The Stella Prize 2017

I learnt something this week. Two of the most notable literary prizes in Australia are the Miles Franklin Award, celebrating literary meriting novels that depict phases of Australian life, and the Stella Prize for exemplary literary works by Australian women. What I did know was that both these awards are celebrating the same person. Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was a writer who supported the development of a uniquely Australian voice and endowed her estate to establishing the Miles Franklin Award. Disheartened by the underrepresentation of women in the Miles Franklin Award, the Stella Prize was founded celebrating our many amazing Australian women and their novels. The 2017 winner of the Stella Prize will be announced tomorrow and as requested I’m here to discuss my thoughts on this years shortlist.

 

To be completely honest, I have only read five of the six shortlisted novels. Two I had already read or was currently reading when the shortlist was announced and the other three all stood out to me when I perused the longlist. Poum and Alexandre did not particularly capture my interest so I chose not to read it. That said it is in the company of some exceptional novels so I’m sure it more than holds it own and is amazing piece of work. Of course I may have to retract my decision should it win.

 

I learned to stay quiet. I learned the nobody much cared. I learned that it was probably my fault anyway and that what they were doing was perfectly okay. This is how it alters us. This is how we change.

I read The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke in one sitting. This memoir made me laugh. This memoir made my cry tears of rage. This memoir blew my mind. The casual and institutionalised racism that Clarke grew up with was uncomfortable to read but is something that each and everyone of us as Australians needs to experience if only to understand. To stop asking someone where they are from because clearly they don’t *look* Australian, to lose our prejudices and the mentality that “these people should go back to where they came from” and even to reconsider the hypocrisy of our nation who took this country by force and still are yet to officially recognise the true custodians of Australia and still have not learnt to share. And Clarke does all this with clarity and at times humour in a way we can all empathise with.

 

Not that he forced me. Not saying that at all. You know how it is though, sometimes easier to let a man do his thing than go through the trouble of explaining why not, of kicking him out, of having a big scene. So, yeah.

This is just one of the many passages in An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire, where she completely hits the nail on the head. Where she perfectly captures the contradictions that are what it means to be a woman in society. The feeling that you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. These important messages and themes are wrapped in the guise of a psychological thriller of the murder of a young woman in a small country town. It is very clear from this novel that Maguire is passionate about women’s rights and violence towards women. On top of that she perfectly captures the voice of a small town bartender, tough as nails and who likes her men rough around the edges. Another fast-paced read.

 

When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread.

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor was not what I expected. Taylor who, as the title suggests, is dying of cancer but this memoir is not steeped in misery, you likely will not shed a tear at the bittersweet story of a beautiful life coming to an end. This memoir is devoid of sentimentality with Taylor showing off the brilliance of her mind. There are so many pearls of wisdom that I could have shared a number passages to demonstrate some of what Taylor can teach you. Instead I urge you to read this memoir yourself if only to experience the exemplary prose that shows a life long affinity for the written word. Taylor also broaches the controversial idea of voluntary euthanasia that I highly recommend everyone reads before taking a negative stance on this issue.

 

 Perhaps we have to stay ignorant of our blessings. Perhaps we can only carry our good fortune with us if we don’t know we are doing it – otherwise we would be overwhelmed by anxiety at the possibility of loss.

L’heure entre chien et loup. The moments after sunset as the sky darkens and blurs the vision, making it difficult to distinguish between wolf and dog, friend and foe. This clever and haunting title perfectly captures the essence of this novel. Blain takes ordinary characters in the throes of daily life, the beauty and the tragedy, and makes it something extraordinary. This was the kind of book that I could not stop thinking about, even once I finished reading it. I went for a walk not long after finishing it and found myself ruminating on the characters and their actions. Sadly this is Blain’s last novel but I find myself craving more of her work. She has a knack for perfectly capturing the essence of each character she writes and this novel had me hook line and sinker from the opening chapters to the dying pages and left me feeling melancholic with a few stray tears falling down.

 

Jane wondered how many times she had looked into Karl’s eyes for more than a few seconds. In twenty-eight years of married life, what was the sum total of eye contact they had ever made? What might they have seen in each other, if they’d really looked?

My first thought about the Museum of Modern Love was that it was a nice change of tone. Each of the other books on this list are sad, melancholic and while this one does have some sadness, it is not the focus of the plot and does not drive the story. The story is a unique concept based in fact around artist Marina Abramovic and her performance The Artist is Present. The characters Rose creates are endearing, vivid and memorable, a highlight of the novel. This book is a slow burn that quietly blew my mind and grew in retrospect. A fascinating story that provokes deeper thought.

 

I would not at all be surprised or disappointed if any one of these five novels took out the prize tomorrow. They are each unique and tackle some important themes. In my opinion this is a particularly strong shortlist of novels and we should be proud of the talent we are cultivating here in Australia. My prediction is that Between a Wolf and a Dog by the late Georgia Blain will take it out. This novel is an exemplary piece of fiction. The characters are vivid and memorable, her descriptions of the mundane snippets of life are astute and demonstrate such a crystal clear understanding of human nature, both the good and the bad. I do have to say, my sentimental favourite does go to the Hate Race. Clarke has a strong, clear voice that is impossible to not respond to and I was lucky enough to witness her quiet charisma when she spoke at Adelaide Writers Week and her memoir was unforgettable. Best of luck to each of these amazing authors, sadly two of which are no longer with us, and I am already excited for next years list.

 

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