The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

“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: new­town­fes­ti­ 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.”

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