Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2018

Border Districts, by Gerald Murnane

Every new book from Gerald Murnane is a pleasure to be savoured, and it is sad to think that Border Districts might be his last.  (Though he’s said that before, so maybe not!) He has written eleven books of fiction, mostly published by Giramondo Publishing.  Links are to my thoughts about these books…

My thoughts, with Murnane’s books, are always provisional, because each time I read him my mind wanders off in search of meanings, memories and random imaginings.  This time it happened very early in the book…

In Border Districts,  the narrator gives his reasons for moving to the district near the border… he wants to be able to guard his eyes so that:

I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my vision; so that I might notice at once any sight so much in need of my inspection that one or more of its details seems to quiver or be agitated until I have the illusion that I am being signalled to or winked at. (p.12)

In a small town that you or I might drive through barely registering its presence, the narrator is captivated by the wavering richness in the windows of the small Protestant church.  He remembers his Catholic education, and a teenage obsession with the promise of the Blessed Sacrament (as relayed by his teachers, the Brothers).  He recalls reading about the smashing of English church windows in the wake of the Reformation. He wonders what happened to the glass:

For how long were the coloured chunks and shards left to lie in the aisles and on the pews?  Were the smashed pieces gathered up by the congregation and hidden against a time when they could be melted or otherwise turned again into images of revered personages in other-worldly settings?  Did children carry off handfuls of many-coloured chips and afterwards squint through them at trees or sky or try to arrange them as they had formerly been or to guess whether this or that fragment had once represented part of a trailing robe, a radiant halo, an enraptured countenance?

According to the history taught to me as a child, the images in the smashed windows were expressions of the old faith of England.  The glass designs had outlasted by a century the prayers and ceremonies and vestments that had been done away with during the Protestant Revolt, as we were taught to call it. If I had read during my schooldays about the smashing of the glass, I might well have regretted the destruction of so many admirable images but I would have considered the glassless windows were no less than the traitorous Protestants deserved. (p.9)

For the first time, though I’ve wandered through the ruins at Glastonbury, I thought about what the destruction of the abbeys and monasteries must have meant to the ordinary folk who worshipped there.  My mind wandered off to what I knew of corrupt, wealthy church officials and their sale of indulgences to gullible believers, and my own shock at seeing for myself the extraordinary wealth of the Vatican museums.  Yet just as the believers who flock to the Vatican for a papal blessing are not complicit in its gratuitous wealth, nor were the believers who saw their beloved churches destroyed.  They probably wept, and mourned the buildings and the lost stained glass windows, and the pageantry.

But I had to smile when I read that the narrator felt vaguely resentful about the effrontery of the little Protestant church in his town, offended that –

– a Protestant sect founded not even three centuries ago should ornament their simple place of worship in the style of a church that had lasted for nearly two millennia before the beginnings of their upstart faction. (p.10)

However it was in mind of those grieving believers amid the broken glass, that I came to an aspect of the current clerical sexual abuse scandals that I had not considered before…

Murnane’s narrator tells us about reading a short story written by a former priest who had become a colleague.  The narrator muses on the motivations for leaving the priesthood, and the awe that the priesthood used to inspire. He briefly retells the story, which features a desperate priest caught short, urinating into a bottle of communion wine, but he then berates himself for concerning himself with trivia, before reminding himself to trust the promptings of his mind.  Those promptings lead him to marvel that a misdemeanour of the sort in the story has lapsed into irrelevance.

Even while my sometime colleague, the former priest, was writing his fiction, the persons who had once respected him or been in awe of him would have been reading in newspapers the first of many accounts that they would read of priests found guilty at law of deeds incomparably graver than urinating into altar-wine bottles in sacristies.  How many of those who read such reports decided at once, or after much reflection, that they no longer considered sacred some of the persons, places, and things they had previously deemed so.  (p.20-21)

This quiet, almost diffident reflection is offset by the empathy with which the narrator describes the experience of a middle-aged, married mother of children who was a typist for a psychiatrist.  One day she was told that she need not type up some statements if they distressed her.  They were statements of claim from a victim of clerical sexual abuse.  And this woman, who was a regular and devout churchgoer, found them very distressing indeed, though she typed them all.  And as she explained to the narrator, her distress culminated in leaving the church.

How many times since I first heard the woman’s story have I tried to appreciate the notable mental events that must have followed her walking away from the ceremonious gesturing of the priests.  If only I had had the wit to ask the woman on that evening in the lounge-bar what she supposed had become of the imagery connected with her lifelong beliefs, would I then have glimpsed for myself a version of her seeming to see the colour draining from the tall glass windows in the church where she had prayed since childhood?  (p.23)

What a vivid image of the distress felt by believers worldwide when they learned about the betrayal of priestly vows!

There is more than this to Border Districts, of course, much more.  But it is indicative of the genius with which he writes, guiding readers to see things in a new light.

Although writers of demanding literature rarely win major awards in this country, Murnane has won most of the major Australian awards, though not the Miles Franklin.  He has won the Patrick White Literary Award, the Melbourne Prize for Literature, the Adelaide Festival Literature Award for Innovation and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.   It’s not the first time Murnane has been nominated for the ALS Gold Medal; he was longlisted for The History of Books in 2013, and there may have been others. Perhaps Border Districts will be the one.

Update: Visit the NYT to read Mark Binelli’s article about Murnane, written after he had come to Goroke for a symposium held there.

Update: see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Border Districts
Publisher: Giramondo, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336542
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond Border Districts or direct from Giramondo where it is also available as an eBook.




  1. […] Border Districts, by Gerald Murnane (Giramondo), on my TBR, see my review […]


  2. I will “like” this but come back and read it after I’ve read this. It’s in my any-day-now TBR pile. :)


    • I can’t wait to see what thoughts it triggers for you!


  3. I won’t read this review now because I MUST try to read this one. I agree – let’s hope he changes his mind about this being the last.


    • There are still some I haven’t read, so I have at least got those to look forward to.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So, is he still writing at Nobel Prize standard? As for his nostalgia for the RC church, it was not ‘almost’ two millenia but less than one and a half to the beginnings of Protestantism; and though I’m sure ordinary people felt some loss, as did many ordinary communists in eastern Europe, I think Protestantism was a movement of the people, not just a device for Henry VIII to get a divorce. Which isn’t to say I won’t read this one – he is an extraordinary writer.


    • Gosh, Bill, although I’ve read a fair few Nobel-winners, I don’t know what ‘Nobel Prize standard’ might be. They are a mystery among themselves, and in the wake of the Bob Dylan decision, I cannot imagine what they think Nobel-worthy is.
      I take your point about Protestantism, but I suspect that for ordinary people the loss of a thing of beauty in a village and a way of life that had been theirs for centuries must have had the impact that Murnane suggests, whatever their religious beliefs.


  5. I’ve heard a lot of praise of his books but I doubt this one is for me (the church / religious thing is not my scene)

    Which other one would you recommend?


    • I don’t know, Emma, based on what I’ve read in your reviews, I don’t think you’d like his writing. He’s experimental in style (though he doesn’t like the term and calls his writing ‘conceptual’), and although your English is excellent, he’s hard to understand even for people who have English as their mother tongue. But if you’re game to try him anyway, I’d suggest Something for the Pain.


      • Thanks, that’s what I thought. I would have read him in translation, I can see from the quotes that he’s too difficult for me in English.


  6. Thanks to you Lisa Murnane is now on my list of writers I want to get to one day.


    • Excellent! I love it when someone tries an author I’ve recommended:)


  7. I interrupted my reading of the NYT Magazine story about him to look at your thoughts on this book. I will return to that, but must say how moved I was by the quote about the woman who effectively saw the color draining from the windows of her church. As you said, what a vivid image of distress. I love that you wrote so completely about this aspect of the book. It is thoughts like this that make a book come alive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Charlotte. That’s the thing about Murnane, every book he writes makes me think about something in an entirely new way. I love his writing.
      And yes, that NYT article is great. I’ve read a few bits and pieces about Murnane but most of them only succeed in being pompous. That one made me want to drive down to Goroke myself!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Border Districts, by Gerald Murnane (Giramondo),  see my review […]


  9. Thanks for reviewing this one Lisa. This book was a Christmas present to myself and, of all his books, one I will particularly read again to cast a different light on other Murnane works I am yet to read. As such, will likely read your review again, after I read the book again, after I have filled a Murnane hole in my reading. So many ‘afters’ …


    • You’re welcome, Jessica, thank you for the feedback. I find it’s difficult to ‘review’ Murnane without repeating the same kind of generalities as everyone else, so I like to zero in on one aspect or image and think about my response to that and how Murnane achieved it.


  10. […] Gerald Murnane: Border Districts (Giramondo Publishing) see my review […]


  11. […] Gerald Murnane’s Border districts (Giramondo) (Lisa has reviewed) […]


  12. […] also: Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Border Districts (here) Lisa’s other Murnane reviews (here) My review of Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape […]


  13. […] Gerald Murnane: Border Districts (Giramondo Publishing) see my review […]


  14. […] Gerald Murnane’s Border districts (Giramondo) (Lisa has reviewed) […]


  15. […] judges, because I am hoping that Gerald Murnane wins some long overdue recognition with his Border Districts. This year there’s a really strong shortlist as indeed was the longlist but since Murnane says […]


  16. […] write and there was a rumour going round that he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature — and Lisa at ANZ LitLovers reviewed it very favourably, which piqued my interest even […]


  17. […] Gerald Murnane, Border Districts see my review […]


  18. […] Border districts, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo): on my TBR (Lisa’s review) […]


  19. […] Border districts, by Gerald Murnane (Giramondo), see my review […]


  20. […] Districts by Gerald Murnane, see my review and Steven Harmon’s article about this exquisite book at The Guardian. He quotes the judges […]


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