This is a wrap-up of literary awards (with a focus on Miles Franklin Award titles) and Classics reviewed in 2012.
In May 2011 I attended Celebrating Varuna: Disturbing the Status Quo, a session at the Varuna component of the Sydney Writers Festival in which feminist academic Carole Ferrier and Australian author/historian Humphrey McQueen discussed Eleanor Dark and her circle which included Nettie Palmer, Jean Devanny, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Marjorie Barnard and of course, Miles Franklin.
It was an odd head space to be in considering it was barely a month after the announcement of the shortest shortlist in the history of the Miles Franklin Award where the three contenders were all men. I felt not a little desperate about our ‘progress’ as I thought about the great Australian women writers who had paved the way, struggling so hard merely to ‘get to the desk’ as Barbara Brooks put it in her essay here. I imagined them standing at the back of the Carrington ballroom, the ghosts of Varuna, feeling disappointed and angry but urging us not to give up.
Fast forward to 2012 which, despite the shock ‘disestablishment’ of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, was a great year for women writers. This year is looking even more promising with ‘an award of her own’, the inaugural Stella Prize, Australia’s first major literary prize for women’s writing, to be awarded in April.
In 2012, after years of women having been marginalised or totally excluded from Miles Franklin shortlists, Anna Funder won the award with her novel All that I Am. Six men and seven women made the longlist and the shortlist consisted of five contenders: two men and three women. In December 2012, it was announced that The Miles Franklin Award prize money had been increased from $50,000 to $60,000. The judges have been busy over the holidays reading submissions (around 60 of them) and the longlist will be announced in March.
And last but by no means least, thanks to Elizabeth Lhuede, we have the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Here at the blog, forty-one reviews of Miles Franklin Award short/long-listed titles were submitted. You’ll find some links here to positive and negative reviews because that’s the beauty of this initiative — a wide range of readers and reviews.
Jon Page of Bite the Book praised All that I Am saying ‘it deserves every prize thrown at it and more’, that it’s a book ‘everyone should read’ and that he’d love to see it on a high school reading list. He also wrote an interesting follow-up post in which he explains why he doesn’t think it should have won the Miles Franklin Award.
Not everyone loved All that I Am. Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader ‘found the pace of the novel to be quite slow and ponderous and it was difficult to maintain all that much interest.’ She also felt that using two voices (Dora and Ruth), ‘distracted rather than enhanced the narrative.’
Over at Fair Dinkum Crime, blogger Bernadette fell ‘head over heels in love’ with Thea Farmer, the heroine of Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice and called the novel ‘a fantastic read’. At her other blog Reactions to Reading, Bernadette wrote about picking up Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows ‘with trepidation’, having given up on reading literary fiction long ago and having been put off by reviews referring to the book as ‘dark, moody and haunting’. She was pleasantly surprised: ‘It explores important, heavy themes without inducing clinical depression in the reader. Alongside its central sadness there is beauty in the natural environment brought stunningly to life and hope in the irrepressible effervescence of the boys. Reading it was an absolute treat.’
Shelleyrae of Book’dOut said it was ‘easy to see why the literati were so taken by Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears which she called ‘a remarkable novel’. ‘It is a novel that is appreciated rather than enjoyed, for the unrelenting tragedy that dogs Noah and the Nancarrows is almost unrelieved. Mears cultivates an oppressive atmosphere where joy is short lived and always edged in achingly raw heartbreak. At times I found it difficult to go on yet I also found I could not let go, challenged by the intriguing characters and fascinated by a time and place long gone.’ At All the Books I can Read, 1girl2manybooks loved Foal’s Bread despite its bleakness; it was her first reading of Gillian Mears but it won’t be her last.
Marilyn at Me, You and Books strongly recommends Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill calling it ‘a powerful novel of early British settlers about Australia, but one which stumbles in its depiction of Aboriginal people.’ She asks the reader to notice ‘what gets left out’ and feels the author ‘does not make the imaginative leap to creating Indigenous characters that were as fully human as her own ancestors. In recreating what her ancestors felt and thought, she reproduces their limited views of those they considered their enemies.’
Five Bells by Gail Jones was reviewed at Booklover Book Reviews with the finding that ‘The story’s intensity built steadily to a climax but ultimately I felt unsatisfied by the conclusion, or lack thereof. Perhaps I missed something, but it just seemed like so much more could have been made of the threads available while still retaining a bit of artistic mystery. For me it was like a few New Year’s Eve firecrackers failing to ignite…’
Janine Rizzetti says she was not ‘struck emotionally speechless’ by Animal People as some other reviewers of the same book had been. She still rated it highly, giving it 8 out of 10, and said: “Certainly, it was very easy to read, and I was quickly drawn in enough to want to keep reading, and it captured urban, middle class Sydney very well. It had just a touch of the ‘book club’ about it, something that Lisa at ANZ LitLovers noted as well. I don’t think that I mean this as a put-down (after all, I belong to online and face-to-face bookgroups myself) but there’s something about the straining for theme and topicality that made me wonder if it was written with this demographic in mind.” Louise Bassett highly recommends Charlotte Wood’s Animal People saying it ‘casts a bright, almost forensic light on the way we live today’ and is ‘one of her favourite books of recent years.’
Books by and About Miles Franklin
Yvonne Perkins reviewed Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin saying its ‘comprehensiveness’ can be seen as both a strength and a weakness. ‘Jill Roe’s biography of renowned Australian writer Miles Franklin is a thoroughly enjoyable read as well as being a fine piece of historical scholarship. It is detailed, it is long, but it gives the reader many hours of pleasure. Miles Franklin’s life is of continuing relevance to writers today. This biography needs to be widely read and discussed.’
Perkins also reviewed All that Swagger to commemorate the anniversary of the author’s birthday and even though she doesn’t usually read fiction, she was absorbed by this family drama spanning four generations. It was Miles Franklin’s best-selling book.
My Brilliant Career was reviewed at the Bookstore off Euclid Avenue.
‘This is a passionate and precocious book, but most of all is Franklin’s brutal honesty and stunning bravery that strikes me most. This is a book that deserves to be read, and I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me so long to do so.’ David Golding reviewed My Career Goes Bung calling it ‘a neglected Australian classic.’
Part Two of this wrap-up about Classics is here.
I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist and editor and have worked as a librarian for many years. I’m always feeling guilty about what I ‘should’ have or ‘should be reading.’ I signed up for the AWW challenge in 2012 and this year, as well as doing my own challenge where I’d like to focus on our long-lost women writers, I will be posting updates about Literary Awards and Classics. I blog over at Wordsville and you can find me on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit