Hope Farm – Peggy Frew – 2016 Stella Prize

On International Women’s Day it is only appropriate that I look at a novel that has been longlisted for the Stella Prize, a Prize for Australian female writers.
I was hoping to get to as many of the twelve longlisted novels before the shortlist announcement this Thursday 10 March 2016, however it looks as though I will only get to four of the longlist. Jen Craig’s “Panthers & the Museum of Fire”,  “Six Bedrooms” by Tegan Bennett Daylight  and Charlotte Wood’s “The Natural Way ofThings”. With the Man Booker International Prize announcing their longlist on 10 March 2016, and being a member of the Shadow Jury for that award, I am tipping I’ll be a tad busy reading international literature over the coming months, however there is always a chance that the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize contains a number of works I have already read and I may have more spare time to read Australian literature than I had planned, I know…I’m kidding myself, the last few years I have read only one or two of the longlist so have at least ten books to get through over a month!!!
Peggy Frew’s “Hope Farm” opens with an epigram by Margaret Atwood; “You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.” (from Cat’s Eye) – will memory will be the theme here? A short section then follows a short dreamlike sequence, a wish for our narrator to return to Hope Farm before the main novel commences, an opening section titled “Before”, it is imperative you understand, the epicentre here is Hope Farm, what comes before that is simply ‘before’, this novel is a hodgepodge of memories:
It’s hard to remember much from before Hope. We lived in so many places – and in my memory they’ve merged to form a kind of hazy, overlapping backdrop. Certain details leap briefly to catch the light: a kitchen where I climbed into a cupboard and watched a woman’s feet shuffle back and forth as she cooked the hem of her orange robe lapping; the chain-link fence of a school yard, cool under hooked fingers and tasting, when I put my tongue to it, of tears; a dog with new puppies under a verandah, lifting her head to growl when we came squirming in on our elbows, me and a girl whose name is now lost but whose pierced ears I recall perfectly – the wonder of those gold circlets entering the downy, padded lobes. None of these details are anchored though – these is no sequence, no scaffold on which to hang them.
Once our narrator, thirteen-year-old Silver gets to Hope Farm in Victoria from an ashram in Brisbane, with her mother Ishtar, it is winter and we see the failed attempts of the residents at self-sufficiency. Doped out, on the dole (welfare) or working meaningless fruit picking jobs and living on a dilapidated farm:
So the crops had failed, the goats were gone, the compost was rotten, but still they stayed, these people. I suppose they had nowhere better to go. It was the eighties – they were a dying breed. And they were tired; their ideals had seized up and grown heavy somehow, and they didn’t know how to put them down. That’s the only explanation I can come up with now. At the time, of course, I gave it no thought. They were just there, they did what they did – or didn’t – and we were there as well, and I would simply, like always, have to put up with it.
The novel is broken into small sections with every so often a childlike diary/memoir appearing, highlighted by a different font, and it is the voice of a young pregnant girl, whose voice is this?
Silver lives through the town stigma attached to being a “hippy” child, the branding of being dirty, crawling with parasites, worms, lice, “running wild no doubt”. As each page unfolds we have a slow layering of experiences through the eyes of an impressionable child, and how these ‘snippets” of experience and memories mould and shape the adult our narrator is today.
A novel steeped in memory, the unreliability of such, a life made of fragments, the voice of an unreliable narrator, of course a character or voice common throughout literature, in this case this is a prominent feature, skilfully woven throughout to ensure the reader is always questioning the validity of the story instead of simply falling into the narration. This is a well-crafted feature throughout this book:
Or is this only how I remember her? Perhaps she did turn, did set down the peeler and come and site by me at the table, to put her arm around me, to lean in close so her warmth filled my breaths, asking me a question and then waiting for the answer. I often wonder if I have done her a disservice in the way I recall her, in what I have managed to haul from the murk and lay out under the harsh beans of examination and analysis. But I am at the mercy of memory. All I can do is hang on, attend to what I’m supplied with, squint and puzzle over it.
Split into “before’ and “after”, containing the full breadth of the seasons, this is a novel exposing two sides to every story, we have the simple uneducated diary narration of the young innocent interrupting the reflective prose of a grown woman looking back at her childhood, reflecting on her upbringing on a self-sufficient “hippy commune” and wondering at all of the events that have moulded her into the woman she is today.

Early on we are privy to a mysterious event that would shape our narrator, that would “invoke all of those ghosts” and this hook, although easily identified, is a mystery that you need to decipher yourself. A well-crafted, readable and enjoyable novel about family relationships, memory, development of character, blended with a number of tragic stories that come bubbling to the surface. A worthy contender for the shortlist announcement later this week.

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Six Bedrooms – Tegan Bennett Daylight – 2016 Stella Prize

Earlier in the week I read a great blog post at “The Writes of Woman” about reviewing books and whether or not you should write negative reviews. The post, plus the review of “Viral” by Helen Fitzgerald can be viewed here
Personally I’ve been struggling with how to write a review of Tegan Bennett Daylight’s “Six Bedrooms”. As I would like to read and review as many entrants on the 2016 Stella Prize Longlist, simply ignoring this collection of short stories is not an ideal approach, so my thoughts follow, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with my views, and that’s fine by me, I’m simply following Naomi’s lead here and “registering my own bias”.
As long term visitors to this blog would know, I’m not a huge fan of “coming of age” fiction, and it takes a pretty special approach to these tales of moving toward adulthood for me to be moved enough to write a glowing review. So first off, a book that is described, on the back cover, thus; “Tegan Bennett Daylight’s powerful collection captures the dangerous, tilting terrain of becoming an adult”, this possibly put me in a certain negative frame of mind before I’d read a page. And when I open this collection of ten short stories….the font is very large, the spacing even larger…I couldn’t help being reminded of Jen Craig’s quote in the another Stella Prize longlisted work, “Panthers and the Museum of Fire”
Every time I pass a bookshop that has the latest releases and the latest promotions of fiction in the window, I am never curious about anything that lies inside the pages whose thick white tongues have been spread just a little so that it is plain for all to see that the type has been spaced too much and the book made thicker and heavier than it might have been, and certainly more than what the book – as it appears to me – has necessarily warranted. All the new novels that are published these days are thicker and heavier that the novels themselves would usually warrant. Each of them is thicker and heavier, by virtue of the fact that the pages are thicker than they should have been and the type spaced further apart than it should have been and the cover made thicker than it should have been in the mistaken belief that the worth of a novel is always only equivalent to its thickness and weight and that the more of it you have when you buy it, the more likely you have bought something worthwhile or at least worth the excessive thickness and heaviness that the publisher has made of it.
Again, I’m already in a negative frame of mind and I’ve yet to read a word….
The collection of ten short stories opens with “Like A Virgin”, named after the Madonna hit of the mid 1980’s, it is a story of a teenager stealing her alcoholic mum’s tequila, going to a party with her friend, her friend getting drunk and the later consequences. “Other animals” a tale of high school friends, discussing boyfriends, the narrator’s ‘friend’ ends up going out with our story teller’s brother.
I hated Judy’s first boyfriend, as expected. He was shaped like a sweet potato. His clothes were exactly wrong. Judy had arranged for us to meet him at Circular Quay one Saturday morning, so that the three of us could go to the movies. He was waiting for us when we got off the ferry. He wore a t-shirt that said I love Brisbane, loose over his narrow shoulders, clinging around his fleshy waist. He stepped forward when he saw us and produced from behind his back a bunch of yellow flowers, six or seven of them, wound in cellophane. I got out of the way so no one would think he was giving them to me.
That’s the opening paragraph of the story “Firebugs”. The whole collection is in this style, stilted, factual, bare, not offensive but also not gripping enough to endear you to any of the characters. A collection surely aimed at the “young adult” audience, and I definitely don’t fall into that category.
In “Trouble” our narrator and her sister move to London, a story of boyfriends, bands and beer.
We’d been told that it would rain often in London, but I hadn’t thought about the kind of rain it would be. I was used to rain or no rain: a tropical torrent that swept up out of nowhere, or days of incessant sunshine that crisped the parks and made the pavements burn your bare feet. In London it just rained, greyly, endlessly, like a weepy friend, always sorry for herself. I bought umbrellas but I was always forgetting them on the tube and having to walk home with my head down, my dyed hair leaking red down my neck.
Of all the stories I found “They Fuck You Up” the most potent of all, the teenage angst, the hatred of parents, the need for independence and the boyfriend forcing his own views, “moulding” his girlfriend to take part in his own independent fantasy life, all joining to a coherent coming of age story.
The title story, “Six Bedrooms” is the tale of living in a shared house, the need to be accepted, the pandering to other housemates, the relationships and although our first person narrator “had read…everything that Helen Garner had written, over and over again” to me the social order, the chaos, and the behaviours of Garner’s “Monkey Grip” is a far superior piece of fiction. Garner’s novel also taking place in a shared house, with musicians, single mothers, actors. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s story throws in the Sydney Mardi Gras instead of the bohemian Melbourne art/music scene, to me it just doesn’t click.

As mentioned before these stories are not at all poorly written, they are not at all offensive, however personally they seem to lack any real punch, they carry all the hallmarks (plot, character, conflict, setting, style, theme – Google “key elements to a short story” and these all show up), but do they add to the genre? Personally I don’t think so. A collection I’ll surely forget I’ve ever read. Personally one to not make the shortlist that will be announced on 10 March 2016.

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Panthers & The Museum Of Fire – Jen Craig – 2016 Stella Prize

Partly because I think, as an Australian, I should read more Australian literature and partly because of the gender bias in publishing and reviewing, I thought I would look at a few (I may even get through the whole longlist) books longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize.

As mentioned at my post about the Longlist announcement 

The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, and championing diversity and cultural change.
The prize is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin, and was awarded for the first time in 2013. Both nonfiction and fiction books by Australian women are eligible for entry.
The Stella Prize seeks to:
·                     recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature
·                     bring more readers to books by women and thus increase their sales
·                     provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers
·                     reward one writer with a $50,000 prize – money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence and thus time, that most undervalued yet necessary commodity for women, to focus on their writing
“Panthers and the Museum of Fire” is a short novel that suits my eclectic tastes. It starts with our narrator (Jen Craig) walking to a café, holding a manuscript, it was written by her only childhood friend who has recently died, the manuscript is titled “Panthers and the Museum of Fire”, so named after a brown and white “tourist” sign on the main highway to the Blue Mountains, directing you to the Penrith Panthers Leagues Club (a Rugby League Team) or the Museum of Fire also in Penrith. The reading of this manuscript has impacted our protagonist greatly, as a reader we are intrigued as to the contents;
You have to imagine a book, I should have told my friend – a book but not a book – the fact that it was a manuscript made a difference. The whole time you were reading this manuscript that was not yet a book, you would have found the experience of reading just an experience of waiting; the whole time that you were reading, you were also waiting. As soon as you started the manuscript, you would find yourself waiting for it to start, to really start. You kept flicking pages and reading and flicking – not skipping any pages, but flicking them all the same – and the whole time you were reading you were waiting for the story in the manuscript to start for real. This feeling, you have to realise, kept up the whole time. There was never a moment when you thought you had started on the section of the manuscript where the real part began. At first you would have been flicking the pages and thinking, well she could have cut these paragraphs and all of these pages here, cut all of it so far, and yet this feeling of needed to cut most of what you were reading persisted until the end. In fact, the whole of the reading seemed to be just the prelude to a reading; it pulled you along from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next, and you held on for some reason, never doubting for an instant that the real part of the story would be about to begin; and even when you knew, later on, when it was evidently too late, that there was no real part – when you watched yourself holding on to your role in the reading like an idiotic fool, holding on for the real part to begin when all the time there was never a real part, all the time there was nothing but the reading of the manuscript one word after another, the words being everything, the storyline nothing – you continued to read, I should have told Raf last night, although I was still jet-lagged, if I could call it that, from the experience of reading and writing. It was the most idiotic thing, but you continued to read.
On pages 5-6 of this book you have been warned, this is a book about a book (“not yet a book”) that has no plot, does our book have a plot? It is a book about reading, about writing, a book that is written in long meandering paragraphs, rantings, random thoughts interrupting the train of thought or “plot”, that takes place in the time it takes to walk from home to a café, although the meanderings and thoughts covers years of our narrator’s existence.
This is a unique voice, an infuriating, annoying voice, a young self-centred voice that never shuts up, but that doesn’t mean it is a voice that shouldn’t be heard. The basic premise of the book and the reflections upon a past friendship of somebody who has recently died, as well as the consistent referral to her only true friend, Raf, who she had around for dinner the previous evening, all radiate from this voice, a voice that looks inward at all times, but it is also a voice of somebody who recognises here failings, “it was not so much a friendship as an exploitation”.
We have youthful anorexia, a religious interlude, and all the insecurities and self-doubt of a young person moving towards adulthood. The observations of writing, reading, publishing are scathing in their revelation of best sellers, of struggling to write…
Every time I pass a bookshop that has the latest releases and the latest promotions of fiction in the window, I am never curious about anything that lies inside the pages whose thick white tongues have been spread just a little so that it is plain for all to see that the type has been spaced too much and the book made thicker and heavier than it might have been, and certainly more than what the book – as it appears to me – has necessarily warranted. All the new novels that are published these days are thicker and heavier that the novels themselves would usually warrant. Each of them is thicker and heavier, by virtue of the fact that the pages are thicker than they should have been and the type spaced further apart than it should have been and the cover made thicker than it should have been in the mistaken belief that the worth of a novel is always only equivalent to its thickness and weight and that the more of it you have when you buy it, the more likely you have bought something worthwhile or at least worth the excessive thickness and heaviness that the publisher has made of it.
Our writer is actually addressing herself throughout, not you the reader, as she loops back and forth from the funeral, the wake, her dinner with Raf, her walk to the café, you become more and more engrossed in this part memoir (is it? The character is Jen Craig – previously known as Jenny Craig before a well-known dieting company ruined her life). There is even a dig at the title of the book itself (as we know it also happens to be the title of the mysterious manuscript) it is described as being “rich and suggestive” even though it is simply “the wording of a roadsign that anybody in Sydney would recognize”.
A very clever novel that visits modern media, modern issues, and the everyday mundane, it is also a musing on the art of writing and the pleasure of writing;
This was the way to write, I could see: just cutting to the quick. Sarah’s manuscript was nothing at all – nothing, yes nothing at all, I could have told Raf – but the quick of it was visible everywhere on its pages. There was nothing but quick in the manuscript: quick and quick and quick. This was how I began to write yesterday. And I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember the quick.
A book that Debra Adelaide (also longlisted for the Stella Prize for her book “The Women’s Pages”) describes on the back cover “Jen Craig has the astonishing ability to make us believe she has held every word of the story in her head, then delivered it onto the page in a seamless whole.”

A refreshing change from the standard Australian fiction I have become used to, a unique voice, a style you don’t see too often in this country and a thoroughly enjoyable work. Having said that, it would be some bold judges to award the Prize to this book…. 

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2016 Stella Prize Longlist announcement

Last night I attended the launch party of the Stella Sparks program, an initiative by the Stella Prize to highlight works by female Australian authors, works that have inspired or moved you. The night consisted of seven writers who all spoke of an Australian book that has “sparked” them, and was concluded with the announcement of the 2016 Stella Award Longlist (more on that later).
As the Stella Prize website says:

The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, and championing diversity and cultural change.
The prize is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin, and was awarded for the first time in 2013. Both nonfiction and fiction books by Australian women are eligible for entry.
The Stella Prize seeks to:
  • recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature
  • bring more readers to books by women and thus increase their sales
  • provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers
  • reward one writer with a $50,000 prize – money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence and thus time, that most undervalued yet necessary commodity for women, to focus on their writing

The speaking guests, in order of appearance were:
Carrie Tiffany, the inaugural Stella Prize winner, in 2013, for “Mateship with Birds” who spoke about her connection with Elizabeth Jolley and more specifically the book “Palomino”, a novel she borrowed from the local library aged 15 thinking it was the tale of a horse, only to discover it is a haunting tale of the deep relationship between two women, set in the rural landscape of Western Australia.
Alice Pung, writer of “Unpolished Gem”, “Her Father’s Daughter” and “Laurinda” chose Ruth Park as her “spark”, a writer to “takes the pedestrian folk and turns them into literature.” Park teaching her the importance of character. Her description of Park juggling her writing career and her household duties was one of the anecdotes of the evening.
Next up was the only male presenter, the very successful Andy Griffiths, as he would prefer not to be known purely for his book “The Day My Bum Went Psycho”, I’ll also mention “The 13-Story Treehouse”, “Killer Koalas from Outer Space and Lots of Other Very Bad Stuff that Will Make Your Brian Explode”. He had a number of female influences, but singled out Carmel Bird, not only for being a teacher and a mentor but also for her short story collection “The Woodpecker Toy Fact”.
2014 Stella Prize winner Claire Wright, for her work “The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka”, spoke of her university influences, her time in a shared house where other housemate’s clothes were sacred and her discovery of Anne Summers “Damned Whores and God’s Police” a book that has been updated twice since its publication in 1975, it is a work on the role of women in Australian society.
Celeste Liddle, an Arrernte woman and writer of the “Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist” blog at http://blackfeministranter.blogspot.com.au/chose Robin Klein’s “People Might Hear You” and the messages of entrapment and escape. The “cult” of Klein’s novel bearing stark similarities to her growing up as an aboriginal girl. A passionate and moving presentation indeed.
Singer, best known for her work fronting the indie pop band Frente, Angie Hart was the next presenter, giving a very passionate and moving speech about death and grieving and the lack of any creative output during this time in her life. It took the discovery of Dorothy Parker’s poetry and more specifically the collection “The Bee Hut” and “The Burial” by Courtney Collins to help her through the process of death and grieving.
The presentations ended with 2015 Stella Prize winner, for her novel “The Strays”, Emily Bitto, talking about “The Man Who Loved Children” by Christina Stead. The book making her “want to learn and observe the world”. She also spoke of the edition she owns (cover image above) and the fact that the design has a tea cup, designed for a female audience? And something particularly riling? Jonathan Frazen’s name (as the writer of the introduction) is more prominent and bolder than the writer Christina Stead herself.
Overall a very enjoyable night of well-known writers talking about the female influences, giving any reader a wonderful list of works to hunt down and read to enrich their own lives. May the Stella Award continue to thrive and may they arrange similar events throughout the year, as they are thought provoking, moving, educational, inspiring and of course, enjoyable.
The night concluded with the announcement of the twelve books on the 2016 Stella Prize Longlist (my review of Charlotte Wood’s novel in linked in the listing):

Other reviews will be forthcoming as I own Mireille Juchau’s “The World Without Us”, as the winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and picked up a copy of “Panthers and the Museum of Fire” by Jen Craig at the event itself. Unfortunately I didn’t win the door prize/raffle of the full longlist, it simply means more visits to the bookshops and libraries.

The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood – Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Fiction) & Stella Prize 2016

In 2010 and 2011 the Melbourne media was filled with stories about a “St Kilda Schoolgirl”, a branding courtesy of the news reporters based on the seventeen-year-old having a consensual sexual relationship with the Australian Rules football player, Sam Gilbert from the St Kilda Football club. The media then had an absolute frenzy over her later sexual “relationship” with 47-year-old football player agent Ricky Nixon and the controversy has continued in recent times with the girl in question failing in her court attempts to stop the release of Nixon’s biography.

At the same time the CEO of one of Australia’s largest retailers, David Jones, resigned in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint from a staff member from their marketing department. He walked away with close to a $2 million payout and his statement to the media said:
“At two recent company functions I behaved in a manner unbecoming of the high standard expected of a chief executive officer to a female staff member.
“As a result of this conduct I have offered my resignation to the David Jones board and we have agreed on the mutual termination of my employment with the company, effective immediately.
“As a chief executive officer and as a person I have a responsibility to many, and today I formally acknowledge that I have committed serious errors of judgment and have inexcusably let down the female staff member. I have also let down my partner, my family, all my staff, the board and our shareholders. I apologise to everyone I have let down.
“In resigning immediately it is my hope that I will minimise the impact of my errors of judgment on all and on David Jones, a company I have been proud to be employed by for 13 years and have had the honour of leading for the last 7 years.
“I would like to thank my colleagues for their support during my time with the company. I am very sorry to be leaving in these circumstances and wish all involved with David Jones continued success.
“My partner and I will be overseas for the foreseeable future.”
These are just two examples of the media reports from Australia and I am sure there would be a plethora of similar reports throughout the western world.
But what has that got to do with reviewing books? Recently shortlisted for the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Charlotte Wood’s “The Natural Way of Things” is an allegorical tale that delves deep into the world of sexual misconduct, predator behaviour and the preconceived notions of the male offenders walking away from their actions whilst the women are left to deal with their demons.
Our novel has two protagonists, Verla and Yolanda, who suddenly wake, after being drugged, in a facility where they are forced to wear course modest clothing, have their heads shaved, are marched mercilessly for miles, fed poor rations, drink bore water and sleep in run-down shearer’s cottages, all without talking. What has happened to them? What is their link (there are a number of other girls in the same predicament)? Why are they there? Slowly we leave of each of their pasts, and intern who had an affair with a high ranking politician, a high profile sex case with footballers, is this what links them?
Before dawn she wakes again with the birds. Kookaburras, cockatoos, somewhere far off. Her back aches, she needs desperately to piss. Light seams the door and the window slot, cracks between the iron panels, softly at first, then in sharp bright lines. The room…it is not a room – what is it? A shed, a stall of animals. A kennel with a dirty wooden floor and corrugated-iron walls battened with wood. A kennel bog enough to stand up in, to contain a single iron-framed bed.

This novel is not a comfortable read, as it forces you to confront the everyday preconceptions, bias, humiliation of young women being forced to confront who they are?
What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they could be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.
As I would rather not contain spoilers in my reviews I’ll have to let you read this on your own to know the fate of the girls trapped in remote Australia, with three guards, who also seem to be trapped. This is not the usual style of novel that I read, nor review on my blog, however as it was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2016, I borrowed a copy from my local library and although unlike my usual “eclectic” reads it is a worthwhile novel to read. It raises a number of pertinent points about female sexuality, about male predatory behaviour, about social norms, language. It brought to mind language and the common usage of phrases such as “domestic violence victim”, “sexual assault victim”, instead of “he hit her”, “he raped her”, the female being the “victim” instead of the male being the perpetrator.
Reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s “Room” but with a more hopeless edge, this is a dystopian novel about capture, of being trapped even though you may have escaped, of not being able to find a way out of your own existence, it’s not a case of “where you are” but “who you are”?

As the high profile cases I highlighted in my opening, the men involved in these cases have moved on, and in some cases are making money from their behaviour, whereas the women involved are still harbouring the scars of these men’s behaviour. Put that to an allegorical backdrop and you have Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, a thought provoking and brave novel, one that may not be comfortable to read, but one that would surely elicit a lot of discussion around the book-club tables.

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The Strays – Emily Bitto – Stella Prize 2015, Dublin Literary Award 2016

Today is a National public holiday in Australia, the 26th of January being “Australia Day”, the date marking the arrival of the first fleet into New South Wales and the raising of the British flag at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip. For the indigenous people of this country it is a controversial date, for obvious reasons, and linking the nation to an event in New South Wales as well as to our convict past have also been mooted as reasons to change the date. My blog is dedicated to literature though so I won’t debate the merits of the date here, I’ll simply dedicate this week to Australian books.
The Stella Prize is an annual literary award first established in 2013 for Australian women writers across all genres and gives a $50,000 prize each year. It is named after author Miles Franklin, whose full name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. On 9 February 2016 the longlist for the 2016 Stella Prize will be announced, one of the guest presenters being 2015 Stella Prize winner Emily Bitto.
Melbourne has a very rich art history, and the scene in the 1930’s is described by “Hels” at melbourneblogger.blogspot.com
When Robert Menzies (later Prime Minister) proposed the form­at­ion of an Australian Academy of Art, Melbourne modernists were con­cerned that their departure from conventional artistic practice would be marginalised. Their fears seemed confirmed when Menzies opened the Victorian Artists’ Society show in April 1937 and singled out for attack a wall of modernist paintings. A deb­ate ensued in the press: Adrian Lawlor compiled the resulting copy in a booklet entitled Arquebus. Leaders of the modernist group, inc­lud­ing Lawlor and George Bell, formed the Contemporary Art Society 1938.
Herbert Vere Evatt M.P (later Leader of the Labour Party) be­came involved as an approving observer and occasional public advocate. At an exhibition opening in June 1937 Evatt urged Australian galleries to show more modern paintings. He drew a strong rejoinder from James MacDonald, a cultural conservative who had served as art director in New South Wales before moving to the National Gallery of Victoria; “Australian art galleries simply did not like modern art, and it should not be hung in public at all”, said MacDonald
The novel “The Strays” set in 1930’s Melbourne and more specifically the art scene dabbles into these themes and the politics of “modern” art at the time. From the Prologue we know that our narrator, Lily, and Eva have not seen each other for thirty years, at some stage their relationship had broken down, there was the death and prior to the breakdown the two had a very strong bond. Eva is the daughter of a famous Australian artist Evan Trentham. The novel then moves to Part 1 “The Switchgate” and 1930, where Lily and Eva first meet at primary school and we then learn of their blossoming relationship;
What drew Eva and me together was our shared sense of imagination. Hers were formed form rich materials, mine from poor; hers developed over endless hours in the exotic garden kingdom she inhabited with her sisters, mine over hours alone. But the end result was the same, and each recognised it in the other.
Readers of Elena Ferrente’s Neapolitan Novels will find a very similar relationship here between Eva and Lily, one with a dominant partner;
There is no intimacy as great as that between young girls. Even between lovers, who cross boundaries we are accustomed to thinking of as the furthest territories of closeness, there is a constant awareness of separateness, the wonder at the fact that the loved one is distinct, whole, with a past and a mind housed behind the eyes we gaze into that exist, inviolate, without us. It is the lack of such wonder that reveals the depth of intimacy in that first chaste trial marriage between girls.
Chaste, and yet fiercely physical. Eva and I were draped constantly about each other’s bodies. We brushed one another’s hair. We sniffed each other’s armpits and open mouths and nodded if they were free from staleness and sweat. We lay about the garden, one head on the other’s stomach. We became blood sisters, pricking our fingers solemnly with a pearl-ended hat pin and pressing the red seed pearls of blood that sprang out of the dainty wounds against each other, grinding them together to that the mingled blood would squeeze back in to the tight-walled body and we would be part, each, of the other. We lay on the sun bed after school and took turns at tickling one another’s arms, running our fingertips as lightly as possible over the skin so that goosebumps rose up and a delicious shiver ran down the arm and along the spine.
Very much like Lila in Ferrente’s works we have Eva setting the agenda, even though there is the influence of the art movement parents. The art commune and bohemian lifestyle all comes to life with Bitto’s clear prose, the 1930’s art scene in Melbourne as clear as if I was reading a history of the modern school at the time. Through the junior years we move to a coming of age story, from childhood to adulthood:
She’s leaving me behind, I thought. I felt tricked. With Eva, I had given no thought to the world of adulthood that awaited us. But she had crossed some secret threshold while I was facing the other way, absorbed still by the childish fantasies she had cultivated for us: our talk of travelling the world together; of having a salon in Paris or on the Riviera, where all the famous writers and artists were; of becoming artists ourselves, marrying exotic European strangers and always living close to one another; of how, when our husbands died, we would move together into a great crumbling mansion and be visited by amazing people from around the world. Now, I saw so clearly that all of that had been a silly game. She had a lover, presumably, while I did not even truly know what this vague and glamourous term entailed. She had become a woman, with no thought to warn me that I should be packing away my own childhood, dismantling it piece by piece like a rotten tree house, and preparing myself for the new world.

Whilst a novel with a “mystery”, the death revealed in the prologue, this work is primarily about female relationships, single girls, relationships with their own mother and other’s mothers, motherhood and the female bond that entails. A book that works on a number of levels and a fine addition to the Dublin Literary Award longlist. As a debut novel I look forward to reading more of Emily Bitto’s works in coming years and am looking forward to hearing her speak in a couple of weeks at the 2016 Stella Prize Longlist announcement – I am hoping that there is at least one indigenous work on the list, fingers crossed.

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