Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 3

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The view from outside the Bar at the End of the Wharf

On Friday the sun was still shining. My only event of the day, in the Wharf Theatre 2, confusingly located on Pier 4, was

4.30: The Big Read

This is story time for a big room full of big people. It’s not quite as comforting as dozing off on your mother’s lap to the sound of a Hans Andersen horror story. Dozing is not unheard of, but the main point, at least for me, is to sample bits from writers who are new to me or who, as with two of this year’s line-up, I’ve developed a prejudice against (I’m not saying which).

But first, the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist awards were presented by Linda Morris, who writes for the Herald on literary matters. These awards, instigated 18 years ago by Susan Wyndham who was and still is  Herald‘s literary editor, carry no monetary prize – each of four young(ish) people was presented with a certificate and what looked like a bottle of wine. They were: Luke Carman (An Elegant Young Man), who has been appearing in this blog for some years now; Balli Kaur Jaswal (Inheritance); Hannah Kent (Burial Rites); and Fiona McFarlane (whose The Night Guest won a money prize at the NSW Premier’s Awards). They stood in a row looking awkward while we applauded, then politely melted into the darkness to make way for the older writers, introduced with her trademark enthusiasm by Annette Shun Wah.

Lian Hearn, the novelist of mediaeval Japan formerly known as Gillian Rubinstein, author of much loved children’s books such as Space Demons and Beyond the Labyrinth, read to us from her latest Japan novel, The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, a smooth, lucid excerpt that was mainly about writing.

Dara Horn from the US read from A Guide for the Perplexed – her book, not Maimonides’ – giving us an intriguing glimpse of a book in which tales from two different eras explore the idea of having a total record of a life: in one, a character develops software that records everything; in the other a late 19th century scholar discovers a comprehensive trove of documents in a Cairo synagogue that had not been cleaned out for a thousand years.  Such a trove of documents really has been found, and such software isn’t entirely implausible

Alex Miller read from Coal Creek. I’m afraid I didn’t get much sense of the book from this reading. It was largely a mundane recount of a man and a horse called Mother and it went on well over its allotted time so that everyone else had to whip their readings along.

Eimear McBride read from A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. In the bit she read the character was a 13 year old girl who may or may not have been contemplating suicide by drowning. The uncertainty was in the character’s mind, rather than mine, I think. The precise meaning didn’t matter so much: as Annette Shun Wah commented, it was like listening to jazz with, I would add, a beautiful Irish/Joycean accent. (The ABC has uploaded an earlier session of Eimear McBride in conversation with Michael Cathcart.)

Adam Johnson finished us off with a chilling bit from The Orphan Master’s Son. ‘You won’t understand this,’ he said, ‘because it’s an extract.’ It was the session’s only piece with a clear, strong narrative, and I would have rushed out to buy the book only two of my companions said they had read most of it, thought it was  really wonderful, but couldn’t finish it because it was so unremittingly grim. I still might give it a go …

We were on the train home before the Opera House and Customs House lit up for the Vivid Festival. We’ll look at the lights tonight, after a full day at the festival.

7 responses to “Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 3

  1. Great to read of friend Gillian Rubinstein (aka Lian Hearn) and her marvellous tale – incorporating a character based loosely on 1850s-born Adelaide-born Henry “Kairakutei” Black – written about by Aussie Journalist/academic Ian McArthur!

  2. kathyprokhovnik

    Thanks for these posts Jonathan – they’re really giving me the feel of the writers’ festival without having to leave my seat (or the farm)! And I’m glad to see you describe Alex Miller as ‘mundane’ – so true!

  3. It IS grim … The Orphan Master’s Son, I mean. My reading group is doing it tomorrow night and I’ve nearly finished it. It’s a good read nonetheless and worth getting your teeth into to see how he does it. I like books like this that tackle tricky subjects with such imagination. I’d love to have heard him read.

    McBride’s books sounds fascinating. Sorry to hear about Miller, thought I’ve seen him “live” too and he can be intense and, perhaps, not fully attuned to his audience?

    I’m interested in Fiona McFarlane. Her book sounds worth giving a shot.

    • Sue: The passage Adam Johnson read was when the main character is feeding tinned peaches to his parents. He gave us a one-word clue as to what was going on in his brief introduction, but even without that his reading conveyed an extraordinary intensity.

      In her conversation with Michael Cathcart on what-used-to-be-The-Book-Show, Eimear McBride reads a number of excerpts, all more accessible than the one in the Big Read, which makes me warm to the book even more.

      And one day when dementia is less in my life than it is just now I may give The Night Guest a go

  4. Love your blog. Feels like I’m at the events. Greetings from Verona . X