The Place on Dalhousie, Melina Marchetta

Talk about getting what you wished for! I wrote a few weeks ago, in comments after Saving Francesca that “I’d be interested to read a Melina Marchetta that covered the next few years, 17,18 through to mid twenties like say Normal People, though perhaps her style would be too gentle.” The Place on Dalhousie is Marchetta’s latest and here is a quote from p.4.

And that’s all it takes. A couple of drinks and she’s back in some strange guy’s room, upstairs at the pub. His calloused fingers find their way between her legs and she realises she’s going to spend another night of her life screwing a guy she doesn’t know. Makes her feel as if she can’t climb out of the bat cave, and the bleakness is smothering.

‘She’ is Rosie, 19 year old daughter of Sicilian immigrants, passing through a central Queensland town (probably based on Theodore, 560 km NW of Brisbane). Her life is a mess. Her mother has died of cancer. Her father who spent years rebuilding the old house ‘on Dalhousie’ in inner western Sydney, has remarried, to Martha, the daughter of German immigrants, and then been killed in a traffic accident. The guy she doesn’t know is Jimmy. They spend the next week or so helping residents deal with a major flood, then go their separate ways.

We move on a couple of years. Martha, forty-ish, is dealing with a stressful job, with being a widow, with a girl upstairs with a screaming baby, with a girl upstairs who won’t talk to her but insists that the house is hers. Her best friend gets her to join a netball team with some of their old class mates, most of whom she has spent the last twenty years avoiding. Marchetta it seems, is big on the bonds formed at school.

Jimmy responds 15 months late to the text informing him he is a father. He is now working on the mines up north, week on, week off. Rosie is not impressed but Jimmy hangs around, couch surfing when he can get down to Sydney, with his own old schoolmates from inner-western Sydney. At some stage my goldfish brain finally catches on – twenty-something Jimmy and Frankie and Tara and so on are the 17 year-olds from Saving Francesca.

Poor Jimmy has to work very hard to convince Rosie he’s worth bothering with.

She holds out the crying kid for Jimmy to take, but he doesn’t.
‘When he gets used to me, maybe,’ he says.
Rosie cradles the sobbing baby, but it doesn’t seem to help. And that’s it for the day. No more talking, just a lot of standing around and soaking in the mess.

Martha has a love interest. She has sex with a football hero/older brother of one of her classmates in the back seat of his (presumably dual cab) ute after a funeral, and two or three times after. Yes, they do have homes, they just seem to have a thing about reliving their, twenty years previous, school days.

The football hero guy is also their netball coach, so that makes one plot line. The ups and downs of Jimmy and Rosie being parents and learning to talk to each other, makes another. Then, we get bits and pieces of the lives of the Saving Francesca crowd (whom I read were also in another novel, The Piper’s Son), and of the Sydney inner-west Italian community to which both Frankie (Francesca) and Rosie belong, so there’s plenty going on.

Rosie joins a new mothers group for support from which she and another couple of misfits (ie. non-Anglos) are shunted, and as they get over their prickliness they form a support group of their own. She starts working in an old people’s home and of course that’s the home where football guy, whom she doesn’t know at that stage, places his father. There’s ongoing background hum about a lost Monaro which eventually stretches concidence even further. But mostly it’s just an easygoing story of people and their lives, intertwined in ways that I as a constant moving-onner find both interesting and a bit unbelievable.

No, it’s not literary fiction – I may finally get a mention in the AWCC General fiction round-up (I think I missed out with Jane Harper and Liane Moriarty) – but nevertheless an interesting step up from the schoolgirls of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.

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Melina Marchetta, The Place on Dalhousie, Penguin Random House, Melbourne, 2019. 277pp.

Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

Facts must be faced. I read like a girl. I got home yesterday, after eight 16 hour days of work, which is standard, tired out of my brain, had a shower, a drink, answered the easier emails, picked up a comfort read from the shelf where it had been sitting for the last couple of years, plunged right in, watched a bit of footy, the wrong side was winning, went to bed, read on until the book was finished.

The book? Saving Francesca (2003), as of course you can see, very well written feel-good fiction for teenage girls. And aged truck drivers. Well, aged truck drivers who also read Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables.

Which reminds me, Theresa Smith, in comments on a Whispering Gums post, has set me the task of reading up on Georgette Heyer’s old fashioned rightwingedness and particularly her overt anti-semitism, which I will do, though I must say I am surprised. Is it just the equating of money lending and Jewishness – and I say ‘just’ because that is unavoidable in much older fiction – or is there more? To which I have been oblivious. We will see.

Melina Marchetta (1965- ) was a history/language teacher in a Sydney boys school but is now a full time writer, no doubt following the success of her first book (and movie) Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Saving Francesca was her second and she has since written four or five others including The Piper’s Son (2010) which is apparently based around one of the boys in Saving Francesca.

I read Looking for Alibrandi some years ago, saw the movie on TV, enjoyed them both, was happy to pick up Saving Francesca when I saw it second-hand, to save for a rainy day.

Francesca is 16, starting Year 11 in the first cohort of girls in an inner-Sydney Catholic boys high school. She, Tara, Siobhan, and Justine, all ‘outsiders’, are the only girls from her old school and all her friendship group have gone on to a different school.

This morning my mother didn’t get out of bed.

Opening line

Mother, Mia is a livewire, a feminist, a university lecturer. Robert, husband, father, is laid-back, a builder. They were childhood sweethearts, and lovers it turns out, married young. It’s the sort of family where Francesca and her younger brother lie on their parents’ bed, talking to their mother late into the night while Robert sleeps and snores; where it is unremarkable, a bit gross maybe, to see each other naked.

So Mia not getting out of bed is a big deal, and it goes on for most of Francesca’s Year 11. A year of working out who your friends are – you might think there would be a ‘villain’ amongst the boys, but there’s not. They are just as awkward as the girls. And it slowly becomes apparent that the awkwardest of them have their virtues, hidden behind boy-grossness of course.

I miss … Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”
I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

Slowly, Francesca becomes aware that she and the other outsider girls have formed a friendship group, is surprised again, later in the year, to find that their group includes boys. It’s very well done.

Meanwhile, Mia’s depression is not being named, not being discussed, not being treated. Robert monopolizes Mia, willing her to snap out of it, bewildered when she doesn’t, refusing to discuss her illness with Francesca. But Francesca too is an unreliable narrator here, unaware that her own silence about Mia is making her unwell. As you might expect from a teacher-author, some of the teachers cut Francesca a lot of slack, and she spends days asleep in one teacher’s office. At least that teacher finally gets Francesca to see a counsellor.

Gradually, we see from their reactions – though it is not clear Francesca realizes this – that the other kids are aware of what Francesca is dealing with, and they too cut her some slack.

Only at the end, it comes out that her parents have been keeping a big secret (and I don’t think it’s in character that Mia would). Francesca has a fight with her father …

“You keep her all to yourself. You think you can fix everything by forgetting about it but you just make things worse. It’s all your fault. You’ve kept her sick, because you don’t know how to handle it. Because you’re a weakling. Everyone says you are, and I believe it and Mummy could have done better than you and I don’t know why you don’t fuck off now before you make it worse.”

… runs off, ends up in an outer suburban police station, is picked up by her father, talks to him, sits on her bed talking all night to her friends, the love interest thing is dealt with (I’ve been ignoring it).

It’s fun. Not preachy. Not overwhelmed by ‘issues’. A year in a life with lots of stuff going on, growing up getting done. Inner-western Sydney just lightly pencilled in. A happy-ish, realistic ending. Highly recommended.

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Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca, Penguin, Melbourne, 2003