My review of The Place on Dalhousie, MELINA MARCHETTA

First published in the Newtown Review of Books.

Melina Marchetta has written a story about home in The Place on Dalhousie. Home is both a place — where you live, the geography, the cityscape, the country — and a state of mind, the comfort and familiarity of having people around you ¬who know you and care for you. Home is support in its different guises.

Rosie Gennaro has lost the most important people in her life — her mother when she was 14, and now her father — and she feels she has lost her home, the house her father built for her and her mother. She has moved in with a boyfriend, then out again, and she has taken off travelling, working odd jobs, moving on when it suits. The book opens with Rosie in a regional town where she has found work as a carer. She seems drawn to other people’s homes.

The town floods and she stays on to help, working alongside Jim, an SES volunteer:

It’s rained for forty days and forty nights, so when a guy who looks like Jesus in orange SES overalls comes to stand next to her, Rosie thinks it’s all a bit biblical.

Marchetta’s few words bring us the familiar orange uniform we associate with tension, disaster and recovery, a bearded young man and Rosie’s weary fatefulness. The story’s timeline moves back and forth among an ensemble of characters and piecing it together is part of the enjoyment. This is a book to reread.

Rosie and Jim have a brief relationship, seeking comfort in one another, but then lose contact, travelling in different directions. It is only the beginning of their story, though. When they meet up again in Sydney several years later, the landscape has shifted. Rosie has returned to what was her home, her father’s house in Haberfield in Sydney’s inner-west, the place on Dalhousie, with her new baby. Also living there is Martha, her father Seb’s second wife, and both women lay claim to the house.

Martha and Seb had met in the cancer ward where they were caring for dying loved ones. Marchetta handles weighty themes with a light touch. Death, and the search for solace by those left behind, rears up often. Seb has also died prematurely and we see the repercussions of loss. Marchetta’s strong women show us that death is a part of life. Though it is one end, it is not the end.

Marchetta’s characters find support in different forms. Jim is searching for his parents, but his close-knit group of friends from school, and their parents, brothers and sisters are his family:

He’s home, and he knows he’s home because they’re here and that’s the way it is, just the certainty that one of them will always be around, and it feels like everything’s going to be okay …

Martha’s school friendships, reforming around an adult netball team, are another source of support with a shared history. The pokes at netball prima donnas are laugh-out-loud funny for any woman who remembers school teams. In another forum, the bitchy competitiveness of a mothers’ group is shown to be a veneer: underneath is solid, practical support.

Responsibility is a constant theme — responsibility to one’s children and one’s parents, financially and emotionally. Rosie’s Italian grandmother comes back to the house on Dalhousie, worried for her granddaughter. Of Jimmy’s job as a fly-in fly-out worker in the mines, Martha says, ‘You need to make this work, Jimmy.’ Frankie, Jimmy’s best friend, who knows his patterns and his history, says to him, ‘That little boy needs you, no matter what.’

And the migrant experience is here. When family is on the other side of the world, the neighbourhood becomes de facto family:

Martha had never sensed Loredana in this house before, but she’s imagined her languorous walk down Dalhousie chatting to every second person outside their home … That husky strong accent attracting the foreigners, the rapid musical dialect comforting the old-timers.

Martha’s responsibility, too, becomes clear in the end, and the place on Dalhousie becomes home again.

Melina Marchetta The Place on Dalhousie Viking 2019 PB 288pp $32.99

Shell, Kristina Olsson

Find my review of Kristina Olsson’s Shell at the Newtown Review of Books,   published this week.

Its piercing look at consequences of Australia’s inability to understand itself, and reconcile, stood out for me

Through Pearl and Axel, Olsson brings the reader to mid-1960s Sydney. The visionary awarding of the design to Utzon —  the result of an international competition — is accompanied by a stultifying timidity from a culture still making undrinkable coffee. The social changes brought by the waves of European immigration are yet to take hold:

He picked at the slices of bread in his hand, the odd contents of his sandwich. There was something yellow and viscous on the cheese that didn’t look or smell right. Jago leaned towards him. Corn relish, he said quietly. It makes me cry also.

Read more at Newtown Review of Books.

 

Pre-release review of The Rosie Result – the final in the Don Tillman trilogy

The Rosie Result, Graeme Simsion, 2019, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.

It’s been four years since The Rosie Effect(Text 2014) and it’s a joy meeting up again with Don Tillman in this third and final instalment. The Rosie Result is Graeme Simsion’s clever way of bringing us a young Don Tillman, in today’s world. After 12 years in New York, Don and Rosie have returned to Melbourne where Rosie has landed a plum role. Unhappily uprooted from his childhood home and friends, Hudson, their ten year old son, is having ‘issues’ at his new school. Showing many of the same characteristics Don had in his childhood, the reader gets to delve into Don’s past as he and Rosie are torn between different ways to help.

Seeing social isolation and possibly depression in Hudson’s future, Don wants to find better ‘solutions’ to those that well-meaning but ignorant adults foisted on him in his youth.  His plan is to engineer a different outcome through a series of targeted interventions to give Hudson necessary life skills. He is going to bring all his science acumen to The Hudson Project.

Don’s foibles and idiosyncrasies – so familiar to those who have read the first two in the series – charm and infuriate from the first page. Shucking oysters, in pjamas, while pondering a neglected performance review, his rampant overthinking leads him to discard ‘objectivity and intelligence’ as key strengths. He fears this might imply that his colleagues were lacking, which would be tactless and best avoided. Oh, the excruciating and endless squeezing ourselves into acceptable boxes to tick. Been there. Rosie counsels, ‘“Just say problem-solving.”’ Problem-solving is to become a key theme in The Rosie Result.

To spend more time with Hudson, Don’s plan includes temporarily ceasing his work in genetic research – where he has swum into difficult waters – and opening a uniquely themed bar (solving the income and availability problems in one hit). Then he brings Dave, a friend and refrigeration mechanic, over from New York, solving another few. Getting inside Don’s head, working through his stages of problem-identification, analysis, options and resolution, we see the world the way Don might. Simsion’s adroit use of language, especially in dialogue, dislocates the reader as characters spar on issues. When Don and Rosie go to an autism awareness evening, the sudden dissonance between the two presenters is unexpected – the language suddenly forceful – and we sit up, as indeed Don does.

Simsion has written a book about belonging. In following Don and Rosie’s exploration of whether Hudson is a boy ‘with autism’ (person-first language), or not – and whether it matters – Simsion asks us, how much of our individuality is erased by society’s demands that we fit in? While they love him as he is, Don says that is not going to be enough. He knows that his natural traits of practicality and forthrightness are valued less than the social lubricant of empathy, compromise and conformity. The escalating tensions of parenting self-doubt, bureaucratic rules and ethical dilemmas converge at meetings with the school, bringing home the irrationality, the absurdity of inflexible institutions.

Readers are given the premises of different arguments and we are asked to make a logical deduction, to find the right solution. Rosie and Don are every parent. The self-doubt is endless, as are the surprises, as they discover more about this person they are raising.  Simsion pushes our buttons on anti-vaxxers, alternative therapies, truth-telling, choice and ethics. Don and Rosie want to raise Hudson without stigma and labelling. Yet…they want the best for him too. The parents of Hudson’s new friend, Blanche who has a medical condition, are hostile to conventional treatment. Yet at what cost? Simsion asks us to think about what is ‘good’ behaviour and when is deviating from accepted norms and standards acceptable, or necessary? Simsion is asking us, is there a ‘right’ way to live?

In amongst the problem-solving, we are treated to Don’s gorgeous ability to render the bleeding obvious in new ways. When a bird is stunned flying into a window, he notes to himself, ‘ ‘birds cannot afford to carry much natural armour due to the flying requirement.’

The Rosie Result is a funny, generous and thoughtful trip through finding fulfilment and living with the choices we make. This reader found it impossible not to calculate her own BMI again, just quietly… and the many references to cocktails throughout had her looking wistfully at her watch, willing it to be that hour.

Cheers.

#TheRosieResult

#GraemeSimsion