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)

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose

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In her acceptance speech on winning the 2017 Stella Prize (best book by an Australian woman) for this novel Tasmanian author Heather Rose (1964- ) said, “I am sure lots of you are thinking, ‘Who on earth is Heather Rose?’”. Who indeed? There have been quite a lot of reviews of The Museum of Modern Love in this corner of the blogosphere, but it still comes as a surprise, to me, to see that Rose is an established author. Her previous (adult) novels are:

The Museum of Modern Love – Allen & Unwin, 2016
The River Wife – Allen & Unwin, 2009
The Butterfly Man – University Queensland Press, 2005
White Heart – Transworld, 1999

You can see Rose’s upward trajectory in her publishers, and also in her awards: The Butterfly Man – based on the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974 – was long-listed for the IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award, shortlisted for the Nita B Kibble Award and won the 2006 Davitt Award for the Crime Fiction Novel of the Year written by an Australian woman. In 2007 Rose received the Eleanor Dark Fellowship and an Arts Tasmania Wilderness Residency for her novel The River Wife. And as well as the Stella, Rose won the 2017 Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the New South Wales Premier’s Prizes, and the 2017 Margaret Scott Prize  in the Tasmanian Premier’s Prizes for the best book by a Tasmanian author, was shortlisted for the Australian Literary Society medal and the Queensland Premier’s Prizes, and is currently long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award to be announced in 2018.

What I can’t see is any evidence that any of us were aware of her before The Museum of Modern Love. Feel free to contradict me! I have listed below the reviews that led me to immediately put this book on my TBR shelf, but searches of your sites have failed to bring up reviews of any of her earlier work. (Subsequently, Google brought up what a search on her site had not – my incompetence, I’m sure – Kim’s review of The Butterfly Man, and the fact that it is available as an audio book read by Humphrey Bower.)

The Museum of Modern Love is an observation of a performance, The Artist is Present, by Marina Abramović at MoMA, New York in 2010 during which the artist sat at a table, almost completely still, 8 hours a day for 75 days while members of the audience sat opposite her, observing her intently, for lengths of time of their own choosing. The fictional characters are Jane, a recently widowed Georgia school teacher; Arky Levin, a fiftyish composer; Healayas, a tall black woman, ‘raised Muslim in Paris”, a  TV art critic and singer; Brittika, a young Dutch woman of Chinese descent doing her PhD on Abramović; and an ‘I’ who makes an occasional appearance, a spirit who has followed Abramović throughout her life.

The writing is wonderful and if I wished that Jane’s late husband had been a Tasmanian orchardist rather than a Georgia cotton farmer then that is a minor quibble and to do with advertising Aust.Lit to the world rather than a criticism of this work or of Rose. The questions which Rose raises, and addresses, are of course ‘What is Art?’ but also, more surprisingly, ‘What are the duties of a husband?’.

The writing if not ‘experimental’ as I half expected, tells one story for a little while, then another, mixing in Jane at MoMA, meeting Arky, Arky at home, with the reactions of participants in the work, discussions, elements of Abramović’s back-story and so on, all the while steadily making its way through the 75 days, and still it is a very easy book to read, one of those novels where you are always eager for the next page.

A lot of the ‘fill’ is about Art, to the extent that it is quite often in the foreground, and Jane and Brittika and to some extent Healayas, are vehicles for that. The narrative tension is around Levin’s wife – or Levin’s inability to deal with the situation of his wife – Lydia, a wildly successful architect, and so an artist in her own right, who has an illness and then a stroke which has sent her into a coma, and she, who has managed every aspect of their married life, is now incommunicado in a nursing home in the Hamptons with a restraining order preventing him from a visiting her, and medical power of attorney vested in their med. student daughter Alice.

He has been a ‘good husband’ – though Lydia is clearly both provider and organiser – but lost in his music, often busy at times when Lydia and Alice are together. We men try hard to be good husbands and fathers, but we try in between doing other stuff, work and education and sport, while women rarely ever try, they just are. Wives and mothers is who they are first and foremost.

That’s enough about the story, which in any case, as Brona points out, is more than adequately covered elsewhere. So, what is Art? Don’t answer Art is Beauty as so many do, because then I will ask you is Romeo and Juliet Art? Of course, you will say, it is beautiful. And what about Romeo and Juliet if it was written by that roomful of monkeys with typewriters. Or if all Shakespeare was in fact electrical appliance instruction manuals written by Martians. Or I might ask is this Rembrandt Art? And what about this clever fake which looks exactly the same? Is it Art? The point is that Art is about Intention. It is the artist’s response to a discussion which has been going on for as long as we got up off all fours. Mind you Abramović has a performance titled Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful so maybe she disagrees.

So is The Artist is Present Art? As Rose illustrates in some detail, it is both a step forward in Abramović’s own artistic output and a statement in that branch of the discussion featuring, for example, Christo and Tracey Emin. The performance both tells us things about human nature which we hadn’t thought about in that way before, and is a new way of telling it.

In posts and comments we sometimes discuss portrayals of the Holocaust, and if indeed new imaginings should even be attempted (I mostly think not). Rose has this to say, talking about Abramović who was born in the former Yugoslavia and her piece Balkan Baroque (1997):

It was her own form of outrage and lament and possibly farewell to a country she had loved.

‘I am only interested in art which can change the ideology of society,’ Marina said at the ceremony to award her the Golden Lion.

Francesca understood some of that. She was German. It was enough to simply say that. She was German and nothing could take away the things that statement had come to mean since Hitler.

Rose here demonstrates, Abramović demonstrates, 800,000 visitors over 75 days demonstrate that art is important. Meanwhile Arky thinks that with his daughter away at uni his job as father is done. He will find, as do we all, that it never is. What a marvellous book!

 

Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2016

see also, other reviews:
Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here)
Sue at Whispering Gums (here)
Kim at Reading Matters (here), The Butterfly Man (here)
Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)
Brona at Brona’s Books (here) – also an excellent review of the artworks in TMoML

Heather Rose’s speech: “Some men are intimidated when women step into their magnificence”. Guardian 19 Apr 2017 (here)