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Miles Franklin Awards 2014: A longlist overview

The longlist for Australian’s biggest literary award, the Miles Franklin, was announced on 3 April, and it’s quite an interesting list as lists go.

It comprises the following 11 titles:

Tracy Farr – The Life And Loves Of Lena Guant
Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Ashley Hay – The Railwayman’s Wife
Melissa Lucashenko – Mullumbimby
Fiona McFarlane – The Night Guest
Nicolas Rothwell – Belomor
Trevor Shearston – Game
Cory Taylor – My Beautiful Enemy
Tim Winton – Eyrie
Alexis Wright – The Swan Book
Evie Wyld – All The Birds, Singing

As I would have expected, there’s a sizeable overlap with the Stella Prize longlist – four titles appear in both lists, being Mullumbimby, The Night Guest, All the Birds, Singing, and The Swan Book. Given that the Stella is a prize for Australian women’s writing, and isn’t limited to fiction, the overlap is actually even stronger, with Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites being the only novel on the Stella longlist that didn’t make it across to the Miles Franklin.

On one level, this is encouraging – that the best fiction by Australian women in 2013 is unreservedly recognised as being, well, among the best fiction by Australians in 2013. On the other hand, I always feel a little ornery when prizelists unrelentingly celebrate the same names and the same titles in any given year. Is it really the case that these are the only books worth celebrating this year? I’m not sure that’s a sustainable contention.

Aside from its congruence with the Stella list, this year’s Miles Franklin selection is a pretty balanced, if ever so slightly vanilla, selection of literary output.

Two previous winners have titles up this year, which is respectable without being too establishment-heavy. First of them is indigenous woman, Alexis Wright, whose The Swan Book is a staggeringly good work that blows the mind in much the same way that her previous prize-winner, Carpentaria, did.

Second is white man, Tim Winton, with his book Eyrie. Now, I feel that I am not the best person to comment on Winton, because I am one of the few Australians who really doesn’t like or connect with his style. I haven’t read Eyrie and I am unlikely to do so, thus I merely note that Winton is a safe choice on any Australian literary prizelist at any time because he is one of the darlings of the literary establishment here (such as it is).

There are also two debut novellists on the list, ticking the “must support the newbies” box: Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, which has already made it through to the Stella shortlist, and New Zealand resident Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. I’m midway through McFarlane’s book, and I’m finding it a very gripping study of loneliness; it’s a slow burn, not really getting going for a few chapters, but worth the effort of persevering. Farr’s title was unknown to me until last week, but it sounds intriguing, and I’ll be giving it a try.

Moving out from the obligatory past winners and wunderkinds, there is a theme of sorts peeking up from the rest of the titles – there are three books about World War II trauma, after-effects and destruction, which is quite a lot given the range of available subjects. (It’s not unusual, though – the literary zeitgeist often seems to move in this way, with a slew of books on related or overlapping topics hitting the market at once).

In this category we have Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is about Australian POWs on the Thai-Burma railway. I have heard many good things about the power and effectiveness of this book, but I am not sure I am up to reading it, or at least not yet; my own grandfather was a POW in a very similar circumstance, and I think it may cut too close to the bone. Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife sounds, on spec, like it’s a “post-war trauma resolution in a small town” novel, of which Australia has produced more than a few.

Finally, Cory Taylor’s My Beautiful Enemy takes an interesting angle, tracing the story of an Australian soldier who falls in love with a Japanese boy who was interned at a camp where the soldier worked as a guard during the war. This is Taylor’s second book; her first, Me and Mr Booker, was a competent but not earth-shattering coming-of-age teacher-student affair story. Reviews suggest she has successfully stretched herself in this one; I’ll be interested to see if that’s the case.

Of course, this is an Australian prizelist, so it would be incomplete without at least one tale of The Bush and Our Criminal Past; this time it’s provided by Trevor Shearston’s Game, which is, I am informed by the blurb, a reimagining of the life of bushranger Ben Hall. It could be great, but then again, retellings of bushrangers are not generally my favourite, so we’ll see.

Mullumbimby, which was on the Stella longlist as well, is dark, funny, and contemporary; it reminded me in some ways of Vivienne Cleven’s Bitin’ Back, another brilliant and funny small-town-modern-tensions story by an indigenous Australian woman. I’ll go out on a limb and say it won’t shortlist, let alone win, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great book, just that it lacks the requisite amount of existential navel-gazing to qualify it for the award.

Finally, there is Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, which I started but wasn’t able to engage with (but YMMV, as I have read raves about it), and Nicolas Rothwell’s Belamor, a review description of which as “an intellectual meditation on art and life” has made me curl up my lip ever so slightly. Again, it could be good, but … the pairing of the words “intellectual” and “meditation” don’t inspire huge confidence in things like “readability” and “enjoyment”. (Yes, I am a bit of a plebeian; such is life.)

All in all, it’s not a bad list by any means. There are some books on it that I would’ve picked out myself, if I were selecting, and others that sound like very solid contenders. It’s light on innovation and light on genre, but that’s nothing new for a major literary prize, and it will be interesting to see what makes the cut to the shortlist and eventually takes the honours.