Tag Archives: Autumn leaves

The Tenants

Gwen Laker. The Tenants. c1998

When an author shares some basic biographical characteristics with her main character I sometimes find it hard to separate the two. I can’t quite decide if author Gwen Laker is her character Rose Attenborough.  To be fair, there’s maybe not that much they have in common, beyond age and gender. Rose tells us she is in her eighties, and judging by the author’s photo on the back cover Laker is probably of a similar age (I understand she has passed away since the book was published). The back cover also tells us that the book is “entirely fictional. All characters bear no resemblance to any living person or persons”, so I guess I’ll just have to take Laker at her word.

I hope that Rose is entirely fictional, because by about page seven I couldn’t stand her. My god, what a bitching, complaining noxious old woman. Every observation of her fellow tenants is critical or mean-spirited, every compliment is grudging or back-handed, every pleasure is noted with the expectation that it is only the best that can be expected, or simply cannot last. Here’s a sample. Rose has just had an unpleasant phone conversation with her more-or-less estranged daughter Elizabeth:

Well, I think. Not a very successful attempt to bring me out of my doldrums… Really, I’m getting as bad as Frieda. However [some coffee] might help to settle my nerves. I drink it, then prepare for bed. Not even the patchwork quilt on my double bed can cheer me up. It is a lovely quilt, alive with vibrant colours in a geometric design. My mother spent countless hours making it and gave it to me on my fortieth birthday. How long ago that seems. Elizabeth was just ten years old and as loving a daughter as you could wish for. How times have changed. Time seems to be the dominant factor for the majority of people these days. It’s all rush, rush, rush, and for what? Heart attacks, strokes, neuroses and often before ambitions have been achieved. When will it all end?

Rose is more or less housebound in the flat that has been her home for the past thirty years, and so her life revolves around the doings of the other tenants in her little block of four units. They are a strangely assorted group, but they seem to rub along together and have formed something of a community, Rose’s carping aside. Each is more or less alone, but they look out for eachother, take an interest in eachother’s lives, and offer help and advice when they can. It’s an interesting take, and a view of a life and a community not commonly portrayed in Canberra.

With the odd exception, such as Snake Bite and Riverslake, the Canberra revealed though Dinner at Caphs thus far has been overwhelmingly middle class. Laker’s tenants largely are too. Frieda’s a nurse, Reggie a retired public servant with business ambitions. Adam’s a librarian. Rose clearly sees herself as having refined tastes, dismissive of the modern art at the National Gallery – “a swindle for those gullible enough to believe the dealers’ blurb”, but “enthralled with Glover’s landscapes” – and grudgingly sharing her Haig Dimple with Reggie. The tenants live “in one of the quieter suburbs of Canberra” in something of a state of genteel poverty.

The Tenants also provides an unusual perspective from an older person. Rose’s views, infuriating though they are, bring an outlook on Canberra not provided in anything else I’ve read this year. It’s a very narrow one, to be sure, largely bounded by her view of the Brindabellas through her living room window, her ambulance trips to Woden hospital (“not in the Royal Canberra. The hierarchy have decided to close it down and force all patients in the north to travel many unnecessary kilometres”) and the visits of the meals on wheels ladies and her dissatisfied cleaning lady. It’s a familiarity, if not a contentment, and she observes the changing seasons through the changes in the trees in the garden outside.

Although I have witnessed much sadness and been consumed by my own misery within these walls, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else. I’m so used to Canberra now that I think my very bones have absorbed its eccentricities and uniqueness. It’s a beautiful city with ultra modern buildings and rippling lakes. The parks and gardens are superb and the new Parliament House an architect’s dream. Five star hotels and restaurants abound and there’s even opulent brothels. Yet despite much of this glitterati and veneer, I still have a fondness for it I can’t explain.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

Snake Bite

Christie Thompson. Snake Bite. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN: 978174343079.

‘What a poser! I bet she’s from Tuggeranong, just like us.’

‘Tuggeranong like us? Are you a Kambah girl now?’

‘Um, let me see. The other week I wore my Ugg boots down to the Village, smoked bongs in three separate backyards, drank my weight in Bundy and Coke and now we’re getting tattooed. Is that Kambah enough for you?’

‘You’ll never be one of us,’ I teased her. ‘No matter how much you want it. See, you just made fun of that girl getting the “ohm” symbol, but every good bogan has at least one eastern religion figure in their house that they bought from the Dollar Shop.’

‘Have you seen my house? Dana and Joan eat that stuff up.’

‘Sorry, but if you pay more than two dollars it doesn’t count.’

Lots of Snake Bite felt familiar to me. I’m not sure if I am reassured or alarmed that being a teenager in the Tuggeranong Valley in the 2000s doesn’t sound all that different to being a teenager in south-western Sydney in the 1980s. Not so much the drugs in my case, not the dysfunctional families, although there was plenty of that going on around me, but the alcohol, the out of control parties, the long aimless summers, the bitchiness between girls, the ties to family tangled up in the yearning to break away, the teenage search for self esteem. Snake Bite felt authentic. It’s what you’d call ‘gritty realism’. If you aren’t up for the worst swear word available in the English language, this book isn’t for you.

Jessica – Jez – is seventeen, and working out who she is in the summer of 2009. The models she has to work with aren’t great. There’s her drug-dealing best friend Lukey, sick of being beaten up by his brother and saving money to head to Melbourne and escape. Her next door neighbour Casey, who has just got a job as a stripper and can’t believe that Jez is affronted by a request for a head job from a guy at a Civic party. Her absent father, away down the coast and always making excuses and half-hearted attempts to make good.

Then there’s her alcoholic mother. Arriving home one night, Jez finds the house open and her mother on the floor:

Frantic, I kneeled at her side. She was fully clothed, belly down on the carpet, arms at her sides. I leaned close to her face. I could hear her breathing. And I could smell the alcohol on her breath. Bundy and Coke…

I cursed myself because this wasn’t a lame soap, it was real life… I went to the fridge in the kitchen and found two West Coast Coolers… Then I went back to where Mum lay and gently unhooked her handbag from her shoulder… I took her packet of Benson and Hedges and forty bucks from her wallet.

Jez knows what she doesn’t want, but she doesn’t seem to know what she does want. She’s tired of her mother and her mother’s friends, of suburbia, of drugs and fights “and this whole scorching claustrophobically hot summer”. She and Lukey don’t want to end up working in Woolies, but a pub would be alright. She feels trapped by her life, but can’t imagine herself anywhere else. She’s torn between a kind of ‘bogan pride’ and a yearning for something different.

Author Christie Thompson evokes that claustrophobically hot Canberra summer well. It falls like a blanket over the aimless days of Jez and her friends, stifling initiative and free will. Their lives are beers in the children’s playground “covered in scrawls of texta and graffiti, under a gum that did nothing to shield us from the sun”. Jez looks down on her world from Mount Taylor, seeing a crowd of houses and ghost grey gums, “a sunken pit of suburbia surrounded by yellow hills.. and [a] shopping mall smack in the centre”. Swimming at Kambah Pool in the Murrumbidgee river may provide a reprieve from the heat, but the lethargy of that summer, and shock realities of the world of the Tuggeranong Valley are never far away.

All Jez is really looking for is a bit of hope. It may be there in the relatively functional family life of her new friend Laura and Laura’s lesbian parents, and in the way they seem to have inspired Jez’s mother. Jez may be trapped in the suburbs, but between the houses and the powerlines she can see the purple Brindabellas.

Eventually summer will end. Canberra is famed for its autumn leaves, but in the newer suburbs like Kambah the street trees are all eucalypts, so “the season’s change creeps up slowly, then bam, it’s colder than a nun’s fanny.” The evolution may be hard to discern, but it’s there.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers, Young Adult

About a Girl

Joanne Horniman. About a Girl. Allen and Unwin, 2010. ISBN: 9781742371443.

Much like Holly, Anna has left Canberra looking for a new life. Unlike Holly, Anna understands that she is who she is, and that a change of scenery won’t change her or her problems, although it may change how she learns to live in her own skin, in her own head.

Anna has known since she was six years old that she “liked” girls, but it has taken until she is nineteen for her to fall in love. And with Flynn she is truly, desperately and all-pervasively in love, as only young, first love can be. Thinking about Flynn occupies Anna’s every waking moment.

In coming to know Flynn, and in negotiating what form their relationship might take, Anna comes also to know what she wants for herself, and from herself. It is not about coming to terms with her sexuality. She did that at age fifteen when she thought “I am this way for ever and ever”. Simply, she is becoming an adult, a woman who knows herself, and mostly understands.

Music is a theme throughout the book. Flynn is a musician, and Anna first sees her at a gig where Flynn calls herself Every Little Thing. Horniman’s prose is musical as well. I found About A Girl a lovely book to read, its language is full of the intensity of Anna’s attraction to Flynn, and beautifully reveals the hurts and confusions that each young woman slowly exposes to the other, and to us.

Then she revealed the portrait she’d done of me. I looked rather odd and quite beautiful, not at all like myself, which was fitting, as that was the way I’d felt ever since running into her that afternoon. Because being with Flynn did make me feel odd and beautiful.

Back in her Canberra childhood, Anna is a gifted, and therefore different, child. Her only real friend is Michael, not only clever but also wise beyond his years. Soon after they meet, at a camp for gifted kids, he says to her “Anyway, everyone’s a bit different in their own little way.” It is a small piece of comfort that Anna keeps with her, along with her friendship with Michael. Anna is doubly different, being not only intelligent but also knowing that “the world was not this way, and I was not the way of the world.”

Canberra is home for Anna and Michael. They roam the streets of Ainslie “territorial as magpies or cats… walking down the middle of streets beneath canopies of red leaves”. They climb Mount Ainslie at night (I wonder if they ever saw Hannah and Alister there?) so they could

sit and watch the constellations of lights marking the roads, the moving patterns of cars, and the softer, intimate glow of houses. There were huge floodlit areas marking the Australian War Memorial and Parliament House and Anzac Parade, all precisely and frighteningly lined up so there was an unimpeded view between them.

Anna’s time north, in Lismore, is a time for her to evaluate herself away from all the comfort and familiarity of home. The question of home is, though, always there in the background. Early on, when Anna tells Flynn she comes from Canberra, she can’t decide if Canberra still feels like home. Later, when she is vulnerable and alone, she thinks of going home, the idea lodging in her mind. As she has come to learn, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there/ They have to take you in.”

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Shortlisted 2011: Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Young adult fiction

Shortlisted 2011: Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year – Older Readers


Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers, Young Adult


Jan Borrie. Verge. Molonglo Press, 1998. ISBN: 1876827033.

Hannah and Alister sit on Mount Ainslie at night, watching the lights of the traffic heading north out of Canberra. Their families think they are aimless and drifting, but one day Hannah and Ashley will be among those cars on the Federal Highway. Escaping. From this vantage point, Hannah can believe that nothing is inescapable. What they are running from is not so much Canberra, but Canberra as the place where their respective demons found them.

Each night, Hannah and Alister each wait for their individual monsters. Hannah’s protection is the light—if she can see the face that comes searching for her, she may be able to keep him at a distance, and someone may hear her cry out. For Alister it is the reverse. In total darkness, his night creature perhaps cannot find him. Neither of them will be caught unawares again.

Somehow Alister and Hannah have found each other, and found a measure of confidence and protection in each other. It will be some time before they each find confidence in themselves. They have each allowed their worlds to narrow until it is only the two of them. Friends and family drift away, misunderstand them, stop asking them to be part of the wider world.

Borrie uses Canberra’s geography to continually evoke Hannah’s sense of being trapped. Seeing beyond the usual lame joke about a city of roundabouts, Hannah sees:

a series of curves and loops on the map, and the whole city becomes a graceful, twisting pattern of roads, the rounded edges of suburbs pushing out on the map like spilled liquid running between the higher hills and green spaces, pooling around the base of the mountains, moving out and away from the centre of the circle.

The loops and curves of the city enmesh Hannah, seeming to present a way out but in the end curving back on themselves. So too, the forest roads that go nowhere, which send Hannah and her family home again to Kaleen after weekend drives to Coppins Crossing and the Cotter.

As for Judith Wilkes in Turtle Beach, the surrounding hills form a barrier around Hannah’s Canberra, “the long, sleeping body of the Brindabellas guards the western horizon from the eyes of the city…holding from us a view of something else, something I want to see”. From her view on top of Mount Ainslie, though, Hannah comes to understand that the city, and perhaps also her fear, is “conquerable”.

The chapters of Hannah’s life run in fits and starts, like the city that stops for the night after the movies and the Terrace Bar, the merry-go-round and the Pancake Parlour. Autumn leaves “seem to catch fire”, and the mountains turn silver-blue as the seasons turn on Hannahs’ life, the lives of her friends, as she waits to escape, watches others do so.

I find myself wanting to reproduce whole pages of Verge here, to share with you its beautiful writing. Similar and still very different to Alex Miller in The Sitters, Verge is floating and dreamlike. The cover blurb, as well as a review of another book of Borrie’s use the word ‘lyrical’ to describe her writing, and I do find it difficult to find a better one.  Hannah’s despair is made poetic, the shocking made bearable, perhaps, by the slow, detached lyricism of Borrie’s prose. So indulge me a bit further with a few paragraphs that capture Hannah’s feeling for Canberra:

We turn away from the city of monuments and offices and important, peopleless buildings and lookouts and curving, circular streets and shopping malls and orderly rows of houses and orderly, human-made lakes and picture postcard sunsets and long, breathless twilights.

We leave the view from Mt Ainslie, the futile maze of roads into the mountains, the biting cold winters and the sharp, dry heat of summer, the picturesque divisions of autumn and spring, which the tourists come to experience.

We leave a city that always seemed to me to be just a series of landmarks–the entire city a landmark, symbol of something important to someone, but never a home to me.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers