Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Australia Day: two books by Aussie women

A few weeks ago, out on a day-trip on the Fleurieu Peninsula, as we were driving between Victor Harbor and Middleton, husband yelled ‘bookshop!’. We screeched to a halt outside a pretty renovated Baptist chapel with a porch heaped high with second-hand books. That was our first mistake. The second was going past the pile of books on special and on into the building. For anyone who wants to repeat our error, the place is just on the Victor Harbor side of the train tracks.

The owner of the chapel has created a lovely space, with sympathetic but modern renovations. Most of the chapel is lined with high bookshelves, but the altar end is fenced off and has a platform bedroom and a living area. Above the entrance door is another platform, the owner’s study. The bookshop area has some squashy chairs and an amiable, if slightly diffident, Dalmatian to completely hook anyone who thought they could just drop in for a quick look.

It was husband’s wallet that really took the hammering; I was remarkably disciplined. I bought a big Museum of SA exhibition book on the Muslim cameleers of outback Australia, on the basis that it was so bloody obscure I’d be unlikely to find it anywhere else (or without faffing about on the web, anyway). And then I figured it was only right and proper that I should buy some Aussie authors, in a bid to find out a little more about this country I’m (today) somewhat disgruntled to be in for the next few months. With my usual feminazi bias I decided to stick with women authors, since I like to choice-edit.

So, this morning, I’m celebrating Australia Day by reviewing a couple of books by Australian women writers (got to be a better way than the breathtakingly, excrutiatingly mediocre concert from Canberra that was on the TV last night; I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but this country is even more of a US colony than Britain is). One title I bought in that Fleurieu bookshop, the other husband has borrowed from Unley library and I’ve temporarily appropriated it.

The first book is Sophie Cunningham‘s Geography. Husband looked at this a few weeks ago and made a remark about it being ‘very chick-lit’, which I thought said a lot about the way that people regard books. It is ‘chick-lit’ in the sense that it’s about women and it’s about relationships. But if a bloke had written it I can guarantee that it would be getting described as an ‘insightful journey into the dark byways of modern desire’ or some such tosh. It’s a very readable, erotic, pacey novel about a woman who falls in love/becomes sexually obsessed with a man who is sort of on the edge of her social circle but who lives on another continent. It deals with some very zeitgeist-y issues – the challenges of long-distance relationships in a world where it’s very easy to get from one place to another, but where that doesn’t necessarily mean that affairs will comfortably stretch that far; the ways in which our constant re-reading and re-interpretation of relationships, fuelled by a thousand ridiculous pop-psych books, allows us to tie ourselves in knots kidding ourselves about what each action and interaction means; and the role of friends in a society where they often come to be more significant in our lives than our biological family.

It’s very much of its time – in the era of climate change there won’t be many more years when continent-hopping of this kind will be a) financially viable or b) socially acceptable. It’s not Tolstoy (thank God), but it’s an insightful, well-written book which will be horribly familiar to anyone who’s ever succumbed to obsessive desire for a person who seemed available but wasn’t really (and should probably be compulsory reading for all 20-year-olds in the hope that it might open their eyes to some of lines they might encounter – from other people and themselves).

The second book is Candida Baker‘s The Hidden. On this sample of two, I’m wondering if much Australian writing deals with people who spend a lot of time not in Australia? The cover quotation from The Age’s review compares this book to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and in some ways it’s a fair comment – the husband damaged in some mysterious way by a former wife, the isolation of the new woman on ‘his’ turf, finding that she doesn’t really know the place or the person she’s married to. It has that same taut, tense feel, whilst also being deeply evocative of place (rural Australia) in a way that I don’t recall Du Maurier being. It’s a bit knowing at times – there is a techie-photography theme running through it that I can sort of see the point of but which didn’t hugely do it for me. I enjoyed the last third much less than the first two. The conclusion was perhaps a bit too neat, all the strings got tied up a bit too tidily. But still a very worthwhile read, especially for anyone wanting a sense of rural Australian life that goes beyond The Flying Doctors and takes a sideways look at gender and relationships in that tough environment.

2 comments on “Australia Day: two books by Aussie women

  1. Elle Pedersen
    January 27, 2011

    I would love to travel through South Australia one day – I’ve heard Adelaide is a charming place to visit, no matter what time of the year it is – and by the sounds of your little road trip, Fleurieu Peninsula must be a haven for craftspeople :=) I’m not sure if either book would appeal to me .. but nicely reviewed Sarah :=)) My sister sent me a book written by Caroline Overington, “I Came To Say Goodbye”, a journalist and columnist with The Australian – I think it’ll be a wonderful read ;=)))

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Hidden by Candida Baker «

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