I’ve been in Brisbane for the last week, and it seemed a perfect time to read Matthew Condon’s Brisbane, part of New South’s suite of books about Australia’s capital cities written by established literary authors who had grown up in that city. This is the first time I’ve read one of these books about a city other than my own, and you can read my response to Sophie Cunningham’s take on Melbourne (my city) here.
These books are not history books in themselves, but are instead a literary response to the city. The author can choose her/his own approach. But history is almost inevitably drawn into the analysis, and I was a little surprised that Condon didn’t draw more on his own work into Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Brisbane of the 1970s and 1980s, which informs his own trilogy of the time (Three Crooked Kings, Jacks and Jokers and All Fall Down– none of which I have read).
Instead, there are two motifs that Condon uses in his book. The first is ‘the boy’, who I strongly suspect is Condon himself, who hidden under his Queenslander house in Brisbane in the 1960s, draws a map of the city in the dirt, marking his own significant places. The second motif is an obelisk placed in the city under the aegis of Frank Cumbrae-Stewart, then president of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, as part of the centenary of the settlement of Moreton Bay. The odd thing is that the obelisk is placed in a most inhospitable place that is not the right spot anyway. You can read about my own adventures trying to find the damned thing here.
The book moves slowly in a roughly chronological fashion, but there are lots of flash-forwards and backs, with the memories of ‘the boy’ interwoven throughout. The writing is beautiful and evocative, steeped in Brisbane sunshine and a little abashed at Brisbane’s try-hard attempts at sophistication and modernity. I suspect that this whole series is aimed at readers who are very familiar with the cities described, and I found myself a little frustrated at the lack of a map and the easy assumptions made by the author that a stranger would immediately know suburbs and locations. But this insider-ism honours the intent of the books to be travel-books-without-leaving-home, written for those ‘at home’ rather than visitors. They are impressionistic rather than instructive.
That said, I think that my experience of Brisbane was enhanced by having read this book, despite being an outsider, and next time I go to another city featured in the series, I’ll read that city’s book too.
My rating: 8.5
Sourced from: ebook from SLV.