Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2018

Sensational Snippets: Shell, by Kristina Olsson

I am reading Shell, the latest novel from Kristina Olsson, and I have fallen in love with this book.  I am lingering over the reading because I don’t want it to end.

This morning, I was captivated by this sequence where Axel, the young Swedish glass artist hired by the architect of the Sydney Opera House, Utzon, is ‘learning’ the city, as all outsiders do in an unfamilar place.

On the ferry home he watched the Opera House approach, its shapes looming against the sky.  Leaned back against his seat.  For months he had done this: absorbed the movement of air and temperature, the drift and call of language.  The shape of desire in the city, in the angle of its streets and the eyes of its people.  The way its buildings cut into the sky.  Stone, he thought, felt odd in this place, where light fell and tumbled like an acrobat, stretched and played in empty spaces.  He began to see the city in terms of its light: the way it captured or held it, bounced it back.  The way sunlight was swallowed in the throats of the streets, in alleyways, between buildings.  The lemony feel of five o’clock, faces coated by dusk.  Light was like glass, it changed the way you saw things.

He wondered about the countryside outside the city.  Beyond harbour and headland to the wide stretches of land behind them.  Endless acres where cattle ran, and kangaroos.  Deserts.  A raw, empty centre.  He had heard of vast stretches of red sand, and a rock monumental in size, a sacred presence.  Was this the equivalent of the temples that erupted from South American jungles?  There were Aboriginal people who lived in its shadow, from an ancient culture with story and song and dance at its heart.  Then how could this centre be described as empty?  He sat upright.  And how could anyone represent this place in art without reference to its beginnings?

(Shell, by Kristina Olsson, Scribner, (Simon & Schuster), 2018, ISBN 9781925685329, p.195)

Shell is a very special book.  Already I know that it is my Book of the Year, and I don’t often choose a book for that honour.  (The last one was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott in 2010). Shell is available from Fishpond (Shell) and all good bookshops and if you are lucky someone will give you a copy for Christmas. It will change the way you think about things…

Last weekend I went to a private concert in the Dandenongs. We listened to Schubert and Beethoven and a composition by young cellist Luke Severn in a purpose built salon, with cathedral windows through to the trees and the birds flitting through the branches. It was sublime… Light, and the glass that filters it, does change the way we see— and hear— things.

And so does architecture. Which of our great public buildings represents our places with reference to its beginnings? I think Federation Square does, with its colours, and its fractured surfaces. What do you think?


  1. Comparison with That Deadman Dance is high praise indeed, and the snippet is impressive, though I disagree with the author (or his protagonist) in that sandstone cliffs are integral to how I see Sydney. But the light in Sydney (and Perth) has a sparkly, water-reflective quality that you don’t get in Melbourne, not even the bayside suburbs.


    • Ah, I know what you mean… when I think of Sydney I think of the historic sandstone buildings, but I really only know tourist Sydney and a bit of Balmain where my sister used to live. But #guessing the ‘new’ buildings of this period (it’s set in 1960) wouldn’t have been made of sand stone, would they? Brutalist concrete, more likely, and an endless sea of that red brick?

      That’s true about the light. Our bay has that soft, luminous quality on a blue sky day, and a steely grey that merges into the sky when the weather is angry. I can’t think of an artist who has captured the morning light over the bay. It’s sublime.


      • As you get around Sydney you can find sandstone cliffs in the most unusual places, including back yards, which can be 100 feet below their neighbours. Natural cliffs and gullies made getting away from Sydney Cove very difficult in the early days of white settlement; and then of course there are the wonderful paintings of the Hawkesbury – which could theoretically count as being within greater Sydney.


        • Cliffs, yes, but the character is thinking about the built environment and the way ‘the buildings cut into the sky’.
          When I think of the built environment of Perth, I think of it as a white city, because (even though it has some lovely old sandstones) when I visited it for the first time (1987, I think) it had been spruced up with a lot of white paint for the America’s Cup.
          And the impression I have of Melbourne’s skyline (now) is of sky and clouds because there are so many skyscrapers with reflective glass that bounce the light around. Driving towards it along the St Kilda boulevarde, you can see the weather on the sides of the buildings.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting comments on the aesthetics of light. I have lived in both Sydney and now Perth so familiar with the light of those places and of course their proximity to the mirror of ocean and river does enhance the beauty.
    On another note there is the influence of light in our lives today where it’s more difficult than ever to experience pure light thanks to the power of electricity and how that has shifted our understanding of this world. Still it seems aesthetic pondering is for the few rather than the many.
    Do enjoy your reviews Lisa although could never keep up with your reading commitment. You are special.


    • Yes, good point about electricity… our recent trip to Dunkeld was a reminder that the stars are always brighter in the bush.
      But I love the way that modern homes are opened up to the light, in a way that they were not in the past.


  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  4. It’s interesting how important light is to us. It’s something I don’t recollect caring about in my youth. In fact, it was not until my mid-20s or later than I started to think about light – exterior and interior – and now it is very important to me. Canberra, being a small bush city, has a lovely clear light that those of us who live here really love. We get some decent night skies – though with more tall building being built, how long will that last. But in terms of architecture, I’m having trouble characterising our city with anything coherent. Perhaps we are still too new and haven’t settled into ourselves.


    • I can’t really see it in the exterior design, but I think the interior design of Parliament House pays homage to our beginnings: the earthy, ochre colours – and even the Green Seats of the House of Reps are our green, gumleaf green not the forest green of the House of Commons. (And you know why they are forest green: it was the Barons asserting their power over the King’s forests).

      Liked by 1 person


    Liked by 1 person

  6. That passage about the importance of light reminded me of one of the Ken Follett novels (nowhere near as literary of course) about a young boy in the 14th century mesmirized when he sees the light entering the cathedral at chartres – years later he wants to create that sensation in the cathedral at Salisbury.


    • Yes, and Gerald Murnane in his book Border Districts talks about the thoughts triggered by stained glass in the little church where he lives in country Victoria.
      I like stained glass in churches, especially the ones done in memory of someone who was loved.


      • We were watching a program the other evening about a new stained glass window designed by David Hockney.The programme followed the process from his original design to the blowing of the glass and then the assembly. What a skilled job that is. Absolutely fascinating. And it doesn’t seem to have changed much in centuries…..


        • That would be a marvellous design, I bet. There was a David Hockney exhibition here in Melbourne at our gallery a little while ago, and it was terrific. They had a huge gallery of his portraits – which I (predictably) liked best of all, but they also had exhibits showing that he was experimenting with digital art too.


  7. […] I wrote when I posted a Sensational Snippet from Kristina Olsson’s new novel Shell, I have fallen in love with this book so it’s […]


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