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.

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2011

kim scottControversy 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.

‘That Deadmen Dance’ by Kim Scott

deadman danceWe learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours.

Kim Scott’s third novel swept virtually every 2011/12 Australian literature prize going – including the Miles Franklin, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Western Australian Premier’s Book Award, NSW Premier’s Literary Award, Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, the ALS Gold Medal as well as the overall Commonwealth Writers Prize.

It’s a bold, poetic narrative of a fledgling Western Australian community in the 1830s in the friendly frontier as the indigenous Noongar and European pale horizon people initially live side by side. And whilst there are obvious cultural differences and conflicts, first contact does not necessarily lead to excess violence and confrontation.

Whilst Bobby Wabalanginy is the core to That Deadmen Dance, the narrative unfolds through the voice of many, European and indigenous, young and old, male and female. Young Bobby becomes the ‘go-between’ for the two cultures – charming, clever, eager to please. He is as much at home with the new Europeans as he is with the Elders in the small coastal settlement of what is now Albany.

But things change as the colony grows. Initially a group of no more than 20 military and convict men, the numbers living in King George Town increases as the best land at Cygnet River (modern day Perth) is acquired. The halycon days of the informal Dr Cross, a wise leader who recognised that both sides could learn from each other, is replaced by European values of ownership, protocol and laws. Cross befriended and respected the Noongar – and on his death chose to be buried alongside his great friend, Wunyerun. Now, as the whaling port grows and money is to be made, land is cultivated, fences built, wildlife hunted to supply the whalers. The Noongar are left hungry and dispossessed. Sheep mysteriously start to disappear; crops are destroyed. These people chase us from our own country. They kill our animals and if we eat one of their sheep … they shoot us.

Bobby now needs to choose between a changing world where, as a boy, he was welcomed into the home of the prosperous Chaine family or that of his ancestry and culture.

That Deadmen Dance is a heart-wrenching yet simultaneously heart-warming narrative. It follows a complex non-linear structure that jumps in time, juxtaposing the viewpoint of Bobby as a child with that of Bobby as an old man along with perspectives and experiences of others – Dr Cross, Menak, ex-convict Skelly, a teenage Christine Chaine, Manit – over a 20 year period. We are thus immersed in Bobby’s enthusiasm for the riding of the boats chasing whales or his time learning to read and write at the Chaines with the brother/sister twins Christine and Christopher. But, as he gets older, Bobby is less and less able to move between the two worlds whilst Christine reflects with shock on any possible attraction to her former playmate.

The new settlers assert their dominance more and more. Bobby’s ultimately sheds his European clothing, reasserting his tribal kinship with the land and rejecting European sovereignty. His final deadman dance is presented as an emotional narrative to communicate the recent Noongar struggles and their connection to the land, to Country. But there is no one left who can understand the old man’s dance.

Kim Scott was presented with the 2011 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko

Returning home to the tiny (fictional) country town of Durrongo in the Northern Rivers to pay the briefest respects to her dying grandfather, Kerry Salter is determined to spend only a few days over the state border in NSW before heading back to Queensland on her stolen Harley. But she is in Bundjalung country and it’s her Country – and her family.

Too Much Lip is a gloriously intuitive tale that is simultaneously hard-edged and extremely funny as Kerry is forced to pitch her wits both against and for a fractured family that is both abused and abusive, perpetrator and victim. And the longer she stays, the more Kerry finds herself sucked into the issues confronting her mother, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and neighbours – as well ancestors and the threat to the sacred island by corrupt local politicians. Old family wounds open as the Salters fight to stop the development of their beloved river. And to make things even more confusing, there’s the good-looking dugai (white-fella) Steve…

It may teeter on the edge of caricature on occasions, but Lucashenko’s seventh novel is a fast-paced narrative packed with full-throttle characters in Kerry; her mother Pretty Mary, trying to hold everything together but inclined a little too often to hit the bottle when she cannot cope; a brooding older brother in Kenny, a whisky-shot from violence. And then there’s gay little brother Black Superman, who, like his sister, thought by leaving (and finding work and love in Sydney) he’d escaped the family clutches.

It’s a fun ride with dialogue of blunt, Aboriginal vernacular English – but that humour is more than balanced by the darker elements of not-so-distant colonial history. Of Mount Monk, a part of Bundjalung country, Kerry’s grandfather explained. It’s a gunjibal’s fist waiting for us mob to step outta line, waiting to smash us down. We livin’ in the whiteman’s world now. You remember that.

Too Much Lip was presented with the 2019 Miles Franklin Award.


‘Bring Larks and Heroes’ by Thomas Keneally

larksLaying bare the horrors of the Australian convict era, Keneally’s Miles Franklin Award winning Bring Larks and Heroes was one of the earliest fictions exploring the period. Seen from the witty, irreverent perspective of Corporal Phelim Halloran, the Irish Marine, the fictional penal colony in the South Pacific is a mirror of the settlement of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) with key dates shuffled to be suitably non-specific.

A man destined originally to be of the (Catholic) cloth, Halloran instead joined the Marines to avoid his fate as an Irish nationalist arrested at an illegal gathering. Intelligent and idealist, it is Halloran’s love for the young serving girl, Anne, that drives him to take risks. But it is also his witnessing the inhumanity of the so-called civilising society, where dissent is crushed (400 lashes), simply ended (the hanging of an accused rapist in spite of the man being a eunuch) or, in the case of the indigenous population, simply left to die from smallpox. The worst excesses of English society and an unjust system have been transported thousands of miles to the other side of the world.

It is the injustices that ultimately lead to the eventual downfall of the honest Halloran (and Anne) and his conscience as he is called to task by Hearn, the clerk and political prisoner who has come about a tract reporting the French Revolution (Keneally has altered dates, remember). Choose your side, demands Hearn, knowing where the young Catholic Irishman’s sympathies lie.

Bring Larks and Heroes is an early work by one of Australia’s foremost novelistsHimself an outspoken Australian Republican and former seminarian, Keneally explores the individual’s commitment to faith and personal morality without being overly doctrinaire. But his style is slight and erring towards obscure; language overbearing; narrative non-compelling.

It’s a subject Keneally was to revisit in the 1987 novel, The Playmaker – to my mind a much more successful and significant narrative and which was later adapted for the stage by playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, as Our Country’s Good for the Royal Court Theatre in London. Bring Larks and Heroes was awarded the 1967 Miles Franklin Award.