It’s not quite a coincidence that I’ve read another book by Geraldine Brooks so soon. I saw Foreign Correspondence as an audio book at the library at the same time as the Benn’s Books book-group chose Year of Wonders for its November title, and I thought it would be interesting to listen to, on the daily commute. And it was!
I surprised to see in another review of Foreign Correspondence that it was described as ‘competent but unexciting’ about ‘people of more interest to Brooks than to the reader’ – I suppose it just shows how books are as much about the reader as they are about the words on the page. I really enjoyed this audio book: Brooks and I are of an age and we had a similar kind of secondary school education so these aspects of the memoir really resonated with me and I often found them rather droll.
In other ways, however, we were very different. She grew up in the somewhat soulless western suburbs of Sydney in the 1950s, while my family travelled all over the world. By the time I got to secondary school in Melbourne I was content to settle down and establish some roots, while Brooks pined for more exciting places to be. While I wrote desultory letters to relations I was never to see again, Brooks became an assiduous penfriend – with pen-pals in the Middle East, France and America. She shared her passion for Star Trek (which I despised as inferior to Doctor Who); sent would-be ‘radical’ photos of herself; and exchanged commentaries about world politics and the books she was reading – with mixed results. In Joanie she found a real soul-mate, while the others were disappointments because they didn’t match up with her belief that other places were more sophisticated and intellectually stimulating than Sydney was.
Brooks grew up to be an award-winning foreign correspondent and despite her teenage disdain for religion, she converted to Judaism to marry an American Jew. In her adult life she decided to track down these penfriends who had enlivened her girlhood. But this memoir is as much about her own coming-of-age as it is about the pen-friends that amazingly, she was able to find despite the passage of many years. She made the poignant discovery that Joanie who died suddenly during her college years had been an anorexic and that she, Brooks, had not taken Joanie’s problems seriously enough and had a rather ‘muscular’, unsympathetic attitude towards mental illness. In the Middle East she learned that while journalists cover the world’s trouble spots they are transient players often insulated from the real horror of war while, in contrast, her Israeli friend had memories of his war service from which he could never recover and feared crossing into areas where Israeli-Arabs lived within his own country. She came to realise that whereas Australians of her generation regarded travel as a rite of passage essential to making one’s way in the world, there were people who lived contentedly in a very small patch of the world without yearning to escape it. She had a reality check when she learned that her fantasies about idyllic lifestyles in France didn’t match up with globalisation and unemployment. Most important of all, IMO, was her belated understanding that journalists often fail to meet the real people because of language barriers and the need to find quotable types who represent conflict.
The book concludes with her own settling down to family life, and her memories of her father’s death.
I’m not sure how well this book would ‘travel’ overseas or for younger generations. Its location in 1960s Australia was part of its charm for me, and perhaps one needs to be familiar with the period to really engage with it. Maybe that was why it didn’t appeal to the reviewer I quoted above….
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Title: Foreign Correspondence, A Memoir
Narrator: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Bolinda Audio, 2008 (First published 1998)
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: Foreign Correspondence: 6 Spoken Word CDs