Tag Archives: Emily Bitto

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist announced

A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.

Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)
In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing)
Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia)
The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)
The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia)
A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing)
Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)
An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)
Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction
The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth)
Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)
This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia)
In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade)
Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press)
Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry)
Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo)
Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books)
Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian)
The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers)
Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia)
Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting
The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)
Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill)
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway)
Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media)
Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting
Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press)
The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company)
The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre)
Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company)
Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)

Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company)
Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing)
Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press)
I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.

Emily Bitto’s Strays

Emily Bitto, The Strays (Affirm Press 2014)

1straysThis is a novel about a fictional artist’s colony in Victoria in the 1930s. Though the colony bears some resemblance to the Heide group, and a couple of historical figures, notably Bert Evatt, are mentioned or make brief appearances, it would be a mistake to read it as a roman à clef. At least, I hope so – if not, Heide was quite a bit nastier than I’ve heard.

The narrator, Lily, looks back in middle age to her girlhood friendship with Eva, whose father, Evan Trentham, is a modernist painter and a towering figure in the Australian art scene, and to the years in which she became a virtual member of Eva’s family – one of a number of ‘strays’, of whom the others were young modernist artists. From a deeply conventional family herself, young Lily is fascinated by the bohemian life of the Trentham household: adults who are so engaged in their own pursuits that they leave children to fend for themselves, earnest talk, ‘reefer’ and opium seeds, erotic art, casual nudity, and the smells and sights of a group of working artists and their models.

Of course, all is not well in Bohemia. Eva and Lily, friends since they were eight, drift apart in their early teenage years in ways neither of them can acknowledge, and when calamity strikes the household, it brings the death of their intense intimacy as well.

The book is beautifully written. The characters are vividly realised: Evan the alpha male; Helena his wife and presiding goddess of the household; their three daughters – Bea the responsible eldest, bold Eva and deeply resentful Heloise; and the young adult members of the colony – including Jerome, the young artist who will eclipse his mentor and whose transgressions undo the community.

For all its manifest virtues, though, I couldn’t get excited about the book. It’s not that I was bored, and there are some wonderful things: there are moments when the intensely physical intertwining of young Lily and Eva comes brilliantly alive, so that the distance between them when they meet again as adults is devastating. But over all I couldn’t tell why any of it should matter to me, or actually why it mattered to the author. Interestingly, it’s as if the novel knows that concern needs to be addressed. In the over-long, loose-thread-tying section in which the main events of the novel are in the distant past, Lily tells Helena and Eva that she is thinking of writing a memoir about her days with the family. Helena asks the question that had been playing in my mind for 200 pages: why write it? The question leads in the short term to a tense exchange of blame and counter-blame. But later, Lily reflects (omitting spoilers):

The events of the Trenthams and their strays have long since been recorded in the pages of art history.  … Always, … the artist himself was at the centre, with Helena, Eva, Heloise at the distant peripheries. They were cast as ‘events’ that accounted for the prevalence of particular themes, detailed in the same manner as the influence of the war on Jerome. Heloise’s life a footnote explaining Jerome’s brilliant work.

So the narrator’s motive for writing is clear – it’s a feminist redress of the dominant patriarchal narrative. And we can extrapolate that as the novelist’s motive as well. But any passion behind that motivation didn’t make it to the page, or at least didn’t communicate from the page to me. Perhaps the book’s beginnings as part of a PhD left a subliminal sense that it was being written for an examiner’s eye. Perhaps it’s that I read The Strays after the Biff Ward’s grimly real In My Mother’s Hands, and was unconvinced by Emily Bitto’s inventions. Or maybe I’ve finally reached the predicted old-man condition of not liking fiction much any more. Certainly my lukewarmness seems to be a minority response.

aww-badge-2015This is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.