Blanche D’Alpuget. Turtle Beach. Allen & Unwin House of Books, 2012. ISBN 9781742699189. First published 1981.
I have found so far in this project that by the time I’m half-way through a book I’ve identified a theme that I want to follow through to the end, work with and write about. Of course, the refugee ‘problem’ (whatever you think that might mean) in Turtle Beach is the ‘unignorable’ theme that resonates for me. How is it that we are having exactly the same conversations all these years later?
I’ve resisted following this line, feeling ill-equipped to compare and contrast the post-Vietnam war Malaysia of the 1970s and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan/Sri Lankan wars Malaysia of the 2010s. It is though, as I say, unignorable. What occurred to me, almost at the very end of D’Alpuget’s novel, is that Turtle Beach is about deciding what we are prepared to fight for, and what we are prepared to lose. What power do we have, and what will we choose to use if for?
Canberra is the jumping-off point, the familiar anchor before we head to the unfamiliar world of Malaysia and its refugee camps. It is the logical place to begin the story, where we can expect political journalists, aspiring politicians, diplomats and other public servants to intersect.
All of Turtle Beach’s characters have battles to face. Not all of them are equal to the fight, and each must choose their own weapons. The first Lady Hobday concedes the field and retreats to her Red Hill home, but the second will use every tool within reach to fight for her family. Poor, sick Ralph the immigration official chooses to fight without really meaning to pay the consequences that result. Kanaan avoids conflict by invoking a fatalistic Hindu philosophy, believing that what will be will be. In the background, the refugees take any avenue they can to overcome their collective and individual struggles.
Judith Wilkes, Canberra political journalist, is in Malaysia to pursue the refugee ‘problem’ back to its source, or close enough. She, like her hostess, the second Lady Hobday, Minou, will make use of any lead and any contact to pursue what she is after. Whether she is chasing the story for its own sake, for her career, or for that of her about-to-be preselected husband isn’t always clear. It seems at moments that she will put more into this than into her unravelling marriage.
Canberra is a place to get things done, to make a difference, where you can access the tools that win wars. Politics is about power, and the power to pursue the things we believe are right. When Judith learns that her husband is on his way into the federal parliament, she has a moment of excitement about the possibilities:
He laughed modestly. ‘Come 1983 I’ll be Minister for … oh, I could take Immigration…’
‘No!’ Suddenly she was not in an Asian hotel room with an arrow on its ceiling pointing to Mecca, but back there in the thick of it. Jesus! She could write the policy herself. ‘No! Take Women’s Affairs! And Aborigines! Think how much good you could do for…’
In Turtle Beach D’Alpuget frequently returns to a theme of describing the colours and qualities of light —the soft greenish light of a garden, “grey refracted light” of dawn in Minou’s childhood Vietnam, the “tinselly light” of a drunken night on the town. In Canberra, that theme plays into the colours of the encircling mountains as the light changes:
The summer grasses had been bleached to straw, the purple mountains that ring the city had seemed to move closer in the harsh light
Sometimes the Brindabellas are “detached, spiky and black”, sometimes a soft lilac. I want to venture into a metaphor of the mountains around Canberra as a barrier—Judith thinks of them as a barricade—to seeing, or wanting to see, the plight of the refugees. Arriving in Malaysia, drowning off its beaches, being driven back from its shoreline by its frightened, angry villagers, living in its stinking, squalid island camps that are meant to represent refuge. I can’t help wondering how many of D’Alpuget’s largely faceless refugee families could still be waiting today in that so-called queue we keep hearing about. The one that people who arrive here by boat were supposed to be sent to the back of.
While musing on the metaphor of mountains, I came across TheBlackTwig, who introduces an account of climbing Mount Ainslie with these words:
I live in a city where the sunset bleeds deep red and yet it is beautiful…
I live in Canberra where mountains block us from the rest of the country and yet it is enlightening.
That’s it. Canberra is enlightening. Enlightened. Relatively speaking. And yet we are in many senses still cut off from the rest of the country. As I said in my review of The Tazyrik Year, to understand Canberra is not necessarily to understand the rest of Australia. We do, though, participate with much of the rest of this country in perpetuating myths and stereotypes about ‘boat people’. As Judith’s husband observes “We’re living in mean-spirited times”.
Winner, Fiction Category, 1981: Age Book of the Year