The 11 books longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award run the gamut of genres, styles and themes. Among them are debut authors, near-unknowns, and the reassuring stalwarts, Australia’s own Men of Letters (hello, Richard and Tim). They also fulfil the award’s somewhat baffling criteria: “the novel of the year of the highest literary merit which… present[s] Australian life in any of its phases”.
Tracy Farr, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt – In the roaring twenties, Lena Gaunt was a feted theremin player. Now, ageing but shrewd, she is the subject of a retrospective documentary and the theremin is an awkward novelty. Farr’s debut novel is filled with warmth and exuberance, but its many quirks never become cloying. Though this is a fairly conventional fictional autobiography, Lena’s wistful reminiscences are rich with sensory and historical detail.
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road To the Deep North – In a story both romantic and harrowing, Flanagan explores love and memory through the experiences of an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway. Flanagan is a critical darling who has been shortlisted four times previously, and his masculine characters are both tough and vulnerable.
Ashley Hay, The Railwayman’s Wife – A sweeping historical romance with an unfortunate chick-lit-esque cover. The lives of three sad, lonely people become intertwined through a small-town library. Hay’s book is less ambitious in its scope than others on the longlist, but has powerful emotional heft.
Melissa Lucashenko, Mullumbimby – Much like Lucashenko herself, the protagonist is a spunky, unapologetic single mother. After moving to an idyllic small town, the Indigenous woman becomes caught up in a Native Title claim. Mullumbimby uses a personal, contemporary story to explore historically resonant themes of dispossession and rapprochement.
Fiona McFarlane, The Night Guest – Ruth is a lonely, old woman whose mind is faltering. Frida is the stranger who appears unannounced one day and claims she has been sent by the government to take care of Ruth. Both are lying to each other and to themselves. The Night Guest manages to be both domestic and surreal. It is a psychological suspense story, but also a slow and compassionate character study of two troubled women.
Nicolas Rothwell, Belomor – Perhaps the most unconventional book on the longlist, Belomor is a weird and wonderful mixture of fiction, creative nonfiction, art history and travel journalism. Characters drift in and out of the narrative without warning; they are substitutes and ciphers for each other. Rothwell describes the already mythologised far-north of Australia with a dreamlike opacity that further obscures reality, but the languor of his writing and his respect for the vulnerable Indigenous art world is intensely moving.
Trevor Shearston, Game – Strewth, a good, old-fashioned bushranger novel! Game is a nuanced and atmospheric reinvigoration of the legend of Brave Ben Hall, throbbing with testosterone and wilful disregard for the law. But even bushrangers miss their families and, when it comes down to it, are total softies who long for a peaceful life. What, though, does the pathological urge to create excuses for criminals (from Ned to Chopper to Schapelle) say about our national identity?
Cory Taylor, My Beautiful Enemy – Taylor’s first novel, Me and Mr Booker, dealt with the forbidden romance between a teenage girl and her adult neighbour. My Beautiful Enemy goes deeper into taboo territory: a homosexual relationship between a teenage Japanese POW in an Australian camp and his seventeen-year-old guard. Although a sense of doom hangs over her characters, Taylor delicately balances their impossible situation and their messy power dynamic. In the process, she uncovers a shameful and ignored aspect of Australian history.
Tim Winton, Eyrie – In his tenth novel, four-time Miles Franklin winner Winton exchanges his usual rural and coastal settings for the cluttered high-rises of suburban Perth. The insights into class and masculine aggression are as readable and thoughtful as Winton’s fans would expect, but his discomfort in the bleak confines of urban life is evident. This is far from his best work, and surely someone else deserves a crack at the prize.
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book – Wright is a dense, demanding and difficult writer. She incorporates Aboriginal slang, various dialects, and scraps of Latin and French into an already challenging narrative of an Australia lost to climate change and political dysfunction. Her examination of contemporary racial divisions through a dystopian future is chillingly accurate. The Swan Book is a necessary novel, if not always a comfortable one.
Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing – Though relatively unknown in Australia, Evie Wyld has achieved remarkable success overseas, having been shortlisted for the Costa Book Award and named on Granta’s prestigious Best of Young British Novelists list. Wyld’s great gift is the beauty and lyricism of her writing. She writes dark and feral stories with the lightest touch, and finds beauty in broken lives.
This year, seven of the 11 longlisted authors on the Miles longlist are female. Four—Lucashenko, McFarlane, Wright and Wyld—were also longlisted for the Stella Prize for Women’s Writing. Indeed, the increased confluence between the longlists for the Miles Franklin and the Stella is notable. The Stella Prize was established in 2012 partially in response to the all-male Miles Franklin shortlists of 2009 and 2011, and fittingly, is named after Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin. Only 12 women have won the Miles Franklin over its 54-year history. Shortly after the first Stella was awarded in 2013, the Miles judges parried by selecting an all-female shortlist.
The Miles Franklin Award is not an intentionally gender-biased establishment. Its judges are unfailingly drawn from among the ranks of Australia’s most gifted and fair-minded critics, authors, librarians, booksellers and other literary figures. But the problem with ingrained gender bias is that it operates on a subconscious level. Often, women’s comparative or total absence goes unnoticed until remarked upon, because male dominance is the cultural norm. Whether or not this year’s predominantly female Miles longlist can be attributed to the creation of the Stella and the active publicising of the Miles Franklin’s comparative shortcomings, it’s an encouraging ratio—and a relief after the literary sausage festivals of previous years.
Of almost as much note as the actual longlist was one book that didn’t make the cut. The first response from many readers and critics was, ‘Where’s Christos?’ Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda is the follow-up to his polarising Miles-shortlisted The Slap. Tsiolkas’ writing combines sex, drugs, class and race to create a raw, devastating reflection of contemporary Australia’s insecurities. Though he divides readers he is indisputably a major writer, and a new Tsiolkas novel is a literary event. So why wasn’t he longlisted for the Miles Franklin? Well, because the judges didn’t select him. The more pertinent question is, why it was so widely felt that he should be on the list over, say, relative unknown Trevor Shearston, or Ashley Hay’s historical romance?
Literary prizes are wonderful gestures of acknowledgement for writers who work for months or years on books, but they are inherently subjective. Attempting to compare hundreds of disparate books will always come down to arbitrary taste at some point, and if the judges didn’t pick Barracuda, well, okay. Five people have made an informed decision based on their personal preference.
The 2014 Miles Franklin longlist is a strong, diverse range of books and ample evidence of the vitality and power of Australian literature. There’s no Christos and no sausage fest—but maybe that’s not such a bad thing at all.