Monday musings on Australian literature: Urban vs Suburban

Responding to my Monday Musings 10th anniversary post question regarding topics readers might like to see covered, Sue wrote that “there’s so much emphasis on regional writing which is wonderful – since I live outside the cities – but I think urban based fiction could be interesting”. 

Book coverI’ve been pondering this for a long time, in fact, but I’ve kept shying away from it because it’s such a big topic. There are so many questions to answer, before we even get started, beginning with what we mean by “urban”. Sue mentions Garner, Tennant, Park and Tsiolkas as examples of writers who could be considered. Now, Tennant’s Ride on stranger (1943) and Tell morning this (1967), Park’s The harp in the south (1948), and Garner’s Monkey grip (1977) are all clearly urban. That is, they are set in inner city areas. However, do we include suburb-set novels, like Tsiolkas’ The slap (2008) or, say, Patrick White’s The solid mandala (1968), in our definition of urban? Is there a difference, subtle or not so subtle, in the way novels set in inner city areas play out versus those set in the suburbs? I have a feeling there is.

However, Google wasn’t much help. I did find various bits and pieces, including reference to a “new” urban fiction or street lit genre which is, apparently, largely written by African-American writers, and, says the  Wikipedia article, is “as much defined by the socio-economic realities and culture of its characters as the urban setting. The tone for urban fiction is usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living”. This article, like others I saw about this “new” genre, is somewhat patchy but it does identify what seems integral to urban  literature as I see it, which is that it’s “usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living”.

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse“Underside” here is the operative word, and refers, for me, to those “socio-economic realities”, Wikipedia mentions. Urban fiction tends (and I am generalising) to be about poverty and the various challenges and ills that occur in such an environment – marginalisation (of workers, women, migrants, and so on), crime, drugs, poor health, insecure accommodation, and so on – most of which stem from a sense of powerlessness. These are the sorts of issues variously confronted by Tennant, Park and Garner, and by other “urban” books I’ve reviewed here like William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise (1892) and Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961). Many of these novels are – or owe much to – the social realist tradition. Christina Stead’s Seven poor men of Sydney (1934) also fits here.

If we look at urban-set historical fiction, this general trend seems to hold true. Wendy Scarfe’s Hunger town (2014), Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (2015), Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (2015), and Janet Lee’s The killing of Louisa (2018), for example, all tell of poor and/or marginalised people, from the late 19th century to the 1930s.

There are exceptions, however. Literature, after all, is not a binary affair. So, not all urban-set novels are about poverty and socio-economic challenges. Ada Cambridge’s novels like The three Miss Kings (1883) and A woman’s friendship (1889), Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1888), and Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau (1936) are set amongst more comfortable and/or often more educated people. They tend to deal with more personal stories to do with family, marriage and self-determination, particularly for women.

Suburban fiction, on the other hand, is not necessarily cheerier, but the concerns can be different. Almost by definition, its focus tends to be the middle class, and it can be more existential because these characters are not struggling for material survival. So, for example, it can be about alienation and spiritual emptiness. Patrick White is a good example, with The solid mandala being a favourite of mine. Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower is a psychologically dark novel about young girls left to fend for themselves, so has a nod to the realist urban novels, but the crisis these young women face is of another ilk altogether.

Christos Tsiolkas, The slapAnother common topic in suburban novels is family – often family dysfunction. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991), set in Perth’s suburbs, is probably the Australian suburban novel of the last few decades, though its protagonists are “battlers” rather than the middle class, and the story is told against the backdrop of history over a few decades. Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap also fits into these family-focused books, but again it’s overlaid with contemporary issues like class, sexuality, and ethnicity.

Steven Carroll’s six Glenroy novels (2001-2019), which I haven’t read, is a series set in Melbourne suburbia. Fairfax literary editor Jason Steger says that these

books have ensured that suburban life has been beautifully chronicled in Carroll’s distinctive style and is ensured a place in Australian literary heritage.

Steger reports that Carroll had read little fiction set in Australian suburbia, besides George Johnston’s My brother Jack (1964). Carroll sees suburban fiction this way

… taking the suburbs, the evolution of the suburb, and ordinary people living in that suburb and looking at the evolution of that place and the people simultaneously and acquiring a panoramic view of the whole thing over a series of novels.

He doesn’t say, though, what that “panoramic” view might be – and therefore how these books might fit into my discussion here!

Anyhow, moving on, the preoccupations and self-absorption of middle class suburbanites is ripe for satire – of which Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton (2015) is a perfect example.

Coming-of-age novels are often set – not surprisingly – in the suburbs, like Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones (2009), Sonya Hartnett’s Golden boys (2014), and Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (2018).

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerThen, there are the outliers. Where to put Elizabeth Jolley’s novels, many of which are set in  suburbs? Many of her characters are alienated or anxious, so perhaps they are a development of the Patrick White tradition? Amy Witting, Marion Halligan and Jessica Anderson have also set novels in cities and suburbs, some with a wry edge, and many dealing with the challenges women face in navigating contemporary life. And then there’s Sara Dowse’s West block – about to be reissued – which is probably unique here, with its life-within-the-bureaucracy context.

When the fiction – urban or suburban – is set affects the subject matter. Late nineteenth to early twentieth century novels, for example, started to discuss the role and rights of women, aligning with the suffrage and nascent feminist movements. In novels set since World War II, we start to see migration coming to the fore. Madeleine St John’s The women in black (1993) covers both women’s movement issues, and the positive impact of European migration on Australia, in the 1950s. Later novels though deal with some of the uglier aspects of migration – with discrimination and persecution – such as AS Patrić’s Black rock white city (2015).

Tony Birch, Ghost riverWe are also seeing some urban-suburban set Indigenous novels, like Tony Birch’s Ghost river (2015). These tend to be politically-charged, reminiscent in intent if not necessarily in style, of those earlier twentieth century realist novels.

I have made some wild generalisations here, and my coverage of Aussie lit is superficial, but I hope I’ve stimulated some discussion. I also hope Sue is happy with my attempt to meet her request!

(Links on titles are to my reviews. I haven’t linked other blog reviews, because there are too many, but you know where to look!)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels set in Sydney

Oh, it's fun driving on Pennant Hills Road!

Oh, it’s fun driving on Pennant Hills Road! (With apologies to Sydney-lovers)

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.
  • See that little flat roof to the right? That was my little add-on Sydney bedroom when I was Josie's age.

    See that little flat roof to the right? That  bedroom was added on for me.

    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?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Outback continent, urban culture?

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all

(From “Clancy of the Overflow“, by Banjo Paterson)

Sydney Skyline

Sydney Skyline

In “Clancy of the Overflow”, Banjo Paterson opposes the freedom of Clancy’s droving life to the narrator’s dull life in the city: “For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know”. This poem popped into my mind recently and made me realise that it was time I came clean. You see, I suspect I’ve been misleading my non-Aussie readers with all my posts about our sunburnt (or not) country, our gum trees, bell-birds and the like. You might, just might, have been led to believe that we Aussies are an outback, country-sort of people, but that is far from the truth. We are in fact a highly urban nation: while our population density is around 2.6 people per square kilometre, some 89% of us live in urban areas (capital and regional cities).

So, how is this reflected in our literature? Well, I’m going to look at just five examples, chronologically, starting with the late nineteenth century.

1892: William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise

is set in Sydney, though the two protagonists come from the bush, and one still works primarily on the land. It’s a political novel focusing on improving conditions for the poor in Sydney, and for shearers in the outback. The bulk of it though is about Sydney where “the streets, some wider, some narrower, all told of sordid struggling”, a Sydney that is somewhat similar to that described by Ruth Park half a century later. That is, one in which the poor struggle, in which the beauty so loved by tourists is rarely seen.

1943: Marjorie Barnard‘s The persimmon tree, and other stories

is not her most famous work but is one of that small number of books that I’ve read twice. The themes are universal – love, loss, disappointment – but they are mostly told in an urban setting. A newly widowed woman buys a new hat, a young girl buys a new dress for a special date, people meet in buffets and tea rooms, a woman goes to a party in a

block of flats. The imitation stone stair-case, mock baronial, mock grandeur, and behind the closed doors with their heavy antique knockers the same ordinary little flats … it is shattering to go up to a smug, unknown door and ring the bell, knowing that a party lurks behind it.

1948: Ruth Park‘s Harp in the south

which is set in the slums of Sydney, was controversial when it was published because of its realistic portrayal of urban poverty and the struggles that accompany living in such conditions. There were those who felt she was fostering a “cult of ugliness” and that no good could come of it. Little did they know that 60 years later this book would be regarded as an Australian classic.

1977: Helen Garner‘s Monkey grip

is also now regarded by many as an Australian classic. It’s set in inner city Melbourne, in the “bohemian” home of musicians, students, actors and, yes, drug-takers. Helen Garner’s characters – particularly her women – strive to live independent lives that are not bound by societal constrictions, the sort of lives that are hard to live in the more conservative country or the ‘burbs.

2009: Christos TsiolkasThe slap

is, by contrast, set in the ‘burbs – of Melbourne. It explores a wide range of “issues” typical (more-or-less) of middle-class suburbia. You know what they are:  relationships, employment, education and politics, not to mention aging, drugs and sex. And they are played out in backyards, workplaces, carparks, bars and all sorts of homes ranging from modest bungalows to the mansions of the nouveau riche. The setting is modern Australia – but many of us hope that the people are rather less so!

According to the Australian Government Culture Portal, Australia was well-urbanised by 1910 … and our literature to some degree reflects that. Yet, the idea of “the bush” doesn’t go away – and is still highly visible in our literature. I can think of no better recent example than Murray Bail‘s The pages (2008) in which sophisticated city meets pragmatic country. Paragraph 2 starts with two women setting out from Sydney:

They were city women. Comfortably seated and warm they were hoping to experience the unexpected, an event or person, preferably person, to enter and alter their lives. There is a certain optimism behind all travel. The passenger, who wore a chunky necklace like pebbles made out of beer bottles, had never been over the mountains before. And she was forty-three. Directions had been given in biro, on a page torn out of an exercise book. It would take all day getting there. Over the mountains, into the interior, in the backblocks of western New South Wales, which in the end is towards the sun.

Need I say more?