With Christmas just around the corner, there’s a whole load of new books out that I probably should have read for work. I haven’t, though. And when trying to find something, instead of something new, I picked up something that I should have read earlier in the year. Something small, like, I don’t know, this year’s Miles Franklin winner.
In an outer suburb of Melbourne in 1970, change is in the air. For this is the year that the suburb turns 100. And as movement and change comes along, the people who live in the suburb are inexorably linked together. Rita, and her boss, Mrs Webster. Rita’s son and ex-husband. Her son’s new girlfriend. The artist who has been commissioned to paint the mural that will celebrate this big event. Together, they will experience a year they will always remember.
Australia seems to be uniquely placed to be sympathetic to the suburban novel. While other countries no doubt experience them, Australia thrives on its suburbs and urban areas, creating something a little bit unique. It is no surprise, then, that this novel is the third in a trilogy of novels (the first two being The Art of the Engine Driver and The Gift of Speed) about one family in the suburbs, stretching 25 years or so. One does not need to have read the other two in the trilogy to understand what is going on (I haven’t), but it would be interesting to see whether this book becomes a part of a much bigger picture, and becomes even more relevant.
Carroll’s prose is something to behold. While it is not perhaps beautifully poetic, or mind-numbingly intelligent, his style and rhythm is perfectly pitched for what he is doing. His mastery of being able to present one scene from several points of view is something that other authors can very rarely do, and his ability to do it so well simply highlights this. Having said this, his characters do tend to be a bit washed out because of this, and they often take a backseat to the musings that fill this book.
And what great musings they are. Carroll does not fall into the trap of trying to make these times particularly sentimental, nor does he follow the Desperate Housewives rule of suburbia – that everyone has a secret. In fact, he does seem to be the perfect chronicler of the suburb. Near the end of the novel, when some of the older characters suddenly realise that, while they have been doing everything in this year of Progress to ensure that history is celebrated, they suddenly realise that they are no longer needed. It’s not some big build up, or something that is foreshadowed. It simply is. And this is what Carroll is able to capture so perfectly – these people don’t think they are making history, they keep on keeping on. The only time he does do a little foreshadowing is when Whitlam turns up – but again, he is the symbol of the young, and it is only when he arrives that the older generation realise they have had it.
In the end, that’s really what this novel is all about. It’s the changing of the guard, the time when one generation hands the torch on to the next. And there’s no big enunciation of this moment – if you’ll excuse the cliché, not with a bang, but with a whimper. But when one generation is celebrating history, and the other is protesting against Vietnam, everyone realises what has happened. People tend to forget that the Miles Franklin Award is designed not to celebrate the best Australian novel of the year, but the novel that best describes Australian life. And here, Carroll has done exactly that.