Tag Archives: Murrumbidgee

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%

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2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers, Young Adult

Venom

Dorothy Horsfield. Venom. Pandanus Books, 2005. ISBN: 1740761790

We tend to think of Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory synonymously, but in reality the city of Canberra takes up only a small part of the land mass of the ACT. Even setting aside the sliver of coast at Jervis Bay which remains part of the Territory (for now, anyway), about 46 per cent of the ACT is taken up by the Namadgi National Park. The Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is significantly smaller, but also contributes another goodly chunk. Then there’s Brindabella National Park and the Bimberi Nature Reserve.

We aint called the Bush Capital for nothing. The other night driving home from the theatre I had to dodge a fox on Adelaide Avenue and a kangaroo on Streeton Drive. Neither of these are particularly uncommon occurrences. One creature that I haven’t encountered, indeed, which I thought I had left behind forever in Sydney, is the funnel-web spider. Turns out they are here too, although apparently they aren’t so easy to find, if Dr Paddy Jones’ research is anything to go by.

Paddy has taken a diversion from the usual work of the CSIRO Forestry division at Yarralumla to concentrate on identifying and describing the species of funnel-web in the Canberra region. He hires single mum Madeleine as his research assistant, and the pair spend Saturdays combing the bush for those elusive specimens.

Their relationship is hesitant and self-conscious at first, dotted with misunderstandings and embarrassments, as each of them tries to work out what the nature of their attraction might mean and where their friendship might head. It’s not very surprising, then, that Madeleine’s ex, Doug, misconstrues the rapport between them, and plots revenge.

Venom is really about relationships. Tentative, awkward ones like Madeleine and Paddy’s. Twisted, poisonous ones. The instant and eternal relationship between mother and child. Unlikely but solid ones. But these relationships happen in a landscape, and many of the relationships in Venom happen in the bushland of the ACT.

It was weeks before Paddy again raised the issue of an overnight camp-out. The next half-dozen Saturdays were spent in fruitless hikes through Namadgi and the Tidbinbilla Reserve and the next couple along overgrown trails beside the Murrumbidgee River. Their expeditions involved an unvarying routine — a walk to a designated spot, an hour or so’s meticulous search through an area of bush, then a cuppa over a camp fire. As the weeks wore on and they achieved nothing, Madeleine’s confidence waned. It wasn’t simply that, despite her dutiful reading of Paddy’s research file, she had no idea how to find the fabulous funnel-web. She also suspected that the good doctor might be a rank amateur like herself.

But already they were friends of a kind and she looked forward to their afternoons together.

While Madeleine and Paddy are sweeping the bush for spiders, Madeleine’s ex-partner inhabits the poisonous atmosphere of the parliamentary triangle, the landscape much more often associated with Canberra. When he and Madeleine first arrive in Canberra they find a home in Yarralumla,

close to the high-rises that passed as the capital’s city centre and close as well to the lake’s foreshore with its forests and the sparse sheep paddocks that people referred as parkland. And, in a city of manicured lawns and hedges, the house’s big back garden was wildly overgrown and various.

This is a middle ground. Madeleine finds herself here, somewhere between Doug’s muckraking at the Press Club and Paddy’s denial of economic and political reality on the bike paths crossing the Molonglo at Scrivener Dam. She is looking for a model that works for her of what a marriage, a long-term relationship might be, and she’s not finding it. It’s not in her parents’ marriage, and not in her own short-lived relationship with Doug. She’s also looking for answers to her relationship with her father, and with Doug. What did each of them recognise in the other that she has missed? Perhaps the spiders have the answer.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

11%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

Full House

Penelope Hanley. Full House. Simon & Shuster, 1993. ISBN: 0731802667.

I could escape Pavel and Sara’s crowded house by cycling into the serene silence around the lake. If I didn’t hurry I could have a whole hour’s solitude while gliding effortlessly past the yacht club, the field of fat cypress trees and sweet-scented pines of Westbourne Woods, …through the kissing gates at Government House. Pedalling up the gentle incline of the pine-thick hill, I’d reach a paddock of grazing horses and a panoramic view of the Brindabella Ranges. After flying down the hill I had the choice of veering off towards the woolshed, riding beside the Molonglo River… or heading back to the north for more pine forests and the shady grove of cork oaks before going home.

Holly is a flame-haired artists’ model and film reviewer who is, as the cover blurb tells us, running from her problems and running from the past. She dashes from Canberra to Sydney and back again, escaping her mad ex-boyfriend, her unbearable housemates and her going nowhere job. For Holly, Canberra is familiar and warm, whereas in Sydney

people are like the frogs in the experiment that don’t notice they’re gradually boiling to death… To people like me who visit Sydney after a lengthy absence, the increase in violence, traffic, noise and pollution is… unbearable. I thought: the poor people! … how can they bear it? …Bear it? They can’t even see it!

The contrast is set up for us, and, again, the cover blub for Full House instructs us to think about “the essential differences between Sydney and Canberra.”

I feel a bit failed by that Simon & Shuster cover blurb. It promises “zany” and “hilarious”, and “a tale of love, lust and food”. I’m afraid I didn’t find Full House zany or hilarious, but it is funny and quirky. Granted, there is quite a bit of love, lust and food throughout the story. While Holly spends time contemplating the differences between Sydney and Canberra and what they might offer her, I think Full House is less about the “essential differences” between the two cities and more about how Holly’s expectations shape her attitudes.

It is certainly rare to hear Sydney disparaged in favour of the delights of Canberra, and it is interesting to think through a little bit what the contrasts are. Holly loves Canberra for its fresh air, its great outdoors, fresh air, picnics at Casuarina sands by the Murrumbidgee. She hates Sydney for being the reverse, even though, as her young friend Demetrius points out, Sydney should be much more exciting for Holly, with her love of art and film. And despite her prejudices (and we know this from the prologue, so no spoilers here) Holly’s life, when we leave her, seems to be destined to be in Sydney.

The cover blurb does hit the mark when it refers to Holly as being on the run. “Had I really believed”, she asks herself towards the end of the novel “that a change of geography would solve my problems? That a change of place would change my life?” Full House sets up for us the contrasts between Sydney and Canberra, young lovers and older, work that is cerebral and work that is emotional. In the end, though, the contrasts are inside us. Home is where you choose to make it. Relationships are what you allow them to be. And, while wishing may not make it so, sitting on the lounge waiting for opportunities to arrive is rarely a recipe for success or happiness.

Caphs Count:

12%

Awards:

Nil

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers