'The Strays' Takes the Stella Prize

The Stella Prize is an Australian literary award that has been recognising women’s writing for the past three years. Acting as a counterpart to Australia’s most prestigious literary honour, the male-dominated Miles Franklin Award, the Stella Prize fittingly derives its name from the very same Stella Maria “Miles” Franklin, author of My Brilliant Career.

As writer Kate Grenville states, “a women-only prize can be career changing”. However, the Stella offers much more than just its $50,000 in prize money and an increase in sales and publicity. Rather, its “graceful flexibility about genre”, as Helen Garner puts it, accepting both fiction and non-fiction works, encourages women to playfully experiment with genre themselves.

This sense of diversity and innovation is striking in this year’s shortlist. Including Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke, a series of ten short stories dealing with displacement, class, and race; Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race, an amalgamation of science and history to chart the story of humanity; Sofie Laguna’s novelisation of a childhood with autism in The Eye of the Sheep; The Golden Age, by Joan London, mapping a family of World War Two refugees in Perth; the shockingly young Ellie van Neerven Hubble’s Heat and Light, consisting of interlinking short stories rich in family and environment; and of course the winner, The Strays by Emily Bitto.

Bitto’s debut novel follows Lily, child of an unremarkable family, as she watches the drama of a bohemian life unfold around her school-friend, Eva. The children are ignored as Eva’s parents become more and more involved in the artistic community that surrounds them, and the family situation devolves. Centred on themes of loneliness and neglect, and framed by the strength of the protagonists’ relationship, The Strays presents us with the dilemma of how to live when surrounded by dysfunctionality.

Described by Judge Kerryn Goldsworthy as “like a gemstone: polished and multifaceted, reflecting illuminations back to the reader and holding rich colour in its depths”, The Strays is clearly deserving of this prestigious award that recognises only the most “excellent, original and engaging” in Australian women’s literature.

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