Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2009

Fugitive Blue (2008), by Claire Thomas

fugitive-blueFugitive Blue is an interesting story beautifully written and there is much to like about it, but I am a bit puzzled by its longlisting for the 2009 Miles Franklin because the work, for all its self-evident merits, is not really true to the spirit of the MF award.  I know that sometimes there are mutterings about the terms of Franklin’s Will, but the fact is that the award is supposed to be for a published work portraying Australian life in any of its phases.  As the MF Trust website declares:

The Miles Franklin Literary Award, our first and most prestigious literary award, was established in 1954 with a bequest from the author Miles Franklin. She was concerned to see Australian literature flourish and knew first hand the struggles most authors have in Australia.

The Miles Franklin Literary Award celebrates Australian character and creativity and nurtures the continuing life of literature about Australia. It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.

So what were the judges thinking of?  Fugitive Blue covers the same sort of territory as People of the Book.  It traces the antecedents of a European painting under restoration while at the same time it dissects the ending of a relationship.  There’s nothing distinctively Australian about it:  it could just as well have been set in Norway or Montreal. Ok, the narrator/restorer used to live in Melbourne, the painting is restored in a studio in Melbourne, and the relationship while it flourished was in Melbourne, but there’s not so much as a tram to convey the place as a distinctive city, only a filthy flat.  The rest of the action is mostly overseas as the provenance of the painting is imagined.  Compared to the paucity of setting in Melbourne, Venice in 1478 and 1776 is most wonderfully realised, with superb descriptions of the canals and waterways, the buildings, the glorious artworks and Carnevale.

Horace wakes up with a strange feeling already rushing through him.  The sounds of the splashing street echo up into his lodgings and he wonders if perhaps he has heard something dreadful in his sleep: a fight in foreign voices beneath his window, a screaming fall.

Maybe it is simply the water.  He cannot understand how such an old, illustrious city can be so alarmingly wet.  The very notion of it, lapping away at everything, perplexes him.

Travellers have said that Venice appears to float on the Adriatic, a shimmering fairytale city rising through the clouds.  But Horace believes this idea is nonsense: the buildings do just the opposite; they cling to the small section of terrain at their foundations with a crumbling, desperate defiance.  They are not floating at all, but rather embedded into the earth in a way he has never seen in any other city. (p69)

The lyricism for Paris 1877 and Kythera in the 1950s is not quite as lush but again it is in marked contrast to the bare realisation of the scenes at the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre.  Was this section why the book gained its spot in the MF longlist?  There’s very little to distinguish it from a migrant reception centre anywhere else in the world, but what little there is shows this writer’s potential:

Each afternoon when the Bonegilla children are released from school, many of them run down to the river.  Some of them aren’t wearing shoes and as they run across grass covered in prickly bindies, they squeal but keep running, past the blocks of huts, past the kitchen smells, past the gum trees, all the way down the hill to the dirt of the river bank.  Then they peel off their clothes and run into the water in tatty singlets and pants, squealing again at the squish and the rocks beneath their toes.

Swimming here is like swimming in an enormous puddle, Anastasia thinks.  There’s the brown dirt-filled water, the floating leaves and the way the bank slopes into the river just like the crumbling edges of a pothole on the road.  And most of all, the river is contained: she can see where the water stops and where the land begins again on the other side….this river’s not scary, Anastasia thinks.  The opposite bank is solid and it’s covered in the same trees as this bank with their muted long leaves and layers of soft bark that can be peeled off into strips of crooked velvet. (p182)

These quibbles about the longlisting aside, Fugitive Blue shows Claire Thomas to be a writer of great promise. The book is well structured, with cunning symbolism (especially the Rotting Room!) and a resolution of great poignancy.  Like Tracy Chevalier, the author lures the reader into the world of fine arts with superb descriptions, bringing pictures and painters of other eras to life with deft imagery.   This book could well be shortlisted for any number of awards – just not the Miles Franklin, in my opinion, because of the criteria stipulated by Miles Franklin’s Will.

It is good to see from her website that this fine writer is already at work on a second novel.  With her academic background in George Eliot, Henry James and 19th century travel writing, I anticipate a most interesting writing future for Claire Thomas, and will certainly be buying her next book!

Author: Claire Thomas
Title: Fugitive Blue
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Source: Personal copy, purchased at Readings $29.95


  1. Absolutely Fugitive Blue can be considered by the Miles Franklin award jury. The migrant story at Bonegilla is deadset Aussie material! Why isn’t being an art conservator in Melbourne in a relationship with an actor touring regional Victoria not a reflection of Australia in any of its phases?

    I picked up this novel because of the writing about colour and artists pigments, a feature I liked about Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and Geraldine Brook’s The People of the Book.

    I thought the Rotting Room was a hit over the head kind of metaphor, but I might have missed a subtlety here. So I will try reading Henry James. Thank you for the reference to George Eliot, I was wondering why I found the Venice scenes reminiscent.

    Great review! Fun to find someone else’s take on the book. I enjoyed it and will read Claire Thomas again. Classic Orange Longlister material I think.


  2. Hi Meg, thanks for taking the time to comment:) I certainly agree that Claire Thomas is a writer to look out for – she has a lovely way with words and (yes, that Rotting Room metaphor!) a wonderful imagination. There must be something about having an art background and being a writer with a gift for imagery – I like Chevalier too, and there’s also Susan Vreeland who writes wonderful books about art and artists.


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