Tag Archives: Cold

Underground

Andrew McGahan. Underground. Allen & Unwin, 2007. ISBN: 9781741753301

You might think that this book doesn’t belong on a list of fiction set in Canberra when you learn that its premise is that Canberra has been nuked off the face of the earth. Still, as our narrator Leo James records his memoirs, addressing himself to his “dear interrogators”, he reflects at times on Canberra, and remembers it as it was before the whole city was evacuated in the face of the nuclear threat from the Great Southern Jihad.

Following the destruction of Canberra, Prime Minister Bernard James, Leo’s twin brother, declared a state of emergency. Years later, it’s still in place. The emergency powers have been used to put in place a range of harsh measures. All Muslims have been corralled into ghettos. South Africa has boycotted us in the cricket because of our inhumane treatment of refugees. A number of joint Australian-US bases help to enforce what is essentially martial law. Some kind of spy communications facility has been built on top of Uluru. Individuals must carry their citizenship papers with them, which must be updated regularly. If, at any of the Citizen Verification Stations – checkpoints – around the country, a person’s citizenship is in doubt, they may be asked to take the citizenship test and recite the oath to prove their loyalty. Anzac Day is now Anzac Week.

This would be a ludicrous story if it wasn’t so close to what we have, or very nearly had back in 2006, when Underground was first published. Remember the citizenship test introduced by John Howard? Pondered lately our escalating war on boat people? Had a moment’s pause at the number of American troops being posted to Darwin? Felt in any way uncomfortable about flag-draped thugs claiming that they determine what is Australian or un-Australian? The genius and terror of Andrew McGahan’s story is that, outlandish conspiracy theory though it is, many of its individual elements aren’t very far removed from where we’ve already been. Apparently Andrew Bolt called McGahan an “unhinged propagandist”, which is to me pretty good evidence that it struck a nerve.

For obvious reasons the Canberra references in the book are limited. Leo is a Queensland property developer, so he has no real love of Canberra:

It was such an inconvenient place. Off in the middle of nowhere. Stinking hot in summer. Freezing in winter. And totally soulless, all year round. Still there were one or two decent restaurants I would miss, and what would happen to the nation’s sex industry, once the mail order warehouses and porn studios of Fyshwick had been vaporised?

The usual ciphers of Canberra as a place are there: parliament house times two, LBG, the Captain Cook Fountain, Mount Ainslie, the Lodge, Anzac Parade and the War Memorial. It is what Canberra symbolises as the seat of government and the physical representation of our democracy that is more important here. The terrorists who planted the bomb in Canberra gave three days’ warning, enough time to get everyone safely out. And, as Leo’s car crawled up the Federal Highway to Sydney with the other evacuees, he watched

an unbroken stream of commandeered trucks passing by in the opposite lanes. They were heading into Canberra, destined for the National Gallery, or for the National Museum, or for various government archives, or for any other such place where the national treasures and records might be in need of rescuing.

…[A]fter forty-eight hours of the most frenzied activity imaginable, Canberra was stripped of virtually everything that mattered.

And that’s it really, isn’t it? The value you place on Canberra depends on the value you place on the things that it contains. Communities, our own personal histories and connections with a place and the people in it. National symbols, a place of debate and democracy, of tolerance and inclusion. Coincidentally, I finished reading Underground on the morning of the federal election. And I worry about how some value the things that Canberra contains.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

9%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Speculative Fiction

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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

10%

2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers, Young Adult

Verge

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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

20%

2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

West Block

Sara Dowse. West Block: The Hidden world of Canberra’s mandarins. Penguin, 1983. ISBN: 0140067310

Why do people choose the careers they pursue? Why do people become doctors or teachers or shop assistants or bank tellers or HR managers or mechanics or truck drivers or physicists?

I can think of lots of plausible answers to this question. Money, skill, enjoyment, fulfilment, the job was available, advancement opportunities, it fits with my lifestyle, it’s what my father did, the careers adviser suggested it, that was the course I had the exam marks to get into, I have a passion for this work, it just kind of happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

I became an archivist quite by accident. My particular response to the ‘why this job?’ question is a series of answers that moves from ‘the job was available’ through ‘actually, I seem to be ok at this’ to end up with ‘I have a passion for this work’. As it happens, I am an archivist who is also a public servant—and that is also a part of the role that I feel passionate about—but I could equally have ended up in the private or community sector and feel fulfilled by the work I do.

Most of Sara Dowse’s public servants in West Block seem to be in their jobs because they are passionate about causes. Perhaps they pursued public service to advance those causes. Perhaps they pursue causes because they see opportunities to do so from within the service. However they may have arrived where they are, each of them gives us a glimpse of how life and work intersect. For some they are inseparable. For some they seem to be worlds apart.

I could go on analysing this myself, but I couldn’t explain it better than Dowse has herself in Meanjin:

Most Canberra fiction writers have been keen to make the point that the people they write about are people like any other, with loves, hates, disappointments and all the rest. They are eager to show that Canberra is just like any other Australian city and Canberrans are no more affected by the city’s major industry than other Australians are. Whereas my project, so to speak, had been the very opposite. I wanted to celebrate that industry, to show that while it could be frustrating and demanding and too often seemingly pointless, it was also important, its participants at times heroic, even—dare I say it ?—noble.

In earlier reviews I’ve been defensive when writers have disparaged the public service. Dowse’s handling of the working lives of feminist Cassie, refugee advocate Catherine, careerist and soon-to-be-father Jonathon, old school machine man George, and nascent environmentalist Henry manages to expose the failings without caricature or generalisation. The flaws have a context, and while we may rail against the system, Dowse gives us some insights into how it might have come to be as it is. Perhaps this is because Dowse is not a journalist or a judge, but has lived the public service herself and understood its possibilities and its limitations. Henry Beeker says “I’m a public servant, Cassie, not an evangelist.” But Cassie corrects him. Calls him a crusader.

I like that Dowse has taken pains to show Canberra as rounded, whole. We see all of the seasons, not just the clichéd cold. George Harland walks to work at West Block from his home in Forrest—about a 30 minute walk according to Google, but perhaps shorter in 1977 when you could have cut over the top of capital hill without Parliament House in the way:

The air filled with summer odours: massing clouds, wet grass and the sharp smell of the cedars, baking asphalt and the faint fiery scent of the gums. His ears were crowded with the song of cicadas. Everywhere there were birds, and sprinklers whirring.

Later, Catherine sees “the trees in their prime”, the “russet leaves” and the “white and gold” light of a Canberra autumn from West Block’s windows. Later still Jonathon watches frost form on the windscreen of his car in the night air. The seasons turn, not unlike George Harland’s vision of government as “an intricate engine turning the wheels of a country. Where it was going was beside the point.”

The action moves around the various points of power in Canberra. Of course, the now Old Parliament House, the Press Club, imagined meetings in the Lodge, remembered sites of protest for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, against the Springboks tour. There are other more subtle sites of power too. Like, the Yacht Club, where networks and alliances form and dissolve. Importantly, for me anyway, the Archives, where Cassie:

spent afternoons in a reading room beside a lake, piecing together a story. How it came to be that a building in a city in a nation stopped growing. As if there was only enough sap to get it so far, far enough to waken hopes and dash them. As if all a shoot can expect is a limited, fitful growth when planted in hostile soil.

Canberra’s soil is not sufficiently prepared for Cassie’s ambitions for women and for her branch. It is more accepting of Jonathon’s accommodation of career and family, and of and Catherine’s selfless, selfish act on behalf of Vietnamese refugees. The cycle of seasons, like governments, continues inevitably. West Block may be in elegant decay in Cassie’s time, but today it is recognised as a site of pioneering government, and its sister building, East Block, is now home to the National Archives.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

21%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers