Stories of trauma — personal, communal and national — dominate the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, in its 63rd year.
Among the six shortlisted books are stories of dysfunctional families and damaged teens; middle-aged reckonings with old wounds.
Key facts about the award
- The Miles Franklin Award was first awarded in 1957
- It was established in the will of author Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (author of My Brilliant Career)
- It distinguishes a novel “of the highest literary merit” which presents “Australian life in any of its phases”
- The winner is awarded $60,000
- Past winners include Patrick White, Ruth Park, Thea Astley, Tim Winton, Peter Carey and Michelle de Kretser
- The 2019 winner was Melissa Lucashenko, for her novel Too Much Lip
Two of the nominated novels deal with intergenerational trauma stemming from colonisation: The Yield, by Wiradjuri writer Tara June Winch, and The White Girl, by Indigenous Australian author Tony Birch.
Winch, a first-time nominee, is a strong contender for the Miles Franklin, with her tale of family, land and language winning three prizes in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, including the Book of the Year.
To help you navigate the 2020 shortlist, we’ve asked three experts — Claire Nichols and Sarah L’Estrange from ABC RN’s The Book Show, and Kate Evans from ABC RN’s The Bookshelf — to share their thoughts on each book.
The winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award will be announced on Thursday July 16.
The White Girl by Tony Birch (UQP)
Prepare to meet one of the most wonderful grandmothers ever committed to the page. In The White Girl, Tony Birch introduces us to Odette Brown, a loving and resilient Aboriginal woman, dedicated to doing whatever it takes to keep her granddaughter, Sissy, safe.
Odette and Sissy live in a fictional country town in 1960s Australia, and while the country is moving towards the historic 1967 referendum, Aboriginal people are still living under the control of local authorities, who have the power to remove fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families.
Odette and Sissy have been living under the radar for years. But when a new police officer arrives in the town, seemingly determined to take Sissy away, Odette and her granddaughter are forced to flee. They’re heading for the city, where Odette not only hopes to find safety, but also to discover what happened to her daughter Lila, who fled home after giving birth to Sissy.
As a chase story, The White Girl is a tense and gripping read. But beyond that, the book is an important window into a shameful period of Australia’s very recent history, and a wonderful celebration of strong Indigenous women. It’s a book that I hugged to my chest after reading the final page. CN
Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany (Text Publishing)
The teenage girl at the centre of this novel breaks into other people’s houses and fixes things, like the toaster of the lonely woman down the street. She chooses houses where lives are broken or troubled.
But her own household is troubled, too: her mother, forever fossicking in a red handbag, looking away; her brother, who treats sport like it’s work — a serious escape; Father Man, who torments and bullies them all.
The girl navigates it all mechanically. Properly mechanically, that is, with skill and tools and metal and wire.
Father Man is a dodgy local mechanic, who bodgies up repairs with old pieces of vacuum hose and the force of his personality. But the girl really understands how things work. She has a feel for engines, and she loves the hands in an ‘exploded view’ — the technical drawings of the things under the bonnet, in which they are laid out neatly, showing up the mysteries and the spaces between.
This is a novel of real and symbolic road trips, where every patch of gravel, broken cable, sand-filled fuel tank and packet of salt-and-vinegar chips is there for a reason. It’s written with care and brutal exactitude. KE
The Yield by Tara June Winch (Penguin)
At first glance, the plot of The Yield sounds very similar to last year’s Miles Franklin winner, Melissa Lukashenko’s Too Much Lip: an Aboriginal woman returns home to the family property for her grandfather’s funeral and discovers that ancestral land is under threat. But that’s where the similarities end.
While Too Much Lip was funny and fierce, The Yield is something else altogether — a lyrical and moving work that manages to balance fine storytelling with a bold mission to document and celebrate Aboriginal language.
We learn that August’s beloved grandfather, Poppy Albert, was writing a dictionary of Wiradjuri words before he died. His dictionary is woven through the text, and as Albert explores the meaning of words, we get a sense of the man himself — his upbringing on a former mission, his outlook on life, and the mystery of August’s sister, who went missing when the girls were young.
The Yield is an ambitious and important book, but it’s also totally readable. You’ll be swept up in August’s story and her loving, imperfect family as they fight to protect the former mission they call home. The Yield is a serious contender for this year’s Miles Franklin. CN
No One by John Hughes (UWA Publishing)
No One is a crime novel without a crime. No One also refers to the unnamed protagonist of the story, orphaned and adrift; his parents, who died when he was young, came to Australia as refugees.
Hughes’s novel opens with a dream-like sequence as the main character recalls a defining incident almost 20 years earlier. Driving in the early hours of the morning near Sydney’s Redfern Station, he feels a “thud”. Believing he’s run someone over, he later returns to the scene of the accident, but he finds no trace of the victim — except a dent on the car.
Determined to solve the mystery of the lost body, he becomes a detective in his own “crime”.
This thoughtful, multilayered novella echoes with guilt and historical injustice. It interrogates the responsibility of present-day Australians to the legacy of the colonial past for Indigenous people.
Also in its frame is Australia’s contemporary treatment of refugees, deftly explored through the prism of the main character, whose homesickness for his family radiates from every page.
Is the “crime” that begins the book ever solved? No spoiler alert is necessary, it’s not a thriller. A book of epiphany rather than plot, it’s best read slowly and carefully to revel in its treatment of language and allegory. SL
Islands by Peggy Frew (Allen & Unwin)
This novel contains holiday islands, couples who are islands unto themselves, and families who can’t quite work out what type of swampy messy place they’re inhabiting.
Helen and John, for example, are a couple full of verve, passion and audacity, for a while at least. They revolve around each other so much they hardly notice the impact they have on others, especially when things fall apart.
And so their children, Junie and Anna, are cast adrift.
And then, as a teenager, Anna disappears — in ways the other characters simply cannot make sense of. She becomes a central hole in the story — around whom other characters appear. A boy she went to school with, a homeless man at the beach.
Even these side characters are beautifully drawn, as they pass by, see something, grow up, each becoming their own atoll.
Meanwhile, women’s bodies are judged, again and again, washed up, watched over, anchoring this complex archipelago of lives. KE
The Returns by Philip Salom (Transit Lounge)
The character of Trevor is “as orderly as a single conventional sentence”, Salom writes in The Returns. Just as well, then, that he meets Elizabeth, a freelance book editor, who recognises and understands the clarity a precise sentence offers.
They meet when Elizabeth almost faints against his bookshop window, leaving handprints that won’t go away. And so these two become housemates and allies, observing the world with warmth and humour.
Elizabeth has prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise faces. But she recognises the bulk of Trevor, his slight limp, his walk.
He recognises something in her, too, and in himself as he rediscovers painting in her back shed. He paints the faces in the street, all the while alert with compassion to the homeless woman in the black dress; the group of men who mumble or yell at each other, beer cans in hand.
And while Elizabeth does not see those faces, and can seem vague on dates and times and the age of her daughter, she is entirely sharp and focused when it comes to her work, her analysis, her word-wrangling.
This is not a love story and it doesn’t need to be. Together, there is something both charming and joyful in their observations, their conversations, their coming to terms with past sadness. KE
Tune in to RN at 10:00am on Mondays for The Book Show and midday Fridays for The Bookshelf.
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