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.

Clade, still being shortlisted for awards …

I have been keen to read James Bradley’s Clade since hearing about it pre-publication. James Bradley has come through the ranks of exciting Australian authors-to-watch after great responses to his novels Wrack and The Resurrectionist. I adored his novella Beauty’s Sister, a memorable retelling of Rapunzel.

cladeHis most recent novel, the dystopia Clade, is still being nominated for awards, most recently the 2016 Western Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction. It has also been shortlisted for the Christina Stead Award for Fiction  at the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards Prize for Fiction; Australia’s oldest literary award, the ALG Gold Medal; and the Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

The cover with its image of bees in a surreal hexagon sets the tone for a slightly futuristic setting where bees are at risk (as they are in many places already). Climate change has caused disasters such as blizzards and flooding, leading to the disappearance of birds, crop failures, power cuts and overcrowded hospitals.

Adam and Ellie become a couple and eventually give birth to Summer. Ellie and Summer spend fractious times with Maddie, Ellie’s stepmother at Maddie’s beach house. This setting also epitomises the natural world.

beautyThe author employs time-shifts, moving between Summer as a young girl, a teen who sneaks into houses and as a young mother of Noah who is on the autism spectrum.

A pivotal scene occurs when Adam plans to attend a conference in London but instead finds Summer and Noah, his unknown grandchild. Summer feels that she can’t deal with Noah. The three generations of family flee from the approaching storm, avoid soldiers and roadblocks, shelter in a church and an apartment and are able to escape the fate of the thousands of people killed in the flood.

Themes of aging, life cycles, death, grief and erasure of the past complement the major issue of the effects of climate change. The analogy of ‘boiling the frog’ is used to represent people’s slow response to gradual change. People don’t seem able to think clearly because they are caught up in falling from one disaster to the next.

Sci fi elements include genetically engineered trees known as ‘triffids’ that resemble baobabs.  People use ‘overlays’ to communicate as well as screens. resurrectionist

The writing moves quickly without being superficial. It is engaging and lean yet also poetic.

Clade is an ideal Christmas gift, appealing to those who would appreciate an important story, beautifully told.

Author James Bradley is a literary critic for the Weekend Australian and blogs at City of Tongues.