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.
I think it’s fair to say that each year the selected novels on the Miles Franklin shortlist manifest the zeitgeist, reflecting on some of the issues that are troubling society.
This year they take on and inflect some signature themes: racial/cultural relationships; human engagement with the natural world; and, threading through each novel, the problem of mourning – for lost loves, for the ruins of the past, for uncertain futures, for a hurt planet.
A Sand Archive
Gregory Day’s A Sand Archive starts with an introduction to engineer and dreamer FB, and his “cheaply printed” volume, The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties.
It is an introduction full of evocative images, and FB’s quaint and archaic self-presentation against a backdrop of shadows, sand and heath lets readers know with whom they will be travelling during the course of this novel. It establishes the voice of the novel, one marked by a lyrical flow, combining something not explicitly lyrical (Dune Stabilisation; Engineering Difficulties) with a poetic tone, and with a philosophical treatise on sand.
FB is studying “the ontology of dunes”, and discovering the uncertainty of a world built on sand. The narrator, like FB, is a polymath, and like FB is sequestered in regional Victoria. Thanks to the magic of publications and imaginations, both are able to range widely through history and cultures.
But FB has been knocked about by life: by his hopeless love for French activist Mathilde, his thwarted desire to arrest the degradation of south Victoria’s sand dunes, and the loneliness (and satisfactions) of the life he builds. This is a tender novel, and one in which sand becomes a metaphor for story, for the human heart, for how to keep living through “the absurdity of human endeavours”.
Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills’ latest novel, to some extent fits the clifi genre, but its brilliant exposition of time and its instabilities is perhaps the stronger driving force in this narrative.
Sam, the central character, suffers from migraines that come with the dubious gift of knowing the future. For Sam, who is thus captured by dyschronia, the future is not necessarily future. She lives in a jumble of tenses, and though her mother tries to instruct her in linearity – “Time’s like a road, see?” – she never escapes the “dys” of “chronos”.
For her, time is like Einstein’s river, one that flows randomly, separates, folds back on itself. The novel also offers a scathing interrogation of economic “development”. The local environment and the lives of the people living in Clapstone are ruined in the interests of corporate greed. The asphalt plant on which the town was established has closed, leaving behind a poisoned town and a wrecked environment.
Sam has lost herself, aware that her knowledge of the future will change nothing, that “the whole weak joke of order is unravelling”. But there is still a touch of hope in all this, a lovely contrast between the hopelessness of the situation and the irrepressibility of the locals, who determinedly ignore the end of their world. And, at the end, “laughter comes unbidden, like a gas bubbling up through water”.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs begins in the quasi-prison environment of Punchbowl Boys High, and all the violence and crassness of a community of sex segregated adolescents, boys whose present and probable future involves being derided and excluded. This makes it sound grim, but in fact it is often a very funny novel.
The narrator, Bani Adam, is a misfit at school and outside, and his performances and protestations of himself as intellectual, sophisticated, open-minded yet still devout, make for humour, albeit of a poignant, plaintive kind.
Bani also delivers an education in Muslim faith and its complexities; and illuminates the effect of a brutalising culture through an insider’s eye on the politics of being Muslim in an unwelcoming Australian context. Still, I found the unrelenting racism, the constant lateral violence, the easy homophobia and the sexualised representation of girls and women not sufficiently outweighed by the wit and literary skill that mark this novel. “That’s the problem at Punchbowl Boys”, says Bani, “even if you win, you lose”.
The Death of Noah Glass
In The Death of Noah Glass, Gail Jones takes on a topic she has often explored: the creative world, one in which the eponymous Noah and his son Martin attempt to reconcile image and text, creativity and identity. It splendidly maps the world of art while offering beautiful portraits of mourning. Martin and his sister Evie have lost both parents now, and the impact of those deaths sets up a tremor that runs through the narrative.
Evie remembers “searching the rooms of their cold house” for her mother, “listening to her own breathing, the barest rhythm, in case stillness might summon her mother back”. And with their father’s sudden death being followed by the news of his possible involvement in art theft, there is “the wider mystery of things”, the impossibility of dealing with this slur on his reputation “when he was still inside them and not yet resting in peace”.
How the dead remain inside us; how memory and its regrets keep banging away at us (Noah in particular has much to regret); how the patterns of the world and of society shape and contain us; how parenthood, family, and sensory being allow us to live: these reappear throughout the novel, animating its characters.
Too Much Lip
Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip takes us to regional Australia, introducing readers to an Aboriginal family living on country, and tracing the threads of settler violence that continue to harm the current generation. The story starts in 1943, with now-patriarch Owen Addison being brutalised so that: “When Owen died … there were seven decades of agony caged in him”.
Kerry Salter is returning home to see Owen, her damaged dying Pop, and she literally blasts into town, the “skinniest dark girl on a shiny new Softail, heart attack city, truesgod”, startling the “whitenormalsavages” at the corner store.
She is witty, sharp, tricky, compassionate, but like her siblings suffers intergenerational trauma, which emerges as pretty appalling sibling abuse, and inevitable tragedy. Her uncle manages to divert the worst possible ending to the story, telling her armed and desperate brother: “Terrible things happened in his [Owen’s] life … Some of that pain had to go somewhere. There’s no shame to you in it, my nephew. It wasn’t your fault.”
While the themes of the novel are tragic and often deeply disturbing, the tone and register point to courage, perseverance, and a powerful refutation of the violence of colonisation and the lies of history.
A Stolen Season
A Stolen Season, Rodney Hall’s first novel in over a decade, also takes on trauma, tracing its effects on the lives of the characters who people its pages. Adam Griffiths served in Gulf War 2, and due to what may have been “friendly fire” was reduced to little more than bones and burnt skin.
Now he has been returned from the dead, “a monstrosity”, and his previously estranged wife, Bridget, faces the dilemma of whether to remain with this shell of a man who functions only as a sort of android, or leave him to the uncertain compassion of government services: “There’s nothing to stop her walking out. Except the freedom to do so. This is what makes the possibility impossible.” Their story is interleaved with two others: that of Marianna Gluck, who like Adam was effectively dead, and then restored to a life of PTSD, paranoia, and flight; and the obscenely and pointlessly wealthy John Philip, whose vignette exposes the vapidity of the art market, celebrity culture, and elitism.
For each story line, an overwhelming issue is existential certainty; each character must realise that they are, after all, alive, and must therefore confront an ethical problem. This profoundly empathetic novel is finely attuned to sorrow and all its siblings – regret, pain, anguish, dust, despair. It offers glimmers of hope here and there, but no concrete answers.
In fact, each novel in this list is profoundly empathetic, and deeply attuned to contemporary Australia. While they look directly at crisis and suffering, they avoid hopelessness, using lyrical imagery, humour, and the consolations of art or family as tools against despair; and they suggest more intelligent, more compassionate ways to be human in the 21st century.
The winner of the Miles Franklin will be announced on Tuesday July 30.