New Australian Fiction with Young Australians: Six Bedrooms and Relativity

Some of the most beguiling writing for adults features young characters. I touched on this when I reviewed Joan London’s The Golden Age in January. http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/the-golden-age-where-children-are-gold/2015/01 This book has recently been awarded the 2015 Kibble Award. Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi also has a young adult protagonist, as does Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Eimear McBride’s winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and other prestigious awards, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Many other well-regarded adult books focus on young characters.Golden Age

It is, however, of concern that some industry professionals and others have a lesser view of YA and children’s books than of those from the adult list. I addressed this in my interview with James Patterson (who has the opposite view) for Magpies Magazine https://www.magpies.net.au/current-issue/ (July 2015):

‘Adult books often receive bigger prize money for book awards than children’s books; adult books are positioned at the front of bookstores while the children’s bookshelves are at the back (there are some exceptions); and publicists from publishing companies tend to accompany adult authors at writers’ festivals (once again, there are exceptions), while most children’s authors and illustrators are expected to fend for themselves, which they do very capably. And, even though blogging about books is growing, there is generally diminishing space in the mainstream media to report on children’s book news and review children’s books, although we must acknowledge those few journalist, editor and media heroes who support children’s literature and literacy.’

Five on a Treasure IslandIt was affirming to view ABC TV’s The Book Club in June where guest Alan Cumming selected Enid Blyton’s Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island as the classic book of the month. The discussion was animated, with the panel in positive agreement and revealing surprising depths in this book. So a children’s book was one of The Book Club’s high points. And the writing quality of much children’s and YA literature has improved exponentially since Blyton’s time. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s4229132.htm

Relativity

Two new Australian titles for adults feature young Australians. In Antonia Hayes’s novel, Relativity (Penguin/Viking), Ethan is navigating the end of childhood and adolescence. It is more difficult for him than most due to anomalies in his personality and mind. He is absorbed by science and ostracised by his peers. Although he resembles his father in many ways, they have not seen each other for years until Mark returns to Sydney from WA to see his own father on his deathbed. Something happened in Ethan’s infancy to rupture this family.

Tegan Bennett Daylight’s, Six Bedrooms (Vintage, Random House) is an absorbing volume of short stories. Like Relativity, it also touches on estranged families. The writing is fresh and vulnerable, raising the often-forgotten experiences and memories from youth into crystallised vignettes.

Six BedroomsReading many of the stories in Six Bedrooms is like reading YA. The concerns, themes and style are similar. It explores friendship, boyfriends, tortured and other family relationships, parental influence on children, body image, identity and finding ways to navigate the world. Felicity Plunkett reviewed it insightfully for the Weekend Australian http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/tegan-bennett-daylights-short-stories-reflect-pivot-into-adulthood/story-fn9n8gph-1227425621590.

Some sophisticated Australian YA which matches (or exceeds) the quality of our fiction for adults include Girl Defective by Simmone Howell, The Three Loves of Persimmon by Cassandra Golds, The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, This is Shyness by Leanne Hall, Into White Silence by Anthony Eaton, Wildlife by Fiona Wood, Liar by Justine Larbelestier, The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil, The Dead I Know by Scott Gardner, The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley and The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee. These are a mere sample of our YA treasures (and I dread to think what’s I’ve missed after listing these off the top of my head).Protected

To find more of our best recent YA, explore the 2015 CBCA winners and honour books, which are announced on Friday 21st August at midday. The Books for Older Readers are a phenomenally strong group this year .

The Golden Age where children are gold

Golden AgeIn lists of best recent books Joan London’s The Golden Age (Vintage/Random House Australia) has featured as stand-out Australian fiction, alongside Ceridwen Dovey’s  (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin) Only the Animals. I had already read Only the Animals and just had to read The Golden Age to see what the fuss is about.

http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/holidays-the-chance-to-read-short-fiction-poetry-ya/2014/12

Joan London has written a reflective narrative set mainly in 1954 about children who are recovering from polio in a Perth convalescent home. The sprawling house where they are cared for, the Golden Age, with its verandah, corridors and wards for Boys and Girls, is as powerful a building as Tim Winton’s house in Cloudstreet.Cloudstreet

The children almost seem to be on an educational holiday camp, with diverse company, activities and good food and care. Those who stayed for Christmas ‘seemed much happier than those who returned at bedtime, exhausted, silent, distant and alone’. The Golden Age becomes a microcosmic utopia or refuge – for a time – outside the children’s own often-difficult lives, an irony considering their precarious, damaged health and mobility.

The children tell their ‘onset’ and other stories: Elsa collapsed riding her bike home after tennis, Ann Lee needs to recover and walk after her failure to water the thirsting brumbies. Thirteen-year-old Frank Gold comes from a musical family, writes poetry and loves Elsa. His Hungarian migrant experience parallels that of some refugees whose arrival in Australia is almost as fraught as their past. Frank’s first Australian Christmas is spent in a polio hospital. And, like returned servicemen, the children often feel displaced when they go home.

Hanging GardenChild protagonists are powerful yet often unnoticed in literary fiction. They shine in Patrick White’s The Hanging Garden, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and much of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (note the ‘gold’ in the title). The Golden Age continues this trend and it is also part of a cache of recent important novels about children which feature gold as a symbol and in their titles. These include Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys

https://twitter.com/joylawn1/status/521161281097592834 and Ursula Dubosarsky’s poignant YA novel, The Golden Day. Gold is clearly a powerful motif in literature and is intrinsically linked with children. Children are gold.Golden Day

Joan London’s other novels are Gilgamesh, which won the Age Book of the Year for Fiction in 2002 and was long-listed for both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Orange Prize and The Good Parents, which won the 2009 Christina Stead Prize for fiction. Her two awarded short story collections, Sister Ships and Letters to Constantine have been published in one volume, The New Dark Age.

New Dark Age