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Redfern local Fiona Kelly McGregor author of ‘Iris’ shortlisted for Miles Franklin Award

Redfern local Fiona Kelly McGregor’s latest novel Iris – set in the 1930s in the slums of Sydney – has been shortlisted for Australia’s most prominent literary book award.

This year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award Shortlist has five first-time nominees, including a debut author, among the six talented writers selected. Kelly McGregor competes with these authors for the $60,000 award established by feminist, and author of My Brilliant Career, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin.

Based on the life of petty criminal and busker Iris Webber, Iris is a star-crossed love story and teeming social portrait of schemers, gamblers, goodtime girls, gangsters and sly-groggers.

Award judges said “Iris is grounded in extensive historical research, which McGregor draws on to capture the authentic texture of the times. It is also a novel that is highly conscious and respectful of its place within a long and rich tradition of Australian writing about the grit and grime of inner-urban Sydney, a tradition it brilliantly reinvents.”

Here’s an extract from Iris

It was past midnight. The night was warm and the streets quieter though sounds still drifted out of houses. Maisie stopped by a window. We could hear the squeak of bedsprings and a woman crying out in pleasure. We grinned at each other then moved on. I turned my foot in a pothole and Maisie caught me. I wouldn’t walk these streets alone but with Maisie I felt brave. An alley thin as a needle dropped down to Elizabeth Street where lights glimmered. The moon was high above now, leaking greasy gold. It was one of those nights the city felt like a wild animal, something majestic we were riding. I should’ve headed to Glebe but Maisie had lamped a bloke up ahead. The glint of shoe leather, a watch chain.

Good evening ladies.
A silvertail! Maisie put on a posh voice to greet him.
What’s a nice man like you doing out this late?
I was going to ask you the same thing.
We’re on our way home.
I let my jacket fall open. Maisie took his hand, poking me behind his back. Looking for a taxi? I said taking his other hand. Or’d you park near here?
Actually, I was looking for my car but I can’t remember where I parked it.
We’ll help you.

Maisie steered him into a lane. We let go of his hands and had a strut. Two for the price of one ’cause it’s late and yer handsome, said Maisie. Right you are! he said. I felt excited. Maisie leant against the wall. Put yer arms around me darlin, she said. I placed the accordion and port between my feet, moving behind him laying my face between his shoulders telling him how nice he smelt. Maisie’s and my hands touched either side of him then hers disappeared to his flies. I reached around to stroke his chest, slid my fingers into his mouth and he sucked on them hungrily. My other hand was roving down brushing Maisie’s, our eyes meeting over his shoulder. I know you want to kiss me, Maisie said to him. Normally it isn’t allowed but tonight’s your special night. From his jacket pockets I took a cigarette case and lighter and I undid the watch chain. Just as he was about to spill Maisie darted to the side. A couple of blokes were coming down the lane and we made our escape before the silvertail knew what was what. The lights of Oxford Street were beckoning and we trotted towards them til we were out of breath. We hitched our dresses up and squatted to piss, laughing our heads off. Suddenly we heard what sounded like beat police and I remembered the key to Liverpool Street. Quick! I said, bolting across the road. The key still fitted the front door.

Judges said ‘Iris’ was an immersive historical novel set in 1930s Sydney, whose protagonist gets drawn into a criminal underworld dominated by the notorious madams Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. Image: Supplied

Extract from Iris published with permission.

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Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor, published by Picador Australia, RRP $34.99

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