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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Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2016

This evening in Melbourne the winners of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were announced.
There was a decent prize pool on offer with each winner receiving $25,000 and each going on to contest the Victorian Prize for Literature worth a further $100,000. There was also a People’s Choice Award worth a further $2,000.
The Winners are as follows:
The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury) – Earlwood, NSW
Something for the Pain by Gerald Murnane (Text Publishing) – Goroke, Vic
Broken by Mary Anne Butler (Currency Press) – Rapid Creek, NT
Crankhandle by Alan Loney (Cordite) – Malvern East, Vic (my review here)
Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward (Xoum Publishing) – Brunswick West, Vic
Broken by Mary Anne Butler (Currency Press) – Rapid Creek, NT
Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson (Scribe Publications) – Brunswick, Vic
For my post on all the shortlisted works go here.

I will be back with a review of the shortlisted novel The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin) tomorrow.

The Guardians – Lucy Dougan – Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Poetry) 2016 – WA Premier’s Literary Award (Poetry) 2016

Tomorrow night sees the winners of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, a very handy $25,000 for each category, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Drama, Poetry and Young Adult writing with a bonus $100,000 available for the winners of each category as they go on to contest the Victorian Prize for Literature. I’ve personally cast my vote in the “People’s Choice Award” with the winner getting a bonus $2,000 – for local writers this prize pool is a great incentive.

The third, and final one, I read from the poetry collection on the shortlist is “The Guardians” by Lucy Dougan. Another free verse collection on the shortlist, something very different from the Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlist, where rhyme came to the fore in a number of collections.
From the opening poem we can see the theme of “memory”, will that pervade throughout. “The Mask” is about childhood and an old trunk taken from a room below the bedroom, it contains a linen mask, probably made by her great grandmother, all of this taking place in a home that no longer exists. The further you dig, the deeper the memory, the further you find the roots of the family tree, whether the home construction exists any longer there is still the bond of family, of memory.
Atavism crops up here as it did in the title of the short story collection I recently reviewed by Raymond Bock theme of reverting back to the ancestral type, a throwback, is our poet here feline as she shares a meal with her cat?
Along with memory the natural world is another theme throughout, with humanity having its back turned on the wonders all around us. The poem “The Mice” is about the wild stretch of “land by the river” where her pet mice were released to fend for themselves, a place full of childhood memories, a place largely ignored by everybody else.
Inanimate objects and the memories they evoke is also a recurring theme, to an outsider objects such as shoes are simply shoes, to the poet they are memories of a graveyard, sunlight, reading, or swapping a book for a pair of shoes. This brought back to myself the exhibition at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, “The Hidden History of Things” by Amelia Ducker and Fiorella Cordella, where a glass display cabinet in a bric-a-brac bazaar was displayed with items all on offer to a new owner. Each item had a story attached, for example the books came from a house where the artist used to holiday with friends, once the house was repossessed the items all had to go somewhere else – a book to me, a history to the artist. There was a necklace from her husband, a pressed flower from a book, a hat that was given as a gift but didn’t fit. The realisation that the everyday has a history.
The Forge
The women in these suburbs
flirt with the man who cuts keys, fixes heels.
They can’t help being won over
by the light that glowers at his shop-front.
Too sure of himself by half
my mother would say.
He dyes his hard unflatteringly dark.
Once I took him shoes,
a second-hand pair.
God, love, he asked,
what have you been doing in these?
I laugh at the histories I could invent
for these strangers – sleep-walking, bacchic dance.
I laugh and say nothing
as he hands me the little green slip.
But I don’t go back for a long, long time
(life more ruptured than the wreck
of shoes I handed him, impossible to unlock).
Where have you been darl?
(if I could click my heels).
It’s a story I cannot tell –
what kept me from redeeming
something fixed.
At night the women in these suburbs
unlock their doors
with keys fashioned
by the man at the kiosk.
They kick off their shoes
shiny and re-heeled.
They smile without quite knowing
how the man with the dark, dark hair
has eased his way into their smallest secret places,
snug in the palm, firm at the ankle.
And I chide myself gently
for not telling him the story of the book
I swapped for shoes
or why I had been away so long.
Section 2 moves to England with the recurring image of foxes, a visit to the “Tate Modern” where art has been reduced to merchandise and “Keep Calm” magnets and a musing on “Kenwood House”, the memory of the Jacobeans, of Donne and Shakespeare, or their wives, of Coleridge and apothecaries.
The poem “The Ties My Sister Makes”, again, focuses on the inanimate, men’s silk neckties coming to the fore;
My sister’s ties
will be dispatched about the world,
their underwater silvers and greens
flashing in the dark aquariums of shop windows.
We return, very much, to Australia with the poem “Fritz” with the memory of awaking in a campsite with the smell of wood smoke and a view of the wallabies.
Section 3 opens with a series of poems reflecting on failing health, chemotherapy, radiology and lumps, but this is no wallowing in self-pity, it is a celebration of life.
More of a celebration of life that Peter Rose’s collection “The Subject of Feeling”, more melancholy than Alan Loney’s “Crankhandle”, a very assured and enjoyable collection celebrating our surroundings, the majesty in being alive, the memory of the inanimate, a collection to be revisited time and time again, these are poems to muse over.
A nice sister piece to the 2015 Stella Prize Winner, Emily Bitto’s “The Strays” as the themes of motherhood, being female, sister’s bonds, the protection (a hug) from a male lover, and craft-work all to the fore.

Overall a very enjoyable shortlist from the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award with each of the poetry collections being worthy of first prize, personally I rank them “Crankhandle”, then “The Guardians” and finally “The Subject of Feeling” although to see any win would not surprise me and that is not your usual shortlist reading, with generally one or two works falling short of expectations, not here, all poetry collections worthwhile adding to your collections.

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The Subject of Feeling – Peter Rose – Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Poetry) 2016

“Poetry”…what a large genre/style of literature to be captured in a single word. The Oxford dictionary tells us; “ (n) – Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature:” So what takes your fancy when reading poetry? Is it an art form that requires you to be learned in the art?
When reading Peter Rose’s “The Subject of Feeling”, it would appear as though a background in poetry is almost a prerequisite. Rose, the editor of Australian Book Review, previously the publisher at Oxford University Press in the 1990’s, novelist, winner of the Queensland Literary Award and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for ‘Crimson Crop” (published in 2012 by UWA Publishing, the same publisher as this collection) is a man steeped in literary knowledge.
This collection has literary references galore throughout, Beckett, Pinter, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Bishop (the poem “The Fish”), Frank Wilmot (the poem The Victoria Markets Recollected in Tranquillity”), art references, Titian’s painting “The Vendramin Family Venerating a Relic of the True Cross”, music references through Maria Callas and conductor Jeffrey Tate.  And these references all happen before the section “Twenty-Five New Poems in the Catullan Rag”, a “continuing series of satires in the style of Catullus, the Roman elegist and love poet.”
The collection opens with a very clever and thought provoking “Twenty Questions after Donald Justice” and moves to section I and “Impromptu”, the very Australian image of a swooping magpie;
Moments ago, back from the library
and the noisy, populous park
(that shrill of infantocracy),
I was entering our building when
a magpie swooped – taut dart of surprise.
Day too blithe for amour-propre,
I grinned at the bird, but it was sharp,
implacable, bobbing on the wall like
a boxer in a ring. He would do it again,
and the next time he would aim closer
(that much I knew) –
no veering taunt this time.
For us older folk, the memories of childhood come rushing back vividly through the image of schoolyard incinerators, Derwents, maps, explorers, personally my pre-school days came straight back to me through a single poem “Pinewood”.
A collection steeped in memory and very Australian ones at that, with trips up the Hume Highway (the major road that connects Melbourne and Sydney), the heat of the Mallee (a flat low lying area in North West Victoria – although the definition of the region is somewhat loose), the gnarled hands of the locals, Collingwood Football Club (a much followed Australian Rules Football Team that is the team you either love or hate, black and white their colours and their nickname is the Magpies). With these references thrown on top of the literary ones I could imagine this collection would be hard to decipher for overseas readers.
Although the memory theme is prominent throughout other life events, wheelchairs, paralysis, hospitalisation, and although a book filled with humorous daily observations it is also a very personal journey. The poems taking place in recollection, without the immediacy of the present moment, poems that have evolved as the poet muses over life’s significant events and recollections.
One and on it goes:
self-flagellation followed by recrimination.
The earlier sections very much Australian in theme and subject matter, even more specifically Victorian, with the last section “Twenty-Five New Poems in the Catullan Rag” a contemporary Australian satire on the poems of Catullus (for an online collection of these poems go here), the majority raising a wry smile on my face;
I won’t have it, Suffenus.
Stop lying to your go-go girls,
those dizzy flatterers in the brothel.
It’s not true what you say – it never was.
Catullus may despise you
but he’s never done you an actual injury.
Who took you to Casualty
when you passed out at the discothèque –
who pulled you out of the hedge
when you fell off your bicycle?
Suffenus appears in Catullus’ poems, a bad poet, over rating his own work, a poet who never revises, and Pose has taken this to another level, partying, an audience of admirers who work in brothels, a buffoon.
Again, an understanding of Catullus’ works is probably a pre-requisite here, however I have no background in his poetry and with a little research was able to add more substance to the twenty-five poems, although I am sure a deeper knowledge would allow a better understanding of the satire on show here.

Another fine collection that has made it onto the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for 2016, following on from my reading of “Crankhandle” by Alan Loney. I will finalise my reviews of the Poetry shortlist for this 2016 Award with a review of Lucy Dougan’s “The Guardians” later this week.

Crankhandle: Notebooks November 2010- June 2012 – Alan Loney – Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2016 (Poetry)

As pointed out late last month the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award shortlists were announced in early December and I will attempt (postage pending) to read and review the poetry shortlist before the winners are announced on 28 January 2016.
Starting off with Alan Loney’s “Crankhandle: Notebooks November 2010 – June 2012”.  It is the latest part of an ongoing Notebook series, with Sidetracks; Notebooks 1976 – 1991 being published by Auckland University Press in 1998 and the longer unpublished section Melbourne Journal: Notebooks 1998-2003 fitting in between the two published works.   
We have a preface by the poet and an introduction by Michael Farrell to open this slim book, before you suddenly notice a meticulous attention to “visual design”, as our introduction points out, “this is not an aesthetic concern only, but one that enables reading: lucid aspect as well as articulated ‘cry’.”
Our ‘poem” or Notebook is primarily about the craft of writing, the mechanics, the creation, the fact that ‘a book’ becomes ‘a public place.
Writing as performance – not as theatre, or anything
acted out for another, nothing that can be seen by
anyone else – but the act of scribbling, or scrawling
marks on paper, independently of any semantic
reference or attempt to ‘tell a story’ or inform or
persuade or move – as a straightforward function
of the body that can be done well or badly – and
independently of intention or expectation or
nature or the politics of result
The placement and creation of wordscapes in evident from the first pages:
utterance = saying something                                     stutterance = not saying something
poetry = utterenace&stutterance                             revealing/concealing
As a collection of observances and awareness of current time and place the periphery plays an important role, words are signs, as you read you are frequently outside of yourself. This is a word sculpture, featuring double, or parallel texts, italics, open parenthesis with no closing, blank spaces of contemplation. So much so I could actually visualise this work on the walls of a stark open gallery, the thoughts, or notes, scribbled in various places throughout the space.
‘underworld’ = all the world one cannot see
or experience at any moment
‘peripheral vision’ = edges of the underworld
hem of the underworld
As I mentioned in the opening, this is a very slim work, however as Michael Farrell says in his “Introduction” (this also appearing on the back cover), ‘Crankhandleis a conceptually thick book, a book of thought, or as Frost might say, a book of ‘thinks’, that challenges writing’s potential triviality on a word-by-word basis.’
As previously mentioned there are open parenthesis throughout, alluding to a thought, a fragment that is “without end”, as we are told “the mind’s a graveyard”. But let’s not forget;
the poem as the last
unparaphraseable chunk
of language left to us
all the words
in all the tongues
from all the times
from every place
piled up in a heap
before you
you will make
of them
As you can see from these brief excerpts, the sections of this work are made of simple instantaneous moments, fragments, do they build to a cohesive whole? As our writer points out, all we have are moments, fragments, do they make a whole? A meditation on our environment and capturing that moment in writing, small vignettes, epigrams (speaking of which the writing system features in the epigram to this book), notes??? Food for thought? – yes. 
The book finishes with the ‘poem’ “& another thing” a three and a half page musing on writing continuing on from the larger “Crankhandle”, as though the art of creation, the written word is not restricted to a simple space, it leaks over;
do I
merely copy words down, another
Bartleby, who’d prefer to do
nothing else with is time
with his body
while the notebook
lies open and waiting for all the words
of the world to drop, like this unexpected
onto the page
I know a few Melville and Enrique Vila-Matas fans who would find that quote quite pertinent.
This is more than a book of poetry, it is a creation, sculpture, mulling on the transient nature of language, the written word, the printed word, (the Crankhandle of the title alluding to a printing press?) As our writer points out:
I a no possible poet of
place, and no longer care
what others think poets ought
to be doing

A revelation, a work to be revisited and mulled over many many times, as the publication alludes to, it is “without end”. Personally a highlight of my Australian poetry reading of the last few months and in my mind a substantially more important and enjoyable holistic work than any on the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist (I know they are from different years!!!) and that points to it being a serious contender for the gong at the awards night later this month, and then possibly the Prime Minister’s Award at the end of the year.
Source – Personal Copy – you can purchase the book direct from the publisher here.

Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016 Shortlists

I may be a few weeks late with this announcement, however coverage of Australian writers is something I should address more frequently so I’m not going to let this one slip through to the keeper. On 7 December the Victorian Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley, announced the 21 works that have been shortlisted for the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
Like the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, I have purchased the poetry nominees and will review them here in due course, unlike the Prime Minister’s Award there are a few weeks to actually read the works, with the winners to be announced on 28 January 2016.
There is a decent prize pool on offer with each winner receiving $25,000 and them going on to contest the Victorian Prize for Literature worth a further $100,000. There is also a People’s Choice Award worth a further $2,000.
Amazingly my local library has all of the fiction nominees, all of the non-fiction nominees, two of the three young adult titles (“Welcome to Orphancorp” by Marlee Jane Ward being the missing title), none of the drama or poetry nominees, looks like those forms of writing are the poor cousins indeed, given my library is located where one of the poetry nominees, Alan Loney, resides.
  • Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson (Scribe Publications) – Brunswick, Vic
  • The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop (Hachette) – Springwood, NSW
  • Clade by James Bradley (Penguin) – Darlington, NSW
  • Forever Young by Steven Carroll (HarperCollins) – Brunswick East, Vic
  • The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury) – Earlwood, NSW
  • The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin) – Marrickville, NSW

Highly commended: Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight (Random House Australia), The Mothers by Rod Jones (Text Publishing) and Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić (Transit Lounge Publishing)
  • Modern Love: The Lives of John and Sunday Reed by Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan (MUP) – North Fitzroy, Vic, and Fitzroy, Vic
  • Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather by Karen Lamb (UQP) – Dulwich Hill, NSW
  • Australia’s Second Chance by George Megalogenis (Penguin) – North Caulfield, Vic
  • Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska (Knopf) – Birchgrove, NSW
  • Something for the Pain by Gerald Murnane (Text Publishing) – Goroke, Vic
  • Mannix by Brenda Niall (Text Publishing) – Deepdene, Vic

Highly commended: Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami (Hardie Grant Books) and Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Mortido by Angela Betzien (Currency Press) – St Peters, NSW
  • Broken by Mary Anne Butler (Currency Press) – Rapid Creek, NT
  • SHIT by Patricia Cornelius (Melbourne Theatre Company) – Thornbury, Vic

Highly commended: I am a Miracle by Declan Greene
  • The Guardians by Lucy Dougan (Giramondo Publishing) – East Victoria Park, Vic
  • Crankhandle by Alan Loney (Cordite) – Malvern East, Vic
  • The Subject of Feeling by Peter Rose (UWA Publishing) – Melbourne, Vic

Highly commended: Happiness by Martin Harrison (UWA Publishing)
  • Sister Heart by Sally Morgan (Fremantle Press) – Bicton, WA
  • A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay (Walker Books Australia) – Hamilton Hill, WA
  • Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward (Xoum Publishing) – Brunswick West, Vic

Highly commended: Illuminae by Aimee Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin) and Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison (Magabala Books)
Stay tuned (postage pending) for my reviews of the poetry nominees. I am on the road soon until late January but hopefully I’ll have time to get the reviews and my thoughts up here before the awards on 28 January 2016.