This year’s Miles Franklin shortlist has a lyrical voice, an intricate form, and maybe a little more hope than usual. The threads of concern shared across the volumes leave me wondering if there is something in tune with the times.
Perhaps it’s the writers, editors, and judges reacting to the disaster of the past two years and the fear of what the future might bring. These novels seem imbued with a sense of playfulness, a measured optimism, the ability to unravel – and tease – the old truths and wildly random “truths” circulating in our culture.
Lines that connect them include the telling of childhood experiences in the traditions of the Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) and Künstlerroman (artist’s coming-of-age story). These books also include reminders that being a migrant, especially a visible migrant – or even the child or grandchild of visible migrants – means there is never a close, comfortable fit with society. Australian.
They include stories of male violence: whether it’s the organized violence of the boxing ring, the casual violence of young men, or predatory masculinity. And they’re filled with stories of the act of writing itself, in a collection of writings that together make for a remarkable reading experience.
Grimmish by Michael Winkler
The grimmish careers of Michael Winkler across decades and around the world, with narrative control oscillating between uncle, nephew and a talking goat. It is, absolutely, a male story, although the narrator offers ironic gestures towards an idea of fairness.
The eponymous Joe Grim, “the human punching bag who never won a fight”, can’t be crushed by pain and works a lot as an analogy – for “Something in Men […] desperate to climb this hill of pain to see how far they can go” and for the ridiculous and pointless nature of brutality as a sport.
Grim can never win a match, but his tireless ability to endure leaves the victor confused and ashamed, and the sport itself exposed:
Williams backs up instead of forward, gathers his wind for a moment, then backs into Grim’s ugly flesh, twists another big right in his face, and Grim comes back down. The crowd is ecstatic; it’s the best of sport. Apparently.
This novel surprised and enchanted me on (almost) every page – the playful use of footnotes, the satire and philosophy and social criticism, the stories about stories. It is a mental whirlwind of sensations and impressions; a dense and vivid narrative that feels more like a dream.
The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Again on male violence, The Other Half of You, Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s second Miles Franklin list, and the third installation in the history of Bani (who we last met as a high school student in The Lebs ) takes us back to Western Sydney and all of her family’s brutal affection and abuse.
Bani has grown since 2018; graduated in arts from the University of Western Sydney, fell in love, married, divorced and became a father, and finally found his feet.
The problem he explores in this novel is his father’s law: do what you want, but don’t marry a stranger. (And what constitutes a stranger is a very broad church.) His passion and broken/broken heart is played out against the backdrop of his parents, siblings, cousins and aunts, and against his own lingering uncertainty about the way of being himself, and a good Muslim, and a good son, and a self-reliant artist.
It is a disturbing and then deeply encouraging tale, not only because of Bani’s ability to wrestle with the tension between critical thought and the deep bonds of tradition, but because traditions themselves are revealed to be more generous and more flexible than he had imagined.
A funny, rough, tender novel, it reminds us that “there was something shamelessly unwelcoming about Australians”; but also insists on the fact that tenderness and love coexist everywhere: “she spoke in the language of my ancestors, and… I dreamed in the language of hers”.
One Hundred Days of Alice Pung
Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days is another first-person narration; another coming-of-age story; and another which – like Ahmad’s – is addressed to the narrator’s unborn child.
Karuna, like Bani, is confined by her parents’ perspective on tradition and its rules, and like Bani, though she struggles with ties, she tries to be a good girl. For good reason, since his mother assures him that the alternative is ruin:
“Be careful,” she told me. “A girl who takes a false step is destroyed for life.”
His mother, Grand Mar, is hyper-controlling, often brutal, rarely tender. Her father, a white Australian mechanic, initially presents himself as patient and affectionate, but once the marriage is over, he abandons his daughter and his ex-wife to penury and precariousness.
They, Karuna and Grand Mar, find themselves in a poor version of a fairytale tower: an apartment in public housing. Here, once Karuna finds herself pregnant at 16 with a young man who is no longer on stage, Grand Mar plays the villain and locks her away, where she languishes, a princess no prince seeks.
There is a strong sense of co-dependency even in Karuna’s rage and resistance:
I know for sure that your Grand Mar could lock me up, but she would never kick me out. It’s never a problem that your Grand Mar doesn’t care enough about us. The problem with your Grand Mar is that she cares too much.
Maybe. But it’s complicated. It’s a lyrical tale of a messy and abusive family, but also a family where, with a change of perspective, the “mean and paranoid” mother might reappear as “loving and reasonable.”
Body of Light by Jennifer Down
Body of Light, Jennifer Down’s Bildungsroman, is another first-person narration, this time in the voice of an orphan, Maggie Sullivan, who has fallen into the questionable custody of Family Services and the Family Series. reception and nursing homes that follow.
It’s a story of deep loneliness, punctuated by caring individuals, but none that remain in Maggie’s life and identity:
At night, I lay in bed and counted the bodies I had left behind. Viv, Holly, Tiny, Mr. and Mrs. Dunne, Jodie, Mr. Miller, Jacinta, Alana, Ian, Dinesh. Mom dad. Graham. I imagined them all arranged in an enclosure like human dominoes. I had no way of knowing what had happened to either of them.
It’s also a story of deep trauma, with Maggie being sexually abused from her earliest memories, a silent, watchful little girl turned into a sex toy by any man who wants her. And it remains, for the most part, relentlessly sad.
Maggie is a bootstrap girl, who manages to grow up, and even get into college, read literature, find a way to escape her past; but bright moments are rare. She remains, even as a successful and capable adult, some kind of alien, someone who never learned at the required age how to be a human, someone who doesn’t even have pictures of his childhood.
But don’t feel sorry for her; “I just try to live my way,” she says at the end of the novel; “We have nothing more to fear.”
Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is a Miles Franklin alum, having already won the prize twice, and here she gives double value to a novel that is two separate stories, dealing with the same kind of issues – racism, sexism, class, migrant status , love, belonging – but from two very different perspectives and historical moments.
In the Kindle Edition, readers have a choice of where to start; in the print version, the book has two front covers. I chose to start with Lili, and I found myself in the country of John Berger. The short story combines a beautiful homage to this remarkable writer in a lyrical, yet often excoriating portrait of a young woman far from home in what looks like the late 1970s to early 1980s. It’s another migrant narrator, another youngster trying to figure out how to be, in an often unwelcoming world.
Lili teaches English in France, and at the same time learns French and finds “something brutal in being thrown into a foreign language – something exciting too”.
She is alone, of course; she leans on a friend, Minna, who is drenched in privilege and full of affection, but always abandons Lili. Nonetheless, Minna opens up possibilities for Lili, exposing her to playful creativity, and perhaps offering small consolation at a time when the Yorkshire Ripper slaughters women and the philosopher Louis Althusser murders his wife with almost complete impunity. . “It’s not normal” is, Lili realizes, the best response, and Simone de Beauvoir’s idea is a woman’s best defense.
Turn the volume up, and we skip to the near future, back to Australia, and a nation run by the worst impulses of the Border Force and hypercapitalism, where Muslims are banned, the environment is on life support and the people adopt the names of luxury products like Porsche or Prada if they are rich, Ikea if they are doing well.
The poetic expression and idealism of Lila’s story are cast aside in favor of brutal determinism, and equally brutal banter: “Australia is an egalitarian place. The rich are not discriminated against and left to fend for themselves here.
Lyle, the narrator of this section, wears the same shadow as 1984’s Winston Smith: a reasonable man performing unreasonable duties in an unreasonable, unreasonable society. As the joke goes, it would be funny if it weren’t so sad (and vice versa).
It’s a remarkable story that sheds light on something deeply touching and deeply disturbing about 21st century Australia.