Saturday, March 29, 2008

Carn Michelle

I see from the current Sydney PEN newsletter that Michelle de Kretser's novel The Lost Dog has been shortlisted for the inaugural Barbara Jefferis Award, and the winner will be announced tomorrow.

(This is the prize that caused such a fuss last year when first announced, mainly because it's for women writers only. [UPDATE: My bad, my very bad, for this is completely wrong: it is open to novelists of either or indeed any sex whose book represents women and girls in a positive light; see comments thread.] Oh noes! What about Teh Menz Liberation, huh? Huh? Etc.)

As you can see if you read the link, this is a very handsome prize. Quite apart from the $35,000, there is the warm glow of winning an award named in honour and memory of a woman who contributed so much for so long to Australian literature -- and associated also with her husband John Hinde, long-standing and much-loved ABC film critic, whose will provided for the establishment of the award in his wife's name.

Peace and all to the current Miles Franklin judges, some of whom are mates of mine, but it's a matter of absolute gobsmackedness to me that The Lost Dog didn't even make the longlist for the 2008 Miles F award. It fits the award's criteria (which de Kretser's previous novel, The Hamilton Case, did not), and it's one of the best Australian novels I've read not just over the last year but for a very long time. I've got nothing against the other books that made the Miles F longlist; I just think The Lost Dog is better than most if not all of them -- for all kinds of reasons, but mostly, I think, for its delicate balance of intellectual sophistication and genuine, intense, beautifully realised feeling. That, and the fact that by about three pages in you find yourself thinking 'Oh my, this book was written by a grown-up.'

This is the review of it that I wrote last year for the Sydney Morning Herald:

The Lost Dog
By Michelle de Kretser
Allen & Unwin, 364 pp, $35 (hb)

Tom Loxley is on a kind of rural retreat when his beloved dog goes missing in the bush. Over the course of the story his search for the dog is interspersed with episodes of back-story: the story of his early childhood in India, his cramped teenage years in Australia, his unlucky and thwarted parents, and most of all his strange, tender relationship with the mysterious Nelly Zhang.

Tom is an academic working on a book about Henry James; he has anchored his racially complicated heritage in English literature. This novel is haunted by James in all kinds of ways, not least by a preoccupation with the idea of haunting itself, as well by the idea of yearning. On the surface Tom’s yearning is for the lost dog, and for the beloved who refuses to become a lover, but these things are situational and remediable; what can’t be changed is Tom’s family history and geography, the complex fate of the post-colonial.

This book is so engaging and thought-provoking, and its subject matter so substantial, that the reader notices only in passing how funny it is. At one point Tom goes to ask the neighbour Corrigan to keep an eye out for the dog, whereupon the narrator produces a sentence worthy of Patrick White: ‘When the Australian desire to provide assistance meshed with the Australian dread of appearing unmanly, it produced the bluff menace that was Mick Corrigan’s default setting.’

Michelle de Kretser is one of those rare writers whose work balances substance with style. Her writing is very witty, but it also goes deep, informed at every point by a benign and far-reaching intelligence. She is still winning prizes for her 2003 novel The Hamilton Case and she is certain to win a few more for The Lost Dog. Publishers Allen and Unwin have shown their faith in her by publishing this novel as a beautifully-designed hardback.

But I only had a 320-word space and they're meant to be brief, lively, accessible shorts; if you want a good, serious, insightful, detailed critical response, go and have a read of James Ley's full-length review in the Age. (Whenever I hear someone say 'Oh but Peter Craven is the best critic in the country', I have a little smile to myself, because while there are things about Craven's writing (not his criticism, so much) that I do admire very much, it's quite obvious to me that the best critic in the country is in fact James Ley.)

And just as an added bonus, that beautiful cover and design are courtesy of the lovely and talented Ampersand Duck. What more could any reader possibly want? Here is A. Duck's fabulous post about working on this novel; give yourself time (a cup of coffee, say) to read and savour this lovely detailed post.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat

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