Marion Halligan. The Apricot Colonel. Allen & Unwin 2006. ISBN 9781741147667.
Because I love my Kindle, I’m starting with books that Amazon will sell me. I am well aware that this is a short-term arrangement. Marion Halligan is one of the few authors that I’ve so far identified who has (a) set more than one book in Canberra and (b) more than one of those books available for Kindle. On the basis that I expect to return to Marion a few times throughout the year, I thought I’d start with The Apricot Colonel.
What a lovely place to start.
Despite my dinner at Caphs assertions, The Apricot Colonel has no scene at Caphs. It is the exception that proves the rule. It does, though, reference another of the key sites for Canberra literature (as my early reading has uncovered). All cool people in Canberra-set books shop at Paperchain.
Instead of Caphs, Cassandra gets her caffeine fix at Tilley’s. In my alternate life I am young and cosmopolitan and have a job in the arts (like an editor, maybe? Hadn’t really thought of that) and I live walking distance from Tilley’s, where I can be certain that one of my community of young and cosmopolitan friends will be any time I feel like walking in. Cassandra, it turns out, is living my alternate life.
When I got back from the coast I went down to Tilley’s. My local, I think of it. I often wander down there instead of brewing my own coffee. Or opening my own bottle. …it was pleasant enough, sitting on the pavement underneath the umbrellas. You can usually count on finding someone you know.
Perhaps this happens anywhere you’ve lived long enough. I’m not someone who has a vast circle of friends, but I can no longer leave my house without running into someone I know. Small-town syndrome? Tight-knit community? Old age? Cassandra opines that “There are times when Canberra seems like a village.”
The action in The Apricot Colonel takes place in 2003, in the aftermath of the bushfires. The drama of the fires is not part of Cassandra’s story, but its effects are there like a malevolent presence. Smoke lingers over the city, and displaced dogs…
…are finding the sounds to go with it, crying, calling… Refugees, I suppose, come here because where they live was burnt, and what might they have seen, many of their companions perished in the fires.
The other malevolence in the background is the build-up to Howard’s decision to join the US invasion of Iraq, which of course will create other refugees, also here because where they live was burnt.
The 2003 Canberra bushfires were a domestic event made national—even global—by their scale. For a short time at least, the rest of Australia heard the word Canberra as meaning something other than the seat of government. It is the site of people’s homes, and 500 of them had burned. I remember at the time the Hilltop Hoods had released their single Burn Down the Parliament, and felt moved to explain that the timing was coincidental that they had never wished these terrible events on Canberrans. As if by saying ‘Parliament’ you must obviously mean all of Canberra, because what else could there be?
And the national is domestic life when Cassandra attends a march against the invasion, and feels uplifted by the common purpose made manifest around her. In Canberra a moment can have national resonances, although Cassandra is wryly realistic about the extent of that influence:
A split second, my short sharp words, and such mobs of people had heard them and seen me. I imagined the prime minister thinking, by golly, she’s right. Yes.
What I think endears The Apricot Colonel to me is its fondly mundane depiction of Canberra, and I guess its closeness to how I feel. The familiar references to Tilley’s “…at the counter waiting as you do even when the place seems empty”. The passing references to postings (diplomatic, not internet). Depredations of possums on the fruit trees and foxes on the backyard chooks. Editing work on government annual reports. Government is part of Cassandra’s Canberra, but it’s not all of it.
Winner 2004: ACT Book of the Year Award.
Commended 2004: Fellowship of Australian Writer’s Christina Stead Award for Fiction.
Shortlisted: Best Book-South Pacific and South East Asia section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2004