Category Archives: Miles Franklin Award 2010

Miles Franklin Eve

Well- I’ve finished reading the shortlist again, this time finishing on Miles Franklin Eve.

I try to read the shortlist every year, but have mixed feelings about doing so each time.  I want to be able to nod sagely when my selection gets up, or to snort with derision if it doesn’t.  I want to be part of the conversation that surrounds the announcement, and I want to be able to say “I’ve read that!”.  It means that I read a concentrated selection of recent Australian fiction each year, and that I keep up to date with the authors and works that are deemed to be the “best” writing of that year.

But it’s always a rush at the end and I find myself reading a work not just on its own merits but with a comparative eye on the other contenders as well. I wonder if it’s a fair way to read a book.  I feel a bit resentful that I’ve been sucked into the marketing hype that surrounds it all- even though it’s entirely self-inflicted.

So, ambivalences and misgivings notwithstanding, who am I going for?  Jasper Jones and Butterfly are outranked here:  Truth I thought was too restricted by its genre. The Book of Emmett is a worthy shortlister and emotionally challenging, but I was troubled by the limited narrative sweep of the book and the author’s difficulty in pushing the story along.  The Bath Fugues was brilliant, virtuosic writing but it left me emotionally cold.  For deceptively simple, clean writing and a complex human story, I’m going for Lovesong. There- my selection.

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‘The Bath Fugues’ by Brian Castro

2009, 354 p.

As you might guess from the title, Castro is an author who plays with language and I finish this book feeling deluged by words, allusions and puns.  This book speaks of “bath fugues”, not “Bach fugues” but Castro’s own description of the Bach fugue gives a good preview of what this book is about and what it does:

Bach wrote fugues.  The important thing about a fugue or ‘flight’ is that all the voices are equal and independent in counterpoint.  They are all relative to each other, and in this organised complexity, they speak together, drop out, become fellow travellers, form pairs of dialogues, and in general, mutilate the subject by inverting, augmenting, truncating or copying it. (p. 274)

The book comprises three interlinked novellas, and the resonances reverberate between them.  Characters from one novella bob up in another and references recur between all three- bicycles, Montaigne, Baudelaire, forgery, baths-  and  clang associations send the writing off in unexpected directions.  This is clever, clever writing, a virtuosic performance.

The first novella is narrated by Jason Redvers, an aging art forger who is convinced that his old friend, the academic and writer Walter Gottlieb had appropriated his family history as the basis for his own writing.  The second novella focuses on this ancestor, the Portuguese poet and judge Camilo Conceicao,  self-exiled in Macau during the 1920s, surrounded by his mistresses and sinking deeper into opium addiction.  The final novella revolves around Dr Judith Sarraute,  a doctor now living on the North Queensland coast who numbers amongst her earlier patients Jason Redvers, her cabinet of collected exotic venom and plans for an art gallery that itself may hold the counterfeit, or at least reworked, paintings that have emerged earlier in the book.

Complex? Yes, and  I found it hard to work my way through the book.  I marvelled at it, but was not swept up by it.  I suspect that this book itself  is an intricate, elaborated work that fits into a larger oeuvre because I kept detecting echoes of Castro’s other works – The Garden Book and Shanghai Dancing, which like this book received critical acclaim, awards and shortlisting. They are books that, like this one,  made me wonder if I’d understood them as well as I should and which likewise revelled in language and their own complexity.

It’s a book of the head, not of the heart.  I feel as if I should read it a second time, and I’m sure that a second reading would yield even more discoveries.  But – and here’s the rub- I can’t find it in myself to want to read it a second time.

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster

2009, 304 p.

This book opens with a funeral.  It is a stinking hot day and four adult children mill with their mother outside one of those drab suburban funeral parlours that just seem to have always been there in small strip shopping centres, easily ignored until you actually attend a funeral there. These children are clearly ambivalent about their father and as the book unfolds, you learn why.

The first chapters of this book are striking.  Forster writes about the 1960s Menzies years and working-class Footscray so clearly that you feel as if you have been there.  She captures the tensions of an unhappy family and I could feel myself becoming taut and anxious too, almost cowering as I read.  She writes in the present tense, a technique that even though I am using it right now, often makes me feel on edge.  In this case, it worked well to heighten even further the brittleness of the story she is telling.

But what about the bigger picture?  She does pointillism so well, but I’m not sure that she carried it across into the broader arch of the story.   Even though this book is fiction (and, rather disconcertingly ‘vaguely autobiographical’, according to the author), in some ways it felt like a non-fictional biography of a family.  One of the arts of biography is to develop a narrative that keeps moving, even though the day-to-day events in themselves are not momentous.  This book covers a span of probably forty years, but it unspools slowly without any obvious shape to the telling.

The book is presented as sixty fairly short chapters – sometimes only a couple of pages each.   On occasions these already short chapters were further divided into scenes, separated by an asterisk.  I felt while I was reading it as if I were being offered a series of anecdotes and that the broader narrative was only inching along slowly.  There is a shaping to the long-term story, but I found it rather dissatisfying, as  it petered into a sullen powerlessness and acquiescence, rather than giving me the dramatic act of revenge I craved.  I felt this at the structural level, as well as at the intellectual level.  How do you break out of a cycle of pain, pain and more pain? Is forgiveness a form of surrender rather than an act of will?  Can family dysfunction come to an end through any one definitive act, or is it inevitable that it goes on and on, shifting shape, but slowly poisoning everyone?

This book rather reminded me of Sarah Watts’ movie My Year Without Sex.  It’s not just the western-suburbs setting that they have in common: they also share a slow, intimate gaze on domestic family life , albeit dealing with two very different families.  The movie, however, had the month-by-month structure to draw it together. Although this book had a structure too, (starting with the funeral then rewind and play through until we reach the funeral again), I felt as if it was stuck in the one miserable place, and it was not a place that I wanted to be.

So- Miles Franklin material?  Not yet, and not with this book although I’d give it the nod for the short-list on the strength of its evocation of time and place and acute ear for voice.  So far, I’d put my money on Lovesong, although I’m now reading The Bath Fugues and it’s shaping up as a worthy contender.  Watch this space- only ten more sleeps!

‘Truth’ by Peter Temple

2009, 387 p

If this book wins the 2010 Miles Franklin award I shall be seriously disgruntled.

I enjoyed Temple’s The Broken Shore, which was long-listed for the Miles Franklin in 2006 and which I thought a subtle analysis of masculinity and aboriginality, wrapped up in a murder mystery.  This book lacks the nuance of the earlier book (to which it is tangentially linked) and instead reads very much like a film script.  Its sentences are short, almost monosyllabic and its descriptions read like a string of observational comments.  Conversations drive the narrative, often shooting back and forth like a ping-pong ball.  The masculinity that was so fragile in The Broken Shore is too macho here: the women are just props.

Temple establishes the Melbourne setting on the first page, when he backfills a little on the history of the West Gate bridge, and then alludes to the Black Saturday bushfires a few pages further in.   It felt clumsy and a little gratuitous.

I’m probably not the best person to read or comment on crime fiction.  Every Friday night Mr Judge and I settle down in front of the ABC for our weekly dose of crime, forensic science and forensic psychiatry (e.g. Wire in the Blood; Silent Witness; Body of Evidence etc. etc. etc.) I sit there and watch it unfolding before me and almost without fail half an hour later in bed, I’ll say “But I don’t get it- who DID it??”

Which is the way I felt at the end of this book.  Peter Temple has been quoted as saying “I hate things being spelled out” .  Don’t feel that way Mr Temple, spell away!  There were so many characters in this book, the plot-lines were so tangled,  too many themes were squeezed in- the last pages of the book just passed in a blur and once again I’m asking “But I don’t get it- who DID it?”

‘Butterfly’ by Sonya Hartnett

2009, 215 p.

I don’t think I want to live in Sonya Hartnett’s worlds.  They’re brutal places where damaged children are lacerated by cruelty and neglect, and where as a reader you start to feel as if you have no skin.  This is the third Hartnett I have read and I feel as if I am reading the same book over and over. I’m starting to wonder if there’s something rather unhealthy about her work.

This has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and as my annual torment, I  try to read the shortlist before the winner is announced.  I doubt if I’ll succeed this year, but I’ll give it my best shot.  This is not the first time Hartnett has been shortlisted for major awards- she was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin for  ‘Of a Boy’ in 2003 which at the time I wondered about, and was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year for ‘Surrender’ in 2005, and at the time I thought that she had a real chance of winning.

And now ‘Butterfly’.  Again I find myself raising a quizzical eyebrow and wondering “Mmm- Miles Franklin?”.  The book started off badly for me because I loathe books that start off with a character regarding themselves in the mirror then proceeding to describe everything they see.  In my list of writing sins  this comes pretty close to the top, followed closely by describing food and Hartnett does quite a bit of that too.  I’m as entranced by the “lyrical” novel as much as the next reader but her images and metaphors just sit on the page, indigestible and distracting.  Even the name annoys me:  “Plum”. I felt very much as if I was reading a Donna Parker book from my early adolescence and despite the frequent references to the heat, I felt as if it was set in 1960s America- perhaps it was the double storey house that did it? It’s written in the present tense which is another narrative technique that makes me fidget.

For probably 2/3 of the book I was very close to giving up on it- and that’s from someone who rarely fails to finish a book.  I kept reading and finally, in the last part of the book it did click, after all.   But I’m not convinced that a book shortlisted for the Miles Franklin should take 130 pages to engage its reader.

I’m no longer an adolescent girl of course, and thank God. Yes, I know that friendship is hard, and that hanging round with a large-ish group of girls as I did in high school had its own perils and insecurities.  It hurts to think back, and I’m pricked by my own embarrassment and shamed by times when I behaved just as badly to others.   Would it have helped to read about it at the time? I don’t know.  Do I want to read about it now? No.