‘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.

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‘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).

 

‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland

3vm2w2y5-1398227068A fair-dinkum 1970s Aussie bloke’s story – an everyman’s tale of life centred round the pub in an Australia already dying when David Ireland wrote this wry, compelling novel. Away from the glamorous beaches of coastal Sydney, it’s the working class western suburbs, pre-gentrification, pre-multiculturalism and by far pre-2000 Olympic Games.

It’s a vernacular tapestry of life in The Southern Cross, with short one-page observations or three page chapters of events and local characters as they come and go as told by our narrator, Meat Man. (It’s a man’s world, remember – size does matter and Meat has earned his monicker).

The Southern Cross is no welcoming drinking hole as the regulars comfortably spend six days a week looking into their beer. “On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.”

Along with Meat, characters such as Alky Jack, Aussie Bob, Serge, The King and the only woman of significance within the hallowed walls, Sharon the barmaid, populate The Southern Cross. In this territorial world, casual strangers are at best frowned upon, but more usually invited “outside”. Drunken philosophies, pointless arguments, sudden outbursts of extreme violence abound.

Yet, in spite of the violence and the fact there’s an awful lot of deaths (natural and suspicious), there’s also plenty of (laconic) humour on tap. And Ireland never judges his characters – he simply presents them as they are in all their honest rawness and flawed humanity.

It’s a subculture long lost (mostly) within contemporary Australia and few tears are shed for the demise of a brutal, misogynist maledom. Yet Ireland’s vivid characterisation reminds us of something that once was.

The Glass Canoe, David Ireland’s fifth novel, won the 1976 Miles Franklin Award (adding to his 1971 win for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner).

 

‘Bliss’ by Peter Carey

blissAn acerbic commentary on family, consumerism, advertising and bourgeois avarice, Carey’s debut novel was presented with the 1981 Miles Franklin Award.

As Harry Joy hovers above his prone body in the opening pages, dead for nine minutes before being revived, he looks around his wealthy suburban home of a successful Australian east coast advertising executive. At just 39 years old, he has suffered a massive coronary.

But Harry wakens in the hospital convinced he has died and in Hell, this new world populated by actors playing roles. His beautiful wife Bettina is unfaithful and in the process of leaving Harry for his trusted business partner, Joel. And his teenage children are not the innocents he believes them to be – son Harry a drug dealer dreaming of working for the Colombian cartel; daughter Lucy more than prepared to bestow sexual favours on her brother in return for a hit.

Life at 25 Palm Avenue has definitely changed. Having met with Honey Barbara – part-time dope grower, part-time hooker – and her hippy, pantheistic outlook, Harry is quick to divest clients who do not meet his newly acquired ethical standards. As Harry’s suspicions and paranoia grow, his determination to become a Good Person grows.

The family conspire to have him committed. Not that that’s particularly difficult – along with his convictions and financial suicide, the local mental home is a privatised business and any patient, sane or otherwise, means subsidy dollars for Dr Alice Dalton.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to Bliss. In this unspecified tropical, humid rainforest (likely to be Queensland), everything and everyone is a little strange and more than a little odd.

Harry doesn’t stay in the hospital for very long. Money gets him in, money gets him out. And Honey Barbara is now part of his life in Palm Avenue, in spite of her hatred for all things poisonous (living in a commune in the middle of nowhere, everything about city life is poisonous). But nothing is easily settled in the Joy family –  Joel now lives in the Palm Avenue home, even if Bettina no longer feels any love for him.

Bliss is all a little crazy and anarchic, with pauses to the flow of narrative every few pages that creates a staccato reading. This structure does at times make it difficult to ‘get into’ the swing of the novel, added to which Carey is not adverse to occasionally fast-forwarding 20 years to inform us of the conclusion of a particular event or story. But Carey’s prose is beautifully descriptive and accessible – and the black, black humour is, mostly, captivating.

It’s not my favourite Carey novel – it digresses at times, annoys at others – but there is no doubting its deep humanity and love of its subject and subjects.

 

‘Black Rock White City’ by A S Patric

black_rock_white_cityLoss, loneliness and dislocation are prevalent throughout Melbourne writer A S Patric’s debut novel.

As refugees from the Balkan wars, Jovan Brakocevic and his wife Suzanna are at a loss in their new Melbourne home. A former university lecturer and published poet in Sarajevo, Jovan is a cleaner at a local hospital; Suzanna cleans private homes. Their loss of a former life is palpable, the deaths of their two young children haunting their every move. Both are struggling to adapt – with their surroundings and with each other. A silence pervades.

Patric mixes his chronologies, slowly revealing the horrors of a country torn apart by religious and social wars, centuries in the making. Juxtaposed is the new everyday, where Jovan needs to concern himself with new brake pads or Suzanna leaving the lights on in their rented home. The couple are now in a country where a local Australian co-worker “… thinks he hates a boss or a politician or someone at his local pub,” Jovan observes, “but he hasn’t seen hate turn to fire, free-floating and exploding throughout a city, and then materialising again into a blistered red monster more real than any creature children imagine in night-time terrors.”

Black Rock White City is the story of trauma and the extent people can recover from tragedy and what happens to them in the process. It is told against the backdrop of an anonymous graffiti artist (labelled Dr Graffitio) vandalising the hospital and specialised equipment. It is this storyline that initially dominates, but slowly its prevalence becomes secondary. The real horrors are Balkan-related.

It’s bleak, challenging and deeply impressive. Yet I did not like Black Rock White City. Suzanna is the more interesting of the two central characters, but she only comes into any significant focus at the halfway stage. The novel’s slow beginnings centred on Dr Graffitio and Jovan’s sexual tryst with a dentist. The stark relationship between Jovan and Suzanna is beautifully realised: life in Sarajevo and Belgrade (White City) stunningly portrayed in its inhumanity and incomprehension. Yet the vandalism subplot gets in the way of this exploration, with its denouement a seemingly clumsy and abrupt afterthought.

Black Rock White City was presented with the 2016 Miles Franklin Award.

 

‘Highways to a War’ by Christopher Koch

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707An absorbing tale of courage in the face of adversity and, unusually, a war story set in Indochina where the emphasis is on the war as fought by local, as opposed to foreign, troops.

Australian photojournalist Mike Langford is an enigmatic but hugely popular Tasmanian farmboy who finds himself, almost by default, in the centre of the action in the mid 1960s. It is his disappearance years later inside the Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia and the search for him by his friends that is at the heart of Highways to a War.

Mike’s boyhood friend and executor of his estate, Ray, travels to Thailand on learning of the disappearance of a man he has not seen for many years. With cassette tapes left by Mike, photographs by the thousands (published or simply stored in boxes), a few accompanying notes and the stories of his friends and colleagues, Ray pieces together the extraordinary story of the boy who ran away from home in rural Tasmania to become a legendary war photojournalist.

But Mike was much more. He recorded not the US offensives: instead, he chose to focus on local Vietnamese (and later Cambodian) troops, recording the war from their perspectives. Less equipped than the Americans, involved in more of the hand-to-hand skirmishes, the risk was much higher for the troops and western media representatives. In telling the world their story, the unassuming photographer is elevated to mythic status in Saigon and (later) Phnom Penh.

But Highways to a War is also a love story. For Mike, there’s the businesswoman, Claudine Phan in Saigon followed by the true love of his life, the feisty Cambodian, Ly Keang. Core to the novel is the friendship of the three photojournalists, Langford, Jim Feng and Dmitri ‘Count’ Volkov: only one will survive. But overarching all is the love for country.

The result is a haunting novel that follows Mike’s own personal highways to war and a world of lives lived on the edge. Packed with compelling characters both inside the press circle and out, Highways to a War is a story of place and time vividly realised by Koch’s powerful but empathic writing.

Christopher Koch (1932-2013) is best known for his novel The Year of Living Dangerously, adapted for the screen in 1984 and starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, with Linda Hunt picking up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Yet Highways to a War is one of two Koch novels to win the Miles Franklin Award (the other being The Doubleman in 1985).

‘The Eye of the Sheep’ by Sofie Laguna

9781743319598Winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, Sofie Laguna’s bittersweet novel is imbued with a magical sense of ‘other’ but which is also firmly grounded in the daily lives of a working-class Melbourne family.

Six year-old Jimmy Flick is certainly different. And not everyone knows how to take him – including his dad. Yet the boy and his voice are exceptional and unique, a larrikin character somewhere on the (unspecified) autism/Asperger scale. His precocious insight and intelligence is beyond his years (and most of the adult characters around him).

It’s only his mother who understands Jimmy and connects with the boy whose excess energy seems out of control. School has given up on him, resulting in more and more indulged time with his mother and her love for cake. Ma is certainly struggling – overweight and asthmatic, she is surviving an abusive and violent marriage and finds solace in Agatha Christie murder mysteries and eating. A victim of an abusive father himself, Gav blames Jimmy for driving him to drink.

The Flick family world spirals even more out of control when Gav is laid off from the refinery and Robby, Jimmy’s elder brother, takes off for work on the fishing boats off the West Australian coast. Jimmy must now come to terms with change.

In Jimmy Flick, author Sofie Laguna has created a memorable, loveable yet incredibly astute child. The Eye of the Sheep is narrated through his voice and observations and comments are peppered with humour, pathos and child logic. But there is also an unexpected steely-edged determination to Jimmy as he is forced into a different world to the (ironically) safe haven of home and its known sense of order.

Considering its subject matter, The Eye of the Sheep is a surprisingly uplifting novel, in spite of the horrors Jimmy has to survive. In reality, the ending is a little too upbeat – whilst welcoming redemption, at the end of the day it comes across as a little too pat and contrived. Which is a pity as it undoes, to some extent, the impact of everything that had come before it.

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

9780143009580On the surface, Breath is a seemingly slight coming-of-age story set (as are many of Winton’s novels) in Western Australia and the world of beaches, surfers and fishing communities. But it is also an evocation of the memory of adolescence, friendship, endurance and taking risks.

Called out to deal with the death of a young teenage boy, paramedic Bruce Pike looks back 30 years to events as a 13 year-old when he and best mate Loonie fell into the thrall of guru surfing legend Sando. Making an unlikely trio, the older man introduces the two young teenagers to the extremities of the sport, pushing them to prepare for the ultimate challenge and the riding of monster waves.

Introducing an almost Spartan regime to their training, Sando encourages the two to vie against each other for accolades and affection. They look to outdo each other, pushing themselves to their own personal limits and, in looking to be extraordinary in the eyes of their teacher, take more and more risks.

For a while, it is Pikelet (Bruce) who is in the ascendancy. But, seemingly without fear, it is Loonie who claims the ultimate accolade, disappearing with Sando to the waves and challenges of Indonesia. Abandoned, with no warning, a bitter Pikelet finds solace with Sando’s (younger) wife, Eva. A strange, dope-fuelled sexual relationship develops between the two. He never sees his best friend again.

It’s a beautifully written story – as one would expect from Winton, who is nothing if not poetic. His vivid descriptions of the environment and the challenges of the surfing itself are perfectly crafted and without unnecessary detail. As a result, Breath is a relatively short novel (260 or so pages) and a must read. It was awarded the 2009 Miles Franklin Award (Winton’s fourth), beating out, among others, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap.