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Western Australian Premier's Book Awards - 2001 Judges' Report

Comments by the Judging Panel

For the 2001 awards, 96 books and unpublished scripts were submitted. The judges considered these works in six categories, with two awards for the non-fiction section, which once again had by far the most entries (about half of them). The judges were impressed by the quality of the entries, with the fiction and non-fiction categories being particularly strong.  

Any judging panel would (and should) display a wide range of views and this panel was no exception. Nevertheless, after rigorous debates, the final decisions were invariably unanimous. In the end, five books were short-listed in the Fiction category, three in Poetry, three in Young Adults, four in Children's Books, eight in Non-Fiction and four in the newly re-established Script category. In all these categories the judges looked for excellence in writing alongside, where appropriate, commitment to research, originality of material, experimentation with form and creative rethinking of existing genres. In all instances, the judges also took note of each writer's work in the context of his or her output to date, the intrinsic merits of a work as well as the merits of a "first book".

The short list reflects a rich and complex literary output that proudly holds its place among some of the best in Australia, if not in the English-speaking world generally. Of this we can be justly proud.

Fiction Judge's Report

A Baker's Dozen - Dorothy HewettA Baker's Dozen - Dorothy Hewett
Here indeed is a rare treat. Short stories written over a period of some forty years are brought together for the first time. They are stories of passion and desire, of love and longing, of work and endeavour, of race and justice. They are also amazingly well constructed with important themes emerging from the narratives: the Aboriginal wife in the back seat of the car with her carefree optimism and love; the child Joey touchingly recalling what it is like to be with his father; a grandchild's account of her grandmother's one moment of passion; Alice Knox and her lover, and so on. This is, arguably, one of the finest short story collections of its kind by a West Australian author. 

An Innocent Gentleman thumbnailAn Innocent Gentleman - Elizabeth Jolley
This is vintage Jolley writing, subdued, delicate, ironic. It is a gentle comedy of the classic ménage à trois set during the Second World War, with sirens, bomb shelters and rations acting as constant reminders that the world is no longer what it used to be. Against this catastrophic background, the lives of the fastidious and careful Henry, his wife Muriel and her lover Hawthorne create a gentle counterpoint to things more momentous. Jolley's great gift is to bring out the shades of emotion, the delicacy of the relationship, the gentle comedies of life through a style that steadfastly gives the illusion of serenity. This work is a rare achievement in a style that can be attempted only by the very best.

Dirt Music - Tim WintonDirt Music - Tim Winton
Winton has given us the quintessential West Australian novel: a saga of love, deception and desire set in the vastness of this State. When Georgie Jutland stumbles upon the poacher, the "shamateur" Luther Fox, a rare frisson develops between them and she rethinks her life with Jim Buckridge in the fishing town of White Point. Written in a vigorous style that captures West Australian lingo to perfection, this is a novel that one can't put down as it carries within its narrative momentum such forthright issues as migration, Aboriginal claims to the land, the dreariness of urban lives and the importance of the one act that redeems us. Memories mingle; conflicting thoughts arise as this gifted writer again writes a book at once epic in scope and detailed in its observations of life.

Undertow - Nicole Lobry de BruynUndertow - Nicole Lobry de Bruyn
Undertow is a novel about growing up, but with a difference: it is not focused totally, nor even primarily, on the narrator. Written in a style that is at once captivating and assured, it tells of events in the life of a nuclear family (Cat and Alison, their parents Billie and Ted, their aunt Bette, their nana Pearl) from the point of view of its narrator Cat (short for Catrina). Some friends of Cat, a perfunctory lover, the dog Ben, her father's lover Mrs Teasdale, the half-sister Sophie (whom we don't meet and whose quest, although so tantalisingly invoked by the narrator, is nevertheless never completed), invade the novel from its margins and create a world full of tragi-comic moments. One such moment, of course, changes everything. This is a strong first novel, powerful, accomplished, even exceptional, and immensely readable.

Gilgamesh - Joan LondonGilgamesh - Joan London
What form should the West Australian epic take? What model should one adopt? How does one write the foundational West Australian narrative?  These questions grip us as the lives of the Clark family (father Frank, mother Ada, daughters Frances and Edith) are intricately linked to the larger moments in world history (the two wars, the beginning of the cold war, espionage, the bombing of London, the displacement of peoples) and to the perennial themes of the quest myth as laid down in the earliest surviving epic, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In many ways this is a founding-of-the-nation narrative as much as a story of survival at the level of the individual. Written in a controlled style where so much is just hinted at, where passions are contained and anger remains below the surface, this is a novel that is totally absorbing.

Poetry Judge's Report

taylorGötterdämmerung Café - Andrew Taylor
Taylor's verse stands out with its mastery of language. Metaphors flow with ease as emotions are wrapped in language that escapes the excessive, the predictable or the mawkish through subtle, nuanced distancing.  Here is an intellectual poet who knows the tradition but does not let the tradition dictate his poetry or intrude on his own observations. There is no escape from emotions here, nor is there a surfeit. This is a collection that works on the transformation of memory and the power of language, a collection that is both immensely accessible and challenging.

kinsellaThe Hierarchy of Sheep - John Kinsella
In Kinsella's verse Australia is constantly re-imaged, re-written, its stereotypes given a new edge.  In poem after poem the landscapes and peoples are prised out of their erstwhile literary representations and given new, dramatic forms, both to shock the reader and to make him or her aware of new ways of understanding.  Kinsella's poetic imagination works though "the paradox of place" and in this sense re-works (through a consciousness of  "the variety, the pleasant conflict of styles") the fascination with place and space that has been a hallmark of some of the very best Australian verse.

mountainHalfway up the Mountain - Dorothy Hewett
This is a forthright and heartfelt exploration of personal journeys as well as powerfully rendered meditations on the Australian landscape. Here relationships are explored with honesty and localities given new meanings. Hewett's verse speaks directly to us, as the poetic voice explores evocative memories of moments that have shaped the life of this remarkable individual. There is a democratic bias to Hewett's verse as she reflects on events that influenced Australian life and values.  Hewett is a skilful poet whose verses seek to "contain multitudes" only to find that life always escapes the frames we impose upon it.

Young Adults Judge's Report

eatonA New Kind of Dreaming - Anthony Eaton
Jamie and Eddie are brothers in trouble with the law. Jamie has been sent by the authorities to spend time with Archie up north under the supervision of the social worker Lorraine. Here he soon discovers the hidden secrets of people in Port Barren and the character of the sadistic Sergeant Butcher. This is a gripping Young Adults yarn that gradually centres on the friendship of Cameron and Jamie. Narrow escapes and the continuous threat from the sergeant help maintain the reader's interest.  A derelict boat, dead refugees and Butcher's sinister past are effectively woven into the narrative.  

lawrinsonObsession - Julia Lawrinson
Julia Lawrinson has achieved a rare balance here: honest expressions of a young girl as she negotiates family life (always difficult) and school life (a veritable jungle of jealous passions and barely suppressed violence). The language captures schoolyard lingo and manages to give just the right inflection to the conflicting emotions of the struggling outsider in a school where sexual politics and power struggles get in the way of learning. Humour, pathos, love, achievement and failure combine to make this an immensely readable work that has captured the language of the genre perfectly.

martinoBoys' Stuff: Boys telling about what Matters - Wayne Martino and Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli
The appeal of this book lies in the honest and forthright comments from teenagers.  Although edited by academics who probably see it as an effective resource for teaching, the work has immense intrinsic merits as well in that it brings together a range of boys' views on issues that are constantly discussed by young adults.  The range of themes covered is wide and the voices of individual youths are presented to the reader without direct editorial intrusions. The work has both artistic and practical value.

Children's Books Judge's Report

broomeCry of the Karri - Errol Broome
When Aiden gets lost during a bush walk he ends up in a cottage where a couple and their daughter Bryony have been waiting for two years for their son to return.  The grief-stricken couple mistake Aiden for their own lost child and settle him in their dead son's room.  Aiden's life suddenly gets enmeshed in that of the couple's dead son as he too discovers a passion for caves that gives an interesting twist to the narrative. This is a gripping tale with an uneasy sense of threat hanging over Aiden when he reaches the cottage.

havel.pgThe Real Facts of Life - Geoff Havel
Here is a humorous look at some basic facts of life including the impending arrival of a new baby.  Family life is anecdotally presented with thematic conclusions drawn from a child's perspective.  These conclusions often reduce periphrasis (not uncommon with parents) to straightforward and revealing facts such as "being sick is only worth it on school days" (which is why children are never sick on weekends!).  This is a delightful book in which the ironic surfaces as forthright commentary.

morrisThe Yankee Whaler: The Diary of Thomas Morris, Bunbury WA, 1876- Deborah Lisson
Lisson gives us a wonderful re-enactment of historical events during the latter part of the 19th century in Bunbury. The great strength of the book lies in the way in which real historical events are presented from a child's point of view. Apart from the self-evident strength of the plot, Lisson's book makes an invaluable contribution to the power of history itself as both narrative and a frame for fictional re-creation.

red-treethThe Red Tree - Shaun Tan
Although Shaun Tan's vision is often dark (and perhaps even depressing), his picture books are always thought provoking. This book is no exception as Tan once again picks up a single, simple idea and pursues it through strong images that represent the thoughts that invade the mind as one goes through a day when nothing really makes sense. Dark certainly, but effective nevertheless, are these immensely rich drawings that connect ideas and images as they struggle deep inside our unconscious mind. The final image, although slight, of the red tree growing from the floor, gives rise to hope once again and makes life meaningful.

Script Judge's Report

jeffreysThe Messenger - Robert Jeffreys
Here is an accomplished script in which much tension is created through the dialogue between Rose and Bob. Their lives intertwine as desires, weaknesses, infidelities, both of themselves and their partners, are re-created. The dialogue has something of the threatening language of a Pinter and the sharpness of a Beckett.  The ending tends to peter off a bit but otherwise the tension is real and the effects, even upon silent reading, are immediate.

wellerConfessions of a Headhunter - Sally Riley and Archie Weller
Triggered by the decapitated head of Yagan, the Aboriginal warrior, this is a kind of allegorical return of the silenced, occluded Aboriginal subject. Frank and Vinnie are on a decapitating rampage as they choose important Australian statues (Forrest, Cook) to decapitate. Interwoven into this act of political vandalism are the murders of actual people that, one gathers, signify the murders that lay behind the celebration of Australian heroism. This work stands out as an original and ingenious means of making a powerful political point.

turnerWindows - Hellie Turner
Six lives unfold through the recollections of a window cleaner but are presented as individual voices of the participants themselves. Although these are ordinary lives, their reflections capture the restlessness and monotony of modern lives generally, whether that of the lonely wife, the playful suicidal, the "chickadee" order taker or the eight-year-old orphan. The drama is real, and the language spontaneous.

winmarAliwa - Dallas Winmar
The concept is interesting and relevant  - the policy of Aboriginal children being forcibly removed from their parents is the backdrop against which Mrs Davis struggles to keep her large family after the death of her husband. Although the historical background and the documentation need greater archival precision, and in dramatic terms there is no real moment of conflict, this script's value lies in the way in which it renders a distinctly Aboriginal mode of narrating. Here (and as is so clearly evident in Dallas Winmar's style) life-worlds are created in ways that are refreshingly new and relationships between the young and old rendered with wonderful ingenuity. In spite of the pathos of the past, Dallas Winmar's humour and optimism shine through.

Non-Fiction Judge's Report

baileyThe White Divers of Broome: The True Story of a Fatal Experiment - John Bailey
Bailey uses the techniques of a novelist to bring to life archival research in his examination of   the ways in which White Australia went out of its way to handle what it felt was a stain on the nation: the use of Malays, Japanese and other non-whites as pearl divers in Broome. This, it was alleged, signified an undesirable crack in the sanctified conception of the White Australia Policy. The book offers a wonderful insight into a panic-ridden nation on matters of race and miscegenation even as it re-creates the narrative with immense dramatic force and immediacy. A wonderful read, this work captures and maintains the reader's interest throughout.

mulcockThe Salinity Crisis: Landscapes, Communities and Politics - Quentin Beresford, Hugo Bekle, Harry Phillips and Jane Mulcock
Salinity is a major problem in Western Australia. In this carefully researched and written book, the authors link salinity to the wider question of land degradation and misuse. In doing so the authors consciously embark upon a groundbreaking and multi-disciplinary debate about land management and sustainable development. It is a valuable study which has the additional merit of being accessible to the lay reader.

chalarimeriThe Man from the Sunrise Side - Ambrose Mungala Chalarimeri
Although somewhat raw in style, this variation on the Aboriginal "trustory" has considerable merit especially in so far as much of the point of view is both without malice and accusation.  This book is refreshingly honest, with at times a  "subaltern" perspective given to momentous decisions such as Native Title. The section on Indonesian fishermen is a timely reminder that white settlers are very much recent interlopers on traditional Aboriginal lands. It is a book that has to be read in terms of its self-consciously Aboriginal mode of storytelling and as an account of a distinctive life experience. 

chooMission Girls: Aboriginal Women on Catholic Missions in the Kimberley, Western Australia, 1900-1950 - Christine Choo
The great strength of this book is Christine Choo's analysis of the ways in which disempowered Aboriginal women on Catholic missions in the Kimberley during 1900-1950 found ways in which to subvert (through sly mimicry and subtle evasive tactics) the mechanisms of control imposed on their bodies. Rendered largely through the voices of the informants themselves, this work of empirical and oral history achieves a fine balance and stands out as an unusual historical accomplishment.

gothardBlue China: Single Female Migration to Colonial Australia - Jan Gothard
Jan Gothard's book is an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of the migration of single women to Australia between 1850 and 1900. This is a carefully researched book that makes the transition from thesis to book remarkably well.  At once readable and informative, the book also lays to rest some erstwhile myths about the reasons behind single female migration. Furthermore, the importation of women workers as commodities whose use value was directed towards maintaining bourgeois values of family and nation (by both men and middle-class establishment women) is one of many theoretical insights of this book. This is an important work that has grown out of a meticulous reading of an historical archive about a marginalised but numerically very significant group of migrants.

goyderWe'll be Married in Fremantle - Julie Goyder
This account of a nurse's work with people suffering from Alzheimer's Disease is moving and timely. Although the transition from thesis to book has created two competing discourses, one primarily narrative, the other slightly technical and theoretical, the book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Alzheimer's sufferers. More significantly, Goyder's isolation of a specific discourse of Alzheimer's patients is an original contribution to our understanding of the manner in which they connect language with reality. Goyder's rendition of the latter is undertaken with both understanding, compassion and, when appropriate, critical detachment.

dauthPaper Nation: The Story of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia 1886-1888 - Tony Hughes-D'Aeth
In the era of the second centennial who would have thought that the first could be explored so effectively through a close analysis of its most revealing document, The Picturesque Atlas of Australia? Thoroughly researched and immensely readable, this book re-creates the people behind the book  (their passions, their jealousies, their excessive expenditures) as well as   its ideology, which created a statement about the nation-state (and where it was heading) with picturesque representations of icons that signified its successes.

petersMilk and Honey - But No Gold: Postwar Migration to Western Australia, 1945-1964 - Nonja Peters
This is a useful account of postwar, largely British and European, migration to Western Australia to 1964. Interspersed with maps, charts, photographs and facsimile reproductions of archival material (newspaper and other documents), this is a work that is at once accessible, revealing and scholarly. The large-book format lends itself to comprehensive descriptions of documents and charts and to the reproduction, in particular, of photographs. The book is never dull as individual lives are highlighted in the general pattern of migration of people who came to be known as  "New Australians".