A novel about repatriation and dispossession, set in Australia and Sri Lanka, has been named the winner of Australia’s most prestigious literary prize.
Michelle de Kretser took out the $60,000 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her fourth novel Questions of Travel, a double narrative that examines the plight of asylum seekers and the concept of travel in the internet age.
The judges described the book as “a rich and ambitious but engaging novel of ideas. It traverses many of the issues which dominate political and cultural debate, but it does so with insight and a genuine narrative drive”.
“There are complex questions, which do not have neat, binary solutions, and the strength of the book is that the author doesn’t pretend that they do.”
De Kretser was out of the country, and so was unable to accept the award in person at the ceremony at the National Library of Australia on Wednesday.
Attending a literary festival in England, de Kretser awoke to the news of her win over the phone.
Speaking to Fairfax Media from England, she said she had been so sure she wouldn't win the prize that she had not prepared an acceptance speech and had forgotten that the awards were being announced.
"There are really good writers and great books on the shortlist, but I'm glad I was wrong, completely wrong," she said.
Questions of Travel is de Kretser's fourth novel, and had already received acclaim for her Man-Booker Prize longlisted The Lost Dog.
But although three of the nominees were first-time novelists, de Kretser said she did not necessarily feel more established as a writer.
"Four novels doesn't seem like a lot to me, and I'm still learning," she said.
"My publishers' faith in me has been repaid, and I'm really grateful to them and to the judges."
The awards were notable this year for being the first in the prize’s 56-year history to have an entirely female shortlist, and judge Richard Neville said the number of entries had also been the largest ever.
Having judged the award for several years, Mr Neville said that while it was sometimes clear from the outset who the winner would be, this year had involved intense discussion as the 72 entries were narrowed down to a longlist of 10, and finally a shortlist of five.
“This year, all the five shortlisted had very different approaches to the way they were dealing with their subjects. So to actually finally narrow it down to one [that] was a ‘first among equals’ - it was really hard,” he said.
“But eventually, we felt [Questions of Travel] was a wise and powerful and very ambitious novel, and it was kind of dealing with issues that are really pertinent to where we are as a nation today.”
Fellow judge Susan Sheridan described Questions of Travel as a “book of marvels”.
“It covers a huge geographical and spiritual space, has these two stories and it’s absolutely brilliantly written,” she said.
“[De Kretser is] a writer with a genius for language, and so it’s witty, it’s epigrammatic, it’s poetic, but also in this large compass of two stories around the world. I’m full of admiration for it, I think it’s just wonderful.”
Questions of Travelis de Kretser’s fourth novel, and she had already received acclaim for her Man-Booker Prize longlisted The Lost Dog.
Also nominated this year were Romy Ash for Floundering, Annah Faulkner for The Beloved, Drusilla Modjeska for The Mountain and Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.