Delicious descriptions: John Hughes on Newcastle

Recently, Bill (the Australian Legend) commented on a post of mine that reviewers rarely talk about place or “think geographically”. I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I think, partly, he wants us to discuss whether we think what we are reading accurately depicts place.

Now, I love descriptions of place, for all sorts of reasons, but particularly for the tone they convey, and for the way authors use place to describe character or to underpin their themes etc. Place in literature was the prime topic of a book I reviewed last year, Chrystopher J. Spicer’s Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature. It offers a fascinating approach to studying place in literature. In a recent Delicious Descriptions, I briefly looked at Sara Dowse’s use of place in her novel, West Block, and in another I commented on place in Gay Lynch’s novel, Unsettled. Pure accuracy, you’ll have seen, is not something I focus on.

I have heard writers talk about place many times. It’s a popular topic at writers festivals. At the inaugural Yarra Valley Writers Festival, Karen Viggers (The orchardist’s daughter) and Alice Robinson (Anchor Point) spoke about it. Viggers said she uses place to orient herself as a writer, and then to explore our connections and help us reengage with the natural world and each other. The challenge, she said, is to bring readers in and engage them with ideas they may find uncomfortable. Robinson said that Anchor Point was based on landscape she grew up in. She was interested in how we have engaged with the landscape, and have failed to care for it.

For some authors, getting place right can be critical, more to avoid reader criticism, than because absolute accuracy is that important to them. They don’t want their novels to be de-railed by pickiness about, for example, whether the church was on this corner or that (which I have heard readers do!)

Anyhow, all this is to say that I think place can be very important in novels for a raft of reasons, and that I enjoy reading about place for the said same raft of reasons. John Hughes’ The dogs, while being about “big” human issues, is also very much set in place. Mostly this is Newcastle, and its environs, though there are vivid scenes in Europe, particularly Venice, and Surfers Paradise. Here, though, I’m focusing on Newcastle (which, I might add, has been written about by many authors, including Dymphna Cusack, Elizabeth Harrower, Marion Halligan, and Michael Sala).

Newcastle is probably best known to Australians as an industrial town, but, it is also a coastal city near beautiful beaches. Hughes draws on these beaches. At the end of Part 2 of the novel, protagonist Michael spends a day at a beach just north of Newcastle with his potential new love interest Catherine, and in Part 3, he and his son Leo spend a glorious day together, which takes in a Newcastle beach.

Here is an excerpt from the day with Catherine:

A cold sea breeze hit us when we got out of the car. There was no one on the beach. Catherine tied a scarf around her neck and pulled her shawl in tight around her shoulders. It was just like her to come so prepared. I, on the other hand, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It certainly cleared my head. We took our shoes and socks off and left them in the car, then walked down the small grassed slope. On the soft sand Catherine displayed for me the best way to walk without sinking. … But I’m a sinker by nature …

It’s all rather blissful, particularly when Catherine hikes up her skirt to paddle:

It was quite a sight, all that bare leg, and it made me lightheaded myself, my mind no longer on the surroundings, which were spectacular. When I looked up, the sky seemed higher somehow, like someone had lifted the roof.

There’s hope here for a new beginning for both these lonely people, but, soon after

At the top of the beach, in the soft dry sand she finds a small dune which offers some protection from the wind, which has picked up again while we’ve been walking. A few clouds have appeared in the sky and the sun moves in and out behind them, as if in the game of hide and seek.

Not long after this, their happy moment takes a downturn … This could be many beaches, I suppose, but the description of place seems accurate to me, and Hughes uses it to such great effect.

Then, in Part 3 comes our lovely father-son day in which this somewhat estranged pair plan to do something deadly serious – but first, there is the day together. It starts with Michael picking up Leo from Newcastle airport, and Leo taking the wheel:

I’m enjoying the world from the passenger seat and anticipating the view from the top of the bridge, which always takes my breath away even though I’ve seen it a million times. Above us, pens dipped in blue-black ink, Pacific swifts (on winter sabbatical from Siberia!) write their signatures on the sky and blink their wings. They leave no mark except in recollection, hurled into space with sudden changes of direction, hairpin turns, rapid wing-glides, accelerations, gear shifts. I’d like to point them out to Leo but I don’t want to distract him as he glides into the overtaking lane …

I don’t know this part of Newcastle, but what an evocative description. It made me stop my reading and think – the way nature and machine are seamlessly linked, and the bird metaphor for life with “sudden changes of direction, hairpin turns …”.

This book is full of delicious descriptions like these, descriptions which read so well on the surface, but which suggest so much more in terms of mood and meaning, whether we specifically notice it or not.

John Hughes, The dogs, Perth, Upswell, 2021

10 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: John Hughes on Newcastle

  1. A nice use of landscape/descriptive scenery to alert readers to what is going on with the characters, Sue. I suspect the writer would have to be careful not to overdo this technique or it could come across a bit contrived.
    I have this book on reserve at the library here, will be interested to see how I find it.

    • Yes, they would, Sue. In this case I don’t think you really notice it on the first read but it must I think subtly lead you into certain feelings and expectations I think. I remembered enjoying all the descriptions and when I went looking for some and read them again, it all became clear.

  2. I love descriptions of the landscape, often with Scottish authors the place becomes as important as the characters, and I must admit that when it’s a location that I know then it does add a lot to my reading experience.

  3. I’m currently reading a book set in Scotland, and in lieu of description, the author tend to give all the Scottish names of this hill and that bit of ground. It’s rather frustrating because I can’t picture any of it.

    • Oh my, that would frustrate me, partly because of picturing it but mainly because of feeling it. I think I respond more emotionally than usually to landscape descriptions, which, I’ve just thought, is probably why exactness doesn’t worry me!

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