Ian Callinan. Betrayals. Boolarong Press 2011. ISBN: 9781921555879

Bucharest, Brisbane, Moscow, Canberra, Oxford, Vietnam. Cecily and Tim, with their assorted satellites Josh, Denis and Janice, rotate through these locations and spin around eachother without ever quite touching. Star-crossed lovers, as Cecily observes. They seem to be perpetually in eachother’s orbit but held apart by fundamental forces.

The forces between them are the betrayals of the book’s title. Betrayals inflicted by friends and family see their university days in 1960s Brisbane abruptly ended. Cecily embarks on a stellar career in Oxford as an historian of the economies of the Soviet states. Tim’s centre of gravity is also dislodged, and without enthusiasm or conviction he becomes a hero in Vietnam and then a spook in Canberra. It’s inevitable, though, that their paths will intersect again.

I don’t think Ian Callinan likes women very much. The betrayals of the book’s title are largely made by women. Denis betrays only himself. Of course, Tim’s is the greatest betrayal of them all, but his is done without selfishness, if naively.

Cecily’s end is unworthy of her, as if Callinan can’t imagine another recourse for a sensitive woman shabbily treated. He seems not to understand the strength of his own creation. Did she not make a quiet triumph out of her life following the betrayals inflicted on her by her mother, the hurts delivered by Josh? Her response in the end is a sad cliché. It does little justice to the rest of the book, which is brooding and intriguing.

If Callinan has little feeling for his female characters, he has even less for Canberra. While Brisbane is the landscape of Tim’s heady student days and his growing love for Cecily, Canberra is the scene of all that is dull and pedestrian in Tim’s sad married life and his lacklustre career. He reflects on “the unrealised promise of his youth, and all those arid years in Canberra”.

Tim believes that Canberra’s architecture “has an air of bombast”, just “a collection of pretentious buildings each in its own paddock”, “a mishmash…of misshapen masonry and glass”. He knows that Brisbane will always be his home, and this is the key to his view of Canberra. It is an outsider’s view, the view of someone who, despite making a life there for years, has never felt he belongs. Is that Tim’s fault, or Canberra’s?

Tim has spent most of his adult life in the town, raised a beloved son, forged a career and sustained a marriage in a comfortable home. He can recall happy days of skiing holidays, picnics, the tennis club, dinner with friends. Yet when describing Canberra to Cecily, the only compliment he can come up with is that it is “pretty” in autumn.

Tim’s inability to accept and adopt a life in Canberra stems ultimately from his separation from Cecily. His life has taken the trajectory it has and landed him in this public service town, and Tim, or perhaps Callinan, really hates the public service.

The glimpses of Canberra bureaucracy here are so at odds with my experience of public service that I find it hard not to be angry at what feels like a deliberate misrepresentation. Tim’s view is of an administration bent on gamesmanship, a city of 300 000 people “preoccupied with their own ascent, or the ascent and descent of other civil servants on the civil service ladder.” Twice he comments on the “contempt” he believes public servants have for those they serve. There are lots of small inaccuracies in Callinan’s public service anecdotes and vignettes. It may take a nitpicker to notice them, but they bother me because they are either born of, or designed to create, a vague outline of a clichéd public service bureaucracy that is bloated, lazy, insular and ineffective.

Of course, Tim, despite drawing his wage from the taxpayer, doesn’t appear to consider himself a public servant. And it is the career public servant who triumphs in the end. Tim’s colleague Aden takes management courses while languishing in the byway of the Middle East desk throughout the Cold War. He is overshadowed by the more respected analysts on the Eastern Europe desk. Then the Berlin Wall comes down, and everything changes.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

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  1. Pingback: West Block | Dinner at Caphs

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