Tag Archives: Federal Highway


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.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Speculative Fiction


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.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

The Sitters

Alex Miller. The Sitters. Viking, 1995. ISBN 0670862312.

No one who has a choice chooses to live in Canberra. I’m no exception. I didn’t choose to live in Canberra but I had long ago decided that I’d probably never move away. My wife had been with the Department of Foreign Affairs. That’s why we moved to Canberra in the first place. I was the one who’d stayed. Our son grew up there.

This observation comes early in The Sitters. It comes a little out of the blue. Our nameless narrator, an artist overcoming the painterly version of writer’s block, is introducing us to the “neglected orchard outside my windows where the birds came in the autumn to eat the fruit.” It sounds a peaceful, contemplative space. But somehow he is a prisoner. He continues to live in Canberra and so must, for some reason, have no choice.

I don’t quite know what to make of this statement, and I don’t know where to go with it. Canberra is a city of immigrants. Attested by the ridiculous upsurge in the rental market, as new Defence and DFAT and AusAID postings, students of five universities, and graduate recruits to the public service of two governments, all arrive in town in the same week. The exodus in summer when everyone goes ‘home’ for Christmas. But how can this be? There must have been generations born, educated, employed, retired here by now. Surely not everyone thinks of Canberra as somewhere to escape from? When I was first a student here I used to see that rock marking the NSW-ACT border on the Federal Highway from Sydney and my heart would sink. Now it is my sign that I am almost home, and I’m anticipating that first glimpse of Black Mountain Tower and the Brindabellas.

I also don’t quite know what I want to say about The Sitters, except that it is beautiful. The artist, the knowing observer, understands the implications of every moment, because he knows how it will end, but there is very little ‘action’ in the story. There is the artist’s observation, his contemplation of, his thoughts about, actions. At a recent event I was lucky enough to attend where Miller read from The Sitters, he referred to it as ‘a reverie’. These things give the narrative a dreamlike, floating feeling. I didn’t mind where the story was going. I was content just to float along.

We’re in my studio and I’m showing Jessica the little oil of her mother. It’s late. We’re both tired and happy. We’re in that tired, happy satisfied state you sometimes get when you’ve done a good day’s work….We’ve been dealing with things and we’ve got this sense between us of companionship and respect. And it’s more than that too, but what can you say? Like I said, it’s only glimpses.

Our artist does portraits. Or likenesses. We understand early that there is a difference. The book itself is a sketch: there is much we don’t know. The artist’s name. His role at the University. Where his wife is now. The details aren’t important – we only need a broad outline to understand the picture.

The sketches are enough for me to conclude that perhaps The Sitters is about relationships, mostly fractured ones, and the places that stand for those relationships. The artist stretches a remembered family weekend in Kent to last a whole childhood, to cover over the nicks and cracks of a violent growing up. Jessica travels halfway around the world to escape the destiny that will overtake her if she stays in the Araluen Valley, to repeat the lives of her mother, her grandmother, her great grandmother. Many of the characters are mere shapes. Jessica’s mother, chipping away at the garden with her hoe. Her father, a blur in the background of a photo. Markers in the landscape, denoting disappointment, or persistence perhaps.

I think I had lived here for years before I met anyone who was born in Canberra. It used to be fairly standard to ask new acquaintances where they come from. But surely if we choose to come we can also choose to leave, and yet we stay. The ties of family, of fulfilling work, of shared experiences and lived lives and memories held by places are enough for some. And, like Jessica, who feels compelled to return to Araluen, sometimes we may change our minds and come back.


Winner 2012: Melbourne Prize for Literature

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction