Echoes of the Great War are heard around the world these days, but 2015 holds a special resonance in Australia, marking as it does the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli. For most of 1915 the Australian forces joined their fellows from New Zealand in support of the British assault on the coast of Turkey. It was the first major conflict in which the Australians participated in the brief history of their country, their grand chance to support Empire. In many ways, Gallipoli represents the birth of a nation, its tempering in a vaunted crucible, proof of its greatness. And yet at the same time, Gallipoli was a horrendous defeat, a callous slaughter in which the British sacrificed the colonial Anzacs to protect the troops of the mother country. It is remembered as the ultimate in both heroism and humiliation and it exerts an unresolved horror and fascination on the Australian imagination still, one hundred years later.
Gallipoli and the changes it wrought in Australian society form the backdrop of Pamela Hart’s romance novel The Soldier’s Wife (Hachette Australia, 2015). Romance is a genre I typically avoid, but my friend Jonathan’s review of it sparked an interest, no doubt fed by awareness of the centenary. The novel tells the story of Ruby Hawkins, newly married and arrived in Sydney just before her husband Jimmy is shipped off to fight. She finds herself lodgings, takes on a job as a bookkeeper in a timber yard in the suburb of Annandale, and starts on a journey of self-discovery and emancipation, commingled with more than a dash of desire, that makes for thoroughly enjoyable reading.
Husband Jimmy is serving under Lieutenant Curry, who happens to be the son of the timber yard’s owner. When the younger Curry is killed in action, Ruby somehow manages, despite her own fears and the constricting proprieties of the Georgian era, to assume command and guide the devastated elder Curry and his business through the treacherous times. She perseveres in the face of masculine mockery and feminine disapproval, finding strength that she will ultimately need dearly when her own beloved Jimmy is grievously injured and returned to her.
Ruby is tempted and thwarted, but does not falter. She earns the respect and even the love of those around her—this is a romance after all—while struggling to invent for herself a strength that we might nowadays see as a nascent feminism, but which she would never characterize in such political or selfish terms. The actual events of Gallipoli stay farther in the background than I had anticipated, given the date of the novel’s publication, but it is no less satisfying for that. Pamela Hart manages to take the tropes of the genre and infuse them with a sympathetic understanding and an unerring flair for character and plot. Much Australian literature focuses on tales of men and their struggles against the alien environment of the continent—”the bush” as it’s familiarly known—but Hart succeeds in inverting both conventions and telling a riveting story of a woman in the city.
After enjoying this trip into Australia’s somewhat more distant history, I was equally pleased to discover another novel that offers a retrospective on a more recent period of the country’s past.
I came to Charles Hall’s Summer’s Gone (Margaret River Press, 2014) thanks, once again, to Whispering Gums. Her final judgment of the book, beyond her engaging summary of the plot, sold me: “This is not a difficult novel, but it is warm, readable, and sings to us of summers past when the world seemed golden, but when in fact there was, as there always is, much more to it than that.”
The summer in question, where the novel leaps into gear, is the Summer of Love, on the day that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in Australia. Of course, since we’re talking about the Antipodes here it’s more correctly the winter of love, and that is a clever and appropriate inversion. Nick, the novel’s narrator, returns home late one day to his bungalow in Melbourne carrying his prized new recording. He rushes into the kitchen where, to his horror, he finds his girlfriend Helen lying on the floor in a pool of blood. His guilt over her death and how it came to pass is the central mystery that unfolds over the course of the narrative.
Nick and his friend Mitch had come to Melbourne from Perth, where they had met Helen and her sister Alison. In the middle year of the decade the foursome had connected and formed a folk group that enjoyed a middling degree of success on the club circuit in the western capital city. Centrifugal forces pull them apart; chance opportunities and emotional needs pull them back together, although in differing relations to one another over the course of the years that the story spans.
As Mrs Gums points out in her review, the real charm of the book is in the wanderings, although to her point about wanders down memory lane, I would add the wandering across the southern reaches of the Australian continent. Nick is telling the story from a vantage point close to our present day, so there’s half a century of time for him to review, and indeed, the vagaries of his story and his understanding of that story, take decades to unreel. But the heart of the tale lies in the late 60s and early 70s, the time when like Nick I was coming of age.
The folk scene, the Beatles, hitchhiking as a way of life (almost), and the pressure of the Vietnam War and conscription are all central to the novel’s action. I was fascinated to hear about the war and about draft-dodging from an Australian perspective. I knew that the war was as unpopular with Aussie youth of the time as it was in the United States, and knew that Australians in general had deeply ambivalent feelings. Many thought it the American’s war that they were roped into by our strategic alliances. Many also knew (although this doesn’t come through as strongly in the novel) that those alliances were formed in the face of threats from the Asian continent during the Second World War, threats that has shifted westward from Japan to China by the time of the Vietnam conflict but were no less real for the change.
The travels across the southern tier of the country, from Perth on the west coast to Melbourne in the southeast, across the great vastness of the Nullarbor Plain, are a wonderful travelogue in themselves. Melbourne in the 60s, and the rural reaches of Victoria to the south of the city, are equally well captured. Nick’s three year retreat to a hippie commune after Helen’s death and in the face of conscription evoke a way of life that almost survives today in places like Nimbin on the east coast. And the seismic shift in politics that greeted the country with the election of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister in 1973 may play a minor role in the plot, but it helps to recreate in yet another way the history of the moment and the sense of endless possibility that the 60s represented for those who were young in those days.
Taken together, The Soldier’s Wife and Summer’s Gone form a neat pair of bookends to the cultural history of Australia in the twentieth century. They are splendid summer reading for those of us in the northern hemisphere, adventures in a place far away and in times that are still, despite their distance, intimately connected to our own.