Review by Rohan Wilson in The Australian‘s Review magazine Saturday November 9, 2019.
Chafing satire and explosive views
By ROHAN WILSON
the most part, Australian literature in the 21st century is fairly toothless.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
I read on and the scale of the conspiracy became clear, I had to put the book
aside because I was laughing so hard.
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.
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.
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!
You are a UN
conflict resolution expert based in New York. Your brother is the Tasmanian premier.
Your sister is the Tasmanian opposition leader. Your mother has cancer and your
father is sliding into dementia and speaks only in Shakespearean quotes.
Someone blows up
part of an almost-completed $2bn bridge joining Tasmania to its offshoot Bruny Island.
You, dispatched to the scene, spot a bloke who looks as if he’d know how to
handle explosives, but on the plus side he resembles Chris Hemsworth.
Welcome to the
weird, wonderful, sad, nervous, bold and hilarious interconnected world of
56-year-old Astrid Coleman, the lead character in Heather Rose’s new novel
Bruny, named after the 362sq km island at its centre, permanent population
“The whole book was
the most amazing amount of fun I’ve ever had writing in my life,” the author
says. “I laughed and laughed.”
Rose’s family has
lived in Tasmania for six generations and Bruny Island, accessible only by
boat, has been important to her throughout her life. It was a place of fun and
games for Rose as a kid and it has been a place of peace and quiet for her as a
writer. A lot of that laughing during the writing of the novel, which is part
thriller, part political satire, part romance, was due to Astrid’s formidable
presence in Rose’s life.
Some writers treat
their characters as galley slaves. They tell them when to row, where to go and
when to stop. Others live with their characters, have conversations with them,
are guided by them. Rose is in the latter camp. “Yes, my children think that is
strange,” she admits.
known as Ace because as a child she cheated at cards, even came to her in a
dream and suggested — perhaps demanded is a better word — an important
development in the plot.
“That night she
wiped me out with something so shocking it left me sitting up in bed,” Rose
Rose used to argue
with her characters and sometimes try to say no to them, but she has stopped
doing that now and is more comfortable with the relationship as a result.
“I think that’s the
trick, isn’t it? I’m so grateful that Astrid only came at this point (Bruny is
Rose’s fifth novel for adults). I might have tried to push her around if she’d
come earlier, but this time I just let her have her head, and I was shocked by
her so many times.
“She’s quite an
outrageous character and she says things about life, men, politics, ideology,
everything, really, and I would type it all out, look at it and think, ‘I can’t
say that. That’s terrible. And then I’d think, ‘Oh, well, Astrid said it.’ ”
Here’s a good
example, when Astrid, who has two grown children, is thinking back on her
failed marriage: “Everyone should have to get divorced from the person they’re
married to, just to see who that person really is.”
Bruny is Rose’s
first novel since The Museum of Modern Love, centred on Serbian performance
artist Marina Abramovic, which won the 2016 Stella prize. It is also the first
one she has been able to write full time, thanks to the Stella cheque and an
Australia Council grant. Rose, 55, dabbled in modelling and acting when she was
young but has earned her living as an advertising copywriter, then as
co-founder of an award-winning advertising firm, Coo’ee Tasmania. She has three
“The Museum of
Modern Love took me 11 years. It was a very long process. I wrote four other
novels in the meantime, and it was a tedious novel in so many ways. Sorry.
“There was a
gruesomeness to writing it. It was arduous. It took everything, that novel. And
then, it had all the success, which was such a surprise. Then on the back of
that, the Australia Council, for the first time after 10 applications over 23
years, gave me a grant to work on this novel.
“I had already been
coming up with a few thoughts about it and writing scenes and all of that. But
there was something so brilliant about being able to knuckle down with this
idea that the Australia Council had funded me to write a political satire about
explosive set-up, Bruny unfolds as a power and passion drama about family,
loyalty, home, place, politics, foreign investment and love. It is in part a
love letter to the author’s home state.
Yet Tasmania is a
familiar but estranged place for Astrid, who has lived most of her adult life
in New York. She returns to help her twin brother, John, the Liberal premier,
known in the family as JC, a man who can walk on water, who is set to go to the
polls in four months. He has asked her to bring together the opposing sides in
the bridge debate, the established Tasmanians and the greenies versus the
newcomers, the developers and the Chinese investors, so the bridge can be fixed
and opened before the election.
leader, Maxine, is their older sister. She is the one who has continued the
family tradition as she is the Labor leader. Their father, Angus, was a state
Labor MP for decades. JC switched sides.
“If this book is a
love story, it is a love story for my fellow Tasmanians,” Rose says. “There’s
no way I could do justice to this community without talking about the
spectacular visual beauty we live in every day and how much that colours our
“But I also can’t
help but observe Tasmania and what we’re seeing in terms of visitor numbers and
consider what that means in the next five years, in the next 10 years, in the
next 20 years.
“And when I was
writing the book, I was immersed in current affairs, to everything that was
coming out of the US, the UK and here in Australia. I do think it’s important
we have better conversations about our national security planning, about our
long-term economic planning … and about what on earth are we doing about
protecting ourselves from the climate emergency.
“Clearly we do not
have leadership on any of those fronts. One of the things that I enjoyed doing
was looking into the nature of democracy.”
The novel is set in
the near future, which turns it into a delightful guessing game for readers.
Who is the prime minister? (Hint: I think it’s a comeback.) Who is the king of
England? Who is the American president? Who is the bestselling writer-public
intellectual greenie camped on Bruny Island? (Hint: I don’t think it’s Richard
I’m not going to
spoil the fun for readers, so I’ll leave the possible name out in this example.
When I say to Rose that the federal minister for natural protection Aiden
Abbott, better known as Aid-n-Abet, is obviously … she laughs and nods. A
friend of Rose sitting with us chips in. “You’ve been very naughty,” she tells
the author, who laughs some more.
As well as the name
game, other tantalising questions linger from the outset. Who blew up the
bridge? Why? Is it an act of terrorism? Is the brother-sister political
opposition just a front that allows one family — Coleman Inc — to control the
state? Does China have Australia’s interests at heart or are we just part of
its “chequebook colonialism”?
And is Astrid
working for someone else other than the Premier? Early on she notes “I have to
hide the truth, that’s always been my speciality”, and wonders: ‘‘Would I ever
kill for an ideal?” A reader’s impression of what that ideal may be will shift
as the novel goes on.
quotes from Angus are not just there for fun. This novel has Shakespearean
undertones. Readers will think of Lear, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and
especially Hamlet, where one can “smile, and smile, and be a villain”. No one
is exactly who they seem to be.
“It’s beautiful as
a writer to be part of a lineage,” Rose says. “I think as a writer it’s very
hard to ignore the influence of great writing, especially what’s been given to
us in the dramatic realm. And of course Shakespeare is so political.”
intrigue at the centre of this novel is the result of a lot of research. Rose
spoke to friends and contacts who worked in, or had connections to, political
parties, security agencies, government authorities and the UN.
particularly nervous about the scenes where the bridge is blown up, worried
that readers in the know would tell her she didn’t understand the nuts and
bolts of it.
So she made contact
with explosives experts, people similar to her fictional former paratrooper now
bridge foreman who looks like Hemsworth.
“They did come back
to me,” she says, “and were willing to advise me, but on one provision. They
said: ‘This is for a work of fiction, right?’ ”
Bruny, by Heather
Rose, is published by Allen & Unwin (424pp, $32.99).
Some of you may have already discovered the works of Dominic Smith. His latest novel is the Last Painting of Sara De Vos and it’s a beautiful read. Dominic very generously took time to review another book about art in The Australian newspaper. The Museum of Modern Love reviewed in the Australian
Ways to connect with Heather
For all Australian media and event enquiries please contact Christine Farmer at Allen & Unwin, Australia – ChristineF (@) allenandunwin.com. For all other enquiries please contact Heather’s agent, Gaby Naher at Left Bank Literary. Follow Heather on her Twitter, Instagram and You Tube accounts below.