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.

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