2006 Gold Medal Winner: The Patron Saint of Eels, by Gregory Day (Picador)Short List:Banana Heart Summer, by Merlinda Bobis (Pier 9/Murdoch Books)Dead Europe, by Christos Tsiolkas (Random House)

East of Time, by Jacob G. Rosenberg (Brandl & Schlesinger)

March, by Geraldine Brooks (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins)

The judges read a wide range of writing published in Australia in 2005, using AustLit as a starting point and drawing on literary journals, book reviews and websites. Copies of eligible books were generously provided by many publishers of Australian writing, including: Allen & Unwin, Brandl & Schlesinger, Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Giramondo, Hodder (Hachette Livre), Murdoch Books, Pan Macmillan, Pandanus, Penguin, Picador, Random House, Spinifex, Text Publishing, University of Queensland Press, and Vulgar Press.

In addition to the short list of works considered for the ALS Gold Medal, two books were highly commended by the judges: Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (Picador Australia), by Carrie Tiffany, as an outstanding first work of fiction, and The Marsh Birds (Allen & Unwin), by Eva Sallis, for its contribution to contemporary social and political debates. Both authors and publishers are commended for the production of vibrant and timely works of Australian literature.

JUDGES’ REPORTS

WINNER of ALS GOLD MEDAL (2006):

Gregory Day, The Patron Saint of Eels (Picador Australia).

This novel was praised by the judges for the deft modesty, originality and the sheer accomplishment of its very Australian brand of magic realism. Day’s narrator Noel is an ordinary bloke who sees the world through an artist’s eyes, and is as unpretentiously thoughtful as the novel itself. Set over a couple of days in a small coastal town in Victoria, the novel tells of his friendship with another long-time local, Nan, and their encounter with the patron saint of eels. Fra Ionio, formerly a monk in Stellanuova, has followed generations of migrants from Italy to Australia to watch over his beloved eels from the ‘mirror-world’ of heaven. Migration, coping with change, and harmony with nature are themes that resonate through this novel. Above all, it celebrates the power of the imagination, which, as Day himself put it, “we need working for us rather than against us, if we’re to survive in this world”.

Gregory Day is a writer, poet and musician, whose previous books include the volumes Trace (in collaboration with photographer Robert Ashton) and Fish Ladder. His CDs include The Black Tower: Songs from the Poetry of WB Yeats and Barroworn: Mangowak Days. He lives on the southwest coast of Victoria. The Patron Saint of Eels is his first published novel.

SHORTLISTED BOOKS:

Banana Heart Summer, Merlinda Bobis (Pier 9)

Set in the Phillipines, this is a work of incandescent prose, which manages to be both sensual and understated. Not many novels tackle the difficult question of  maternal child abuse, where the love in the relationship is shown along with the pain. Nor do many books perfectly integrate food writing into the narrative, with the sensual appreciation of cooking and eating heightened by the fact that the characters are facing the threat of starvation. An intense, lively, political and engaging book.

Dead Europe, Christos Tsiolkas (Random House)

This postmodern / transnational narrative about how a young Greek / Australian photographer travelling in Europe grapples with questions about racism, sexuality, desire and exploitation, the roots of hatred and the powerlessness of love.  Brilliantly interweaving narrative threads to suggest layers of allegorical and cultural significance, and revving up its shock tactics of violence and pornography incrementally, this novel offers no refuge from the darkness at its heart. How to separate literary “quality” from such questions and controversies? The writing is terrific, but the jury is out on what the novel’s achievement might turn out to mean.

East of Time, Jacob G. Rosenberg (Brandl & Schlesinger)

Finely wrought as both a literary work and historical testimony, this powerful memoir takes the form of a series of character-focused anecdotes from the author’s early life in the Polish city of Lodz. These detailed, vivid portraits are personal memories of distinct individuals, lovingly, poignantly, sometimes humorously created. They also reflect a fascinating diversity of religious, political, intellectual and ethnic positions within the Jewish community. This memoir by no means eschews hindsight, but its episodic structure allows the reader to take its experiences one at a time, as well as part of the relentless march towards Auschwitz that haunts and closes the book.

March, Geraldine Brooks (4th Estate/Harper Collins)

The American Civil War has been already extensively mined for fiction. Brooks, in this accomplished novel, combines historical research and fictional intertextuality in her choice of protagonist: Little Women‘s largely absent father-figure. In the process she rescues the reputation of Bronson Alcott, depicting him as visionary rather than crackpot, the man of ideals rather than the repressive father known to many Alcott scholars. While apparently far removed from Australia’s history and literature, this novel by a former Australian war correspondent deals with issues of conflict and conscience that transcend fictional and national boundaries.

Judges: Meg Tasker (chair), Lucy Sussex, Michael Meehan