, Their Brilliant Careers is a satirical swipe at the literary establishment. Sixteen people, sixteen stories, sixteen histories of sixteen (fictional) Australian writers. Absurd but rarely dull, ironic without being monotonous, O’Neill instils a sense of a fun, light read. But it also becomes a little too formulaic, slipping into the very self-aggrandisement it’s mirroring and commenting upon. The result is that the joke wears thin.

A tale of the human condition and the Melbourne-set story of two seemingly ill-matched, idiosyncratic couples ultimately bored me. Beautifully descriptive, swathes of poetic prose and insightful characterisation of the four, alone or together, Waiting does, however, drag. Philip Salom, like Mark Flynn, is a celebrated poet. It’s the wit and wisdom in his use of words that stand at the forefront of Waiting – but sadly at the expense of an engaging narrative.

The winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Award is, to my mind, a novel of few merits, with its central protagonist, retiree Professor Fred Lothian, deeply repellent.

It’s therefore obvious that, speaking personally, the judges made the wrong call and, in a not very exciting year, the award should have gone to Emily Maguire, just pipping Ryan O’Neill.