2021 In Review: Notes From The Antipodes

on Sunday, December 26, 2021
This year I had the surreal and rather fun opportunity to sit on the judging panel for the fiction prize of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. More than anything, it gave me a great chance to read a truckload of Aussie novels - seventy-two of them to be precise. Believe me when I say, it was damn near impossible to narrow it down to a shortlist of six. I'm pretty thrilled with the ones we ended up picking and wholeheartedly recommend them all. In case you missed it, the shortlist is:

After Story by Larissa Behrendt
Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down
Echolalia by Briohny Doyle
The Dogs by John Hughes
Smokehouse by Melissa Manning
Permafrost by SJ Norman

You can check out all the books and see our judges' comments here.

For obvious reasons, I'm not including any Australian books in my Top 10 countdown this year, though I can say that at least three of them would definitely have made it. Whether or not they were shortlistees (or the winner) is for you to guess. Either way, here are a few other Australian novels that I absolutely loved but that unfortunately didn't make the final VPLA cut.

First up, literary fiction. Miles Allinson returned with In Moonland, an exquisite novel about the search for meaning, belonging and self, and the inergenerational ripple effects of joining a cult. It also boasted the best first sentence of any book I read this year. Mette Jakobsen gave us The Wingmaker, a subtle and gorgeous story of a woman who goes to a delapidated hotel to repair a broken statue, not to mention her life. I'll humbly join Helen Garner in raving about Diana Reid's brilliantly assured debut, Love & Virtue, a complex and nuanced take on consent and agency in the rarified world of Sydney university colleges. Lucy Neave's Believe In Me was one of the best novels about motherhood I've ever read. Emotionally and morally complex, it asked the fundamental question of whether we can truly know the people we love before we came into their lives. And last but definitely not least, Claire Thomas hit it out of the park with The Performance, a state of the nation novel deftly woven around a production of Beckett's Happy Days.

Australian short stories had a real banner year in 2021, with some very quirky, borderline experimental collections standing out for me. Top of the pile was Chloe Wilson's Hold Your Fire and Patrick Lenton's Sexy Tales of Paleontology, but I also loved the more conventional Born Into This by Adam Thompson and Dark As Last Night by the consistently brilliant Tony Birch.

Venturing out of my wanky comfort zone, I thoroughly enjoyed some great crime/thriller novels. The ever-dependable JP Pomare had me swearing off Air BNB-type arragements for life with his thoroughly creepy The Last Guests. RWR McDonald returned with his feisty kid detective and her hilarious gay uncles in Nancy Business, another top notch murder mystery in what is shaping up to be quite the irresistable series. This one even featured a ferret named after yours truly (to me, the main characterm if only for a page). Lyn Yeowart's debut novel, The Silent Listener, was a cunning subversion of some common genre tropes, and had me absolutely hooked throughout. International glory has rightly found Peter Papathanasiou for outback mystery with a social conscience, The Stoning. And Matt Nable absolutely nailed the historical shit-town noir thriller (sorry, Darwin) with the bloody excellent Still.

To my great surprise, 2021 was the year I was forced to change my snobbish aversion to self-published novels. Usually I run like the plague but it turned out three of my favourite Australian novels weren't picked up by publishers. Blazing its own trail of experimental weirdo mindfuckery was Michael Winkler's spectacular work of "exploded non-fiction", Grimmish. As I said a while back, I totally get why it didn't find a publisher but absolutley cannot believe a publisher wasn't willing to take a punt on what turned out to the most daring book of 2021. Winkler, of course, had the last laugh, with glowing reviews everywhere and word of mouth driving it to near-mainstream status. Another self-published gem was The Hands of Pianists by Stephen Downes, a thoroughly odd Sebald-meets-Poe tale of musicians and the pianos that murdered them. Finally, Daylight by Ben Tarwin was an elusive, elliptical story of elderly brothers falling out over death of one’s son. Pocked by memories of World War 2, it floated between prose and poetry in what can only be described as a narrative dreamscape.

There was one other Australian literary highlight, but this one wasn't a book. Beyond The Zero is a relatively new podcast that appeared pretty much out of nowhere back in July and has since built an almost cultlike following of obsessed book fiends, myself included. I don't know how he does it, but Ben gets the most interesting array of authors , critics and writing types on to the show to chat about their work, their favourite books and all manner of literary things. What's more, he's built an incredible, inclusive literary community that is very active on Twitter (even if they got the winner of the World Cup of Books totally wrong). It's probably my number one place for book recommendations and I strongly recommend you check it out on your favourite streaming service or podcast app.


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