Monday, May 24, 2010

The Miles Franklin Shortlist: and the winner is..?

The Miles Franklin literary award is Australia's most famous, as well as being its most controversial. This year one shortlisted author, Alex Miller, received headlines when he offered the quite reasonable observation that Kevin Rudd's new 'Prime Ministers Award' was a mistake, and that the substantial prize money on offer could have been better spent bolstering the preeminent and far more prestigious Miles Franklin.

Apart from the fakery wrought by the dreadful Helen Darville in 1994 when her The Hand That Signed the Paper, supposedly written by one Helen Demidenko, caused a critical and media sensation, most of the controversy and debate over the years has been caused by the stipulation in Franklin's will that the entries explore 'Australian life in any of its phases'. This has worked to exclude many brilliant novels written by Australians that were simply ineligible because their settings were not specifically Australian (eg. The Book Thief; Dog Boy).

This year's shortlist is presented above, and what an extraordinary dilemma it presents the judges.

Who's likely to win? Let's discuss:

Sonya Hartnett's Butterfly has no chance at all. It's barely an adult novel, Hartnett still tethered, seemingly, to her Young Adult origins.

Deborah Forster's disturbing The Book of Emmett is a powerful portrayal of a cruel and stunted husband and father, and the emotional wreckage he visits upon his working class family. It's hard to believe this first novel hasn't sprung from the author's personal experience. It reads like a gut-wrenching memoir, visceral and raw.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is a truly remarkable, very mature book by a young novelist which has been called Australia's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. I absolutely loved this novel and predict it will become a much read and discussed one for many years to come. It is so rich in character, story, drama and humour that it's very hard to put down. It could have been even better, an instant Australian classic, pushing Cloudstreet off its pedestal, if only a gifted structural editor had got hold of it and addressed its one big flaw: its main characters get off too lightly. Justice is not allowed its relentless course, and there needed to be a major tragedy - all the ingredients were there. Then it would have been superb.

Alex Miller has won the Miles Franklin twice in the past, in 1993 and 2003. Will Lovesong be his third? In a word, no. It's a great book but is pulled off the top rung by a fairly insipid ending. There's a real lack of resolution.

So it's down to Peter Temple's Truth or Brian Castro's Bath Fugues, both truly great works of art, but soooo far apart on the literary spectrum. One popular, the other utterly inaccessible. Truth is crime fiction at its best, brilliantly written and conceived. But will the judges award it our preeminent literary prize? Or will they opt for a highly literary work by an accomplished Australian master?

I was determined to read Bath Fugues because I needed to read all the shortlisted entries in order to pick a winner, or subsequently condemn or otherwise the judges' choice. (Last year's choice, Tim Winton's Breath, left me speechless. It was the same old, lightweight piece of surfer-boy flim flam that's Winton's traditional line of load).

Three-quarters of the way through Castro's longish book I still hadn't got into it and it was annoying me intensely. I scribbled these notes to myself: 'clogged with writerly indulgence - the meandering reflections of his self-obsessed main characters'; 'what narrative there is gets utterly buried in a sort of faux-philosophical Montaigne/Baudelaire mud'; 'hard work - but it doesn't pay off'; 'constant undisciplined digressions'.

But by the time I'd finished the third part of this three-part novel, I realised what was going on and it had finally got to me. There's no doubt this is a complex, very difficult piece of work, sort of like the poetry of Ezra Pound. It's a hard slog, highly intellectual and with little emotional power. But in the end....quite a magnificent achievement, rich with meditations on decay, art, beauty, youth and sex. Very few readers will have the patience to read it, and it will certainly not be a popular win if it gets up. But it could be Castro's time.

So Castro or Temple. Back both. The decision will be announced June 22.

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