Bruny, Heather Rose

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Tas]

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Bruny is a political thriller set a couple of years in the future – after the next US presidential election, which the present incumbent wins, and by which time Rose thinks our own “head of state” will be a king rather than a queen – in little, out of the way Tasmania. As a follow up to The Museum of Modern Love it is, initially at least, a disappointment. How could Heather Rose, the author of one of the finest literary works of this decade, descend to writing a thriller? Money? Maybe, but if so, if I were she, I would have used a different name, kept ‘Heather Rose’ as the literary brand, and used say ‘Robert Galbraith’ for pot-boilers, well that name’s taken, but you get my drift.

But I think rather, that Rose’s ambition might have been to write a literary political thriller, and while I don’t think she quite carried that off, by the end I thought she came a lot closer than I expected, and along the way discussed a lot of interesting politics that doesn’t generally see the light of day in novels. That said, I wasn’t thrilled with the politics of her ending – the idea that it might be a good thing for a cabal of dedicated democrats within the CIA to intervene in Australian politics.

The newspaper reviews almost universally categorise Bruny as political satire: “a literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit”, which is just plain illiterate. Rose’s latest is in fact just one of the many recent works of Australian literary fiction to approach our present state of desperation through Science Fiction – extrapolating from today into an imagined, dire future.

Bruny is the name of a largish island, about 50km long, south of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, and separated from the mainland (ie. Tasmania) by a narrow channel. It has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents but many Hobart people maintain shacks on the island for weekend getaways. The premise of the novel is that an extravagant suspension bridge, supporting a 6-lane carriageway, is being built to the island with $2bil from the Commonwealth government, ostensibly to bring in more tourists.

The novel begins with terrorists attaching explosives to the supporting pylons and bringing one of them down, before escaping in a sophisticated stealth speedboat. The protagonist, UN conciliation specialist Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is contacted by the Premier of Tasmania, her brother John “JC” Coleman, and the Leader of the Opposition, her sister Maxine “Max” Coleman – yes, a little bit of satire there about Tasmania’s incestuously close population, but that’s where it ends – to come home from New York and smooth over opposition to the damaged bridge being rebuilt in time for the next election.

There’s a lot of character development, not as much as in a novel about relationships, but plenty given that it’s a plot-driven rather than a character driven novel. Astrid Coleman is a divorcee, with two university aged children, after a long, unsatisfactory marriage to a Jamaican man. JC’s wife Stephanie is the perfect political wife, but with hidden depths. Max is single. JC by the way is Liberal and Max Labor. Their parents are both dying but are an interesting presence throughout. There are various slimy political types. Then there’s Dan, bridge foreman and honest Aussie bloke. And there are various Greens and protestors who initially seem important, but mostly fade out as the story proceeds.

The tension, to the extent there is any tension, is to do with the Chinese. To what extent has the $2bil been sourced from China? What are China’s ambitions in and for Tasmania? Entities connected with the Chinese government have been buying up large tracts of farmland and housing. They have paid for Hobart airport to be extended so that fresh milk may be freighted direct to Beijing. The first payoff comes with the announcement that bridge rebuilding will be facilitated by Chinese workers, the thin end of a wedge that permits Australian mines to also import cheap Chinese labour (ignoring that there is already a large iron ore mine in WA, Cape Preston, with its own secluded port facilities, all owned and manned entirely by Chinese). But above all, what is motivating the Tasmanian state government? What’s in it for JC?

I’ve watched the government do deal after deal that’s bad for Tasmanians. Most everything done here in the past hundred years has made future generations poorer. Tasmanians have voted for it, believed in the rhetoric, and called it progress. What does Tasmania have to show for all those lost forests? All the polluted waterways? The overrun national parks and lost wilderness? There are tourists swarming over every last inch of the place. And now we’re going to lose Bruny too. One of the last truly remote, beautiful, liveable places in the world.

The bridge is resurrected. Coleman moves among all the players, calming them down, gathering information. Election day approaches, and with it the official opening of the bridge. The more Coleman learns the less happy she becomes. A hurricane makes its way down the coast …

Along the way Rose gets in digs at unsatisfactory husbands, election funding (non-)disclosure laws, Tasmania’s family-owned gambling monopoly, salmon farming trashing Tasmanian waters, and some words of love for MONA (ironically, funded by a successful poker professional). It’s a good read, but not important, not in the way that The Museum of Modern Love was.

 

Heather Rose, Bruny, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

And that’s Bingo! The books I reviewed for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth were –

Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Result [Vic] (here)
About Canberra [ACT] (here)
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend [NSW] (here)
Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River [Qld] (here)
Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing [NT] (here)
Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey [WA] (here)
Peter Goldsworthy, Wish [SA] (here)
Heather Rose, Bruny [Tas]
Keith Cole, Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission [Free] (here)

11 thoughts on “Bruny, Heather Rose

  1. Your last sentence is a good summation.
    Except that the most ‘important’ element of this book is the overt message about being wary of the Chinese, and (as you know since you read my review) I am a bit uneasy about that.

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    • You and I had this discussion recently. I agree with Rose – the way the Chinese use companies as an arm of state power, is not unprecedented, but certainly something our foreign investment laws are not designed to deal with. The only real comparison is the British East India Company, but that was much more overt.

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  2. I keep hovering over this in the book shop but then moving on… My Museum of Modern Love experience pulls me back – it was an extraordinary book and one that I keep thinking about – but the subject matter of Bruny does NOTHING to entice me. Thanks for your thorough review – I’ve decided that I will bypass Bruny (unless it turns up on the Stella list next year!).

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    • I think you’re right. Bruny won’t make you think less of TMoML, and it’s a quite good read with some interesting aspects, but I really should have purchased/read Too Much Lip and Boy Swallows Universe first. (Shame they weren’t set in Tas.)

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  3. I’ll come back and read this in detail, and comment, when I read this myself, which I will be doing in the next few months. A couple at my reading group had read it, including a Tasmanian, and they enjoyed it but in a lighter sort of way, which I sense from your opening and closing para is how you feel.

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  4. I keep wavering about whether I will read this or not. Topic is not my usual fare, but I do like books set in Tassie and I did adore TMOML.
    Considering the outlandish size of my TBR pile and your so-so review, I think I can safely keep this one for later.

    Congrats on completing your AusReadingMonth bingo card. I sat down to write my round up post & realised I had forgotten the ACT!

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    • Plenty of Sydney politicians who would like to forget Canberra, every year they sneak another function into Sydney to make it the defacto capital. Now you’ll just have to come third after Nancy and me. As for the topic, I’m sure Heather Rose would make a very good Ian Rankin or Peter Temple, but what a waste! When she’s demonstrated she can do so much better.

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  5. One problem I see with genre novels is the way they are largely read in secret, even though they have strong readership and devoted fans that love the genre. Then, we get one novel that is very smartly done in the genre, and everyone tries to copycat. Take Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, for example. She wrote a smart, twisty, perplexing novel that comments on gender performance in a meaningful way. Now everyone has a _____ Girl novel, and they’re all pretty….boring. Predictable. Kind of like what devote fans were reading before, but not as fun because authors are trying to capitalize on a success story. I wonder if this author could have written something smarter, yet still a thriller, and done well.

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    • Heather Rose is definitely a good writer and if I were going to recommend an Australian book to an overseas reader then her previous novel, The Museum of Modern Love, would be way up there. This time, I’m not sure if she’s using the thriller genre because she wanted to give it a try; or if she had things she wanted to say about politics and about Chinese expansionism in particular, and it just turned into a genre novel along the way.

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