Two of Lohrey’s previous novels (Camille’s Bread in 1996 and The Philosopher’s Doll in 2005) have been shortlisted for the prestigious $60,000 prize. Her latest has been recognised as the literary volume that best presents Australian life now. She is the second Tasmanian author to ever win the prize.
As a long-time fan of Lohrey’s voice and eye, and someone with a lifetime of longing for more recognition of women’s achievements, I am thrilled to see her novel and her protagonist Erica achieve this standing.
Erica is an often prickly but generous and appealing character. Though she grows up “in an asylum, a manicured madhouse”, her childhood is much happier than is the norm for characters in literary fiction. Her father, the chief medical officer of the hospital, trains his children in diversity. All of us are “lunatics”, he teaches them, in that “we are all affected by the moon”. “Evil,” he tells them, is no more than “a chemical malfunction in the brain”.
This is an excellent foundation for someone who, in later life, finds herself with a son whose “chemical malfunction” leads him to commit an inadvertent but terrible crime. The beach shack she purchases to be near him, and far from everyone else she knows, is as disorganised and disreputable as her child. But it gives her somewhere to review her life and re-imagine a future.
That future circles around the concept of the labyrinth. Much of the novel is a masterclass in types of these mazes and the meanings and feelings the various designs afford.
A way through
All this operates as a healing process following the agony of her son’s act, trial and imprisonment. She — or rather, her planned labyrinth — gradually draws the attention of other isolates who live in the same coastal community. Various people become closely connected to her and one, Jurko, happens to know about labyrinths and their construction.
The young man, “an illegal immigrant who has overstayed his visa”, is a stonemason (a master of that ancient art) and he gradually inserts himself into her home and her life to become her “surrogate son”.
Sand, he explains, is the best foundation for a labyrinth, and this captures Erica’s attention:
I am struck by the paradox here: sand so volatile in its essence and yet so firm a basis for the rigidity of concrete.
For the reader, this becomes the novel’s coda: though everything seems so unstable, it still affords a firm foundation for our difficult, drifting lives.
As the novel unfolds, Erica’s deepening relationships with her new neighbours, and shared responsibilities and understandings, form a sort of labyrinth that leads her to the point where she can declare: “The fugue is over.”
Since Aristotle, humans have pondered the role and function of fictional narratives. Now, there is general agreement the reading of fiction builds empathy, supports our capacity for uncertainty and ambiguity, and offers new perspectives on the world.
Perhaps it is writers reaching for this combination of emotion and reflection which leads to complaints literary fiction is unremittingly bleak. But even the saddest of stories, well told, can be leavened by captivating use of language, rich portraiture and, very often, veins of humour.
This is evident in each of the novels shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin award. Here the destruction of the environment, there the abuse of refugees, and over there the despair occasioned by the everyday suffering of being human. Yet they each shimmer with energy, tenderness and threads of optimism — and even occasionally joy.
Danny, a young Tamil man, comes to Australia as one of the myriad international students who, pre-COVID, used to keep our economy afloat, but then drops out of what he terms this “racket” to live as an “illegal alien” with all the attendant uncertainties and anxieties.
Working as a cleaner for the rich and mostly white people of Sydney, he finds himself in possession of information about a murder, and is probably the only person who knows whodunnit. The novel tracks him through a long day where, with Hamlet-esque indecisiveness, he agonises about whether to tell the police (and expose himself to the likelihood of arrest and deportation) or to lie low (and allow a second murder to be committed).
Despite this, the novel is infused with a lightness of being and a sense of hope. Danny’s Sydney houses rats and predators, but also libraries providing sanctuary for “illegals”, his tolerant vegan Vietnamese girlfriend, his Japanese-Brazilian abseiling friend, and accommodating householders who pay him to clean their attractive apartments.
Often very funny, often deeply touching, Adiga manages to combine serious literary fiction with satire and critique. He also offers a clear-eyed portrait — or perhaps a sociology — of contemporary Australia, and of the holy grail of amnesty always floating just out of reach.
At the Edge of the Solid World by Daniel Davis Wood
In his second novel, Daniel Davis Wood weaves the complex stories of individuals and families with history and culture, space and time.
After a family tragedy, the first person narrator of At The Edge of the Solid World gradually fractures into shards of himself.
As the novel unfolds, he unfolds, as does time. His grief is overlaid with the grief of those caught up in a current Sydney massacre, as well as the ruined cultures museumed in the songs folklorist Francis J Child attempted to save from history.
The narrator obsessively reports on every conceivable small and global disaster, spreading out across history and culture, drenching him in a lineage of loss.
The ripple effects of all the events in this account of his present are tragic, but the tragedy is enfolded in love and acts of tenderness and memory. It’s not a comfortable read. But it is an extraordinary read.
Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos
We have probably all had lunch at a place like Lucky’s, a Greek-Australian franchise offering “home cooked” food with an acceptably mainstream menu, and where, behind the counter, a febrile life simmers away.
Andrew Pippos’ first book, Lucky’s, paints a dense and convoluted landscape spanning from the second world war through to the present.
The eponymous Lucky is a Greek-American with adequate skills on the clarinet, who impersonated Benny Goodman at a wartime concert in one chapter of a lifetime of bare competence.
Matching him is Emily, a young UK journalist who, in flight from a failed marriage, is trying to write a piece about Lucky and his doomed chain of restaurants.
Between the two people and the two periods of time there is a large cast of well-written characters and a smorgasbord of joys and catastrophes.
The title of the book is sauteed in irony, but what could have fallen into bathos is rescued by the character of Lucky, whose loyalty and hapless charm kept me reading through to the almost-optimistic end.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
Madeleine Watts’ debut novel is set during the record-breaking Sydney summer of 2013, and a stage in the narrator’s life where “The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland”.
In formal terms, it is a Bildungsroman — a coming of age novel — and, as expected of its genre, the narrator spends a fair bit of time in naïve narcissism, pursuing an emotionally unsatisfying affair she knows will end in heartbreak and engaging in self-destructive behaviours that alienate her friends. But there is considerably more to it than this.
The setting for much of the novel is her job at an emergency call centre, where shift after shift she surfs the tide of desperate callers from places no one knows about and for whom the emergency services will never arrive.
Read as a standard Bildungsroman, the book doesn’t deviate far from the conventions. But read as an allegory for a nation struggling to find a way into its future, Watts shifts the grounds of this genre and offers sustained narrative traction.
The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey
Amanda Lohrey has been recognised as a fine novelist since the late 1980s. In The Labyrinth, her eighth novel, her expertise, observant eye and ear, and sense of story are fully present.
Erica has undertaken a sea-change, moving from central Sydney to a coastal hamlet close to the prison where her son is incarcerated. She purchases a rather disreputable beachside shack with a garden large enough to contain a labyrinth. She is determined to build not just a labyrinth, but the right labyrinth: one that will deliver the promise of “reversible destiny”.
A labyrinth is a powerful trope, and here it drives not only the narrative and Erica herself, but also a range of possibilities of meaning for the various characters with whom her life becomes intertwined. Though she had intended to isolate herself, the forces of kindness capture her and, gradually, she connects with those around her.
With their help, she constructs a labyrinth that is, she says, “a challenge […] to the heart”, the place where “you let go”. In her own letting go she finds no magic solution to sadness, but rather the consolations — however temporary — of connectedness.
The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott
Speculative fiction doesn’t often appear on literary award shortlists, which means when they are selected they are worth our attention.
Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron (another second novel) is set in an ecodystopia — probably not far into the future, given the current state of the planet — under military rule, where the people are simply hoping to survive.
The novel is threaded through with a strong sense of myth: the assault by capitalist imperatives on communities living in harmony with nature; the magical uncontainable rain heron; the diminished land; the woman surviving in the mountains, waiting for some sort of salvation. So far, so standard dystopia.
But this book astounds me not just for the quite brilliant conception and rendition of the eponymous rain heron, but also because of the portraits it offers: of generosity, of tenderness, of a turning toward rather than away from others. And of a plot where the deaths are caused by clumsiness or carelessness, rather than malevolence.
In a desolate social and ecological landscape, the human networks of compassion make this novel a thing of rare beauty.
The winner of the 2021 Miles Franklin literary award will be announced at 4pm AEST today.
This remarkable novel opens and closes in the voice of Albert Gondiwindi, the recently deceased grandfather of one of the main characters, August.
Albert was born, he says in the first sentence, on Country known as Ngurambang; and he explains how to pronounce the word. “Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste the blood in your words”.
Throughout the novel, his voice keeps re-emerging as he steadily builds a body of Wiradjuri words, and the memories that ground their definitions.
His is one of three main stories that weave their way through Tara June Winch’s The Yield, this year’s Miles Franklin winner. A second story is that of Albert’s granddaughter, August, who comes home for his funeral. August has been living in England for ten years with her “terrible inheritance” (the elements of which unpack across the novel); she provides a key point of focalisation.
The third story comes out of history, and is presented in the form of notes, reports and letters written by the Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, who positions himself as the defender of what he terms “the decent Natives whom I have lived amongst”, residents of the Mission he established in 1880 “to ameliorate the condition of the Native tribes”.
While Greenleaf does take a stand against the brutality of the police and townspeople, his compassion is predicated on paternalism, rather than respect. Consequently, his “contributions” play a role in the colonisation of the region, and in Albert’s life.
Albert was born, as he says, on Ngurambang, but he started life in a temporary fringe area called Tent Town before he “and all the other kids were taken away”, stolen from family and culture.
The violent history of the region is salted throughout the novel: cloaked, in Rev Greenleaf’s writings; expressed vividly in Poppy Albert’s stories; painfully in August’s memories and contemporary experiences and shamefully in the names of local places.
There is the ironically named Prosperous Mission; it stands near the town of Massacre Plains, close to Poisoned Waterhole Creek. The town itself is reached by way of the Broken Highway; the sick and dying of the region find themselves in Broken Hospital and Broken Hospice.
The deployment of such names contains a bitter truth, because although these are fictional places, there are locations right across Australia that unblushingly retain the evidence of racism and genocide. It is writers like Winch, and artists like Julie Gough, who draw attention to this practice and to the history that lies behind it.
History seldom remains tidily in the past, as so many writers have observed; and Poppy Albert too makes it clear: “there are a thousand battles being fought every day because people couldn’t forget something that happened before they were born”. And also, arguably, because what happened before we were born continues to have consequences.
The processes of colonisation that began in the 18th century; the impact of what led to the establishment (and naming) of Massacre Plains; the building of the mission and farm – all combine to shape and (attempt to) limit August’s life, and that of her family.
And these she must experience again when she returns to Australia, to the continuing absence of her disappeared sister Jedda, to Eddie – ex-schoolfriend and scion of Prosperous Farm – and to the testing family relationships she had left behind. Once back, she finds herself involved not just in piecing together her past, but also in a battle to protect her grandmother’s home, and the remnants of the beloved and deeply damaged river, from the depredations of Rinepalm mining company.
That battle itself highlights the very different communities cohabiting. For the urban protesters, it is about the broad problem of environmental destruction. For cousin Joey, it is about resistance to the original act of invasion. (“They want to take land that wasn’t theirs to take, land was given that wasn’t theirs to give!”)
And for August, it seems to offer a point of resolution: “As they walked August thought that grief’s stint was ending. She whispered to Jedda and to Poppy: I am here”.
I won’t say any more about the story; it is, after all, not mine to tell. But I will say that it is a powerful and a deeply moving book. While it is unstinting in its critical gaze at sociopolitical disasters, it also shows the forms resistance can take.
Albert’s dictionary is part of this resistance: it is in language that culture and memory and ways of seeing and thinking function, and survive. Albert’s work to recover language, to set out words and definitions, provides a memorial to those who were steamrollered by history, and a reminder that “we are here still”.
It seems sometimes literary fiction performs a bellwether function: signalling changes; alerting us to the directions in which a society is headed.
The 2020 Miles Franklin shortlist seems to bear this out in six novels whose topics shimmer with relevance: the continuing wounds of colonisation (for people and the environment); language and all its possibilities and failures; ditto families; and the issues that are intrinsic to fiction, like conflict and character, trauma and resilience, sex and art. And, in the case of these six novels, lost or vanished family members and the uncertain status of the dead.
Peggy Frew’s Islands reads like a sequence of vignettes, focused through members of the Worth family and other, more tangential, characters. Frew demands and rewards a reader’s attention, because the impact of her structure is a lapidary arrangement of different voices, times, geographies.
The overall effect is of fragments of impressions, a prism that reflects and deflects the light cast by childhood: the presence and absence of the younger sister Anna, and then of the rejected mother and the incompetent father, until the remaining sister, Junie, is left almost alone, with every breath freighted by the disappearance of her sister:
Junie can look back on the past, when Anna was there. She can see, behind her, that world, where things were aligned. And then there is a signpost, a marker, which is Anna being gone. And after that the void opens …
Tara June Winch’s The Yield is another story of family crisis, of a daughter gone missing, a family stranded in the midst of the enduring trauma of invasion and the newer catastrophe of environmental mismanagement. All that, and then the death of grandfather Albert Gondiwindi and the impending loss of their family home.
This sounds like an unrelieved tragedy but the novel is full of light, not least because of the writing: practically every sentence is a marvel, language that does not merely describe but perfectly fits the world of things. The characters, too, are beautifully rendered, with Albert and his widow Elsie demonstrating how one can live fully and hold close all that seems lost.
As his legacy, Albert has left a dictionary full of words from his apparently lost language, which come with advice and responsibilities:
The spirit woman was empty-handed and showed me her hands … and she said, ‘Wanga-dyung.’ ‘What’s that mean?’ She said, ‘It means lost, but not lost always.’ I said okay, and she told me to practise it.
The “not lost always” is bequeathed to his sad granddaughter August, who starts learning, as grandmother Elsie insists, “We aren’t victims in this story anymore”.
The White Girl
Another lost daughter, another unresolved mourning is at the heart of Tony Birch’s The White Girl, set during the period of the Aborigines Protection Act, which permitted white people to insult, assault, and confine Indigenous people without legal consequences.
Odette, grandmother of the eponymous “white girl”, has struggled to preserve her right to raise the baby, Sissy, left behind when her daughter disappeared. She struggles to maintain dignity in the face of unremitting abuse. When a local thug says to her, “I thought there was none of your lot left around here”, she replies, “Oh, my people are still here, son … We’ve always been here and we’re going no place”.
The name Odette recalls the swan: always just out of reach, always poised, always gracious. But she is also tough and decisive. When it’s time to leave town, illegally, to protect her granddaughter, and Sissy says, “We’re in trouble, aren’t we, Nan?”, Odette merely laughs:
Trouble? Our people have been in one sort of trouble or another from the first day we set eyes on a white person.
It wasn’t a good year for daughters.
Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View works like a negative Bildungsroman, focusing on a girl who practices elective mutism because “You have to stop listening to yourself to be able to speak”.
She avoids human contact, creeping into neighbours’ homes when they are out, creeping out of her own home at night, entirely dissociated and alone. This is not surprising given her backyard mechanic and abuser “Father Man”; her Mother who escapes into fantasies; her isolation from friends and protectors. She identifies with car bodies and engines but also assaults them — dropping sewing needles into their delicate moving parts, hacking holes into pipes. She insists, “There are many happy times in my family”, but her example of a happy time is only the hunt for Mother’s lost contact lens.
There seems little hope in the exploded view this novel offers of abused adolescents, but it is leavened by her determination not to cave in: “You are only lost to others”, the unnamed girl? observes, “not inside yourself”.
In The Returns, Philip Salom produces what in some lights reads like a metafiction.
It is the story of Trevor, an artist turned bookseller turned bookseller-artist whose dead father returns, inconveniently, to trouble him. It is the story of Elizabeth, daughter of an ex-cultist, a book editor who suffers from face blindness and recognises people by their shape and smell. It is the story of the art sector where only artists with a track record can expect to be exhibited, where “the book publishing scene looks like property management sometimes. Safe books in safe suburbs”.
Salom is a poet, and great swathes of this novel show this lineage:
[S]o many people want art to be romantic gestures and a clutch of the bowels, a dazzle born of insanity (first), suffering (second) or heroin, or beautiful lovers or genius from the fucking stars. Oh, art! Our body is made of stardust! No, it’s not.
Set in a slice of Melbourne struggling for recognition, between the dog shit and motor accidents and incompetent criminals, the cool eye of the painter and the cool voice of the editor deliver a cocktail of tenderness, irreverence and sometimes laugh-out-loud humour in the face of what feels a little like disaster.
John Hughes’ No One follows the lonely narrator through his attempts to determine who or what he hit while driving past Redfern station one night. He can’t resolve the problem: there is no data to work with, and the absence in this accident operates as a sort of allegory for his life. He cannot, after all, resolve his own history – his lost homeland and parents, his invisibility.
“It’s like we walk on water”, he says, “so little trace do we leave of ourselves.” Even the strange relationship he develops with a young woman he calls the Poetess – one who carries the scars of her own abusive past – is built on water.
The narrative also seems an allegory of Australian history. Speaking of his history lecturer, he recalls:
You can’t alter historical injustice in the present, he said. Two hundred years after the fact – he was talking about colonisation – the crime continues, only it’s a criminal-less crime now, which means it can never be solved.
While this novel is desperately sad, the writing is exquisite, and the narrative offers the promise one can adapt; it is possible to achieve at least small moments of resolution.
The winner of the Miles Franklin will be announced on Thursday July 16.
Too Much Lip joins the other prizewinning volumes in Melissa Lucashenko’s trophy cabinet. Her first-ever novel, Steam Pigs (1997), was shortlisted for or won several major prizes, and in the past two decades her books have racked up 26 awards.
Today’s win confirms her status as one of Australia’s top writers of contemporary fiction. Lucashenko has a marvellous knack of crafting fictions that are both drenched in anger, dysfunction and tragedy, and woven through with laugh-out-loud funny scenes, and relationships of great tenderness – with people and other living beings, and with the country in which they live.
This latest volume is a brilliant addition to her oeuvre. A sustained story about a highly dysfunctional and traumatised family, its chief focus is on Kerry, the sister and daughter who has returned home. It is a home summed up by brother Ken as “a fucking coma ward”.
Pop in bed with the remote welded to the nags. Mum sits doing her cards and reading about the Second Coming of Christ our Lord, and I’m just about ready to harvest [son] Danny for his organs if the useless prick doesn’t move his arse soon. Talk about Limpet Dreaming.
Kerry laughs in response, largely to placate her labile brother; but for her it is not a joyful return. Not only is she here to say goodbye to her dying grandfather, but she is still wounded from the recent loss of her girlfriend Allie, who has been imprisoned for armed robbery, and has ended their relationship. Adding to disaster, Kerry and her family discover plans to develop a sacred site – and not just develop it, but actually build a prison on it.
In an interview about Too Much Lip, Lucashenko says: “I discovered that I was writing hidden history without being aware of how close to home I was. If you stick at it long enough you will eventually discover that you were writing truth where you thought you were writing fiction.”
This novel seems to respond to Emily Dickinson’s famous axiom about creative writing: Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.
Too Much Lip is a performance of truth told slant, the actuality of life and of embodied history wrapped within a work of fiction that comes alive in the characters and events that fill its pages; thrumming with life.
But it is more than a story. Lucashenko’s work is a powerful response to the entrenched racism that still shapes Australian culture; to the public and official turning away from the brutalities and genocide on which this nation was built, or the violence and inequities that characterise contemporary society.
Kerry’s Pop says to her: “We livin’ in the whiteman’s world now. You remember that”, but like Kerry, Lucashenko refuses to be silenced.
In her fictions and public life she makes visible the vibrancy and resilience of Aboriginal communities and their continued connection to land and culture. At the same time she makes agonisingly clear the unhealed wounds of Australian culture, in writing that demands these wounds be addressed.