The stella longlist is a like a platter of canapes to those doing the Australian Women Writers challenge. Afterall, here are the top books by Australian women writers for the last year. Naturally I stuck my hand out to the passing plate and stuffed my gob. The result? Well to be honest I’ve overindulged on a string of reading that may have been made with different recipes but all used essentially the same ingredients. And I’m afraid I've got indegestion. Burp. Hiccup. I’ve developed an intolerance to frustrated artistic mothers, mean mothers, teen girl point of view, hints of climate change and frankly I’m allergic to even traces of hippy communes.
And that is not to say the books are not good. They are! Just not to be taken all at once. And yet – what does it say? Is it coincidence? Are these themes so central to female concerns? Is it about writing the past? Writing as therapy? Working out issues? Is it zeitgeist? Fashion? Trend?
Let’s look at the books I have read from the long list so far:
"The Other side of The World" by Stephanie Bishop – so devastating and beautifully written. Of all of the books this has been the most affecting and interestingly did not make it to the Stella shortlist. This book broke my heart. It was written with great tenderness toward the central characters – a couple at odds in their idea of happiness and their needs. A couple that can’t work it out for reasons of origin, identity, cultural background, ambition and the times. Central to the book is a frustrated artist mother, an immigrant to Australia, who is, at times, mean, neglectful and frustrated. Several times I flinched and wanted to avert my gaze from seeing elements of myself. The ending I found so sad I actually re imagined the whole thing in my head to erase the heavy helplessness that descended on me. This one is distinct in that it is set in the 50’s/early 60’s.
"Anchor Point" by Alice Robinson
For the first third (?) of the book the POV is that of a child/young teenager. A family broken, a mother neglectful mean (yes another frustrated artist with hippy past) also an immigrant to Australia (German) who abandons the family. There is a filter of climate change issues washed over the whole book, set in the bush, in the 80’s through to the future. While the book moved beyond the bad mother incident, the abandonment was central. A lovely hook to the story was a Hardy-esque secret involving a destroyed letter which has (or should have had) deep consequences.This book broadens in scope, telling a story over decades, but in doing so many themes and tensions become diluted. The language was punchy and poetic. I enjoyed elements very much. Yet I still questioned the central character, plot and motives. There is little joy in this book.
"The World Without Us" by Mirelle Juchau
A frustrated artist mother with a hippy commune past who is mean and neglectful. A dead sister, a teenage POV for part of the book (And I believe where the book was strongest voice) an immigrant Dad (German again!) and overtures of climate change. I actually found reading this book like trying to get through dense brush with a rubber chicken instead of a much needed machete. There is no joy in this book, lots of sadness, cruelty and loss. Interestingly – it’s on the shortlist, very similat to "Anchor Point" and if I had to pick the better of the too it would be the Alice Robinson book.
"Hope Farm" by Peggy Frew
I wrote a more detailed review of this book here.
A teenage girl POV. A mother daughter relationship full of misunderstanding. And guess what? A neglectful frustrated mother (although not an artist NOR an immigrant! phew!) ) and a hippy commune. This book is kinder to the mother character, giving her a voice and past and an interesting technique where the reader is privy to information that illuminates the reasons why the mother has come to this point in her life while the daughter character remains in the dark – which heightens the tension and tragedy. Some terrific memorable descriptions and characters.Quite a conventional and accomplished novel. And it's made it to the shortlist.
So that’s my reading of the long list so far and I needed a break. So I'm reading some international contemporary novels with less description more substance – also by women writers – and reflecting on why Australain Women writers are all writing the same book.