Josephine Wilson has won the 2017 Miles Franklin award for her novel Extinctions. Judging panel chair Richard Neville stated Wilson’s novel, “explores ageing, adoption, grief and remorse, empathy and self-centredness”. It takes a skillful and thoughtful novelist to pack so many “big issues” into a single narrative, but Wilson has achieved it, and the novel has won considerable recognition.
The Miles Franklin is, arguably, the apogee of Australian literary prizes, and Extinctions is a worthy addition to the list of earlier winners, among a worthy bunch of shortlisted entries.
The novel began its successful life when it was just a manuscript, and won the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award in 2015. Since then it has been enthusiastically reviewed by critics and peers: in the Sydney Morning Herald (by Dorothy Johnston), in the Sydney Review of Books (Roslyn Jolly), in the Australian Book Review (Gillian Dooley), and in pretty well every other review outlet in Australia. It was featured on the ABC Books and Writing show and Wilson has fronted up to a number of literary festivals. I’m confident Extinctions will be set on Australian literature courses across the country.
Wilson has nailed key anxieties and preoccupations that characterise the current moment. Ageing, of course, thanks to the population bulge; cultural loss, especially for members of the Stolen Generations; environmental crisis associated with the Anthropocene (the age in which human impacts have come to dominate Earth); and the conflicts that are at the heart of storytelling – in this case, within the family, and with the self.
The central character, Fred Lothian, is a retired academic engineer, whose specialisation is concrete and Modernist design. He finds himself widowed, estranged from his daughter, avoiding his seriously brain-injured son. He is a damaged and dissatisfied man, hiding in his retirement villa, where every inch of space is cluttered with the material objects he has not been able to discard.
Wilson observes and records all this with a cool eye, and records too the distress, anxieties and ethical struggles faced by the other characters, particularly Fred’s daughter, Caroline. An adopted child (“of course she wasn’t really stolen”, says Fred. “We adopted at the end of that period”), she doesn’t feel able to name herself as Aboriginal, knows she resembles no one in her circle, and fears she is recognised by no one. Compounding this emotional burden, she is researching species extinction for an exhibition she is preparing.
The redeeming element is Jan, Fred’s neighbour at the retirement village. She is, effectively, the positive side of the coin, the mirror of both Fred and Caroline. Her warmth, her direct engagement with Fred’s obdurate misery, and the clarity of her understanding begin to shake loose some of the accreted history around the other characters.
“In the end”, reads the preface to Extinctions, “all is allegory”. But allegory has material effects, and the stories we tell ourselves, and the connections we draw within those stories, have the capacity to lead us to or away from extinction. For much of the book, and reflected in the drawings and other images scattered through it, extinction seems the inevitable conclusion.
Let me give Jan the last word, because she delivers what seems to me the coda to the narrative. Watching a child playing on a beach, she reflects: “At that moment, anything was possible”. As the novel draws to its conclusion, that more hopeful premise seems true.
The 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner will be announced tonight, but I’m not taking bets on who it’s likely to be. Each shortlisted novel is by a first-time nominee. Each is of satisfyingly high literary quality and very different in voice, logic, focus and story.
But they do have one feature in common: each includes as a key character an author, or authors. I’m not sure I have ever read a shortlist where the protagonists of each volume shared an occupation. Of course all five include heartbreak, loss and death — that is, after all, de rigueur for literary fiction — but the focus on the lives and works of writers, and on narratives about narrative, presents as though the Australian literary community as one turned to look inward, and then wrote down what it saw.
I started with Last Days of Ava Langdon, by poet and novelist Mark O’Flynn. This book, which channels the Australian-New Zealand writer Eve Langley, opens with the rhythm and pulse of a prose poem:
Sound of the sea slapping at the green and greasy legs of pier. The crashing of dishes. A cartoon whale.
This, on the very first page, sets the tone for the rest of the novel, one that vividly renders the glorious Blue Mountains environment (and its small towns with their country values), and the portrait of a writer who might have been, should have been, no longer is.
O’Flynn presents his Langley/Langdon as immensely sympathetic, and stunningly irritating. “All her life”, says the narrator, “has been the pursuit of the perfect line”.
While any writer must surely doff the cap to that pursuit, Ava’s single-mindedness has been more destructive than productive. She valiantly channels Oscar Wilde, refuses to acknowledge that she is ancient and frail, ignores the squalor of her home, and flickers between hope and hopelessness about her writing. She is a damaged person, a dada artist. She has lost her family and friends and she dies alone.
Still, Ava’s imagination (to say nothing of her splendid dress sense) brings a degree of sentience to the world, casting it in a luminous light. O’Flynn’s novel brings to bear a cold but tender gaze on “the last days” of someone who, but for fortune, could have been an extraordinary Australian artist.
Misfits in an unforgiving world
Philip Salom, another poet, gives us Waiting. It relies on the skill of poetic diction and the narrative traction of strong characters, the “looking awry” that so often accompanies mental illness, and the urgency to connect, to find a safe haven in an unforgiving world.
He juxtaposes together two pairs of difficult people to propel the narrative. The first two are Big (a cross-dressing, over-performing “crazy professor”) and his partner Little (quiet, crushed Agnes, the troubled lamb of god). They have effectively fallen out of history and are, Agnes reflects, “two characters in a novel who have no further story”.
The second pair, by contrast, are the inheritors of a further story: designer/landscaper Angus (coincidentally Agnes’ cousin) and the linguist Jasmin. They are creeping by fits and starts toward a relationship, but unlike Big and Little, who cling together for the most part in real intimacy, Jasmin and Angus struggle to connect, given their tendency to compete with each other, and their misunderstandings of each other’s values and professions. For Angus, the physical shaping of the material world is what matters. For Jasmin, it is the socio-political positioning of work that matters.
The novel is set against the increasingly threatening qualities of bushfire in the Australian environment, and the increasingly constrained options for those who do not or cannot fit into middle class conventions. The characters’ stories play out, to an end that promises consolation, at least.
Not so isolated
With Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident, we leave the poets and misfits and return to the “real” world: small-town New South Wales, and the struggle to make a living, maintain an identity, and retain hope for the future.
Chris Rogers, a barmaid and some-time prostitute, is faced with the loss of her beloved younger sister Bella, whose body is found on the side of the road, raped and murdered. May Norman, an ambitious journalist, attaches herself to Chris to report on the story and the unfolding investigation. So far, so crime thriller.
But actually, this is more an analysis of mourning, woven through with a biting critique of the social and legal context in which, in Australia, one woman is murdered each week, on average, by someone close to her. At one point May reflects on yet another appalling story of such violence, and observes:
This had nothing to do with what had happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves…
The unwavering attention paid to violence against women and to the commercial exploitation of suffering renders the title bitterly ironic: all these “isolated incidents” add up to a deeply felt and troubling novel.
Extinctions of all kinds
Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions is the winner of Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript prize, so has already made a significant mark on the literary landscape. It offers a tragic portrait of the various ways in which extinction looms — environmental, personal, cultural.
We see the sorrows, indignities and regrets of old age, as viewed through the eyes of retired theoretical engineer Fred Lothian, who fills his home with designer furniture rather than with his family.
We see the heartbreak of a wasted life, in his brilliant son, Callum, who was left with acquired brain injury following a car accident. And we see the struggle for identity in his adopted daughter, Caroline, who researches species extinction and is disconnected from her own Indigenous heritage. Together, these stories present an overwhelming narrative of loss, failure and distress.
But there is the possibility of an alternative in the form of Fred’s neighbour Jan. Though like Fred and his family, she has suffered great loss, she brings a wonderful energy and resilience, and a refusal to resign herself to extinction. Instead, she presses Fred to start over, to find a more productive way to be.
Finally, we come to Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers, one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. He sails close to the wind of defamation (were the original authors still alive), unmercifully lampooning the models for his “extraordinary Australian writers”.
Like a supremely confident stand-up comic, he pushes the joke from initial humour through infuriating repetition to helpless laughter. And along the way, he shows impressive knowledge of Australian literary culture, so erudite readers can play the game of “spot the reference”. We see the sexism that runs through literary culture. We revisit the poetry wars— “a knife fight in a phone booth” — in the character of Arthur rhutrA, an author of whom it was said that: “the only constraint he couldn’t overcome was his lack of talent”.
We bump into parallel-universe versions of Ern Malley, Australia’s most infamous literary hoax, and radio characters Dad and Dave. We meet the litigious Stratford, self-proclaimed original author of works plagiarised and made famous by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce.
We are confronted by the rightwing racist Edward Gayle (writer for the journal Quarter) and the communist Francis McVeigh, whose early memory of reading Marx’s Manifesto “terrified me so much I had nightmares for the next six months”. Literary giant after literary giant, publisher after publisher, is kneecapped by these excoriating and hilarious accounts of the players, their work, and the impossibly interwoven lives they lead.
There is a surprising degree of compassion in the narrative voice that relates each of these novels, even when they are also characterised by sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued commentary. The characters are damaged — as are most human beings — but (with the exception of some of O’Neill’s writers) they are rarely people of ill will.
The narrators, in each case, maintain the distance required of an objective observer, yet cannot help but record small acts of humanity, the struggle to manage, to be recognised and to recognise others. This makes them, as a group, the most heart-warming selection of shortlisted novels that I have read for some time.
And we have a winner. Black Rock White City, AS Patric’s dark, sorrowful story has impressed the judges sufficiently for them to award it first prize. I too was captured by the world of the novel, and by the central characters: Jovan, who “had been a poet in Yugoslavia when that was still a country”, and who is now a cleaner at a Melbourne hospital; and Suzana, his wife, who works as a cleaner in Melbourne’s Black Rock, and who comes from White City (“the literal translation of Belgrade”).
Suzana and Jovan are survivors of the Bosnian conflict, and have made their way to Melbourne where they are eking out a small spare life. Their story is told through a series of analepses and prolepses — fleeting glimpses of their life before Australia, more fully sketched accounts of their lives in the here and now. Both were academics before the war, living with their two small children a comfortable European life. This came to an end, when hate turned
into fire, free-floating and exploding throughout a city, and then materialising again into a blistered red monster more real than any creature children imagine in night-time terrors.
Though Suzana and Jovan escaped the fire and the hate by escaping Sarajevo, it has not let them go. They lost everything: their home, careers, and identity; their children, who died after eating poisoned meat; their dream of a future; even their sexual lives. Suzana has been unable to make love with Jovan since their children’s death, so he is having an impersonal affair with Tammie, a dentist: for her, he is “a tool for her sexual fantasies”; for him, she is mere physical release.
The story is animated by the graffiti artist who is haunting the hospital where Jovan works. Known to the hospital community as Dr Graffito, this shadowy person daubs obscene, obscure, and often darkly funny texts on the hospital walls and windows, the plates in its cafeteria, even cutting it into the flesh of cadavers. Jovan, whose job it is to clean up the mess, finds in the messages strange resonances with his own history: a strange connection with this bête noire.
Suicides and other deaths follow the pattern of Dr Graffito’s project, and this is a mystery that remains unresolved, a topic of conversation among the workers, a sharp point of anxiety. This mystery weaves through the gradually shifting lives of Jovan and Suzana as they begin to move out of mere survival into a kind of living, a kind of loving.
I couldn’t help but read this novel, in some ways, as an analogy for the contemporary tragedy that is the forced, mass movement of people across the globe. Australian government policy performs a double act: erecting powerful barriers to anyone seeking asylum, and locking away, out of sight and out of story, those who have managed to reach Australian territory.
This novel is a reminder that every refugee, every asylum seeker, is a person, an individual, someone struggling to return to the world of light after the disaster. And it is a reminder too that it can happen to anyone. “When you think refugee, you think black, brown or Asian,” says Bill, Jovan’s co-worker, but Europeans, academics, poets, lawyers: anyone can fall into that pit, and become a Jovan or a Suzana, a human being desperately trying to accommodate the trauma that has upended their lives, that has clamped itself to them.
Yes, this is grim stuff. It is harrowing, densely tragic, almost devoid of hope. Almost, but not entirely. Jovan and Suzana, after all, have retained dignity, if nothing else; she is beginning to creep back toward life by learning to become a novelist; he is beginning to recover memories of the poetry he wrote in his former life as a result of the absurd, obscure, obscene writing with which Dr Graffito desecrates the walls and windows and cadavers of the hospital.
It’s not all darkness: there are moments of great tenderness scattered throughout the narrative and, like any good chiaroscuro, there is always a bit of light in the shadow.
The literary calendar is marked by big public events: writers festivals, book fairs, and the announcements first of shortlists and then of winners of major literary awards. For Australian writers and readers, the Miles Franklin is a lodestone, our Big Award – the one that celebrates not just writing, not just fiction, but particularly and peculiarly Australian writing.
Since 2013 that award has been accompanied by the second literary award to be named for Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin: the Stella Prize, established to recognise women’s contribution to Australian literature.
This year, it seems to me, the Miles Franklin shortlist entirely honours the founder of the award, not only because four of the five novelists are women, but also because each of the novels, in their own idiosyncratic and nuanced ways, reflects and represents Australian life, presenting as that “indigenous literature” (Franklin’s term) that prevents people from being “alien in their own soil”.
The novels do not, though, offer a comfortable or consoling rendition of Australian life: if anything, they turn their lenses on alienation, and on the weight of the ordinary occasions of everyday life, as well as the larger scale complexities of, say, the socio-political landscape, that bear down on individuals.
This makes them sound a bit “worthy” and “serious”: novels that take as their task the imperative to instruct readers about The Human Condition. But in fact each is remarkably readable; each writer has a wonderful sense of story and its elements: character, pacing, setting and yes, even plot. Any would be a worthy recipient of this prestigious award, to be announced Friday night.
Let me tiptoe through them in alphabetical order.
Hope Farm by Peggy Frew
Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm is set in 1985 Gippsland. It is narrated by Silver, daughter of Ishtar who – pregnant as a teenager – fled the petit bourgeois morality of 1970s Queensland that would have forcibly removed her baby from her, for the uncertain support of a local ashram. The story unfolds on the ironically misnamed Hope Farm, a communal property occupied mainly by feckless incompetents. Ishtar and Silver may be misfits, but they are neither feckless nor incompetent; and their arrival, along with that of Ishtar’s new man Miller, initiates an unravelling of that decaying place, that compromised community.
There are the expected conflicts – children vs adults; bullies vs bullied; male vs female; parent vs child – but they are delivered with a clarity and tenderness that takes readers beyond the surface impression of, say, snotty child, or slovenly adult, to the fullness, the complexity, of any individual, or group of individuals. I wouldn’t dream of saying “redemption” in relation to this novel – and indeed this is not a redemptive story in the classical sense – but it does offer a stage on which Silver, and her equally misplaced friend Ian, and her shining, glorious, damaged mother Ishtar, can begin to feel their way beyond mere survival, and toward a more endurable life
Leap by Myfanwy Jones
With Leap Myfanwy Jones has crafted a lyrical account of mourning, and the long, lonely, difficult work of building sufficient scar tissue over the wounds of bereavement to allow mourners the possibility of moving on. Much of this work is couched in terms of physical being: the parkour through which Joe, muted by the death of his girlfriend Jen, is feeling his way back into the world; or the stillness and compulsive observation, that Jen’s mother, Elsie uses as her connection to memories of her daughter, to the idea of being alive.
Cats are important metaphors in this novel: the cat leap that Joe is learning to perform; the tigers that have captured Elsie’s imagination; the “catlike containment” of the mysterious nurse who moves into the spare room in Joe’s share house; Jen’s intention to have tiger stripes tattooed on her leg. Cats as a way of thinking about being: it worked for me. The novel is moving; the language poetic; the morphology of grief very believable.
Black Rock White City by AS Patric
With Black Rock White City we are again in the company of grief: loss, bereavement, trauma. Of the central characters, AS Patric’s narrator says, “Neither of them is sure about the present but this is some sort of afterlife”. Jovan and Suzana, refugees from the war in Sarajevo, have left their lives behind, along with the bodies of their little children: “Their names were Dejan and Ana. And there’s nothing more that can be said about the dead that doesn’t make them small, lost and forgotten”.
They are living now in the sort of afterlife you find in mythology: grey, and sad, and haunted by the shades of all they have lost. Even Jovan’s name has been lost in this new country (“Jo … Ja … Joh-von. Ja-Va. Ah fuck it, we’ll call you Joe”). But of course we never entirely lose, or escape, our past. The idea of war has come with them; Dr Graffito, who defaces the walls of the hospital with violent phrases, is a metaphor as well as an actuality of violence and death. But Patric does not leave Suzana and Jovan there; slowly, tenderly, they begin to emerge into this new country and all its possibilities.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar
Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek treads the sort of ground broken a few years ago by Kate Grenville and her Secret River. Set in the Coorong in South Australia, peopled by the Finches – a large and ever-expanding family whose father cannot find the balance between ideal and action – it’s narrated by Hester, the eldest daughter and the one who is required to provide the through line for the family: including cooking and cleaning and supporting her depressed mother and caring for the little children.
What I found compelling was not the story of Hester’s endurance, but rather the way Treloar depicts the relationship between the local people and the Finches: the stupidity and carelessness, the casual brutality, with which the settlers treat the Indigenous owners of land to which they have laid claim; and the way some of the Finch children begin to connect, however inadequately, with some of the local people. One of the rare sunny spots in the novel is provided by Tully, a local youth, who is adored both by Addie, Hester’s lighthearted sister, and Fred, her artist brother. And yes, it ends in tears. Indeed, this particular colonial adventure generally ends in betrayal, brokenness and disappointment; but to say this so bluntly is to ignore the beauty of the language, the lightness with which the historical context is carried by the story, and the vivid presence of the physical environment, which is as fully realised as are the central characters.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, in equal parts captivated and appalled me. Built out of the actuality of the Hay Institution for Girls, an institution established for the punitive constraint of adolescent “offenders”, this novel operates as a dystopic fable of the control of women and women’s sexuality. The ten young women who suffer “the natural way of things” have all been the subjects of very public sexual scandals. They have been kidnapped and enslaved and brutalised by the agents of a vaguely identified corporation, Harding International.
Their heads shaved, their clothes exchanged for heavy boots and rough dresses, and their eyes and arms under constraints, the women find themselves “abducted right into the middle of the nineteen fucking fifties”. The necessarily “bald and frightened girls” and their dull abusive captors gradually adapt to this bizarre life, in a Waiting for Godot situation where day after day Harding International fails to arrive. But how does anyone adapt to the impossible: to authorised misogyny, to absent rights? They don’t, of course; they simply find ways to accommodate themselves to it.
In those accommodations we see the crippling of selves; the ambiguous comfort of friendship; the giving over of personal values for tiny physical ease. While there are fleeting gestures toward a sense of sisterhood, only two characters really come out of it with any honour: Yolanda, betrayed by her beloved brother, named “lunatic”, but able to hunt and kill, and thus to keep everyone alive, for a time; and Verla, who is able to use her brain, and thus to some extent keep them comparatively functional. It is gruelling to read, shattering. It is important.
Novels build in their readers a capacity for empathy, we are told. These five novels do precisely that, and besides are lovely to read – each writer has a feeling for sentences and phrases, and has built in such narrative traction that I read them at a gulp, emerging only at the end, blinking, before returning to the everyday. These novels are scored through by sensitivity, clarity, and a ruthless generosity of voice, and feel their way into character, into ethical complexities, and into the small and large ways our society creaks on.
The Miles Franklin Award may have been named after one of Australia’s great women writers, but it has long been synonymous in the literary world for novels that are invariably historical, set in rugged rural landscapes, and written by men.
Last night, Sofie Laguna became the fourth woman to win what is Australia’s most prestigious fiction prize in as many years, for her book The Eye of the Sheep (2014). Just as significantly, Laguna’s work marks a departure from the usual sorts of books that become Miles Franklin novels.
The Eye of the Sheep is a story about family dysfunction, social disadvantage and a mother’s love. It tells the story of young Jimmy Flick, whose world is shattered by alcoholism and domestic violence.
If a society should be judged by the way it treats its children, and those who are struggling on the margins, then Laguna’s work once again proves that the novel is a crucial means for drawing attention to the burning problems of our times.
The judges said:
The power of this finely crafted novel lies in its coruscating language, inventive and imaginative, reflecting Jimmy’s vivid inner world of light and connections and pulsing energy.
Laguna has a true ear for the rhythms of everyday dialogue, and her compassionate rendering of the frustrations – and compensations – of dealing with a child of sideways abilities, makes this novel an impressively eloquent achievement.
In another refreshing turn for the Miles Franklin, four out of the five novels shortlisted in 2015 were also by women writers, including Joan London, Sonya Hartnett, and debut novelist Christine Piper. The fifth shortlisted work was by Craig Sherborne.
Three out of the five shortlisted novels also deal with themes of family and childhood – themes that are so often marginalised as “women’s writing”; as domestic, interior, “feminine” and personal, as opposed to the so called “masculine” themes of history and national identity which have traditionally won the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Two of the shortlisted authors, Laguna and Sonya Hartnett, originally made their name writing for children and young adults. They are brilliant literary writers in a genre whose authors have all too often been under-recognised.
Perhaps this change is partly due to the work done in recent years by the Stella and VIDA counts, which have charted the gender bias that governs the literary establishment both here and in the United States.
This bias is not only due to the very real and ongoing under-representation of women on awards lists and in the books pages, but shapes the way we think about literary merit – a whole complicated fabric of assumptions about seriousness, significance, authority and gender in writing.
It is embedded in deeply held beliefs about what constitutes a work of serious literary intent and a conviction that certain kinds of subject matter are more significant, worthy, and therefore literary than others.
As Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, infamously responded to the 2011 VIDA study:
[…] while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.
More recently, the NSW Board of Studies responded to criticisms of gender bias in the school literature curriculum by stating that the exclusion of women’s writing was a product of decisions related to “quality”.
Yet names such as Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing – and indeed Sofie Laguna – testify to the fact that there is no absence of “quality” in the work of woman authors.
What is wrong?
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin abandoned the name Stella in order to be taken seriously as a writer. The name Miles was adopted in the hope that her work would be better received as the work of a man.
In adopting a male pseudonym Miles Franklin joined writers such as Henry Handel Richardson, George Eliot and George Sand who all published under male pen names in an attempt to conceal their true gender.
Even the Brontes published under male pseudonyms in their lifetime. Charlotte became Currer Bell, Anne became Acton Bell and Emily became Ellis Bell.
But in a world forged through a history of sexism, the adoption of a male pen name did not spare Miles Franklin. Henry Lawson wrote about My Brilliant Career:
I hadn’t read three pages when I saw what you will no doubt see at once – that the story had been written by a girl […] I don’t know about the girlishly emotional parts of the book – I leave that to girl readers to judge.
Sofie Laguna joins 11 of Australia’s most distinguished female authors who have been recipients of the Miles Franklin Literary Award across its 50-year history. These include Evie Wild, Michelle de Kretser, Anna Funder, Alexis Wright, Shirley Hazzard, Thea Astley (four times), Jessica Anderson (twice), Glenda Adams, Elizabeth Jolley, Elizabeth O’Connor and Ruth Park.
There are many criticisms that could justifiably be made of the culture of literary prizes. But awards do make a difference to the kinds of conversations that go on around and about writers and writing, the kinds of books that get reviewed, that go on display at the front rather than the back of the bookshop, and ultimately the kinds of books that get read.
I may be a hapless romantic, but I continue to think that literature has the capacity to shape much of what we think and feel about the world. It would be a sad thing if half of that world stayed invisible.