Political Animals

Sonya Voumard. Political Animals. Ginninderra Press, 2008. ISBN: 9781740275026

There is a lot going on in Political Animals. I finished it with a hundred questions and ideas and impressions and comments, and I’m struggling to sort them all out in my head and come up with a single coherent view of the book. Struggling to find the right angle, as a journalist might say.

Journalist Alison Chesterton is living the jaded life of a Canberra press gallery journalist. Far too much alcohol. Promiscuity. A cheap flat that is a museum of ‘70s decor, shared with a ministerial staffer who she rarely sees. No real connections to other humans, or at least not connections that she wouldn’t sell out for a good contact or the next big story. Or who wouldn’t do the same to her. It’s a life run on nicotine and adrenaline and it’s taking its toll.

It’s a view of Canberra where Canberra equals government. But somehow, that inability to see beyond the bubble that is life on the hill, which many journalists seem unable to shake when they turn to fiction, didn’t drive me nuts here the way it did in books like The Marmalade Files.

People often ask me what I do in Canberra when I’m not working. It’s hard to answer because I am working most of the time. When I’m not at Parliament House I’m out at dinner with contacts or colleagues. And drinking. Even when I go for a bike ride around the lake on a Sunday that I don’t happen to be working, I’ll often end up running into someone, having coffee and talking work. Occasionally, on a hot day, a few of us will drive out to the river at the Kambah Pool Reserve for a swim. But that always leaves me feeling depressed and trapped and craving the ocean, where you can really swim. If you can’t have the ocean you may as well go to the Manuka pool and do laps.

I think there are a few reasons for my forgiveness of Alison’s view. One is that Political Animals is from and about a female perspective of the press gallery. The hard drinking, smoking, jaded, life-on-a-precipice male journalist, even when it’s done well is a cliché, but when it’s a woman it’s a newer perspective. I’m not sure that Alison behaves all that differently to the way I would expect a male character to respond in similar circumstances. But the female view, and the risks to a female in those circumstances, are inevitably different, and I found the story much more engaging and thought-provoking as a result.

The plot was also more plausible than some of the conspiracy and murder-fuelled Canberra-as-political-hotbed stores I’ve read this year. Alison has received a tip-off that one of the PM’s closest advisors, Matthew Green, has sexually abused an Aboriginal girl. Alison knows she’s being used by her informant for his own political purposes, but the story’s too important to let go. Then there’s her own sexual and emotional entanglement with Green. But it’s still a great story. Coincidentally, Alison has her own contacts that can get her close to the story and help her verify it. But how far can she risk her oldest and closest and yet most fragile friendship for the story of her career?

Alison’s dilemma is more nuanced that some of the other political stories I’ve read, and I was more sympathetic with her actions than I have been with the other fictional Canberra journos and cops I’ve met this year. I think this also is because Alison is a woman, as is her creator. Perhaps I’m over-reading it, but I think this allows for a more finely-tuned emotional response than would be plausible in a male character. Political Animals is as much about animal instincts and emotional responses as it is about calculated bastardry.

Although the key characters are mostly Canberra political players, the stories they are playing with are located elsewhere. For the politicians, journalists and staffers who circulate in Alison’s world, this isn’t real life. They shack up in unlikely combinations in frat house digs in Barton and Red Hill out of pure convenience. There is a poisonous, jealous and incestuous culture that grows out of mutual loathing and interdependence, and the fact that they all have real homes to go to somewhere else. Even though she describes herself as a Canberran, and shares Canberra’s joy in its lake, it is clear this is not really home for Alison.

I always feel dread returning to Canberra, a combination of sadness at goodbyes just said elsewhere and emptiness. This homecoming, and the dread that it promises, is even more depressing than usual. …

My flat is cold and smells unlived-in… This transient world is lonely and silent.

While the culture Alison finds herself in is attributed to the transience of Canberra, it’s possible to understand that this relates only that few square kilometres of Canberra that focus on the house on the hill. At one point Alison tells herself that she hates Canberra and everything it represents. Canberra readers will know that what Canberra is and what it represents can be two very different things.

And even in the end, when Alison has realised that she needs something that is not available to her in Canberra, her friend Kat is heading there, prepared to give it a go. Because it is a place where it is possible to make a difference. When Canberra is performing its seat of government role – the seat of power – amazing and terrible things can happen there, and seemingly anything is possible.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

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