Alexis Wright won the Miles Franklin Award in 2006 for her novel Carpentaria. This year her book Tracker, described as a ‘collective memoir’ of Leigh Bruce ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, has won the Stella Prize. What does a collective memoir look like? It looks like an innovative literary form, though one not without precedent in the world of oral history. And this particular form is an education in decentralising the power of a singular narrative.
Tracker Tilmouth was an Aboriginal leader who worked for Indigenous self-determination in the Northern Territory. Alexis Wright combines interviews with Tracker with stories about him told by other people. The result is a kaleidoscopic tome, described as ‘hefty’ by The Guardian. Intimidating in both its size and its fastidiousness, Tracker is a many-layered narrative. This approach allows Wright to poke fun at such serious notions as ‘truth’, while telling a series of bloody good yarns.
The book is entertaining, but also it’s a meditation on identity:
Yes, well, telling stories, that is who we are as a people basically. We can tell a story from some people say thirty, some people say eighty, some people say two hundred thousand years. This is what makes us. It is our nature, telling stories.
It’s clear that Wright’s insistence on preserving Tracker’s voice in its ‘truest’, multitudinous form is a deliberate act of grace.
The Everlasting Sunday is Robert Lukins’ debut novel. Set in the winter of 1962 in England, a group of students at a school for wayward boys work out the power dynamics of survival. An art researcher and journalist based in Melbourne, Lukins has published widely, including in Overland. The world of The Everlasting Sunday enters the reader’s imagination calmly and subtly. Lukins’ prose is poised. His scenes are placed thoughtfully alongside each other like displays in a gallery, into which his characters are dropped, compelling and complex.
Lucy Treloar, author of Salt Creek, correctly describes Lukins’ writing as ‘powerful’ and ‘assured’. The Everlasting Sunday is also ambitious. Not only is Lukins writing into a space where the walls are lined with George Orwell and William Golding, he is also recreating a particular point in time. The cadences and language of the boys’ speech is effortless. A fascinating debut.
No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts is a book to relax into. An associate professor of English, Watts lives in Pennsylvania. Billed as an African-American re-telling of The Great Gatsby, this novel has been touted enthusiastically, named as the inaugural pick by Sarah Jessica Parker for her book club, and endorsed by Oprah. Before you take these recommendations as reason not to read it, perhaps take a moment to challenge your assumptions. No One is Coming to Save Us is by no means a light read. Watts’ exploration of the desolation of the working classes is assiduous and timely.
Watts’ cast of characters live in a small town forgotten by industry. Ron Charles of The Washington Post described them as being ‘sustained on a thick diet of disappointment’. The circumstances of the characters are, predictably enough, a corrective foil to the materialism of Gatsby and his ‘friends’. But here the predictability ends.
There’s a spareness to this novel, a lack of embellishment, that makes the voices of the characters chime heavily and realistically. The collective plural narrator allows Watts to insert humour without moralising. Watts is an author to follow.
If you Google Pip Desmond you’ll find a Ted Talk she gave about ethical storytelling. Desmond’s first book, Trust: A True Story of Women and Gangs, combined creative memoir and oral history reminiscent of Helen Garner’s nonfiction works. An activist in the 1970s, Desmond spent years working and living with ‘gang women’ in New Zealand. Trust was an attempt to tell their stories ethically. It didn’t shy away from intersections of class, race, economic disempowerment and violence.
Song for Rosaleen, her second book, turns the lens on subject matter more personally hazardous, and no less ethically fraught. A description of her mothers’ dementia, Song for Rosaleen takes us into rooms barely explored by creative nonfiction: the old persons’ care home, the doctor’s office, the group family email as the site of tense debate. To write this book, Desmond needed to get the agreement of her five siblings, all of whom feature here as themselves. And yet this book is not laboured with obligation or nostalgia. Rosaleen, Desmond’s mother, is rigorously portrayed, with effortful honesty.
It is dementia’s nature to erode the idea of a continuous story of the self. Along with the many Rosaleens described here, we have many Desmonds as well: the Desmond who is a frustrated advocate for her mother, the Desmond who strives for familial responsibility, and the Desmond who, childlike, is filled with grief and loss. This book is a last great, and articulate, act of care.
Olga Tokarczuk is the first Polish writer to win the Man Booker International Prize. The Man Booker, unlike the Booker, goes to the best published translated work of fiction, and while we could call it a mass purveyor of the postcolonial exotic, much is to be said for reading works in translation when the current state of the world is, well, this. In her native Poland, Tokarczuk is a bestselling author, till now relatively unknown in the larger world. But if we get anything from Flights it is an overturning of the notion that a person could be ‘native’ anywhere. Instead, nationhood is peripheral, secondary to the passions and preferences that govern our lives.
Equal parts brilliant and vexatious, this book walks a fine line between pushing the non-linearity of its narrative so strongly as to alienate us, and the consistent excellence of the writing itself.
Case in point:
Describing something is like using it — it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear.
And, if you don’t believe me:
Many people believe that there exists in the world’s coordinate system a perfect point where time and space reach an agreement. This may even be why these people travel, leaving their homes behind, hoping that even by moving around in a chaotic fashion they will increase their likelihood of happening upon that point.
Tokarczuk describes her books as ‘constellation novels’. The judges describe this one as a ‘non-traditional’ narrative. The book jumps about, from a mysteriously bereaved father figure, to an anatomist dissecting his own leg, to Chopin’s sister transporting his heart across Europe, and so on. Mortality and mobility are central concerns. The leaping about comes close to being wearisome. If it weren’t for the verisimilitude of the stories, and the wry, plaintive / humourous way they are told, Flights would be an exercise. As it is, Flights is very worth a read, preferably one leading to heated debate.