City of Women, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland


Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976),  A Woman of the Future (1979) and City of Women (1981) are his fifth, sixth and seventh novels. Before came Burn (1974) a fictionalised life of an Aboriginal VC winner which I found unbearably racist, and after came Archimedes and the Seagle (1984) which I found twee first time around but which I suppose I must one day attempt to re-read.

I mention the three together not because they make up a trilogy but because thematically they form a triangle of intersecting issues. So, The Glass Canoe is a series of linked stories about the drinkers in a working man’s hotel, basically an exploration of the culture of (white, Australian) blokes. A Woman of the Future is a surreal story from the point of view of one young woman –

… sketches of her moral upbringing and of a dystopian suburbia in which her neighbours suffer an inexplicable wave of biological mutations.

She is compelled to explore and observe the limits of her organism, including sexual free will in which masturbation, incest and masochism each have their place.

Bonny Cassidy, Sydney Review of Books, May 2018 (here)

In City of Women Ireland again attempts a woman’s point of view, this time an older woman, Billie, who lives in a flat in central Sydney, a Sydney from which men are barred from entering by (female) armed guards. The story is very similar to The Glass Canoe, both in structure – a series of linked stories about drinkers at The Lover’s Arms, and in the celebration of a love who is effectively off-stage.

Sydney CBD 2019 (not much changed since 1981) (c) Google Maps

The Lover’s Arms is in Cathedral St, on the right of the map, at the bottom of the yellow freeway section. Billie’s flat is a little further south, near William St (the thick white street running east-west) and must be quite high up. Strictly, this area is Woolloomooloo, once an old working class area around the wharves, and the CBD proper is on the other side of the parks (I think. I’m not a Sydney person).

Out of my window … I look across to the brown cathedral [St Mary’s], the deep green foliage of the Sydney Domain, below me to the school, across again to the steel-blue harbour, the pastel colours of the Woolloomooloo terraces.

Billie mourns her missing love, Bobbie, in a series of asides in which we see Bobbie both as daughter and as lover. She has been adopted by a leopard whom she also names Bobbie so she may continue to use the name. She walks Bobbie around Sydney on a leash and takes her to the Lover’s Arms, and talks to her almost constantly.

I think it is very unlikely that Ireland is attempting to use this format as a way of better understanding women. Rather, by putting women in the position of men, he is again shining a light on Australian working men’s culture, as he did in The Glass Canoe and more famously in The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (which I must re-reread and write up next).

Billie was an engineer with the Water Board, made redundant, and is now at 62, a therapist. Bobbie studied engineering to work with her but has gone away.

My engineer is at the back of beyond. I thought I held her like a bird in my hand, happy to be there.

The women drinkers are tough old birds, or sometimes young, with a wide range of strange illnesses..

Donna McDevitt is a miser, a woman of great debility… she’s eighty-seven… Doctors had treated her at various times for head bounce, foot fester, labial pus, tongue crumble, lung quake, hand bunching, nipple destruction: she was a walking catalogue of decay.

Billie tells their stories – do they build? It’s hard to say. We gradually form a picture of an inner Sydney where all the manual labour is done by women, where women have walked away from husbands and children, where renegades will sometimes go ‘outside’ for sex with men and are shunned, where marriages are between women, and children somehow come about, where women get men “into trouble”.

The unifying story in the background is that there is a rapist, Old Man Death, who abducts women and cuts them, depositing his semen in the cavity and then sewing it up. What is the point of this? Who knows. Perhaps it is Ireland releasing his inner misogynist. It certainly involves a fair amount of gratuitous violence.

The Glass Canoe ends with the redevelopment, gentrification of the men’s pub, the Southern Cross and likewise the City of Women seems to come to an end too. Not with the closure of the pub but with the ageing and dying out of the women. Ireland has been describing a period in time now past, when drinkers were tribal, barely troubled by outsiders. By 1981 Gough Whitlam had been and gone but Ireland’s drinkers still seem to be of the generation that voted futilely for Arthur Calwell.*


David Ireland, City of Women, Allen Lane, Melbourne, 1981. Cover illustration and design Helen Semmler (the cover illustration goes on round the back, ie. to the left, but I couldn’t find an image of it).

* The election of the Gough Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 marked Australia’s coming of age as an interesting, multi-cultural nation. Whitlam’s predecessor as Labor leader, Arthur Calwell had enforced the white-Australia policy as Minister for Immigration in the Chifley Labor government, before heading into 23 years on the opposition benches.

11 thoughts on “City of Women, David Ireland

  1. LOL Bill, I remember when you reviewed your previous Ireland that I made promises (to myself, if not to you) that I would read A Woman of the Future, and it is still glaring at me from my Read ASAP pile…


    • I saw that promise when I was checking back through earlier posts. Still, we won’t hold you to it. Welcome back to Oz, hope your garden and your dog are as you left them. My lemon tree suffers if I’m gone more than 10 days or so.


      • Alas, Amber couldn’t maintain patrols while she was on holiday, so the possums demolished two capsicum plants, one of the celery, half of a rose bush and a good few lemons. Order is still in the process of being restored…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read any Ireland and not sure I can when: “unifying story in the background is that there is a rapist”.

    What can we tolerate when we read? I can read about death and grief – I seek people’s grief experience in memoirs – but I draw the line at rape. There was an unexpected scene in an Eason Ellis book years ago that stays with me in the worst way. I’m currently reading Marlon James’s ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ and finding the gun violence in the story hard going, and the references to rape almost unbearable – I’m giving it another 50 pages but I may have to abandon.

    So, thank you for indirectly warning me off Ireland.


    • That’s ok, I can understand that there are some things you don’t need to see – and in fact I think most violence in books and all violence on film is gratuitous. In the three books I grouped, violence is done to women, and I think at the very least Ireland is saying that the world is a dangerous place for women, but I’m not sure he’s saying it shouldn’t be.


  3. I absolutely love that cover image. The story of a person walking around with a leopard on a leash sounds like the stuff of a short story. Then again, the way you describe this author’s work, it almost sounds like he’s writing short stories that go together, so maybe short stories are his thing.


    • Since reading Richard Brautigan many year ago I’ve often thought that if I wrote I think I’d write in the same way, short connected but not continuous chapters. I don’t think Ireland has published any short stories, not as a collection anyway. In many ways the leopard ties the novel together, both in standing in for the absent love and as presaging the end of the City. Also Ireland might have a thing about big cats, the young woman in A Woman of the Future turns into a panther.

      Liked by 1 person

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