Stella Prize

'Tracker' by Alexis Wright - reflection by David Burton

This is our final post in our reflections on the full Stella Prize Shortlist for 2018. Check out our other posts on 'An Uncertain Grace', 'The Fish Girl', 'Terra Nullius', 'The Life to Come' and 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree'.  I’ll begin with an embarrassing admission: I didn’t finish Tracker by Alexis Wright. Please don’t take this as a sign that the work isn’t worth your time, quite the opposite is true. I simply didn’t have time to complete all six hundred pages before the winner of the Stella Prize is announced, and it would be such a shame to not spend some time talking about this remarkable book on the For Pity Sake blog.

Tracker is the only piece of non-fiction to make the shortlist. It’s a biography (but this label is debatable, I’ll return to that in a tick), of Aboriginal leader, intellectual and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth. Tracker led an extraordinary life, passing away in Darwin in 2015 at the age of 62. He was taken from his family as a child and brought up in a mission on Croker Island. From these traumatic beginnings, Tracker became a political activist and key Indigenous strategist. His legacy will shape the lives of Australians for generations to come, particularly around land use and economic development.

xtracker.jpg.pagespeed.ic.Qa95jKWF5HThe book is extraordinary for many reasons. Most importantly, it records the life of Tracker Tilmouth, who’s influence on domestic affairs is unmistakable. Tracker belongs to the first generation of Indigenous Australians who fought against internationally unique prejudice. His life eclipsed both the worst of the Stolen Generation and National Sorry Day. In this, he saw Australia at its worst and - as you sense from the book - versions of what it could become.

Highly acclaimed writer Alexis Wright doesn’t attempt to contain Tracker’s life in a ‘Western-style biography’. Rather, she calls upon an Aboriginal tradition of storytelling that she describes as a “a practice for crossing landscapes and boundaries, giving many voices a part in the story”. And so Tracker becomes a ‘collective memoir’. We hear from many people, Tracker included, in the first-person. These transcriptions of oral interviews give the book an intimacy that is non-replicable through any other biographic form. The transcriptions themselves don’t attempt to contain the speaker in a written formality. Sentences are long, trains of thought sometimes meander - so the reader, in a way, becomes the biographer. We inhabit the body of Alexis Wright, listening to these stories, sitting in the presence of Tracker and those who knew him.

It’s an ambitious work that could crumble in the hands of a lesser writer. But Alexis Wright succeeds in both style and structure, creating a tight and compelling book. I mused briefly over scanning the rest of the book to finish it before writing this blog - but I didn’t want to. I plan to return to Tracker and finish it, when I have the time, and enjoy it as it demands. I encourage you to do the same. It’s an accessible, unique, beautiful collective memoir about one of Australia’s most important thinkers.

'Terra Nullius' by Claire Coleman - Reflection by David Burton

We're racing through the Stella Prize shortlist before the announcement (tonight!). Check out our other posts on shortlisted titles: 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree', 'An Uncertain Grace', 'The Fish Girl', 'The Time to Come'. 

“We saw little evidence of a desire on your part to try and understand our ways. We tried to understand you yet we could not. I don’t know if you made any genuine attempt to understand us but if you tried you failed.” – JOHN FARMER, NATIVE ADVANCEMENT LEAGUE

Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius isn’t the book you think it is.

It’s early colonial Australia. Indigenous children are being taken from their families and placed in missions. There are malicious nuns. Bloodthirsty soldiers. A young boy on the run. Settlers beginning to have doubts. Yes, it’s Aussie historical fiction. It’s devastating and familiar.

xterra-nullius-a-novel.jpg.pagespeed.ic.oDfhN43zVYBut just shy of halfway, something else happens. There are new invaders, and we shift into speculative fiction. Not black or white but grey beings, more powerful than any of Earth’s forces, invade the planet.

It’s here that Coleman’s full imagination and wit is unleashed. The symbolic weight of these cosmic aliens makes history shimmer with a new realism and deepens it with a gut-punching dread.

Coleman’s inclusion on the Stella Prize shortlist is more than deserved. This work and this writer are impossible to ignore - daring, compelling and bright.

I stumbled with the opening passages only because I made the mistake of presuming to know where the novel was taking me. That, and the haphazard use of repetition made me pause. Was the writer being deliberate in passages like the following? (emphasis my own)

Fights over those scraps of canvas had kept her awake at night, many times. The issues are most likely to cause long-term problems were also the issues most likely to causing fights, keeping Esperance awake at night.” 

Any hesitation is put to rest by other sections where Coleman conjures a heart-stopping image that leaps off the page:

“He saw a man running, his tattered rags of clothing afire, chased by laughing troopers, trailing smoke and flickering light. He saw a gutted man still living, holding his entrails with desperation as his eyes slowly faded. He saw a woman shot, bent over her child to protect it, then a man shot bending over her to wail for her life. He saw death: death walking and death running, even death dancing. He saw death in the blades and death in fire and smoke.”

The images, writing and impact of the novel really comes into full swing in the second half. The Australian colonial story is rendered new again, refreshed for the twenty-first century as critical female indigenous voices like Claire Coleman’s gain traction.

I predict Claire Coleman’s best work is yet to come. I’ll be first in line to read her next work. In the meantime, Terra Nullius is a must-read for every Aussie. It should be required reading for every year twelve student across the country.

'An Uncertain Grace' by Krissy Kneen - reflection by David Burton

We're rolling through the Stella Prize shortlist. Catch up on our thoughts on The Fish Girl, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree and The Life to Come. A declaration before we begin: I know Krissy Kneen. I’ve interviewed her, been Facebook buddies with her, and giggled with her at a couple of events for Brisbane’s Avid Reader. I’m a fan.

The only shame in this is that such a declaration would dilute my praise of An Uncertain Grace in your eyes. Because you must believe me: An Uncertain Grace is one of the most stunningly intelligent novels I’ve read in a long time. You should read it immediately.

Krissy’s writing has most consistently been concerned with sex, including frequent bold experimentations in literary erotica. Her first book, Affection, is an ‘erotic memoir’ - a heart-breaking, compelling, unflinchingly honest account of her relationship with sex and body. Four novels have followed, and an award-winning collection of poetry. In An Uncertain Grace, however, Krissy interest in intimacy, sex and - most powerfully – science, intersect.

an-uncertain-graceThe novel has five parts set over the course of a woman’s (Liv) life. It begins sometime in the near future. Liv has created a virtual memoir. She sends the memory stick to her old university lecturer, who experiences her narrative through a virtual reality bodysuit. He re-lives their previous sexual relationship through her eyes and body. Questions of agency, reality and consent abound. This first chapter alone is worth the price of admission into Kneen’s imagination. In a culture that is obsessed with renewed self-examination on the intricacies of power, sex and working relationships, Kneen provides no clear answers. But her exploration is one of the most compelling, layered and truthful narratives - not in spite of her leaning into science-fiction, but because of it.

The other four chapters have similarly irresistible premises. I heartily encourage you to discover them for yourself, as I did, and allow yourself to be surprised. Otherwise, I’ll outline just what the blurb gives away here. If you want the surprise, skip the next paragraph.

Liv’s career means she is at the forefront of experiments in consciousness and technology. She recruits a convicted paedophile into a trial to experience collective consciousness. Later, she helps design a synthetic boy to ‘love’ men who desire adolescents. In her old age, Liv is trying to find ways to escape her raging body and befriends a youth who is transitioning to a state beyond male or female. In the final chapter, Liv is no longer bound by her body, but still craves love.

Kneen’s literary bravery has long been established. An Uncertain Grace is not a fun roll-in-the-hay piece of erotica, but Kneen has never been interested in that form. Rather, her prowess as a writer who is undaunted by sex creates an alluring gateway into science-fiction, especially when dealing with cerebral, abstract concepts such as collective consciousness or digital preservation of the self. At the heart of every chapter are unforgettable, intriguing characters. Kneen never lets the ideas of the book supersede the story, letting the larger themes of agency and power unfurl at their own accord. This means the book is simultaneously a deeply enjoyable read and an intellectual workout.

An Uncertain Grace joins five other titles in the wonderfully diverse Stella Prize Shortlist. At time of writing, I’ve read all of them. While all are excellent, none have pulled me into their orbit quite as strongly as An Uncertain Grace. I highly recommend it.

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe - reflection by David Burton

In the countdown to the Stella Prize announcement, our editor-in-chief is making his way through the shortlist. You can check out his other reflections on 'The Life to Come' and 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree'.  Mirandi Riwoe’s first novella The Fish Girl has already won the Seizure la Novella Prize. It’s now nestled in the Stella shortlist. As the Seizure la Novella Prize would suggest - the book is short, easily read in one or two gulps. (In fact, I’d recommend it to fully appreciate the rhythm.) Riwoe’s most impressive feat is the goal of many authors but achieved by few: The Fish Girl is simultaneously an intellectual backflip on twentieth century colonial dead-white-man fiction and a moving, compelling story in its own right.

A young Indonesian girl, Mina, is moved from her small fishing village to work in the house of a Dutch merchant. She leaves behind her mother, her crush, and her sisters, and encounters predictable hardships. In such a short volume, Riwoe illuminates fully realised characters. The intricate social politics of the Dutch merchant’s household pulse with acute realism. The Fish Girl’s final pages are its most surprising - not because they’re unpredictable, but because Riwoe’s commitment to that realism doesn’t abate for a moment. To fully appreciate those final pages, the book is best read across a single lazy evening.

The book was written as a direct response to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, a quintessential work of colonialism. In Maugham’s story, a ‘Mallay trollop’ is barely a character. Her experiences, desires and hardships are erased by Maugham’s dead-white-male gaze. In Riwoe’s story, that character is Mia. So The Fish Girl is a postcolonial inversion.

Here’s the thing - I didn’t know any of that going in. The quote from ‘The Four Dutchmen’ at the start of each chapter was a nice nudge from the writer to suggest a deeper colonial context, but I didn’t do the specific dot to dot work. I didn’t read a blurb or anything about the book until I’d finished it. I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything.

Novella’s are deceptively hard. They’re longer, obviously, than a short story - so rarely can they hang on just one idea or an image. But they don’t have the breadth and full arc of a novel. It’s a coarse analogy, but The Fish Girl is excellent value for money and time. There’s a full cast of memorable characters, an epic journey, and haunting message, all in just a hundred pages. It feels as if the work could be three times the length. At the same time, it doesn’t feel as though you’re missing out on anything. In this, Riwoe has nailed the form where so many fail.

The Fish Girl is a great quick read from an exciting Australian voice.

Michelle De Kretser's 'The Life to Come' - a reflection by David Burton

International Women’s Day heralded any number of celebrations, revelations and discussions this year, but none perhaps more anticipated by literature-lovers than the Stella Prize Shortlist. The slightly intimidating 12 volume long list was culled to a more easily digestible six. The winner will be announced in mid-April. 20180310 - the-natural-way-of-things coverAwarded to extraordinary Australian female writers, the Stella Prize has become a foundational hallmark of literary success. 2016’s The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood remains on my favourite Aussie books of all time.

2017’s The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose is achingly beautiful. It was reviewed by our good friend Anna Blackie for this blog when it was named the winner last year. 20180310 - the-museum-of-modern-love cover

Every year I promise myself to make it through the entire shortlist. Some years I get very close. In 2018, I’ve started early, and have spent some time lounging, dreaming and laughing with The Life to Come by Michelle De Kretser.

It’s difficult to describe the plot in a nutshell here, because any kind of narrative is, at best, only visible when you squint from a distance. The publisher has suggested the work is a ‘meditation’, a suitable-enough label. The novel centres on a network of relationships at the centre of which is Pippa, a struggling young writer trying to break into the Australian literary scene. Her mentor is the more successful George, then there’s Celeste, who’s engaged in an affair with a married woman in Paris, and Cassie, a young woman trying to please her Sri Lankan boyfriend with extravagant meals from his homeland.

It’s a book about intimacy, about writing, about loneliness - but really it’s about these characters. De Krester descriptions are so perceptible that the writing almost gleams with a sharp edge. This honed blade gives the book it’s most stunning and readable quality: it’s sense of humour.

For me, a lover of genre fiction with more pop culture flavours, a novel like The Life to Come could wander too far into literary-snob territory. But De Kretser’s occasional embrace of satire is irresistible. Some sections come across as a kind of refined stand-up routine. Here’s an example – a description of a couple in Paris that we never meet again, but who just happen to be passing by our characters:

“One of those couples that populate Paris, a man with silvery, swept-back hair, a worshipful, thin-wrested young woman. A cardigan in a docile colour was draped around her shoulders. Her hips, streamlined in cunningly cut linen, nevertheless promised the production of sturdy heirs in a selfless perpetuation of family and nation. Anyone could see that she would prepare a light, delicious savoury flan that evening. While trimming half a kilo of slender green beans - she had risen at dawn to haggle over them in a market - she would comment intelligently on the latest developments in the Middle East. After supper, it would be time to draft the next chapter of her doctoral thesis, write the footnotes for the man’s forthcoming book, put on a load of his washing and practice the pelvic floor exercises that maintain his sexual pleasure at an optimum.”

Other biting moments come when de Kretser describes (with hilarious accuracy and, at times, cringing familiarity), the state of the Aussie publishing industry or, more broadly, Australia’s relationship with culture and sense of self.

20180310 - questions-of-travel coverMichelle De Kretser is a rare talent. Writers with her technical skill and deft hand are only a few in a generation. Her previous novels are well celebrated, Questions of Travel winning the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Life to Come’s add addition to the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist is just another of de Kretser’s achievements.

This book is probably best read over several days while lounging around, perhaps on holiday. This way you’ll be most able to disappear into the prose and let the intimate portrayals of the characters and their observations move you, humour you and, ultimately delight you.20180310 - the-life-to-come cover

'The Museum of Modern Love' - Review

“And maybe this was art, she thought, having spent years trying to define it and pin it to the line like a shirt on a windy day. There you are, art! You capture moments at the heart of life.” Sometimes the things that move you the most are the ones that are hardest to talk about. There are things which can affect you so profoundly that when you search for the words to describe their significance the words simply escape you. In the quiet moments of reflection after finishing the Stella Prize winning novel for 2017, Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, I found myself hit with an array of emotions, joy, sorrow, inspiration and hope. This books does what all books strive to do, and achieved that which so many others have failed to grasp. Heather Rose created a novel that was compelling and magical, while at the same time remaining so very real and relatable.

The performance artist, Marina Abramović sits at the centre of the story like the sun at the centre of the solar system, the characters orbiting around her. Her art, life and sacrifice formsthe catalyst for their own internal reflection and contemplation of their varied experiences of love, loss and the bittersweet pain of longing. Based on Marina’s true performance The Artist is Present, Rose recreates the 736 hour and 10 minute long silent piece in which Marina sat immobile in the atrium of the MOMA while spectators took turns sitting opposite her. With art as their shared interest, the fictionalised characters of The Museum of Modern Love are drawn together by the perplexing gravity of Marina’s work.

Rose has done such a superb job of creating beautifully life-like characters, which are endearing, broken and perfectly flawed.  In many of the novels I have read of late, I have felt that the authors have fallen into traps of creating characters who seem to be over-inflated caricatures of the generic – there’s a sense of the artificial in these characters who are either far too perfect to even be considered real, or so detrimentally flawed that the reader struggles to make a real connection with them. The trope of characters in The Museum of Modern Love completely subverted my expectations. These characters were real, moving and breathing beneath the pages, their joys and sorrows spread across the 286 pages of this phenomenal work of fiction, connecting with me in a very real and deep way that I hadn’t experienced from a novel in some time.

These days, my main time for reading is on my daily commute. The 45 minute train ride that bookends my days provides the perfect setting to fall into whatever I’m reading. It wasn’t until it was too late that I realised The Museum of Modern Love is not the type of novel that I should read in public. I had made it no further than 29 pages when I began to be overcome with emotion. Like so many of those who sat across from Abramović through the period of The Artist is Present, I was shocked to discover myself weeping at the beauty of the art before me. The particular passage that broke the floodgates came from the story of my favourite character, Jane, a widower whose husband has passed away from cancer. In an attempt to deal with her grief, Jane travels to New York and becomes enthralled with The Artist is Present. The passage in question is one too beautiful not to share:

"He worried a lot about Heaven in those last days. He wanted to know, before the morphine shunt took him from her, where she would meet him. If there were steps, he'd be there. He'd be waiting. But where? If there was a cottonwood tree... an olive grove?... 'What will you miss Janey?' he asked her. 'Tell me what you'll miss.' Your whistle when you come in the door, she had told him. Your shirts on the clothesline. The evenings when we watch the fireflies dance under the harvest spotlights. Your heart. The things only you and I remember about the children. The way your skin is always warm. Your coffee mug half empty on the veranda railing at 7am. She could have gone on but he was tired and it had been enough. The real answer to his question was everything. She would miss everything. What she didn't know, what she took for granted about living with Karl and being a wife, was far larger than the things she could name."

This story that circulates around one extraordinary artist and her 75 day performance piece dives into the lives of characters that are incredibly varied. In a broad sense, these characters are really only connected by their fascination of Marina’s work. Yet upon closer inspection, it’s clear that what binds them is deep love. Love of art, of people, of routine. The intensity of Marina’s dedication forms an emotional thread that traverses the entirety of the story, appearing through the lives of each of the characters. As I’ve probably made abundantly clear, for me, this book was all about the characters. So tangible and deep, these beautifully flawed people conveyed a deep sense of connection. I finished this novel with a deep appreciation of the sentiment that we are all one, connected through our physical experiences in ways we cannot possibly imagine.

“She loved him. She loved everyone in the room. She loved everyone alive and everyone who had ever lived to bring them all to this time, all of the millennia that had gone and the millennia of people yet to come.”


Click here to buy your copy of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose from Booktopia.

museum of modern love cover