Hope Farm, A Guide to Berlin, Between a Wolf and a Dog and other awarded lit fiction

hope-farmAward long and short lists continue to showcase our excellent Australian contemporary literature, much of which is written by female authors. Peggy Frew’s superlative Hope Farm (Scribe) has just been longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin Literary award and this year has already been longlisted for the Indie Book award and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Stella Prize, Australian Book Designers’ award and won the Barbara Jefferis award.

Hope Farm is narrated by thirteen-year old Silver who lives a peripatetic life, moving each time her mother Ishtar’s relationship breaks down. They follow Miller from warm Queensland to freezing Victoria but the situation becomes inflammatory.

An unnamed character’s point of view is revealed in notebooks. These entries describe a naïve, poorly educated young woman who falls pregnant and is cast out of her family, taking refuge in an ashram.

The descriptions of the Australian bush are tactile and inspired. The sense of dread is perfectly crafted. The character of Silver is portrayed as longing, awkward and yet knowing, as befits a girl with vulnerable and disrupted life experiences.

berlinAnother outstanding work of literary fiction still being nominated for awards this year is A Guide to Berlin (Penguin Random House Australia) by Gail Jones.

Protagonist Cass meets regularly with five other foreigners in Berlin who share their lives through story. The writing is exquisite. There are references throughout to the work of Vladimir Nabokov who “likened the bishop’s move (in chess) to a torchlight, scanning in the dark, swinging into angles”. There are butterfly motifs and exploration of rich words used by Nabokov such as “lemniscate” – the shape of infinity; “conchometrist” – one who measures the curves of seashells and “drisk” – a drizzly European rain. The novel’s title also comes from a short story by Nabokov. The beautifully crafted insights remind me that I need to re-read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game.

A Guide to Berlin has been shortlisted for the 2016 NSW Premier’s awards, longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, ABIA awards and the Sisters in Crime 2016 Davitt award. In October it won the 2016 Colin Roderick Award.

housesTwo other acclaimed books, which I applaud for their fine writing, are The Life of Houses (Giramondo) by Lisa Gorton (which jointly won the 2016 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction with Charlotte’s Woods’ The Natural Way of Things – reviewed here), and Between a Wolf and a Dog (Scribe) by Georgia Blain (which has just been shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction and won the 2016 Qld Literary Award for Fiction).

Like Hope Farm, The Life of Houses is a dual narrative, one strand of which is from the viewpoint of a teenage girl, Kit. Her mother, Anna, is a most unlikeable character.

Georgia Blain’s writing in Between a Wolf and a Dog has a sparkling clarity and beauty. It addresses euthanasia. It is devastating that this gifted writer has just been felled by cancer. wolf

Between them these books have won and been long and shortlisted for many awards. We no doubt have a surfeit of fine Australian contemporary female writers of literary fiction.

Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska

Second Half FirstDrusilla Modjeska’s memoir Second Half First (Random House Australia) reads as excellent literary fiction. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading fact rather than absorbing fiction. The author moves in exalted literary circles; making friends at university who have gone on to become lecturers, and socialising and travelling with literary friends of the ilk of Helen Garner, Robyn Davidson, Hazel Rowley, Gail Jones, Lynne Segal and author/illustrator and former Children’s Laureate, Alison Lester.

Man who loved chn

 

Modjeska tells us how she interviewed the seminal author, Christina Stead but, after an interview at the 2009 SWF with her friend Robert Dessaix she doesn’t believe went well, she hasn’t conducted another public interview. 2009 wasn’t a good year for her, though.

Modjeska structures her story by writing about the second half first, beginning with the breakup with her husband on the night before she turned forty. She writes using images of veils and mirrors from visual art, a field she knows well. She was inspired by artist Janet Laurence’s thoughts about, “A way of looking within the world rather than at it… What do we see when a veil falls?” to write, “What do we see if the layers open and we step between the veils into the hidden, or partly hidden places … veils …  occlusions and opacities”. Her traumatic breakup precipitated a new life and vision.

MountainBecause Modjeska is writing about real life, she ponders what is fair to reveal about people she knows and what the repercussions might be. Some of her settings are also indelible. The Sydney Enmore house that she shared with friends, including Helen Garner, and which was the setting for generous, informal gatherings and inspired writing; and the times and travel in Papua New Guinea, which readers of her remarkable novel The Mountain, would have already shared, are seared into my memory. The collection of cloth from a remote mountain village in PNG also raised questions about integrity. Should the cloth be taken and sold overseas to provide money for the Omie people or could the exposure this caused create more problems? Modjeska also comments on Manus Island and the co-existence of Christianity and traditional practices.

Issues such as how different cultures raise boys into men; feminism, spilling into how males and females may be treated differently – including the reception to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “hundreds of pages on the frustrations of not getting to the books he would be writing if he weren’t in the supermarket aisle with a stroller” and the skewed response by a journalist writing about “childlessness by choice” who only interviewed females and ignored suggestions of males such as David Malouf and David Marr.

OrchardDrusilla Modjeska’s other books include Poppy, The Orchard and Stravinsky’s Lunch, which I have long wanted to read.