This book deserves more attention.
The concept is excellent. A fictional artist, Edna Cranmer, and her unnamed biographer, alternating time periods to tell their interwoven lives. It subtly tackles class boundaries, the status of women, and the complex relationship between memory, legacy, and truth.
The way the story moves and flows and drops hints, then suggestions, remains engaging throughout, before finally revealing what was going on the whole time. Mostly. We’re left with a little bit of mystery.
But the descriptions of Geelong bothered me. They wouldn’t bother people who don’t know Geelong. They wouldn’t know that to drive down the highway, past Ford, along Malop St, and to a brick veneer house in the “suburb at the bottom of the hill”, flatlands by the bay, you’re probably in Newcomb and therefore unlikely to be strolling around Geelong West every night. (You could. But you probably wouldn’t.) And it’s unlikely Matthew Flinders girls would be at the same inter school swimming carnival as Geelong Grammar.
Details, of course, but there’s such beautiful detail going into describing fictional paintings that it’s disappointing the same detail didn’t go into the real-life setting.
However, although distracting for a reader whose history is also intertwined with the city, these elements serve an important purpose of communicating the theme of social class. The juxtaposition of the brick veneer at the bottom of the hill to the ornate, secluded house at the top.
Despite the pesky details, it still brought a warmth to read a book set in my hometown during my lifetime. The streets are familiar. The mood is familiar. The childish belief that the You Yangs are mountains is familiar.
The biographer’s feeling towards the city of her childhood accurately describes the often awkward and clumsy relationship we sometimes have with our hometowns. That I had with my own hometown in my teenage years.
The references to Ford and the Cats became tired and kitsch very quickly, but I understand that’s how people outside the city recognise Geelong. It’s like making sure readers know a book is set in Melbourne because of omnipresent references to coffee and the weather.
By creating a fictional artist, the novel has created its own world, a parallel world. Perhaps this is why the descriptions of Geelong are off, because they didn’t occur in my Geelong, they occurred in Edna Cranmer’s Geelong.