Magic ingredient helps first-time novelist scoop top prize
IF THERE was any doubt an Australian had won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, it vanished when Glenda Guest told a British journalist she felt ”like a stunned mullet”.
Guest’s novel Siddon Rock was praised by the judges for ”its rich cast of odd characters and blending of the everyday with fantasy. Behind every door in town lurk secret desires and wild imaginings”.
”The novel,” they said, ”deftly delves into the hauntings and disjunctions of settler Australia and in its fable-like quality captures the laconic mannerisms of the Australian outback.”
Guest grew up in Western Australia, lives in the Blue Mountains and wrote her novel in her 60s as part of a PhD, after raising a daughter and doing jobs such as medical secretary and literary editor of a Canberra arts journal.
Siddon Rock is also on the longlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and on the shortlist for the new writing prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
”I had a real interest in the magic realist mode of writing because it allows you to explore things you can’t do in realism,” Guest said from Delhi, where she received her 5000 British Pounds ($8300) prize.
She writes about the aftermath of World War II in an Australian country town, and its characters, landscape and mythologies. ”You can’t plonk other mythologies into Australia,” she said. ”I was trying to tap into the Australian psyche.”
Guest won the south-east Asia and Pacific regional award last month and took the overall award over finalists from Canada, Pakistan and Nigeria.
The British writer Rana Dasgupta won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book with his novel Solo, chosen for ”its innovation, ambition, courage and effortlessly elegant prose”. The judges called the novel, told through the life of a 100-year-old Bulgarian chemist,
”a tour de force”.
The Commonwealth Foundation also announced a new coalition of writers and others working to boost literacy in Commonwealth countries.
Although literacy has risen from 48 per cent to 68 per cent since the 1980s, one in three Commonwealth citizens – about 700 million people – is still illiterate. Sixteen per cent of Australian adults have very low reading, writing and maths skills.
The coalition plans to help build libraries, train primary school teachers, support book publishing, encourage disadvantaged groups to write, and teach creative writing.