Down but not out: Top literary award goes to tale of loneliness and heartbreak

Jennifer Down has won the 2022 Miles Franklin literary award at the age of 31 for her novel Bodies Of Light, becoming one of the youngest authors ever to take out the prize.

Jul 21, 2022, updated Jul 26, 2022
Australian author Jennifer Down with her novel Bodies of Light which won the 2022 Miles Franklin Award. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Australian author Jennifer Down with her novel Bodies of Light which won the 2022 Miles Franklin Award. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

When she first heard on the phone that she had won the $60,000 prize she fell down in disbelief, the Melbourne writer said in her speech at the online presentation on Wednesday.

“I fell to my knees like a woman in a sort of sweaty old-timey film, I was quite literally speechless,” she said.

Bodies Of Light tells the life story of a woman who suffered systemic abuse growing up in state care in the 1980s, and who moves to Canada under a new identity.

Down began writing the book in 2017, reading accounts from parliamentary inquiries into systemic abuse and conducting interviews with survivors keen to talk.

But even with two well-regarded books already under her belt, the first published when she was 25, at times she believed she might not ever finish Bodies Of Light.

“I always have the sensation that I’m learning to do this for the first time … I hope I’m trying to challenge myself to write things that push me in some way,” she told AAP.

At 448 pages, it’s much longer than her previous works and has drawn comparisons to Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 epic A Little Life.

Down promises Bodies Of Light is nowhere near as dark as Yanagihara’s traumatic novel, but said she would not hold it against anyone if they chose happier bedtime reading.

“It’s a good one to read when you’re in the right emotional state, you’re feeling secure or you need a really good cathartic cry, a really snotty cry,” she said.

Miles Franklin herself may not have recognised the literature on this year’s list but the stories are looking at Australian life, according to one of the judges, Richard Neville from the State Library of NSW.

“I think she would feel that what is coming out of Australian writers at the moment addresses the kinds of questions she was hoping that literature would be addressing,” he said during the ceremony.

While Down is aware of the sales boost that comes with the Miles Franklin, she tries not to get caught up in the arbitrary world of book prizes.

“You have to just expect nothing and appreciate everything – while that sounds very zen I’m actually a very neurotic person – it’s more like self preservation,” she laughs.

The 2022 shortlist included twice-shortlisted author Michael Mohammed Ahmad and self-published writer Michael Winkler, alongside Alice Pung and two-time winner Michelle de Kretser, authors Down read growing up.

“To be appearing on a shortlist alongside those names, it really just feels like a tremendous stroke of fortune,” she said.

The youngest Miles Franklin winner is Randolph Stow, who was awarded the prize at the age of 23 with To The Islands in 1958.

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