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Western Australian Premier's Book Awards - 2000 Judges' Report

Comments by the Judging Panel

For the 2000 awards 118 books were submitted. The judges considered these books in five categories, with two awards for the non-fiction section, traditionally the section with the largest number of entries. As in previous years there was an impressive list of books, some of which, the judges felt, could hold their own in any literary competition in the English-speaking world. While the judges held strong individual views on a number of books, their collective final decision displayed a remarkable degree of unanimity. In the end three books were short listed in the Fiction category, five in Poetry, four in Children's Books, three in Young Adults and nine in the Non-Fiction category. In all these categories the judges looked for works of outstanding merit that stood out in the respective genres. Judgments on style were placed alongside accessibility, examination of features that characterised that particular genre, experimentation with form and critical representation of the world or significant contribution to knowledge. Although the judging itself was time-consuming, all the judges emerged convinced that the full list of books submitted to this year's awards once again reflected the vitality of West Australian writing in all the five categories. In spite of the state's small population, West Australian writers stand out as among some of the best in the country.

Fiction Judge's Report

An Accommodating Spouse - Elizabeth Jolley
A subtly written and ironically humorous novel about a mild-mannered academic who lives in a house full of women, but also harbours a passion for one of his female colleagues in a university department. Written in Elizabeth Jolley's characteristically understated style (the line of literary homage goes back to Jane Austen) the novel returns to the subject of the quiet (and unfortunately lost) eccentricity of academia where sisters, lovers, and dons are subjects through whom the fragility of the ego, the dynamics of desire and the chaos of the social are explored.

Skeleton in the Cupboard - Nigel Gray
A collection of short stories with some very strong pieces that explore a range of human emotions. Nigel Gray examines life in terms of small incidents but manages to interweave into the lives of his characters a larger sense of social history. Written with a strong sense of an ending, these stories carry the reader with their narrative rhythm and psychological insights into human behaviour. The narrative point of view is engaging, tolerant and compassionate but never sentimental.

The Australian Fiancé - by Simone Lazaroo
In a spare but elegant style, Simone Lazaroo manages to give life to a couple of unlikely lovers who are brought together in fateful circumstances in the aftermath of World War II. Lazaroo skillfully presents Australian life and customs as they are seen through the eyes of a young Eurasian woman, a former prostitute and victim of war, who finds herself physically and culturally isolated in a remote part of Western Australia. The author's own voice intervenes into that of the narrator as she explores the intensely painful emotions that accompany the woman's gradual rejection by a lover who has his own pastoral lineage to consider. Although written in the genre of romance, the novel eschews the genre's predictable conventions to examine in a moving and imaginative manner, themes of love, hope and loss in a cross-cultural relationship.

Poetry Judge's Report

An Incomplete Memoir - Ian Templeman
Immensely accessible but at the same time thought-provoking poems that use narrative for reflecting on remembered experiences. Templeman uses a range of voices to examine a single event or idea that result in  changes to the original idea or the memory of the event and the speaker. A strong sense of the speaker's personality characterises these poems and allows readers to share the poetic experience.

Ashes to Water - Alec Choate
The collection carries narrative poems of feeling and observation, using metaphor and a fine sense of meter. The "Ashes to Water" section (or series of poems) is a powerfully written, moving, reverie on the poet's daughter and her death. Touching and poignant, but never sentimental or excessive, in these poems Alec Choate achieves a fine balance.

Each Clear Night - Marcella Polain
A collection marked by language that invites readers to recreate visually powerful images. An uncompromising poet who explores the relationship between the corporeal and the mind as the body engages with thoughts of immense intimacy and sometimes grief. There is a directness, an honesty, an intensely searching point of view here that makes readers rethink their erstwhile assumptions.

Parochial - Mark Reid
Reid is a poet who can recall grief and hold it by recreating simple moments. Written in a precise, forthright style, these poems about life and ordinary people have an unusual emotional power, direct and uncompromising. Whether communing with his bicycle or empathising with a dementia sufferer,  Reid brings a compassionate as well as whimsical perception to his subjects. The voices range from the elegiac to the detached and critical.

Wheatlands - Dorothy Hewett and John Kinsella
Two established poets bring together their poems about the Australian landscape and people. There are  strong poems about the land with a hint of nostalgia for the lost pastoral.  Hewett and Kinsella's alternating verses about memory of place and sense of time, about struggle and survival, complement each other admirably. The myth of the bush returns to us with all its evocative and enduring power.

Young Adults Judge's Report

The Darkness - Anthony Eaton
A dark, evocative, sometimes threatening seafarer's yarn about a lighthouse in Isolation Bay, WA. The people of the tiny ex-whaling town cling to life at the mercy of the Southern Ocean and the Darkness, the merciless storm that sweeps in every ten years. The novel works through superstition, fear, curse, and small-town gossip to build a narrative that reaches its peak when Rohan, already affected by the loss of both his father and grandfather during earlier visits of the Darkness, confronts the return of the storm in the company of the newly arrived Rachel on East Barrier Island. This strong tale of young adults against the backdrop of the sea and the broken lives of people at an erstwhile whaling outpost withholds the predictable romantic conclusion.

The Hidden - Ron Bunney
Interconnected story of Matt who escapes the classic ugly stepmother for a life at sea only to find himself brutalised by the bosun, and Jess, who is of mixed European and Aboriginal descent. She, too, is a victim, this time of the Broome pearling industry, who finds herself the object of sexual desire, and racist attitudes.Their lives come together after a storm at sea. This work for young adults, written in a sprightly style, utilises themes of adult violence towards teenagers. Its power resides equally in the carefully researched early West Australian pearling industry that functions as a backdrop to the later events in the novel. 

The Lost Thing - Shaun Tan
This intriguing tale takes picture books out of the purview of young children. The familiar plot tells of a boy with a passion for bottle-top collecting who finds a stray creature and brings it home. However, Tan, through his carefully chosen and juxtaposed words and pictures, challenges teenagers to look beyond the simple story to observe the world that surrounds them, and how people accommodate difference as embodied by the Lost Thing. Intricate drawings, some being clever parodies of the Australian futuristic cityscapes of Jeffrey Smart and John Brack, and collage backgrounds of cut up pages from old science books provide the foil for the simple narrative. A close attention to all these elements repays the reader amply.

Children's Books Judge's Report

Bardi Counting Book - Lucy Wiidagoo Dann. Illustrations - Francine Ngardarb Riches
Written primarily as a teaching resource for Bardi children, this simple but significant book introduces all children to the beautiful sounds of  Bardi words and to the important insight that all cultures do not count alike. The  juxtaposition of the decimal system of numbering with a system of multiples encourages both cultural awareness and lateral thinking.

Rhianna and the Wild Magic - Dave Luckett
In this appealing work of fantasy for younger readers, words have consequences in the world: they transform lives and create new pictures, give new meanings to ideas and actions. Rhianna must learn how to control her Wild Talent by controlling her thoughts and words, and the book abounds with wonderful use of metaphors that create her world. Her story provides an unusual reading experience moreover, as words leap out of the book to enthrall the reader.

Sage's Ark - Felicity Marshall
A charmingly illustrated book about a child who cannot speak, but paints. In spite of the silence that surrounds the artist, worlds come into existence through the magic of  her painting. This children's book also carries an important message about the fragility of our environment and the progressive demise of so many species of animals. Thankfully, Sage    paints life into endangered species and fends off unscrupulous strangers who want to trade in the animals she paints. 

Zarconi's Magic Flying Fish - Kirsty Murray
Gus's mother is seriously ill so she sends him off to his grandparents where he finds that they have strange, foreign names and run a circus. Gus gradually becomes part of the circus and  realises his destiny as the circus moves slowly up the coast from Esperance to Broome. The narrative moves at a great pace as Gus's genealogical past is gradually revealed. The relationships between the characters, particularly Gus and Effie, are well drawn, as are the Western Australian settings. Full of magic, mystery, and a delightful elephant, the story is meant for wide-eyed older children.

Non-Fiction Judge's Report

Anything But Ordinary - Cécile Dorward and Ron Davidson
A fascinating account (ably written in collaboration with Ron Davidson) of the life of a woman with bohemian English tastes and professorial leanings (her husband was philosophy professor at Liverpool) who becomes an occupational therapist, travels around the world (including Fiji) and finally settles in Cottesloe. This engaging life story of a lively spirit who continued to wander in her campervan until late in life is written with great understanding of humanity and a passion for life, with the English period recounted with a nostalgic sense of a world gone by.

Australian Rushes - edited by Kathy A. Meney and John S. Pate; Illustrations - Ellen J Hickman
This is an edited volume presenting the groundbreaking work of a group of researchers in the field of natural history who have identified a large percentage of Australian rushes and allied families. They have written detailed, exhaustive and scientific chapters that are nevertheless immensely accessible to the lay reader. Exemplary accounts of the biology, identification and conservation of Australian rushes are complemented by finely etched pencil drawings and some colour plates. This will remain a highly sought-after volume in the field for many years to come.

Between Devotion and Design - John J. Taylor
This is a valuable contribution in several different fields. It is a biography of a Franciscan priest and architect, John Cyril Hawes (1876 - 1956), who spent a good part of his life in the diocese of Geraldton; it is a contribution to the international history of architecture; it is also a study of a number of the historical buildings of Western Australia. The author has dedicated many years to research this complex story and has included architectural plans and photographs of buildings, both inside and out, from many parts of the world to illustrate the text. The result is a fascinating study, positioning Western Australia in an international context and introducing the reader to what would have been a forgotten legacy of an almost unknown, but fascinating, individual who combined religious piety with the pursuit of excellence in architecture.  

Broken Circles - Anna Haebich
This timely publication will be of inestimable value for those working in the field of national reconciliation between Aboriginal people and those of non-Aboriginal descent. It also goes a long way towards answering important questions about the policies that governed the "stolen generation". This detailed and scholarly history of the ways in which Aboriginal families were destroyed by the impact of immigrant culture, and by the deliberate policies of state governments, is the product of many years of research, and the book is so much more authoritative because of it. Haebich makes this painful chapter in Australia race relations very accessible even as she forces the reader to think through so many complex issues. 

Craft for a Dry Lake - Kim Mahood
The great Australian outback is sensitively retraced as a father's land in this well-written and absorbing book. The search for the elusive presence of the father in the narrator's past takes her back to the places she knew as a child, and to recall how people survived in the harsh world she portrays. It is a work that recreates an earlier world when home could be assumed. Memory modifies that earlier life, making the narrator more conscious of the spirit of the land, its Aboriginal history and culture. This strong book revitalises our own engagement with the vast Australian landscape and at the same time attempts to go beyond the simplistic definitions of nationality and identity. 

Down to Earth. Australian Landscapes - Richard Woldendorp and Tim Winton
In a familiar style he has made his own, acclaimed photographer Richard Woldendorp has produced a stunning album of aerial pictures of the Australian landscape in which his professional skill and artistry, as well as his love of his subject shine through. Through his lens the mundane is transformed into the spectacular, and the landscapes he photographs are presented in a way that demands their conservation. Tim Winton's fine introduction brings his own insights and passions to the subject without attempting to overshadow the main purpose of the book. The thinking person's coffee table book.

Field Guide to Australian Birds - Michael Morcombe
If you are a bird watcher, this is the book for you. It is an encyclopaedic collection of  850 species of Australian birds, written and painted by a man who has been working in this field all his life. There is an entry for each bird, dealing with identification, habitat and nesting habits. Opposite each individual description are a number of colour illustrations of individual birds drawn from various angles, which make for easy identification. This book is comprehensive, able to be carried without much difficulty and an indispensable tool for all bird lovers.

Into the Wadi - Michèle Drouart
A rare and illuminating insight into the cross-cultural marriage of a Western woman and a Jordanian man. It is a work that neither uncritically celebrates nor condemns, but traces in fine detail and with great sensitivity the daily lives and cultural practices of the extended  family into which the narrator has married. However, even as the narrator accommodates and understands, the relationship becomes strained. This painful awareness is recounted without acrimony and with the unusual understanding that her husband in a Western country would have had similar difficulties. A moving, metaphorical account, often rendered with a fiction writer's detached point of view, that reminds us that examination of cultural difference need not relapse into the crude stereotypes of orientalism. A brilliant antidote, moreover, to the "Western woman's escape from the barbaric Arab world" genre of popular weeklies.

The Shark Net - Robert Drewe
A superbly structured work written with the skill of a seasoned writer of fiction. Drewe brings to life the sleepy fifties and early sixties of Perth where a serial killer disturbs the serenity of people who never locked their doors. The narrator enters the scene of murder through his own boyhood recollections and produces a magnificent account of a city wracked by fear. Drewe weaves together his own story with that of the multiple murderer, Cook, who was active in the immediate environment in which he grew up. The writing is direct, the story easy to read. Yet one is aware, finally, of the great gulf between generations, as the child grows up to inhabit a world undreamed of by his parents. A work of non-fiction that is as strong as any work of fiction on the subject.