Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on Canberra

In my recent post on Sara Dowse’s West Block, I ran out of time to share some quotes and thoughts on her depiction of Canberra and the heritage building, West Block. Soon after, I wrote a Delicious Descriptions on West Block, promising another one on Canberra – because, well, I can, and Canberra is my city.

Introducing that West Block post, I said that I love reading for its ability to take me to other places, lives and cultures – of course – but that there it is also special to read about one’s own place and life. It can reinforce our own impressions; it can enable us to just sit back and remember; and, most interestingly, it can encourage us to look at things from a different angle or perspective. West Block does all of these for me.


So, Canberra. As many of you know, it’s a planned city, designed from the start to be Australia’s federal capital. It was formally “named” in 1913, but, of course, the land it was built on had been occupied for over 20 thousand years before that by Indigenous people, including the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples whom we honour today. In colonial times, it had also been farming/grazing country. All of this is referenced in West Block, though it is the contemporary built and natural environment which take precedence in the descriptions because they are what directly impact the characters.

Early in the novel, Dowse addresses the creation of the city when describing old-school George Harland’s decision to move to Canberra from the “hell” of western Victoria, the hot, dry “grass, scrub, dusk”. It had been the same, he thinks, in Canberra, but

With effort and planning and the help of some mountain streams they had beaten it. Everyone planted, in a peculiarly catholic way: silver birches and liquidambers, poplars, willows and rowan-trees, mixed with all manner of eucalyptus and acacia; the claret ash and grevillea, banksia, oleander, jonquils and hyacinth, till the colours of spring splashed over the streets, and autumn cart such a brilliant shadows they could never forget how they came to be.

I suspect there’s an intimation here too of the “catholic” development of Canberra’s population, of its comprising all sorts of people who came to work in this government city. Most of us were transplanted from elsewhere, like the exotic shrubs and trees; few of us had a family history in the place to ground us. Nearly 50 years on that has changed dramatically, but it wasn’t so at the time West Block is set.

Harland’s chapter in the novel contains some of my favourite descriptions of the city. I loved the account of his walk to work, and the various references to Canberra’s paradoxical nature as a city of physical beauty which also lacked “animation”. Harland thinks of Canberra’s past in terms of the farms, the “fields of lucerne that in earlier times had grown on the river flats”. It’s his Canberra-born daughter who reminds him of those for whom it had really been home. She takes him to her favourite park, telling him:

When I first started coming here I had no idea where I was. I mean Corroboree Park. Well, there’s nothing unusual in that. We’ve taken their language just as we have their land, and everything else. To make use of it as we will. But then I found out that this is really where they came to meet, all the tribes of this region, I like to imagine, under this very tree.

The novel is not about Indigenous dispossession and politics, but this reference, along with mentions of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and of refugees, gently introduces the idea of all the people, in addition to Cassie’s women, whose needs were being ignored.

As well as its beautiful autumns, Canberra is known for crisp winters and clear, blue skies. There is a scene just after the new-style, more proactive bureaucrat, Henry Beeker, has been through a bruising IDC (interdepartmental committee) which had to prepare a joint submission to Cabinet on uranium development and the controversial Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. Games are played and deals done to get the relevant departments to “work out some of the differences” between their ministers. Beeker goes outside with Cassie:

Outside the ground was damp from the morning’s frost, melting now with the warmth of the midday sun. Their feet made soft squishes in the turf. The sky was an uncompromising blue. Clouds bumped into each other, as if they too were invigorated by the crisp winter air.

These descriptions – “melting”, “uncompromising”, “bumping together” – perfectly evoke the physical environment but surely also reflect what Beeker has just gone through?

I have focused on a few examples that particularly speak to the novel’s meaning, but I revelled in all its descriptions of this beautiful city I call home.

Do you love reading novels set in your place – and if so, please share some!

Sara Dowse, West Block (New Ed.), For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020.

Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on West Block

In my recent post on Sara Dowse’s West Block, I ran out of time to share some quotes and thoughts on her depiction of Canberra and the heritage building, West Block, in which the novel is set. I am remedying that now.

But, I’ll start by saying that, like most readers, I love reading because it takes me to other places, lives and cultures. Not only is this stimulating, but it helps me understand others more – and that can only be good. However, there is also something special about reading about one’s own place and life. Sometimes it reinforces our own impressions, sometimes it just enables us to sit back and remember, and sometimes it encourages us to look at our things from a different angle or perspective. Sara Dowse’s West Block, which is set in the city in which I’ve lived the majority of my adult life, does all of these for me.

When I say I’m going to remedy that now, I mean I’m going to partly remedy that now because I’ve decided – for my benefit if for no-one else’s – to make two posts, one on West Block and one on Canberra.

West Block

So, West Block – which features on both the original Penguin cover and the new For Pity Sake one. You can find a succinct history of the building on Architect and Heritage Consultant practice Lovell Chen’s site. West Block is part of what was the Parliament House Secretariat group of buildings designed in 1925 by the Chief Architect of the Commonwealth Department of Works and Railways, John Smith Murdoch. The central building was Provisional Parliament House (now Old Parliament House, since the completion of our current Parliament House in 1988). East Block was the other building. The architectural style was, says Lovell Chen, “Stripped Classical”, though changes, including an additional wing, were made to West Block over the next couple of decades. 

As I wrote in my post, West Block housed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Dowse describes the regular trips made by its inhabitants through some of the parliamentary rose gardens to Parliament House. Another point made by Dowse is that across the road from West Block were – and still are – the British and New Zealand High Commissions.

However, by the late 1970s when the novel is set, the building was 50 years old, and it was showing. Not only was Cassie’s Women’s Equality Branch (WEB) to be moved out of the Department, but Departmental head, Deasey, had “pulled a deal” to move his Department to another nearby building, so West Block could be demolished. Cassie is “appalled”, but no-one else seems to be:

They had no sense of history, these men.

West Block was being discarded, just like the WEB! (In the event, West Block has survived, but in what form is still unknown, though a boutique hotel is, controversially, the latest. Seems anomalous in the location, to me, but …)

I enjoyed the many descriptions of the building – of the light playing on the walls, of what could be seen out of the windows – but another issue related to the characters’ offices. As in most hierarchical organisations, where you are in a building says something about your status. So …

Economist Jonathan’s boss, Kenneth Olman

had one of the best rooms in West Block. Red silk drapes. Mahogany walls. On which he hung original Australian paintings, the kind that were bound to increase their value. A Whiteley. A Williams. An Olsen. Jonathan used to gaze at them during lulls, love his eyes from on to another, congratulating Olman on his taste and good sense.

We learn here of course, about the building, and about the characters of Olman and Jonathan.

Another senior bureaucrat, Harland, also had a good room.

a large, teak-panelled room with windows facing west and south. His desk was poised between them. He liked to turn in the swivel chair and, flexing his fingers, look down on the cars below, streaming along Commonwealth Avenue.

Facing west and south aren’t ideal, of course, but he did have a view of Commonwealth Avenue and those High Commissions I mentioned. However, the aspect meant that it was cool in the morning, and in the afternoon,

was filled with shadow.

And little else.

It formed part of the executive section, the refurbished front of West Block that faced the rear of Parliament House, and hid its own rather mangy tail. Despite certain luxurious touches – panelling, furniture, carpet, drapes – his office had all the persona of a monk’s cell.

Harland, we come to know, is a sober, reliable public servant – and his corner of West Block tells us that!

Can you guess where Cassie’s office is? On the “gloomy” side of the building, albeit the wind does blow in “wattle smells from Yarralumla and the embassies”. This building, Dowse conveys, was old and had no air-conditioning. It was cold in winter, but, on the plus side, they could open windows! As for Cassie’s interior decoration?

Under Rita’s supervision, the Women’s Equality Branch had dressed Cassie’s wall, with posters left over from International Women’s Year.

These are just a few examples of how Dowse describes the building, and uses it to evoke the characters of its people and their relationships. You don’t have to know West Block – which I have never entered – to enjoy Dowse’s writing about it. It lives – we have cold and sun, we have shadows and floral scents, we have views and some old building idiosyncrasies – and it acts on its occupants.

Have you loved novels in which buildings are quintessential?

Sara Dowse, West Block (New Ed.), For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020.

Sara Dowse, West Block (#BookReview)

The decision to republish, last year, Sara Dowse’s pioneering 1983 novel, West Block, was prescient. Think about this. In last weekend’s The Saturday Paper (14 August 2021), journalist Karen Middleton wrote about an issue involving the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. In her article, she shares some comments made about this Department by law professor Anne Twomey. Twomey, Middleton writes, called

the department “disorganised, shambolic and disrespectful of the legal process”.

“In days gone by, the department was full of extremely competent people – the traditional mandarins,” she says. “Look what’s coming out of it now.”

Now, this is the Department Sara Dowse worked in during the 1970s. It was housed in a wonderful old Canberra building called West Block, and it’s this building, and Dowse’s work there, which inspired her eponymous novel. I read it back in the 1980s, and loved it, but have always wanted to read it again. How would it stack up – as a novel, and as a document about Canberra and the public service – decades later? Having now reread it, I think it stacks up very well, and clearly so did For Pity Sake Publishing.

This new edition is prefaced by an Author’s Note, in which Dowse provides a background to the novel, including her career trajectory which inspired it. Dowse headed up the Whitlam government’s new Women’s Affairs Section, from 1974 to 1977. Dowse resigned partly in protest at the section’s removal from the Department by the Fraser Government, but partly also because what she really wanted to do was write.

But, what to write about? She was American-born, living in Australia at a time when Australian women’s writing was flowering – with Australian stories. Although she’d been in Australia since 1958, it was her experience working in West Block, that gave her such a story:

The building itself galvanised me. The minute I walked into it, I wanted to write its story, but now that I was in a position to, I was up against the prejudice against Canberra, most particularly, Canberra’s public service.

As a Canberran and a public servant myself – albeit a librarian/archivist rather than a bureaucrat – I know whereof she speaks.

‘Nuff said, so I’ll return to my opening description of the novel as “pioneering”. Some of you may have wondered about that call. First, few novels had been set, to then anyhow, in Canberra. There’d been some, like M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Plaque with laurel, but not many. That has changed, since, due partly in fact to Canberra’s group of Seven Writers, of which Dowse was a member. Second, not many novels had been written about the workings of the public service, particularly Australia’s. And finally, Dowse’s writing, particularly the structure she used for her novel, was innovative. Dowse said in the book’s zoom launch I attended last year, that one of her inspirations was John Dos Passos, and how he can tell a big story through overlapping individual stories.

All this makes West Block an excellent and meaningful read, not just for Canberrans, but for Australians and readers of thoughtful novels anywhere.

Servants of a nation (Harland)

With that long preamble, let’s now get to the book. Set in 1977, it tells the intersecting stories of five public servants: conservative, “sober-faced” bureaucrat George Harland; passionate, progressive Henry Beeker; socially conscious, dedicated but lonely Catherine Duffy; young, up and coming economist Jonathan Roe; and the femocrat, Women’s Equality Branch head, Cassie Armstrong, whose story bookends the novel, making her its main and unifying character. While each character’s story occupies a separate chapter, giving each centre stage in turn, they do occasionally appear in each other’s stories, and they all work in West Block to Departmental head, Deasey.

Through these characters we see the workings of government, and here, as a plus, we also gain insight into the issues of the time which, besides women’s affairs, included Australia’s uranium policy and Vietnam. Dowse uses these big issues to show what happens behind the scenes – trips overseas to negotiate with other governments, the IDCs (interdepartmental committees) and argy-bargying between departments as public servants try to find compromise between their various political masters, relationships between politicians and bureaucrats. Underpinning these is the daily life of public servants as they navigate the ethics of public service and their career ambitions alongside their jobs. We see tensions between different perspectives and approaches – the sober conservatives like Harland versus the crusading progressives like Beeker – of service. Dowse gives both their due.

This sounds dry, but it’s not because Dowse infuses her story with humanity. Her characters are not just public servants, but human beings with lives, and feelings. At the launch I attended, interviewer Seminara said she loved the characters for their commitment to public interest and because they are “admirable as characters, flawed as people.” Harland struggles to understand his daughter who has left her husband and children; Catherine confronts the ethics of personal relationships that intrude into work life; and Jonathan reacts poorly to his girlfriend’s unplanned pregnancy, for example.

Cassie, the main character, is not Dowse but is clearly inspired by her. The angst is palpable as she and her staff struggle to get their voices heard and women’s agenda on the table. There is a telling scene with Deasey that says it all. She presents him with her Branch’s thorough report into women’s needs cross-government. He’s not impressed:

‘Seriously now. We’ve had enough of your fingers poking in every pie. Causes no end of trouble. I can’t allow it, do you hear? It’s no way to run a department. So, be a reasonable girl. Pick out one, two, maybe three things to concentrate on.’ He stopped for breath. ‘Discrimination legislation, for instance.

“Girl” eh! Would he have said to Harland, “be a sensible boy”? I reckon not.

There are two more crucial characters in this novel, Canberra and West Block. They breathe life into and enrich the read immensely, but this is getting long, so watch for a Delicious Descriptions in a couple of days

While West Block’s style and structure is not as unusual as it was in the 1980s, it will likely still challenge those who like straightforward chronological narratives with deeply interacting characters. For me, though, there is a overarching narrative arc concerning Cassie’s devastated realisation that she is not going to effect the change for women she’d envisaged – and I enjoyed every beautifully-delineated character.

Ultimately, West Block pays tribute to the public servants who understand that their role is to be “servants of a nation” not of their political masters. This is the role of the public service, no matter how much its political masters would like to make it otherwise. Unfortunately, this fundamental principle has been increasingly tarnished over recent decades, which makes re-publication of this novel, now, all the more relevant and, dare I say, necessary.

Challenge logo

Sara Dowse
West Block
Book designer: Barbie Robinson
For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020 (New Edition, Orig. ed. 1983)
ISBN: 9780648565789

Review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing and the author

Book (Re)Launch: Sara Dowse’s West Block

Sara Dowse West Block

Way back when, I read Sara Dowse’s debut 1983-published novel West Block. It ticked all the boxes – it was by a woman, by a feminist, was set in Canberra (a rare thing), and was about the Public Service within which I also worked. I enjoyed it immensely and have often wanted to re-read it. I was therefore thrilled to hear that it was being re-published – and with a new introduction by Dowse.

This new edition, by For Pity Sake Publishing who published Dowse’s latest novel, As the lonely fly (my review), was virtually launched at a COVID-19-determined Zoom Event today.

The launch …

The launch comprised a conversation between Dowse and Michele Seminara who is a poet and managing editor at the Canberra-founded creative arts journal Verity La.

Sara Dowse, West Block

Seminara commenced by describing Dowse as a “legend of Australian literature”. She was also one of the Canberra Seven, about whom I have written before. The conversation, though, focused mostly on the book’s subject matter …

West Block, for the non-Canberrans here, is one of the original buildings in our Parliamentary Triangle. Built in 1926 it, and East Block, flanked what is now known as Old Parliament House. These buildings were the home of the public service.

So, Dowse’s novel, West Block, is about the bureaucracy. From 1974-1977, Dowse was the inaugural head of the women’s affairs section established to support PM Gough Whitlam’s first women’s adviser, Elizabeth Reid. Dowse became, she believed, the first femocrat.

Dowse spoke about her intentions for the novel which she started writing a couple of years after the 1975 Dismissal. She wanted to tell the story of what happened and how public servants coped in the aftermath. She wanted it not to be “just” a women’s story but a story about what women saw, about how women perceived government. “I wanted to nail them”, Dowse said, meaning she wanted to write about the male world from a feminist perspective.

The conversation, not surprisingly, also covered the politics then and now, particularly in terms of what was achieved and what has lasted. Dowse, describing the times as “unbelievably exciting”, talked about their focus being issues like child care. She said many reforms were introduced. Some were “tweaked” by the Hawke government, but they’ve been gradually whittled away since the Coalition returned to power.

She talked about the Australian federal public service, and of admiring its commitment to serving the people. She saw this public-good oriented value as being distinctively Australian, including amongst conservatives. (She couldn’t understand the antipathy with which Australians would speak of Canberra, their national capital.) However, she said, much of this value has been lost since PM John Howard turned governing into a business-style, economic rationalist, model. She talked about how private sector inflated salaries are being given as a reason why you can’t get good people into the public service, but her belief is that good people who know that the measure of their worth is not purely monetary will still work in the public service. (They’re not poor, in any event, she said.)

Dowse also told us that the main character, Cassie, is based on her, though Cassie is Australian – and unlike her, has red hair and green eyes! The joy of being a writer is that you can create characters you’d like to be! Cassie, like Dowse was, is also a single Mum juggling work and parenthood.

Seminara asked Dowse about her book’s structure with its five chapters focusing on different individuals. Dowse said she was influenced by two John Dos Passos works, Manhattan transfer and the USA trilogy. She was inspired by his telling a big story through overlapping individual stories, though he also married fiction with nonfiction which she didn’t do.

A point that came up a few times through the conversation related to the publishing and literary environment in Australia at the time she was publishing this book. For example, a fiction-nonfiction blend would not have been accepted then (though it would now.) She was also inspired by Dos Passos’ experimental writing, but that too she had to tone down for Penguin to publish the work. Upon the book’s release, one of the common questions posed about it was “is it a novel or is it stories?” This question is still with us, I believe, though writers are increasingly playing with this form (such as, most recently on my blog, Carol Lefevre’s Murmurations, my review.)

Seminara commented that she loves Dowse’s characters, with their commitment to public interest. They are, she said, “admirable as characters, flawed as people.” She also spoke of how Dowse had managed to make art out of traditionally boring subject matter. More art is now being made of such subjects, but Dowse, she said, was one of the first here to put humanity and drama into it.

Dowse briefly talked about this new edition, which was suggested by publisher Jen McDonald. Dowse said that this was her apprentice novel, and wondered how she would face having it out in the world again. However, she did not want a word changed. It had, she said, to live on its record. I am greatly looking forward to reading it again – and I fully expect it to appeal to me all over again, albeit with older eyes and understanding of how the world works.


Dowse also read from the book, and answered a couple of emailed-in questions:

  • John Dos Passos’ influence. Dos Passos, she said, wanted to deal with the coming of mass society, and he did it by oscillating within a group of characters to build up a picture of society. This encompassed both the personal and the political, which, she reminded us, had been the feminists’ mantra: the personal is the political.
  • Susan Ryan‘s recent death and what has been left unfulfilled by it. Dowse expressed great sadness at Ryan’s death, as they had worked closely together. She said young girls now have the right to big dreams but there are still barriers. She believes the feminist voice has been rekindled through awareness of these barriers, injustices, domestic violence, and the ongoing childcare issue. While many things that were started under Whitlam have been truncated, whittled down, Ryan had achieved much, she said, including getting the ALP to accept Affirmative Action.

This was an excellent launch, and I’m glad it was on at a time that I could make. Do consider reading the book. It has much to offer.

Launch of West Block new edition
Online Zoom event by Barbie Robinson of Living Arts Canberra
25 October 2020

Sara Dowse, As the lonely fly (#BookReview)

Sara Dowse, As the lonely blySome books grow out of their author’s desire to engage the reader in an issue they feel passionate about, such as Jane Rawson on climate change in A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and Charlotte Wood on the scapegoating of women in The natural way of things (my review). Sara Dowse’s latest book, As the lonely fly, falls into this category, but for Dowse the issue is the Israel-Palestine problem, the “rightness” or otherwise of establishing a Jewish state. This doesn’t mean, however, that books so inspired are boringly earnest or stridently polemical. It’s a risk, of course, but in the hands of good writers, like the three mentioned here, issues are turned into stories that engage us, while simultaneously raising our consciousness.

Unlike Rawson and Wood’s more dystopian novels, Dowse uses historical fiction, with a hint of mystery/thriller, to explore her ideas.  The novel is set in the first half of the twentieth century, and follows the lives of two Russian-Jewish sisters, Clara and Manya, and their niece, Zipporah. We start, theoretically at least, with Clara (who changes her name to Chava when she arrives in Palestine), but are immediately introduced to her younger sister Manya (who had migrated to the US with their parents and who becomes Marion).  Niece Zipporah, the committed Zionist who followed Clara to Palestine, opens Part Two.

The story is divided into 6 parts in fact, the first labelled “Clara begets Chava 1922-1925” and the last “Tikkun? 1967” (“tikkun” being, significantly, a Hebrew word for “fixing/rectification”). The narrative has an overall forwards momentum, but the chronology is not linear and the perspectives change. Following all this requires an alert reader, but it enables Dowse to fill in backstories at the relevant moment (such as Clara’s experience of the 1905 Odessa uprising) and to link various characters and ideas. Her goal is to explore the difficult situation confronting Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century and the concomitant creation of Israel. In so doing, Dowse raises bigger questions about idealism and justice, and exposes the challenges of migration, particularly of migration that is politically charged.

While Part One is labelled 1922-1925, the first chapter is headed “Marion 1967”, ensuring an important, comparative, role for the American experience. However, the bulk of this part tells of socialist Clara/Chava’s early days working to create a new Jewish state. It’s not long before the hard-working Chava starts to question what they are doing, to see the difference between the political Zionism of Herzl and the cultural (or spiritual) one of Ahad Ha’am. She starts to agree with Ha’am, as she writes to Marion,

that there shouldn’t even be a state like the one Herzl advocated, but a centre in Palestine where Jews reconnect with our culture and from there would disseminate it through the Diaspora. That the land wasn’t empty as Herzl had us believe, that it would be difficult to find land that wasn’t already cultivated, and the Arabs wouldn’t be overjoyed about the space we’d taken up in what happened to be in their land too. Or ecstatic about losing their jobs. The Marxist in me is increasingly uneasy about this … (Pt 2, Ch. 11, Uncorrected proof copy)

If you are an Australian, this idea of taking up space that’s not empty will resonate, as I’m sure Dowse intends it to do!

… too much head …

Eventually Chava finds occupying this already occupied land too difficult and, after supporting an Arab uprising, willingly returns to Russia where, unfortunately, she finds anti-semitism on the rise. Meanwhile, Zipporah provides a foil to Chava, retaining her commitment to the Zionist ideal, albeit seeing the trauma that can be caused by commitment to a political idea. The story of her student, Talli, provides this insight. Dowse, in other words, provides no easy answers, but forces us to face, through stories of real human beings with whom we fully engage, the complexity of the situation.

Chava meets in Jerusalem, a cobbler, Ha-Kohen, a spiritual rather than a political Hebrew man. He says to her:

You and your chaverim, those pals of yours, can you really believe all those things you read? It’s all from the head. And the source of all evil on this earth is too much head, my dear, and not enough heart. (Pt 2, Ch. 10, Uncorrected proof copy)

A little more empathy, in other words, is what is needed.

As the lonely fly could be described as a family saga. There are many characters besides the three women I’ve introduced here – including another sister (Zipporah’s mother) and her family, various friends and colleagues, and a love interest or two – and the novel spans six decades from 1905 to 1967. There’s also a thriller element including some espionage, and a nod to the mystery genre too. What is wrong with Talli, and what does happen to Clara? Through these Dowse explores her themes while involving us in real lives – via lovely domestic details of rooms, meals and close relationships, and vivid descriptions of place. By the end of the novel I was deeply engaged with her characters and their dilemmas, whether or not I agreed with all their decisions.

… the passion for justice …

Manya/Marion is a somewhat more shadowy character than Clara and Zipporah, and yet, as the one who migrated to America, the land of the free, she provides an important counterbalance to the lives of the other two. On the surface, her ambition to be an actor, and her oh so western focus on colouring her hair, on “the showering, the creaming, the makeup’, are as “exasperating” to us as they are to Zipporah, but she is the character who opens and closes the novel, so we need to heed her. Her idealistic, bookish husband, Sidney, dies a very American death, and leaves her with two young sons. It provides a counterpoint to the high drama that was occurring in Israel.

In the loneliness of her later years, she finds herself still struggling to understand him, but she comes to see that both his and Clara’s idealism was really “a passion for justice”. In the book’s final chapter, she and Zipporah, whom she visits in Israel, attend a Hebrew performance of a favourite play of hers, O’Neill’s The iceman cometh. Now, I don’t know this play – besides knowing of its existence – but I presumed Dowse had chosen it for a reason, so I checked Wikipedia. It told me that the play’s main themes are the self-deceptions, the pipe-dreams – the lies, in other words – that we tell ourselves to keep going. The play references, apparently, political ideals such as anarchism and socialism. Certainly, Clara discovers her socialist ideals being undermined when the factory managers in Soviet-era Moscow start employing capitalist techniques to increase production. However, I’m sure Dowse intends us to read O’Neill’s theme in terms of how we behave today – in relation to Israel/Palestine and to all the other injustices that we see around us, but try to justify away.

The past is not, in fact, the burden we thought, says Zipporah to Marion. It’s the future we need to worry about. Like all good ideas novelists, Dowse has not bombarded us with answers but, instead, has intelligently and compassionately given us plenty to think about.

aww2017 badgeSara Dowse
As the lonely fly
For Pity Sake Publishing, 2017
327pp. (Uncorrected proof edition)
ISBN: 9780994448576

To be published: June 2017

(Advanced review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing)

Sara Dowse, Schemetime (Review)

Sara Dowse SchemetimeWhat Sara Dowse didn’t know when she recently commented here on her love-hate relationship with Los Angeles was that I was in the closing stages of reading her novel, Schemetime, set there. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I’ve had this novel since Christmas 1990 when I was living in the LA area (in adjoining Orange County, in fact). For some reason, I didn’t read the book then, and it has been sitting on my TBR pile ever since, along with several other novels by Aussie writers from the 1980s and early 1990s.

It was interesting to read a book in 2014 that was published in 1990 but set mostly in the late 1960s. This is not a unique situation of course, but most books in my TBR pile are set around the time they were written. Why then was this one set a couple of decades before it was written, making it a “bit” historical, but not really? I think it’s because the late 1960s was an exciting time, politically and socially. It was the time of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a time when high ideals were being vigorously tested against commercial imperatives. Where better to set such a novel than in LA – using the film industry as a framework?

Early in the novel, Dowse establishes this tension through her description of place:

California the golden, Eden re-entered. People pretend they are children. They revel in the heat and the sunshine. But they are fretful. Do they deserve this? The question nags. So there is always, underlying the play, the fear of catastrophe. For a paradise, it has known its fair share. Earthquakes make dogs howl and plateglass shatter and bricks spill from walls, and the fires that sweep through the hills and down the canyons have consumed the grandest of estates. Coyotes live in those hills …

I love this prose – so crisp, so clear, so evocative, and yet so provocative too.

But now to the plot. Schemetime concerns an Australian filmmaker, Frank, who comes to LA wanting to make a career in the film industry, a quality career, though, on his terms. Through him we meet a varied cast of characters: refugee film director Mannheim who wants to make artistic films but needs to make commercials and B-grade movies to survive; Frank’s old flame Susan, a physiotherapist and anti-war campaigner, who leaves her Aussie husband for Nathan; this Nathan, a lawyer conflicted about money and his ideals; the black singer-actress, Paula, with her precarious career; and sundry others. We watch Frank as he enlists these characters to help him, practically, artistically or financially, achieve his goal of making a film about his somewhat mysterious father.

This is not a plot driven novel, however. It is about LA, but more than that, it is about characters searching for, well, meaning. This may sound clichéd, but isn’t it what most of us seek? What makes this novel not clichéd is the style and structure Dowse puts to her task. Often when we describe a novel as reading like a film script, we are suggesting, usually a little dismissively, that the author has written it with a movie deal in mind. But, when I say Dowse’s book reads like a film script, I am implying something very different. I am implying a complex picture comprising multiple little scenes, that sometimes flow and sometimes jolt us along with sudden changes in perspective, much like a camera can, particularly in an experimental movie. In fact, particularly given its time, I’d say this novel is innovative (or experimental) in structure and narrative point-of-view, in the way it moves between first person narration by Frank, and the third-person subjective perspectives of the main characters. It is, though, highly readable because the language is accessible. The syntax is flexible and the imagery expressive, but they are both comprehensible.

If it’s not plot-driven, then, what does drive it? Several things really. The characters’ relationships with each other, for one. An exploration of the meaning of art, for another. And dreams, the dreams and passions that drive us. Much of the novel concerns Frank’s filmmaking venture with Mannheim and Paula. There are lengthy discussions about the 1931 film Tabu, made by Murnau and Flaherty. It was a production mired in conflict between two, if I understand correctly, competing perspectives – Murnau’s focus on aesthetic “truths” and Flaherty’s on those coming from social or political realities. Dowse seems to be suggesting that “art” is (perhaps even should be) a constant struggle between these two imperatives. In Tabu, Mannheim argues, Murnau’s

craft and artifice triumphed. But there is enough of the real to make us believe …

There’s another reason why Dowse seems to have chosen Tabu to discuss, and this is its setting, the Pacific. The Pacific is the link between her two lives – her American birth and her adopted Australian home. Its nature is paradoxical, representing different things to different people: to Mannheim, “nothing in the Pacific is quite as real” as Europe;  to Susan it is both escape and barrier, “the way to freedom and then the highest wall”. One of my favourite scenes occurs when Frank, Paula and Nathan do a beach-crawl along the LA coast looking for the perfect Australian-looking beach! Various stories and images of the Pacific appear throughout the novel, making it, perhaps, her “poem to the Pacific” like Murnau’s Tabu.

Schemetime is a novel of grand conception. Even the title with its hints of schemes, screens and dreams suggests that. I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped all that Dowse intended, and I certainly haven’t touched on all that she raises in this book about “money and love and culture”. I haven’t explored, for example, the rise and fall of Nathan as a hotshot lawyer-investor or the conflicted restlessness of his second wife Susan or the survival skills of first wife Estelle or even the discussions about artists in exile.

“The camera”, Mannheim lectures early in the novel, “is no golem … it sees things you cannot imagine”. And so, we find, does Dowse’s pen. Schemetime is a fine read – and one that is as relevant today as it was when it was written, perhaps even moreso.

awwchallenge2014Sara Dowse
Ringwood: Penguin, 1990
ISBN: 9780140080742