Australia The Stella Prize 2021 shortlist spotlights the best books by Australian women and non-binary writers
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The shortlist for the 2021 Stella Prize brings together key strands of angst and anxiety from the past 12 months — pandemics, sexual violence and misogyny, race, the environment.
Two of the books deal with the scourge of sexual violence against women in very different ways: Louise Milligan's Witness is a journalistic survey of sexual assault trials, while Evie Wyld's novel The Bass Rock imagines the lives of women in different eras who are each affected by sexual violence.
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Revenge, by S.L. Lim, expresses the rage that accumulates within one woman over decades of being abused, belittled and overlooked — by men within her family, and by a patriarchal system.
This thread of focus feels apt for a prize that emerged from discussions around gender disparity in the Australian literary landscape — from what gets published to what gets reviewed, and what wins awards.
It's notable that this is the first year that a non-binary writer has been longlisted, then shortlisted for the Prize, after Stella expanded its guidelines in 2019.
Also on this year's shortlist are Laura Jean McKay's 'zoo flu' novel The Animals in That Country, which won the $100,000 Victorian Premier's Literary Award earlier this year, Mirandi Riwoe's cross-cultural historical fiction Stone Sky Gold Mountain, and Rebecca Giggs's creative-non-fiction meditation, Fathoms: the world in the whale.
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Taking you through this six-book reading list are RN's book experts: Claire Nichols and Sarah L'Estrange from RN's The Book Show and Kate Evans from RN's The Bookshelf.
The Stella Prize winner will be announced on April 22.
Revenge: Murder in Three Parts by S.L. Lim
It begins with a body, but it's not crime fiction. Yannie, our Chinese Malaysian heroine, is slumped on the floor after being beaten, yet again, by her older brother. Her mother's response is telling: at a family gathering, she jokes about Yannie's "brush with death".
From then on, Yannie carries a paper cutter, and fantasises about the shiny blade.
At this point Yannie is 11, and the dynamic sets the stage for the physical and emotional abuse that Yannie experiences from her family. Her brother gets preferential treatment, her parents go into debt so he can go to university, while Yannie is expected to look after the family business and her ailing parents. She dreams of being a writer and exploring her sexuality with her high school friend, but it's all thwarted.
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A move to Sydney from Malaysia in her middle-age presents an opportunity, however, and Yannie moves in with her wealthy brother, his wife and daughter. While she presents as the self-effacing Auntie, happy to help in the home, revenge is still simmering.
Lim's novel exposes the brutal use of power within the idealised nuclear family. For Yannie, who grew up in a poor Malaysian town in a male-preferencing household that quashed all her dreams of love, sex and a career, there's nothing ideal about it. SL
Witness by Louise Milligan
The trauma of a sexual assault is hard enough. But in journalist Louise Milligan's book, we're asked to consider the additional trauma that follows, if the victim pursues the offender through the courts.
Milligan exposes a legal system that continually fails to protect victims. We see defence barristers — usually older men — belittle and berate the accusers — usually younger women. They ask questions about what underwear the women wore or how much they drank.
"Madam, I suggest to you, you will say whatever you think helps your story, whether it's true or untrue," one QC says to a 19-year-old woman, during cross-examination (the woman says she was raped in an alleyway mere minutes after meeting the accused in a Kings Cross nightclub). "You may laugh, Madam," the QC continues. "Do you understand that this is a very serious situation for my client?"
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Milligan is a reporter for the ABC's Four Corners, and previously won a Walkley for Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell. She was a witness in the Pell trial, and in the prologue to this new book she recounts the "illuminating, traumatic and, ultimately, politicising" impact the experience had on her.
Milligan's empathy and rage are in full force in Witness, and she asks us to share in that anger too, as she shows us a system that still values money and masculinity over justice for victims. CN
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
A windswept rock by a cold Scottish sea; a body in a suitcase with a blinking eye, glimpsed by a startled child; and women running in fear: Evie Wyld's novel The Bass Rock is full of gothic images.
They all connect to a place near said windswept rock where, in the present, a woman named Viviane is visiting the family home; Ruth, decades earlier, shows us her grim marriage; and, in the early 1700s, young Sarah is labelled a witch.
Their stories are not just tied to this piece of land, but also to moments of great violence, and to the lives of other women whose heads have been smashed in and bodies broken.
Some of these other stories appear as glimpses and vignettes, interspersed between the three main narratives.
This is a book where strands and moments interweave, startle, crash up against each other, move in and out of the focus of memory — and it's in the reading that you make sense of it. So, no easy plot summaries here.
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The experience is powerful and startling, breathing on you in the cold and damp. KE
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
If you've ever wondered what animals would say if they could communicate with humans, this novel presents a poetic and imaginative dive into this possibility.
The novel is prescient too: Laura Jean McKay started writing it long before the Coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020 (in fact part of the inspiration was her infection with the mosquito-borne chikungunya disease during a Bali visit) but it's about a flu pandemic that sweeps across Australia.
This "zoo flu" has a peculiar side effect: people start to understand animals. They don't always like what they hear.
The central character, Jean, is a jaded zoo guide who has a bond with a particular dingo at the enclosure, named Sue. As a result of the zoo flu, Jean discovers the bond is not quite what she expected, as Sue's thoughts are quite scatological in tone. Jean and Sue embark on a dangerous road trip to rescue Jean's beloved granddaughter — a journey weighted with the additional hope of saving her wayward son.
McKay provides an ingenious insight into the human-animal relationship, shining a light on the fallibility of our anthropocentric approach, particularly as a climate catastrophe looms. SL
Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
Australian history gets a vital, contemporary makeover in this sumptuous novel from Mirandi Riwoe, who also made the Stella shortlist in 2018 with her debut novella, The Fish Girl.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain takes us to the Queensland goldfields in the 19th century, but shifts the spotlight away from the typical colonial narrative. Instead, we focus on the siblings Ying and Lai Yue, who have fled home in China to seek their fortunes in Australia, and on Meriem, a young white woman who works for a sex worker on the outskirts of Maytown.
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Ying disguises herself as a boy and finds work at a Chinese shop in Maytown. Isolated and lonely, she seeks a friendship — and maybe something more — with Meriem, who is moved by the gentle kindness of this quiet boy. Meanwhile Lai Yue, working as a carrier on an overland expedition, is tormented by memories of a lost love.
The writing is often lyrical and moving — Riwoe shines when writing about the Australian landscape — but when it comes to the discrimination and cruelty these outsiders face, she is clear-eyed. Readers will be quick to draw parallels between the violence and racism of gold rush-era Queensland, and the Australia of today, in this important and timely novel. CN
Fathoms: the world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs
Rebecca Giggs' book begins with a stranded whale, both grand and tragic, compelling and horrifying.
As Giggs watches this monstrously beautiful body collapse in on itself, she wants to understand everything: why it has ended up out of its watery world and on the shore we share; what is happening inside this behemoth; how the body will be shifted; what it symbolises, represents and foretells.
And in answering these and other questions, she moves between the poetic and philosophical to the scientific and practical; veers from the sublime to the everyday reality of oceanic pollution — and even in that, she finds surprising answers.
The body of the whale confronts our mythologies and our relationship to nature, the way we tell stories and the manner in which we dispose of everything — from chemicals to old washing machines. And in this fierce and delicate exploration, her writing is as graceful as these large swimming mysteries.
A book like this shows the best of what reflective, creative non-fiction can do. It begins with the personal but does not indulge in it. Giggs moves outward to the meaning of things, while returning not to her own bones, but to the bones of this giant creature: reclaiming scrimshaw, perhaps. KEFor more coverage of The Stella Prize listen toand podcasts.
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