Tag Archives: Tilley’s

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

The Memory Room

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.”

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

11%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

The House at Number 10

Dorothy Johnston. The House at Number 10. Wakefield Press, 2005. ISBN 1862546835.

Sophie’s husband has left her, not for another woman—she could become reconciled to a single woman—but for the freedom to pursue many women. Having left the public service to raise her daughter Tamsin, Sophie now finds herself needing to find work to pay the rent on the flat in quiet, unquestioning Mrs B’s garden.

It is the early 1990s. The newly autonomous Legislative Assembly is contemplating legalising prostitution in the ACT, “the little [government] carving out its own agenda”. Some entrepreneurs are gambling on the outcome, setting up quiet brothels in anonymous suburban houses, taking advantage of the interregnum in the law which the police seem to be observing. Holding their breath and waiting.

I had been under the impression that Canberra was a leader in this area, perhaps pioneering this route to legalisation and control “and… what was ‘pioneer’ if not an old word, an ancient, if not honourable one?”, observes Sophie’s colleague. A little googling tells me that this wasn’t the case, that the prostitution debate was happening around this time in many of the Australian states and territories, some heading towards similar outcomes. Still, Canberra has a history of sensible, liberal approaches to these thorny issues. Treating its citizens like grown-ups in relation to things like drugs, fireworks, gay marriage, euthanasia. Not all of these decisions have stuck.

So, Sophie finds herself working as a prostitute in the weather-beaten house at Number 10 Andover Street. Each working day, she crosses the lake from her life in O’Connor as suburban mother, to the one she has chosen in Kingston. On the north side she can walk her daughter to pre-school and meet friends for drinks at Tilley’s. On the south side she buys lingerie and contemplates her relationship with John the Cyclist, and Jack with the fish tattoo. Sophie is determined to keep her two lives separate, the lake in between. Of course, they run in parallel, as she seeks the same thing in both: confidence, autonomy, self-sufficiency, perhaps also revenge. Sometimes they intersect.

The cover blurb for the edition I read talks about “the complex relationships people develop with the buildings they live and work in”. The side room, where Sophie works, both in its current state and in the one imagined by her architect friend Ann, is Sophie’s “silent ally” as she learns her trade. In the arm chair in the kitchen at Number 10 Sophie recuperates between customers, wanting “only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days”. These spaces, her garden flat, Mrs B’s garden and, later, the one at Number 10, are places of autonomy and self-discovery.

Sophie is, of course, discovered, and with a nightmare scenario before her, familiar places seem suddenly no longer safe:

The question Sophie kept coming back to was, Where will I go from here? The whole of Canberra seemed dangerous – not just Kingston, with its apartments round the shopping centre, couples young and rising in the world, Andover Street with its abandoned house, its backyard ready to be planted out for spring. Fyshwick and Mitchell, where the business future lay, seemed just as treacherous, as did the central triangle of parliament, family court and government offices, so clean and straight they might have passed from a design board to the air between kept trees – might have done this, been erected, without human intervention.

But places can be transformed, and they are often transformed through human intervention. The Griffins’ vision, not wholly realised, nevertheless leaves its mark on Canberra: “Ideals and visions remained, though turned into a dog’s leg broken in three places”. Mrs B remembers the transformation brought to Canberra by the flooding of the lake, and the transformation that had been made in her own life at that time. She, in turn, transforms the landscape in her garden from the “baked, unyielding Canberra suburban dirt”.

Looking at Number 10 from our vantage point of today, we know that it is a transformation that won’t stick. Brothels won’t be allowed in residential areas. Just as Sophie and her fellow workers, and Mrs B in the garden, have altered the place from what it was, so new changes will follow, both in the house at Number 10 and in those who pass through its rooms.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

25%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

The Apricot Colonel

Marion Halligan. The Apricot Colonel. Allen & Unwin 2006. ISBN 9781741147667.

Because I love my Kindle, I’m starting with books that Amazon will sell me. I am well aware that this is a short-term arrangement. Marion Halligan is one of the few authors that I’ve so far identified who has (a) set more than one book in Canberra and (b) more than one of those books available for Kindle. On the basis that I expect to return to Marion a few times throughout the year, I thought I’d start with The Apricot Colonel.

What a lovely place to start.

Despite my dinner at Caphs assertions, The Apricot Colonel has no scene at Caphs. It is the exception that proves the rule. It does, though, reference another of the key sites for Canberra literature (as my early reading has uncovered). All cool people in Canberra-set books shop at Paperchain.

Instead of Caphs, Cassandra gets her caffeine fix at Tilley’s. In my alternate life I am young and cosmopolitan and have a job in the arts (like an editor, maybe? Hadn’t really thought of that) and I live walking distance from Tilley’s, where I can be certain that one of my community of young and cosmopolitan friends will be any time I feel like walking in. Cassandra, it turns out, is living my alternate life.

When I got back from the coast I went down to Tilley’s. My local, I think of it. I often wander down there instead of brewing my own coffee. Or opening my own bottle. …it was pleasant enough, sitting on the pavement underneath the umbrellas. You can usually count on finding someone you know.

Perhaps this happens anywhere you’ve lived long enough. I’m not someone who has a vast circle of friends, but I can no longer leave my house without running into someone I know. Small-town syndrome? Tight-knit community? Old age? Cassandra opines that “There are times when Canberra seems like a village.”

The action in The Apricot Colonel takes place in 2003, in the aftermath of the bushfires. The drama of the fires is not part of Cassandra’s story, but its effects are there like a malevolent presence. Smoke lingers over the city, and displaced dogs…

…are finding the sounds to go with it, crying, calling… Refugees, I suppose, come here because where they live was burnt, and what might they have seen, many of their companions perished in the fires.

The other malevolence in the background is the build-up to Howard’s decision to join the US invasion of Iraq, which of course will create other refugees, also here because where they live was burnt.

The 2003 Canberra bushfires were a domestic event made national—even global—by their scale. For a short time at least, the rest of Australia heard the word Canberra as meaning something other than the seat of government. It is the site of people’s homes, and 500 of them had burned. I remember at the time the Hilltop Hoods had released their single Burn Down the Parliament, and felt moved to explain that the timing was coincidental that they had never wished these terrible events on Canberrans. As if by saying ‘Parliament’ you must obviously mean all of Canberra, because what else could there be?

And the national is domestic life when Cassandra attends a march against the invasion, and feels uplifted by the common purpose made manifest around her. In Canberra a moment can have national resonances, although Cassandra is wryly realistic about the extent of that influence:

A split second, my short sharp words, and such mobs of people had heard them and seen me. I imagined the prime minister thinking, by golly, she’s right. Yes.

What I think endears The Apricot Colonel to me is its fondly mundane depiction of Canberra, and I guess its closeness to how I feel. The familiar references to Tilley’s “…at the counter waiting as you do even when the place seems empty”. The passing references to postings (diplomatic, not internet). Depredations of possums on the fruit trees and foxes on the backyard chooks. Editing work on government annual reports. Government is part of Cassandra’s Canberra, but it’s not all of it.

Awards

Winner 2004: ACT Book of the Year Award.

Commended 2004: Fellowship of Australian Writer’s Christina Stead Award for Fiction.

Shortlisted: Best Book-South Pacific and South East Asia section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2004

Caphs count

0%

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Women Writers