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Delicious descriptions: Dymphna Cusack’s Sydney

May 10, 2015

I said in my recent review of Dymphna Cusacks’ debut novel Jungfrau that I’d share some of her descriptions of Sydney because her evocation of the colours, the light, the sounds and the scent of the city are just gorgeous. Sydney, as you probably know, is regarded as one of Australia’s most beautiful cities with its harbour, beaches and surrounding bush. I spent my high school and university years there and while I left it because I’m not a big city gal, I do appreciate its beauty and enjoyed a rush of recognition from Cusack’s depiction of it.

I grew up on the North Shore so my beaches were not the well known Bondi and Cronulla, but those around Palm Beach. Cusack’s characters spend a memorable weekend there, “paired up” in a way that disgusts our upright, religious Eve. Here is Cusack on the place:

The stone piazza glowed pale yellow in the sunlight  and the sea spread in a shining silver plaque under a cloudless sky. Below, the surf on Whale Beach rippled with the hue of chrysoprase, and the road to Palm Beach wound in a glowing golden thread along the top of the ridge.

Scarred and dark, the low coastline curved north along the open sea and westward to the shores of the Hawkesbury estuary. Intricate wooded hills receded to lose themselves in unsubstantial cloudlike stains against the sky.


Around them the jacaranda broke in a purplish shower, motionless, airy and unreal, as though all the bright morning was caught up in a fragile net of blossom.

Hmm … well, our characters are caught up in a fragile net. Terry loves Thea, but she dreams of someone else. Oswald wants Marc but she “pairs up” with John, in whom Eve is interested. A fragile net!

And here is a description of the city as Eve walks Thea home after Thea has confessed her predicament:

The palms swayed under the light like green fountains in the wind, and their shadows danced grotesquely on the walls of the Public Library.

Again, the description of beauty is undercut, reflecting the mood of the characters.

And finally, here is Thea, walking alone, and desperate about her predicament:

Never had the sea glowed with so pure a lustre—a perfect unbroken turquoise from the cliffs of Ben Buckler to the sandhills of Cronulla. Never had the great dome of the sky seemed so luminous, so tender, nor the earth quickened into such a riot of blossoming. The long waves curled against the rocks far below, impersonally, as they had done for thousands of years and would go on doing for thousands of years more. The trees, the grass and the flowers burst into new life, but everything was remote—outside her—beyond human feelings and passions. “Shut out—shut out—shut out of life—”

Throughout the novel the descriptions are gorgeous and evocative of the places they refer to but they also mostly, if not always, convey additional meaning – sometimes ironic, but often simply hinting at what is going on in the characters’ lives. In this last quote, the irony derives from descriptions of the onset of spring and of the permanence of the earth, just as Thea is most at risk of leaving it.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Meg permalink
    May 10, 2015 14:31

    They are wonderful descriptions, and she obviously loved the landscape. Her writing style is difficult to compare with another Australian writer. Though, Tim Winton’s writing is also very much in touch with nature and the land.

    • May 10, 2015 14:44

      Great point Meg … I really liked the way she wrote about place. You can see and feel it I think. She clearly knows and loves Sydney.

  2. May 12, 2015 05:41

    Jacarandas! One of the few things I miss about southern California are the jacaranda trees. There were a few neighborhoods where the street was lines with them and when they bloomed, gorgeous!

    I learned a new word, “chrysoprase.”

    Wonderful descriptions.

    • May 12, 2015 08:05

      Thanks Stefanie. Yes I miss jacarandas here too. Grew up with them in Qld and Sydney but it’s too cold here.

      • Glen Hunting permalink
        May 23, 2015 19:35

        There’s a jacaranda on the verge of where I live. And it makes a BLOODY MESS of my car when it’s within a 20 m radius of it!

        • May 23, 2015 22:09

          True, Glen, they do do that! But, you know what they say, no gain without pain!


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