Tag Archives: National Gallery of Australia

The Tenants

Gwen Laker. The Tenants. c1998

When an author shares some basic biographical characteristics with her main character I sometimes find it hard to separate the two. I can’t quite decide if author Gwen Laker is her character Rose Attenborough.  To be fair, there’s maybe not that much they have in common, beyond age and gender. Rose tells us she is in her eighties, and judging by the author’s photo on the back cover Laker is probably of a similar age (I understand she has passed away since the book was published). The back cover also tells us that the book is “entirely fictional. All characters bear no resemblance to any living person or persons”, so I guess I’ll just have to take Laker at her word.

I hope that Rose is entirely fictional, because by about page seven I couldn’t stand her. My god, what a bitching, complaining noxious old woman. Every observation of her fellow tenants is critical or mean-spirited, every compliment is grudging or back-handed, every pleasure is noted with the expectation that it is only the best that can be expected, or simply cannot last. Here’s a sample. Rose has just had an unpleasant phone conversation with her more-or-less estranged daughter Elizabeth:

Well, I think. Not a very successful attempt to bring me out of my doldrums… Really, I’m getting as bad as Frieda. However [some coffee] might help to settle my nerves. I drink it, then prepare for bed. Not even the patchwork quilt on my double bed can cheer me up. It is a lovely quilt, alive with vibrant colours in a geometric design. My mother spent countless hours making it and gave it to me on my fortieth birthday. How long ago that seems. Elizabeth was just ten years old and as loving a daughter as you could wish for. How times have changed. Time seems to be the dominant factor for the majority of people these days. It’s all rush, rush, rush, and for what? Heart attacks, strokes, neuroses and often before ambitions have been achieved. When will it all end?

Rose is more or less housebound in the flat that has been her home for the past thirty years, and so her life revolves around the doings of the other tenants in her little block of four units. They are a strangely assorted group, but they seem to rub along together and have formed something of a community, Rose’s carping aside. Each is more or less alone, but they look out for eachother, take an interest in eachother’s lives, and offer help and advice when they can. It’s an interesting take, and a view of a life and a community not commonly portrayed in Canberra.

With the odd exception, such as Snake Bite and Riverslake, the Canberra revealed though Dinner at Caphs thus far has been overwhelmingly middle class. Laker’s tenants largely are too. Frieda’s a nurse, Reggie a retired public servant with business ambitions. Adam’s a librarian. Rose clearly sees herself as having refined tastes, dismissive of the modern art at the National Gallery – “a swindle for those gullible enough to believe the dealers’ blurb”, but “enthralled with Glover’s landscapes” – and grudgingly sharing her Haig Dimple with Reggie. The tenants live “in one of the quieter suburbs of Canberra” in something of a state of genteel poverty.

The Tenants also provides an unusual perspective from an older person. Rose’s views, infuriating though they are, bring an outlook on Canberra not provided in anything else I’ve read this year. It’s a very narrow one, to be sure, largely bounded by her view of the Brindabellas through her living room window, her ambulance trips to Woden hospital (“not in the Royal Canberra. The hierarchy have decided to close it down and force all patients in the north to travel many unnecessary kilometres”) and the visits of the meals on wheels ladies and her dissatisfied cleaning lady. It’s a familiarity, if not a contentment, and she observes the changing seasons through the changes in the trees in the garden outside.

Although I have witnessed much sadness and been consumed by my own misery within these walls, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else. I’m so used to Canberra now that I think my very bones have absorbed its eccentricities and uniqueness. It’s a beautiful city with ultra modern buildings and rippling lakes. The parks and gardens are superb and the new Parliament House an architect’s dream. Five star hotels and restaurants abound and there’s even opulent brothels. Yet despite much of this glitterati and veneer, I still have a fondness for it I can’t explain.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

7%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

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

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