Women and fiction dominate the 2021 Colin Roderick Literary Award Shortlist
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Monday 2nd August 2021
The shortlist for one of Australia’s oldest and most prestigious literary awards has been announced by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, based at James Cook University.
The shortlist is dominated by fiction: Consolation by Garry Disher, Melting Moments by Anna Goldsworthy, The Survivors by Jane Harper, Infinite Splendour by Sofie Laguna, and A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu, with Louise Milligan’s Witness the only non-fiction book to make the cut.
Dr Leigh Dale, the chair of the judging panel, said the judges can’t wait to reread the books on the shortlist, to fuel their debate about who will be the winner.
‘A couple of my colleagues are hinting that they think there is a standout,’ she said. ‘But we will all be rereading judiciously. These are all well-crafted and fascinating books.’
Jessie Tu is the only first-time novelist to have made the shortlist. A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is a boisterous first-person account of a young musician, a former child prodigy, whose wild life in Sydney then New York is largely secret from her family and mentors.
Another novel about a creative artist, Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendour, tells the story of a recluse unable to form or maintain friendships, sustained by his art and by his encounters with the natural world.
Contrastingly, Anna Goldsworthy’s Melting Moments focuses on an ‘ordinary’ domestic life, offering wise and sometimes wry observations about the experience of women in twentieth-century Australian suburbia.
Two novels are mysteries: Jane Harper’s The Survivors focuses on a small seaside town shaped by a tragedy and the secrets that surrounded it; Disher’s country police officer ‘Hirsch’, who featured in his earlier novels Bitter Wash Road and Peace, untangles a set of puzzles that range from the sombre to the bizarre.
Women authors dominate, having written five of the six shortlisted books, among which Witness by Louise Milligan was the only work of non-fiction. Setting out the personal cost of giving evidence in cases of sexual assault in vivid detail, it sheds new light on how witnesses experience the justice system.
Dr Dale said the decision to shortlist mainly fiction was more a reflection of the quality of this year’s novels than the preferences of the judges for any genre.
‘I’m sure writers in other genres will take up the challenge next year,’ she said. ‘Perhaps hoping to emulate Sally Young’s triumph in 2020 with her newspaper history Paper Emperors.’
The Colin Roderick Literary Award recognises the best original book, in the judges' opinion, that is published in Australia in the previous calendar year. Submissions must deal with any aspect of Australian life and can be in any field or genre of writing, verse or prose. The award, presented by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, comes with a $20,000 prize and the H.T. Priestley Memorial Medal.
This year’s Award received 200 entries and all six shortlisted are would-be first-time winners. Laguna was previously longlisted in 2018 for The Choke and Harper in 2019 for The Lost Man, while Disher was shortlisted last year for Peace.
The winner will be announced in Townsville in October.
Garry Disher, Consolation. [Text Publishing]
Disher’s Consolation is about Paul Hirschhausen, the only police officer in a small town in country South Australia. There’s a lot going on in the area patrolled by ‘Hirsch’, while Disher’s descriptions of people and places are deft and full of energy. Consolation is another classy whodunnit from a reliably skilful writer.
Anna Goldsworthy, Melting Moments. [Black Inc.]
Melting Moments tells the story of Ruby, from childhood to old age, the latter almost unexpected, so vivid and vibrant is Goldsworthy’s portrait. Ruby has had some ‘melting moments’ in which she has queried notions of what women enjoy and aspire to, but struggles a little as her daughter embraces the social change of the sixties and seventies.
Jane Harper, The Survivors. [Pan Macmillan Australia]
Harper offers a multi-stranded ‘whodunnit’ that centres on the changing world of a tourist town whose people know each other almost too well. With dexterity and sympathy she depicts family conflicts and small-town relationships, while unravelling a series of secrets that have, until now, protected the guilty and the innocent in equal measure.
Sofie Laguna, Infinite Splendour. [Allen & Unwin]
This novel opens out an apparently simple question: what happens when a clever and creative child is not able to fulfil the promise that seemed inevitable? Sustained only and largely in secret by his art, the narrator is a troubled and troubling character. In a story that builds slowly, Infinite Splendour has a denouement that will leave you gasping for breath.
Louise Milligan, Witness. [Hachette Australia]
Using examples from actual court transcripts, Milligan shows the ordeal of acting as a witness in a trial for sexual assault, a process in which defence barristers, often expert and experienced courtroom performers, try their utmost to fulfil their professional duty to create ‘reasonable doubt’. The effects on witnesses can be compounded when they have been the victims of the crime committed by the defendant.
Jessie Tu, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing. [Allen & Unwin]
If some readers might find Jessie Tu’s story of a young woman who combats her sense of isolation with sexual adventures confronting, others will find it enthralling. The novel asks how teachers and families respond when young people – here, a former child prodigy on the violin – assert control, escaping the constraints of family and of professional cultures.