The inner life of
In an attempt to understand the biographer’s task, Virginia Duigan mines her history, writes Rosemary Sorensen
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.