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.
There are certain books that have the knack of getting under your skin. This is why George Bernard Shaw declared Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit to be a far more “seditious” text than Karl Marx’s Das Capital.
What he was getting at is the power of books to work on your emotions. The intellect can be too cold an instrument to engender empathy, to bring people who are distant from you into your “circle of concern”. And it is precisely this, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, that matters for the pursuit of social justice.
In 2017, the Stella Prize judges have again come up with a shortlist of books that will engage your brain, but also your heart. They illuminate all the aspects of life that make us frail and vulnerable – sickness, dying, inequality – realities that many of us would prefer to ignore.
Two of the remarkable writers shortlisted, Cory Taylor and Georgia Blain, have died since the publication of their work: Blain of brain cancer; Taylor of melanoma-related cancer. And yet their books – alongside all those on this list – fasten our attention on the means to live better, more ethically, and with greater generosity. It is in the smallest things, in embracing everyday joys and sorrows, that we can learn to live large.
These are books that matter because they show us how to live in desperate times.
Let me draw them to your attention, one by one.
Georgia Blain, Between a Wolf and a Dog
Hilary is a 70-year-old filmmaker, dying of cancer, determined to choose the moment and manner of her death. She has not told her daughters, Ester and April, about her illness or her plans. Ester is the mother of young twins, a family therapist whose consulting rooms contain a world of pain – “post-natal depression, school aversion, relationship crisis, death, and loneliness”. Ester is estranged from her sister April, a once famous singer who never realised her potential, and from her one time husband, Lawrence, who has lied and cheated in his work.
The action unfolds in the space of a single rainy day – ending in the mauve light of dusk, “between a wolf and a dog”, a place filled with ambiguity and irresolution. Here, like Hilary’s last film – a “seemingly random scatter of images” – the characters find “narrative order”.
Blain is a quietly profound writer with an astonishing eye for the ways in which human beings hurt and heal one another. This, her final novel, addresses the significant questions of life, “what to keep, what to discard, what clings despite all efforts to dispel it, and what slides away”. It is modern, unflinching, and unsentimental.
Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race
Maxine is brown.
Maxine has brown skin.
Maxine has funny curly hair.
Maxine thinks her family comes from England.
Maxine has dark brown skin.
There is an utterly transfixing, yet deeply disturbing moment in this memoir in which the young Maxine, growing up in suburban, middle-class Australia, believes that she is turning white.
In a realist, not magic realist work, the fervently desired “miracle … quietly brewing” on her skin, turns out to be a rare skin condition, diagnosed after a trip to the dermatologist’s office. What the poignant humour of the memoir conceals is the extraordinary violence of a society that would cause a child to want this transformation.
Clarke’s story charts the experience of everyday racism, tracing the lives of her British-Caribbean parents on their journey to a better life. This ideal life is turned upside down by shredded school books, abusive notes left in bags and pencil cases, and the hapless ineffectuality of teachers and school administrators.
Positive experiences seem few and far between: her friend Jennifer’s kind words written in her album, or the high school teacher who had the foresight to advise Maxine that the things she’d been told in primary school were as “bizarre as I’d suspected”. It takes courage to speak out again and again on issues that many of us would prefer to think did not exist. The book soars above its subject matter, demonstrating humanity in the face of the inhuman.
Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident
Emily Maguire’s novel centres on the sexual assault and murder of a young woman in a tough-talking, truck-stop town midway between Sydney and Melbourne. It is in the form of a thriller, but the author is perhaps less interested in seeking out the murderer than studying the town’s reaction.
Chris Rogers, the victim’s sister, is an astonishing character, reeling from the breakdown of her relationship to the love of her life; the death of her mother, and the murder of her sister. Chris struggles with men, alcohol and society’s obsession with cleavage. Then there is May Norman, a city-based journalist who arrives in Strathdee to cover the murder, and who, like Chris, is no stranger to the sexual double standard through which women – and not men – are judged for their conduct.
This novel tackles the insidious idea that rape is “never simple” but a “murky and confusing” situation in which the “lines of consent” are “blurred”. Maguire has a keen eye for the practices that excuse, tolerate and trivialise sexual violence, and for the language of misogyny that demeans women, blaming the victim for what she wore, what she did, or where she went.
What starts out as a realist venture ultimately lands in the territory of the gothic. Ghosts drift over scorched landscapes, and the bodies of murdered women rise up to haunt the living. “It’s always the men,” says the local historian. “I’ve never had a female hear the scream.” The novel’s title is, of course, ironic – it turns out that the violent death it investigates is not an isolated incident at all.
Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love
If everything goes to crap, it won’t be art that saves us. Art won’t matter one iota. You can’t write your way alive, or paint your way out of death.
Against the odds, this is exactly what Heather Rose achieves in her startlingly original and strangely beautiful novel. It is built around the 75-day performance piece by Serbian artist Marina Abramović that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.
Rose’s novel has a crystalline structure, tracing the lives of the characters who are transformed by the artwork. At its centre is Arky Levin, an emotionally-crippled composer who is cut off from life: from his daughter Alice, a medical student, and his wife, Lydia, an architect, facing the final stages of a potentially fatal illness in a nursing home without him.
Arky is joined at the performance by Jane Miller, an art teacher, who is mourning the death of her husband, Karl. There is also Brittika, a student; Healayas, a journalist assigned to cover the final days of the performance, and Danica – the ghost of Marina Abramović’s mother – who drifts, unsurprisingly, through its pages.
The unexpected oddity of the characters and their situations, and the luminous intensity of the language, marks out a philosophical territory that will be familiar to readers of Milorad Pavić, Dubravka Ugrešić or Danilo Kiš. This is an astonishingly beautiful book. In a culture that incessantly questions the worth and relevance of art for life, the novelist mounts a defence that is all the more astonishing for being successful.
Catherine de Saint Phalle, Poum and Alexandre
De Saint Phalle’s memoir is narrated through the eyes of a child who is beguiled and bewildered by her parents’ relationship, and the secret they appear to be hiding. They lead a fabled Parisian existence, always at some distance from their child. Her mother crosses herself frequently, talking incessantly about “the nuns” and what they might think. Her parenting mainly consists of reeling off long verses from The Odyssey.
Saint Phalle’s father regales her with tales of Napoleon, and could “convince me that Karl Marx was a practising Catholic” or “a bird that the sky is full of water”. He appears and disappears in the child’s life, for no apparent reason. A string of unknown aunts, cousins and siblings also arrive and depart unannounced, accentuating the book’s unstated sense of loss and abandonment, and the adults’ lack of awareness that a child may require a little more in the way of stability or commitment.
Written in soft, cloud-like prose, with a sense of elegy, this book is finally about the power of stories to conjure hope and possibility, and impart a sense of acceptance.
Cory Taylor, Dying a memoir
My suicide note was by way of apology. ‘I’m sorry,’ I wrote. ‘Please forgive me, but if I wake up from the surgery badly impaired, unable to walk, entirely dependent on other people to care for me, I’d prefer to end my own life.
Cory Taylor did not finally choose to take her life. Ultimately, she feared the trauma such a death would have inflicted on other people. Suicide, she writes, remains shrouded in a sense of “mental angst, hopelessness, weakness, the lingering whiff of criminality”.
In short, the problem is not hers but ours. We have “lost our common rituals and common language for dying,” becoming a society that only understands death, as “a form of failure”, as Taylor’s doctors seem to do. But living longer also means dying longer, and because of this the dying “are probably lonelier now than they’ve ever been”.
Taylor had already seen what it meant to die “badly”, witnessing her parents’ long, drawn out deaths from dementia in a nursing home. And so the desire to choose the way you die – assisted dying – becomes a source of comfort to her and a means of facing the things that are most terrifying about death – its total randomness, and our lack of control.
What is truly profound about this book is that – though it ought to be harrowing – it is astonishingly easy, if not strangely uplifting, to read. In part, this is because the narrative voice is so gentle, and tightly controlled. Every scene has a radiant quality; it glows.
The memoir ends with a “coming into dying”, a kind of effloresce that occurs at the edge of life – “the edge of words”. Images take over: “an over-exposed home movie footage of a girl with a dog in dappled sunshine, a car speeding down the road.” And then “The jet takes off. A kookaburra sits on a branch laughing.”
Taylor does not speak of death so much as she shows it to us, leaving the reader with an inexpressible sense of gratitude. This is writing that matters.
The winner of the 2017 Stella Prize will be announced in Melbourne tonight.