Tag Archives: cities

What I’ve been reading

Well, theories of memory, mostly, along with narrative inquiry mixed with a dash of ethnographic self reflexive research. This ‘essential’ reading has been for the essay I’m writing as part of my PhD. When I look at the piles of books on the floor of my study, I realise I’ve also been reading other ‘essential’ books – books that keep me sane, although my husband may have another point of view – it’s all about the definition of sanity, apparently. I read Kunal Basu’s 2007 book Racists, a chilling story about a pair of scientists who decide on the ultimate experiment – to raise a pair of children, one black, one white, on an uninhabited island off the coast of Africa. Set in 1855, it raises disturbing questions on the assumptions of racial superiority and left me with a sense of unease and anger. Just after this I picked up Hari Kunzru’s debut novel, The Impressionist, a hefty 500 page door stopper. This is also about race, set in British India. The main character is an Anglo Indian child dashing through imperial India, England and Africa, alternately searching for and escaping from his true identity. Overly long, with dense descriptions I flicked through, this is still funny and tragic and atmospheric, a book that requires some persistence. I also read the fabulous Joan London’s luminous book, The Good Parents. It taps into every parent’s insecurity over their children while meditating on the nature of choices and relationships that bind and separate. The book follows young Maya from country WA to Melbourne where she inexplicably disappears. Her parents look for her and struggle with their own past among Buddhist nuns, enigmatic Chinese girls and East European gangland bosses. This is a beautiful book, full of loss and poetry. Another book about parents and the choices, often disastrous, they make about their children, is M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. Set on a remote island off the coast of WA, a young lighthouse keeper and his wife decide to keep something that is not theirs. What follows is a beautifully crafted story about the consequences of that act. Local writer Yvette Walker’s book, Letters To The End Of Love left me wandering around lost for a few days, so powerful were the worlds she creates and so beautiful the writing that it spoke directly to me. Three couples in three places in three different times, write letters to each other. The Perth letters are like the city itself, sharp and clear and resonant with foreboding. The Cork letters also reflect the landscape, soft and grey and reflective. The Bournemouth letters are energetic despite the background of war and the difficulties of love. I loved this book. And finally, Annabel Smith’s latest book, The Ark. It is unlike any book I’ve read before and I couldn’t put it down. I read it in two days. I didn’t do anything else, I might add. I tried to feel guilty about the neglected essay I’m supposed to be writing. Then I persuaded myself research is reading, surely. The Ark is set in a dystopian future where a group of people responsible for 5 billion plant seeds bunker down in the facility known as The Ark, while Chaos rules the rapidly diminishing world outside. It’s a clever, funny and disturbingly prophetic sounding book and I will need to go back and read it again, along with the app that invites me to tour the bunker. And now, I really need to go back to the decolonised, subcontinental, post- structuralist methodology I was working on. I’m already traumatised. Feel free to send me some book recommendations.

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Book Review

Perth – David Whish-Wilson

I have called Perth home for the last 30 years and what a fabulous home it has been. I came to Perth as a young adult and raised a family, acquired friends and employment and learned to accept life, as the poet says, with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child. Reading Perth reminded me why I love my adopted hometown. This biography of Perth by David Whish-Wilson is not merely a loving one; it is an intuitive and acute rendering of a city that so many (including one of my favourite West Australians, Tim Winton) have called Dullsville.

The book has four sections which flow as seamlessly as the title of the first section – The River. There is a poetic presence in this section especially and the novelist’s eye for detail, as this passage on page 30 reveals – ‘So the river was a haven for me. It was a place that reminded me of the one I’d left behind, where spiders and goannas and parrots and eagles had ruled the gullies, mud crabs and hermit crabs and mudskippers had populated the mangroves, and wild donkeys and kangaroos had filled the spaces now taken up by people. It was in the yellow sands and quarried limestone crags and bronzed shallows that I felt most at home as a child newly arrived from the desert.’ Whish-Wilson moves between the personal and the political effortlessly, allowing glimpses of the city through his viewpoint while adding historical and geographical details in a way that doesn’t read like a history lesson. Of particular delight to me were the frequent and generous references to portraits of Perth rendered by other West Australian writers. Whether it’s Gail Jones describing jellyfish or Robert Drewe’s characters walking through ‘this double city’, each literary reference links to a fascinating feature of the city and its inhabitants. ‘For a child of the suburbs, the city was never heard and it was never smelled –’ p.47.

All the colourful characters from Perth’s boom-bust 80s are mentioned – Alan Bond and his failed enterprises, along with a poignant description of Bond’s empty offices on the fiftieth floor of the building that had carried his name when he was at the height of his popularity. My sympathy dissipated with the knowledge that Bond’s ugly tower was built by demolishing the luxurious late 1800s Palace Hotel.

It isn’t easy to describe the light Perth people know too well – the light that makes you squint at 6 am on a summer morning and hold your hand in a half salute when looking towards the sun. David Whish-Wilson knows this and describes it beautifully – the ‘double effect of the scalpel-sharp light and the general impression of space and silence and stillness –’ p.120. Of course, space and silence and stillness – it must be Perth. I wish I’d written that sentence.

As a Perth-dweller, this book was just what I needed. The writer has captured my city’s ambiguity, careless sprawl, stunning landscape, weird characters and an essential Perth-ness. My experience of my city is richer for it and I recommend it highly.