The Miles Franklin Literary Award is Australia’s premier prize for literature. And I’ve read four of the ten books on the Miles Franklin longlist for 2019: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, A Stolen Season by Rodney Hall, Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills and The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen.
Trent Dalton and Tracy Sorensen are debut fiction authors. Rodney Hall has won the Miles Franklin Award twice. And Jennifer Mills was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists (2012).
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Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
The hoopla surrounding this book since its publication in June 2018 has been phenomenal. Set in mid-1980s Brisbane, it’s the tale of two brothers, a lost father, a junkie mother, heroin dealers, murderers and an ex-crim babysitter whose jailbreaks earned him the nickname Houdini of Boggo Road.
A Stolen Season by Rodney Hall
Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills
The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen
Fiction vs Memoir?
Three of these books are pure works of fiction — a pink and grey galah narrates Sorensen’s novel. But Boy Swallows Universe is based on Dalton’s life. Like the young protagonist, Eli Bell, his parents were heroin addicts and dealers in Brisbane in the 1980s, and he grew up to be a journalist (Dalton writes for The Australian).
I felt uncomfortable with this knowledge when I started reading Boy Swallows Universe. I kept wanting DOCS to knock at the door and take Eli and his brother into protective custody. At times I was confused whether I was reading fiction or memoir. And I wondered how the judges could assess Dalton’s book against other works of fiction in the Miles Franklin longlist?
I discussed my concerns with a friend and author, who said a publishing industry acquaintance had told him judges look for “amplitude” in a book. But I didn’t get what was meant by this term until about halfway through Boy Swallows Universe when the story gripped me, and I binge-read the final chapters.
After finishing the book, I checked the literary definition of “amplitude” on Vocabulary.com:
Describes the depth, breadth, or magnitude of something — in other words, how big or full it is. If people compliment the amplitude of a piece of writing, it means the writer put much emotion into it.
Yes, Boy Swallows Universe deserves the hoopla — it has amplitude aplenty. And as much as I enjoyed reading my other books on the Miles Franklin longlist, if Dalton doesn’t win, then I want to read the book that does!
Update 3 July 2019: Wow, Boy Swallows Universe didn’t make the Miles Franklin shortlist! However, Dyschronia and A Stolen Season are on it and, having read both books, either would be worthy winners of the Award.
Update 29 July 2019: And the winner was, Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko. I later read this book, and it, too, has amplitude!
© 2019 Robert Fairhead
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.