Tag Archives: Miles Franklin Award

The Glass Canoe (1976) – David IRELAND

One of the best features of the Text Classics list is the reprinting of several Miles Franklin Award winners. Charged with awarding the best novel each year that describes “Australian Life in any of its phases”, there is a lot to be gained by reading past winners. They tell us about Australia at the time they were written, about what people thought “Australia” meant, and what style of literature was popular at the time.

In the small Southern Cross Hotel in Northmead, Western Sydney, a group of men come to drink. Though they all come from different background, they are connected by their common goal – to ride the glass canoe, and get drunk to forget their problems. Our narrator, Meat Man, guides us through their stories and their tales, offering his own take on this tribe of men, and the lengths they will go to in order to protect their way of life.

Gerald Murnane tried to give us a glimpse into a sub-culture of the Australian continent in his novel The Plains. David Ireland does the same thing in The Glass Canoe but, to my mind, far more successfully. Even without the Sibley, the PhD candidate, Meat Man’s observations of his fellow drinkers are an insight into this world, and act almost as a mini ethnography of a certain time and place. With that in mind, he has chosen the perfect structure for such an endeavour. Instead of trying to closely track this group of characters evolve over a period of time, Meat Man provides us with short stories – flash fiction, really – about the goings on of the hotel. They are in vaguely chronological order, so the repercussions of people’s actions are felt, though not fully explored. This is not a criticism – simply a statement of fact. There are longer chapters that deal with whole sagas, and there are others that are less than half a page. I like a lot of these shorter ones, many of which are not stories so much as random thoughts from Meat Man, about life, the universe and beer.

Intrinsically tied to these ideas of masculinity and Australian-ness is violence. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but in a “we’re men and we sort our shit out by hitting each other” kind of way. Almost every patron of the Southern Cross at some stage uses violence as a way of sorting out one’s issues with another person. Much of it seems half-arsed, a kind of necessary evil that must be performed because it is – in this tiny case – the culturally accepted way of doing this. Pride is often on the line, though never over anything vitally important. It is not until the final sequence of the novel – which I won’t spoil here – that this violence becomes a key player in these peoples’ way of life.

What a great character Meat Man is. In many ways the spokesman of his tribe, he seems to have a greater sense of self-awareness than many of the other frequenters of the Southern Cross. He can have a conversation with Sibley and understand what is happening, and not begrudge Sibley what he is doing – as long as no one else finds out. On the flip side, he can also have a conversation with Alky Jack, the designated old man/elder/philosopher of the group, who has seen fads come and go, and has a lot of pessimistic life advice to hand out, should it be necessary. More than any other character in the pub, he is the one who breaks down the stereotype of the drinker as an unintelligent, unthinking yobbo, concerned only with drinking cheap beer, getting off with some woman he doesn’t know and lazing around at work. There’s a beautiful moment when Meat Man asks his way-too-out-of-his-league girlfriend a rhetorical question about records, not really wanting an answer. When she tells him the simple answer, he is disappointed with the knowledge he receives, not because he feels dumb for asking, but because he enjoyed the magic of the mystery. Meat Man sees the beauty in the unknown, and seems content to remain – I don’t want to use the word “ignorant” – blissfully unaware of the inner mechanics of everything around him. He can appreciate the world around him without having to understand what it means.

As with all good novels about a certain time and a certain group of people, the march of progress and new ideas is the enemy knocking at the gates in The Glass Canoe. When the Southern Cross Hotel is eventually bought out by a new owner who wants to turn it into a more respectable establishment, the current regulars are at first simply bemused by his new rules. But when they come in to full effect – like banning anyone who is caught fighting – they don’t know what to do. At the same time, other people are invading their territory, and everything around them is changing. The way in which they deal with this is telling, and Thomas’ words have never been more appropriate.

Even though this was written 36 years ago, it’s surprising just how relevant and contemporary . The stereotypical “Australian male” is certainly a dying breed. I’m not for a minute suggesting that’s an intrinsically bad thing, but it does give us pause to think about what this typical “Australian male” is, and whether we still want or need it. Ireland certainly presents us with a romanticised view of masculinity, but it never turns to sentimentality.

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That Deadman Dance (2010) – Kim SCOTT

In a shameless act of bandwagoning, I bought this on Thursday morning, just after the announcement, and proceeded to read it over the weekend so I could sound intelligent at work this week. Which is, of course, a legitimate reason to read anything, no? Granted, it also interests me because it comes from the first Indigenous author to win the Miles Franklin Award, so I was curious to see what made the judges think Kim Scott was good enough to win the Award a second time.

On the southern coast of Western Australia, a small, intrepid band of British settlers are trying to make a life out of their new circumstances. Perhaps contrary to other settlements, the local tribe – the Noongar – are happy enough to help where they can, both sides interested to learn about the other’s culture. In the middle of this cultural exchange is Bobby Wabalanginy, a Noongar boy educated by the British. Is he the prototypical Australian? Or just an historical anomaly?

It’s easy to see why this won the Miles Franklin. Historical novel – check. Indigenous issues – check. Beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape – check. This flippant remark, however, is slightly unfair for two reasons. One – the Miles Franklin hasn’t gone to an historical novel for a good four years. Two – Kim Scott’s book does do things with these themes that are a bit different to what has gone before him.

Dealing with issues such as these, authors cannot not bring their own politics into the world they create. And I don’t think they should try to be some kind of impartial arbiter of history – much as Inga Clendinnen wants them to be. As a Noongar man, Scott brings his own biases and whatnot to the table when he talks about these incidents. But rather than go for the thoroughly depressing (though probably fairly accurate) tales Kate Grenville gives us in her (soon to be completed) trilogy of tales set in early Sydney, Scott shows us a society where, for the most part, both sides get on. There is no talk of ‘blackfellas’ and ‘whitefellas’ – just simple curiosity on both sides, each eager to learn more about the other. And as this cultural exchange slowly becomes more concrete, bits and pieces flow between. The eponymous Dead Man Dance is the dance of the white men, as envisaged by the Noongar people.

Bobby, of course, is the focal point of this cultural syncretism. At once a loveable rogue and deeply intelligent young man, he is, I think it’s fair to say, a symbol of what Scott wants Australia to be. Having recently reread Remembering Babylon, it’s interesting to compare Gemmy with Bobby – two characters that are set up as symbols of a mixed Australia, of Aboriginality and Britishness in one. While Gemmy is set up as a tragic figure, caught between two cultures to which he doesn’t really belong, Bobby is almost the polar opposite. His ability to speak multiple languages, to converse easily with people on both sides of the divide about important issues, is what makes him to valuable, and so important. And so if we track Bobby’s character arc, it’s pretty easy to see Scott’s vision for his own perfect Australia – one that seems quite nice, to be perfectly honest.

Of course, it’s difficult to tell any story about Indigenous Australians and British colonisers getting along for too long, because we all know the story turns to shit pretty quickly. For the mob here, this idyllic Australian utopia is brought crashing down when the whaling industry, at that time vital to the economic growth and well-being of these small coastal towns, collapses because of overfishing (are you listening, Japan?) Since they provided help with the industry, the Noongar people – quite rightly, to be honest – want to share in the spoils during the leaner times. Of course, this does nothing to endear them to the British, and the inevitable story begins to unfold.

This is a hopeful novel, though. Without giving too much away, Bobby’s speech in the closing pages of the novel is at once funny and didactic. Scott is clearly speaking through his creation, and message is clear. People can live together, and not want to kill each other. There is a way. And together, it can be found. Yes, to reduce it down to something like that makes it sound like cheesy hippy crap – which is no doubt why Scott won the Miles Franklin, and nothing I’ve ever written has been published. He makes you believe that there is a way. And then, that sting in the final paragraph – well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

To paint both sides of the battle for Australia in the late 1700s/early 1800s as bloodthirsty, doing everything they can to protect their lines, is reductive and demeaning. There was a time and place in Australian history, no matter how brief or small, where both sides managed to coexist peacefully, indeed, to the point of becoming better by learning from the other. This is the take home message of That Deadman Dance – that there is hope. There has been hope before, and there will be again.

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Breath (2008) – Tim WINTON

I tried to read Cloudstreet a few years ago. It didn’t end well – for me, or for Tim Winton, who I vowed to never read again. But then Breath won the Miles Franklin Award on Thursday, and people had been raving about it for the last year. So I finally caved in and bought it. Last copy at work, oh yeah. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, general public…

When Bruce Pike, a paramedic, is called out to a house where a young boy has hanged himself, the incident reminds him of his own experiences as a boy. And so the story moves to the incident, when Bruce was Pikelet, a young boy living in a tiny coastal town, infatuated with surfing. His teacher, Sando, urges him to surf higher and higher waves, and his friend, Loonie, taunts him at his inability to reach the heights he does. But as time passes, the relationships begin to fracture, and nothing remains the same.

Well, don’t I feel like an idiot right now. I’ve spent so long hating Winton that I couldn’t quite believe how brilliant this novel truly is. Every now and then, as you’re reading, you kind of sit back and just go, ‘Wow’. This is a novel by a man at the height of his powers, and they’re pretty impressive. This is a sombre novel, but instead of being weighed down by a constant sense of doom (as could easily have happened when writing a novel about self-harm and our inability to become better people), Breath seems to flow so easily and freely. Winton is a master of the English language, but more than that, I admire him because he is a master of the Australian language. No other writer I can think of can so beautifully write English so uniquely Australian. And it’s not that he draws attention to this fact – it’s just that no one else, not an American, not a Brit, not an Indian – could possibly hope to write such unique Australian writing. Hell, few other Australian novelists can do it. So it’s refreshing to see that someone can.

Other than the language, there’s a lot else in this novel that’s good. I liked Pikelet – he’s very much an everyman, someone who feels like he doesn’t belong where he is, and yet when he tries to do something extraordinary, he’s so scared, he pikes. No pun intended. His journey through the novel is something to which I think we can all relate. Similarly, we’ve all had a friend like Loonie – that one who you become friends with out of circumstance more than anything, and yet you’re never sure what the relationship exactly entails, particularly because your friend is a little dangerous. I think it would have been too easy to write this novel from Loonie’s point of view – the usual misunderstood child with no parents forced to rebel. But focusing on Pikelet makes it all the more interesting because, in comparison, he’s quite well off. Emotionally, that is. The boys’ relationship with Sando, then, is perfectly justified. Here’s a man, just old enough to be respected, but still young enough to be cool, who knows about a secret world of which you want to be a part. Perfect.

Having this triumvirate of characters as the focus tends to make this a very male novel, but that doesn’t mean the female characters are any less engaging. Eva, Sando’s wife, is broken, damaged and bitter, and thoroughly moody and unlikeable. But perhaps this is simply how Bruce the teenage boy remembers her – after all, we all think women are mysterious and confusing at that age (and still do). All this makes her wanting to sleep with Pikelet later more than confusing for him, but she is central to the plot and themes of the novel. When her past is slowly revealed, everything falls into place, and it all makes perfect sense.

I could end this review without mentioning the sea, but it would’t be proper to do so. Surfing is integral to the plot, indeed, the inner workings, of Breath. I couldn’t care less about surfing, but I love Winton writing about it and the sea. There’s such passion for it, so much respect and understanding, and it’s all done so beautifully, I love that it’s there.

I was disappointed when The Slap didn’t win the Miles Franklin Award this year. Before reading Breath, it certainly would have received my vote. Afterwards, I’m not so sure. I hate to be proved wrong, but here is proof that Tim Winton truly is one of our great novelists. This book is not epic, it’s not complex, it’s not long, but it is brilliant. The characters and place are so perfectly evoked, right from the beginning, you know you’re in the hands of a master who has written a novel that is mature, sombre, and a little bit fantastic.

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The Time We Have Taken (2007) – Steven CARROLL

With Christmas just around the corner, there’s a whole load of new books out that I probably should have read for work. I haven’t, though. And when trying to find something, instead of something new, I picked up something that I should have read earlier in the year. Something small, like, I don’t know, this year’s Miles Franklin winner.

In an outer suburb of Melbourne in 1970, change is in the air. For this is the year that the suburb turns 100. And as movement and change comes along, the people who live in the suburb are inexorably linked together. Rita, and her boss, Mrs Webster. Rita’s son and ex-husband. Her son’s new girlfriend. The artist who has been commissioned to paint the mural that will celebrate this big event. Together, they will experience a year they will always remember.

Australia seems to be uniquely placed to be sympathetic to the suburban novel. While other countries no doubt experience them, Australia thrives on its suburbs and urban areas, creating something a little bit unique. It is no surprise, then, that this novel is the third in a trilogy of novels (the first two being The Art of the Engine Driver and The Gift of Speed) about one family in the suburbs, stretching 25 years or so. One does not need to have read the other two in the trilogy to understand what is going on (I haven’t), but it would be interesting to see whether this book becomes a part of a much bigger picture, and becomes even more relevant.

Carroll’s prose is something to behold. While it is not perhaps beautifully poetic, or mind-numbingly intelligent, his style and rhythm is perfectly pitched for what he is doing. His mastery of being able to present one scene from several points of view is something that other authors can very rarely do, and his ability to do it so well simply highlights this. Having said this, his characters do tend to be a bit washed out because of this, and they often take a backseat to the musings that fill this book.

And what great musings they are. Carroll does not fall into the trap of trying to make these times particularly sentimental, nor does he follow the Desperate Housewives rule of suburbia – that everyone has a secret. In fact, he does seem to be the perfect chronicler of the suburb. Near the end of the novel, when some of the older characters suddenly realise that, while they have been doing everything in this year of Progress to ensure that history is celebrated, they suddenly realise that they are no longer needed. It’s not some big build up, or something that is foreshadowed. It simply is. And this is what Carroll is able to capture so perfectly – these people don’t think they are making history, they keep on keeping on. The only time he does do a little foreshadowing is when Whitlam turns up – but again, he is the symbol of the young, and it is only when he arrives that the older generation realise they have had it.

In the end, that’s really what this novel is all about. It’s the changing of the guard, the time when one generation hands the torch on to the next. And there’s no big enunciation of this moment – if you’ll excuse the cliché, not with a bang, but with a whimper. But when one generation is celebrating history, and the other is protesting against Vietnam, everyone realises what has happened. People tend to forget that the Miles Franklin Award is designed not to celebrate the best Australian novel of the year, but the novel that best describes Australian life. And here, Carroll has done exactly that.

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The Well Dressed Explorer (1962) – Thea ASTLEY

I picked this up at a second-hand book stall that pops up at my uni every now and then, for only $4! Bargain! And, I had heard Thea Astley’s name thrown around as an Australian author that is quite good. No surprise, then, that I had only heard of her in the last few months. Heaven forbid the HSC teaching us (shock horror!) Australian texts. Anyhoo, enough ranting for today…

When George Brewster, aged 11, falls in love on a beach holiday with a girl he has just met, it sets off an obsession with women that lasts his entire life. Along with his long-suffering, though ever cheerful wife, he stumbles through life, eventually having a daughter of his own. Life does not settle down for George, though, who cannot keep his obsession with other women out of his life.

I’m going to be honest (and if anyone actually knows the answer, please tell me – it’s killing me), but I’m still not totally sure how serious this books was. I couldn’t tell if it was a satirical piece of writing, biting at gender roles in suburban Australia of the 60s, or if Astley was being serious. I’m leaning towards the satire, but it’s all a bit fuzzy. George’s wife is the most annoying woman – she seems not to care at all that her husband is constantly having it off with other women – other women who offer themselves with alarming frequency, despite their own marital status also theoretically preventing them from having it off with him. To be fair, though, he only tells her about one of his affairs, but even then, she cries for a few days, then all seems to be forgiven. This could, of course, be because she is a pretty shallow character, and is never really fleshed out properly.

This is the main thing that really made me question whether or not this book is having a go at society – it reminded me on so many occassions of the tone of Waugh’s Decline and Fall, particularly the way in which the characters seem to act as ciphers for larger groups of people within society – or whether Astley is trying to present what she truly believes happens in the ‘burbs. Which worries me, because most of the female characters in the novel are presented in terms of what they can do for George – not exactly flying the feminist flag, there.

Let’s talk about George for a bit. In the beginning, as this tortured love-sick teenager, he comes off quite well, considering how badly he is treated by the woman he (thinks he) loves, who is just using him, while she has her own affairs. When he finally finds out, he is pretty crushed, and spends the rest of his life pining for her. And yet, somehow, when he treats his wife in exactly the same way, he is totally blind to it – the whole world revolves around him, and he doesn’t learn from anything any woman has taught him, in love or otherwise. He walks through life completely oblivious to most people around him, unless they are a mildly attractive woman – whether they be young, middle-aged, single or otherwise.

The Well Dressed Explorer has gone the way of many other early (and later) Miles Franklin Award winners – out of print. Even though Thea Astley won three of the buggers (the most anyone has ever won), her popularity seems to have petered out a bit. Not unlike my enthusiasm for this book. Maybe this isn’t her best work – there’s not a lot on wiki telling me what her most famous/admired stuff is. Though, I love her language and style, so if anyone has anything to add, let me know. Please.

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Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) – Thomas KENEALLY

I had a bad experience with Thomas Keneally in high school – The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is the only English novel I never finished in high school (!nerd!), because I just couldn’t deal with it. But, when Vintage began its new Australian classics range, this book was the only one I hadn’t read. And it has such a nice cover…

James Maitland is a new priest at the House of Studies in Sydney. One night, on his way back to the House, he meets his cousin and young bride, who have nowhere to stay. He gives them his room for the night, little realising what a fuss this will cause. And so begins a chain of events that will see Maitland’s past uncovered, and his very existence questioned as both a man and priest, and will see the fight between tradition and modernity come to a head.

To be honest, I was expecting another kind of novel where the priest was accused of sexual harassment or the such, and the whole idea of faith coming into question. Keneally, however, does not take this approach at all. Maitland is a young priest with very humanist (read: liberal, for the Catholic Church) ideas about religion and the world, and in a place where any kind of deviance from the exact letter of the law of God is frowned upon, his journey is really very interesting. Especially to one who sympathises greatly with his plight. Watching the behaviour of the other, older priests is, for me anyway, really frustrating. Here are some clearly not unintelligent men refusing to see that any kind of forward movement might actually be good for their cause. Instead, they are stuck with ideas that were outdated several hundred years ago (especially in relation to women), and feel the need to subject everyone to them.

Keneally particularly attacks the gender discrepancies so clear in the Catholic Church. Costello and Nolan (the two senior priests in the House) behave terribly towards women, especially when interviewing a young nun who has had the audacity to teach young children the possibility of other ways of life outside Catholicism. Similarly, he attacks the divorce courts of the Catholic Church, which place women under undue stress, to somehow ensure that a marriage has not been consummated to ensure a ‘legal’ divorce may take place. Not knowing that much about Catholicism before this book, this kind of behaviour shocked me a little, and makes me hope that this has been done away with in the last 40 years.

What was also really excellent was the insight into the life of a priest, and the toll this can have on your sanity. Maurice Egan, a religious lawyer for the Church, seems to be the least possible friend Maitland should make in this place, yet somehow they become quite close, and I love the irony that Egan is the priest with the biggest secret of them all – he leaves Maitland’s past deviations for dead.

Look, I was not expecting a lot from this book, even though it won the Miles Franklin Award in 1968. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised at what turns out to be a fairly angry attack on organised religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, which I always love. Three cheers for Thomas Keneally.

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The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006) – Roger McDONALD

So, this book had been staring at me from my shelf for a long time. It won the Miles Franklin Award in 2006, which usually guarantees a good read (or it certainly has lately), but I was put off by a comment by someone calling it ‘the best book about shep farming you’ll ever read’, or something to that effect. In essence, I thought it another long winded, historical novel set in colonial Australia, and I left it. Then, I picked it up to take overseas, and I’m really glad I did.

The first thing to note is that The Ballad of Desmond Kale is not about Desmond Kale at all. Not really, anyway. Despite the opening scene, featuring Desmond Kale escaping from prison (and the occasional chapter going back there) Instead, Roger McDonald introduces us to a whole cast of characters who are each somehow involved with Desmond Kale. In particular, we meet Parson Matthew Stanton, one of the best characters to come out of any book I have recently read. This man is the most pious, annoying person, and has made it his mission to hunt down Kale, who is rumoured to have a flock of perfect sheep under his control, yet alwys on the move. Stanton believes his flock of sheep are the best in the colony, yet his history with Kale means that he will stop at nothing to ensure Kale is caught and flogged. Again.

This, however, is but a small part of this massive novel. We meet the rest of Stanton’s family, as well as Kale’s daughter and grandson, who eventually ends up working for Stanton, as an apprentice shepherd, along with a young Aboriginal boy, Titus, who was ‘saved’ by Stanton’s wife, Dolly. We also meet Ugly Tom Rankine, a bent officer who is friends with the governor of the colony, and who has feelings for Kale’s daughter, Meg Inchcape. All of these characters and connections are fully rounded and well explored – McDonald gives each of them enough page time for you to pay attention, and when each string of the story comes round again, you are anxious to find out what is coming.

All of these characters play out acroos a huge canvas, that spans several yers in the colony’s history, as well as trecking across the world to play out in London. We watch children grow up, new players come into the story, charcters lose themselves in foreign islands, and fortunes change at the click of the fingers. People are backstabbed, betrayed, lied to, cheated by friends, and all that good stuff one would expect to find in this kind of novel. Roger McDonald does not disappoint. His languge is top notch, and the way he unfolds this massive, and sometimes complex story, is well done.

The Ballad of Desmond Kale is a worthy recepient of the Miles Franklin Award. Within its covers, you will find something to keep everyone happy – intrigue, mystery, romance, and a cracking good story. Roger McDonald has created a fantastic protrait of the New South Wales colony in its youth, and you really feel a part of the action. Oh, and yes, it certainly is the best book about sheep farming I have ever read.

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