Tag Archives: Brooke Dunnell

Celebrating a lively year of fiction writing

The dust is subsiding after last night’s big ceremonial event for Western Australian writers: the Premier’s Book Awards, chosen from a large array of titles published in 2022 and (in the case of the Writer’s Fellowship) from major project applications.

Having been the head judge for this year’s prize selections, I’ve spent many weeks immersed in a fascinating variety of publications. But here I want to make a few informal remarks about just one segment of the entries — in a purely personal capacity. Official statements about shortlists for all five categories are posted on the website of the State Library, and you can see the streamed announcement of winners on its youtube channel. The following brief comments are merely my own, and don’t necessarily convey the opinion of my fellow judges.

My hearty congratulations go not only to every winner in every category but also to shortlisted authors, and to all their publishers. It would be a mammoth and presumptuous undertaking to comment, even briefly, on each of the books and Fellowship applications assessed by our judging panel. But as someone who has written a fair amount of fiction, I’d like — from an individual practitioner’s point of view — to highlight the particular strength of work in that genre as reflected in the whole field of entries.

In the Emerging category, for writers whose first book came out last year, two shortlisted titles took drug addiction as their subject. Both show exceptional storytelling power. Josh Kemp’s Banjawarn, winner in this category, grabs attention from the outset and holds it hypnotically. Using dual narrative perspectives (those of a transgressive crime writer and of an abandoned but spirited young girl), it ranges from lyrical passages of altered consciousness to sordid details and gruesomely gothic scenes. In Alan Fyfe’s T the narrative pace, pulled along by a succession of darkly comic episodes and a wryly ironic tone, enlivens the drug-soaked inertia of wholly credible characters, giving the reader acute insights into a world that can switch suddenly from the painful to the gruffly tender and even the hilarious.

Another title shortlisted in that category, Vivien Stuart’s Acacia House, stands out as a stylistically resourceful exploration of a challenging topic through credibly realised characters and a convincing mix of narrative voices. The main story is set in a Perth hospice, with a trio of nurses in the foreground — one from Adelaide, one from Ireland and one from South Africa. Authentically distinctive idioms differentiate these three focal figures, whose interactions contribute strongly to the development of the novel’s important themes, while their back-stories enrich the predominantly Western Australian setting.

I’ll mention quickly just a couple of other noteworthy 2022 novels by debut WA writers. Like those discussed above and below, they are broadly in the realist mode. Sharron Booth’s The Silence of Water, a novel underpinned by diligent research, makes imaginative use of historical material from the convict era to create a story about a family’s legacy of dark secrets. And Joanna Morrison’s intriguing crime mystery The Ghost of Gracie Flynn has an absorbing storyline shaped by an innovative variation on the traditional omniscient narrative method.

Among the shortlisted titles in the Book of the Year category was Robert Drewe’s historical novel Nimblefoot, evoking in a highly entertaining way the rough raw world of Australian colonial life. It’s filled with colourful anecdotes that provide the story with picaresque impetus and an air of authenticity. Like all of Drewe’s fiction, this novel shows great skill in constructing a narrative that holds the reader’s interest from start to finish.

Other WA novels of comparable merit that came out last year include Che’s Last Embrace, by Nicholas Hasluck, a cleverly told story about the unreliability of storytelling. Different narrative strands (newspaper articles, letters, poems, conversations) are woven together with admirable subtlety, each in turn apparently promising to disclose elusive facts surrounding Che Guevara’s final campaign — only to prove doubtful in one way or another. Though set mainly in South America, the plot and characters also include links to Australia, incorporating a satirical perspective on the contemporary Australian art industry.

In The Sawdust House David Whish-Wilson uses a boldly dialogic narrative technique for creating a memorable kind of fact-based fiction. The complex main character, Irish-Australian-American bareknuckle pugilist James Sullivan, is portrayed largely through the invention of a plausibly authentic idiom that reflects his variegated background, and through his conversations with a journalist interlocutor.

Portland Jones’s Only Birds Above is a sensitively imagined and skilfully unfolded tale about the impact of foreign wars on an Australian family. The characters are thoroughly convincing, and there is particular subtlety in the way an inarticulate blacksmith, Arthur, is portrayed through his care for horses. Jones’s prose is distinguished by memorable phrasing.

Set further back in the past is a lively YA story about pirates, with a focus on shifty gender identities: Meg Caddy’s Slipping the Noose generates momentum well and sustains narrative tension, while incorporating plenty of accurate historical details (e.g. the vivid depiction of 17th-century London streets).

Closer to home is Holden Sheppard’s The Brink, a well paced YA novel set in the present day and in coastal areas north of Perth. It subverts the formulaic road-trip structure to produce a potent story about the importance of discovering your real identity and embracing it. The characters and dialogue are entirely credible.

Lingering in my mind is Kevin Price’s Poetic Licence, a slow-burn political thriller that takes place mainly in Fremantle. It features idiosyncratic characters and sharply observed settings in developing its ingeniously enigmatic plot.

I also enjoyed Kate McCaffrey’s Double Lives, which has an inventive, engaging narrative premise — constructing a crime podcast that not only takes us through a process of detection but also serves as a way of exploring some of the complexities of transgender experience and reactions to it.

Other fiction that impressed me includes Alice Nelson’s Faithless, a complex love story in which the prose is finely shaped and tension is well sustained; Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule, an accomplished page-turning thriller; Brooke Dunnell’s The Glass House, which conveys moving insights into family relationships; Susan Midalia’s Miniatures, an amusing collection of micro-fictions, mainly in a satirical vein; and Sasha Wasley’s A Caravan like a Canary, an easy read with believable characters and an engrossing storyline.

That’s by no means an exhaustive list, and it excludes fiction that moves outside the general scope of realism, such as Madeline Te Whiu’s bold fantasy novel The Assassin Thief, which made the Emerging Writer shortlist, as well as some very fine fictional work for younger readers, e.g. The Raven’s Song, a dystopian tale by Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble, which made the Children’s Book shortlist, and Craig Silvey’s cheerful and charming story Runt.

With so many impressive works of fiction being published here last year (to say nothing of other genres), I’m confident that the Western Australian writing community is in very good health.