‘Mateship With Birds’ by Carrie Tiffany

mateshipSet in the 1950s and the regional Victorian town of Cahuna, Mateship With Birds invokes a subliminal level of pastoral and pastel as Carrie Tiffany explores family, sex and love along with the loneliness and monotony of rural life.

Betty Reynolds and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel, live on the edge of the dusty town with Harry, a dairy farmer, as their neighbour. Harry’s wife has left him for the president of the local bird-watcher’s club. That there is an attraction between the two adults there is no doubt. But both are reluctant or embarrassed to indicate this interest.

Constant errands, favours, meals and small gifts keep the family connected with Harry – and he evolves over the years into a surrogate father to the teenage Michael. It is his relationship with the boy that provides, finally, the book’s turning point.

Interwoven into the dusty, domestic narrative are the writings of Harry. A keen birdwatcher, he writes of a family of kookaburras that live on the farm – Mum, Dad, Tiny and Club-Toe.

It’s his poetic observations of the birds (and all families in general) that prove to be the interesting aspect of Mateship With Birds.

Mum. Dad, Club-Toe
break off their
preening,
squabbling,
loafing,
to attack.
They lose themselves in the doing.
I struggle to tell them apart.
Knife-beaked,
cruel-eyed,
vicious;
there is no question
they would die for the family
– that violence is a family act.

Without these observations, Tiffany’s book, whilst well written, lacked any emotion (even Harry’s notes to Michael about sex were strangely dry and ‘sexless’) – an episodic pastel palette of country life.

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

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‘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).

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

9781741758207When The Slap first came out a little under 10 years ago, it felt like everyone was reading it – and had an opinion. ‘Whose side are you on?’ was the question.

A hard-edged dissection of middle-class suburban Australian living, a man slaps a four year-old child who is not his own at a family barbecue. From that moment on, the lives of friends and family, witness to the event, irrevocably change.

Centring around eight main characters, The Slap explores divided loyalties, family feuds, friendships pushed to breaking point as values, histories, family ties, social and gender politics are all placed firmly under the uncompromising microscope.

There’s no question, an over-indulged four year-old Hugo is popular neither with the other kids at the barbecue nor the adults. He’s already caused several scenes with his tantrums, including the breaking of a present (given to someone else) barely 20 minutes old. Appeasement is the order of the day – there’s obviously a history with Hugo and parents who do not believe in intervention. But brandishing a cricket bat at his son is the breaking point for Harry.

That’s the end of the barbecue.

What follows is a state-of-the-nation narrative, an ambitious, fractious social document that is at times funny, at times infuriating and a little too often, incredibly smug.

Set in the Melbourne inner-northern suburb of Northcote, gentrification and multiculturalism has changed what was once an essentially Greek working-class area. Tsiolkas reflects this.

Both Hector (Chapter 1) and his cousin Harry (Chapter 3) are Greek, with Hector married to Aisha (Indian – Chapter 7) and Harry to Sandi (Serb). Both men are having affairs – Hector with 17 year-old Connie (Chapter 4) and assistant to Aisha at her vet surgery: Harry is in a long-term relationship with a Lebanese woman and who supplies his cocaine from a Vietnamese dealer. They’re both narcissistic and display misogynist traits – particularly Harry. Connie lives with her aunt, the result of her parents both dying from AIDS five years earlier: her father was a bisexual heroine addict. Connie’s best friend, Richie (Chapter 8) has recently declared his homosexuality to her.

Add Islamic conversion, indigenous and migrant assimilation, alcoholism, ageing, class and dysfunctional parenting and the result is a fluid narrative (if nothing, the story is engrossing) that is somehow overdone. It’s a little too diverse and representative, a little too shoehorned.

Interestingly, no character is entirely likeable – although neither are they totally unlikeable, with the obvious exception of Rosie (Chapter 5) and Gary – the parents of Hugo. Tsiolkas has painted a grim harridan in Rosie where even Gary finds some of her behaviour with Hugo hard to stomach (she still breastfeeds the four year-old). Her involving the police in the ‘bashing’ of her son by ‘that animal’ and the subsequent court case is a crusade too far for many.

The Slap is something of a page-turner – although, like all soap operas, it can outstay its welcome at times as it meanders around the lives of the eight characters and their associates.

Favourite to win the 2009 Miles Franklin Award (having already collected the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the ALSS Gold Medal), The Slap lost out to Tim Winton and Breath.

 

 

‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller

17930610One of Australia’s most consistent writers, Alex Miller has, in Lovesong, produced one of his finest books.

A haunting melancholia pervades, a poignancy almost too painful to witness as John Patterner tells the tale of a married couple living a life of love, dreams, compromise, deceit and almost unbearable sadness. It is his life, shared with the beautiful Sabiha and their young daughter, Houria.

The two meet in a café in Vaugirard, an off-the-tourist-track working-class neighbourhood in Paris. Sabiha, newly arrived from Tunisia, is living with her recently widowed aunt, Houria, owner of the Chez Dom. John enters the café having taken the wrong train to Chartres and a sudden rainstorm sends him searching for shelter. Spending a few months travelling away from his native Australia, John’s original plan was to spend only a few days in the French capital. Meeting Sabiha changes all that.

It’s almost twenty years before John returns to Australia and its here the book’s narrator, Ken, a successful novelist, first meets him and, over time, hears this plangent story.

Gentle, lyrical and poetic in its telling, a tragic love story unfolds among the fragrant spices and sweet pastries of Chez Dom with its predominantly male migrant North African customers searching for a home away from home. An unlikely yet contented marriage, running the café after the death of Houria, is overshadowed by the lack of the daughter Sabiha is convinced has always been promised her. Their lives are in limbo: the two have agreed they will return to Australia only after their daughter has met her Tunisian grandfather. Receiving news that her father is dying, the idea that Sabiha might die childless pushes her into taking action with tragic and unforeseen consequences.

A deceptively simply written narrative in the form of a therapeutic confession, Lovesong contains many hidden (and not so hidden) depths about love, relationships, loneliness, ageing. But it’s also a gift – Ken himself has ambitions for the tale with its believable characters who are vulnerable yet resilient, fragile yet tough when needed.

Shortlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award (Miller’s sixth), Lovesong lost out to Peter Temple and Truth.

 

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).

 

‘Tree Palace’ by Craig Sherborne

imagesThe sense of an ending, of closure pervades Craig Sherborne’s elegiac second novel.

Moira and Shane are ‘trants’ (itinerants) roaming the north-western Victorian plains, settling wherever they can for a few days or, if they’re lucky, a few weeks. With Moira’s two teenage kids, Zara and Rory, and Midge, Shane’s brother, the family live on the edges, dossing down in disused properties and stripping heritage buildings when funds are low.

When they come across the run-down property outside the small (fictional) town of Barleyville, it appears to be perfect for their needs: things are looking up. For Moira, this could finally be a place to settle down. It’s also easy access to Alfie, the respectable outlet for Shane’s ‘antique business’. Problem is Zara, at 15, is a new mother and doesn’t want a bar of the newborn or trant lifestyle.

Displaced, never fully embraced by locals in towns with a sense of something closing, with shops boarded up and mail blackening the doorways like rot, they need each other to find their way. It’s Moira who holds them all together, we’re not bad people … We’ve got the shine off us, that’s all.

 It’s a vernacular novel – true rural Aussie yet simultaneously exposing a part that’s rarely seen or heard. It’s also a fairly entertaining one: Sherborne chooses to keep the tone relatively light with authentic dialogue and packed with hope. But there’s the rub – such marginalised lifestyles would not be quite so trouble free.

The establishment and authorities are present but other than the arrest of Shane, they are far too benevolent. Itinerants are rarely welcomed, seen as people living off welfare, getting something for nothing, contributing little. Closed rural communities would unlikely turn a blind eye to the squatting of their discovered personal Tree Palace – particularly after the birth of Mathew.

With the exception of Moira, it’s a novel populated with characters not particularly likeable (and Moira is no angel). The authenticity of dialogue and Sherborne’s commentary on the entrapment of rural poverty are beautifully modulated. Yet it needs more social authenticity. Bottom line is that I wanted to like Tree Palace more than I did.

Craig Sherborne’s Tree Palace was shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep.

‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey

9780143571209A meandering epic of a narrative, True History of the Kelly Gang is as much a commentary on corruption and prejudice in rural Victoria in the late 1800s as it is a history of the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly. But then Kelly’s story is a product of that corruption and prejudice. Whilst hardly an innocent (few were in those hardened times), Kelly, along with his dirt-poor Irish Catholic family, was as much a victim as perpetrator.

Ned Kelly himself is the narrator, a series of letters and notes to his daughter, written in his unschooled, semiliterate vernacular, providing this sweeping outback adventure a resounding voice of authenticity. As created by Peter Carey, it is this voice that carries the narrative – empathic, sympathetic, angry, fair, apologetic, at times resigned, at other times determined as Kelly speaks of events around him so that his daughter (born in California) may understand something of a father she likely will never meet.

A rebel, a bushranger, a thief, a murderer, a horse rustler, a common criminal – accusations flowed thick and thin from (usually corrupt) colonial police, politicians and landowners. But over time, he also became something of a local hero in the drought stricken, impoverished northern Victoria – a tough, no-nonsense larrikin who stood his ground and who, in attempting to survive and support his mother and younger siblings, found himself up against the establishment.

In a very bad year even the richest farmers … was pressed hard themselves and so harsher than usual to their poor neighbours. Through his connections in government the squatter Whitty had been permitted to rent the common ground and as a result a poor man could no longer find a place to feed his stock in all the drought stricken plains. If you set your horse grazing beside the govt. road it would be taken by Whitty’s drones and locked away in the pound. I have known of 60 horses impounded in one day all of then belonging to poor farmers…

 Almost by default, Kelly became the most wanted man in the State. A (small) decent piece of land and a few livestock was the want, a little illegal trading (his mother ran a shabeen). But an Irish Catholic family (a notch beneath the cattle) was a sitting duck for the local ‘traps’ and heavy-handed treatment; arrests for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time were common. And it wasn’t just Ned – father (when still alive), mother, brothers, aunts, uncles. A Kelly (or Quinn – his mother’s family) was guilty by association.

It’s a history full of incident and fulsome, rambunctious characters who defy a corrupt authority. Kelly and the gang take to the untamed rolling wilderness, camping out in miserable winter surrounds, avoiding the squads of police sent from Melbourne to trap the wanted men who have, by now, robbed banks and killed.

A (self) portrait of the man behind the myth, True History of the Kelly Gang remains a fiction but uses real people and based on historical fact. Yet it is a vivid recreation of the life of Australia’s most notorious outlaw/nationalist. Carey’s novel was awarded the 2001 Booker Prize yet, controversially, lost out to Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award.

 

 

‘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).