A smattering of cultural theory is helpful when reading Gail Jones. The academic bones of her writing always show through the thin padding of her concept-driven stories: deconstructed photography in Sixty Lights (2005), technology and intimacy entwined in Dreams of Speaking (2006). It is more than disconcerting when the narrator of Jones’s third novel, Sorry, starts to interrogate the text with the aplomb of a Cultural Studies postgraduate, especially as the said narrator, Perdita, is a twelve-year-old girl living in Perth, in 1942, curled up in bed with a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ‘Since the first reader is the author,’ Perdita thinks to herself, ‘might there be a channel, somehow, between author and reader, an indefinable intimacy, a secret pact? There are always moments, reading a novel, in which one recognises oneself, or comes across a described detail especially and personally redolent; might there be in this covert world, yet another zone of connection?’
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.