Book review: The Furphy Anthology 2023, edited by Joanne Holliman

These 16 stories were drawn from over 600 entries to the annual short story competition.

A furphy is an absurd or untrue rumour or story. Its name springs from the rumours and gossip passed around World War I trenches along with Furphy-manufactured water carts. Sam and Adam Furphy, who have written the foreword to this year’s anthology, are the great, great, great nephews of Joseph Furphy, whose company made those water containers and which is still manufacturing storage tanks at Shepparton in Victoria.

Not only did Joseph Furphy donate his name to the Australian vernacular, he wrote Such is Life, a highly regarded early work of Australian fiction. It is in his honour that the Furphy Literary Award was founded. Each year it attracts many hundreds of entries with prizes and publication for the best stories.

This year’s theme was ‘Australian life in all its diversity’ and the winner was Jen Rewell, while stories by Eugenie Pusenjak and Natalie A Vella came in second and third place, respectively. These award-winning stories, together with 13 others, comprise this year’s anthology.

Rewell’s ‘Away to Me’ is a warm love story about Half-Arthur, ‘who could sit drinking while his legs wandered off for a piss. . . True story.’ Rewell packs a lifetime of ups and downs into a few pages and delivers a heart-warming ending.

I particularly liked ‘The Drey’ by Pusenjak. A drey, as you may know, is a nest, and a young man and the possum he encounters both face problems finding a suitable nest or place in which to stay overnight. While in no way implying that homelessness is not a very significant problem for so many Australians, it is refreshing to have one serious aspect of the issue recounted with such a light and amusing touch, effectively humanising the issue.

Vella’s ‘The Lucky Country’ gives a glimpse of the exploitation of migrants in Australia. Its palpable realism is enough to make the reader squirm. While it is set at the time Australians were speculating on the possible drowning of their Prime Minister, Harold Holt, it could almost have been set in the present. It also reminds the reader of the trauma of change from one culture to a very different one. A good short story often derives its power from a memorable and surprising ending, and this one is no exception.

Of the remaining stories, one of the standouts is ‘Homecoming’ by Peter Arnold-Nott. ‘Ahead of the immobilised convoy I had newly joined, a creek without a name tore across the road like it was running for its life,’ relays the narrator, describing a traffic jam on a highway. Walking past the stationary vehicles, the narrator describes the people he meets in distinctive and perceptive ways, but I wish the story had been more generously populated, and the casual conversations a trifle longer; the 5,000 word limit allowed the author ample opportunity to flesh out his story further.

Another story that takes place on the road is Claire Aman’s ‘Panic Strap’. It consists of two narratives relayed through a conversation between a driver and a hitchhiker on a lengthy trip. Neither gives too much away, but you are treated to intriguing glimpses into the lives of two very different people who are thrown together for a short time. It is about a casual and meaningless relationship yet captures the reader’s interest perhaps because of memories of not dissimilar conversations.

Read: Book Review: Life Skills for a Broken World by Dr Ahona Guha

One of the most powerful stories is ‘Pascal’s Pot’ by Andrew Nest in which he has a good go at the pretentiousness of art lovers and the idiosyncrasies of fame. Amusingly told, it also points an accusing finger at what it can take to become famous.

Singling out the above stories, though, does not mean the rest are unworthy of attention. Indeed, the eager reader may well enjoy them more than those I’ve highlighted. Who knows how the judges coped with reading and assessing over 600 submissions, but it can be confidently asserted that each story published here represents the cream that rose to the top of the submissions pool. If you buy this book, you will likely be delighted with the abundance of talent on display, and consequently only too willing to give a vote of thanks to all who made the Furphy Literary Award possible.

The Furphy Anthology 
Edited by Joanne Holliman
Publisher: Hardie Grant
ISBN: 9781761450662
Format: Hardback
Pages: 256pp
RRP: $35
Publication: 1 December 2023

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.