At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believe most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Voiceworks editor Elizabeth Flux spoke in praise of Eliza Henry-Jones’ debut novel, In the Quiet.
In our office we have a reading chart. Each one of us has a line on a piece of yellow cardboard, and beneath the chart a few sheets of stickers are stuck up. When we finish a book, we choose a sticker, write the title on the chart, and step back to see how we are going compared to everyone else.
It’s not a competition – but I am losing. The number of stickers next to my name, though respectable, is still quite a way behind everyone else.
If you have recently been in a bookshop, you will have seen In the Quiet. It’s the one that’s usually sitting above a staff recommendation sticker, or it’s in the window, or set up in a display. It’s Eliza Henry-Jones’ debut novel and it is equal parts beautiful, deeply upsetting, and insightful. On our workplace reading chart, it’s up there, next to my name, complete with a somewhat inappropriate Hello Kitty sticker.
It’s hard to compare novels, or indeed any writing, particularly in a competitive context but that is what we’ve been asked to do with the Readings Prize shortlist. As the editor of Voiceworks, I am in the fortunate position to very rarely have to promote one single piece of writing. Instead, my role gives me the opportunity to place various works alongside one another to form a bigger picture.
However, as part of this same position, four times a year I am required to sit down next to an intimidatingly large pile of papers and read through submissions of varying topics, genres and strengths and come out the other side with a shortlist. This would be an intimidating, or, quite possibly, an impossible task without a grading system in place. So, that’s what I’m going to do with In the Quiet – put it through the Voiceworks wringer, and explain why I feel this book deserves to win the Readings Prize. (It also seems somewhat appropriate, as Eliza was published in the magazine a few years ago.)
We measure fiction in three categories: originality, cohesion and expression, before writing down our suggested edits and feedback.
Eliza’s is a story of loss, told through the eyes of Cate, a mother who has passed away. Grief is a difficult process to capture on the page – it’s like trying to catch smoke in a net. We all think we know what it looks like, whether we’ve experienced it firsthand or not, but striking the balance between overwrought and too callous is something many have tackled and few have achieved successfully. Eliza’s background in psychology, grief and loss counselling shine through here, with none of the characters having a, for lack of a better word, conventional grief process – because there is no such thing. Every character has a different experience, despite arguably having suffered a similar loss with the death of Cate. It’s delicately handled, but at the same time no punches are pulled.
Many authors have attempted to write honestly about grief, but tackling an experience so familiar and relatable can make it difficult for writers to put their own spin on it. The challenges are greater, but Eliza has done almost unbelievably well.
It is difficult to talk about cohesion in In the Quiet without raining down more spoilers than Twitter two minutes after an episode of The Bachelor ends, so I’m not going to go in to any specifics – it would do a disservice to the careful planning of this novel. The plot map for this book would most definitely have received the Minotaur’s seal of approval. The reader feels clever, like they’re picking up clues here and there to answer the big questions in this story, but no. It’s all planned. Everything is planned. It’s like being inside The Truman Show.
In terms of expression, while this story is all told through the one voice, the insight it gives into Cate’s family and community is deep and at times harrowing. The characters’ hurt is palpable, but the reader can do nothing to help, and Cate, as a protagonist, is powerless to reach out.
Grading system aside, the thing that most struck me about In the Quiet was its ability to immediately and completely immerse the reader in the foreign environment of Cate’s world. Don’t let the cover with its gentle colours and faded images fool you – it’s not a nice read. But it’s an important one, an insightful one and a good one.
I structured my argument around the Voiceworks grading system, so I should follow through on that. So: 3 for Originality, 3 for Cohesion, and 3 for Expression. 3 is the maximum score for each category – perhaps I should have mentioned that earlier. 9/9. No feedback.