Tag Archives: Australian National University

Automaton

Alana Woods. Automaton. Woodsforthe Trees, [c2001]. ISBN: 9780957976702.

We’ve not had a courtroom drama before in our journey through fictional Canberra. I wonder why? Plenty of murders have happened, but up until now it’s the cops and the journalists who have had all the glory. But now we have legal aid lawyer Elizabeth Sharman, in Canberra to escape her recently failed relationship and to defend young Russell Montgomery, who is accused of murdering the owner of the supermarket at Narrabundah shops.

Russell’s case isn’t looking very hopeful, mostly because there are a number of witnesses to the murder, but also because he can’t remember a thing about it, or about himself. An ‘automaton’ case, as his lawyers refer to it.

Perhaps, though, it’s Elizabeth who is the automaton. Apparently alone in the world, apart from her friend Honey the leg model, Elizabeth seems unable to connect with anyone. Or perhaps to connect in the right way with the right people. Her instructing solicitor Robert Murphy is worried about her strange obsession with the defendant. He’s also more than a little miffed about her apparent lack of interest in a relationship with him.

Automaton has more plot twists than a country house whodunit, a strange, abbreviated style of prose, and an inability to correctly use apostrophes. Despite the enthusiastic reader reviews comparing author Alana Woods favourably to John Grisham, I didn’t quite see what the fuss might be about. The plot was enough to keep me turning pages, but as disaster after disaster befell Elizabeth and Russell, not least a Black Mountain car crash that leaves Elizabeth trapped for hours, I realised that I didn’t really care. Perhaps Woods has done too good a job at depicting the driven woman too strong to ask for help.

There are some nice connections with and observations of Canberra. Elizabeth has just arrived in town, and has rented one of the new apartments on Northbourne Avenue, walking distance from her London Circuit office. During her sleepless nights she can wander

the suburban back streets, the long twilight and wide-lawned stretches between hedge and road over which mature oaks spread their shade softening the heat’s effect.

Those rows of apartments, one layer deep along Northbourne, remind me of a Hollywood film set. Cardboard facades that give the illusion of a city when there is really all of that comfortable tree-lined suburbia behind it.

In Automaton there are lawyers lunches in Garema Place and drinks at the Wig and Pen, although the midnight café Elizabeth manages to find in Civic sounded fanciful to me, given the circa 2001 publishing date. Lawyerly investigations take us out to Belconnen to the remand centre, to Woden along the Tuggeranong Parkway tailing suspects, and over Clyde Mountain to Bateman’s Bay and the family beach house of the murdered man.

It was refreshing to read Canberra depicted as a cosmopolitan place. In Wood’s version of the city, Garema Place is bustling day and night, and the ANU bar and the Casino form part of a vibrant night life. Not all of these things are necessarily true. Somehow, though, even when the identity of the city is largely immaterial, Woods feels the need to centre Canberra on the lake.

In the early dawn she dressed and walked down to Lake Burley Griffin… Once there she sat in solitude, idly examining the pale lines of the public buildings on the opposite bank. The old Federation style and the flag-dominated new parliament houses, the blocked art gallery and high court… The occasional jogger, bicycle rider and fellow walker were out… With few people and fewer vehicles to spoil the serenity she thought how calmly beautiful it was. The light had a lucidity that stung the eyes.

Somehow, Canberra’s landscape always manages to assert itself.

Awards:

Winner 2003: Fast Books Prize

Nominated 2004: Davitt Awards

Caphs count:

8%

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1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Women Writers

The Monster That Ate Canberra

Michael Salmon. The Monster That Ate Canberra. Summit Press, 1974. ISBN: 959920927

Probably Australia’s most famous bunyip, Alexander, was born in Canberra. Well, not exactly. He was forced to leave his original home (we don’t quite know where that is) because

his favourite billabong was slowly filling up with rubbish from the smoggy city. Every Tuesday and Thursday huge trucks roared down to the water and dumped loads of empty beer cans, soft drink bottles, cigarette packets, old tyres and newspapers – all the rubbish that lies about in the streets and gutters of any big city.

Unable to clean up after the trucks any longer, Alexander leaves to find a better place to live. After wandering to the sugarcane and the palms, to the bottle trees and grass trees, and “to the mountain ranges of snow and ice”, Alexander finally stumbles upon his new home:

There, nestling between the mountains in the distance was the biggest billabong that he had seen in all his Bunyip years… At last he had found a perfect home….. LAKE BURLEY GRIFFIN!!

After finally resting following his long journey, Alexander wakes the next day, bathes under the Captain Cook fountain, and realizes he is hungry. The National Library looks to Alexander like a giant birthday cake, and tastes “a bit sugary and sweet”. Parliament House, “a special super extra long hamburger”, doesn’t taste very good at all. But for desert there is apple pie Academy of Science and an ice cream cone Carillion.

But Canberrans don’t like having their national monuments eaten by bunyips, and the Prime Minister, on the advice of “a wise professor from the University”, orders the plug to be pulled on Scrivener Dam, so that the lake can be drained and the greedy bunyip can be caught.

The Monster that Ate Canberra gave rise to an enormously successful and long-running series of children’s books, a television show, and even a range of merchandise. Later images of Alexander are round and cheerful and pastel-coloured, but these early pictures in the first Alexander book (the copy I read was the second edition – the first was in 1972) show him thinner and sadder-eyed, picked out in red, while the Minister for Uncertain Things and the other people around him are charcoal black and grey.

Alexander is a much-loved bunyip, so much so that a wonderful sculpture of him was erected outside the Gungahlin library. I couldn’t help, though, feeling sad reading The Monster that Ate Canberra. Among the last of his race, he is driven from home by the actions of unthinking others. When he finds a place of sanctuary and tries to get by, he is misunderstood, his actions of mere survival considered criminal by the people he has come to live among. I can’t help but agree with our anonymous narrator at the end of the book: “I hope he has found a home and lots of things to eat”.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

13%

2 Comments

Filed under Children's Fiction

The Sitters

Alex Miller. The Sitters. Viking, 1995. ISBN 0670862312.

No one who has a choice chooses to live in Canberra. I’m no exception. I didn’t choose to live in Canberra but I had long ago decided that I’d probably never move away. My wife had been with the Department of Foreign Affairs. That’s why we moved to Canberra in the first place. I was the one who’d stayed. Our son grew up there.

This observation comes early in The Sitters. It comes a little out of the blue. Our nameless narrator, an artist overcoming the painterly version of writer’s block, is introducing us to the “neglected orchard outside my windows where the birds came in the autumn to eat the fruit.” It sounds a peaceful, contemplative space. But somehow he is a prisoner. He continues to live in Canberra and so must, for some reason, have no choice.

I don’t quite know what to make of this statement, and I don’t know where to go with it. Canberra is a city of immigrants. Attested by the ridiculous upsurge in the rental market, as new Defence and DFAT and AusAID postings, students of five universities, and graduate recruits to the public service of two governments, all arrive in town in the same week. The exodus in summer when everyone goes ‘home’ for Christmas. But how can this be? There must have been generations born, educated, employed, retired here by now. Surely not everyone thinks of Canberra as somewhere to escape from? When I was first a student here I used to see that rock marking the NSW-ACT border on the Federal Highway from Sydney and my heart would sink. Now it is my sign that I am almost home, and I’m anticipating that first glimpse of Black Mountain Tower and the Brindabellas.

I also don’t quite know what I want to say about The Sitters, except that it is beautiful. The artist, the knowing observer, understands the implications of every moment, because he knows how it will end, but there is very little ‘action’ in the story. There is the artist’s observation, his contemplation of, his thoughts about, actions. At a recent event I was lucky enough to attend where Miller read from The Sitters, he referred to it as ‘a reverie’. These things give the narrative a dreamlike, floating feeling. I didn’t mind where the story was going. I was content just to float along.

We’re in my studio and I’m showing Jessica the little oil of her mother. It’s late. We’re both tired and happy. We’re in that tired, happy satisfied state you sometimes get when you’ve done a good day’s work….We’ve been dealing with things and we’ve got this sense between us of companionship and respect. And it’s more than that too, but what can you say? Like I said, it’s only glimpses.

Our artist does portraits. Or likenesses. We understand early that there is a difference. The book itself is a sketch: there is much we don’t know. The artist’s name. His role at the University. Where his wife is now. The details aren’t important – we only need a broad outline to understand the picture.

The sketches are enough for me to conclude that perhaps The Sitters is about relationships, mostly fractured ones, and the places that stand for those relationships. The artist stretches a remembered family weekend in Kent to last a whole childhood, to cover over the nicks and cracks of a violent growing up. Jessica travels halfway around the world to escape the destiny that will overtake her if she stays in the Araluen Valley, to repeat the lives of her mother, her grandmother, her great grandmother. Many of the characters are mere shapes. Jessica’s mother, chipping away at the garden with her hoe. Her father, a blur in the background of a photo. Markers in the landscape, denoting disappointment, or persistence perhaps.

I think I had lived here for years before I met anyone who was born in Canberra. It used to be fairly standard to ask new acquaintances where they come from. But surely if we choose to come we can also choose to leave, and yet we stay. The ties of family, of fulfilling work, of shared experiences and lived lives and memories held by places are enough for some. And, like Jessica, who feels compelled to return to Araluen, sometimes we may change our minds and come back.

Awards:

Winner 2012: Melbourne Prize for Literature

Caphs count:

23%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction

Always the Boss

Victoria Gordon. Always the Boss (An Australian Romance Classic). Mills & Boon, 1981. ISBN: 0263735389.

I need you to understand that I am making sacrifices for this project.

I used to half joke that one day I would take my long service leave from work to write a Mills & Boon. In the end I took LSL to study museum curatorship. Both the trodden and the untrodden paths have contributed equally to my income. Nevertheless, I suspect that the engagement with lecturers and students and museum objects was a better choice for me than a lonely life slogging away at a computer with the how-to-write-a-Mills-&-Boon guidelines in front of me.

Victoria Gordon has much more successfully engaged with the M&B formula, delivering 22 titles for Harlequin Mills & Boon between 1980 and 2010. These include a series of ‘Australian Romance Classics’ set in locations such as Tasmania, the Pilbara, Bundaberg, and Canberra. How very, very, fascinating then, to learn that Victoria Gordon is in fact Canadian-Australian Gordon Aalborg.

According to Amazon, Aalborg

was told by his editor to “keep your head down, your mouth shut and remember you don’t exist” — because Harlequin policy at the time was to claim that no man could write Harlequin-specific category romance.

This tempts me to read all sorts of additional gender politics into Always the Boss. Given that every other scene between protagonists Dinah Fisher and Conan Garth involves something on a continuum between sexual harassment and sexual assault, what am I to make of the fact that the author is a man? To make any cogent arguments I would need to read a few more examples. And frankly, I’m not prepared to do that.

Always the Boss starts promisingly:

The rollicking gossip of magpies coaxed Dinah out of a restless sleep while the sun still climbed hidden behind the imposing bulk of Black Mountain … she wasn’t quite fully awake when the frenzied, maniacal braying of kookaburras brought her suddenly upright in the strange bed…

Dinah has come from the UK to Canberra to work in a television news room and to try to fulfil the wishes of her dead uncle who, in return for a moderate bequest, desired that she come to Australia and “at least give it a go”. Her new boss, Conan Garth has a “lithe, catlike walk”, “sheer magnetism”, is “extraordinarily handsome” and is a bizarre psychopath with dangerous mood swings. You may have guessed that this last description is mine. Dinah of course falls fairly comprehensively in love.

After that promising beginning, each scene goes something like this: Dinah is overcome by Conan’s presence and feels awkward and flummoxed. She says something stupid that makes him angry, but his anger inexplicably turns to amusement and/or desire. Dinah melts. Conan recovers himself and returns to aloofness. Dinah cries. Rinse. Repeat.

The fact that the book is set in Canberra is somewhat incidental. Interestingly, even in the setting of a Canberra newsroom, there is no attempt to connect with the political world. There are some references to some contemporary issues such as the NCDC and the building of the Tuggeranong Parkway that help to authenticate the scene. I could get all defensive or analytical about a dismissive reference to the Legislative Assembly, which at that time would have been the non-elected, pre-self government advisory group. Covering it from a news angle probably was fairly anodyne, but couldn’t be any less career destroying for an up and coming journalist than the strange coverage Dinah gives to a jewellery exhibition.

Dinah and Conan set out on some weekend drives through the Australian high country, passing through the Brindabellas, the Cotter Reserve and Tharwa, noting titbits of local knowledge as they go, but it could just as easily have been the Blue Mountains. The Australian National University, scene of Dinah’s first on-air story, could be any other campus. The not-quite-accurate Paco’s Carousel on Red Hill could be a posh restaurant in any city. To my knowledge the National Press Club isn’t quite reproduced anywhere else in Australia, although how Gordon thinks they would fit upwards of 300 people in the dining room and still have room for a dance floor I’m not sure. No visit to Caphs, although Dinah does duck out to Kingston for a fleeting moment.

This is the first book I’ve come across during this project that is set in Canberra without in any way needing to be. Having chosen Canberra as a setting, Gordon doesn’t really make anything of it—he makes little attempt to draw on the unique features of the locale he’s chosen as a part of his plot. Canberra is just a background like any other, where people can do their jobs and take country drives and fall in love. Which is, to some extent, what I was looking for when I set out on this project. How very odd to find it here.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

30%

5 Comments

Filed under Romance