The Vogel Prize shares a reputation with the rest of the company’s products: nutritious, worthy, a little dull. But the prize’s earnest image is unfair. Any glance at the roll-call of winners over the last twenty-five years would show that the makers of soggy bread and soya cereals have done more than anyone to introduce fresh literary DNA into Australia’s tiny gene pool of published novelists. But reviewers, mostly, and the public, generally, don’t get excited when the new Vogel is published. This year they should. Julienne van Loon’s desperate joyride, Road Story, is the best Vogel winner to come along since 1990, when Gillian Mears’s The Mint Lawn, equally confident but very different, won first place.
Road Story has a ripper opening: a young woman, Diana Kooper, is running through a Sydney park, late at night, in the rain. Behind her, in a white Suzuki hatchback crumpled around a telephone pole, is the bleeding body of her best friend, wedged halfway through the broken windscreen. Diana runs all the way to Central Station, where she boards the first train. Then she hitchhikes through the out-west townships of her childhood until she stops at a remote roadhouse, where she takes a job warming rissoles and keeping the Cokes lined up at eye level in the fridge.