The Trickster

Jane Downing, The Trickster, Pandanus Books, 2003. ISBN: 1740760298.

When I wound up the Dinner at Caphs project earlier this year I always intended to pop back into Caphs from time to time when something Canberra-based turned up again. There is still a lot on the list that I’d like to get to some day.

My current project is Lunch at the Raintree Cafe, pursuing my affection for the Pacific Islands through fiction. I didn’t really expect to come across anything that fit into both blogs, but here it is in the form of the highly enjoyable The Trickster.

Truth be told, the Canberra connection in the Trickster is barely more than a mention, but I couldn’t resist bringing it to you here. Before the central character, Joy, begins her travels to the centre of the world – the Marshall Islands capital Majuro – she must give up her job at the Dickson Library and “a profession steeped in words and letters and knowledge and the dusty indescribably satisfying smell of books”.

Joy’s husband Geoff has landed a development job in the Marshall Islands, and there is little question that she’ll go with him, even after she learns that she is pregnant and that her son will be born in Majuro. In part The Trickster is a story of culture shock and cultural clashes, as Joy struggles to find a life and an identity for herself as a new mother without connections and networks in a new country.

There was much in the expat experience in the Pacific that was familiar to me. The welcome party, six months after their arrival, on Marshallese Time (I still maintain Solomon Time is the most elastic of them all). Geoff’s triumph in his breakthrough model for revitalising the Marshallese economy, which turns out to be exactly the same as the model developed by his predecessor, found forgotten in a drawer. The different and seemingly incompatible approaches to work, to responsibility, to, it seems everything:

He’d come from the hustle-bustle, dog-eat-dog city life to the laid back Pacific and was suffering from stress. He had so far, and for the foreseeable future, failed to adapt to the demands of the new job. The key to the problem was somewhere in there with the absence of recognisable demands.

Reality was slipping…

The frustrations aren’t confined to Geoff’s office, and Joy’s interactions with the Marshallese around her are equally perplexing:

Joy asked, sweetly, if Mine would like to come and do some babysitting for her.

“Oh, yes. Daniel is a very beautiful baby.”

Joy left convinced that the date was set…

Though, it must be remembered, in this context ‘yes’ is open to interpretation. From birth Mine, as any child in a Marshallese family, was taught of the discourtesy of disappointing the one you are with; was warned of the insult of the word ‘no’. She was not an ill-bred person. No matter her intention she would meekly, willingly, sincerely return the much-wanted affirmative to her given companion lest she disappoint them. That this same companion would suffer no amount of frustration in the long run was not the issue under consideration.

There is more to it for Joy, though, than just dealing with misunderstandings with the locals and Geoff’s professional setbacks. Her baby son, Daniel, is fighting to keep hold of his body against the local god Letao, who is trying to move in.

Author Jane Downing has wound together a wry and amusing tale of expatriate culture shock with accounts of Marshallese folklore and legend. Letao has decided to take over Daniel’s body as a means of reminding his people of their own gods, by rivalling the hold on them that the new god Jesus has achieved. Along the way we learn something of Letao’s past adventures and exploits – the creation and other stories of the Marshall Islands that explain the world and nature’s order.

We learn of the creation of the MarshalIslands, when Letao steals a basket of earth from his father Wulleb, which leaks:

First a drop, then a dash, a sprinkle, a scatter, a globule plonking splat alone, a last dribble… The earth for his new home was wasted on these two chicken-feed chains of islands. He threw the basket down in disgust, to a spot where it became known as Kili.

Downing has found a novel way of passing on Marshallese legend to a foreign audience, without either appropriating or belittling the legends. These are living stories, fighting to be retained and remembered and valued. And for Joy and Daniel they are not merely stories but reality. Forces to be reckoned with, still shaping the world and shaping lives. While Pacific legends and Pacific ways of life might seem incompatible with western custom and outlooks, they are powerful forces still, and won’t be dislodged easily.

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Endings and Beginnings

I feel that after a year of reviewing I should have arrived at some universal truth about the nature of fiction set in Canberra. There should something profound and weighty I can say about what I have learned over the course of this 12 month journey. Somehow, though, deep insights are eluding me, so perhaps we could start with some statistics.

At a forum in October this year called Writing the History of Canberra, Frank Moorhouse made known that, according to his research, something like 19 works of fiction had been set in Canberra. I was able to set him right, of course. With an end-of-year final update, I’ve identified 83 on the list, and with the increasing ease of self publishing this number seems to be steadily rising.

My own reading amongst the 83 is of course not representative. It’s been influenced by what I was interested in, what I could get hold of, what I hadn’t already read, and what I felt it was important to include in the Dinner at Caphs project. For what it is worth, though, here’s a bit of a summary.

Over the year I’ve read 41 works of Canberra-based fiction, plus the non-fiction Canberra Red, published in honour of the Centenary, and the non-Canberra-mentioning Happy Valley. Of the 41, the majority I would just call contemporary fiction, but the other genres work out like this:

Anthologies:             1

Children’s fiction:    4

Classic fiction:          3

Crime & Suspense   10

Romance:                   3

Speculative fiction:  2

Young adult:             3

More than half – 61 per cent – of what I have read this year has been by women. A little under 20 per cent (although at times it seemed much more) has been self-published.

The most visited review on the blog has been Christmas in Canberra, helped out I’m sure by many people searching for recommendations for the best lunch spot on December 25. Second was Lightning, assisted by quite a bit of sharing on Facebook and a kind tweet from the author Felicity Volk. Interestingly, though, some enthusiastic tweeting by supporters of Christie Thompson didn’t result in the same level of traffic to my review of Snake Bite.

WordPress’ ability to share the search terms used to find a blog was always a bit hit and miss, and this has been further reduced, I understand, by increased protections put in place by Google. Nevertheless, it is flattering to know that the biggest group of search terms seems to have been people actually looking for the blog: about 11 per cent of identifiable searches used some variation on the term “Dinner at Caphs”, which is gratifying. Perhaps less gratifyingly, the next largest group, at eight per cent of searches, were people looking for brothels. I think my personal favourite from this group is the search for “transsexual brothels in fyshwick canberra”. My favourite search all year, though, was the person wondering “was captain cook hungry on his journey to australia”. I will eternally regret that Dinner at Caphs wasn’t able to provide the answer.

Like the types of books that I reviewed on the blog, the tags used to describe them are a bit of an artificial construct. Once a tag was used I tried to take opportunities to reuse them, and I did consciously work tag references in to reviews at times. I also regretfully left some references and tags out, as some reviews threatened to become dreary lists of Canberra place names. Some that I thought would be used regularly turned out to only be used only a couple of times – most famously, Caphs.

Notwithstanding this engineering on my part, by far the most common tag (excluding “Canberra” and “Reading”, which went on all posts) was “Brindabellas”, closely followed by “Lake Burley Griffin”. “Public service” came third, but other common themes were Old Parliament House, paddocks, and Mount Ainslie.

In terms of genre, it’s perhaps not very surprising that there is a preponderance of political and spy thrillers set in Canberra. Also perhaps not surprising that there are very few romances. Why set your romance in Canberra when you could have Paris? That most people search the internet for porn is a well established fact. That Lake Burley Griffin is one of the iconic totems of Canberra is also not surprising at all. I was, though, a little surprised and not just a little pleased that our encircling, enfolding Brindabellas are the things that denote Canberra more than anything else in fiction.

What does any of this mean? I’m not sure I know. I’d be interested in what trends and themes any of you regular readers might have identified. I do think that the three categories I came up with in May – Inevitable, Comfortable and Symbolic Canberra – have stood up pretty well, although they are hardly rocket science.

When I started out in January 2013 I said I wanted to “try to see this city the way others see it, and to examine how I feel about what they see”. I think I’ve done that, but I don’t think the process has moved me very far from the place I started. I’m still angered by lazy stereotyping of Canberra, although if it is well, or at least amusingly, written I can forgive much. I still warm to writing that is affectionate about the town. Although I like to think I’m open minded about criticism, I think I’ve got better at accepting that Canberra’s flaws as well as its blessings are part of an honest depiction. With 83 books about the place, there are also 83 views of what Canberra is, what it represents and what it might be.

Some readers have asked what I’ll be doing blog-wise now that the Centenary of Canberra is over. Dinner at Caphs will be going into a sort of suspended animation. There are some books on the list that I plan to get to at some time in the future, so there may be the odd intermittent addition, but I won’t be giving Caphs the regular attention it’s had during 2013.

Thanks to those of you who’ve followed along over the year, and particularly to those who’ve commented on and shared the posts. It’s been lovely to be part of a conversation with you, and to know that there are a few people out there reading and find something of value here.

To those of you whose interest goes beyond the Canberra theme, it’s time for the big reveal. I’ve had such a lovely time with Dinner at Caphs that I’ve decided to continue in 2014 with a slightly wider focus. If you are still peckish, perhaps you’d care to join me for Lunch at the Raintree Café?



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Murder on the Apricot Coast

Marion Halligan. Murder on the Apricot Coast. Allen and Unwin, 2008. ISBN: 9781741753844.

It seemed appropriate to come full circle at the end of the Centenary year, and finish the journey somewhere near where I began. So I’ve returned to Cassandra and the Colonel, to O’Connor and Tilley’s and the south coast to read Murder on the Apricot Coast.

It was also a blessed relief to return to Marion Halligan’s gentle, thoughtful prose after Rose’s tired complaining in The Tenants. To be entirely truthful, I read Murder on the Apricot Coast before The Tenants, intending as I said for it to be my last Centenary read. But I finished it with too much of the Centenary year to spare and so picked The Tenants to keep me going. Laker’s book was such an unsatisfying conclusion to the year that I went back to Apricot Coast and read it again, little more than a week after finishing it the first time.

You may recall that Cassandra Travers – now Marriott in some contexts – is an editor, and so she muses from time to time on the nature of writing and the experience of reading. At one point she contrasts two books she has been editing – one a joy and one a chore – and has this to say:

I have this theory, about reading books, it’s all to do with rhythm. Sometimes you find yourself in prose that has a rhythm that somehow suits yours and so you are carried along with your reading of it, it chimes beautifully with your own sensibility. It’s like what they call chemistry with a lover. It explains why some people love books that others can’t stand.

This sums up nicely my feeling about Harrigan’s writing that I’ve read this year – not just the two Apricot books, but her contributions to The Invisible Thread and Canberra Red as well. Of course, the differences between Halligan and Laker as authors can be put down to more than just my sympathetic rhythms, but there is certainly a lot of that to do with it.

I’m looking for interpretations of Canberra, and when you are looking for something you are much more likely to find it. And so I also I find in Halligan’s writing a need, like mine, to find and celebrate the reasons for loving life in Canberra:

Sometimes I think people have a gene that makes them love the land they are born in…. I grew up in Canberra and I love the place. That’s not difficult, whatever stupid outsiders say, blaming the city for the decisions of the politicians they elect. I love its high country light, its ancient hills at the end of new streets, it’s clear air.

To the story, though. Murder on the Apricot Coast finds Cassandra married to her Colonel, and sharing their time between her comfortable O’Connor home, the Colonel’s nearby flat, and his beautiful south coast beach house. They are to some extent still settling into their new life together, working out how it all fits. Some parts of Cassandra’s old life remain – visiting Paperchain, book launches at the National Library, possums in the garden, Vietnamese dinner in Dickson. Cassandra and Al’s friends live in apartments in Kingston and “spreading” houses in Forrest and are press gallery journalists and public servants and lawyers. The more stylish ones shop at edgy boutiques in Braddon. Of course they lunch in cafes in Manuka – one “a bit retro, with banquettes and booths and wall lights like pointed shells.” Could it be Caphs? Does Caphs have booths as well as tables? I can’t remember. It definitely has retro, shell-shaped wall lights.

The suburban calm is interrupted by the death, in her Lyneham group house, of a beautiful young woman, a daughter of Cassandra and Al’s friends. Fern’s death reveals some grim secrets about Canberra: women working as prostitutes to get through university, and glimpses of a heinous trade in young girls for the most heinous of purposes. But what is truth and what is fiction? Where does fact end and fantasy begin?

Having read it twice, I’m not sure that the murder mystery of Apricot Coast hangs together entirely satisfactorily. Without wishing to introduce spoilers, some elements of the story – major events and plot lines that seem portentous – turn out to go nowhere and have no real significance. I know this is part of the point of a murder mystery, but I felt the final explanation of the motivations behind many of the tangled events was a bit under-explained and somewhat unconvincing.

Somehow, though, this seems entirely appropriate for a Canberra story. The big stories going on around us often turn out to have no real significance. It is the mundane and the everyday that has real meaning. Cassandra observes a number of times that she believes in the truth of fiction. There’s a truthfulness in Murder on the Apricot Coast, with its gentle treatment of the ordinarily extraordinary Canberra, that appeals very much to me.

At one point Cassandra watches an SBS documentary on a poor Indian family who speak of their life:

So tranquil and rewarding a life. The words seem so wise… Tranquil and rewarding. I thought I could make a kind of charm out of the words, for myself, and say them over in my head as a measure, a test of worth, of what was happening.

What a fine measure of the quality of a life. Tranquil and rewarding. There are certainly many lesser ways to live. One of the constant criticisms of Canberra is that it is dull, and dull can be a synonym for tranquil. But if great cities are the opposite of tranquil, might they also be the opposite of rewarding?

I like Cassandra’s mantra very much. I think I’ll take it as my own measure, my own test of the worth of my adopted home and of the quality of the life that is possible here.



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The Tenants

Gwen Laker. The Tenants. c1998

When an author shares some basic biographical characteristics with her main character I sometimes find it hard to separate the two. I can’t quite decide if author Gwen Laker is her character Rose Attenborough.  To be fair, there’s maybe not that much they have in common, beyond age and gender. Rose tells us she is in her eighties, and judging by the author’s photo on the back cover Laker is probably of a similar age (I understand she has passed away since the book was published). The back cover also tells us that the book is “entirely fictional. All characters bear no resemblance to any living person or persons”, so I guess I’ll just have to take Laker at her word.

I hope that Rose is entirely fictional, because by about page seven I couldn’t stand her. My god, what a bitching, complaining noxious old woman. Every observation of her fellow tenants is critical or mean-spirited, every compliment is grudging or back-handed, every pleasure is noted with the expectation that it is only the best that can be expected, or simply cannot last. Here’s a sample. Rose has just had an unpleasant phone conversation with her more-or-less estranged daughter Elizabeth:

Well, I think. Not a very successful attempt to bring me out of my doldrums… Really, I’m getting as bad as Frieda. However [some coffee] might help to settle my nerves. I drink it, then prepare for bed. Not even the patchwork quilt on my double bed can cheer me up. It is a lovely quilt, alive with vibrant colours in a geometric design. My mother spent countless hours making it and gave it to me on my fortieth birthday. How long ago that seems. Elizabeth was just ten years old and as loving a daughter as you could wish for. How times have changed. Time seems to be the dominant factor for the majority of people these days. It’s all rush, rush, rush, and for what? Heart attacks, strokes, neuroses and often before ambitions have been achieved. When will it all end?

Rose is more or less housebound in the flat that has been her home for the past thirty years, and so her life revolves around the doings of the other tenants in her little block of four units. They are a strangely assorted group, but they seem to rub along together and have formed something of a community, Rose’s carping aside. Each is more or less alone, but they look out for eachother, take an interest in eachother’s lives, and offer help and advice when they can. It’s an interesting take, and a view of a life and a community not commonly portrayed in Canberra.

With the odd exception, such as Snake Bite and Riverslake, the Canberra revealed though Dinner at Caphs thus far has been overwhelmingly middle class. Laker’s tenants largely are too. Frieda’s a nurse, Reggie a retired public servant with business ambitions. Adam’s a librarian. Rose clearly sees herself as having refined tastes, dismissive of the modern art at the National Gallery – “a swindle for those gullible enough to believe the dealers’ blurb”, but “enthralled with Glover’s landscapes” – and grudgingly sharing her Haig Dimple with Reggie. The tenants live “in one of the quieter suburbs of Canberra” in something of a state of genteel poverty.

The Tenants also provides an unusual perspective from an older person. Rose’s views, infuriating though they are, bring an outlook on Canberra not provided in anything else I’ve read this year. It’s a very narrow one, to be sure, largely bounded by her view of the Brindabellas through her living room window, her ambulance trips to Woden hospital (“not in the Royal Canberra. The hierarchy have decided to close it down and force all patients in the north to travel many unnecessary kilometres”) and the visits of the meals on wheels ladies and her dissatisfied cleaning lady. It’s a familiarity, if not a contentment, and she observes the changing seasons through the changes in the trees in the garden outside.

Although I have witnessed much sadness and been consumed by my own misery within these walls, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else. I’m so used to Canberra now that I think my very bones have absorbed its eccentricities and uniqueness. It’s a beautiful city with ultra modern buildings and rippling lakes. The parks and gardens are superb and the new Parliament House an architect’s dream. Five star hotels and restaurants abound and there’s even opulent brothels. Yet despite much of this glitterati and veneer, I still have a fondness for it I can’t explain.



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