“Malcolm Turnbull was a good boy and did as he was told.” So one of the judges of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards told me, in jest I hasten to add, after there were dual winners for the third year in a row. The point is that, unlike Tony Abbott in the fiction award three years ago, Turnbull did not use his prime ministerial prerogative to make a “captain’s call”. I understand the judges agreed to split the history prize between Geoffrey Blainey’s The Story of Australia’s People and Sam Lipski and Suzanne Rutland’s Let My People Go and the nonfiction award between Sheila Fitzpatrick’s On Stalin’s Team and Karen Lamb’s biography of Thea Astley. I believe the same happened with fiction, which had a separate judging panel. The prize was shared by Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses. The judges agreed these two very different novels were equally worthy. So any conspiracy theorists who want to muse about Turnbull favouring the granddaughter of a former Liberal PM should settle down. Gorton’s novel is terrific, as is Wood’s. It was also pleasing to see the PM linger at the awards night in Canberra, after his embarrassingly brief appearance last year.
My feeling on the shared prizes is that the $80,000 on offer in each of the six categories does make it easier for the judges to agree on having two winners, as even half the prize is serious money. But that’s not a complaint: it’s wonderful that this prizemoney is available to our writers. The dead heats meant the biggest cheques went to the poet and the writers for younger readers, which is a nice result: Sarah Holland-Batt (poetry, The Hazards), Meg McKinlay (young adult fiction, A Single Stone and Sally Morgan (children’s books, Sister Heart). Congratulations to all. As a fan of Girt, David Hunt’s comically real history of Australia’s discovery and settlement, I looked forward to his follow-up, True Girt, which takes our national story on a wild — and often sad — ride along the colonial frontier. It’s full of booze-addled administrators, nononsense pioneers, pre-GPS explorers, sheep and bountifully bearded bushrangers. But of course another aspect is the dispossession and murder of indigenous Australians. This is a tricky line for Hunt to walk because he is an irreverent writer who makes history accessible through humour. I think he does it well, but as a result this is a darker book than Girt. Hunt is a speaker at this Sunday’s Newtown Festival in Sydney, as am I. More: newtownfestival.org. I wrote last week about the old-fashioned pleasure of receiving letters and cards. As I wrote, a Christmas card was on its way to me. It has three kangaroos on the cover and it is from writer David Ireland. “Had something to say,” he starts. What follows is not a seasonal blessing but some wise and generous thoughts on the art of book reviewing. It’s a lovely card, including the roos. The New Yorker has a fine interview with British Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid, run with a taste of his coming novel, Exit West. I value his reason for setting the novel in an unidentified country: “… readers are free to put names to this nameless place, if they wish. I often leave gaps in my writing, spaces for readers to fill in, areas left open to be co-imagined.” But the quote of the week comes from his thoughts on the importance of fiction: “Part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures. We are surrounded by … violently nostalgic visions. Fiction can imagine differently … We certainly need it now. Because if we can’t imagine desirable futures for ourselves that stand a chance of actually coming to pass, our collective depression could well condemn humanity to a period of terrible savagery.”