The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award

2020 Shortlist

Congratulations to the finalists! 

Bedlam at Botany Bay by James Dunk (NewSouth Publishing)

Judges' comments 

A revelatory and gripping account of mental illness in the early days of the settlement in NSW. “Madness stalked the colony” and affected all levels of the society – free settlers, soldiers and convicts – and was dealt with through rigour and discipline, not understanding. Asylums to cater for the mentally ill came much later but they were not places of repose or rehabilitation. Using a rich array of individual stories, this is a compelling new history of the colony.

Olive Cotton: A Life in Photography by Helen Ennis (HarperCollins)

Judges' comments

Rescued over recent decades from the shadow of her famous first husband, Max Dupain, Olive Cotton was very much her own woman: determined, independent and highly creative. Ennis’s beautifully written and illustrated biography shows us Cotton as an essential figure in Australian art of the twentieth century, detailing her sublime and gently sensual photographic compositions, combined with a vivid portrait of Cotton herself. In addition, the book offers wonderful insights into the evolution of Australian society and its attitudes pre- and post-World War Two.

Friends and Rivals by Brenda Niall (Text Publishing) 

Judges' comments 

This is a fine and absorbing account of four female writers who achieved varying levels of success and fame during the last century, none of it accidental or easy.  There is Ethel Turner, author of the much-loved Seven Little Australians, Barbara Baynton who refused to go along with bush myths and wrote instead of the hardships endured by women, Henry Handel Richardson who achieved success in Europe and America with The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney and lived in splendid isolation in England, and Nettie Palmer, essayist and critic who helped nurture the careers of Australian writers. For a new generation of readers who may be unaware of their reach, Niall has brought these women to life again with great elegance.

Truganini by Cassandra Pybus (Allen & Unwin)  

Judges' comments

Sensitive and unflinching, Cassandra Pybus has given us in her historical biography a harrowing account of inhumanity, power and opportunism in Britain’s invasive settlement of Australia. It is not our place and nor is it within our ability to know the real woman who became popularly known as Truganini, but primarily through journals and other first-person accounts of the time we are given the tools to empathetically imagine her, perhaps properly for the first time. Striking about this book, and the many journeys this resilient woman remarkably survived, is the author’s refusal to leave her (or our) personal ‘involvement’ out of the ongoing legacy of brutality and oppression that requires acknowledgement of and reparation for Australia’s First Nation peoples.

The Watermill by Arnold Zable (Text Publishing)  

Judges' comments 

Zable has long been one of Australia’s finest storytellers, here turning his compassionate eye to those who inhabit the ‘Republic of the Stateless’. Wandering through Asia, Europe and Australia, Zable paints with detail, both lovely and harrowing, how individual lives resist the colossal forces of historic tragedy and find meaning amid the ruins of failed political projects. This book celebrates small acts of courage and survival that are themselves of enormous significance.