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

Happy Valley

Patrick White. Happy Valley. Text Classics, 2012. ISBN: 9781921961175

I’ve expanded the borders again, this time to take in the Monaro and the Snowy Mountains district. We’ve been here before, of course. Erika passed through here all the time. And before there were borders and an Australian Capital Territory it was all known as the Monaroo or some other variation of the spelling.

This late in the Centenary year, the books left on the list are either becoming hard to acquire, or perhaps hard to contemplate. All of which combines to form my excuse for reading Patrick White’s Happy Valley, which contains no references to Canberra at all.

There are hints, though. Mrs Furlow muses with satisfaction on her connections with Government House, which much surely be the Canberra one, Sydney and Melbourne being so much further away? Later hints suggest it is Sydney after all, but when the conversation turns to “the European situation” and Mussolini, it’s clear that this is the late 1930s and likely to be well after Yarralumla became the full-time Government House. But would Australian-born Sir Isaac Isaacs have had an English ADC on hand, ready and willing to give his heart to the beautifully difficult Miss Sidney Furlow? I know, I’m grasping at straws.

Tharwa does get a mention. A drover met along the way, was “going down to Tharwa in the afternoon, he came from there, he would not come back for a year or two”. So Happy Valley is really quite apart from Canberra. Has nothing to do with it. But how might you read the book in the context of Canberra?

Happy Valley, White’s first novel, was originally published in 1939. It is a bleak landscape populated by White’s usual range of somewhat bleak and often unlovable figures. They are the usual ciphers of the isolated, dot-on-the-map town. The teacher at the one-room school, with no one to take over classes when he is sick. The bank manager and his wife, who might be called common except for their position in the town’s hierarchy. The doctor, finding connections with the community, his wife and son not. The youngish spinster sewing and giving music lessons to eke out her inheritance while saving to move to California. The local land owner and his rebellious daughter. The Chinese Australian girl, not quite ostracized but not quite accepted. They are the familiar props of the small town drama, although in White’s hands they are also something more than that.

Given these are such familiar outlines, the stuff of every town, why do I have so much trouble relating them to Canberra? My imagination is completely unable to move Happy Valley up the Monaro Highway and transplant it convincingly on the Limestone Plains, even at an earlier point in history when there must have been a school teacher and a doctor and a land owner.

Canberra’s history is overtaken by the national capital project. It seems from this distance to have leapt from scattered settler community to incipient city, without any moment of pause in between to be just a town. I’m unable to imagine the social hierarchy of Happy Valley transplanted to Canberra, and perhaps it was never there. Or, when it was, it was established according to a different set of rules of public service seniority, marked out by the construction and location of your house – tents at Westlake for construction workers, brick in Forrest for senior bureaucrats.

The capacity for scandal is still the same. Like Plaque with Laurel, written at around the same time, Happy Valley is centred on relationships, misunderstandings and infidelities. The sometimes awfulness of ordinary people, and their seemingly endless facility to do eachother harm without necessarily meaning any harm at all. These things I can imagine happening in Canberra.

If nothing else it has been something of a relief to read someone who masters the language after quite a lot of good storytelling but not much great writing. The foreword to the new edition by Peter Craven discusses how White is, in this first novel, experimenting with the styles of icons such as Joyce and Stein and “drunk with the technique of writing”. Even my unscholarly eye could detect these influences. Whether experimental, derivative or a clear, new and original voice, I do find White’s writing in Happy Valley wonderful. I want to give you a longish quote, the running of the local Cup, that I hope might show you what I mean.

They shuddered in a bunch against the barrier, then streamed out, that long trajectory of colour against an indifferent landscape, the muscle whipped by rain, by the sudden emotional compact of breath and wind. They urged into the wind and the flat, grey with trees. The colour broke fiercely on the grey. It whipped round the bend. The horses coiled back in a long elastic thread. You could hear their hoofs dulled by the mud. You could hear the approach of frantic breath. You could almost hear a flash of colour breaking through a clump of trees. And the crowd leant over the fence, drawing the horses on with their hands, so many puppets on so many strings, of which the jockeys, balled up on their saddles, had no ultimate control.

This moment of action is staccato and abrupt and quite different to much of the writing in the rest of the book, which is much a more fluid stream-of-consciousness, a following of the strange juxtapositions of his characters’ thoughts. Whether or not Happy Valley, separated from Canberra by a somewhat arbitrary boarder, is a mirror or a juxtaposition to the capital, I’m glad that I took the detour to visit.

Awards:

Gold Medal 1941: Australian Literature Society

Caphs Count:

8%

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Filed under Classic Fiction

Automaton

Alana Woods. Automaton. Woodsforthe Trees, [c2001]. ISBN: 9780957976702.

We’ve not had a courtroom drama before in our journey through fictional Canberra. I wonder why? Plenty of murders have happened, but up until now it’s the cops and the journalists who have had all the glory. But now we have legal aid lawyer Elizabeth Sharman, in Canberra to escape her recently failed relationship and to defend young Russell Montgomery, who is accused of murdering the owner of the supermarket at Narrabundah shops.

Russell’s case isn’t looking very hopeful, mostly because there are a number of witnesses to the murder, but also because he can’t remember a thing about it, or about himself. An ‘automaton’ case, as his lawyers refer to it.

Perhaps, though, it’s Elizabeth who is the automaton. Apparently alone in the world, apart from her friend Honey the leg model, Elizabeth seems unable to connect with anyone. Or perhaps to connect in the right way with the right people. Her instructing solicitor Robert Murphy is worried about her strange obsession with the defendant. He’s also more than a little miffed about her apparent lack of interest in a relationship with him.

Automaton has more plot twists than a country house whodunit, a strange, abbreviated style of prose, and an inability to correctly use apostrophes. Despite the enthusiastic reader reviews comparing author Alana Woods favourably to John Grisham, I didn’t quite see what the fuss might be about. The plot was enough to keep me turning pages, but as disaster after disaster befell Elizabeth and Russell, not least a Black Mountain car crash that leaves Elizabeth trapped for hours, I realised that I didn’t really care. Perhaps Woods has done too good a job at depicting the driven woman too strong to ask for help.

There are some nice connections with and observations of Canberra. Elizabeth has just arrived in town, and has rented one of the new apartments on Northbourne Avenue, walking distance from her London Circuit office. During her sleepless nights she can wander

the suburban back streets, the long twilight and wide-lawned stretches between hedge and road over which mature oaks spread their shade softening the heat’s effect.

Those rows of apartments, one layer deep along Northbourne, remind me of a Hollywood film set. Cardboard facades that give the illusion of a city when there is really all of that comfortable tree-lined suburbia behind it.

In Automaton there are lawyers lunches in Garema Place and drinks at the Wig and Pen, although the midnight café Elizabeth manages to find in Civic sounded fanciful to me, given the circa 2001 publishing date. Lawyerly investigations take us out to Belconnen to the remand centre, to Woden along the Tuggeranong Parkway tailing suspects, and over Clyde Mountain to Bateman’s Bay and the family beach house of the murdered man.

It was refreshing to read Canberra depicted as a cosmopolitan place. In Wood’s version of the city, Garema Place is bustling day and night, and the ANU bar and the Casino form part of a vibrant night life. Not all of these things are necessarily true. Somehow, though, even when the identity of the city is largely immaterial, Woods feels the need to centre Canberra on the lake.

In the early dawn she dressed and walked down to Lake Burley Griffin… Once there she sat in solitude, idly examining the pale lines of the public buildings on the opposite bank. The old Federation style and the flag-dominated new parliament houses, the blocked art gallery and high court… The occasional jogger, bicycle rider and fellow walker were out… With few people and fewer vehicles to spoil the serenity she thought how calmly beautiful it was. The light had a lucidity that stung the eyes.

Somehow, Canberra’s landscape always manages to assert itself.

Awards:

Winner 2003: Fast Books Prize

Nominated 2004: Davitt Awards

Caphs count:

8%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Women Writers

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