In conjunction with its generous sponsor ARA Group, the Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) has announced the three talented authors, and their outstanding novels, selected in the Shortlist for the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize – Adult Category. The shortlisted entries include:

The ARA Historical Novel Prize winners will be announced at the HNSA virtual conference on 22 October 2021. Join our free virtual Cocktail Party to celebrate the announcement of the winners of the $100,000 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize. Presented by Julia Baird, the virtual Cocktail Party will include illustrated readings from the shortlisted books, and you’ll be able to hear from our judging panels, as well as the authors themselves.


About Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray – River of Dreams

The powerful Murrumbidgee River surges through town leaving death and destruction in its wake. It is a stark reminder that while the river can give life, it can just as easily take it away.Wagadhaany is one of the lucky ones. She survives. But is her life now better than the fate she escaped? Forced to move away from her miyagan, she walks through each day with no trace of dance in her step, her broken heart forever calling her back home to Gundagai. When she meets Wiradyuri stockman Yindyamarra, Wagadhaany’s heart slowly begins to heal. But still, she dreams of a better life, away from the degradation of being owned. She longs to set out along the river of her ancestors, in search of lost family and country. Can she find the courage to defy the White man’s law? And if she does, will it bring hope … or heartache?

About Dr Anita Heiss

Dr Anita Heiss is an award-winning author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, children’s novels and blogs. She is a proud member of the Wiradjuri Nation of central New South Wales, an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the GO Foundation and Worawa Aboriginal College. Anita is a board member of University of Queensland Press and Circa Contemporary Circus, and is a Professor of Communications at the University of Queensland. As an artist in residence at La Boite Theatre in 2020, Anita began adapting her novel Tiddas (S&S, 2014) for the stage. Her novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (S&S, 2016) set in Cowra during World War II, was the 2020 University of Canberra Book of the Year. Anita enjoys eating chocolate, running and being a ‘creative disruptor’.

For further information:

"One of the roles of the HNSA is to make some noise about historical fiction, and the shortlisting of Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray in the ARA Historical Novel Prize for 2021 helps make some noise about the heroes and lives of Wiradyuri peoples in our shared history, and that’s something I want to celebrate. Thank you."

Comments from the Judging Panel 

“Dispossession, love and language centre this story of a young Wiradjuri woman, indentured to a white household, and mourning the separation from her family. The calm, insightful narrative softens the tragic currents that can change life in an instant as Heiss explores Indigenous-European tensions and the devastating impact of colonial law through the difficult friendship that develops between Wagadhaany and the Quaker wife of her employer. The deft handling of this relationship underscores the many abuses of racism and colonialism.”

“Displacement and the gradual loss of identity, where even language is stolen is beautifully weighted against Wagadhaany’s love for the stockman, Yindyamarra, making us question what it is to be a moral being.”

“Through language and a palpable love for her country and people, Anita Heiss gives voice to those silenced and takes back what was lost to the white narratives of colonisation.”  


About Our Shadows

Our Shadows tells the story of three generations of family living in Kalgoorlie, where gold was discovered in 1893 by an Irish-born prospector named Paddy Hannan, whose own history weaves in and out of this beguiling novel. Sisters Nell and Frances were raised by their grandparents and were once closely bound by reading and fantasy. Now they live in Sydney and are estranged. Each in her own way struggles with the loss of their parents. Little by little the sisters grow to understand the imaginative force of the past and the legacy of their shared orphanhood. Then Frances decides to make a journey home to the goldfields to explore what lies hidden and unspoken in their lives, in the shadowy tunnels of the past.

About Gail Jones

Gail Jones is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. She is the author of two short story collections and eight novels, and her work has been translated into several languages. She has received numerous literary awards, including the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the Age Book of the Year, the South Australian Premier’s Award, the ALS Gold Medal and the Kibble Award, and has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the International Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Femina Étranger. Originally from Western Australia, she now lives in Sydney.

The task of imagining history beyond our own - with interest, curiosity and genuine engagement - is both a moral obligation and an intellectual adventure. The ARA Historical Novel Prize honours such texts and I’m delighted Our Shadows is among those shortlisted.


Comments from the Judging Panel 

“In 1893 gold was found in Western Australia. Good luck for some. But the life of the main character of the novel, twentieth century orphan Frances Kelly, is ‘a tale of bad luck’. Frances ponders the elusive identity of her missing father, as the narrative moves back and forth in time, mining the darkness of the past, searching for the glint of truth. Through a century of wars and other disasters, waves of fiction and non-fiction rise, fall, fracture, merge to present a terrifying and un-nerving vision of a whole world in crisis.”

“Gail Jones excels in the poetic evocation of the most violent misery and abject suffering. She places moments of touching grace alongside episodes of horror as well as ugly banality. The tale begins in Ireland among the simple sunshine of golden daffodils, and takes the reader on a grim exploration of the many sorrowful faces of human greed.”


About The Burning Island

Eliza Grayling, born in Sydney when the colony itself was still an infant, has lived there all her thirty-two years. Too tall, too stern—too old, now—for marriage, she looks out for her reclusive father, Joshua, and wonders about his past. There is a shadow there: an old enmity.

When Joshua Grayling is offered the chance for a reckoning with his nemesis, Eliza is horrified. It involves a sea voyage with an uncertain, probably violent, outcome. Insanity for an elderly blind man, let alone a drunkard. Unable to dissuade her father from his mad fixation, Eliza begins to understand she may be forced to go with him. Then she sees the vessel they will be sailing on. And in that instant, the voyage of the Moonbird becomes Eliza’s mission too.

About Jock Serong

Jock Serong’s novels have received the Ned Kelly Award for First Fiction, the Colin Roderick Award and the inaugural Staunch Prize (UK). He lives with his family on Victoria’s far west coast. For further information, visit:

"I'm so surprised and delighted to be on the HNSA Historical Novel prize shortlist. All of us write historical stories because the story struck us so forcefully in the first place, so it's very gratifying when it resonates with others. I feel very honoured to be in company with Gail and Anita, and to have a small part in the re-examining and re-telling of Australia's past."

Comments from the Judging Panel 

“Jock Serong’s The Burning Island is a captivating novel that makes the past come alive in an astonishing way. Serong’s luminous prose style conjures a world that is striking for the way it intertwines historical fidelity with imaginative exuberance. The story, set in 1830, centres around thirty-two-year-old Eliza Grayling and her father Joshua Grayling as they undertake a sea voyage around the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait, in search of an old enemy. Along the way, their journeys and their world-views are irrevocably and satisfying challenged particularly through the character of Tarenorerer, who was a real-life warrior of the Tommeginne people in Emu Bay. Nothing is as it seems in this luminous book. Serong animates the characters and places in his novel with insightful attention to the hierarchies of desire and power, constantly surprising the reader right up until the last page. This is storytelling at its very best.”


From Nicole Alexander, Chair of the Judging Panel 

“What an honour it has been to be a judge for this year’s ARA Historical novel prize. This important prize recognises a significant literary genre, one that celebrates, enlightens and interprets, and most importantly, allows us to escape into new, unknown worlds and for the fleetingist of moments discover what it may have been like to live in another age.”

“I would like to thank my fellow judges Carmel Bird and Roanna Gonsalves. It is extraordinarily exciting to see the calibre of historical fiction being published in Australia and New Zealand. We received 95 entries this year, and the breadth of the narratives made for fascinating reading. We were transported around the globe, thrust into theatres of war, held spellbound by loves lost and found, left breathless by the frailty of life and pulled headlong into the realities of human machination and depravity.”

“The quality of entries was very high, making the judging an extremely difficult task. The judging was based on three key criteria, excellence in writing, depth of research and reader appeal. If a book did not meet the first criteria, excellence in writing, it was set aside.”

“This year’s three shortlisted titles stood out from a very fine longlist. For the purpose of this video each judge was allocated one of the books and asked to provide a quote to accompany an illustrated reading.”

“The 2021 shortlisted titles probe into time and place, and through a blend of fact and imagination offer compelling portraits of racism, love, identity, dispossession, greed and disfunction. They make us question the very tenets of civilisation and they do so with grace and beauty, deftly reminding us that the past can follow us into the present, guiding us, haunting us and inevitably leading us to question our own place in today’s world. Congratulations Anita Heiss, Jock Serong and Gail Jones.”



ARA Group provides a comprehensive range of building services and products to major customers throughout Australia and New Zealand and – through its workplace giving program, The ARA Endowment Fund – plays a proud and positive role in the community.

The ARA Endowment Fund currently donates 100 per cent of the interest earned annually to The Go Foundation, The Indigenous Literacy Foundation and The David Lynch Foundation.

ARA Group has also sponsored the Historical Novel Society Australasia’s biennial conferences since 2017, is Principal Partner of Sydney Writers Festival, the Monkey Baa Theatre, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and Presidential Partner of Taronga Zoo.

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