Old money and fron­tiers a vet­er­ans’ af­fair

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

“See how the world its vet­er­ans re­wards”, Alexan­der Pope wrote, and added: “A Youth of folly, an old age at cards”. That the three nov­el­ists con­sid­ered here are vet­er­ans is in­dis­putable, but there has been noth­ing fool­ish or idle about the suc­ces­sive ca­reers each has pur­sued. Ian Cal­li­nan (born 1937) was a judge of the High Court and co­in­ci­den­tally, and then sub­se­quently, the author of plays and nov­els. Belvedere Woman is his 10th work of fiction.

While work­ing as a lawyer in Perth, Ni­cholas Hasluck (born 1942) wrote po­etry, short sto­ries and nov­els, of which Quar­an­tine (1978) was the first. The Brad­shaw Case is the 13th.

Don Aitkin, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist who be­came vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Can­berra, pub­lished his first work of fiction, The Sec­ond Chair (one of that rare species here, the cam­pus novel), in 1977. It was 38 years be­fore the sec­ond. A late burst of en­ergy (he was born in 1937) sees Mov­ing On as his fifth.

The Belvedere of Cal­li­nan’s ti­tle is a Bris­bane sub­urb for fam­i­lies with old money, such as the Ren­tles, who “didn’t work. They owned prop­erty.” San­dra, the dis­sat­is­fied, soon-to-be 50 pro­tag­o­nist mar­ried Jack, a rare work­ing Ren­tle, ob­ste­tri­cian and gy­nae­col­o­gist, who has long been an unfaithful hus­band.

San­dra’s re­bel­lious friend Lucy, who has been aban­doned by one spouse and buried an­other, points out that Jack’s only ad­van­tage over other “so­ci­ety doc­tors” is “an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the tar­get ar­eas be­cause of ex­pan­sive and per­sonal in­ves­ti­ga­tion”.

The book is set in 1975, but the tur­moil of a wider world is dis­dained in Belvedere. Cal­li­nan skew­ers its com­pla­cen­cies, partly through the in­sur­rec­tionary ob­ser­va­tions of Daniel Beacham, a work­ing-class boy who will be­come an “eva­sive bil­lion­aire”, and live in un­re­quited love for San­dra. Nonethe­less, he tells her sternly: “Your lot don’t travel, they just re­lo­cate the en­clave.” What­ever its ar­ro­gant sense of it­self (“this sub­urb is like a good club”, as San­dra’s fa­ther boasts), he reck­ons that Belvedere is “just a place where ideas, and change, and hap­pi­ness are sti­fled”.

San­dra’s lone­li­ness leads her to long ret­ro­spects, which Cal­li­nan fash­ions as sharp set pieces il­lu­mi­nat­ing the world she has found too hard to for­feit. There are the Nel­son sis­ters, dress­mak­ers to the rich and each the mis­tress of “old Fred Lu­cas, the in­vestor”; the ball where San­dra (dressed in a Nor­man Hart­nell copy gown) sees Dan flat­ten Jack; a scene on the Gold Coast where Lucy is dec­o­rat­ing an apart­ment for a rich south­ern client; the Lon­don so­journ that San­dra and Lucy long ago shared.

Cal­li­nan’s ob­ser­va­tions are tartly to the point: “San­dra was not one to stay of­fended at any­thing said by a so­cial equal.” Forty years on, such lit­tle worlds as Belvedere are no longer im­preg­nable. Cal­li­nan’s ap­proach is vale­dic­tory as well as satir­i­cal. The idle rich have gone, re­placed by chil­dren who “ap­plied them­selves to in­creas­ing their in­her­i­tances”. The old pseu­dopa­tri­cians now seem com­i­cal, but they have been ar­raigned to witty and worldly ef­fect in Belvedere Woman.

Aitkin’s “A tale of the Mil­len­nium”, Mov­ing On, be­gins as does Cal­li­nan’s novel, with a rich, dis­con­tented woman. Ros Fowles has been de­serted in the cliched flight of her hus­band to his sec­re­tary, with whom he starts the fam­ily he had not wanted with her. A phone call from Linda Mueller, the god­daugh­ter who calls her aunt, leads Ros into present com­pli­ca­tions and re­ac­ti­vates oth­ers from her past.

Linda works for the pub­lish­ing arm of an in­ter­na­tional firm run by the charis­matic but con­trol­ling po­lio vic­tim Peter Mor­ris. Ros in­vites her to the coun­try prop­erty, Riverview, she owns in­land from New­cas­tle. There she has in­stalled a for­mer lover and writer, Brady Smith, to whom she in­tro­duces Linda, per­haps not al­to­gether free from the hunch that he might be­come her sex­ual men­tor.

Not con­tent with set­ting up these pos­si­bil- ities, Aitkin as­tutely ex­plores a se­ries of long and vexed fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, in par­tic­u­lar be­tween mothers and their daugh­ters and sons.

The novel’s plot­ting is crafty, with ran­dom sur­prises — a fall and a flood — and a re­fusal to ac­com­mo­date tidy res­o­lu­tions. Rather, Mov­ing On re­lates tim­ing awry and missed op­por­tu­ni­ties. Aitkin is alert to all that the im­pe­ri­ous will de­mands, and of how of­ten it is thwarted.

Thus Linda feels “the re­turn of that aw­ful sense you had no say in your life”. Her emer­gence from the well-be­haved, unassertive mouse into a woman whose new-found strength also in­creases her dis­ap­point­ments is one of the strong­est por­tray­als in the novel. Mor­ris, al­though some re­gard him as “truly for­mi­da­ble”, never con­vinces, while the dam­aged Brady is al­most too wise and self-ab­ne­gat­ing for his own good, or our be­lief.

Aitkin gives us a per­sua­sive por­trait of Ros, who seemed likely to have taken over the novel un­til he found so much else of in­ter­est in the cast he had as­sem­bled. This is a bold, pa­tient fiction that Aitkin wryly ded­i­cates to “those who need to move on, and those who did”.

The first words of Hasluck’s The Brad­shaw Case are from a di­ary en­try of April 10, 1891, by pas­toral­ist Joseph Brad­shaw. While ex­plor­ing in the Kim­ber­ley he recorded how “in the se­cluded chasms of these rocks were nu­mer­ous Abo­rig­i­nal paint­ings which ap­peared to be of great an­tiq­uity”.

In­deed they were — dat­ing back 20,000 years — but con­tro­ver­sial be­cause the del­i­cate

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