Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2016: Judges split three of the $80,000 prizes

Winning words: Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses shared PM’s Literary Award. Photo: Simon O’DwyerTwo years ago there was quite a kerfuffle when Tony Abbott intervened at the last moment to ensure the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction was shared between the novelist the judges had selected, Steven Carroll, and the PM’s captain’s pick, Richard Flanagan.

This year three of the $80,000 awards have been shared between writers, but there is no evidence – so far – of any prime ministerial privilege being exercised.

Joint winners of the fiction prize were Lisa Gorton (The Life of Houses) and Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things). Geoffrey Blainey (The Story of Australia’s People), and Sam Lipski and Suzanne Rutland (Let My People Go) shared the Australian history prize. And the non-fiction award was split between Sheila Fitzpatrick (On Stalin’s Team) and Karen Lamb (Thea Astley).

Sarah Holland-Batt won the poetry prize for The Hazards, Sally Morgan the children’s prize for Sister Heart, and Meg McKinlay the young-adult award for A Single Stone.

Gorton has described her first novel as “inward”, beginning as a prose poem – she has published two collections of poetry – and focusing on a mother and daughter and set in a rambling old house full of tensions and old furniture. The judges called it “a book of exquisite precision”. Wood’s passionate, dystopic novel – “a powerfully evocative allegory and a shockingly realist narrative”, according to the judges – is a searing critique of misogyny and patriarchal society that won this year’s Stella Prize.

Louise Adler, chair of the fiction and poetry judges, said there had been no friction between the judges in splitting the prize between two novelists. “Judges always consider the consequences of splitting the prize but it is such a generous prize – it will buy a good amount of writing time for them. The two books are very different but equally strong.”

Professor Blainey shared the history prize only a few days after the second volume of The Story of Australia’s People, The Rise and Rise of a New Australia, was published. The first, for which he received the prize, focused on Indigenous Australia until the early days of white settlement. Lipski and Rutland’s book reveals the long involvement of Australians in the international campaign to get Jews out of Soviet Russia.

The two non-fiction winners could hardly have been more different. Lamb’s is a life of the Queensland writer and four times Miles Franklin winner, Thea Astley, while the internationally renowned historian Fitzpatrick’s book examines the lives and fates of Stalin’s close comrades.

Sarah Holland-Batt won the poetry award for her second collection ahead of two veterans in Les Murray and Robert Adamson and two others of Australia’s new generation of young poets, Michael Farrell and Simon West. The judges praised her “rich texture of the language she uses to express ideas”.

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