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Comments from the Judging Panel

Text of the speech made by Professor Marina Warner

at the annoucement of the shortlist at the Melbourne Writers Festival, 30 August 2013

Good Evening

The remarks that follow combine comments from all three of the judges, Ed Byrne, Ian Sansom, and myself about the twelve books on the long list. I will announce the short list afterwards.

Ian Sansom:

We have works on the shortlist which we believe demonstrate a wide intellectual and imaginative range and great seriousness of purpose. As judges our remit is discover books which represent an intellectual, scientific and/or imaginative advance, and which are written with energy and clarity. The awarding of Prizes should be of benefit, we believe, not only to the author, but also to readers and the public at large: our hope is that by drawing to these wonderful books we might encourage a contagion of good."

Jim al-Khalili

Pathfinders The Golden Age of Arabic Science

A brilliant work of popular intellectual history, combined with personal reminiscences of an Iraqi migrant family, this British broadcaster reveals the neglected story of scholars and scientists from the Arabic world to the development of the scientific method and the making of modernity. Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending A consummate novella , told by an unreliable narrator, a box of mirrors, fiction as a psycho-sexual riddle by a writer who invokes Flaubert’s maxim about writing, ‘Comb it till it shines.’

Amy Espeseth

Sufficient Grace

A burning first novel, which blends symbolic writing with naturalistic realism, a highly wrought exploration of the little-known, little understood inner precincts and secret places of evangelical Christianity; using Biblical cadences and imagery, Espeseth gives a virtuoso evocation of ice and blood in rural United States, with a powerful dramatic story of sibling loyalty in the midst of family strife.

Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender

The Real Science behind Sex Differences Lucid scientific writing, and brilliant polemic. Fine stands her ground against an array of authorities from the neuro-sciences and other areas of expertise and boldly, wittily, and learnedly refutes assertions about men and women, girls and boys. Lively and engaging, this is a necessary, valuable book, which warns even the enlightened among us – and I thought I was one – that we are likely to fall into stereotyping. My favourite of many such insights was the little girl saying to a little boy about the book she’s reading, 'Boys aren’t allowed to read about fairies.’ A crucial work for our time.

Jonathan Franzen


A big novel in the classic American tradition. An astonishingly naturalistic chronicle of contemporary middle America, executed with brilliant conviction by the current wearer of the crown for lyrical realist fiction. Voluptuously and evoked in every nuance of taste and tendency, the ordinary Berglund family members are studied in close up, ventriloquized and animated with skill and accuracy, until they turn extraordinary, and love under strain triumphs.

Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke

An historical pageant of war and empire: following Sea of Poppies, thus is the second volume in the Indian novelist’s exuberant trilogy about the opium trade, seen from unusual angles – by an ebullient profiteer, an expatriate artist; this is an irrepressible recreation of a past chapter, a shaken kaleidoscope of conventional history, narrated in an inventive and highly entertaining mix of registers and dialects – a fictive Globish from the past.

Robert Gray

Cumulus Collected Poems

A collection of lyric, personal and pastoral poems spanning 50 years of writing, filled with vivid epiphanies of the Australian scene and other landscapes seen on the poet’s travels, laced with startling metaphorical juxtapositions and, over the years, a growing engagement with fugitive states, as in the ideals of Chinese watercolour painting, and evoked by the shifting clouds in the fine title poem.

Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars

From the brilliant master of vivid historical epic a novel that enters into the minds and hearts of two sisters who leave Australia to work as nurses on the battlefields of the first world war . The author’s powers of broad, deep intimate empathy illuminate the horrors of carnage on the threshold of the centenary to alert us to the horrors of such bloodshed today.

Etgar Keret

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, translated from Hebrew

A rich, packed collection of nearly 40 short stories, by one of Israel’s bestselling younger writers. The comic material is shot through with existential and absurdist melancholia, and he brings off some bold effects of enigma and open endedness. The title story alludes to the Arabian Nights, as it’s about telling a story to save your life, and the tensions of contemporary Israel shiver beneath the humorous bantering surface throughout.

Nidaa Khoury

Book of Sins

Trans Betsy Rosenberg Introduced by Yair Huri

A collection of incarnational, highly personal song-like lyric poetry, with allusions to mystical poetry of the middle eastern tradition going back to antiquity and to the Song of Songs and the Syrian poet Ephrem. Khoury is a Christian Palestinian, living in Israel and this is a trilingual edition – Arabic, Hebrew and English, published in the Caribbean by a small press.

Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

One of the new generation of wanderer prose poets, psychogeographers and writer-walkers, Robert Macfarlane explores sea roads as well as land tracks in a classic piece of English nature observation; he evokes precursors, such as Edward Thomas, who said, long term acts of wayfaring leave long imprints.. p 48…His prose is seismographically alert and draws on botany zoology, geology with mind-expanding passion.

Alice Oswald


A memorable, re-voiced free revisioning of the Iliad by Homer, this book length poem identifies and parts three strands in the Greek forerunner: a long list of thedead like the toll on a war memorial; a series of graphic, cinematic close ups of their horrific wounds; and in counterpoise, a lyrical stratum of pastoral verse, summoning the cycle of the farming year and the flora and fauna of an timeless domestic scene. For example ‘like crickets leaning on their elbows in the hedges Tiny dried up men speaking pure light.’ Oswald calls her extraordinary work an 'oral cemetery'.

The six books on the short list are:

The winner will be announced at the Wallace Collection in Longon by Ian Sansom on September 24.