Category Archives: Miles Franklin Award 2012

‘Past the Shallows’ by Favel Parrett

2011 251 p

This is the debut novel for Favel Parrett, who has published several short stories  and looks from her photograph to be impossibly young.  According to her bio, she is a surfer herself, and this comes through in her writing about the sea which is almost a character in its own right.  Hence, I kept sensing resonances with Tim Winton in Breath, and in his exploration of the troubled and troubling people of the  marginal coastal towns in The Turning.  I felt echoes of Sonia Hartnett as well, in that the story is told from the perspective of children powerless against the cruelties of their elders, and as with many Hartnett books, you know almost from the opening pages that this is not going to end well.

Joe, Miles and Harry are three brothers, living on the south coast of Tasmania.  Joe, the eldest, has escaped the family but the two younger brothers still live with their embittered and widowed father, an abalone fisherman.  It is an intensely masculine world, and their father is a harsh taskmaster.  He forces the middle son, Miles, to work on the boat with a small crew of hardbitten and hardliving men, and he treats his youngest son Harry with a neglect that has an edge of hatred.

Perhaps the failing is in me as a reader, but I found it hard to picture the setting of this novel.  My overwhelming impression was one of coldness, both physical and emotional, and a bleak rural poverty, but I didn’t really have a sense of landscape at all- although perhaps the evocativeness of the seascape made up for that.

The voice of the novel is unusual, and I’m not sure if it is completely successful.  The writing is expressed in very short sentences, which makes it feel like a Young Adult book.  It is told from the boys’ perspective, switching its focus between Miles and Harry, but is not a first person narrative.  I wondered if the simple voice was matched with the perspective of the younger boy, but there did not seem to be a clear distinction between the narrative voice when dealing with the older brother.  I’m not sure.

But the real bite of this book is in the relationships and its exploration of brotherhood and masculinity.  It has a sharp edge, right from the start, and a feeling of impending sadness that builds up over time.  It’s certainly an impressive debut.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.  It took such a long time for my reservation to become available that the Miles Franklin is done and dusted!  And I’ll add it to my Australian Women Writers Challenge tally as well

 

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‘Blood’ by Tony Birch

2011, 264 p.

Every Friday night we settle down in front of the TV for the ABC Friday night splatter-fest.  I’m usually quite nonchalant about the gore except when it depicts eyeballs (a long standing phobia), torture and violence to or about children.  These things are likely to propel me out of my chair to quickly escape to the kitchen to make a ‘hot drink’, calling out “Is it over yet?” before I return.

Reading about (as distinct from watching) torture and violence about children upsets me too.  I found Rocks in the Belly a difficult read, and while it’s not so much about violence to a child (mmm…maybe?), it seems that most people who have confronted the book  We Need to Talk About Kevin shudder at the thought of watching the movie as well.

Blood by Tony Birch fits into this category as well.  It is told from the perspective of  a thirteen year old boy, who along with his younger half-sister, is falling through the welfare and schooling gaps largely through the weakness of his drunken, dissolute mother Gwen.  They move between caravan parks, motels and sleeping in the car, ricocheting between country towns, cities and states as Gwen takes up with one dropkick after another.  There is a brief hiatus of normality when she dumps the kids with her  own father, himself a recovering alcoholic with the rigidities and stripped-down asceticism of a life dominated by poverty and AA meetings.    “Is it realistic that two kids could be so invisible to the authorities like this?” I asked Mr Resident Judge who knows about such things.  Ah yes, he replied.  The  transience opens up too many questions that are too hard to address. Should these children be taken into care? Are they being abused? (I think I’d answer ‘yes’ to both questions)

Birch sustained the voice of thirteen year old Jesse well, with short sentences and a mixture of naivete and knowing too much.  You sense that Jesse is turning, no longer pretending that he doesn’t know how his mother earns her money, and becoming hardened to the wrecks of masculinity that she is drawn to. It is only his sister Rachel who anchors him.  There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, and it would transfer well onto the screen.  The descriptions of  blasted, tawdry broken-down landscape are  evocative- rather too evocative.  It’s a little bit like the world of Tim Winton’s ‘The Turning’, viewed from a child’s perspective.

Jesse and Rachel see ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at a theatre (a rather implausible scenario- surely a late night cable movie in one of the tatty motel rooms that they’d been left in would have been more likely?)  Birch uses the film as a motif, and the two children draw comfort from the characters of Jem and Scout.  But Gwen is certainly no Atticus, and this book has little of the redemption or sense of community in TKAM.   I’m not sure whether the allusion to the movie adds much to Birch’s narrative: while it throws up a strong contrast, there is an element of riding on the coat-tails of a much more nuanced book as well. There is the theme of blood, too, from which the book draws its title: the shared blood of commitment, the blood of  family ties, and the blood of violence.  And yet another motif is the tarot cards that the feckless Gwen plays with, that provide as much (or little) direction as anything else in her life.

Despite the plaiting together of these motifs, there’s nothing tricksy about this book.  It is straightforward and simple, with few flashbacks and a single narrative voice.  I found myself wanting to know what happened, but I knew within one or two pages that it wasn’t going to end well.  I found it easy to put down after each of the five sections, and was almost reluctant to pick it up again because it was painful and raw.

It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin. While I reacted at an emotional level to the book- grief for these children, anger and an element of self-righteous disgust at their mother- I’m not really sure whether the book carries the complexity sufficient for the Miles Franklin.  And I cringe at the thought that it might represent ‘Australian Life in all its stages.’

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin

‘All That I Am’ by Anna Funder

2011, 363 p.

No wonder this book is garnering award after award.  So far it has won the Indie Award Best Debut Fiction and Book of the Year Award, the Australian Book Industry Award for best literary novel and Book of the Year, the Barbara Jefferis Prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”  and it has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Prime Ministers Prize .

This is Anna Funder’s first foray into fiction, but she does so with one foot still in the non-fiction camp.  Her earlier, much acclaimed non-fiction book Stasiland explored individual lives within the pervasive and intrusive panopticon of  East German communism.  This book traverses similar territory in a fictional mode by imagining the lives of real-life socialist dissidents who sought refuge outside Germany during  Hitler’s rise.  Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian, Hans Weserman, Berthold Jacob and Ruth Becker are all real-life historical characters, and indeed Funder herself knew, and was friends with, Ruth Becker (by then Ruth Blatt) in Sydney before her death in 2001.

But the book is most certainly fictional in terms of its structure and in its exploration of the emotional space of love, fear and betrayal.  It uses the device of two alternating narrators.  The first is the elderly Ruth in Sydney, whose memories of the 1930s are bleeding into her present-day life as an increasingly frail post-war immigrant who has had a successful career in teaching, but is sliding towards a lonely and regretful death.  A week earlier she had received a manuscript from an American university that had acquired a box of documents written by Ernst Toller, the poet, in 1939  that had been addressed to her.  The narrative swings between the present-tense description of an old woman in the drug-induced half world of pain and confusion, and the past-tense reminiscence evoked by this manuscript, received from a time fifty years earlier.

The second narrator is Toller himself, in 1939, in the act of writing that very same manuscript in a hotel room in New York.  His narrative, too, swings between the present-tense in describing the act of rewriting an earlier autobiographical manuscript to acknowledge the impact of Dora Fabian and other dissidents in his life, and the past-tense narrative that was to become the document delivered in Sydney  sixty years later.  He dictates to a young female notetaker, herself wracked with fear for her brother, marooned on the refugee ship the St Louis which was denied entry to Cuba, America and Canada.

This narrative quadruple act is complex, and throughout the book I found myself marvelling at how deftly she managed it.  I found her characters thoroughly convincing at the emotional level: in fact, it was only an epigraph by W. H. Auden that marked Part II that stopped me in my tracks with the realization that it was very much based on real-life people.  I resisted the temptation to rush off to Google the characters; indeed I have not yet done so (and probably will not do so) because I’m happy for them to exist in the rounded, fleshed out fictional form in my mind.  Somehow, to see them rendered into black-and-white again will flatten them somehow.  I note, however, that Simon Schama the historian in his review of the book in the Financial Times  felt that the “knottily knitted time line snags the narrative at every turn” and that there were “points where the research somehow clots the blood flow of the plot rather than transfusing it with vitality.”  Yet he suggested that the real-life Ruth’s later life story, which is sketched only briefly in Funder’s book, is even richer with fictional possibilities, thus wanting to draw her back to real-life again.  I don’t agree with him.  Schama warns that “the ball and chain of history can hobble the gait of the imagination if the novelist isn’t ruthless about knowing when to cut it loose” and yet I feel that Funder has been completely disciplined (in both senses of the word) by restricting her focus to the political and emotional claustrophobia of the time, instead of paying homage to the historical ‘afterwards’ of her real-life characters.

Yet her book is very much about the historical issue of memory and forgetting.  “I am a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting” says Ruth the narrator. “Most people have no imagination. If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so” wrote Ernst Toller. But as Ruth the narrator (and I suspect, Funder the author) says:

   Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any….But Toller, great as he was, is not right.  It is not that people lack an imagination.  It is that they stop themselves using it.  Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing? (p. 358)

It is also a book about the weight of an individual against the wider scale of history.  At a personal level,  we grapple with our measure of those we love-

When you are in love with someone, you cannot see around them, you cannot get their human measure. You cannot see how someone so huge to you, so miraculous and unfathomable, can fit, complete, into that small skin. (p 150)

And yet we ourselves have to think about our own value in the world:

Though it is the hardest thing, to work out one’s weight and heft in the world, to whittle down all that I am and give it a value. (p. 299)

This is a beautifully written book, although there are the odd jarring notes.  The awkwardly introduced date of Toller’s narrative was clumsy and heavy-handed, and  I don’t think that she handled the authorial problem of bringing her two first-person narratives to a close very well because she had painted herself into a narrative corner.

But in other places, her descriptions are crystal sharp, as for example, in this description of a Weimar nightclub-

The doors of the TicTacToe opened into a floor-length leather curtain drawn against the cold.  We parted it.  The entry level was on a mezzanine; below us lay a vast, ornate room hollowed out into the earth.  I moved to the balcony rail.  Pools of light shone on a hundred tables, bright circles into which hands moved, gloved or ungloved, for a drink, to ash a cigarette, touch an arm.  The air was filled with trumpet notes and smoke, the chinking sounds of cutlery, laughter, something smashing at the upper bar.  At my shoulder a vase of lilies breathed, open-tongued.  P. 105

I’m not sure whether this book will win the Miles Franklin, even with the slightly widened criteria that allow an ‘Australian’ sensibility without necessarily being set in Australia.  I’m not sure that the Sydney section of the book is a sufficiently sturdy anchor to describe it as ‘Australian’, but I am not cynical enough to  think that the Australian section was included only with the Miles Franklin in mind.   It’s a beautifully written opening up of the imaginative space around real-life people, and it should be celebrated as such.

Read because: It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin Prize.  Also posted on the 2012 Australian Womens Writing Challenge

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

My rating: 9/10