‘Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller

A compelling and beautifully written tale, Journey to the Stone Country sees Annabelle Beck retreat from Melbourne domesticity and return to the country of her childhood and remote North Queensland.

Betrayed by her husband, Annabelle packs her bags and, without a word, heads to Brisbane. Uncertain where her future lies, the home of now-dead parents provides some respite. Meeting Bo Rennie, a man who claims to hold the key to that future, intrigues her. A member of the Jangga tribe where his and her homelands meet, Bo, although not much older, remembers Annabelle as a child on the neighbouring station property.

Finding themselves attracted to each other, the two set out on a personal journey of return and reconciliation as they look to understand their pasts and events that impacted on them both, repercussions of which continue to this day.

A young, disconnected Annabelle who, sent to boarding school from an early age, remembers little of life in the rugged surrounds. Bo, peripatetic stockman and member of the Rennie family with a (white) Scottish grandfather and traditional Jangga woman as a grandmother. When Iain Rennie died young – killed in a fall from his horse – Grandma Rennie continued as undisputed mistress of the property. An almost unheard of situation, she struggled for years yet, late in life, she is fraudulently dispossessed. Bo is looking for repossessing the land.

It’s not an easy journey as European settlement history and that of the Jangga come together and merge – or at least subsist on the surface. Bo shares his knowledge where he can, but much of it is tacit, leaving Annabelle uncertain, an outsider wanting to understand, but unable. Her own family left, failing in the inhospitable wilds of the stone country, a connection unfounded.

Miller writes beautifully, transporting the reader to experiencing the moment, capturing the fleeting yet resonating for a long time –

They ascended the incline of the ridge through a tract of country where prehistoric grasstrees and cycads stood in isolation among bloodwoods and stunted hickory, petrified sentinels from the age before man, their shaggy topknots and skirts trembling in the mountain breeze as if they would flee at the sight of the oncoming vehicles.

Journey to the Stone Country (as with most of Miller’s novels) sees the landscape as a central character within its narrative: it’s power and everpresence is evocatively captured, it’s history dormant but ever ready to spring forth, to engulf the reader in emotive responsiveness. Bo, his cousin and former stockman partner, Dougald (who features in Miller’s later novel, A Landscape of Farewell), Annabelle are all temporary visitors, their presence felt but ultimately temporary. Journey to the Stone Country is haunting in its redemption.

Alex Miller won the 2003 Miles Franklin Award for Journey to the Stone Country (he won the same award in 1993 for The Ancestor Game).

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

the_yieldBeautifully crafted, Tara June Winch’s second novel (her much acclaimed debut, Swallow the Air, was published nearly 15 years ago in 2006) is a powerful story of language, culture and a people (the Wiradjuri of central New South Wales).

Ten years in the UK in self-exile, August Gondiwindi returns to Prosperous, a former mission that became the family home, on learning of her beloved grandfather’s death. Memories of childhood, missing sister Jedda, absent (locked up) parents and the now dead Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi clash with a present day: the 99 year lease on the property has run out and the land has been sold to a mining company.

In helping her grandmother pack and reconnecting with Family, August discovers Poppy has been writing a book. But it’s the story not just of his life spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House on Massacre Plains. So, because they say it is urgent, because I’ve got the church time against me – I’m taking pen to paper to pass on everything that was ever remembered. All the words I found on the wind. Poppy is looking to pass on the language of his people. It is through a series of dictionary-like entries that we hear snippets of the history of the local Wiradjuri clans:

yarran tree, spearwood tree, or hickory acacia  – yarrany The dictionary is not just words – there are little stories in those pages too. After years with the second great book I figured out the best way to read it. First time, I went in like reading the Bible, front to back. Aa words first … You could keep reading the dictionary that way  – front to back, straight as a dart – or you can get to aardvark and then skip to Africa, then skip to continent, then skip to nations, then skip to colonialism, then skip over to empire, then skip back to apartheid in the A section – that happened in South Africa.

Another story. When I was on the letter W in the Oxford English Dictionary, wiray would be in that section, it means ‘no’. Wiray wasn’t there though, but I thought I’d make it there. Wheat was there, but when I skipped ahead not our word for wheat – not yura. So I thought I’d make my own list of words. We don’t have a Z word in our alphabet, I reckon, so I thought I’d start backwards, a nod to the backwards whitefella world I grew up in, start at Y – yarrany. So that is the once upon a time for you. Say it – yarrany, it is our word for spearwood tree: and from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man.

Interspersed with the present day where August looks to make amends for the time apart  from her Country and help save their land and Poppy’s recollections is a third voice – that of Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf. As a (German Lutheran) outsider himself, the Reverend Grunblatt writes a first-person account of the appalling treatment of the indigenous population by white settlers. Displaced, murdered and forced into slave labour, a traumatised people were lost, abused. It was Greenleaf who established Prosperous Mission to provide safety, education – and a good smattering of Christianity. But as he writes more (it’s 1915, he is now interned himself: with Britain at war with Germany, he is classified as an enemy), it’s apparent that the Reverend is torn. He questions (white) power leading to questions of faith and belief. Promised financial and practical support for the Mission never materialised – but the local townspeople continued with their abuse. The longer Greenleaf spent at the Mission, the more he grew to respect the culture and traditions of the Wiradjuri.

The three voices come together as a story of a culture dispossessed, a people displaced, a voice silenced. Interestingly, the somewhat breathless contemporary element of the narrative is its weakest link – an all-too-predictable unfolding of a plot that, extraordinarily, mirrors Melissa Lucashenko’s 2019 Miles Franklin Award winner, Too Much Lip (but without the humour). There are so many similarities that, having read both, I started to feel uncomfortable.

But there’s no denying the power and beauty of The Yield and, having collected three awards at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Awards (Fiction; Audience Award; Book of the Year), Tara June Winch was awarded the year’s Miles Franklin Award.

‘The Life to Come’ by Michelle de Kretser

Traversing the globe from Sydney to Paris to Sri Lanka (although set predominantly in various Sydney locations), Michelle de Kretser’s latest offering is the story of stories as an ambitious Pippa yearns to find success as a writer.

Fractured in its chronology, a set of loosely connected narratives present diverse characters and certain aspects of their lives. The common, somewhat vague, link in each is Pippa. Which is unfortunate as the wannabe writer, superficial and somewhat unlikeable with more drive than talent, is wholly unengaging.

That de Kretser is a fine writer there is no question. Deft characterisation, occasional wry humour abounds as a lonely, 50 something Celeste sits in her cramped Paris apartment intent on her latest translation, convincing herself her married lover, Sabine, felt the same way within their relationship. Pippa, on an Art Council bursary, flits through the periphery of the Parisian literary scene and temporarily befriends the older woman. Or, in the final, most effective and moving of the narratives, Christabel, told in a series of vignettes, navigates her life in Sri Lanka and unexpected offer of a house share in Sydney with former schoolfriend, Bunty. Over time and the uneventful years pass, she becomes friends with neighbour and fledgling writer, Pippa. But with success finally achieved as a published novelist, Pippa soon moves on and the ties that bind are no more.

Transitory and impermanence are constant themes in de Kretser’s writings (reflective of her own personal life – born in Sri Lanka, emigrated to Australia with her family at 14, educated in Melbourne and Paris, employed by Lonely Planet, where she worked for a decade on the company’s guidebooks). As with her earlier Questions of Travel, de Kretser looks at the emotional impact of migration and human movement (temporary or more permanent) with its subsequent displacement and loneliness. But, like that earlier novel, all too often it slips into self-indulgent rambling by characters we care little about. With the sad exception of Christabel, a woman with few breaks in life who is ultimately chewed up and spat out by her flighty, shallow neighbour.

As with Questions of Time, de Kretser has produced a novel that polarised opinion. As with Questions of Time, de Kretser has produced a novel that was awarded the Miles Franklin Award (in this instance, 2018).

‘Extinctions’ by Josephine Wilson

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.

Fred is a man who, a recent widower, lives in a retirement village in suburban Perth in Western Australia. Whilst not exactly a recluse, he is an antisocial misery, consciously determined to be a grump. His two children are each in their own way lost to him. But then unexpected events around him force Fred to re-evaluate his values, identify his shortcomings and find some kind of redemption when the opportunity arises.

At least that’s what the writer would like us to think. But by then, it’s all a little too late and Fred’s redemption is too little, too late – certainly for his wife, Martha. No matter how many times the self-centred retired professor now recognises he should have helped chop the capsicums (a metaphor for a total lack of involvement in family life, preferring to close the home-office door to focus on his world-expertise in cement and concrete), their marriage, in the last few years, was not a happy one. Himself the scarred product of a dysfunctional Scottish family, Fred has contributed directly or indirectly to the destruction of his immediate family. Martha, it turns out, had an affair, Callum is confined to permanent care and his daughter Caroline, herself an academic, struggles with her own identity: she is indigenous, adopted as a young, abused child. Compounding her sense of uncertainty is the fact she is researching species extinction for a planned exhibition.

Past events of Fred’s life come to the fore as he faces the initially unwanted attention from Jan, his neighbour at the retirement village. Gregarious, Jan herself is involved in a family struggle as she looks to take on the legal guardianship of her five year-old grandson. It is she who forces the damaged Fred to address his past.

But why Extinctions? On one immediate level, it is only too apparent – Caroline’s forthcoming exhibition is an overt and obvious pointer. But there are so many strands to the concept – the end of the Lothian family line, the idea of the family unit itself, cultural loss et al. “In the end, all is allegory” reads the preface as relationships, knowledge, attitudes and emotions change, with Jan the catalyst. But so what? Very disappointing.

‘The Time We Have Taken’ by Steven Carroll

The third and final instalment of the Glenroy novels by Steven Carroll, The Time We Have Taken is the strongest of the trilogy. But it remains an essentially suburban story, an evocation of a time long past (the trilogy covers the 1950s through to 1970) where Carroll looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

There are no major surprises in The Time We Have Taken. Much of the development of events has been scaffolded in the earlier novels. Thus, Vic has upped and left Rita and the suburb, settling into a town a thousand miles to the north. Their son, Michael, has completed his university studies and is in his first year as a trainee teacher – at his old school. It’s only with Rita there is a significant (and unexpected) change. She has given up her travelling sales job and has become the cleaner to Mrs Webster at the large house. It’s 1970 and progress marches on. The suburb celebrates its centenary and a committee is formed. Michael discovers the awkwardness of first love; Mrs Webster, having taken on the business, confronts the mystery of her husband’s death and Vic takes his regular beer, knowing that his time is limited. 

The first book in the trilogy – The Art of the Engine Driver– is a semi-autobiographical narrative (Carroll’s father was a steam engine driver and he grew up in 1950s Melbourne suburbia) but, as the storylines develop with The Gift of Speed and The Time We Have Taken, so the nature of the characters become more and more fictionalised within a generic time and place. 

It’s a time of change yet many of his characters remain anchored to the past. Rita maintains the family home as a monument to something that never was, Vic awaits the occasional letter from her. Michael is scarred by family life that never communicated; Mrs Webster comes to terms with never really knowing her husband. It is through such characters that Carroll has created the minutiae of suburban life in Australia in the 1960s/70s – a lack of worldliness, a lack of ambition, a lack of anything much. Change is a threat – as represented by future Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a figure who looms large in the centenary celebrations.

Carroll assuredly captures the rhythm of suburbia. The Time We Have Taken unfolds with more than a hint of nostalgia, the characters finely drawn, the narrative (purposefully) slow: a meditation. Carroll writes beautifully but the inertia of suburban life subsumes – even the revelation of Mulligan’s town hall mural depicting a very different history to the one expected causes only ripples of consternation.

As the final book in a trilogy of novels each shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, it was no surprise that The Time We Have Taken collected the 2008 Award.

‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton

cloudstreetAn iconic modern Australian classic, Cloudstreet is a sweeping saga of twenty years in the lives of two neighbouring families living in Perth, Western Australia from post World War II until the late 1960s. It’s a broadchurch narrative of the large, boisterous Lamb family and their landlord neighbours, the uptight Pickles.

Down on his luck, losing four fingers in a foolish accident and a love of spending as much of his money as he can at the racetrack, Sam Pickles and family (Dolly, an unfaithful wife, and three kids) unexpectedly inherit a house plus a lump sum of cash. The house is enormous for their needs – the emptiness highlighted by the prompt loss of the cash at the local bookies. Unable to sell the house for 20 years (a wise provision in the will of a now deceased cousin), the Pickles build a makeshift division inside and out – and rent one half to the almost destitute Lamb family. Two dysfunctional families come together under one roof.

So begins this rollicking sprawl of a novel as the two families collide, bickering, judging, ignoring, laughing, mourning, crying, fighting a way through their everyday lives.

It’s the Lambs who look to make the most of their opportunities – a distinct work ethic overseen by Ma (Sergeant-Major) Lamb that sees the front room converted into a (successful) shop serving the neighbourhood, children (mostly) married off and the eldest son, Quick, finally coming good after a mid-novel waywardness. It’s a boisterous, energetic household with much laughter, hard work and some sadness (their son, Fish, a handsome, once-popular larrikin, is brain-damaged due to a fishing accident witnessed early in the narrative).

All is very different next door. A wayward Sam; an unimpressed Dolly who steadfastly ignores her neighbours; a bookish Rose who takes on the household duties as her mother spends more and more time at the local boozer (the two boys rarely feature). Unlike the religious, hardworking Lambs, the Pickles look to luck (lady luck provided the house, after all) and a minimum of graft to get by.

Full of heart, Tim Winton’s ambitious novel may pall towards the end, but in the interim we witness two families coming together during a period of comfortable, conservative Australian history. Global events (Bay of Pigs, Korean war, assassination of John F Kennedy) have little impact on the daily lives: Australian economic and social policies mentioned only in passing. Only the Nedlands Monster – a Perth serial killer who terrorised the city over a four-year period in the early 60s – is given any significant scope of the outside world. Instead, Cloudstreet is a celebration of community and is the story of the everyday – domesticity, the struggle for survival, births, marriages, deaths – and the dogged endurance of both families. It’s an honest portrayal, full of humour and fulsome characters but devoid of overt sentimentality or melodrama.

Constantly seen as the most important Australian novel ever written (by critics and readers’ polls alike), Cloudstreet was the recipient of the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

shallowsWinton’s first Miles Franklin Award (with only his second novel) brings together the past and the present in its story of the Western Australian whaling town of Angelus – the fictitious coastal settlement that features in many of Winton’s subsequent novels.

The town, having seen better days, is the last remaining remnant of Australia’s whaling industry and, in 1978, present-day attitudes to the mass-slaughter gives rise to outside demonstrators descending in numbers. The threat to the livelihood of Angelus and the disruptions they cause both on land and out to sea are interwoven with stories of present day characters as the town plans for its 150-year anniversary.

It’s a narrative of loneliness and desperation, of ideology and commerce, of lost dreams and petty quarrels that have hung over Angelus for generations.

One local, Queenie Coupar, joins the anti-whaling group, the last member of a family that can trace its lineage back to the 1830s and the early, inhumane beginnings of its industry. Her stance leads to a separation from her husband Cleve, barely 18 months into their vows. It is their misery apart that is the core of Shallows as Queenie finds herself involved in more and more dangerous protests. Cleve, meanwhile, drowns his sorrows in cheap alcohol and reads the journals of Nathaniel Coupar, the first of the whaling family members.

It’s vividly written and sets a tone Winton constantly explores in his later books. Shallows may not be a classic, but, through strong characterisation and involving narrative, it’s still powerful stuff.

Shallows was awarded the 1984 Miles Franklin Award.

‘The Great Fire’ by Shirley Hazzard

hazzardMuch lauded on its release, Shirley Hazzard’s dull The Great Fire is set immediately post-World War II.

It is ostensibly the story of Aldred Leith, a physically scarred British war hero who is sent to Japan (Nagasaki in particular) to research the impact of defeat on local and traditional culture. But, having spent considerable time in China, he’s also there to witness (for the British government) a China that is about to fall into the hands of Mao, when archaic iniquity was about to be swept away by the new juggernaut of the doctrinaire.

Whilst in Japan, Leith meets 17 year-old Helen, daughter of the crass and abrasive (Australian) camp commander and sister to Benedict, a youth dying from Friedreich’s ataxia. The three become close and, in spite of social barriers, Helen and Leith, 15 years her senior, fall in love.

Literary to the point of soporific, Hazzard’s writing is grave, old-fashioned and overly pretentious – Before dawn, as he slept, there had gushed out this emanation of an extreme (seppuku or Japanese ritual suicide). There is also the problem of the lack of any obvious storyline until the halfway point in the book. Up until then, The Great Fire is a series of vignettes as Leith travels backwards and forwards between Japan, China and Hong Kong. But colonialist through and through, The Great Fire introduces not local characters and experiences. Instead, the main talking point seems to be the standard of food served up at Government House in Hong Kong.

Twenty years in the writing, published in 2004, the pompous novel is littered with Aldreds, Bertrams, Benedicts with its language and sensibilities firmly entrenched in British mores of the 1940s. Hazzard herself was born in Sydney in 1931 into a diplomatic family and essentially left Australia by the time she was 16. Yet The Great Fire was awarded the 2004 Miles Franklin Award.


‘My Brother Jack’ by George Johnston

Mybrotherjack_1A vivid and sincere telling of what is a semi-autobiographical novel (the first in a series of three), My Brother Jack talks of life in Melbourne between the First and Second World Wars. Chronicling the story of bookish, nerdy (in contemporary parlance) David Meredith and his older brother, Jack, My Brother Jack is a commentary on interwar Australian society and dull, mundane suburban existence.

A violent father, a sapper in the First World War deeply affected psychologically by his experiences, and a mother who became something of a hero in the same war as nurse and matron: both returned to the anticlimactic lifestyle of a too-crowded, rundown weatherboard home behind a picket fence in Melbourne. Jack, three years older than David, is a lad-about-town larrikin, supportive but disappointed in his younger brother.

Mundane life with a potential mundane future as, established by an unimaginative, brutish father, David is signed up for a seven-year apprenticeship in the printing industry. Yet he falls in with the Bohemian 1920s crowd and a new life unfolds. Over time, David becomes a successful journalist and war correspondent.

A seminal novel of mid-twentieth century Australian life, My Brother Jack is a candid portrayal of changing values and the vacuous suburban dream of the time. Although rarely present in the physical sense (particularly in the second half of the novel), it is Jack who is the marker for Johnston’s reflections.

It’s an allegory of old-style versus new – Jack is the true Okker, physically strong with a word and smile for anyone and everyone: it is he who tries to smooth over ruffled feathers, sees the positive in everything, even if his injury at boot-camp keeps him from seeing any action at the onset of World War II. Three kids (the third, much to Jack’s relief, is the boy he so desperately wanted) and a happy, faithful marriage: Jack is presented as optimism personified (although inevitably always disappointed).

David, meanwhile, marries ‘well’ and the social climbing, steered by the stylish and beautiful Helen, begins immediately – a perfectly manicured home in an anodyne new suburb along with carefully selected friends. It’s ultimately not the world for David – and his petty cruelty and rejection of his wife’s values and interests are honestly (if unpleasantly) portrayed.

Stylistically, the novel reflects the semi-autobiographical, journalistic background of the writer – along with the time it was written (1964). Straightforward prose, prone occasionally to err on overly long descriptive tedium, Johnston sets out to tell his story. And he does it well, painting a vivid picture of life behind the closed doors of the family weatherboard or the sterile dinner parties that accompany married life.

A little editing would have helped (occasionally there’s too much detail!) although, ironically, Johnston speeds through his time as a war correspondent and his travels across the world. But that’s the point. My Brother Jack is the travails of living and surviving in Australia in those post war years. It is the sequel – Clean Straw For Nothing – that Johnston explores life as an expatriate.

My Brother Jack was awarded the Miles Franklin Award in 1964 (as was the sequel five years later).

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2015

1503647227678My first completed Miles Franklin Award shortlist for a given year! The Award, presented each year to a novel which “presents Australian life in any of its phases”, was first established back in 1957 (making it older than the Booker) with Patrick White and Voss the first recipient.

The 2015 Award was presented to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, the fourth woman in a row to win. The irony was not lost on the Australian literary world – following controversy over all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011, the alternative Stella Prize was established for novels written by women and first presented in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany and Mateship With Birds (a further irony is that the 2013 Miles Franklin Award shortlist was an all-women affair).

The 2015 shortlist:
Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys
Sofie LagunaThe Eye of the Sheep
Joan LondonThe Golden Age
Christine PiperAfter Darkness
Craig SherborneTree Palace

With the exception of Christine Piper’s debut novel After Darkness, the shortlisted books all feature children as significant characters and dealing with abuse, domestic violence, dysfunctionality and/or tensions within the family.

It was not a ‘classic’ year – the shortlist is a solid list of well-written books, predominantly domestic in theme and outlook, but which lack a greater perspective. Only Piper’s narrative of the internment of Japanese residents on Australian soil during World War II looks beyond the immediacy of environment, whether rural (Tree Palace) or suburban.

Strong in context – little is written about the internment of ‘aliens’ in Australia in WWII – but not very convincing in content, After Darkness is, to my mind, the weakest of the works on the shortlist. A renowned short story writer, Piper’s novel would have made an excellent long short story. Tree Palace also struggles – strong on authentic dialogue but its lack of social authenticity weakens the overall narrative.

The three novels directly involving children are the strongest works on the shortlist. Like Tree Palace, Joan London’s The Golden Age, whilst eminently readable, needed more social edginess in its telling of 1950s provincial Perth wracked by the devastating polio epidemic and its impact on a Hungarian refugee family, survivors of the war.

That leaves Golden Boys and The Eye of the Sheep, pretty neck-and-neck in my personal opinion. But by a very short head, I favoured Sonya Hartnett’s novel. Sofie Laguna’s story of six year-old Jimmy Flick was superb until the last chapter – a too-neat tying of knots and a father’s redemption having emotionally abused Jimmy throughout. Abuse is also prevalent in the disquieting Golden Boys, set in the 1970s and a time of confused innocence that turns out to be a rude, confronting coming-of-age with its own codes of conduct and justice.

So personally my vote would have gone to Golden Boys – but by so short a head that I have no issue with The Eye of the Sheep being favoured over Sonya Hartnett’s novel (and having recently met Sofie, I completely understand why she would not want her novel to spiral down into the dark underbelly of child abuse and leave the very loveable Jimmy in such a negative space).