The Fifth Season

Longlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Transit Lounge, 2020

Jack retreats to an Airbnb cottage in a small coastal town. As a writer he is pre-occupied with the phenomenon of found people: the Somerton Man, the Gippsland Man, the Isdal Woman, people who are found dead – their identities unknown or erased – and the mysterious pull this has on the public mind.

In Blue Bay, as well as encountering the town’s colourful inhabitants, Jack befriends Sarah, whose sister Alice is one of the many thousands of people who go missing every year. Sarah has been painting her sister’s likeness in murals throughout the country, hoping that Alice will be found.

Then Jack discovers a book about the people of the town, and about Sarah, which was written by a man who called himself Simon. Who once lived in the same cottage and created a backyard garden comprised of crazy mosaics. Until he too disappeared.

While Sarah’s life seems beholden to an ambiguous grief, Jack’s own condition is unclear. Is he writing or dying? In The Fifth Season Philip Salom brings his virtuoso gifts for storytelling, humour and character to a haunting and unforgettable novel about the tenuousness of life and what it means to be both lost and found.

Philip Salom discussed The Fifth Season with essayist and critic James Ley in a Zoom event hosted by Readings bookshop: ‘Philip Salom in Conversation’. A recording of the event is now available on YouTube. This article on Lisa Hill’s ANZLit Lovers LitBlog gives you the essentials of the discussion.

The Fifth Season was discussed on the 20th November edition of ABC Radio National’s Book program The Bookshelf, hosted by Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh.

On December 3rd on Radio National’s, The Drawing Room, with Patricia Karvelas, Philip talked about the ideas of disappearance and loss and the phenomenon of ‘found people’ in The Fifth Season. Philip also reflected on the practice of writing, taking on risk and the unexpected spaces that writing creates. 


Praise for The Fifth Season

An immensely wise, witty, recognisable and haunting story.

Robert Drewe 

Salom is a deeply intelligent creative writer, but he never deploys this cleverness to mystify. Instead he wants us to experience what it is to be haunted in terms descriptive (what the story is about) and formal (how the story is told)…

… it is hard to escape the feeling that the non-sequential, metafictional, poetic approach taken by Salom is an attempt to honour the missing — those victims of a pandemic of loneliness as fatal as any physical disease — and to approximate the simultaneous sense of presence and absence they possess.

The tone is darker than in Salom’s 2019 novel, The Returns, which was short-listed for the Miles Franklin, though his talent for social satire remains undimmed.

Geordie Williamson – Chief Literary Critic, The Weekend Australian

This novel reminds me of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo* (2017) in its preoccupation with the liminal zone, richly diverse and unstable, between life and death’.

It’s a novel of ideas in which the ideas are often floating in a kind of limbo, where it’s not immediately apparent who is speaking. Is it Jack, or is it the absent Simon, also a writer, or is it Salom himself? Samuel Beckett asked, ‘What does it matter who is speaking?’ In this novel, sometimes it doesn’t matter very much: what matters most is what is being said.

Salom plays some intricate games with these ideas, but, playfulness notwithstanding, we are not allowed to forget that John Donne was wrong: that death is, after all, mighty and dreadful.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, ABR

*Booker Prize Winner 2017

Salom’s gift for characterisation is as sharp in a coastal town as it was on the streets of Melbourne in Waiting and The Returns.

Jack’s project is a book about ‘found people’: the Somerton Man, the Gippsland Man, the Isdal Woman, the Piano Man, Cornelia Rau. All people who are found dead or amnesiac — their identities unknown by accident or design. But in one of a series of eerie correspondences, Sarah is an activist in search of missing people, and her life is consumed by the absence of her sister. She paints massive portraits of Alice in public spaces, along with portraits of other people who are missing, in order to raise awareness of the Missing Persons Advocacy Network.

Though dealing with serious issues, The Fifth Season is a playful book

Lisa Hill, ANZLitlovers

Each year thousands of novels are published, that on top of the millions that have been produced down through the ages. How is it possible to keep the form fresh and lively, vital even?
Enter Philip Salom.

Just one of the achievements is the way he writes with such warmth; indeed, there is much affection on the pages, between the author and his characters, between the characters themselves, and between the author and his readers. The Fifth Season is also very funny.

Salom’s compassion and humanity, and his generosity towards the reader, means this is a most unique and unforgettable reading experience. The novel deserves to be piled high in bookshop windows, and reach the very top of the prize lists.

Nigel Featherstone, The Canberra Times