A cul­tural storm on the rocks

The trou­bled birth of the Syd­ney Opera House has in­spired an am­bi­tious pe­riod novel.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By CHAR­LOTTE GRIMSHAW

Shell opens in No­vem­ber 1960 as Paul Robe­son, the Amer­i­can singer and ac­tivist, per­forms for the work­ers at the build­ing site of the Syd­ney Opera House.

Young jour­nal­ist Pearl Keogh is moved by the singing and all it rep­re­sents: “It wasn’t just the build­ing or the place Robe­son had sanc­ti­fied, but the labour. The valour of it. The mod­est hearts of work­ers. In his songs, in the faces of the men, was ev­ery story she had ever tried to write.”

In this highly vis­ual, vivid por­trayal of 60s Syd­ney, with its wide har­bour and skies and “opales­cent light”, Pearl is a char­ac­ter in­tensely con­nected to her place and time. When the Gov­ern­ment an­nounces it will be draft­ing young men into the Viet­nam War, she recog­nises the dan­ger to her two younger brothers, whom she cared for af­ter their mother’s death. Her guilt that she’d left them to pur­sue her ca­reer is now mixed with anx­i­ety, and she be­gins a search, hop­ing to lo­cate them and save them from the draft.

As a pun­ish­ment for her op­po­si­tion to the war, Pearl has been de­moted to the women’s sec­tion of her news­pa­per. Six­ties Syd­ney is a di­vided com­mu­nity, its re­pres­sive and in­su­lar na­ture just start­ing to be chal­lenged by the anti-war move­ment and the so­cial changes of the age. Jørn Ut­zon’s de­sign for the Syd­ney Opera House has been ac­cepted and work is un­der­way, but con­ser­va­tive politi­cians, fired up by a pug­na­cious and my­opic philis­tin­ism, are op­pos­ing the pro­ject and will make Ut­zon’s life a mis­ery, de­nounc­ing his work and block­ing its fund­ing. Down at the con­struc­tion site, young Swedish glass artist Axel Lindquist is cre­at­ing a sculp­ture for the in­te­rior. He and Pearl meet and be­gin a re­la­tion­ship. Each is bur­dened by mem­ory and loss. Pearl’s sad­ness at her mother’s early death is mixed with guilt for hav­ing lost con­tact with her brothers, whereas Axel is haunted by the mys­tery of his fa­ther’s role in World War II.

The Opera House, with its in­spired ar­chi­tec­ture and un­canny beauty, stands as a sym­bol of the city’s de­bate with it­self: to em­brace a spec­tac­u­lar and dar­ing vi­sion, or re­ject it? Pearl mar­vels at the way Ut­zon, an out­sider, has achieved har­mony with the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment. “She’d heard the first thing Ut­zon had done, be­fore he thought about de­sign, be­fore he be­gan to draw, was to con­sult the sea charts for Syd­ney Har­bour. It made sud­den sense: the build­ing was ma­rine more than earthly. From this an­gle, in this light, it was not a struc­ture but an erup­tion from the sea. An act of na­ture rather than man, a dis­tur­bance.”

Aus­tralian writer Kristina Ols­son’s third novel is the story of a cul­ture at a time of change, and of in­di­vid­ual lives touched by con­flict. Con­ser­va­tives re­ject Ut­zon’s for­eign artis­tic vi­sion at the same time as em­brac­ing a for­eign war. Axel’s life is af­fected by his coun­try’s his­tory and his fa­ther’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in war. Pearl’s heart may yet be bro­ken by war as the Gov­ern­ment tar­gets her brothers for Viet­nam. Shell is a novel packed with ideas, rich in de­tail and dense with re­search. Ini­tially as clear and del­i­cate as liq­uid glass, the nar­ra­tive grad­u­ally hard­ens to a con­gealed slow­ness un­til, beau­ti­ful, shapely and oddly static, it’s barely mov­ing at all.

SHELL by Kristina Ols­son (Si­mon & Schus­ter, $39.99)

Kristina Ols­son: de­pict­ing theso­cial changes of the age.

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