Tag Archives: dry summers

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

The Invisible Thread

Irma Gold (ed), Judy Horacek (ill). The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words. Halstead Press, 2012. ISBN: 9781920831967.

It would be naïve to think that the fact of living for a time in Canberra would automatically leave some indelible, detectable mark on a writer and her writing. The influence of having lived in one part of the world or other is often not singular enough to allow any of us to point to a piece of work and say “There. That bit is because of Canberra”. It’s part of who we are, not some specific aspect of our being, divisible from the rest of us.

If there is no single, discernible influence of place on any one of us, is it not also true that every individual influence leaves some trace on us somewhere? We are all the sum of our parts. Or more than.

And so to The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words, a centenary anthology of writings emanating from Canberra. This is not a selection of writings about Canberra, but of works by authors who are connected with the city.

The thread is, indeed, invisible at times. Many of the works reproduced in full or extracted here are not discernibly related to this part of this world, although some are. But, if the ties linking one work coming out of Canberra to another are at times invisible, other links are often shining and clear. I did enjoy very much the way that editor Irma Gold and her advisory committee have put this anthology together.

I felt in the beginning that I was playing one of those word puzzles where you change one letter in a word at each turn to make a new word. Somehow you get from ‘cold’ to ‘warm’, changing one letter at a time. Word ladders, I think they’re called. The progression through Part One: “Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards”, was so gentle that it was no surprise at all to find myself having moved effortlessly from CEW Bean’s “Anzac to Amiens” to Michael Thorley’s “Things”—“After their owners die, things die too”.

Bean’s poetic observations of the western front. His research at Tuggeranong Homestead, with the experience of war lingering for his correspondents in Peter Stanley’s “Quinn’s Post”. War pursuing, or never having left, Lesley Lebkowicz’s elderly “Good Shoppers”. Judith Wright asking us in “Counting in Sevens” to contemplate the markers of our lives, and which of them will we remember in our old age. AD Hope looking back in rage and love through “Meditation on a Bone”, refusing to give up on past hurt. John Clanchy’s “The Gunmen”, allowing ancient hurts to perpetuate themselves onward and forevermore. Penelope Leyland tracing perhaps one of the greatest of hurts and most primal of fears, the “Lost Child”, swallowed up by the unfamiliar Australian landscape. Roger McDonald’s solitary men, together, not devoured by the landscape but part of it, where the spaces are as important as the solid things, in “When Colts Ran”.

I dipped in and out of The Invisible Thread over a few weeks, which is what you should be able to do in an anthology. It did mean, though, that I lost the thread in places, or just forgot to look for it. It is a collection that pays reading in sequence, for the joy of finding those links in the chain, but the selections also introduced me individually to new friends, and allowed me to also revisit old acquaintances.

As I said, this is not an anthology about Canberra, but rather of, from, or maybe through Canberra. There is, though, the visible as well as the invisible trace. Bob Crozier, the Queanbeyan postie’s journey to deliver the mail to Bean. Buckler and Fred’s visit to “the national capital with its monuments – Parliament House, War Memorial, Civic Centre – held off in dry grass paddocks” on “one long, hot endless day”. Bill Gammage’s referencing of the 2003 bushfires, and how the loss of ancient management practices may have precipitated them. The Unknown Soldier, lying in state in King’s Hall at Old Parliament House before processing through the city and our consciousness to the War Memorial. Phar Lap’s heart in its glass case in the Museum: “’I don’t like cold dead places with old dead horses without hearts,’” Marian Eldrige’s Alvie mutters. Dorothy Johnston’s “Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin” giving a mysterious other life to the Lake, dividing us from the here and now and from each other, offering solace, leading some of us away.

The final piece is called “Luminous Moments”, extracted from Marion Halligan’s The Taste of Memory. It is a lovely work to finish on, I think, reflecting the thread that runs, visibly or not, through the rest of the writings. Halligan’s prose here is a stream of consciousness – one thought seamlessly seguing into the next without losing the train or the coherence of the story, until somehow we find ourselves back where we began, but having been enriched by the journey. This, like the rest of The Invisible Thread, is a series of luminous moments indeed.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

13%

2 Comments

Filed under Anthology, Women Writers

The Exhibition

Marg Girdwood. The Exhibition. Books & Writers Network, [2004]. 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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

14%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers