‘Amnesty’ by Aravind Adiga

Danny (Dhananjaya Rajaratnam) is illegal. Having arrived in Australia from Sri Lanka on an education visa, he’s ducked out, gone underground and now hiding in plain sight in Sydney as a freelance cleaner. Life looks good with his regular clients paying him cash, he spends time with Sonja, his Vietnamese vegan girlfriend – and he’s even splashed out for blonde highlights. But, in the course of just 24 hours everything crashes around him when he recognises a murder victim as one of his clients.

Faced with a moral conundrum, Danny wrestles with inaction as he recalls time spent with Radha, the murder victim, and Prakash, her lover and ensconced in an apartment owned by her husband. Danny cleans both apartments. Both are gambling addicts and the two adopt Danny as a kind of non-participating companion on their Pokie-playing trips. But then Radha’s dead body is discovered – with Danny recognising the jacket in which the body is wrapped as belonging to Prakash. So now Danny must decide: come forward and risk being discovered as an illegal and deported – or keep quiet and risk Prakash getting away with it.

But even if the police believed you, and phoned [Prakash], he would guess at once you were the one who dobbed him in,
and in return, he would dob you in as an illegal. He would call the immigration dob-in number bout the Legendary Cleaner who was illegal, give his name, and what he looked like, and where he lived, because the dead woman had told him everything

Over the course of this single day, Danny’s routine is shot as he assesses and evaluates his life past, present and future: his dreams, his feelings for Sonja, the discombobulation of undocumented illegality of life in inner-suburban Sydney. But, most of all, he reflects on Radha and Prakash, whose very apartment is scheduled to be cleaned. As a non-resident does he, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, a person without rights, still have responsibilities? It’s this dilemma that provides the scaffolding of Aravind Adiga’s third novel.

The strength of Amnesty is not the storyline which evolves into melodrama with text messages from Prakash himself adding to Danny’s fears and confusion. What separates Adiga’s novel from the spate of contemporary inner-city Sydney angst novels is his explorations of legal and illegal immigration and the fundamentals of Australian racism in spite of its proud boast of cultural diversity and heritage.

Easiest thing in the world, becoming invisible to white people, who don’t see you anyway; but the hardest thing is becoming invisible to brown people, who will see you no matter whatan archipelago of illegals, each isolated from each other and kept weak, and fearful, by this isolation.

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts

A disquieting Sydney-set tale as the unnamed narrator spends her last year in the city dealing (or not) with her self-destructive obsessions against a backdrop of ecological crisis.

Two centuries earlier, British explorer John Oxley, her great-great-great-great grandfather, travelled into the centre of Australia convinced the unmapped area would reveal a vast, inland sea. He may never found it, but he never ceased to believe that it was out there. The unobtained and the unobtainable drove him ever onwards.

Our narrator also appears to be driven by the inexplicable and the elusive. She works part-time as an emergency dispatch operator and finds it difficult at times to distance herself from desperate calls of fires ravaging homes, threats of domestic violence. She drinks heavily and involves herself with excessive casual consensual sex. Adrift, she works the graveyard shift, wandering the threatening streets of the city late at night or in the early hours of the morning. And then there’s wannabe writer Lachlan, her ex who, a few days after she had an abortion, left her for Cate, a fellow student on their literature honours seminar. But they remain sexually attracted to each other. All this with bushfires surrounding the city raging out of control and other ecological disasters ever threatening.

Madeleine Watts debut novel attempts to take on more than she ultimately delivers as the mundane of inner-city living is interspersed with recollections of a younger self fleeing with her mother from an abusive father along with the occasional thought thrown to Oxley searching in vain for the elusive target. It all feels somewhat diluted, lacking in the frisson Watts’ subject demands. There are some great turns of restrained phrase and lyrical beauty – but the sum of its parts fail to live up to expectations. The result in a sufficiently engaging but hardly memorable first novel.

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones

Two lives grieving, two lives struggling to move on from events three years earlier. Joe, broken, is stuck in dead-end but enjoyable hospitality jobs: Elise, unable to voice her innermost thoughts, has seen her husband walk out the door. Two lives grieving.

Yet in spite of its central premise, Mfanwy Jones’ novel is one of hope. Life goes on around the two – and slowly the outside world forces itself into the lives of Elise and Joe. A nurse, working nightshifts, takes on the spare bedroom in Joe’s shared house and with it a sexual attraction evolves. And there’s also workmate Lena. Graphic designer Elise becomes obsessed with the tigers at Melbourne Zoo.

For Joe, life is about marking time. He’s given up on the idea of teaching sports (although he spends time perfecting parkour moves) but mentors a surly teenager. With flatmates Sanjay and Jack, Joe contemplates lives, loves and ambitions. And remembers Jen.

In her forties, Elise’s life seems to be crumbling – husband Adam has left, her work is little more than filling time. But it’s the tigers that draw her – every Tuesday rain or shine she is to be found at Melbourne Zoo in front of the enclosure. Drawing, sketching, painting, it becomes a ritual. And, slowly, it helps in her grief of losing daughter, Jen.

In her second novel, Myfanwy Jones teases out the character of her two leads both of whom are fairly ordinary Melbournians, united in principle in ther grief for the loss of Jen – although, in Leap, their paths never cross. It’s an engaging enough dual narrative as the two come to terms with their grief but it lacks grit. Events wash over with a sense of distance that never draws the reader into the unfolding storylines.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award, Leap lost out to Black Rock White City by A.S.Patric.

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy

The ordinariness of 1960s Australian suburban life searching for something extraordinary is Peter Goldsworthy’s deceptively simple tale.

Transferred to the distant tropical Darwin from Adelaide, the close knit Crabbe family look to establish a life worth living, removed as they are from their passion of music. Dad (a work promotion resulting in his transfer to the Darwin hospital) is the piano player, mom is the font of knowledge as they look to teenage son Paul to make the grade. So much so Paul finds himself the reluctant student of Eduard Keller, a hard-drinking Austrian with a boozers incandescent glow and of whom little in known.

Narrated from the perspective of an adult Paul, more than a tinge of remorse and regret underpins Maestro as the now underachieving recital pianist reflects on the opportunities once offered by Keller. Whilst his parents trade music-related witticisms and help establish the likes of the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Paul suffers for his art. A hard-task master, the exercising of fingers forming weeks of lessons before any piano key is touched, Keller demands focus and commitment. Blunt and devoid of any social skills, the man’s history is, in part, slowly revealed. But to a teenage boy in the early 1960s, much to the regret of an older Paul, recent European history is a distant fug. The respect deserved for a musician of the Vienna Opera House, widowed Holocaust survivor and renowned teacher was neither forthcoming nor understood.

Maestro is a gentle, compassionate coming-of-age where childhood and Paul’s teenage years are one of looking to be accepted with Keller and piano lessons a chore. It’s only as a less-than-successful adult can he reflect on missed opportunities and the reality of a lonely, ageing old man a long way from his former sophisticated world.

An Australian Society of Authors Top 40 Australian Books of All Time, Maestro was shortlisted for the 1990 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Tom Flood and Oceana Fine.

‘100 Days’ by Alice Pung

A story of mothers and daughters, rebellious sixteen year-old Karuna falls pregnant to a nineteen year-old she barely knows. It wasn’t planned – but then there was little attempt to prevent it. It’s all about her mother as Karuna battles for some kind of independence. Beloved dad walked out years ago, leaving Karuna’s Filipino mother to fend for herself and daughter, forced to move into a two bedroomed housing-commission flat.

At times fierce and intense but full of humour, 100 Days walks the thin line between love and control as mom dismisses virtually all contemporary medical care in favour of traditional ways and superstitions passed down through the matriarchal bloodlines. Only those legally required are reluctantly agreed to as Karuna is locked away in the flat to keep her safe – and prevent her getting into more trouble.

It’s a battle of wills as the over-protective mother takes on two jobs to help pay their way – a once self-employed beautician must now work for another in a local hair salon before seeing the nights out as a waitress in the near-by Chinese restaurant. A sense of control over her own life (and that of her future child) becomes the battleground when Karuna realises mother intends to raise the baby as her child so that the young mother can go back to school and get on with her own life.

It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions as the two women lock horns with only the occasional interjection from the outside as Karuna’s pregnancy inches towards completion. One hundred days. It’s no time at all, she tells me. But she’s not the one waiting states Karuna, the part-time narrator as she writes for her child.

Warm yet incisive, 100 Days is brimming with love and rebellion as the mother supports her daughter in the only way she knows, even if neither Karuna nor the authorities always appreciate or agree.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin Award, Alice Pung and her 100 Days lost out to Bodies of Light by Jennifer Downs.

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2017

A shortlist consisting of five first-time nominees, the 2017 Miles Franklin was wide-open in terms of the winning novel. It was not a classic year, there was no single stand out in the shortlist or overlooked in the longlist. Instead, the five were solid, predominantly urban, tales.

Emily Maguire: An Isolated Incident
Mark O’Flynn: The Last Days of Ava Langdon
Ryan O’Neill: Their Brilliant Careers
Philip Salom: Waiting
Josephine Wilson: Extinctions

The winning author, for only her second novel, was Josephine Wilson and Extinctions. But was that the right call?

To be honest, none of the five were particularly memorable.

Crime thriller – a rarely shortlisted genre – An Isolated Incident saw the older sister of the victim of a brutal murder come to terms with the loss of her closest friend. Set in a fictional small town midway between Melbourne and Sydney, the search for the killer of 25 year-old Bella is not the focus of the novel. That belongs to sister Chris as the less-that-angelic barmaid deals with the media attention that’s thrown her way. It’s a chilling narrative as Maguire comments on the role the media plays in our lives.

On the outskirts of the Blue Mountains settlement of Leura, eccentric Ava Langdon lives in a small run down shack with two rats for company, her manual typewriter and personal memories. Poet Mark O’Flynn, in his short novel, presents a precise and poignant tale that is also occasionally very funny. But The Last Days of Ava Langdon felt too much like a literary exercise – style before content.

Literary in subject, literary in presentation, Their Brilliant Careers is a satirical swipe at the literary establishment. Sixteen people, sixteen stories, sixteen histories of sixteen (fictional) Australian writers. Absurd but rarely dull, ironic without being monotonous, O’Neill instils a sense of a fun, light read. But it also becomes a little too formulaic, slipping into the very self-aggrandisement it’s mirroring and commenting upon. The result is that the joke wears thin.

A tale of the human condition and the Melbourne-set story of two seemingly ill-matched, idiosyncratic couples ultimately bored me. Beautifully descriptive, swathes of poetic prose and insightful characterisation of the four, alone or together, Waiting does, however, drag. Philip Salom, like Mark Flynn, is a celebrated poet. It’s the wit and wisdom in his use of words that stand at the forefront of Waiting – but sadly at the expense of an engaging narrative.

The winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Award is, to my mind, a novel of few merits, with its central protagonist, retiree Professor Fred Lothian, deeply repellent.

It’s therefore obvious that, speaking personally, the judges made the wrong call and, in a not very exciting year, the award should have gone to Emily Maguire, just pipping Ryan O’Neill.

‘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).

‘Waiting’ by Philip Salom

A tale of the human condition and the Melbourne-set story of two seemingly ill-matched, idiosyncratic couples whose lives are both wholly separate yet closely linked.

Big is a big, hairy, cross-dressing former chef, with a huge gut and hairy Popeye forearms. Little is just that, little. Loud and opinionated, Big will divulge his thoughts in the aisles of the local IGA whether people are interested or not, bedecked in floral dresses with dainty handbags and coloured flats. Little is embarrassed. Not by his dress sense: by the attention he brings to them through his outspoken musings. Big and Little are people who live hidden in plain sight on the margins of society.

The two are close friends, companions. Their routines are regular – visits to the IGA, the public library. These two characters are like their shopping items, as inseperable as they are in syntax: Big and Little. They share a room in a local rooming house lorded over by The Sheriff, a tough, no-nonsense, broken-nosed ex-boxer. It’s a place for other marginalised outsiders – drunks, addicts, unstable – who somehow coexist.

Angus is a quiet, solitary man recently divorced who designs public gardens and spaces primarily for city councils. He is Little’s cousin but has not seen her since they were children. A mental breakdown and family rift left Little (Agnes) isolated, resulting in her moving out of Adelaide to Melbourne. Angus discovers her whereabouts by chance, not long after he met Jasmin, an academic in the study of semiotics.

All four are polar opposites both physically and emotionally yet both couples exist side-by-side, together in spite of their differences. An inheritance – or more specifically a potential inheritance – is the commonality. Little is an only child but hasn’t seen her unwell mother May in many years: Angus is the son of May’s manipulative and greedy younger sister. And so everyone waits.

Beautifully descriptive, swathes of poetic prose and insightful characterisation of the four, alone or together, Waiting does, however, drag. Like Big returning to the rooming house post shopping, it can be ponderous and slow. It’s the narrative that takes second place. Salom is a celebrated poet, renowned for his expansive use of language. It’s the wit and wisdom in his use of words (no coincidence that Jasmin is a semiotics professor) that stand at the forefront of Waiting – but sadly at the expense of an engaging narrative.

Shortlisted for the 2017 MIles Franklin Award but lost out to Extinctions by Josephine Wilson.

‘Lucky’s’ by Andrew Pippos

An immersive debut novel from Andrew Pippos, Lucky’s is part family drama, part Greek tragedy; part reflective history, part current commentary. It’s an epic of migration, identity, of dreams, of heartbreak that spans decades.

An American Greek, Lucky returns to Sydney following his stationing during the war. He returns for one reason – Valia Asproyerakas, eldest daughter of cafe-owning Achilles. Half a century later, journalist Emily Mann leaves London to write an article on Lucky, former owner of a now defunct chain of cafe diners. A gambling addict living alone, he is a lost soul but determined to fight his way back: the last Lucky’s closed following a mass shooting 10 years earlier.

Lucky’s the novel is peppered with ebulient characters and their stories. The temperamental, volatile Achilles leaving the island of Ithaka and the death of his young wife; the secretive daughter, Penelope; a younger Lucky with an uncanny resemblance to American bandleader Benny Goodman that led to his first meeting Valia. There’s even a long-kept secret connection between Emily, her father Ian and Lucky. It’s this mystery Emily is hoping to unlock and find a greater understanding to her now deceased father and the trauma associated with his death when she was only a child.

In its fractured time narrative, Pippos cleverly interweaves current stories with events of 50 years ago. As the current time frame unfolds, so more and more of the past is revealed. The stories are interlocked – tragedy struck yet, phoenix-like, a positive resulted. Years later more tragedy struck as ‘April the Third’ killings saw the end of Lucky’s business.

The concept of family is writ large in Pippos’ layered narrative, a novel based loosely on his own personal experiences where, as a child, he visited the cafes of his extended family, regaled with stories. But with family comes responsibliity and accountability. And Lucky carries this throughout – even feeling a degree of responsibilty for Emily and her failing marriage she has left behind. But Lucky’s is also about a culture, a changing society where the Australian Greek restaurant was omnipresent in every Australian city and regional town. Yet Greek food never featured on the menu. That only appeared when the doors were closed and families sat down to eat. Lucky’s is not nostalgia for a way of life – long brutal 12-13 hour days, seven days a week are highlighted in the novel. The interlocking stories are all tinged with a deep sadness. Yet it’s a narrative of hope – Lucky continues to be positive throughout.

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2011

kim scottControversy surrounded the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist. Only three of the nine novels long listed made the cut. Such a decision was a real slap in the face to the six ‘failures’, the judges implying they were not ready for publication and more editing was required. Question would be why longlist them in the first place.

But the three that did make the cut were judged to have a distinctive, indelible Australian voice [and] are like barometers of the state of our culture. It’s interesting that all three were male and were essentially steeped in the history of the country rather than the contemporary zeitgeist (unlike the longlisted novels from Honey Brown, Jon Bauer or Patrick Holland, for example).

The three that made the shortlist:
Roger McDonald, When Colts Ran
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance
Chris Wormersley, Bereft

The winning novel was Scott’s That Deadmen Dance, making him the first indigenous author to win the award twice. Was it the right call?

Historical novels all three may be, but each are firmly set in different time periods and landscapes. Scott looks to first contact in the south of Western Australia in the 1830s, Wormersley’s narrative is post World War I in agricultural New South Wales whilst McDonald’s sweeping epic spans half a century post the Second World War and tells its story predominantly in the outback of central Australia.

Each of the three are enjoyable in their own way.

When Colts Ran is an epic of masculine friendship and a paean to rural Australian life. But it is not an easy read. Kingsley Colt may be steadfast and ever present, but McDonald’s novel is a series of interrelated stories and overlapping characters that tell the story of not one man but of a time, a place and friendships in a tough, rural environment.

Chris Wormersley’s Bereft is seemingly the polar opposite, compelling, moving and eloquent. Quinn Walker returns to his home town of Flint during the influenza pandemic that sweept the globe. A decade earlier Walker had fled his home, caught with the battered dead body of his younger sister and a knife in his hand. In returning, he needs to confront the deep scars of his past.

But the 2011 award went to Kim Scott and That Deadman Dance, a bold, poetic narrative of a fledgling Western Australian community in the 1830s. It’s the friendly frontier where the indigenous Noongar and European pale horizon people initially lived side by side, until European’s greed and lack of cultural sensitivities drove a deep wedge between the two communities.

To my mind, awarding Scott the Miles Franklin was the right call, although Bereft would have been a worthy runner-up. It was the short, all-male shortlist that’s the issue, something that seems to be have been a watershed for the award. Since 2012, eight of the nine winners have been women novelists with 2015 seeing an all-female shortlist for the first time.  The interpretation of a prize for a novel that presents Australian life in any of its phases has also been widened, resulting in much more diverse shortlist.