Tag Archives: Lake George

Dead Cat Bounce

Peter Cotton. Dead Cat Bounce. Scribe, 2013. ISBN: 9781922072542

Back in May Laura Bartlett at the ACT Writers Centre asked me where I thought the literary imagination could be found in Canberra. In reflecting on the books I had read up until then, I came up with three categories: Inevitable Canberra, Symbolic Canberra, and Comfortable Canberra.

The first category, Inevitable Canberra, is for the books that are set in Canberra because they have to be, to make the story work. They tend to be politically based. I mentioned in May that this category was the one that had the least affection for Canberra, needing the place but not really knowing, loving, or understanding it.

Peter Cotton’s debut novel Dead Cat Bounce more or less fits into this category. Cotton is a former journalist and media adviser to federal cabinet ministers, with a ten year career based in Canberra. He knows his way around town. His novel, a police procedural about the murder of a senior minister in the middle of an election campaign, draws on Canberra for its momentum. There’s a little bit more going on here, though.

To begin with, Dead Cat Bounce doesn’t have to be in Canberra. The pollies are on the election trail, and not tied to the House and sitting schedules, so it really could have happened anywhere. Actually, now that I think of it, the fact that a minister would be in Canberra during an election campaign is a bit weird. So, Canberra is definitely the chosen setting, not merely the necessary one.

My second notional category was Symbolic Canberra. I used this to group together those books that use Canberra’s features as metaphors for their writing. Cotton’s work fits in here too. Our dead minister has been found on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin at Attunga Point, not far from the Yacht Club, and, as the police profiler helpfully points out for us:

Lakes feature in the mythology of a number of ancient cultures, where they’re generally linked to a transition to death. In Greek mythology, for instance, the god Dionysus descended into the underworld through a lake.

The killers may be using LBG as a metaphor for the journey to hell, and I think Cotton is also using the lake, and Canberra more generally, as the symbol of political power. Even though this story could happen anywhere, its location in Canberra concentrates our thinking on the consequences of this killing for the election and for our democracy. Later in the story when matters escalate further, the feasibility of continuing the election as a whole comes up for discussion, as Canberra virtually goes into lockdown. Our parliamentary processes, regardless of whether we currently have a parliament, are fragile, and that fragility, and the importance of preventing their fracture, is magnified by setting the story in Canberra.

Which takes me to category three, Comfortable Canberra. In my thinking, Comfortable Canberra is for those novels that ‘get’ Canberra. The city may be a necessary location or a symbolic motif, but it is also a place that they know and understand and can get around in plausibly without getting lost. Cotton knows his way around Canberra, getting around the usual sites of Civic, Kingston, Yarralumla, Red Hill, Forrest and Fyshwick. Cotton’s characters have drinks at the Kingo and the Hyatt, coffee in Garema Place. They lunch at a Manuka café (could it be Caphs?!?), they have working lives in Woden, and dark things happen on Mount Ainslie. Indeed, Cotton’s characters even wax lyrical, if stereotypical, about their lives in the city:

We both liked Canberra’s clean air, and its four seasons. That it had wide roads, and was relatively uncluttered.

Another symbolic, mysterious lake, Lake George, also has an important place in the story, as does the township named after it. North of Canberra, down Macks Reef Road, a little out of Bungendore, the village of Lake George is the home of a ‘person of interest’ to the investigation, as they say.

Weereewaa was the Aboriginal name for the lake… The word meant ‘bad water’, and the blacks, and the Europeans who took their land, had plenty of reasons for thinking there was something bad about the lake.

What I particularly like about Cotton’s story, is that, when the security types are getting all heavy-handed, he has one of his characters, remind us that there are people who live in Canberra and who don’t have or want anything much to do with what is going on on the Hill:

What I’d say to you Mr Redding is this. The people of Canberra are feeling very insecure in the wake of [these crimes]. They’re also very angry with the perpetrators. Combine anger and insecurity, and what do you get? Hysteria, of course, and the symptoms of it are everywhere in this town…. So, Mr Redding, as you consider your next move, please be mindful of the impact it’ll have out here in Australia-land.

So, in Dead Cat Bounce, Canberra is inevitable, symbolic, and relatively comfortable. A bringing together of all of its various elements. And dead politicians, which not everyone believes is a bad thing.



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Felicity Volk. Lightning. Picador, 2013. ISBN: 9781743289099.

I loved Lightning. Those three of you who have been following this blog closely will have realised that I am enchanted by thoughtful, dreaming, poetic prose, and stories that explore inner selves as much as outer worlds. My favourites so far have been books like Jan Borrie’s Verge, Alex Miller’s The Sitters, Dorothy Johnson’s The House at Number 10, and Joanne Horniman’s About a Girl. They all have a lilting, floating feel to them, and Lightning is also there with them. Wistful and at times whimsical, Lightning is about grief and the need to belong. To belong to others, to belong to places, and to belong to traditions and histories.

Persia’s friend Salome describes her as a “letter-goer”. As opposed to a “holder-onner”:

‘You know, if you stayed in one place long enough to have the phone put on, you wouldn’t have to run your friendships on loose change.’ She had intended it affectionately.

And Persia does find it hard to put down roots of her own, despite her careful nurturing of the gardens, and especially the daphne, she plants at each place she comes briefly to rest. It’s natural, then, that Persia would plan a home birth, with no one beyond a midwife beside her. Natural also, that this coming child would be the one she expects will ground her, and will belong to her entirely. “With you I’ll be a holder-onner”, Persia whispers.

When Persia goes into labour on 18 January 2003, Canberra is in the midst of its greatest crisis, and Persia must manage alone.

Angry winds blew ash across the city; the air was sooty and hot. I am not going to give birth on such a day, Persia thought as she looked through her bedroom window to where the Brindabella Range sulked under a wilting sky.

In the terrible aftermath, grief-stricken and still alone, she starts to follow a vague plan to go to her child’s father, perhaps to share her grief with him. Along the way she meets Ahmed, a refugee who has griefs and secrets of his own. Together they travel through a landscape that is not theirs, but through it find ways to tell eachother stories that both heal and reveal. Somewhere along the way Persia forms a new plan, to travel to the place where she does have roots – Hermannsburg and the home of her Afghan cameleer ancestor.

Lake George is an early marker on Persia’s route:

an expanse of landscape she found stirring, first for its physical beauty and later… its metaphysical. The steep escarpment of scraggy snow gums opposite the lake, along which the highway stretched, became a topographical milestone in Persia’s journeying…

When Persia first arrives in Canberra, it is a city of strangers, and she has little intention of changing that. “Instead of acquiring a social circle, Persia joined the local photographic society”. So, when she finds herself adrift in Grafton, Persia realises that there is nothing for her in Canberra:

Home. Disfigured by grief it was a foreign, unwelcoming destination. Loss makes you look at a place differently, thought Persia. The architecture of it resembled an Escher print. All staircases going rightly in the wrong directions, mostly to basements beneath idyllic parks…

Ahmed’s loss is older, and more familiar to him. He understands more clearly where Persia is heading, perhaps, than Persia does:

He’d thought of Ruth and Naomi… Old Testament Ruth and Naomi. The Moabite and the Israelite. The widowed daughter-in-law leaving her own tribe behind to accompany the widowed mother-in-law back to her land. How home is a person, not bricks and mortar; not tribe, nor custom, nor bloodline, but a person. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God



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The Memory Room

The Memory Room. Random House, 2007. ISBN: 9781741667295.

I usually try to avoid reading others’ reviews of a book until I settle on my own initial opinion, but I was feeling a little directionless when I finished The Memory Room, so I thought I’d tool around the interwebs a bit to see what others thought of it.

I have to say that some of the reviews are a bit lukewarm. Michael Williams in The Age says that Koch “doesn’t hit the high notes in his latest spy novel”. I guess when you’ve set the bar as high as two Miles Franklin Awards and had another novel made into an acclaimed film, it may be hard to sustain that level for every outing.

The reviewers also generally agree that Koch is a master of landscape, and particularly single out his evocations of Tasmania in The Memory Room. Of course, with my particular preoccupation, I’m more interested his treatment of the landscape around Canberra.

Lake George, and plains around the Monaro and southern highlands are recurring themes in The Memory Room:

The car rounded a bend, and Lake George appeared on our right: waterless at the moment, but green with grass. Far out in the middle, white dots that were sheep showed bright in the morning sun; cattle grazed near a tawny stretch of sand. The lake extended to a long line of hills in the east, light-blue and mauve and very far off, looking like hills in a dream, or in some other country.

Vincent, Derek and Erika have a shared history, starting with intersecting childhoods on the outskirts of Hobart. In Peking they are posted together to the Australian Embassy. Vincent is now a spy with the Australian Security Intelligence Service, while Derek and Erika have more conventional Foreign Affairs roles. Later, after a miscalculation of Vincent’s disrupts their careers and fractures their fragile relationships, they find themselves crossing paths again in Canberra.

In Canberra Derek joins the spook community, becoming an analyst at the Office of National Assessments. Vincent’s Peking misjudgement has landed him back at ASIS head office, where the Director-General makes him the ‘master of the registry’:

‘The innermost secrets of the Service are all at my personal disposal,’ he said, and his voice had taken on a throaty, gloating, almost caressing sound, as though he spoke of some private and perhaps shameful passion. ‘The most secret of all files are in my care, Derek. Can you see what trust has been placed in me? And what it means?’

It is Erika, though, who never loses her childish, childhood fascination with spying. Despite her success as a political journalist, Erika has never really grown up. She remains the child looking for her father’s love, spying on other people’s lives from their back gardens. She is still thrilled by secrecy, but isn’t mature enough to grasp fully the import of those secrets.

Erika craves drama, and the Monaro plains are a fitting landscape for this:

When she flees in her red Toyota,… it’s because flight itself secretly stimulates her… and these southern tablelands, with their wide grasslands, their distant hills and mountains, their big skies and scattered little towns, provide the perfect landscapes for her flights. She can stop in one of the townships and have a coffee or a drink; she might even have a little adventure, flirting with a man in a bar or a café, or simply talking to a woman serving behind a counter. She has then become someone else; she has escaped into her other life. Once, she went as far as Jindabyne, in the Snowy Mountains.

There is a melancholy air throughout The Memory Room which is echoed in the landscapes Koch chooses. While there is a contented life sketched out in the background for Derek, Vincent is essentially alone. As is Erika, even in the midst of her most passionate relationships. There are metaphors here also, I think, about hiding in plain sight, that make each Canberra location apt for the conversations that take place there. On top of Red Hill, Vincent and Erika’s lover Rykov look down on the city and Lake Burley Griffin, their private worries much greater than the tussles for political power below them. Erika tries to shrug off her growing stardom in a booth at Tilley’s – transformed here into Diamond Kate Carney’s. Rykov meets Vincent on a lonely road beside honey-coloured paddocks at Captains Flat, stark figures in a landscape, there to be unobserved.

The novel acknowledges the usual jokes about Canberra, and segues for a moment into an examination of its strange city-as-monument landscape. It is a critical examination, but not an unkind one:

And the grand design worked: its vistas were impressive, even handsome. But they were also strange, [Derek] thought, and somehow eternally subdued – partly because the ancient continent had thrown its blanket of primeval quiet over them…

I was quite annoyed then, in my skimming through online reviews, when I found Jake Kerridge’s in the UK Telegraph where he mentions Koch’s evocation of “the drudgery of life in Canberra”.

What the? Derek has come to Canberra for some peace and permanence after the superficial diplomat’s life, and has found work he finds absorbing and satisfying. Vincent has arrived expecting to be in disgrace, to find that he has been made “absolute master of the Service’s innermost room.” Erika has demanded her commercial television bosses to let her base herself in Canberra over Sydney so that she can be with the man she believes is her spiritual twin. Where the $%#* is the drudgery in any of that? It seems the lazy clichés about Canberra extend half way around the world. It is obvious that Kerridge and others who leap straight to the equation of Canberra equals boredom never felt the connections that Vincent feels with the landscape:

I wanted to climb through the barbed-wire fence and lie down in the grass out there: in the pale, dry, comforting grass, among the strange rocks of the grasslands.

Koch is indeed a master of landscape, and Canberra’s is evoked with dignity and solemnity, fitting it to the story, and the story to the landscape, “here on these plains… under these wheeling constellations.”



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All That Swagger

Miles Franklin. All That Swagger. First published The Bulletin, 1936.

Since I’ve already arbitrarily redrawn Canberra’s borders to include Gundaroo, let’s linger a little while to have a look around the Brindabella Valley. After all, to borrow from Tom Stoppard, Canberra as we define it is just a conspiracy of cartographers.

Danny Delacy is looking for his own land, in the many senses that phrase may suggest. A family friend back in Ireland has settled around Bandalong, “one of the farthest-out stations, not far from Mount Bowning”. To get there, Danny and his “brave Johanna” travel through the already-settled districts from Sydney:

The Goulburn Plains were already held by families, which, in some instances, hold them still with prestige and comfort. Lake George was gone, likewise Gounderu. Limestone Plains was in the hands of first families, there to remain, in imitation of the English squirearchy, until dispossessed by an imperative democracy in favour of an ideally modelled city.

Danny falls in love. The landscape, “with a necklace of ranges beautiful as opals and sapphires”, infects him with a spirit which is ultimately the link between Danny and the generations to come. Harry, the dreamer who is torn away and must live apart from the place that is part of him. Darcy, “homing to his own place and people after exile” and looking “towards the wreathed blue ranges that lay as a glory on the day”. Brian, who, after experiencing the arrogance of Europe, returns to Burrabinga and Bewuck and Ferny Creek,

…commanding a view of the far piled ranges beyond Canberra, that lie dreaming for ever in blue forgetfulness. The hills were an altar, this a vigil of oblation in the worshipper’s private chapel with a choir of magpies, kookaburras, warblers – each after his kind – filling the invisible transepts with music.

Here he can leave a legacy of his own.

I started reading All That Swagger during week of the opening of the new National Arboretum, and the two together had me thinking about landscape and our relationship with trees. Danny is driven by the need to carve out his part of the landscape – burning and feeling trees is part of civilising and claiming. He loves the land and must possess it. The arboretum is also about living among trees and understanding them. On a lazy Sunday morning I slept in too late, listening to a 360 documentary about the arboretum, thinking about the bush capital, and our desire to shape our landscape.

Franklin seems to want to explore how the landscape in its turn shaped the Australian character and culture. Canberra seeks to be a physical expression of those things. Franklin uses the word ‘democratic’ frequently to mean equality and a lack of the usual prejudices of race, status and religion. We like to think these things are characteristic of our culture today, although you don’t have to think for more than a moment about the perennial asylum seeker debates to know that that is not true. The Griffins envisaged the Capitol building where Parliament House now stands as representing the people, sitting above the parliament. That, like much of the symbolism of the Griffin plan is lost, but some of it is regained in the Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp design for the new House that allows us to walk over the heads of our representatives and almost peer down on them in the chambers. I have always thought of the word ‘democratic’ when I have thought of that design.

I finished All That Swagger late at night after seeing the stage production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Not very surprising, I guess, that two stories of the expansion of white settlement beyond Sydney would explore the same themes. It was, though, particularly striking how two writers, 75 years apart, might both meditate on what might have been, if more tolerance and generosity and humility had travelled with the new arrivals. Danny Delacy, following his instinct to treat all around him honestly and fairly, pays his rent in a few bullocks to the true owners of the land when they come to call. In time, “Graciously, peacefully they had ceded their territory to Delacy.” The Secret River’s William Thornhill tries this path, and in the end takes another. The end result, all these years later is, perhaps, much the same: an absence from the land of its original custodians, and a landscape now bent to different purposes.


Winner 1936: S.H. Prior Memorial Prize

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