Tag Archives: public service

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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1 Comment

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

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

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

Plumbum

David Foster. Plumbum. Vintage, 1995. ISBN: 0091832217. First published 1983.

I’m afraid I just didn’t get Plumbum.

Early on I felt that it must be saying something interesting, even profound, if only I had the smarts to understand the literary/religious/musical/drug references that must be just eluding me. My library copy bristles with bookmarks of pages and passages that I sensed might be significant once I got a grip on where it was all headed, what the underlying (or to the educated, the overlaying) messages were. Other page markers are for the passages I wanted to return to. Passages that evoke in their chaotic rhythms, their disintegrating language, their rambling logic and illogic, the anarchy of the Calcutta slums where much of the action takes place.

Almost 400 pages on, I just wanted it to be over.

The plot arcs from Canberra, where a group of dissatisfied musicians somehow coalesce into a band. Each of them is looking for one of the things that we might be tempted to believe that rock n roll fame and fortune can deliver us: love, sex, money, respect, enlightenment. From orderly Canberra the Blackman Brothers Band begins an accelerating descent into bedlam, first in a squat in seedy, street-wise Sydney, then to seedier Bangkok, where they sell themselves into slavery to make a buck, then sell their souls to a sound engineer called Nick, to fulfil their dreams.

Nick takes them to Calcutta, renames them Plumbum (it’s the Latin for lead. Get it? Worst. Band. Name. Ever.), draws from them unsuspected musical gifts, and disappears, leaving them to live on the doorstep of his studio. Pete, Jason, Rollo, Felix and Sharon slowly disperse throughout the city, each pursuing their own version of success, or at least survival, until Nick returns to make them gods.

Foster brings in each member of the band through their individual voices. Pete’s is a documentary narrative, Rollo has a superhero alter-ego, Felix speaks in a barely literate testosterone rave. Introductions out of the way, the narrative settles down into a normal enough telling of how the band members came together. Normal, although slightly odd in places, with Jason somehow responsible for his musical icon’s death outside the Albert Hall, and Felix’s near-blinding of Pete with a drumstick in a Fyshwick music shop.

Early on there seems to be a mania for pinning down the reality of Canberra, for naming every suburb, at times every street. Hackett Gardens, Turner. Groom Street, Hughes. Mugga Way, Red Hill. Gritty O’Connor. Scholarly Acton. There is sharp attention to the suburban details:

The window is fitted with a fly screen. Canberra, surrounded by cowpats, is in summer a city of flies. Through the window Pete can see a typical Canberra scene. Across two backyards of yellow grass is a house in the adjacent crescent….

Dotted around Spence are some stately old gums, remnants of the Aboriginal forest. In the shade of these trees stood ruminants ruminating before Canberra came. Spared by the farmer, they’ve been spared by the planner, though most have had limbs lopped, for making threatening gestures.

There are other interesting observations of Canberrans and the city they have made. Jason’s father Arthur is a holocaust survivor:

It’s not sufficiently realised today that Canberra in the 1950s was a city of reborn people. This artificial metropolis attracted reffos of a certain kind the way the blue light in a butcher’s shop does flies…

One of Arthur’s workmates began life in a Ukrainian hut…Today, you can find this man in the Commonwealth Club, hobnobbing with Oxford types. …Like it or not, when men have been through Hell, it is Canberra they desire, Canberra they create.

Later, in Calcutta, Pete tries his hand as a doctor, trying to make the lives around him somehow less horrific, perhaps more like that utopia, Canberra:

Sometimes at night, Pete has a vision of the lifestyle he wants for these people. Decent homes with sanitation. Parks with trees. A clean dry climate.

Free, compulsory education! Law and order! Medical Care! Pensions for the needy! Plenty of good food!

An artificial lake for recreation.

Despite the solidity of suburbia, even normal, dull Canberra starts to unravel for the members of BBB. Sharon’s husband throws her out. Felix’s car explodes in the middle of a Civic night. Rollo is somehow caught up in an ASIO sting, inadvertently passing bags of cash to Russian spies in the Curtin milk bar. Sacked, he’s no longer prevented from getting to rehearsal because “he’s too busy trying to decide which new fighter jet the Australian air force should purchase.” So, with nothing left for them in Canberra, the band begin their descent through the circles of hell, to be reborn as Plumbum.

BBB arrive in Sydney on page 138. From there to page 393 I became increasingly lost. As do the band members. I can appreciate the vibrancy, the suggestive power of Foster’s writing. As each band member’s individual obsessions overtake them, so the narrative and the language conveying it become more and more chaotic:

The convoy rolls into Utrecht. Pete, riding in Plumbum Three, is riding red and rigid. He saw that kiss, that craven-snatch of Polesblubber Maxmeat jellogore, offered under thin greaseworms on a Flandersfield halbersmack, and Sharon sucking up the yellow treaclepus.

Pages and pages of it. Perhaps I’m just old, but give me safe, suburban Canberra.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

18%

2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction