Tag Archives: Brothels

Murder on the Apricot Coast

Marion Halligan. Murder on the Apricot Coast. Allen and Unwin, 2008. ISBN: 9781741753844.

It seemed appropriate to come full circle at the end of the Centenary year, and finish the journey somewhere near where I began. So I’ve returned to Cassandra and the Colonel, to O’Connor and Tilley’s and the south coast to read Murder on the Apricot Coast.

It was also a blessed relief to return to Marion Halligan’s gentle, thoughtful prose after Rose’s tired complaining in The Tenants. To be entirely truthful, I read Murder on the Apricot Coast before The Tenants, intending as I said for it to be my last Centenary read. But I finished it with too much of the Centenary year to spare and so picked The Tenants to keep me going. Laker’s book was such an unsatisfying conclusion to the year that I went back to Apricot Coast and read it again, little more than a week after finishing it the first time.

You may recall that Cassandra Travers – now Marriott in some contexts – is an editor, and so she muses from time to time on the nature of writing and the experience of reading. At one point she contrasts two books she has been editing – one a joy and one a chore – and has this to say:

I have this theory, about reading books, it’s all to do with rhythm. Sometimes you find yourself in prose that has a rhythm that somehow suits yours and so you are carried along with your reading of it, it chimes beautifully with your own sensibility. It’s like what they call chemistry with a lover. It explains why some people love books that others can’t stand.

This sums up nicely my feeling about Harrigan’s writing that I’ve read this year – not just the two Apricot books, but her contributions to The Invisible Thread and Canberra Red as well. Of course, the differences between Halligan and Laker as authors can be put down to more than just my sympathetic rhythms, but there is certainly a lot of that to do with it.

I’m looking for interpretations of Canberra, and when you are looking for something you are much more likely to find it. And so I also I find in Halligan’s writing a need, like mine, to find and celebrate the reasons for loving life in Canberra:

Sometimes I think people have a gene that makes them love the land they are born in…. I grew up in Canberra and I love the place. That’s not difficult, whatever stupid outsiders say, blaming the city for the decisions of the politicians they elect. I love its high country light, its ancient hills at the end of new streets, it’s clear air.

To the story, though. Murder on the Apricot Coast finds Cassandra married to her Colonel, and sharing their time between her comfortable O’Connor home, the Colonel’s nearby flat, and his beautiful south coast beach house. They are to some extent still settling into their new life together, working out how it all fits. Some parts of Cassandra’s old life remain – visiting Paperchain, book launches at the National Library, possums in the garden, Vietnamese dinner in Dickson. Cassandra and Al’s friends live in apartments in Kingston and “spreading” houses in Forrest and are press gallery journalists and public servants and lawyers. The more stylish ones shop at edgy boutiques in Braddon. Of course they lunch in cafes in Manuka – one “a bit retro, with banquettes and booths and wall lights like pointed shells.” Could it be Caphs? Does Caphs have booths as well as tables? I can’t remember. It definitely has retro, shell-shaped wall lights.

The suburban calm is interrupted by the death, in her Lyneham group house, of a beautiful young woman, a daughter of Cassandra and Al’s friends. Fern’s death reveals some grim secrets about Canberra: women working as prostitutes to get through university, and glimpses of a heinous trade in young girls for the most heinous of purposes. But what is truth and what is fiction? Where does fact end and fantasy begin?

Having read it twice, I’m not sure that the murder mystery of Apricot Coast hangs together entirely satisfactorily. Without wishing to introduce spoilers, some elements of the story – major events and plot lines that seem portentous – turn out to go nowhere and have no real significance. I know this is part of the point of a murder mystery, but I felt the final explanation of the motivations behind many of the tangled events was a bit under-explained and somewhat unconvincing.

Somehow, though, this seems entirely appropriate for a Canberra story. The big stories going on around us often turn out to have no real significance. It is the mundane and the everyday that has real meaning. Cassandra observes a number of times that she believes in the truth of fiction. There’s a truthfulness in Murder on the Apricot Coast, with its gentle treatment of the ordinarily extraordinary Canberra, that appeals very much to me.

At one point Cassandra watches an SBS documentary on a poor Indian family who speak of their life:

So tranquil and rewarding a life. The words seem so wise… Tranquil and rewarding. I thought I could make a kind of charm out of the words, for myself, and say them over in my head as a measure, a test of worth, of what was happening.

What a fine measure of the quality of a life. Tranquil and rewarding. There are certainly many lesser ways to live. One of the constant criticisms of Canberra is that it is dull, and dull can be a synonym for tranquil. But if great cities are the opposite of tranquil, might they also be the opposite of rewarding?

I like Cassandra’s mantra very much. I think I’ll take it as my own measure, my own test of the worth of my adopted home and of the quality of the life that is possible here.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

7%

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1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Uncategorized, Women Writers

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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

7%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

The House at Number 10

Dorothy Johnston. The House at Number 10. Wakefield Press, 2005. ISBN 1862546835.

Sophie’s husband has left her, not for another woman—she could become reconciled to a single woman—but for the freedom to pursue many women. Having left the public service to raise her daughter Tamsin, Sophie now finds herself needing to find work to pay the rent on the flat in quiet, unquestioning Mrs B’s garden.

It is the early 1990s. The newly autonomous Legislative Assembly is contemplating legalising prostitution in the ACT, “the little [government] carving out its own agenda”. Some entrepreneurs are gambling on the outcome, setting up quiet brothels in anonymous suburban houses, taking advantage of the interregnum in the law which the police seem to be observing. Holding their breath and waiting.

I had been under the impression that Canberra was a leader in this area, perhaps pioneering this route to legalisation and control “and… what was ‘pioneer’ if not an old word, an ancient, if not honourable one?”, observes Sophie’s colleague. A little googling tells me that this wasn’t the case, that the prostitution debate was happening around this time in many of the Australian states and territories, some heading towards similar outcomes. Still, Canberra has a history of sensible, liberal approaches to these thorny issues. Treating its citizens like grown-ups in relation to things like drugs, fireworks, gay marriage, euthanasia. Not all of these decisions have stuck.

So, Sophie finds herself working as a prostitute in the weather-beaten house at Number 10 Andover Street. Each working day, she crosses the lake from her life in O’Connor as suburban mother, to the one she has chosen in Kingston. On the north side she can walk her daughter to pre-school and meet friends for drinks at Tilley’s. On the south side she buys lingerie and contemplates her relationship with John the Cyclist, and Jack with the fish tattoo. Sophie is determined to keep her two lives separate, the lake in between. Of course, they run in parallel, as she seeks the same thing in both: confidence, autonomy, self-sufficiency, perhaps also revenge. Sometimes they intersect.

The cover blurb for the edition I read talks about “the complex relationships people develop with the buildings they live and work in”. The side room, where Sophie works, both in its current state and in the one imagined by her architect friend Ann, is Sophie’s “silent ally” as she learns her trade. In the arm chair in the kitchen at Number 10 Sophie recuperates between customers, wanting “only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days”. These spaces, her garden flat, Mrs B’s garden and, later, the one at Number 10, are places of autonomy and self-discovery.

Sophie is, of course, discovered, and with a nightmare scenario before her, familiar places seem suddenly no longer safe:

The question Sophie kept coming back to was, Where will I go from here? The whole of Canberra seemed dangerous – not just Kingston, with its apartments round the shopping centre, couples young and rising in the world, Andover Street with its abandoned house, its backyard ready to be planted out for spring. Fyshwick and Mitchell, where the business future lay, seemed just as treacherous, as did the central triangle of parliament, family court and government offices, so clean and straight they might have passed from a design board to the air between kept trees – might have done this, been erected, without human intervention.

But places can be transformed, and they are often transformed through human intervention. The Griffins’ vision, not wholly realised, nevertheless leaves its mark on Canberra: “Ideals and visions remained, though turned into a dog’s leg broken in three places”. Mrs B remembers the transformation brought to Canberra by the flooding of the lake, and the transformation that had been made in her own life at that time. She, in turn, transforms the landscape in her garden from the “baked, unyielding Canberra suburban dirt”.

Looking at Number 10 from our vantage point of today, we know that it is a transformation that won’t stick. Brothels won’t be allowed in residential areas. Just as Sophie and her fellow workers, and Mrs B in the garden, have altered the place from what it was, so new changes will follow, both in the house at Number 10 and in those who pass through its rooms.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

25%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

Smoke and Mirrors

Kel Robertson. Smoke and Mirrors. Pan Macmillan 2010. ISBN: 9780330426190.

This book was chosen in a popular vote as the book to represent the ACT in the National Year of Reading collection for 2012. The Year of Reading website explains:

we set out to identify a set of eight books, which together describe what it’s like to live in, be from, visit or in some other way connect with the eight different states and territories. We wanted to create a collection of books which, if read together, articulates the Australian experience – remote, regional, suburban and metropolitan.

I did initially wonder how on earth a book of crime fiction that I’d never heard of could possibly fit this bill for the ACT. Having read the book, I now think I understand. That is hard to explain without spoilers.

Detective Brad Chen is on the trail of the murderer of a former Whitlam government minister, rumoured to be, in his forthcoming memoir, about to spill the beans on the CIA’s influence on the 1975 dismissal. The killer is brutal, and also takes the life of the woman editing the memoir.

The intense and violent interest of thugs of various nationalities in locating a copy of the manuscript seems to confirm that there is an international political scandal here worth killing for. At the same time, much more personal disputes are happening at the Uriarra writers’ retreat where the murders took place. And like all good fictional cops, Brad Chen’s personal life is a disaster area. People seem to want to hurt him for a variety of reasons.

So which is the real story and which is just noise? The drama played out on the political stage, or the ones that are forming, dissolving and reforming communities and relationships all around us?

I love that Brad gets out into the burbs a bit. No one in The Marmalade Files travels more than 1 500 metres as the crow flies from the lake, unless they are trying to hide from someone. Brad Chen is all over the place. The Belconnen cop shop, the Coombs building at ANU, Dickson, Ainslie, even a bus ride through my neck of the woods around Weston. There are throw-away truisms about living in Canberra that give the book authenticity for me. Brad assumes that parliament can’t be sitting when he’s able to get a cab within five minutes . On his jaunt around the suburbs of Weston Creek he observes:

Canberra buses are often empty outside peak hours and they take long, meandering journeys on silent streets… It’s impossible to shadow a Canberra bus without blowing your cover.

Brad is pretty cool, which means that he lives in the Kingston/Manuka area. It’s compulsory. If I was doing a Manuka count instead of a Caphs count in this project we’d be at a 100 per cent strike rate, but as Brad shares a bottle of bubbles with a sequential couple of friends in Caphs, we are still at a respectable three from four. Telopea Park and Paperchain, both also in the cool zone, are other relevant measures.

Can I really believe that international intelligence agencies and criminal gangs would stage a violent robbery at on a grey morning outside the Melbourne Building? No. Because these things don’t happen in Canberra. What happens in Canberra is that brothels run model operations so clean that Brad is “astounded they’re not advertising ISO 9000 compliance.”

It is strange that the books I’ve enjoyed the most so far have both been examples of quirky, humorous crime fiction. I don’t have a history of reading in this genre, Phryne Fisher excepted. [And to digress completely, who will join me in lobbying Kerry Greenwood to bring Phryne to Canberra?] Both Smoke and Mirrors and The Apricot Colonel I found funny, endearing and intriguing. I’m not sure it’s necessarily the genre that agrees with me, though. Both books seem to have recognised the balance that is in Canberra—domestic lives lived out while the world rumbles along in the background. Politics is not the only game in town.

Awards

Joint Winner 2009: Ned Kelly Award Best Fiction

ACT Winner 2012: National Year of Reading Our Story collection

Caphs count

75%

2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense