Milkman by Anna Burns

I think this is an absolutely amazing novel but one that I may well have not read. It was only because it was a daily deal on Audible that I thought, why not? And it has blown me away (read by a wonderful narrator: Brid Brennan). I credit Brennan with bringing Burns’s unique and inventive and charming and funny and dark and unexpected voice to life. Milkman hangs on the point of view of Burn’s first person 18-year-old unnamed narrator – we can call her middle sister because all the characters are named in their relation to others. Even the Milkman of the title is called that because people don’t know his identity – he is just high up in the paramilitary, unforthcoming, dangerous and threatening to our narrator.

The world of middle sister is narrowly confined in the segregated unnamed city. Everyone’s lives are circumscribed by the sectarian splits, and the oppression of the forces from ‘the place over the water’. The fact none of this is spelt out, or even explained – it’s just the ‘political situation’ – reinforces a sense that people just get on with it. For our narrator, it is her accepted world, she just has to learn how to navigate it, how to survive. Almost every family in her ‘area’ has had members killed, every family has sons who join the ‘renouncers’, any innocent action like going to a (state) hospital, or talking to the wrong person, might get you named an informer and summary justice meted out. Much black humour is had at one place when middle sister’s ‘maybe-boyfriend’, who works as a mechanic, gets a much-coveted part of an abandoned Bentley. The fact the car had a flag (from the place over the water) on it made it suspect, and there is much debate about whether the male interest in cars should trump solidarity around hatred of the oppressors.

Writer Anna Burns presented with the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2018

For something that could be bleak – the narrator is stalked by Milkman who has taken an interest in her and she knows that, in the long-run, she would probably be powerless against him (the rumour mill has it that she is having an affair with him although, in fact, she is terrified of him) – it is really, entertaining, amusing, with flights of linguistic brilliance (Joyce, Beckett, is not a far-fetched comparison). This is not cold pyrotechnics, though: it’s humane, insightful, with acts of kindness and compassion, as well as violence. Who would have thought you could go into the world of the troubles and find it so interesting, absorbing, humorous. Much of this is to do with middle-sister’s way of looking at it: she’s an odd-person out, on the cusp of what her society calls ‘beyond the pale’ – she’s rouses suspicion for her ‘reading while walking’, for her propensity to stay silent, to withdraw – but that’s what great narrators have to be, they have to see things from the outside, from the inside. This is just a great piece of literature – a worthy recipient of the Booker prize. No precis can convey how brilliant this book is, you just have to read it.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

I began by being extremely drawn to this account of dealing with a difficult parent in their old age. My late mother, too, was a (convincing) fantasist who turned on her daughters as we tried to help her as she declined. The incredible tension experienced when my version of things was not believed by others (doctors, health workers, social workers etc etc) was very potently portrayed by Laveau-Harvie when she encountered this.

However, this is not a blow-by-blow description of what happened to Laveau-Harvie and her sister but more a work of creative non-fiction – moving back and forwards in time, withholding, immersing the reader in mood and the beautiful environment of the Canadian prairie where her parents had their large house (don’t be fooled by the barn-like shack on the cover – think more like Dynasty). The author creates the story through carefully-chosen scenes (often blackly comic) and interior musings.

However, as the narrative progressed, I lost the connection I felt in the beginning as I realised this was not (perhaps necessarily) an impartial account. What is very brave about the book is that Laveau-Harvie opens herself up to being seen as unsympathetic (I’m sure most authors would pull hard against exposing themselves in this way. I felt terrible guilt after my mother passed away – did Laveau-Harvie feel something similar that was expiated, to a certain extent in this aspect of the work? Who knows.) I may have been too close to the story to be impartial myself but I had a strong negative reaction to the fate of the mother and the valorising of the father who, after all, had been complicit with his wife in her treatment of the daughters. The Erratics raises a plethora  issues and, after winning The Stella Prize, many more people will get to discuss them.

Pigface and Other Stories review

Like most anthologies, there is a great variety of stories here: realist and more fantastical, bush and city, sad and amusing. ‘Pigface’ by Andrew Roff (the winning story of the Margaret River short story prize), is a great piece of controlled prose, and unfolding tension. Kat is a ranger in an eco-resort; she knows she has a good job but the pushy guests she takes on a bush walk test her patience: she tells them about the plant pigface and a guest ‘stabbed a question at her-“Latin name?” Like a fork pointed across a dinner table’. Luckily, she knows the answer! Of course, tension builds and tempers flare as the walk goes on and I, for one, hoped one or two of the guests would get their just deserts.

In another story, ‘Living With Walruses’ by David Wright, a group of walruses inexplicably takes over the beach of a small coastal town. The locals love it (it brings tourists) but soon the smell and noise turn them against the creatures. It’s a quirky story about tolerance and cruelty, with a slight supernatural edge. I also loved ‘Setting Sail’ by Zoe Deleuil, a quiet story where a gentle encounter with a neighbour offers hope to a woman in a controlling marriage. ‘Descent’ by Fiona Robertson is a wonderfully tight, controlled story where the whole relationship between a father and his young son from a previous marriage is revealed in one bush walk up (and down) a mountain. The father is a great character – self-absorbed and obnoxious – and his relationship to his new wife and young daughter is acutely observed, as is the character of the teenage son (whose growing confidence in standing up to his father is the centre of the story).

In a more amusing vein, ‘Small Fish’ by Penny Gibson skewers a particular type of Aussie male – here seen on a fishing trip – although, in the end, the story is more poignant than harsh. I didn’t think I would feel empathy with any of these men but the author achieves this. I also enjoyed Tiffany Hastie’s ‘The Chopping Block’, a moving, beautifully-written story about a woman and her dog, and loneliness and resilience. An underlying sense of tension is built (and a certain amount of blood spilt!). ‘Habitat’ by Cassie Hamer is a clever piece of writing that covers a lot of issues on a small canvas – it, almost imperceptibly, builds up a sense of unease and angst in the everyday life of the main character.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

This is a book of (mostly) gentle anecdote as Susan Hill discusses books she is reading, and has read, the comings and goings of animals and birds around her house, and reflections on writers she has known (quite a lot of well-known ones such as J B Priestly, Iris Murdoch and Julian Barnes) – all set amidst the changing seasons. Of course she also reflects on her own writing and her writing life, quite amusingly about being pestered by school students to explain the meaning of ‘The Woman in Black’ which is a set text (it would never have crossed my mind to do this when I was a student but email is a double-edged sword). There is a sense of nostalgia but she is never sentimental and, to me, there is something very satisfying about an intelligent person just speaking her mind as though you are a long-standing friend who doesn’t require being pandered to.

Reviewed also at Goodreads

Margaret River Short Story Competition

Congratulations to the winners of the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition 2018. I’m pleased to say my story ‘On Either Side’ was shortlisted and will appear in the anthology that comes out in June this year. Margaret River is a small press but has a good reputation for publishing interesting titles. Their yearly anthology of short stories is one of the few remaining ones that come out in book form (I can think of ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Award Winning Australian Stories’ …). The complete list of shortlisters and winners is below.

MRP 2018 SHORT STORY SHORTLIST

  • Jessica ANDREATTA – Ring Pull Art
  • Judith BRIDGE – Foodies
  • Abigayle CARMODY – No Harm Done
  • Zoe DELEUIL – Setting Sail
  • Penny GIBSON – Small Fish
  • Ashley GOLDBERG – Soap
  • Cassie HAMER – Habitat  *Second Prize*
  • Tiffany HASTIE – The Chopping Block  *Southwest Prize*
  • Tee LINDEN – Bounds
  • Miranda LUBY – The Sea Dragon
  • Helen RICHARDSON – On Either Side  
  • Fiona ROBERTSON – Descent
  • Sue ROBERTSON – Le Micocoulier de Provence
  • Andrew ROFF – Pigface  *First Prize*
  • Kit SCRIVEN – The Fate of Angels
  • Warwick SPRAWSON – Cracked Head
  • David Thomas Henry WRIGHT – Living with Walruses

Win a copy of The Great Unknown

Good Reading Magazine is running a competition to win one of 10 copies of The Great Unknown. Click here to go to the website. The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

This collection of strange and spooky stories was perfect reading for the lazy week between Christmas and New Year, providing a dark antidote to the forced cheeriness of the season … Contributors to the anthology were invited to write about the fantastical, uncanny, absurd, or, as editor Angela Meyer  notes, ‘even just the slightly off’ … While the nineteen stories are diverse in style and content, this shared focus on the strange gives the anthology a pleasing coherence that many collections of short fiction lack … The combined effect of the pieces … reminded me of the pleasures of those puzzling and troubling moments in life, and in fiction, when logic is defied and image and association are required instead.

– Rachel Roberston Australian Book Review March, 2014.

The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerPlease keep a look out for the anthology of ghost, fantasy and horror stories The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer and published by Spineless Wonders (and which includes my story ‘Navigating’). These stories were all inspired by the Twilight Zone television series and so are creepy, uncanny and scary. What more do you want for those cicacda-filled nights in the beach house over summer? In bookshops now or from Spineless Wonders. (or click the image below in the sidebar).

From Angela Meyer’s blog Literary Minded:

‘In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Reality TV’, a guest is confronted with her husband’s infidelity under bright lights, while Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ satirises American talk shows and a cultural obsession with sporting ‘heroes’. Chris Flynn’s ‘Sealer’s Cove’ has a nudist caught in a time slip. Carmel Bird evokes Edgar Allen Poe when oversized hares incite the folk of rural Victoria to commit criminal acts, and in ‘Sticks and Stones’ Ryan O’Neill has an academic attacked by a demonic alphabet.

There are darkly seductive artworks, disappearances and reappearances, altered realities, future visions, second chances, clever animals, knowing children, and strange presences in photographs and abandoned motels, in these stories by established and emerging writers. Contributors include Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles.’

Tiger’s Wife wins Orange Prize

There’s a lot of buzz around this book and it’s quite amazing as Tea Obreht is only 25 years old. The head of the judging panel Bettany Hughes (of Helen of Troy fame) said: 

“The Tiger’s Wife is an exceptional book and Téa Obreht is a truly exciting new talent. Obreht’s powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable. By skilfully spinning a series of magical tales she has managed to bring the tragedy of chronic Balkan conflict thumping into our front rooms with a bittersweet vivacity.

“The book reminds us how easily we can slip into barbarity, but also of the breadth and depth of human love. Obreht celebrates storytelling and she helps us to remember that it is the stories that we tell about ourselves, and about others, that can make us who we are and the world what it is.” 

Dublic IMPAC shortlist

Three Australian authors have made it onto the Dublin IMPAC literary award (nominees are put forward by libraries).

David Malouf for Ransom, Craig Silvey for Jasper Jones and Evie Wyld for After the Fire, A Still, Small Voice.

Interestingly enough, it was San Diego Public Library that nominated Wyld, while the SA State Library nominated Silvey and the National Library and the NSW State library nominated Malouf. See full shortlist.

Women and literary awards

There has been a brouhaha about the three-book short list for the Miles Franklin Award – the list being all male. The year before last, there was also a controversy when the long list was all male, so the judges would have been well aware of what they were doing, in this case. I’m sure the three books on the list are worthy – they are high-end literary and  dealing (at least with Bereft and the That Deadman Dance) with pretty serious issues (When Colts Ran is an outback, male-centred story). But as many other people have said: are male writers really that much better than female writers? Or do men choose what our culture still regards as more weighty, serious, important subjects and treatments, and thus these works are more suited to a culturally prestigious award?

Of the novels that have won the Miles Franklin for the last 10 years, only two are by women – Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire (Hazzard is a very intellectual serious novelist of the old school) and the other was Carpentaria by indigenous writer Alexis Wright – a big and highly ambitious work.

The ten all up are:

* 2010 Peter Temple Truth
* 2009 Tim Winton Breath
* 2008 Steven Carroll The Time We Have Taken
* 2007 Alexis Wright Carpentaria
* 2006 Roger McDonald The Ballad of Desmond Kale
* 2005 Andrew McGahan The White Earth
* 2004 Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
* 2003 Alex Miller Journey to the Stone Country
* 2002 Tim Winton Dirt Music
* 2001 Frank Moorhouse Dark Palace.

Barbara Jefferis

I have to admit to not having read a single one of the above. I started Dark Palace but hated it. I also started Dirt Music and didn’t get very far with that either. Now I come to think of it, a certain masculine outlook in both books turned me off. I also avoided Truth , after trying to read The Broken Shore, and again not being able to get onto the wavelength of the writer (I know I’m in a minority here).

So perhaps reading the Miles Franklin winner is like eating your greens – you know it’s good for you even if it’s not to your taste. If it’s any consolation to the women who perpetually miss out on the award, I think women writers have a bigger readership than male writers (Tim Winton excepted).

The whole issue of women missing out on major literary prizes was the impetus behind the Orange Prize in the UK and, ironically, there have been rumblings over the last few years over whether there should be a prize based on gender at all (the playing field being so flat now, after all!!) There is a women-only prize in Australia, the Kibble Literary Award (for novels and life writing), and it is quite lucrative at $30,000, but who has heard of it?

There is also the Barbara Jefferis Award for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. This definition means that male authors can also enter (only one brave male did so last time). G L Osborne won the most recent award with Come Inside. But, sad to say, this award hardly rates national media attention (although the Orange prize is quite high profile). So I guess you could say having such prizes doesn’t really address the problem of womens’ writing being regarded as less culturally significant than mens’.