Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Dust is the work of a new and persuasive voice

0003383_300One of the reasons I so look forward to the list of finalists for literary prizes is that they often introduce readers to authors they might otherwise not have encountered. When the judges release their list it’s like five or six of your closest friends saying, “you’ll like this book.” And I did like this book.

Ellen van Neerven is one of six authors recently shortlisted for the Stella prize for women writers, one of Australia’s most prestigious awards. Her debut book is Heat and Light which consists of three elements. Heat, a collection of interconnected stories centering around the Kresinger family particularly the mysterious and magical Pearl; Water, about a futuristic world where a new race of Australians has been discovered but are under threat from humans; and Light, ten short stories, some just a few pages along, which look at the of young indigenous, mostly gay, young people caught between two worlds.  Reading (and then re-reading) this collection instead made me feel like I was with a group of women, young, old, urban, coastal, desert living, all revealing highly individual snippets of their different lives but all bound by common themes – the contradictions between freedom, obligation and a sense of belonging.

Van Neerven writes about issues like violence, alcohol abuse and neglect in a matter-of-fact way as the every day occurrences they can be, without ever under-playing or trivialising the impact. In a completely unsentimental way she exposes the complex ties of family all wrapped in a swirl of deep mysticism. Van Neerven is a new and compelling voice. Heat and Light a powerful and adept debut collection.

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven is published by UQP (University of Queensland Press). It won the David Unaipon award.

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