Tag Archives: National Library of Australia

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%

1 Comment

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

Crooked House

Peter Menadue. Crooked House. Harris Street Publications, 2011.

A few self-published works have turned up in the course of my Canberra journey, and I think Crooked House has been the most enjoyable so far. I’m pretty sure that Peter Menadue doesn’t like Canberra very much, but I can forgive in this case because of the bone dry wit he brings to his story.

Crooked House’s Paul Ryder settles comfortably into the mould of hard drinking, womanising, old-school journalist. He is barely keeping it together, although he’s found a good woman who may just keep him on the straight and narrow this time around. One of his more recent indiscretions has caused him to be sacked from his last job, and now he’s stuck as the Canberra press gallery reporter for the Launceston Herald, babysitting the boss’ son who only has to “keep breathing” longer than his father to succeed in life.

The Herald only keeps a Canberra political reporter on staff for the prestige of it, and keeps burying the big political stories under acres of coverage of lost bushwalkers. So Paul has little pressure and plenty of time to pursue other lines of inquiry when he finds himself caught up in the murders of two women associated with the man who is about to challenge his party’s leader for the prime ministership.

The story’s not that important really, and you can probably guess the major plot points. Ryder’s journalistic nosing around starts to uncover what looks like serious corruption and crime, but powerful people are on his case and soon his life is in danger. He’s got to use his smarts to outwit the vested interests of political hangers-on, the cops who may or may not be in their pay, and the shadowy underworld figures who have jobs to do and their own and others’ interests to protect. In the meantime he has a relationship to try to keep together, a daughter who is growing up in front of him, and a glimmer of career rescue on the horizon.

What stops Crooked House from being just another largely forgettable self published bit of pulp crime fiction is its humour. Mendue is a dab hand at the one-liner, and this wry look at the world and the pacey plot kept me going along fairly happily. Paul’s bureau colleague, the boss’ son is “almost too stupid to roll rocks down a hill”, and can’t be left alone on a story because “he probably wouldn’t notice if the army started shelling Parliament House.” In relaying his problems to his partner, Anne, Paul fears that she had “suddenly realised she’d never really known me at all, because I was a deranged fantasist.” His physical stoush with his nemesis and former boss involves “[rolling] around on the floor, punching the air and collecting carpet lint.” Their verbal confrontations run like this:

His face reddened. “Fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

“No, you fuck off.”

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we were professional wordsmiths.

I laughed quite a bit, although, as I said, Mendaue, or at least Paul Ryder, doesn’t like Canberra much:

Canberra is a strange, unnerving city in the middle of nowhere… If a competition was held to find the world’s most boring city it would win hands down, if the judges could be bothered visiting… Canberra has no centre, no ghettos, no ethnic quarters, no red light districts and no industrial zones. It’s just a vast archipelago of suburbs scattered through bushland and linked together by four- and six-lane expressways. In Canberra, it’s easy to drive anywhere, but there’s nowhere worth driving to.

I’ve often wondered at the recurring theme that you can’t have a real city without a ghetto, that somehow finding yourself in a zone filled with poverty and desperation makes living in a city worthwhile. And he’s wrong about the red light districts. They are in the industrial zones. Nevertheless. The Canberra-is-boring attitude also translates into the usual grab bag of references to actual places inaccurately described, or at least poorly understood. This imprecision isn’t important either, and there is nothing wrong with placing a seedy model in Yarralumla and a gym in Barton if that furthers the plot. The repeated references to the “Captain Cook Bridge” were annoying, though, and pointed me towards someone who has a superficial knowledge of the place but hasn’t taken the time to explore further.

Canberra architecture also comes in for Menadue’s deftly humorous criticism:

Most office buildings in Canberra are either outback neo-Stalinist or middle-of-nowhere modernist. Instead of being sympathetic to the landscape, they look like they hated it and wondered what the hell they were doing there.

It’s not all bad. On a “glorious” day Paul sits in the Queen’s Terrace Café at Parliament House, gazing at the lake, the High Court, OPH, the Library and War Memorial, and thinks of how in less pressured times he would have enjoyed the view. He has quite recently, though, been run off the road at Anzac Parade by a couple of thugs with guns, discovered dead bodies in Woden and in Campbell, and had to buy a whole new wardrobe in Manuka to replace his bloodstained suit. Given all of that, he could be forgiven for failing to see Canberra in its best light.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

9%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

The Monster That Ate Canberra

Michael Salmon. The Monster That Ate Canberra. Summit Press, 1974. ISBN: 959920927

Probably Australia’s most famous bunyip, Alexander, was born in Canberra. Well, not exactly. He was forced to leave his original home (we don’t quite know where that is) because

his favourite billabong was slowly filling up with rubbish from the smoggy city. Every Tuesday and Thursday huge trucks roared down to the water and dumped loads of empty beer cans, soft drink bottles, cigarette packets, old tyres and newspapers – all the rubbish that lies about in the streets and gutters of any big city.

Unable to clean up after the trucks any longer, Alexander leaves to find a better place to live. After wandering to the sugarcane and the palms, to the bottle trees and grass trees, and “to the mountain ranges of snow and ice”, Alexander finally stumbles upon his new home:

There, nestling between the mountains in the distance was the biggest billabong that he had seen in all his Bunyip years… At last he had found a perfect home….. LAKE BURLEY GRIFFIN!!

After finally resting following his long journey, Alexander wakes the next day, bathes under the Captain Cook fountain, and realizes he is hungry. The National Library looks to Alexander like a giant birthday cake, and tastes “a bit sugary and sweet”. Parliament House, “a special super extra long hamburger”, doesn’t taste very good at all. But for desert there is apple pie Academy of Science and an ice cream cone Carillion.

But Canberrans don’t like having their national monuments eaten by bunyips, and the Prime Minister, on the advice of “a wise professor from the University”, orders the plug to be pulled on Scrivener Dam, so that the lake can be drained and the greedy bunyip can be caught.

The Monster that Ate Canberra gave rise to an enormously successful and long-running series of children’s books, a television show, and even a range of merchandise. Later images of Alexander are round and cheerful and pastel-coloured, but these early pictures in the first Alexander book (the copy I read was the second edition – the first was in 1972) show him thinner and sadder-eyed, picked out in red, while the Minister for Uncertain Things and the other people around him are charcoal black and grey.

Alexander is a much-loved bunyip, so much so that a wonderful sculpture of him was erected outside the Gungahlin library. I couldn’t help, though, feeling sad reading The Monster that Ate Canberra. Among the last of his race, he is driven from home by the actions of unthinking others. When he finds a place of sanctuary and tries to get by, he is misunderstood, his actions of mere survival considered criminal by the people he has come to live among. I can’t help but agree with our anonymous narrator at the end of the book: “I hope he has found a home and lots of things to eat”.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

13%

2 Comments

Filed under Children's 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