Nicole Taylor. Christmas in Canberra. Brunette Publishing 2011. ISBN: 9780646554242
Louise is a not-quite-30 year old career girl, Canberra born and bred, navigating simultaneously the public service hierarchy and the singles scene, whilst her comfortably established Canberra family is slowly disintegrating around her, thanks largely to her white trash sister-in-law from Lake Cargelligo. While Louise wants to break away and be her own woman, she still has to negotiate Christmas 1988 in Canberra.
Even after finishing Christmas in Canberra, I can’t quite decide what this book is for. Why write it at all? The reason people don’t write books about ordinary suburban lives is because they are boring. In books where characters have ordinary suburban lives, they give detailed explanations about their rules for when they will and won’t agree to dance with a man in a nightclub. They have long conversations with each other about how to dress for your body shape, conversations which have the power to transform their lives. They treat us to careful descriptions of the layout of their houses, which are decorated in pale gum-leaf green, with cathedral ceilings, balconies, upstairs playroom, and the sliding doors leading out to the patio which has been excavated from the slope of the yard and finished with quarry tiles. You get the drift.
Suburban life needs drama and tension to turn it into good fiction. Strangely, there is plenty of both in Louise’s family, and yet it’s still dull. You’d think unexpected pregnancies, looming bankruptcies, that nasty sister-in-law and Aunty Eve’s case of the clap would be enough to be going on with, but somehow they just don’t cut it. Part of the problem is that most of Louise’s family members are just not likeable, particularly the snipey women with their competitive pregnancies. I think the other problem is that the really dramatic stuff isn’t happening to Louise, it’s happening around her, and the extent of her involvement is to talk to people about it over lunch at Gus’s.
What I think this book is really about is a fond reminiscence of being twenty-something and single and having a good time in the 1980s. It’s a remembrance of the places that were special and the fun stuff we did when we were crazy kids. It’s probably only really of interest to people who were also twenty-something in the same place at the same time. Which I was.
Well, almost. Louise is a little bit older than me, so some of her cultural references are before my time, but others are familiar. We clearly moved in different circles, too. Louise is upstairs at the Private Bin, while I was almost exclusively downstairs. Louise went to Juliana’s, but by the time I was going there is was Bobby McGee’s. Ditto for the Boot and Flogger—I only ever knew it as Filthy McFadden’s, now also sadly departed. I did do the Friday night meat market at the Hyatt, but only occasionally, not as a ritual.
Christmas in Canberra is in some senses a documentary of that life at that time. There is in it a desire to record some of the peculiarities of the culture. Canberrans will understand the ubiquity of Louise’s landlords heading down to their beach house at Broulee, the recent Melbourne immigrants’ horror of having to spend Christmas in Canberra, the three degrees of separation from everyone else in town, the routine of spotting your television newsreader at the shops, and the intricacies of swatting for your next public service job interview.
This is a book about ordinary life in the suburbs. Unlike the uber cool Lauren, and Brad, Louise doesn’t live in Kingston or Manuka, although her sister Marie lives in Griffith (which Manuka really is anyway, but that is a discussion for another time I suspect). Sadly, no mention of Caphs, so the Caphs count is starting to look a little embarrassing after the early highs. Manuka remains well represented for dinner engagements at the Metropole, La Rendezvous and Chez Daniel. There is a moment when Louise in lunching at the Lawns with the enigmatic Aidan, who reveals
“I have a house in Deakin. Stradbroke St.”
“Oh,” Louise nodded. “I live in Aranda.”
They ate in silence for a minute.
Is this a relationship doomed by the north-south divide? Perhaps not, since Louise’s family and friends are helpfully spread all over Canberra, giving us great scope to discuss and document the broad sweep of town. Louise’s new friends live in Hall, “the domain of the gentleman farmer…of independent means and in no way reliant on the price of wool or wheat for their lifestyle.” Mum and Dad are in Farrer, Vera used to live in Braddon, and Margot is in Weetangera. This gives opportunities for Louise to party at the Old Canberra Inn, shop at Dimitri’s jewellers, and catch up with Dad and the Yacht Club.
There is some quite nice writing to describe this urban idyll:
Large windows overlooked a generous backyard and half a dozen apricot trees, still abundant with fruit. Off in the distance, the city and parts of Lake Burley Griffin were visible, dominated by the obelisk silhouette of Black Mountain Tower. It was a beautiful morning in early summer, with a clear blue sky and a tingle in the air.
In a few weeks’ time they would sit in the kitchen and watch hot air balloons crowding the sky like painted Easter eggs wobbling on a bright blue blanket.
Apart from the occasional interlude in praise of backyard landscapes, this is a pedestrian book, making unremarkable observation of the commonplace lives of people in an ordinary town. For better or worse, it is a time, a life and a town that I recognise.
I could have sworn that I read somewhere that this had won some popular-vote type award, but I can’t seem to retrace my steps.