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Heather Rose, Bruny (#BookReview)

April 24, 2020

Book coverIf The yield (my review) was Tara June Winch’s passion project, I’d say Bruny is Heather Rose’s. It’s a very different book to her previous novel The museum of modern love (my review). Not only is it a strongly plot-driven novel, but it’s about something that is clearly dear to her heart, the future of Tasmania and, perhaps more generally, of liberal democracy.

Bruny could be described as a genre-bender. Part political thriller, part romance, verging even towards dystopian fiction, the novel tracks the fate of a bridge being built to join the main island of Tasmania with Bruny Island. In it, New York-based UN conflict resolution specialist, and twin sister of Tasmania’s premier, Astrid Coleman returns home at the behest of her twin brother to ensure that the bridge is completed on time after a bomb had nearly destroyed it. It’s not long, however, before she smells a rat. Just what that rat is, who’s behind it and why, is what keeps us turning the pages.

Now, as this is a plot-driven book – and one underpinned by political intrigue – I am fearful of giving too much away. However, fortunately, it’s not all plot, because the plot serves a purpose. The book reminds me in a way – though I’m not sure Rose will appreciate this – of Richard Flanagan’s The unknown terrorist (which I read long before blogging.) It too is a strongly plot-driven novel from a literary fiction author, and it too was inspired by a clearly passionate political concern. In Flanagan’s case it was how government and the media were handling the terrorism threat, engendering fear and consequently facilitating the scapegoating of people with little or no evidence.

Anyhow, back to Bruny. In the Bruny teaser on her website, Rose describes her book as a “political thriller”, “satire”, “love story”, and “family saga”, which, fundamentally, is questioning the “new world order”. Now, Rose has done something clever, I think, in setting her book just into the future. The American president isn’t named in the novel, but the description Rose provides leaves us in no doubt as to the timing of her novel, which would be around 2022. Astrid says:

‘Right now, America has an isolationist, neo-conservative president who doesn’t believe in American strength being used to stabilise the world. Quite the opposite. He considers it the chief weapon to exert dominance. And he’s in his second term. He’s turned his back on American’s allies because he doesn’t believe in that framework. Now we’re seeing the fallout of that approach and it’s crippling international relations, the global economy, the American economy.’

I say the dating is clever because, being just into the future, we can’t say “that didn’t happen”, but Rose can say “this is what might happen”. Readers, of course, have to decide for themselves whether they agree that what Rose proposes could happen, but I must say she was uncomfortably prescient about cruise ships!

It made the whole front page of the newspaper. BIO-SCANDAL! The whole fiasco of cruise ships and no policing, no ability to quarantine sick passengers and get medical help to them on board. The risk of an epidemic, if they were allowed into our hospitals.

So, what are Rose’s concerns? She is concerned that, with America withdrawing from the field, another power – in this case, China – can step in. She sets up a Macchiavellian plot based on this supposition, but this is as far as I’ll go about that. She is concerned more broadly about the increasing conservatism of governments, on their focus on money (“jobs and growth”) over people (“health and education”). She is worried that unimpeded progress – which is already a concern in Tasmania – will be detrimental to community, to society. She sees the destruction of the arts as weakening our culture and laying us open to outside influence. Government official Edward tells Astrid:

‘ … This government, at a state and a federal level, they’ve hammered the arts for years. They’ve eviscerated it … Every theatre company or film production company in this country – unless it’s making a Marvel movie – has been defunded. That’s our cultural expression, and if we don’t have that, it weakens everything. It’s a bit like leaching. We’re wilting with cultural anaemia…’

Ok, so now you might be thinking this is a preachy novel – as political novels can be – and it is to a degree. There are times when the explanations threaten to take over, but Rose manages not to bog it down too much. The story gradually builds up pace, with most of the messages carried through dialogue. Being told first person helps, too, because we don’t have an omniscient third person telling us like it is, but Astrid sharing her thoughts, concerns, and ponderings with us. Is there something, though, that she’s not telling us? How reliable is she? That little niggle also keeps us reading.

And then there are the characters. Astrid’s family is not exactly your typical one. Her endearing but stroke-affected father says little except to – rather perspicaciously – quote Shakespeare at his family; her prickly mother has terminal cancer; and her half-sister, Max, is the Labor leader of the opposition. Her brother, as I’ve already said, is the state premier, while his wife Stephanie has a warmth and intelligence that belies her supportive political wife demeanour. There is also a love interest for 54-year-old divorced Astrid down there on Bruny! The relationships between all these characters not only move the story and ideas on, but they also provide a little human respite from the machinations. Respite also comes from little touches of humour, much of it drawing from Rose’s deep understanding of Tasmania and Tasmanians. You have to laugh, for example, at the plethora of activist groups, like the Pythonesque Bruny Friends Group, Bruny in Action, and the Bruny Progress Society!

Concluding the above-mentioned Bruny teaser, Rose says “I hope you are entertained by this novel; I hope that you are intrigued by it; and I hope that it also makes you think?” She achieves all of this. The plot and the strongly delineated characters, as befits her satire, make it both intriguing and entertaining to read, while the politics certainly make you think. The Chinese government – together with neo-conservative governments – are the villains of the piece. This makes for uncomfortable reading, and not just because of the truth of the issue but because naming villains this way, as we know, can lead to wrong and dangerous assumptions. The Chinese government is not all Chinese people, just like a certain American president does not stand for all Americans. It behoves thinking readers to make that distinction.

And finally, there’s the ending. Without giving it away, I will say that there’s a certain question of the ends justifying the means, of those believing they are right taking matters into their own hands. It makes you think! Bruny, then, is more than an engaging political thriller. It is a book intended to challenge us to think about the world we are making for ourselves, and to consider what we can do about it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) enjoyed the novel; Bill (The Australian Legend) also enjoyed it, with some reservations.

Challenge logoHeather Rose
Bruny
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2019
ISBN: 9781760875169
408pp.

38 Comments leave one →
  1. Rod Callaghan permalink
    April 24, 2020 4:57 pm

    Beg to differ. “The Museum of Modern Love” is a particular favourite, absolutely loved it.
    But’ “Bruny” was a terrible disappointment: it relied upon far too many convenient coincidences and, while it gives us some extraordinarily beautiful writing bringing out the beauty and intrinsic attraction of the island, it just didn’t come together for me.

    • April 24, 2020 5:04 pm

      I understand that Rod – and thanks very much for sharing your perspective. I think it’s a book – like, dare I say again, Flanagan’s The unknown terrorist – that will engender diverse responses depending on how you read or asses it. I agree that it’s not The museum of modern love, and is not my favourite type of book, but I tried to read (and review it) in terms of the sort of book I thought it was. If that makes sense!

      You are right about the beauty of its writing about Tasmania and Bruny. I didn’t really mention that as the review was getting too long! So, thanks for adding that too.

  2. April 24, 2020 4:57 pm

    Thanks for the mention, but I had reservations too, mainly about the representation of the Chinese. You allude to the same thing, I think, when you mention “wrong and dangerous assumptions”.
    The more I reflect on it, the more I think that readers who came to Rose as a LitFic author may be disappointed, (as we were with The Unknown Terrorist).

    • April 24, 2020 5:11 pm

      Yes, that’s what I was alluding to, Lisa. It made me uncomfortable but I think we both understand why she did it. It’s brave I think. Whether it’s wise or foolish bravery is the other question?

      As for the literary fiction point, yes, exactly. I think the important thing is to read a book in terms of what it is, not in terms of what we’d like it to be? However, I expect this review to receive a more mixed bunch of comments than usual for that reason.

      • April 24, 2020 5:42 pm

        You’re right, of course, about reading what is rather than what we’d like it to be, though I know I wasn’t the only one expecting a certain kind of follow-up novel and were a bit disappointed when it wasn’t like that. In general I admire authors who venture into something new. Lloyd Jones comes to mind, but I don’t think he’s ever strayed into commercial fiction…

        • April 24, 2020 7:17 pm

          Fair enough Lisa. Interestingly Tara June Winch has intimated she might venture into something more commercial next time? It will be interesting to see what she actually does do.

          I think a lot of literary writers have done their commercial books, including Margaret Atwood. I also like to quote her and Peter Carey, in the way you’ve named Lloyd Jones, as writers who venture into new territory.

        • April 25, 2020 10:26 am

          Natasha Lester is an interesting one. (Theresa has just reviewed her latest book). Lester’s first novel was LitFic and then (LOL I’m guessing after a trip to Paris) the novels took a more commercial turn, and I stopped reading them while obviously other readers lapped them up and wanted more. (I say this because of the rate of new novels. She must have contracts with her publishers that LitFic authors would kill for.) Good luck to her, I say!

        • April 25, 2020 10:42 am

          Yes, I saw Theresa’s post. I have been seeing all her books come through the AWW Challenge and have been intrigued, but have yet to read her. I commented on Theresa’s post about the covers.

    • Jim KABLE permalink
      April 24, 2020 5:12 pm

      Exactly right in my opinion, too, re “The Chinese” … but prepared to see it as a device (as with John MARSDEN’s invader occupiers in Tomorrow When the War Began series – for which he, too copped some serious flak I seem to recall – though unless they had arrived à la the usual US “aliens from outer space” route I was unsure how otherwise he might have handled it…

      • April 24, 2020 5:15 pm

        Yes, good point re Marsden Jim. I remember that flak too. It’s tricky for authors isn’t it when they want to explore certain topics and issues. The SF route is one way, or allegory, like Animal Farm, but those approaches have their limitations too don’t they?

  3. Jim KABLE permalink
    April 24, 2020 5:06 pm

    Quite frankly WG If you are not being given a percentage of the publisher’s share of book sales which take place within 12 hours of your reviews appearing then they are being decidedly unfair. Your reviews as much as those of Jonathan Shaw are responsible for half my purchases (on line – immediate)! Looking forward to reading Heather Rose’s Bruny – thanks to your own gripping/enticing review – yet again!!!

    • April 24, 2020 5:13 pm

      LOL, Jim. But, oh the pressure! However, I am really glad that my reviews encourage you to buy books. This one is a different sort of book in many ways to my usual fare so I’ll be interested to see what you think.

  4. April 24, 2020 5:31 pm

    I have just bought it from Audible ! – and the really good news is that it’s narrated by Zoe Carides ! Ordinary Australian voice; no slathering on of ockerism.
    I’m rapt ! Your damned reviews are going to send me to the poorhouse, ST ! [grin]

    • April 24, 2020 5:33 pm

      Haha M-R, there are worse ways to go to the poorhouse I think! I hope you enjoy it. I think you’ll appreciate the politics. I can imagine Zoe Carides will read it well.

      • April 25, 2020 7:38 am

        Listened for an hour or so last night: am enjoying it greatly ! Thank-you, ST !

        • April 25, 2020 10:04 am

          Excellent M-R.

        • April 26, 2020 9:35 pm

          DAMN YOU ! I have done NOTHING today except listen to the rest of “Bruny”. I couldn’t even bloody knit ! SUPER book; super narration by Zoe. And yes, the politics speak to me very clearly.
          On to another of her books then ..

        • April 26, 2020 10:31 pm

          Woo hoo, is all I can say.

  5. Gay Lynch permalink
    April 24, 2020 7:25 pm

    I loved it. The speculation, the feminism; can’t quite dismiss it!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • April 24, 2020 7:28 pm

      Thanks Gay … that’s great to here. I didn’t talk about the feminism issue but it is an important part of the novel that there are strong women who aren’t scared to exert their power, isn’t it?

  6. April 24, 2020 7:57 pm

    This sounds like a better on that I would like. I love political based stories. Based in the quotation and your commentary and think that I agree with the author’s assessment of international relations. This also sounds like it is smartly done.

    • April 24, 2020 8:19 pm

      Thanks Brian … you probably would agree with her assessment, and I think it is smartly done. I like that description. These sorts of politically-charged books aren’t easy I think.

  7. April 25, 2020 9:10 am

    This is another one that has been sitting on my shelves intimidating me!

  8. April 25, 2020 4:45 pm

    I enjoyed this one, too, although I understand the various concerns raised. I thought it would be a good one for book clubs—lots to talk about.

    • April 25, 2020 4:52 pm

      Yes, as you probably realise, Amanda, I understand the concerns too. I think it does depend on “how” you read the novel, if that makes sense.

      And, I was just thinking that it would be great to do with a reading group because there are things you can’t talk about in a review – endings/resolutions for example – that you can in a reading group.

  9. April 25, 2020 7:26 pm

    A good review, WG. Heather Rose certainly presses a lot of Tasmanian buttons in this book, presses them hard, I think, with frustration and even anger. It is no The Museum of Love, which was a beautiful and unusual novel, but I think her work has shown a variety of subjects and styles since her first book.

    >

    • April 25, 2020 7:52 pm

      Thanks Ian. It certainly felt like she knows Tasmania well,and is passionate about it.

      I’d love to read some of her previous books.

  10. April 25, 2020 8:45 pm

    Perhaps authors shouldn’t write books as good as The Museum of Modern Love if they’re just going to revert to (well-written) general fiction. As to the book’s premise, I disagree strongly with Lisa because I don’t think people realise just how potent state owned corporations can be when competing with ordinary old capitalist corporations.

    • April 25, 2020 9:41 pm

      Oh that’s a depressing idea Bill about what authors should or shouldn’t write! I think it’s better that we applaud authors for following their passion and writing what moves them in the best way they think they can get their message across? We don’t have to love it all – though I did get a lot out of this book – but we should support them rather than put them in chains?

      As for disagreeing with Lisa, I think I’m losing the train of thought now!

      • April 25, 2020 9:59 pm

        Ah, you are referring to Lisa’s uncertainty about being critical of Chinese investment? I must say I am concerned – for the reason you give.

  11. April 27, 2020 9:55 am

    This book just arrived in the mail on Friday from a Queensland friend of ours. I was surprised. She said I have to read it. I’ve heard so many reviews of this book as it’s very popular here in Tassie as you can imagine. Some people have loved it and others not so much. I think this has been moved to the top of my pile and I need to see what all the fuss is about. I appreciated this review as I wasn’t sure of the content that is making people here talk about it so much so your review offered clarification. At least I can’t say I don’t have enough time to begin this. Thanks for such a wonderful review ( as always 💕😊💕)

    • April 27, 2020 2:09 pm

      Thanks vary much Pam. Love that your copy has come from Queensland. I look forward to your thoughts.

  12. Bryce permalink
    April 28, 2020 8:56 am

    Thank you for your perceptive review, which brought back the fun I had in reading this novel. Sure, there’s plenty of advocacy and exposition, but the thrilling plot and strong characters make it easy to digest. In The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose writes like an angel, while in Bruny she comes down to earth. I loved both novels.

    • April 28, 2020 9:52 am

      Oh, great distinction between the two Bryce. I was initially uncertain about this one because while I don’t read reviews before I read books, I had caught comments and they were very mixed, suggesting it was “light”. It might be plot-driven, but it has plenty to discuss and think about.

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  1. Speculative Fiction Round Up: April 2020 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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