Our Reviews: Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Fiction)
Next Tuesday, the winners of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards will be announced, in five categories: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, writing for young adults and drama.
Each day this week, we’ll focus on one category, sharing excerpts of our reviewers' responses to the shortlisted titles.
Today, it’s fiction.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
Reviewed by Angela Savage
The book’s triumph is the character of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who despite grief and hardship, remains desperate to live. ‘I am still warm,’ she laments after her execution date has been set, ‘my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself.’
Even after I finished reading Burial Rites, I felt Agnes linger, as though she was sitting in the room with me, knitting her socks, telling her devastating stories.
Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
Reviewed by Sam Cooney
The true heart and the heartfelt truth of this novel is its depiction of the suffering and death of the Australians condemned to build the impossible railway. The passages – some which go for many brutal pages – that lay out in detail exactly how life was in the POW camp, are examples of merciless writing, writing that gives no shadow or murk under which a reader can hide.
… Flanagan’s wonderful novel tries to do away with hate, positioning it as a misunderstanding or as circumstantial – or even as not-yet-realised-love – but ultimately it is not love nor hate that governs this book, but an honesty that sits above or below or inside the muddiness of human emotions.
Coal Creek, Alex Miller
Reviewed by Thuy On
Miller’s description of the unforgiving scrubs of the ranges is masterful, as is his control of Bobby’s voice – a rather stylised vernacular. He may be, as Miller describes him, ‘semi-literate’ but there’s a certain beauty in his language – terse and spare and occasional lyrical: ‘Them Old People knows things us whitefellers can never know. They are the dust of them worn-down mountains themselves and the knowledge is in them like the marrow of their souls. Which it will never be in us. We are like germs to them Old People.’
… Though fictionalised, Coal Creek draws on Miller’s own experiences as a stockman in the outback when he was younger, and as such, there’s a mark of verisimilitude to his words.
The Swan Book, Alexis Wright
Reviewed by James Tierney
The ruse Wright is playing at here is that of fiction, in particular the idea that an imagined future is always about the present. The Swan Book is an excoriating attack on the easy materialism of contemporary Australia, its selective blindnesses. The black swan is still a trespass, a symbol of displacement, ‘…a paragon of anxious premonitions, rather than the arrival of a miracle’.
Often fixed with bindi-eye burrs of laconic humour, Wright’s prose is an agile blend of the colloquial, the lyrical and the precise, with rhythms often closer to the balladry of poem and song than to much contemporary Australian fiction.
Eyrie, Tim Winton
Reviewed by Bethanie Blanchard
The protagonist of Tim Winton’s Eyrie notes that his behaviour was once characterised as ‘florid and manic. As if he thought he were a character in a Russian novel. It was creepy. It wasn’t normal.’ Tom is indeed like a character from a Russian work. Throughout the novel one is reminded of Dostoyevsky’s manic, bitter and isolated protagonist from Notes from the Underground, the infamous Underground Man. Set in a towering, low-rent apartment building in Western Australia, his own ‘seedy little eyrie’, Tom Keely is Winton’s perversion of Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero, a sort of Overground Man.
Questions of Travel, Michelle De Kretser
Reviewed by Rochelle Siemienowicz
We’re all travellers now. Whether we physically fly around the planet for work, pleasure or to escape political turmoil; or simply graze on connected screens, consuming information and entertainment that has no national borders, there’s a rootlessness and restlessness that characterises (post) modern existence. ‘What are you doing here?’ is a question that recurs often in Michelle de Kretser’s stunningly clever fourth novel, Questions of Travel, and the answers are complex and multilayered for the two characters at the heart of her story.
… The book is written in dense, epigrammatic prose that requires full concentration. Slipped in amidst an accretion of beautifully rendered detail might be the plot twist that changes everything, or the almost elusive mention of a devastating detail.