Marg Girdwood. The Exhibition. Books & Writers Network, . ISBN: 1740183010
If Riding on Air was an illustration that successful writing has its own voice, The Exhibition, for me anyway, is an example of that other writers’ aphorism, “write what you know”. I’m not convinced that Marg Girdwood knows very much about curatorship. Admittedly, my training in the discipline probably leaves me knowing enough to be dangerous, but much of the storyline in The Exhibition seemed implausible to me. I even tested it out on my mechanic partner, and he too thought that bits of the narrative just didn’t make practical sense. All of this was just became a distraction from what was otherwise a good story of female friendship, love and solidarity.
The back cover calls The Exhibition “[a] fast-moving story that explores the nuances of work, friendships and influence in Canberra’s political hothouse.” I’m afraid I didn’t find it fast moving or nuanced. The Minister’s drunken bet which sets up the story, and the odd grumpy public servant do not for me make a political hothouse, and the narrative of Pearl’s workplace, which makes up much of the story, felt clunky and, frankly, dull.
Pearl is putting together an important art exhibition in pressured circumstances. This is meant to be intellectual, even sexy work, and yet we understand little of what Pearl actually does, and most of it seems to involve dreary details about procurement processes and meetings to monitor progress. What we do understand often just doesn’t make sense. She hires her friend as curator, but the custom-built cabinetry for the exhibition space is already being built, and the curator’s role seems to be to somehow ‘sort’ the collection. There is an awful lot of lunching at the National Library’s café, quite a bit of wandering off for a walk around the lake at odd times of the day, and some offices apparently quite well stocked with wine. Please, please, don’t believe that this is how the public service usually works.
That leaves the exploration of friendship. The exhibition of the book’s title is a device to bring to bring a group of women together and explore their relationships. Pearl is currently single, and a bit bored by her job at the Library, until she’s called upon over the dog days of a Canberra summer to pull together an exhibition at short notice on the whim of her Minister, or risk losing an important collection to New South Wales. In the meantime, Pearl’s relationships with old flames and new are flickering around her. She examines her feelings as her old friend Helen and new colleague Lee become attracted to each other, and wonders about her own need for companionship as she helps her high school friend Lisa out of her marriage and into her first lesbian relationship.
The real message of the book is of a group of women supporting each other through difficult times, and in particular the prejudice women in lesbian relationships sometimes face from families, workplaces and society more generally. When Lee is in hospital her new partner Helen can be ordered out of the ward by Lee’s controlling mother, and the women bemoan the lack of recognition of the status of their relationships. I couldn’t help thinking that a recently acquired male partner would have been given the same secondary status by the hospital, but the point is, however ,validly made.
Meanwhile, Pearl’s developing relationship with Lisa is bringing out the worst in Lisa’s husband, giving us the opportunity to examine male ego in the face of lesbian relationships. The scene where Pearl, Lee and Helen arrive at Lisa’s house in Chapman to check on her safety is the only part that I did find fast-paced and dramatic. The later stalking of the women by various male family members, thwarted only by their (female) canine protectors could also have been dramatic but doesn’t really go anywhere. There is also a surprising twist to the story of the exhibition at the end, giving us another opportunity to contemplate the duplicity and ego of some men, and the grace of the women around them.
Girdwood’s understanding of exhibition curatorship may or may not be limited, but her knowledge of Canberra geography is stronger. Lake Burley Griffin and the astonishing Leonard French stained glass windows at the National Library are recurring motifs throughout the story, but somehow these also lack the drama they might have had. They are markers in the landscape, part of the background scenery, rather than elements of the story in their own right.
Nevertheless, we do through The Exhibition, get to visit some parts of Canberra we’ve not explored before in this blog, such as the Boathouse Restaurant, the Wig & Pen, Yarralumla Brickworks and the National Gallery. We also revisit some old haunts like Woden, Old Parliament House, with the attendant Tent Embassy, and the Yacht Club. Of course, because this is summer in Canberra, important parts of the story happen outside Canberra, with the women decamping to the south coast and a beach house for New Year’s Eve.
There is an interesting scene towards the end of the book, where Pearl’s boss, Peter, reveals that his marriage may be over, and he is contemplating moving to Hobart where “[ho]uses are cheap, life is slower, no one cares what level you are in the public service.” Pearl asks “Can’t you change your life and still live in Canberra?” Peter grudgingly agrees, but the point is an interesting one that seems to run underneath many discussions of Canberra. So many people, writers and otherwise, seem to think that there is only one life available to us in Canberra, that if we want a different life we must leave. Pearl and her friends, though, give the lie to this, facing new challenges and taking new directions while Canberra, with the lake as its centrepiece, continues on in the background.