A reader's guide to the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

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September 03, 2017 08:00:00

Between “pretty dead girls”, real history and a crotchety retired professor who finds his humanity — it’s a tight contest for this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Named after the author of My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin, each year the accolade is granted to a work of fiction that depicts “Australian life in any of its phases”.

The winner will receive $60,000, presented on September 7, at the State Library of New South Wales.

So which authors, and books, have made the shortlist this year?

Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident

Emily Maguire puts an act of sexual violence at the centre of this novel: a young woman, Bella, is raped and murdered. But Maguire’s novel is far from just another sensationalist account of violence against women.

Instead, it critiques the media’s obsession with “pretty dead girls” and explores the impact of Bella’s death on her community — particularly on her sister Chris.

Chris is the kind of character Maguire excels at portraying: a woman who likes sex, has regrets, but won’t be anyone’s fool.

Her point of view helps makes this novel something unexpected and memorable.

Mark O’Flynn, The Last Days of Ava Langdon

The Last Days of Ava Langdon is loosely based on the life of Australian author Eve Langley, best known for her 1942 autobiographical novel The Pea Pickers, who died alone in a hut in the Blue Mountains in 1974.

Like Langley, in this book Ava Langdon lives alone in a Blue Mountains hut and has changed her name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde.

The novel follows Ava as she treks into Katoomba post office, to send yet another unintelligible manuscript to her publisher and to do her grocery shopping. She wears a pith helmet and carries a machete, but passers-by are more likely to be harangued by her tongue than the machete. While she is consumed by her art, she has at times lost her hold on reality, which again, echoes the last years of the real Eve Langley.

The novel is an affectionate portrait of a lone woman, a figure not often explored in fiction — and Mark O’Flynn has created a delightfully eccentric character, who echoes the excesses and interests of the real Eve Langley.

You’ll wish you had a bit more time in her company.

Ryan O’Neill, Their Brilliant Careers

Across 16 biographies of fictional authors, Ryan O’Neill invites the reader to laugh at the failings and revel in the excesses of some of Australia’s greatest writers.

In doing so, he has crafted a neat critique of our real history.

This series of short biographies is slowly revealed as a linked collection of stories, giving up their secrets to the attentive reader. But while those with a degree in literature will probably get more out of the book, that’s never at the cost of the story, and there’s a playful humour that will keep even the most casual reader engaged.

Some jokes have an immediate pay-off; others take the entire book to reach the punchline, but are worth the wait.

From bush poetry to the history wars, O’Neill pushes the slightly absurd to its extreme limits. But it’s his clear fondness for the authors and the literature that he references, that makes the book a success.

Philip Salom, Waiting

Philip Salom published his first collection of poetry in 1980, and now has 14 poetry collections to his name and three novels.

His latest novel Waiting explores the lives of two couples who are waiting for something to happen in their lives.

Big and Little live in a rooming house in North Melbourne. Big is, well … big. He’s a cross-dressing, former station cook in his 60s who’s partnered with Little, formerly Agnes, who had a nervous breakdown and left Adelaide where she was raised. The other couple is landscape gardener Angus and semiotics lecturer Jasmine.

As Salom writes, “the lonely meet sometimes, compatibility is indeed a strange thing”.

What are they all waiting for? Little is waiting for her mother’s death to find out if she’ll inherit her house. Big is waiting for this too, but for a different reason: he’s worried it will disrupt his life in the rooming house. It’s his home after all.

Angus and Jasmine are waiting for their relationship to become something more, as they come together at different points to learn about each other.

The characters Big and Little are the stars of this novel. Salom has rendered their rooming house life with tenderness, and without sentimentality or pity. The novel is poetic and lyrical, with a humorous bent.

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions

This is a witty and heartfelt story about crotchety Frederick Lothian, a retired professor of engineering.

Fred was once a world expert on concrete. Now, he is 69 — so, not that old. Nevertheless, he has cloistered himself in a retirement village. In his tiny unit, he can scarcely move for mementoes of his dead wife and his old existence. He can’t go back. But nor can he bear to commit to the new life he has chosen: because the next stop is death.

However, Fred doesn’t count on the persistence of Jan, the very sensible woman who lives next-door. She cheerily ignores Fred’s anti-social grumbles and helps him to see himself with a bit more love and clarity. She also makes him face up to his own failings towards his abandoned son, Callum.

The story ends with the hope that Fred has freed himself from the emotional aridity of his old academic habits, and has discovered a little about living, loving and make commitments to people of flesh and blood.

The book is beautifully written. Its emotional terrain will register most effectively with older readers. A younger judging panel would look elsewhere for a winner. But this is a judging panel in which four of the five judges are over 50.

So grumpy Fred is in with a chance.

An interview with the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award will air on RN’s Books and Arts, on Friday, September 8, at 10:05am.

Topics:

books-literature,

fiction,

awards-and-prizes,

australia



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