Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels set in Sydney
My life has been rather topsy-turvy in recent weeks. My aunt died on 30 October, as regular readers here know, which has necessitated two five-day trips to Sydney, not to mention other related work in between. Consequently, I haven’t had much time for reading or, even, for thinking about Monday Musings, but I have been thinking a little about Sydney … particularly since these trips have been to the part of Sydney in which I spent my teen and university years.
My family moved to Sydney in 1966, and it was from this time that my relationship with my aunt was really established, although I have many memories of her before that. Alison loved having two teen nieces in town to take out and show off her beloved Sydney to. And we loved having an aunt who was fun company and keen to take us out. It was she who taught us about Sydney’s history and culture. She took us to the Sydney Rocks area, long before it was cool, where she showed us old buildings like the Garrison Church. She took us to an early settlement re-enactment on historic Fort Denison (aka Pinchgut, or Mat-te-wan-ye, as it was to local Aboriginal people). And, being a beach lover, she took us frequently to Sydney’s famous beaches.
It suddenly occurred to me that one way I could honour my aunt would be to share some novels about her city, so that’s this week’s plan. I will list them in chronological order of their setting (not of when they were written). They are of course a very small selection of the books I’ve read, and an even smaller selection of those written about the place.
- Kate Grenville’s The secret river, despite the controversy it engendered, made a significant contribution to our understanding of Sydney’s origins, because Grenville, finding a dearth of detailed evidence, tried to imagine what may have happened at an individual level between the European immigrants/settlers and the indigenous people when those settlers “took up” land in the Sydney region. (Grenville followed her exploration of early Sydney in the other books in the trilogy, The lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill). I appreciate that Grenville’s novel is not “history”, but I liked her attempt to present a possible scenario of how things may have gone, and why.
- William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise (my review) is probably the least well-known of the books I’m listing here, but I’m including it not only because it’s one that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog, but because it’s set in the late nineteenth century, just prior to Australia’s Federation, during a time of social and political unrest when socialist ideas were being explored. It contains some gorgeous physical descriptions of Sydney in that time, as well as providing insight into contemporary intellectual debates about how to improve conditions for workers.
- Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (my review) captures Sydney at one of the most significant times in its life, physically speaking that is. Set in the late 1920s to early 1930s, it tells of the dispossession of working class people of their homes to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Funny, isn’t it, how so often it’s those who have the least resources who end up wearing the biggest costs of “progress”.
- Kylie Tennant’s Tell morning this is set in Sydney during World War 2. Tennant wrote several novels about Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s, but the first that I read was Tell morning this. I enjoyed it for the vivid picture Tennant paints of Sydney at a time when young women met American servicemen. She doesn’t pull any punches in her story of Rene who is jailed for living with one of these Americans, and of David who is also jailed, but for being a conscientious objector. The irony of this – of jailing those who were practising the freedoms we were apparently fighting for – may not be lost on contemporary audiences!
- Ruth Park’s The harp in the south tells the story of a poor working class family living in Sydney’s Surry Hills in the immediate post-war era. It’s a good example of the social realist novel – the sort of novel some criticise for being “too” documentary and not imaginative enough, but which, when well done, can starkly show what life is like for the have-nots, that is, for those whose hold on employment is tenuous, and for whom, therefore, survival can be a daily struggle. Harp’s picture of Surry Hills is warm and vivid, and remains popular today. As novelist Delia Falconer wrote in The Griffith Review, it “still bludgeons us about the heart”.
- Madeleine St John’s The women in black (my review) is set in the 1950s in a Sydney department store. Its characters tend to be middle-class, but they range from conservative suburban Australians through aspirational working women to educated European immigrants. All, though, face pressures – to do with acceptance, aspiration for improvement, and/or escaping stultifying expectations. St John’s book is more a comedy of manners, than Tennant and Park’s social realist approach, but nonetheless presents a thoughtful picture of a city in flux.
Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi is a young adult novel that is fast becoming a classic. Published in the early 1990s, it is set in what had become by then a well-established multicultural Sydney. Marchetta explores the tensions experienced by the children born of immigrant parents, as they negotiate the expectations of their parents’ culture and those of the culture into which they’ve been born. Marchetta also touches on class, unrealistic expectations, and the public-private school divide.
- Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel (my review) continues the theme of immigration, among other ideas, through the alternating stories of travel-writer Laura and Sri Lankan immigrant Ravi. De Kretser analyses from multiple angles, and for both characters, the idea that “geography is destiny”. She looks at the role of place in modern life: to what extent is it a physical construct, and what role does it play in a virtual world in which we travel by choice or necessity in order to find our lives? Sydney, Australia’s first settler city, seems a perfect place from which to base such exploration – for Kretser who has set her previous books in France, Sri Lanka and Melbourne.
These are just a few of the novels I’ve read that are set in Sydney. Other favourites include Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus, Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower (my review), and Patrick White’s The solid mandala, to name a few. You can find more ideas in Wikipedia’s list of novels set in Sydney (though interestingly not all of mine are there).
Reviewing my list, I see that each book explores Sydney at a time of change – social, cultural and/or economic. Perhaps that’s a fact that differentiates cities – they never stand still?
Do you have favourite books about a city that’s been significant to you?