Among the books shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize are three novels, a collection of short stories, a memoir, and a journalistic deep dive. (ABC Arts: Michelle Pereira)
Writing by Australian women has found a champion in The Stella Prize, which has been spotlighting not just our local heroes but our emerging stars since 2013.
The $50,000 prize, awarded annually to a work of fiction or nonfiction, has so far been awarded to Alexis Wright for her collective memoir of Leigh Bruce “Tracker” Tilmouth, Charlotte Wood‘s dystopian novel The Natural Way of Things, and first-time author Vicki Laveau-Harvie for her memoir of family dysfunction, The Erratics — among others.
This year’s field of short-listed works features three novels, a collection of short stories, a memoir, and a journalist’s deep dive into domestic abuse.
Taking you through this six-book reading list are RN’s book experts: Claire Nichols and Sarah L’Estrange from RN’s The Book Show and Kate Evans from RN’s The Bookshelf.
The Stella Prize winner will be announced on April 8.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
A group of women in their 70s come together at their late friend’s beach house in The Weekend.
(Supplied: Allen & Unwin)
Charlotte Wood won the 2016 Stella prize for her brutal, feminist novel The Natural Way of Things. It spoke to the #metoo movement through its examination of the consequences for young women speaking out against the behaviour of men. Her latest novel is about the lives of women in their 70s.
Just before Christmas, three women who are lifelong friends — Jude, Wendy and Adele — congregate at their dear friend Sylvie’s holiday house (somewhere on the NSW coast) where they have the cheerless task of clearing it out after her death. Over the course of the weekend, the women question their relationship with each other in the absence of Sylvie — who, they discover, bound them together.
There are awkward, challenging and cringe-worthy moments, with Wood expertly winding a thread of tension around the women as they negotiate the new dynamic.
As with many novels by Wood, an animal plays a key symbolic role. Wendy’s decrepit labradoodle represents the questions at the heart of this taut work: how women’s lives are shaped by retirement, bodily changes and mortality. The Weekend shows Wood at the height of her literary power. SL
See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill (Black Inc.)
‘I was regularly crying or feeling deep-seated rage every single day,’ Jess Hill says of the writing process. (Black Inc)
Words matter: at the beginning of this book, journalist Jess Hill sets out her terms of engagement. It’s not right, she argues, to use the word “domestic violence” when “domestic abuse” is more precise. More all-encompassing. It includes control, surveillance, fear, as well as physical violence. It includes the stuff that might be denied, talked down, not taken seriously.
Because while this is a book that documents examples of intimate and family abuse, uses stories of real people — gives voice and witness, in other words — it also aims to make a bigger argument about the systems that support this abuse, and to look towards some sort of possible change.
Which means this is a collection of shocking testimony, as well as quiet moments of connection across a table or a cup of tea, as women tell each other stories. It’s also full of moments of reflection from perpetrators as well.
If we’ve been paying attention, though, sadly we think we already know many of these stories. The strength of Hill’s work is to uncover layers we didn’t know, and to bring it together in a clear and compelling way; to confront us with her own revelations that she “used to think I didn’t know anyone who’d been through domestic abuse. Now I know that was never true. Now I see its traces all around me.” KE
Here Until August by Josephine Rowe (Black Inc.)
In the first short story in this impressive collection, a small child is carried across the river on her brother’s shoulders. In the next, a woman’s body is carried, haphazardly, out of a block of flats. Danger, melancholy and water infuse Here Until August, a selection of ten short stories written by Josephine Rowe over several years.
Rowe was previously long-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel A Loving Faithful Animal. In Here Until August, she demonstrates her skill with the short-story form, creating fully-formed and deeply intriguing characters in a handful of carefully chosen words. We meet a French woman afraid to leave her new American apartment, watching terrorist videos on loop; a man rowing a boat out over a sunken town to remember his dead mother; and a newlywed same-sex couple fresh from an argument over who should carry their future child.
As well as being a master of character, Rowe is also an expert tour-guide. The stories are set in locations as diverse as Montreal, the Catskills, and a WA country town — each landscape painted in rich, yet economical, detail.
This is the kind of book you’ll want to take your time with, luxuriating in the writing of an author at the top of their game. CN
The Yield by Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House)
Why are the brolgas dancing? There’s a story in that, in Tara June Winch’s The Yield.
Her grandfather, Poppy Albert, is dead and so August has come home to walk the streets of Massacre Plains, where locals will see her and know she “must be a Goondiwindi girl”. But she’s not back from the other side of the world to see them, she’s there to see her grandmother Elsie, to think about her missing sister Jedda, to feel the slap of heat on her skin again.
Every step August takes is filled with history: the ancient stories of Ngurambang, where Albert was born; stories embedded in a landscape that features place names like Poisoned Waterhole Creek; and the precarious ownership of Prosperous House, where Elsie still lives. It had been a mission, and now a mining company wants to claim it.
Overwhelmingly this is a novel about language, loss and poetry; Albert was making a dictionary that both celebrated the sounds and meaning of memory, and told stories of family and love and relationships.
Wiradjuri writer Tara June Winch creates a rhythmic storytelling that combines ancient words with the lives of the people who collected and heard them.
This is a delicate and thoughtful read, connected to the sharpest of stories. KE
There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett (Hachette Australia)
Favel Parrett imagines the life of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister in There Was Still Love.
Favel Parrett’s third novel is best described as an ode to grandmothers; in this book, “old women carry the world”. The story is based on the life of Parrett’s grandmother, who came to Australia as an immigrant from the former Czechoslovakia, leaving behind her family — including her beloved sister.
Parrett imagines the lives of these sisters separated by oceans and politics, and how this exile shaped them. The reader experiences much of this story through the prism of their grandchildren: Ludek in Prague and Mala Liska, or Little Fox, in Melbourne. The children must piece together the silences of their grandparents, because “No one ever talked about before … Photos of before were hidden away in the back of cupboards. Stories of before were never told. Before had been forgotten, blacked out.”
The story journeys across time and space from 1938 to 1968 to 1980 and back again. A lot of what happens takes place in the confined apartments of the two grandmothers in Melbourne and Prague, but the impact of the 1938 Munich Agreement, Hitler’s annexation of part of Czechoslovakia, and the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union, reverberate through the dreamy narrative.
A novel about home, love and grandmothers is a book you can hold close to your heart. SL
Diving Into Glass by Caro Llewellyn (Penguin Random House)
Caro Llewellyn writes of her personal — and her father’s — experiences with disability in her memoir Diving into Glass. (Supplied: Penguin)
Caro Llewellyn‘s memoir is a story of bodies. It begins and ends with the shock of changes to her own body, and what it means to live with Multiple Sclerosis, but it is also profoundly shaped by her experience growing up with a father who was almost entirely paralysed as a result of polio.
He is a vibrant presence on the page: a charismatic man who met and married Llewellyn’s mother after his paralysis, who raised a family, who told stories, was full of ideas and schemes and charm. It is also the story of changing family dynamics, estrangements, reconciliations, dramas, relationships, love, poetry, feminism, travel: a life, in other words.
But Caro Llewellyn’s professional life has also been intimately tied up with the recent story of literature in Australia. She worked in publishing and was the director of the Sydney Writers Festival, before moving to New York for the PEN World Voices festival. So this is also a memoir of writers as personalities, as friends, and occasionally (and intriguingly, given they’re not necessarily named) as lovers.
This is a complex and often surprising memoir, of an unusual and very well-drawn childhood and an impressive adult life. KE