Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels about objects

This weekend I went to the National Museum of Australia’s current visiting exhibition, A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum. The promo describes it thus: “Explore the history of humanity — how we have shaped the world, and how the world has shaped us — in this major exhibition. Witness compelling stories expressed through a beautiful collection of artefacts from across the globe.” It’s a beautiful, and, to be clichéd, thought-provoking exhibition. I expect I’ll visit it again.

Funerary stela, Egypt

Funerary stela, Egypt, 100BCE-100CE

The texts associated with the objects varied in the sorts of information they conveyed, depending of course, on the sort of object, and its purpose and meaning. I was particularly interested in those where the object has thrown light on our understanding of people’s lives and social structures. For example, the Egyptian funerary stela is inscribed in three scripts enabling it to be read by “multiple levels of Egyptian society”. That says something about the wish to communicate to all, doesn’t it? Another point the exhibition curators make is that objects have their own biography which may depart from their original role or purpose. They exemplify this by the very first object: an Egyptian mummy FOR x but when it was x-rayed was discovered to contain a male. Why the woman was replaced by a man at some time in the object’s history is a matter of conjecture, though they have some ideas.

Anyhow, all this made me think about novels which focus on an object – and I thought it would be a fun topic for a Monday Musings. It turned out not to be easy – though I suspect it would be easier if I decided to include crime fiction! Objects – weapons, serial killer trophies, and so on, aren’t hard to find there! But literary fiction? Hmm… However, here goes … and of course I’ve made it harder for myself because I am going to focus on Australian novels (listed in alphabetical order by author)

Geraldine Brooks’ People of the book: I read this book before I started blogging. It’s not my favourite Brooks’ novel but it does have an intriguing premise which matches the themes of the exhibition because in this novel Brooks tracks the history of the book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, the people who have owned and handled it through history, its impact on their lives and on history. Parallel to this story is a contemporary thread about the conservator whose job is to prepare the book for exhibition and who is anxious to retain (i.e. not restore away) its history. (I must say though that I’m with the readers who found conservator Hanna’s story the problematic part of this otherwise good read.)

Peter Carey Chemistry of tears bookcover

Peter Carey’s The chemistry of tears (my review):  This was the first book that popped into my head, the one, in fact, that inspired me to write this post. It’s hard to forget the father travelling to Germany to have an automaton made for his ailing son, and the grieving museum conservator given the project of reconstructing it a century later. (I hadn’t thought until now of the loose similarity with Brooks’ book!). The object plays multiple roles: it represents what a father will do for love of a child; it plays a role in the resolution of grief; and, it contains a clever little mystery/irony/message within itself.

Gary Crew’s Strange objects: I haven’t read this novel, a young adult crime novel which won a few awards including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 1991, I but decided to include it because its title, for a start, is a perfect fit. Here is the Wikipedia article‘s description of the book: “Using the framing device of a collection of papers made by a missing boy, Steven Messenger, it is a mystery story that explores the construction of history. When Steven discovers relics from the wreck of the Batavia while on a school camp, (a diary and a mummified hand with a gold ring on it, the two inside an iron pot), he investigates the media frenzy surrounding them …” Wikipedia states that this book was a response to Australia’s bicentenary which, as we Aussies know, brought about quite a revival of interest in exploring Australian history.

Sarah Kanake, Sing Fox to meSome other books in which objects feature, but not as strongly as those above, are Sarah Kanake’s Sing fox to me (my review) in which a Tasmanian Tiger pelt plays a major role in the way various characters manage grief, take agency, accommodate wildness, and Marcus Zusak’s The book thief (my review) in which books in general, starting with The gravedigger’s handbook, and words, in particular, become the focus of our young protagonist’s attempt to understand the Nazi-controlled world she finds herself in. Murray Bail’s The pages (my review) is also framed by an object, by a dead man’s papers (pages) containing his “philosophy”. In fact, when I started thinking about fiction which focuses on objects, the most common object turned out to be books or papers! Not really surprising, eh? But, to conclude my little perfunctory survey, I’ll go for something very different, a bridge. It features in one of my favourite Kate Grenville books, The idea of perfection. It’s at the centre of conflict in a country town, but it also becomes the means of bringing two lonely people together. (And it features on the cover of my edition!)

Have you read any books in which an object is central to the story and the meaning, in which it plays some role in explaining or resolving people’s feelings and lives? I’d love to hear about them – Aussie or non-Aussie of course.

Or, would you like to answer the question our ABC RN asked listeners in a competition related to the exhibition: What object has shaped your history — and why?

27 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels about objects

  1. Oh, it’s late, and I’m just off to bed, but here’s:
    Swords and Crowns and Rings by Ruth Park;
    The Poet’s Stairwell by Alan Gould; and
    The Solemn Lantern Maker by Merlinda Bobis

  2. My novel Child of the Twilight is concerned with the theft of a religious statue from a church in Rome. The disappearance of the statue is based on a true story; the effect of it on the characters in the novel is of my own imagining.

  3. The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is a charming tale about how a hat left behind in a restaurant by Francoise Mitterrand affects the lives of the people through whose hands it passes. It was the first book that came to my mind when I started reading your post, so I was glad you specified our comments could include non-Aussie. 😉

    • Thanks Debbie. My Monday musings on Australian literature are always Aussie-focussed of course but the questions at the end always open it up to any literature because I want everyone to be able to play!

      Yours sounds a perfect one … And funnily I was thinking as I wrote my post that there must be a hat story.

  4. Lord of the Rings! No one escapes the influence of the One Ring!

    I didn’t know the 100 objects exhibit was traveling. Very cool. I browsed through the book when it came out. Really fascinating.

  5. Hi Sue, you mentioned some of my favourite reads. The following two are also excellent reads about objects: Diary of a Bad Year by J M Coetzee and The Service of Clouds by Delia Falconer. This year’s Man Booker Prize could be awarded to Do Not Say we Have nothing by Madelein Thien. It is a book about the writing of “The Book of Records”; and boy is there many! The object that has shaped by history is the set of Newnes Pictorial Knowledge – Encyclopedias. Once when we moved house my husband had the audacity to give them to an opportunity shop. I had to buy them back.

    • Oh thanks Meg. Yes I was thinking about Coetzee, and that Falconer is a lovely book.

      Love your answer to the other question, the object and is biography! My parents bought back a children’s book of mine they once donated, not because they wished they hadn’t but because they serendipitously came across it and felt it had to be. I still have it. I’ve been trying to think of mine. It would probably be a particular edition of Pride and prejudice, my mum’s, but how predictable is that!?

  6. Have you ever read Claire Thomas’s novel Fugitive Blue, about a conservator working on a Renaissance painted panel, published by Allen & Unwin some years ago? A similar premise to People of the Book, in that a conservator’s life is explored along with the exploration of the object’s history, but to my mind a more enjoyable read (I agree with you re the Hanna story in the Brooks novel). And it is Australian. And further afield, my all time museum object novel, the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald novel, The Golden Child, set in the British Museum. Its portraits of the inner workings and characters of that august institution are guaranteed to have you laughing out loud!

  7. Interesting premise. I am now searching my brain. Cannot remember name of it at moment, I am too senior, but violins come into play. Have certainly changed the world. I remember a program around the millenium about the top 100 inventions of the past century in order of importance. I wracked my brain to try and guess no. 1. Turns out it was the printing press. So obvious once one knows the answer. I will be more aware now I am sure when looking at books around an object. A lottery ticket? My brain is beginning to work? Hmmm.

    • I like your ideas Pam. I was thinking that there are sure to be books focusing on a musical instrument. A friend has told me of a film, The red violin, which tracks its live over a few centuries.

      And surely there must be a lottery ticket story. Checkhov has done a short story, but there is sure to be a novel. Objects feature a lot in short stories I think – which makes sense. One of my first favourite short stories was de Maupassant’s The necklace.

  8. If ‘she’ can have Lord of the Rings, I can have Assimov’s I, Robot. Which leads me to (West) Australian Simon Haynes very funny Hal Spacejock and from there to Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter series about a great treadle powered wooden computer set in northern Victoria. And of course there’s The Magic Pudding,but after scanning the spines of all my books the nearest I can get to a serious answer is Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists which of course features an unusual map.

  9. On my ‘must read’ bucket list: The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester. The bucket list just got bigger with Lisa’s suggestions.

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