The in­ner life of

In an at­tempt to un­der­stand the bi­og­ra­pher’s task, Vir­ginia Duigan mines her his­tory, writes Rose­mary Sorensen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

VERY soon into the con­ver­sa­tion with Vir­ginia Duigan about her new novel, The Bi­og­ra­pher , we hit a snag. ‘‘ This is very dif­fi­cult over the phone,’’ she says from her home in Syd­ney, to me, her in­ter­viewer, sit­ting in an of­fice in Bris­bane. ‘‘ I don’t know how you do it.’’

Duigan is not mak­ing one of those po­lite com­ments peo­ple who read news­pa­pers and are vaguely in­ter­ested in the me­chan­ics of jour­nal­ism of­ten make. She knows pre­cisely what she means when she points to the dif­fer­ence be­tween a phone in­ter­ro­ga­tion and one con­ducted face to face. For much of her work­ing life, she wrote pre­cisely the kind of fea­ture ar­ti­cle for which she is now be­ing in­ter­viewed, so when she com­ments about the ex­tra dif­fi­culty for the in­ter­viewer, she knows ex­actly what she’s talk­ing about.

The dif­fi­culty, how­ever, turns al­most lu­di­crous, in the true sense of that word, as we both agree this par­tic­u­lar in­ter­view is ex­tra- fraught, be­yond the phone- line lim­i­ta­tion. Duigan’s novel, in essence, is about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the in­ter­viewer and the in­ter­viewed, about the rules and ethics of en­gage­ment. How much should be avail­able for the writer as raw ma­te­rial, her book asks, and at what point does a per­son’s private story be­come pub­lic prop­erty?

And we both know ( but I’m try­ing not to be crass enough to men­tion it) that there is an ex­tra layer to that ques­tion ap­ply­ing to this very tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion. Duigan is mar­ried to film di­rec­tor Bruce Beres­ford. She has writ­ten a book about a wo­man mar­ried to a fa­mous vis­ual artist. There’s a se­cret the wo­man des­per­ately wants to keep hid­den from the bi­og­ra­pher who turns up to in­ter­ro­gate them about their life to­gether.

So, can we read The Bi­og­ra­pher as a ro­man a clef, sift­ing through the char­ac­ters and events to glean in­sights into the lives of peo­ple Duigan has ob­served in the film in­dus­try, and per­haps into her own life?

The most Duigan will con­cede is that the char­ac­ters in The Bi­og­ra­pher are ‘‘ faintly, just a touch, in­spired by’’ peo­ple in her life. ‘‘ It would be ex­cep­tion­ally mis­lead­ing to say they are based on any­one I know, as even if it’s there at the start, they very quickly race off in their own di­rec­tions,’’ Duigan says. ‘‘ One doesn’t re­ally know where th­ese things come from, and all as­pects of your life throw things up, but yes, I guess peo­ple would think that all th­ese ( her life and the novel she’s writ­ten) are con­nected.’’ The Bi­og­ra­pher is Duigan’s sec­ond novel. Her first, Days Like Th­ese , just re­leased in pa­per­back, is a novel about a heart- sore jour­nal­ist who flees to Lon­don, where Duigan be­gan her ca­reer as a writer at the end of the 1960s.

Pub­li­ca­tion of the nov­els has come af­ter a ca­reer first as a fea­ture writer, then as a script writer. A nov­el­ist was what she al­ways wanted to be, from the age of four, she says, when she and her brother, film­maker John Duigan, would stock up on books from the lo­cal li­brary and de­vour them with rel­ish.

They grew up in Lon­don, where their

pilot fa­ther, who was Aus­tralian, had re­mained af­ter World War II to work in the air force. When he was posted to Malaya, Vir­ginia was 15, and she chose to come to board­ing school in Aus­tralia.

‘‘ It had sounded to me ro­man­tic and ex­cit­ing and it was won­der­ful, re­ally, that year be­fore my fam­ily came to Aus­tralia too,’’ Duigan says.

‘‘ I was an ex­treme odd­ity, so I was able to play on that.’’

John, four years younger, did not have the op­tion of board­ing school, and he went to a private school in Malaya where Vir­ginia says he was ‘‘ bul­lied and picked on mer­ci­lessly’’, an ex­pe­ri­ence that con­trib­uted to his be­com­ing ‘‘ an ec­cen­tric and a rebel’’.

Vir­ginia went to the Univer­sity of Melbourne, where she stud­ied lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy, and then took off, as so many young peo­ple did, on the long trip to Lon­don. She re­mem­bers she hardly met sev­eral of her fel­low trav­ellers in the six- berth cabin they shared on the ship, so hec­tic was the pace of the so­cial life on board.

In Lon­don, she took one ca­sual job af­ter an­other, even­tu­ally spend­ing a year as a sup­ply teacher in a tough East End pri­mary school, an ex­pe­ri­ence she de­scribes as ‘‘ op­er­at­ing on a knife edge’’. From the back page of The Times , which used to be a ‘‘ mar­vel­lous source of off­beat ec­cen­tric jobs’’, she landed a spot at a new weekly me­dia mag­a­zine, where she wrote ‘‘ in­ter­est­ing lit­tle pieces about ad­ver­tis­ing and ethics, a bril­liant in­tro­duc­tion to jour­nal­ism as it was quite high- pres­sured and an ex­cel­lent way to learn’’.

Al­though she got a job with The Ob­server a year or so later, she quite quickly went free­lance. ‘‘ I dis­cov­ered I was not so much a team player,’’ she says, with a dry­ness that hints at the way Duigan uses words, cau­tiously but with witty pre­ci­sion. ‘‘ I was also bad at turn­ing up on time.’’

The ar­ray of ex­pe­ri­ences that came her way as

REG­U­LAR read­ers of Liz Byrski know they are in ca­pa­ble hands when they em­bark on a new book from her. She pos­sesses that some­times un­der­rated as­set, the abil­ity to spin a yarn, sus­tain­ing pace and in­ter­est. The books are quick and sat­is­fy­ing, con­sid­er­able boons to a read­er­ship al­ways run­ning out of time.

If yours is an eclec­tic read­ing pro­gram, her latest, Trip of a Life­time , would fit in nicely be­tween, say, Mar­i­lynne Robin­son’s Pulitzer prize- win­ning Gilead and Fred Var­gas’s de­tec­tive mys­tery Have Mercy on Us All , as it did for this reviewer.

But don’t ex­pect any­thing high­brow. If you pre­fer a solid lit­er­ary diet, Byrski’s en­ter­tain­ments are not for you. In her 50s when she started pub­lish­ing nov­els, she felt her own de­mo­graphic was miss­ing in the mar­ket­place. Hence her books abound with women, usu­ally ones who are up against their cir­cum­stances, as those who read Belly Danc­ing for Begin­ners will re­call.

Her main char­ac­ters are mid­dle- class as well as mid­dle- aged or older, and their strug­gles are emo­tional and ex­is­ten­tial. Noth­ing turns on them ex­cept per­sonal hap­pi­ness, and part of Byrski’s skill is that she can en­gage read­ers with their mun­dane lives; in­deed, read­ers may en­joy the recog­ni­tion of their own ex­pe­ri­ence in some of the dilem­mas she lays out. The set­tings are mod­ern Aus­tralian and mostly ur­ban, with familiar back­drops of cof­fee shops, bou­tiques and back gar­dens.

Byrski’s new novel cen­tres on New­castle­based NSW par­lia­men­tar­ian Heather De­laney. She sur­vives a phys­i­cal at­tack but the shock changes her and those around her, her fam­ily and her staff. Not her friends, how­ever, a point Byrski has Heather be­labour: why, she muses sev­eral times, doesn’t she have any friends? Has life in pol­i­tics and a crip­pling lack of con­fi­dence in form­ing a part­ner­ship with a man left her in some way stunted? The an­swer is ir­ri­tat­ingly ob­vi­ous. While she is re­cov­er­ing from her mis­for­tune and her brother Adam is cop­ing with his own claus­tro­pho­bic sit­u­a­tion, the re­tired aunt who has been like a mother to them is hav­ing a whale of a time with a like- minded sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian. Byrski does older women well, and the older man in this book, Ge­orge, is also en­joy­ably sketched.

Honourable men­tion must also be made of Ste­fan, the refugee from Kosovo whose wife and daugh­ter died in a US bomb­ing there. Hence his new start in Syd­ney. And Byrski cap­tures Diane clev­erly: the bit­ter di­vorcee who learns to let go of ran­cour.

But there are false notes or, more pre­cisely, some char­ac­ters who are out of sync. That

in­ad­e­quacy puts pres­sure on the plot to com­pen­sate. Heather’s MP is served up un­der­done and thinly drawn, which af­fects reader sym­pa­thy. On the other hand El­lis, the hard- nosed, self- de­luded ex- bar­ris­ter turned life coach who lives in By­ron Bay, is over- cooked. In pan­tomime au­di­ence style, read­ers want to shout ‘‘ watch out!’’ when­ever he ap­pears. As in­sult to in­jury, he refers to the place ev­ery­one in the know calls By­ron as ‘‘ the Bay’’. Ouch.

Byrski goes for some big themes here. There is the ex­treme vi­o­lence that trig­gers all the ac­tion, ex­ac­er­bated be­cause it is an at­tack on an MP; there is the haunt­ing of mid­dle- aged chil­dren by the un­friendly ghost of a long- dead fa­ther; the ma­lign ef­fects of a hard­line old- time re­li­gion; and be­trayal and ma­nip­u­la­tion. But it all comes and goes with­out much ex­plo­ration.

There are also some odd­i­ties in the plot. The thread of the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion seems heav­ily un­der­played be­cause the cops are wheeled on and off again with­out ever feel­ing as if they are part of the plot. This is un­doubt­edly a missed op­por­tu­nity as well as an im­por­tant over­sight. It also feels some­how dis­re­spect­ful when she in­vokes, ad­mit­tedly in pass­ing, the shoot­ing of a real MP, John New­man, in the Syd­ney sub­urb of Cabra­matta in 1994.

It may be that Byrski is be­com­ing more am­bi­tious for her writ­ing and hasn’t quite worked out yet how to re­alise that in the story. It could be as sim­ple as the need to write a longer book that would ac­com­mo­date more de­tail or would de­velop more lines of the nar­ra­tive. Un­for­tu­nately, pub­lish­ers some­times frown on this un­less the au­thor is Colleen McCul­lough or Bryce Courte­nay. It can’t be that she is run­ning out of sce­nar­ios to play with.

This is not Byrski’s best, but it is still quite en­joy­able, a largely op­ti­mistic tale that holds an au­di­ence. We must have more from some­one who can do that. Jill Row­botham is a se­nior writer with The Aus­tralian.

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