West Block, Sara Dowse

AusReading Month 2021

West Block (1983) has been on my shelves for years, but at last this year it is my ACT square for Brona’s AusReading Month. By accident – the accident of forgetting which month it was – I read it a month ago, but I can assure you Bron it was genuinely written up in November, in the last couple of days.

As it happens, the novel has recently been re-released – see Sue/Whispering Gums’ review and discussion (here and here).

Sue, of course, lives in Canberra and gets that warm glow of reading a novel set in a place you know well. I have only ever been a passer through, though for a very long time, as my father’s father was a Commonwealth public servant and we would holiday there off and on through the 1950s and 60s (back when Lake Burley Griffen was just paddocks). Since, I have visited occasionally as a truck driver, a tourist, on the way from Sydney to the snowfields, and for one week, as a competitor in the 1997 Masters Games.

Sara Dowse (1938- ) wrote West Block from her experience as a senior public servant, inaugural head of the first women’s unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, under Prime Ministers Whitlam and Fraser, until the unit was downgraded by Fraser in 1977 and she resigned. (For non-Australians: the Conservative Fraser conspired with the Governor General, representing the Queen, and no doubt with ASIO and the CIA, to depose the reformist Government of Gough Whitlam, in November 1975).

[Harland] had looked suspect enough to the new Prime Minister. Not that he had been associated too much with the old one. That, ironically, was the trouble. Not even Labor had wanted him, or so the thinking would go… He had been passed over. There must have been good reason. So he was passed over again. Harland burned in the relentless logic of it all.

I remember my father saying the same thing about the new Labor government in Victoria, a few years later. All the senior people in the Education Dept, where he was, were tarred by their association with the previous Liberal government, although apparently a number of them, not him!, were Labor by inclination.

This is one of those books where each chapter is devoted to one character and we only slowly come to understand the interactions between them. Harland is a deputy in PMC, we meet his subordinates, his wife, his daughter. By the end of the first chapter the Head of the Department has died and Harland is the new boss, despite his fears. (The actual Secretary of the Department from 1976-78 was Alan Carmody, whom I don’t remember).

The next chapter follows another man from the Department, Beeker, following the PM around Europe spruiking uranium sales. We slip back a few years, Catherine is working in Immigration, helping to place refugees from Vietnam.

At night, alone in her bed, the radio beside her tuned in to ‘Music till Midnight’ …

God, that takes me back. My introduction to jazz, to the wonderful Blossom Dearie, years of listening for half an hour before I went to sleep.

Catherine likes to move around the West Block, to take her afternoon tea with Cassie’s Women’s Equality Branch, but although Cassie is at the heart of the novel we stay with Catherine, her friendship with a Vietnamese family, her promotion into PMC, going to Vietnam before/during the fall of Saigon to oversee orphans being adopted by Australians.

Jonathon, another public servant (of course) finds that his on-off girlfriend Bronwyn is going to have their baby, whether he’s involved or not. He starts seeing a therapist.

Cassie lives with her son and daughter, and her mother (her partner, a truckie, has disappeared up north). She keeps an exercise book writing journal, so we get excerpts from that too. And all the ins and outs of an underfunded, shabbily housed, disregarded and demoralized branch.

They had been part of it, early in the decade. That passionate groundswell among women who’d had their fill. They met in houses and halls, marched in streets, leaned on each other to defend themselves against ridicule. This new generation that had rescued feminism…
But now they were left with this bitterness.

The branch is being ‘reviewed’. It all comes to a head.

West Block is an interesting work, a first novel by a woman in her forties, who has clearly done a lot, read a lot, has thought about how to advance ‘the novel’ beyond the modernism of say, Eleanor Dark, though without going so far as post-modernism. As we look at more Gen 4 novels, I think this will prove typical. We almost have to construct the story ourselves, from the fragments we are offered. Did I like it? I think so. As a constant consumer of politics it all felt very familiar. I was disappointed by the ending, but Dowse was there, and obviously that’s how she saw it.

.

Sara Dowse, West Block, Penguin, Melbourne, 1983. 290pp.

28 thoughts on “West Block, Sara Dowse

  1. Enjoyed your write-up Bill and particularly your summation re style, and modernism / post-modernism. I like the way you put that we have to construct the story ourselves. As a reader, I tend to enjoy that – I guess it is why I often like connected short stories – because it keeps your brain engaged as you read. It’s also risky, I suppose, because you might construct a story different to the one intended by the author.

    Music to Midnight! Yes, that took me back to to my student years and listening before I went to bed, though it didn’t really endear me to jazz music as a whole. These days I have a love-hate relationship with jazz. Sometimes it feels like jazz musicians become so engrossed in what they are doing they forget there’s an audience. Does that make me shallow?

    One day I should try Brona’s book bingo.

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    • I’m afraid it does, Sue. Serious people understand jazz. Of course, as an only occasional listener I’m on your side of the fence. The other great ABC music programme was Room to Move – I drove out of Brisbane one evening, in a torrential storm, with RtM thumping out the whole of In the Court of the Crimson King.

      I am really going to struggle with the theory behind AWW Gen 4, and perhaps I should have given more thought to using West Block as a lead in for that (I’d better settle on a date and write a reminder post).

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      • Haha Bill, in our defence, I wouldn’t necessarily say serious people but I’ll accept serious “musicians”. There’s a lot of (some) jazz I like but when it gets technical and long , it often loses me.

        I was going lo check your Gen 4 phge because I haven’t got my head around it. I think West Block as a lead in is probably inspired.

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      • My truck is at the doctor’s for a couple of days (brake problem) in which time I hope to write two more AusReading posts, another Such is Life, a finalized North American reading list for next year, and an AWW Gen 4 reminder post. And my Jul-Sep quarterly accounts. The result of all that pressure being more rather than fewer time-offs for Solitaire and Killer (Sudoku).

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      • Ahh a group of people who have a love/hate relationship with jazz – I’m in! The Blossom Dearie link was appreciated though as I made my morning cuppa – what a sweet voice.

        Bill I have no complaints or compunction or expectations about when books should be read and reviewed. – there is NO pressure whatsoever.

        I read at least six of my books that I will posting about this month, last month. It’s the only way I can make it work. And even then, I suspect I have stuffed up my bingo card again. Attention to detail is not always my forte. Or maybe I have completion issues 🙂

        Which is my long way of saying, well done for finding a book set in the ACT. Politics is not one of my favourite reading genres, so finding books simply set in the territory is somewhat harder.

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    • No, swimming’s the only one. We had rooms in the AIS. The big thrill was seeing Alexander Popov train, the saddest was seeing all the little girls sent away to become gymnasts; and the nicest was to be surrounded wherever you went by clusters of healthy, ruddy, thirtiesh women, from every small country town, clearly excited to be away from home duties for a week, for the netball.

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  2. I like books that we have to construct too.
    To me, they are more realistic, because that’s how life is. We don’t have the whole picture, and events don’t move in neat chronological order. and we just have to do the best we can to make sense of things.

    BTW I found out today why I’m making so many typos with missing letters. There’s a nerve that operates the thumb and first two fingers, and if it’s mushed like mine is, then your brain tells the finger to type a certain letter, but the finger doesn’t quite connect. I have some new exercises to do now, to whip it back into shape…

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  3. What an interesting read. I used to go to sleep to Humphrey Lyttleton’s Best Part of an Hour of Jazz when I was young (snappy title!) but it was more big band and traditional stuff, less noodling for the sake of it. I went to see some jazz in the foyer of Symphony Hall decades later and did not know when to clap!

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    • I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a jazz concert. And I never know when to clap – though I never clap in pregnant pauses, I always wait until the clapping becomes general. And now it seems there are points in rock concerts where it is de rigueur to stand up. I’m not very good at that either (and I have never danced in an aisle).

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  4. This sounds like a much more serious sort of Eleanor Dark novel, as both Lantana Lane and West Block have interlinking stories that make up a larger picture. It also reminds me of Bonfires of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, which I believe you would enjoy, that has several perspectives around a rich white man and his mistress running over and killing a young black man in the Bronx (a black neighborhood) when the white man assumed the young black man was going to rob him. It’s a whole world around pubic defenders and politics and news media and who protests publicly and why. Biscuit and I read it together and loved it.

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    • I really must read Lantana Lane (and Bonfires of the Vanities – I’ll see if the WA library has it on audio. No nothing – I have largely ignored the titans of post-War US writing, including Roth, who has been in the air recently). I forgot too that Sue/WG had written that Dowse took her cue from Dos Passos.

      I am really going to struggle making the step up from pre-War Modernism to whatever was new in the 70s and 80s but not explicitly Postmodern. I have a book called ’20th Century Literary Criticism’, but it was published in 1967.

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      • Based on what I see on Wikipedia, you have the Beat Movement, the Spoken Word Movement, the New York School, New Wave Science Fiction, etc. Looks like it just depends on how specific you want to get it you’re not looking for postmodernism.

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      • Thanks Melanie. I think we had one or two ‘Beat’ influenced writers in Australia – Mudrooroo and William Dick – but no women that I can think of, Justine Ettler, who was influenced by Kathy Acker, is a bit late for Gen 4. New Wave SF I might look up just for the pleasure of it. I’m hoping the Australian Literary Studies Journal will give me a lead in.

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    • I’m a one POV for the whole novel sort of guy. I don’t think Brona even put up a card this year, I’m just playing anyway. Could thing you or Naomi don’t put one up for that portion of North America currently known as Canada or I’d have to learn the names of all the states, sorry, provinces. I am improving, I spent the whole of last week in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

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