‘More a hand grenade than a book’

Review by Rohan Wilson in The Australian‘s Review magazine Saturday November 9, 2019.

Chafing satire and explosive views

  • By ROHAN WILSON
Heather Rose – Bruny Island – photography Peter Mathew

For the most part, Australian literature in the 21st century is fairly toothless.

On a good day, our writers can muster up some anger at the appalling treatment of our First ­Nations people or for the equally appalling treatment the LGBTI community suffers.

But outside of these worthy causes it seems as if our writers enjoy a middle-class contentment that turns their gaze inward to domestic life, rather than outward to civic life.

Meanwhile, the world is going through an economic revolution. The billionaire class and their neoliberal political attack dogs have convinced us that competition is the defining characteristic of human ­relations.

Wealth inequality is causing epidemics of depression, suicide and obesity. Property ownership has become an impossible dream for whole swaths of the community. A handful of powerful corporations are busy ­destroying our climate. Are our best writers asleep to what’s going on around them? ­­Or worse, are they happy with the status quo?

Heather Rose is perhaps the last writer I would have expected to come out swinging. Her previous novel, The Museum of Modern Love, won a swag of awards for its depiction of performance artist Marina Abramovic and her piece, The Artist is Present. It was a quiet, contemplative novel about the way art can bring people together and give us hope.

Now we have Bruny, which is more like a hand grenade than a book, with its excoriating satire and explosive views on our political and economic trajectory. It’s the best evidence we have yet that Australian writers are finally waking up to the unfolding crisis.

It begins with an explosion on the newly built Bruny Island bridge in the south of Tasmania. The bridge is meant to connect Bruny to the mainland, making life easier for the locals and boosting tourism.

Bruny Book
Bruny launched October 2019

The explosion has the hallmarks of a terrorist plot and it quickly becomes a central issue in the looming state election. Enter ­Astrid Coleman. Astrid is called in by her brother, JC, the premier of Tasmania and Liberal Party strongman. He wants a speedy resolution and thinks Astrid, who is an ­expert in conflict resolution based in New York, can bring together the various factions fighting over Tasmania’s future. But as Astrid starts to dig, she soon learns that JC’s motives are more nefarious than she first ­assumed.

Rose takes an episodic approach to her story, with Astrid in the field gathering information from bridge workers, restaurant owners, greenies, and anyone who might have reason to blow up the bridge.

A picture of contemporary Tasmania begins to emerge. We see how the politics of austerity have impoverished the community, we see how privatisation has given more and more power to unaccountable private tyrannies, and see, perhaps most frightening of all, that China has moved in to take advantage of Tasmania’s clean, green potential.

Astrid is not without her own problems, too. We learn that her parents’ marriage wasn’t as happy as it seemed and that it has left her with some anxieties to work through. Her own marriage fell apart after her husband revealed himself as a ­misogynist.

While she is world weary and somewhat cynical about her brother’s agenda, she maintains an optimistic outlook and a deep love for the island of her childhood. But her optimism is seriously challenged by the conspiracy she uncovers as the facts behind the destruction of the Bruny Island bridge come to light.

This is where the satire in the novel really starts to bite. The Chinese Communist Party views Tasmania as yet another Third World location where it might win some influence through investment in infrastructure. It ­insists that Chinese workers be shipped in to complete the repairs to the bridge and the Liberal government enthusiastically agrees.

Astrid starts to think that the bomb plot may have been staged in order to win support for a change in local employment laws to allow foreign workers to be shipped in wholesale. In fact, the truth is much, much worse.

As I read on and the scale of the conspiracy became clear, I had to put the book aside because I was laughing so hard.

This is audacious writing. It exposes the lies at the heart of neoliberal economics more clearly than any book in recent memory, and it does so with a vicious sense of irony.

And there’s something here for everyone. Whether it’s Astrid’s rule-breaking romantic interest in Dan, the manager of the bridge workers, or the family drama between Astrid and JC, or the political commentary and piss-taking, there are moments on every page that keep narrative tension bubbling away.

I certainly expect to see this book feature in major prize shortlists over the next 12 months. It’s the wake-up call we needed.

Bruny

By Heather Rose. Allen & Unwin, 424pp, $32.99

Rohan Wilson‘s most recent novel is Daughter of Bad Times.

From Heather: Rohan’s wonderful novel The Daughter of Bad Times shares many of the same concerns as Bruny – but is set in 2074 … do go seek it out!

Marina Abramovic, David Walsh and a reading from my next novel


Back in 2005 I was fascinated by a photograph at the National Gallery in Melbourne. It depicted 72 items on a table – a rose, a bottle of oil, a chain, razor blades, bread, grapes, a gun, a bullet. It was from a performance piece in Milan in 1972 where the visitor to the gallery was invited to use any of the items in their interaction with the performance artist in the room.  The artist was Marina Abramovic and the short bio at the side of the photograph intrigued me. Ever since then I’ve been pursuing a novel that captures both Marina’s history, but also the impact her work has on the people who see it. In 2010 Marina gave me permission to use her as a character in the novel.

The pursuit of this story has taken me to New York for The Artist is Present at MoMA in 2010 – and lately to Sydney with John Kaldor to discuss the new novel but also to participate in the Marina Abramovic In Residence experience. Later in 2016 Jane Palfreyman at Allen & Unwin will be publishing the new novel.

In June this year I had the opportunity to meet Marina for the first time, in rather unlikely circumstances. At the invitation of David Walsh, I read an extract of the novel to her during her conversation with David in Hobart at The Odeon. David has been the most extraordinary supporter of this novel. I found back in 2008, by a little stroke of serendipity, that Marina’s work was collected by David – and his personal library housed every book published about Marina. For a few months I read those books in a cupboard at the back of the warehouse that then housed the MoNA collection. After MoNA was built, David gave me a room at MoNA to work through 2012 – 13. (My thanks also to two wonderful women of MoNA – Mary Linzjad and Delia Nichols for being pivotal in making this happen).

David has read drafts and given insightful and generous feedback. For a long while he was the only person who had read the final draft. So while I may not yet have decided on the novel’s title yet – I do know to whom it is dedicated.

This video shows the complete (and fascinating) interview with David and Marina in Hobart as part of Dark MOFO. At about the 44 minute mark David segues to the reading. But enjoy the interview!