The Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary award was established through the will of the writer Stella Miles Franklin, best known for her novel My Brilliant Career.
Miles Franklin had first-hand experience of the struggle to make a living as a writer and was herself the beneficiary of two literary prizes. She was also extremely conscious of the importance of fostering a uniquely Australian literature. the Award is presented each year to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases. See the Miles Franklin Award website for further details.
BLOOD by Tony Birch
From the moment he saw her, wrapped in a blanket at the hospital, Jesse knew that he’d be the one to look after his little sister, Rachel. Mum was always on the move and always bringing home trouble. When his mum’s appetite for destruction leads the little family into the arms of Ray Crow, beneath the charm and charisma, Jesse sees the brooding violence and knows that, this time, the trouble is real. But Jesse’s just a kid and even as he tries to save his sister, he makes a fatal error that exposes them to the kind of danger he has sworn to protect Rachel from. As their little world is torn to pieces, the children learn that, when you are lost and alone, the only thing you can trust is what’s in your blood. Blood is an epic moral fable, a gothic odyssey set on the back roads of Australia. In understated prose touched with poetry, it finds tenderness in a world without sanctuary and the strength of innocence amidst violence and genuine evil.
SPIRIT OF PROGRESS by Steven Carroll
A sleek high-speed train glides silently through the French countryside, bearing Michael, an Australian writer, and his travelling world of memory and speculation. Melbourne, 1946, calls to him: the pressure cooker of the city during World War II has produced a small creative miracle, and at this pivotal moment the lives of his newly married parents, a group of restless artists, a proud old woman with a tent for a home, a journalist, a gallery owner, a farmer and a factory developer irrevocably intersect. And all the while the Spirit of Progress, the locomotive of the new age, roars through their lives like time’s arrow, pointing to the future and the post-war world only some of them will enter.
SPIRIT HOUSE by Mark Dapin
Long ago, Jimmy Reubens was a POW on the Thai-Burma Railway. For more than four decades, he has staved off the ghosts of his past by drinking too much, outstaying his welcome at his local RSL, and bickering with his three closest mates. But the past won’t stay buried forever. When his thirteen-year-old grandson comes to stay after his parents’ marriage breaks up, Jimmy has a chance to finally begin to lay his ghosts to rest, but first he has to tell their stories.
Spirit House is funny, wise, disturbing and deeply moving, written by the award-winning author of King of the Cross.
THE PRECIPICE by Virginia Duigan
Thea Farmer, a reclusive and difficult retired school principal, lives in isolation with her dog in the Blue Mountains. Her distinguished career ended under a cloud over a decade earlier, following a scandal involving a much younger male teacher. After losing her savings in the financial crash, she is forced to sell the dream house she had built for her old age and live on in her dilapidated cottage opposite. Initially resentful and hostile towards Frank and Ellice, the young couple who buy the new house, Thea develops a flirtatious friendship with Frank, and then a grudging affinity with his twelve-year-old niece, Kim, who lives with them. Although she has never much liked children, Thea discovers a gradual and wholly unexpected bond with the half-Vietnamese Kim, a solitary, bookish child from a troubled background. Her growing sympathy with Kim propels Thea into a psychological minefield. Finding Frank’s behaviour increasingly irresponsible, she becomes convinced that all is not well in the house. Unsettling suspicions, which may or may not be irrational, begin to dominate her life, and build towards a catastrophic climax.
ALL THAT I AM by Anna Funder
‘When Hitler came to power I was in the bath. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon …’ Ruth Becker, defiant and cantankerous, is living out her days in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. She has made an uneasy peace with the ghosts of her past – and a part of history that has been all but forgotten. Another lifetime away, it’s 1939 and the world is going to war. Ernst Toller, self-doubting revolutionary and poet, sits in a New York hotel room settling up the account of his life. When Toller’s story arrives on Ruth’s doorstep their shared past slips under her defences, and she’s right back among them – those friends who predicted the brutality of the Nazis and gave everything they had to stop them. Those who were tested – and in some cases found wanting – in the face of hatred, of art, of love, and of history. Based on real people and events, All That I Am is a masterful and exhilarating exploration of bravery and betrayal, of the risks and sacrifices some people make for their beliefs, and of heroism hidden in the most unexpected places.
SARAH THORNHILL by Kate Grenville
‘From the beginning Jack and I was friends. Somehow our way of looking at things fitted together. He never called me Dolly, the way the others did, only my full and proper name.’ Sarah Thornhill is the youngest child of William Thornhill, convict-turned-landowner on the Hawkesbury River. She grows up in the fine house her father is so proud of, a strong-willed young woman who’s certain where her future lies. She’s known Jack Langland since she was a child, and always loved him. But the past is waiting in ambush with its dark legacy. There’s a secret in Sarah’s family, a piece of the past kept hidden from the world and from her. A secret Jack can’t live with. A secret that changes everything, for both of them. Kate Grenville takes us back to the early Australia of The Secret River and the Thornhill family. This is Sarah’s story. It’s a story of tangled secrets, a story of loss and unlooked-for happiness, and a story about the silent spaces of the past.
FIVE BELLS by Gail Jones
On a radiant day in Sydney, four adults converge on Circular Quay, site of the iconic Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Crowds of tourists mix with the locals, enjoying the glorious surroundings and the play of light on water. But each of the four carries a complicated history from elsewhere; each is haunted by past intimacies, secrets and guilt: Ellie is preoccupied by her sexual experiences as a girl, James by a tragedy for which he feels responsible, Catherine by the loss of her beloved brother in Dublin and Pei Xing by her imprisonment during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Told over the course of a single Saturday, Five Bells describes four lives which chime and resonate, sharing mysterious patterns and symbols. But it is a fifth person, a child, whose presence at the Quay haunts the day and who will overshadow everything that unfolds. By night-time, when Sydney is drenched in a rainstorm, each life has been transformed. Five Bells is a novel of singular beauty and power by one of Australia’s most gifted novelists.
FOAL’S BREAD by Gillian Mears
“The sound of horses’ hooves turns hollow on the farms west of Wirri. If a man can still ride, if he hasn’t totally lost the use of his legs, if he hasn’t died to the part of his heart that understands such things, then he should go for a gallop. At the very least he should stand at the road by the river imagining that he’s pushing a horse up the steep hill that leads to the house on the farm once known as One Tree.” Set in hardscrabble farming country and around the country show high-jumping circuit that prevailed in rural New South Wales prior to the Second World War, Foal’s Bread tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family and their fortunes as dictated by the vicissitudes of the land. It is a love story of impossible beauty and sadness, a chronicle of dreams ‘turned inside out’, and miracles that never last, framed against a world both tender and unspeakably hard.
AUTUMN LAING by Alex Miller
Autumn Laing seduces Pat Donlon with her pearly thighs and her lust for life and art. In doing so she not only compromises the trusting love she has with her husband, Arthur, she also steals the future from Pat’s young and beautiful wife, Edith, and their unborn child. Fifty-three years later, cantankerous, engaging, unrestrainable 85-year-old Autumn is shocked to find within herself a powerful need for redemption. As she begins to tell her story, she writes, ‘They are all dead and I am old and skeleton-gaunt. This is where it began…’ Written with compassion and intelligence, this energetic, funny and wise novel peels back the layers of storytelling and asks what truth has to do with it.
Autumn Laing is an unflinchingly intimate portrait of a woman and her time – she is unforgettable.
COLD LIGHT by Frank Moorhouse
It is 1950, the League of Nations has collapsed and the newly formed United Nations has rejected all those who worked and fought for the League. Edith Campbell Berry and her now husband Ambrose Westwood are back from one of the oldest cities of the world to live in the newest city of the world – she had moved from trying to make a world capital in Geneva to a dusty town trying to become a national capital. Edith has ambitions to be Australia’s first female Ambassador and is seeking a position in Canberra with the Department of External Affairs. Finding her ambitions thwarted in this area Edith vigorously involves herself in the building of the new centre of civilization. Frederick, Edith’s brother, who disappeared from her life before she left Australia, reacquaints himself with her and introduces Edith to the Australian Communist Party in which he is a leader. Frederick’s relationship to Edith, in the time of the Communist Party Dissolution Act is a threat to Ambrose’s career with the High Commission, or does it provide him with an opportunity to spy?
After pursuing the Bloomsbury life for many years, Edith now finds herself questioning her sexuality and why she has been prepared to settle for being ‘a wife with a lavender husband’ and yearns for a family. Richard, who audaciously laid his hand on her leg at a dinner party hosted by Prime Minister Menzies, ultimately fulfils these desires by marrying Edith and providing her with two step-sons. Uranium has been discovered in Australia and Richard is involved in its study and exploitation. Atomic energy has always been an interest of Edith and she takes a role on the Uranium Desk – which she re-names for her own purposes the Atoms for Peace desk – at Parliament House. Cold Light completes the circle begun in Grand Days, the search for symbolic sites to achieve great civic enterprises.
PAST THE SHALLOW by Favel Parrett
Harry and Miles live with their father, an abalone fisherman, on the south-east coast of Tasmania. With their mum dead, they are left to look after themselves. When Miles isn’t helping out on the boat they explore the coast and Miles and his older brother, Joe, love to surf. Harry is afraid of the water. Everyday their dad battles the unpredictable ocean to make a living. He is a hard man, a bitter drinker who harbours a devastating secret that is destroying him. Unlike Joe, Harry and Miles are too young to leave home and so are forced to live under the dark cloud of their father’s mood, trying to stay as invisible as possible whenever he is home. Harry, the youngest, is the most vulnerable and it seems he bears the brunt of his father’s anger.
THE STREET SWEEPER by Elliot Perlman
How breathtakingly close we are to lives that at first seem so far away. From the civil rights struggle in the United States to the Nazi crimes against humanity in Europe, there are more stories than people passing each other every day on the bustling streets of every crowded city. Only some survive to become history. Recently released from prison, Lamont Williams, an African American probationary janitor in a Manhattan hospital and father of a little girl he can’t locate, strikes up an unlikely friendship with an elderly patient, a Holocaust survivor who had been a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau. A few kilometres uptown, Australian historian Adam Zignelik, an untenured Columbia professor, finds both his career and his long-term romantic relationship falling apart. Emerging out of the depths of his own personal history, Adam sees, in a promising research topic suggested by an American World War II veteran, the beginnings of something that might just save him professionally and perhaps even personally. As these two men try to survive in early twenty-first-century New York, history comes to life in ways neither of them could have foreseen.
Two very different paths – Lamont’s and Adam’s – lead to one greater story as The Street Sweeper, in dealing with memory, love, guilt, heroism, the extremes of racism and unexpected kindness, spans the twentieth century to the present, and spans the globe from New York to Melbourne, Chicago to Auschwitz. Epic in scope, this is a remarkable feat of storytelling.
ANIMAL PEOPLE by Charlotte Wood
“He could not find one single more word to say. I just want to be free. He could not say those words. They had already withered in his mind, turned to dust. He did not even know, he marvelled now, what the hell those words had meant.” Charlotte Wood takes a character from her bestselling book The Children and turns her unflinching gaze on him and his world in Animal People. Set in Sydney over a single day, Animal People traces a watershed day in the life of Stephen, aimless, unhappy, unfulfilled – and without a clue as to how to make his life better. His dead-end job, his demanding family, his oppressive feelings for Fiona and the pitiless city itself… the great weight of it all threatens to come crashing down on him. The day will bring untold surprises and disasters, but will also show him – perhaps too late – that only love can set him free. Sharply observed, hilarious, tender and heartbreaking, Animal People is a portrait of urban life, a meditation on the conflicted nature of human-animal relationships, and a masterpiece of storytelling.
Have you read any of these titles?
I have Gail Jones’ Five Bells on my bookshelf right now along with the first title Grand Days in the trilogy which Cold Light concludes to be read as part of this year’s Aussie Author Challenge. I also have Perlman’s The Street Sweeper on my wishlist.
Which titles do you think will make to the shortlist announced 3 May 2012?
The winner of the Miles Franklin Award 2012 will be announced on 20 June. Best of luck to all these very talented authors!