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Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels set in Canberra

March 9, 2015
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The time will come, I’m sure, when I start repeating myself in my Monday Musings posts. This week’s post comes perilously close. I’ve written before about Canberra’s centenary publications (The invisible thread and the Meanjin Canberra issue), and I’ve written about Capital women and men poets, and women and men novelists*, but I haven’t specifically written about books set in Canberra. So today, Canberra Day, that’s what I’m going to do. Canberra Day, for those of you who don’t know, celebrates the official naming of Canberra on 12 March, 1913.

Canberra, as you’ll know if you’ve been reading my blog, boasts many writers (past and present). However, those writers have often not written about or set their novels in Canberra – and, sometimes, writers who don’t come from here, have. Consequently, this post’s focus is the works, not their creators’ origin. As always, I’m presenting a small selection – and the books will be presented in chronological order of their setting (as best as I can determine that).

  • M Barnard Eldershaw’s Plaque with laurel (1937) is believed to be the first novel set in Canberra. Unfortunately, I’ve not read this book but historian Patricia Clarke wrote about it in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012, the 75th anniversary of its publication. A satirical novel about Australia’s literary scene, it is about a writers’ conference held in “inscrutable” Canberra and is apparently not at all complimentary about what was then barely a city. One character apparently describes living there (here) as “just awful”. Clarke sees it as an “invaluable historical record of Canberra in the 1930s”. I really must read it, and try not to let my patriotic blood boil!
  • Frank Moorhouse’s Cold light (2012, my review) spans around two and half decades, from 1950 to 1973. The last book in the Edith trilogy, it completes the story of Edith’s career which started in Europe in the League of Nations and ended in Canberra during some of the city’s most formative decades. These were the years when, for example, Lake Burley Griffin was created after much dispute. One of Edith’s first jobs when she arrives in Canberra is to work as a town planner, and Moorhouse gorgeously chronicles the discussions and controversies that raged at the time about Canberra as a place to live and work. I loved Edith’s desire to see Canberra as a “social laboratory”, which would “try out all sorts of ideas for good living”, and as a “place for citizens to ask questions”. I think Edith would love to see today’s Canberra!
  • Andrew Croome’s Document Z (2008, my review) is set in the mid-1950s and tells the story of Canberra’s most famous spies, the Petrovs. Croome describes the Canberra of those days, the suburbs and shops of the inner South, with an authenticity that suggests thorough research. Like Moorhouse’s novel it’s a good example of historical fiction, which I see as a work that combines an interesting story with well-researched depiction of the times in which it is set.
  • Sara Dowse’s West block: the hidden world of Canberra’s mandarins (1983) is set in the 1970s in West Block which is one of Canberra’s early buildings housing public service functions, and was, for some time, the home of the Prime Minister’s Department. This book is about the machinations of the bureaucracy, about the public servants who work behind the ministers to create and manage the policies the ministers want. My reading group loved it when we read it in the 1980s, because it rang true to the world we knew.
  • Fog sculture, National Gallery of Australia

    Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog sculpture rising over Dadang Christanto’s Heads from the North

    Dorothy Johnston’s The house at no. 10 (2005, my review) is set in the early 1990s, on the cusp of the legalisation of the sex industry in Canberra. This Canberra is the Canberra of suburbs and neighbours, of love and betrayal. It could almost be set in any city, except that Johnston knows Canberra and uses its particular history and features – such as the lake to divide the two aspects of the main character’s life as a mother and sex-worker – to ground the work in a particular place and time while also exploring universal themes.

  • Marion Halligan’s The fog garden (2001) is set around the time it was written. It is her novel about coming to terms with the loss of a much-loved partner. It’s also a clever book about the art of fiction – about finding the truth in the nexus between fact and fiction. It has an autobiographical element, but “Clare is not me” she says. The title is metaphorical, describing the “fog” that comes with grief, but also drawing from the wonderful fog garden at Canberra’s National Gallery. This is just one of several books that Halligan has set in Canberra.
  • Kel Robertson’s Smoke and mirrors (2010) became, by popular vote, the ACT’s book in the 2012 National Year of Reading collection of eight books designed to “articulate the Australian experience – remote, regional, suburban and metropolitan”. I haven’t read this, though Mr Gums has, but I was intrigued that a crime novel was chosen by Canberrans to represent us. Then again, perhaps it’s alright, as the murders being investigated take place at a writers’ retreat! (Maybe Robertson had read Plaque with laurel!) Also, the murders are political, relating to an about-to-be-published memoir of a government minister that is suspected to reveal CIA involvement in Gough Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975.

Have you noticed how many of the novels have politics at their core? That’s not surprising, given the sort of city we are, but I also noticed that most of the novels are fully or mainly set south of the lake (or where the lake ended up being). This is interesting, particularly given the CBD is north of the lake, but maybe it reflects my first point – parliament house, the centre of politics, is located in the south!

For a more extensive list of novels set in Canberra, check out the blog Dinner at Caphs, which documents blogger Dani’s year of reading and reviewing Canberra-set novels.

* I should probably use the adjectives “female” and “male” here, and I did in the title of one of those posts, but for some reason it just doesn’t sound right to me.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2015 3:35 am

    A nice list of interesting sounding books. I have to say though your photo of the fog sculpture is totally creepy.

    • March 10, 2015 8:20 am

      It does have a creepy feel – though I think of it as sobering – since the Heads were installed. This is right by the restaurant and the fog always goes at 12.30pm so it’s pretty emotive.

  2. March 10, 2015 6:07 am

    A book from 1952: The Right Honourable Corpse by Max Murray. Detective fiction set here when (old) Parliament House and Canberra were surrounded by paddocks. I love its evocation of early Canberra.

    • March 10, 2015 8:25 am

      Oh thanks Lesley, I’ve never even heard of that one, let alone read it. Again, a political setting!

  3. March 10, 2015 7:54 am

    I’ve always loved the fog garden at the national library, but never associated it Marion Halligan’s book! Actually I’m not sure that I ever knew the name of the sculpture. I haven’t read any of those books (for shame). The book I first thought of was Joe Cinque’s Consolation- non-fiction yes, but it does read like a novel.

    • March 10, 2015 8:30 am

      That’s fair enough not to make the connection, because it’s not focused on in the book but I like the quiet allusion. The sculpture is just called Fog or Fog Sculpture I think and it is in the Sculpture Garden of the Gallery.

      Glad you mentioned Joe Cinque, even if I was focussing on novels. Perhaps one day I could do non-fiction though probably most of those, except for Joe, would end up being political – biographies, political analyses, etc.

  4. March 10, 2015 9:36 am

    Thanks so much for including me, WG!
    It’s interesting that, after ‘Plaque with Laurel’ (which is about people visiting, rather than living in Canberra) there is a gap of 16 years before TAG Hungerford’s ‘Riverslake, set in a hostel, and also mainly about itinerants, then a further long gap before Robert Mackiln’s ‘The Paper Castle’, 1973. Blanche D’Alpuget’s ‘Turtle Beach, 1981, ushered in a decade in which prose fiction at last began to flower.

    • March 10, 2015 9:42 am

      Always a pleasure to include you Dorothy. I haven’t read any TAG Hungerford, but as one who started her Canberra career in a hostel, I need to add his book to my list. Thanks for all your suggestions. As I’ve said before, I love readers to bring their own suggestions to these posts. Some I know, but there are always great surprises too.

  5. March 10, 2015 1:13 pm

    And my thanks, too, WG, for the mention of West Block. Thanks also to Dorothy J for the mention of Riverslake (think I’ve got the title right), the Hungerford book, and Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach. Another novel, set in 50s Canberra, or around that time, is Francesca Rendle-Short’s Imago. Dorothy’s Maralinga, My Love, also has a strong Canberra presence, as well as her Sandra Mahoney books. When you think of it, Canberra has had a rich fictional representation, and it seems there’s an exponential increase as the city gets bigger and writers multiply.

    • March 10, 2015 1:21 pm

      Thanks Sara for adding to the list … I must read Maralinga and Imago. And, I wouldn’t mind reading West block again, actually. It’s been so long. As for Canberra’s fictional representation, yes, when you start digging, you find that there are more than you’d realised. Dani has a good list, but some of those mentioned in the responses aren’t on it. I hope she adds them to it, even though she’s not writing for that blog much these days.

      • March 10, 2015 1:48 pm

        And since you’re going to start digging I should also mention Digging.

        • March 10, 2015 3:48 pm

          Haha Sara … you should. Another one for my list. I do have Sapphires on my TBR pile here, but not Digging.

      • March 10, 2015 2:23 pm

        Don’t know what happened, but tried to reply from my iPhone and it was a dismal failure. Could be because I was taking the opportunity to mention my Digging in response to your intention to do some. It was a joke (well, partly), but nonetheless my sly egotism was punished ’cause it didn’t go through.

        • March 10, 2015 3:49 pm

          It did though – or did you try it again? Ah, I think it came through requiring moderation, possibly because it was from a different device, which maybe why it looked to you as though it didn’t go through?

        • March 10, 2015 8:46 pm

          Yes, I thought it hadn’t worked, so I did it again. So very complicated all this! Thanks for your patience, WG.

        • March 10, 2015 9:44 pm

          No, thank YOU Sara for hanging in there. I’d be so sorry if you gave up – some people do when the technology gets to them.

  6. ian darling permalink
    March 10, 2015 8:48 pm

    I wonder if any of these Australian political figures anticipated a figure like Tony Abbott! A dark book indeed….

  7. March 22, 2015 11:40 pm

    Hello Sue, I liked your review of “All of That” by Ognjen Spahić. I’ve translated a novel of his (Hansen’s Children), as well as a few shorter things, and thought you might be interested in hearing a bit more about modern Montenegrin and other ex-Yugoslav literature. Am I correct in understanding that you’re based in Canberra? I’m an ex-Canberran and will be visiting for two weeks in late April/ early May. Let me know if you’d like to meet up for coffee. Cheers, Will Firth, http://www.willfirth.de

    • March 23, 2015 8:22 am

      Hi Will, as you realise, I know pretty much nothing about this area but would love to meet you for a cuppa if we can make it work. I am away the first weekend in May but otherwise expect to be around. Please email me at wg1775@gmail.com

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