The West Australian novelist, Joan London, has won Australia’s most lucrative literary prize for a novel which imagines the lives of young polio victims in a convalescent home set in Perth during the 1950s.
Last year Tony Abbott intervened, as per the guidelines of the Prime Minister’s Literary awards, so that Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan was elevated to joint winner of the Fiction Prize, alongside judges’ favourite, Steve Carroll.
Malcolm Turnbull chose not to depart from the recommendation of the fiction prize’s judging panel, chaired by publisher Louise Adler, and as a voracious reader promised to read London’s winning novel.
But the Prime Minister did not have it all his way at Monday’s night’s awards ceremony at Carriageworks in Sydney with Adler rebuking his government for its plans to scrap parallel importation rules.
“If second hand cars are deemed worthy of support surely Australian writers and their readers deserve a fair go,” she said to hearty applause.
The Golden Age was five years in the writing and is London’s sixth work of fiction. It was shortlisted but did not win the Miles Franklin prize. London says she had always wanted to write about the world of a hospital after spending five days in a ward when she was nine years old. She had toppled from a tree and gashed her leg. “I absolutely loved it.”
The judges praised The Golden Age as a novel of great beauty and depth while “wonderfully masquerading” as a modest and intimate story about a moment in Australian history.
The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards were introduced by Kevin Rudd to reward novelists, poets and non fiction writers of Australian stories which capture the complexity of contemporary life and insightfully reflect on the nation’s past.
There were 465 entrants this year competing for untaxed prize money of $80,000 in each of the six literary categories, a tidy sum capable of supporting one or two year’s independent writing.
Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, an account of the criminal trial of the Victorian man who murdered his three sons by driving them into a dam, was overlooked again for a major literary prize.
Instead, Darleen Bungey’s biography, John Olsen: An Artist’s Life, and Michael Wilding’s Wild Bleak Bohemia: Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall shared the non fiction prize.
Bungey immediately announced she would donate her share to the Australian Conservation Foundation as the “biggest public charity looking after the environment”.
Joint winners of Monday night’s prize for history was Charles Bean by journalist Ross Coulthart, who acknowledged the assistance of Bean’s family, and David Horner’s The Spy Catchers – The Official History of ASIO Vol 1. Horner acknowledged the unprecedented access the spy agency had given him during the course of his project.
A volume of new and reworked poetry by Geoffrey Lehmann won the poetry prize. “Since the age of 14 all I’ve wanted to do is write poetry,” Lehmann said, adding, “A good poem may be read 200 years from now.”
The Winner: The Golden Age
Winner: Poems 1957-2013
Prize for Australian History
Joint Winner: Charles Bean and The Spy Catchers
Joint Winner: John Olsen: An Artist’s Life and Wild Bleak Bohemia
Young adult fiction
Winner: The Protected
Winner: One Minute’s Silence