Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels set in Canberra
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.
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.