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‘In the Class Struggle, Better Red than Wed ‘Widdershins’ by Jack Bealey

8 Apr

Widdershins by Jack Beasley Wedgetail Press 1986. First appeared in the Times on Sunday (formerly The National Times) in 1986.

widdershinsJack Beasley certainly is no stranger to Australian radical fiction, having spent a lifetime involved in radical politics and in writing about its literature. Indeed his major works to date, Red Letter Days and the The Rage for Lifea study of Katherine Susannah Prichard, have attracted consider attention. The publication of Widdershins, his first major fictional work, must therefore be seen as an event of some importance.

‘Widdershins’ means to swim against the tide and, predictably, one of the novel’s central themes is the struggle of the main character, Jeff Conway, to swim against the prevailing tide of Australian conservatism. Conway is, in many ways, typical of a generation  of Australian communists and radicals. Born to a working class family in the BHP steel city of Newcastle in the early 1920s, his education takes place against the backdrop of the Depression. Returning from the war to Sydney, he quickly becomes deeply involved in the struggles of his trade union and in the day-to-day affairs of the Communist Party.

Indeed Conway’s life strangely parallels the history of the Communist Party of Australia, something which he recognises:

The party and I are more or less of an age. We both breathed what was then the clear Australian air about the beginning of decade three….as the party and I attained maturity, our two paths coincided. I joined our revolution and I signed on for the duration.

These parallels are, at times, striking. During the period from the end of World War II to midway through the 1950s when the party was at its peak, Conway’s family life was happy and secure, But as serious splits and divisions opened up in the party after the 20th Congress of the Soviet party and the Soviet intervention in Hungary, his marriage begins to fall apart. By the mid 1970s party membership is at an all time low and Conway is in hospital recovering from a serious car accident, but also showing the first signs of asbestosis.

Although Widdershins clearly fails into an Australian tradition of radical realism, Beasley attempts at times to expand the genre. In the opening sections of the novel he employs several stylistic devices, such as discontinuous narrative and stream of consciousness. He also plays with notions of time throughout the novel – dates are left deliberately vague and one only gradually becomes aware of the time gap between specific events. Beasley, however, is obviously far more at home with realism and overall these devices tend to disrupt the novel’s continuity without really adding to its impact.

One of the great strengths of Widdershins is the portrayal of the relationship between Conway and his wife Ann. Ann, also a party member, sees in their marriage new possibilities for an equal relationship. SHe soon finds, however, that despite Jeff’s best intentions, their marriage has fallen into predictable patterns. She also realises that, despite its rhetoric, the party still works to marginalise women:

Even in the party itself, do you think there’ll ever be a woman as general secretary? Not while they’re always sidetracked into work among women as we call it!”

Ann’s anger grows as she realises that far greater importance is placed on the work Jeff does organising the men at the power station where he works, than among the “work among women’ or the mundane party work she undertakes in her own branch.

Although Jeff never admits it, a clear distinction grows up between his party work and his family life, and the two increasingly take on the appearance of opposites. Either he stays at home and looks after the children or he goes to an important meeting and feels that he is accomplishing something “real”. The party eventually disciplines him when he misses a vital branch meeting  because Ann is sick and he has to look after the children. The party obviously believes that Jeff has a political duty to be at the meeting. Ann finally leaves him, realising for the first time that she was, in fact, the “strong one” in the family”.

Ann’s political consciousness was perhaps 15 years too early. Her marriage took place well before the saying “the personal is political” became a catchcry for sections of the Left and before the resurgent feminism of the sixties nd seventies began to affect the Communist Party’s attitude and structures. One of the final ironies of Widdershins is that while Jeff leaves the party because of what he sees  as “the party’s collapse into the mire of revisionism”, Ann probably would have found the Communist Party of the seventies far more flexible than the “cohesive” party of the fifties.

While Beasley may lack, in the final instance, much of the sophistication of many younger writers, his novel is an honest portrait of the aspirations, achievements and shortcomings of a generation of Australian communists who lived through some of the century’s most tumultuous struggles. As such Widdershins is an important addition to the Australian radical literary tradition.


Jack Beasley’s review of Wintering by Victor Kelleher appeared in P76 Issue 6



The Pathetic Jogger David Foster ‘Hitting the Wall’ (1989)

10 Jan

Hitting the Wall by David Foster Penguin 1989. This review was first published in Australian Book Review Issue 109 April 1989.

David FosterI have often found myself feeling a little frustrated after reading a David Foster novel. While never doubting his ability as a writer, the convolutions of his narrative have, more than once, overshadowed his undeniably fine prose. His latest book Hitting the Wall, a collection of two novellas, allows us the opportunity to examine how Foster handles the more urgent needs of this much shorter form.

Hitting the Wall also allows us to see two different stages of Foster’s development as a writer. The first novella, ‘Eye of the Bull’, was written in 1986, while the second, ‘The job’, is a much earlier work having been written in 1973 and having first ap­peared in Escape to Reality in 1977. Both these novellas share similar concerns. Wilson, the central charac­ter of ‘Eye of the Bull’, is obsessed with running. In fact he spends most of the novella running, both physi­cally and emotionally. Like a true addict he believes that he can keep his addiction under control, whereas his addiction gradually overtakes him, and this will cost him his job, his health and eventually his family.

Billy, the small time crim in ‘The Job’, is unable to break out of the lifestyle which has already landed him once in gaol. Unable to enter­tain the thought of a conventional job, he lives off his wits, content for the most part to drift from one situ­ation to the next, making little effort beyond his regular nights Of safe breaking. Billy, in fact, is addicted to ‘the job’, describing how, when he was on a job, his heart would beat ‘as though I had dosed up on methedrine, attuned to the spirit of the night’.

‘The Job’ opens as Billy is released from gaol. A few hundred metres from the gates he accepts a lift from Brian in a beaten up old car. Brian soon talks Billy into taking part in a series of robberies. But as time passes with nothing to show but an amateurish attempt on the local RSL, we realise that Billy is simply a plaything for Brian — that a game is being played out that has been played out many times before. Billy himself recognises this early on when he thinks:

You tell yourself you’re learning, you’re changing, but you’re not learning and you’re not changing very much, except that you feel increasingly tired.

‘The Job’ is, in fact, built on repet­ition. Billy is befriended by Brian and when Brian disappears Billy finds himself taking his place. He begins living with Brian’s wife in Brian’s house and begins sleeping with his mistress. In the end it is the same need that Brian felt to ‘escape’ which takes Billy back to the road leading past the gaol looking for a hitchhiker just out of gaol.

Stylistically Foster has kept a tight rein over this earlier of the two novellas in Hitting the Wall. The lan­guage, at times, seems a little forced and overall I felt that ‘The Job’ could indeed benefit from one final, thor­ough edit. ‘The Job’ is obviously a carefully planned work and one is always aware of Foster leading the narrative in a wide circle. Halfway through the novella it became clear that he is leading us back to the beginning. ‘Eye of the Bull’, by comparison, is much more stylistically relaxed, and this has a lot to do with the subject matter. Whereas Billy in ‘The Job’ returns to his starting point, Wilson runs virtually in a straight line from beginning to end. It may also have something to do with Foster ‘s matu­rity as a writer. The thirteen years which separate ‘The job’ from -Tye of the Bull’ have been prolific for Foster and one can perhaps argue that the smoothness of `Eye of the Bull’ is, in part, a result of Foster’s growing confidence in his own ability.

Wilson is obviously suffering from a midlife crisis. Concerned that he is in a dead end he throws in his job and moves David Foster pichis family to the country­side outside a city that is obviously Canberra. The cliched rnidlife crisis tale continues when Wilson leaves his wife and family for a much younger woman. While ‘Eye of the Bull’ could easily have become a for­mula story of an ageing man at­tempting to rediscover his youth, Foster has tackled the subject with sensitivity and originality. The end­lessly jogging Wilson still emerges from the novella as a pathetic char­acter but his pathos is edged with a hint of tragic heroism.

Foster has always attempted to inject an element of humour into his work. While this humour has some­times sat quite awkwardly in novels such as Plumbum, in ‘Eye of the Bull’ the humour grows naturally out of a situation without becoming obtru­sive.

While highlighting some of his re­curring concerns, the two novellas in Hitting the Wall, also provide us with an opportunity to examine how Foster has developed as a writer over the last decade or so. The ‘achieve­ment of `Eye of the Bull’ suggests that Foster is at his best when he dis­tances himself slightly from the text and works with a relatively uncom­plicated narrative. It will be interest­ing to see whether Foster will con­tinue this approach in his next novel.

Blair by John A. Scott

11 Apr

John A. Scott, Blair. McPhee Gribble/Penguin 1988. First published in LINQ Vol 16. No3. 1988

While St Clair firmly established John A. Scott’s credentials as one of Australia’s leading poets, it is not widely known that he began his writing career as a television comedy writer. Blair, Scott’s first novel, shows, that despite six books of poetry and a teaching position in Canberra, he has not lost his ear for comedy.

Blair, above everything else, is a very funny book. The main charac­ter, Eric Blair (as in George Orwell), is a middle aged British academic-in-exile who is teaching at a small institution in Melbourne called the Centre for Human Achievement. Blair stumbles from the one comic situation to the next, at times taking on the dimensions of a tragic ‘anti-hero’, and at other times becoming more like a one man slap-stick comedy show.

While Blair can turn a simple procedure, such as lighting a match or answering the telephone, into a comic epic, he does have weightier matters on his mind. Blair is searching for love, or at least for another sexual encounter, and he believes he has found it in the person of Julia Brouwer. Having once been married and having “misplaced” his wife in the second year of their marriage — “as with a necessary text for an impending tutorial tossed upon his desk, she simply disappeared from view” — Blair is sadly out of practice in matters sexual. His pursuit of Julia leads him to a screening of Murnau’s Dracula which ends in chaos, a frantic attempt to hide from a colleague in a sex shop and numerous discussions of the Elizabethan and Metaphysical poets with his beloved.

At the same time as he is running after Julia, Blair is also running from his mother. Having managed to ship her back to Britain fourteen years before, she is showing increasing signs of wanting to return to Melbourne. To add to his problem Blair is also having disturbing dreams which involve chopping his mother into small pieces and hiding her in a suitcase.

What makes Blair more than just a funny story is the often complex way in which different incidents are linked together by the narrative. Blair’s dreams about cutting his mother up, for example, are recalled when he quotes Freud from memory, “every dream reveals itself as a physical structure which has meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life ….*’ Blair’s mother is recalled once again in a tutorial on D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. When Blair, confronted with the tutorial’s complete ignorance of the novel, attempts to start a discussion on the notion of the “crippled hero”, one feels that the term could apply as much to Blair as it does to Paul Morel.

The Sons and Lovers incident illustrates one of Blair’s strengths. It is easy to feel that, because of the interconnected nature of much of the narrative, there must be a ‘deeper’ level to the novel. There is, for example, the mother/son/lover triangle. There is also the significance of the names that Scott has chosen for his characters. Eric Blair, for example, suggests Orwell, and Julia was the main female character in Nineteen Eighty Four. Other names also have an air of significance about them. Colonel Proctor, the arch-royalist with a love of artificial limbs; and his children, Hymen Proctor, a gay photographer “so named by his mother out of her initial deep respect for marriage”, Celica Proctor and “little Sarah Proctor”. Then there is Blair’s ex-wife, Felicity Greenwood, his colleague at the Centre for Human Achievement, E.G. Brodly, the “greatest living poet”, Edward Finchley and Blair’s ex-student, Fabian Purvis.

But it is difficult to know how seriously Scott intends us to take all this. A small group of Melbourne intellectuals and writers will, no doubt, recognise themselves and their friends/enemies in Blair and perhaps the characters’ names and a number of the incidents in the novel will take on deeper significance. For the rest of us, the novel becomes something of a satiric game. Scott has, for example, given the reader all sorts of clues to find what is, ultimately, useless information. At the beginning of the novel we are told that “little Sarah was now half her half-brother’s age. Eight years ago she was half the age of her half-sister who, twenty-two years ago was half the age of their half brother.” In order to make it easier Scott tells us later in the novel that “little Sarah” is nineteen. By which time, of course, we already have a good idea of the Proctor children’s’ approximate ages.

But Scott’s playfulness, ultimately, has a satiric bite to it. Anyone who has spent anytime at all at a CAE or university will recognise the attitude behind the statement made by the head of Literary Studies at the Centre for Human Achievement when he tells Blair and Brodly that a philosophy lecturer is not having his contract renewed: “Should’ve worked harder on tenure. Wasted too much time in the classroom.” Blair, Brodly and the rest of the Centre for Human Achievement, it seems, would feel perfectly at home on the campus of just about any tertiary institution in Australia.

While Blair may not be ‘great literature’ it is, nevertheless, a very entertaining and humorous read. Be careful, however, reading it on public transport. Private laughter in public places can be quite emba­rrassing.

Tumbling and Balancing – Susan Johnson’s A Big Life

14 Mar

Susan Johnson: A Big Life, Macmillan Australia. Published in Overland 135, Winter 1994.

In many respects, The Big Life is Susan John­son’s ‘big novel’. Published by Macmillan in Australia, it was picked up by Faber in the UK and the US and received some enthusiastic early reviews. While Johnson has established a reputation as one of the more interesting emerg­ing novelists with her first two novels, The Big Life represents a number of important depar­tures for her. It is, for example, her first novel where the central character is male and where most of the novel is set outside Australia.

The novel’s main character, Billy Hayes, is an Australian tumbler who works the variety stages of England during the 1930s and 40s. A Big Life opens with his birth during World War I. The youngest of six children, Billy spends the first few years of his life without his father, who left for the war before his wife knew she was preg­nant. Billy’s mother Sapphire Hayes runs a happy, loving house full of laughter. She feels Billy to be special, if a little fragile: “Out in the open this baby needed all her comfort, for there was something too tender about him”.

Just before Billy turns five his father returns and takes an instant dislike to the son he didn’t realise he had. This dislike grows to hatred when Billy meets the young Chinese acrobat Reg Tsang. Eventually Billy’s father sells him to a tumbling act returning to England. His ‘big life’ really begins on the ship on the way to England. He becomes part of ‘The Wallabies’ with Veron Rome and Connie Connor (who are also his legal guardians). Later he meets and marries Bubbles Drake and leaves ‘The Wallabies’ to set up his own act with Reg Tsang. After the war Billy pro­duces The Hope Show’, briefly capturing the imagination of a war-weary nation. Just as his career appears to have reached its climax, however, Bubbles sues for divorce and for the first time in his life Billy has to deal with failure.

There is a naive simplicity to Billy’s character which is both endearing and infuriating. He has no sense of direction but, like the tumbler he is, always seems to land on his feet. But while Billy may be able to balance perfectly on stage, in real life he is too self-obsessed to consider the feel­ings of those around him. So while he obviously loves Bubbles, he is incapable of reconciling his own desires and ambitions with hers. He is con­tinually demanding more of her and when she finally lets go he overbalances.

In his search for ‘the big life’ Billy lives the life of an exile. At one point he asks, “How had he ended up so far away? Only economics, politics, or disaster were supposed to force people into exile: no one willingly chose it, or at least not ordinary men like himself.” But Billy isn’t really in control of his life: he leaves Australia because his father sells him and he stays in England because nobody arranges for him to return to Australia. Bubbles organises his domestic life and his agent organises his professional life. Billy’s passivity has effectively made him as much of an exile as any refugee.

The impact of A Big Life lies not in the narra­tive of Billy muddling through his life, but in the strength of Johnson’s writing. There is an economy of style which perhaps owes some­thing to her journalistic background. But it is a deceptive economy for, as the narrative pro­gresses, the complexities are building up under the surface. In the same way that Billy can keep tumbling while a depression and a world war unfold around him, the reader can easily find they are being seduced by the carefully under­stated descriptions so that the border between stage and reality begins to blur.

A Big Life is certainly an impressive novel but it is not without flaws. I found Billy’s character to be a little too unsympathetic and, towards the end, I didn’t really care what happened to him. As a result the novel lost some of its impact in the final chapters. Nevertheless, The Big Life is a major achievement which should serve to further enhance Susan Johnson’s reputation.

Lines of Flight – Marion Campbell

5 Dec

Lines of Flight, Marion Campbell. Freemantle Arts Centre Press 1985. From The Good Reading: 100 Critics Review Contemporary Fiction compiled by Helen Daniel McPhee Gribble 1989.

An intellectually playful novel which follows the career of Rita Finnerty, an Australian  artist struggling to create a career for herself in France. Campbell’s impressive use of language skillfully followers her narrative so that, as the novel opens, Rita’s artistic and emotional freedom is echoed in the expansiveness of the language which draws in elements of art, literature and contemporary French theory. As Rita finds herself increasingly drawn into a small social circle headed by Raymond, a gay French semiotician, and his two students, Sebastien and Gerard, the novel’s language begins to close in on itself. Pressure builds up until Rita finally attempts to crash through the domestic barriers that have been gradually imposed upon her. At the same time as this narrative explosion, Campbell’s language also explodes violently, creating an unnerving and subtly unsettling conclusion.

Peter Carey’s First Novel

17 Nov

Review of Bliss, By Peter Carey, University of Queensland Press, 1981. Going Down Swinging Issue 5 Spring 1982.

Peter Carey’s first novel, Bliss, must have been one of the most eagerly awaited books of last year. Its publication was preceded bu profiles of Carey in both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, both of which later gave the book good reviews. But even before the literary establishment began its fanfare I was suspicious of Carey’s novel. I have never been able to fully reconcile his role in advertising with his reputation as one of Australia’s leading younger writers. Despite this I enjoyed his first two books of short stories, though at times I doubted his motives. As a result I approached Bliss in a critical frame of mind. It lasted twenty pages. Once again Carey won me over in spite of myself.

The novel is basically the story of Harry Joy who, like Carey, is in is late thirties and involved in the running of a moderately successful advertising company. Harry, however, suffers a heart attack and lies in his backyard, clinically dead for nine minutes. During his ‘first death’ he discovers:

“That there were many worlds, layer upon layer, as thin as filo pastry.”

For a time he is completely at peace, but the possibility that a corresponding world of terror may exist sends him fleeing back to his body as it is being carried out the front gate. The rest of the novel is concerned, min the main, with Harry’s response to his new found insights into the evil and hypocrisy which everyone else takes for granted. To add to his confusion Harry actually believes that he has died and the new world which he is discovering is, in reality, hell.

Bliss adopts a far more rigid moral and political stance than any of the earlier stories. Of course Carey’s work has always been political in a sense, one only has to look at the title stories from The fat man in History and War Crimes for evidence of this. What I am suggesting, however, is that in Bliss Carey  is being more directly political than before, and, particularly in his portrayal of the advertising industry, manages to make quite strong moral judgments.

One of Harry’s most disturbing discoveries in Hell is the fact that many of the products he has been involved in advertising are strongly carcinogenic. Worse still, he realizes that he was perhaps the only person who wasn’t aware of it. Carey also hints at a cancer epidemic which, we are told, will sweep through the West and most of the industrialised East within a few years.

It is interesting, while still on the political aspects of Bliss, to look at a comment Carey made in an interview with Kate Ahearne, Stephen Williams and Kevin Brophy (Going Down Swinging No. 1 1980). When questioned about Craig Munro’s doubts about his role in advertising, Carey answered that it had given him a chance to work with other people, and also that it had given him a solid political education. It is possible to apply this statement to Harry Joy, though perhaps his ‘political education’ is a little sudden. For most of the novel Harry has to struggle with his political consciousness, his desire to produce a ‘good ad’. The conflict is only finally resolved when Bettina, his wife, finally gets the chance to fulfill a lifelong ambition of designing and producing her own ads. She is blind to everything but the beauty of her ads and her desire to break into the big New York ad houses. Her dreams though, are shattered by her discovery that she is suffering from incurable cancer, probably as a result of long term exposure to petrol vapours. Bettina turns against the petrol company for which she has been designing ads, destroying both herself, and the entire Board of the company with a petrol bomb.

Despite the ‘political realism’ of Bliss it is, in the final instance, far more optimistic than most of the stories. Carey himself admits (GDS, No1, 1980, p.46) that his early stories are, essentially, fatalistic. In the second collection, War Crimes, stories such as “He Found Her in Summer”, and “The Puzzling Nature of Blue”, are at least moving towards a position where the possibility of optimism is admitted. Bliss, however, concludes on a note of ecstasy. Carey refers to the unqualified happy ending to Bliss in the interview by commenting on Harry’s development from total innocence to a point where he confronts “the shit out of the world and comes to some real positive conclusions about it.” I agree with Carey when he says that this represents a big development (movement is probably a better word) on his earlier work.

Bliss, both in its language and content, is a very crafted novel. Although primarily the story of Harry Joy, all the other major characters dominate sections of the novel. This I had a feeling that hidden within the novel were a number of individual stories, cut up and distributed carefully throughout the book. Or perhaps this is coincidental, a result of the method of narration that Carey has employed. We learn, in the last lines, that the narrator’s voice in fact belongs to Harry and Honey’s children, who have obviously grown in a up in a tradition of storytelling, a profession that Harry adopted after his arrival at Bog Onion Road. So finally the novel turns a complete circle. Harry finds that the Bliss that was suggested in his ‘first’ death finally in his third death, after he has returned to the childhood memories of a guru-like father. The ending maybe, as some critics have noted, simplistic and contrived; nevertheless it still managed to move me on the two occasions I read it.

Of the many diverse influences on the novel, perhaps the most surprising, as far as I was concerned, was the apparent debt Carey owed to Tom Robbins of Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues fame. The major areas where this becomes obvious is in the method and style of narration and the character of Honey Barbara. In both of Robbins’ early books one of the minor characters later identifies himself as the narrator, explaining both the insights and the asides which characterize the narrative style. In Bliss, the revelation of Harry and Harry’s children as narrators can perhaps help to explain a similarity between Carey’s and Robbins’ narrative voice. The character of Honey Barbara also appears to owe much to Robbins. The similarity between Honey and many of Robbins’ female characters is particularly noticeable in small details such as the way she walks and her often impulsive, but enlightened dialogue. This became for me the weakest aspect of the novel, perhaps because the flaw was so unexpected and because Honey Barbara is the bridge between the cancerous city world and peace of the alternative life-style at Bog Onion Road. This Honey, who eventually becomes the most important character after Harry Joy, becomes, at times, almost contrived, and disrupts the smoothness which characterizes the rest of the novel.

The publication of Bliss came at a time when Carey’s earlier stories were being published overseas in a variety of different forms. It remains to be seen how many readers in America and England will react to the Carey novel. For me, despite a few flaws, the hype that surrounded its publication and my own doubts about Carey’s 9decreasing) role in advertising, Bliss was one of the more impressive novels I read during 1981.

Mark Roberts 1982


‘A Plethora of Women’. David Ireland – City of Women Allen Lane 1981.

15 Nov

A Plethora of Women’.  David Ireland – City of Women Allen Lane 1981. Originally published in Issue 8 Island Magazine November 1981

David Ireland’s recent obsessions, women and leopards, appear once again as central themes in his latest novel City of Women. Though very much a self contained novel, there are a number of features which are directly related to his previous novel, A Woman of the Future, the most obvious being his thematic concentration on women. In A Woman of the Future he traced, in the first person, the life of a girl, Alethea Hunt, from her earliest recollections, until she finishes high school and begins a transformation into a leopard. Ireland attempted to withdraw from the novel by claiming that his role was that of an editor, organising notebooks, papers and diaries into publishable form. City of Women, on the other hand, focuses on the life of a retired woman, Bille Shockley, who appears to live in a Sydney from which all men have been banned.

Another apparently important connection between the two novels is the presence of a leopard. Alethena Hunt eventually flees to the country to seek freedom as a leopard, Billie Shockley has a pet leopard, Bobbie, who she takes for walks through East Sydney, the Domain and the Botanical Gardens, Billie sees in her leopard a possible replacement for her “first Bobbie”, who appears at first to have been her lover, but who, we eventually realise, was her daughter.
City of Women even more than A Woman of the Future , is a novel by a man about women. The life Billie leads in the ‘City of Women’ is a very masculine one. Her life revolves around a hotel, ‘The Lover’s Arms’, where the woman are presented in what would otherwise be stereotypical male roles. Society, in fact, seems to be same as when it was dominated by men. There are still football teams, pub brawls, stag nights (now called ‘doe nights’), pack rape and so on. The only difference is that now women drink in the pubs, play football and rape the male hitchhiker and leave him in a coma at the side of the road on their way to the races at Newcastle.

On at least one occasion the narrative is disrupted by an inconsistency in the text. We are told, early in the novel, that Sydney is now a city completely (or almost completely) free of men. But on page 19 Billie relates a story about a woman called Victoria, who steals a large white timber packing case from the tractor warehouse where she works as a guardperson. It seems strange that in a city where the only men are captured or hired to perform in orgies, or who sneak in to symbolically ‘rape’ a lone female by cutting her open and masturbating into the wound, that the yard manager of Victoria’s warehouse should be male. Perhaps it is an oversight on Ireland’s part which somehow managed to sneak past the proof readers. Or perhaps the warehouse is supposed to be outside the city where men are still in control. If so, it is the only occasion in the novel when the fact that a woman is able to seek employment outside the city is not emphasised. Although such an incident may seem minor, it is one of the ways in which the reader is always aware of the male writer behind his female characters.

The novel’s main strength lies in it’s portrayal of Sydney. Billie spends most of the book walking her leopard through the Domain, the Gardens, and to her favourite pub in Cathedral street. Sydney is used as a foundation for Billie’s despair at being “Sixty two and afraid of solitude. Deathly afraid.” To those readers familiar with Sydney, the streets Billie wanders are crisp and real; and for those who aren’t. a detailed map of the area appears on the inside cover. Although it maybe going too far to compare Ireland’s Sydney with Joyce’s Dublin, Ireland creates his Sydney with an instance on realistic detail approaching the Joycian ideal.
City of Women, like most of Ireland’s previous novels, can be seen to operate on three levels of reality. The first level is the ‘absolute’ reality of the physical city of Sydney; the second is the ‘constructed’ reality of the City of Women; and the third is the obviously surrealist world, such as the valley of leopards, which takes place in Billie’s dreams. The problem with this novel is that each level of realism is in conflict with the others. The successfully evoked image of Sydney is in conflict with the male dominated view of female society, while the surrealism is so typical Ireland that it has become predictable. This has the result of making the entire novel appear uneven, the successful aspects being destroyed by its weaknesses.

City of Women concludes with an attempt to place the novel in a conventional framework. Billie’s daughter arrives outside her flat with her new husband, trying to get her mother to open the door. Billie hears their pleading, and the explanations of the landlord, but does not associate them with herself. We realise, however, that the ‘City of Women’ exists only in Billy’s head, and learn that her pet leopard was, in reality, a large yellow cat. Since the death of the cat she has not left her flat, relying on her landlord to buy her food and post her letters to her daughter who she believes to be living on the North Coast. Billie has created a fantasy world for herself and her daughter, and when her daughter rebels against it and leaves her to get married, she refuses to recognise reality and becomes overwhelmed by her fantasy.
While such an ending was obviously designed to conclude the novel with a strong dose of pathos, it has the effect of leaving the reader with an uneasy feeling of having been ‘let down’. In the context of the novel, the ending can be likened to a primary school composition, where, when the bell goes and the story has to be finished quickly, the student writes: “and then I woke up.”

It is easy to understand the reasons why the majority of critics have approached City or Women with caution, for, while in parts the novel is enjoyable, overall there are too many problems for a reader to be left in any state other than frustration. In the final instance, City of Women appears to be a powerful argument for leaving the writing of women’s books to women, whole we can only hope that in this novel Ireland has worked out the obsessions which has dominated his last two books.

Mark Roberts 1981