The links below are to articles reporting on the 2021 Stella Prize, from the longlist to the shortlist, and then to the winner, with the most recent article (on the winner) appearing at the end of the list.
Editors’ note: We congratulate Evie Wyld, winner of the 2021 Stella Prize for her book The Bass Rock. Zoya Patel, Chair of the 2021 Stella Judging Panel says: “Evie Wyld has chosen each and every word with precision, building a novel that is a true work of art.”
Each year, The Stella Prize honours writing by women. Good. We’ve come a long way. We’ve a long way to go.
The 2021 shortlist encompasses contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and non-fiction, and undertakes impressive trapeze acts across genre boundaries.
The books investigate the riddle of familial duty and the cost of patriarchy; Australia’s racist colonial history; species-ism and humanity as it exists within the natural world; the devastating impact of sexual violence for victims as well as criminal justice professionals; the trauma associated with physical violence inflicted upon women.
The authors write about sacrifice, grief, mental illness, power, privilege and connectivity.
Collectively, the books are testament to the minds of thinking, writing women mapping the architecture of social and cultural change.
WINNER: The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
At the opening of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock a young girl discovers a suitcase washed up on the beach: a dead woman’s fingers inching out, and between them, an eye that blinks.
At the novel’s closing, a woman is hurriedly packing a suitcase for her and her daughter, intending to leave an abusive marriage. She is waiting for a taxi when the front door quietly closes.
These two short scenes frame a novel that dwells on the violence inflicted on three women by manipulating and aggressive men. Set on the coast of Scotland, the dark volcanic Bass Rock looms over North Berwick as a dark presence around which the stories are fashioned.
In the 21st century, Viviane is living an unpredictable existence in London, when her Uncle Christopher requests she look after the family home in North Berwick until it is sold.
Shortly after the second world war, Ruth is living in the same North Berwick house with new husband Peter and his two sons.
In the 18th century, Joseph recounts how Sarah, accused of being a witch and brutally raped by village boys, is saved from being burned by his father. But when the thugs rally support, the girl and family must run, or they could all burn.
The Bass Rock has seven sections, each containing five chapters that move from the present through to the past and back again. Themes of mental illness and grief are braided into the novel, and the young children in Ruth’s story, become the older characters in Viviane’s.
At the end of each section a short tale is recounted about a nameless woman; each woman suffering maltreatment.
This is a deeply disturbing novel, yet one also revelling in grace and the small wonders of life: new and fragile friendships, tender moments of love and unearthly happenings.
Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs
Many of us enjoy venturing a few metres out into the sea to swim, surf or just cool off. Rebecca Giggs’ enthralling Fathoms: The World in the Whale presents whales as immense, enigmatic, intelligent and majestic sea creatures, but also vividly describes the intricate ecosystem of the vast oceans in which they live and die.
Drawing from science, history, literature, art and mythology, Fathoms is both epic in scale and rich in detail about the life cycle of whales, their behaviours and sociality.
This sweeping research is interspersed with Giggs’ own quest for understanding, which begins at a whale stranding and continues through experiences of eating whale meat and closely observing these mammals on a whale watching tour.
This makes Fathoms filled with information but also personal, as Giggs weaves her own insights and feelings about whales and the natural world into the narrative.
Arguing passionately for whales’ right to survive, many of her stories of our treatment of these creatures are heartbreaking and haunting. Whether it is humans hunting and killing whales and overfishing their food sources, or our polluting the oceans and destroying their habitats, whales remain highly vulnerable.
This could make for profoundly depressing reading. Instead, Fathoms is optimistic. We can address over-fishing, stop polluting the seas and start working seriously on restorative remediation.
This message is especially important in a year in which concern for the environment has fallen behind the issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fathoms calls for a new “Save the Whales” campaign. Public activism has stopped most whaling and we can rise to this new challenge, in the process also safeguarding countless numbers of no less important sea creatures.
If you break between sittings, you are likely to dream in the way narrative wires us to dream: circling standalone memories that never stand alone in the mind’s eye, turning time inside out.
Yannie lives in Malaysia, her life largely devoted to caring for her parents.
Despite her intellectual feats, which exceed her brother’s exponentially, her parents tell her they can’t afford to send her to university. They have agreed to provide additional support for Yannie’s brother to undertake further study. He, too, betrays Yannie.
The reader falls for Yannie, wanting to know and unknow her in the way we want to unknow all of those things we know innately and immediately yet incompletely.
Yannie is highly emotionally intelligent, artistic and thoughtful. Her everyday practice is self-denial. The word “entropy” emerges literally and metaphorically throughout the novel. Lim invites us to consider the ramifications of the slow seep of unused energy, the cost of duty and sacrifice, deep inequity, unrequited longing.
Revenge is an unflinching investigation of how a life cultivates a mind. Lim pushes us to consider the enduring and sometimes devastating impact of missed moments and our thinking upon them.
Books that do not end, and will never end, leave us with questions. At the heart of this book is the following question: “What does it take, to see and not see […] at the same time?”
The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay
The Animals in that Country is that rare thing: an intellectually ambitious, formally innovative Australian novel that is accessible to a broad readership. It’s also wonderfully macabre.
The central character is Jean, a mature-aged alcoholic working her way up at a remote wildlife park. She used to clean the dunnies, now she drives the little tourist train.
Jean’s ambition is to become a ranger, but anyone can see she’s incapable of completing the required certificate. Her boss changes the subject whenever it comes up.
Jean has one sober day per week: it’s a massive effort, but it’s a service in aid of maintaining her primary human relationship with her six-year-old granddaughter, Kimberly.
Kimberly and Jean love animals. They work tirelessly together on a scrapbook filled with plans for their own animal park. The relationship between these two is precious, refreshingly full and beautifully rendered by McKay: cementing Jean, despite all her faults, as a heroine with true heart.
I was surprised at how bloody funny this book is. The first 50 pages move a little slowly, and at times the Aussie vernacular is too over-cooked, even for comic effect, but once Jean hits the road in pursuit of Kimberly, who has been stolen by her mother’s ex, the narrative takes a sophisticated turn and the book’s extraordinary, slightly surreal central project, takes off. Down the highway, we’re in the realm of horror.
This is a work of fiction utterly capable of swaying the cultural imaginary.
McKay completed this novel as part of a creative writing PhD at the University of Melbourne, and it is a testament to the quality of writing coming out of Australia’s higher-degree writing programs: well-researched, impeccably crafted, and, above all, intelligent.
–Julienne van Loon
Witness by Louise Milligan
Sexual assault and murder carry high maximum sentences for good reason. They cause damage, havoc and lifelong pain and can rip society apart. None of us want perpetrators to stay hidden and unjudged. We want the criminal justice system to do its work.
And so, when victims of sexual assault envy murder victims “because they don’t have to relive being killed, over and over”, when what finally breaks them is not the crime but what happens next, we all have a stake in making justice work better.
In Witness, Louise Milligan asks where is the balance to be struck between the rights of defendants and the rights of witnesses – and of complainants in particular.
Can we presume an accused person to be innocent – as she agrees we should – without irreparably damaging the lives of those who report sexual crimes and give evidence?
Milligan has the credentials: court reporter; investigative journalist; witness in the trial of Cardinal George Pell; and the victim of the crime committed by an invisible stranger who repeatedly threatened to kill her.
Milligan has clearly earned the trust not only of victims, but also of judges and senior barristers who speak candidly about the impact of vicarious trauma on them and their colleagues, and who know they are working in an imperfect system.
She writes about the “cognitive dissonance” required for a barrister to be able to belittle a child witness, ultimately proved to be telling the truth about sexual abuse, and then go home to their own children.
Witness is a harrowing read. Not because Milligan has sensationalised the experiences described to her: the court transcripts speak for themselves. But because she exposes the damage done, not only to complainants, but to everyone involved in the criminal justice system, and makes it our concern.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
Stone Sky Gold Mountain is a bellwether novel, acknowledging Australia’s racist colonial history, suggesting that settlers from many countries were complicit in the worst outrages against Indigenous people, and underlining centuries of attack and control of women by men.
Set in 1877 in Queensland’s Palmer River goldfields the novel imagines a gap in Australian history, bringing to the foreground young working women, shackled by class, gender and race, seeking freedom and tenderness in a violent shanty town.
The story begins with the exiled Lai Yue and his sister Ying questing for gold to free their siblings, sold into slavery to pay their father’s gambling debts; and with the grieving and myopic Meriem, a single mother keeping house for a whore.
Ying dresses as a boy to survive. Meriem and her employer Sophie ply traditional women’s trades – housekeeping and sex work – and the three defend each other.
We fear for Lai Yue, burdened with filial duty, paying the price of men’s brutality to each other. Chinese speculators outnumber Europeans yet remain vulnerable to racism, their homeland criminal gangs, known as tongs, and starvation. Is Ying’s brother enlivened only by conscience, or is his inner voice darker, more unsettling than that? Who is responsible when an explosion of frontier violence subsumes him?
Taken deep into each character’s consciousness, we absorb their trauma and resilience.
The bush and riverscape seethe with heat and humidity. Riwoe’s language is assured, lyric and lush with vivid imagery of transplanted Chinese culture.
Historical detail is always immediate and visceral. As befits a good crime novel, each chapter cranks up tension, escalates action, and coded objects – a green ribbon tied around a tree, blackbirds, snakes’ eyes and sour plums, talismanic wood carvings – lead readers towards inevitable climaxes.
Ghosts and opium memes bring foreboding. How does one tell white men apart when they all look the same? Ever ironic, Riwoe. Read in two sittings. Twice.
The 2021 Stella Prize winner will be announced online at 7pm AEST tonight, April 22.
Words can help us imagine the world more deeply. Even as we retreat into our homes in this time of crisis, words can help us reach out to each other and pile up strength.
The Stella Prize is awarded each year to celebrate Australian women’s writing. This year’s shortlist brings together some of the best Australian writing in any genre. They are books about courage, strength, compassion and love. And they give us something of what we need – teaching us that to be alarmed is not to be cautious or careful; that to try to bear everything on one’s own is not necessarily to be strong.
These books can help us draw on our inner resources; to dig deep. Not only to find a point of calm, or, indeed, relief from boredom as the lockdown wears on – but more importantly, compassion, altruism, the capacity to cross social distances, reach out, help and support each other and our society in a time of crisis.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
When you read The Weekend you’ll probably learn some things about yourself that you didn’t know, and a few you’d rather not. This book takes a long look at women’s lives and friendships as we get old, at a time in life when everything we thought we knew – about ourselves, about our loved ones – is being thrown into doubt.
Three grieving women gather together for Christmas to clean out the beach house that belonged to their friend Sylvie, who has died. There is Jude, a once famous restauranteur, who has spent her adult life in a love affair with a wealthy married man. Adele, a once-famous stage actress, who is newly impoverished, having just broken up with her partner Liz. She is yet to tell the others. Finally Wendy, a public intellectual in her waning years, grieving for her dead husband. Without Sylvie to balance them, tensions rise.
This book cuts like a knife through social pieties but never loses its humanity. In one particularly wicked scene, Adele conducts a “leisurely inspection” of her best friends’ washbags, casually laying bare their “private vulnerabilities”: who has constipation, who takes Valium, and who still uses age-defying face cream.
As the characters clean out the house of “depressing old things” that “nobody wanted” the tensions of grief and emotion pull them in unexpected directions. Old betrayals are unearthed, words can’t be taken back (“out it slithered in a disgusting mass”) and lives shatter.
Wood has a keen eye for the emotional havoc life wreaks, even – or especially – as we amble off into old age. Her observations are knife-sharp, often merciless, but also warm and deeply alive.
The Yield by Tara June Winch
Language can take you deep inside experience – because words teach you not only how to speak, but also how to think and feel. A large part of Tara June Winch’s new novel is written as entries in a Wiradjuri dictionary, put together by the dictionary-maker Albert Gondiwindi. The first word – the “once upon a time for you” – is yarrany, Wiradjuri for a hickory acacia or spearwood tree, and Albert tell us “from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man”. Another word is baayanha meaning yield, which Albert calls “a funny word”. In English the word “yield” is the reaping, the things than man can take from the land”. But in Albert’s language “it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things”.
The action of The Yield centres on Albert’s granddaughter, August, who has returned to Country for her grandfather’s funeral after years in exile. Memories resurface, as August is entangled in circles of kinship, with aunties, nieces and cousins.
There are sombre notes. To August, everything is “browner, bone-drier”, and the evocative place name Massacre Plains reminds us that this is a site of invasion and violence. And then there’s the mystery of August’s missing sister, Jeddah.
The community is besieged by a mining development. Diggers roll into town, flanked by military-green Humvees. Winch charts the relationships between white activists and Indigenous rights groups, as they organise acts of resistance.
Aunty Betty and Aunt Carol Gibson get themselves locked against a fence in an act of protest. “Don’t fight back” says Mandy to August. “They can’t arrest us for sitting in”. Hours later rocks are hurled, water cannons discharge, and police squirt teargas. The past “filtered into their voices as they screamed together ‘Re-sist!‘”
Of course, Albert’s dictionary – “the old language, kept safe. Digitised. Captured forever” – is another kind of resistance. When August listens, she can hear the way “English changed their tongues, the formation of their minds”. This is also a book of hope in this resurgent language.
Here Until August by Josephine Rowe
The opening story in Josephine Rowe’s collection is called Glisk, a Scots word meaning a split second: a flash; a single instant. It’s a wonderful opening title in a short story collection that seems to telescope, stack and compress time, propelling characters across continents, through stark or solemn landscapes, or pinning them down in small towns.
Rowe’s characters are mostly fleeing grief or trauma, trying to find solace in strange lands. In Glisk, protagonist Fynn returns after working in a whiskey distillery in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The title conjures the fatal car accident that drove Fynn from Perth. But it also describes an earlier accident in which Fynn and his siblings built a raft with foam and buckets so they could journey out to an island to see the bioluminescence in the ocean. Only that time, catastrophe had been avoided.
These are wonderful stories. In Chavez, an agoraphobic young woman grieving for a dead husband, stays at home watching terrorist videos, until a neighbour asks her to look after her dog, forcing her to engage with the world. In The Once-Drowned Man a taxi driver and her passenger head for the Canadian border, engaging in an oddly uncomfortable struggle over grief and hurt.
Rowe’s stories deftly capture the fleeting and precarious moments that can shape and place us, or move us – like Fynn – towards a faltering redemption, “with the dark folding over the top of him”, all in a glisk.
There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett
Parrett’s third novel opens with an image of extraordinary dislocation, evoked through all the “little brown suitcases … on trains, and on carts” or “strapped to the top of buses” carried by people whose lives have been uprooted by war. Inside the suitcases, not just clothes and toiletries, but “all they can hold … your heart, your mind, your soul”.
Favell’s novel tells the story of two sisters, Liska and Ludek, who are separated as teenagers, firstly by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and then by the Cold War. Ludek stays in Prague, while Liska travels to London and on to Melbourne.
Liska negotiates the problems of a second language, together with her husband’s straightened work opportunities. Ludek travels the world as a member of Prague’s Black Light Theatre, a child kept at home to ensure her return to life behind the Iron Curtain. Both raise children in vastly different worlds. Both build and sustain homes that are marked by love.
Parrett paints a picture of the sometimes troubling life lived in a communist state, coloured by vivid details of 1980s culture. The prose is lyrical, and the child’s perspective is diffuse with a kind of magic.
This is a book about strong women. It is a story about complicated family lives, longing for home, and the worlds women build – through love – for their families.
Diving into Glass by Caro Llewellyn
Just after her 40th birthday, Caro Llewellyn – recently arrived in New York, working her dream job as director of the PEN Festival for writers – collapsed as she ran through Central Park. In hospital a few days later, her neurologist told her that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness associated with the central nervous system – chronic, debilitating and lifelong.
This memoir is a record of Llewellyn’s struggle not to be defined by her disability. Its title enviably encapsulates the things that glitter and shimmer and exhilarate in this book. A sense of breathless energy just leaps off the page. “I was a runner all my life,” Llewellyn writes. Not just long and short distance, but also hurdles and relay. “It didn’t matter what I ran, so long as I was spent when I crossed the finish line”.
This is a book about many things: Llewellyn’s career, the strength she draws from her charming and ingenious father who was wheelchair-bound, having been struck by polio at 20. He married twice, courting his first wife – a hospital nurse – from deep inside an iron lung. Llewellyn learned a lot from her parents, though not always strictly wise. They included, “carry on like absolutely nothing’s wrong”, “build an impenetrable wall around your weaknesses”, or best of all “no matter how impossible it seems, how long the odds, words and a good story can help you overcome every single thing stacked up against you”.
But, as Llewellyn writes, “The day my legs went numb on the running track in Central Park, every one of those lessons evaporated”. This is not a book about overcoming illness or disability. It ends – much like it starts – with Llewellyn’s gaze on the horizon, searching.
See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill
Jess Hill’s book is a deeply felt exploration of institutional failure. It opens with Hill standing in her backyard “hanging clothes out to dry on a stunning summer night alive with the screeching of fruit bats”, in a place where she “felt content, peaceful; safe”. Then comes the stunning realisation that many women do not get to feel safe, not at night, and not in their own backyard.
It’s 2015, a year on from the morning Australians woke up to see Rosie Batty, “a solitary woman, raw with grief” on their television screens. In front of her was “a clutch of reporters who’d barely hoped for a statement”. Batty told the media about the murder of her son – 11-year-old Luke Batty – at the hands of his father. It was the scenario she’d warned about countless times, in courts and police stations, in front of lawyers and judges and to social workers. Her pleas had been dismissed and disbelieved.
See What You Made Me Do brings together stories of domestic violence and survival from all walks of life – from the affluent neighbourhoods of Sydney’s Bible Belt to struggling remote and regional communities. Hill investigates the social and psychological causes of domestic abuse and its terrifying consequences. She talks to frontline social workers, counsellors who work the hotlines, and police.
Hill’s book maps the contours of a twisted public debate, through which the rights of children and women to safety – to feel secure, to live free from violence – are repeatedly brought up short by politics.
The Stella Prize will be announced online by Julia Gillard from 8pm (AEST) on Tuesday 14 April 2020.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir of a “monstrous” mother has won the 2019 Stella Prize. The Erratics tells the story of Vicki’s return home to a prairie house in the sparse wintry landscapes of Alberta, Canada, where she grew up. Once there, the narrator faces family relationships that are strained to the point of breaking.
When the book begins, its narrator has been absent from her family for 18 years. Her mother is clearly unwell, and Vicki believes she should be declared legally “incompetent” against her wishes.
Vicki is convinced that her mother is attempting to kill her father, by starving him to death, keeping him on a diet of spinach, bok choy and kale. Her father defers to his wife, often against all reason, and indeed safety.
This book shatters social expectations that a mother is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-caring, by setting them against the bleak reality of what one mother is. It explodes culturally sanctioned ideas about what a mother ought to be, feel and do. It does so with a rare – often dark, and deeply unsettling – honesty.
The writing style is taught, elegant and clinically restrained. The narrator is almost numb.
The judges said:
Set against the bitter cold of a Canadian winter, Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics mines the psychological damage wrought on a nuclear family by a monstrous personality. Despite the dark subject matter, this book has a smile at its core, and Laveau-Harvie shows constant wit when depicting some harrowing times.
There are many uneasy truths in this book. It’s occasionally difficult to feel empathy for the narrator, with her myriad blind spots, and the way her desires too often lead her to fashion the world according to her own needs – seen in her failure to understand the psychiatrist’s serious hesitation to commit her mother to a locked ward unless she is genuinely a threat to herself or to others. In her too easy belief that her father’s carer is a “gold-digger”. And in the many judgments that are delivered down the telephone line from half a world away, after she returns to Sydney.
“I would very much like to mean ‘we’, my sister and me,” she writes about the question of who will be caring for her aged parents. “But I’m leaving, my sanity always dependent on living somewhere remote […] My sister and her partner will shoulder almost all of what needs doing.”
There is grief, though, when news breaks that her mother’s medical team have decided she requires constant care in a mental health ward. Vicki writes:
I think of everything my mother will never see again, the view over the foothills to the Rockies from the windows of her house, the animals in the duck light, fawns gambolling unsteadily, coyotes pausing to give you the slightest of nods before loping across the lawns […]
And yet, it is difficult reading to the end: grief expressed from faraway Sydney feels disparaging of her caregiving sister’s nervously exhausted relief at, in the narrator’s words, the “wicked witch being dead”.
This is a remarkable book. It is also a deeply uncomfortable one. And that – I suspect – is precisely the point. Where the rest of us would rather deal in easy platitudes, this book is deeply honest.
Young people – how they think and feel, how institutions (families, schools, clinics, courts) fail them – are a recurring theme in the books shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.
These six surprising books – four novels, a memoir and a collection of essays – cover subject matter as diverse as grief, loss, history, childhood, and Indigenous resistance. They make risky aesthetic choices. Some feature dazzling experiments with language, structure and form. Despite, or, more likely, because of this, they also have a tight grip on reality.
They are searing and often searching; intent on excavating the “present’s beating heart”. They share an attitude that is daring, sometimes darkly funny, always serious and thoroughly unsentimental. These books are difficult to sum up or pin down. Here is our critical guide to them.
Little Gods, Jenny Ackland
Olive May Lovelock is blessed with the sunny kind of optimism that is typical of an Australian childhood, set against the broad flats of the Mallee. She saves a joey, and tames a raven named Grace. She checks the warm wombs of roadkill for babies. Olive wears an old pair of binoculars around her neck to “see things better”, but life proves deceptive.
There are secrets here. A mother who rarely hugs or pays attention to her daughter, an unmarried sister whose baby is taken away at birth, an uncle who loses his pregnant wife in a car accident.
When Olive finds out she had a baby sister who died – a secret that “everyone knows”, as the local school bully tells her, but nobody is allowed to tell – she is determined to find out what happened. Olive pieces together the answers out of fragments of her own memory, and those of the children around her. But memories are deceptive, “[they] get you where they want you, not the other way around”. The answers prove dark in a way that is breathless, soul-crushing and peculiarly Australian.
The Bridge, Enza Gandolfo
In October 1970, Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge – a “nation building project” that ought to have been a symbol of the brave, bold modern city – collapsed in Australia’s worst industrial accident, leaving 35 workers dead.
The opening pages of Gandolfo’s book conjure the physical terror of that moment, “[…] the men were falling, falling off, falling through the air”, she writes, “bashed by the flying debris; their arms reached for the sides of the girder, for something, but there was nothing”.
In Gandolfo’s imagining, the Westgate Bridge becomes the site of another horror 40 years later. Jo and her best friend, Ashleigh, a granddaughter of one of the Westgate survivors, are on the verge of finishing high school, flush with the future, when their lives are shattered by a car crash – senseless, alcohol-fuelled.
This novel, set among migrant communities in Yarraville in Melbourne’s west, explores how accidents of this magnitude not only waste the lives of those who die, but continue to haunt the living, who must struggle for a lifetime with the weight of trauma. This is a book about guilt, ambiguity and moral culpability. It searches amid half-made lives, misguided dreams and murky realities, asking stern questions about responsibility and remorse.
Pink Mountain on Locus Island, Jamie Marina Lau
Lau’s debut novel is a head trip of a book, filled with the shards of broken sentences. Written in short chapters, it embraces a contemporary reality that veers wildly between boredom and violence, mediated through retro technologies, including grainy VHS videos, and YouTube tutorials. It is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what is believable – whether there is, as Lau writes, any difference between “a false-alarm scream and a death-scream”.
But the book is always emotionally true to the chaotic inner life of its young protagonist, 15-year old Monk, whose world hovers between childhood and adulthood, English and Cantonese, familial neglect and a desperate desire to be noticed.
At one stage, Monk’s father asks, “Would you look away if somebody was forcing you to look at their emotions?” Lau doesn’t give us the chance. She makes sure we look, straight-on.
Monk’s mother is absent in Shanghai, her artist father is addicted to Xanax and alcohol, and she is infatuated with a “messiah” figure named Santa Coy, who ignites all their lives – pulling Monk into a dangerous world of drugs, pushers and parties. Lau’s book captures the voice of its teenage protagonist and a new kind of transcultural millennial life in the digital age.
The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie
Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir tells the story of an estranged daughter’s journey home, when she is summoned to care for a mother with a fractured hip. Vicki’s mother suffers from some kind of undiagnosed mental illness, which has caused her to isolate herself and her husband from the world on their rural property, set in an eerie landscape in a remote region of Alberta, Canada. Vicki’s father suffers from dementia, and Vicki and her sister are convinced their mother has been slowly starving him to death.
Vicki’s mother is clearly unwell, and probably has been for their entire lives. She also possesses extraordinary powers of persuasion, convincing doctors, nurses and, at times, her own ailing husband that she has no daughters, or only one daughter who is dead, or only two daughters who have both disappeared.
Says Vicki: “I have a vision of my mother’s influence making its way through my father’s mind, filling the tiny spaces left by the rounded contours of his brain, solidifying around the synapses until not even his thoughts are his own.”
There are hints here of childhood trauma – reasons for leaving, reasons for not caring, or even trying to care. Vicki’s sister has long ago changed her name because “hearing her childhood name cast her back into the black chasms of before”.
The prose style is numb, clinically distant. It is sometimes difficult to empathise with the detached narrator and the care she cannot – or will not – show. But this is a startling memoir of family damage. We can only guess, “where there is nothing, there must have been pain”.
Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
Kerry Salter enters the pages of Too Much Lip on a stolen Harley Davidson Softail, “a dozen blue eyeballs popping fair outta their moogle heads at the sight of her”, with Kerry – “blackfella du jour” – barely resisting the “urge to elevate both middle fingers as she rode past”.
She has come to say goodbye to her grandfather, Pop Owen, and to say hello to a mother who spends way too much time “on the turps”. This is a book about colonial violence, contemporary state-sponsored violence, diffuse racism, and their relationship to domestic violence, searing child abuse, family dysfunction and intergenerational trauma.
Kerry and her siblings cope in different ways, mostly thorough crime, alcohol and “too much lip”. But when the local mayor, a shady real estate agent whose grandfather terrorised Indigenous people, wants to build a prison on land that has spiritual, cultural and personal significance to Kerry’s family, they pull together and fight to save their river. Resistance for the Salters is less about the Native Title Act, and more about missing sister Donna’s commercial know-how.
Lucashenko’s book is shot through with defiance and anger; present day thefts are offset by the memory of historical ones. Hers is a darkly funny, searingly violent world, in which there are no easy fixes – only hard, complicated truths.
Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin
To say that Maria Tumarkin’s essay collection scrutinises our ideas about “History” and the past is inadequate. This book rips into our pieties, interrogates our easy platitudes, and forces us to see the world – words, things, people, feelings – in new ways. History is exactly the right subject for Tumarkin, because there is no easy forgetting in the world she describes, just as there is seemingly no limit to “how much sorrow and pain about the world a person can carry inside”.
Each essay in the collection takes an axiom about history and tests it against our gritty present day realities. In “History Repeats Itself”, Vanya, a community lawyer, helps young people on a collision course with the criminal justice system “who live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks”. In “Those Who Forget the Past Are Condemned to Re – ”, a child flees a stepfather’s violence only to be returned to a house of blood and broken teeth.
Her essay “Time Heals All Wounds” is a harrowing examination of teenage suicide. One boy writes in a suicide note: “Please do not assume you know why. Even I’m not completely sure.”
Facing all this would not be possible without Tumarkin’s sonorous wisdom; her capacity to turn things, words, people, sentences over on the page to see what they’re made of. Lucid and grave; this book is a revelation.
The winner of the 2019 Stella prize will be announced in Melbourne on April 9.