Miles Franklin Literary Award 1999

1999 Winner – Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

Commenting on the winner's novel, the Judging Panel wrote:

You could say that in terms of the characteristic landscape of Australian writing, Murray Bail's Eucalyptus is about ‘the knowledge'. That is its amusing working conceit; but much more seriously it is about how one acquires the knowledge. In his characteristically elegant and deceptively sparse manner, Bail demonstrates the importance of narratives, of story telling, as a way of acquiring and learning about one's self and one's place. It reconstitutes traditional romance conventions (the father setting an impossible task for those who would win the hand of his daughter) and rewrites them for Australia, so that it is simultaneously local and universal in its orientation. And the point of the novel lies not in the young man's success but in what the daughter learns. This is a masculine construct of femininity, no doubt; but then antipodean courtship has ever been more stringybark than lemon-scented gum gum.

Miles Franklin Literary Award 1999 Shortlist:

Eucalyptus, Murray Bail
Red Shoes, Carmel Bird
The Golden Dress, Marion Halligan
Mr Darwin's Shooter, Roger McDonald
Three Dollars, Elliot Perlman

Judges' Comments

"In so far as the entries for the 1999 Miles Franklin Literary Award constitute a window – a charmed magic casement – on to the current state of play in Australian Fiction, the Judges can report that the collective imagination is as fertile as you could wish, and that whatever the literary equivalent of caleci virus is, has had no impact.

There were 45 entries. From those the Judge's selected a short list of 5: Murray Bail's Eucalyptus, Carmel Bird's Red Shoes, Marion Halligans' The Golden Dress, Roger McDonald's Mr Darwin's Shooter and Elliot Perlman's Three Dollars. Those of you paying attention will notice that are carefully in alphabetical order.

These five about as unlike each other as is possible; they are all structurally and imaginatively quite different. Yet they also offer curious individual cross-comparisons. They are apples and oranges, a costermonger's cornucopia, a fruitologist's fiesta. And we re-read and re-considered them with great pleasure, and great admiration.

You could say that in terms of the characteristic landscape of Australian writing, Murray Bail's Eucalyptus is about ‘the knowledge'. That is its amusing working conceit; but much more seriously it is about how one acquires the knowledge. In his characteristically elegant and deceptively sparse manner, Bail demonstrates the importance of narratives, of story telling, as a way of acquiring and learning about one's self and one's place. It reconstitutes traditional romance conventions (the father setting an impossible task for those who would win the hand of his daughter) and rewrites them for Australia, so that it is simultaneously local and universal in its orientation. And the point of the novel lies not in the young man's success but in what the daughter learns. This is a masculine construct of femininity, no doubt; but then antipodean courtship has ever been more stringybark than lemon-scented gum gum.

Carmel Bird's Red Shoes continues her fascination with the more appalling effects of closed and closet institutions, in the case a religious cult which takes over the lives of orphan girls. It analyses the agency of power; and yet offers the reader release from the sinister through a series of fascinating footnotes attached to the end of the text, and forming a kind of entertaining learned gloss upon it. The interaction between the two, the narrative proper of a specific case and then the countering access to long and wide traditions of all sorts of ephemera, makes this too a most original novel in its effect.

In The Golden Dress Marion Halligan is also preoccupied with power, the power of art to enrich ordinary lives and create a sense of belonging, whether it be through painting, writing, dress-making or belly-dancing. As with the previous two novels, this too is fascinating for its detail. It covers a wide range of character and settings, and demonstrates not only how various and wonderful and ridiculous life is, but also how easy it is for people to slip out of life, whether thorough violent acts or by a decision just to step outside.

Roger McDonald's Mr Darwin's Shooter is to some extent a discovered story, though that misrepresents the imaginative working up of his material. Syms Covington has grown up in the evangelical idiom of John Bunyan's Bedford, gone to sea and become Charles Darwin's collector of specimens, and assisted him in formulating the famous Theory which contradicts Covington's own beliefs. The great philosophical debate lies imminent over the narrative like a thunderstorm and it is complicated by Covington's grievance that his assistance has not been acknowledged. The narrative alternates between Covington's youth in Bedford and at sea, and his old age in New South Wales when he continues to mull over the meaning of his experiences; and the language register alternates too, with the Darwinian scientific voice played off against the adaptation of Bunyan to give us, so to speak, the whole sonata.

And Elliot Perlman has written a novel different from all those again – a novel of contemporary attitudes and lifestyle and assumptions and above all else humour, the crackling skewed and skewering humour of the new generation, through which a mood and even a philosophical temperament is articulated, and yet which also allows as it were an escape route from the difficult confrontations. It is a novel of the city life, of young people making their careers in the new kind of economically determined world we seem somehow to have permitted without noticing in time. And it is especially pleasing to see such accomplished writing from a young and emerging writer."