Saturday, 29 February 2020

The Witch of Aiaia

When the 2019 Women's Prize shortlist was released last year, I was intrigued by two novels that were feminist retellings of ancient myths.  Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller's Circe were quickly added to my monstrous 'To-Be-Read pile' but Miller was the first one I tackled based on recommendations from my friends in the Twitterverse.

Ancient myths have always intrigued me. As children, my brother and I spent many lazy weekends watching the Clash of the Titans (1981), marvelling at Ray Harryhausen's visual effects, cheering on Perseus as he battled Medusa and the Kraken. As I got older, my interest waned as mythology always felt so patriarchal, with women portrayed so superficially, largely as immoral or manipulative.

The retelling of myths, with a more sophisticated view of women, has reignited my interest and I began my adventure with Madeline Miller's Circe.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, the powerful Titan and god of the sun. Unlike her siblings, Circe is seen is inferior and stupid, dismissed by her father who revels in all that glitters. What she lacks in charisma she makes up for in curiosity, learning how to use herbs to make potions and master her sorcery.  She has a deep empathy for mortals and when she falls in love with Glaucos, a local fisherman, she tries to use her witchcraft to make him immortal so they could be together forever. Instead, Glaucos turns into a god, dumps Circe, and becomes infatuated with the sea-nymph Scylla. In a jealous rage, Circe turns Scylla into a hideous monster, and is exiled by Zeus to the island of Aiaia to live out her days in solitude.

Circe makes a home on Aiaia and masters her witchcraft;  necessary to fend off the seafarers and marauders that seek to violate and steal from her. Over the course of the novel, Circe meets Prometheus, befriends Daedulus and his ill-fated son Icarus, and beds Odysseus. She crosses paths with Jason, Medea, the Minotaur, Penelope, and many more.

Writing from a first person perspective allows Miller to let readers inside Circe's mind, to discover how she thinks and feels. Her admirable resilience and fortitude, her generosity and wit, and her longing for connection are very real. Circe was a minor character in Homer's Odyssey, but here she is fully formed and realised. Miller is a gifted writer, breathing life into an ancient tale.

I absolutely loved this novel and am now on a mission to track down Madeline Miller's previous book, The Song of Achilles (2011), and read Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (2018).

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Mekong Love

Joey Bui has been Longlisted for the Stella Prize for her debut collection of short stories, Lucky Ticket (2019). Bui is a Vietnamese-Australian writer who based many of the stories in this book on conversations she had with Vietnamese refugees around the world.

The title story, set in a Saigon, features an interesting narrator. He is an elderly, homeless, war veteran with no legs, who sells lottery tickets on the street. Despite repeated setbacks he is an optimist at heart. Another standout story is 'Mekong Love', about an arranged marriage between a young couple in rural Vietnam.

My favourite story was 'Abu Dhabi Gently' about a newly married Tanzanian man who goes to the United Arab Emirates to work. It details the isolating lives of migrant workers, toiling day after day to send funds home to their families, waiting until they have earned enough and their employers return their passports.

Other stories are set in Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Kathmandu and beyond. Themes of war, separation, identity, privilege and family permeate each tale. Isolation, dislocation and loneliness are global sentiments.

I love well written short stories and this book appealed to me because the stories give voice to minorities. While I enjoyed some of the stories, the collection as a whole did not entirely gel for me. Bui's writing is thought-provoking and I reckon she is an author to watch.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Circle of Friends

'Adele and Wendy and Jude did not fit properly anymore, without Sylvie. They had been four, it was symmetrical. When they went on holidays they shared two hotel rooms, two beds each. There were four places at the table, two on each side. Now there was an awful, unnatural gap.' (p71)
Charlotte Wood's The Weekend (2019) is the story of three friends, now in their seventies, coming together after the death of Sylvie. The women have been friends for decades and have been with each other through life's ups and downs. They gather for one last Christmas at Sylvie's beach house, to clear it out for sale and to remember her.

Adele is an actress, who had brief fame a lifetime ago and now struggles to pay her way. Wendy was once an admired feminist academic, now widowed with distant children and an ageing unwell dog. Restauranteur Jude is used to being in control and as such doles out the tasks to the others ensure Sylvie's house is cleaned properly, although no one will meet Jude's exacting standards.

The three women could not be more different and it is a wonder that their relationship has survived for forty-plus years. Sylvie was the lynchpin that held the foursome together.

Each of the women grieves the loss of their friend in different ways and over the course of the weekend tensions rise, past slights and bitterness come to the surface. Will their relationship endure or will the fragile threads that bind them finally give way?

Charlotte Wood is a gifted writer, creating deeply real, flawed characters. She writes with wit and insight, offering an unblemished portrait of ageing, loneliness and grief. Even Finn, the ailing dog, is vividly portrayed. The Weekend is tightly written and able to be read in one sitting. It was such a pleasure to read a novel where all the lead characters are vibrant older women.

The Weekend has been longlisted for the Stella Prize. Wood won the Stella Prize in 2016 for her incredible novel The Natural Way of Things.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

The Stella Prize Longlist 2020

The 2020 Stella Prize longlist has been announced! The annual literary award celebrating women writers of both fiction and non-fiction is named after Australian author Stella Miles Franklin. Past winners include:

  • Vicki Laveau-Harvie for The Erratics (2019)
  • Alexis Wright for Tracker (2018)
  • Heather Rose for The Museum of Modern Love (2017)
  • Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things (2016)
  • Emily Bitto for The Strays (2015)
  • Claire Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014)
  • Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds (2013)

  • I credit the Stella Prize with introducing me to many authors that I would not have otherwise read.

    On 6 February 2020, the longlist for this year's Stella Prize was announced with 12 nominees. I have already read two of the books and loved them, but many of the other books and authors are unknown to me so I look forward to exploring these titles.

    The 2020 longlist is as follows:

    Short Story Collections

    Joey Bui - Lucky Ticket - This is a collection of short stories from a young Vietnamese-Australian author. The judges described Lucky Ticket as a book 'full of fresh, daring writing and delicious, tangible worlds, and the book and Bui's talent are both absolutely needed on the Australian literary-scape'. I love a good short story so will check this out. (Update: Read Review)

    Yumna Kassab - The House of Youssef - The western suburbs of Sydney is the setting for this collection of short stories which centres on the lives of Lebanese immigrants. Told in a minimalist style with sparse detail, Kassab's debut work has been praised by the judges for her consistency in 'quality, technique and narrative form'. 

    Josephine Rowe - Here Until AugustThis is a collection of short stories set in diverse locations. The judges reported that 'the stories in this collection look at the core aspects of human life - grief, love, sex, sadness, joy and loss. They are deeply reflective with moments of lightness that create an overarching sense of optimism'. Looks interesting, so I have just ordered it from my local library. (Update: Read Review)


    Favell Parrett - There Was Still Love - I see this book everywhere I go - shop windows, booksellers' picks, literary mags. I have been interested in reading it, but always fear I will be disappointed after such hype or genuinely good. Set in Prague in 1938, Prague 1980 and Melbourne in 1980, Parrett explores generations of one family impacted by war and conflict.

    Vikki Wakefield - This is How We Change the Ending - This is a young adult novel which centres on a teenage boy who worries about many things. The judges write that this novel 'tackles the urgent issues for kids today in a way that is relatable. It is an unflinching book that brims with anxieties and attitude, raw angst and gentle refuge.'

    Tara June Winch - The Yield - Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch tells the tale of the Gondiwindi family. The ageing Albert wants to pass on language and storytelling to the next generation. His granddaughter August returns home to find the family land repossessed. Through this work, Winch tells a story about the importance of Indigenous identity, language and culture.

    Charlotte Wood - The WeekendWood won this prize in 2016 for her novel The Natural Way of Things - the book I most recommended and gave to others that year.  The Weekend is the story of four older women who have been friends for a lifetime. When one dies, their friendship changes. I purchased The Weekend and have it on my bedside waiting to be read. (Update: read review)


    Caro Llewellyn - Diving Into Glass
    This memoir is a moving story about mental illness, disability and family. Llewellyn was enjoying life in New York when she collapsed and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Blindsided by illness, she reflected on the courage of her father who was wheelchair-bound from the polio he contracted at age 20, which gave her the skills to rebuild her own life. 

    Mandy Ord - When One Person Dies the Whole World is Over
    In this graphic work of non-fiction, Ord explores themes of belonging and loss. Taking the form of a diary over the course of a year, this is a record of daily life, relationships, and the ups-and-downs that impact us all. I am intrigued by the idea of this book and have just ordered it from the library.


    Gay'wu Group of Women - Song Spirals
    This is a collaborative project by eight women who have gathered ancient narratives of the land in the form of storytelling through songs. The judges write 'this generous, rich narrative helps readers slow down and open up to deep learning. We believe this is a rare and valuable book that, through the generosity of the writers, will increase the knowledge and importance of Indigenous storytelling.'

    Jess Hill - See What You Made Me Do
    Investigative journalist Jess Hill set out to understand what compels men to violence against women. In switching the spotlight from victim to perpetrator, she explores the systems in place which disservice women and which, if altered, could dramatically reduce domestic violence.

    Sally Young - Paper Emperors
    This book is a historical account of the Australian newspaper industry. Its author is a professor of political science at the University of Melbourne who has written several books on media and politics. Young explores how newspaper owners grew in influence, shaping Australian politics and the national discourse.

    In compiling this longlist, the judges have chosen books that are 'exciting and varied'. For more information and the complete judges comments, see the Stella Prize website.

    The Shortlist will be announced on Friday 6 March and the winner will be revealed on 8 April 2020. Happy reading!