BOOK REVIEW: The Beloved (Annah Faulkner, Picador)

BelovedRoberta ‘Bertie’ Lightfoot suffers from polio as a child, and is helped through it by her tough-minded mother, along with the paper and pencils given to her by her father. The paper and pencils are a way into art, and from this point on there will be a struggle between the young artist and her beloved but overbearing mother. The family moves to Port Moresby in 1955, where a whole new world awaits. Bertie claims she can see ‘colours’ (auras) and so can often tell the truth about people, but this ability is also stifled. The Beloved is a vivid bildungsroman with believable characters and intense dramatic events. Tension arises not only from the relationship between Bertie and her mother (and the reader’s empathy for both of them), but the relationship between Bertie’s parents, and some of the immediate dangers of the Papua New Guinea environment. Annah Faulkner, winner of the 2011 Queensland Premier’s Award for an Emerging Writer, handles her characters’ desires and secrets tenderly. The novel is about two strong identities coming up against one another, the way passion (and art) can overtake a person’s very being, and the damaging effects of ‘wanting the best’ for a child who already knows who they are and what they want.

Angela Meyer is a writer, blogger (literaryminded.com.au) and former acting editor of Books+Publishing magazine. This review first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here. This book was longlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

BOOK REVIEW: The Forrests (Emily Perkins, Bloomsbury)

Dorothy Forrest is seven years old when the Forrests move from New York, with dwindling money, to New Zealand. At the opening of the novel, Frank, the father, is capturing his children on a movie camera, trying to make them participate in a special effect. The children run off in different directions, bored of their father’s instructions. But a fragment, a celluloid memory, is captured, and as the novel skips forward in time with each chapter, the past—and the figures in it—hover at the edges of Dorothy’s life.

Emily Perkins, acclaimed author of Novel about My Wife, chronicles a person’s life with depth, poignancy and passion. She manages to find the right, often surprising, words to describe the sensation of being in the world, both in the moment and over time. She never resorts to cliché. Often Dorothy exists both in the past—with her first love and family friend, Daniel, or with her beloved sister Eve—and in the present. She is bemused at how quickly time passes; in later chapters she fails to recognise her own reflection. The novel is, overall, a metaphor for this, with an entire life nestled between the front and back cover. It reflects the deep sadness of time passing, but also the potent joy of ‘the little things’—sensations—of which Dorothy reminds herself and is grateful. Dorothy is perpetually surprised by who she seems to be, and where she has ended up, through choice and life’s inevitable turns.

The Forrests is partly about survival, not just how we survive the often difficult and tragic events in our lives, but how we survive each other: our parents, our lovers, our children. It’s also about how we survive ourselves; how we deal with remnants of the past that remain with us, and how we deal with new fears that crop up and change us. How, too, do we deal with getting older? At one point Dorothy’s brother mentions their family friend and her first love: ‘Flickered with adrenaline, caught out as always at the mention of his name, [Dorothy] told Mike that last she heard he’d gotten married. Adulthood was like this—your voice calm, your face normal, while inside white turmoil squirted, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.’

The Forrests is a work of art as well as a successful narrative. It is nuanced, compelling and a treat for the mind, senses and emotions. Comparisons to Virginia Woolf, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith are all valid in the way they deal, in some of their works, with members of a family over time.

Angela Meyer is a writer, literary blogger and former acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Yearn’ (Tobsha Learner, HarperCollins)

Yearn is a collection of fun, imaginative and sexy stories by the author of Tremble and Quiver, Tobsha Learner. Learner’s stories are not purely erotic, but romantic and often other-worldly. Fate and magic have their parts to play in this collection. Highlights include ‘Pussy and Mouse’, about an overweight and insecure woman who is a BDSM goddess in the online world of Second Life; ‘Weather’, about a woman who believes the TV weatherman is her soul mate; and ‘Fur’, about a realistic nightly apparition who may have something to do with the protagonist’s new cat. The stories are pure fantasy— not just the sex and romance, but the wealthy and artistic lives of some of the protagonists. In terms of the writing, there are some awkward sentences and shifts in point of view. The erotic elements are various and well described, though all in the realm of heterosexuality. While this collection was enjoyable, I’m not sure it provides more substance than your standard erotic fiction kept in another section of the bookstore. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of imagination at work here, and enough to entertain and titillate a mainly female, popular-fiction readership. Male readers also have no reason to be deterred.

Angela Meyer is a former acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher. Her blog LiteraryMinded can be found on Crikey. This review first appeared in the Summer 2010/11 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Miller and the Miles Franklin: Do we have too many awards?

From today’s Crikey newsletter, former Bookseller+Publisher editor and literary blogger Angela Meyer writes:

Are there too many literary awards in Australia, and is our oldest one “slipping away”? If an Australian literary award was provided increased funding and focus, would the Miles Franklin be the most relevant?

Every year the Miles Franklin Literary Award attracts some debate and controversy, but the award’s prestige is waning, noted Alex Miller — a two-time winner and shortlisted author in this year’s awards — at the shortlisting ceremony yesterday. Miller, as reported in The Australian, said Prime Minister “Rudd the Dud” and arts minister Peter Garrett should have invested in the nation’s oldest literary award, instead of creating the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2008 (worth $100,000, to the MF’s $42,000), which he said “gets no publicity and will probably disappear when someone else becomes prime minister”.

Miller’s main point is that there are too many literary awards, and so it’s inevitable that there will be less focus on each. Besides the Prime Minister’s awards, there are various state Premier’s awards, and many other trust, media, festival, company and privately funded awards. Many are relevant for their individual fields and genres (such as the CBCA awards for children’s and young adult literature) but dispersing funding around for fiction awards when one solid, prestigious and attention-focused literary award could be developed, is a good point. Would the public pay more attention?

If this was put into effect, though, is the Miles Franklin really the award for the job? Sure, it was established in 1957, and has been won by culturally important, and stimulating, authors and books. Patrick White’s Voss was the recipient of the first award, as Miller noted. But the Miles Franklin’s criteria is stricter than awards established since: “It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. This is what Miles Franklin included with her bequest. What “Australian life in any of its phases” means, exactly, is something that comes up often in discussion of the shortlisted books. Continue reading