Judges’ Report

Judges: Susan Lever (chair), Russell Smith, Jeff Doyle

Gold Medal Winner: Laurie Duggan, Mangroves (UQP).

The judges read a wide range of writing published in Australia in 2003, using libraries and local bookshops as a starting point then requesting copies of books on a long shortlist from University of Queensland Press, Text Publishing, Random House, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Penguin, Giramondo, HarperCollins and Pan Macmillan. We are grateful to the publishers for responding so readily to our requests for copies of their books.

The shortlist was reduced to Brian Castro’s Shanghai Dancing, Laurie Duggan’s Mangroves, Janette Turner Hospital’s Due Preparations for the Plague, John Kinsella’s Peripheral Light, John Tranter’s Studio Moon, and Sue Woolfe’s The Secret Cure. After consideration and discussion the judges decided unanimously to recommend the award go to Laurie Duggan for his collection of poetry, Mangroves (UQP).

In 1994 Laurie Duggan abandoned writing poetry, beginning again in 2000 after a hiatus of six years. Mangroves is the stunning outcome of this interrupted then renewed creative effort, with half of the poems drawn from the earlier period, the other half fresh departures on similar themes, so that the volume as a whole has an uncanny balance and symmetry. Mangroves offers a wide range of poetic styles and moods from the “Blue Hills” poems that create vivid verbal snapshots of different parts of the Australian landscape, to epigrams about contemporary cultural life, to translations from Soffici, to the staccato prose of “The Minutes”. Sometimes the poems comment on specific cultural or political moments (the death of Don Bradman, “The Last Days of De-ja-vu”, August 7th), at others they reflect more generally on art and its relationship to society (Cultural Studies, Louvres). The placement and patterning of the different sections of the book create a depth of engagement that makes a particularly satisfying reading experience.

Duggan’s joyous density of figurative language matches this structural complexity as he unpacks metaphors across the several layerings of genre, subjects and styles. The title’s metaphors provide one of many delightful examples; mangroves and/or man-groves, acts as signal figure of borders, margins, liminalities, exposed and hidden roots, and all kinds of edges both vertical and horizontal, crossed and recrossed, transgressed and translated. Indeed, the translations from Soffici were outstanding, and the book as a whole is a structured complete statement: witty, political, urban but not urbane, at times loutishly offhand, at others gnomically aphoristic. With his previous work, such as The Ash Range (1987) and The Epigrams of Martial (1989), Mangroves confirms Duggan’s position as one of the most versatile, politically aware and entertaining poets in Australia.

Comments on the shortlisted books:

Brian Castro Shanghai Dancing (Giramondo)

Brian Castro’s novel blends autobiography, fiction and personal reflections on history in an extraordinary book that sustains a level of wit and playfulness throughout its length. Shanghai Dancing explores and speculates about Castro’s own family history in China and Australia. Along the way it incorporates war and political change, family failures and rises in fortune, the idealism and corruption of individual characters. At times it appears fantastic and dreamlike, at others a realistic account of the way a mix of national backgrounds can come together in a modern life. It is a complex and original work, packed with many beautifully written sequences that achieve the density of poetry.

Janette Turner Hospital Due Preparations for the Plague (Fourth Estate)

Turner Hospital’s latest novel, together with North of Nowhere, South of Loss (UQP) a collection of her short stories, demonstrates her powerful storytelling abilities and command of dialogue. Her novel adopts the mode of thriller to examine the effects of a terrorist attack on an airliner on the lives of those who survive. It maintains a driving pace and addresses contemporary fears of terrorism and its effects.

John Kinsella Peripheral Light (Fremantle Arts Centre Press)

Harold Bloom has selected the poems for this book, with both previously published and new poems by John Kinsella. Kinsella now has published seventeen books of poetry and this collection stands as evidence of the particular qualities and substance of his work. Bloom sees these poems as marking the end of Kinsella’s Australian pastoral mode and anticipates a new kind of art in the future. The poems offer a tough and contemporary version of pastoral, with Kinsella’s clear-sighted observations of the Australian land.

John Tranter Studio Moon (Salt Publishing)

Studio Moon collects twenty eight of Tranter’s most recent poems as well as work published previously in At the Florida and Borrowed Voices. It is full of witty, playful and sharp verbal inventions that illuminate the complexity of contemporary Australian life. In many of the poems, Tranter takes inspiration or endings from other poets’ work then creates new poems that retain a residual reference to the original. This book adds to Tranter’s already impressive contribution to Australian poetry.

Sue Woolfe The Secret Cure (Picador)

This is an ambitious novel that presents its study of the biological basis of autism through the eyes of characters who are, in various ways, suffering from this condition. The memoirs of Owen, who has not spoken since his teenage years, comprise the first part of the novel, with a long diary-letter from his beloved Eva to her autistic daughter in the second part. Woolfe creates a small-scale world in the town of Sudlow where the relationships between hospital staff, patients and scientists allow for discussion and argument about forms of autism, its history and effects. In the wake of Woolfe’s Leaning Towards Infinity, this novel further explores the possibilities for fiction as a means of discussing science.