After a hugely successful inaugural year, the Stella Prize is thrilled to announce the second-ever Stella Prize longlist.
From more than 160 entries, this year’s Stella Prize judges – critic and writer Kerryn Goldsworthy (chair); journalist and broadcaster Annabel Crabb; author and academic Brenda Walker; bookseller Fiona Stager; and writer and lecturer Tony Birch – have selected twelve books for the 2014 Stella Prize longlist. Six works of fiction, six of nonfiction: twelve great stories.
The 2014 Stella Prize longlist is:
Letter to George Clooney – Debra Adelaide (Picador)
This is novelist Debra Adelaide’s first collection of short stories, and while readers will recognise her dry wit, quirky imagination and fundamental seriousness of purpose, it’s also clear that she has mastered the requirements of the short-story form. Adelaide’s sheer range is impressive, and there is no slick or same-y surface even to the most light-hearted of these stories. In ‘The Glory in the Flower’, an eminent English poet finds himself teaching a writing workshop in an Australian shed in the middle of nowhere and it gradually dawns on the reader that this is no ordinary poet. ‘The Form of Solemnisation of Matrimony’ is, apparently against all the odds, an optimistic love story. The grave and troubling title story, with its perfect pitch and its shocking denouement, is a story that should be required reading in all Australian schools and armchairs. And across this wide range, Adelaide brings to her work a thoughtful craftsmanship that skilfully matches voice and tone to subject matter.
Some of these stories address the writing life and inevitably those are the funniest and most ironic, relentlessly showing up some of the absurdities of a writer’s daily existence while titanic literary figures like Wordsworth and Emily Brontë dance across the pages. Other stories seem quirky and almost surreal but have a strong underlying social message, such as the off-beat and disquieting ‘Virgin Bones’. Here as in her previous books, Adelaide uses her fine technical skills in the service of powerful and committed social analysis, and focuses on the interconnectedness of public and private life.
About Debra Adelaide
Debra Adelaide is the author of several novels, including The Household Guide to Dying (2008), which was sold around the world, Serpent Dust (1998) and The Hotel Albatross (1995). She is also the editor of several themed collections of fiction and memoirs, including Acts of Dog (2003) and the bestselling Motherlove series (1996-1998). As well as a creative writer she has also been a freelance researcher, editor, book reviewer and literary award judge, and is now associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, where she teaches creative writing.
Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family – Gabrielle Carey (UQP)
The late Australian novelist and poet Randolph Stow, generally regarded as one of the country’s most important novelists, left Australia in 1966 and lived out the rest of his life in rural England. In this unusual and reflective book, Gabrielle Carey explores her personal connection with Stow – his long-standing friendship with her mother – and her own growing fascination with the novelist and his work. It is an intriguing generic hybrid, partly intelligent memoir and partly insightful cultural history, showing the mixed reaction from Australian critics and readers to Stow’s work and the effect it had on his life and writing.
This is a meditative book moving in widening circles of exploration rather than a story driven by events, but the reader feels a powerful pull to keep on reading a book that is, in its quiet way, so alluring and seductive. While the subject matter is engaging in itself, focusing on Stow’s own singular nature and moving across a wide range of topics from the Australian materialism and fear of metaphysics prevalent in mid-twentieth-century cultural life to the nature of personal friendship and the way it is expressed in letters, Carey’s own thoughtful, gentle, questioning voice is a major part of the book’s appeal.
About Gabrielle Carey
Gabrielle Carey is the author of novels, biography, autobiography, essays, articles and short stories. She teaches writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, where her infatuation with Randolph Stow is happily tolerated. Her most recent book was the memoir The Waiting Room (2009).
Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador)
The year is 1828, the place is Iceland, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of murder and condemned to death. Billeted with a local farmer and his family, Agnes wins first the trust and eventually the affection of the family as the time of her death approaches and she muses over the events that have brought her to this place. Strong, sexy and clever, Agnes does not suffer fools gladly and is bitterly regretful that her love for the charismatic murder victim should have sealed her fate.
The novel is based on a true story, closely following the events surrounding the trial and death of the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Without any labouring of historical detail, the time and place are vividly brought before the reader’s eyes; the plot is cleverly managed, and the characters are powerfully drawn. Unlike many writers who base their novels on real events, Hannah Kent has not allowed her meticulous research to swamp her story or to pull the drama of her narrative out of shape, and the novel is cleverly structured in a series of flashbacks as the true nature of the crime is gradually revealed.
About Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. As a teenager she travelled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange, where she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Hannah is the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. Burial Rites is her first novel. It has been translated into twenty languages.
Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport – Anna Krien (Black Inc)
Following in the footsteps of Truman Capote, Janet Malcolm and, closer to home, Helen Garner, Anna Krien explores the facts, the claims and the ramifications surrounding a court case in which a Melbourne footballer was tried for the rape of a young woman. Anna Krien follows the arguments and assumptions that are made as the trial unfolds, her discussion spreading out in circles of argument and questioning to examine the wider contexts of this story. Krien’s interrogation of her own relationship to the events she is recording, and the validity of her role as reporter and commentator, is a part of this book’s achievement in opening up questions and judgements about the case rather than closing them down.
The book does not merely examine the trial and the events leading up to it, but, more significantly, uses that particular story as a way of engaging with wider contemporary debates about rape and consent, as well as about the powerful sub-cultures of the big football codes, and the attitudes to women that predominate there. Krien deftly and lucidly explores the grey areas: between experience and memory, between consent and rape, between the law and justice. While Krien maintains no pretence of objectivity about these issues or the perceptions, emotions and vulnerabilities of everyone concerned, she manages to step back from the action at each point to examine every facet of the trial itself and its wider implications: for the media, for society, for sport and for women.
About Anna Krien
Anna Krien is the author of Night Games, Into the Woods and Quarterly Essay 45 Us and Them. Her work has been published in the Monthly, the Age, the Big Issue, The Best Australian Essays, The Best Australian Stories, Griffith Review, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging, Colors, Frankie and Dazed & Confused.
Mullumbimby – Melissa Lucashenko (UQP)
Goorie woman Jo Breen has gone the long way around the question of Aboriginal land rights and has purchased her own piece of Bundjalung country, in the beautiful northern hinterland of Byron Bay. In the opening scene of this funny and thought-provoking novel, Jo is working at her job: in metaphors that get quietly more powerful as you think about them, Jo is a singer who no longer sings, now the caretaker of the Mullumbimby Cemetery, where generations of white settlers and their descendants lie dead and buried in Bundjalung land where Jo keeps their graves neat and mows the grass that grows above them.
The conflict at this novel’s heart is between two Aboriginal claimants to land rights, with Jo as observer. This novel is a passionate, warm-hearted and accessible exploration of the Aboriginal relationship to country, a concept that many white Australians still don’t grasp. The political messages are clear, but they are never allowed to swamp the characters or pull the story out of shape; Lucashenko writes about Australia’s race-relations history with generosity and grace. In focusing on a conflict between competing Aboriginal claims, Mullumbimby is doing important cultural work in quietly dismantling the notion, still pervasive in white Australia, that Aboriginal Australia is homogeneous in its beliefs and opinions, in its languages and in its identity. This kind of differentiation in literature and art among not only various Aboriginal groups but also among conflicting attitudes, politics, claims and beliefs is potentially taking Australia’s understanding of itself to another level.
About Melissa Lucashenko
Melissa Lucashenko is a Murri woman of European and Ygambeh/Bundjalung descent. Her first book, Steam Pigs, won the l998 Dobbie Award for Women’s Fiction. Her next book, Killing Darcy, won the Children’s Book Council Award and the Royal Blind Society’s Talking Book Award for young readers. Hard Yards was published in 1999 and shortlisted in the 2002 Courier-Mail Best Book Award.
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane (Penguin)
This is a remarkable debut novel that recalls the classic Australian TV series Mother and Son in the way it uses humour to soften the reality of dementia. Ruth at 75, widowed when her husband dies suddenly of a heart attack, is living alone in their house on the New South Wales coast when one night she’s woken by noises in the house. What she can hear, she thinks, is a tiger in the living room. This is the beginning of Ruth’s decline, and from that point neither she nor the reader is ever entirely sure of what is real and what is imaginary. The story explores Ruth’s consciousness in an empathetic and imaginative way, showing us how the world looks from inside her mind.
McFarlane takes the long history of the tiger as a literary symbol and uses it in a mercurial way to anchor her story of Ruth’s relationship with Frida, who simply turns up one morning claiming she’s been ‘sent by the government’ to act as Ruth’s carer. The two women’s relationship has its swings and roundabouts, with each needing the other and elements of folie à deux creeping into their increasingly strange connection. Frida turns out to be not what she seems, and in her own way is as ambiguous and potentially deadly as the tiger itself. The themes of exploitation and invasion are subtly woven into the main story of ageing and decline, and McFarlane uses the symbolic and the surreal in ways that linger in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.
About Fiona McFarlane
Fiona McFarlane was born in Sydney, and has degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University, and an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Michener Fellow. Her work has been published in Zoetrope: All-Story, Southerly, the Best Australian Stories and the New Yorker, and she has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Phillips Exeter Academy and the Australia Council for the Arts. The Night Guest, her debut novel, has sold into fifteen territories around the world. She lives in Sydney.
Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir – Kristina Olsson (UQP)
Kristina Olsson’s story of her half-brother Peter, stolen by his father from his mother’s arms, is a beautifully understated family memoir in which the writer barely features: this is the story of Peter and his mother. Told compassionately and even-handedly, it follows Peter from his birth in 1948 through a difficult childhood of abuse, illness and homelessness, a gradual finding of his adult feet, an eventual reunion with his mother, and its less than happy aftermath. It also tracks the life of Peter and Kristina’s mother, Yvonne, showing her caught up in a situation she could neither understand nor control.
The book reflects the social history of Australia in the 1950s: the lack of accountability in cases of domestic violence, the tolerance of gambling, the lack of freedom that was women’s lot in the decade before the Pill and the rise of second-wave feminism, the ravages of the polio epidemic. Peter’s childhood is shaped first by the cultural tensions of a Greek–Australian marriage in the wave of postwar immigration, and then by the effects of polio, which he contracts only a couple of years before the availability of the vaccine that would have saved him. Much of the power of this book lies in the way that it reflects the fates of all children lost to a parent or parents, whether through familial dysfunction, government policy or personal tragedy, and that lifts it beyond the level of merely personal memoir to give it some of the force of fable and folktale.
About Kristina Olsson
Kristina Olsson is the author of two novels, In One Skin and the award-winning The China Garden, and the biography Kilroy Was Here. Her stories and journalism have appeared in Griffith Review, The Australian Weekend Magazine, QWeekend, Women of Letters II and Grandma Magic. Boy, Lost is a family memoir that recounts the theft of her mother’s first child. Kristina lives in Brisbane and is working on her third novel.
The Misogyny Factor– Anne Summers (NewSouth)
Anne Summers has been a central figure in Australian feminism since her book Damned Whores and God’s Police was published in 1975. In The Misogyny Factor, she traces the history of ‘the equality project’ over the last four decades and draws some grim conclusions. Full of brief, accessible recaps of the main ideas in feminism since the 1970s, The Misogyny Factor grew out of two speeches that Summers made in 2012. In one, she addressed the issues of equal pay and affordable childcare; in the other, she showed the extent of the sometimes shocking treatment by journalists and commentators of the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, who was widely and persistently referred to and described in gendered terms that were usually negative and demeaning.
Inclusive of her readership but also incisive in her arguments, Summers defines and explains in brisk, clear, unemotional terms the concepts of sexism and misogyny and the ways they infect the daily experience of women in public life. Throughout the book, she keeps her main focus on the site where workplace rights and conditions interact with women’s reproductive rights and freedoms. But she also discusses the intangibles and immeasurables: the social and cultural pressures on working mothers, the unspoken expectations that people have of women in the workplace, the unconscious discrimination and favouritism in play when appointing or promoting staff, and the unspoken fear and resentment of women in power. The ideas explored in this book underpinned our reading of all the entries for the Stella Prize.
About Anne Summers
Dr Anne Summers is a best-selling author, journalist and thought-leader with a long career in politics, the media, business and the non-government sector in Australia and abroad.
Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John – Helen Trinca (Text)
Madeleine St John wrote four novels, the first of which was not published until she was 51; in 1997 she became the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A contemporary of Germaine Greer, Clive James and other celebrated Australian expatriates, she rejected the tag ‘Australian’, although born and raised in Sydney. After moving to England in 1968 during the breakup of her marriage, she lived a reclusive life in London and died of emphysema in 2006, when she was only 64.
Her mother’s suicide, her lifelong conflict with her father, and her own exceptional talent combined to make her personality both difficult and intriguing, and Helen Trinca counters its dramatic and often melodramatic qualities with a quietly realistic and carefully researched biography that manages to balance empathy and truthfulness about St John’s life. The book draws out her inner life and thought processes from her letters and interviews, and places that in the context of her public life as a writer. St John’s rejection of an Australian identity has meant that she fell through the cracks of Australian literary history until Text reprinted her first novel, The Women in Black, in 2012. Helen Trinca’s book ranges beyond the particular life of St John to consider the wider topics of family dysfunction, the writer’s craft, and the cultural and social history of Australia. Traditional and straightforward in its approach to biography as such, its choice of subject makes it original and intriguing.
About Helen Trinca
Helen Trinca has co-written two previous books: Waterfront: The Battle that Changed Australia and Better than Sex: How a Whole Generation Got Hooked on Work. She has held senior reporting and editing roles in Australian journalism, including a stint as the Australian’s London correspondent, and is currently Managing Editor of the Australian.
The Swan Book – Alexis Wright (Giramondo)
A hundred years into the future, when climate change has irreparably damaged the earth, a refugee from the frozen northern hemisphere called Bella Donna finds a mute teenage girl she names Oblivia and takes her to live with her on an old derelict warship in a dry, polluted swamp in northern Australia. Three new figures appear: a black swan, an Aboriginal elder who looks like Mick Jagger, and an archangel in a white Commodore. These five creatures anchor Alexis Wright’s brilliantly surreal and inventive novel about imagination and the power of story. It’s a treasure chest of stories, fables, songs, myths and poems, containing a wealth of cultural references from across the globe. The Swan Book is also a furious and impassioned political fable, linking the fate of Aboriginal Australia to the trajectory of unstoppable global warming and employing the fathomless complexity of the living Aboriginal relationship to country as a way of exploring humanity’s connection to the earth.
If Wright’s last novel Carpentaria – the winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award – was operatic in its scope and language, then The Swan Book is even more so. Rich and deep in its imagery, fearless in its linguistic acrobatics and sweeping in its imaginative power, The Swan Book is at once a futuristic dystopia, a gorgeous artifact, and an urgent call to action.
About Alexis Wright
Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Her books include Grog War, a study of alcohol abuse in Tennant Creek, and the novels Plains of Promise, and Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Victorian and Queensland Premiers’ Awards and the ALS Gold Medal, and was published in the US, UK, China, Italy, France, Spain and Poland. She is a Distinguished Fellow in the University of Western Sydney’s Writing and Society Research Centre.
The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka – Clare Wright (Text)
This study of the role of women on the Ballarat goldfields in the years leading up to the Eureka Stockade is a rare and irresistible combination of impeccable scholarship with a lively, warm, engaging narrative voice that, along with a wealth of intriguing detail about daily life on the goldfields, makes this book compulsively readable.
Clare Wright offers a genuinely new historical perspective on Eureka. Traditionally represented as a key moment in the forging of Australian masculinity, the conflict and the events that led up to it involved a number of women, both directly and indirectly. Far from the usual image of a wild shantytown with an all-male population, the book reveals a relatively ordered goldfields society where commerce, domestic life and even theatre all flourished. The book makes extensive use of contemporary newspapers and journals, whose advertising reveals a thriving female culture: dances and balls where childcare was provided, and breast pumps for nursing mothers. It also makes use of private journals and letters, which are always a productive and revealing source of information about the people who usually get written out of the official records and histories. Clare Wright does not attempt to discredit existing versions of events, but rather to enrich and deepen our knowledge of Eureka and our understanding of its place in Australian history and society.
About Clare Wright
Clare Wright is an historian who has worked as a political speechwriter, university lecturer, historical consultant, and radio and television broadcaster. Her first book, Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australia’s Female Publicans, garnered both critical and popular acclaim. She researched, wrote and presented the ABC television documentary Utopia Girls and is currently writing a four-part series to commemorate the centenary of WWI for ABC1. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and three children.
All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld (Random House)
On a nameless island where the wind and rain are unrelenting, Jake Whyte lives alone but for her dog and her flock of sheep, away from other people and clearly in some way damaged. But fear sets in when something starts savaging her sheep, and even invading her house, though she can never work out what it is or manage to confront it. Gradually she begins to trust a few other people as she tries to deal with the threat to her sheep and possibly even to herself.
Only when we learn something of Jake’s former life in faraway Australia do we begin to think that the nameless beast might be somehow connected with her own past. Wyld structures and paces the story with extraordinary skill, revealing Jake’s former life one detail at a time in a slow burn that only catches fire at the very end of the novel, where we learn the full extent of her guilt and dread, and realise with hindsight that one of this book’s subjects is the destructive force of jealousy and thwarted love. The novel is a gripping and compelling read; its Gothic elements make it powerfully atmospheric and spooky, and the reader is irresistibly carried along by the flawless pacing of a mystery and its revelation.
About Evie Wyld
Evie Wyld runs Review, a small independent bookshop London. Her first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award. She was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
The 2014 Stella Prize shortlist will be announced at 12 noon AEDT on Thursday 20 March, and the 2014 Stella Prize will be awarded in Sydney on the evening of Tuesday 29 April.