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.”