‘Gilgamesh’ by Joan London

An acclaimed and award-winning short story writer, Joan London’s storytelling and spare, concise language comes to the fore in her first novel, published in 2001.

Two young teenage sisters, Edith and Frances, struggle to survive on a small, isolated farm in the south-west of Australia. Their father recently died, their mother drifts in and out of reality (or creates her own). It’s 1937 when, out of the blue, cousin Leopold appears along with Aram, his Armenian friend.

For the unworldly Edith, their arrival shakes the very foundations of her everyday. Conversation and laughter arrives in the decrepit shack the women call home. She is swept away as Aram tells his story of the Armenian massacre in 1915 and the murder of his parents, the orphanage in Aleppo, his homeland. But mythical tales of adventures are also told – including that of Gilgamesh, the legendary King of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. It is his journey of mourning, a journey undertaken with his friend Enkedu, that resonates with Edith.

Two years later, with Europe on the brink of war, Edith sets off with her young son, Jim, to find the two men, with London her first stop.

Spanning continents and generations, Joan London’s Gilgamesh is a modern day exploration of the epic poem – or a quest as Edith follows her own journey in search of Aram, the father of her child. From London, it takes her to Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Syria before finally returning to Australia. On her way, she meets some extraordinarily strong women (particularly in Armenia) and dodgy men and, whilst occasionally Gilgamesh turns into something of an episodic soap opera, it’s a compelling tale.

Shortlisted for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award, Joan London and Gilgamesh lost out to Tim Winton and Dirt Music.

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‘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.

‘Storyland’ by Catherine McKinnon

A series of five stories connected by place but with a separation of almost one thousand years, Storyland is the ambitious tale of a country, a continent, a history, a prophecy.

In 1796, young cabin-boy Will Martin finds himself on a proposed short journey of discovery – to find a fresh-water river believed to be a few miles down the coast from Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney). Travelling with (the non-fictional adventurers) Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and Mr George Bass, the two men and a boy find themselves on uncharted waters full of hope and adventure. A thousand years later, Nada is questioned of her survival from Frank, the gargantuan storm that has left most of Australia permanently underwater.

A woven tapestry of history and future, of hope, love, friendship and potential but simultaneously of violence, greed, misunderstanding and sadness. The brutality of ex-convict Hawker (1822) towards the indigenous aborigines is mirrored in Bel’s story (1998) where the (white) dealer in indigenous art is not only stealing from the artists, but is violent towards his girlfriend, Kristie, a distant relative of Mary and Lola (1900).

In telling and connecting the five stories (Storyland takes place around Lake Illawarra and modern day Wollongong), Catherine McKinnon has produced a haunting narrative of what was and what might be – a telling of the effect humankind has on the land and what might yet come with climate change. In its telling, she has chosen to focus on ordinary people – an interpretation of recorded events as seen from the perspective of Will Martin rather than Flinders himself: the half-sisters Lola and Mary, both of indigenous descent, faced with overt and covert racism in the running of their dairy farm: Nada and partner Ben’s despair in surviving the disease-ridden after-effects of the storm.

In its telling, McKinnon uses the dramatic technique of leaving the first four stories at a crucial moment before moving on to the next: she reverses the order of their conclusions, resulting in Will Martin’s adventure as both the first and last of her narrative. The result is that Storyland is a real page-turner.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award, Storyland lost out to Michelle de Kretser and The Life to Come.


‘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.

‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

Loosely based on her own family heritage, Kate Grenville’s powerful novel of Australia’s past is at once vivid, imaginative and illuminating. It’s 1806: William Thornhill is deported for life to the penal colony of New South Wales. There he earns his freedom and settles with his family on a piece of land on the banks of what is now the Hawkesbury River. It’s an isolated piece of land, surrounded by only a few Europeans. But the land is not as empty as is assumed. 


Grenville is vivid in her description – whether it is the poverty, depredation and struggles of life in London for Will and Sal both as children and later as man and wife or the terrible inhumane scenes of carnage towards the end of the novel in the fight for dominance and ownership of the land. 


The first third of The Secret Riveris set in London and the first years of the Thornhills life in the penal colony. As a hardworking and trusted lighterman on the Thames, Will eked out a  life just above the poverty line for his family until a run of financial bad luck forced him to look for money illegally to support his wife and child. Theft from his employer saw him sentenced to death but this was commuted to life and transportation.


A savvy intelligence in both Will and Sal saw them prosper within the confines of the penal settlement and a hard-earned ticket of leave gave the family the opportunity to take on a lease on 200 acres of Hawkesbury River land, ‘the blank page on which a man might write a new life.’It’s this period that is the main focus of Grenville’s narrative.


The concept of ownership is assumed by Europeans to be determined by fences, buildings and obvious signs of crops or farming. Nomadic by nature, the indigenous people of the area (Dharug) come and go according to the seasons, living off the land. Clearing vegetation destroyed sources of food: fences denied access to ancient sites and freedom of movement. The Europeans failed to understand this ‘savage’ way of life – made worse by the fact the Dharug did not understand English no matter how loudly you shouted.


More experienced settlers and their propensity for violence make a more reasonable Will and Sal uneasy – but even they know that they need to make a success of their chosen lives. They cannot go backwards and decisions have to be made.  


It’s an intriguing if brutal telling of a fictional truth. Solomon Wiseman, Grenville’s great, great, great grandfather, is the inspiration for her research, a man who settled on land on the Hawkesbury (what is now Wiseman’s Ferry) having been transported for life for theft. In it’s telling, Grenville presents a more personalised European perspective than most, avoiding (controversially but, to my mind, appropriately) giving a voice to the indigenous people in her story – ‘Their inside story – their responses, their thoughts, their feelings – all that was for someone else to tell, someone who had the right to enter that world and the knowledge to do it properly.’

A seminal novel on the history of Australia since European settlement, The Secret Riverwas shortlisted for both the 2006 Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award and collected the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  


‘The Gift of Speed’ by Steven Carroll

The mundane suburban lives of Vic, Rita and son, Michael, first introduced in The Art of the Engine Driver, are further explored in the second part of Carroll’s trilogy.

It’s 1960 and the West Indies cricket team has arrived to play a series against the Australian team that is destined to be regarded as one of history’s best. Michael, now 16 years old, is an obsessive cricket player, determined to be a successful fast bowler. His only interest appears to be the gift of speed and to bowl ‘the perfect ball.’

Interspersing the everyday of life in a new Melbourne suburb to the north of the city with tales of the touring cricket team (and the pressures placed upon West Indies captain, Frank Worrell, in particular – it’s the first tour by the West Indies team that is predominantly black), The Gift of Speed whilst assuredly written, is a surprisingly ordinary tale.

Michael – cricket and the innocence of his first girlfriend, Kathleen: Vic and Rita, distant with each other, irrevocably heading towards separation and lives drifted apart: Vic’s dying mother, finally forced to give up her independence and live with her only child. Little appears to evolve in The Gift of Speed – as if, in their striving for that gift, the world has slowed.

The result is a somewhat dull, ordinary narrative of a unique Australian sensibility of the early 1960s. Carroll’s novel was shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award – but lost out to Andrew McGahan and The White Earth.

‘The Garden Book’ by Brian Castro

The-Garden-Book_Brian-Castro-510x799Literary and obscurely poetic, Brian Castro’s meditation on loneliness, addiction, abuse and racism is a perverse and unappealing narrative.

Broken into four sections with events seen from the perspective of four people, The Garden Book is the story of poet Shuang He (Swan Hay) and her sad, isolated life in the shadows of the Dandenong Hills on the outskirts of Melbourne between the wars.

Darcy Damon (section one), her husband, is a good-looking opium addict: Swan Hay herself is a third generation Chinese-Australian and university graduate: Jasper Zhalin (section three) an American architect/pilot and lover of Swan: and finally Shih, their son, looking back at events and attempting to piece together the story some 50 years later.

It’s a frustrating read. Castro has created several captivating characters, allowing him to touch upon fascinating themes that are as relevant today as they were then. The often hidden history of the Chinese in Australia and the racism simmering below the surface of everyday life is exposed – not just towards Swan and her father, but also her Jewish friend, Ruth Black. But Castro’s language, whilst rich and archly beautiful, is impenetrable and exacting in its telling of a narrative.

A progressively angry and violent Damon, former chauffeur to the notorious local gangster, Squizzy Taylor, becomes increasingly remote as he builds a large house to cater for the burgeoning tourism of the local area. Swan, writing poetry on gum leaves, slips between sanity, depression and addiction (opium and/or alcohol), made worse by the cot death of their daughter. As war inches closer and Damon spends more and more time absent from the property as a reservist, into the narrative walks Jasper Zenlin. Charming, wealthy and sophisticated, he loves Swan and her poetry, eventually having the work published by an obscure printing house in Paris on the eve of the war. Swan is a sensation – but never knows it until post-war.

Victim of malicious gossip and accusations, Swan lives intensely and painfully in her mordant solitude. She loses all – Damon, her father, Jasper, her children, even, ultimately, herself.

As a précis, with more verve and action (plane crashes, opium-fuelled orgies, bigamy, spies), The Garden Book sounds like a regular literary thriller. But it falls into an academic exercise, an emotionless gymkhana of poetic verbosity. By the end, I hated it.

The Garden Book was shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Roger McDonald and The Ballad of Desmond Kale.

 

‘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.

‘Of a Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett

Of_A_Boy_(Sonya_Hartnett)_CoverA short, seemingly meandering story, Sonya Hartnett leaves you wondering just where the narrative is taking you. And when it gets there, you wish it hadn’t!

Evocative of youth and innocence with more than a hint of vulnerability, Of a Boy steers clear of overt sentiment in its telling of childhood and mother/child relationships – and that of nine year-old Adrian in particular. A boy on the sidelines – living with his Gran in a street where there’s no other kids, one particular friend at school. Lonely he may be, but Adrian is a survivor, having experienced the emotional deterioration of his mother following a divorce.

As Adrian befriends Nicole, the new girl across the road, the story of three missing children (the prologue of Of a Boy and likely based on the true story of the missing Beaumont children, who disappeared from an Adelaide beach) gradually moves off the front pages of the newspapers. And whilst children may not understand, they do not so readily forget.

Sparse language, evocative setting (the innocence of 1977 where the purchase of a slinky could create so much interest and joy) and a mood of cold, damp winter months with morning mists and the early onset of nighttime darkness add to the sense of foreboding of Hartnett’s haunting and deeply moving novel.

Of a Boy was the recipient of The Age Book of the Year as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for South East Asia and South Pacific Region but lost out to Alex Miller and Journey to the Stone Country for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash

flounderingA convincing, tough, unsentimental yet moving storyline more than smacks of truth as brothers Tom and Jordy come to terms with an unstable, broken mum who, having abandoned them on the doorstep of their gran twelve months earlier, has turned up again. Without a word, she whisks them off on a road trip the boys will never forget.

Loretta seemingly has no plan – and very little money – other than to head west. Days of sleeping in an old rust bucket of a car with the boys still in their school uniforms and surviving predominantly on chocolate and soda shoplifted along the way follow.

Eleven year-old Tom is our narrator, a boy who sees a lot but understands little. Loretta is slowly falling apart, fragments of a desperate woman experienced on the periphery of Tom’s vision. When the three find shelter in an old caravan park on the west coast, the sense of menace is just out of view as the slightly older, surly Jordy attempts to protect his brother.

Floundering is a grim, anxiety-ridden experience. Yet its vivid language and powerful sense of character, presented by the author without any judgement, drags us into the  squalor of the road trip and the inhospitable dereliction of the coastal campsite. As Tom says of his brother when they realise they have been abandoned once more, “there’s a little piece of string connecting us, and I got no choice but to go with the pull of it.” And that describes the effect Romy Ash’s debut novel has on its readers. And I, for one, am glad to have done so.

Shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, Romy Ash lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.